Full of cabinets and closets to explore, interesting furniture to play on, and of course the pool to swim in, I thought my Grandma’s house was perfect. We didn’t visit too often, usually just for Thanksgiving and maybe a few days during the summer, but that only made the trips extra special.
As my family and I would make the journey up to Connecticut, through New Jersey and New York — across the expansive Tappan Zee Bridge — I always had a kind of nervous excitement. It was nice to see relatives but the real treat was the house.
As soon as my brothers and sister and I were done getting kissed and hugged, we’d delve right in — the chilly porch that smelled like the pine bushes and flowers that surrounded the pool, the soft brown revolving chair in the living room, the side table with the secret spinning compartment that held ceramic coasters, the large kitchen with the hanging baskets that climbed to the ceiling, the small back bedroom with the cinderblock and plywood shelf and old typewriter, the hall closet filled with Tinker Toys and other trinkets like the yellow plastic triangles that made a funny squeaking sound. Every room contained Grandma’s paintings and other pieces from her art collection. We’d seen it all before but always loved seeing it again.
We’d usually save my favorite part of the house — the large basement — for last. The old stairs would creak and pop as we went down (the noise was a good warning if anyone was coming and we were doing something we shouldn’t have been). A stone ledge next to the stairs held several more of Grandma’s paintings.
The basement had three different sections. Off to the right were various things for the pool, a well-used ping pong table, a metal wall-lamp that would occasionally give off a painful shock, and an ancient refrigerator that we once found a dead mouse in. Large sheets of brown paper Grandma had set up for us kids to draw on covered one wall and continued to display our various masterpieces for many years.
At the bottom of the stairs was a separate room. This was where I liked to stay whenever we spent the night. It had a soft carpet and two beds separated by a round table. There were also more closets containing old games and photo albums and other interesting things to look at.
Next to that furnished room was the third section of the basement. And as great as the rest of the house was, this part we did our best to stay away from. It was always very dark; daylight barely penetrated the small, cloudy windows. The closest dangling light string was about six feet in and nobody had the nerve to reach it. In the darkness large, shadowy shapes loomed. No one was quite sure what was in there and no one seemed too willing to find out. And if it weren’t for my brother, that part of the basement might always have remained a mystery.
When I was nine or ten I was hanging out down there — most likely waiting for the turkey to be ready — when I suddenly felt my hat pulled off my head. I turned around; somehow, even with the noisy stairs, my oldest brother Russ had snuck up on me. My brothers loved to mess with me and grabbing my hat was a favorite game of theirs.
“C’mon, Russ,” I said, reaching for it as he held it over his head. “Give it.”
He grinned down at me and lowered his arm and I thought, foolishly, that he was actually going to give it back. But then I saw my hat — my beloved Mets hat, the same exact kind Darryl Strawberry wore during their tickertape parade — fly into the dreaded part of the basement. I watched in horror as it was swallowed up by the blackness.
I felt the tears start to well up but forced them not to come. I knew there was no use demanding he go retrieve it but did it anyway.
“Russ!” I yelled “Go get it!”
He smirked and then peered into the darkness. I realized later that even though he was older, I think he was just as scared to go in there as I was.
“Get it yourself, it’s your stupid hat,” he said. “I’m going upstairs.” He ran up the stairs and slammed the door behind him.
All of a sudden I was very uncomfortable and not only because I was scared to go in after my hat; I felt naked without it, aside from when I slept, I almost never took it off.
I gazed into the gaping black hole, my imagination conjuring up all sorts of creatures that could be lurking within. After a moment I took a step forward but stopped abruptly. If I could just get to that string, I thought, I’ll be fine. I’ll pull on it, the light will come on, I’ll find my hat, and then I can get out. I took a deep breath and charged ahead, never taking my eyes off the little piece of metal at the end of the string. In a second I was there, yanking on it; the familiar click was marvelous. But nothing happened. I pulled again. Nothing, no light. Now I had two choices, I could either scurry back or trudge forward to the next string.
My heart was pounding; I could feel it thumping in my ears. Just leave, I told myself. Go upstairs and tell Mom. She’ll come down and get the hat, or better yet, she’ll make Russ get it. I glanced to my right. On the floor I saw a shape that could have been the hat. I ran over and leaned down. It was hard and rough — almost scaly — definitely not the hat.
Now I was in deeper and it was even darker. I could feel a slight cool draft at my ankles and there was a strong musty smell. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move and I spun around. There was nothing there, or at least anything I could see, and I lunged for the next light string, terrified it wouldn’t work. Thankfully the bulb buzzed on and a pale yellow light flooded the room.
I found myself standing in front of a wooden worktable. Numerous old tools, rags, small metal cans, and other items covered the table. I glanced around. There were several chairs and tables, sagging cardboard boxes, large framed pictures leaning against the walls, a couple of bikes. And what I thought was my hat turned out to be the end of a gray, plastic instrument case.
Curiosity began to overtake my fear. I walked over to the next string and pulled it — this one worked as well — and began looking around. Dusty books sat on a thick wooden bookshelf and I eagerly read all the titles. In a white box I found a stack of dog-eared papers and was about to move on when I noticed my Mom’s maiden name on the top sheet. I got a little excited when I realized they were her old school assignments. After thumbing through some of Grandma’s numerous frayed sketchpads, I went back over to the instrument case and opened it. Inside was a somewhat tarnished but still shiny trombone. I attached the arm and blew into the sour-tasting mouthpiece and spat out a couple creaky notes.
As I lifted a grimy sheet at the very back of the room to see what other treasures waited beneath, I heard Mom calling for me. Suddenly I realized I had been down there for quite a while. I found my hat — it was under the worktable — turned off the lights and headed for the stairs.
I didn’t venture back into that section of the basement too often after that day (from the outside it still looked pretty scary), but I no longer ran by convinced some kind of monster was waiting to leap out, as I happily noticed my siblings continued to do. It just became another component of that wonderful house.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED