Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Zoo in My Basement OR What Makes a Story**

I liked to tell stories. Stories that people would believe. Stories that others would help me construct as I gauged their reactions. In my book, I was not a liar. 

I lay on the bottom bunk in my friend’s room staring up at the bars that held his mattress in place. I shifted my attention to the dark blue flannel sheets which covered me. The stars on them nearly glowed as they reflected the night light.

My friend’s mom had told us to be quiet and go to sleep, but I was not ready for sleep. As I took in the smell of a foreign detergent on the sheets, I thought about my sheets at home, the cotton and polyester blend which was so much cooler and smoother than these, and I waited for the right moment to speak.

Thinking about the mystery that lay hidden in that basement, I could not hold it in any longer.

“Hey, are you still awake?”


“I was just thinking about the basement of Room 10.”

Sometimes we would use Room 10 as a shortcut to the yard at the back of the Motel. I knew my friend had seen the dusty, wooden stairs leading to a dark void, but he probably had never ventured down them.

Usually accompanied by my father, I had. 

“There’s a secret room in the basement. It has an orange light.”

So far, I had not strayed from truth. The steep, cobwebbed stairs led to a room filled with gas-lit furnaces and water heaters. The room smelled industrial, like steel pipes mixed with water and heat. Near the bottom of the stairs was a shelf which organized the letters for the motel sign. Usually, that was as far into the basement as I got, grabbing letters for the sign. But earlier that week, I had seen more.

I found a cellar or bomb shelter, an ill-lit, hidden compartment in the basement. This hidden room got my imagination churning. What was it for? Why was it there?

“A secret room?”

“Yeah. We have animals in there.”


I could hear by the tone in his voice that I had his interest, but he did not quite believe me.

“What kind of animals?”

“There’s a pony.”

I always wanted a pony when I was a child, so it made sense to start there.

“A pony?”

“Yeah, it’s a really big room. So big, I couldn’t see the end of it. There’s a pony and a couple horses.”

“What else is there?”

This time, I felt I was losing him. Horses? Ponies? This was a boy I was talking to, and his tone told me that he was not going to be that interested unless I upped the danger factor.

“There’s a gorilla.”

“A gorilla?! What? Wow!”

Now I had him, and as I continued to craft my underground zoo, I envisioned it in my head.

“Yes, a gorilla. And …” picturing what I knew about the jungle and wild animals, “And, a lion.”

“A lion? Wouldn’t he eat all the other animals?”

“No. It’s like a zoo. All the animals are kept separate. The zebras are together. The giraffe is …”

“There’s a giraffe?!” Neither of us had ever seen a giraffe. Our local zoo did not have them. Even the large zoo in the closest major city only had one, and it was mostly kept out of view.

Now, I had gone almost too far with the story. I had captivated him with details that begged to be shown off. I should have predicted what would come next.

“I want to see it! I want to go to the zoo in the basement of the Motel! Can you show me? Can we play with the animals?”

My friend raised his volume to a point where I almost shushed him. I was afraid his mom would come in. She was not the kind of mom you wanted to come in to tell you a second time to be quiet. Her stern voice always made me feel guilty before I could even process what I had done wrong. Thinking quickly, to avoid ruining my storytelling experiment, I countered his proposal with the end of my story.

“You can’t visit the zoo because the animals aren’t there anymore. There was a big flood in the basement …” I had heard of basements flooding, but I had never seen such an event. “Anyway, all the animals had to be moved out. Now there’s just a big empty room. No more animals. No more zoo.”

“Oh man.” Even in his disappointment, I could tell that his mind was still buzzing with the questions, the plausibility of this story.

As we both fell asleep that night, my friend probably dreaming of an underground zoo, I reveled in the satisfaction of a story well told. While I had walked close to the line, he had not once called me out and said I was telling a story. He believed my story, and this meant I had done a good job.

I firmly believed that a good story came from a captive audience, one which could give feedback about the believability of my stories. This kind of feedback only came from an audience which did not know if I was telling a story or not, I never told my listeners I was telling a story. That would take away the spark of imagination, the excitement of possibility, the line between believable and not.

The next week would show that the adults in our lives did not think this way. To his mom, I was a liar, spinning unbelievable tales and taking advantage of the goal-ability of her child. I was a liability. If I could tell this kind of a lie, what was next? I can only imagine the conversation which occurred between my mother and her.

Afterwards, at home, my mom asked, “Did you tell your friend that there used to be a zoo in the basement?”

“Yes, but it was a story.”

“He didn’t know it was a story. If people don’t know you are telling a story, it’s a lie.”

“But, if people know it’s a story, it’s not as fun to tell.”

This was not the last story I told. The next time my mother was much more firm, and I stopped telling fictional stories for good.

**As a note about this story. I do not remember the exact dialog or layout of my friend’s room. Some details may have been extracted from other memories or embellished to tell a better story. Please do not think this makes me a liar.

1 comment:

  1. Brava. All stories need suspense and whether what you're telling is true or not is a great point of suspense. Half the members of my family say my stories are lies. They are the ones who are literal-minded, the engineer brained who make sure we have food on the table. The other half enjoy my "hyperbole". Keep the stories coming.