I found out, when chasing an escaped house cat, that my quaint, historic apartment building in suburban Washington D.C. has four basements, each more dark and fearsome than the one preceding it. This fact has had a peculiar effect on me now that I know I am not on the second story of a three-story building dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt but rather on the sixth story of a mostly subterranean building, and only separated by one livable floor from the beginnings of a black labyrinth filled with nearly century-old clanking machines, windy tunnels and damp gravel floor at the lowest level.
My neat apartment with tall ceilings and a view of a park where my neighbors let their dogs crap while they talk about throwaway things, feels perched now upon a great well so deep it would take several long counted seconds for a dropped pebble to find its bottom and send up an echoed splash to let me know so. This makes me less certain about everyday things.
Perhaps it bothers me because it is as I have always expected, that deep passageways lie beneath us at every turn, walked upon, lived upon, and sailed over, the surface of great darkness within easy reach of our comfortable places, where women in white cut red ribbon and pose for photos.
Perhaps it bothers me because I didn’t assume it was there at all, that I took the steps down at face value, assuming they only went so far. I should have expected it, the darkness, the wet smell, the old iron machines and the tunnels bringing old spirits into the place I dwell. I’ve felt this self-directed anger before when for a moment I’ll fool myself by thinking orderly, comfortable, normal thoughts and believing they’re the truth. I misjudge them, let them in a bit, those pleasant thoughts of mine, but then some errant word, meaning, or conversation pursued like an escaped cat, draws me deeper and deeper until I am in that dark place surrounded by the cacophonous machines and the icy breeze from foreboding tunnels and feeling around for something alive but just out of reach.
And here I am reminded of an old lesson I’ve learned since my youth and so many times since then that I should scarcely need reminding: when confronted with apparently warm and tidy places, apparently comfortable thoughts, apparently well-meaning strangers, it should be remembered how likely it is that there is some hidden depth within reach. And that place, once seen by shaky flashlight, and felt by stockinged feet, and smelt and tasted and seen in its lightless reality, can always find you and remind you that you’re balanced just so, on a great black abyss even when you lie still, with your cat curled at your feet and covers under your chin, in a well-appointed apartment.
Jane Hale is a mid-career factotum who has dabbled in enough fields to sound passably smart at parties…provided there’s an open bar. A lifelong writer currently living, and sometimes working, in Washington D.C., Hale now endeavors to publish her first novel Like People in Books, a finished manuscript about the aftermath of a murder in a small town that examines how one’s specialness is lost or changed in adolescence. Hale’s creative non-fiction was published in Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, now in its 3rd edition (Prentice Hall, 2000, 2005, 2011) and self-published the humor blog ILoveMyOpinion.com for three years.