How I came to be in the favorite part of my boyhood home remains a mystery, but the basement looked exactly as I remember it. A cavernous, liberating space with a ping-pong table and two steel support poles painted fire-engine red, speckled asbestos floor tiles and concrete walls painted a cheery yellow. Travel posters graced the walls at eight-foot intervals along the west side, glued in place with wallpaper paste by my father decades before. The posters depicted places my parents had never visited—Mexico, Spain, Paris, Rome. Cliché vistas of the Arc de Triomphe, a bullfight and the tower of Pisa. We had never traveled as a family beyond the Wisconsin Dells, so these windows to the world made me smile, but saddened me to think of all the unrealized adventures that had been dreamt in this playful subterranean space.
The room was illuminated primarily by the minimal light four window-wells allowed. I walked slowly across the room toward the north wall. There in the corner was the wooden console black and white television on which I’d watched The Munsters, I Love Lucy and My Mother the Car. The old green sofa was as comfy as ever, with pillows tossed against the armrests, wedged between two mismatched old upholstered chairs, one a rocker. A floor lamp illuminated the corner near the TV and a dangling chain hung from a ceiling fixture with an inexpensive lampshade clamped upside down on a sixty-watt bulb.
To the right was a bookshelf. Ancient tomes collected by my parents mixed in with abandoned children’s books—Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys—yellowing, dusty, long forgotten and infrequently enjoyed. I now regret that I diminished the value of many of these books by routinely removing and throwing away their dust jackets because they seemed unnecessary, especially on the ancient Wizard of Oz volumes that are now collector’s items. A stack of National Geographics took up a significant portion of a lower shelf, as did numerous copies of Look and Life magazines. Here I spent many rainy afternoons as a child gazing at pictures of Ham the astronaut chimp, the Mercury and Gemini space capsules and conceptual drawings of an exotic future space shuttle.
Further along the wall stood a small workbench and a pegboard full of tools, barely sufficient for minor repairs or unambitious projects, an assortment of old baby food jars filled with collected nuts and bolts, used medicine bottles of washers and screws and a number of of mismatched screwdrivers. Attached to the front of the workbench was a red vise, its handle cocked to the left where it was tightened years ago, seized up and rusted in place like my father’s heart just before he dropped in his tracks one autumn afternoon, leaving me alone with this memorial.
The sound of pistons pumping, like tiny oil wells shunting slugs of air through yellowed plastic tubing drew my attention to the northeast corner of the room. Just to the left of a window well and tucked into the adjacent darkness was a set of gray metal shelves, four high and two wide. This had always been the empty part of the basement, frightening in its darkness and distance from the staircase at the opposite corner—my escape. But now, a dozen ten-gallon aquariums, dark and forgotten, magically lined the shelves, fed by the air pumps, warmed by tubular glass submersible heaters and covered with fluorescent or incandescent hoods. The small tanks were full and bubbling, planted, miraculously clean and, it appeared, full of life. I approached and turned the lights on one by one, marveling at the living diorama in each tank—a miracle of sustained activity—tiny ecosystems that had somehow adapted and survived years of neglect. As each light snapped on, revealed before me was an underwater scene of survival and growth, generations of small tropical fish that had perpetuated themselves without food or human intervention, growing, reproducing, feeding on plants and gravel-based nutrients in my absence.
Each tank held a different wonder, a varying mix of colors and shapes, creatures I had never purchased somehow spontaneously generated amidst a symbiotic dance with others in astounding combinations. Normally predatory species mingled peacefully with less aggressive fish, compatible and complementary. Clusters of young angelfish darted between plants, their flashing silver and angular shapes in contrast to the flowing green and rhythmic swirling vegetation. Squirming pink and black Kuhli Loaches, small eels with comical black moustaches, known for their need for privacy among decorative rocks and statuary slithered like ribbons across the multi-colored gravel on the bottom of the tank. Neon Tetras dominated another show, in numbers greater than I had ever owned, small and bright and iridescent with colors seemingly too bright for nature. And there were my guppies, my favorites, the first of my fish as a young aquarist, the easiest to raise and most prolific, fan-tails fluttering in more colors than the rainbow, straight out of a Beverly Cleary novel.
The warmth and comfort I felt as a child returned, gazing at the peaceful bubbling scenes in the array before me, glowing from within the darkened basement corner, a tranquil beacon from a time in life when risk was unknown, responsibility fell to those who cared for me, and the world was full of life and light, simple and serene, wedged comfortably in the early 1960s between the triumph of World War II and the terror of a sunny September morning in 2001.
I startled to wakefulness from this surreal scene before my alarm clock chimed. I shuffled into the kitchen to start the morning coffee, set out two mugs, a spoon and some artificial sweetener. Crossing the living room to turn on the light in my only aquarium, a large fifty-five gallon centerpiece in a northward facing window, I smiled, recalling the soothing dream from which I’d just emerged. I paused for a moment to watch a group of silver tetras school among the dense and broad-leafed plants that threatened to overwhelm the tank. Unexpected motion caught my eye, tiny and glittering in the morning sun. And then again, upon closer inspection, darting throughout the tank were dozens, hundreds of tiny fish, the offspring of a newly breeding pair, two of the ten young fish I had callously dumped from a bloated plastic bag into the water a year or more before.
My alarm chirps earnestly in the other room. Time to wake up, to begin the monotonous routine I act out daily in the life I produce and direct, reading from a script that seldom varies from the one I stowed away the day before. Escape comes in my sleep, my dreams, the familiar places my mind prefers to travel, with occasional surprises from the nearly dormant portions of my neatly scripted mind. There, over in the darkened corner of the mental stage, the prop department introduced some unexpected detail, some forgotten aquariums with a phantasm of colorful creatures to make it more interesting. Without me, my alarm would continue to ring, the aquarium care for itself, the sun rise and set and financial markets open and close.
Later that morning on my way to work I braved a diesel wind and felt so proud to be the only one to board the train. But then I looked and laughed, I realized, it would have stopped without me just the same.