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Life's Rich Pageant

A True Homeowner Horror Story

An old trunk that Chris Thompson inherited upon the death of his mother-in-law.
Photo: Chris Thompson/Defector

My wife and I live in a small and not particularly well-made old country house. It's got zero right angles, nothing is level, none of the plumbing or duct work makes much sense. What it has is a great big yard and all the privacy you could ever want, and we were not and are not now and never will be wealthy enough to have those things plus a well-built house. Buying this house meant being prepared to take on the work of maintaining it and slowly improving it over a long period of time. In the meantime, we would have to live with many of its less charming idiosyncrasies.

We'd known for some time that the kitchen cabinets were falling apart from old water damage. Other projects came first. We completely re-landscaped the nightmare jungle of a front yard, tearing out feet upon feet of strangling, cretaceous-looking invasive vines and putting in neat flower beds, crape myrtles, redbuds, a cherry tree, a little bubbling frog pond. It's lovely now! The ancient shed, made of spare plywood and leftover roof shingles, blew over one harsh winter; we emptied our meager savings and bought a nice new one from an Amish builder. Air moved freely and audibly through the crappy bay window affixed sloppily to the front of the house, and the front door, and all the cheap windows on the second floor; we swallowed hard and financed replacements. We replaced the house's rotting wood siding with sturdy vinyl—not our first choice, but what we could afford. Despite barely understanding what a well pressure tank is or how it works, we ponied up for a brand new one when the old one gave up and died. The house badly needed a water-softener, in order to stop whole sections of its plumbing from regularly clogging with mineral crap; we put in a snazzy new one with a digital readout, which I absolutely do not understand at all.

Not all the work was strictly necessary for keeping the house upright. With our own two hands, over the course of 18 long months, we built a huge covered wraparound porch onto the front of the house, so that now it is very nice and comfortable to sit outside and watch the birds. I dug a fire pit in the backyard, bought a new mower, and placed a jillion bird feeders and bird houses around the property. Now it is better to live here! Before it was peaceful and secluded but gross. Over a period of eight years it became somewhat less gross, especially so long as you stayed out of doors. Even with rotting cabinets and hideous floors and cracked drywall and stained ceilings, our home had become a nice place to live. That some of the cabinets around the sink were saggy on the inside was very depressing, but also that problem could be hidden from view by just, you know, closing the cabinets.

Still, the cabinets were rotting. Poking your head under the kitchen sink gave you an alarming view of old damaged pulp wood sagging away to a dark, deeply stained and very diseased-looking back wall. Various cooking devices would slide away and vanish if we weren't careful to place them just so, in the front half of their designated cabinet. The ghastly laminate countertop had visible rot damage behind the sink, and any errant splash of water would immediately soak into the unprotected pulp and add to the problem. Ignoring this situation for years had not made it any better.

Finally, toward the end of 2019, we had enough money in reserve that we could start to think about doing some interior renovation. We made contact with a contractor friend and worked out a deal whereby he'd manage the show and we'd help out ourselves as much as possible, in order to keep things affordable. We set a start date for May of this year and started shopping for cabinets and countertops and a new sink. We also paid to have a local company install a large propane tank and run a gas line into our kitchen, so that we could replace our little electric range with a nice, powerful dual-fuel job with a broad gas cooktop.

A lot has happened since then. I lost my job at the end of October 2019, then the world went to complete shit, and everything is now chaos. But! In what I am sure was a reflection of our need to just have some good fucking news in our lives, we made the decision in March to follow through on our plan to finally fix the interior of our home. There's no point in justifying this. Time will tell whether it was complete madness. Certainly we are now wiped out financially, which is exactly where you do not want to be when you are starting a new worker-owned online publication, and your second income comes from a spa that still cannot operate at anything like normal capacity, and one of you is pregnant (sorry, I forgot to mention that my wife is pregnant, it's a girl, due in December). But here we are, it's the end of summer, and at least on the main level of our home, we have new cabinets and floors, new countertops, new drywall, and the encouraging new-house smell that comes from new wood and fresh paint. We wound up having to gut the entire level—bad electric work, bad duct work, scary floor joists, extensive hidden water damage, the works—but in the end what I now have is a very clean and new-looking living room, dining room, entryway, and kitchen. I had half a house and no kitchen for almost half of a year, during a pandemic, but now I am once again happier with my home than I was a year ago.

Another reason why my home is nicer than it was a year ago is we took the opportunity to rid ourselves of lots and lots of crumbling hand-me-down furniture we'd been hanging onto for years for largely sentimental reasons. Demolishing the interior of our home meant renting a dumpster, and having a dumpster in the driveway made it seem more possible than ever before to just decide that a piece of disintegrating furniture had reached the end, and to just be rid of it. One dumpster became two dumpsters, and then by the time it was all over we'd filled four dumpsters with old flooring and busted cabinets and mountains of drywall and old wood, but also a lot of old useless crap and all the useless crap that'd been piled atop it. For a few blessed days this meant living in a semi-renovated home, one you could just start to see coming together into something lovely, that had almost no furniture in it. Let me tell you, that is a wonderful feeling when you've been crowded to the point of claustrophobia by musty old hand-me-downs for the better part of a decade.

That period soon came to a sad, screeching halt, just days before 19 bozos announced the formation of this very blogsite. My mother-in-law, who'd been grinding through the end stages of terminal cancer in a condominium in Florida, died on July 25. Dying of terminal illness during a pandemic is just as lonely and awful as it sounds, and deserves its own blog, but since this is a blog about my troubles as a homeowner, what I want you to know is that her death meant that my home would soon be loaded down with another home's worth of hand-me-down furniture that I did not and do not want. My wife's family is this way. A solid 70 percent of everything in her mother's home had been given heirloom status, and I have never had the kind of standing that would entitle me to any serious objections, certainly least of all upon the occasion of this person's death. My house was virtually emptied of furniture, and lo and behold a store of "cherished" heirlooms needed relocating. Terrific.

So I mostly stayed grumpily on the front porch while my wife, her sister, and their cousin spent a few busy days in late September emptying a moving truck and thoughtfully distributing a bunch of extremely unspecial-looking old furniture throughout our home: a gigantic hutch, roughly one third the square-footage of the entire house, stuffed into the living room; dainty-looking but absurdly heavy dressers into the spare bedroom-turned-nursery; a large mahogany jewelry case, carved with Chinese characters, positioned awkwardly in the dining room; and a huge, gnarled, loveseat-sized old wood-and-leather trunk, covered in rivets and lashed with brutal-looking straps, stationed as some sort of side table beside one of our sofas. Whatever, it's fine. None of these things on their own are anything but fine. It's fine.

Then, eight nights ago, on September 30, out of the corner of my eye: a bug, crawling across the living room floor. This is not especially out of the ordinary. It is stinkbug season in my part of the world. It's a bumper year for these dopey little idiots, they are all over the exterior of my house, they fall from inside my umbrella and plunk down onto my keyboard dazedly while I blog my blogs out on the porch. From time to time one or two of them will make it into the house, where I am usually not too bothered to just gently remove them to the outside. They are harmless and stupid and if you are gentle with them they will not juice you. But this was not a stinkbug. This was moving too quickly and too determinedly to be a stinkbug. It was a medium-sized, dark brown cockroach.

Now. I have lived in this house for eight years. When we moved in, it was so infested with little teeny country mice that they would run along the floorboards in the middle of the day, as if they could not care less that I was right there in the room. Getting rid of them was a major ordeal, and involved many horrors that I will not get into right now. Here and there, from time to time, a mouse will turn up inside my home. I am well past the point of being especially bothered by this. We live in the country, we have a huge field, I like to put seed out for the birds, mice are sometimes going to be a thing. We have mostly beaten them back. I think they are all in my nice new shed now. But I have never, never, seen a cockroach in this house. Cockroaches are not a rural thing, as far as I can tell not in Virginia, and certainly not in my home. They are a city thing, an apartment thing, and I hate them with every fiber of my being. I simply will not abide cockroaches.

So I dispatched this evil fucker and spent the rest of that night fidgeting and freaking out and having terrible nightmares. I did not tell my wife about the cockroach, because I thought perhaps by ignoring the problem it would simply go away. Then, two days later, my wife spotted another cockroach inside our screened porch, roughly eight feet from where I'd spotted the first guy. And unlike the first guy, this one escaped punishment and vanished, as cockroaches are known to do. In a panic, I called a maid service to come to my home and do a deep-cleaning of every inch, so that there could not possibly be any sustenance for these stray cockroaches, and so that their home could be discovered and destroyed. No more roaches were seen during the cleaning the following day.

Then, Tuesday night. A small cockroach marched across my fucking living room floor and parked himself next to my slippers, again in the same area of my home where the other two had been spotted. This fellow could not escape his fate, but three cockroaches, out in the open, in seven days, is alarming. My clean and renewed and frankly quite lovely little country home suddenly has cockroaches, despite having been gutted to the bone for an entire summer and despite having had almost zero food stored anywhere inside of it for whole damn months. We have scheduled an exterminator. At this point it would be fine if this exterminator's course of action involved burning the entire house down. To be rid of the cockroaches, I would be willing to live in a tree.

Still, questions remained: Where are the cockroaches coming from? How did they get into my house? The answer to these questions was discovered Wednesday morning, when my wife went looking for a blanket to throw over her shoulders as she moved about the home on a brisk autumn day. Not sure where our blankets might've ended up during the shuffling of furniture, she popped open the ancient, gnarled, Smart car–sized and cavernous wood-and-leather trunk stationed next to my favorite sofa and discovered, to her screeching horror, that the interior of it is crawling with cockroaches, skittering and surging up out of its inky depths. A swirling vortex of cockroaches. A cockroach galaxy. The blankets are in there as well, but they will never again be touched by human skin. We have located the vector. From my dead mother-in-law's Florida condo we inherited a moldered, accursed old heirloom, hiding within its dank interior a full-blown cockroach infestation. Hereditary is for children.

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