The Secrets of the Mud Room



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Not a true story.

As long as I could remember, my great-aunt Sharon never used her back door, the one that led from her kitchen to the back yard.

Summers, she’d fill that back yard with a massive vegetable garden, growing everything from tomatoes to okra, onions to watermelons. I don’t think there’s a vegetable she didn’t try, at least once.

Some did better than others. The watermelon never got bigger than cantaloupes (and yes, she knew they were fruit. She just called the whole thing a vegetable garden.) The strawberries, on the other hand, took over and just about choked out the green beans. The corn, the one year she attempted it, didn’t grow higher than a dog’s eye, let alone an elephant’s.

Tomatoes and zucchini, those she could grow. We were eating salsa and zucchini bread long before they became popular. And if only iPhones were around then, we would have documented her zucchini lasagna, probably the first people in the world to eat it.

Raised beds of flowers circled the vegetables. Marigolds and begonias, impatiens and violets all raised a riot of color during much of the summer. The hostas and day lilies did their share as well, the cool green and white leaves of the hostas contrasting with the bright yellow of the lilies.

Aunt Sharon loved that garden. From dawn to dusk she’d toil away, weeding and deadheading, tilling and fertilizing, anxiously calculating how much water to give her tender plants. She’d only come inside for lunch, then head back again.

The odd thing was she’d never use the back door.

Even though her house had a large mud room at the back, she never set foot in it. She’d leave the house by the front door and walk all the way around, through the dim coolness of the side yard with its six maples and a birch, then get her tools from the garage that stood twenty feet away from the house. To go back inside, she’d repeat the journey. At the front door she’d shuck her gardening shoes and replace them with a pair of slippers she left just inside.

Even when she came home with groceries, she didn’t use the back door. And the time Uncle Otis fell on the ice and broke his leg, what did she do? She drove him up to the curb in the front and eased him up the long walkway with its eight steep steps and in through the front door. The back way was much shorter and had only two steps. Why Uncle Otis didn’t argue I never understood.

Sometimes I’d hear him, asking her if they could get it fixed. “It would be more convenient,” he’d say.

She’d always refuse, saying it worked fine and they didn’t need to spend the money. “Besides, it’s good exercise, taking a few extra steps.”

Once time she caught me with my hand on the door handle of that back door. “No!” She screeched so loud I jumped almost high enough to hit my head on the ceiling. “Never,” she told me, wagging a finger in my face, “never use the back door.”

I was too scared ask. But over the years I wondered what was in the mud room. Treasure? Dead bodies?

Not long after, I was spending the night with Aunt Sharon, snuggling down in the feather bed in her spare room. The silence of the night was only broken by the chirping of the cicadas and the gentle hum of the air conditioner.

A loud crash like a dozen pots and pans hitting the floor cracked the silence. I sat bolt up in bed, listening. Was that swearing I heard coming from below? Some of those words my ten-year-old ears had never heard. Surely that wasn’t my Uncle Otis?

No, it wasn’t. I heard the door to the other bedroom open. “I told you so,” said Aunt Sharon.

There was a low mutter that had to be Uncle Otis’s response.

Since neither of them seemed to disturbed by the ruckus below, I slid out of bed and went into the hall. “What’s going on?” I asked.

Aunt Sharon was already halfway down the stairs. “Come and see, boy. It’s time you learned a thing or two.”

Uncle Otis rolled his eyes and pointed down the stairs. “You might as well.”

The swearing got louder as we descended. Aunt Sharon led the way into the kitchen. My eyes widened as she marched over to the mud room and swung open the door. Finally, I would learn the secrets of the mud room.

The first thing I noticed was the open back door. Then a volley of cursing brought my attention to the mud room. Or rather, the gaping hole where the mud room floor should have been. Instead, there was a gaping hole. Leaning over to look, I could see two men, one lying on the floor clutching his ankle.

“It’s my burglar alarm,” Aunt Sharon said with a smirk. “My free burglar alarm. Otis here was after me to get one you had to pay for. Waste of money, I told him.”

She looked down through the whole at the two men, who were now demanding to be freed. “We had a flood here, years ago and the mud room floor fell in. So I got an idea. I just covered the hole with a mat. And I put hung all kinds of metal pots from the bottom of the mat so it would make a big crash if someone fell through.” She grinned at me. “I never locked the back door after that. If someone came to break in, they’d come in that way. And get caught.”

Uncle Otis hung his head, shaking it back and forth. “Ok, ok. It worked. Now can we fix the floor so we can use the back door again?”

“See?” she said, directing her words to me. “It worked, but he wants to give up on it. All to use the back door. For what? To save a little time? Time is what we’ve got, not money.”

When the police came, it took them awhile to understand just how Aunt Sharon caught two members of a gang that had been responsible for a rash of break ins in the area. Then it took longer for them to free the would-be burglars from their temporary jail to take them to another one.

As for Uncle Otis, I think he gave up on ever using the back door again.

 

 



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