Written in February 1998 as an assignment for Dr. Parker's Parageography course.
He gave me an "A."
I could see only the first four steps, leading down, down, illumined in the light that sneaked past the door and around me, making those four steps little golden islands of splitting gray wood and slamming my shadow against the right cement wall. The steps themselves were dry, with cracking lines of age that could never have been disguised by varnish or paint or any other makeup, even had my grandfather been inclined to try. But who cares for old basement steps?
On the left, hugging the bare, gray wall for warmth, was nailed a splintering hand rail. It had once been a shade of red-brown, perhaps what they call terracotta; ugly seemed as good a word as any. I didn't dare to put my hand on the rail for fear of it fanging me with one of its sharp, wooden teeth. It grinned, with gaps in the smile where the paint had flaked away and left only bare wood—sister to the stairs—beneath.*
I placed my right hand against the cold cement next to me and stepped out of the light. No sound from the stairs; at least, not the creaking moan of protest I had been expected, but instead only the dry shuffle of tennis shoes on old wood, as if the stairs were whispering to one another. My fingers slid over the semi-smooth cement wall, feeling every bump and dent, every tiny imperfection. As I reached what I guessed was a midway point in the staircase, the world stopped for an instant and was pitch black and cold, without sight or sound. And then, suddenly, the stairs turned sharply left and detoured into gray.
Squinting, I found myself in false light created by a high-set window made blank by the snow packed against it. The basement was given an eerie, grainy look, like that of an old black-and-white photograph. A past was housed and shrouded here.
Against the walls, boxes stood shadowed sentry, piled on one another to form hulking monsters that assailed the mind's eye. On the right wall there was a shining metal rack, silver blue in the light, akin to a closet bar. Dark forms were suspended fro it, bulky bodily shapes, as if someone had hung the Apollo 11 lunar team there to dry. And ringing the ceiling, the gold-yellow grain of fresh plywood from a newly made shelf that went around along the top of the room like a wallpaper border. The smell of the sawdust was still strong and made my nose itch. A few cardboard boxes graced the new shelf, looking down on the room below with smug superiority.
I became aware that I could see my breath, puffing from my cold lips and adding its mist to the black-and-white dream. My breathing echoed shallowly through the room, like someone tossing handfuls of sand against the walls, soft but somehow loud at the same time, like the sound effect in a movie. A horror movie. I took another step, and this time the wood under me did creak, startling me and sending me flying the rest of the way down the staircase to the safe cement floor, constant and solid beneath my feet.
I turned and glared back up at the staircase. Only a hint of laughing golden light could be seen sliding down the far wall as if it had followed me on my descent. It looked warm and alive, inviting as a grandmother's hug and saintly as an angel's halo.
Suddenly, someone touched me on the ear. A gentle finger traced a path down my lobe to my neck, sending me skittering away across the room, my sneakers squeaking loudly on the cement in protest. Once at a safe distance, I squinted back at my assailant, only to find the string attached to the light swaying lazily as a cat's tail after being awakened from a long nap.
I glanced around the grayness and found the lynched astronauts not more than a foot away on the right. Their dark, headless forms sent another shiver down my spine. What had they done to be strung up down here? I stepped back, not really wanting to know. Not daring to turn my back completely on them, lest they spring to life, I inched my way to the light and pulled the cord. The one old, low-watt bulb blinked awake and alive, bringing dim light to the underworld of my grandparents' basement.
*At this point, Doc Parker wrote "Aeschylean, rather" on my paper. I took it as a compliment.