International literature


The Basement

Written by Robert N Stephenson

(Story sold to The Blend for use on the site - The author is Australian)

There is water in my basement, and I don’t know from where it’s come. No rain has fallen, no pipes have split or cracked or coupling rusted through. In a house of sadness with a secret locked

and flooded beneath the stair, I sit and drink and smoke and think of the emptiness I must bear.

I called the plumber who smelt of shit and old cheese; she rattled pipes, turned stop cocks and shook her head while scratching at her breast. She looked perplexed, then disinterested, as a hand extended for payment – a call out fee no matter what was done.

“Sixty dollars,” she breathed through the smoke, acrid and suffocating.

“But the water?” Why was my wife dead? “What about the basement flood?”

“No idea,” she said, dropping her butt into the pool she waded through; boots black and high, stained by over-use. “That’s sixty bucks.” The plumber wiped her nose on a sleeve and coughed; rattling lungs tried to shake loose. I shared that sound, shared that cancerous risk.

“But the water in my basement?” I said, counting out the bills. Smoking didn’t kill Helen.

“Can pump it,” she said, stuffing the notes into her filthy gray coveralls. “Do it for two-fifty.” The yellow smile of broken teeth came alive with human need.

“I’ll call you.” I was still grieving. The loss of my wife, the ache in the place some called a heart, told me to kill, but not yet, not yet. A well of blackness pumped my blood – always had, always


“That’d be another sixty,” she said, lifting her tool box and walking up the stair.

I let her go and stayed looking into the black pool shimmering beneath the single light bulb hanging from a bearer. Helen liked to sail on the lake just outside of town. She loved the quiet and the gentle slap of water against the hull of our small boat. What would

she think of a lake in the basement, would she want to sail it and dip her hand into its depths? Darker thoughts met darker water. I need the light, the heatless winter sun.

At the top of the stair, I closed the door; the basement was a place for another time, another man. The kitchen empty, silent. Helen’s sounds absent. The table, a mess of cards and papers and letters unopened, waited. The years of lies rushed in. A week she’s been gone, three days since the burial, and the pizza box on the sink is my effort in meals. I never cooked.

“We’ve had a good life,” she’d said during those final days. “Twelve years is better than most.” Helen lay frail in our bed, misty with drugs.

“What should I do?” I asked. I only knew one life, even the shared one wasn’t full.

“Go on, go on.” She closed her eyes and let sleep ease away the pain.

We never had children, though her willingness was there, but chemo robbed her of the gift as a child, robbed her of life as a woman. There is a letter from the adoption agency amongst the memory of our life together. I would have never signed the papers, but it gave hope to her.

“We could adopt,” she said over dinner one night.

“It takes years,” I’d replied, hoping the issue could be dropped. To adopt meant forms, security checks, giving my name, the only one registered in more places than I cared.

“We’ll have plenty together, dear.” She pushed her long, blonde hair behind her ears then clasped my hands in hers. The touch warm, soft; hands that gave more than she realized. “Let’s talk about this later,” I’d said, letting the bitterness of our wine distract me.

“I really want a child,” she’d said, the blueness of her eyes trapping me like the sight of a gun. That red dot of oblivion – out damned spot.

“One day,” I’d said, kissing the back of her fingers. “One day.”

I’ve not slept in our bed since the night she closed her eyes in goodbye. Her smell lingers in the pillow; a presence I could not disturb, can not face again.

Sixty dollars, I thought, dropping the plumber’s receipt amongst the mess. I’d pay a million times that to have her back. She’d know what to do about the flood. There is water in the basement and yet not a tear from me. I haven’t cried since my father killed my mother and shot me in the head. It changed me; took away my love. Helen always wanted me to share the darkness of that past, but even at the end I could

not tell her what I was or what I did to fuel our lives. I was to her a great mystery that started the day we met.

“Your name?” she’d asked, notebook in hand, a young officer at the time.

“Karl,” I’d said, creating our first lie.

“What are you doing here, Karl?” Her badge caught the light, her hair the sun.

“I heard the shot, thought I’d come over to see what was up,” I’d said, the gun still warm against my side. I had never wanted anything more than I wanted her that day. I spun the lie and wooed the girl. A complexity was added to my job. She investigated the murder for months afterwards, calling on me for comfort until we called each other home. Through the years, I learned the sanctity of her life; she shone like hope in the future, but still I could not lower the shield of my life, open the vault of my mind. Would I have killed her if she knew? If she ever found out? The question never arose.

There is water in my basement, a pool above the tools of my trade, hidden in a chest stored beneath the stair.

“What’s in there?” Helen asked many times.

“Just old junk,” I answered every time. “Stuff I just haven’t got around to throwing away.” It was triple locked, a different key per lock. Its contents alone would give me a cell, the needle if connections were made. The basement held my memories, my

future; an often-visited place.

“Come up for dinner,” she’d say, pulling me away from my cold steel chair and my stare upon the box. “You can leave whatever you’re doing till later.” By noon the next day, the later would

come. I once shot a man in front of his family and listened to their screams as I walked away. I didn’t know him or his crime against my buyer, it never mattered once the money had been

paid. At night, I’d see the children hugging their mother’s legs, the

tears falling harder than rain. I never remembered faces like TV archetypes do, it wasn’t in the contract, but those children haunted me and haunt me still. Helen would hold me through the nightmares, we’d spoon till the sun came up. Her words were gentle, her

perfume powdery and fresh; she liked Opium and I shared her joy in the fragrance. I’d take a handkerchief scented when I went across country, it replaced the smell of gun oil and powder and allowed me to sleep.

There is water in my basement, yet there is nothing of my soul. Helen has gone with her investigations, promotions and stories of perps and crime. Gone is the life I held in separation. I see my hand, steady and sure. I want a cup of coffee but the machine’s burned black and dry, she never allowed instant, said it was poisoned and bad for my health.

A form sits on the table, I’ve waited for it to disappear; it is legal and required, but I cannot sign my name. Have never signed it, not the real one, the one Helen never knew. We weren’t married

in any sense of government laws. Helen never knew and it did her no harm. We had a ceremony in a church with a priest and guests and gifts, but it was my gift to her I paid for from secret accounts.

Helen had wanted me as husband, but others wanted me more.

“You may kiss the bride,” Dan, my mock priest had said. Helen beamed as the veil lifted up; it was then I knew I’d

done the right thing and our life began outside my world of contracts and guns.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” Dan said with opened arms. He enjoyed the role, it was a contrast to his life as a bum.

The guests cheered, hugged and kissed, Helen’s elderly aunts, the nearest of family, cried and wept. I had no guests, no friends to invite, but my little group acted well enough. It became a day she would remark on for most of her life. ‘The best day of my life,’ she’d say when she held me close. 

She stopped asking about my friends, the ones money did buy. They were all from ‘out of town,’ I’d say, which was true.

The basement door gazes at me, willing me to return; it has an answer I must seek out. The handle is worn, the old lock broken, something I never did fix. It pulls me back, back to the lake,

back to the peaceful look of Helen’s face, the skies, the sound of water against the boat. I want those days again, but those times have vanished, swallowed by a mind that cannot accept others like I accepted her. She is dead, young at forty-four.

My disguise has fallen, my duel existence is at an end and there is no reason to be happy any more. I have a job in Chicago. Could I easily forget my years in another world? There is water in my basement, something overwhelming, something long forgotten, something come from me. I leave the mess, the forms I must sign and head to the pool beneath the stair.

The steps creak, the sound like old bones, the smell of dampness hangs in the air. Stepping off the third to bottom step the water rushes around my feet, cold, embracing. I step to the floor, the

pool swirls about my knees. The slippers Helen gave me last Christmas

are sodden, track pants, days on, darken; the wetness spreading to my thighs. Standing, letting the iciness numb my legs, pieces of paper and small boxes bob. The top of the weapons chest protrudes from the flood, the silver lid a history of scars. I never kept a gun upstairs. Helen was a detective, she couldn’t suspect.

I find the keys, hidden atop a dusty bearer, the whoosh of water around my legs like the sound on the lake. The chest is awash, the guns all wet. I unwrap a snub nosed .38, a gun I never

used but liked. It is loaded, of course, what use an empty gun? and I return to the stair and the thoughts of all I had done. I watch the water settle as I sit and wipe my face. The globe light, like a moon on the water’s surface, round and yellow, casts shadows over my

existence. The boxes afloat are like ducks on a pond, the sky is

black wood, the moonlight a switch away. My face is wet. I am crying, the tears strange and thick. Sobs erupt, shoulders shake, I see her lovely face.

“Helen,” I cry as the weight of the gun settles in my grip.

There is water in my basement and I know from where it’s come.