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…

Filling In

By Kristen Elde

Memoir

April 2007

“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.

As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”

Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”

Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.

Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.

He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.

I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.

In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.

We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…

I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.

We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.

I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.

It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.

We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.

The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.

Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.

Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.