The sun had already begun its quick winter descent, reminding the Osenkowski’s that it was again time to get the battered cardboard box marked “X-mas” from the basement. It was one of many boxes there piled in a cardboard Limbo. Peeling yellow tape, dust: these always added to the suspense of the unopened box, but once the top was off, it became clear that nothing changed for the Osenkowski’s in a year’s time.
Even on ordinary, non-holiday days, it was Tony Osenkowski’s husbandly duty to fetch things from the basement since Pat had been diagnosed with subdomusphobia, the fear of basements. With the medication they prescribed for her condition, the stairs would have proved difficult for Pat to negotiate anyhow.
That’s not to say that Pat didn’t try to speed her treatment along, washing her pills down with a swallow of whiskey. Even though Tony tried again and again to stop her from drinking, there she was, slurping Jim Beam straight from the bottle as she poked in the spice rack above the stove.
Two hours before she had told him to get the box. He said he would get it, right after they finished the third hole at the Palm Springs tournament. One-and-a-half hours ago, she told him again, but he was snoring, and he didn’t hear her, so she had to yell at him this time.
He slowly rose from the sofa leaving a comfortable depression in the cushions. Lingering, the suddenness of twilight startled him. Another weekend over, the verge of the next week, and the next.
Pat was cooking a nice turkey for their church’s Advent Family Affair dinner for later that evening. She was “volunteered” to spend the twenty bucks for ingredients and an afternoon basting and roasting the turkey – a privilege doled out by the church’s Ladies Aid Committee. The ladies on the committee usually put themselves down for buns or potato chips.
“I’d like to decorate today, Mr. Groundskeeper!” Pat snapped from the kitchen.
Rubbing the afternoon out of his eyes, Anthony responded, “Sure thing,” and worked his way into the kitchen, toward the door to the basement, which he found with his forehead. “No problem,” he said, rubbing the skin as he started down the stairs.
Pat resumed the basting, giving it her last touches, yelling further commands over her shoulder. “Oh, and see if you can find the box with the cards and wrapping paper!” She leaned over the little gas stove, one of those old stoves that had to be lit every time she wanted to use it. The sleeves on her robe nearly ignited on the open blue flame that kept a pan full of butter melted.
Stove-lighting was another of Anthony’s little tasks; her therapist had uncovered a repressed memory were Pat had been separated from her parents during a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, which explained her pyrogenetiphobia: the fear of starting fires. Those were the blue pills.
Not that Tony felt unrewarded for all his menial errand-doing: Pat was a good cook, and besides being terribly irritable in the mornings and a bit psychotic when she drank, she was a fairly nice person.
Especially considering the crap I have to put up with! That’s exactly what Pat was thinking as she set the turkey in the oven.
It wasn’t that Anthony wasn’t good to her, because he was. It was just that he was so boring and inept. She pitied him mostly. Looking back on the years of her life, she pitied herself as well. Her wretched life, her boring house, her dull holidays: she wondered how she generated enough energy to get out of bed every day.
She heard Anthony stumbling around in the basement. He probably hasn’t even found the Christmas box yet, she thought. Then she heard him hit his head again, probably on the metal shelving where they kept old People magazines and paint cans.
Poor bastard, she thought, preparing her mouth to receive a much-needed cigarette. She sat one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table, the robe slipped open. She hadn’t yet dressed even though the dinner was only two hours away. She retied the belt and tucked the collars together to cover her chest.
As she smoked, looking out of the window, she spotted the shadows of three children crossing through her yard towards their homes across the street. She rose quickly and crossed to the back door, opening it just enough to feel the chill air slap her face. She yelled at them, “Hey! You kids! Get outta my yard!” She slammed the door. “Find another short-cut,” she muttered, returning to her cigarette at the table.
The sun was setting and it wasn’t even supper-time. She hated winter. The grayness was so predictable, the cold a routine numbness that poked its sharp claws through their poorly-insulated door jambs.
Her attention was diverted from the morose winter landscape by Anthony’s voice in the basement. “Shoot! Pat! The bulb burnt out down here!” She noticed he was using his ‘something’s-the-matter-I-need-help’ voice, high-pitched and panicky. “Could you please hand down that flashlight; it’s in the kitchen drawer!”
Her silence filled the air with contempt.
As the first few trickles of juice trailed down the turkey’s slippery skin, Pat drew another deep breath from her smoke and picked up the morning edition.
“I’m busy cooking this turkey,” she finally yelled down to him, turning to the crossword puzzle page.
“Aw, c’mon, Pat, just throw down the flashlight!”
She folded the paper in half and searched the counter behind her for a pen before responding, “What do you want me to do about it? The flashlight’s down in the basement with you!” It was then she first smelled something chemical wafting up from the basement like gasoline or paint fumes.
“You put the flashlight in the basement? Why’d you do that?” Anthony was getting frustrated, bumping around in the dark like an idiot while his wife ignored him, safe in the kitchen. He inched along a wall of boxes, guiding himself with his fingertips. The smell of turkey made his mouth water. He was hungry and lost in the dark.
Unfortunately, his fingers didn’t warn him of the imminent collision between his knee and an oaken wardrobe.
“Ow!” The pain shot through his whole leg, cramping his calf muscle. “Just where in the hell did you go and hide that thing?”
“I didn’t put the flashlight in the basement, you did! Remember? I told you I didn’t want that thing next to my spatula!” Stained with oil and paint, it belonged in an equally ugly place, his basement, and certainly not her kitchen, she had said. Pat could really sense his frustration, and she chuckled out a little curl of smoke when she heard him thumping into things. He still hadn’t found the damn Christmas box.
It was true: Anthony hadn’t found the box or the flashlight, but he had tipped over a five-gallon pail of oil-based primer. That was the smell Pat had noticed upstairs. The fumes were just now beginning to affect Anthony, burning his eyes a bit. The thought of the roasting turkey, however, was making his stomach grumble. He was imagining sitting around at the fellowship hall of the church and gorging himself on turkey and stuffing with all the other church families, maybe sit by the Pastor’s wife. She was a real milf. This thought helped calm him, although his knee still hurt. He had no idea that he was tracking his footprints all over the basement floor, searching blindly either for the box or the flashlight, completely disoriented.
“Are you making a mess down there? I smell gas or something. Did you knock something over?” She wasn’t able to place the smell. She also was stuck on a five-letter word for egalitarian in the crossword.
“Well, if I had that damn flashlight maybe I could see, but no-oo, you had to go and hide it!” If Anthony had his flashlight, he would have seen a mess of red footprints leading from the puddle of primer near the tipped pail. He would have realized he had been meandering over the same areas for ten solid minutes and was presently back where he started.
Pat laughed, “Oh, why don’t you go hide, you moron!” She thought she said it too quietly for him to hear, but his ears were working better than ever in the dark, and she spoke louder when she was drunk.
He hated her…attitude. That’s what she had. Attitude, like the way she thought he was stupid. He didn’t know if he was stupid or not, but he didn’t want anyone else to think so. He felt dizzy. The turkey smell was overpowering, now making him feel nauseous.
He finally found the flashlight sitting on top of his work-bench. Lifting up the flashlight made his head spin, and it slipped from his fingers.
“Damn it!” He heard it crash against the floor with a slight splat as it hit a puddle. He slowly lowered himself until he once again gripped the handle of the flashlight. “What the hell…” He could feel that it was wet. He sniffed his fingers, and something acrid burned his nose and made his eyes water.
“Finally!” He announced. He clicked on the flashlight, but there was no light. He shook it back and forth in a quick round of troubleshooting that revealed the problem: no batteries. Unknown to Anthony, Pat was using the batteries for a power massager when he was at work.
“What’s taking you so long down there — did you get lost?”
Her voice grated on him, especially as sick as he was feeling. He flung the flashlight hard into the darkness, listening to it crack against the wall.
“Geezus, Pat, have a little sympathy! I think I’m bleeding down here!”
Pat slowly stood and reached for a fresh bottle on top of her refrigerator and poured herself a tall one, “Yeah, whatever you say,” she snorted at him.
Anthony used his wife’s voice like a beacon, steadying himself until his feet found the stairs. His head reeled with fumes, and he had enough of her attitude. He was muttering something to that effect as he pulled himself up the stairwell. His eyes narrowed as he reached the light of the kitchen, the brightness overwhelming his balance. Pat saw the primer stains that Anthony had tracked up the stairs and into her kitchen. Her chuckling mouth lost all joy immediately.
Finally able to focus at where Pat was pointing, Tony saw the footprints. His feet and the bottoms of his trousers were soaked red. He thought he was bleeding profusely. He couldn’t understand why his wife looked so angry — she should be helping him, damn it! But instead, she grabbed a rag from the sink and seethed, “You’re making a mess! Don’t just stand there, moron!” She crossed over to him, dropped to her knees, and began scrubbing furiously at the red stains.
“Look at this mess!” Her voice was so shrill, her words pushed him over, too weak to stand. He waved his arms in little circles, but it was no good. He fell back down the stairway. He saw his wife kneeling, wiping away his footprints. She was mumbling about the crap she had to put up with, unaware of the thumps her husband made as he disappeared back into the basement.
The darkness engulfed him again. The smell of turkey filled his head, and his body felt as tender as he imagined the turkey to be. He rested a moment at the foot of the stairs, no longer hungry, no longer tired. He couldn’t feel anything. Groping around him, his fingers contacted the primer, but he thought it was his blood.
On the side nearest the railing, Anthony felt something that had fallen out of his pocket during his tumble down the stairs. He’d had a book of matches in his pocket all along, having used them earlier to light the stove for Pat’s turkey. He could still hear her up there, frantically cleaning and cursing him.
“Better light than never,” he mused bitterly. Setting the sulfur head against the flinty surface of the matchbook, he slid the match hard along the length of the strip.
A little spark buttressed to life. His pupils narrowed in the tiny white light, but soon widened in horror as the little flame kept growing, catching his shirt and skin, Everything around him suddenly became white-hot. He watched every single one of the footprints on the floor ignite.
“PAT! PAT!” He was screaming and trying to put the flames out.
Pat tossed the filthy rag into the sink. “Aw, go to hell,” and she rubbed her eyes, drowsy from the highball, oblivious to the imminent explosion that would positively ruin her turkey.