The Basement by MJ Gardner

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A girl needs to do what she can to stay safe.

So if I tell it to you all over again can I get out of this dress? Why do I have to tell it to you? They wrote it all down. But I suppose you’re a shrink and you just want to get inside my head. Well, come on in, if you want to. Only it ain’t pretty.

All right. I’ll try to tell you everything, so you won’t have to ask me any questions. I’m tired of all these questions. Let me start at the beginning, which was when I was born a Miller, I guess. If you’re going to understand, you have to know how I was raised. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t nice. You have to understand that.

What do I mean? You know how they say that it’s sad when cousins marry? Well, it is. And after a few generations of it, it’s worse than sad. My parents are cousins. Not first cousins, but related. And my Papa, some people say his Grandpa’s his daddy, you know? I told you, it ain’t pretty and it ain’t nice.

My Mama drinks from sun up ’til she passes out sometime after lunch, and then she just nips a little until bedtime so Papa doesn’t see how bad she is. Sundays she doesn’t drink at all. Well, not much anyway.

But no matter how drunk she is, Mama can sew anything from nothing. My Mama can make the most beautiful dresses out of remnants, goodwill castoffs, hand-me-downs. She buys old clothes at garage sales just for the lace and buttons and trims. She even made this wedding gown.

We were poor but we always had pretty dresses. And we were not allowed to get our pretty dresses dirty. Even though Mama didn’t seem to notice that we had no shoes or that our hair wasn’t combed, she’d see a smudge or a tear from a mile away, and then we’d catch hell. She’d pull that dress off, right where we stood — in the yard or the living room — and often we were naked underneath ‘cause Mama never sewed us any underwear. Then she’d scream at us about how she spent so much time sewing and how she’d scrimped and saved so we could have pretty things to wear and how we didn’t care at all about her or her work. Sometimes she’d hit, depending on how drunk she was. Or sometimes she’d just wind down to a mutter and forget you were there, and then it was best to sneak off to the bedroom and hide for a while. When you figured it was safe to come out again you put on another pretty dress and hoped Mama had forgotten.

Now, Papa hit too, but mostly he locked us in the basement. I spent a lot of my early life locked in the basement. I believed it was because I was a bad girl. Sometimes I still have to tell myself that I’m not.

Papa would send us down there when he and Mama fought, which was three-four times a week, or when she got too drunk, or when he was too drunk, or when our brothers misbehaved. Papa whupped them with his belt, he never locked them up. One time Mama suggested it and he just sneered, “Can’t lock up boys,” like she was out of her mind.

I learned a lot being locked up down there. I learned not to argue or try to stall. When Papa said to go we had to drop whatever we were doing and go right away. I learned to be prepared. I kept my favorite toy in hand. I was always ready at dinner with a napkin or paper towel to scoop up my food. These are skills that served me later in life. When I got a job I knew how to be punctual and prepared and to do what the boss said without sassing back or rolling my eyes like some kids.

Sometimes they would forget us down there. There was a trunk full of old blankets and quilts and clothes. My sisters would sleep in the open trunk and I would wrap myself in blankets and sleep on top of some packing crates under the stairs. The next day when Mama or Papa remembered we were still down there they’d make us a good big breakfast, even if it was the middle of the afternoon. As long as we didn’t make noise and hurt their heads we could eat whatever we liked: bacon, jam toast, even johnny cake with syrup.

See, I learned that patience and suffering are rewarded.

Being locked in the basement wasn’t all bad. My sisters and I would take off our pretty dresses, so as not to get them dirty, and play down there more freely than we could outside, where we had to worry about mud and grass stains and sharp twigs. We played like boys, wrestling and running. And in the darkness, wrapped in blankets and sitting around an imaginary camp fire, we would tell ghost stories and talk about our future husbands and babies and how wonderful it would all be when we were grown up.

The basement was a refuge from what went on upstairs. From the yelling, the screaming, the snap of Papa’s belt, things being broken. It was a safe haven from our brothers too.

See, Bobby and Daryl are older than me, and Cassie and Joleen are younger. They were stronger and bigger and meaner. Mama never sewed them good clothes. It was no use dressing up boys, she said, they’re too rough and dirty.

They were proud of it too. Dirty ripped overalls and no shoes were signs of manhood to them. They spat and smoked and snuck away some of Papa’s whiskey in a mason jar. They weren’t mama’s babies like us, they said, all dolled up. Sometimes I think they were jealous.

Most of the time they ignored us, but then sometimes they’d play games with us. Not games that we wanted to play. They knew that the worst trouble we could get into would be to get our dresses dirty. They’d wait and ambush us as we came home from school and push us down in the dirt and lay on us till we screamed. Sometimes they’d throw mud. Mama never listened when we told her that the boys had done it. Or she never heard ‘cause she was too drunk.

Other times their games were more inventive. They’d make us do things under threat of mud puddles and dog shit. They’d make us kiss the cows that pastured in the field next to our yard, or suck out a raw egg. One time they made us pee in a bucket, and when they had all that Miller piss in it they went and dumped it on some other kid. Their games weren’t reserved just for us.

But, see, I learned from that too. We learned to stick together, Cassie, Joleen and I. There was some safety in numbers. If Bobby and Daryl caught one of us alone they would try to stick things up our skirts. Sticks, screwdrivers, rake handles, empty gin bottles. If Mama or Papa caught them at this game he sent all of us girls to the basement. Papa would beat them, but it didn’t stop them. It just made them craftier.

Sometimes it wasn’t just things they stuck in us either. When she was fourteen Cassie had to have an abortion. Mama cried and cried. She said she was a good Christian woman and she didn’t believe in abortion. But Papa said he wasn’t going to let his daughter have a baby got from her own brother. It was liable to have two heads or be a retard. He said it was Mama’s fault for dressing Cassie in short frilly dresses still, even though she was a woman.

Papa beat the boys so bad they couldn’t leave the house for a week. He beat them both because he didn’t know which one did it. At first they denied it, but when he started using the buckle end of the belt, they started to blame each other. They were both big boys, but they never raised a hand against their Papa. They had been inseparable before, the Miller boys, the terrible twosome, but when they turned on each other, it broke that bond. It broke them.

After that Bobby and Daryl left us alone and only bothered other people’s sisters. I don’t know if it was the beating so much as the bastard.

Mama was quiet for a long time. She sipped whiskey and sewed. She sewed up a whole new wardrobe for me and Cassie, with longer grown-up skirts and long-sleeved blouses and old-fashioned pantaloons.

Cassie didn’t talk about what happened. She doesn’t talk hardly at all anymore. She never goes out, and she started carrying around one of Joleen’s old dolls.

Soon after Bobby moved in with some other boys. They lived in an old wreck of a cottage, with junker cars in the yard and beer in the fridge. Daryl got a girl pregnant and had to marry her and move in with her folks.

Without the boys bothering us life started to get better, and it gave me hope, you see. We were almost happy.

When I was seventeen I got a job as a cashier at Stevenson’s Groceries. Mama still made my clothes, but now I bought the material and the patterns and she made me whatever I wanted. She was pleased with that. She said I was a real fine young lady.

I went to the beauty parlor to get my hair cut. That’s where I met Josie, who washed and cut and permed my hair. Josie’s only two years older than me and she has a pretty little baby girl. She taught me about washing my hair with shampoo instead of Ivory soap and using a cream rinse and a curling iron. Sometimes after work on a Friday night, if she could get her mother to babysit, we’d go down to the Rose Bowl and sit in the bar together and drink beer. Well, she drank beer. I didn’t do much drinking on account of Mama.

After I gave Mama some money for room and board I could still go to the show or have lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I bought myself grown-up nylon panties and pantyhose and bras and slips and shoes and costume jewelry. I even got my ears pierced.

When I stood at my cash register I heard the old women muttering to each other how I was a nice girl and how I wasn’t like the rest of the Millers. At first I was proud. I didn’t want to be like my Mama with her bleary eyes and her dirty shapeless housedress. I didn’t want to be like Daryl’s little wife, with her pouchy baby belly and her black eyes and bruises. She was clumsy, she said. Ever since they moved out of her parent’s house and into a trailer she had been falling into things. Door frames, chairs, coffee tables. They shouldn’t have rented that trailer. They should have gotten a house with a basement. That’s the only way to live with one of my brothers.

But then I started to feel ashamed for Cassie and Joleen. They were ragged and barefoot. I took them both to the beauty parlor and Josie did their hair for half price. I bought them pantyhose and slips. We did each others nails and on Sundays I curled Joleen’s hair with my curling iron.

It didn’t seem to have much effect on Cassie. She looked better, but only on the outside. When you look in her eyes you can see she’s lost. One time I went down to the basement looking for her — I hadn’t been down there for a long time — and she had a whole baby’s room set up. There was a crib and a high chair and one of those baby swings and toys and everything. All for a doll. I didn’t tell anybody.

Anyway, I had a job and I was making money. I looked like a normal girl now. My brothers were gone from the house and Papa didn’t send us to the basement anymore ‘cause we disappeared on our own before he could think to do it. Plus, with the boys gone there were less fights. I didn’t think life could get any better.

And then I met Jimmy.

I met him at the grocery store when his mama sent him for a pound of butter. After that he kept coming in for little things. At first he’d say that his mama wanted something. Eggs, sugar, milk, a hot rod magazine. Every day on his lunch hour his mama sent him to the grocery store. Then he started coming for things for himself. A chocolate bar, an apple for his lunch, a can opener. Eventually he stopped buying things and just hung around the checkout to talk to me. My boss didn’t like it, though, and Jimmy had to stop coming by. So he asked me out.

Our first date was to church. And we went to the movies too. I went to his house for dinner and met his mama and his little brother. His daddy was dead, which is why he stayed living at home, he told me.

Jimmy was a nice boy, or so I thought. He wasn’t like my brothers. At work he had to wear mechanic’s coveralls but after work he’d clean up and put on jeans and a button-up shirt and polished cowboy boots. His sandy hair was always trimmed and clean. He said no ma’am and yes ma’am and held doors for me and even bought me a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. When I finally got up the nerve to bring him home to meet my Mama and Papa, he didn’t criticize and he wasn’t scared off. Cassie hid from him, but he joked with Joleen and never laid a finger on her.

When Jimmy asked me to marry him I nearly soared through the air with joy. We had to wait a year to save up money for the wedding, and then we’d have to live in his mama’s house. He didn’t want to leave her alone, but I didn’t mind. I liked his mama, and their house was so much nicer and cleaner than ours. He treated me so good sometimes I cried for shame. I didn’t think I deserved such a good man.

The truth is that I don’t, ‘cause I was just pretending, see? I know that now. No matter how nice my clothes are and my hair, no matter how normal I look, I’ll always be a Miller. Daryl and Bobby will always be my brothers, and my Mama and Papa with always be no-good drunks and poor crazy Cassie will always be my sister. I don’t deserve somebody like Jimmy, only Jimmy wasn’t as good as I thought he was. He had just been pretending, fooling the world like I was.

We had a small wedding, just family mostly, and Josie and some of the guys Jimmy works with. And then for our reception we went to the Holiday Inn. It was so beautiful. There were flowers and champagne and candles on the tables and it was like a fairytale.

The guys from the garage, they’d all gone together and rented us a room as a wedding present, so we wouldn’t have to spend our wedding night in his Mama’s house, they said. I thought it was really great, ‘cause I’d never stayed in a hotel before, especially one as nice as the Holiday Inn.

It was in that room that I found out about Jimmy. That was where I found out that he wasn’t nice, really, after I was married to him and it was too late. He wanted to do the same thing my brothers had done to me. He was just as disgusting as they were.

That’s why I had to kill him. I had to. That’s how I got all this blood on my dress. I worked so hard to get away from all that, to be nice and normal. I had to do it because there wasn’t any basement to go to and lock myself away.

Now can you loosen these restraints and get me a clean dress? They said my Mama’s here and I can’t let her see me like this.

MJ Gardner is a web developer who lays awake in the dark and wonders what if…? In 2008, her short story “Juliette: A Cautionary Tale” was optioned for a low-budget film in Britain.  Evelyn’s Journal, her first novel, is due out in the fall of 2014. You can find her at

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