(This is Part Six of a series. Part Five is here.)
At some point in the last three decades, my sister and I became fixated on the geography of Dad’s basement. We know where it starts, at least in a material sort of way, but we’re not entirely sure of where it ends
“Across the street? A couple of miles away? Canada?”
It’s a joke, of course, but one rooted in the peculiar reality of the house on Sherwood, a house that makes exactly zero sense to anyone, save perhaps its primary inhabitant, my father.
“I don’t think the basement is actually bigger than the house,” I said, to my sister, though the last few times I’d been over there, I found reasons to go down to the basement and double-check. And though I was probably right, if any house could break free of its own architecture and defy physics it’s Dad’s. “But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe it’s not where it ends, but if it ends at all.”
“Spooky,” said my sister. “Reasonable, though.”
When Dad announced he’d bought the house on Sherwood, we were all kind of surprised. He’d been antsy to get out of Fenner since the Great Beignet Fire of 1991, but we were dubious about what he’d do with an actual house. Dad was not famously handy or particularly geared toward housework. He’d come from a long line of people so inclined to outsource domestic labor, his familial punchline to the old lightbulb joke was something like, “Fix a martini and call an electrician.”
Sherwood was a definite fixer-upper. Best case scenario: it was an adorable Arts and Crafts cottage on a significant forested lot just up from the hospital, in a whimsical semi-gentrified neighborhood named after a Sir Walter Scott novel. Most of Dad’s neighbors had (and would) renovated their own adorable arts and crafts cottages into the sort of homes featured in décor and garden magazines. Worst-case scenario held that Sherwood was a shingled money pit with a kitchen and bathroom last updated during the Blacklist, a floorplan devised by a closet-loving paranoid Dadaist, and a basement that somehow broke the space-time continuum, all situated on way too many acres of kudzu-clogged wilderness.
Our first weekend there, I wandered, amazed, through the house, as Dad explained some its wilder features. The glassed-in study, like an aerie over the side yard, was very cool. The old-style wheeled fire door that opened onto the basement stairs was a real head-scratcher. “Theoretically if you just punch through your bedroom wall it will open,” said Dad, “so you could escape a fire. Cool right?”
I tried to imagine hitting the wall with enough force that I could burst through the plaster, activate seventy-five-year-old wheels, and have the agility to not also fling myself down the basement stairs. I couldn’t. I could, however, imagine turning the plywood cell with book shelves at the bottom of said stairs into a kind of secret hideout. I asked Dad for paint. He took me to the hardware and I indulged every pastel fantasy I’d ever had. After hours of Carolina blue-drenched work, I’d painted a sky and fluffy clouds on the plywood walls, sponge-painted the utility cabinet lemon yellow and mint green, and striped the wobbly stairs. The end result looked something like a cross between a petit-fours and a room for traumatizing hostages. “I’ll probably hang out down here all the time,” I told my father and sister.
(I never did.)
My sister found her own space, a cubby built into the wall over the stairs, with a ladder/stairwell you could pull down with a kind of vaudevillian hook. She furnished the interior with pillows, blankets and stuffed animals and hung out there whenever we were entirely sure no one would need to get down to or up from the basement. Then, somehow the hook disappeared, and we could no longer open the cubby. Whatever was inside was lost to time. As far as I know, it’s still there, much like the clouds on the walls at the bottom of the stairs and the contents of the drawers in the room where my sister used to sleep on paternal custody weekends. This gives the house a sort of personal history Room of Requirement air. I can always summon up things I forgot I lost and things I never knew I wanted to find. Wondering about that tie-dyed camp t-shirt last seen in 1992? It might be there. How about a newspaper with a write-up about some ancestor from 1789? Sure. A VHS copy of “Raising Arizona” I thought I’d misplaced between colleges in the late 90s? Wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning in 2005.
“This is mine,” I said. “Like, this is literally my copy.”
“Right,” says Dad. “It’s the ultimate regift, buddy. Happy Holidays!”
On the main floor, Sherwood didn’t have a lot of places to hide. I spent a lot of time on the deck, which was high and vast and appeared to be looking out into the middle of nowhere, even though we were in the middle of town. Sometimes I’d tromp off into the woods, blazing a trail through at least seven different varieties of parasitic vines down the ravine, where legend had it there was a path, but I only ever found a colony of golf balls Dad had driven off the deck and never bothered to recover.
I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, trying to will enough hot water from the stingy water heater to run a full tub. In those days, the door the bathroom was tiled with the kind of green that makes you feel like you’ve been committed to a locked ward inside a Clinique compact. The door wouldn’t shut all the way, so I drew the curtain all the way around whenever I bathed, and tolerated interruptions from my sister because there was only one bathroom in the house.
Unlike Dad’s previous two apartments, Sherwood offered few nearby places for us to go, save the emergency room(where one dad’s dogs, Zellie, famously tried check herself in). My sister and I often didn’t know what to do with ourselves when we were over there.
I was almost sixteen when he moved in, and hence old enough to get myself out when necessary. Dad’s benign obliviousness was a real boon to me in high school, because I had absolutely no curfew whatsoever. After coffee on a Saturday night, if The Countess wanted to drive us to South Carolina and watch the sunrise over Charleston harbor, it was unlikely anyone would notice when I wandered back to Sherwood at noon on Sunday, especially if I brought bagels and a New York Times.
I brought the Deck Party over from Mom’s on a couple of occasions, because Dad’s deck truly was epic. Parties took on a different, wilder character because even with parental supervision, there was never exactly parental supervision. Dad could walk into to a room full of empty beer bottles and noisy teenagers in drag and complain only about the fact that we’d been smoking cigarettes in the house. I remember one night everyone had left but The Countess and The Dropout. I’d had a bad day and they were trying to cheer me up. When I seemed totally lost to melancholy, the Dropout announced that he would relieve the tension of the moment by taking off all of his clothes.
It was chilly out, early fall, and I couldn’t figure out how watching one of my classmates get naked was going to make anyone feel comfortable and said so.
He disagreed, proceeded to drop trou, leap up, and pose like a Peter Pan in tidy whities on the deck’s rail. I promptly fled indoors caught in a cringe so overwhelming it threatened paralysis. Dad was in the living room watching a documentary on PBS.
“Everything cool out there, bud?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said and tried to explain how I was going to hide in the bathroom for a while because Dropout was nude and doing ballet on the deck rail. “He’s either going to go full-frontal or fall to his probable death,” I said. “Honestly I’m not sure which one would be more awkward for me.”
Dad nodded and gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds awesome. Have fun!”
There came a time when it stopped making sense for me to stay over Sherwood. The custody arrangement my parents had worked out following divorce almost never followed arranged schedule. Schlepping stuff over there every other weekend was frustrating, especially given that since wrecking my first, I no longer had a car. I told Dad, shortly after my eighteenth birthday that though I was happy to hang out whenever, I wanted to just stay at Mom’s, where I had my own bedroom, my clothes, and my social life. He didn’t take it well, which I think I understand now better than I did then, but at the time he and I were really struggling to get along, for reasons much more complicated than his house. I couldn’t believe how angry he was at me. I’d assumed he hardly noticed I was there unless we were arguing.
The last time I slept at Sherwood Road was the night before my mother got remarried, about two years later. Mom and my sister had moved out of Griffing and were currently in a hotel suite with Nana. Punk Roommate and I stayed at Dad’s . He wasn’t home—he’d understandably, left town for a few days– and I remember it being very weird for me to be in the house. My sister had, in years since, covered part of our bedroom wall with a collage of 90s era teen magazine ads. My bed from Sherwood had come with me to college, but otherwise everything was very much the same. Comforting and perplexing all at once.
I’m a lot like my father. I’m neither handy nor particularly inspired by housework. I’d prefer to have a gin and tonic and call someone to fix things, but my budget only supports so many professionals, so lots of stuff in my house stays broken. I think using a stack of books as a table support is a practical solution. I’ve spent fifteen of my adult years living a place with a barely functional kitchen, a weird basement and a bathroom door that doesn’t really close.
I have fantasies about transformations. I’ll watch any before and after television show if they got an old house. Sometimes I think about doing that to my house. Sometimes I think about doing it to Dad’s house. It could be a showplace.
Recently I took a friend, one who has redone a bunch of homes, over to Sherwood. I lead her through the glass aerie of an office, past all the cubbies, down the still-pastel painted stairs and into the basement.
“This joint is amazing,” she said. “I mean, how far does it actually go?”
“No one knows,” I said. “Maybe across the street. Maybe Canada. Maybe it’s just infinite.”