When the camel cricket jumped up and landed on my glasses, I knew I had officially been told to get out of his crawl space.
Knocking him away, I went back to probing the wood with my knife blade. Given the age of the house I was not surprised when it sank deep into the wood. That it didn't do it more often was the shock. Moving a few more feet towards the back of the house I saw where someone had been here before me and replaced a part of the floor. All the new black iron pipes gave me a good idea of why.
That and a filthy pile of broken porcelain that had once been a toilet.
Edging around this, I kept checking the floor joists. I knew from my walk through that several places had a lot of sag occurring. The almost total lack of supports under here was mostly to blame for that but all this spongy, wood didn't help.
"You all right under there?"
Shining my light towards the voice, I saw the homeowner standing in front of the small doorway, blocking most of the light. I grinned as an idea came to me. Having spent most of the morning with her I knew she had a good sense of humor. I pulled my dust mask out from my face.
"No. I think I've died, and you're going to have to crawl in here and drag me out," I called out in a feeble voice.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," she called to me after a moment. "I'll have to get about a thousand Glade Plugins to hide the smell of you rotting. Because I'm here to tell you, there is no way in hell I'm crawling in there after you."
"Nope. You just get to rotting in there, Stan."
As I saw her move away I chuckled, put the mask back and shined my light around. When the black widow spider, sitting in her ragged, corpse-filled nest came into view, I thought Natalie might be on to something. With a sigh I went back to work.
If it was fun to do they wouldn't have to pay you so much, I thought to myself as I tried to keep my head out of the dusty tangle of cobwebs between the joists. The powdery ground under my hands kicked up moldy-smelling dust with every movement. I looked like the kid from the Peanuts who walked in his own dust cloud. What was his name?
Pigpen, I remembered. Great. I looked like Pigpen.
Over to one side I heard the floor joists creak as she walked back into the house. I listened as she crossed the kitchen, turned down the hall and walked toward the bathroom. Just as she was over my head I pounded on the floor under her feet with my fist.
Her shriek was clear even to me. She stomped her foot on the floor and sent down more dust.
"Damn you, Stan!" I heard her muffled yell from above.
"Stop dancing up there!" I gave the floor another hit then, chuckling, and went back to work. I heard her make her way back down the hall and figured she was coming back outside to give me the back of her tongue. When she stopped halfway to the backdoor I had to admit to being disappointed.
Then, in a few minutes, I heard the toilet flush.
I couldn't help the laugh as I realized that I must have scared her so badly she had to go pee. When the shaking laughter finally stopped I had made my way to nearly to the back of the house without finding better wood. Found a lot of strange things piled up in that back corner, but no better wood above.
Then the cricket was back. On my nose this time.
Wetting a rag from the cooler on the back of my truck, I washed the better part of the dust off the back of my neck and face, then my hands. I gave the bald top of my head a pass after wetting it again, then tried to get the dust out of my ears. Tossing the rag on the truck next to my shirt I tried to blow dust out my nose. Using a finger to close one nostril I gave it as hard a blow as I could, then repeated on the other side.
"What is that?"
I looked up to see Natalie studying me with her arms crossed over her breasts. It hit me that she was perhaps a little too thin, and she looked tired. Well, this was a big job. She studied me with her head tilted to the side and her dark brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
"Sorry, my nose is full of dust," I apologized.
"Not that. The tattoo." She sounded curious. "I'm a little scared of needles, but even if I wasn't, I can't imagine having that much work done."
Glancing over my shoulder, I could just make out the upper corner of my tattoo. It's been so long since I got the back-piece done that I tended to forget it was there unless I caught sight of it in a mirror. Given the reasons I have for it being there, that I ever forget is a shame.
"Got it so I wouldn't forget something," I explained vaguely, not wanting to talk about it. I picked up my clean extra shirt I had brought along and pulled it on to hide the old ink. I looked up seeing her looking at my chest as I buttoned it up. Her eyes snapped to my face, but she didn't look away. I smiled and picked up my notepad from the truck bed, then I sat down on the tailgate. I patted the area next to me, but she shook her head. "Okay, good news or bad news?" I asked.
"Most people want the bad news first. Let's do it the other way." Natalie's eyes darted to my shiny head, then back to my eyes. "I've had enough bad news dumped on me lately. I'll take a small change."
I had to resist the compulsive urge to run my hand across my head. It's been ten years since I shaved it all off, but I still feel like everyone's judging me by my thinning hair.
"I didn't find any sign of termites." I told her, making a check next to my talking point on the paper. The four more under those sat like coiled serpents waiting to strike. I felt like shit when she cheered up.
"Well, that is good news." She smiled, then closed her eyes and took a very deep breath. I had to strain to keep my eyes on her face as her breasts swelled. She opened her eyes. "Okay, I'm ready for it. What is the bad news?"
"You have four major structural issues with the house that have to be fixed." I nodded as she mouthed the number in disbelief. "Yep, four. I can only fix three of them."
"What's the one you can't fix?" she asked.
"The rock foundation is shot. There are places where the mortar around the sandstone they used is as soft as cornbread. That sag in your back bedroom corner? That is the foundation beginning to collapse."
Now she took the offer of a seat on the tailgate. Holding her elbow she used the fingers of her left hand to rub at her eyes. My eyes went to her glasses hanging from their tiny gold chain. They swung between her breasts, given them an occasional soft bump as she moved.
Never been envious of glasses before.
"Okay. Okay, I knew there were going to be major problems. So I need a mason to fix the foundation?" she asked after a moment of pinching the bridge of her nose.
"Bit more involved than that but, yeah." I hedged. I'd never felt so bad about telling a client about work that needed to be done.
"So, what are the other three?"
I looked at the notebook and pondered the order I had listen them in. She liked the good first, so I took the least worst.
"That sag in your roof? Someone took out a support wall when they opened up that living room. You have to have some kind of support column or beam put in to carry that weight." I ticked that off but left it only half-marked. "We will have to support the roof, cut out some of the warped wood, jack everything up till it's where it should be, then put in some new timbers." I finished that mark and moved my pen over to the next.
"Lovely. Next?" she asked.
"The bathtub in the upstairs bathroom leaks. From the looks of it, it's been going on for years. It's rotted out the two-by-fours in the wall under it. If you filled that tub up and got into it you could end up in your dining room."
"Oh wonderful. Remind me to have guests over for that." She shook her head and gave a tired chuckle. "It has to be replaced, right?"
"Yes. The wall torn out, the floor around the tub replaced and that leak has to be stopped." I tapped the pad with the end of my pen. "I can recommend a plumber."
"I already know a good plumber, thank you, though." Her eyes went to my tablet. "That's two, what's the last one?"
Leaning back against the inside of my truck bed, I ran my hand over my goatee smoothing it out. I took a deep breath wishing I didn't have to tell her this. My eyes drifted over to the pink camellias on the side of her house. They were in bloom, despite the frosty mornings of the last month. When I looked back at her, I could see she was waiting for the answer I didn't want to give.
"Your ground floor is gone. Over eighty percent of the support beams holding it are dry rotted completely through. That's why the floors feel so spongy when you walk. The sub-flooring itself is okay, but those beams are shot."
She didn't respond at first. Instead she covered her face with her hands and took some deep breaths. "That's going to be expensive, I take it?"
Flipping to the next page, I pulled out the estimate and passed it to her. She put on her glasses, read it, and her jaw dropped.
"I also gave what I think is a best guess estimate for the foundation work. I may be off by a bit, so don't take that number as gospel. I'm not a mason."
She folded the estimate and fanned her face with it. She let her glasses drop to her chest.
"Jesus, Mary and Ralph," she said.
That took me back. "What?"
"Sorry." She gave a little smile. "Had a teacher in school who used to say that. Apparently 'Ralph' meant you weren't taking the Lord's name in vain. And I could get away with saying it in front of my grandmother."
.... There is more of this story ...