If it had been empty, I might have been even more afraid. The sterile concrete box with a bare bulb in the center of the ceiling resembled every prisoner-of-war cell or G-man interrogation room I'd seen in the movies. Film noir in our basement. But the room wasn't empty. Along the gravel-pitted walls, two or three layers of cardboard boxes housed Mother's random attempts at canning beans, tomatoes, corn. Occasionally she sent me down before dinner to collect a jar. Reluctantly, I descended the stairs and crossed the basement playroom to the black hole in the corner. Shuddering, I tiptoed to the middle of the room and waved my arm in search of the pull chain. Snap. Dull light flooded the gray space and gleamed faintly off the metal lids. I checked my feet and then searched for movement between the boxes where a community of recluse spiders had hatched, mated and died, leaving their birdcage carcasses to litter the floor. Glancing at the reinforced concrete ceiling, I thanked God my arm hadn't wrapped itself in a dangling cobweb.
An eight-year-old's fears should be limited to spiders and spankings and, perhaps, a boogie man in the dark. Spiders were a distraction, certainly, but I could not cross the threshold of that room without taking on another burden. My mind would skip briefly to those other films rerun in cement gray every Saturday afternoon—the ones where humans hid in concrete boxes while atoms erupted into temporary suns and morphed benign grasshoppers, spiders, even rabbits into man-eating terror. I did not know the extent to which Castro and Khrushchev had jeopardized my wellbeing, but I could read my parents' faces and piece together their fears. No amount of canned corn could have persuaded me that this was a cellar and not a bomb shelter.
Published in Watershed 2014
Winner of the 2014 Moorman Prize for Prose