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The Booger.

Was the dog all right?

The dog was fine. After an extended period of barking, Stella, the dog, wrested her gaze from the thing under the house. She lay down on the porch with a sigh, chin propped peevishly on her front paws. Her frantic barks had alarmed Molly and brought her out of the house to see what was wrong, even though they had been through this routine a hundred times. The barks were barks of excitement, not trouble.

When Molly and Stella first started hearing the thing under the house, Molly went out and bought chicken wire and tacked it up all along the crawl space. While she was hammering, it occurred to her that she might be shutting the thing in rather than shutting it out. So she left the last foot of chicken wire unattached, propped against the house, thereby rendering the rest of its length useless. Whatever was under the house could still come and go. If anything, the crawl space was now an even more inviting place to live, with just one small and easily defensible entryway, and no openings large enough for a bigger animal to fit through if it wanted to eat the thing under the house.

Why did something live under the house?

It was the kind of house that things lived under. A small wooden frame house, lifted off the ground on brick piers, it had once been a sharecropper's house attached to a large plantation. Molly's house may even have been a slave cabin originally. Over the last hundred years the property had been subdivided, the plantation big-house demolished, and the distance between the former plantation and the nearby city abbreviated by urban sprawl; yet the sharecropper's house, Molly's house, remained. It sat on an acre of former farmland at the edge of town. The realty listing described it as ideal for an "ag-venturer": someone who might start a small organic farm, maybe a CSA to serve the surrounding suburb. The realtor didn't know that the land was exhausted from more than a hundred crops of tobacco. It would require much love and work to restore the soil. Though she didn't plan to make a business of it, Molly did have fantasies of a large kitchen garden.

What was under the house?

A booger. Molly didn't really know. Once while working in the garden she saw a sparsely furred gray tail disappear into the crawl space. It was like a rat's tail but larger, too large even to be a possum's, more like a dog's, but unlike a dog's tail it dragged on the ground. At night when Molly lay in the bath she could hear the booger under the house, snuggled up next to the warm underside of the bathtub. When it turned around under the tub she heard the whisper of bristly fur.

What is a booger?

It wasn't really a booger, Molly just liked to pretend that it was.

What is a booger?

A booger is like a goblin. Etymologically it's related to the boogieman and to the noise you make when you pretend you're trying to frighten a small child: boogie-boogie-boogie.

Does the booger symbolize Molly's subconscious?

No, the booger was just a booger. Though it lived under her house it does not represent her subconscious, her sublimated animal urges, or any private wish to act uncouth, even from time to time. Molly was simply a woman who, through no fault of her own, had an animal of an unknown species living in the crawl space of her home.

Was Molly afraid of the booger?

She sometimes worried that it might be a rabies vector, but Stella was vaccinated, and Molly herself wasn't going to tangle with it anyway, so it posed little risk. To the extent that Molly's feelings toward the booger were unappreciative, it was due to the noise it made, which sometimes became a nuisance.

What did the booger under Molly's house eat?

Fruits and vegetables. At night it dragged vegetable fragments out of the compost pile. Molly knew this because she found a trail of Brussels sprouts and pepper guts leading to the gap in the crawl space. It really liked apples. There was a hatch in the floor of the kitchen pantry, giving access to the crawl space, and once Molly had lifted it up to see if she could catch sight of the booger, maybe find out what kind of animal it was. She saw many gnawed-up apple cores in the crawl space.

Did anyone other than Molly see the booger?

Molly and Stella the dog saw the booger, no one else; and for her part, Molly only saw its tail that one time. Quite often Molly and Stella heard it, though, both moving around and vocalizing. It had a voice like a dolphin's chirrup, but shriller and more rodent-like. Sitting in the living room watching TV, they sometimes heard scrabbling under the floor and in the walls. This agitated Stella and caused her to make whistles of excitement in the back of her sinuses, like she did when it was time to go for a walk. Sometimes she padded around the house following the sound.

Molly's brother Dwight, Dwight's husband Michael, and their little boy Anthony all heard the booger too. One day when they were visiting, the booger started making its shrill sounds, and then another animal answered it in the same type of voice. "Maybe the booger has a husband," suggested Anthony. Molly and Anthony rushed to the pantry to open the hatch and try to glimpse the boogers, but all they saw were apple cores.

Can we feed the boogers? asked Anthony.

Molly supposed so. She took a bag of apples and held it at Anthony's level. He selected two and carefully dropped them into the crawl space.

From then on, Molly fed the booger, and though she didn't hear the second booger again, she always left two apples just in case.

Why didn't she feed the booger other foods?

At times she did. The booger liked the food that Molly grew. Soon Molly was in the process of converting part of her yard into the kitchen garden. When she moved in she maxed out a credit card buying supplies for the garden: a dump-truck load of topsoil: rake, hoe, shovels, spading fork; an electric tiller; wooden pallets; plants to grow in containers while the garden was still a work in progress.

She had moved into the house in October and worked steadily through the fall to have the soil tilled and amended and ready for planting by early spring. She built a ziggurat of wooden pallets, a terraced container garden for potted strawberry plants. In the spring they produced berries, which were delicious, though they were nearly all eaten by birds before Molly could get to them. She also grew lettuce in a large pot by the kitchen door. The leaves that it produced, though abundant, were weedy looking, preyed on by slugs. One evening she gathered a basket of salad greens, intending to eat them herself. When she started washing them, removing the dirt and bugs that clung to the leaves, she became frustrated and gave up. That night she ate a salad from Whole Foods, and the booger ate Molly's garden greens. She poured them into the crawl space through the pantry hatch, and the next morning they were all gone.

Who else visited Molly?

One day a car pulled up the gravel road to Molly's house. In the car were three generations of a black family. (Molly was white. Stella was black and white.) A middle-aged man got out of the car and knocked on the door. He explained to Molly that his mother had grown up in this house, and that the whole family was visiting from a faraway city, and they hoped Molly wouldn't mind if the mother took a look at her old homeplace. Molly said that of course she didn't mind and came outside to meet the old lady.

The lady had lived in Molly's house in the 1930s. Her parents sharecropped for the plantation owners, the ones who lived in the house now torn down. Holding onto her teenage grandson's arm, she gave her family, along with Molly, a tour of the yard. The barn had stood right there, the smokehouse there, the outhouse there. Mother and Sister always did the laundry on Saturdays in a washpot right there, next to where the pump used to be.

Molly asked if the family would like to see the inside of the house. "Heavens," said the old lady when they stepped inside. It was very different from what she remembered. For one thing, she said, they hadn't had indoor plumbing. "Wouldn't we have appreciated that," she said when she saw the bathroom. In the living room she pointed to the flue cover that capped the spot where a woodstove had once been connected to the wall, and that was now painted over the same color as the wall. "That has a picture on it, under that paint. It shows a yellow-haired lady in a white dress, standing in a meadow picking flowers. We put it up to cover the flue when the landlord replaced the woodstove with a radiator. It's a shame it's painted over, it was real pretty." She touched the painted drywall. "There are old chinked logs up under this drywall," she said.

"Is there still a booger under the house?" the old lady asked Molly.

There was still a booger under the house. On cue the shrill chirping sound came from under the floorboards. "Pipe down," said the old lady, thumping the floor with her cane. "Don't nobody want to hear that shit."

Who else visited Molly?

Representatives from the local historic preservation committee visited Molly. Because Molly's house was the last surviving building associated with the plantation, they were considering whether it should be nominated for the historic register. This was fine with Molly; she didn't foresee wanting to make any major renovations beyond what the previous owner had done, so it wouldn't bother her if restrictions were imposed; and she liked the idea that future owners wouldn't be able to subdivide the land any more.

But the house didn't pass muster with the committee. The chairwoman and vice president came to tour the house, and immediately as they walked through the door the chairwoman said, "Oh, this has been changed drastically. It's not a two-pen house anymore." The previous owners had removed and rearranged walls, creating an open-plan kitchen and eating area. The lean-to addition in back that had once been a sleeping space was now a winterized laundry room. The former sleeping loft was now an enclosed attic. "No," said the committee chairwoman, "there's very little left of this house's historic integrity. We can't justify a nomination for this property." And that was that.

Did Molly agree that the property lacked historic integrity?

Molly did not agree. She loved the house and land. All winter and early spring she continued to work hard to get the garden ready for planting. Much of the ground that she wanted to cultivate was nearly pure clay, and those areas she dug up, replacing the clay with a mixture of topsoil, manure, and bone meal. During all of this digging she turned up artifacts from the house's previous residents. Closest to the house she found nails, marbles, an earring, and a penny dated 1934. In the middle she found a disused ceramic drainage pipe from the house's first plumbing system and lost several days in digging it out. At the far end of the garden she found a midden filled with bottles, tin cans, broken ceramic, and chicken and hog bones. She treated each item reverently, reburying the animal bones beyond the edge of the garden and bringing the more attractive items--the marbles and ceramic shards, and the bottles stamped with patent medicine company names--into the house and arranging them in a display on the mantel.

While Molly worked in the garden, Stella generally spent her time watching the booger. She would stand for ten minutes at a time with her head poked through the gap in the chicken wire, her body motionless except for occasional involuntary tail wagging; then she would run to the other side of the house, barking through the chicken wire all the way around.

Who else visited Molly?

Dwight and Michael and Anthony visited again. One Sunday in the late summer they came over for lunch. Molly had coaxed enough vegetables from the garden soil to serve her guests a home-grown meal. She served sliced tomatoes with basil, grilled squash and peppers, and wedges of cantaloupe. Anthony didn't like vegetables, so for him she made a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

As Dwight and Michael served themselves, Molly asked Anthony if he would like to try the cantaloupe. "Yes, please," he said and took two wedges. Kneeling in his chair he then reached for the salad tongs and put two large slices of tomato on his plate next to the sandwich and cantaloupe. Dwight and Michael discretely raised their eyebrows at each other. When Anthony heaped squash and peppers on his plate, Michael intervened. "Hold on, honey," he said, taking the serving fork gently. "It's great that you're trying new foods today, but let's start with smaller helpings."

"No," Anthony said with irritation, "it has to be a lot. It's not for me, it's for the booger."

After lunch Anthony followed Molly into the kitchen carrying his plate, now lacking the sandwich. Molly put the grownups' plates in the sink and turned to Anthony.

"Ready?" asked Molly.

"Yes," said Anthony. They knelt together on the pantry floor, and Molly lifted the hatch. Molly held the plate while Anthony used his fork to push the food off the plate and into the crawl space. "I bet the booger will appreciate that," said Molly.

"Do you think the booger is nice?" asked Anthony.

"Yes, I think it's probably a nice booger," said Molly.

"Do you think it would bite you?"

"I'm sure it wouldn't bite me, or you, or your dads, or Stella."

"I'm sure too," said Anthony. "It knows we're its friends."

Molly closed the hatch and stood up and carried the plate to the kitchen sink. Anthony remained kneeling by the hatch.

"Do you like the booger?" he asked.

"I guess so," said Molly. "It's part of this house, and I like the house."

"The booger probably likes the house too," said Anthony.

"Yes, probably," said Molly.

"Then why do you make it stay under the house?"

Molly didn't know.

"I don't know," she said. "Because that's just where it lives."

"But it might want to live inside the house or at least visit."

Molly considered. She reopened the hatch and placed the bag of apples next to the opening.

"Why don't we find out?"
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Author:Bryan, Sarah
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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