“What is it with those old guys, anyway?” I asked Spinner one Sunday afternoon after one had hobbled up the steps from the basement storeroom and walked out the front door without so much as a nod.
“Don’t sweat it, Jonathan,” Spinner answered. “They have some kind of a club down there. I just rent the space to them for their meetings. They don’t cause trouble, and it helps them out.”
But from then on I began to be more aware that although I had been given no key to the basement storage room, apparently any one of these aging males could come and go as he pleased during meeting hours, and never bother to purchase any yogurt at all. There was nothing all mysterious about them in their usual old-guy attire or hats and Rocksport walking shoes, but even though I was certain a person as proper as Gertrude could not possibly have married someone about whom there was a hint of shadiness, still there was something about them that made me not quite trust what was going on.
In the absence of any additional information — and certainly Spinner was not forthcoming in this regard — at first I thought vaguely about drug deals, but the men who went down to the basement looked nothing like South Americans, or salt-encrusted speedboat captains from the Gulf of Mexico, or even strung-out jazz musicians. Without exception though not exactly unfriendly, they seemed introspective, and completely preoccupied with some matter, the nature of which I could not guess.
Then late one summer Sunday night something happened — and this is where I have to ask your pardon as I turn (but I hope only for a little while) into a sort of narrator of a bad science-fiction novel before returning to Yours Truly, the person who you know, and possibly have come to trust, though only in a limited way (and who could blame you) at the present.
The summer night I am referring to had followed an especially hot day, so the evening was warm as well, a condition that was very good for the frozen yogurt business, as you might guess, and thanks to a prolonged flurry of cones, bowls, bars, and family packs, by closing time the store had made a healthy profit. Spinner, who was with me as usual, looked happy about all the money he taken from the register to arrange in piles on the counter, but he also seemed especially tired. It was late, so late that the lights in the other shops in the mall where Mister Twisty's was located had been long turned off. Spinner put the money into stacks, counted it, and wrote the totals on a pad. He then took all of the stacks, plus a lot of change, too, and stuffed them into a canvas bag to take it home with him. It was only after he had finished that he paused.
"You know, Jonathan," he said, coughing and using an empty yogurt cup to cover his mouth, "I think I'm coming down with one of those darned summer colds. Would you mind wiping down the counters and polishing the machines by yourself? Then you can lock up the place. If you'd like, you can come in a little later tomorrow to make up for it. I’ll call you in the morning, and we can work things out."
Spinner wiped his nose, handed me his key ring, and left. "Sleep well," I yelled after him. “Give my best to Gertrude.”
He waved back, possibly wobbling just a little, I thought, and then I was alone. I looked out the dark window at the empty parking spaces in front of the pizza shop, the nail salon, Pets Incorporated, McReedy’s Hardware, and the mall’s thrift store, The Treasure Chest. The diagonals that marked the places off for cars looked like nothing so much as children, possibly Cub Scouts lying down with their arms at their sides as a part of some emergency preparedness exercise, waiting patiently as they waited for their pretend treatment to be finished so they could go home and maybe play a video game.
This was the first time ever that Spinner had trusted me with the keys to Mister Twisty’s, but at any rate I was feeling very tired myself, and for some reason, a little sad also. From the basement I could hear the hum of the giant cooling machines as I sprayed a little Windex on the counters to wipe away the stickiness, and rubbed down the swirl machines with chrome cleaner. And I was just about to go home when I heard, or thought I heard, a difference in the intensity of sound coming from below me. For a moment I thought I might be coming down with a cold, or maybe the flu myself, but when I shook my head and pressed my sinuses everything seemed fine. It was probably nothing, but just suppose there was some kind of a malfunction in the equipment downstairs, or even one of the old guys had had a heart attack and fallen into the machinery. We never really kept track of who went down and who came back up, and for all I know there might be someone down there, dying this very minute. I knew that Spinner had said he’d been working on the equipment a few weeks earlier, but I also knew that he had told me once, when I first began to work there, never to go down to the basement for any reason at all.
On the other hand, if there wasn’t any old guy down there, what would there be? Would there be a chessboard with a small library of mate-in-three problems and solutions? Would their be drugs, and if so, what sorts would appeal to men so old they sometimes seemed barely able to push open Mister Twisty's heavy glass front door? I imagined an ordinary kitchen table, lit by a single bulb. Across the table's surface would be piles of laxatives and virility-enhancers, with maybe a scale for weighing out their doses. I had no great moral issues with drugs — after all, yogurt was a sort of a drug — but I had to be careful. If what was down there was against the law, it would mean that I'd have to decide whether to turn Spinner in or not, and he'd been kind to me where the legal system might well not be. I didn't want to send Spinner to prison over some principle I didn't particularly agree with. If there weren't drugs however, then what were those old guys doing down there in their clubhouse amid the compressors and freezers, cartons of cones, and boxes of Gummy Worms and sugar sprinkles? I decided that it was time for me to check it out, once and for all, for myself.
But after all he had given me his keys. Suppose I went back home to my apartment and, say, a fire broke out here at the yogurt parlor? Spinner had been good to me despite his cranky ways; I would hate to be responsible for the combustion of Mister Twisty’s. I would never forgive myself if something happened that I could have prevented. True, I knew nothing at all about yogurt cooling apparatus, but I could check it out, and if I saw smoke, for example, then I could call Spinner and wake him. He didn’t live too far away. So I decided I would go down to the basement, look around, and then, if everything seemed OK, lock up again and go home. If everything was fine, I decided I wouldn’t even have to mention it.
I searched the fat ring of keys Spinner had entrusted to me until I found the one to the basement room. It was small and silver, with a surprisingly pleasant, roundish head. I walked over to the door, aimed it at the lock, and whoosh, the key entered as if sucked in by a vacuum. I turned it and drew the door back toward me. A blast of noise from the machinery below hit my ears; the door, I could see, was a lot thicker than I'd ever guessed, and the machinery sounded powerful enough to explain, to some degree, the vibrations along the floor.
I assumed there would be a light switch at the top of the stairs, but I didn’t need it. Keeping one hand out for balance along the smooth plaster wall to my right, I walked carefully down the wooden steps. There was a faint glow coming from the bottom, so the task wasn't as difficult as you might imagine.
Once at the foot of the stairs, I was slightly surprised to see that the dull, yellow glow came, not as I’d imagined, from some bare bulb suspended from the ceiling, but rather from the walls and corners, from what looked like giant, softly glowing Popsicles. Not only that, but the basement itself was much larger than I had ever guessed. It was far larger in fact than the whole floor of the yogurt parlor above, and must have stretched at least to McReedy's Hardware, and possibly even beneath Pets Incorporated, at the far end of our corner mall. The stairs from Mister Twisty's, however, appeared to be the only entrance or exit to the place, and as my eyes slowly grew accustomed to the light, I could see a cooling machine certainly more grand than any I'd imagined — four or five times bigger in fact than any yogurt refrigeration apparatus I'd ever seen in trade magazines, possibly ten times more powerful than would be necessary to supply a modest frozen yogurt outlet such as Mister Twisty's.
Beneath and around the shadowy shape of the immense machine, I could just barely make out a mess of pipes and wires running along the floor like the radii of a spider's web and connecting those tubes of glowing lights I mentioned earlier. The whole effect was like sitting in the center of some dark, medieval chapel, watching the sunset as it lit up a circle of very dim and very narrow stained glass windows. It was beautiful and mysterious.
“Hello,” I called out, and waited for an answer.
No one answered, and neither, once I’d smelled the air, was there any sign of smoke.
So I was just about to turn back and go upstairs when it occurred to me that I'd probably never again have another chance to take a really good look at all the stuff down there. The next morning, either cured of his sniffles or crammed full of over-the-counter cold medications, Spinner would reclaim his keys, and in the future he would close down Mister Twisty’s just as he had every night for the whole time I'd worked there, with me standing beside him, helpless, watching. But whatever Spinner had going on down here, it was clearly more than yogurt.
This was the time, I decided, to take a closer look at those glowing objects placed around the walls. I chose one set of pipes running out from the central compressor and followed it to a tall cylinder with a sort of a burnished metal cap and a shiny metal base, out of which stuck three silver fins, strangely like those early rockets that landed on London in newsreels of years ago. Or, to use a more modern analogy, it resembled a seven-foot tall version of one of those fancy Italian espresso boilers you sometimes see in trendy coffee bars, hissing and wheezing out phlegmy portions of java. Between the base and the cap was a wide band, about six feet tall, of cloudy glass, or possibly Plexiglas. It was that glass which was the source of the dim glow.
I placed my hand against the glass, and felt a slight hum, almost a pulse. Moving my hand then to the bottom of the cylinder, down between the fins, my fingertips inadvertently brushed against what felt like a toggle switch. I hesitated, wondering whether it might be connected to an alarm, but then I reasoned that you don’t go around installing alarm switches in the hopes that a burglar will deliberately set one off. My forefinger slipped under the smooth metal ball at its tip and I flipped it upward. At first nothing happened. Then there was a flicker from behind the surface, and slowly the glass brightened from its faint glow to reveal the form of a young and actual and completely naked woman — somewhere in her twenties, I guessed. Her hands were at her sides; her blue eyes were open wide; her hair moved slowly as a whisper in the liquid that had held her there, for who knew how long?
To say I was “surprised” is not nearly adequate to describe my feelings at that moment but it will have to do.
The woman was blond, her pale hair floating like boiled egg whites in whatever mysterious liquid that enclosed her, her blue eyes slightly crossed, her nose straight and thin, her breasts white and symmetrical, her knees knocked, her feet slender, with bluish veins running along their tops down to her toes like mountain streams pouring out of a glacier. In the clear watery substance that surrounded her, the follicles on her arms, lifted away from her skin as well as her scalp, took on a special sheen, making it seem that she was lit from within as well as by the light streaming out of the now-luminous fluid. She had a slight overbite, and her nails were ragged; she must have chewed them in the past when she was nervous. I walked around the cylinder. There were no visible signs of violence to her body — no gunshot or stab wounds, and no discoloration around her neck that might have indicated strangulation. In fact, except that she couldn't possibly still be alive in that vat of who-knew-what, she didn't seem to be dead at all.
I looked around and felt nervous. All at once I was aware that each one of those dimly glowing rocket/coffeemaker type appliances that lined the other walls of the basement room might have a similar form waiting for me. A chill went down my back. Almost against my will, I walked over to the next glowing tube, maybe three yards away, found and flipped the toggle switch. Once again the light flickered and the glass slowly grew brighter to reveal one more naked woman, this time of possibly Hispanic ancestry, a beautiful black-haired young lady with thin wrists and ankles, skin the color of toast when the toaster is set on “3,” and long, slender toes and fingers. Then, as if I were not even in the basement any longer, or even in Mister Twisty's, but had already finished a hard day of work, returned to my apartment, made myself a cup of steaming Ovaltine, drank it, climbed into bed and fallen asleep and was already in the middle of a complicated dream, I walked from cylinder to cylinder, turning on the light of each to reveal its contents. My fears proved only too well founded. Each cylinder did contain a woman: the blond one, the Latina, an Asian, a black-skinned woman, and slightly set apart from the rest, one who looked to be an Eskimo (or Inuit, I think is correct), all young, and all waiting for something.
But for what?
And what was this business of all the different women? Had it been the old guys who had put in this request?
Without knowing when exactly I had begun to do it, I found myself pacing like an animal caught in a cage, in tighter and tighter circles until I began to get dizzy and realized that all this walking was stirring up a fair amount of dust. Stop, I told myself. Slow down. You don’t want to start coughing; it might attract someone (but I couldn’t imagine who would hear me down there). Then I spotted one last (at least I hoped it was the last) cylinder that had been partly hidden away behind the stairwell, one I hadn't seen when first I began my gruesome trek. I walked over and flipped on its light.
I took a breath.
My God, I thought — it’s Mary Katherine.
But how could that be?
Because although it was true that the woman behind the glass looked exactly like Mary Katherine, had Mary Katherine's auburn hair with her neat widow's peak and Mary Katherine's tiny ears (I squinted to see if this woman’s were pierced as Mary Katherine’s had been, but I couldn’t be sure); Mary Katherine’s delicate mouth, Mary Katherine’s crimson lips, now forever moistened by that mysterious fluid surrounding her; Mary Katherine’s golden eyebrows which nearly touched; Mary Katherine’s kneecaps, as sweet as two porcelain teacups; and Mary Katherine’s breasts, still fresh, still plump and desirable, this particular woman could not possibly be the same Mary Katherine that I'd known twenty years ago precisely because this woman looked so very much like her. My mind spun like a racing car out of control and then, coming into the straightaway out of the far turn flipped over once, twice, hit the wall, burst into acrid flames right in front of the grandstand, and took out three rows of the expensive seats along with it.
It was by the light of those flames I examined the woman once again. It seemed obvious: If shewere Mary Katherine, and not just some fantasy, surely she would have to have aged, just as I had over the years. I'd lost muscle tone, a little hair, and even some flexibility in my joints, which was a particular disappointment to me a few weeks earlier when I had failed to qualify to join the Mall Employee’s Bowling Team. I had also accumulated wrinkles, occasional indigestion, and a tic in my left eye that appeared when I was nervous, one I could feel coming on at that very moment. But this version of Mary Katherine floating before me now was exactlythe same, given, of course, that nobody's memory is all that good over time. For example, there was a small mole over this woman's right hip bone, though I couldn't be positive if Mary Katherine's mole had been on the right or the left side, or even, to tell the truth, if Mary Katherine actually had a mole, or if instead the mole had belonged to someone else I’d known, but I subsequently had pasted it onto Mary Katherine in the messy scrapbook of my memory. If I only had a photo I might have checked, but strangely, because I had believed our time together would last a lifetime, I had distained such crude mementos as beneath the purity of my love.
Without a photo, how could I be sure? Clearly, if Mary Katherine could speak at that moment (“How are you, Jonathan? I'd hoped I would never see you again as long as I lived") the answer would be simple, but without even a gesture there was no way to tell who this woman actually was.
So I just stood there like some kind of boob in front of what they used to call the boob tube and stared at my own reflection, darkened and smeared by the curving glass as it stretched atop this woman's all-too-familiar form, and I listened to the hum of the compressors as they compressed not just the gas they were using to cool the cylinders, but time itself. Then from behind me I heard a cough, and for a moment I had the wild thought that one of the women, as in a fairy tale, had suddenly come to life, in a minute could be asking for my help.
"Surely," the voice behind me said, "you didn't think I would forget to install a silent alarm system, did you?”