Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"Grandma’s Basement" Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Unknown" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Grandma’s Basement
Lowell Jaeger

Dad had to fix something broken down there
every fall, and I’d shudder and twitch,
following his footsteps into the mildewed dank,
thirteen stone steps below daylight.
Where the black coal-fired furnace waited
on its haunches like a blind beast
smothered in cobwebs and dust, its ductwork
tentacles groping toward the floorboards above.

In the yellow flicker of Dad’s lantern,
shadows flit and slithered across cinderblock walls
wet with sweat. While Dad banged on this and banged
on that and pried rusted couplings with curses and grunts,
I’d stand guard like a green recruit, half sturdy soldier
making certain Dad didn’t kick over his light, half
momma’s-boy — too cowardly to unclench his fists
and fetch Dad’s wrench where he’d dropped it.

I’d clamber out of that hole holding my breath
till I could touch sunshine and swallow fresh air.
And felt my shoulders relax when Dad lifted
the heavy storm-cellar doors, fastened the hasp,
and snapped the padlock shut.

I’d sit invisible in the kitchen.  Listen to the furnace
whispering beneath us. Listen to my heart
pounding. Listen to Grandma complain
about Dad having ruined her dishrags
scrubbing soot from his forearms and face.

Poet’s Notes:  What is the imagination?  We really don’t know.  For all our wondrous technical gadgetry and all our triumphant push to unlock the secrets of the universe, we still don’t know what, exactly, is the human imagination. And I’m glad. Here’s to hoping there’s always a mystery unsolved!

The old left-brain right-brain model depicting our craniums has now been revised to say it’s simply not as simple as we had previously thought.  We’ve glimpsed our ignorance, and that’s real progress. God bless science for that; we keep eliminating our foolish earlier thoughts.

I tend to idealize the imagination because I’m in love with my own.  I once thought, if only everyone had a powerful imagination, the world would be better.  Now I’ve glimpsed the foolishness of that early thought.  An imagination is napalm in the grey matter of a man who can’t separate fact from fiction.  A soaring imagination can build a cathedral and it can also burn it down with the faithful still on their knees inside.

When I was in junior high, I heard Robert Kennedy’s words, "Some men see things as they are, and ask why.  I dream of things that never were, and ask why not." https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/robert_kennedy_745915” I was in gym class, moved to tears and compelled to hide in the locker room.  A twelve-year-old boy is not supposed to cry. Those words of that gallant man reached into my core.  I was born to think like that.  Good for me.  Too bad for me.

As a kid, I spent long days lost in glorious reverie. I paddled up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark.  I plundered with Robin Hood.  And, as a kid, I also had night terrors.  A host of demons kept pounding on my door to get in.  

In “Grandma’s Basement,” I imagined the massive body of the old coal furnace as a giant squid and I was Captain Nemo.  Then I imagined the furnace was a giant squid and I was just me.  Then I forgot which was which and if I were imagining or not.  

I was a nervous and fearful kid though I seldom let on.  In the back seat of the family car, I’d hold my breath every time we drove over a bridge.  Every bridge will collapse someday, and maybe —who knows? —this is the day.

“Oh, that’s just your imagination,” parents and teachers told me as if it were a worthless thing. I held onto it anyway and I learned to ride it like rafting whitewater, like hitching a ride on a shooting star.

Editor's Note:  "Grandma's Basement" was previously published in Broad Water Review, and Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone.

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