October 9th, 2009
The cold enveloped me and I immediately knew I had done the wrong thing, climbing down into the network of storm sewers. Even with the flashlight on it was pitch black; I realized that if I got too far and the light went out I could easily get lost. And yet I sensed I was not alone. Perhaps it was the presence of the roots that hung from the top of the drain and crept in from the sides like so many ghostly hands and fingers, seeking to grab me.
I took one step forward, then another. The flashlight went out. I had to bang it with my hand to turn it back on. “Farkus?” I called. “There must be someone here,” I said to the darkness. Look at all the roots.” I reached my hand up and fingered one of them in the darkness. I felt along the walls, when my hand encountered a root that was thick and soft like a human hand. I jumped back. “I’m not going any further,” I told myself. Then there was an audible noise. “Farkus?” I said.
There was no response. I banged the flashlight again, hard, with the palm of my hand. I gasped. There was a figure in the darkness, but it was not a Rootweaver. It was a man who looked oddly like my father, but taller and thinner, with thick black hair, and dark eyebrows that glowered at me. “Who are you?” I said.
“I am your grandfather, Charles,” he said. “I’m keeping an eye on you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have nothing else to do,” he said. “It’s damnably boring being dead. Besides, you’re interesting. You do all this writing. But you don’t do the writing you should.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, so I said, “Where are the Rootweavers?”
“The little people? Who cares about them, always scurrying about to no purpose. That brings me to you. You’ve got to start doing nothing, or you’ll waste your life away.”
“This business of work and school you are doing. Forget it. Get out and see
I stumbled back the way I had come. I had to get out of here. But that way was dark too. The flashlight went out and I banged it again. There, sitting in a chair, was my Chinese grandfather Lau, petting a cat. His white hair pointed up away from his forehead like that of Ronald Reagan. “Why you down here?” he asked. “You stay with family. That better.”
“But you live alone,” I said. “You never see your family.”
“Nobody perfect,” he answered.
As I feared, I had become lost. But I was hardly alone. There in the darkness I encountered many relatives. Perhaps they had been shaken out of their slumber by the roots I had disturbed. There was my Cherokee ancestor, Keziah, a solid, thick woman with a man’s stern face waving a wooden spoon at me and saying nothing; there was her daughter Louisiana, in a great hoop skirt, hands on her hips, one hand holding a fan, looking like Scarlett O’Hara; there was Simpson, the Civil War cavalry officer; Peter Edges, the dry cleaner turned father. All looked at me quizzically. “Why do you ignore us?” Valentine Giesler, the German farmer, asked me. “Write about us.”
“I’ve got to get out of here,” I said. I frantically pointed the light at the top of the sewer. I saw no opening. “I can’t have gone this far,” I said. I decided to count my steps. I counted to ten. Still no opening. I turned back and counted to ten.
Now, many of the people I written about in my columns—people who were not dead at all—came at me out of the darkness. There was the mayor, and the chief of police, and the fire chief, and the Hispanic boy who had been caught for shoplifting, and my black classmate at school. There was my friend Chip, and Ernie the pharmacist, and Mrs. Aulert, smiling, a scissors and roll of crepe paper ribbon in her hands, ready to make another window display. “Why are you all here?” I asked. “Am I going mad?” I held my head, as though to keep all the people from slipping out of my head into the sewer.
“If I get out of here I’ll get a real job,” I said. “I’ll get out of this town. I’ll find a direction. I’ll support myself. I’ll be good.” I sat down, pointing the flickering flashlight up at the roots that hung down like a witch’s hair. Breathe, I told myself, breathe. Now I was really lost. What if a storm came up? Would I be washed away?
When I felt a hand on my shoulder I jumped up and nearly hit the roof of the sewer. The flashlight went clattering and the light went out. Another light appeared, the salmon colored light of a crystal: “Why did you cut the roots?” Farkus asked, looking at me. His voice in my head was like a breath of Vicks Vap-O-Rub: refreshing relief.