Our builder has suggested that the best option might be to haul off the very skeleton of our house. How will we dismantle such old bones? How will I betray such awesome kickass ghosts? In 1919, the year my Grandma Anne was born, someone with a plan to build our house bought our property. Apparently they did not get too far too quickly (hmm), because it was not completed until 1923, a few years after Prohibition was passed. Stairs are not part of the structure; they were an afterthought along with the trap door Steve and I used every time we did our laundry or needed something from the pantry. No, you do not misunderstand. With an armful of dirty clothes, I would bend to the floor and lift the 40-pound hatch door at an awkward angle that put out my back bimonthly. Steve has always wanted to live on a boat, and this was the closest he came (that is, until we had to bail out our home daily from October 29 through the first week in January).
We are told that the black market liquor would arrive at our cellar door by way of the walk behind us. We live in “The Walks” of Long Beach, on the middle street between two large blocks further separated by walkways crowded with bungalows. Every few blocks a house with a basement was built to house a residential speakeasy. The narrow passages would have made convenient pathways for covert wheelbarrow deliveries. I hope that basement was a boon to its first owners, because it is what did us in. And I hope the trap door served many well, and that many were served good spirits under its cover, because all it did for us was terrify my dog, disable my body, and maim my husband.
If it was open and you were in the office, perhaps distracted by an unsettling phone call or a malfunctioning printer, you could easily step into the pit. If someone was sleeping in the guest room and we ran out of coffee, we could not descend into the “pantry” for fear our guest would awaken, open the door, and step forward and down without looking. Who checks the floor for an abyss on their way to the bathroom?
When Steve would spend hours downstairs restoring my grandmother’s antiques, he always lowered the door so as not to endanger his family. Once, at the very moment he pushed it up it from beneath, Lucy happened to be trotting across the small hallway comprised mostly of the trap door. She became cornered in the shrinking angle as he opened it, and had to leap over the rising edge to her safety. This terroristic act of Steve’s served to create a paralyzing fear in our already skittish pup. She never fully recovered, and it always took her a full fifteen seconds to work up the courage to cross over. One could never tell at which moment in time the unpredictable door might attack once more. It had been 8 years since that fateful encounter but the threat was just as real with every passing day. For our long-suffering dog, the “trap” door was aptly named, as she imagined herself stuck in any room adjacent to it (four of the eight rooms in our house) until she tested its stability several times with a tentative paw, skittered backward once or twice, and then furtively made a run for it.
Lucy spent most of her time in the main part of the house, finding few reasons to venture beyond the door. She was nowhere near the trap door when Steve fell through, nor did she make any heroic move in its direction as he writhed in pain down below.
Steve and the cable guy had been in the basement before they made their way into our office. The man, who would prove to be as insensitive to my husband’s predicament as our dog, was fiddling with the connection when Steve backed out of the office. By the time he realized he was falling he had already gauged his elbow on a nail, tearing a nerve, and taken out two steps (2x4s!) with his back. He lay on the concrete floor gasping for air. Two ungodly body slams, the splintering of wood, the clatter of 2x4s crashing to concrete, plus his poor client’s hard landing, and nothing from the cable guy. The way I picture it he didn’t so much as cock his head at the horrifying racket. Steve pried himself off the floor, gingerly removed his shirt, wrapped it around his elbow to stop the bleeding, and paced, hunched over, until he collected enough air in his lungs to climb the remaining steps.
“Uh—excuse me?” Those of you who know Steve know. He hated to disturb the guy. “Uh—how you doin’ in there? Do you think you might be done soon? I, uh—have to go to the emergency room?”
“Yeah yeah. Gimme a minute.”
He looked at my husband with his bloody T-shirt wrapped around his arm, polite to the death, and pretty much shooed him. Then he took his time finishing up, slowly collected his tools, and watched Steve write out a check with his blood-soaked, nerve-damaged arm. The cable guy had to resolve not to find out if he was OK. He had to resist the human impulse to even ask the question. Oh wait, that’s it. He was not human. We still tell that story. How many families, how many friends over all those years told trap door stories about this house?
Here is my friend Randy, always fascinated by our secret door:
Upon ripping up the third layer of living room floor, we uncovered a second trap door. Soon there will be none. No floors at all. Seawater came up through them, and they are warped and mottled. Now, there will be no basement. The water table along this shoreline has risen above the base of our house, and so our speakeasy will have to be shut down, filled with sand. If we must raze the entire house, as we are now considering, all that will remain of the old construction are the sidelight windows we uncovered beneath the original, pre-sunroom entrance. We will reinstall them somewhere, and invite the spectral bootleggers to pass through with their wares. Perhaps they worked through Steve all these years as he developed his uncanny ability to design an ethereally nuanced Sidecar or Old Fashioned. People say his cocktails are sublime and other-worldly, with some ingredient you can’t quite put your finger on. An extra layer, a tie that binds, a secret. Perhaps it is our inheritance.
One of the uncovered sidelights and some long-buried statement wallpaper. Now I’d call that a “pop of color!”