Ghosts wouldn’t inhabit this home, this hovel, this fleapit. What brings me to tell this story was the final push over the edge, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The utensils drawer is now stuck partly open.
We can’t shut it or open it wider. We have to squeeze our hands inside to pull out something to eat with. I’ll be eating with my hands from now on.
How did I come to live in this dreadful shack, this shed, this lean-to on the edge of the foothills in Boise? The tale is worth telling, at least, if only to help me make sense of it.
The oddest thing is, moving into this house in Boise was like the coming to reality of a dream I’d had throughout my life. Most of the time I wasn’t completely sure whether it was a dream or, rather, an actual memory. I’d wake up after this dream, feeling it so real and so close that I could almost see the house number on the front door. I know this isn’t unusual, this dream-reality conflict. Lots of people have dreams that contain close-to-realness. But I’d awaken from this dream, to find that I couldn’t distinguish the dream from what felt to be a memory—a memory that had walls, a roof and a bedroom full of horrors.
In my dream, I’m waiting, along with the rest of my family, to move into a house my parents were preparing to buy. They picked out the house, even put a down payment on it, and we were to move in after they sold our current home.
And that’s the thing. The current home in my half-dream, half-nightmare is a place of terror and revulsion. That place had its own portal to hell, since hell seems to have so many—as a way to stack the deck on Satan’s side—and it was located underneath my bed. Where there should have been shag carpeting there was a giant dirt pit. The rest of my bedroom was carpeted, but the pit was there, under the bed, inhabited by all sorts of insects that crawled out during the night. In my dream, I begged my parents to let us move—to please call up the agent and speed up the real estate business. They’d always assure me that we would move as soon as they sold this hell house. But we’d drive by the new home every week, I’d fantasize about having my own room with a desk and a little lamp and a pencil cup, but the goal would feel even further from my reach.
Before I moved to Boise, I lived in Minneapolis for nearly 17 years. Much of that time I was married. My sister and her husband lived there during the last half of those years. One day, I got divorced. It was mercifully settled in a month and I moved into my own townhome—a veritable palace. It was the Taj Mahal compared to my present surroundings—this dilapidated crack house. That’s too kind. Even crack heads would object to an oven that doesn’t work, mice droppings in kitchen drawers and door handles that keep coming off in their hands.
I had lots of reasons for wanting to leave: the dreadful bitter long winters, the oppressively humid summers that made my hair as limp as earthworms, the voracious, relentless mosquitos, and the desperate need to quit stalking an ex-boyfriend. He lived in a nice neighborhood a few miles from me. His house wasn’t a whole lot better than the pit I live in now. But his appliances worked and so did the utensil drawer. I know, because I grabbed a knife out of there in a fit of anger once. I waved it at him and he screamed like a girl. I eventually calmed down and put it back.
So, one fine April day, the six of us, my sister, her husband, three dogs and I, packed up and moved to Boise. Three adults and three dogs squeezed into a VW Jetta! None of us looked back with much regret or sadness. We were heading toward a new adventure late in our lives. A new start, a chance to build a dream home at the base of the Boise foothills.
I will always remember the day I arrived in Boise. It was a mild, sunny day on the first of May. A perfectly fine day. No humidity, no mosquitos, no brisk touch of a breeze that held ice memories all the way from Canada. A few days ago, I had experienced snow in April. Now we were ready to stake our claim to the house and settle in and make it a home until we were ready to remodel it to make it usable for three adults and three dogs.
We drove up a long, curving road bordered on one side by a large, green field and on the other by several blocks of houses. I could see the foothills just steps away. We pulled in front of the house—an unassuming, very modest little place, with a small front porch and a large front yard. Parked under some trees alongside the driveway sat a rusty station wagon filled with stuff belonging to the current renters, who were nowhere to be found. Boxes of junk spilled out the windows and out the rear of the car. Next to the house were piled 16 bags of garbage, assorted refuse, and what looked like an entire forest of branches and twigs. The renters were not tidy. Their lack of tidiness suited that house. It didn’t really deserve the maltreatment, but it seemed to wear it well.
The three of us eventually got into the house later that day to take this initial inventory of horrors:
1. Dirty walls
2. Dirty walls that smelled like smoke
3. Filthy curtains
4. Filthy curtains that smelled like smoke
5. Dirty floors
6. Broken windowpanes
7. A gigantic colony of ants hanging out by the fireplace
8. Hygiene supplies and various odds and ends left by the renters and stuffed into a narrow linen closet
9. One bathroom
10. 900 square feet
And then, we went out to the backyard. It was a very large yard with pitiful scruffs of grass and another pile of twigs and branches by the fence. The fence looked like it had been there since Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Clearly the renters had done next to nothing to maintain the yard. The notion of garbage cans and waste removal escaped the attention of the current renters. Throughout the yard were empty Chinese takeout cartons and other fast food debris.
I heard the word “pigs” used at least 20 times in the next half hour.
At some point during the house tour, I left the others, walked outside to the front and sat down on the porch.
“I can’t breathe,” I said to my sister as she sat down beside me. “I need a few moments to calm down.”
“I know,” she said. “I feel the same way. But we’ll clean it up and make it livable, you’ll see.”
The initial cleaning took two very long, tiring days and we got to it after a restless and uncomfortable first night. I had slept on a partially filled air mattress on a cold floor—a cold that seeped up through the plastic, a thin sheet, the compressed air and into my bones. My dog, Stella, refused at first to lie down on the mattress, having witnessed the unholy and disturbing sight of my blowing air into it. I woke up feeling exhausted and bruised.
On the first day of the weekend, we washed all the floors. Then we washed all the walls and the ceilings. We took down the curtains. But we couldn’t wash them because we had no washer and no dryer. I didn’t find out that detail until we were somewhere in Wyoming.
“No washer and dryer?” I said. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the place before we get there?”
My sister looked sheepishly sideways at her husband, Bud, who looked amused.
“Well, there is a canal next to the house,” Carolyn said with a smirk.
All I could do was sit there and hope that we’d be remodeling the house within a week of being there.
That was not to be, however.
After we’d done the washing of the walls and floors, we stopped for the day. My sister was going to tackle the kitchen in the morning.
Real blood running down the walls, like a scene from the movie “Amityville Horror,” would have been less frightening than the horrors my sister met in the kitchen. She would pay for her thoroughness. I overheard her from the dining room.
“Bud, help me move the stove away from the wall. I’m going to clean back there.”
My sister was now asking her husband to reveal another portal to hell. We were all doomed. I was that fearful of what lay behind the stove, knowing that the previous renters lacked even basic homemaking skills. Goodness knows how long anyone had ever moved the stove away from the wall. The narrow stove-wall space is a no-human’s land. Food and grease always finds a way to fall off the sides of the stove as well. I knew that what they’d find would be hideously primordial and disgusting.
“Just a minute,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to clean behind there?”
“I have to,” my sister said. “I won’t be comfortable in this kitchen unless I clean behind the stove and the refrigerator.”
“Oh, dear god. I’m going away now. I’m not going into the kitchen until you’re finished and the stove is put back.”
Though I didn’t stand around to watch, I heard all the gruesome details about dried grease, animal droppings, insect bodies and substances far too horrific or unrecognizable to describe.
The first month in that house was an exercise in perspective. I’d keep comparing my current living situation to what life had been like in Minneapolis and, fortunately, the advantages of moving away still outweighed the unpleasantness I was living through in this new home in Boise. I’d make comparisons when I felt a little bit overwhelmed and then the contrasts would bubble up and I’d feel better for a while.
Quickly, inexorably, the house began to turn on us. The stove and oven quit working the second week we were there. I began to tire of cold food.
And then there came the day the tub drain clogged. One of my more humorless idiosyncrasies has to do with the revulsion of standing in tub water that’s defying gravity and suction. But I have my remedies, one of which involves a toilet plunger. I marched into the bathroom, assuring my housemates that I would take care of the problem within minutes. The sound of tub water rushing down the drain was music, a lilting melody. I scoured out the tub and went about my day.
One of the few nice things about that house was the large deck off the back. We’d all sit there, during the pleasant, carefree days of May and bask in weather so unlike that in Minnesota. “There are no mosquitos!” was a frequent exclamation.
On this one particular day after my tub-drain unclogging triumph, the entire tribe was relaxing on the deck, talking plans and hopes, and watching the dogs play in the yard. I stepped off the deck, rounded the corner and came upon a small gurgling pond. Yet there were no fish in this pond, no lily pads, no pond-ish nymphs.
It was sewage.
Apparently, my tub unclogging action had forced stuff past the tub’s portal to hell into hell’s holding pond and up through the ground. I trudged wearily back to the lounging group and beckoned them to take a look.
We cordoned off the hazard and called a plumber. The problem was fixed but I never trusted the bathtub again. After that, I slept with one eye open until we moved out while the house was remodeled.
And that’s a whole ‘nother story.