Nightmare on Elm Street
I am no more superstitious, no more a believer in ghosties and hauntings and poltergeists and blood running down the walls than anyone else who has watched too many horror movies on TV. But one of the most important things John and I learned on our first day of house hunting was that houses have vibes, and when you get a bad one, you might just as well say a prayer and head for the door because there ain’t enough Ralph Lauren sedge wall paint in the world to cover up Bad House Mojo.
Bad House Mojo, we would learn, is different than Sad House Mojo. The first house we looked at – dimly lit rooms, tired furnishings, a lonely life – was sad. But although that house dampened our desire to continue looking (or go on living, for that matter), we knew a few gallons of industrial cleaner and a bit of air from this century could’ve freshened things up. We weren’t going to allow a little gloom to slow our momentum after months and months of procrastination. Besides, we reasoned, after Bleak House, everything that followed would surely seem like Sunnybrook Farm.
So we pressed on. Our second stop was an innocuous Cape on a weird back street in a neighborhood off Brighton Avenue I never knew existed, even though I have lived in Portland, off and on, for 25 years. This is because — I might as well make this clear from the start — I am a lifelong peninsula snob and never had any interest in exploring Portland beyond the western reaches of I-295. Having to house-hunt out in the burbs required a heapin’ helpin’ of humble pie, which was really hard since my mouth was already full of all my own words and a soupçon of the hat I was required to eat after John and I determined we had been priced off the peninsula by our late start at looking. Not that I didn’t know all these little pocket neighborhoods and their denizens existed, but they were kind of like The Others on the TV program “Lost”: I knew they were out there and could even sometimes hear them murmuring in the aisles of the Hannaford, but until they dragged one of us off into the jungle for a human sacrifice, they were easy to ignore.
When we pulled up in front of the Cape, a couple with two kids was milling around outside. We tarried until they decided to go in, so we could use them as human shields and bypass the initial realtor interrogation. We slipped into the kitchen as they were being hammered about what they were looking for, how long they had been at it, if they were working with a realtor. It gave us a chance to poke around. There were wood floors, a fireplace, a nice border of trees out back. We actually looked in some cupboards and closets, and even gave each other the “This ain’t so bad” – a big frown and raised eyebrows – face. No, it wasn’t our dream house, but nor did it make me want to inspect the inside of the oven – with the gas on – as the other house had.
We came around a corner and were ambushed by the agent as the family stomped its way upstairs. He asked us how our house hunting was going, about what we had seen and how this house compared. I made John answer, because I don’t even like talking to people I know, but I quickly grew bored. In order to end the exchange, I tugged on John’s sleeve and said (with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm), “Let’s check out the basement!”
We found the cellar door and John flicked on the light. I led the way and charged down a couple steps, relieved to be rid of our interviewer. There, I paused and turned to John to give him the “Why do these people have to talk to us?” look – small frown, furrowed brow, scrunched up nose – also known as Stinky Face. (Practicing these looks is how I spend my time in front of the mirror when I should be combing my hair.)
I took a few more steps, and something overcame me. It was as though I was wading down into an icy pool; I could feel the cold travel up my legs. This wasn’t temperature cold, though — it was like I was up to my waist in something evil, while my upper torso still belonged to the world of goodness and light. I froze in my steps, and that’s when I spotted it across the room.
In our long search, we would encounter myriad basement bathrooms – a lone toilet on a bare platform against a blank wall, sometimes with a makeshift curtain or wall enclosing it. This one, however — a plywood structure resembling a voting booth with a bare bulb suspended over it – was our first. Oh, surely this had been the headquarters for a serial killer, a kidnapper, a sex offender, an animal tester. I turned to John to say as much, but his face told me he saw the same as I — that nothing good had ever happened down here and that we better run, run away before someone locked us in a secret room and we were never heard from again. And why did we have to look at these awful houses anyway? Why weren’t we independently wealthy or why didn’t we meet a decade earlier and have the foresight to buy a house on the Hill when the Hill was still the Hill and not some condo-ized, overdeveloped, overvalued enclave for noveau Mainers? OK, so maybe that wasn’t exactly what I read on my husband’s face – he simply said later that the cellar was creepy – but it also signaled we were going to have our work cut out for us.
That is, until four months later, when we resumed our search and found our house-hunting guardian angel. Enter Rita to the Rescue.
Elizabeth Peavey is happy to have this free advertising space to announce the release this week of her new book, “Outta My Way; An Odd Life Lived Loudly” – a collection of that crazy column of hers from her Casco Bay Weekly years. She will be signing books December 3 at the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Holiday Book Signing; a launch party and reading take place that evening at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books.