• Albert Wachtel

The Basement


“I think it’s a spirit, Dellie.”

Mr. Chalker flashed that wide smile of his, meaning, “Not really, but we’ll talk. There’s something right about it.” His teeth were bright against the dark of his skin.

I was happy just being in the alley with him. I didn’t see the bad on the way.

“A spirit?” I smiled back. I already had the tooth fairy in my life and, thanks to Mr. Chalker, I knew who that was. “Are we talking about fairies leaving change for me?”

“You know what I think about that, Dellie. I’ve been around some corners in my life and never seen a one of them.”

People meant well, but Mr. Chalker was against fibs. “They’re blindfolds,” he said. But, even without a blindfold, I didn’t see the trouble blowing in.

Two weeks back, my tooth fell out, and Dad said the tooth fairy was coming, Bubbie, my grandma, nodded. She was part of it. But Mr. Chalker clued me in. I caught Dad putting a dime under my pillow when he thought I was asleep and spied Bubbie peeking in from the door.

“Mr. Chalker warned me about this,” I said.

Dad plunked the dime in my palm.

“My favorite daughter,” he laughed, like there was more than one of me, which told me I did right and made me feel better than if there really was more than one daughter to love.

Bubbie laughed too, and blew me a kiss.

I was born on Dad’s birthday. “My best present ever,” he told Mr. Chalker, and my lungs pushed out at me.

“Your friend Mr. Chalker is an autodidact,” he said as we walked upstairs to our apartment.

Except the banister, everything in the hallway is made of marble. It was from when rich people lived there, my mother said. “You know automatically,” she said.

"Call me mother," she said.

I knew the words automatically, autograph and automobile. But autodidact?

“Do you know what that means, Dellie?”

No way, but I did after he explained it, and he was right. Mr. Chalker read books. He taught himself all kinds of things.

Dad knew Latin, so big words and fancy endings came natural to him He said, “Hippopotami,” not “,,,uses.” “Autodidact” was just part of it.

When his job at the Post Office was done, he came home for supper, took the train back into the city and taught math and physics in night school. He and Mr. Chalker talked about that, and Dad always came away shaking his head. “Nor rhyme nor reason,” he said, same as with Mom’s screaming.

About Mom that meant, ”I don’t get it. What’s wrong with her?” He never knew what she was yelling about. “There’s nothing to holler at,” he’d say. “We’re doing what we can.” Then she’d scream more.

About Mr. Chalker, “Nor rhyme nor reason” meant “How did he learn all that?”

Mr. Chalker was very smart, just like Dad and Ms. Monroe, my teacher. Dad thought he should be something else than a super, which I don’t get. He’s the best super in the world. But that wasn’t enough for Dad.

When he wasn’t in the hospital, he was the best dad. He took me to Prospect Park, which has a zoo. Its panther is as black and shiny as anthracite. There’s a botanical garden, too, and sometimes he took me to the movies or the Brooklyn Museum, which is full of Egyptian things from four thousand years ago. They have a statue of King Pepy, sitting on his mom’s lap, and they are holding hands, which tells you how things should be. That’s how it was with Dad and me.

If he was home when my nose started bleeding, which happened all the time, he picked me up, ran down all the stairs and around two corners to the doctor’s office. But being a great dad wasn’t enough for him either.

He wanted to be better, but Mom’s screeching got to him. Last week, she was yelling at Bubbie, her mom, who is the best baker. Her family, the Skrumnis, owned a bakery in Bialystok where they invented the kuchen. That’s why people call them Bialys. But Mom was mad about something as usual. She pushed Bubbie down onto the couch, and Dad stepped between them. He closed his fist, which stopped the pushing. But he couldn’t stop the screeching.

Mom just tired out after a while and walked away.

“I’m sorry, Dellie,” he said, like it was his fault, and checked himself into the hospital again.

The teachers from night school and the people who worked with him at the Post Office sent nice cards, but they didn’t help.

If not for Mr. Chalker, Ms. Monroe and Bubbie, I’d be done.

On Sunday, she took me and the cards to visit Dad at the hospital. I waited outside, and he stepped out into the caged in balcony on the second floor and waved them at me. They were very nice cards, with a rainbow from the teachers and roses from the Post Office, but, to be honest, I didn’t like it. The nurses wouldn’t let me in, and those caged in balconies reminded me of the zoo.

Dad’s no panther, and without him, I was stuck with Mom. She hung a belt in the kitchen closet and like it was all my fault somehow reached for it every time her life turned sour, which was all the time.

But my biggest trouble came from that spirit business.

Mr. Chalker pursed his soft lips and said, “There’s something we might as well call spirit in the world, Dellie, and this, leaving pennies outside Miss Flint’s apartment for you, is part of it. You’ve got special spirit yourself, little gal.”

“I do? Where?”

He cupped my cheeks in his giant palms, that the insides are the color of my own skin, and kissed the air at me. “Right here, sweetheart. You got nothing to worry about.”

“I’m worried about my dad, Mr. Chalker. He’s all caged in.”

Mr. Chalker drew back. “It’s complicated,” he said. “People see caged in, Dellie, but I think he’s keeping the world caged out.”

Caged out? Of what? It didn’t make sense to me, but Mr. Chalker’s eyes got shiny, and I knew he was thinking deep and meant well. His white teeth gleamed behind his turned down smile like light hitting snow. Even in the basement they gleamed, and like I said we were outside now.

The coal truck had come, and Mr. Chalker was keeping us out of the basement until it was all delivered and the dust settled down.

“He’s got a fine spirit, your dad. Just like you, Dellie. But sometimes that means troubles in this troubled world.” He picked me up, tossed me in the air and set me down again. “That fine spirit is why you’re so light, sweet heart.”

Light nothing. I gained five pounds this year. But Mr. Chalker was more than smart. He was very strong. He put his work gloves on and pulled broken sinks off the wall. He lifted toilets off the floor and set new ones in. Between times, he got lights and plugs working again. Not just for lamps or washing machines; for driers, too, which, ‘Don’t touch me,” he said. If you grab a hot drier line or a person holding it, it can burn you or knock you back ten feet. On garbage days, Mr. Chalker carried loaded trash cans all the way down the alley to the curb.

But his touch was like a pillow. For all his strong, he was better than ice cream on a hot summer day.

We stood in the alleyway and watched the delivery man roll his barrels up, swing the chute open and pour coal down. Of course some pieces fell off on the way. It was a tough job. But he was good at it, and good things are nice to watch.

When the delivery was done Mr. Chalker signed off on it and tossed all but one chunk of fallen coal down the chute. He brought that piece back to me.

“Anthracite, Dellie.” He rolled it around for me. “It’s the best coal there is. Give it a feel.”

It was smooth, hard and shiny. Made you think of glass, but you couldn’t see past the black.

“Anthracite burns clean,” he said.

It felt clean, wasn’t a bit dusty, but when we went downstairs finally black powder coated the floor.

“There’s anthracite, and then there’s bituminous. Bituminous is softer.”

He sprinkled water on the dust and pushed his broom slowly, so as not to raise any.

“It cheapens on down to peat. Can you say bituminous, Dellie?”

“Bituminous,” I said smiling, “anthracite, peat” - because I knew what would follow. Not exactly, but in the end.

Mr. Chalker reached into his pocket. “Peat burns dirty. Some places, the poor use it to cook and keep warm. You’ve got to feel bad for them. It’s not good for the air they breathe, but they can’t afford better.” He drew his fist out of his pocket, opened it up and--wow!—five cozy nickels in his palm. “Peat, lignite, bituminous and anthracite. Now guess where lignite goes.”

“Between peat and bituminous.”

“And which is best?”

“Anthracite. It’s hard and burns clean.”

Mr. Chalker turned my palm up. “No wonder you got a spirit leaving pennies for you. You’re a bright gal, Dellie. Here’s a nickel for peat, a nickel for lignite, another for bituminous and two nickels for anthracite. Do you know why?”

“Because anthracite’s worth twice what they are.”

He tapped the tip of my nose. “And you skate twice better than your friends. But you skin your knees. You don’t look for cracks careful enough. Step over them, Dellie.”

Mr. Chalker knew everything. I stayed later than usual because the coal truck set us back. But there was still time. All it meant, I’d be waiting less for my friend Hemdin. I climbed back up to the courtyard, walked to Miss Flint’s side and just like always looked for pennies outside her apartment. It was a tiny one bedroom, just next to the archway that led from the sidewalk to our court.

She was as bony as my legs, Miss Flint, with steel rim glasses on her skinny nose. Her lips were thin, and she dressed all in black. Right away, her curtain moved. If I looked up, the curtain would drop back quick, so with the corner of an eye I caught her watching and didn’t let on.

I found one penny at her door, another by the rose bush, a third by the steppingstone near her garden patch, and I could feel her smile. I’d find three pennies one day, four another, sometimes up to ten. Put them together with Mr. Chalker’s nickels, Dad’s dime and the change I found on sidewalks by keeping my eyes down, and I could buy ice cream from the Good Humor man almost every day, a Sunday cup once in a while, which is a layer of peanuts and chocolate over vanilla ice cream. That was the best, and chocolate over vanilla ice cream pops were next.

After Miss Flint, I walked to Hemdin’s apartment, waiting by the door most days while she finished her bacon and eggs. Hemdin’s mom’s red hair curled down over her forehead in long bangs. She was big out front. When she leaned forward her cross swung at you, and when she straightened up it swung back, catching between her breasts half the time. She blew her hair out of her eyes with her bottom lip out, freed the cross and asked if I wanted bacon or a piece of toast. I always said, “No, thank you,” but it was too late for that this day. Hemdin was done. We got to school just on time and slipped into our desk chairs a minute before Ms. Munroe walked in.

She handed back our arithmetic, with a hundred at the top of my page, tying me with Hemdin, who was especially good in English, and Neilie Markman, who was good at everything. On the wardrobe side of the room, from where I could see blackbirds landing and taking off from the electric lines outside, I won the spelling bee. Hemdin came in second and Neilie third.

How come those birds are okay on hot wires? I thought between turns at spelling. I’ll ask Mr. Chalker first thing.

At recess, I beat the fastest boys as usual, and kids cheered.

Neilie, who came in second, said, “It’s her skinny legs. They’re easier to move.”

Maybe so, but that didn’t change who won.

“She wins on roller skates, too,” Hemdin said.

Ms. Munroe’s eyes went wide. “Is that true, Dellie?”

“When I don’t fall it is.”

That’s the kind of day it was. We got home, jumped rope—which, I can’t do Double Dutch, but Hemdin can—and skated until the Good Humor man drove up, ringing his bell. I bought me an ice cream pop, said so long to my friends and walked under the archway to Miss Flint, who was looking out her window for me. When I showed she clapped her hands, disappeared and opened the door. She curtsied, and I curtsied back.