January 8, 2012 § 3 Comments

By Jacqueline Austin

"Metallic Tractors," satirical etching by James Gillray (1793)

To get there, I had to go out of the “living” part of the house, and through the door beyond the stairs, to the no man’s land between the house and my father’s medical office.

I had to pass the tall white drug cabinet, ghostly on the left, and the closed door to the main examining rooms, on the right. Always from that door, emanated half-audible rumblings: the voice of my father, mixed with the fearful questions of strangers.

Though I could never make out the words, my father’s voice would be reassuring. If I dared, and these times were few, I would take a moment to listen, as these were the times when my father sounded like a father.

The reason I went there was to test my fears.

After I was refreshed, I would turn left, and left again, to find the yellowed, plastic accordion-fold door. When I slid it open, I would discover–between times, it felt like a dream–a narrow, dark landing ahead of me, stinking of mildew.

It was always so dark, I could never see any light switch. But I knew it was on my left, and it’s still on my left, in my dreams: a ridged, pebbled bronze plate framing four greasy flip tabs, pointing down. Each controlled a different section of the basement.

My desire to be alone usually outweighed my reluctance to touch this. And I could never remember, and still do not remember, to this day, which switch controlled what, which switches gave power. It seemed to me that this kept changing, though even at my littlest and weakest, I felt this must be impossible.

The moment I chose a switch and flipped it on, the stairway would go a-gape below me, like the open, black maw of a leaping shark. I was always afraid of falling in. Not because I was originally prone to falling, but because I’d been thrown. So now, truly clumsy, I would hold on to one or both of the long, shaky, splintery, unfinished wood rails, for which the nicer word was “banisters,” as I sidled down, one foot after the other, sixteen times, clutching its length before and behind my rapidly beating chest as though my life depended on it–which perhaps it did.

To my left above one of these banisters was an iron key rack decorated with caricatures of annoyed contemporary men. There were no keys on this, just the legend painted in white: “Gosh, hang it!” To my right above the other banister were two framed satirical etchings of doctors, the one sawing a man’s legs off, and the other bowing politely to a fat lady in a bonnet.

The filthy gold shag rug, uneven underfoot, sent up breaths of dust as my bare feet touched it. I should always have had my slippers on, because years after construction, years after “finishing” the basement, skewed staples, shards of glass and pebbles would occasionally work themselves into my soles. But slippers had slippery bottoms and they always slipped. Even their name was slippery. So I preferred to risk my feet, even though they were so clumsy.

At the bottom of the steps was the landing where they had found the skull and the gun, when “finishing” the basement. I was sure that man’s ghost was still around. I would wonder about the pyramids in Egypt, with the bones of wives and cats. Would children’s bones be left here for archaeologists to discover?

Straight ahead of this landing was a furnace room–a clanking room of horrors. The door could not be shut; gray with dust, as yet “unfinished,” it had frozen open. So this furnace room, painted a dark crimson red, was curtained by a clothesline dripping pink, tattered underwear which even after washing, smelled of urine and bleach. The underwear half concealed, half revealed a gigantic whale, a filthy, thrumming cylinder of hammered metal. This was the malevolent heart of our grand, palatial house. I had once been shoved up against it and had been shown the fire inside. If I didn’t stop crying, the threat went, I would be given something to cry about.

So, when going there myself, whenever making a scientific test, I needed to check out that black area beyond the furnace, where the tools and witches were. I never understood how the broken, twisted things which lived there, could be used to repair anything, as indeed they never fully did. Another clothesline behind the first was threaded with partially used rounds of duct tape, black electrical tape and adhesive tape, once sterile, which had been dropped or dripped on, sometimes with blood. These were the most used tools in my father’s house. To the left of this second clothesline he kept a cardboard shopping bag filled with white, sticky surgical bandages. Even for a test, I couldn’t bear to put either of my hands into it.

Running out the red boiler room door, I would find myself in a narrow corridor, where the treatment rooms were. My father had several modern machines–well, they’d been modern long ago–and had dressed up three of the rooms with shiny, yellowed plastic wall panels, and the same yellowed plastic folding doors as at the entrance. The linoleum floor was kept clean and polished once a month by a Mr. Gruener, silent, fat and tall, who seemed to think nothing of flipping over his buffing machine from hell, yanking off the wire bristle pads, and exchanging them for new ones. So there would now be residues of honey wax, gluing together balls of bugs and hair, to peel off my feet, and here was another point at which I’d often break, and run.

The first room on the right contained a black vinyl and wood examining room table, with a roll of white paper at one end. Over this, hovered a diathermy machine–a control bank body-face expressive with dials and switches, from which sprang two disjointed arms. At the end of each arm were mechanical hands–large, black plastic plates faced, on the inside, with heating coils. I must never switch on the diathermy machine or the ultraviolet treatment machine next to it, as the coils turned purple-white and could blow out my eyes.

The second room on the right contained a giant hydrotherapy vat with hot and cold running ionized water. The patient–sometimes me–would be placed naked into this vat of water, chin deep, and the whirlpool turned on. With a sound like thunder, and vibration to match, the patient would be instantly cured or killed. One must hold on throughout, as this machine was not designed for children.

At the end of the hall was a dressing room. Sometimes this would become a maid’s room, as a maid would be hired and treated like a slave before, always, being fired. Our family’s cast-off furniture, a narrow cot and a clothes rack were all that were kept here, except for one high clerestory window, half covered with weeds, looking out on the ankles of the gardener, and the smells of grass and gasoline.

It was the main room of the basement, on the other side, which was the most occupied. I will save that for another day. I am only writing about these places, these lost places near my soul, because nobody ever noticed them, but us children.

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  From Vision, a book in progress.  All rights reserved.


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§ 3 Responses to Basement

  • Intrigued, looking for more, love your writing, the kind of novels I love to read. Very suspenseful.

  • Chris Danes says:

    Well- you more than noticed them. You inhabited them. I think Carla had some similar experiences in her basement as well. And I think she thought there were witches (or “a witch”) there… the laundry machines were in the basement and all the kids had to do their own laundry- there were garbage cans to hold different dirty clothes, it was all a sort of jumble and her father had a tool bench, all sort of scattered and disorganized. And when the weather was rainy I think the kids were sometimes told to go down and “play”- but she would recall these details much better.
    It amazes me how adults experience routine spaces in an unthinking mundane way with no appreciation for the power and fear that these spaces have for children; no understanding of how these come alive for children in such powerful ways; such a large gap between child and adult experiences.”Suspenseful” is an excellent description!

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