Boxes, Basements

When I opened my eyes my feet were the feet of a baby: I wore red baby shoes with thin blue stripes and white soles.

I looked at my hand. Cracked skin, veins branching out on the back of it, the hand of a grown man. Odd to see it without the black needle between forefinger and thumb, useless.

I got up (I’d been sitting cross-legged in the middle of the street, who knows how long) and walked toward the sidewalk as cars skidded, honking, drivers gaping at me from side windows with their hands as if screwing in light bulbs before their faces.

I am perfectly fine, I thought, just transported. The record player. From the box in the basement.

The size of my feet made it hard to walk, I tottered, arms stuck out for balance, a glider borne by fickle winds.

I stuck a hand in my pocket—my body swerving suddenly to the right—and fished out a few crumpled bills. Immediately, I straightened my hand back out.

A gleaming white line of parked cars stretched by the sidewalk: taxis.

I managed to get in the back seat of one.

“Where to?”

Without pause I gave the driver my address and we were on our way.

At a light, her eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror and she said, “I have kids of my own.” She looked at the road. “What you’re going through, that’s good,” she said, and the light turned green and we started after the car ahead of us.

“It isn’t.”

One hand on the gearshift, she said, “Means you have a heart. My kids haven’t spoken to me in years and I doubt when I—”

“Can you please just drive?”

When we arrived at my house I paid and she drove away without saying goodbye. I hurried on and burst into the house, through the empty hallway, the kitchen, my mother chopping carrots for an Olivier salad, through the living room, my father on the couch holding up yesterday’s paper like a screen between him and everybody else, and a crib in a corner with a baby inside, the baby’s loud wails staccatoed by the knife falling down on the cutting board, Wha! Wha! Wha! and I strolled by without paying them any mind, hopping down the cement steps to the basement. The stale smell of old paper hit my nose as I marched past the racks of newspapers the color of a discarded banana peel, diligently arrayed by date by my late grandfather. Into the largest room, the living room analogue, which was a storage space.

Old stuff from my mother’s youth, mostly, because my father had come to live in her house when they’d gotten married and we had all made our home here. Boxes full of stuff. Old notebooks, tetrahedral molecules drawn in blue ink, quadratic equations scribbled, then corrected in red, the names of her friends in the margins scrawled in different handwriting. Her paperbacks, smelling of that impersonal thick musk books acquire with the years, picking up a scent in their tumble through time, divorcing themselves from their owners, all smelling alike, those old books: a collection heavy in Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders, and so on. Her rusty bicycle which she said she should give away but never did. The sheet music, Chopin, mostly. Dolls in brown-flecked threadbare clothes, with hair coarse as hay.

Among these were my father’s things, too. Bringing a bit of home when he’d moved in. His record player, his records. The black circles he gingerly set down on that plate before slowly placing the tip of the needle with two fingers on the rim. How amazed I always was that the black circle began spinning just as my dad picked the needle up. How did it know? I liked that most of all. More than the music. The Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and so on.

I made my way among my parents’ old belongings without realizing how easy it was to walk, and when I looked down I was surprised to see my feet had swollen back to full size.

The record player was plugged in but the music had stopped. The record was no longer spinning. Worn and old and somewhat curvy at the edges, I took it out and placed it back in the diaphanous sleeve, then in the cardboard cover which swallowed it whole, and replaced it in the box.

The house was empty again.

My eyes were wet so I put the crook of my arm over them and held it there awhile, blocking out the basement, like when we played hide and seek as kids in our backyard, I was giving my parents’ stuff a head start to up and disappear. When I’d recovered from my fit I took out another record from the bunch and impaled it on the spike in the center of the turntable platter, and again a tingle ran over my body, hinting at a transportation.

I scanned the cardboard boxes blossoming with stuff. Out of one particular heap of plastic trinkets came a cobalt glint, launching me outward, backward, further away this time.

My feet and legs and arms were normal-looking, body parts belonging to an adult. So far so good, I thought. I sat up on the cracked tarmac and looked at the houses ringed around the cul-de-sac. Oddly asymmetrical, on the right half two adjacent one-storied but expensive-looking houses, the other side reserved for a patchy yard and a car rusting in the sun.

My neck hurt. When I rubbed it it felt thicker or longer, my hands massaging it to map out the alteration, but then I realized my neck was the same size and length it had always been but my shoulders had shrunk, slimmed down, no longer the broad frame of somebody who spent his evenings swimming an hour of freestyle, but the soft and fragile round bulges of a boy who’d barely been through a year’s worth of PE classes.

I walked out of the street to a larger alley where I found a bus stop. I sat on the bench. My upper torso felt uncomfortable, stuck in a perpetual shrug, and perhaps it was due to this constant discomfort that only when an older man sat next to me did I notice my fingers. Staring down the alley willing the bus to come sooner, then glancing at me, he made sniffing noises and glowered, before fanning me with his newspaper in arrested motions. As I was about to ask for the reason for his rudeness, an open palm pointed accusingly at him, I saw that the index and middle finger of my right hand were ringed with blue smoke. I stood and took several paces away from the bench and the old man.

Blowing at my hand until I felt dizzy yet the thin smoke would not disperse, it kept emanating from my fingers.

When the bus came I got in through the back door, taking the seat furthest from the driver. The bus puttered, rolled down the hill toward the city. I kept my hand under my thigh, but strings of smoke still managed to uncoil themselves from my fingers, out the sides of my thigh, rising toward the flaking ceiling of the bus, giving me the incongruously funny image of a leg being roasted for a feast.

The old man got off the bus at the same stop as me, not sparing me one last nasty look before starting in the opposite direction, newspaper tucked beneath an armpit.

When I got to my house I patted my pockets and figured I had no key so I rang the bell.

My mother always opened the door the same way when angry: turning the key in a hurried, let’s-get-this-over-with fashion, before swinging the door slowly, ponderously open, a counterweight and countermeasure to her unlocking and just enough of a mixed signal to stir confusion, then she would stand there for a flicker of a moment, serious-looking or perhaps even sullen depending on the severity of my infraction, sizing me up before turning around swiftly—her long dress completing the swirl half a breath later—to walk inside the house, leaving the door for me to close. That act, as if saying, leave it wide open for all I care, was the exclamation mark to her overture; the prelude to a long conversation.

Uh-oh.

I followed her in, trailing a wisp of smoke from my stupid hand. She sat down on the leather sofa, crossed her legs, draped one arm over the backrest.

“Sit.”

I sat down.

“You know why we’re here.”

“I don’t.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

I stared at her. Shrugged.

She ran her tongue over her bottom teeth. “And I suppose you have no idea what’s in the third drawer from the top?” Nodding at our chocolate-colored cabinet lodged between two walls.

“No.”

“And I suppose if I check the pack of smokes your uncle forgot here I will find all seven cigarettes inside?”

I tried to sit harder, willing gravity to tug me down, to flatten my hand into a pancake. “I wouldn’t know anything about it.”

She twiddled her necklace. All anger drained from her face and she looked familiar again. She said, “You are too young for this.”

In truth I had barely inhaled. I’d locked myself in the downstairs bathroom, lit cigarette between my fingers, pacing back and forth and parroting conversations I’d overheard about politics and the economy, pretending I was grown up, occasionally bringing the cigarette to my lips and filling up my mouth with thick smoke and exhaling it inexpertly at a tilted window.

“I want you to promise me,” she said, her voice cold but somehow pleading, too, a motherliness seeping into it, her face knotted with concern about the person I was going to become like she was privy to things I couldn’t myself see—before closing up, turning strict again, impenetrable. “I want you to promise you’ll never smoke again.”

Gently I pulled out my mother’s old necklace, each bead rasping as it passed through the junk in the box, emerging from the heap whole but begrimed, lacking that shine it had when she wore it. I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Carefully put it back in.

In the same box, in a turquoise folder with dented edges I found their old documents, IDs, passports, traveling tickets and tour guides. Pictures of them, faces turned slightly to the right but gazing into the camera, against sea-colored backdrops, rarely smiling, five or ten years apart. Eyes always unfocused, an absent-minded look, as if even their photographed selves knew their real counterparts were truly gone forever. Seeing them like that, holding all their years in my hands just like that, made me cover my face with my arm again. How simple it all was. How simple and normal and unfair and hard. When I opened my eyes I was still in our basement.

I dropped the pictures, and crossed over to the other side of the room, where my father’s old skis stood propped against a wall.

I traced a line with a finger in the dust on one of them, and felt them aching to cut through powdery snow. My finger thickened, my hand was numbed, padded out with a soft substance, a glove, and I wasn’t in the basement anymore but someplace colder, where everything had a yellowish tint, my breath a white mist breaking over jagged mountains and snow-capped pines. With one gloved hand I held my ski poles in a precarious X, with the other I lifted my goggles to my forehead. The tint peeled off and the world became a mosaic of white and green and blue.

My father sat next to me on the chairlift, his face turned toward the sun, eyes peacefully closed, cheeks ember-red except for two white Nivea streaks on them like upside-down eyebrows. Rows of pines fell away as we moved slowly uphill, our approach toward the top counted out by the chug-chugs the chairlift gave off when passing each gunmetal T-post. I dangled one ski. Without opening his eyes my father said, “Do you want to lose it?”

I placed it back on the footrest.

As our chair bobbed above a curved slope I watched a skier come out from behind the trees, lean sideways, leaving a backward slash in the snow, his pole almost reaching to the very edge of the slope where the forest continued, whoosh, shifting direction by way of an elegant hop, whoosh, forward slash, leaning the other way now, scarring the slope with his passing, and down and out of my sight.

I didn’t like the way my father did that. That speaking without looking, pretending to be omniscient somehow. I didn’t like it because I knew that’s what he wanted me to believe, and no adult should make a child believe that. No child should grow up believing somebody can know everything, can know anything, really. A child asks you where light comes from you say you don’t know, a child asks you why babies are born you say you have no clue, they ask you why X/Y/Z had to die you by no means, unless you intend to stunt the metaphysical growth of your children, say that it had happened for a reason. Give them a head start. Admit you know nothing. Don’t pretend you see things with your eyes closed.

When we reached the top we dismounted. My father used the inertia of the chairlift and glided on his skis a few feet further. He turned, “Want to go first again?”

“No, I think I’m okay now.” I banged a pole against the side of my boot. Lumps of snow fell off in resignation.

“You sure?”

The serenity of the chairlift ride was shattered by the raucousness at the top of the slope. A thousand conversations happening all at once, strung together by tinny music from the mulled wine bar, the sinusoidal wind, the slick sound skis made on snow like in films when swords were pulled out of scabbards.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“All right. I’ll be glancing over my shoulder.”

A little past the midway point I fell and broke my arm. When my father heard me cry out he stopped, climbed back up to where I lay, quickly, his skis flapping on the snow, too panicked to extricate himself from them with the tips of his poles and to just walk up.

He asked if I was okay. Through tears I said my arm hurt. He asked me other things, he said I was going to be all right, he flagged a skier down and that person phoned an ambulance, he said how sorry and stupid he was to have gone ahead, that he should have stayed back and kept an eye and that this would have never happened had he been watching me the whole time. He told me to close my fingers into a fist.

“See,” he said, trying to smile. “You can do it. It’s nothing. Arm’s not broken.”

The emergency snowmobile came and picked us up, me crying all the way down and my father hanging on to me from behind, saying it’s all right you can make a fist your arm’s not broken it just hurts for no good reason, and as we sped down the slope, the snowmobile launching plumes of snow at each bend, overtaking every skier and snowboarder and the people resting on the banks, the snow began to melt, the air to lose its chill, my father’s grip on me to ghost away like our leather sofa regaining its shape when you got up, and the powdery jets of snow became dust motes caught in the grip of a sunbeam slanting into our basement through the door’s frosted glass pane.

I moved away from the skis and wiped my fingertips on my jeans, leaving a mauve smear of dust. When looking back, my father once said to me when I was in my twenties, all those years are like snow cupped between your hands, compacted, a nothing, and you hold your hands together like you’d caught a butterfly you don’t want to set free, but you press harder, and it becomes less, and less, and then it’s water running down your arms.

A flutter of footsteps came from the corridor and for a moment I thought myself transported, but then my sister appeared in the doorway. Her hands on both sides of the wooden frame, she leaned slightly into the large room. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey.”

“You okay?”

I nodded. “You?”

“Been better.” She looked around the room, at the record player I’d plugged in, at the boxes I’d opened and rummaged through, and said nothing.

“When is the Agency person coming?”

“She’s here.” She jerked her head up.

“Oh.”

“We better wrap up.”

“We better do.”

She attempted a smile and I attempted to reciprocate, then she trotted back up the steps.

Gnawed by an unwelcome sense of urgency I turned back to the boxes of stuff, the stuff propped on the gray walls, the stuff scattered on the floor or tangled in cobwebs in corners as useless prey to unseen spiders. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to stay a while longer.

A conversation was taking place on the floor above me. Muffled, I recognized my sister’s voice, she said something sounding like not very close.

My eyes scoured the basement for another object, to take with me home, or just to enjoy the recollection a touch might provoke. Before it was all thrown away. From beneath a stack of dusty magazines, a daub of honey caught my eye. I pulled out our old license plate. It used to be yellow, chamomile-colored, but now it was darker, the symbols identifying our old car preserved in amber.

Running my fingers over the jutting letters and numbers on the cold license plate I heard the eager voice of the salesman, saw him rubbing his hands in the way I’d previously thought only exaggerated caricatures of salesmen did on television, but he did it very non-ironically while my father tried his best to show absolutely no enthusiasm for the car he was now being offered a larger than expected discount on.

“That’s more like it,” my father acknowledged. “But I’m still undecided. What do you think?”

My mother raised her eyebrows at him, and said to the salesman, “So with a full tank,” her hands drawing out the shape of a sphere in the air, “how many miles did you say it can go?”

“Open road?”

“Open road, yes.”

The salesman said words I don’t remember and then my parents talked some more and then the salesman threw in a toy car for me and my father agreed and shook his hand. My mother watched them with a detached smile.

We got in the new car to take it home. Emerging out of the parking lot we passed the newly-old car and we all waved at it. My father said he was going to come back to the salon by bus and drive it back home later that day, before he could hand it over to its new owner, our neighbor. I played with the toy car on the foldable armrest between the back seats.

“See how smooth it is,” my father told my mother, taking his hands off the wheel. “Try it. Just try.”

My mother gripped the wheel for a moment before letting go. “Yes, it’s very smooth.”

“Incredible.”

“Quiet, too.”

“German engineering, eh?” He kneaded the wheel, he poked at buttons, turning the wipers on and off, the rubber skidding on the dry windshield, he tried the turn signals, fiddled with the volume dial as we heard the forgettable radio hit of the month in various levels of loudness and blaring from different speakers.

“Where are we going?” I said as I dropped the toy and folded up the armrest.

“We’re taking this baby home.”

“Can we not go home?”

The radio died. My father blinked at my mother and my mother blinked at him.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere. Not home. Not straight away.”

“Why not?”

“Please.”

We drove on. After a while my father said, “Son, you have to let go of the house.”

My mother looked from him to me, studied the expression on my face, and when she’d decided she had me figured out she said, “You know I like this less than you do. But your father’s right.”

Their words bothered me. I looked out at the road. “Can we just drive for a while longer?”

My father said, “If your mother says yes.”

My mother leaned on her window. “I suppose we could.” There were no cars. No vegetation, no houses, just a straight gray road.

“Let’s play a game to pass time,” my father said.

“Let’s play I spy.”

I said no, let’s not.

My father kept his gaze on the road and my mother looked out her window and I listened to the sound of the engine. I kicked off my shoes and lay across the back seats, my feet in my sister’s lap, and I thought of everything that had lead to this, and everything that was yet to come. Then I thought of nothing. Just breathed.

I’ll wake you up when I get there.

This is a reprint of work originally published in L’Éphémère Review.

Damien Krsteski writes science fiction and develops software. His stories have appeared in New Myths, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Flapperhouse, Kzine, The Future Fire, Devilfish Review, Mad Scientist Journal, Bastion, Perihelion Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and others. Online, he can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com and on Twitter: @monochromewish.

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