The House Next Door: a diary

by Jeff Oaks


The days go on. The basement hole next door is dug. Men come and go and I try to leave my house before they arrive. In the dark this morning, just as the furnace turns off, I hear the dog breathing steadily, each breath with a little chime in it, so that in the suddenly very quiet house each breath is the ping of sonar. With rain falling around us, the house is a submarine. Upstairs, my husband still sleeps. In about fifteen minutes, at seven a.m., he’ll get up and shower and get ready for work then come down and he and the dog will go through their morning ritual of hugging, scratching, and going out into the kitchen to eat breakfast. Their sweetness with each other is better than any poem that I might write, any sentences I might construct about it. This is the thing people try to cultivate inside the places they live, these kinds of rituals of love and kindness and mutuality. 


Then on Friday night, as I’m settling on the couch with dog, I hear a noise: the furnace tries to turn on but then make a little thump. Tries again and ends again with a thump. I think, oh shit, that new furnace is already fucking up, so I get up and go down into the basement to see if I can see anything. 

And I see water. Water in my basement, at least a couple of inches deep, to judge from a single two by four I had standing against the wall at the bottom of the steps. 

And I think holy shit. And in my head there’s a chattering of birds taking off, a kind of white noise of panic. I text my husband 

Then it occurred to me to call our friends the Sabo’s, who are long-time home owners and practical people. Bob tells me to call 911, to tell them the water is threatening the furnace and then to call him back. I should say that Bob is a retired commander in the 911 system, so if he says to do something, I do it. 

And they patch me through immediately. I’m surprised and feeling just a little guilty. I’m afraid I’ll be pulling them from a heart attack or an actual fire, I think as I stand outside in the still-falling rain watching for their red lights. I have a hard time thinking not involving death is an emergency. 

Here’s the quick recap:

Greet men, walk them to the basement, they go down, they ask me if my drain is plugged, I say there’s no drain, there’s never been one, and I’ve never had one, and then I say, you might want to turn off the furnace and water heater, because I hadn’t thought to and they have waterproof boots on, and one of them goes over and indeed flips the right fuses. I ask if they can tell anything about the kind of water it is, and the man who seems the most senior says he can tell it’s at least not sewage because there’s no stink. But whether it’s from rain runoff or a broken water line, he can’t tell yet. One man asks if there’s anything they can save for me, gesturing at the shelves full of crap, and I say no, there’s nothing on those. Everything important is in the plastic bins behind the stairs. Then I joke that we were going to clean out a lot of the stuff anyway, now we have a real reason to. It’s true, thankfully. Joking helps return to reality.

What I’m really worried about is whether anything big, foundational, has been cracked. But they can’t tell me where there’s any clear break in the wall near the construction, or if there’s a crack in the floor. Nothing is pouring out or bubbling up that any of us can see. The lack of a clear cause does not of course make me feel better. I wanted a clear reason to sue the contractors.

What I really want (I quietly think) is to sell the house and run away. 

After a bit, my friend Bob comes over, which makes the dog especially happy; at least one familiar face! It’s the first time his tail has wagged all night. And I am equally grateful for a man who can speak both my language of frightened home-owner and the language of firefighting and rescue men. I’ve mostly been throwing funny quips at them and trying not to be irritated when one after another asks me the same question about the drain they’re sure the house has. No, I keep saying. I’ve never needed one. This has never happened before. No, really. 

In their uniforms and enormous boots, their mostly hidden faces, they all present formidable, mythically masculine figures, but they are all kind and quiet. Here are men willing to tackle disaster, even maybe interested in it. They’ve all taken turns going down and looking at the shallow sea my basement has become.