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One Finger at a Time
I first noticed the depression when I was clearing out the spider nests around the concrete foundation of my house. In the spring, the nests appear around the house in clusters like an infestation of Q-Tip ends. My wife and kids don’t care for spiders even though they help to keep the other bugs in check. Now that I think of it, the kids don’t really care for bugs of any kind.
But back at the southeast corner, I could see quite clearly that the house had sunken into the ground ever so slightly. The foundation had a black hairline crack in it. I couldn’t remember if the crack had been there all along, but the corner of the house had clearly settled. I grabbed a level out of my toolbox in the garage and laid it along the edge of the foundation. I watched the yellow bubble float all the way to the left end of the tube. I wasn’t imagining it. I walked across the yard to the other back corner and noticed the same thing. I checked it with the level as well and found that the angle was about the same. “How odd,” I said out loud.
I took a mental note to reach out to an old friend of mine, Joey Jones, who is a general contractor, but I promptly forgot about the whole thing. Life got very busy at that point and then my travel schedule picked up. I was gone for weeks at a time and only home on the weekends. New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, Houston. You name it. I even went to Cincinnati of all places. Nothing will make you desperate like spending a week in Cincinnati.
But then in the summer I was cleaning up a layer of fermenting kumquats from my neighbor’s tree and I thought to look again at the back corners of the house. At first I didn’t really want to look, but then I decided I should at least take a glance. The depression had clearly deepened and the house had sunken further into the ground. It was impossible to miss. I checked the other corner and it was the same. The entire back of the house had settled even more.
So I called Joey right there. I stared down at the concrete corner of my house and left him a message. I asked that he call me back as soon as he could. I didn’t say what the problem was exactly because it sounded so strange. The important thing was that I trusted Joey. He wouldn’t lead me down the path. I had known Joey since we were in high school.
Then for the next several weeks, we failed to connect. He’d call me and leave a message. I’d call him and leave a message. We even agreed via multiple messages to meet at Starbucks for coffee but then he had to cancel at the last minute. He was so buried with work that he couldn’t make it. One of his messages said something to the effect of “when the money is flowing, you can’t afford to put your bucket down for even a minute. Sorry man.” Then it was my turn to cancel. We had a big customer who had gone sideways and I had to fly out there and straighten things out. I had to fall on my sword was more like it. I had known Joey for decades, so there were no hard feelings.
This went on for weeks, and my travel schedule improved. Then Gwen mentioned that she thought something was odd with the house. Gwen is my wife’s name. “Something is not quite right with our house,” she said matter-of-factly. There was a problem with the sinks and bathtubs in particular. Water would accumulate on the wrong end of the bathtub and wouldn’t drain properly. Then she placed a large marble on the kitchen counter and it promptly rolled off and clacked loudly on the terra cotta tile. It rolled toward the back of the house.
I had not yet told her about what I’d seen at the corners of the house since I knew it would bother her deeply. And if it bothered her as much as I guessed it would, that would only make it harder on me. I had hoped to find an answer before she noticed, but that simply hadn’t happened.
So one evening after dinner and after washing the dishes, while it was still light out, I walked her out to the back and showed it to her.
“Oh my fucking god!” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Our house is crooked!” she said.
“Well, to be fair, the house itself is still quite straight.” This was a true statement. Our house had been built during a time when timber was expensive, so they had used steel for the main beams. The house itself was holding its shape like a champ. “It’s just that the back end of the house had settled just a bit. I’m sure it’s quite normal for this kind of terrain,” I said. I had no idea what kind of terrain we lived on. There could have been a raging river running underneath my house and I wouldn’t have known it was there.
Our house was perched on a gradual slope in the foothills overlooking the bay. If you stood out at the end of the driveway and looked to your right, you could see a narrow slice of the bay water about five miles to the west. It was generally considered to be a nice neighborhood and the real estate price comparisons reflected that. We liked to read the glossy real estate notices that came around showing the recent sale prices and they always seemed to be going in the right direction. The real estate agents pictured on the back of the brochures looked pleased but not quite satisfied.
“But there’s a crack!” she shouted, pointing at the hairline.
“It’s just a minor fracture,” I assured her. “Quite normal. As houses settle, they develop cracks, just like people. I’ve called Joey. He’s going to come out and give me an assessment.”
She put her hands to the side of her head, moaned loudly and walked back into the house. “Jesus fucking Christ,” she said as the door closed behind her. She had started to curse more and more lately.
Then I remembered that our house was built within a hundred yards of the Hayward Fault. It ran right along the hills from North to South. The seller had made that clear when we bought the place. He had pointed out that earthquake insurance was simply too expensive to get and not worth it. It was all part of the disclosures. I also remembered seeing a story in the news about sinkholes. An old mineshaft had suddenly collapsed and a hole had opened up swallowing an entire apartment building. It had been a halfway house apparently. And then I remembered that large sections of the center of the state of California were supposedly sinking due to the steady depletion of the water tables. Farmers were draining it to irrigate crops and it wasn’t raining fast enough. The entire central valley was sinking. I remembered handmade signs in the citrus groves along Interstate 5 that said things like “we can’t feed you without water.”
These three ideas stirred around in my head for a few days before I finally decided to find someone who might be able to help me. I was waking up in the middle of the night bewildered and sweating. And with my wife snoring to beat the band, I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. All I could do was lie there and imagine us all sinking quietly down into the earth.
I called the geology department at the state university, but when the woman answered the phone, I couldn’t quite figure out how to explain what I was after. “I’m looking for someone there who can help me,” I said.
“Help you with what?” she asked. She had a pleasant, patient voice.
“Well. It’s hard to explain,” I said. “I think there is some kind of geological issue with my property and I wanted to talk to someone about that.”
“Your property?” she asked.
“Yes. My house. It seems that the ground it’s built on is sinking,” I said. I had the sense that what I was saying sounded ridiculous.
“I think you may need to call someone else about that,” she said pleasantly. “We don’t do private land surveys. This is a university.”
“Do I need to call a surveyor?” I asked. I wasn’t quite sure what a surveyor did but the word jumped into my head.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she replied. “You might try that.”
“Okay. Thanks,” I said and hung up. Where would I find a surveyor? I called Joey and left him a message. Then I suddenly wondered if my house was the only house that was sinking. It didn’t seem possible.
I went into the garage and grabbed a Frisbee out of the plastic container of balls and toys. I headed out to the back yard and threw the Frisbee as far over the fence as I could and heard it bounce off the side of the neighbor’s house. I walked next door and knocked, and when no one answered, I went to the gate that opened up to the back yard and walked in. The Frisbee was on their patio and I went over and kicked it under the lawn chair. Then I went over to the back of their house and looked down. There was no sign of movement. Nothing. Their house what disturbingly level and stable on its foundation.
I picked up the Frisbee and went back to my yard and then did the same thing with the neighbor on the other side of the house. This couple was retired and the old lady was home.
“Hello,” she said at the front door.
Hello,” I said. “My Frisbee is in your yard. My son threw it a bit too hard and it’s back there.”
“Your what?” she asked. She seemed to be straining to hear me.
“My Frisbee,” I said. She looked puzzled so I raised my voice. “Frisbee. My Frisbee is in your yard. My Frisbee!” I screamed, “is in your back yard.”
She heard back yard and smiled. Then we both walked back through her dark house, which smelled like clam chowder. For some reason, all of the curtains were drawn. She opened the back door and I quickly went to the corners of her house and looked. Nothing. Steady and stable as a goddam granite mountain. I found the Frisbee and walked back through her house. When she saw the disc she smile and muttered, “Frisbee.”
“Yes,” I said. “Frisbee.” I’m sure my voice sounded irritated but she couldn’t hear me to save her life.
That weekend, I looked up several surveyors in the area. I called and left messages for five of them. They called back over the next two or three days, but none of them could come out for over two to three months. They were all booked solid. Times were busy. I made an appointment for nine weeks out. When they asked what it was about, I said it was a topographic survey. I had looked that up and it seemed like the closest thing to what I needed. There was a slight pause on the line, and then he gave me two dates to choose from.
I considered calling my insurance agent but decided against it. I read my homeowner’s policy instead and there was nothing about sinking or sinkholes or submerged property. There was plenty for fire and water damage. There was coverage for theft and injury. It went on and on. It was a long and detailed definition of what was not covered. But there was nothing about covering a sinking house. Did that mean it was covered? I decided that calling them when I didn’t know what was happening was just inviting trouble. They would smell costs and my premiums would skyrocket.
Then something strange but also wonderful happened. When I parked in the driveway one afternoon after a particularly bad commute, I noticed that the front corner of the house, the corner closes to the front porch, had settled. It had settled, in fact, to an exact amount to match the back of the house. I found the level and measured, and sure enough, the house had leveled. The whole thing was now a few inches lower than it had been, but it was level. The stone walkway that led to the front porch sloped down slightly, but the porch itself was fine. There was a small amount of damage at top stair, but it was hardly noticeable.
The sinks and the tubs went back to functioning normally. Gwen seemed to calm down due to this improvement, but I could sense her growing unease about the situation. We talked about it from time to time, and I would try to keep the mood light. We would talk about the house until there was nothing left to say, and then we would all go on about our business. Take the kids to school. Do the grocery shopping. Fold the laundry. Help the kids with homework. Pay the taxes. In short, we didn’t see that there was much we could do about it. And besides, I had an appointment with the surveyor. I was hoping that he would bring some light to the situation. Just knowing something concrete would help, I was sure of that.
The surveyor finally came out on the day we had agreed upon. He was a tall, heavyset man named Gregory. He looked like he had just climbed out of bed and had slept in his clothes. He was not the man I had called, but was instead his partner. Or so he said. “Paul is busy,” he said.
“Why didn’t he call me and tell me you were coming?” I asked.
“Paul is busy,” he said. “He is a busy man.”
“Fine,” I said. “That’s fine. It’s a busy time for all of us.” I proceeded to explain the situation to him and wondered if he could explain to me what might be happening. How could it be that my house was sinking into the ground when none of the other houses were showing any signs of sinking? What was happening? After starting at me with a blank expression, Gregory excused himself to go back to his truck “to get his equipment.”
When he returned, I could swear he smelled like he’d been smoking dope. He had gone back to his truck to smoke pot and now he had come back with his equipment. I looked at him and he looked back at me. His eyes were nearly black and his expression was blank. Was I imagining it? No! I knew what marijuana smelled like, and Gregory smelled like pot smoke.
I was so mad that I just turned around and went into my house. I had taken the afternoon off to get to the bottom of this situation, and now I had been confronted with a pothead. I called Paul and left him a message. I was not happy. I was not happy at all with this last minute substitution. I didn’t mention the pot, but I made it clear that I was not happy. Besides. I had thought some more about it and he may have had a perfectly legitimate medical reason to smoke pot and I didn’t want to appear reactionary.
After I cooled down, I looked out the window and saw that Gregory was packing up his equipment. I walked out to confront him, but when I got to his truck, he was scribbling notes on a piece of paper. “Your house had settled approximately five inches from the original level ground of the foundation.”
“Five inches?” I asked.
“Just a hair under five inches,” he replied.
“How is this happening?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” he said. “I’m not a geologist. I’m only a surveyor. You will need to find someone else to answer that question.”
Gregory was quite confident in his measurement. And I was quite sure that he had smoked more dope since the smell was still fresh. He had done what was requested and was preparing to leave. He handed me a several pieces of paper, one of which was a bill for $375.00. “You can pay by check or credit card if you like.” I paid him and he drove off, his truck rattling all the way down the street until he turned the corner and disappeared.
The next week my wife left town for almost two weeks to help with her sister. She had become unexpectedly pregnant and things were going poorly. She needed Gwen. In the time that she was away, the house settled further. It was now almost a full foot lower. The back porch had become detached from the house and the front staircase was starting to separate from the porch. I called Joey and begged him to come to the house. I didn’t know whom else to reach out to. I was running out of options. He called me right back.
“You sounded pretty upset,” he said.
“I guess I’m just running out of options,” I said.
“What’s happening?” he asked. I could hear voices laughing in the background and a woman was singing his name.
“My house is sinking,” I said.
“It’s what?” he said. “Your house is doing what?”
“Sinking. It’s fucking sinking,” I said.
“Okay. Okay. Look. I’ll come by this weekend and we’ll take a look. Your house is built on bedrock, man. Your house is not
sinking,” he said.
“I had a surveyor measure it,” I said. “It’s sinking.”
He agreed to come on Sunday afternoon after his kid’s baseball game. The boy had made the countywide all star game and Joey was feeling good. That was a Tuesday. By Wednesday, the house had sunk another foot. On Thursday, the water pipe that fed the house broke and the water shot thirty feet into the air and out into the street. Water gushed down toward the intersection clearing away leaves and fallen branches and newspapers. The water department appeared within an hour and shut down the water to my house. On Friday, the gas company came out and shut down the natural gas lines. They had detected a leak. The electricity still worked so we had lights and the toaster oven. I made my hot meals in the toaster.
The building was holding itself together, which seemed miraculous to me. But the whole place was succumbing to some underground phenomenon. The driveway had cracked right down the middle and I had to park my car in the street. Strangely enough, I slept soundly in my bed through the nights. It was still my house and it was filled with the stuff of my life. I went to the gym early in the morning to shower and shave. During the night, there were strange sounds as the house creaked and shuddered, but it continued to hold together and I would just roll over and go back to sleep. I kept going to work. I had to. I simply couldn’t afford to lose my job.
My wife came back from her sister’s for two days, and then she took the kids to go back to be with her sister. She couldn’t take it any longer. It was summer and they were out of school anyway. Then things started to pick up speed. It was as if the grip that the house had on the surface of the earth had finally been pulled loose one finger at a time.
By Sunday morning, the house had dropped by almost five feet. Through the front windows, I could see roots from the trees and bushes in the dirt walls of the hole forming around my home. I was climbing down into and out of my house with a ladder. The retired couple that lived next door stopped by and stood on the street. The man’s arms were crossed on his chest and the woman’s hands were on her hips. Then she pointed down into the house and her mouth opened into the shape of an “oh”. They seemed dismayed by what they were seeing.
Joey was due to come by in the afternoon. I went upstairs, which by this time was actually level with the ground, and sat by an open window to wait.