Paul Weidknecht’s work has appeared most recently in WriterMag.com, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Comstock Review, Fractured West, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. He is a member of Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC and lives in New Jersey where he is currently seeking representation for his recently completed collection of stories, “Fly in a Cube of Amber.” For more, please visit: paulweidknecht.com.
Daddy ran the cellar and Mama had glimpsed only a handful of his poker games over the decades they’d lived in that house. After he’d shattered his ankle with a sledge while splitting cordwood, he permitted her this exception during his seven-week recovery so she could walk the bottles downstairs to the boys. Of course, I was too young to watch these games, but I imagined Daddy and his friends with an occasional stranger carrying traveling money seated around the hand-carved table he kept covered between game nights with a square of gold-fringed black velour drapery. I could conjure a good enough picture from the sounds and smells as if I’d been at that table with all four aces and the fattest fold of cash.
At the kitchen table with a coloring book, I’d hear them through the plank floor, the palpable sort of laughter common when men gather in groups; always loud, often on the verge of upheaval. The heady pungence of cigar smoke drifted up from the cellar, stronger when Daddy would emerge thirsty, leaning through the doorway, with Mama meeting him on the top step with a case of beer. Every so often I’d hear an argument stir down below, then quickly settle itself with a grumble and the clink of a shot glass being topped off. One time there had been a thunderous scrap, and when I tried reading Mama’s face for an explanation, she said I could continue coloring in my bedroom.
An interview for a temp job brought me back to town years later. After the sit-down, I should have driven from the plant’s parking lot and gone straight for the interstate, content in breathing new air. Yet part of me must have wanted to see how a reckoning had manifested itself, of what alcoholism, unpaid taxes, and time had done to the homestead.
Three miles later, at the end of our dirt driveway, the house stood intact. Kudzu had begun to find the front steps and cellar windows, having already swallowed the tobacco shed and ancestral privy out back. The place had been condemned by local officials, but I figured condemnation of a more lasting kind had come to that house many years ago.
I left the truck and walked to the house, stepping carefully onto the porch, its wooden boards slippery from moss that had flourished in the damp shade. Holding the tire iron against my leg, I looked down at the shiny hasp and padlock, both out of place on the weathered door, and pried them off.
There was no sentiment as I moved throughout the empty house. Something should have triggered a soft emotion—the wallpaper, the view from my bedroom window, Mama’s growth chart pencil marks on the kitchen wall entrance—but there was nothing except the throb of blood in my neck and temples. The cellar door was closed and I turned the glass knob on its wobbly stem, seeing the bent-away hasp Daddy had installed the Sunday morning after that bad game. The door came open with a low squeak where it had swelled tight against the frame, and I descended the stairs.
The cellar seemed smaller, more confined, with overhead pipes and venting now just an extended reach away. The whitewashed walls flaked where moisture had gotten under the coat and bubbled it to a papery scab. Sunlight shone through the mold-speckled windows, casting a subdued yellow onto the concrete floor, and the foil logo of a discarded cigar band and cellophane wrapper caught a piece of this light as I walked toward the far corner. Once there I moved the items, lifting away the half dozen rimless tires, sliding back the sheets of warped plywood.
The outline in the concrete was faint, a ragged elongated oval of about five and a half feet long by two and a half feet wide. There may have been the slightest mound to the spot, a nearly imperceptible rise, but that could have been anything; a mason’s mistake, a construction flaw from when the foundation had been poured. The light was never really good down there, and the subtle difference between the original concrete and a newer mix may’ve not been a difference at all, just an optical illusion due to this peculiar angle of light, a simple oversight on my part, perhaps existing as one of those many things I’d never noticed as a child.