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…

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SABINE HEINLEIN is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013). She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Margolis Award, an American Literary Review Award and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell and NYFA. Her work can be found in German, American and British publications, among them The Idler, Tablet Magazine, Epiphany, Die Zeit, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, The Iowa Review, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

5 responses to “From Lau’s House to Our House”

  1. dwoz says:

    I had to stop reading. This was too traumatic. trembling, DTs, shakes.

    Like in my old house, pulling up oddly-sawn floorboards in my upstairs hallway to find that the plumbers had left the upstairs bathroom tub…nay, the entire bathroom, completely unsupported by anything resembling an intact structural member. The entire bathroom was only prevented from landing in the downstairs dining room by force of will and pixie dust.

    The only consolation, and biggest surprise, was that it had been that way for at least 50 years.

    I am not sure I’ll be able to read part 2, though I know I will.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    I know the feeling, Sabine, and you’ve rendered it very well.

    You’ll find that it’s good to have a name to hang all that shit onto. I’ve had Mr Hale (everything on the cheap), Mr Reid (astonishingly poor workmanship) and Dr Miller (a combination of the two – cheap shit, badly done). All these guys hid their work quite nicely, leaving me to discover it later. Mr Reid’s masterpiece was the soilpipe from the bathroom (which ran over the kitchen, of course) that had somehow cracked but what the hell! everybody knows how to fix that problem with newspapers and electrical tape.

    But the upside for the new owners of Mr Hale’s, Mr Reid’s, and Dr Miller’s houses is that I swore that no one would ever, ever look at something I’d done or had done and say — that bastard Mitchell! Look what he did! And no one ever has, and every new owner knows how to find me.

    So just make sure you and your husband do the anti-Mr Lau number on your house. Karma.

  3. Jude says:

    On the verge of buying a house, I found this very, very, very scary to read. Oh dear I hope we don’t have a Mr. Lau to contend with. Please give us hope in Part 2….

  4. Matt says:

    Ugh. What a nightmare.

    I think I rented a house from a guy in New Orleans who was like a Cajun version of Mr. Lau. Everything done on the cheap with sub-standard materials. And even worse, it had been his childhood home, too.

  5. Amber says:

    I also purchased an older home and was surprised multiple times. The lady from whom I bought this house built it in 1938 with her husband, who is now deceased. When I first moved in and started changing things (ripping out carpet to expose the hard wood floors, changing the bathrooms, etc.), lights would go off and on by themselves. The fuses would stop working if I was alone. Doors would open of their own will. I figured out that the man who built the house was unhappy about all of the changes and was making his opinions known. We had a few good talks (which made me look like a crazy person) and he is now happy.

    Oh, and the house itself has some absolutely insane little structural quirks, much like those you describe.

    To sum up, at least your house isn’t haunted. You’ve still got that.

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