Here’s to my professor of memoir writing (and also, incidentally, poetry, even though she didn’t like rhyming), for providing me with material even when I’m on vacation. I don’t have the assignment details anymore, but this was clearly some sort of exercise on description.
There are corners in my grandmother’s basement that have never seen light.
Before we moved to Thailand, we lived in Gram’s house for three months, but the family had been going there for years and it was already our second home. I loved her house because it smelled like her, of her practical lotion and cooking, a smell that had soaked into the very base of the house. But there is something that most adults have forgotten, that almost every kid knows from the bottom of their soul.
There are things that live in the basement furnace room.
The furnace banged whenever it came on, like someone had kicked something into place, and always when I was least expecting it. It scrummed when it got going, a heavier grating noise than the mechanical thrum of working machinery, pulsing in volume that vibrated up the large metal box and into the ceiling. That was the only part of the furnace room that hummed with it, because the rest was cold, smooth cement. The furnace room always felt incomplete, as though it had been gutted and never finished. You could feel the dark weight of the ground it was carved out of, held back by bomb-shelter quality walls. It felt like Communist-era housing, comfortless and without amenities.
The rest of the house was carpeted, so whenever we (there was always a pack of three to nine of us, depending on how well the separate family units had coordinated their travel plans) played in the basement, my feet were always bare. The cold washed through my toes until it made it up to my ankles, pulling heat from the soles of my feet. But we went into the furnace room anyways, because of the ping pong table.
The ping-pong table was a wonderful thing, green and smoothed with age. The net was always falling crooked so that games were rife with try-pulling-that-side-straight-this-time-breaks. The entire table leaned, kind of with the slant of the floor, but mostly on crooked legs. We’d push and pull at the table, scraping it in loud, low-pitched shrieks until we found the perfect dip in the floor to make it stop moving. For some reason it always needed fixing.
The back wall of the furnace room had an old 50’s era refrigerator and an enormous freezer, filled with packs of meat and frozen vegetables. I could smell the frozen water coating the back of the freezer, a stale, biting scent. Both appliances were an old-looking cream color, and they too hummed without sending out vibrations into the floor. They collected dust, cobwebs, and ping pong balls. When we ran low on ping pongs, someone would have to reach their hand into the black corners, feeling the sweep of thick cobwebs over their hands and, depending on how deep into the narrow spaces we had to search, up our arms. I was often called on duty for the deep reaches because my arms were the skinniest. I hated that feeling, like fingers ghosting on my arm (or the absolutely dead-certain sense that a spider was about to leap onto my skin), and I’d pull my arm out as soon as I found the ping pong we needed, occasionally with another in my hand.
Next to the freezer was the blackest part of the house, a door-less pantry that swallowed even the fluorescent light above the ping pong table. It was a dangerous place, large enough to hold something that could breathe, filled with old wooden shelves stacked with a hundred other things I never stopped to look at whenever I was unfortunate enough to have to go back there for a lost ping pong ball.
It was there, when the lights were off for a game of Deer in the Thicket, that my cousin hid in plain sight, crouched on top of the freezer as my brother stared into the tar-like pitch. I can imagine him, grinning into the dark, as the furnace room breathed heavy and soft around him.
But it isn’t until you’re climbing the stairs back up to the kitchen – sunshine just spilling onto the top two stairs – the basement a dark, unknown, brooding something behind you, that you really being to suspect that you were right all along. That the only reason you can’t hear it for certain is because the sound of your own feet masks the sound of something following you. I ran those stairs every time, lights off, everyone else already upstairs, without looking back.
Because if I was right, looking backwards would only slow me down.