Base­ment of the The Harley Clarke Man­sion, Evanston, Illi­nois, image by Paul R. Burley

I went to grade school dur­ing the Cold War. My under­stand­ing of the Cold War was tied to my desk. When­ev­er the sub­ject would come up in school, we would have a prac­tice air raid. Air raids resem­ble fire drills, except that we nev­er left the build­ing; we would hide under our desks. I was lucky because I was small and could curl under with­out any part of my body being exposed. This made me feel extreme­ly safe, and I knew I’d be warm. At home we also prac­ticed for an air raid. My sis­ter and I would hide in the back part of our base­ment, where my moth­er hung our laun­dry to dry. It was damp and dark, and toward the cor­ner there was a hid­den crawl space where my par­ents kept Spam, Campbell’s Soup, water, choco­late, and crack­ers in a locked com­part­ment. I nev­er felt safe there, as spi­ders and bugs vis­it­ed fre­quent­ly and the damp­ness kept me shivering.

Our indoor play area was sup­posed to be in the base­ment. Not the back part where our raids were held, but in the new­ly-pan­eled sec­tion. It was my mother’s idea to make the base­ment cozi­er. She dec­o­rat­ed the room in black-and-white checks with an accent of red. I took a keen inter­est in the redo­ing of the base­ment. The car­pen­ter she hired to pan­el the walls was named Joseph. The first thing I noticed about him was his hair. It was the unruly type, which is dif­fer­ent from unkempt. You could tell he had brushed it, but the curls popped up every­where, despite his efforts. They curled down his neck and through the sleeves of his flan­nel shirt. He always came to our house in the same out­fit, burnt-orange cov­er­alls worn over a flan­nel shirt. When he was warm, Joseph rolled up his shirt­sleeves above his elbows. That was when I saw the blue num­bers etched on his wrists.

When Joseph start­ed work­ing for us, my Mom told me not to make a pest of myself. She warned me that Joseph was moody: a good work­er, but moody. No one both­ered him except me. And I real­ly don’t think he con­sid­ered me a bother.

At first Joseph didn’t talk. I would come down the stairs, and find a place amongst the lad­ders and tools, and watch. He would look at me, his eyes large and blue, hood­ed by curly eye­brows. We’d stare at one anoth­er until I could detect a small nod, which I inter­pret­ed as a sig­nal of wel­com­ing. I would plop myself down, wait­ing to be need­ed. Grad­u­al­ly I could tell when he need­ed his ham­mer or nails. I became his silent helper.

Joseph told me that the num­bers were his name when he lived inside the walls.

One day he was tap­ping on the walls with his ham­mer. He start­ed on one side and moved across the wall. After each tap, he’d lis­ten and some­times make a mark. I didn’t dare talk, strain­ing to hear what he was lis­ten­ing to. I heard noth­ing, and when he had moved across the entire room, I final­ly spoke out. Joseph, what are you doing?”

I’m lis­ten­ing.”

Lis­ten­ing for what?”

Joseph put down his ham­mer and turned to look at me. I was afraid that this was going to be the mood my moth­er warned me about, but I sum­moned all my courage to look straight into those blue eyes. Joseph’s brows were pushed togeth­er, and his eyes looked deep­er and dark­er than I had ever seen. He seemed to be some­place else. I walked over and sat next to him. Joseph didn’t move away, but he put down his ham­mer and turned his palms upward. We both just stared at the num­bers on his wrists.

From some­where deep and lone­ly came his voice. I’m lis­ten­ing for the sto­ries. When you have lived inside four walls for a long time, you begin to hear all its life. Some walls have too many voic­es. When they gave me my num­bers, the walls I lived with­in cried at night. Some­times I would beat on the walls try­ing to escape. The walls would always answer me with their pain.”

I placed my small hands over Joseph’s wrists and touched each num­ber. Joseph told me that the num­bers were his name when he lived inside the walls. When he final­ly left, he couldn’t wash the num­bers away, and though he tried, he couldn’t remove the voic­es from the walls.

Not too long after that day, Joseph fin­ished putting up all the wood pan­els. Every­where he had marked on the walls, he nailed in the pan­els. I helped with the nail­ing, but we nev­er real­ly talked after that. Our new play area was offi­cial­ly fin­ished, and my par­ents had a par­ty to cel­e­brate. The base­ment was cozi­er. My moth­er was a great dec­o­ra­tor, but she had failed to resolve the main prob­lem with play­ing in the base­ment; in order to get there, you’d have to run down the stairs hold­ing your breath so you could turn on the lights. If you think the spi­ders and damp­ness of our air-raid shel­ter both­ered me, you can bet the bogey­men I imag­ined hid­ing in the shad­ows made my heart race.

My sis­ter and I would now play school in the base­ment. Her pre­tend name was Miss McGillicud­dy. My fic­ti­tious name, Miss Chie­vous, was one that my par­ents always called me when­ev­er I dis­obeyed. One day while we were play­ing school, I start­ed to hear voic­es. I stared at the walls, lis­ten­ing. My sis­ter didn’t notice, but I became agi­tat­ed. With­out think­ing, I took a blue ink pen and began writ­ing arith­metic prob­lems on my left wrist. On the right wrist I wrote my name, Miss Chie­vous. My dis­obe­di­ence was too much for my sis­ter. She ran upstairs to the safe­ty of the liv­ing room. I forced myself to lis­ten to the walls.

I final­ly came upstairs and was marched into the bath­room by my moth­er to wash the ink off my wrists. I didn’t fight or yell. I yield­ed to the scrub­bing, imag­in­ing myself as a dis­tinct branch of a tree grow­ing tall, ris­ing above to look out on the world. The stains of ink remained for anoth­er few days. When­ev­er my sis­ter or my moth­er and I would start to fight, I’d ven­ture down to the base­ment and sit, qui­et­ly lis­ten­ing to the voic­es. When all signs of argu­ments had fad­ed, I would brave the stairs. Joseph nev­er came back to work at our house, but his voice was always there.

Abbe Rol­nick grew up in the sub­urbs of Bal­ti­more and moved with her fam­i­ly to Mia­mi Beach. After attend­ing Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, she lived in Puer­to Rico, where she owned a book­store. Her nov­els and writ­ings reflect her inter­na­tion­al adven­tures as well as the unique per­spec­tive of an elder who has achieved the hon­or of being called Bubbie.