Zoeasta, one of the range free cats living about Hotel Julian, disappeared, and it was assumed she picked a spot to give birth to her litter. I found her in a box licking five closed eyes kittens when I returned with a flashlight to the storage room in the basement under the grocery to continue my inventory of supplies, surplus, and stowed stuff. The light startled her, but she recognized me and did not seem perturbed. I turned away and of course left them alone. I had reached the far back of the unused storage area, curious to explore around the walled room and find an entrance. A closer look at the blueprints I had found suggested there might have once existed a root cellar in the space, or a wine cellar. Maybe an old cistern. I smelled soil, felt a draft. Who were the workers in the 1940’s who worked on the hotel? The laborers, framers, plumbers. How long had this stone box been sealed? The dry, stone walls were built of riprap, cracks and joints sealed with plumber’s oakum. I made my way around the corner of the room and found what appeared to be a piece of the old unfinished basement. I stepped onto a space of smooth, hard packed dirt floor. The wall and ceiling here were shored with thick, rough sawn beams. A header beam built into the corner of the foundation topped a crawl space door with round side posts functioning as jambs. I sat on the ground and kicked against the wood panel with my boots. It cracked open and broke free in a burst of dust and splinters, and I peered in with my light. Three steps of railroad tie led down to another opening, a larger door. I crawled through the crawl space opening, scooted down the tie steps, pushed opened the door in another sneeze of dust and falling clutter, stooped through, and found myself in a clean, post and beam shored tunnel, about 6 feet in height and 3 feet across, its sides, between the posts, open dirt. The tunnel continued for about 50 feet. I must now have been under the street on the front side of Hotel Julian. I might even be across the street, under one of the old houses opposite the hotel. At the far end of the tunnel, another door, this one finished, ornate, like the door of a church, leafed and paneled, carved of hardwoods. I felt the door, rubbing my hand on the wood, and at the same time felt something rub against my leg, and there was Zoeasta, who then went to the bottom of the door, sniffing to and fro across the ground plate of solid timber. I did not have to force this door open. I turned the baroque arm of a twist handle, and the door opened easily, as if expertly hung just yesterday, and into a high ceilinged, unfinished but furnished room, stepped me and Zoeasta. The flashlight zipped quickly around, and I almost expected to surprise someone, the space looked so lived in. Zoeasta sniffed the air, back arched against my leg. But I surprised both the cat and myself when I flicked a switch on the wall next to the door we’d just come through and a ceiling lamp, a chandelier with multiple bulbs, flash flooded the room with light, revealing: a US Army canvas cot, a folding bed, a piss pot basin shoved under it, a wool blanket folded across the cot; a mirror hanging over a wood table on which sat a ceramic jug and bowl; an armoire and foot locker; male and female shoes, high laced boots and low quarters, polish and brushes; metal wall cabinet, helmet atop; a kitchen area – towels, bowls, tin cans, counter, small sink, cups; two chairs and a stool; a closet with a sitting stool over a hole and a pull rope from a small tank above; a bookcase full of books; a couch, coffee table with chessboard; ammo boxes, a gun rack; an old turntable and vinyl record albums; a spinet piano, sheet music; rugs, braided; round section of hardwood floor; electrical conduit pipe; a bellows attached to ductwork in the ceiling; a dart board; an accordion; a guitar; at the far side of the room, another door, Zoeasta already sniffing at its sill.
“Zoeasta and the Hidden Room” is episode 31 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)
Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.