Mill Street Blues: Pros and Cons

We didn’t recognize them as such at the time, but there were a few of clues that renovating the wing and gable farmhouse might be a bad idea.

The first came in the form of the blizzard that hit three days before the previous occupants were scheduled to vacate the premises, forcing them to choose between shoveling 22 inches of snow and walking repeatedly through 22 inches of snow to retrieve all of their belongings. Care to guess which option they chose?

The second clue came in the form of all the crap said occupants left behind—in the basement, in the garage, in the yard, and in the fridge. One might assume they got tired of trudging through the 22 inches of snow they had refused to shovel. Then again, they got the important stuff—like the washer and dryer that, legally speaking, were supposed to stay with the house.

The third clue came in the form of two teenage boys who, two days after we took possession of the house, jabbed all four tires on the dump trailer as it sat in the driveway filled to the brim with several tons of what used to be the roof. Although we took little comfort in learning that the dump trailer was just one of almost 40 vehicles that the little dickens vandalized that night, we took a great deal of comfort in justifying the amount of our restitution claim in court eight months later—and even more pleasure in depositing the check a few weeks after that.

The fourth clue came in the form of a note that was slipped to the Jarhead at a local builder supply store that warned us against working with the sketchy-looking guy who was assigned to hang the new gutters.

Yep. All those signs and still we persisted. Like those idiots in Poltergeist who stayed in their McMansion even after they retrieved Carol Ann from the TV or wherever she was. And the morons in The Amityville Horror who stayed in their Dutch colonial even after the walls started to bleed. And the dumbass nurse in The Skeleton Key who stayed in the plantation home in Terrebonne Parish even after it was clear that the place was replete with bad juju.

Starting to see a common theme? It’s okay to admit that you’re questioning our intelligence. We have questioned it, too. Many, many times.

Like when we looked under the sink and discovered that someone had used an empty tube of lotion and a metal clamp to terminate an old water line. And when we learned that three different plumbers had decided to leave all three generations of water piping in place when it came time to put in the fourth.

And when literally every single gutter on the house began to leak and it became clear that the sketchy gutter guy had much to learn about installing gutters. And when the roofing crew forgot to safeguard the structures around the house before tear-off and the gas meter suddenly had to be replaced.

And when their leader became enmeshed in a feud with the power company after one of their reps had the audacity to suggest that his folks should be a bit more careful in the future. And when he got into an argument with the building inspector and ordered him off the property. And when he called the police when the inspector refused to leave.

Having already racked up more visits from local law enforcement in the eight months since moving to Weyauwega than we had in the entire 8 years we had spent in Oshkosh (where our one and only encounter with the police was the night they mistook the Jarhead for a burglar) I was no longer questioning the wisdom of renovating this house as much as I was questioning whether we’d chosen the right people to help us do it.

That sense continued into the summer as we waited for three weeks for the stairs to be put back together because dude could not find the app that would calculate the run and the rise. In fairness replacing the stairs was added to the scope of work when we realized that the studs and stringers holding them up had been reduced to charcoal by a fire at some point in the distant past. On the other hand, I’m the type of person who would not have taken down the old stairs until I was ready and equipped to put the new ones right back up.

But that’s just me.

Anyway, dude eventually found the app and, eventually, we had stairs. Unfortunately, we then had to wait for the upstairs doorways to be rebuilt. It seems that rebuilding stairs also means bringing them up to code, which means making them less steep and, thus, longer. And making the stairway longer would have left the upstairs bedroom doorways suspended a few feet above the middle of the stairs, which is apparently dangerous and, therefore, not cool. Unless, of course, you’re into strains, sprains, and compound fractures. Which is fine. I’m not one to judge. And I don’t know your life.

I don’t know how much longer we would have waited for the rest of the work to be done after the doorways were framed and drywalled, but I do know this: When we determined that the snow was likely to fly again before dude and company would finish the reconstruction so we could start painting and installing flooring and fixtures, we decided we would rather do the reconstruction ourselves than wait any longer.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I pay someone to build or fix something, I generally expect it to turn out better than if I had built or fixed it myself. Clothing, for example, should look and fit better when I buy it at the store than if I had sewn it myself. I can hem slacks, re-attach buttons, and even make simple things like curtains and blankets, but I SHOP for the clothes I wear because I don’t want to look like the lady who stands at the end of the Walmart parking lot holding a can and a cardboard sign.

Car repair is another example. I could—theoretically—change my own oil, rotate my own tires, and replace my own air filters and spark plugs. But even if I were willing to get all dirty, dusty, greasy and sweaty just to save a few bucks, no doubt I would not do as good a job of tightening my lug nuts and connecting all those grody engine parts to the other grody engine parts as Colton does at my local Tires Plus. (I would have cited a local dealership here, but the last time one of their guys worked on my car they forgot to reconnect the clamps on my engine air filter, and the poor thing shuddered, sputtered, then died as I was heading home. So, there’s at least ONE person in the Fox Valley who isn’t a better mechanic than I am.)

Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, I haven’t found a chef on planet earth that can make bacon and eggs exactly the way I like them. Or guacamole.  But by and large, the people who do stuff for a living should do that stuff better than the rest of us can.

So imagine my surprise when dude had this to say after the Jarhead and I decided our relationship with him had run its course:

Dude: I know we haven’t gotten things done as quickly as you’d have liked, but I hope you’ll keep us in mind for future projects.

Me: I don’t mean to be unkind, but it isn’t just the timeline I’ve had a problem with. To be honest, the quality of the work isn’t quite what we expected.

Dude:  Well, let’s not forget that when we bid the project, it was going to be a flip.

Me: Personally, I would have expected quality work regardless of what we were going to do with the property. I mean, no offense, but when I hire someone to do a job, I expect it to look better than if I had done it myself.

Dude: Well, I never said we were professionals.

And here I thought a professional was someone who performed a service in exchange for money.

Silly me.



The Winnebagoville Horror

This may sound odd—even for me—but I think my house is trying to tell me something. Like the lovely Dutch colonial in The Amityville Horror, only in a non-confrontational, less maniacal, Midwestern-nice kind of way.

It started over a year ago, when the light over the dishwasher would flicker for no reason. Assuming it was a loose wire, I didn’t consider this a grave situation. Rather than panic and jump to illogical, worst-case scenario-type conclusions, I simply posted a mental note to ask the Jarhead to take a look at it, which—given his work schedule—I knew he wouldn’t get to before one of us died and started haunting the other.

This, I can assure you, was as close as I came to invoking the supernatural at the time. Even after the light started shutting off entirely when all the others in that series stayed on, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. Lacking any evidence of paranormal activity, I merely banged on the counter to bring the bulb back to life, and went about my business.

That is, until the glass on the electric cooktop suddenly cracked. Out of the blue. And for no reason. The damned thing wasn’t even on at the time. Nor was it located on the same section of cabinets as the dishwasher, thereby eliminating the possibility that the crack was a latent result of my increasingly frequent and vigorous efforts to manage the lighting issue described above. It simply split from front to back on a diagonal—and quite loudly at that. I know this because I was standing in the kitchen with the Princess discussing what we would be doing later—which, incidentally, did not include purchasing a new cooktop nor arranging for its speedy installation—when we heard a popping sound not unlike the discharge of a BB-gun.

Even then, it never occurred to me that this might have anything to do with the supernatural. It wasn’t like the walls were oozing blood, after all. And although there are several cold spots in the house, the Jarhead had yet to find me covered in red welts or levitating above our bed.

Still, this stuff had me a little freaked out—especially when the range hood started buzzing whenever I turned it on. At that point I could have pictured a lot of things—like Jerry Seinfeld’s gratingly self-amused tenor in Bee Movie or Chris Farley’s famous bee-swarm fake out in Tommy Boy—but instead of something whimsical, funny, or ridiculous, my brain went right to terrifying and pictured Michael Caine in The Swarm, Macaulay Culkin in My Girl, and poor Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror.

Which is precisely where it stayed even after the range hood stopped buzzing. I say this not because the thing has been repaired. In fact, it has never BEEN repaired. Oh, sure, the Jarhead did give it a cursory once over, decided that the motor on the fan was probably failing, and suggested that I order the part so we’ll have it when we need it; but the next day the buzzing disappeared as if by magic and has not returned. Meanwhile, I decided not to purchase the part because I know the problem has nothing to do with the fan motor, and everything to do with a house on a mission to drive me insane.

Again, I’m not claiming that the dwelling is possessed. I don’t wake up every night at 3:15am and saunter on over to Lake Butte des Morts. Nor have I seen cloven hoof prints in the yard or glowing eyes in the windows when I look up into them from outside. And while there is a room in the basement that isn’t on the blueprints, its walls are primer gray instead of blood red, and our pets have absolutely no compunction against going in there. In fact, it’s all we can do to keep them out.

But I do know that SOMETHING is going on with this place. Because last year the hook that attaches the spring on the garage door opener to the track suddenly snapped and dropped the door onto the cement floor as the Princess waited for it to open. Thank goodness she inherited my irrational fear of being crushed by a falling door; I hate to think what might have happened if she had been driving or walking through the damned thing when it came crashing down.

It wasn’t long after we’d had the garage door and opener replaced that the floor in the laundry room started weeping. I know. I know. Lots of people have wet basements. We were among them until two years ago when we adjusted the slope of the ground around the foundation and covered the walls in sealant. That, and the fact that the ground is frozen solid told me that the water on the rug in front of the washing machine wasn’t coming from outside.

Still, I didn’t attribute this to paranormal activity. Instead, I checked the drain tube that comes off the furnace. Finding no issue there, I then checked the humidifier. And then the sump pump. And then the water heater. And then the well pump. And then each and every bloody water line and drain pipe in the place. Finally, I bit the bullet and called the Jarhead with an alternate theory and solution: Could he stop by the store on his way home and pick up a new set of hoses and washers for the laundry room? As I suspect that one of them is leaking. In the meantime, I would shut off the waterline to the laundry spigots, and set a fan down on the floor to dry the rug.

As I expected, the strategy worked. By that I don’t mean the new hoses or washers. No, the simple act of involving the Jarhead in the situation was enough to make it go away. I know this because when he got home, he turned on the water to the machine to test my theory and—VOILA!—not one drop of water appeared. Not in front of the washer. Not behind the washer. Not even under the washer. Nor was there any water in any of those places when I checked the next morning. Or the next. Or the next. It was like a commercial for Serve Pro—like it never even happened. Only I knew it had. I just couldn’t tell you why—for fear of being locked up.

And then last week, as I was broiling burgers, I heard a sound. It was almost a sizzle, but it wasn’t the meat. And yet, it was also like a buzz. But the oven had never buzzed before. So I assumed it was the fan motor—taking a page out of the range hood’s playbook and hoping to make me crazy. So after looking inside and finding nothing out of the ordinary, I shut the oven door and went back to making a salad.

So determined was I not to let this house get to me I didn’t say a word about the oven—not to the Jarhead. Not to the Princess. Not even to my friend the Brit, to whom I confess my craziest thoughts knowing she lacks both the power and the inclination to have me fitted for a straightjacket and confined to a padded room. Even after the oven buzzed all the way through the twenty minutes it took me to broil the bacon wrapped Jalapenos the following night I said NOTHING.

And then the next morning, as the Jarhead passed by the oven as I was cooking the sausage to go with our scrambled eggs, he heard it himself. What’s that? I heard him ask aloud. Satisfied that it wasn’t all in my head, I stopped beating the eggs and watched as he opened the oven, shouted an expletive, and immediately switched off the power to the oven.

“What’s wrong?” I asked with a tone that belied my fear that it might be time to call an exorcist.

“It’s arcing!” he announced.

Well, that sounded bad, but only because I didn’t know what arcing meant. “Come again?” I said more with my eyes than my mouth.

“It’s arcing!” he repeated. “You know, like the light you’re not supposed to look at when someone’s welding?”

“Dude—I’m a writer not a welder,” I said, “as evidenced by my lack of a steady income. So could you phrase it in terms that I can understand?”

“The element is eating itself.”

At that point he switched the broiler back on as if to show me, but it was not to be. Sadly, the Jarhead could not show me how the element was eating itself because the element would no longer turn on. No, he had caught it in the final throws of self-immolation when he looked in the oven before, and now all that was left was a lifeless swirl of whatever metal broiler elements are made of.

This made perfect sense to the Jarhead. He is a man of science after all, with degrees in electrical engineering. He can accept that the broiler element just happened to die right as he was looking at it. He can accept that there is a logical explanation for what had happened because for him there always is one. And when there isn’t a logical explanation, there IS no problem.

But for me, there is always a problem and it always defies explanation. So while he can look inside an oven once and see the broiler element arcing, I could have looked in that oven every day for the rest of my life and I never would have caught it arcing. Even if I had known what arcing was, that element never would have arced in front of me. Instead, it would have kept making noise and daring me to tell the Jarhead about it so he could look at it and find nothing wrong.

Which is why I’m convinced this house is trying to tell me something, even if I’m not sure what it is. If it wanted me to leave, I would expect it to be more obvious about it, and I would begin to fall victim of all kinds of strange accidents like the folks in all those Final Destination movies.

Now there’s a fun thought. Time to put away the knives and start wearing protective eyewear.

I’m kidding, of course. I don’t even own protective eyewear.