My grandfather used to have a building where he would do weird shit.
The sign above the storefront claimed that they made and sold shoes; this was back when shoes were made with leather and thread and skilled hands. There were generations of knowledge flowing through each decisive movement of those worn and callused fingers. I spent my early years watching them move, a rough ballet that smelled of grease and men and cigarettes.
Later, as a young man, I tried to capture those hands in drawings and photographs, never quite able to capture the dimly lit afternoons where the light would filter in lazily off the sidewalk surfaces, or the silence that pervaded the space, the reverence they had for what they created.
Those dusty old men working behind the counter were my family, the worktables littered with scraps of pungent leather and metal tools became the fodder of my dreams. The shoe polish-stained fingertips and aprons, rough wrinkled faces that kept their eyes on their work, their tongues relaxed and silent.
My grandfather would give us new boots or dress shoes as birthday presents and he would teach us how to care for them with polish and bristles and tender attention so that they could shine like new.
So I know that sign outside the building was not a lie. They did make shoes in that old place with the brick façade and black wooden door.
But I know they were doing other weird shit in there too. Someone was.
There was a basement in the building. I was not supposed to go down there, that was always clear. No one ever warned me, not grandfather or any of the other men there, nothing was ever said. It was more of an open understanding. I was not to venture beyond that door.
Although I knew this, I was a curious child, and the forbidden lair had a pull I could not deny. I had learned to blend into the dark shadows of the building, to step in time with the thumping needle of the sewing machine and the sporadic coughs of the men at their benches. I could open the door to the basement silently, and descend down the narrow dark steps into the dark chamber.
There was one tiny window at the top of the wall which faced the street at sidewalk level. Whenever someone would walk by the light inside would dance erratically on the brick walls. I listened intently for the sound of my grandfather’s footsteps.
I went down there only a handful of times in my whole childhood. The memories and sensations from those explorations have sunk to the deepest part of me and colored my vision.
In this forbidden space I once found a tooth. Another time a red cloth napkin with gold jagged symbols, another time I discovered a small shell and a ball of hair in a little crevasse in the wall where the cement had broken apart between the bricks.
Whatever was happening there, it was not safe. In a dream one time just a few years ago I saw him emerge from the door at the top of the stairs with a bloody mouth. He looked at me. I was sitting in a chair just beside the door. He said, 'anything goes,' as he walked past me, holding up one single finger.
I woke with my hands fluttering, I gazed out the window, remembering the lingering smell of candles and matches on the brick walls. His silence, his deference to a room he never referred to, to a past never revealed but for one word, 'Nantucket.'
Tonight I will go back into the dream and tell him, 'you don't have to hide from me. I cannot be rattled.'