We Alaskans

The dark, dangerous underside of landlord life

WILLOW — I'm grumpy just thinking about slithering around on my belly, but what should I expect? This area under the house isn't called a "crouch" or "bend-your-head-slightly" space, but a crawl space — so I remove the square of plywood and enter.

My hand and knees stain brown from the moist dollops of dirt spotting the plastic sheeting. As I approach the first beam, I start cussing out my wife and her boyfriend. Not that my wife has a boyfriend, but she did before we met — and they built this house together and share responsibility for this belly-dragging, head-bonking dungeon.

After my dip and wiggle under the first beam, I feel my scorn morph into something closer to dread. There is an even smaller clearance under beam No. 2 (my wife and her ex-squeeze having shoveled out the area a bit unevenly) but I know once I snake under that 4-by-12, I'll be face-to-face with the suspect plumbing, remnants thereof, or whatever surprises our renters have left. This rooting around makes me think fondly of past root canals.

Damp puddles on the plastic ground cover become more of a marshland as I creep forward. I avoid the deeper pools but give up trying to stay dry. My knees are soggy merit badges of stupidity (the renters' or mine?) and I shine the flashlight's beam on charred joists and melted vapor barrier. Apparently someone pulled off one piece of plywood skirting before jamming the weed burner's business end under the house. I understand the effort to thaw frozen pipes, but where is the common sense?

Light flame, turn off brain. Or is it the other way around?

Zzzzzutt

I hear the faint clomping of Anne's boots as she scurries around outside the house and then: Zzzzutt, zzzzutt, brilliant white arcs illuminate the crawl space. It's like watching a welder frying a bratwurst in the dark — with the sizzle-snappy sound of burning fat that I hope will not be mine in a nanosecond.

"Turn it off!" I yell.

I have no clue what Anne has done to suddenly light up my life, but I want it to stop. Now.

"Off. Turn it off," I scream.

A muffled, "What did you say?" or "Yeah, OK," leaves me vexed, so I yell again.

There is nowhere to move that isn't wet, and I wonder when the first jolt will hit — and what terminology the coroner will use to describe my body's last purpose on Earth: semiconductor, capacitor or grounding rod?

Zzzzutt. Blinding white sparks continue, but my life has yet to be given in memory of André-Marie Ampère and I'm not drooling from the corner of my mouth yet, so I watch for flames. And then what? Wade in the water to splash it on the fire? Spit? I'd give every rent check I've ever deposited for a pair of dry pants right now.

Anne and I are not without a degree of culpability in this mess. Even if we weren't responsible for finding these renters, we were guilty. The house is located in Willow, 150 air miles from our Lake Clark Bush residence on a spectacular mountain lake. That is to say, being anxious to return to our wilderness home after not filling the vacancy in a week, we dropped the keys in the hands of a neighbor whom we barely knew. He would find suitable tenants.

But blame can come later. When you are about to be fricasseed, all you want is a power outage that shuts down the grid for all of Southcentral Alaska.

Then it stopped — the sparkler on steroids, not my heart, which sincerely flattered the rhythms of a northern three-toed woodpecker. I paused a second before executing a mud dash back under the beams and outside, to stand, very shakily, beside Anne.

She hadn't tried to hasten her way to widowhood but had merely turned on the spigot to fill a water bucket. When the pump switch engaged, it sent a charge through the wire that was no longer protected with plastic coating. Now I could add semi-subterranean wiring to my list of repairs, and I hadn't even looked at the plumbing.

After I turned the breaker to the pump off, I stood for a while surveying the yard. I had to admit that the view from the house to the log-pole shed was less obstructed since our first renter — I'll call him Barry — embarked on entrepreneurial escapades. I found myself longing to return to those halcyon days of low-stress tenants. Of course, I was fooling myself. He hadn't been so hot either.

Barry was a recreational dog musher who "never wanted more than a half-dozen dogs." We reluctantly agreed to a maximum of six and showed him where to stake them so they wouldn't damage trees. Time passed, rent checks came in the mail, but eventually we got word that Barry's dogs were getting loose regularly or becoming snarled in their own tethers. Even the Iditarod-running, canine-hugging neighbors chafed. One called the SPCA. Anne phoned Barry to find out what was going on and got an answering machine — announcing himself and our property as a kennel. Yes, he was breeding dogs, and his lot had more than quadrupled in size. A number of robust spruces had been ringed, and shortly after we removed Barry, we removed the trees.

A clear view of the shed wasn't really welcome right now. In fact, I was hoping for something, anything, to serve as a blinder — heck, even a billboard advertising Sprucekill Kennels. Because stacked before me, almost to the ceiling, was over a year's worth of garbage bags. Holey Hefty bags: squirrels and shrews had gnawed an amazing array of tunnels in and out of what appeared to be mostly soiled plastic diapers. The odor would have made a warm honey bucket smell like incense. It would take 13 trips to the dump in a half-ton pickup to restore things. Airing the open-air shed would take weeks. But I didn't know that yet. First, I needed to have a look inside the house.

Dread

As I pushed open the heavy cedar plank door, I felt that familiar sense of dread. What would I find?

My first glance didn't reveal anything appalling. One's spirits wouldn't normally be buoyed by the sight of an intact, upright refrigerator, but as I surveyed the kitchen area, I took it as a good sign.

I should have known better. As I edged forward to the bathroom and peeked in, an orange ring around the bathtub grinned at me like a Cheshire cat in the dim light.

Entering the addition, I knew I was in for more. Sure enough, holes pockmarked the sheetrock wall around the wood stove. Fist-sized and random, they looked like someone had been practicing Morse code with a sledge hammer. It would take days of patching, sanding and painting to restore them. That's when Anne and I decided to call it a day.

For whatever reason, Anne's contact with these renters had been more frequent than mine. Mercifully, I had never met the guy. With checks arriving by mail we didn't realize they were now subletting the house. But there had been no sign of occupancy; even the mystery tenant must have moved someplace upwind.

My mother came to the rescue. She remembered that our nominee for Lousy Tenant of the Year had gotten a job as a chef at a big Anchorage hotel.

Anne called the hotel, the front desk put her on hold, and after a few minutes our ex-renter picked up the phone. Anne was visibly stunned to have reached him, but she quickly regrouped and got to the point. Her half of the conversation went something like this:

You need to clean up the mess in the shed and repair the wall. (Anne's frown is quite fetching.)

So, you're going to come up late Saturday morning and fix the sheetrock? You mean start, right? (She leans forward in her chair.)

No, you can't do sheetrock in one day!

Listen — (volume increasing further) you've got to wait for the patches to dry, sand, sponge, wait, prime, paint. YOU CAN'T DO IT IN ONE DAY!

From there, the conversation spiraled down, fizzled out. How do I say this in chefspeak? The air left the soufflé in dramatic fashion. I allowed myself a brief indulgence: I imagined sauntering into the restaurant, ordering chipped beef on toast, and telling the waiter to send it back to the kitchen. Again and again. Maybe 13 times. Of course, we didn't see him, trowel in hand, on Saturday. Or ever.

The whole experience left us wondering if anyone with a lick of sense would choose landlording as a way to make ends meet.

As Anne and I plunged into the business of repair, I puzzled at the motivation for sheetrock holes. What kind of person would find vengeance or pleasure in knuckling through those tough sheets of compressed gypsum? Although when I revisited what we'd been through, a random act of drywall violence did seem to have a therapeutic and justifiable feel to it. But I couldn't risk hurting my hand — I needed it for wiring, plumbing and trowel work. Someday, I might even need to sign a revised contract for more thoroughly vetted renters.

Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."

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