Thursday, September 09, 1999
the downside of home ownership
There are many stops on the passage from boyhood to manhood that we all know and celebrate: attending college, choosing a career, getting married and starting a family, and earning the Arrow of Light in Cub Scouts.
Another important step is home ownership. It's not hard to buy a home -- anyone can buy one who doesn't mind slaving away for 30 years to get out of debt -- but home ownership is rife with responsibilities.
There are obvious ones common to homeowners: set up the baby's room, cut the grass, water the garden after the lettuce dies, replace the basement stairs before they collapse, add a banister to the main stairs before someone falls, remove the world's ugliest hedge and hire an exorcist to drive out the ghosts that torment guests and do weird things to the toilet.
The work is never-ending, but I am proud to say that Natasha and I finally are making some headway. The baby's furniture has been arranged, we have plans for the banister and basement stairs, and the hedge, while still in our front yard has been trimmed and is not quite as ugly as before.
Natasha and I don't live in Amityville, so we don't have any ghosts to deal with; instead, we have a queen-size mattress. The mattress doesn't drag chains across the floor, it doesn't give me nightmares, and it hasn't ever gone to the bathroom and forgotten to flush the toilet, but in its own way it's just as disconcerting.
When we moved in, the mattress was leaning against the fence in the back yard. Natasha and I left it there, under the impression that someone was coming by to pick it up. That was three months and one hurricane ago.
The mattress now sits out of view on the side of our house, covered with leaves, cobwebs and other indescribables. If the owners wait much longer, it won't be useful for a bed anymore.
We could get the trash collectors to pick it up, except we don't want to pay the extra pick-up fee. We could ignore it, except there's probably some obscure law on the books in New Jersey that says mattresses must be kept inside the house.
Our best hope for disposing of it appears to be saving it for kindling at our Y2K "Collapse of Civilization" extravaganza this coming Jan. 1.
The mattress lingers on my list of "Things we must get rid of," along with that hedge and the collection of branches, brambles and other yard debris stacked up in the back yard. My mind dwells on that unholy triune with all the obsession a dog gives a well-gnawed bone.
"Maybe we could bury it in the back yard," I told Natasha. "We could dig a shallow hole, toss the mattress in and cover it up. After the grass goes to seed, no one would ever know it's there."
If you think about it, it makes sense. In "Arsenic and Old Lace," Teddy buried 12 bodies in the basement at the behest of his aunts, and no one objected. Compared to that, a mattress in the back yard is nothing.
Natasha wouldn't go for it. She put her foot down immediately. If she had been on the basement steps at the time, they would have collapsed.
"You're not going to bury a mattress in the back yard, and that's final!"
This is in keeping with my track record on other holes in the back yard. Longtime readers may remember that earlier this summer I dug a compost pit for the garden out of a sense of family tradition; that is to say, my father had a compost pit when I was growing up, and by gum, I wanted to have one too.
Well, I did. For about four weeks.
The compost pit was filling nicely with corn cobs, potato peels and other sundry organic matter, except for what the squirrels stole. I was thinking there might be hope next year for our garden, which this year produced about $1.25 worth of tomatoes before the bugs ate them.
(According to one school of thought, the value of those tomatoes should be equated with the cost of the house since the tomatoes are all we've received from our investment so far. In that case, we had more than $100,000 worth of tomatoes this year, far more than my father harvested the first year of his garden.)
The Monday before Labor Day, Natasha and I had some friends up for dinner. My friends, who I won't identify here, except as "Dan" and "Kathy," brought along their three children, whom I'll call "Tim," "Tyler" and "Anna" to protect their privacy.
While Dan and I barbecued chicken on my grill, Tim, Tyler and Anna gave me a dramatic lesson on childproofing homes. Their lesson took the form of a game that involved kicking Natasha's basketball around the back yard and bouncing it off various stationary objects and the odd person or two.
The only complete write-off was a flower I had planted by the patio. My hosta plants, sufficiently large to withstand the judgment of the flying basketball.
I was secretly disappointed when the basketball plowed into garden, not because it killed anything, but because it didn't. If they had aimed a little more to the left, Natasha and I would have lost our entire crop of brussels sprouts. Now we have to eat them.
(I tried to get the kids to kick the basketball into the hedge and mattress, but my attempts were unsuccessful.)
The compost pit became a magnet, first for the ball and then for the children. I don't think any of the trips into the hole were accidental, but just to be safe I filled the pit that week.
With the compost pit filled, there are no more jokes about the grave in my back yard. All that's buried there are half-rotted vegetables, and if a mad scientist stitches old potato peels together and reanimates them, just give me a deep-fryer. I'll have Frenchenfries eaten out of my hand in a matter of minutes.
But that mattress won't go away. At least, it hasn't yet. Nor have the sticks and fallen branches.
"I wish we had a wood-chipper," I said one day, my imagination filled with images of mulch I could put on the flower bed out front.
"You're not going to mulch a mattress!" Natasha protested.
"I was talking about the sticks," I explained, but immediately I began to warm to Natasha's suggestion. "That's not a bad idea. The wood-chipper could grind up the stuffing in the mattress, as well as the fabric and we could mix it in with the rest of the mulch, or blend it in with the garden. It'll biodegrade eventually."
And so it continues. The hedge remains. The mattress is slowly growing a crop of mildew on the side of the house. The pile of sticks in our back yard is growing steadily larger, and other chores are starting to pile up as well. There's no escape.
I have only one regret: I wish I had finished my Arrow of Light while I was still in Webelos.