What Lies Below (#187)

I live in Los Angeles and there’s something under my house.

Don’t freak out.

It’s just a crawl space.

But this dirty, cobwebbed, not even two-feet high den of darkness is disconcerting. Especially for a person who grew up in Washington, D.C., where we had basements. In places with cold winters, basements have to be built below the frost line – otherwise soils can heave and push foundation walls in and there goes your house. Extremely cold places like New Hampshire even have signs warning drivers about buckled asphalt:

Frost Heaves

When I first house-sat for an exec in Los Angeles, I opened a lot of closet and bathroom doors while hunting for the non-existent basement. (Don’t judge – if you grew up in a family like mine, you’d always want to know where all the exits were, too.)

After house sitting gig #3, I finally figured out that houses in sunny southern California don’t need basements. Instead, a vented crawl space between the dirt (or slab) and the floorboards of the house allows ocean breezes to circulate and cool the air under the house in warm weather. The ventilation reduces the potential for mold, too.

Even better, the crawl space allows access to the plumbing, cable, and electrical systems without tearing up the floors.

You just have to pay someone to brave the cave.

My husband grew up in Hawaii. He’s used to the crawl space. He’s also cheap. Andy had no problem belly crawling under our new home himself when he wanted to install surround sound. All I had to do was grab cables and pound on the floor to direct him to the correct spots.

Andy eventually emerged, dirty and cobwebbed, but victorious.

I asked, “So, um, you didn’t see anything down there, did you?”

“Like what?”

“Like mice. Rats. Cannibalistic human under dwellers.”

“Funny, honey.”

“Hey, it’s not like the crawl space is secure! There’s just a cheap screen in a wooden frame to keep creatures out.”

“It took me a day to make that!”

“Yes, you’re very talented. But a weak human or a strong raccoon could pry that screen off and lurk below us and we’d never know it.”

Andy rolled his eyes at me. “We might not, but the dog sure would. And he’d want to go get it.”

“Only to play with it. He’d be easy prey.”

“He’s ninety pounds and he’d alert us. Stop freaking out. There’s nothing there.”

Andy had a point. Woofie was absurdly social and an “only dog” at the time. He lived to escape in search of new playmates. We’d just replaced our third gate in the hopes of curtailing his escapades.

Apparently in vain. Woofie disappeared from the backyard that very afternoon. Andy grabbed one leash, I grabbed another, and we split up to case the neighborhood for our Houdini dog. Usually, we found Woofie within minutes, either in science class at the local middle school, or joyfully leaping around any dog and owner walking around our block. I once found Woofie trying to play with an irate cyclist.

But not that day. We walked for miles. We knocked on doors. No one had seen Woofie.

Despondent, we went home to make “Lost Dog” flyers.

As the printer roared to life, I heard scratching. Under my desk. No, under the flooring under my desk. Followed by moaning.

“I told you!” I shrieked. “I told you there was something under the house!”

“There’s nothing under the house!” Andy argued. Then, in unison, as the light bulb went off over our heads –

“WOOFIE!”

We ran outside. Sure enough, Andy had forgotten to replace the screen for the crawl space. He crawled back under the house. After a few minutes of scuffling, Andy dragged out our dirt-coated and utterly unrepentant mutt.

“He was belly up and having a ball,” Andy reported. “Kicking his legs in the air and doing that growly-moan thing he does when he’s wiggling on dirt and rocks to scratch his back.”

I sighed. “His claws must’ve scratched the floorboards. God, dog, that’s twice today you’ve scared me to death.”

As I retaliated by giving Woofie a bath, Andy asked, “Now that Woofie’s investigated, will you just admit I’m right?”

It took an effort, but, yes, I admitted that my husband was right. There was nothing under our house.

That time.

Chocolate Thievery (#186)

A big family and not quite enough food can mess you up for life. My sisters and I learned to eat fast, hunching protectively over our plates. But no matter how fast we ate, Big Brother would finish first. Then he’d inevitably loom over us, asking, “Are you gonna eat that?”

If our mouths were too full to answer, he’d take that as a no.

Fork duels ensued.

Once we got high school jobs, we stashed food in our rooms. My size eleven boots could hold a lot of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and none of my siblings – not even my crafty older sister – found them.

Then my father got a chocolate Labrador Retriever. Like many Labs, Toffee had no off switch when it came to food. Any unattended comestible was fair game. Cooling apple pies disappeared from the kitchen island. Whole batches of chocolate chip cookies were lost. Pizzas, too.

The Naval Academy was soon responsible for feeding Big Brother, but my other siblings and I had to guard our food from the dog. And not just in the kitchen.

Toffee busted into my closet. She ate my entire stash of Reese’s.

Yes, chocolate is bad for dogs, but Reese’s is barely chocolate and Toffee was ninety pounds.

She not only suffered no ill-effects, she lived to be seventeen.

The same cannot be said of my boots.

*****

Fast forward a decade or two. Baby Brother came to visit. As a twenty-something single guy on his own in NYC, he was living on ramen. My husband and I weren’t surprised when Baby Brother haunted the kitchen, scarfing down everything that came out of the oven. He was appreciative of every scrap of food, and he ate it like he was afraid someone was going to rip it out of his hands.

He especially adored the devil’s food cake with ganache frosting that takes me six hours to make. But when he disappeared in the middle of his third helping, things got weird.

I looked around and asked Andy, “Hey, where’s Baby Brother?”

“In the bathroom.”

“But…he was eating cake. Where’s the cake?” (One of the residual impacts of childhood food scarcity is unconsciously keeping tabs on how much food is being eaten and knowing exactly who is eating it and if they are exceeding their allotted share.)

“Huh. I don’t know.” We searched the kitchen and the living room. Nothing.

I eyed our rescue mutt Woofie. Woofie was part chocolate Lab and therefore a champion counter-surfer. The dog stole everything from pot stickers to loaves of bread. He laid on the floor, snoring. I shook my head. “If Woofie had eaten it, he’d still be licking his chops. And there would be a plate, licked clean.”

“Maybe not,” Andy answered. “Remember how Woofie ate that rock?”

We considered our dog’s oversized maw until Baby Brother came out of the bathroom.

He held a plate with one bite of cake left.

I said, “You DID NOT seriously take your cake into the bathroom.”

Baby Brother said, “What? What’s wrong with that?”

“I just…I don’t…I can’t even – SO MUCH! Andy, tell him!”

Andy was laughing too hard to be of assistance.

Unfazed, Baby Brother ate his last bite. “It’s good cake.”

*****

A year or two later, Big Brother had a conference in Los Angeles. He stopped in for dinner. (My family used to come visit for Disneyland, now they only come for conferences.) We had Andy’s pot stickers and hot and sour soup. Even though there were still pot stickers in the serving dish, Big Brother leaned over when he finished. He pointed at my plate and asked, “Hey, you gonna eat that?”

I mimed stabbing him with a chopstick.

Andy, confused, offered the serving tongs to Big Brother, saying, “Plenty more pot stickers here and in the kitchen. Plus Autumn made cookies for dessert.”

“Cookies! Yum!” After finishing off a few more pot stickers, we took napkins of cookies into the living room. We wound up talking about gardening. Like most guests from D.C., Big Brother expressed orange tree envy. Within minutes, we were out in the backyard so Big Brother could pick his own orange. He carried it proudly back to the living room.

Only to yell, “Hey! What happened to my cookies?!”

His napkin lay on the coffee table. Empty.

Woofie, licking his chops, slunk hurriedly out of the living room.

So maybe I owe Baby Brother an apology.

Maybe taking your cake to the bathroom is the way to go after all.