The ceiling was unfinished. Rather, it had been finished in a rough basement kind of way with Masonite board , the canvas-like side painted white and showing. In several areas, the board had been ripped away exposing old and new wiring, heating ducts with canvas-tape joins and water pipes in varying sizes.
Above her head, Kay could see the main air ducts issuing from the furnace , fitted close to the thick fir beams that ran from north to south and above that, two by six joists at right angle to the beams, holding up the sub-flooring which was made of rough thick fir planking.
At one time, there had been no stairs to the basement and then, perhaps the house had been raised because, just at the door to the basement, Kay had noted a rough cut, inch thick fir floor and an equally thick sub-floor immediately beneath it. They didn’t build houses that way anymore; hadn’t done so since the ‘Fifties. Wood had become too dear. Labour too. Economies and efficiencies had been discovered.
As Kay inspected the ceiling from her supine position, she wondered why the joists and the underside of the sub-floor had been painted, in different places white, or pasty pink or hospital green. “Labour intensive. Useless”, she thought, as she peered into the dark corners of the underfloor immediately above her for spiders or bits of ancient dust that might fall during the night.
It was Rose who had insisted that she sleep in the basement. Kay had ambivalent feelings about the adventure.
“It’s far too hot. That’s what Colin and I are doing, ” sweet Rose had insisted when she telephoned. “And all the kids too. Otherwise we can’t sleep. We’re camping. Don’t you have a cot you could borrow? A mattress you could put on the floor. ”
Kay had shuddered. She would never sleep down on the basement floor, no matter how much cooler. There were spiders and wood bugs. If there was a new object on the floor to crawl under, they would. It was not is if they couldn’t climb; but that was more effort. They would be more exposed; less encouraged to come. Only a raised bed with proper legs would have the slightest chance of convincing her to sleep there. They would be less likely to bother her; they might stay hidden in their dark haunts near the edges of the basement floor and in the high corners.
“There’s the day-bed in the sun room. I could take that down stairs, ” she said.
“I’ll be over after I’ve got Katy to her friend’s house. Katy is going to camp with them for a week. I’ll help you get the bed downstairs.”
Kay couldn’t say no.
Rose came at five.
It was a practical Danish-style couch that could be taken apart in pieces. When the back was lifted off, it became a single-size bed. The mattress was mostly coils with little padding. It was light and transportable. The frame was made of teak with teak slats running crosswise. For shipping, the legs screwed off. In two easy trips down the outside back steps and in the basement door, one trip for the frame, one for the mattress, the bed was installed in amongst the paintings that were stacked in rows around every available wall space. It blocked the narrow path to the framing table. It blocked the path to the freezer and the storage room. But it had a curious elegance, sitting as it was , perfectly centered on the Chinese wool carpet with sculpted pink roses that she had bought from her friend at a recent garage sale.
Rose left shortly after. There were still two children and a husband she had to feed for dinner. She had many other things to do.
Kay settled back into her house, locking all the doors against the record-breaking heat. It was forty degrees outside with a humidity factor of six and thirty-one inside.
She turned on The Weather Network for the local forecast to find out at what hour the lowest temperature would come. The temperature would drop ten degrees overnight, they said, the coolest at two in the morning then rising to its hottest already by eleven. Kay vowed to be up still at two to start up her system of cooling the house.
It was hot.
Trickles of water ran down her temples. Kay’s hair was dripping; her neck slick with damp. Her dress was sopped. This was no genteel heat.
Kay had no intention of cooking supper. She cut up a previously cooked piece of cold fennel and ate it as it was along with a hard boiled egg. She scooped out a portion of ice cream from the bucket into a small bowl and covered it with a handful of fresh picked blueberries and a sprinkling of sliced almonds. The cool of the ice cream invaded her mouth and, for a fleeting instant, reminded her of what cool could be. Then she collapsed onto the living room couch, positioning the two end cushions under her head and fell asleep.
It was the phone that woke her. Her clothing was damp through. Her hair was positively wet. Her head felt as if it had been partially boiled.
“Hi!. How are ya!” Mrs. Stepford’s cheery voice rang like a Chinese gong through the receiver. “How are you managing with the heat.”
“Groggily,” muttered Kay. She shook her head to rid herself of the thickness in her brain. It was too hot. She looked at her watch. She had been out for more than two hours.
After sharing a few details of daily happenings and plans for the evening, they signed off. Kay sat as if stunned before the television, unable to muster energy for anything else. It was a program about regenerating the brain.
“I could do with a bit of that,” thought Kay, as her brain soaked and muddled in a too-warm soup of the day.
About eleven, two or three phone calls later – one with Nephew Hugh, one with her sister and a late night check up from Mrs. Stepford, Kay turned into her office to work on her files. It had to be done. The court date was rapidly approaching and, FreeCell game by FreeCell game, Photo manipulation after Photo manipulation, Kay had been avoiding doing anything at all about it. Now it was crunch time.
Before getting down to business, she opened the back door and let the fan pump twenty-eight degree air into her thirty-one degree house. She set the window fan in the upstairs window on full and the kitchen and bathroom extractor fans on to draw away the stifling heat. Then she turned to her office work.
Still at it at two, the optimum hour of cool, she upped her cool-down techniques. She opened both front and back doors and let the blessedly cooler, fan-pushed air in one door and the stifling warm air out the other. She doused the lights and stood in the blackened interior. There was no use in attracting moths and flies in the middle of the night. Maybe, just maybe, they were able to sleep, though Kay’s hours of activity had been turned upside down, and she could not.
She stood, then, by the front door, screen open, door open, looking into the indigo sky. There were no clouds; no moon. A single star shone fiercely, caught between the feathery branches of two tall trees, and further along, the Big Dipper’s handle arched across the night but the vessel was lost in another bank of giant trees. The air was cool, lovely, refreshing. It caressed the skin. It whispered promises. Promises that could not be kept. For a second day in a row, all time heat records had been broken. The two week forecast left no hope. There was no end in sight.
At three, she turned in, checking all the windows, closing all the main floor ones and locking the front and back door. She shut off the fan. She collected a pillow, an old duvet to soften the day bed’s coils, and a sheet to cover herself while she slept in the basement. She descended into the cooler cavern. She made up the bed and lay on it. With her emergency flashlight, she probed the corners of the joists and the mechanical works above her. A restless fly zoomed into the bright light’s path and just as fast, was gone. It startled her.
Perhaps it was better not to know. She took off her glasses and laid them on the improvised night table, an upturned milk crate. She doused the light and put it beside the glasses. She covered herself with the light cotton sheet. Perhaps that and her gardian banks of paintings would save her from the hauntings of the night. And she slept.