This Old House – Chapter 2

“So John, what have you got for lunch?”

I knew better than to agree to lunch without asking. Lunch at John’s place could be way more exotic that tuna-on-white-bread, my regular.

He stared off into the air, as if reading it off a memorized menu.

“Lunch today is greens from the Farmers’ Market and cold chicken breast left from last night, cut up together in a salad with havarti cheese, and sunflower and pomegranate seeds.” He manages that much with a straight face.


“I take it you’d prefer a juicy medium rare beef burger on a toasted sesame bun with double bacon, cheese, and a side of French Fried potatoes?”

I brighten. “Yeah! My kind of lunch!”

“I thought you would,” he replies dryly. “But the menu here is already set.”

“In that case…”

“See you in an hour?” he smiles. We do this a lot.

“Half an hour: I want to do some exploring.”

 * * *

It turned out longer than half an hour. The Diner was busy, the waitress chatty, and the other patrons talkative. Oh, The Diner: located on Main Street, middle of the block. Parking is always a problem but the exercise is worth it. Officially it’s “Rick’s Diner”. At least, that’s what the faded sign above the front door says. The original Rick died of a heart attack about ten years ago, but his name remains. The wait staff kept it open until the bank agreed to loan the money to the head waitress to buy it from Rick’s relatives in Chicago. They were happy to be rid of it.

It’s a diner: red vinyl seats, Formica tabletops and food posters on the walls. The seating is mostly booths. The girls keep it very clean and well-lit and there’s counter service if you’re in a hurry. Today I was in a hurry but the counter wasn’t fast: did I mention the waitress was chatty? It was almost an hour before I walked out. But I had two more jobs lined up for the week.

I pulled up in front of John’s house in time to see Tim crossing the street toward the house. My guess was he was coming home from choosing and arranging the Sunday music with the pastor. Tim is a year younger than John, about the same height maybe a little taller. Trim, fit with angular, dark features. He has a nervous intensity that reminds you of a small black bird, all precision and purpose when he moves. Yeah, pretty much the complete opposite of John.

“Hey, Tim. How you today?”

“Oh. Hello, James.” No nicknames with Tim. “I’m doing well. How are you?

“Not bad. Ready for Sunday?”

” Pastor and I just put together an exceptional music program. Maybe you could stop in and listen this Sunday?”

He didn’t sound very hopeful, but I appreciate his invite.

“Going to church” is another one of those things at their house.  Both men know that if I ever go to church it won’t be theirs—too formal. As far as that goes, John seldom goes there with Tim. I tried it a couple of times, for their sake. OK, that and it was a pretty well-heeled crowd, so picking up some jobs was also on my mind. But I found out that work boots and jeans–which I always wear– were frowned upon. Actually they were more of a surprise and a mystery, as in ‘why wear those?’ which I was asked several times. No matter how hard the church ladies tried to notice my new shirt instead, it was obvious.  I shrugged it off: their loss, not mine. I did get some work out of it and lots of invites back. But that’s another story.

“I’ll think about it” I said, my standard answer. “Got some interesting news about the remodel job, though.”

“Oh… Really?” Tim’s idea of caution makes John look downright reckless. For Tim, ‘interesting’ is just a nice word for ‘a very expensive and unpleasant-surprise’. “Is everything ok?”

“No, no! I mean, yes. It’s the house: I found something very interesting in the demo…er, removal process.” Never use the word demolition in front of Tim. He gets scared. Very scared. “Come and see.”

He hesitated, as if following me is going to cause another disaster. Then up the porch steps slowly. “Is this going to be expensive?” he asked.

I laugh. “Not as far as I know. I guess it depends on what you want to do about it.”

“Oh God!”

After greetings and lunch menu announcement, I show Tim the doorway. He reacts pretty much the same way as John. “So,… we need … what?”

“Tim! You have a secret passageway in your pantry! This is great! Makes the house worth way more on the market!”

He glanced at John. “Are we selling?”

I give up. To me, exciting. To them, something to worry about—or just another expense.

“Tell you what” I said. “You guys have lunch and talk it over, what you want to do about this hole in the wall. I can do pretty much anything you want, including just board it up and forget it. My recommend is to preserve it, maybe improve it with a full size door though. It’s a great feature and doesn’t harm the house structure as far as I can see. In the mean time,” I said as I stepped through the doorway, “I’m going exploring!”

“Be careful down there,” John worried. Tim looks between John and I. “John? What’s going on? Does that… down there? Does it go somewhere?”

“John, you explain? And keep an ear out, in case I shout.”

“Here.” John holds out a ball of twine, the kind people used to wrap around boxes to mail. “In case the tunnel branches or is too dark to see in.”

“Tunnel?” Tim’s eyes were now big and he licked his lips, wiped his palms down his pant legs.

“It’s fine, Tim. I’ll fill you in. Let’s eat.” But he took a long look at me, like he was trying to get a picture of me to remember me by.

They did make a pair. God help the woman that ever tried to get between them.

* * *

I squeezed down the passage and stairs. By the time my foot hit the bottom step, I could barely hear the sound of Tim’s voice and I couldn’t make out any of his words. Whoever built this did some great sound insulating–a nice feature with the ‘secret’ so close to a main room. I’d forgotten to look at the house to see what was on the window side, as I came back from lunch. Must be the driveway side, I told myself. There was a window and a door to the porte-cochère in the dining room on that side: John’s driveway ran along that side of the house.  Maybe the window was under the steps? Beyond the driveway was a fairly narrow strip of lawn and a fence between this house and the house next door. Interesting.

I surveyed the room again: it looked the same as before. Three and a half walls of stone, one-half of brick under the stairs. I walked over to the door, cursed myself for forgetting the WD-40. I tried to move the door and the board with the latch on it cracked off. The rest didn’t move. A breeze soft and cool flowed from the tunnel. That was good. I looked as far down the tunnel as I could, which was not very: no light from the other end and I’d left my belt in the back of the truck.

“John! You got a flashlight?” No answer. “John!?” Again, no response. I went to the bottom of the stairs. “Hey John!” I could barely hear the murmur of voices.

In my best bass, I bellowed, “JOHN!” I waited, but no response, and the murmuring continued.  Damn! The soundproofing was amazing. I was pretty sure the two men were sitting right above me on a bare wooden floor on wooden chairs. They should have felt the vibrations from the last shout!

I made my way up the stairs, slid out of the secret door and into a shouting match.

“We don’t have the money to do this, John!” Tim was almost hysterical.

“That is not the primary concern here, though, is it, Tim?”John was his quiet, stubborn self.

Tim was sitting with his back to the pantry doorway, John was facing me as I stepped through, into the dining room.

“ Oh… Yes, Jim?”

I kept my head down.

“Sorry to interrupt. I’ll just get a flashlight from the truck.” When I returned Tim was gone and John was in the kitchen, rattling dishes.  Loud.

“Are you two going to be ok with this project now that it…sort of changed?” As I spoke, I set the twine down. Tim came around the corner into the kitchen and stopped short. He gave John a look that would kill a lesser man.

“Uh… we were discussing that,” John said in his Most Quiet voice, his eyes very pointedly fixed on mine. “At this point, it would be possible to just put things back the way they were, is that right? Did I understand you correctly?”

My stomach sank—good bye money.

“Well, sure… if that was what you want,” I said. “There’s a little bit of work down stairs, half a day, maybe less. Just to shut the…” I saw John stiffen and took the hint “uh, the … hole in the foundation wall down there. Not much of a tunnel that I could see,” I hurriedly add. “It’s not dangerous, structural-wise. Just to keep out unwanted… uh… ‘friends’? ”

Tim relaxed a little, sighed, and excused himself to wash his hands and head out to the Market. He worked part time there in exchange for a huge discount on the organic produce.

John mouthed “Thank you” and I said loud enough for Tim to hear over the running water, “Yeah at this point we can just button it up, do it another time. But with the economy the way it is, materials will be a lot more, no doubt.” I grinned at John, who gave me a thumbs up. “And the tin to match the ceiling… I found it yesterday at the reclaim yard. Not sure if it will be available again.” John beamed at me. “But, hey whatever you guys want. You pay the bills around here.”

Tim came back into the kitchen. “Actually I pay the bills around here, Jim, and I am concerned that this new…” he pauses, looking for a nice word “…this new development. That it … well, maybe we should just kind of stop and revisit this later.”

“I think you’re right, Tim. And the tin ceiling is not all that important anyway,” John chimed in.

“Yes it is! Why are you saying that?” Tim was a perfectionist when it came to the house. Whatever the house was in its prime, it needed to be that again, either preserved or brought back to that state.

‘’Well, this so-called secret—I don’t think it was part of the original house anyway. So we can remove it and put things back to original,” I said, playing along.

“Won’t that be expensive? Can’t we just put things back the way they were?” John and I were both playing him now, and he pretty much knew it. But he was really obsessive about the place.

“Well, pretty much. Actually, yeah for sure! I can just button it up, get it all back together and painted by tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “My only concern for you is that hole in the wall, letting in the cold and whatever wildlife.”

Tim shuddered. “Maybe fix that part then, at least. And John and I will discuss the rest tonight. ” He looked at John. “Remind me?”

“Of course. And in the mean time, Jim, you can inspect the hole, see what it might take to… do whatever it needs done?”

“On it, boss!” And I slid through the low doorway and down to the secret room with my flashlight.

* * *

I decided it should be called a secret room: the acoustics that insulate it from the rooms above make it pretty clear that whatever went on down here was not supposed to be heard up there. And the tunnel—who digs a tunnel from the basement to, well, anywhere? I was almost hoping the tunnel would be no more than a root cellar or even a wine cellar, just some kind of storage alcove. Or maybe this whole room was nothing more than ‘cold storage’ for a Victorian Era chef that wasn’t satisfied with a simple ice box like the rest of the villagers. The house was big enough that a hired cook was well within reason. But if it was just storage, why the too-narrow stairway? And why the concealed door? The shelves that had been hiding the door looked to be the same age as all the other ones in the pantry. And if it was for regular kitchen use, why on earth was the door cut so short? It didn’t add up.

I realized the floor was brick, with something on top. I scoop up a handful of very old sawdust. Damp sawdust sprinkled on the floor to keep dust from blowing while you swept. That was a vote for a storage area. Or, as I thought about it, it made sense if you were going from a dirt floor tunnel to a food prep area. That made it a wash. But along that line of thinking, if this had been bulk food or vegetable storage, there should be marks on the walls: places to attach shelves or bins, some way to store food off the floor.

A quick sweep up and down with the flashlight didn’t reveal any horizontal lines where shelves left marks. No vertical lines either, where shelf standards would be to hold them up. I looked at the ceiling: maybe they were hung from there? Nope. Oh, wait. In the corner, between the window and the tunnel entrance, there was something. I walked over with the flashlight, and two thin vertical shadows resolved into a couple of heavy duty chains attached to the ceiling. And at the bottom of each chain, about shoulder height was an iron manacle.