When one door closes. . .leave it shut

The other night I was in my basement, which is the scariest place on earth. We’re talking “Silence of the Lambs” scary, “Night of the Living Dead” scary, “lion and tigers and bears, oh my” scary. It’s not merely that a sizable chunk of the floor is dirt, which means that with all the rain we’ve had this summer it’s like quicksand down there. It’s not the fact that there is a Gordian knot of tubes and pipes along the ceiling (which is little more than a crawlspace in some sections), some of which carry water and some of which carry LP gas to heat the house. It’s not even the stone walls, which along with the spiders and spider webs make it feel like a medieval dungeon.

It’s the door.

Along one of the basement walls, below ground, is a door about 5 1/2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It’s made of wooden planks and when we moved into the house it was nailed shut. Yup, nailed.

Now, I should tell you that the closest I have come to accidentally killing myself in my 22 years as a homeowner in Lincoln occurred in that basement. Sure, I’ve nearly slid off the roof shoveling snow off the top of the screened porch. I’ve been conked in the head by the blunt side of an ax while hammering away at an ice jam. I’ve had chimney fires and electrical fires. But the least competent (translation: seriously stupid) thing I have ever done as a homeowner occurred in that basement.

Our first winter here our pipes froze. Still under the delusion that I had the slightest idea what I was doing when it came to this old house, I borrowed a friend’s propane torch. His advice? Run it along the pipes and it will thaw the ice. My wife and I descended into the crawlspace in the scariest place on earth and began carefully running the flame over the tubing. We’d been at it two or three minutes when my wife remarked casually, “I wonder if this is a gas pipe or a water pipe?” Yes, it was a gas pipe. My bad. I still get a little queasy when I think about how close I came to blowing up the center of Lincoln. My sense is that would have made it really difficult to make new friends.

Nevertheless, the strangest part of that basement was the door built into an underground wall. I would live in this house ten years before I would have the courage to pry it open, only to discover that behind it was an area the height and width of the door and about a foot and a half deep. The back wall was made of wood, and behind that there seemed to be nothing but solid earth. The space seemed perfectly designed to wall someone up alive, so I quickly nailed the door shut and vowed never to go near it again.

Years later when we would redo the front porch, I would see that the door was completely harmless: It led to the coal chute that had been walled up long ago.

I am telling you all this because a few evenings ago I was in the basement replacing a water filter. (I know, one would think plumbing even that rudimentary was out of my league.) On the floor by the door I noticed two of the nails I had hammered a decade ago had fallen out. A third was protruding at least half an inch. I knew intellectually this was because we had just added a window to a wall in the den and it had seemed like the house’s very foundations had been shaking.

But it also reminded me that Vincent Price could have used my basement for any number of horror movies. And so I drove the three nails back in and added a fourth for good measure.

And then I ran up the stairs as fast as I could. I may be a completely inept homeowner, but I know enough to steer clear of the scariest place on earth after dark.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 14.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “When one door closes. . .leave it shut

  1. sandie blair says:

    I enjoyed your tale of not being very skilled at the plumbing, etc in your house but chuckled more over the coal shoot. Thinking back to many years ago I always pictured the word as “chute” rather than “shoot”. But “shoot does seem to work”

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