arboraxephobia

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Around the time I discovered horror movies, I used to look up to check for axes dangling from trees. It was only something I did in the woods, and not anything I recall seeing in a horror movie, so I’m not sure where it came from. I also still checked nightly for monsters under the bed. I’d kneel down on the side of the bed farthest from the door and bravely pull up the dust ruffle. I’m not sure now if I meant to flush the monster out – you know, give him an escape route – or if it just hadn’t occurred that I would have no way out.

This seems as good a time as any to confess I used to believe a race of tiny vampires called the Dynamites lived under my bed. They all looked like Count from Sesame Street, although probably only the leader wore a monocle. Aside from the time I watched them parade up the side of my bedroom wall and disappear through a crack in the closet (chickenpox fever), I never actually saw them. When I checked under the bed in later years, I was expecting only one monster and much larger and more menacing. If I’d seen the Dynamites, I might have scooped them up like kittens while they counted and nibbled at my neck.

There are literally hundreds of scientific-sounding names assigned to all the things we’re afraid of. Cometophobia is the fear of comets. If, for whatever reason, you’re afraid of chopsticks, I’m afraid you have consecotalephobia and probably a difficult road ahead. According to one definition, sanguivoriphobia is the “irrational fear of vampires” which sounds like something a vampire would write. Arithmophobia covers the fear of counting. Teratophobia is a fear of monsters or having a deformed child, both of which I can understand, though lumping them together feels a little lazy. No one should mind if I slip in arboraxephobia.

The woods I checked most often for swinging axes was an undeveloped bluff at the end of our development. Everyone ignored the No Trespassing sign on the metal gate where the gravel road started, although I usually had the place to myself. This quarter-mile strip was prime waterfront real estate and would later become an early series of McMansions on dime-sized plots. But oh, that view. It’s no wonder someone made their summer home long ago on that desolate, lovely stretch.

The cottage had been a modest wooden clapboard with no porch and only a few rooms. It was long abandoned by the time my parents and I pulled open the rotted screen door and eased inside one Sunday afternoon. I remember pots and pans still in the cabinets and dishes thick with dust scattered across a kitchen table. Surprise Indian attack seemed the only logical explanation for anyone leaving dishes behind. I never went back inside.

Some years later, two known troublemakers skulked up the road from that direction just before the first black plumes of smoke began to rise. A dozen firetrucks couldn’t save the cottage. It went up like seasoned timber. A nearby barn with rusted out farm equipment were the only things left for us to climb over and keep us up to date in tetanus shots. And then we noticed the basement.

The cottage had burnt to the ground, leaving a smoldering hole with pitted concrete steps like teeth that grew mossy and slick with rotted leaves. We had lost a lonely old friend and gained a nightmare.

Sometimes I went to the top of the stairs by myself but usually with a friend, and never down into the belly of the basement. If I got down to about step eight, I could lean over far enough to see into part of the basement room to the left, but it was too black. The smell got me. Charred wood and burnt plastic, with an overlying bouquet of ammonia and mildew and maybe boiled blood. It was death, somehow, and I kept coming back to peer in without actually getting close enough to see anything

On the bus one day, a friend and I told a cute boy about the No Trespassing gate and the stairs and the very next day he and a friend tore up the hill from an angle we weren’t expecting like a couple of pirates. We thought for sure they would brave their way all the way down the stairs and tell us what they saw. In the end, they hovered on step four, maybe five, and then one remembered an orthodontist appointment, the other, homework.

One time I made it all the way to the bottom step with no one else around. The basement was still black but I made out some kind of shelf along the far wall. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me. The smell was worse at the bottom. The sounds weren’t right either. Maybe that steady click was dripping water. Maybe it sounded more like scratching.

One of my regrets in life – and I have a few by now – is that I never went all the way in. Around the time I started high school, the stairs and basement were filled and a stately home with cathedral ceilings and gleaming wooden stairs planted on top. While that house was under construction, I snuck in during a rain storm and saw someone had written HELP ME in what looked like blood on a second floor window. That house smelled like sawdust and drywall and nothing at all.

A wealthy family moved in and I filled in for their nanny a few times before graduating and moving away. The nanny kept a log for the family and used it to rat me out. Kristen did not clean up Robbie’s trains and the playroom is a MESS. In the second floor hall closet, the family hoarded massive stockpiles of hotel shampoos from Disney properties. I had no idea I would one day do the same, so it all felt very sinister.

Eventually I stopped checking trees for swinging axes. My old brain heard a creak from above and started assuming old branch in the wind. It occurs to me now that an axe looks similar to the kind of tomahawk an Indian might have used to catch a family by surprise one night during supper. The family would have jumped up quickly, shoving chairs to the side and heading to the only place they could think of to hide. The basement.

tale from the cyber monday closet

I can’t remember if I wrote about him before on this blog, but there’s a little man in the closet underneath our basement stairs. He’s upside down, which seems like the kind of detail that might ring a bell, while at the same time feeling completely unnecessary.

I assume he’s still there, but the closet itself is so overwhelming and distracting I haven’t looked in awhile. I open the closet door and several toys threaten to spill out while the one cat – the always-underfoot one who is completely in love with chaos – rushes in to its darkest corners.

This weekend I opened the closet to find cheap stencils my daughter told me I’d never find because she doesn’t understand yet how obsessiveness gets worse by the year. I found the stencils and an old cassette recorder my other daughter promptly fell in love with and also an unused paper doll book to send to a friend. In case it wasn’t clear, this is a magic closet.

It’s also a sad closet full of neatly labeled bins that prove you can’t buy happiness but you can certainly buy too much. Polly Pockets. Barbies. Dress-Up. Crafts. Christmas Gifts You Thought Would Fix Everything And Look Where They Wound Up.

One year it was Cupcakes, legless, doe-eyed and inexplicably hard-to-find dolls whose dresses folded inside out to disguise them as delectable bakery items, which I think we can all agree is normally a dangerous disguise, but was so good they were forgotten by Christmas morning of 2005.

There’s the Polly Pocket Race to the Mall from 2007 and Raiders of the Lost Ark Legos from 2009, which may not have much in common except they both took hours to assemble and were played with for minutes. Also, they are both completely useless when a single part goes missing.

There’s the baby doll pack-n-play from 2013, which the youngest cleverly stuffs all her toys in during cleanup. She’s like a mini adult who’s figured out an unused treadmill is great for hanging laundry. Poor impulse control and improvisation only improve with age, my little one.

You’ve probably forgotten all about the man living underneath my basement stairs by now. The upside down fella? (does that ring a bell?)

He’s real. I didn’t discover him until our second Halloween in the house. I was in the basement looking at the underside of our basement stairs, as people do on Halloween, I guess, when I noticed him and raced up the steps to tell my husband. My husband was like “yeah, I know”. I don’t even think he looked up from what he was doing.

stairdudecu
Upside down stair dude – shown right-side up for your pleasure

 

He’s a mysterious upside down pencil drawing on the underside of step #7 of 11. I assume he came with the house but may have been drawn by my husband for all I know. When we had our basement finished several years ago, I had to use my best not-crazy voice while requesting the contractor please not use sheetrock or paint while turning the space underneath the stairs into a storage closet. I couldn’t bear to lose the little man.

Who better to oversee the magic and failures of reckless consumerism than an upside down fella with a fancy beaded sash and pizza slice pocket? His little hands look like flowers. I adore him.

This year the little man under the stairs used his magical powers to muck up an order I placed for the hard-to-find toy on one daughter’s wish list. He has his hands full already with the Polly Pockets, who probably drive him up the closet wall with incessant giggling aboard the Party Bus (which plays exactly one annoying techno-esque tune). I don’t think he wants anything for Christmas this year except a little peace and quiet.

 

 

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