Buying a Half Basement

Barry Pomeroy

Sam knew the protocol of buying a new house. He knew that you had to walk thoughtfully around the premises with the realty agent, knock carefully on pipes and make contemplative noises at window sashes and door frames. Sam also knew, although he couldn't bring himself to do it, that he had to look into the basement.

The basement is the bones of the house, realty people would tell him. You need to know more about the foundation than you do the paint. For Sam, the bone talk was creepy, and basements were off limits. He had made up his mind not to buy a house with a basement, preferring instead the solid concrete three foot slabs that underlay bungalows, but the housing market in Winnipeg was such that he was left with no choice. That is why Sam was knocking on exposed pipes in the bathroom and running the faucets, avoiding the inevitable.

“We should look at the cellar.”

“Basement,” corrected Sam.

“Yes, the basement.” Tammy Rhymer had a tendency to be condescending. “You can find out everything you need to know about a house by its . . . basement.”

The hesitation wasn't cute, and if it was meant to show Sam that she was using his term just to please him, Sam wasn’t impressed. Gritting his teeth at the hackneyed excuse, Sam allowed himself to be led into the basement. The stairs were creaky and wooden, and the one second from the bottom almost pitched Sam into the murk when it suddenly gave way beneath him.

His eyes half closed, Sam expected Tammy to turn into a ravening beast, like those he had imagined when he was ten and his brother had locked him in the basement for the long weekend his parents were away. “Cannibal, maybe,” Sam muttered to himself, unaware of his audience.

“I’m sure it can be fixed up, and widened,” Tammy persisted in her cheerful way, answering what she heard as a question.

Sam looked around him, if he was going to be eaten he could at least keep his eyes open. “What the hell is that?” Sam pointed towards the front of the house.

“Language, please,” Tammy had a schoolmarm’s sensitivity to profanity.

“What is it,” Sam persisted.

“This is very standard in older houses. People then didn’t have the money to dig out the entire... basement so they left a kind of half basement.”

To Sam it looked like an eccentric planter, locked in the eternal gloom of the cellar. Fortified by a low wall, a great mound of dirt stretched into dim reaches the two dollar light that hung from the ceiling had trouble illuminating. “Why is it covered with plastic?” Sam shuddered.

“That’s just to keep the moisture out,” Tammy said brightly, “just to make the entire place more cleanly.”

“I’ve never heard about anything like that before. Are you sure this is standard? Even in old houses?”

The bright flash, which lit even the darkest corners, and then the profound dark that followed the blown bulb, effectively put an end to the conversation. Sam made a rush for the stairs, fumbled with Tammy on the way, which made her shriek, almost excitedly, and then he was gasping on the landing.

“Well you certainly got out of there in a hurry. Did you see a ghost?” Tammy was laughing, and unless Sam was wrong, slightly flushed.

More desperate than he cared to admit, Sam bought the house and determined to nail the cellar door shut. Tammy he ignored, and when she persisted in calling, he signed up for call display. What Sam had seen in the basement in the sudden glare, in the furthest corner of the mounded dirt, he told no one. Only when it became part of his dreams, did he confide in a psychiatrist.

“Of course,” the psychiatrist pedantically repeated for the fourth time in an hour, “images of fear often impinge themselves on the unconscious in times of crisis. Perhaps in that cellar—"

“Basement,” interrupted Sam.

“Basement,” continued the psychiatrist, disconcertedly looking at Sam over his glasses. “you saw childhood images that your unconscious took from movies, or from some other source of childhood angst.”

Sam looked at the wall, where fishing trophies were displayed with degrees, and then at the confusing plethora of family pictures that littered the psychiatrist’s desk. While the psychiatrist droned, Sam admitted for the first time that what he'd seen in the basement was familiar, horrifyingly enough. Sam made up his mind what to do.

When Sam walked out on his session, his psychiatrist was so shocked that he mumbled for another thirty seconds off the clock, until he called for his next appointment. Sam never heard the secretary ask for another booking, and at the hardware store he bought a shovel and sledge as though he were in a daze.

At home, Sam took down a bottle of rye he'd been saving for an ex-wife visit, and drank enough to steady his nerves. Twenty minutes later, he set down the half-empty bottle, turned off the TV, and like a knight in armour, grabbed his shovel and hammer and went to do battle.

“I know you’re in here somewhere,” Sam yelled to the basement. The sound was completely absorbed. The effect of the offset beams and the uneven mounds of dirt was a sound technician’s dream, perfect acoustics. Sam swung the sledge from shoulder high, since the ceiling beams prevented a more violent blow, and the low brick wall fragmented, spilling soil and crushed rock onto the finished floor.

A typical homeowner, determined to make good use of space, would have hired contractors. Or, wishing for the exercise, would have filled buckets with the dirt and emptied them in nearby vacant lots, fruitfully spending a hundred Saturdays in their pursuit of more storage.

Sam wasn’t concerned about resale value, and when he walked heavily up the stairs for reinforcement liquor, he had to wade through a three foot pile of dirt. Spraying dirt in every direction, Sam returned with more enthusiasm, if not coordination, and before long he was shovelling his way into the darkest corner of the pile. As he got closer to his goal, Sam regretted not having replaced the light bulb with a higher wattage. The dark wood of the beams overhead, and the black soil, made seeing his way difficult. As well, the mound behind him was beginning to close off what light was intrepid enough to creep past the corners.

As drunk as he’d been since his wedding, and then divorce, Sam threw the black soil behind him, tried to block out the smell of rotting and mildew, until his shovel pieced into emptiness. In the far western corner of the basement, Sam pushed his shovel into the gap and was rewarded by a tug. Suddenly Sam remembered the hand that had held his in the cellar of his youth. Remembered how he had cried the long hours away gnawing on the apples that his brother had left on the stairs, until feeling around in the darkness, his small hand had encountered another.

He spent the rest of that long weekend so long ago, holding the hand that clasped his so sympathetically, ignoring in his fear and desperation that there should not be a living being in his basement. Only two days later, when little Sam was blissfully out in the sun, did he wonder what had happened. After that, he wouldn't even go into the basement for preserves, and at his brother’s knowing laughter, he would tremble.

Although Sam had long since left all fantasies of basement people behind him, he reached into the gap and felt around for his friend. A hand grasped his. Sobering suddenly, Sam felt a tug, flailed wildly for something to grab, and was drawn into the hole.

By the time Tammy next exhibited the house, the basement had been cleaned up. In Tammy’s mind, the former owner’s mess probably explained his midnight move; she was relieved that the contractors were inexpensive.

“It’s a half basement,” Tammy explained. “This is standard in older houses. People then didn’t have the money to dig out the entire cellar.”

© 2010 Barry Pomeroy. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Barry Pomeroy has been an instructor in English literature at a variety of American colleges and Canadian universities. He is responsible for the novel Naked in the Road, and his shorter work has
been or will be published in magazines such as Treeline, Cosmetica, r.kv.r.y., Bards and Sages, Insolent Rudder, Tart, The Tiny Globule, Red Peter, Serendipity, Presto-Strange-O, Blue Skies, Willows Wept Review, Sonar 4, Writing Shift, Ulterior, Static Movement, Unlikely Stories, Xenith, Oddville Press and Word Catalyst.