Part I

Like new lovers, my husband and I were blind to flaws. And even if we had seen them, we wouldn’t have cared. Sunnyside, Queens, had us smitten. Rows of dollhouses rested in the shade of old English Plane trees. White wooden porches, hidden courtyards and raccoons. I almost expected an army of garden gnomes to slide down the slated roof, singing. I would interrupt their silly chatter and usher them to the heirloom rosebush, where my husband would be waiting amidst bunnies and blue birds to have his picture taken.

What lay beneath the colorful bricks and the pitched slate roof? Where was the skeleton, where the closet?

When we arrived for the showing, the owner, an Asian man the height of a 10-year-old was nipping at the hedge in the front yard with nail scissors. This made him appear neat, honest and trustworthy. Mr. Lau waved us into the house. He wore a broad smile, but didn’t speak any English. He didn’t understand our questions: Why was he selling the house? When did he buy it? What are those earth mounds in the backyard? Mr. Lau would grunt, smile and point to his wife, Mrs. Lau.

Mrs. Lau, small and round, sat in the kitchen in front of several bottles of pills and a ticking wall clock wrapped in plastic and grease. She explained in broken English that they were old and helpless, and that after living in the house for 30 years they were moving in with their daughter in Orange County, California. She pointed at the mysterious earth mounds in the backyard and said, “Potatoes!”

Even though I was about to blow my entire inheritance, the day of the closing I bought the Laus chocolate truffles to ease their pain. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Lau, we thought. It must be hard to leave behind a home like that.

Our inner weeping stopped abruptly when we began to discover what Mr. Lau had done to our house. For the next few months, he managed to surprise us daily.

Mr. Lau’s main skill lay in his versatile use of plaster, silicon, tar and other building materials designed for purposes he willfully ignored. As if his caulk pistol had a loose trigger, he smothered whole rows of tiles with thick layers of goo. When we tried to remove the caulk, the tiles came right off with it.

So what if all the tiles were to fall off? Who cares! I was in love. If the house had collapsed on top of us, I would have chimed, “Honey, let me get the broom!”

The dollhouse windows were covered with years of grime. They just need a good wash, I thought. But after hours of scrubbing and buffing, I saw that the glass was fogged between the panes.

One night we tried to turn on the heat. Mysteriously, the boiler, which had worked the day of the inspection, seemed to be broken. After hours and hours of trying to find out the gist of the problem, the plumber informed us that the electricity line, hidden behind the yellowing ceiling tiles, had been “snipped.”

Mr. Lau was “a joker,” “a jogger” and “a passionate gambler,” the neighbors told us. And apparently, he spoke English passably well.

Behind the hedges in the bushes we found innumerable old broomsticks. It turned out that Mr. Lau had used them to build modernist supports for fast-growing plants. My archeological findings revealed another facet of Mr. Lau’s extraordinary creativity: he bundled the sticks together with rubber bands, wire, string, telephone cables, and, in a personal twist, Mrs. Lau’s old tights.

Mr. Lau’s gifts could have made him a fortune on Etsy, but instead he devoted his talents to his house.


One day, anguished black clouds appeared. The first hurricane hit the northeast since 1903, and New York’s streets turned into rivers. Heavy winds and rainwater whipped our dollhouse. When just before dark two old friends arrived for a visit, I took them up to the wood paneled attic. We joked that its crawlspaces that lead nowhere were home to Mr. Lau’s grandmother. If I stuffed my ears with Mrs. Lau’s old tights, I could almost hear Grandma Lau boss the gnomes around.

It turned out instead that the attic was haunted by Mr. Lau himself. As my friends and I stood marveling at the dark wood paneling, the rain hammered onto the slate roof. The dim light bulb flickered. Through the foggy windows pointing out to the yard I could see how the spaces between the “potato” earth mounds filled with water and how the water crept closer and closer to the house.

“What are those mounds in the backyard?” My friend asked.

“There is a long waiting list for those burial plots,” my husband joked. I turned around and noticed a thin, continuous strand of dark water running down the wooden walls behind him. A metallic taste filled my mouth—the first sign of an oncoming panic attack. I must have visibly blanched because my friend immediately tried to calm me. “I’m sure it’s just a small hole in the roof,” she said. “Probably right by the chimney. They would have noticed if the hole was big.”

“The chimney,” I said, my voice shaking, “is on the other side.”

My friends tried to distract me. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to show us?” they asked. I had told them that Mr. Lau had decorated the basement in the style of a 1970s porno. He had paneled the space in light brown wood, hiding pipes and electric wiring behind yellowing ceiling panels. One room was divided off from the rest and featured an inexplicable, rectangular peephole.

I led my visitors to the basement bathroom that Mr. Lau had designed. The colors! A beige toilet confronted a pink shower curtain. The amorphous, bile green and fecal brown floor tiles battled the square, baby blue wall tiles. This was nausea. This was art. Or something. It suddenly struck me that it didn’t look so much like the set for a porno as much as a snuff film. Were these shocks planned? Was Mr. Lau watching us from the comfort of his new living room in Orange County?

Taped to a wall in the basement was a thick, 10-feet long bamboo rod whose purpose we couldn’t guess. Had Mr. Lau used the rod as a push pole during floods? But where was the boat? Had he used one of the several doors stacked against the wall as a raft? Then I noticed the puddles on the ground. Water!

“It might not be much,” my optimistic friends tried. “You might just need someone to snake your drains.”

The four of us tried to determine where the isolated puddles came from. Maybe a pipe was leaking? I took off a ceiling panel. A mousetrap garnished with a desiccated rodent fell on my head. Behind the doors that Mr. Lau had left us, I discovered a sewer drain with a missing screw cap. The old towel decorated with Disney characters that Mr. Lau had stuffed into the hole in lieu of the cap was saturated and had begun to release a slow but steady stream of water. Due to physics, gravity or something equally unfathomable to me, the water had accumulated where the foundation lay deepest without leaving any trace of its path.

The waters were rising, and we needed help.

To be continued…

Basements, by nature, are dark and scary.

Searching for the light upon entering one can instantly become the most important thing in the world, your fingers nervous not to touch anything at all but the tiny plastic rectangular protuberance sticking out of the wall or the thin chain that hangs blindly a few steps in.

We hold our breaths no matter how many times we’ve descended the stairs that week to retrieve holiday decorations or to do our laundry; we are in the safety of our own locked homes, yet somehow there is always the possibility there’s a knife-wielding intruder or a hungry coyote taking a short breather under the stairs.

Or there’s the possibility that a face-sized spider has descended to face level, swaying gently in front of the chain you seek.

We wish someone would go into the basement for us every time.


There was a daylight basement on my family’s farm, meaning that the building the basement rested under was constructed into the side of a hill.

There were no windows in the basement.

Just a huge metal door facing a small sliver of woods.

This particular building was built in 1924 – one of the very first structures on the 1,200-acre farm – and the basement served as the farm’s first walk-in cooler, used for storing Boose apples until 1975.

After that, after the farm had expanded greatly and several drive-in electric coolers were built up over the hill, the basement was used for packing peaches and tomatoes into crates by my teenage aunts and uncles, readying shipments that were to head off to Cleveland.

And then after that, it was abandoned of manual labor and retired to being a dark, damp, fucking scary storage space for thousands of cardboard boxes my dad used intermittently at his next-door farm market.


My father often asked my brothers and me to retrieve boxes from “The Basement.”

His customers used the sturdy tops and bottoms to carry their groceries to their car, to their kitchen counters.

And every time we were asked to get boxes, I’d ask to stay back and sweep the backroom instead.

Or wrap lettuce heads.

Or take some scrap cardboard to the burn pile.

Or go see what needed refilling on the vegetable rack out front.

Because like any 10-year-old emotional boy who had two older brothers, I was freaked the fuck out by spiders.

And whenever I went to the basement to get my dad those boxes, I saw several real and imaginary spiders.

On the cement walls.

Skittering across the cement floor.

Chilling in the cement-meets-cement corners.

Some tiny.

Some average.

Some big enough to make you do a cursing, neck-slapping pogo dance that would go instantly viral on YouTube, possibly landing my father and me on a couple of overstuffed chairs on the Today Show.


In order to open up the basement door – which alone was the height of a school bus – I’d often hook the toe of my one sneaker under the handle and then bounce backward on the heel of the other.

A black and worn rubber flap was stapled above the door’s handle, hiding it or protecting it for a reason I never knew, making it hard for me to get my foot in there.

Now, if my father joined us on one of these box-retrieving missions, he’d haphazardly grab the handle and storm inside without concern, just trying to get back to the market because there were lettuce heads to trim, orders for restaurants to put together.

I’d follow behind him with my forearms over my head, grabbing the boxes nearest to the door.

“Just get in here and stop being such a wuss, for crying out loud,” he’d say.

“There’s spiders,” I’d respond, chucking a stack of banana boxes into the back of the running pickup.

(A tip when grabbing a stack of boxes that you honestly believe are the homes of dozens of arachnids, mice droppings and the devil herself: Cup your arms around the bottom box instead of sticking your fingers into its cutout handles. Disembodied fingers were instant bait for spiders in my mind, like hotdog bits for catfish.)

“For crying out loud,” my father would say. “Who cares? They’re not gonna get ya.”


Inside the farm’s basement, the floor measured 40′ x 60′.

I didn’t have to search for the light when I entered because I knew the switch was exactly four feet high on the interior left door frame.

Every time I entered I held my breath, ducked, and believed I would catch some terrible basement disease that would start with convulsions and end with a bout of uncontrollable self-mutilation through the wrong end of a rake.

Every time I exited I held my boxes high in front of me as a shield, and after chucking them into the bed of the pickup, I’d compulsively wipe my hands on my shorts.

Over 15 years, I was never once bitten by a spider.