Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tales from the Cellar

This may come as a shock to people who have lived all of their lives here in California, but nearly all of the houses back east have a big room underneath the house. They call it a “basement,” and it’s where they keep the furnace, water heater, washer, dryer, and all of the miscellaneous junk that people in California keep in their garages.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have air conditioning. On summer days when it was too hot to play outside, we played in the basement, which was about ten degrees cooler than the rest of the house. Some of my friends had finished basements, with paneling, fluorescent lights, ping-pong tables and shuffleboard courts. Ours was just a plain, ugly basement, but we had lots of fun down there, playing games or building imaginary forts out of old blankets and sheets. It was never a scary place—except during the occasional tornado warning, or once when the sewer backed up.

My grandmother’s basement, on the other hand, was like something from a Stephen King novel. In fact, "basement" is too nice a word for my grandmother's basement. A better word would be "cellar," which means essentially the same thing, but sounds much scarier.

In the center, taking up half the cellar, was an immense, ancient, and terrifying furnace. It looked a lot like this...


In my nightmares, the furnace would grab at me with those huge, octopus arms as I tried to escape up the cellar stairs. Next to those stairs was an old washing machine, something like this one...


I had nightmares about that washing machine, too—and with good reason. Once, when I was with my mother while she was doing laundry, I made the mistake of touching the electric wringer while the rollers were moving. It grabbed my fingers and pulled me in up to the elbow before my mother could shut it off. I must have been about four years old at the time, with more curiosity than sense.

I think it was about that same time that I found the gun.

In the northeast corner of the cellar, enclosed by plain, painted boards, was a small room. It had a wooden door held shut by a simple hook and eye, and inside were sturdy wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. My grandmother and aunts called it “the fruit cellar.” (Which made no sense to me; there was no fruit in there, and why would anyone keep fruit in the cellar, anyway?) Before he died, my grandfather had used the fruit cellar to store tools and spare parts. There were rows and rows of cigar boxes on the shelves, filled with all sorts of wonderful things: screws, bolts, washers, string, doorknobs, switches, sockets. And on the back of the top shelf, where I could barely reach it by using the lower shelves as a ladder, was a cigar box that held just one thing: a beautiful, shiny, black revolver.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out where the gun came from. One night, in my grandparents’ old neighborhood, the family had been awakened by the sounds of a police pursuit through the alley behind the house. The next morning, my grandfather had found the gun in the backyard. No doubt the criminal had thrown it over the fence to avoid being captured with it in his possession. My grandfather never told anyone what he did with the gun. Time passed, the family moved to a different neighborhood, my grandfather passed away, and the family forgot about it.

Until the day I came out of the cellar, waving it in the air and saying, “Look what I found!”

My mother and aunts screamed. My grandmother nearly fainted. I began to cry, not knowing what I had done to upset everyone. Someone—I don’t know who—carefully took the gun away from me.

You can imagine the nightmares that followed that incident.


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