by Naomi Ulsted
Receipt: Friday, May 8. Sage Salon - $130.00: Cut and color.
Your hair is gorgeous. You've just spent two hours catching your stylist up on your house sale, which is nearly complete after a year of aggravation. Your visit to the salon with its glass of wine and People magazine is an oasis in the otherwise chaotic mess of packing, contracts, and POD reservations. After weeks of haggling with the buyer for your house, a single mother who has a Facebook photo of herself dressed like a vampire (yes, you Facebook stalked her), you have finally come to an agreement.
No, you will not replace the freaking roof.
Receipt: Thursday, April 14, Home Depot - $38.96: Paint and 3-2x4s.
Yes, your husband repainted and replaced boards with dry rot on the back porch and fence.
Receipt: Wednesday, April 20, Standard Electric – $350.00: Reroute wires in kitchen and replace outlets.
Yes, you did this. Whoever wired this house before you purchased it must have done it while watching a YouTube video on his phone about how to wire a house.
Receipt: Friday, April 22, Home Depot - $235.00: Flashing.
Yes, you replaced the flashing around the chimney to keep out the leaks. Your husband has done a lot of work in the past nine years you've owned the house to fix leaks. Miraculously, you haven't drowned in the process. He crawled up and replaced the flashing himself, because to say you are on a tight budget is an understatement. You are only able to move at all because you are taking out a large loan from your mother. Which is annoying because you are a grown woman for crying out loud, and shouldn't have to borrow money from your mother. But it's the only way.
Receipt: Thursday, November 6, Fresh Air Environmental - $1300.00: Asbestos removal.
You completed this after the first inspection.
Receipt: Tuesday, November 11, Rotorooter - $1400.00: Replace underground sewer pipe in back yard.
You had this done when you lost your first buyer. You came home from work to a backhoe in your yard next to a mountain of dirt and six-foot trench. Your down payment for your next house was shrinking.
Receipt: Thursday, February 12, Septic and Sewer - $300: Inspection of filled-in septic tank.
You had this done when you lost your second buyer. After your real estate agent called to tell you there was a cesspool in your backyard that might open up and swallow your whole family, you looked up cesspools on the internet and then called your husband from work in a panic. Bring the kids in now! Don't let them play outside! Your husband found the paperwork that documented the cesspool was filled in years ago and was perfectly safe. No one was going to be swallowed by the earth and everyone could just calm the hell down. But your second buyer had moved on.
Receipt: Monday, May 4, Home Depot - $29.99: Dryer duct.
The last thing you have to do is replace this stupid dryer duct, which is basically a five-foot hose from the back of the dryer, through the garage wall and into the crawlspace, with a diameter of four inches. The buyer's inspector said it should be a rigid duct, while the current one is a flexible duct. With a rigid duct, the hose is metal and can't bend or move and probably lasts longer. With a flexible duct, like you have now, the hose is basically made out of strong aluminum foil and can be shaped or bent. You have haggled with your vampire buyer because your husband thinks it's stupid to have to replace it, and when he thinks something is stupid he can be quite stubborn. He doesn't want to crawl under the house again. However, your buyer is clinging to her inspector's dryer vent recommendation like it's her last vestige of humanity, so you agree, and tell your husband you'll crawl under the house and replace it yourself. You're smaller than he is. Since you've had a glass of wine at the salon, you have decided you'll do it as soon as you get home. Then you will sit and watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with your kids and eat popcorn.
Receipt: Friday, May 8, Home Depot - $29.99: Gallon of paint.
When you arrive home, your husband tells you he needs to go to Home Depot for some paint to touch up just a few more places on the outside of the house. He wants to leave the house perfect for the single mom buyer. A couple months ago, when it looked like she was going to back out, you wrote her a letter, leaving it neatly on the kitchen table so she would find it during her third walk-through. You wrote about how fun it's been to raise your two boys in this house (they are now 10 and 5, but when you bought the house your oldest was just 6 months old). You know she has a 2-year-old, so you tell her about the good times at the park two blocks away. You just know she's going to love this house with its large backyard (now put together again after the sewer pipe disaster) and kids' playhouse that you can't take with you. You felt like you bonded with this woman and you had warm, fuzzy feelings. But now after the haggling over the dryer duct, you hate her. Your husband leaves and you don't tell him you're going to replace the duct while he's gone. It will be a surprise.
Armed with two screwdrivers (a Phillips and a flathead), scissors, flashlight, and a roll of duct tape, you grab the rigid dryer duct. Before you got married, when you were in your 20s, you were very self-sufficient. You changed your own oil and replaced your own fuel filter in your truck once. You've got this. You are still slightly tipsy.
With your screwdrivers in your front pocket and the scissors in the back, you lift up the wood covering of the crawlspace. Until your house was up for sale, you hadn't realized this was the crawlspace cover. You didn't even know what a crawlspace was. It hardly looks big enough for a human to slide into, but your husband has been under there before, and three inspectors, so it must be. Your kids are inside playing with Legos. You go in feet first, dragging your rigid dryer duct with you. You'll have to turn yourself around when you get in there. As you go further in, feeling dirt and plastic under you, you see the square of daylight through the crawlspace entry like a last diminishing hope. You scootch your body around and flick on the flashlight.
You are lying on plastic and dirt. You worry about bugs. There are metal pipes, wooden beams, insulation, and some wiring right above your head. The sides of the crawlspace and the walls under the garage are covered in thick draping spider webs. You can see why your husband did not want to do this again. You start inching toward the flexible dryer duct, pulling yourself forward with your elbows. The Phillips screwdriver catches on the plastic and you nearly impale yourself. The dryer duct is filthy. When you edge close enough to it, you are relieved to see the draping spider webs are actually layers upon layers of lint blown down under the house from the dryer. The dryer duct is practically covered in it. You begin to unscrew the metal band that affixes the duct to the dryer vent, which goes through a hole in the garage wall to the dryer. It's awkward because it's above your head, but set in between two pipes. Using your stomach muscles (a resource you are sadly lacking), you hold yourself up, while bending sideways to get at the screw. Between your stomach muscles failing you and your arms tiring, you have to stop frequently. Suddenly, the tiny spot of daylight from the crawlspace disappears and you panic until you realize your son has blocked the light with his head.
"Mama?" he calls. "Can we watch a movie?" Dammit. You wanted to watch Harry Potter.
"Yes!" you shout and drop the screwdriver which hits you in the face.
"Yes!" you shout again, irritated.
"Can you make some popcorn?"
"NOT RIGHT NOW!"
His head disappears and you return to work. When you start wondering if you have developed carpal tunnel in your wrist, you finally separate the old duct. You shove it to the side and hold the new rigid duct up. You can almost get the cover to fit onto the dryer vent opening, but the curve it has to make over the pipe is too sharp. Since it's rigid and can't bend enough, it only covers 3/4 of the opening. The light from the crawlspace disappears again and you're in the dark except for your flashlight, shining into a pile of dryer fluff.
"What are you doing?" says your husband.
Two drops of sweat roll down your face. "I'm trying to change the dryer duct, but it won't work."
"What do you mean it won't work?" You can tell from his voice he thinks you're inept.
"I mean it's too rigid."
"It's supposed to be rigid. That's the point."
"No, I mean I can't get it to fit."
"It's exactly the same size as the other one. It fits."
You take a breath so you don't kill him. "No, I can't get it around these stupid pipes."
There is a pause. You lie on your back on the plastic and look up at the pipes and insulation. You may sleep here tonight.
"Hold on. Let me get into the garage." In a minute, your husband's voice comes down through the garage wall where the dryer vent is. "I'll pull it from this side. Just hand it up to me." You can tell he has no idea what you're looking at down here because you can't hand him shit.
"I can't really hand it up. It won't fit. I can't get it to bend around the pipe."
"What the f@#k," says your husband. You are screwed. You will never sell the house. You will live here forever. You will never come out from the crawlspace. You and your husband go back and forth with him saying things like, "can you just squeeze it down a little so it fits?" and "just bend it around the pipe," and "maybe if I shove this side over a little," and then a lot of profanity. You are not saying much because you know this is futile. It's hard to even see with all the dryer lint hanging everywhere.
"Can you get me a broom or something to brush some of this lint out of the way?" you ask, mainly so he will go into the house for a minute and you can return to lying on your back and staring into the wires above, thinking about the futility of existence. He returns to the crawlspace and shoves a broom toward you. You drag yourself over to it. You have lint in your salon hair and your sides are slick with sweat. You turn back to the garage wall and begin knocking lint off the walls and pipes with the broom handle, until suddenly there is a pop and a spark. The lint is on fire. Fast as lightning, the fire spreads along the lint along the base of the house near the garage wall. You scream "FIRE!" Smoke is rolling toward you and you are scootching back on your elbows as fast as you can, screaming "Fire!" over and over. Your husband is gone from the opening. He has left you there to die under the house.
He is back. He did not leave you to die. He thrusts the kitchen fire extinguisher toward you and you grab it. You don't know if you can remember how to operate this thing, but it's easy and you spray down the fire with a stream of white stuff. You are thorough and every bit of fire is out, but the crawlspace is all smoke and white powder. You pull yourself back out and into the open air, coughing and sputtering.
"Are you OK? What happened?" You husband is next to you. He loves you. He is not going to let you die.
"I don't know. I just hit one of those pipes with a broom and it was all crazy."
"It's OK," he says. "Just sit out here and breathe for a while." You are planning to take a shower. Get into your pajamas. Drink a glass of wine and forget this ever happened. "I'm going to turn off the breaker," he says. "Then we can try again." You are getting a divorce.
Tears leak out of your eyes. "It's not going to work. I don't want to go back in there."
Your husband is sitting next to you. He sighs. "There might be a broken wire," he says. You know you have to go back in.
Under the house is now covered in white powder from the fire extinguisher. It smells of smoke and the tangy smell of the extinguisher. You have a bandana over your mouth, but you are still worried you are damaging your lungs. The silver ducts are covered in white powder. The screwdrivers and duct tape are scattered. When you move the screwdriver, there is a screwdriver shape of clean plastic left in the white powder. You are watching the pipes and the wires warily, even though the breaker is turned off. You have electrical tape with you to tape up the damaged wire. Your husband also wants you to bring out the rigid duct so that he can make it fit by squishing it down with his own hands. You don't think this is likely, but you aren't saying anything. You cautiously reach up and touch the main wire. You are not electrocuted.
"Do you see any wire damage?" says your husband's voice from the garage.
"No," you reply. You examine every wire you see, but you don't see any damage or breaks. You start taping it up anyway. You tape up a large section of perfectly good wire, winding the black electrical tape neatly. You almost feel like you're doing something useful. Now you are afraid you will all die in your sleep in a fire. You don't want to sell a deathtrap to the vampire. Tears are blurring your eyes, making it hard to see what you're taping. When you're done, you gather up the powder-covered equipment in one big armload and edge back out. Your husband may squeeze this rigid dryer duct down, but you are never, ever going back under this house again.
When you are finally sitting up on the porch, you are still shaking. Your husband tells you that you did a really great job. You decide maybe you won't divorce him. But you aren't sure. You leave him squeezing the dryer duct.
Receipt: Saturday, May 1, Costco - $32.99: 4 bottles of cheap wine.
You have showered and stopped shaking. In a minute you will make popcorn. You are drinking wine and watching your husband through the kitchen window. He is in the backyard wrestling with the dryer duct like it's a demon serpent from hell. He throttles it and then throws it on the ground kicking it to shreds and swearing. Your son comes to the window. "Is Daddy OK?"
You will never sell this house. You will live in it until you die. Which will probably be this week when the house burns down.
Receipt: Tuesday, May 12, Standard Electric - $565.00: Complete rewire of garbage disposal and garage.
Three inspections did not notice that the garbage disposal had been installed incorrectly, so that it grounded out to the pipes, causing the water running through them to be electrified. It's a wonder you didn't all die in the five years that you've been living here with this disposal.
Receipt: Wednesday, May 13, A-1 HVAC - $375.00: Professional installation of rigid dryer vent and duct.
You wish to never speak of this again.
Receipt: Friday, June 19, Red Lobster - $85.00: Family celebration dinner on moving week.
The vampire buyer has moved in and she's already put up a pink flamingo in the yard. Which matches the house quite well, since last year you painted it a soft rose color, which was actually just pink. Your children are happily eating shrimp. You lean your head against your husband's shoulder and plan to stay married. But you will never go under a house again. Ever.
Naomi Ulsted is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon. She is married and is mother to two young boys. She also works as the director of a Job Corps Center providing vocational training to under-privileged youth. Her work has been published in Salon and Luna Luna.