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.