One of the stories I’d been circulating and submitting, a little weird fiction, a little crime, a little personal fiction. This got a dinged (which I can see why) or just ignored by the places I shopped it to, so it’s been languishing.
I can’t really think of any place for it, even after some work and cleaning up. Figured it should still see the light of day, so why not read it & let me know what you think.
“Basements” by Costa Koutsoutis
The house was full, like it usually was for things like this.
It was after the memorial service for my grandfather, and my mother and grandmother were holding the usual post-church gorge-fest where everyone the old man had ever known was over drinking whiskey and eating cold cuts and spinach pies, talking shit and sitting on folding chairs. A couple of dozen Greek-Americans in black or in their church best, the smell of cigarettes filling the house as the smokers went in and out through the front door onto the screened-in porch, whiskey glasses and plates of food half-abandoned on the furniture sporadically.
I remember the last time I’d been at the house and just sat out on that porch drinking a beer, I’d impulsively rooted around the old windowsill and found an old carton of cigars, the cheap Dominican ones I don’t think anyone in this house had smoked in a decade. The carton still had its plastic sleeve over the cardboard, and sliding it off to see the logo of a crying cat over a spilled milk bottle on the carton had been a surreal experience. What kind of logo was this?
Old cigars and cigarettes found like that were weird, I thought as we trouped up the front stairs to the porch, mumbling greetings in half-assed Greek to the people already assembled out there. They were probably the best type of time capsule, reminders of a vice that used to be far more acceptable, not to mention a clear indicator of a particular time in someone’s life. After a breakup, the day before a wedding, a stressful time when there was no work, or a holiday season when no one gave a shit. The old cigars were from the first surgery my grandfather had when I was a teenager, removing the benign cyst from his knee. He’d been unable to do much besides hobble around the house with an IV of antibiotics the hospital sent home with him though for a month or two, so he’d taken up smoking again after years, insisting that cigars were fine because they were mostly natural. He’d done it outside on the porch, a real weird sight with him, smoking, the IV stand next to him, looking over the neighborhood. My grandmother hated it, though I do remember I’d been fascinated by it, seeing him sit out there and stare and smoking. I had a distinct memory of a Christmas when I was seven like that, though of course my mother had insisted that the timeline’s wrong, he got that surgery when I was fourteen. A lot of my memories from that era seemed to be like that, something in my head but something else in the memories and voices of others, like we’d been watching different edits of the same TV show episodes, old episodes that would get recut for different markets and syndication deals.
As usual, church was boring, the back- and shoulder-patting, the cheek kissing and all sorts of moaning and groaning about filling the coffers for upcoming renovations and picnics. The priest was young and mispronounced a few names during the memorial service, and I could feel my relatives rolling their eyes and my mother stifling a laugh. Afterwards, he shook my hand, looking at me weirdly as he told me that he’d met my grandfather before, and what a great man he’d been. My grandfather’s name had been one of the ones that he’d mispronounced, and I nodded without saying anything.
Work, home, the fraternal order lodge twice a month when I was a kid, which, as I got older and ended up living with my grandparents, turned into the lodge three times a year, mostly because his card-playing buddies would just come over to the house instead with their wives. My grandfather and them would play prefa, a card game I’d never heard of until I looked it up in a book and found out it was some nineteenth-century Russian game they all knew for some reason. My grandma and the other old ladies would drink coffee and blast the Greek channel on the TV and talk, while I’d duck out to go hang out with girls and drink beers in the dark shadows of the trees in the park nearby, the one with the World War One memorial. The old Korean men and women would do exercises in that park in the daytime, and at night the local teenagers would smoke and drink and fight there, at least until a cop would roll by, summoned by a neighbor who heard us and would call and complain.
I’d fought a kid there once, over a girl or maybe an ounce or two of pot, I couldn’t remember for sure. My brain said it was something noble like a girl, though that should have been a clue that it was over pot. Brain lying to me again. He’d been someone from a few blocks away, from another school, and he’d pulled a knife before everyone else tried to get him to calm down and I’d walked home trembling with adrenaline, leaving it alone to sit on the curb outside my grandparents’ house in the night.
I shook my head. We’d have gotten back to the house sooner after the service, but my girlfriend had to get on a bus to go check on her sick mom in New Jersey, telling me to stay with my family for the weekend and the memorial service. Hell of a way to have some time to yourself, I’d thought. “You haven’t seen them in a little while, it’ll be fine. You really wanna come and spend two or three days with my mom in that little apartment?” She’d smiled, and I’d smiled back. She was right, I thought as we walked in the door and I kissed my grandmother on the cheeks in greeting even though I’d just seen her at church, old world-style, the way I always had since I was a little kid.
I was always a little kid to her.
Her green eyes were bright and she smiled, which made me feel good as I gave her a hug. I was the favorite, she was my favorite, so it worked out. I knew she bragged about the fact that I’d finished college, had a nice job in Manhattan, apartment of my own, was probably going to be married soon. I worried about her, making me feel bad for a minute about not coming by more often. I could only handle so much family though, in the end. I held her hands and I could feel them, fragile but somehow still calloused, like she’d had to do something physical and hurt herself. She winced a bit when I looked at her hands, “It’s nothing baby, nothing, don’t worry about it,” before giving me another hug and moving on to greet someone else.
When were her eyes green? Someone patted me on the shoulder and the thought evaporated as I shook more hands, moving through the house. I felt guilty for a bit for not being there more often to help repair stuff, thinking about her hands. The hum and thrum of the house was loud but consistent, everyone talking at the same time. That meant that it was impossible to hear anyone unless you were paying attention, and after I undid my tie, stuffed a fistful of cold cuts off a platter into my mouth, and cracked open a beer, I realized that I wasn’t in the mood to listen yet.
The old man had died a few years ago and my mom had moved in with my grandmother, who had fallen hard right into old Greek widow mode and maintained it all this time, which, yeah, was tradition, but was enough of a bummer to be annoying. My mom had thrown herself, on the other hand, into hobbies galore after my dad and brother died, doing volunteer work, joining a book club, even dating a little bit, which I thought was good but my grandmother found atrociously scandalous. Regardless, once a year we had a memorial service for him during Sunday church services at the local Greek parish he and my grandmother belonged to, followed by the blowout at the house. Everyone there and laughing loudly and shaking hands and talking shit, which, if you were in the mood for it, could be fun.
Eventually but not yet, I thought. I sulked in the kitchen, put my beer down and walked down the stairs to the basement, the sanctuary. I’d lived down there, a little apartment half-finished like the kingdom teenagers always want to have, for a few years when I lived here instead of with my parents, and I still found comfort in being down there on whatever old couch was there, watching the old TV and hearing the fridge used for cold storage hum a little too loud.
That time between fifteen and eighteen when this space was mine, except of course for the laundry done in the little mini-room off the stairs that led down here, had been some of my favorite years, a brief bright spot in an otherwise-boring and sometimes-painful teenage years. There was a door that led out to the back alley, my own exit and entrance where I’d let girls in and stand and smoke from my store of lucys, loose individual bodega cigarettes we’d get for a quarter after high school. One of my old heavy metal posters, after all this time, was still up on the wall, held in place with pins instead of tape like the rest of the older ones. It was faded, sagging a bit, torn at the bottom a bit. The rest of the basement was still just as familiar, an old desk, the TV, the fridge, the half-bathroom with the toilet and sink I’d use all the time, showering upstairs.
I sat on the couch, flicking on the TV and scrolling through my phone, just getting away from the noise of the crowd upstairs for a minute, hearing the footfalls above my head, sipping from my beer. I got up and opened the door to the alleyway, patting myself down for cigarettes. “Fuck.” They were in my coat, upstairs, I realized as the cooler outside fall air started to blow in. Suddenly the thought struck me and I turned back towards the bathroom, where the family vault was.
Most houses in Queens had a basement you could live in, anything from barely-livable cellars to fully-furnished apartments you could rent out, cash only, month-to-month of course. When I was little, back when my brother was still alive and we’d come over, we played down here and watched TV, sitting on the old tile floor my grandfather had put down here when he turned this into a kind of living space, a studio apartment. We’d found it then, a loose wood wall panel that could pull away almost on a hinge, showing a perfect little empty space the size of a shoebox in the wall. We kept action figures in there, and when I was older, I kept my weed and porn and cigarettes there, hidden from my grandmother’s prying eyes as she’d clean down in “my” place when I’d be at school.
Except I didn’t remember exactly where it was. I started knocking, softly, on the wall by the bathroom, looking for the one bit that rang different. The walls were wood panel covering the insulation, wiring, and pipework, but the “vault” had been different, something like a box built into the space itself. I always figured it’d been something my grandfather had done, a place for something related to the wiring of the house that just ended up not ever being used. The first time I found it, playing down there and generally being a nosy kid, we found a pack of cigarettes and a dirty magazine in there, I remembered. Our mom had called us up, and we’d bolted up the stairs, forgetting to close the panel all the way. When we came back next week, the space was empty, so we’d started using it, storing whatever we wanted in it, playing bank robber where one of us was the bank teller, “at work” in front of the vault.
Deep down, I realized, I kinda knew that there wouldn’t be anything in there. When I went away to college I didn’t come home anymore except for Christmas, talking with my mom over the phone regularly instead, throwing myself into girls and beer and travelling around on the cheap, whatever I could afford with a string of on-campus jobs, part-time work as a security guard, and then in an office while I went to graduate school. Part of me just wanted the comfort of knowing it was there, the comfort of something from those early memories still being there.
I hit one part of the wall by the bathroom, feeling it give way like it should, and pushed around at the knots in the wood grain, finding the little hole to use to pull it open. It creaked a bit, but at this point it was more about just finding it again as opposed to just getting at a pack of smokes I may or may not have left there years ago, which would probably be moldy and useless at this point. I wanted to see it, to remember again.
I pulled harder, and in a puff of dust and who the shit knew what else, probably mouse shit, it gave away entirely in my hand, breaking off. There’d never actually been a hinge, just the way the panel could move within the frame and against the other panels it had been set, so after years of not actually being used, it just broke off.
“Shit!” I dropped it with a clatter. Well fuck, so much for my promise to myself to not actually screw today up. Coming around for my grandpa’s memorial service every year was one of the few times I dragged myself to my grandma’s house anymore. I had so many great memories about being here, playing cards with my grandpa at the dining room table while my mom was…whatever. That year after my dad and my brother died she took off and I lived here, and I don’t hate her for it, but at the time, deep down, I think I might have. I think she felt guilty, guilty because she’d wanted to leave him about the time it happened, guilty like maybe she caused it, at least in her own head.
I looked into the empty space, reaching in and pulling out the pack of cigarettes, smirking before I felt how brittle the whole thing felt in my hands. So much for a hidden treasure of smokes. I peered into the opening, looking all the way in the back. There was something in there, though, and I reached in, pulling it out. It was an old pair of pliers, one of my grandpa’s tools. I didn’t recognize them, but he’d had so many pairs of pliers found, lost, bought, repaired, and replaced over the years, who knew where or when they were from. The handles were grated and waffled metal like sandpaper instead of a rubber coating, but they were cool to the touch and the rust on them wasn’t that bad. Using them would definitely do a number on your hands. Did my grandfather leave them in here by accident for something, the last time he was down here? He’d been so sick the past few years of his life he’d almost never used the stairs if he could help it. When had he been down here? When had anyone been down here to do anything? I started to look around down here, the old poster that was up, the desk and the books up on the old shelves bolted into the walls since the 70s. The dust was spotty but it was all over, and the latest couch down there, I realized, was just the old one with a sheet thrown over it and a few pillows. I recognized the pillowcases from when I’d last been here.
I looked back at the pliers, the spots of rust on the teeth. They were a little smaller than the usual pliers for everyday repairs or whatever that were around, more specialized, like for reaching into tight small spaces to turn and twist and grip. I went to put them back in the space, just say fuck it and go upstairs to brave the crowds for a cigarette out on the screened-in porch when I saw it.
The bottom of the little space was crooked, like it was sunken in at one end, lopsided. I reached in and felt it wiggle, like the thin piece of metal that made up the bottom of the space was resting on something, a hollow space. It was like a false bottom, I realized, and I reached back in to find the upturned end, fingers scraping against the cold dirty metal. Real safe, I thought to myself. Gradually, it pulled up enough for me to put a hand under and yank that fake bottom up, awkwardly pulling it out and letting it too, clatter onto the dirty old tile floor of the basement. I fumbled into my pocket, pulling my phone out and swiping the flashlight on, shining it in. The angle was weird, but there was something in there, small bits scattered around, like rocks. I reached in, feeling around, trying to use my fingers to sweep a bunch into enough for me to grab a fistful.
“Come the…fuck on,” I grunted, more to myself than to the empty basement, feeling whatever was in there get scooped up in my hand, hard and loose, clattering around in the space’s false bottom. Pulling my arm back out, I opened my hand and looked at the handful, the dirty yellow knobs of hard enamel.
Human teeth, molars coated with dust and dirt. One, two…a dozen, and I looked back into the back of the space and saw a few more I’d missed. All of them were molars, flat on top, one cracked, another with what I realized was a silver cap, different sizes. I felt it on some of them, a weird rough patch, which I realized was from the teeth of the pliers gripping so hard it’d scarred the enamel. One was cracked, though if it was from being squeezed or something natural, I couldn’t tell. It would take some pressure on the pliers to crack a tooth, I thought. One, which looked less yellow than the rest, had a silver cap on it, a filling. One stood out though, definitely cleaner, and I picked it up out of my palm with my other hand, wiping the dust away with my thumb.
Unlike the other ones, this wasn’t yellow or dry-looking, the dust and age permanently seeped into the microscopic pores of the tooth’s surface. The root was red, fresh and spotty still, the enamel clean, white, a fine but distinct crack running the length of the tooth, like it’d been clamped with pliers.