The Root Cellar
Chapter Seven: The Root Cellar
I heard Eli gasp and then cry out through the window in the downstairs bathroom. The one Valarie shared with my parents. I’d been standing before the sink, gazing into the mirror, horrified over the Mount-Saint-Helen’s-sized zit I’d developed on my chin when I heard my little brother’s harsh intake of air and the quailing screech that followed. It took only a split second for me to realize he was in the backyard, then I was moving like the wind through the house.
I plowed through the dining room, the kitchen, the back porch and through the door to the backyard before any conscious thought registered. I whipped around the edge of the back corner of the house and Elijah came into view.
He was standing with his back facing the entrance of the toolshed, one foot upon the stepping stones of the path leading back toward Bruce’s apartment, the other upon the stones leading to the portal itself. He must’ve been poking around in the shed, rummaging for something to play with and decided to leave. He appeared to have taken no more than three steps before he verbalized astonishment and froze in place.
My eyes were searching over his person as I came toward him, still running. I couldn’t see any injury. He wasn’t holding an elbow or an arm, or hopping on one foot as if he’d hurt his leg. He wasn’t bent over, clutching at his mid-section. He wasn’t cradling his head in his hands. He was just standing there - one foot before the other, his jaw slack, though his lips formed a lopsided “O”. His eyes were wide, their gaze steadfast upon the trees in the neighbor’s yard. His hands were splayed to either side of him.
My initial assessment had been correct – he was frozen.
I leapt the last of the distance between us, both hands settling upon his tiny biceps as I knelt before him. “Eli!” I implored anxiously. “Eli, are you ok?”
He remained immobile.
“Eli! Eli! ELIJAH!” I said forcibly, rattling him slightly, trying to get his attention without jarring his brain within his skull. I didn’t want to hurt the little guy.
He started, visibly shaken as if someone other than me had resumed the rattling of his small frame.
“Elijah, are you ok? What happened?”
His small orbs peered into mine, recognition pouring into them. “Jerry?”
“Yes, Eli. It’s me, Jerry.” I hadn’t known I could sigh with relief as mightily as I had right then. “Are you ok?” I massaged his upper arms, reassuring myself he was there. He was real. He wasn’t hurt.
He blinked rapidly, a ragged exhalation seeped from him. He seemed overwrought as if he’d witnessed something monumental as was left astounded by it.
I realized he was cold to the touch and began to rub some warmth into his arms. He was so pale, like he’d seen… What the hell had happened?
A solitary tear fell from his right eye and onto the ground between us. “Jerry.”
“Yes, Elijah. I am here. You’re ok,” I uttered quickly, unsure why I said precisely that, but it felt right. Why was I out of breath, again?
Suddenly, his look sharpened, a laser pointed poised directly at me. And then, he did the unexpected. He smiled.
I snorted a sneer. What’s going on?
“She knows me now, Jerry,” he said, his face abruptly aglow.
“Who, Elijah? Who are you talking about?”
“Her.” He placed his hands on my arms as well. We were holding one another. His smile broadened. “She knows who I am.”
I was flummoxed and almost stood. Was the little guy playing a joke of gigantic proportions on me? Was he fooling around? Had he fabricated the entire scenario, so he could make fun of the way I had looked. Being scared out of my gourd? Could Eli have done that? Could his sense of humor be that cruel?
Then, he said something that stopped me cold.
“I can smell Her, Jerry. She’s all over my clothes.” He was bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet, holding his sweatshirt out away from his body, toward me. “Smell Her, Jerry. Smell Her. Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?”
Still expecting some sort of prank, I leaned forward tentatively, waiting for him to say something cliché like “Haha, got ya!” or “You dork, Jerry! You just smelled dog poo! Aaaaah-hahahahaaa!” But, there was none of that. There was no prank. He continued to hold out his outer-garment, hooking either side with his thumbs by the seams.
The scent was familiar at once. I had smelled it before. It was the day Myra and I had tried to lose our virginity and failed. I had been gazing out of the kitchen windows after her when someone had hugged me from behind. When I had turned about, there’d been no one there, only the smell remained.
This was the very scent covering my little brother from head to toe.
“How is this possible?” I asked the air about me.
“She walked through me, Jerry. From behind, from the toolshed. She likes it in there.”
I stared at Eli, my heart drowning in dread, my stomach turning to acid, my throat parched and scratchy.
“She walked through me…”
On a Friday afternoon, sometime later, my mother found the root cellar and things were never quite the same.
She acted in almost the same manner she had the Tuesday before. She came running down the walk, her shirt streaked with dust, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, but it was peppered with long ropes of dirt held fast by age-old spider webs, her face flushed with excitement. She had on her beat-up tennis shoes, leg-warmers over leggings and a baggy, cotton shirt.
“You guys aren’t going to believe what I found in the basement!” she gushed, grabbing us both by the wrists, already pulling us along.
From the patio: “Its super neat, you guys! You’re gonna love it!” It seemed my mother’s fervor had seeped into Elijah as well. He was wearing a faded royal-blue, t-shirt under a pair of old overalls, scuffed and dirty at the knees and a pair of old boots. It was his “yard work” outfit. He’d definitely been helping my Mom.
“I’m not going into the basement,” stated Valerie definitively. “I will not set foot in there.”
My mom glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t be such a big baby. It’s about time you realized nothing here is going to hurt you.”
“Whatever,” muttered my sister under her breath.
My mother hadn’t heard and kept half-leading, half-dragging us around the side of the house toward the basement access, which abutted the same wall as the downstairs bathroom in the back, only it was outside.
Eli led the way, skipping and bouncing about, brimming with a boys’ sense of adventure, saying again and again, “We found it, me and mama. Oh yes, we found it, my mom and me.”
He sounded like something out of Dr. Seuss, but I was forced to put him out of mind as we descended the steep staircase into the basement
My mother let go of me, but held onto Valerie as if she were afraid my sister would bolt at any second.
I found I could see readily. All four of the light fixtures had been outfitted with bright 100 watt bulbs. The entire chamber was better lit than my bedroom at night. We hadn’t changed much in the basement since moving in, aside from adding two sections of three-foot shelving my mother was using to stack the firewood she’d been gathering from all the landscaping projects going on. There was some other stuff, mostly camping gear, a few tarps and anything else my Mom had decided to put down there in lieu of the attic or one of the other sheds.
The retro-fitted Pot Belly system was fully automated, so after a crash course from one of the guys at the Gas Company, there was little else to do, except make sure we kept up with its’ maintenance schedule. Even that wasn’t much, all we had to do was call out a tech twice a year. They’d do all the rest.
We hadn’t managed to get to the huge bookcase and a medium-sized pile of boxes left behind from previous owners. Everything was stacked neatly in the northeastern portion of the underground room.
I saw, the moment my feet hit the basement floor, my mother had been busy in that very corner.
All of the boxes had been moved aside and the massive bookcase had been “walked” about six feet away from the wall it had been resting against.
Only, when I looked closer, I realized, yes, there was a wall there, but there was also a door. I’m not talking about your average, run-of-the-mill house door either. No! What I saw on that early winter afternoon was the sort of door I had described over and over when playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. It appeared old, and I’m not saying that because I was a teenager and everything older than thirty seemed ancient to me. This thing was medieval. It stood about six feet in height and was nearly the same in width. Its’ huge oaken planks were bound with iron, shod into the wood with large rivets. The lever was no more than an iron ring attached to a latching device that opened when pulled in a downward fashion. It was crude, but did the job. The hinges were thick and rusted looking, but they couldn’t have been because between my mom and Eli, they’d managed to open it wide.
“How did you find it?” I asked, amazed. It was the coolest door I had ever seen. I wanted to draw it to ensure I’d never forget it.
“Guess,” my mother said mischievously.
“Another dream?” wondered Valerie like she was walking on thin ice. Her eyes were stuck like glue to the door. There was palatable apprehension with every move she made.
My mom nodded sagely.
“Did you go inside?” I asked, a trace of uncertainty in my tone as well.
“What’s in there?” I had to ask.
My mom pulled Valerie. “Let me show you.”
“No, mom!” said my sister resisting. “I’m wearing my school clothes.”
That brought me up short too. The hallway beyond did look like it would be adverse to nicer fabrics.
Valerie was wearing a pleated, dark blue mini-skirt, matching knee-high socks, her oxfords and a sky-blue, button-up.
I’d gone more casual to school. I was wearing a pair of tan-colored, waist-cinching Rags, a matching OP t-shirt made of thick cotton and a pair of slip-on Vans, cocoa-colored. It was my beach bum meets designer clothes look.
Hey, it was the 80’s, remember?
Yeah, Valerie was right.
“Oh, come on, you guys! Where’s your sense of discovering the unknown?” pleaded my mother.
“I would like to leave my ‘unknown’, unknown, if you don’t mind.” My sister wasn’t backing down.
My mom shook her head. “What about you, Jer? Will you let me show you what your brother and I found?”
Valerie was shaking her head “no” at me.
But, my clothes…
“Come on, Jerry! Pleeeeease,” begged Elijah.
As usual, it worked. “Ok.”
To my surprise, my mom actually clapped.
My mother grabbed a flashlight resting on the top of some boxes and switched it on. Its’ steady beam cut through the darkness beyond the door-from-a-bygone-era with ease.
As I approached, I could see there were more stairs, leading down another nine feet. They were concrete, not as wide as the stairs leading down to the basement, but wide enough for two people to walk abreast.
We all went down without talking.
I could see the passage beyond wasn’t finished as was the basement proper. Its’ walls were rough-hewn, dug out what looked like sandstone, held up by support- and cross-beams every five feet or so, but not much else. The ground gave way to hard-packed dirt. The topmost layer was really a thick layer of dust over sedimentary rock upon closer inspection.
I followed the smaller form of my mother as she strode through the threshold boldly. Eli was at my side, holding my hand, his face alight with playful eagerness.
About ten feet into the passage, it began to curve to the right. This went on for another twelve feet or so until we reached another door. If the one behind us was the stoutest I’d ever seen, then the one before was the exact opposite. It consisted entirely of one-by-six boards held upright by a crossing pattern of one-by-fours on what I assumed was its’ back side, the side we saw first.
It was ajar.
My Mom stepped passed the flimsy obstruction, half-turning to beckon me forward.
I came without hesitation, not really keen on staying the dungeon-like hall for longer than was necessary.
I found myself in a space roughly seven feet wide and sixteen feet long. I was surprised to see the wooden ceiling was held in place by a good number of bracing, four-by-four boards made of what had to be redwood, because they had no water or termite damage that I could see, and they were old. I frowned when I saw we were completely surrounded by a strange assortment of shelving. They weren’t flat as one would expect shelves to be. Rather, they were drawer-like as if they were supposed to hold something in place, allow nothing to fall onto the floor.
I walked toward one and peered within.
It was empty.
“These are weird,” I commented aloud.
“They’re like that on purpose,” replied my mother right away. “They’re made deep, so they can hold four to five inches of soil.”
“In the old days, people used to grow crops that didn’t require sunlight in places like this. Although,” she continued rubbing at her chin, “you don’t see very many still built underground.”
“What would they grow, mama?” Eli had climbed up one of the lower-lying shelves and was peering into the same one I had.
“Oh, I don’t know - mushrooms, potatoes if the ground above was too hard - things like that.” She paused to rummage atop one of the higher shelves. “They’re also used for storage, because the air stays cool and moist. You can put carrots or beets and other vegetables roots in place like this for a long time.”
I nodded, looking about. The old owners must’ve saved a ton of money on electricity. Then, I realized why someone would go through all the trouble of building one in the first place. There hadn’t been electricity back then! Duh, Donny Dickhead!
My mom coughed out some dust, her face stern with concentration. “I asked Bruce about this cellar when Eli and I first found it. He said it was also used to store the Gates’ stockpile of hooch during Prohibition.” I could tell she was smiling even though I couldn’t see her face. She had a different way of speaking through lips drawn tight.
“What’s ‘cooch’, you guys?” Elijah was so darned cute sometimes.
My mother and I both laughed.
“Not ‘cooch’, son. ‘Hooch’ and it means Mr. Booze.” My mom always had a way with explaining things to us in a way we could understand, even when we were young like Elijah.
“Yeah, ‘cooch’ is something else you’ll wanna know about when you get older…,” I muttered to myself.
My mother tossed an old rag at me, her eyebrows raised in outrage. It fell pitifully short.
I laughed, shrugging. “Well, he will.”
She wagged a finger at me. A silent warning, ordering me to keep my mouth shut.
My smiled broadened.
Elijah’s head was tilted almost horizontal. “But why would they put their Mr. Booze in dirty, ole’ place like this?”
She smiled, deliberately, pushing aside my rude comments. “I knew you were going to ask that question,” she said to my brother, pointedly not at me. “There was a time, Elijah, when Mr. Booze was against the law to drink.”
“Really?” He said it the way he’d say things when he thought whatever we were talking about was tremendously interesting.
“Pretty dumb, huh, big guy?” I asked, earnestly. Prohibition was a waste of everyone’s time and only gave rise to some of the most powerful crime lords we’d ever seen in the United States.
“But if it kept people from getting drunk, then it might’ve been a good idea… for certain people, right?”
I always knew Elijah was a genius.
My mom went still.
He kept talking. “I mean, if Dad couldn’t drink, then… well… Um, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
It was so innocent, I wanted to cry. Forget all the macho bullshit drilled into us boys since we’re old enough to walk. What Elijah said right then, right there under the earth, made more sense to me than anything else in the world. His logic, the simplicity, the purity of the thought, made it ironclad-real in my mind.
I knew what went on in our household was affecting him more than the rest of us, aside from my mother. Though, it was true, I had borne the brunt of the idiocy for more years than anyone other than my mom, Elijah was the baby of the family. He was the one who should’ve been spoiled rotten, protected to the point of insanity, shielded by all that was bad in the world. And yet…
God, you’re such an asshole, Dad!
…He got hit for no reason. Life shouldn’t have shown its’ ugly face as early as it had for my beautiful, little brother. It seemed so unfair.
My mom was staring into one of the shelves, unmoving.
To this day, I don’t know how I was able to see the tears fall from her eyes, stream briefly onto her cheek and then tumble into the wooden bin below. Maybe the light of the flashlight was angled in such a way I could see them – clearly. Maybe they were bioluminescent. Maybe, they were magic.
I like to think it was the latter.
I answered for her. “I think that would be great, Eli.”
“Yeah, it would.” He sounded like a seventy-year-old man.
“Hey, what’s this?” wondered my Mom. She wiped her eyes, her hands disappearing over the edge of the drawer-like shelf she’d been gazing into as she wept.
We boys moved closer.
I could see the muscles in her arms straining. Whatever it was, it was heavy.
“Want me to help?” I asked.
She grunted, “Yeah.”
I used the edge of a lower shelf as Eli had minutes prior, my perspective changing. I looked down into the bin and realized it was ladder - about nine feet long, sturdy, with metal braces on one end and some sort of bracketry on the other. “I wonder where this thing goes.”
Together we yanked it up and out of its’ resting place.
“From the way its’ made, it looks like it fits in the ground somewhere.” My mom peeped over her shoulder at Elijah. “Son, grab the flashlight and see if you find any metal stuck into the ground.”
“Ok,” he replied dutifully as we brought the ladder down, setting it against the one-time nefarious receptacles.
It didn’t take him long. “I found it!” He had traversed to the far wall of the cellar.
We rushed over. Sure enough there was metal in the ground. To be precise, what my little brother had found had to be the only place the ladder would fit. It was the only place on the ground where there was concrete. Within it, spaced about the same width as the ladder, were two identical depressions. Within each of them was the “female”, or receiver, bracket.
I gazed up and saw two loop-like, metal hoops secured into a similar concrete blocks near where the edge of the chamber met the ceiling.
I felt my eyes widen a bit. “Mom, there’s a trap door in the ceiling.”
“Are you serious?” she queried, awestruck.
“Yup.” I pointed as she came near.
Eli was kind enough to light the area with the light-stick.
We could all see it. About two feet higher than the ceiling itself, snug within heavy-duty framing, forming a duct-like tube large enough for a man to pass through, was a trap door. It was a simple thing, using gravity and a thick metal ring for opening and closing.
“I wonder where it leads.” Now my interest was piqued.
I quickly went back and grabbed the ladder, which was much easier to hold in an upright position. I set in the slots on the ground and was satisfied to see it snap into the loops higher up on the wall. Without waiting, I climbed up a few rungs necessary to access the hatch above. I reached up and gave it a push, but it didn’t budge. I ascended higher, so I could use my shoulder as my point of contact and have the full use of my legs. This way my leverage increased at least fourfold.
I heaved hugely, my eyes at the same level as the edge of the portal. It came up about two inches, then stopped. I could see there was some sort of heavy fabric covering the top of the trap door. I knew it wouldn’t open more than that. There was something on top of the fabric as well, something heavy.
I turned to look down at my mother and Eli. “It won’t open from this end. Wherever it does open, there’s some kind of thick material covering it.”
Surprisingly, my Mom laughed. “Like a rug or a carpet?”
It hit me quick. She knew! “Yes!”
She clapped her hands together. “It opens into the toolshed.”
The loose carpeting had given it away. The only sort like it was in the toolshed. Sure, there was carpeting in Bruce’s apartment, but it was tacked down tightly. There was no way I would’ve been able to open the portal as high as I had. That left the toolshed.
“Stay here!” she commanded, though she was giddy, almost girlish.
How could I not smile from ear to ear? I loved seeing this side of my mom. I didn’t get to see it all that much, and I was reveling in it.
I heard her holler for Valerie.
Eli and I waited.
A few minutes later we heard footsteps overhead. I came off the ladder, indicating for my brother to shine the light upward. We heard something large being moved, then more footsteps, a whooshing sound and finally the trap door sprang open.
Bruce’s thin, tanned visage peered down. “So, it is true!” he exclaimed, nearly as excited as I felt. “This Old Lady has a history indeed!” He stood, laughing.
My mother came and gave him a giant hug, pinning his arms at his sides. It was the kiss on the cheek that made our eyebrows rise. Bruce’s included.
“I love this house!” she howled like a wolf.
He patted her arm, shrugging his shoulders. He was being a gentleman and trying not to smile too big.
And who wouldn’t? My mother was a very pretty woman.
“Wow, a trap door leading into the toolshed! Cool!” said my little brother.
I smiled at him, but failed to make the connection. Yes, as I peer back through the annuls of time with indefatigable twenty-twenty hindsight, I had definitely missed it.
If only I had been paying attention…