I’m finally retired and have time to excavate our ruined basement. It was once a great place to entertain–field-stone fireplace, wet bar, burnt orange 70s carpeting. There was a tiled laundry-room, spare bedroom, drop ceilings, dark paneling. Beginning with my first wife, around the time Elvis died, we started turning it back into a root cellar.
It wasn’t all our fault. The builders had been incompetent and the previous owners were idiots. They laid carpeting directly over two floor drains. During the first spring thaw, my son Wesley complained: “Dad, there’s a big wet spot downstairs. Monopoly got soaked.” He and some neighbor kids came upstairs in wet stockings.
I couldn’t figure it out. At first it appeared that a water pipe above might have dripped through the ceiling panel. While that turned out to also be true, it wasn’t the main problem. We bought a dehumidifier. Cold weather returned. The dampness went away as the electric bill shot up.
The following winter, we experienced the first of three sump-pump failures. The floatation bulb had gotten pinched against the side of the crock so the thing couldn’t switch itself on. There were four inches of water on the basement floor when we returned from a weekend visit at my in-law’s. A month later, the mold smell became overpowering. All of the carpet had to go.
Now the current pump, latest in the series, is working fine. But a week of spring rain, another in a long series, has caused trickles here and there across the concrete floor. So, it’s time to track down where the seepage is coming in. Then I’ll call a foundation guy for an estimate. Cheryl is anxious to have a second bathroom downstairs. She wants to put in a craft room.
I begin in the old spare bedroom. I don’t remember which step-kid once slept in here, but it’s been storage space for twenty years. Every box of stiffened baseball gloves, every plastic bin of Christmas ornaments or Beanie Babies, every garment bag, must be lugged somewhere else—mostly up to the garage. A back straining window air-conditioner is the last thing to be removed from the wood frame of the old bed. There’s an ancient Penthouse under the thin mattress pad. Two faded baseball cards are wedged along the headboard when I start twisting out the lag-bolts. The whole cheap thing going to be firewood. I Sherpa every piece of it up to the garage. In pull the last of the old ceiling panels down with a shower of mouse turds. I hope the cloud of insulation fibers from the backs of these isn’t some kind of asbestos.
When the light-switch covers have been removed I start popping the paneling loose. Nothing to it–the nails are little more than staples. This feels like Geraldo opening Capone’s vault. I hope there’s nothing under here either. But, no such luck. There is some kind of spider habitat under the paneling. It looks like big chunks of brown sponge–held in place by the clear, plastic liner. Just a few spots of black mold though, not as bad as I had expected.
When the walls are fully exposed, I rip down the plastic. This failed barrier is affixed to vertical furring strips. These, too, are destined for kindling. The rotting two-by-fours along the floor and ceiling are fastened to the concrete with old-fashioned square spikes. Even rusted, these take considerable muscle to yank free and all of them have a bit of rotted wood attached. I may have found part of the problem. Each hole in the concrete blocks begins to weep immediately.
With all the paneling dragged out to the road, I attack the debris with a shop vacuum. All the cobwebs, rotten splinters, and rodent feces are collected into the red canister. Nails and bits of concrete rattle up the fat hose. I’m working along the top of the wall, sucking out crud from previously hidden spaces when the wand captures something large. The vacuum pitch goes from alto to soprano in protest. There is just enough suction to pull the black case of a VHS from its hiding place. OMG! I’ll bet I know what this is!
Of course, the feature on the tape was recorded an impossibly long time ago. We were never more fit. It might actually be depressing to look at now, the glaring proof of our decline. I used my first video recorder, so cumbersome that it was usually held on my shoulder. I had captured every possible Little League game, elementary school Christmas concert; every Thanksgiving turkey dissection and family pool party. Most of the cartridges have never been viewed since. They’re in a few of those same storage tubs I just strained myself moving to a more habitable part of the basement.
There was no internet porn yet back then.. But wouldn’t it be wild if…my horn-dog neighbor Doc Hannon suggested after he’d bought his first cam. Neither of our wives would participate in a swap after years of badgering. They must have decided that trading videos would be a far less innocuous way of getting us to shut up about it.. Cheryl and I waited for all of our children to go visit their other parent. The camcorder stood precariously on its tripod like a pumpkin head on a stick figure.
Our production values weren’t close to professional. Excitement for the project assured a quick resolution of the plot, at least for my character. I suppose you’d have to call our first effort a short in film school terms. I felt, immediately that a sequel might be in order. Refinements, including run-time, should be made.
“I don’t think so,” Cheryl said, though she stuck around for a reprise, sans tape, probably stimulated by our first viewing, which showed promise. After the customary snooze, she headed for the shower. She turned at the door, the afterglow souring: “You better hide that thing good. If the kids ever find it, your life will become quite unpleasant.”
Ah, sweet memories. Now I put on my rattiest work clothes. I drive to the store for chlorine, spread it liberally on all the black mold spots. A whisk-broom works it into the spike holes. The dirty run-off trickles toward the drain. The dehumidifier hums. Dampness from the week’s torrents fill it three times a day. I plug in a fan. When I’ve breathed enough fumes, it’s time to go upstairs and check the weather radar. I bring the VHS cartridge. I need to hide it. Not from the kids this time. They’re grown and gone but Cheryl would confiscate it for anyway. We have grandkids who still visit.
Those kids, the boys anyway, must have been relentless in searching out hidden porn. I was naive about the security of my stash. Had I forgotten rummaging through my own father’s chest-of-drawers. My weak moral compass had been no match for adolescent hormones and curiosity. But those kids are never in trouble. I consider myself a decent human being. But, our video, especially, should have been under lock and key. When it came back from the Hannon’s with a four-star rating, Cheryl argued, again, that I should put it in our safe with the birth certificates and car titles.
“If that thing ever comes up missing…” She repeated her open-ended warning.
“Aww baby, quit worrying. I put a fake label on it.” I was in favor of easy access from our nightstand. The sticker read Rick’s 8th Grade Graduation. No one needed to see that again.
Rick was my oldest step-kid, very protective of Cheryl and already entering adolescent sullenness. My own boy, Wes, had graduated from high-school already and had departed for Army basic training in Georgia. The scavenger hunt for prurient material must have been Rick’s alone. A smart, perceptive kid–why would we keep the video of his 8th grade graduation in our nightstand? Or maybe Danny, the Hannon’s boy was the more skilled at detecting parental artifice.
So protective of his mom, Rick was soon on the phone to my sister-in-law, outing our private kinks. We had some explaining to do. But why in the world would he, anyone, watch their own parents once they realized who it was? I sure couldn’t do it. We lost Rick’s already tacit respect for about a month.
I bring the video cassette upstairs. Do I even want to look at it? Will Cheryl look at it with me? Menopause has ruined her libido for about five years now. And if she doesn’t care about the act takes place at all, then it’s no fun for me. Onanism has become my sole mode of relief. I’m not counting on the tape as some kind of magic lamp. It would be strictly for nostalgic viewing: Wow, look at us. Were we really that thin, that young? Yeah, no. No twisted stratagem is likely to sell it.
But, shouldn’t I at least preview the thing, before even sharing the discovery with her. After twenty years the audio has likely evaporated. I noticed this product defect years ago; Wes’s football games, Christmas mornings, kindergarten graduations; all those mementos of events that won’t likely be revisited more than once, are no longer talkies.
With the remote in hand, the horn-dog in me takes over. I close the blinds in the front room. This may be something special after all, when other stimulations have begun to lose effect. I kneel before the technology, only to discover that the technology has made my cinematic effort obsolete. There is no longer a wide hatch in the machine, only the DVD slot. I remember this upgrade, the old VCR gone to Goodwill or unloaded in a garage sale. Like the stanching of that slow seepage downstairs, conversion of the old cartridges to disk has been put off for years.
I stare at the tape. Rick’s 8th Grade Graduation, my careful printing in ink faded nearly to illegibility by dampness. Rick must have been desperate to bother looking at it.. I get back to my feet on creaking knees that are also due for an upgrade. I should probably just pitch the black relic into the trash. Those crazy kids might have even recorded over it. There was once a rumor that they had filmed a house party one weekend in our trusting absence. Looking at thatwould hardly brighten my day.
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in MI. He rides mountain bike, feeds two woodstoves, sings in a Presbyterian choir, follows Detroit City FC and Flint City Bucks soccer with religious fervor. More than 70 of his stories have found publication in litmags and online. He hopes you will enjoy this one.