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#47

Laundry Chute



          In their new house, when Reggie and Gloria Pollet dropped clothes into the laundry chute, which, contrary to their request, started in the upstairs hallway and not in the bathroom, the clothes didn’t make it to the laundry room in the basement. Something was blocking the chute. They hadn’t figured it out. There were other concerns. In the master bedroom, there was one of those ironing boards that folds down out of the wall and they definitely did not request one of those. They hated those. They couldn’t understand why Mr. Groggs had assumed they would want one.

            Reggie and Gloria had understood that having the high school Building Trades class construct their house for them would result in some imperfections, some mistakes, some extra hassles, but they never expected this. They had visited the house for the last time before moving in when it was just a little over half complete. Everything had seemed normal. They’d gone over the blueprints with Mr. Groggs, the Building Trades teacher, and he had been very friendly and accommodating, and they’d even met the students, many of whom seemed to be bright and capable kids. But then Bert, their teenaged son, had gotten seriously ill while visiting his grandparents in Spain . Reggie had taken an extended leave from work and he and Gloria had gone to Spain to help care for Bert. The doctors never worked out what was wrong with him - why he’d gone from being left-handed to right-handed, why his fingernails stopped growing, why he couldn’t seem to spell his middle name correctly - but he slowly recovered over the course of several months, and when the family returned to the States, their new house was finished. Because the couple who had purchased their previous house had needed to move in while the Pollets were still overseas, Reggie had hired a moving company to pack up all of their belongings and deposit them in the new house so that everything would already be there when they returned. After a series of uncomfortable flights and grueling layovers and a long ride from the airport in a friend’s minivan, the Pollets arrived at their new house just before midnight, weary in every way.

            Since the moving company hadn’t assembled their beds for them, the Pollets slept on mattresses on the living room floor, tossing and turning despite their exhaustion. The house creaked at a different pitch than their previous house had. The next morning as they began to unpack and explore their new home, the Pollets started to realize how numerous and baffling the deviations from the blueprints really were.

            For no discernible reason, a widow’s watch had been built on the roof that was only accessible by an exterior ladder screwed to the siding. The rungs looked far too flimsy for actual use, but as far as Reggie could tell, there appeared to be a telescope up there, or at least a very convincing model. There was a circular skylight in the kitchen that was only two inches in diameter. The bathroom floors and walls were carpeted. The house scared Gloria.

            Reggie couldn’t get a hold of Mr. Groggs, so he contacted the school and learned that Mr. Groggs had disappeared without a trace two weeks before school had let out for the summer. When he went in to talk to the principal face to face about the house, the principal pointed out that Reggie had signed papers indicating that he understood the risks of the Building Trades program. “That’s why it’s so cheap,” said the principal from behind his rickety, overburdened desk. “The kids are learning on the job. They make mistakes.”

            “I know,” said Reggie. “But these problems with the house are not mistakes. They were clearly deliberate.”

            “I’m sorry,” said the principal. “But that’s a subjective opinion.”

            “We can turn this into a legal battle,” said Reggie. “If that’s what you want.”

            “OK,” said the principal. “May I recommend a lawyer? My brother could use the work.” He told Reggie his brother’s phone number. Reggie refused to write it down.

            The ceiling fan in Bert’s bedroom played a tinkling music-box melody while it turned. His bedroom window was made of sea-green glass. His closet door raised and lowered like a garage door.

            “It’s not healthy for Bert to live in a house like this,” said Gloria while she and Reggie watched a long, bluish movie on TV. “What if it makes him sick again?”

            “We don’t know what made him sick,” said Reggie.

            “Still, I wish you were handy. So you could fix everything.”

            Reggie didn’t want to have the “I wish this and that about you” conversation again so he said, “I’ll go unblock the laundry chute right now.”

He started in the basement and looked up the chute. It was still blocked. No light came through. Then he went upstairs and looked down the chute, which was more of a stalling step than anything.

            Bert came out of his room holding a glass of limeade. “What are you doing, dad?”

            “I’m unblocking the laundry chute. And don’t let your mother see you holding that drink in your right hand. She’ll think you’re sick again.”

            Bert switched the drink to his left hand and took a clumsy sip.

            “We need a long pole or a plank or something,” said Reggie. “To push whatever’s in the chute down.”

            Bert retrieved a pool cue from the den. Reggie jabbed the cue down the chute, but it wasn’t long enough for the job.

            “What if we just threw heavy weights down the chute until we dislodged whatever’s blocking it?” asked Bert.

            “I don’t think your mother would consider that handy,” said Reggie. “In retrospect, using my favorite shirt to test the laundry chute for the first time was a bad idea. I really miss that shirt.” The chute stayed blocked.

            That night in bed, Gloria said, “I haven’t noticed Bert trimming his fingernails recently, yet they don’t seem very long. What if they’ve stopped growing again?”

            “He’s a private kid,” said Reggie, making something up off the top of his head. “What teenage boy wants his mom to see him trimming his fingernails?”

            “Is that really a thing?” asked Gloria. “Boys care about that?”

            “We do,” said Reggie. “My mother has never seen me trim my fingernails.”

            The ironing board popped out of the wall unbidden and Gloria screamed.

           

Through Bert’s connections from school, Reggie tracked down one of the recent graduates who had worked on their house. His named was Kit and he was employed at the hardware store’s outdoor garden center.

            Reggie confronted him in the greenhouse over a pile of pungent mulch.

            “A couple days after you visited the construction site, Mr. Groggs brought us revised blueprints,” said Kit, spit bubbling around his lip ring. “He told us you were an eccentric.”

            “But I’m not,” said Reggie. “I like normal houses. Mr. Groggs lied to you kids so you’d help him build a strange house.”

            “Why would he do that?” asked Kit.

            “Exactly,” said Reggie. “Do you know where he might have gone?”

            “He talked about calisthenics a lot,” said Kit. “Maybe he went there?”

            “Calisthenics isn’t a place,” said Reggie. “It’s exercise.”

            Kit shrugged, picked up a spray bottle, and misted a begonia.

            “Do you know where Mr. Groggs used to live?” asked Reggie.

            “Sure,” said Kit. “We had a barbecue there when we finished your house.”

            Reggie wrote the directions down on his forearm and left Kit to the making of an honest dollar.

           

Mr. Groggs’ old house was not remarkable. It was one story tall, situated on a channel to Lake Murtha , and could have used a new roof. On the channel side of the house was a nice deck with a big tree growing through a cut-out hole in the floor. Reggie looked inside through all the windows. The house was empty.

            A neighbor woman came outside with a digital camera and started taking pictures of muddy ruts in her lawn. She was wearing sweatpants over a floral print one piece swimming suit.

            “Excuse me,” said Reggie. “Do you know where Mr. Groggs moved to? Do you know how I can reach him?”

            “Mr. Groggs moved,” said the woman, still snapping pictures. “Can you believe this?” She pointed at the ruts. “The ambulance did this last night when it came for my husband. They just drove right onto the lawn even though it was wet and loaded him up. I am not paying to re-sod this lawn again.”

            “I know Mr. Groggs moved,” said Reggie. “I just don’t know where. Do you? It’s important that I find out. He has some explaining to do.”

            “C’mere,” said the woman, holding the camera out toward Reggie. “Take a picture of me lying down next to these ruts for size comparison purposes. I need to make sure my evidence is airtight.”

            The woman stretched out on the ground next to the ruts, unconcerned by the mud clinging to her clothes and hair. “So you don’t know where Mr. Groggs moved to?” asked Reggie. He took a picture and examined it on the view screen. It was aesthetically pleasing.

            “I don’t know,” said the woman. “One day he was just gone.”

            “Was he strange?” asked Reggie.

            “He didn’t seem strange to me,” said the woman. “Do you think the pictures will be more effective if I lie in the ruts?”

           

That night the Pollets had dinner together at the kitchen table. “I don’t see why you’re so gloomy,” said Bert.

            “Because Bert,” said Reggie. “If we can’t find Mr. Groggs, we’ll never find out why he did all this to our house.” He pointed to the sink with its three faucets – one for hot water, one for cold water, one for tepid water – to illustrate his point.

            “There’s probably no answer,” said Bert. “Mr. Groggs probably just got bored with teaching Building Trades and building the same house over and over.”

            Gloria gasped. “Bert, don’t say that. For now we can’t help that we live in a strange house, but we need to keep asking why Mr. Groggs did this to us.”

“I like our house,” said Bert. “I think it’s cool.”

Gloria looked like she was about to cry. She dropped her spoon into her soup. “Bert,” she said. “I have to ask you this. How do you spell your middle name?”

            Bert looked guilty. “W-uh-E-”

            “You’re sick again!” said Gloria, jumping up from the table. “You’re sick and we’re going to the hospital!”

            “Can I finish my stroganoff?”

            “No! This is an emergency!”

            Reggie gave his son a sympathetic look and said, “I’ll bring some cookies in the car.”

            “Store-bought cookies?”

            “Um, yes.”

            Bert shoved his plate away and slumped back in his chair. “And you wonder why I don’t tell you when I’m sick.”

            Hours later, Reggie and Gloria returned home, having left Bert in the hospital for observation. He’d never stopped insisting he felt fine. Trying to convince him otherwise had worn Gloria out. “I’m going to bed,” she said.

            “I’ll join you in a while,” said Reggie.

            He went to the garage and got his fishing pole. Then he tied a dull hook to the end of the line and lowered it down the laundry chute until the line went slack. He took the slack out of the line, jerked the pole sideways, and reeled the line back up with his favorite shirt dangling from the hook. Proud of himself, he held the shirt up to admire it. Something was wrong. It was the same shirt, but he didn’t love it anymore. He didn’t even like it anymore. It was hard for him to understand what he had ever liked about the shirt. It was all he could do to keep from hurling the shirt straight into the garbage.

            Back in the bedroom, Gloria was still awake, lying on her back and looking at the ceiling. “I can’t sleep,” she said. She looked at Reggie. “I heard you tinkering around. Did you unblock the laundry chute?”

            “No” said Reggie. “But look.” He held up the shirt and waved it back and forth. “I got my favorite shirt back! And I still love it, just as much as I always did!”

            “Of course you do,” said Gloria with a weary smile. “I’m glad I can count on you.”

            Reggie changed into his pajamas, got into bed, and Gloria nestled up against him and fell asleep. Reggie lay in the dark and waited. “Reggie Tyler Pollet,” he mouthed to himself. “T-Y-L-E-R. 




Discussion Questions

  • Where’s Mr. Groggs? Why did he make the house like that? What’s in the laundry chute? What’s causing Bert’s sickness? Is Reggie going to catch the same sickness?



  • Has he already caught it? Is the house causing the sickness? If so, how did Bert get it when he was in Spain? Is the sickness a real sickness? When is change just change and when is it something scarier?



  • Why is Gloria scared of the house? Why does she worry about Bert’s sickness so much? Are Bert and Mr. Groggs kindred spirits? Is there evidence for this beyond the mere fact that Bert likes the house? Should there be limits to our curiosity?



  • What happens when you can’t prioritize the questions you want answers for? What happens when you come to a dead end? What are you owed? What would you even do with half the explanations you think you want?



  • What’s the point of Discussion Questions?