"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Monday, March 28, 2011

THE CELLAR DWELLER (Or, "Where Is Granny Clampett When You Need Her?")

Last weekend I spent an inordinate time cleaning my cellar.  Why, you ask?  Well, I do like my cellar; at times, in fact, I hang around down there longer than I need to just to kind of look around and feel...grounded, I guess?  Now, we are not talking "basement" here.  Basements have smooth floors, even ceilings without bare beams showing and possibly a pool table and sectional couch.  Not in my house; here, it's a cellar.  There are far more likely to be spiders and mold in a cellar.  (Although not in my cellar.)

The floor in mine is cement and was once painted grayish-blue on top of deep red.  Neither of those colors are holding.  The floor looks like someone threw acid on it, actually; it reminds me of a cat with mange.  A blue chip or a red chip?  Here we don't discriminate.  Take your choice.

In the "warm" cellar (which we also call the "old" cellar) the low ceilings are old wood planks and the occasional cross beam.  The beams have tiny holes in them which make me a little nervous...but so far I haven't seen evidence of crawling things.  I think maybe when they were part of a tree they were pecked at by woodpeckers.  Maybe.  Anyway they are very handy to pound long nails into and hang up stuff, such as seasonal wreaths, part of a hanging lamp I hope to fix some day, a metal egg basket full of empty glass bottles, old shower caddies, a bag of clothespins, the wiring for my cable TV, satellite TV and a couple of phones, seven drawstring garbage bags full of sofa pillows (yes, a weakness of mine), and a life jacket.   There are times when the plumber or furnace man comes and I get a little self-conscious, but I am sure they've seen worse. 

The oil tank, furnace, hot water tank, washer and dryer are in this part of the cellar.  When we were kids (yes, this is the house I grew up in)  I was scared to death of that furnace.  It seemed that every time I headed down the rickety old stairs (since replaced) where we played Slinky the heat would come on and it was like that scene in "Home Alone."  

Not to mention the fact that my brother used to lurk behind me and chant "Laurie Blair, has no hair, throw her down the cellar stair."  I was always afraid that one day he'd do it.  Now I know far more about furnaces than I ever wanted to, as a few years ago on Easter weekend I opened the door at the top of the stairs, was met by an oven-like blast of heat and ran down to find the damn thing on fire and soot popping out of it everywhere.  (The furnace guy kept telling me it needed replacing, but by the same token he cleaned it every year with zen-like purpose, saluting it good-bye and saying "Hold on for another winter, will you old girl?")

There's also a deep sink in that cellar.  I would miss that sink if I moved.  It's awesome having a sink down there.  I can clean the litter boxes in it, fill a watering can, and run a hose up into it from the sump pump on those occasions when the cellar floods.  Which it has. Sometimes badly.

The "cold" (or "new") cellar is slightly more basement-like.  My father and my grandfather dug it out by pick and shovel when my father built the addition onto our house here, a short while before I was born.  Someone built a grand workbench just under the front window, with shelves and peg board above and cabinets and drawers below.  Probably my uncle, who was a master pattern maker.  (My aunt and uncle lived here too, in the other part of the house.)  

There used to be an overhead door until my aunt was putting it down one day and she got her finger caught, and badly broken.  My uncle said the hell with that and they converted to a regular door.  This would not have been possible when my father kept his Fiat in there.  The car was so small he used to turn it over to work on the engine.  I wish I'd seen that.  He also kept chickens in the older cellar for awhile.  Not one of his better ideas.
 So there's plenty of room in my cellar, and that's good because my two cats have to live down there at night.  Hey, not MY doing.  Until now I have only had cats that were more than pleased to curl up on the foot of the bed and sleep most of the night.  Now I have two ill-mannered feline children who can't stand my being asleep and the lights off.  This is an immediate signal to them they need to get on the nightstand and start knocking things off with their paws: a bottle of ibuprofen, a box of Kleenex, my watch, my hand lotion, my phone...in-between this they take turns jumping on my chest or back with all their might and then immediately jumping off.  If one doesn't do it the other will, you can be sure.  

This resulted initially in my being so groggy during the day that it was tough to function.  I hated doing it, but I had to banish them downstairs.  They usually don't mind, especially as there's a dirt crawlspace in the old part where they can hang out and catch a surprising number of moles, but one or the other does give me a run for my money now and then.  Around 10 P.M. they actually get antsy and stare at me if I haven't let them go to their "room."
During the winter it is cold in the cellar, to be sure.  But I've made cozy little cubbyholes, wooden boxes with old woolen sweaters, baskets and cushions, and styrofoam covers for the windows.  I don't worry much, though this past winter was unusually cold and I actually rigged up my dome tent down there for them to crawl into (with a cement floor it was not easy).  We had a huge snowstorm right after the holidays and then it got really frigid; you couldn't even open the cellar door for the frozen snow piles right outside.  But they have their warm comfy places, their kibble and a bowl of water, and a litter box.  

It was the litter box that I first thought of when I began to Smell Something Really Bad.  We are talking gag-worthy.  We are talking make-your-eyes-burn, take-your-breath-away bad.

It was a little like manure with a strong gamey element and a hint of musk.  I tried telling myself it was the cat litter.   Wrong brand, it was interacting badly with their pee.  Or poop.  I religiously scrubbed their litter box and dumped baking soda in by the boxful.  

Once the back yard melted and I could open the door and let in some air, I told myself, it would dissipate.  Meanwhile it just got worse.  I sniffed around; maybe they'd caught something bigger than a mole and it was rotting away?  The source completely evaded my diligent investigations.  Just going down to do laundry I felt I needed a painter's mask.  Then one night after I'd already gotten Molly in and had finally nabbed Buddy, who had at the last minute decided to raise hell, I walked through the doorway with Buddy in my arms and jumped a mile.  Molly was calmly sitting up on the work bench and a large possum was happily downing dry cat food from their dish.
If you want to be perfectly correct it was an opossum.  But who says opossum?  I say possum's good enough.  I also say that yelping in shock when seeing a wild animal, however placid, in a room that has been closed up for three months is a natural and expected reaction.  It saw me, too, and ran like hell squeezing itself behind a long table under which I stored the cat carriers, some tarpaulins and a few coolers.  Once my heart calmed down I decided that apparently it would do the cats no harm, since it had been cohabiting with them without my knowledge for some time now and they were none the worse for wear, and I needed sleep.

The first thing I did the following morning was take up the cat chow (I had THOUGHT they were going through an awful lot of it...I mean jeez, it appeared that they stayed up and ate all night long).  By now I could just about get that back door open and believe me, I forced it.  Looking up possums on the internet I found that they are fairly interesting animals.  They'll hiss and show their teeth when threatened, though they are notably non-aggressive and indeed do "play possum" (make themselves look dead) if you go after them.  They are highly resistant to rabies, coexist peacefully with cats and are particularly fond of cat food.  And yes, they do stink.  Not as bad as a skunk, but it's pungent and fairly unpleasant.  I wondered where he (or she) had been pooping and peeing and figured I would eventually find out, for sure.

After a few days of leaving the door open and no more cat food I figured it was safe to start dragging stuff out from under and behind the table in preparation for cleaning up the area.  I had just pulled out the second tarp when I heard a scrambling sound.  Sure enough, possum was still with us.  The Town Clerk gave me the number for the Wildlife division of the D.E.P. who very politely told me there were nuisance animal removal experts but they worked privately and all charged a fee.  The hell.  I telephoned my brother to come and help me, figuring I would definitely need more than two hands to deal with this little crisis.  He came right over.

Possum ran all over the place and proved he could squeeze into very tight places including behind the drawers of the workbench.  Every time we thought we had him he managed to hide again.  My brother was wielding a broom yelling "Oh Tee Out!!  Oh Tee Out!" which is what he and his wife say to their cats (somewhere along the way the "U" in that sentence vaporized).  Neither of us wanted to hurt the possum so we were being very careful when we poked at him.  

Finally we got him up by the door but he ran right past it and tried to get back behind the table again.  "That's it," I said, "I'm getting the big work gloves and I'm just gonna grab him." "Well...I don't know," my brother said, "if that is the best idea."  At this point it seemed like the ONLY idea, however.   We managed to block off possum somewhat with some pieces of plywood and I dove for him.  He was solid, with no loose skin on his back; at this point there is no excuse for my not giving my brother my digital camera to start filming a video, because this was the photo op of the century: with the big gloves on I reached down (yep, he was hissing and showing his teeth), grabbed hold of his tail and started running across the lawn.  "Be careful," my bro was saying.  "You are brave.  You are so brave."
I plunked possum down by the stone wall at which time he blinked in what looked like shock and awe -- possibly he didn't know that it was spring now.  (I think he did know, he just had it so damn good where he was he didn't care.)  He started scrambling uphill and we figured he'd find his real home and other possums, probably.  I went back in the cellar and said "Bob, we have to find out where he's been doing his business."  

My brother's face took on a very cautious expression.  It appeared that he thought his work was done and he was ready to get the hell out of there.   Well.  You know those covered litter boxes for cats?  They have a bottom for the litter and a top you fit down like a pot lid, and there is an opening for the cat to crawl in.  Of course my cats didn't like this kind, so I had taken the lid off and just put it down on the floor.  Well, I picked it up.  Believe it or not (and I will never forget this sight) there was a pile of possum poop at least 10 inches high.

My brother was starting to feel faint so I thanked him and told him to go on home.  I grabbed a snow shovel.  If anyone had ever suggested that I would be shoveling up possum poop from my cellar floor using a snow shovel I would have said...well, knowing how my life twists and turns, I probably would have said nothing and just nodded, resigned to it.  I tossed the possum manure over the stone wall into the meadow.  It took more than a few trips.  And -- "ew" factor alert -- some of it was so dried out it had turned white and petrified.  Apparently possum had been in the cellar for at least three months.  And why not?  He had plenty of food and water and a cozy, private place to sleep behind the pile of tarps, and it was relatively warm in there, and he even had company.

So out comes the shop vac and pail of half bleach, half water.  As I cleaned the floor I looked up and realized the walls and shelves could use a little spruce-up too.  A coffee can with three nails in it did not have to take up space.  All the quarts of oil could be stored together.  And there was the glue I'd been looking for all winter.  (Somewhere along the cleaning route I lost not one, but two hammers -- one a claw and one a ball peen.  This sort of thing is not unusual here.)
So the cellar got cleaned, and the possum scent slowly died away.  But the next day it rained very heavy and I found myself wondering about possum.  If he had found a little shelter in an old log or somewhere.  Because he had been dry all winter and wasn't used to the elements.  Then it got pretty cold again.  I began to think that if I had just cleaned up possum's poop and put a bottom on that litter box cover he could have stayed.  I think he was one smart possum.  I kind of liked him in the short time I'd known him.  He was wicked homely, but you can't judge a book by its cover.  And when you think about it, especially compared to the cats, his behavior was exemplary.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh that is terrifying. I am fairly certain I would have peed my pants, and gladly paid the experts to get the possum out of there. Better in your cellar than in my mailbox ;-)