This time, I was sure we’d have no problems. “Ben, just do it. The sooner you start, the sooner we’ll be done.”
He shook his head and stomped down the stairs. I heard a few bad words. Not sure if they were directed at me or the mess, I chose to ignore him and headed upstairs.
I made quick work of searching the bedrooms and found five of the items on Peggy’s list. As I was starting on the living room, the ringing doorbell interrupted me.
When I opened the door, a chubby-faced redheaded young man with a smile so wide he could eat an ear of corn in one bite stuck his hand out. “Are you Joanie? It’s so good to meet you. Nice day isn’t it?” He pumped my hand energetically. “I’ll just get right to work. Where should I start?”
It took me a few seconds to catch up with his chatter. “Are you from State Farm?”
“Yes, yes.” He laughed as he handed me a business card. He pushed past me into the living room. “Carpet sure is wet, isn’t it?” He laughed again. “Kind of like a beige swamp.” Grinning, he pulled out a pen and jotted some notes on his clipboard.
Great. An ebullient guy who seemed to really enjoy his work. And other people’s misfortunes.
An hour later, he was gone, having tramped all over the house, chortling when he saw the soggy heaps in the basement. By then I’d finished my search of the first floor and bedrooms and found four more things from the list, the photo albums, family pictures and souvenirs of a trip to Denmark. No hope for it. I couldn’t put off helping Ben in the basement any longer.
I could tell from the grunts and groans I’d been hearing that he wasn’t enjoying sifting through forty years of stuff, accumulated over four decades of living in that New Jersey house. Well, to be more accurate, forty years of junk. Sopping wet junk, at that.
Who knew what was down there? A battered pool table and a well-used ping pong table. What fun we had as kids, the seven cousins playing endless games of round robin Ping-Pong, the older boys always beating us girls. That is, when we were small. When we got older, my youngest cousin could whip any boy at any game. Then it was a deeper voice complaining, “That’s not fair,” instead of girlish whines.
I made my way down the stairs. No longer smelling like sweaty kids and witch hazel, the basement reeked of musty ashes turning sour. Stacks of tennis and health food magazines lay in soggy heaps, tangled with old clothes and battered toys. My uncle’s workbench, where he had been conducting some kind of experiments on gasoline when he caught the house on fire, was a black skeleton of its former self. Broken glass and the melted plastic remnants of various tools littered the floor around it.
The walls and ceiling were soaked through, silent testimony of the firemen’s thoroughness. The water trickled from the walls and piles of books and old tennis equipment, seeping along the floor to form black pools on the worn linoleum. I stood open-mouthed, overcome with a wave of sadness.
My brother staggered toward the stairs, his hair damp with sweat, his arms full of half-burnt Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. He stared at me blankly for a moment, and then headed outside to the trashcans.
“You could help,” he said on his return.
“I will, if you do it my way.”
“Not another one of your ideas.”
“What? You know I’m good at coming up with easier ways to do things.”
He had to agree. I was the one who figured out how to trim the hedges at our own house in half the time it took anyone else. “Will you try it my way?”
He pulled his eyebrows together. “Which is?”
“Fill up a suitcase with books, and—.”
“No! No way.”
“Fine. Suit yourself. I’ll go back upstairs. Maybe I missed something on the list the first time I went through the closets.”
He paused. Sighed. “Fine. If—.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re so sure it’s better.”
“Over there,” he pointed to one corner, “are the Caruso albums. A little damp, but okay.” He turned and pointed to another pile of boxes. “That’s Aunt Margie’s grandmother’s china.”
“Where’s the suitcase?”
He rolled his eyes and pulled an oversized suitcase from under the Ping-Pong table. Silently we filled it with the remnants of books and magazines. “I don’t know about this,” Ben said. “It will be too heavy to carry.”
“Not for both of us.”
He shook his head and closed the lid, fastening it shut. “Ready?”
I nodded. We each put our hands on an end and bent out knees to lift. His end went up. Mine stayed on the floor.
“See? You can’t even lift it,” Ben said.
“We need a better system.” I looked around the basement and found a length of rope. “Let’s tie the rope around the suitcase, and use the pulley.”
“The one at the top of the stairs.”
Ben stared, open-mouthed. Sure enough, there was a pulley attached to the wood frame of the stairs, up near the top. He let a slow smile cross his face and shook his head. “That’s our uncle, always tinkering with something.”
Neither of us knew what the pulley was for, but figured it was just what we needed. I ran up the stairs to loop the rope over the pulley, and dropped the ends down to Ben. He looped the rope around the suitcase and through the handle, jerking hard on the ends to make sure all was secure.
I knew it was a brilliant plan, one of my best ideas. Ben would pull on the rope and raise the suitcase until I could reach under the banister and swing it onto the top step.
“If this works,” I said, “we won’t have to make a million trips up and down.”
“Are you sure it will hold?”
“Of course. Look at all the metal plates holding it to the stringer.”
“You know, the frame that the steps are connected to.”
Ben shook his head, muttering. He hated it when I knew stuff he didn’t.
“See? It would hold ten suitcases.”
“So you think.” Ben shook his head. I could tell he was humoring me, just waiting for my idea to fail so he could gloat. Too bad for him it wasn’t going to happen. “I’m pulling now.”
He put all of his two hundred pounds of muscle into it, and slowly the suitcase rose into the air, gently swaying, the wood of the stairs creaking.
“Keep going, you’re almost there,” I told him.
He paused, took a deep breath and made one last heroic effort. The suitcase lurched up to the level of the top step. I leaned out to pull it toward me, angling it to fit it under the banister. “Can you pull it a little higher?”
Ben responded with a grunt and a mighty heave on the rope.
And then it broke. Not the rope. Not the handle of the suitcase. That would have been great compared to what did happen.
The pulley didn’t break, either. Neither did its connection to the stairs. There was a loud creaking and groaning. Then I watched, almost as if in slow motion, as the weight of the suitcase pulled the stringer away from the stairs. The step I was on no longer had any support. The suitcase, the pulley, the stringer and I all fell to the floor below.
Ben jumped out of the way. Aunt Margie’s grandmother’s china wasn’t so quick. The pulley, the stairs and my left arm weren’t all that got broken that day.
And I don’t think Ben will listen to any of my bright ideas ever again.