It’s official: I’m an old man.
For the last couple years, I’ve comforted myself by saying I’m in my “early 70s,” but math is simple and unforgiving. Today is my 75th birthday, and God, the years do fly.
I’m not here for your well wishes; this is hardly a milestone I’m excited about. I’m glad to still be here, of course, but I find I have less and less to live for with every passing year. My bones ache, my kids live far away, and the other side of my bed has been empty for just over eight months now. In fact, once I cast my vote against that goddamned Trump this November, I may have nothing to live for at all.
So spare me your “happy birthdays” and your congratulations, if you please. I’m here because I have a story for you, and it’s one I’ve never told before. I used to think I kept it inside because it was silly, or maybe because nobody would believe it. I’ve found, though, that the older you grow, the more exhausting it becomes to lie to yourself. If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ve never told anybody this story because it scares me, almost to death.
But death seems friendlier than it used to, so listen close.
The year was 1950; the setting a small town in Maine. I was a boy of nine, rather small for my age, with only one friend in the world to speak of—and his family, seemingly on a whim, decided to move 2,000 miles away. It was shaping up to be the worst summer of my life.
My pop wasn’t around and my mom was a chore-whore (boy, was I proud of myself when I came up with that one) so I wasn’t apt to hang around the house. With some hesitation, I decided the public library was the place to be that summer. The library’s collection of books, particularly children’s books, was meager to say the least. But within the walls of that miserly structure, I would find no undone chores, no nagging mother (God rest her soul), and perhaps most importantly, no other children with whom I would be expected to associate. I was the only kid with a low enough social status to spend his precious days of freedom sulking amid the bookshelves, and that was just fine with me.
The first half of my summer was even more dreadful than I had imagined it would be. I would sleep in until 10, do my chores, and then ride my bike to the library (and by bike, I mean rusty log of shit attached to a pair of wheels). Once there, I would split my time between unintentionally annoying the elderly patrons and deliberately doing so. One pleasant lady actually interrupted my incessant tongue-clicking to hiss a “shut the fuck up!” at me—the first time I ever heard a grownup use The F Word. Big fuckin’ deal, I know, but in those days it was unheard of.
The dreary days turned to woeful weeks. I had actually begun praying for school to start again — until I discovered the basement.
I could have sworn I’d roamed every inch of that library, but one day, in the far corner behind the foreign language collection I stumbled across a small wooden door I had never seen before. That was where it all began.
The door was windowless and made from oak that looked far older than the wall in which it rested. It had a knob of black metal that quite literally looked ancient—I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was crafted in the 17th century. Engraved on the knob was what appeared to be a single footprint. I had the sense that whatever lay beyond this door was forbidden to me, and therefore probably the most interesting thing I would encounter all summer. I quickly glanced around to make sure nobody was watching me, then turned the heavy knob, slipped behind the door, and shut it.
There was nothing; only darkness. I took a couple of steps and then stopped, unnerved by the totality of the shadow which surrounded me. I waved my hands in front of me in an attempt to find a wall or a shelf or anything to hold on to. What I actually found was far more subtle—a small string, dangling from above—but far more useful. I grabbed it firmly and pulled it down.
Back in the day, lots of lightbulbs were operated with strings, and this was one of them. My surroundings were instantly illuminated. I was standing on a small, dusty platform that looked as though it hadn’t seen life in quite some time. To my left was a crickety-ass spiral staircase, made of wood and appearing ready to collapse at any second. The bulb was the only source of light in the room, and it was feeble, so when I peered over the railing to see what lay below, the bottom of the staircase dissolved into the darkness.