The Sub-Basement

Warning:  it’s dark below.

The Sub-Basement

She was twenty-three, her face lineless and bright. She had steered part of her life for years purely in order to mix some darkness into it, but the results fooled only those her own age or younger. The rest of her life she had kept on track, and that was obvious.

She was looking for a job, imagining a career. She was looking downtown only, because the tallest buildings seemed to make the largest promises.  She had been educated, but not for a job (or career), except for how to dress for an interview. In black and white, with make-up and clicking heels, she looked the part. The competition would have to at least be experienced.

How did he get her onto his elevator? She just stepped on; there was nothing to it.

How did he get it to go down instead of up? That was her mistake; he was going down. And not a mistake in the normal sense: she saw the arrow but figured it couldn’t add much time. She wanted to stand in the back, not the front, when the crowd got on. She liked that it was nearly empty, while her thoughts and nerves were buzzing. And she was early.

Where was everyone else? They had gotten off at the lobby.

And how did he get her to step off with him? When she smiled at him, with friendly sheepishness, as the doors closed and the floor dropped, he asked her where she was headed, then told her that she was on the wrong elevator. At sub-basement three, she could switch. The “SB3” button–the lowest circle on the elevator wall, not including the arrows for opening and closing doors, or the emergency stop–was already lit. They looked at it together and felt the floor lift. She doubted him but was polite, and early, and wanted to believe his blue uniform and ring of keys. She didn’t much like her sense of him but liked her own hope, and when the light in the circle went off and the door opened, she acknowledged to herself that today was all about Fate, even about being led. She was, after all, in the market for a boss. He gestured, and she stepped forwards, feeling, rather than quite thinking, that, on top of every other reason, favor with the very building itself, through its real keepers, who wore such uniforms, might bless her mission. She wanted the karma. To her doubts, the same part of her that sought a job with no experience, but plenty of intelligence and will, said: I am flattered and fearless. 

The door closed behind her, and there were no other elevators in sight. He stood before her. He had gray hair and a strong body beneath the uniform. It was his eyes that made her understand, though she did not yet believe.

At the sight of those eyes–or in the action of seeing them, and seeing them not change, but set–the air went out of her, and everything was different. None of her thoughts had mattered, only one action, the stepping off. He said to her, “You know we’re fifty feet below the surface right now? Fifty feet. Sort of not a lot, but the hundred-story building above us does make the air feel a little like the grave. Like a coffin, buried alive. You get used to it. May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“I have to get to an interview,” she said. Immediately, she wished that she had claimed she worked in the building already. She had given him, instead of an honest and urgent reason to excuse her, confirmation of what he had apparently guessed but couldn’t really have known: that no one really knew her. She was alone.

He repeated the question.

“Please,” she said. She meant it, and he took it, both ways.

He got the pot, which had already brewed. She confirmed that the elevator button did not work; he didn’t bother watching as he poured. It needed a key.

“There you are,” he said. He did not take a cup himself. As he moved, his keys, on his hip, teased her with their rattling.

The coffee was not hot enough that it would peel his skin off. And the mug was not heavy enough that it could crush his skull. But together, they were something.

He smiled eagerly. He had wanted her to have something.

“You can smell the dirt around us, the rocks,” he said. “Smell.”

She lowered her mug, changing her grip on it at her side, and breathed in through her nose for him.

“And you can smell the chemicals of all the files and furniture and cleaning products we stock down here. One thing Mr. Calareso—he’s the owner of the building—one thing I heard him say: ‘You can’t have too much storage space.’ He was trying to sell Vegas suites with walk-in closets, but that’s his mind-set. He had this building built from the ground up—well, from the ground down to here, then from here up—with all these basements. A whole bunch of basements. My house, we have a basement. It’s mildewy. I never go in it. I don’t breathe well anyway.”

“I want you to let me go free,” she said.

He responded by taking a seat, and motioning her towards one, presumably knowing that she would remain standing. The chairs were the kind of padded folding chairs you see at banquets.

Settled, with her attention, he asked, “Do I look retarded to you?”

“You’re self-absorbed. That’s a kind of emotional retardation.”

She had always had that problem with the way she used her intelligence, sooner or later. It was the central aspect of the way that she had cultivated darkness: being mean to people with what she saw as the truth, when they crowded her. It had worked her parents down to nubs during her teenage years. It had cost her several boyfriends, and, on losing them, the prospects of friendly break-ups, an afterlife to the romance. But she was rarely actually wrong, and saw no harm in pride that was earned. It was the world that needed changing, for the most part, and even without a cause beyond oneself, one needed a backbone every day.

“Good,” said the man. “That’s good. ‘Emotional retardation.’ Huh.”

“How’s that make you feel? Take your time answering.” She was riding a surge, hoping it could go somewhere. But she was terrified, including of herself—of what was preventable, that, through her own emotional retardation, she would cause.

He was silent for so long that she looked around for a clock on the wall, which there wasn’t, before remembering that she wore a watch today, for dress-up. To not insult him inconsistently, she did not look at it. He did have a problem breathing: there was shallowness, and a rasp.

He did not look stupid, but thought in a way that you could see it happening.

“I’m thinking of ‘Down Syndrome,’” he said. “That’s what they call it, right? There’s a play on words there. ‘Down Syndrome.’ In the sub-basement. That’s what I have. So you’re really onto something there.”

“You’re almost able to flirt,” she said, and made herself sip her coffee. It was unsweetened and creamless. That didn’t mean he had put nothing into it. Still, she swallowed. “You’re witty. Strange how that could be joyless.”

“It’s not joyless,” he said.

She had felt the feeling of running conversations before—with teachers, boyfriends; at parties. She had learned to slide into it, to ride it. To ride a whole room as one rides a horse (which she had also done enough of to understand, though not master): with the confidence that is its own groove, disallowing resistance. To occupy space with movement that necessitates a symmetrical and subordinate response. To lead the dance. There was a Role here, and a Destination. The Destination was, of course, Up and Out. The route there, the shape of the movement—she couldn’t know it, but knew, or believed it best, to at least move with boldness and clarity. Maybe through the Emotional Retard’s Happy Place? Standing in a pose of casual confidence, herself the interviewer, she asked, “What else do you take pleasure in?”

He stood, said, “I’m glad you asked,” and with a hooking motion knocked her face, cutting it with something she hadn’t seen in his hand.

She was able to recover, in terms of her composure, in only a few seconds, and hoped the cut would cooperate by not being impossible to stay composed with. It hurt. How much? Well, compared to what? There were no mirrors to help judge the pain by seeing the damage, getting a second opinion from her eyes.  But it was more than just the shock of it that stung. Her finger probed a hole as blood ran into her mouth and over her white shirt. The coffee cup and its coffee were on the floor.

This was not a game; these were not Roles. Or it was his game and she wasn’t a player but a piece; the only Role was his. Was His.

Who knew she was here? Her roommate. Knew she was at an interview. The address was written down somewhere. A post-it on her desk—no, that was in her purse. She had used it to put it into the the map on her phone on the way over.

Her phone: as she thought it, he took her purse from her shoulder. Lifted it and slid it, pausing where it caught for her to adjust and let him, or resist. She let him. Her own flinching, when no further violence met it, embarrassed her. He put the phone in his pocket, stepped back, looked through the rest, and dropped the purse, which was not new but was her only small, dressy one, onto the table.

There it lay, open and half-spilled, as if she lived there.

She was a dead woman and would never be found.   

And this pain was only the beginning.

She thought to scream, and thought better of it.

“Why?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, but moved playfully, like children when they wrestle a parent’s leg. Then her gut screamed the way her face had. He had done it again. She dropped to the floor and thought better of that. She had landed in the coffee, and her limbs moved like a cartoon character beginning to run, but slower. She wound up in a corner, swinging her coffee mug and kicking at his groin as he bobbed and weaved and smiled.

She spent the night naked with her wounds in a locked room beside the room they had been in. She heard him whistling as he cleaned. There was the smell of cleaning chemicals and earth. Her wounds seemed to be punctures, not so deep that anything but blood spilled out, but the blood and pain would not stop being shocking. She had five now, and one had started inside of her. She still hadn’t seen what made them. She could hear the elevators humming and pausing and humming in their shafts, but never voices or the “ding” of one arriving.

In her locked room, she looked at every part of the walls, door, ceiling and floor. She made herself climb the shelves and back down, and touch every crack, leaving stains.

She heard him breathing. It had stopped moving around, but never sounded like sleeping.

She thought of what she had said to him before he first cut her. First it just actively replayed, but then she tried to control it. “What else do you take pleasure in?” Her pose and feeling: bluff? Calculation? Replay and replay. But nothing: she had to dismiss the question, or postpone it indefinitely. It’s only how people live, she told herself. They guess and act. There is never time—and nothing really even to choose.

Telling herself that was both factually correct and an act of forgiveness of herself. It also acknowledged a betrayal of her own mind–that, in terms of correctness and blame, her brain would dare even raise questions. It wasn’t that she was female, and girls are raised to blame themselves. Not mostly: she’d been both spoiled and through a certain amount of therapy. It was, mostly, that brains just don’t understand victimhood, not all the way.  Nobody’s can. The idea itself is read as a trap, with every crack in it to be worked at. We all think we’re really free.

She thought of her parents. In the thinking, she became herself as a little girl: they loved her and could save her. But that innermost part of her also lay over the room like a transparency set there by someone else’s hand as nothing but a joke, and that was the version of her mother and father–the mocking, ghostly version–that the honest part of her did not even need to remind her was now real.

In the morning, there was a breakfast pastry in plastic wrapping from a box, a mug of coffee, a stack of hand towels, and him.

Today, he was gentle, or busy, or bored.

When he was in the other room, she opened every box on every shelf. She looked at every part of herself. She breathed, and tried to breathe, and breathed.

That night he was eager for her again, in the same way and even more so. She wondered when she would die, and stopped wondering how. She fought every way she could, as hard as she could. The ways of fighting included fighting and not fighting. They included honesty, brutal and gentle, and lies.

She maintained, all night long, the belief that her death would, anyway, not come tonight.

Of all the wishes she kept having, the one that inexplicably made her angry at herself was for blankets.

In the morning, there was a breakfast pastry in plastic wrapping from a box, a mug of coffee, another stack of hand towels, and an unlocked door. On the other side of it, nothing: no one.

He wanted her to have something.

She tried the elevator and searched for a key or a way to pick the lock. She pounded on the door with a metal stapler and yelled. She poured bleach into the coffee and filled a mug with it. If he wouldn’t drink it, she would. She broke a mop handle and picked and rubbed it into a spear. She spilled liquid soap all over the floor. She found the bathroom, used it and cleaned herself as best she could. She pounded and yelled more. Sometimes the humming of the elevator in this one shaft got closer—the lobby–and she pounded harder and yelled louder. She found a metal bar and hid that in her room.

She could not find her clothes, or any. There were many locked drawers and cabinets, and no keys. Given time, she could pry some open; should that be next? Instead, she explored every corner of the large basement next, and found another door. It was locked, with silence behind it. She knocked and tried it and called into it. Then the silence was not quite a silence.

There was another girl.

The elevator dinged.

The door opened, out of sight. She was naked with a spear in a war zone. Or a tomb. Both. She got away from that door to protect that one secret. From behind shelving, she watched him jump out of the elevator as if expecting an attack, then slip without falling. She imagined racing past him, reaching the elevator, and getting pulled out, but leaving blood on the SB3 button as a clue for a hero whose face, in the quick imagination, assumed no form. She breathed quietly, wiping off the bottoms of her feet. He walked to the door of her room and opened it, standing back. His face looked maniacal. This was hide and seek. What fun for him.

She came around to the main room, the room with the elevator door. He entered the room as she picked up her mug of bleach.

“Coffee?” she asked. She did not apologize for the spear in her hand. He walked comically across the soap: it was a joke they shared. She held out the mug and by feinting with the spear, got his eyes with the bleach when he was close. Then tried to send the spear into his throat but he blocked it, though he did slip to the floor, making several noises at once from his mouth, throat and lungs. She split the full coffee pot over his head and tried again with the spear, coming down from over her head into his belly, and it went in. He gave a yell that was like laughter, jumping out of his other yelps and growls. She went for his keys and got them, but had to yank at the spear in his belly to get him to let go of her hair. And somehow he had cut her again.

She got the elevator unlocked after the longest search. But as the door was closing, she put the spear in it. She went to the door with the other girl behind it.

That lock took even longer, and it turned out, the girl was in no condition to walk. The sight of her was at once a remembering and a forgetting of everything about the man on the floor in the next room. This was her own future with the past all the way erased. Meeting eyes, they had to touch, and grabbed each other’s hands. But the two could not move together with the speed that was needed. Help would come. This future self that had preceded her, this other girl who had nothing to do with her, would have to wait for it.

She left the girl, looking at the keys and in the direction of the fully closed elevator door as she raced out the doorway, and was knocked out cold.

A month passed, in which she neither killed her captor nor died. Life, as they now knew it together, went on. In some physical ways, they healed. He wasn’t blind, but all around his eyes was scabbed and then scarred with thick, pale ripples. Someone had worked on his belly: there was no hole, and he could walk. That it was a serious wound both pleased and enraged him, it seemed. In any case, no one visited or replaced him.

She could sit or stand, most of the time. He didn’t seem to want to kill her, at least not soon. The game was to get close.

She now had blankets. As she lay in them, cocooned, day and night when she could, that she had asked for them inexplicably kept enraging her.

In some mental ways, she grew. Pain blinded, clarified, transformed. There were kinds of it and it was one. A pattern of patterns. She ran out of tears, and could not stop the tears. Mostly, though, it, everything, was a taking-away. Of time, first. But beyond that, an exorcism of the entirety of who she had been—of absolutely everything she had known about, even everything she had believed.

In the morning, they took their coffee together, by rule. He could be almost nice for minutes at a time.

Although it didn’t, he said the coffee helped his breathing.

When he was gone, she communicated with the other girl. It was hard because that girl had almost no voice left. But she did pick up one crucial thing: there was a third girl, too.  Somewhere. That girl, however, had no voice at all. That girl was more or less just a matter of faith.

She smelled the earth now, all around them, always. Even with her nose in the coffee, or in his chest.

“You got the job,” he would say to her sometimes. “Aren’t you glad you got the job?”


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