It was a huge home. And beautiful.

It had every amenity. Even a basement with a disappearing door.

The previous owner was one Mr. Nguyen Quang Phu. Our Realtor—a sturdy, garrulous, middle-aged woman named Nancy Keefer—said Phu was a Vietnamese refugee, one of the courageous boat people who had fled months after the fall of Saigon. He was one of the fortunate who had survived the storms, the gunboats, and the pirates.

"He arrived in the U.S. with only three thousand dollars in gold coins and the will to make something of himself," Nancy Keefer told us when we first toured the house. "A charming man and a fabulous success. Really fabulous. He's pyramided that small bankroll into so many business interests, you wouldn't believe it, all in fourteen years! Fabulous story. He's built a new house, fourteen thousand square feet on two acres in North Tustin, it's just fabulous, really, it is, you should see it, you really should."

Carmen and I made an offer for Phu's old house, which was less than half the size of the one he had recently built, but which was a dream home to us. We dickered a bit but finally agreed on terms, and the closing was achieved in just ten days because we were paying cash, taking no mortgage.

The transfer of ownership was arranged without Nguyen Quang Phu and me coming face to face. This is not an unusual situation. Unlike some states, California does not require a formal closing ceremony with seller, buyer, and their attorneys gathered in one room.

Nevertheless, it was Nancy Keefer's policy to arrange a meeting between the buyer and seller at the house, within a day or two of the close of escrow. Although our new home was beautiful and in splendid repair, even the finest houses have quirks. Nancy believed it was always a good idea for the seller to walk the buyer through the place to point out which closet doors tended to slide off their tracks and which windows wept in a rainstorm. She arranged for Phu to meet me at the house on Wednesday, May fourteenth.

Monday, May twelfth, was the day we closed the deal. And that was the afternoon when, strolling through the empty house, I first saw the cellar door.

Tuesday morning, I returned to the house alone. I didn't tell Carmen where I was really going. She thought that I was at Horace Dalcoe's office, politely wrangling with that extortionist over his latest greedy demands.

Dalcoe owned the small open-air shopping center in which our restaurant was located, and he was surely the very man for whom the word "sleazeball" had been coined. Our lease, signed when Carmen and I were poorer and naive, gave him the right to approve even every minor change we made inside the premises. Therefore, six years after we opened, when we wanted to remodel the restaurant at a cost of two hundred thousand dollars—which would have been an improvement to his property—we were required to give Dalcoe ten thousand in tax-free cash, under the table, for his okay. When I bought out the lease of the stationery store next door to expand into their quarters, Dalcoe insisted upon a steep cash payment for his approval. He was interested not only in large lumps of sugar but in tiny grains of it as well; when I put a new and more attractive set of front doors on the place, Dalcoe wanted a lousy two hundred bucks under the table to sign off on that small job.

Now, we wished to replace our old sign with a new and better one, and I was negotiating a bribe with Dalcoe. He was unaware that I had discovered that he didn't own the land on which his own little shopping center stood; he had taken a ninety-nine-year lease on the parcel twenty years ago, and he felt secure. At the same time that I was working out a new bribe with him, I was secretly negotiating a purchase of the land, after which Dalcoe would discover that, while he might have a stranglehold on me by virtue of my lease, I would have a stranglehold on him because of his lease. He still thought of me as an ignorant Mex, maybe second generation but Mex just the same; he thought I'd had a little luck in the restaurant business, luck and nothing more, and he gave me no credit for intelligence or savvy. It was not going to be exactly a case of the little fish swallowing the big one, but I expected to arrange a satisfactory stalemate that would leave him furious and impotent.

These complex machinations, which had been continuing for some time, gave me a believable excuse for my absence from the restaurant Tuesday morning. I'd be bargaining with Dalcoe at his office, I told Carmen. In fact, I went directly to the new house, feeling guilty about having lied to her.

When I stepped into the kitchen, the door was where I had seen it the previous day. No rectangle of sunlight. No mere illusion. A real door.

I worked the lever-action handle.

Beyond the threshold, steps led down into deepening shadows.

"What the hell?" I said. My voice echoed back to me as if it had bounced off a wall a thousand miles away.

The switch still did not work.

I had brought a flashlight. I snapped it on.

I crossed the threshold.

The wooden landing creaked loudly, because the boards were old, unpainted, scarred. Mottled with gray and yellow stains, webbed with hairline cracks, the plaster walls looked as if they were much older than the rest of the house. The cellar clearly did not belong in this structure, was not an integral part of it.

I moved off the landing onto the first step.

A frightening possibility occurred to me. What if a draft pushed the door shut behind me—and then the door vanished as it had done yesterday, leaving me trapped in the cellar?

I retreated in search of something with which to brace the door. The house contained no furniture, but in the garage I found a length of two-by-four that did the job.

Standing on the top step once more, I shone the flashlight down, but the beam did not reach nearly as far as it should have. I could not see the cellar floor. The tar-black murk below was unnaturally deep. This darkness was not merely an absence of light but seemed to possess substance, texture, and weight, as if the lower chamber was filled with a pool of oil. Like a sponge, the darkness absorbed the light, and only twelve steps were revealed in the pale beam before it faded into the gloom.

I descended two steps, and two more steps appeared at the far reach of the light. I eased down four additional steps, and four more came into view below.

Six steps behind, one under my feet, and twelve ahead—nineteen so far.

How many steps would I expect to find in an ordinary basement? Ten? Twelve?

Not this many, surely.

Quickly, quietly, I descended six steps. When I stopped, twelve steps were illuminated ahead of me. Dry, aged boards. Nailheads gleamed here and there. The same mottled walls.

Unnerved, I looked back up at the door, which was thirteen steps and one landing above me. The sunlight in the kitchen looked warm, inviting—and more distant than it should have been.

My hands had begun to sweat. I switched the flashlight from one hand to the other, blotting my palms on my slacks.

The air had a vague lime odor and an even fainter underlying scent of mold and corruption.

I hurriedly and noisily descended six more steps, then eight more, then another eight, then six. Now forty-one rose at my back—and twelve were still illuminated below me.

Each of the steep steps was about ten inches high, which meant that I had gone approximately three stories underground. No ordinary basement had such a long flight of stairs.

I told myself that this might be a bomb shelter, but I knew that it was not.

As yet, I had no thought of turning back. This was our house, damn it, for which we had paid a small fortune in money and a larger fortune in time and sweat, and we could not live in it with such a mystery beneath our feet, unexplored. Besides, when I was twenty-two and twenty-three, far from home and in the hands of enemies, I had known two years of terror so constant and intense that my tolerance for fear was higher than that of most men.

One hundred steps farther, I stopped again because I figured I was ten stories below ground level, which was a milestone requiring some contemplation. Turning and peering up, I saw the light at the open kitchen door far above me, an opalescent rectangle that appeared to be one-quarter the size of a postage stamp.

Looking down, I studied the eight bare wooden steps illuminated ahead of me—eight, not the usual twelve. As I had gone deeper, the flashlight had become less effective. The batteries were not growing weak; the problem was nothing as simple or explicable as that. Where it passed through the lens, the beam was as crisp and bright as ever. But the darkness ahead was somehow thicker, hungrier, and it absorbed the light in a shorter distance than it had done farther up.

The air still smelled vaguely of lime, though the scent of decay was now nearly the equal of that more pleasant odor.

This subterranean world had been preternaturally quiet except for my own footsteps and increasingly heavier breathing. Pausing at the ten-story point, however, I thought I heard something below. I held my breath, stood motionless, and listened. I was half sure that I detected strange, furtive sounds a long way off—whispering and oily squelching noises—but I could not be certain. They were faint and short-lived. I could have been imagining them.

After descending ten more steps, I came to a landing at last, where I discovered opposing archways in the walls of the stairwell. Both openings were doorless and unornamented, and my light revealed a short stone corridor beyond each. Stepping through the arch on my left, I followed the narrow passage for perhaps fifteen feet, where it ended at the head of another staircase, which went down at a right angle to the stairs that I had just left.

Here, the odor of decay was stronger. It was reminiscent of the pungent fumes of rotting vegetable matter.

The stink was like a spade, turning up long-buried memories. I had encountered precisely this stench before, in the place where I had been imprisoned during my twenty-second and twenty-third years. There, they had sometimes served meals largely composed of rotting vegetables—mostly turnips, sweet potatoes, and other tubers. Worse, the garbage that we wouldn't eat was thrown into the sweatbox, a tin-roofed pit in the ground where recalcitrant prisoners were punished with solitary confinement. In that filthy hole, I was forced to sit in foot-deep slime reeking so strongly of decay that, in heat-induced delusion, I sometimes became convinced that I was dead already and that what I smelled was the relentlessly progressing corruption of my own lifeless flesh.

"What's going on?" I asked, expecting and receiving no answer.

Returning to the main stairs, I passed through the archway on the right. At the end of that passage, a second set of branching stairs also led down. From tenebrous depths, a different rancidity arose, and I recognized this one as well: decomposing fish heads.

Not just decomposing fish but, specifically, fish heads—like those that the guards had sometimes put in our soup. Grinning, they stood and watched us as we greedily sucked up the broth. We gagged on it but were often too hungry to pour it on the ground in protest. Sometimes, starving, we choked down the repulsive fish heads as well, which was what the guards most wanted to see. They were unfailingly amused by our disgust—and especially by our self-disgust.

I hurriedly returned to the main stairwell. I stood on the ten-story-deep landing, shuddering uncontrollably, trying to shake off those unbidden memories.

By now, I was half convinced that I was dreaming or that I did, indeed, have a brain tumor which, by exerting pressure on surrounding cerebral tissue, was the cause of these hallucinations.

I continued downward and noticed that step by step the range of my flashlight was decreasing. Now I could see only seven steps ahead ... six ... five ... four....

Suddenly, the impenetrable darkness was only two feet in front of me, a black mass that seemed to throb in expectation of my final advance into its embrace. It seemed alive.

Yet I hadn't reached the foot of the stairs, for I heard those whisperings again, far below, and the oily, oozing sound that brought gooseflesh to my arms.

I reached forward with one trembling hand. It disappeared into the darkness, which was bitterly cold.

My heart hammered and my mouth was suddenly dry and sour. I let out a childlike cry, and I fled back to the kitchen and the light.


THAT EVENING AT THE RESTAURANT, I GREETED THE GUESTS AND SEATED them. Even after all these years, I spend most nights at the front door, meeting people, playing the host. Usually, I enjoy it. Many customers have been coming to us for a decade; they are honorary members of the family, old friends. But that night, my heart was not in it, and several people asked me if I was feeling well.

Tom Gatlin, my accountant, stopped by for dinner with his wife. He said, "Jess, you're gray, for God's sake. You're three years overdue for a vacation, my friend. What's the point of piling up the money if you never take time to enjoy it?"

Fortunately, the restaurant staff we have assembled is first-rate. In addition to Carmen and me and our kids—Stacy, Heather, and young Joe there are twenty-two employees, and every one of them knows his job and performs it well. Although I was not at my best, there were others to take up the slack.

Stacy, Heather, and Joe. Very American names. Funny. My mother and father, being immigrants, clung to the world they left by giving all their children traditional Mexican names. Carmen's folks were the same way: Her two brothers are Juan and Jose, and her sister's name is Evalina. My name actually was Jesus Gonzalez. Jesus is a common name in Mexico, but I had it changed to Jess years ago, though by doing so I hurt my parents. (The Spanish pronunciation is "Hay-seuss," although most North Americans pronounce it as if referring to the Christian savior. There's just no way you can be regarded as either one of the guys or a serious businessman when burdened with such an exotic moniker.) It's interesting how the children of immigrants, second-generation Americans like Carmen and me, usually give their own kids the most popular current American names, as if trying to conceal how recently our ancestors got off the boat—or in this case, crossed the Rio Grande. Stacy, Heather, and Joe.

Just as there are no more fervent Christians than those recently converted to the faith, there are no more ardent Americans than those whose claim to citizenship begins with themselves or their parents. We want so desperately to be part of this great, huge, crazy country. Unlike some whose roots go back generations, we understand what a blessing it is to live beneath the stars and stripes. We also know that a price must be paid for the blessing, and that sometimes it's high. Partly, the cost is in leaving behind everything we once were. Sometimes, however, there is a more painful price inflicted, as I well know.

I served in Vietnam.

I was under fire. I killed the enemy.

And I was a prisoner of war.

That was where I ate soup with rotting fish heads.

That was part of the price I paid.

Now, thinking about the impossible cellar beneath our new house, remembering the smells of the prison camp that had wafted out of the darkness at the bottom of those stairs, I began to wonder if I was still paying the price. I had come home sixteen years ago—gaunt, half my teeth rotten. I'd been starved and tortured but not broken. There had been nightmares for years, but I hadn't needed therapy. I had come through all right, as had many of the guys in those North Vietnamese hellholes. Badly bent, scarred, splintered—but, damn it, not broken. Somewhere, I had lost my Catholicism, but that had seemed a negligible loss at the time. Year by year, I had put the experience behind me. Part of the price. Part of what we pay for being where we are. Forget it. Over. Done. And it had seemed behind me. Until now. The cellar could not possibly be real, which meant that I must be having vivid hallucinations. Could it be that, after so long a time, the fiercely repressed emotional trauma of imprisonment and torture were working profound changes in me, that I had been ignoring the problem rather than dealing with it, and that now it was going to drive me mad?