Vincent Gesevius, the genetic remnant of a risky balance of lachrymose Italian and staid Swiss chromosomes, sired by weary, forgotten people, found himself at midnight squatting in the dank, earthen dugout that passed for his basement. The space, a modest cell eight by ten at best, contained both the roaring furnace and hot water heater. A chortling dehumidifier as well, which plucked water vapor from the air, collected it in a trough-like bucket and sent it spiraling out through a stiff hose that poked out of a hole in the wall.
At the center rose the base of a massive but crumbling brick fireplace. Its mortar was soft and gritty to the touch, and Gesevius envisioned collapse. Some past occupant had attempted to stucco the four cinder block walls, but that fine laminate was now cracked and peeling. Dust and algae floated in the stale air like tiny bouquets of defeat. Only one light bulb of five or six still burned; another circled aimlessly in a pool of fetid, brackish water that had begun to seep in two days before as the snow melted. Gesevisu watched the dead bulb rotate and listened to the sucking noises of the sump, sublime to his hears. He lowered himself onto a cinder block stationed on the mud floor next to a brand new Rheem furnace. The old one, a veteran of many floods and twenty years of service, had split in half during the blizzard, spewing toxic gases into the ducts in the process. The whole house smelled of ash and distillates of petroleum.
Two nights earlier, he, Riva and the baby had curled together like larvae under a mountain of quilts, comforters and flannel sheets simply to survive the first night. He had even slept with his knit cap on. His nose would not warm up. His nose was an icicle. Now, after the plumbers and electricians and firemen had come and gone, and at a cost of thirty-five hundred dollars, which Gesevius reluctantly added to his already burdened First Bank Selectline, he eased his shoulder against the furnace casing, approved its warm roar, and gazed down fondly at the little jet pump chugging beside his heavy sub-Arctic boots. Fondness aside, he longed to be back upstairs, two flights up, with Riva and child, warm, content as ancient tropical ferns. He felt himself stationed in the underworld as retribution for some vague crime of the past.
He had bought the pump at Ace Hardware several years earlier, after another even more terrifying storm that involved ice not snow, and he could not resist reaching over to pet it. What a marvelous device--utterly reliable (except when the hoses themselves froze solid), unassuming, undemanding and apparently indestructible. A squat, ugly motor that could suck up bilge and send it coursing through a hose and actually expel it so that it flowed down the slope beside his house, into the grass, back finally into sodden earth.
The pump had saved Gesevius so many times that he had come to love it, not as one loves an heirloom for its sentimental value, nor an antique for its beauty and rarity, but as a trustworthy friend who could always be counted on in times of need. A kind of small, iron dog. He was not above singing lullabies to the pump as he lurked in the basement during what seemed like ever increasing meltdowns. Global warming? Bad luck? Early stages of the Apocalypse? He felt too tired to care, and the only emotion he could readily summon was affection.
�So how are we doing?� he would ask the pump from time to time. �Big one this time, eh? We don�t get this kind of assault where I�m from. They call this the south. I know different. I watch the Weather Channel. We compete with Stockholm and Helsinki. The other night we beat Siberia, even Antarctica. Must be summer down there. Ever wonder why the Finns and Russians hold records for suicide?�
The pump would merely belch and gasp.
�No need for talk when getting the job done. Not like the kind of work I do where we use words to evade and deceive. I envy you, little fellow, though cold, dirty water I can�t bear. I�ll let you handle it. Oh, it floods where I�m from, but none of this relentless ice and snow. And it�s always warm. Hell is ice, not fire. Dante was right to encase Satan in ice.�
Again, he steered his thoughts to the now warm, spacious rooms above the crusty old rafters that were just about level with the top of his head when he stood erectly. He also wanted to think about the phone call from Chloe. He had called her first. It was her fourteenth birthday, actually the day after. He had sent a card earlier--plus a Valentine--and did not feel too bad about missing the birthday itself. Not this time. Despite almost impossible odds, he had managed to wish her happy birthday every year of her life. Chloe was out somewhere when he called. Ken, the original custody lawyer, now Chloe�s step-father, had taken the call, which meant Chloe might get the message, might not. It all depended on how sadistic Ken was feeling at the time. Gesevius� former wife never answered the phone. This is what seven years of custody litigation had taught Gesevius: your own flesh and blood, your children, can be stolen.
But Chloe had returned the call within half an hour, just as Gesevius was ordering more flannel sheets from a catalog called Country Store. On sale for nineteen dollars. He needed flannel sheets badly, had only recently discovered them and knew he could not live without them. Flannel, a natural enemy of permafrost. He had spent over five hundred dollars on electricity, gas and oil to keep warm in January; February would cost more despite the fewer days; March would normally cost a little less in the mountains, but only a little. These were mountains after all, the famous Blue Ridge were he had often vacationed with his family as a child. Oh, how he had loved mountains then; he and his father often fantasized about abandoning the city to build a quaint, proverbial cabin overlooking some spectacular valley.
Now that he lived in the mountains, he detested them. They were gigantic burial mounds that locked in humidity, cold air, pernicious microbes and sorrow. Gesevius had not seen the full sun for two, maybe three months now. The sun was a hazy, pallid disc at best. He craved the real thing. He would fall on his knees and worship it if it ever decided to return. He yearned to live in a more hospitable place, but they couldn�t move anywhere unless he or Riva won the Publisher�s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Not after two divorces and eternal child support. And all the money he�d lost trying to secure a decent, fair deal with Chloe. He might as well have tossed the cash dollar by dollar into a sinkhole for all the good it did. His money was soldered to the bottom of the sea, suspended like crystals in the Oort Clouds, stapled to Saturn with its cartoon rings and eight hundred moons. He heard Saturn weep in his dreams.
The conversation with Chloe had been tense, charged with painful silences and about as substantial as a paper napkin. He and his oldest child were becoming precisely what he feared, despite his years of frantic efforts to avoid: strangers. He told her about the blizzard, the four feet of snow, how the snow had taken up porch paint, about the basement. She said she went to a laser show for her birthday and tried a virtual reality machine. Gesevius� ears perked. He wanted to try one too. She told him she had seen �Harry Potter� and liked it, Gesevius said he didn�t like it. Chloe said she was happy to get into Franklin, a college-prep high school. Gesevius said he was very proud of her because you had to be super smart to get into Franklin. She said it was so warm already she could wear shorts. Gesevius shivered under his longjohns, undershirt, sweat shirt, sweater. �It�s pretty cold here, got down to twenty below with the wind chill. That�s not normal.�
She said the snow sounded cool. She used the word cool a lot now, had since twelve, to cover every aspect of human experience. He remembered spouting it off when he was in junior high. His students at the university now used it. They pronounced it with two syllables B kew-el. He said she should read a book called Catcher in the Rye, which was very good. She said she never heard of it. He told her he�d bought a new drum, a bongo, and it sounded terrific. She thought he meant a brand of jeans, the kind she wore. �They�re expensive,� she said. He thought about the child support money, how her mother would sooner bury herself alive than buy ordinary Wal-Mart jeans. He said he wore Levi�s. Kew-el, she said.
She no longer sounded like the child he remembered. He had savored every nuance of her voice and kept on file dozens of tape recordings of their phone conversations during the custody trial days, tapes he would listen to on his Walkman as he tore briskly through the hills and declivities of his neighborhood. Sometimes he cried as he walked and listened. He remembered her corny version of �My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.� It came out �My Body Lies Over the Ocean.�
�How can your body lie over the ocean?� he had laughed.
She became mortally offended. �It�s body, I know it�s body. Not bonnie. What�s bonnnie?�
�Bonnie means pretty,� he said. �Like you. You�re bonnie.�
And so the conversation proceeded, sputtered, surged and finally dissolved in a cadenza of maudlin declarations of love and teary I miss you�s and promises never to forget each other. All of his talks with Chloe now blended fuzzily into one maudlin adagio; he feared that she, still a child after all (albeit a rapidly aging child), would much rather play with the new toy or gadget or bribe of the moment than endure still another telephone call. It was too hard, even on his end, and deep down he sensed futility slowly bloom like a dark, leafy, ominous flower. What zealot, however fortified, can march uphill forever, bash his head into a brick wall forever, swim safely into the molten jaws of a tidal wave? Had anyone yet designed a sump pump to drain swale from the soul? The Catholics were onto something with their confessionals and exorcisms.
But he now had Riva and the baby to love and protect. The baby. A beautiful little girl named Elisabeth. Beth for short. He would feed her on the sofa, and then she would slowly close her eyes and suck his thumb. What disturbed him most was his fear that he would not love Beth as much as he had loved Chloe, or that he would love her more. Loss in either direction, vistas of anguish and joy tainting each other, the real double-helix of existence. You cannot replace a previous child with another, but neither can you resist the magic of the one at hand. Beth was here and now; Chloe sang to him feebly, when she could or would, as if from another dimension. He could hold Beth against his chest and feel her warmth; the lawyer and courts had reduced Chloe to bleeps of electrical impulses zipping through optical fibers.
Suddenly the acrid smell of electrical char and a cacophony of hisses yanked his mind altogether from cloudy domestic woes to immediate alarm. Fight or flight. He swiveled his eyes toward the pump and gasped. The stalwart little unit was finally succumbing to spasms of ruin; it shot spastically in every direction, emitting worrisome sparks in the process. Its time had come. It was dying. Gesevius did not have a second to grieve. He leapt up and pulled the AC cord from the outlet. The sump managed a final squeal, then tumbled over on its side, its motor melted and frozen at once. All the while more water trickled into the basement, and he watched it rise inch by slow inch. No way to rush out to Ace Hardware at this late hour to purchase a new machine. The persistent water would flood the main heating chamber of the new furnace, and who knows what havoc would ensue? Gesevius started to scoop out the water with a gallon-sized plastic bucket, but to no avail. Like removing sand from the beach with a thimble. He needed ten men, ten buckets, all heave-hoeing at once. He needed slaves.
He thought about abandoning ship, rushing upstairs and evacuating Rive and Beth. But where would they go? And what about the house? Would it combust and be reduced to a mound of rubble and ash? How much would the insurance cover, if anything? He became frantic and sloshed around the basement like a wild man; in a moment of frustration, he punched one of the rafters, which accomplished nothing at all except splitting open his knuckles. Now he could add his own blood to the slop. He howled and cursed the now useless sump pump. He tried bailing the filthy water with his hands. It only rose further and now wavered only two or three inches below the blower. He knew he had surrendered to madness when he thought he saw the floating light bulb flicker and then glow brilliantly in the shadows, even as it still floated in circles. But perhaps madness and desperation, not death, are the true mothers of beauty. The cartoon light bulb signifying Eureka. Imaginary light filtering through the shadows.
He unscrewed the base of the hose from the sump and laid it straight down in the water. He worked out the tangles and loops and clasped the other end and stretched it out of the basement altogether. He had about fifteen yards to play with. He stooped slowly out of the access door, unwinding the hose as he moved toward the edge of his property. The entire neighborhood had been constructed on a downward slope, and when he stumbled into the next-door neighbor�s yard, he found himself a good three feet below the water level of his basement. Gravity, the most elemental of forces, he would try gravity. He lay flat on the wet grass and, remembering how his father had once siphoned gasoline out of an automobile tank, inserted the ragged end of the hose into his mouth. He sucked so hard he thought both his brain and lungs would explode. But something told him not to stop. He sucked with all his strength, a relentless, disgusting task.
Nothing happened. Gravity had failed him. He was ready to give up, admit defeat, cry alarums, rush forth to rescue his wife and baby, when all at once a great surge of offensive liquid, clotted with rotten, putrid grime, gushed into his mouth. Instinctively he ripped away the hose and began to vomit out the sewerage and muck and brownish water. Specks of rank slush adhered to his lips and tongue. He spat as if he had ingested excrement, infectious, poisonous broth. When he calmed down he noticed that, yes, water was indeed spewing out of the hose. He had done it! Saved furnace, house, saved his wife and child, and, of course, himself. He felt exhausted but proud. Hercules of the Augean stables! His clothes and skin were contaminated. He smelled like stagnant water. He longed for a hot, steamy bath with candles lining the tub. It did not seem possible to scrub so much stench from his body. It had crept into his molecules, his spirit, his being.
He realized he had no choice but to return to the basement and keep watch for a while. Who knew when gravity itself might rebel? On hands and knees he made his way back into the dugout, squatted on the cinder block and pulled a rumpled cigarette from of one of his pockets. He had stopped smoking but kept one around for emergencies. He had not stopped smoking. He would enjoy this slim stick of tobacco like no other. He struck an old-timey kitchen match against the stucco, dragged in the fire and inhaled. The match sizzled when he flicked it into the agitated water still washing over his shoes; then it died ignominiously, its spirit a blue wisp of smoke.
Water is more powerful than fire. If we had enough water, we could douse out the sun, that colossal light bulb in the sky. And water can be found only on this humble planet, nowhere else in the solar system, perhaps nowhere in the galaxy or entire universe. But water, he reminded himself, had just about undone him on this and several previous occasions. He looked at the pitiful sump pump, noted its blisters of rust, the calcification of its connectors. He had not maintained it properly, had assumed it would always be there to do his dirty work. �I forgive you,� he mumbled and choked up. �You did your best. I worked you to your grave. But don�t worry, I won�t toss you out with the garbage. You belong down here as an icon of man�s madness to survive. This is your shrine. And, for now, I am the sump pump.�
As he enjoyed his cigarette Gesevius pledged to revive and revitalize the basement. He would change light bulbs, re-stucco the walls, sweep out debris, wipe away the cobwebs, coat the fireplace with layers of concrete. On second thought, he added, �When I get around to it.� Too much life on the upper levels to toil underground for long; he would emerge to find Beth a fifteen-year-old; he would miss her entire childhood; he would not recognize Riva, his beloved wife. No Odysseus here, he chuckled, and besides, Odysseus sojourned throughout the entire world, Hades a mere outpost. So, as usual, he would take his chances. Buy a new sump and keep well oiled. Pray for good timing and luck.
He sat rigidly on the cinder block, dashed out the cigarette against one of its sides. The flood level had stabilized. The rogue light bulb still swirled in circles. Bits of flotsam bobbed in the water, a plastic spoon here, an old Coke can and soggy shreds of insulation there. The algae made his nostrils twitch, his eyes burn. But he remained steadfast because he knew it would only be a while, that even hell is bearable and often purifying in spurts. He noticed for the first time that some precious occupant had carved a few now almost entirely eroded words into one of the lower fireplace bricks. He leaned over, squinted and read the message (for he took it as a message, a sign): de die in diem. Latin! A Roman inscription in his basement! Some beleaguered soul had sat in this very spot, perhaps on this very cinder block, and waited for the troubles to pass! The house was old, Victorian. Whoever carved the words might have done so over a hundred years ago.