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What I Found in the Basement (1984)

What I Found in the Basement (1984)

©1984, 2006 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1984). What I found in the basement. Unpublished short story.







What I Found in the Basement

By Dallas Denny


This is the story of me babysitting for the Walker Evanses and what I found in the basement and can’t tell anybody about or at least I don’t think so. I’ve been babysitting for folks in Loganville—that’s the name of the town, Loganville, Tennessee—since I was only eleven or so. I’m fifteen now, and big for my age, but I was just thirteen that summer when I sat with Walker, Jr. and Shanika, the Evans kids. Walker, Jr. just started to school this year, and my sister Sharon, who is in the same room with him, says he’s just as mean as ever. Shanika is four now, but she was only two-and-a-half then, and not toilet trained. Some folks wait forever. Anyway, those two kept me running most of the night, and I wouldn’t have wanted to baby sit with them again even if I hadn’t found what I found.

If people could be stringed instruments, Mrs. Evans would be a cello. She’s shaped like one, all narrow at the waist and big at other places, and her voice sounds like a horsehair bow being rasped across strings. Her middle name is Voila, too. But mostly, she’d be a cello because you only see them at concerts and in orchestras and stuff like that. Mrs. Evans—her full name is Edith Viola Lee Evans—is head of the D.A.R. in Loganville, and just so formal and cultured, although I know she only reads gothic romances and there’s not a good book like by Dickens or Tolstoy or even by Norman Mailer or Truman Capote in her whole house. There’s just her Harlequin romances and Mr. Evans’ magazines and westerns, and Encyclopedia Brittanica, just to impress people. She keeps the encyclopedias where they can be seen if you’re sitting in her living room.

Mr. Evans is all right, though. I guess he would be a fiddle, although I think Mrs. Evans thought he was a violin before they were married. There’s no difference between a fiddle and a violin, really, except in the way they’re played. Mr. Evans has his own hardware chain, built from scratch after he came back from Vietnam. He has two stores in Tullahoma, one in McMinnville that just opened, and the original store in Loganville. He’s a member of the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and I don’t know what else. But he’d rather sit in front of the television set with a beer and watch the Dallas Cowboys than anything, unless it’s to get in his old four-wheel-drive International Scout and go on a three-day fishing trip. He’s a little unpolished for Mrs. Evans’ taste, but he does his best to fit in with her friends at the country club. He’s a fiddle playing hard at being a violin.

Anyway, it was July, and school was out, and Mrs. Evans called my ma and asked her was it alright if I babysat for her a week from Friday. Marybeth Anderson was her regular babysitter, but she had gotten herself pregnant by Johnny Baker, and was showing, and scandalizing the town—and her just fourteen. Mrs. Evans told Ma she knew I was a nice girl and said she would be proud if I would baby sit. Or course, Ma said yes. Nothing would tickle her more than getting into Mrs. Evans’ social set.

The next Friday but one, Pa drove me over to the Evanses in the station wagon. I remember that the padded dash was beginning to crack in places; it’s all to pieces now. I got out of the car when Pa pulled in the Evanses driveway to turn around, and went up and rang the doorbell.

Mrs. Evans opened the door and told me I was right on time. She and Mr. Evans were going to some function or other. I could see him, in a monkey suit, over in the dining room, checking his reflection in the door of the china hutch. Mrs. Evans had on a long dress and a corsage, and a pair of those metallic gold shoes with spiked heels, and a purse to match. She had been to the beauty parlor, for her hair was teased and shellacked to within an inch of its life. She was wearing that thick makeup old ladies wear, covered with about a ton of powder. It made all the wrinkles around her eyes stand out like furrows in Pa’s garden. But her eyes looked the worst. Mrs. Evans had always plucked almost all of her eyebrows out, and then penciled in a thin crescent moon that made her look surprised all the time. Ma told me Mrs. Evans had gone and had that line tattooed on, but I hadn’t believed it. But it was tattooed, sure as anything, and she had eye shadow built right up to the line. Her rouge wasn’t blended correctly, and even at thirteen, I could put on false eyelashes better than she could.

Mrs. Evans was telling me all about Walker, Jr. and Shanika, and I was nodding and saying yes, ma’am. The kids were looking sheepishly at me from the couch, where Mrs. Evans had set them. Mr. Evans was trying not to look embarrassed. Mrs. Evans said they would be back by midnight, and to make myself at home, and do this, and do that, and wasn’t I a little young too be wearing hose, and I said don’t hurry back, and I would do this, and do that, and all the girls in the eighth grade were wearing them. Then the Evanses were out the door and gone, without even introducing me to the kids.

Shanika was all right, except for changing her, which was gross, but Walker, Jr. was just a little devil, hitting his sister and making her cry, spitting at me, and hollering when he didn’t get his way. I ended up whopping him, which I hoped was okay with Mrs. Evans. I was sure he’d tell. I hardly had any time at all to telephone my friends until nine o’clock, when I put the children to bed. Walker, Jr. fought, but I spanked him good, and he cried himself to sleep. Shanika was hardly any trouble at all.

Well, soon enough it was ten-thirty, and most of my friends’ parents won’t let them talk on the phone that late, and anyway, most of them were out of town on account of being at cheerleader camp. I didn’t try out because the day of tryouts I got my first period and was in a panic because I thought I was hemorrhaging. I didn’t even have any schoolwork to do, because it was summertime. And the Evanses didn’t have cable, and there was nothing on any of the networks. So I was looking for books, not snooping, really, and that’s how come I know there are no good books in the Evanses’ house. While I was upstairs I took off my bra because I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t used to wearing them, back then, because I had just started to develop. Anyway, while I had my blouse off and was kind of poking at my nipples—- promise me you won’t repeat that—I heard a really weird moaning kind of noise. At first I thought it was some kind of peeking Tom or something, but the noise kept up, and I put my ear to the heater vent and could tell it was coming from the heat pipes. It sounded like a grown man. It scared me, but Ma has always said I was impulsive and rash, so I started searching the house. There was nothing on the second floor or in the attic, and I knew there was nothing on the first floor, on account of I had already been in all of the rooms looking for books, and that left just the basement. I turned on the light at the top of the stairs and went down. The basement was halfway finished, with cement floor and paneled walls, and doors and everything. One door had a bolt on it, and I figured that what I had been hearing must be coming from there. There was a light switch beside the bolt, so I turned it on and saw light leak out from under the door. Then I heard something moving in the room. I was scared, but I threw the latch and opened the door just a crack.

There was a funny smell in the room, like the locker room at school when everybody is really sweaty, and like accidents in your clothes. I could see there was hardly any furniture in the room, just a pallet in the corner, and a wooden chair which was bolted to the floor. What was making the noise was a boy of about thirteen. He was hunkered down in the corner of the room, with hardly any clothes on. Well, I’ll tell you the truth—— he didn’t have on a stitch. His hair was cut short and bristly, like from a long time ago, and his eyes were puffy and somehow didn’t have much light in them. He made a funny sound when he saw me, not any kind of word, really, and cowered back in the corner of the room. But when he saw that it wasn’t Mr. or Mrs. Evans he stood up and started toward me.

Now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think he had any idea of hurting me. He must have been just lonesome. But I screamed and ran up the stairs as fast as I could. My hose snagged on a splinter and ripped, but I kept going until I saw he wasn’t coming up the steps after me. He came out of the room, walking in a sort of shuffle, like he maybe had a broken leg that hadn’t healed properly. He just stood there and looked at me, and then started poking around the basement, looking in boxes. Part of me wanted to just shut the door and forget about him, but the better part of me knew I ought to get him back in the room somehow or I would be in trouble when the Walker Evanses came home.

I remembered that I had seen some hot dogs in the refrigerator, so I closed the basement door and went to the kitchen and got them. When I got back the basement door was open and the boy was in the living room, and had knocked a lamp over, and I thought I would just die. I showed him a hot dog, and I could see he wanted it. I threw it on the rug beside him and he grabbed it up quickly and stuffed it in his mouth without even wiping it off. I threw the next one just inside the basement steps, but it slipped between the stairs and fell, so I threw a third. He went to the top step to get it, and I threw another down to the bottom of the steps. He went after it like a flash. For an awful moment I thought he would lose his balance and fall, but he didn’t. He stuffed all the hot dogs in his mouth and looked at me. There was only one hot dog left. I went to the bottom of the steps and threw it through the open door of his room. When he went after it I closed the door and latched it. I thought maybe he would beat on the door, but he didn’t. I waited for a minute. I didn’t hear a thing. I unlatched the door and saw he was hunkered down in the corner again like he had been when I first saw him. I fastened the door for the last time, and jumped as I turned around, because something had brushed across my shoulder. It was a leather strap, like barbers have in their shops, only I didn’t think the Evanses used it for sharpening razors.

I had just picked up the lamp and put the empty hot dog wrapper in the trash when I heard the Evanses’ car pull up in the driveway.

I asked myself afterwards why I didn’t let that boy out. I knew he was mentally retarded and that it was wrong for him to be locked up like that and beat with a strap. I’ve never been sure why I didn’t do anything. But when the Evanses came in the door, I was pretending to watch the late movie on the television. Mrs. Evans asked me how the children had been, and I said fine. I could smell the hot dogs on my hands as I told her about whipping Walker, Jr., but not hard. She said that was all right, but I don’t think she was really happy about it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Evans noticed the basement light was on and clicked it off when Mrs. Evans wasn’t looking. He looked at me, but I looked away. And then Mrs. Evans was saying she was very happy with me, and I said I would call my father to pick me up, and Mr. Evans was saying, no, he would take me home.

On the way to my house, sitting beside Mr. Evans on the big front seat of his Cadillac, I could tell he was going to say something. It wasn’t easy for him to start, but then the words seemed to pour out. “He was our firstborn. He’s nearly fourteen now. When he was born the doctors told us to put him in an institution, but Viola said that would be scandalous. You know how she is. We even had a funeral. He’s never been out of the house.”

I didn’t say anything.

“His name is Tom. He’s our son. He’s allowed to come upstairs sometimes. Viola needs the strap in order to manage him. He’s not mistreated.”

I said I never thought the boy was mistreated, and that I guessed it was his and Mrs. Evans’ business and no affair of mine.

Mr. Evans said please don’t tell anyone, and tried to give me a one hundred dollar bill, but I wouldn’t take it. And then I was running through the grass of the front lawn, and letting myself in the door of our house. I turned around in the doorway, and took one last look at Mr. Evans’ pleading face. And then I went inside and took a long, hot shower. But it didn’t make me feel any better. And to this day I still can’t eat hot dogs.