She couldn’t resist the photographs online, or the sellers’ description:
Adorable Cape Cod with walk-out basement! Main floor has master suite, spare bedroom (or office), kitchen, dining and living room. Upstairs kids’ bedrooms with built-in desks, a window seat with cedar storage, bathroom and three attic storage areas. Basement has a huge space for additional living, bonus room, you name it! Home has two fireplaces, gorgeous deck, huge fenced yard and recently replaced roof.
“It looks like a doll’s house,” Avery’s realtor, Matt Jones, said after viewing the photographs in the link Avery emailed. “Give me a few hours to do my homework. I know you want to make an offer right away. I’ll be fast.” Hours later, he informed her that Stillwater locals called 1803 North Crescent Drive “the judge’s house,” even though the judge had been dead for decades. The judge’s house had been custom built in 1962. Many of the houses in the neighborhood, close to Boomer Lake, were custom built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Avery planned to move into the judge’s house in the summer of 2014, months after making an offer to purchase the property at asking price, sight unseen. At her realtor’s insistence, Avery traveled to Stillwater for the home inspection. On the day of inspection, Avery and Matt climbed up and down stairs and peered into the rooms. Everywhere she looked, she encountered personal belongings, some boxed and some unboxed. Closets vomited clothes, books, toys, keepsakes. The sellers were not present. Because of Avery’s sudden offer, the sellers were having to move in a hurry. Her quick decision had caught the sellers and her realtor off guard. Now, everyone was scrambling to meet the deadline for closing.
Matt walked behind her, taking notes, not saying much. A dapper man with a runner’s lean frame, he inexplicably wore a bowtie on a daily basis. Matt worked at Re/Max, mostly representing buyers and sellers in Edmond and Oklahoma City. “Stillwater is full of surprises,” Matt said, holding a small flashlight in his teeth to shine light into the attic. Before she could ask what he meant, Matt had already left the attic storage and was racing down the stairs to the basement.
Even though she got cut off, she thought she knew what Matt meant. This offer, the one that had finally been accepted, was the second full-price offer she had made on houses near Boomer Lake. Her first offer was rejected in favor of a competing offer that went in above asking price. That house, which also had foundation problems in the basement, had been on the market for only three days.
Ever since she lost the first house, Matt warned Avery against “going rogue” by not allowing him to negotiate terms. Even though she had the judge’s house under contract, the sellers had reported they were getting phone calls from other interested parties on a daily basis. People were wanting to make competing offers if the deal fell through for any reason, releasing the sellers from their contract for any technical violation in the written agreement, which was hastily written, boilerplate at best.
Entering the master bedroom and standing before the dresser mirror, Avery took stock of herself, weighing her options, and wondering how long she could stand to live in this large house alone. She sat on the king-sized bed; mattress springs sighed. What would it take to find someone she really wanted to keep house with? Would any man, even someone as boring as Matt, want to live with her now? She knew better than to stare at her own reflection, as if the mirror held an answer. She did it anyway.
A buxom brunette, she was flatfooted and rawboned, with a smile her mother called “toothy.” Avery’s greatest weapon in disarming strangers was her wild eyes, that wide-mouthed laugh, which some people claimed to find intoxicating. She had a talent for picking up introverted men in dive bars, but no real skill in forming or keeping true relationships. She was like a fisher of men who kept hooking them and letting them go, throwing them back into the dark lake of the night, never knowing what to do with any of her catches once she clutched them in her capable hands.
“Avery! Avery?” Matt kept calling her name, and she didn’t answer.
Ducking behind a door, she stared at charming family photographs, smiling parents and children. She tried not to be envious of what she couldn’t understand. It was an old-fashioned, American way of life that had nothing to do with her.
“Avery? Where did you run off to now?”
She stared at a photograph of a blond-haired girl with large doll-like eyelashes. Who was that child? What was it like to be her?
An only child of a broken home, Avery had been raised by her mother and never really knew her father. If she were honest, she might admit that she never understood men, even though she was drawn to them. Three times a bride-to-be, she finally got married in her late twenties. Vic left within a week of their honeymoon to fight in Iraq and then again to fight in Afghanistan. As years passed, part of her was relieved, although she feared he was glad to go.
Thinking of the way her marriage had ended, she wondered if she deserved this house, if she could ever truly be happy here, or anywhere.
She cheated on Vic constantly, especially after her miscarriage. She wanted an annulment. She felt as if she had never really been a wife. After two years of marriage, she didn’t know what it was to have a husband. He had been gone, fighting a war she didn’t understand. The lost child was the sign she had been waiting for.
To be divorced was to have been married, she reasoned, as if to excuse her behavior. She never felt that way. When Vic finally returned home, his distant attitude comforted her, easing her guilt. Vic seemed a different man, a stranger. She never told him about the pregnancy. She never spoke of it, perhaps to spare them both. Before his death, Vic was the same way, hiding from her in the open.
Out of breath and rushing back up the basement stairs with a clipboard, Matt said, “Hey, Avery! That basement needs work. For sure.” His upper lip glistened, bright with a dew of beaded sweat.
“Like what?” Avery leaned against a wall where children’s artwork hung in tasteful frames. Downstairs, she caught a glimpse of the painted mantel, decorated for Easter. Much of the houses’ interior was painted pleasant neutrals—coffee, rust, slate, and beige.
“Leading to the porch in back?”
“Did you see it?”
“It’s just a door.”
“There’s something odd about it. A security issue. The inspector agrees.”
“The doggie door? They have two big dogs out back. It’s nothing.”
“That hole—if it is a doggie door—is unusually large, big enough for a person to
“The house will be vacant for months after closing. Don’t take the risk, Avery. Get the sellers to fix this. On their own dime.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“And the more serious repairs, like cracks in the basement floor.”
“The appraiser and home inspector recommend a more specialized inspection. Hire a structural engineer. They recommend some guy named Darby.”
“Darby can look everything over. Tell us what he thinks is going on. He’ll also give a repair estimate, high and low, best and worst case.”
“Those cracks were there when the sellers bought the house. They got a break on the price for repairs and then never fixed the problem. Now, they’re passing the cost of the repairs on to you.”
“Think they’ll see it that way?”
“Something else I don’t like—a thing I’ve never seen before in all my years as a realtor. I’ve been through a lot of houses and never seen a thing like this.”
“The sellers didn’t mention it, so when I saw it, I made a few calls. I’m not sure how to advise you. You’ll have to decide on your own, so to speak, because no one seems to have any real information.”
“There’s a room down there, in the basement. A small room. From the outside, it looks like a closet, but it’s not.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure. When I opened the door, I got a surprise. From top to bottom, side to side, front to back—the entire room is full of dirt.”
“A pile of dirt?”
“What do the sellers say?”
“It was there before they bought the house.”
“What did they do with it all these years?”
“Nothing. They call it the dirt room.”
“The dirt room?”
“Be aware, Avery. When you’re buying this house, you’re also buying the dirt room. No one knows why it’s there, or what’s inside. What might be behind all that dirt? Could be nothing. Could be something.”
“I want to look at it,” she said.
With so many closets and storage areas on each of the house’s three levels, it was easy to miss the dirt room. Matt pointed out the door in the basement, the one that looked like another closet.
In the far left corner of the basement, a raised alcove stood, walled off. Avery opened the door to find the room half-filled with dry, dusty dirt. In the beam of Matt’s flashlight, Avery thought she glimpsed what appeared to be large animal bones, a pig skull, brick, and rocks peeking out from the dirt. The alcove was approximately three feet wide and at least eight feet deep. Someone had apparently built walls around the alcove and installed a standard door with a fancy glass knob to make the dirt room appear as if it belonged inside the house.
Just another closet in a house full of closets? Certain possibilities occurred to Avery. Could it be a root cellar, a hole for a sump pump dug into the crawl space, a pile of refuse from an old-fashioned kitchen, a trash pile, a grave of an animal that had crawled into the unfinished basement years ago and died there, when people were mostly unaware of biohazards and the need to clean them up?
Maybe it was a treasure buried in the basement. Maybe something useful was buried under there. Whatever it was, it remained hidden in the darkness under the dirt, unseen. Some lazy person probably thought he could just bury it down there, build closet walls around it, close the door, and forget about it.
She approached, almost climbing inside and onto the dirt, to get a closer look. It was dirt. Only dirt. Slowly, she reached out to touch it, running her hands up and down the dry dirt from the floor and to the ceiling, which she could not fully see because much of it was covered by earth.
“Hey, kid,” Vic would say in the days after he returned from Afghanistan. He had a way of smiling whenever she caught him in a foul mood. He pretended everything was a joke, even when it was serious. His sleepwalking, his days and nights in the basement, screams in his sleep, the sudden and inexplicable anger, jumpy reactions, raw skittish nerves, that savage hair-trigger reaction whenever she moved too suddenly, nearing, reaching for him in the dark just as he almost punched her face.
“Don’t do that,” he said, whenever she turned on the lights in the house at night. She did it anyway. She had to assess the damage.
Poker-faced, leather skinned, and slightly scarred beneath pinched blue eyes, he had developed a feline way of moving in the dark, when he retreated. It scared her, the way he could sneak up without a sound. Deaf in one ear from shooting firearms, he was a bad listener and had no talent for conversation. He made up for his shortcomings by studying her physical reactions, becoming excellent in bed, eventually skillful enough to teach her things about her own body. In spite of the way she responded to him sexually, he was never truly intimate with her. Something about him was unknowable, even before he went to war.
She stared at him when he stripped down, as if her staring might reveal who he really was. Pug-nosed with a hard expression that didn’t fade even when he smiled, he was top heavy, barrel chested, well endowed, yet curiously spindle-legged when naked. He had scarred hands, fingers like claws fit for digging, tunneling, and crawling. He could push and pull his lean-muscled body, burrowing like an animal into tight spaces and into her, going deeper than she thought possible, so deep it frightened her. Her body became another passage for him to explore.
She heard rumors that during the war he became a tunnel rat and went underground, using breathing devices where oxygen was scarce. Vic would never speak of what happened. He didn’t have to. Upon his return to civilian life, his interest in the dirt revealed all she needed to know. He demanded they buy a house with a dirt-floor basement. He wanted to know what was underground and began to dig tunnels under their house in North Carolina. He pulled up rocks, animal bones, fossilized wood, and blindly wriggling worms. He seemed more comfortable beneath the house than inside of it. His skin and clothes were often covered with dirt. She could only see his eyes in the dark, where he lurked.
Sometimes he played digging games with her, something he called “bury my bones.” He would dig a hole in the basement, take off his clothes, give her a shovel, climb inside the hole, and then order her to bury his naked body, leaving only a small breathing hole for his mouth and nose to peak through the dirt. After exactly five minutes, she was allowed to unbury him and then they would cruelly make love, viciously mounting each other in the pile of earth. She wanted to hurt him sometimes. Other times, she wanted him to hurt her. But what did he really want? And why? He asked to bury her, too, sometimes, but she was too afraid to let him. He wanted to stay buried longer, five minutes, six minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes…
When she arrived at the Stillwater house again for the second home inspection, Avery was surprised to discover that the structural engineer, Darby Ratliff, was living in the neighborhood, a few houses away from the judge’s house. When she met him at the judge’s house, he was waiting under the carport with the key.
Balding in subtle ways, Darby still had most of his hair. The silver mane kept slipping out of his ponytail. A tall bull-necked guy with a giant face and huge hands, he flushed easily. He liked to go barefoot, exposing his filthy toenails. In fact, he removed his boots and socks as soon as he entered the house. He scratched his hirsute arms and grew knock-kneed whenever she looked into his eyes. At first, he seemed to search for ways to avoid looking into her eyes. He was left-handed, she noticed, as he began to fill out his reports. His upper lip slightly curled whenever she spoke, as if he thought something secretly funny but was afraid to laugh aloud.
Once again, the sellers weren’t home. Inside the house, more belongings had been packed into moving boxes. Darby spent hardly any time on the upstairs or the main floor. He photographed and measured the exterior walls and then headed for the basement. “Even with everything else going on, this place is strong enough to hold up to all the earthquakes we’ve been having here lately,” he said.
“Earthquakes in Oklahoma,” Avery said, “how bizarre.” She had been warned that because of fracking, earthquakes happen in Oklahoma on a regular basis now. On top of tornadoes and occasional ice storms, Oklahomans have to worry about baby earthquakes. The baby earthquakes started as rather gentle, even feeble, but were growing robust.
“Homeowner’s insurance is high enough.”
“Sticker shock. Big time.”
“Get used to it.” Darby gazed down at the cracks on the basement floor. Those cracks were the reason Darby had been hired. In his official inspection report, he claimed that the condition of the house was normal and that the settlement cracks were due to age.
Unofficially, he said, “You can’t go wrong with the judge’s house.”
Then, she thought he winked at her. He winked? Surely, it was just a twitch of the eye, a figment of Avery’s imagination. If he did wink, what did it mean? Teasing or flirting? There was no difference, really.
“This neighborhood is nice and quiet. My house is just a few doors down,” Darby said. “We’ll be neighbors.” He went on to inform her that his house had belonged to his parents, who had been friends with the judge, and that recently he had gotten calls about his house from people in Texas, even though his house was not officially for sale.
“Called and offered cash,” he said. “Like you.”
“I didn’t offer cash!” Avery said, laughing. “What on earth makes you think I have that kind of money?”
“The insurance settlement?”
“Life insurance, since you lost your husband and all.”
“Vic was declared legally dead just a few months ago. He had been gone for years. The insurance company is fighting my claim. It’s not easy to prove death when someone goes missing. Everyone wants a body.”
“Right. But it sounds like you’ll get your money.”
Vic was down underground somewhere, where he buried himself in the earth. Buried himself alive. She knew.
He asked to bury her, too, sometimes, but she was too afraid to let him.
Needing fresh air, she rushed out the kitchen doorway. Much to her dismay, Darby followed her outside.
“I’ve upset you. Sorry,” Darby said.
“I’m used to it,” she said.
They were standing on the balcony deck. A recent addition to the judge’s house, the balcony overlooked the trees along the creek behind the backyard, filling the land with the sound of rushing water.
Avery listened to the creek speaking. To her sensitive ears, the water became a gentle voice calming her, a friend offering secrets in an inhuman voice no woman could understand.
“It’s wetter here because of the lake,” Darby said.
He explained the history of Boomer Lake. She tried to keep up, even though she only wanted to walk its trails. Darby was full of details, thanks to his iPhone. He read information straight from a website in a robotic voice. “With a surface area of 251 acres, Boomer Lake is an artificial reservoir completed in 1925.” He continued reading, “Cooling the local power plant and providing entertainment and recreation, the lake underwent severe drying in 2011, the shoreline receding 40 feet in some areas.”
“Very informative,” Avery whispered.
Darby, breaking off from the mechanical voice, returned to his regular baritone. “You might not want to live close to the lake if I tell you what’s happened to the fish.”
Stroking the wood railing of the balcony, she said, “I don’t fish.” She recalled what Matt had told her about the balcony. It was new, made of treated wood, and had been built by the house’s present owners as an anniversary gift from husband to wife. From what she had glimpsed of the family photographs inside the house, they had three young children—a girl and two boys, one a toddler. The husband worked as a psychologist for the university. They had lived in the house for ten years.
“The Oklahoma State Department of Environmental Quality issued a fish advisory for elevated mercury levels in the lake’s population of largemouth bass,” Darby said, looking up from his iPhone.
“Mercury?” Avery asked. She wondered if the increased mercury levels in the fish could be related to fracking. She wanted to mention what she had read about the dangers of byproducts in hydraulic drilling, but she thought better of it. She was concerned about being perceived as too political, so she just said, “Really?”
The creek behind the judge’s house was connected to the lake by a series of drainage pipes that ran underground. “Sometimes water flows into the basement corner on the carport side,” Darby said, looking out into the direction of the trees on the edge of the creek. “But that’s not from the creek or the lake. It’s just the rain when it blows. Hasn’t rained in weeks, so it’s hard to tell how much.”
“Is that serious?”
“A simple fix.”
“Re-grade the yard so storm water flows away from the house’s walls.”
“How much will that cost?”
“Just a couple truckloads of dirt.”
“Could I use the dirt from that room?”
“The dirt room.”
“Oh, yeah. Maybe. If you have lots of time and help and like to dig.”
“I have time. I could learn to like digging. It might be relaxing.”
“I’ll help you dig, if you want.”
Clutching the balcony rails while gazing out at the distant trees, she planned to take the dirt out of the dirt room and use it to re-grade the yard, to fix the drainage problems by altering the slope of the lawn.
The sky darkened, turning a deeper blue with orange sunlit clouds. She imagined living in the house, and fixing all its structural problems fully, over time, preserving the history, ensuring the judge’s house would stand another fifty years. She didn’t know what she would find beneath the dirt in the dirt room. At that moment, her biggest fear was disappointment, the nagging suspicion that beneath the dirt was nothing, only an empty room.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 15, August 15, 2014.