Sheila’s basement had a timbered ceiling, if you considered the beams holding up the first floor to be “timbers.” And if you considered something only five and a half feet off a cement floor to be a “ceiling.”
She didn’t. Not exactly. She noticed that she had to duck her head under the “timbers” as she made her way to her easel, but just enough to accomplish the movement. Not enough to really notice the fact of it, to feel ashamed that a half-finished basement was her “art” “studio.”
But she didn’t really treat it like an art studio. An art studio, she would have taken care of. There wouldn’t have been that proliferation of broken furniture — Grandma Beaton’s organ, the tweed pull-out couch that used to be in the twins’ room, a laundry basket of unraveling black wicker. She would have swept the cobwebs out of the eaves, the foundation dust off the floor.
No, the basement wasn’t a real space to her. Not like the kitchen, with its drawer pulls that she’d painstakingly replaced with brass ones from Restoration Hardware. The bedroom, with its skylight that she got on a ladder to clean.
This not-real space didn’t need to be staged. You could weave a path between piles of broken furniture; stick an easel and a radio in the least spidery corner. Spend an undisclosed amount of time alongside the earthworms, writhing in this space between the underworld and the lighted home above.
Not that Shelia writhed. She bopped a little, when particular songs came on the radio. The station she always listened to, KISM, played Alice Cooper’s syndicated show. She knew all the songs, which had been written before she was born, making them less painful than the music of her lifetime. She could afford to feel sentimental when she heard them because she had no real memories to attach to them, other than the second-hand ones of characters from films or books. Her parents didn’t really like music.
The actual music of her youth made her feel old, blue, wasted. It sometimes seemed as if her generation hadn’t really accomplished anything, and weren’t on the path to doing so. They were sandwiched between two much larger generations of low repute, who soaked up the lion’s share of those long, inaccurate thinkpieces about The World Today. She didn’t mind, most of the time, unless that music was playing.
Then she remembered what it was like. Waiting with boys in parking lots, feeling like THINGS were going to happen to her. To them. The music had said so, hadn’t it?
The paintings Sheila made weren’t good, and she knew it. She didn’t paint to be good at it, the way she baked or worked or cleaned her house. She painted to see paint on her fingers, she painted so she could be alone listening to music, and no one could say anything about it. She painted because her husband was too tall to enjoy going into the basement.
She wasn’t exactly sure why she’d married John, and it scared her, that no one had tried to stop her, to get her to fill out the proper paperwork. It seemed inappropriate to her that she was allowed to run around making decisions about things like this, without having to run them by a committee. What if she’d done the wrong thing? What if she’d done the right thing for the wrong reasons? What if it were he that was wrong to marry her? She felt she needed some metrics to measure her performance in this arena. A list of key performance indicators, like they used at work.
The children seemed happy enough, but weren’t children always happy? Maybe not. Some of her friends’ children seemed unhappy, but they had “sensory processing difficulties,” or were gifted, or had too many after-school enrichment programs to attend. She tried not to overschedule the twins, and to feed them a lot of food, and to give them a certain degree of privacy. It had worked; they seemed fine.
But were they fine? Would they continue to be fine? What if it came out, that she spent hours every day in her basement, churning out sunflowers and seascapes, still lifes and self-portraits? Her paintings were large, made to scale or bigger. She painted them on old canvases, one over another. It didn’t matter to her, destroying one so another might live. She’d never hang them upstairs; she barely looked at them after they were finished.
There are worse things than being a bad painter, she thought. If that’s all they’ve got on me, it’s not enough.
But what about the other things?
If no one knows, did they really happen?
Certainly that was how it felt like to her. The other things she did had been done by another Sheila, a ghost with her hands, the self she was in dreams. It seemed impossible that the deeds of that Sheila could ever overlap with those of workaday Sheila, scrubber of stoves, balancer of budgets. Hair flat and smooth, long feet like white boats in her black leather loafers, confidently carrying groceries into the open floor plan of her home, a phone jammed between her ear and her shoulder.
How could that woman love a basement where she couldn’t stand up straight? Who could imagine her wailing along with Stevie Nicks? Who would believe it if you told them about her slender fingers, short-nailed, with silver rings, sliding over the brown, furred arms of the guest auditor, speaking low and fast to him about extenuating circumstances, nearby wine bars?
No one, that’s who. They’d never run her to ground.