A Basement the Size of the World
Naima Msechu

I'm building a basement the size of the world, he tells me. We're sitting on a couch in the living room and I am eight and he is my grandpa. I'm staying at his house while my parents spend the weekend trying to find a nursing home for him. My sister is upstairs Skyping her college boyfriend instead of keeping me out of my grandpa's hair like Mom told her to. The living room is dim except for the TV. We were watching a home-improvement show and it's still playing—beige and soft-pink and periwinkle flashes of TV light—except now I'm looking at him.

I started a month ago, my grandpa says, but I have a ways to go. He's still looking at the TV (the couple has just decided to turn their guest bedroom into a studio) and I think to myself that waiting for grown-ups to do things is just like waiting to board the plane my family took to get here—agonizingly boring. I'm afraid to ask him if I can see the basement for the same reason I avoid mentioning sleep to Mom when it's past my bedtime: because if you bring up something that important at the wrong moment, chances are you'll end up with an answer you don't want to hear. So I wait, and when the show ends and the couple is happy he finally asks me if I want to take a look at what he's built so far.

I say, Yes, I want to, and follow him down the stairs to the first basement, which he tells me is kind of like the foyer for the world-basement. The concrete floor is covered with tennis-ball sized holes that he tells me go miles deep, pointing down and away from the house in all directions like the bristles of a brush, and someday soon they'll be connected to make a basement shaped like an upside-down funnel, thin at the top like the house is and then sloping outward till it's round and wide as the world.

I want to create a whisper that travels all the way down the holes and lives in the world-basement when it's done, my grandpa says. He tells me to try it, so I lie on the ground with my lips over a hole and drop rustling words in, but I can't. They flee from me like I'm threatening a spanking, falling with a sonic urgency that tells me we'll never hear from them again. My grandpa's whisper is much more impressive (I imagine the words flying around the finished basement world, which I picture like ours but inverted, like a ceiling viewed while lying on the ground, when the tops of doorways become raised thresholds and hanging lights become glowing end-tables), but when he sits up he seems sad, so I offer him the bag of peanuts I got on the plane.

They make me break out in hives, he tells me and pats my head. I get the feeling he wants to stay in the foyer of the world-basement a while longer, and I stay very quiet as I start eating the peanuts. I could say, I think you're avoiding something; I could say, This is never going to work; I could say, You probably won't be in this house a week from now, but I am eight and he is my grandpa and I have just learned that old people can have nut allergies too, and so when he pulls me onto his lap and tells me about how he will finish building the basement the size of the world, I start to think that maybe he can.

Naima Msechu, a native of Germany, is an undergrad at Brown University. This is one of her first published stories.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of jb912.

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