Cool. Dark. Moist.

At the height of a drought, when even spiders beg for a drink, thoughts drift to the basement visits of childhood.


Beth Kephart
September 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

All summer long we've been waiting for rain. We've been watching the grass turn starchy, fawn-colored, hot; the phlox gray out, like hair; the carpenter ants circle our proud purple maple, as if the tree were prey. Even Harvey, the bat who hides in our porch shutters, has been parchedly preserving his poop, and around our mailbox the vinca moans -- something about broken promises, betrayal.

Last night I couldn't sleep and I came downstairs to write, and a daddy longlegs begged for a drink. I tell the truth. He climbed a wall, he climbed a couch, he climbed a bookshelf, he stood on my knee, lunging and desperate and pleading and shaking one of his too-many long arms at me, doing his unlevel best to sip from the glass of chilled water in my hand. Finally, at 4 a.m., I took the beast outside. When I told my husband about my late-night encounter he wiped a trickle of perspiration from his freckled brow and scolded me for refusing the spider a drink.

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Jeremy is doing his best to tough it out in our old, nearly AC-free house. He stocks up on Kool-Aid pops when we go to the grocery store, and he's got one in his mouth all the afternoon long, soaking his lips with their tie-dye hues. He holds them there while their coolness drips onto his tongue, his bangs pushed out straight with the goo of sweat. He goes out into the yard to play and returns within minutes, his perfect face flushed the color of tomatoes. He plops on the floor, takes off his socks and stands up, so that he can reach the freezer. Our curtains merely decorate. They do not distract the sun.

They have been talking about showerless Mondays. They have been showing the shriveling corn fields on TV. They have been reporting salt lines along with temperatures. There is nothing that anyone can do. Twice the skies bruised to a threatening purple. Twice the winds blew laterally, hard. But the clouds are parsimonious now, and maybe it's only fair -- diplomatically speaking -- when you consider the crass and savage ways we've burned and scarred our clouds.

We imagine coolness. The shadow beneath a butterfly's wings. The channels of ink inside pens. The gathering of air inside the spines of our books. The space behind couches, between mattresses, within cupboards. We remember the dark moist chocolatey places we've descried or been taken to or read about, in books. Movie theaters. Waterfalls. Streams. Seville just after Christmas. The playhouse near the creek amid the oak trees of a forest. Jeremy thinks about the basement of his grandmother's house. I think about the basement of mine. Basements are like refrigerated caverns, we could say to one another, were we speaking. Basements are like tunnels or like caves.

They have an earthy kind of smell. They have an earthy kind of taste. They are immune to the poison of the sun. "If I were at Grandmom's," Jeremy says, breaking the thick, white, sticky silence, "I would go into the basement and I would not come out."

"A good idea," I say.

"Yeah."

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"What would you do there?"

"I'd explore things. I would play."

"My grandmother had a basement, too," I tell him.

"She did?"

"Yes she did."

"What kind?"

"The dark kind."

"And cool?" he wants to know.

"Very cool," I assure him. "And you had to be careful on the steps."

Jeremy gets up and retrieves another popsicle. He returns and we sit face-to-face in the glare, conjuring cool, dark, subterranean places.

My mother's mother's basement was no bigger than the footprint of her house, which was small the way city rowhouses are small, and big in the romantic way I used to see things. It taught me the meaning of the word "nostalgia" long before I harbored personal regrets. It contained what I could never know and promised what I longed to discover. There was hardly any room to stand. There was a single snaking line of floor between all she'd saved and collected. My brother would sit at the heavy roll-top desk. My sister would straddle one of the boxes. I would stand in the back, near the dresses she'd strung across a knotty stretch of rope, sifting my hands among the chiffons and silks and cottons and wools and all of the dust in all of their creases. Every dress held a fraction of my grandmother's story, a chapter of her life, her womanhood, her simple glories. It held the way she'd laughed, the way she'd prayed, the way she'd spoken to herself when she'd brush her dark hair and fix her hat with a pearly pin. I would stand among her dresses imagining, believing what I wanted to be true.

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Then we changed places. I would snake forward and my sister would snake back and my brother would move from the desk to the spindly chestnut chair that was set down with all the boxes. If we spoke to one another, I don't remember what we said, though I am certain that we would have whispered. If we displaced the flecks and bits and scraps from their messy, stacked-up stations, I am sure that we were careful to reassert them in their places: the photographs, the scrapbooks, my uncle's old report cards, the autograph albums of movie stars that my mother had assembled as a star-struck girl. We respected our grandmother's things. We understood that what she'd thought to save was sacred, not haphazard. And it was cool down there, and we took our time, and we listened to hollow footsteps overhead. We left some things untouched, deliberately, so that there'd be more -- eternally more and more -- to tiptoe about and uncover.

"I like the foos-ball game at Grandmom's house," Jeremy says, and I blink and return to present time. "And I like all the doors and where they go to. And I like the corner where no one can find you. And I like the dart board that no one can find."

"Is that right?" I say. He's 10, and an adventurer.

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"Yes. And did you know that Grandmom keeps Christmas presents down there, even in the summer?"

"Do you look at them?"

"Not really."

"Why?"

"Because I'd rather be surprised."

"Did you know that my grandmother liked to dance?" I ask him.

"No."

"Oh yes," I say. "Oh yes. She burned a hole right through the floor."

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Jeremy just smiles through the haze.

I would like to call my brother this hot instant and ask him what he remembers about our grandmother's cellar in urban Philadelphia. He is the scientist among us, the reliable arsenal of facts, the eyewitness who knows -- indisputably -- what was in all those picture frames, those boxes, whether there were hats pinned along that clothesline, or just dresses, blouses, skirts. My sister was too young to collect and keep the details of that dark place, and my memory is porous, wanting to believe the things I'd just imagined and forgetting what I knew. Wanting my grandmother to have lived a fabled life, a happy life, an endless and eternal life. Wishing that wish most of all: that she would always and forever live and that her things would not be budged from her rich basement.

"It would be interesting to go to a dungeon," Jeremy says. "To climb down narrow, dangerous steps. I like things like that."

"You've been to dungeons," I remind him.

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"I know."

"In Italy. In Spain."

"I know. But it would be cool to see another one. To hide down there, in the cool."

"What would you think about?"

"I'd imagine being cool. And then I'd imagine climbing back up the dangerous steep stairs of the dungeon."

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If I could call my brother now, I would ask him who it was that had first led the way down the precipitous passage to Grandmom's basement in South Philly. I would tell him that I have a memory that maybe isn't true of Grandmom in the vanguard, her skirt billowing out toward us, and of Grandpop on our heels, switching on the bare bulbs, saying there'd be meatballs for our supper. I have a memory of us descending, between them, our own parents upstairs among the red-and-orange oil paintings, rocking the cute baby to her sleep. I have a memory descending among crooked, nailed up photos, between proudly framed certificates, into cool, sobering tucks of air that slipped inside our socks. I would ask my brother if all of this were true. If he remembers it like I do. If he'd believed in eternity, too.

Though maybe it's OK this time to know less than the truth. OK to not remember who led us down into that cellar, and what, in the end, turned off that light, took her away, allowed her things to go perpetually missing. Maybe it's OK to simply sit here with my son. Imagining shade. Imagining cool. Imagining a child's trek through dungeons. Imagining we hear the sound of Grandmom's shoes pattering, rain-like, above us.


Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

MORE FROM Beth Kephart

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