Thomas Wictor

Ceilings want me dead

Ceilings want me dead

In my senior year at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Oregon—alma mater of Monica Lewinsky!—I moved into the second floor of an apartment complex off campus. A friendly Turk and his Iranian wife were the owners. He told us to call him Bob. Though he spoke perfectly colloquial American English, he had a thick Turkish accent.

He was also the hairiest man I’ve ever seen. Since he habitually wore white wife beaters, I could see that the black hair on his shoulders and back was two inches long. His throat was shaved down to his chest, and his five-o’-clock shadow stopped at his lower eyelids.

Bob told us that when he married his wife, he got drunk on raki at the reception and decided that he needed something non-alcoholic to dilute the booze. Looking around the banquet table, he saw what he thought was a glass of tomato juice. He downed it in one gulp and discovered that it was some nightmare Persian hot sauce more powerful than Tabasco.

“Man, my butt was out of whack for six months,” he said.

I laughed for literally an hour. Bob was a genius. It would never in a billion years have occurred to me to use the phrase “my butt was out of whack.”

The pregnant hippo

Below us lived a quadriplegic man who’d broken his neck wrestling in high school twenty years earlier. He was a writer who held his felt-tipped pen in his mouth, held a pad of yellow legal paper in his clenched hands, and moved his head to form the words. Try writing that way. It’s impossible. Yet he did it.

He spent his days lying on his sofa in his living room. A catheter and leg bag took care of his urinary needs, while he defecated only once every two days, with the aid of medication. His attendant bathed him every three days, since it was such a major undertaking. I relate all this to explain why he didn’t go into his bathroom very often and was thus unaware of the catastrophe unfolding in there.

One afternoon he phoned and asked me to come down to his apartment because he heard dripping water. I let myself in and listened. Sure enough: ploink-ploink-ploink-ploink.

I looked into his bathroom and was confronted with a sight I simply couldn’t process. The bright blue ceiling bulged downward like the belly of a pregnant hippo. It resembled a canopy attached to all four corners of the room. I was struck at the perfect symmetry, as though the ceiling had been inflated until it hung nearly three feet from the horizontal at the lowest point of the bulge.

The cartoonish appearance of the ceiling lulled me into making a suicidally moronic decision: I walked into the bathroom and stood under the bulge, stroking it. Water dripped down my wrist.

“Did you find the problem?” my neighbor called.

I went out of the bathroom to tell him, and the instant my foot landed on the hallway carpet, WA-BOOM! The ceiling collapsed, dropping tons of sheet rock, plaster, and water onto the floor. If I’d waited another two seconds, I would’ve been flattened. And drowned.

We later determined that the toilet in my apartment upstairs had begun leaking, filling my neighbor’s ceiling. Bob the hairy Turkish owner was horrified. He thought he’d put my neighbor and me in life-threatening danger. It wasn’t his fault, though. Some long-dead plumber was to blame.

The Train Room

In 1999 I went online so that I could correspond with “Abby,” the hippie-nymph I met in San Francisco. Tim and I put the computer in the Train Room, a converted garage at the back of his house attached to my grandfather’s workshop. It has asbestos floor tiles, but everyone says that the fibers are embedded in resin, so we have nothing to worry about. The only way I’ll know for sure is if I die from something other than mesothelioma.

We set up my ex-Exxon desk and the computer in the Train Room, so called because it was where my Uncle Mike had once created a giant train diorama or landscape or whatever they’re called. A train board? Anyway, it filled the room and had a station, houses, trees, everything. It was O gauge, so it was huge.

The computer stayed in the Train Room until I moved into my current house in 2006. About two years ago, Tim told me that part of the ceiling had fallen in the Train Room.

The loose tiles landed right where my chair had been at the computer desk.

They weigh about a hundred pounds and would’ve driven my head down into my chest.

Dear Abby:
How’s it going? I keep hearing weird little creaking sounds in here, but maybe it’s just my imaginatiovc45as[’v p;/jkscpkvdm p;

Fire in the Hole

In 2011 I got out of the shower in my house and turned on the overhead fan to suck out the steam.

The fan made a ratcheting, grinding sound and burst into flames. It was like the pregnant-hippo ceiling back in college; I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing. I stood under the fan and watched fire roar up the shaft. Smoke began filling the bathroom. I switched off the fan, grabbed the fire extinguisher from beside the washer, and tried to spray it into the ceiling.

Nothing. Not even a gasp. The fan burned merrily, dropping little chunks like meteorites.

I called my father and shouted, “My bathroom fan has burst into flames! I think it’s setting the attic on fire! Bring a fire extinguisher! Hurry!”

“Wait: What?”


I got a chair, climbed up on it, and used a butter knife to break off the plastic fan cover. Flames poured out of the motor and disappeared into the shaft. My back door flew open, and Dad and Tim thundered in. Dad had a fire extinguisher.

“Holy shit!” he yelled. I got out of the way, and he jumped on the chair and sprayed the foam into the fan as Tim steadied him. The fire was smothered. Then we went outside, took a ladder, and removed the screen door covering to the attic access. Everything was fine. The flames had gone up the aluminum air shaft only.

We came back inside and unscrewed the fan from its mountings. Made in China, of course. The bearings had seized, and friction had caused the plutonium and kindling inside it to catch on fire.

“You’re goddamn lucky,” Dad said. He seemed genuinely shaken. Over my protests he bought me a new bathroom fan. That was more than two years ago, but I haven’t used it yet. I’m not going to either.

Ceilings want me dead. Screw you, ceilings. And screw you, fans. Bastards.

Here’s a picture of Dad at his wedding, from the album we thought was lost. In my whole life, I never saw him smile like this, so I’m glad we have this photo.

Thanks for the fan, Dad. And thanks for saving my house.

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