Winner, 2014 Fiction Award
Must be a little over a year now I’ve been in the basement. Just me and the Swede, or whatever he is, I’m just assuming. He doesn’t talk. He can hear, but I don’t think he understands English. Still, I talk to him. Who else am I going to talk to? He was here before me, but I don’t know how long. It’s not the kind of thing I can ask Miss.
The basement is nice, not like my parents’ full of boxes and tools and broken things. We each have our own room; there’s a bathroom with a soaking tub and a big walk-in shower; a living room with couches, a pool table and a wall full of books; a treatment room for the Swede to do his work and a kitchen with a double oven where I do mine. The ceilings are high for a basement. The Swede barely has to duck when he goes through the doorways. There is so much space down here; the upstairs must be enormous.
There aren’t any windows, just glass blocks in our bedrooms and the treatment room. Two rows of three, three rows of two. Not much light comes in through them so I’m never sure if it’s morning or night. I go by what the Swede is doing; he has his routines. I’ve lost track of the days. Not that it matters. Some days I bake a pie, most days I hang out. Tuesday, Saturday, Forth of July: They’re all the same. Must be getting to be fall though, Miss wants an apple pie. She brings apples from the market in a cute, little wooden basket. They aren’t all perfect like the ones in the store. A few are bruised, and one still has a few leaves at the stem. I set that one on the counter. It’s too pretty to go in a pie.
“Old-fashioned? Caramel-apple? Crumble-top? Raisins? Pecans?” I ask.
“Surprise me,” Miss says and goes upstairs.
Old-fashioned apple was the first pie I learned to make. I made one every few days until everyone in my family, including me, got sick of eating it. I can make old-fashioned in my sleep. So, I make crumble-top. A big one for Miss and two little ones in custard cups with the left over dough for me and the Swede. The Swede loves crumble top. That giant grins like a kid and hovers around the kitchen whenever I make one. He takes a pass on the cream pies. Everybody’s got their thing. Miss, though, she likes them all.
The Swede and I work on the same days because Miss likes to get her massage while the pie is baking. She leaves the door to the treatment room half open so she can smell it. I stay in my bedroom and come out only to take the pie out and put it on the rack. By the time her massage is over, the pie is cool enough to handle and I can come out of my room.
“Ooh! Crumble!” she says and smiles at me and then at the Swede, who nods and smiles too. Miss laughs at him in a good-natured way. She knows it’s his favorite. “Enjoy it. You certainly deserve it,” she tells him. “I feel much better.”
He just keeps smiling. I hope he understands.
“Thank you. You’re the best,” she says to me and goes upstairs in her big, soft, periwinkle robe and bare feet, her usually perfect bob all a mess. I imagine she takes the pie to a huge bed full of pillows and just digs into the whole thing with a fork, not even bothering to cut a piece or put it on a plate. That’s what I would do.
Instead, I sit at the island and watch the Swede scoop vanilla ice cream on his. None for me, I’m a purist. He takes the stool next to me, his stool, and we dig in. His mouth still full, he puts his hand over his heart and throws back his head. This is his way of telling me it is good, so good. I like to make him happy.
Most nights the Swede and I take turns cooking, but on days I bake, Miss brings us carry-out. We have a drawer full of menus: Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Pizza. Sushi is the Swede’s favorite, but when it gets close to time for us to order, he pulls out the Indian menu, my favorite. “Yeah, thanks,” I say.
He pats me on the shoulder.
We have a phone that hangs on the kitchen wall. It’s old with a long spiraling chord. It doesn’t call out. It just calls upstairs to Miss. She never calls us. She comes down. “What will it be tonight?” she asks.
“Lamb curry and sagg paneer.” The Swede is a vegetarian. By default, other than carry-out night, I am too.
“Naan? How about lassis?”
“Yes, that would be great, thanks.”
A while later, Miss brings down the food, sets it on the island and says, “Good night, you two,” not even pausing or looking at us before heading back to the stairs.
“You too. Thanks,” I say to her back. The Swede is already pulling containers out of the bag.
As we eat, I tell him about the Indian restaurant I ate at in New York when I was there on a school trip. Hundreds of colored ribbons hung from the ceiling. The walls were mirrored, making the room seem infinite. The vindaloo made me sweat and gave me a high. The whole thing felt like being on a carousel. I’ve told him this story before. Still, he listens and nods. Sometimes, I think he knows what I’m saying.
After dinner I draw a hot bath. Steam fills the room and fogs the mirrors. The water is so hot I have to work my way in. First my feet. When the tingle and burn stops, I put my legs in, then sit, then slide in all the way up to my chest. The tub is so deep, my neck and head are the only things sticking out. My breasts and belly and thighs change shape under the water. I put my head back and think about the apple on the counter, the one with the leaves. I imagine the old pickup truck it traveled in and the pickers with bags on their chests, sweaty from climbing up and down ladders despite the fall air. I imagine that apple back on its tree with all the other apples that in spring were just flowers, and I imagine all those trees in rows and rows, under a great big sunny sky.
This morning, or whatever time it is, I don’t want to get out of bed. I heard the Swede in the kitchen earlier, heard the toaster and the teapot. Now he’s quiet. I wonder what he is doing, but it could only be a few things: looking at books, playing solitaire, folding laundry or back in bed himself. There’s not much to do in the basement. I try to burn hours by sleeping, but can’t anymore today. Above my bed there are three white paper globes with intricate patterns cut out of them for the light inside to shine through. I lie here with my hands above my head and weave an imaginary thread in and out of the holes. I should get up. But I can’t think to do what, so now I stare softly at the space just in front of the globes and try to remember the same view from my bed at home. The light was just a square shallow bowl of frosted glass. The ceiling had a crack a few inches to the right of the light, and up there too was a piece of tape and the torn off corner of The Cure poster I had taken down. I wonder if anyone is sleeping in that room now. My stomach growls and I have to pee. I guess that’s something to do.
After I pee, I wash my face, hoping it will clear away some of my fog. I suppose I haven’t changed much since I’ve been here – maybe put on a few pounds, let my roots grow out – but I sometimes fail to recognize myself in the mirror. The face that’s reflected back at me seems to be that of someone I know, but not my own. I raise my eyebrows and stick out my tongue, then smile as big as I can, then put on my best flirty face. It’s just moving muscles. It doesn’t make me feel anything.
The Swede is on the couch looking at one of the big art books from the bottom shelf. I mumble a good morning, and he gives me the good-morning-smile. The Swede has dozens of smiles. His cheeks must hurt. Other than the crumble-pie-smile and the he-won-at-pool-again-smile, none of them are jolly smiles, just…serene. I would love to know what he is thinking, though it mostly seems to be well, this is just fine. I admit, he’s pretty hot – white-blond hair that falls over his eyebrows sometimes, big, round eyes that change colors from blue to grey to green, a strong jaw, arms so big he could carry a girl anywhere – but he’s so good and, well, simple, it’s hard to have those feelings for him. He’s like a big asexual angel. Plus, he’s too old for me.
I pour a bowl of cereal and sit on my stool. There’s a cookbook on the island open to a picture of stuffed zucchini. “Is this what you want for dinner?”
The Swede looks up from his book, gives me the I-don’t-understand-eyebrows. I hold up the cookbook. He nods. I point to myself, then to him. He points puts a finger on his chest to tell me he will cook tonight. Zucchini is not my favorite, but Miss brought some from the market, and today, I don’t really care. I rinse my bowl, grab my book off the end table and go back to bed. I read a page but then realize I’ve read the same sentence three times. I drop the book to the floor and it makes a soft thud against the carpet. I lift my head off the pillow and try to make a similar thud by dropping it back to the mattress. Results are inconclusive. I try it again.
I hate not knowing when I’m going to make a pie again. Early on, I made pies on days when Miss didn’t ask for them, but then when she did, I didn’t have ingredients. She reminded me of our agreement and told me to make sure it never happened again. She didn’t raise her voice, it wasn’t like she was really mad, but it didn’t seem the right time to ask for more pie ingredients in our weekly groceries. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there wouldn’t be a right time. She has made things really nice for us down here. She brings us books and music, clothes and little gifts. She let me pick out the bedding and furniture and the paper globes for my room from a catalog. It’s a lot for just doing what I love. It didn’t seem right to ask for more.
I roll on my side, pull my knees to my chest and pull the comforter over my head. Miss refuses to answer questions that don’t have to do with pie. She pretends not to hear. Once I repeated myself and she gave me the oddest look, tight-lipped and squinty, backed by a muted sigh – something between tolerance and disappointment. The only time she answered was when I asked her what she did for a living. It was also the only time I’ve ever seen something flare inside her. Whatever it was, she caught herself, put her hand on my arm and said, “It doesn’t matter.” I was about to protest, but she squeezed my arm and gave me the tolerant/disappointed look.
I roll onto my back again and throw the comforter down to my waist. I lie here and make up answers for all my questions and imagine them in great detail: Miss owns a huge technology company and has hundreds of employees. She met the Swede while traveling for business and brought him here two years, seven months and three days before I got here. He learned to play pool by hanging out in bars before he turned to a life of Zen and healing. My parents have given up looking, though my sister sometimes calls my friends to ask if they’ve seen me. It is, in fact, fall.
The Swede and I are on our fourth game of Gin when Miss comes down. I am surprised to see her; it has only been two days since apple crumble pie. She’s carrying a paper grocery bag. “Who’s winning?” she asks.
I give her my I-won-at-Gin-again smile. The Swede pokes my shoulder.
“Sorry to make you give up a streak, but I need two pies today. You make a great pecan, but do you know how to do a bourbon pecan? I need a bourbon pecan.”
“I’m sure I can figure it out.”
“Oh, wonderful!” she says and wipes a hand across her forehead in exaggerated relief. There seems to be a little of the real thing in there, too. She puts the bag on the counter. “I picked up extra ingredients in case you’re short. Please get started right away. No time for a massage today, just ring up a half hour after they are out of the oven.”
She leaves, and I put down my cards. “We’ll finish later,” I tell the Swede. “It will be your go.” I make a little hop getting off the couch. Miss has never asked me to make two at a time. Maybe she’s giving one to someone. I wonder to who. I wonder who she’ll say made it. In the bag I find butter and a bulk bag of pecans (which I’ll need), flour (of which I have plenty) and a bottle of Jack Daniels. I hold it up to the Swede. He gives me whoa-eyebrows. I don’t generally need a recipe for my pies, but I’m not sure how the bourbon fits in. There are a couple dozen cookbooks in the kitchen we use for dinners and I remember one of them had a bourbon pecan pie recipe in it. Turns out it is regular old pecan pie with a couple tablespoons of bourbon in it. Easy enough.
The Swede puts Billie Holiday on the stereo and I put a couple sticks of butter in the freezer. I measure out two and a half cups from the ceramic flour canister, dump them into a big metal bowl and whisk in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar. Billie croons about the moonlight and I sing along. The Swede, on the couch, bobs his head in time to the music while he looks at a book of photographs of New York in the ‘50s. I take one stick of butter from the freezer and use the chef’s knife to slice it four times length wise, three times through the other way and then across every half inch, working quickly and touching the butter as little as possible. I do the same with the other stick and use the pastry cutter to work it into the dry ingredients until it looks like a pebbled beach. My arm burns with the work of it. I put the bowl in the fridge to chill for a couple of minutes, take out a pitcher of water I keep in there and measure out half a cup. Every step must keep the butter cold so it doesn’t melt into the dough but instead stays in little chunks. I drizzle the water over the dry ingredients. I love how it creates little rivers and pools and waits for me, without soaking in, to blend it. I quickly stir until it’s lumpy and then dump it on the island. I run my hands under cold water, dry them and work the dough into a ball. I cut it in two pieces, wrap them in plastic wrap and stick them in the fridge for an hour.
The Swede is watching. He isn’t smiling. “Do you want to help?” I ask him.
From his continued blank look I guess he doesn’t understand. I motion with my hand for him to come to the island. I set the pecans, corn syrup, butter, sugar, eggs and bourbon in a row. In front of each, I set the proper measuring cup or spoon. I point to the pecans, then to the cup, then hold up four fingers and point to the bowl. The Swede’s smile is back and he gets to it, dancing to Billie as he does. He stirs everything together and when he is through, I take the spoon from him and use it like a microphone to sing about a foggy day in London town. He puts his hand on his heart and throws back his head.
No time for goofing around when rolling out the dough. I sprinkle flour on the island top “like throwing fairy dust,” my mom used to say. Starting from the middle of the lump, I roll to the edge – top, bottom, left, right – turn it a quarter turn, do the same, flip the dough over and repeat, fixing cracks in the edges with pinches as I go. I gently lay the dough into pie plates and let the Swede pour the filling. I trim the excess dough from the edges and crimp the crust by pushing my knuckle into it and holding the other side with my thumb and forefinger. It’s my favorite part, like tying a ribbon on a package. I can tell how tender and flaky the crust will be by how soft it is against my knuckle. It is like a baby’s cheek.
I put the pie in the oven and we finish our game of Gin. There’s not enough extra filling to make pies for the Swede and me, but I cut up the extra dough into cookie size pieces, sprinkle them with cinnamon-sugar and stick them in the oven half way through baking time. I win three games and he wins two before I call Miss to let her know the pies are ready. I tell her the bourbon part wasn’t a big deal. She tells me she’ll let me know how they compare. I feel like I should offer to carry the second pie upstairs, but that’s not how it works. She must be thinking the same thing and says, “I’ll be right back for the other one,” and she is. “I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you,” she says.
The corners of my mouth pierce the corners of my eyes and they fill with tears. I do not have a name for this smile. Miss hurries up the stairs. The Swede sees my smile and gently rubs his hand between my shoulder blades.
“C’mon! I’m going to kick your ass some more,” I say. He gives me the okay-whatever-you-say-even-though-I-don’t-understand-it-I-trust-you-smile/shrug combo.
When it is time for dinner I pull out the sushi menu, the Swede points to his choices and I call Miss. There’s no answer. I set the timer for ten minutes and try again, then ten again, then twenty. While I listen to the ninth ring an hour later, the Swede pulls food out of the fridge and puts a skillet on the stove. He motions for me to sit on the couch. I wonder where she is.
It has been six days since bourbon pecan pies. Grocery day came and went and we have not heard from Miss. We have played Gin, Kings on Corners and Mastermind until neither of us cared who won. We dusted off the Sorry game to figure out how to play it and quickly decided it was the stupidest game ever. The Swede squished up his face like a kid told to eat his vegetables and it sent me into a giggle fit. It wasn’t even that funny, I just couldn’t stop laughing. I finished two books and spent two days in bed trying to imagine what happened to Miss and the two pies. I would risk using up ingredients to make a pie, but the Swede made bread and there isn’t enough flour left. Not much of anything else either.
“What happened to her?” I say to the Swede. He shrugs and shakes his head in answer but not the way he does when he doesn’t understand something. Maybe he is wondering the same thing. I pace around the island dragging my hand on the edge of it behind me. The Swede sits on his couch and practices fancy shuffling techniques. I do a fast lap and then one as slow as I can. I stop, sit on the edge of the sink and put my feet on the island. Cards fall in a straight stream from one of the Swede’s hands to the other. My knees frame my view of the Jack Daniels bottle on the island, right where it has been since pie day. I had been surprised that Miss left it, but taking it up would have meant a third trip. I jump down from my perch, grab two glasses out of the cupboard and the bottle and put them down on the coffee table between the two couches. I pour an inch in each glass. The Swede stops shuffling, shrugs and picks up his glass. I had thought it would take convincing. He raises it to me and downs its contents. I follow his example. Man, does it burn! I cough and the Swede’s shoulders go up and down in pulses. He reaches across the table, ruffles my hair, sits back down and raises his eyebrows toward the bottle. “Who are you and what have you done with my best friend?” I say.
Eyebrows go toward the bottle again. This one we do together. This one goes down a little more smoothly. I stretch out on the couch and the Swede pushes some buttons on the stereo. He looks at me over his shoulder and gives me a new smile, one that anyone would recognize as shit-eating. Suddenly, Freddie Mercury’s voice is coming out of the speakers – loud. I didn’t know we had Queen in the collection. He takes our glasses, puts ice in them and pours more bourbon. He gives the “slow” hand gesture and we both take a sip. This seems like a better idea. My face is hot. I hold the glass up to my cheek and close my eyes. Under the music I hear the clicks of scattering pool balls. I sit up and watch the Swede survey the results of his break. My head seems to move in an echo. Two Swedes become one. He’s really good at pool. I never played before coming here. He beat me so quickly every time, and it was no fun. I don’t play anymore. He plays by himself.
On my feet, I sway and bump my shin on the coffee table. “Rack ‘em up!” I hear myself say as if it were someone else’s voice and then laugh because I don’t know why I said it. I walk around the couch, stopping for a second to lean on the arm. The Swede is on the far end of the pool table lining up his shot. I put my hands on the edge of my end and push my feet back to stretch my calves. “So, what’s your story, anyway?”
Thump. Click. Thud. Solid blue ball in the corner pocket.
“Is there something between you and Miss? I mean, is there something other than massage going on?” I wink at him but he does not see.
Thump. Thump. Click. Thump. Solid purple ball hits the corner of side pocket, rolls almost to the other side.
“Damn. So close. She’s kind of attractive, right? Fit and put together for her age and all. It’s not like she could have anybody up there with her, could she? I mean, how do you keep someone out of the basement?” I take a sip.
Thump. Click. Click. Thud. Thud. Two balls bounce off each other and drop in pockets.
“Nah, not you Swede. Not you. Maybe you like men, for all I know…which by the way seems to not be a lot. Where you came from, what your family’s like, how old you are, if you’ve ever been in love. I know you like crumble pie! And you’re always smiling. Why is that?”
A ball drops into the pocket next to my hand. I lean against the back of the couch and finish my bourbon. It doesn’t burn at all now. The Swede walks down to my end of the table and hands me his empty glass. He jerks his head for me to get out of the way. Can do. I bump my way to the coffee table and pour bourbon over melting ice.
“Swede, why is that? Are you on something? Or are you just that damn happy here? Happy, happy, happy. Happy Swede.”
Thump, click, click, thud, click, thud.
I hand him his glass and stand next to him as he considers his next shot. I bump my hip into his thigh a few times. “Huh? Why? Huh?”
The cue ball hits the edge but nothing else. The Swede shoos me away with his stick.
“I’m not happy. I was happy. I’m not happy now, Swede. I dunno. Maybe I am.”
The Swede looks at me for the first time since he started playing. He gives me I-don’t-understand smile and eyebrows.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.” I flop on the couch.
Click, thud. Click, thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
I’ve been in bed crying on and off for most of the past two days and it feels like someone is trying to push my eyes out from the inside. My forehead and cheeks are tender to the touch and my nose is raw. I’m achy and mad and exhausted even though I’ve only left bed to pee. It’s now been 13 days since bourbon pecan pies. I can’t guess how many times I’ve called Miss, but she hasn’t answered. The Swede knocks on my door. It startles me so that I bolt up in bed. A surge of pain bangs the inside of my skull. He has never knocked on my door. “Yeah! What?”
He slowly opens the door. I hold my head. He jerks his toward the living room. I lay back down. “Why? There’s nothing to do. I have a terrible headache. It hurts so much. What is going on? Where is she? All we have are condiments and two bags of frozen raspberries. We’re going to starve. How am I ever going to make pie again? This is stupid. This is all so stupid! How could she do this to us? How can you stand it? What was I thinking? My heart hurts, Swede. I can’t…” I can’t do anything but sob. He comes into the room, pulls back the covers and helps me to sit on the edge of the bed. I let him. He is giving me sympathetic-smile. He hands me a tissue from my bedside table, and I blow my nose. It bounces the pain around in my head. He takes my hand, pulls me to standing and leads me out the door. We do not stop at the living room. He walks me through to his treatment room where the massage table is made up with the blankets turned down, candles are burning and panflute music is playing. He pats the head cradle, points to me, makes gestures of undressing and pulls the blankets up. I have never had a massage. He turns the blankets down again, leaves the room and gently closes the door.
The room smells nice and different from the rest of the basement, like something green and woody. The Swede should get to do his work, even if I can’t. Maybe it will be all right. I do as he suggested. Already it feels good, just to lie on my belly. He knocks on the door. “Yes,” I say toward the floor.
His bare feet come into view through the head cradle. I hear him take a deep breath and he lays his hands on the blanket atop my shoulder blades. His hands are so large they cover my whole back. I take a deep breath and as I exhale he puts pressure into his hands and moves them down my back. A different kind of tears fill my eyes. They roll down my nose and onto the floor. He lightly touches my head and takes another breath. I do too. It is ragged and snively. We repeat the process and my second breath draws in more smoothly. The exhale is long and clear. He walks the length of my body laying gentle pressure on me as he goes. It’s as if he is reassuring each part of my body. Shoulders, you are okay. Arms, everything is fine. Hips, relax. Legs, just let go.
He uncovers my feet and presses just under the ball of them. Something good flows from the spot up my calf. A moan escapes. As he works my feet, the something good flows further up my body until the muscles under my shoulder blades relax. I understand why Miss brought him here. He returns to my head and pulls the blanket and sheet down to just above my hips. I wait for weirdness to arrive, but it doesn’t. Instead of feeling vulnerable, I feel more protected. I hear a plastic top flip open and smell eucalyptus and mint. The aroma moves cool through my nose, and the pain in my face gives a little. He slides oiled hands down my spine and up my sides several times likes waves. As he works my back – small deep, pointed strokes; firm, slow circles – there is fluidity in my torso, there is room and movement inside me. I think of glow sticks, how you crack them and something gives and everything inside flows together and then, they light up. He massages nearly every muscle in my body, muscles I didn’t know I had. He draws out the sadness like smoke and tangled strings and rubs in comfort like a lotion that my every cell absorbs. Though I don’t speak, I try to radiate gratitude back to him. I try to fill the room with it.
This morning my head is still clear except for one thought. I shower for the first time in days and get dressed. The Swede is drinking tea at the island. “It’s time,” I say. “We have to find out.”
He gives me good-morning-smile with I-don’t-understand-eyebrows. I take him by the hand and lead him to the stairs. He resists. I take two steps up and for the first time see him eye to eye. “It’s time,” I say again. I go up the rest of the stairs, my heart in my ears, and grab the doorknob, my hand shaking and almost numb. I turn the knob and the door opens. There is no lock on it. I turn to the Swede. He is right behind me. He is crying.
Steph Kilen is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific University’s low-residency program. She makes her life in Milwaukee, WI. This is her first publication.