Story Excerpt


by William Burton McCormick

August 1943


The whoosh of a swinging door, the click of a latch, and instantly I know I’ve locked myself in the cellar.


I try the handle. The door rests firmly in basement brick, its iron face like a battleship hatch, gray and riveted with flecks of red paint clinging to the edges and beneath the bolts. It does not budge at my tugs, not a quarter of an inch, even as the wrenching turns violent and my words profane.


I caress my brow with dirty, housework fingers. How could I do this? So much to do today and I strand myself in here? So typical. Moron. Mr. Watkins warned me about it on taking the house.

That cellar door swings, Jeffrey. Bad hinges. Bad construction. Damn treacherous thing. Always prop it open. June locked herself in twice our first year.

I’m well on pace to eclipse his ex-wife’s record, not three days into my rental. Watkins will find that amusing when he comes to collect the rent in ... Jesus, twenty-eight days?

I release a long pensive sigh. Better get him on the telephone when I’m out, insist he remove the locks altogether. Solve the problem once and for all.

But as for today?

My wristwatch says quarter to three. Let’s somehow salvage the afternoon.

With no obvious tool in this filthy, mice-infested basement to break down an iron door, I move to the far wall, stand beneath the two narrow street-level windows just below the ceiling. Their dusty panes rest nine feet above the floor, looking out over lonely Jasper Lane, a dead-end side street enameled in black brick and shadowed under dying trees. Little more than an alley between two rows of small dingy houses, seldom trafficked even in the heart of the great city.

I consider my predicament. A deep cellar, the windows are too high and too small to crawl through. And even if I could get up there, why compound the day’s folly by breaking the pane? Pain in the ass to replace the glass. And I’d lacerate my skin poking an arm through to signal someone.

The musty air tickling my nostrils. I stifle a sneeze and opt for patience. Not such a tragedy really. Nothing scheduled today that I can’t do tomorrow if necessary. I’m my own boss. A stranger, new in town. No one’s expecting me.

I wait.

And wait some more.

Damn isolated lane. They should plant some living trees, give people a reason to come here.

At five after four in the afternoon, the first pedestrian strolls by outside. Tan pant legs and black loafers are all I can see through the high windows. He walks at a leisurely pace, the man exiting Jasper for the open avenue nearby.

“Hey!” I shout, rising on my toes and instinctively waving. “Mister! Hey! Can you help me? Down! Down here!”

He passes the first window, the second, and then out of frame. Not slowing a step.

Can’t even hear me in this pit.

I rummage through the cellar’s sparse storage shelves, find a handful of old bolts and lug nuts. I’ll toss a few against the window, hard enough to be heard, yet hopefully not enough to damage the glass.

More waiting. At four twenty, a woman in a navy blue dress walks by. I cast the bolts against the windows as she passes. No reaction.

I throw again, a bit harder, when a man walks his terrier at five o’clock sharp. The dog woofs, smudges the window with a curious black nose, but the master drags his pooch away without a downward glance.

May have to break the glass.

At five twelve, a handful of lug nuts rattle the pane hard enough to gain the attention of a woman in bright yellow heels. She kneels down, stares at me through the window.

“Help me, please, miss!” I shout. “I’ve locked myself in this basement. Can you come inside and unfasten the door?”

Her stare is icy cold. “If you think I’m coming in there alone with you, fellah, you’re crazy!”


“No. Not with all the odd things and killings happening in this part of town. Sorry.”

She stands and her yellow heels are quickly lost from view inside the darkening street.

Good God, what a day. Mary told me to stay in Nebraska.

I crush the next lug in my palm, wind back for maximum effort. Poised to throw, pent energy in every muscle as I wait. Come on.

I am lucky. Seconds after the woman, another pedestrian nears, a man wearing spectator shoes with reddish brown toes and heels. I cast, moxie in the motion. The nut punctures a hole in the glass, a spider web pattern over the pane. Propelled like missiles, a few shards lodge in the fabric of the stranger’s trouser legs.

He stops. A white-gloved hand brushes off the glass, the face still too high to be seen.

“Sorry about that, mister. I needed your attention,” I say. “Look, can you help me, please? I’ve inadvertently locked myself in this basement. The front door is open. The keys are hung on a chain at the base of the stairs, by the curtain. Would you come in and unlock the cellar? I’d be really grateful. I’ve been here over two hours.”

He clears his pants of glass, pulls his gloved hand up out of view.

I continue: “I’m new in the area. No one else really to help, you know. An insurance man, lonely business. Hell of a way to meet the neighbors, right?”

He stands silently, one shoe toe grinding glass into the pavement. A gritty sound that somehow births unease in me.

“I’d be happy to give you a Lincoln for your trouble. Anything to get out of this situation . . . If you’re worried about being in the home of a stranger—someone said something about killings in the vicinity—go get friends. Or your wife. Or call Peter Watkins. He’s my landlord, he’s in the book. Tell him Jeff Hartley is trapped in his cellar.”

The man walks off.

Lord, what is the matter with people in this neighborhood? I may have to spend half the—

The creak of hinges above! My front door opening? Is it?

Yes. Footsteps overhead confirm a presence in the apartment. Thank God. The spectator-wearing stranger to the rescue.

“Oh, thank you, buddy! Down the steps on your left. The keys are right at the bottom on the hook. Behind the drapes. You’ll see ’em.”

But he is ahead of me. Footfalls on the steps descend to the cellar. Then a swish as the velour curtain at the base of the stairs is pulled aside, a tapestry likely hung by the absent June Watkins to camouflage this ugly iron door from guests.

The jingling of a keychain pulled from its hanger. His footsteps cross the narrow alcove between curtain and cellar door. The keys rattle again.

“It’s one of the bigger keys,” I say, flipping the switch to light the cellar’s single lamp, a naked bulb directly above the door. “Find it?”

I see a key tip enter the upper lock.

“No, not the upper. That’s the original bolt. It’s always unlocked. You need the key for the lower lock. That’s the one that catches. Try a—”

The upper bolt turns.

Come on fellow, now both locks are set.

“Yeah, turn that back, please. You need to unlock that top one now and use the other key for the lower. Understand?”

No reply. Only a thick rasping, like a lifetime smoker just audible through the door.

“Are you still looking? Take your time . . .” Has he ever spoken? Even a grunt? Maybe he’s some foreigner unfamiliar with English? If I weren’t so new here, knew the neighborhood ethnicities.

“Is English your native tongue by the way? ¿Hablas inglés? Parlez-vous anglais? Lei parl or is it parla, can’t remember my damn Italian. Heh. Maybe, a good thing with the war goin’ on, right, fella?”

Silence. A minute passes. Maybe two. All key rattling ceases. I press my ear to the coldness of the door’s iron skin, his moist breathing beyond.

Calm, Jeffrey. Calm. “You know what might be easier, pal? If you slide the keychain under the door. I think there’s room. It’s got a full inch at least.”

I get down onto my stomach, press a cheek to the floor, and peer with one eye under the door, past dust bunnies and mouse droppings to where those spectators stand as if rooted in place. The reddish-brown shoe toes six inches from my nose.

“Okay. Just slide ’em under here. We’ll laugh over a beer. They drink beer where you come from, buddy?”

The shoes pivot from the door, stepping out into the alcove. That curtain swishes back cutting off my view. His footsteps rise up the stairs.

What the hell?

“Hey, where are you going? No need to look elsewhere! Those were the right keys!”

I wait for minutes, unheeded as he bustles about upstairs. In the kitchen and hall. In the bedroom, his footsteps directly above me. Doors slamming. Drawers opening, closing.

He’s robbing me. The bastard is robbing me.

“Look, take what you want,” I shout. “But leave the keys, okay? It’s my only hope of getting out of here tonight.”

Something weighty crashes overhead. A piece of furniture overturned?

Christ. What is he doing?

At last, I hear the front door slam, see his familiar spectator shoes pass the windows under the streetlamps.

Good riddance.

“Could this day get any worse . . . ?”



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