The Elevations of Basements

by Philip Kobylarz

        Brochures of places I never got to go. Mystery cave where a person could lean frontwards or backwards, nearly falling but held somehow by gravity. Dinosaur park, a place with no bones only fiberglass recreations of big lizards that you could pet or sit on or pretend to ride, share your sack lunch with. The haunted house of an early American residence preserved as it was since 1867 whose ghost still roams the house’s halls, whose ghost isn't upset about its ethereal likeness cropping up on gift shop t-shirts and ashtrays. Crocodile caverns where it's believed that albino subterranean creatures assemble in their oddness. Thousands upon thousands of rinky-dink amusement parks that have disappeared almost as soon as they opened, their sites today apparent in the residual chemical stains of hundreds and hundreds of sno-cones dropped or tossed away. Poduck land where there were games of skill and stuffed animals larger than life or just as big as it, and girls who drove go carts wildly and even a House of Fun where kids would go to find one of its secret rooms to make out in, but not me, never not me. All I ever saw were the brochures to these magical far away places like the Corn Palace of South Dakota and Jesse James' hideouts in Iowa and Missouri and Kansas and Wisconsin and wherever else he never was and the world's smallest church in a cornfield so far away no one even knew what state it was in and all the other places that existed in three-page color fold out splendor.
        Before I had arrived, my family went places. I assume they did things together, fun or only meaning to be fun. This era I never knew. I arrived after the family vacations. I arrived in the end, when my family was done being a family. I was born into existentialism.
        There were days in the claustrophobic humidity of summer that a northern wind would visit, blow all the lightning bugs away and color the skies clean instead of Prussian gray, and give a gift of spring-like, though it felt like fall, weather as an antidote for the green disease that summer is. When this schizophrenic weather pattern happened, the city and fields and countryside sneezed and trembled in memories of harsh winter.
        A trip to a lake thirty miles from home could transport a mind to thousands of places once visited, childhoods of air smell and just the right light. Weathers of induced rememberies of ripe cherries eaten under the shade of pine trees, of playing frisbee in an abandoned cemetery (even by the dead), a mush of railroad tie and freshly poured pitch, memories of non-memories, of certain perceptive concoctions of the mind's chemical soup, the ingredients being mostly what the senses sense combined with a willingness to be, wherever just outside of nowhere you might be, contented. Most people don't want to be, or, are hopelessly so.
        It wasn't until twelve or thirteen that the other sex became a serious distraction. How this happened, a very simple pie to make: my mother was the baker. Prior to this stage/age, whenever I mentioned a female's name in passing– a friend from school, the skinny short DiAnna who had boy hair and golden skin because her mom was Italian, a Venetian swan who was all neck wrist ankles with a thin gold necklace bearing a delicate cross. Her name would spark some kind of warning signal in mother with the concept of an invasive female entering my psyche. This would have to be immediately snuffed out.
        No mom I wasn't seeing anyone. No mom I don't like girls. No mom it doesn't mean I like boys. No mom. No mom. No. So much denial can only spawn affirmation.
        Wendy was a cheerleader who didn't live too far from my house. She was the last in a line of petite, real auburn haired cheerleader girls who were addicted to the giddiness of popularity, all wanting more than anything else the power that went with a successful bid as prom queen. But I knew her in her pre-seasonal prime, when her gangly body was coming into its own. I knew her before, through the course of a few years, she became what she was destined to become: a spent, easy, used-up, caricature of a young housewife whose intellectual capacities would never be developed. No she'd probably never need a vindication for the rights of herself. Right now, she's probably boiling eggs for her third kid or she's seriously considering a second divorce or she's looking forward to appearing at her tenth year after high school reunion, without a vengeance.
        Back then it was all about a bicycle ride to her house down the hill across University avenue, and into a tiny valley, dark it was where she lived, a dark house too in which we'd watch t.v. in her even darker basement. She'd put the first move on me and we'd start making out, the taste of lip gloss almost gagging me, the rough texture of her cheerleading outfit she'd keep partially on, just the skirt. What we'd do in the darkness of subterranean window light, shade trees obscuring the rare early summer light in that cavern, a creek trickling in a cleft in the hills that was her backyard, a sticky beanbag chair squeaking underneath our twisting bodies, was some serious heavy petting. Heavy petting until ouch it hurt as if we were trying to erode our genitals, like adolescent greek gods, into nothingness by the application of friction. Heavy, so heavy, and feverish without knowing exactly what to do that it brought instant soreness of a highly stimulated variety.
       The bike ride home from our den of iniquity, down, below into the depths of the trees, from her house that was lower than mine, to the top of the prairie was a journey of pure elation. Of course later mother would ask me questions about where I was, what I was doing, and I'd lie without really lying. She couldn't take away my victory ride home. Body energized, hair tousled, for the first time in life nerves charged with positive scared energy, and my hands gripping bicycle handles perfuming the air with the smell of girl.
        So many basements of houses not mine with decoration of golf art, liquor signs, pool tables, shag carpeting, couches that have never seen the light of day, vintage pinball machines and big t.v.s. Shelves stacked with the board games: Life, Stratego, Operation, Go To the Head of the Class, Witches and Warlocks, Mousetrap, even a Gnip-Gnop, the odd no longer used dart board. Wet bars with hula hoop girl dolls and plaques with an occasional dirty joke we sort of understood, stashes of hidden whiskey or an older brother's bottle of rush we'd sniff for an insta-headache. Stereos just years after they called them HiFis, bunkbeds and air hockey games, the occasional foosball table or at least the manly challenge of bumper pool. The electronic wizardry of train sets or elaborate electric race car tracks built upon huge sheets of plywood inartistically painted green. Closets full of dolls that promised something feminine and wildly, weirdly erotic, Lazyboy recliners with vinyl skins covered with grandmother's afghan. These were the environs of thousands of make-out dens I never did anything too serious in, only explored the adolescent pleasures that life briefly has to offer. Rooms of sensuality in the tackiest of surroundings.
        The onset of adolescence brought with it too opium dreams spawned by a consciousness beginning to realize itself, a steady soup of ever-increasing hormones or a flowering of the family's gene of madness. For whatever the reasons, the visions came at an early age. No interpretations were provided.
        We, sister, me, Cindy the dog are in a dark cavern. There's the smell of an astringent and an oily something coming from my hands. Sniffing my fingertips, I realize that I have been rubbing my own neck with rubbing alcohol. There seems to me a deep groove, my skin indented near my collarbone. In this dark place we do not feel lost, we do not feel alone.
       Sister tells me to light the torch. The chemical covering my hands feels like not oil, not kerosene, but a bug-repellent detergent scented vaguely of lemon and this does not make sense because we aren't outside, we are enclosed. I light a torch with a strike-on-anything match.
        What is illuminated is rows upon rows of racks of clothes. Coats, jackets, outfits, slacks, spreading out around us as far as torch light allows, the gleam of the flame reflecting on steel skeletons on which the clothes do not move. Are hung. We are in a closed and most likely locked department store full of women's clothing.
        It becomes apparent that she too holds a torch that I had lit by touching mine to hers. We begin exploring. We walk through the assembled ensembles squeaking and chattering, ting-ing the necks of hangers, the clothes reaching out to our bodies in vain, their static, eager attempts to be tried on. Although there are some doors we pass through, they all lead to large warehouse-size rooms of more clothes.
        Cindy begins to bark. This is how we realize we are not alone. Down rows of unmarked corridors of department store clothes, clothes that have never been worn by a human, we see torches, torch light, figures approaching. As we cautiously at first stand still, then approach, we discover that the walls of the building we are trapped in are made of mirror.
        Then, a loud crashing sound.
        Moving in its general direction, following Cindy's nervously wagging tail, we find the fallen body of a mannequin. Her arm has broken off and her wig lies distanced from her bald perfectly round head. Her skin, if you'd call it that, is alabaster. She has false eyes lined with glued-on eyelashes. The torchlight lends the illusion that she is winking.
        I raise my torch high over my head and we see that within the rows and rows of clothes there are legions of mannequins. Some stand some sit some gesture to one another. Most of them are decrepit with age, showing spots and blemishes, discoloration, yellowed teeth. None, however, are completely naked.
        We are hungry so we decide to make camp and wait until morning, if morning comes in this place. Logically, we find the lingerie section, clear some space, and arrange beds of clearance nightgowns. Mannequins in the distance, or their body parts, continue to drop. Cindy barks when it happens. We know we won't be able to sleep. The torchlight makes some of the silhouettes dance, their shadows reflecting off and on and within the mirrored walls. Sound of something falling. Thud. Like footsteps stumbling. Cindy barks.
        After hours our torches begin to sputter and hiss. They are running out of lamp oil fuel. They have run out. Darkness. We reach out for one another. There is the sound of plastic thudding against plastic.
        It is only in the dreams of what might be that we spend our youth and it is in illusions unrealized we grow up in, or if lucky, fantasies lived. There was only one way to get away from it all while remaining in the thick of things. It was to move. But not just move cities away, to go to college near home but not too far, a release, a great escape, from what confines: the trees that know you so well and impede your growth by imposing relaxing pools of shade you swim in mentally that obscure views of what's beyond the none too far ridge-lined hills, greening out the unknown factor of impossibility. A river lake of forgetfulness reflecting the great sea of the sky, promising a preview of yet another winter on it way and in its murkiness enticing you to bathe in its mossy womb for a rejuvenating baptism.

Philip Kobylarz is an itinerant teacher of the language arts and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist, a film critic, a veterinarian’s assistant, a deliverer of furniture, and an ascetic. He has volunteered at the Union City Historical Museum. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, The Best American Poetry series, Massachusetts Review, and Lalitamba. He also published a collection of poetry entitled rues and a collection of short stories entitled Now Leaving Nowheresville. He spends his time in the East Bay, Huntington Beach, and in the monastery in which he lives with his cat KatdawgRocket 99, his dog Chibi, and any woman who is able to temporarily love him. His website can be found here.