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?”
“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.