by Paul de Denus
The twisted light cord hanging from the center is gallows rope, its naked bulb when lit, barely gives light. The floor grades down to a centered sewer hole for plumbing that was never finished. Stagnant water encircles it, left from old rain that drips in and stays for weeks. Nobody comes down here much but when they do, it is for jars of fruit in the room buried in the far corner; the “cold locker” the young boys call it. It is cold as a tomb.
A tower of boxes near the stairs seems to shift. Bundles of yellow newspapers stacked next to them huddle like crooked gnomes. There are paint cans and open tins of varnish stacked on a barren worktable. Long hooks hold the table tight against the wall. Rows of cigarette burn decorate its edge. I remember them, the burns. There is a partially sealed room next to the worktable. It allows no light. It is the old coal chute.
A newspaper lays crumpled on the worktable, open to a damp page wrinkled like old skin. Cold air seals the headline news and photos. There is a photo of Red Garrison being led from the house, handcuffed. There is a picture of his wife Cora, slumped in the back seat of a police car. A blanket partially covers her head. In the corner, a picture of Beale, their oldest daughter, head crooked to the camera, shark eyes staring dead into the lens. Their faces are grainy black and white. Their faces are the same face I see reflected back on the glass jars in the cold locker. My face. No, that’s not true. My face is different. The eyes are the same, maybe. There are no photos of me. Only reflections.
Beale Garrison moves about upstairs, pattering alone with the cats. I sense their smell. They sense me too and they don’t come down. Beale comes for the baskets of fruit stacked along the wall in the cold locker. She doesn’t venture to this side of the basement. She returned to the house after Red and Cora were sent to prison. She was never implicated in any of it. I know better. I know what she did. What they did to the child.
Ruth was her name. My name.
Time muddles memories. The years meld and twist, bind up in a fog, every moment fuzzy like looking through a cocooned web. My thoughts come down to me, dreamlike, a milky gray and then blackness. It feels like a dream. I don’t know if it is. There’s no one to set it right. I am happy to be her, to be Ruth, to be someone. Ruth is gone. She didn’t survive. It says so in the newspaper under the stairwell.
Two neighborhood boys sometimes visit Beale. They are young too. They’ve heard the stories. They’ve been told to stay away from this house. Young boys don’t listen. They are curious. They come to taste the peaches that Beale preserves in jars. I want to play with them when they come to the cellar. They don’t want to stay. They are afraid. They watch the darkened corners. The minimal light never ventures far. “Spider-child,” I hear them say. “In the coal chute—where the spider-child was kept.”
My withered arms are bent at the elbow, my hands hook down but yesterday I managed to climb to the top of the cellar stairs for the first time. At the far end of the kitchen, the two boys sat waiting. I stood in the darkened frame of the cellar door as Beale moved past. I filled the doorway. I’ve grown some. I don’t know how. She was carrying a bowl of peaches. They were soured. She didn’t feel my breath kiss against her neck. I want to reach out and touch her. Stop her. Tonight I will. Tonight.