"Mr. Blakey?" the small white man asked.
I had answered the door expecting big Clarance Mayhew and his cousin Ricky. The three of us had a standing date to play cards on Thursday nights. I was surprised even to hear the doorbell because it was too early for my friends to have made it home from work and neither one of them would have rung the bell anyway. We'd been friends since childhood, since my grandparents owned the house.
"My house is your house," I always said to Clarance and Ricky. I never locked the door because we lived in a secluded colored neighborhood way back from the highway. Everybody knows everybody in my neighborhood, so strangers don't go unnoticed. If somebody stole something from me, I'd have known who it was, what kind of car he drove, and the numbers on his license plate before he was halfway to Southampton.
"Yes," I said to the small, bald-headed white man in the dark-green suit. "I'm Blakey."
"You have a stand-up basement, Mr. Blakey," the white man told me.
"Teddy Odett down at Odett Realty said that you had a basement where a man could stand fully erect, one that has electricity and running water."
"This house isn't for sale, mister."
"Bennet. Anniston Bennet. I'm from Greenwich, Connecticut."
"Well this house isn't for sale, Mr. Bennet." I thought the small man would hunch his shoulders, or maybe give me a mean frown if he was used to getting his way. Either way I expected him to leave.
"Oh yes," he said instead. "I know that. Your family has owned this beautiful home for seven generations or more. Mr. Odett told me that. I know it isn't for sale. I'm interested in renting."
"Renting? Like an apartment?"
The man made a face that might have been a smile, or an apology. He let his head loll over his right shoulder and blinked while showing his teeth for a moment.
"Well, not exactly," he said. "I mean yes but not in the conventional way."
His body moved restlessly but his feet stayed planted as if he were a child who was just learning how to speak to adults.
"Well it's not for rent. It's just an old basement. More spiders down there than dust and there's plenty'a dust."
Mr. Bennet's discomfort increased with my refusal. His small hands clenched as if he were holding on to a railing against high winds.
I didn't care. That white man was a fool. We didn't take in white boarders in my part of the Sag Harbor. I was trying to understand why the real-estate agent Teddy Odett would even refer a white man to my neighborhood.
"I want to rent your basement for a couple of months this summer, Mr. Blakey."
"I just told you --- "
"I can make it very much worth your while."
It was his tone that cut me off. Suddenly he was one of those no-nonsense-white-men-in-charge. What he seemed to be saying was "I know something that you had better listen to, fool. Here you think you know what's going on when really you don't have a clue."
I knew that there were white people in the Hamptons that rented their homes for four and five thousand dollars a month over the summer. I owned a home like that. It was three stories high and about two hundred years old. It was in excellent shape too. My father had worked at keeping it up to code, as he'd say, for most of his life.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bennet," I said again.
"I'm willing to pay quite a bit for what I want, Mr. Blakey," the white man said, no longer fidgeting or wagging his head. He was looking straight at me with eyes as blue as you please.
"No," I said, a little more certain.
"Maybe this is a bad time. Will you call me when you've had a chance to think about it? Maybe discuss it with your wife?" He handed me a small white business card as he spoke.
"No wife, no roommate, Mr. Bennet. I live alone and I like it like that."
"Sometimes," he said and then hesitated, "sometimes an opportunity can show up just at the right moment. Sometimes that opportunity might be looking you in the face and you don't quite recognize it."
It was almost as if he were threatening me. But he was mild and unassuming. Maybe it was a sales technique he was working out --- that's what I thought at the time.
"Can I call you later to see if you've changed your mind?" he asked.
"You can call all you want," I said, regretting the words as they came out of my mouth. "But I'm not renting anything to anybody."
"Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Blakey." The white man smiled and shook my hand just as if I had said yes to him. "That's my office number in Manhattan on the card. I'd give you my home phone, but I work more than anything else. I hope I'll be hearing from you. If not I will certainly call again."
Before I could say anything else, the little man turned away and walked down to a Volkswagen, the new Bug, parked at the curb. It was a turquoise car that reminded me of an iridescent seven-year beetle.
He made a U-turn and sped away.
Across the street Irene Littleneck was watching from her porch.
"Everything okay, Mr. Blakey?" she called.
"Just a salesman, Miss Littleneck."
"What's he sellin'?"
"I didn't even get to that," I lied. "You don't buy if you're unemployed."
Irene Littleneck, eighty years old and black as tar, flashed her eyes at me. All the way across the road those yellow eyes called me a liar. So I turned my back on them and went into the house.
Excerpted from The Man in My Basement © Copyright 2005 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.
The Man in My Basement
- paperback: 249 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 031615931X
- ISBN-13: 9780316159319