“I have good news and bad news, dear,” grandma says with a sly smile. “Bad news first: we’ve run out of jam for your muffin.”
I must look comically bereft. I’ve been visiting for a week and every morning I’ve had a pile of blueberry jam on an English muffin for breakfast. Grandma has offered pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon; but I have stuck with the muffins and the jam.
“The good news is there’s more in the cellar. Just go down the stairs and on the left there’s some shelves. There’s pickled tomatoes and pickled cucumbers and peaches and blueberry jam. You can’t miss the jam because it’s dark blue.” The pours herself some coffee and sits down with a soft “oy” at the kitchen table. “Go on now.”
I haven’t been in the cellar yet. I looked in there a couple times, and it had an old musty smell and a chilling cobwebby darkness. I open the door and look down. “There’s a light switch on the left,” grandma calls from the kitchen.
The switch makes a “thonk” when I push it up, and the light it gives seems barely adequate for me to get down the stairs. “Oh, go on, boy! There aren’t any monsters down there! Not the last time I checked anyway …” Grandma’s voice trails off into a cackle and a brief bout of coughing.
I start my descent. The stairs are rough unpainted pine, but the railing is smooth. I latch onto it and slide my fingers down. I see the shelves on the left with jars in neat rows. On the right I see a table, well-illuminated by the single bare light bulb in the middle of the ceiling. On one side of the table is a metal cabinet with little plastic drawers for holding nuts and screws and things like that. There’s a metal stool and against the walls more shelves with countless tools and boxes and books. On the far wall, close to the ceiling, is a small window letting in some of the morning light.
I relax. The room is much too neat for monsters (which I don’t believe in anyway, by the way). Nowhere to hide. Nowhere to jump out from. And the shelves are so inviting, so much to explore. Dutifully, I turn to the left to find the jam. My eyes are adjusting, and I pick up a jar of pickled tomatoes. “Blech” I say. “Like eyeballs.” I find a dark blue jar and pick it up, appreciate its heft. I turn around and put my foot on the first step.
But I can’t resist. I put the jar on the table and go to one of the shelves. I look in a cardboard box labeled “electrical” and see a rat’s nest of wires and switches. I move to a metal cabinet with drawers. When I open it I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. There are tools of all kinds: hammers, saws, an electric drill. Everything is heavy and burnished to a dark shine. There’s a soldering gun that looks like a sci-fi laser gun, despite some of the plastic casing being broken off. I point it at the wall and squeeze the trigger. It trails a cord that drags a pair of pliers out of the drawer, and the pliers clatter on the floor. I put the things back hastily and listen for any sound from upstairs.
This place smells like metal and oil and rust and electric motors and sawdust. In a word, it smells like grandpa. Grandpa, who I remember as a gruff giant who only smiled after he had managed to scare me. He wore a plaid flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows, and one of his thumbnails had been split in half and healed in a garishly incomplete way. This was his place, where he used to make the cabinets he used to occasionally sell and the little wooden boxes he gave as gifts. There was never anything in the boxes, and I often couldn’t hide my disappointment. But he sat with his arms crossed and gave no indication one way or the other how he felt about it.
There’s a stack of magazines on another shelf. Popular Mechanics, of course. But next to that is a stack of notebooks and drawing pads. I open one up expecting to find cabinet diagrams or such, but instead find drawing of trees and flowers. They’re really detailed and beautiful. There are pictures of people too. One is definitely grandma, sitting in a chair and looking out the window. It not only looks just like her, it feels just like her. There are drawings of some kids, and one of them is me, laughing. It’s strange because I don’t remember ever laughing when grandpa was around, but maybe I did. Well, sure I did, because he was there a lot even when I wasn’t thinking about him. He made waffles for breakfast — that was his favorite. He left them on the counter without a word for people to take. He sat on the couch humming to himself. He blended into the background.
As I get closer to the window, I see a fresh spiderweb in the casement and a daddy long legs standing guard. I get up as close as I can to take a look at him. One of his legs twitches.
“Hi there, little guy.”
I hear grandma’s voice from upstairs and remember about the jam. I grab it and hurry up the stairs. I close the door and then remember about the lights. I shut off the lights and look down the stairs, no longer scary.
“I thought the monsters got you after all!” said grandma. She heaves herself out of the chair and accepts the jar of jam. She begins to take out an English muffin.
“Grandma, can I have waffles with blueberry jam? Or is the jam only for the muffins?”
“Well, sure, you can put the jam on waffles if you want. You gotta help me make the waffles though. It’s a two-person job!”
As we put the flour and the egg and the milk in the bowl, I say slyly, “There is a monster in the basement, grandma! It has eight legs and if you get too close to it it catches you in its web and eats you up!”
“Oh dear! Did you have to fight it to get the jam?”
“Oh, no, it said I could have as much jam as I wanted. It’s a nice monster.”
[Part of a series: Grandma’s House]