Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
The Cellar Man
Konnie Ellis received a B.A. in English and Art from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her stories have appeared in Lake Superior Magazine, Skylark, Sojourner, and RagMag. She writes and paints (oil and gouache) in Colorado and is currently preparing for a one-person show in Denver. See other work by Konnie at https://www.computerpro.com/~lellis/konnie.html or https://www.artistregister.com
Here I am in the cellar again. I don't know how I get here, but I do. It's a repetitious situation, like the drip behind the light.
Drip Drip Drip
Drip Drip Drip
The drips collect in a puddle until they plunk into a lower pool—at least that's what I assume; I can't actually see any water, and I'm not at all relaxed during the drips, so I hold my hand over my heart for reassurance. I like to know the blood is flowing in there, especially around my heart, and feeling the warmth of my body calms me.
I haven't been able to locate the light source. It may be some type of internal light because the only way you know it exists is from the muddy glow off the walls, which are dirt like the floor, so it really is more like a cellar than a cave, except the dirt on the floor is so hard and smooth it shines like a beetle. The walls are looser, more like regular dirt, especially in the areas I don't like, by the old boots.
I don't mind the smell. It's a rutabaga smell, and maybe a little like moldy radish leaves, and not really bad once you get used to it. I hardly even think about it. Most of the time I sit in my chair, which is the old green plaid from the living room that's stuck in the reclining position.
There's a mirror down here too, in a fancy gold frame, but it's no good. It looks normal, but when you look into it there's nothing there. No reflection. Nothing. It's like you don't exist, or you're a ghost or a vampire or something unhuman. Of course that may just be my pills, which I sometimes forget to take, although I never tell Doris that. I've learned a thing or two about surviving, and one of my rules around Doris is "think before you speak." Still, I've tried sneaking into the mirror from the side, but then you get into those layers, possibly mica, possibly shadows, and so thin you have to consider whether they could be peeled. I'm considering peeling a corner—if I could get ahold of a bit of an edge, but I fear it may be like scotch tape when you can't see where the end starts—or is that the beginning? Then again I may be all wrong; maybe it's only a fake mirror. It may be as simple as that; or it may not. Nothing is easy in the cellar.
I don't give up. I look straight at the mirror, looking for my soft nose, my sugary lips, my white mushroomy skin. I don't bother looking for my curls; I know they're gone. I don't mind. The day we got married Doris said I had sugary lips. She called me Sugar Lips. No one had ever said anything like that to me, because I'm a serious person, not a joking-around sort. I was serious and normal. I was Barley William Haferstring, usually Barley William, or just Barley from the bank, but I did like those sugar-coated minty green leaves, and I guess that's how I got the nickname. Sugar Lips. Doris likes nicknames, especially those two-name nicknames. These are the kinds of things I ponder when I look at the empty mirror or sit down here in my plaid chair. And I think about the snake inside Doris's tongue, and how it curls around her words, stretching them out into lazy swirls that slide inside my ears in a slow southern way, and so you can't be just Tom, or John; you have to be Tom Ray or John Thomas or Sugar Lips, even when you're a conservative banker like I was.
Over here is the place I don't like, the little bug ledges and then the boots. I really don't like those boots. I don't like where they've been, not that I know where they've been, but I can tell it's not good. I have never liked those rubbery independent-type boots, those swampy green boots—the water sucks right against your bones when you're knee deep in a bog, so you don't know what they'll do. I have to leave fast when I get this feeling; I have to leave right quick. I brush my hands together briskly and walk until I find the door. So far there's always been a door, and I concentrate on getting there because there's nothing to fear on the other side of the door and it's like swimming up through dark heavy water and breaking through the surface to the great relief of air which makes your lungs float out like soft little clouds above the garden.
Here's the door. I'll close it quietly behind me so I don't disturb Doris. It'll be light enough to go up in just a minute; it always gets normal when I close the door, if I'm quiet. I need to be quiet so I don't disturb Doris, that's why I don't wear shoes.
I like to sit here on the top step next to the broom and listen to Doris. Some day she'll have her own cooking show on TV, and that's why she needs to rehearse. This spot by the broom is nice, and Doris doesn't know I'm here. Sometimes I comment to the broom, act like we're both in the cooking show audience. For instance, I might say, "I prefer Merlot with blackened catfish, even though it is a red wine." I use my English accent which I've picked up from watching My Neighbor's Hat on TV. "Even though it is a red wine," I repeat, tucking my chin to my chest and sucking the air out of my cheeks so my nose floats out in front of my face like a yard mole, which is quite enjoyable, especially after the cellar. I'm a different personality up here.
The broom has plastic bristles. Yellow ones. I would much prefer a natural bristled broom than a plastic one. I feel a natural bristle broom would be more down to earth, and I really don't care for plastic. That's Doris now. What a pretty voice.
Knead your dough a good five minutes. Time it. Get yourself a clock with a second hand. My sister Dora May gave me my cat clock with the swinging tail and the eyes with green lights. Dora May is a singer in Chicago. She sings at the Moanin R&B Barbeque, and she is really good, I mean really really good.
Now Doris is humming. My Funny Valentine. She hums when she forgets she's rehearsing. Of course you can't see Doris from here in the hallway, but I can see her without looking—her pale fluffy hair, and big shining face with little pink leechy lips that move fast: clickety clickety clickety click, though of course sometimes the snake slows her down. Her eyes are blue, and they see everything at once, except when she's asleep and then they float around under her lids like poor lost fish. Doris always wears her sunflower apron for rehearsals, which I like because it reminds me of summer. Sometimes I sneak it down to the cellar. I hang it on the nail and look at it while I sit in my chair.
Four minutes is up already. Isn't that something. You just lose track of time when you're kneading dough. That's why you really need the clock. I believe kneading bread dough is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It's good for the body and good for the soul. You can punch that dough like it's whoever's been giving you trouble, plus you get the exercise—you won't get arthritis, or at least not bad, using your hands like this. Make your own bread and do your own kneading, and just put that old bread maker in the cellar, and you be the bread maker.
I look at the broom when she makes the cellar comment, and give it a look like we're having a really deep philosophical aside.
There now, doesn't that look fine. Smooth and round, with a good texture from those oats we added. Into the bowl you go—make sure you oil your bowl. Then flip the dough and it'll be nice and oily on top. Then, cover it up for a nap.
Here she spreads the red and white cloth over the bowl. I know this from about a million other bread making rehearsals. She snaps the cloth in the air, then lets it flutter down over the bowl like she's Merlin the Magician.
There, we'll just let that rise until 4:00 o'clock.
That's when her soap operas are over. Now it's time for me to count the bristles on the broom. It takes a long time, even with averaging. When I count bristles is the only time I'm reminded of my life before the cellar, when I worked at the bank. I hardly ever think of it anymore. I'm not supposed to, and I don't. Doris takes care of the money, and I stay in the cellar, except in summer when I live in the yard and weed the garden and stay out of the swamp. I can open the door now.
Because of my socks without shoes, I'm as quiet as a mole crossing the linoleum. I pick up the bowl with the sleeping dough and tip toe all the way over to Doris. She's already dozing and snoring in the big chair, next to her glass of wine. My legs are stiff and tingly, so perhaps my heart slipped down into my foot again. The vein on my forehead pulsates little directions for me to follow: Barley William, make Doris stop snoring. It tells me I could—I don't have to, but I could, I could hold the dough on her face, make her stop snoring. I don't like when her lips vibrate like a dying bird—you have no way of knowing what might drift out into the air of the room in an invisible but highly contagious manner. I could let the dough casually fall on her face, the whole four-loaf batch, big enough to cover her whole face, plus her ears, and I could hold it there and look at the ceiling, check for cobwebs. But I only think this. Thinking is not the same as doing. I'll put the bowl back so I won't disturb Doris. She likes everything in its place. I'll put it back. I'm good now, with the pills, actually quite good. I'm fine, just fine. No problem. There is no clock in this room, and I will not lock myself in. I will absolutely not lock myself in. I'm perfectly fine. Perfectly fine and normal. There we go. I know I was wrong about that. Doris handles the money. I don't even think about it.
Better tell the broom, just go tell the broom, hear my voice tell it.
"Her face is all dough and she's not snoring. I left the TV on," I say.
The broom says I'd better go back in the cellar and wait for Uncle Maynard to come. He might bring ice cream, and I'm thinking of what flavor, hoping for chocolate ripple, as I go down the stairs. I lock myself in the cellar because Doris knows I can't be trusted.
I'll put on the boots, that's exactly what I'll do. You need to be punished young man, yes you do. I didn't do anything. Did I? I don't think I did. Oh these voices, these little voices running through my veins like little mice. Drip Drip Drip. Better stand and look in the empty mirror and wait for something to happen to my feet. Something's bound to happen to my feet. Plunk. I can sit in my chair. Drip Drip Drip.
"Barley William, are you down there? Time for supper. Come up dear. Uncle Maynard's here."
I take off the boots and examine my feet. My socks are fine. I can smell freshly baked bread. I open the door and run up the stairs like a boy.
"Hi Doris," I say as I walk past the broom, not even giving it a glance. I'm hungry.
"You came up earlier, didn't you, when I was sleeping—you put dough on my nose again didn't you?" She shakes a finger at me; acts like it's a big joke. She humors me. Doris laughs, and the whole kitchen gets nice and loose. No one laughs as much as Doris. I think about how dough on a nose is funny, but I don't laugh. Then finally, in spite of myself, I feel my mouth smile.
"You silly sugar lips," Doris says. "You kill me sometimes, Barley."
I concentrate on fudge ripple ice cream. I know when to keep quiet.