THE WOMAN IN THE BASEMENT
A woman set a coffee before me, and I thought of the first time that I saw a
Among quiet neighbors, we were the quietest. Father came home every day
at the same time, greeted my mother, settled on the couch, and slept;
occasionally he would sit in a chair. In either case he would sleep.
At six-thirty he would be called to dinner. After dinner he would
return to the couch. Mother would sit next to him. When he finished reading,
he would go to his room and sleep.
My father was the appreciative product of his own privileged life.
Born in Nebraska, he was Republican, affluent, and content.
As to his relationship with my mother, I heard not a single
argument between them. They were respectful and admiring.
Mother was sitting on the steps in the hall. In front of her was a box of letters.
She pointed to a room in the back. There in tandem on the bureau were his
belongings. This was the purpose of my return—to remove what I cared to
have. My father had died several years before, and Mother was moving.
But the objects in that room gave o¤ no trace of my father. He fit
so smoothly into the order of things, the circuitus spiritualis, that he had
passed on nothing that was not more perfectly expressed by something
nearby; if he had an emotion or thought that was individual to him, it lacked
the power of emanation.
I gathered the few things of his and my own that I had decided to
take back to New York. Needing a box, my wife, Sheila, and I went into the
After a few minutes, I found a small container and then retraced
Sheila asked me about a black portfolio that had been slipped
behind a cabinet. She pulled it out and laid it on the floor; the portfolio was
held together with black ribbons.
An arm, a leg, a torso, another arm, a torso, a head came out of
the portfolio. A naked black woman.
Sheets and sheets of a naked black woman, and below each the
initials of my father.
On the other side of the basement wall was a small room used to
develop black-and-white photographs. Scribbled on the wall of that room was
"They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in
the dark and weep for their sin, They do not make me sick discussing their
duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied. ..." Whitman.
Mother was preparing dinner. For as long as I could remember my family had
a cook. The ablest was Mary. But even the worst were capable of being
taught, and my mother did a very good job of that. They were different from
the meals I would get at our neighbors’.
Claire was one of our neighbors and I enjoyed visiting her. One
evening at Claire’s, we heard her brother, Ronald, singing “Surrey with the
Fringe on Top” from the musical Oklahoma! That was unusual because
Ronald had for years sat quietly in his room. I imagined that he was writing or
composing or juggling and that one day I would hear that he had won a prize.
Claire went straight to his room. She wanted to share in his
What she saw was a happy Ronald lying on his back rotating a
live chicken on his manliness, singing "Chicks and ducks and geese better
scurry when I take you out in the surrey. ..."
We made our way back to Claire’s room. Minutes later Ronald
passed the door.
He was upset.
Recounting her last minutes, he explained that in enjoying a
chicken the greatest pleasure comes when the chicken’s neck is broken,
causing a “death shiver” that Ronald found “impossible to duplicate”—
suggesting that Ronald had only settled on chickens after experimenting with
Several days later, I found myself back at Claire’s. It was the late
afternoon and Ronald’s mother had returned to the house with a friend who
was visiting Omaha from the East Coast. Claire’s mother invited me to join
the family for dinner.
When Claire and I came to the table, everyone was there but
Ronald. He was still in his room.
Claire’s mother brought out a delicious first course. Before we had
finished it, Ronald arrived. His mood was good.
Having cleared the table, Claire’s mother returned from the kitchen
with the tetrazzini. Then I saw it. Ronald’s face rippled. There was only one
conclusion: we were about to eat his lover.
As I reflected on this, the woman from the East Coast, who was
sitting to my left, placed a good-sized portion of tetrazzini on her plate.
Believing that one is obligated to warn one’s dinner companion that she is
about to consume a dish that has been inseminated by another guest at the
table, I leaned toward the lady from the East Coast and whispered, “The
chicken was murdered.”
There was no response.
With Ronald’s lover now inside her mouth, I bent down, pretending
to have dropped my napkin, and turning my head upwards from next to her
knee, whispered, “There’s semen in the chicken.”
That did it.
In retrospect it has occurred to me that I’d simply substituted an
obvious observation with an obvious and repulsive observation, and the
woman’s inability to finish her meal had less to do with the chicken than with
me. Ronald had succeeded in making me more revolting than Ronald himself.
I would like to say that Ronald was now in the musical theater,
but the truth is that I do not know what happened to Ronald.
We left Omaha on a Sunday. On the way to the airport, we passed the Civic
Auditorium. It is where I saw the woman (Miss Rietta) fly.
Reprinted with permission
from The Face of a Naked Lady
Copyright © 2005
by Michael Rips