The Man in My Basement

A Novel


By Walter Mosley

Formats and Prices




$12.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 5, 2004. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This masterpiece by celebrated New York Times bestselling author Walter Mosley is the mysterious story of a young Black man who agrees to an unusual bargain to save the home that has belonged to his family for generations.

The man at Charles Blakey's door has a proposition almost too strange for words. The stranger offers him $50,000 in cash to spend the summer in Charles's basement, and Charles cannot even begin to guess why. The beautiful house has been in the Blakey family for generations, but Charles has just lost his job and is behind on his mortgage payments. The money would be welcome. But Charles Blakey is black and Anniston Bennet is white, and it is clear that the stranger wants more than a basement view.

There is something deeper and darker about his request, and Charles does not need any more trouble. But financial necessity leaves him no choice. Once Anniston Bennet is installed in his basement, Charles is cast into a role he never dreamed of. Anniston has some very particular requests for his landlord, and try as he might, Charles cannot avoid being lured into Bennet's strange world. At first he resists, but soon he is tempted — tempted to understand a set of codes that has always eluded him, tempted by the opportunity to understand the secret ways of white folks.

Charles's summer with a man in his basement turns into an exploration of inconceivable worlds of power and manipulation, and unimagined realms of humanity. Walter Mosley pierces long-hidden veins of justice and morality with startling insight into the deepest mysteries of human nature.
The man at Charles Blakey's door has a proposition almost too strange for words. The stranger offers him $50,000 in cash to spend the summer in Charles's basement, and Charles cannot even begin to guess why. The beautiful house has been in the Blakey family for generations, but Charles has just lost his job and is behind on his mortgage payments. The money would be welcome. But Charles Blakey is black and Anniston Bennet is white, and it is clear that the stranger wants more than a basement view.

There is something deeper and darker about his request, and Charles does not need any more trouble. But financial necessity leaves him no choice. Once Anniston Bennet is installed in his basement, Charles is cast into a role he never dreamed of. Anniston has some very particular requests for his landlord, and try as he might, Charles cannot avoid being lured into Bennet's strange world. At first he resists, but soon he is tempted — tempted to understand a set of codes that has always eluded him, tempted by the opportunity to understand the secret ways of white folks.

Charles's summer with a man in his basement turns into an exploration of inconceivable worlds of power and manipulation, and unimagined realms of humanity. Walter Mosley pierces long-hidden veins of justice and morality with startling insight into the deepest mysteries of human nature.


Fiction by Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress

A Red Death

White Butterfly

Black Betty

RL's Dream

A Little Yellow Dog

Gone Fishin'

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

Blue Light

Walkin' the Dog

Fearless Jones


Bad Boy Brawly Brown

Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Stories

Fear Itself


"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.

"Say what?"

"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.


"So you gonna call 'im?" Clarance Mayhew asked me.


"Why not?" asked Ricky, who was no bigger than one of Clarance's fat legs.

"I don't have an apartment down there, man. I mean there's junk been down there since my mother's mother's mother was a child."

"You could clean it out," Clarance said. His face was chubby and pear shaped. Underneath his chin was a crop of curly hair about an inch thick. Hair wouldn't grow on his cheeks. That's why the tan-colored man always looked about ten years under his actual age. "I mean you ain't got no job so you ain't got no money. You could clean up down there and make yourself somethin' to pay that damn mortgage you took out."

"You want a drink?" I replied.

"Hey." That was Ricky's way of saying yes. He was darker than his cousin but not nearly my color. When my uncle Brent used to see us coming, he'd say, "If it ain't the three shit-colored patches on a tatty brown quilt."

I pulled a bottle of Seagram's from beside the wood chest where we played cards. I took a drink from the bottle and then passed it to Ricky. We never used glasses unless Leonard Butts or Timmy Lee came over to play with us. Clarance, Ricky, and I had drunk from the same bottle since we were babies in the crib.

We were playing blackjack for pennies and I was up $1.25. That meant I had $15.76 left to my name. One more bottle of whiskey and I'd be flat out of money.

"Lemme see some cards," Clarance hissed off the back end of a deep draught of whiskey.

He threw down his three—a heart queen, a deuce, and a trey. Ricky slapped his cards facedown and took the bottle back. I showed two spades, a ten, and an ace.

"Shit," said Clarance. "You got all the luck tonight."

I raked in thirty-seven pennies, thinking about luck and waiting for the bottle.

My aunt Peaches would lend me the money to cover the monthly mortgage payment to the bank. I'd borrowed on the house and Peaches wouldn't let the property slip out of family hands. But if I had to go to her, she'd give me all kinds of grief about how I should get a job and how disappointed my father would have been to see me falling apart like I was.

I took another draught from the bottle. It felt nice. Good whiskey smoothes out after the third sip. Clears the fuzz from behind your eyeballs and relaxes the spine. I've always liked to drink. So did Clarance and Ricky, who we sometimes called Cat.

"Wilson Ryder needs a man to help on those new houses he's putting up," Ricky said.

"Yeah?" I took another drink and realized that I was hoarding the liquor, so I passed it on to Clarance.

"Yeah," Ricky said. "He'll be down there tomorrow. You should go ask 'im."

"Yeah, maybe I will. Maybe so."

"Maybe?" Clarance was shuffling the cards over and over again, the way he always did when he was getting high. "Maybe? Man, what you thinkin'? Like you some kinda prince don't have to work? They will take this house from you, Charles. You gonna end up like old man Bradford—sleepin' in somebody's garage, eatin' day-old bread, and drinkin' brand X."

"Clara, baby," I said, doing my impersonation of a halfhearted lounge lizard. "What's all this tough love, darlin'?"

Clarance had height to carry all that weight. He stood straight up and grabbed for me, but I pushed my chair back and scrambled out of his reach.

"Goddammit, asshole!" he shouted. "I told you not to call me that!"

"But, baby," I pleaded with my hands clasped as if in prayer. "Clara, you tellin' me I ain't worthy."

I knew calling his name in the feminine for the second time would end the card game. We used to tease Clarance in grade school by calling him Clarabell and then just Clara. He stood there shaking, looking as mean as he could manage.

I laughed. And for a moment there was a chance that we would fight. Not much of a chance, because Clarance knew he couldn't take me. But we were both just high enough to act like fools.

Ricky put the bottle down and picked up his sweater. When he stood, that was the signal for Clarance to turn around and leave. Ricky shook his head at me and followed his cousin out the front door.

They'd left their piles of change on the table where we played.

Clarance and I had had these fights for more than twenty-five years. I could still get to him. I regretted it every time. But all Clarance had to do was be himself and he made me mad. He'd always done better than I had. He held a good job as the daytime dispatcher for a colored cab company. He was married, but he still had more girlfriends than I did. He read the newspaper every day and was always referring to events in the world to prove a point when we were discussing politics or current affairs. Even though I had made it through three years of college, Clarance always seemed to know more.

For a while there I had a subscription to the New York Times just so I could compete. But I never actually read the paper. Sometimes I'd try to do the crossword puzzle, but that just made me feel stupid. Finally, after losing my job at the bank, I let the subscription go.

I did some things better than Clarance. I was good at sports. But he wouldn't compete with me there. He said I was better than him but I couldn't get a scholarship or anything. And he was right. Like my uncle Brent was always happy to say, "He could win the race, but he cain't beat the clock."

So I tortured Clarance now and then, angry at him for proving my inadequacies.

There were certain benefits to an early evening. The first thing was that there was more than half the fifth of whisky left over. I loved to drink. Loved it. But I didn't abuse alcohol. I never drank before the sun went down and never drove while under the influence. Every once in a while I'd make Ricky and Clarance sleep over when they got too tipsy on a Thursday night.

You'd think I'd want to spend the evening with my friends. As it was I spent almost every night alone, listening to the radio or reading science fiction. I never got into the TV habit. I'd watch the news now and then, but that was mainly to keep up with Clarance. Most nights I spent alone, except when I had a girlfriend. But the last girlfriend I had was Laura Wright. That had ended some months before.

It was mostly just me in the big house. The rooms were large, with big bay windows everywhere. When I was alone I'd wander around in my underwear, talking to myself or reading about outer space. Those were the best moments I had. With the evening spread out in front of me, maybe with some music playing and a few shots of bourbon, I had all the time I needed to think.

I couldn't think when I was around people. In company I was always talking, always telling a joke or laughing at one. My uncle Brent used to say that my mouth was my biggest problem. "Boy," he'd say while sitting in the reclining chair in the den, "if you could just learn to be quiet for a minute, you might hear something worthwhile."

My mother said that I was supposed to love Uncle Brent, but he was hard on children. Brent came to live with us after he had what my mother called a case of nerves. There wasn't much wrong with him that I could see, but after his attack he came to live in our house. He kept the garden in the spring and summer and sat in the old chair in what used to be my father's library. But my father was dead by then and Uncle Brent called the library his den.

Brent loved to tell me what was wrong with me. I talked too much, I didn't study enough, I didn't respect authority, and I was way too dark for the genteel colored community of Forest Cove. That was down in South Carolina, where Brent was born. Brent himself was a deep-brown color, with thick lips that were always turned down as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. The only hint he gave of being sick was that it took him a long time to get out of his chair.

So when my mother was out and he'd let loose with one of his insults, I'd say, "Fuck you, old man," and walk slowly away while he struggled to get up and after me. Once outside I'd tear through the backyard and into the family graveyard. From there I'd make it into the ancient stand of sixty-two oaks that my great-great-grandfather Willam P. Dodd planted.

That night in my house, wandering completely naked through the half-dark rooms, I thought about how much fun it was to torture my mean old uncle. When I'd escaped into the dark-green shadows of those gnarly old trees, I'd get the giggles from excitement. Sometimes Brent would stand out on the back porch and yell for me, but he didn't dare to wander off from the house.

He never told my mother about my curses though. I think it was because he was ashamed at not being able to control a child.

The night after the day I met Mr. Anniston Bennet was the first time I'd ever missed Uncle Brent. It had been more than a decade, and I just then marked his passing.


I still sleep in my childhood room—in the same bed. The window faces east and the sun streams through every morning, my natural alarm. That Friday I woke up with a headache and a hard-on. I'd been dreaming about Laura, about how she was so excited when I'd carry her up the stairs.

I had to go to the toilet, but I was dizzy. I wanted to jerk off, but my head hurt too much for that. I made myself get up and walk down the second-floor hall to the toilet. It was difficult keeping it in the bowl because the erection was persistent. Even when I finished, it stayed hard.

I went back to bed with the intention of masturbating, but my headache just got worse, and the thought of Laura, as exciting as it was, also made me nauseous.

Finally I got dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. I wanted coffee, but the percolator was dirty and the sink was full of greasy dishes. There were also dirty dishes piled on the table and sink. I looked at the mess for a while and decided that it was too much for me to do before I had my morning coffee. And so I got my Dodge from the garage and drove down to the Corners for coffee and crumb cake at Hannah and Company.

"Morning, Mr. Blakey," Tina Gramble said. She was Hannah's niece, a blond girl with tan skin. She was from a local family and therefore accepted me as part of the community. Being a Negro, I was different. We would never be real friends. But neither of us really wanted that, nor did we feel left out of something. And so it was pleasant when we did cross paths. Good morning meant just that.

"Hey, Tina. Could I get some coffee and cake?"

"You look like you could use it," she said, managing to smile and look concerned at the same time.

"Thursday night is blackjack night at my house."

"Hope you won."


After my coffee I drove down to the old highway, a graded dirt road that led to Canyon's Field. It was the shortcut that would take me most of the way to Wilson Ryder's construction site. The Ryder family had lived in the Harbor for more than 150 years, a long time but not nearly as long as my folks had been around. But you couldn't tell them that. Wilson liked to tell people that his family helped to settle the east end of the island.

Both sides of my family had lived in that area as early as 1742. The Blakeys were indentured servants who earned their freedom. The Dodds were free from the beginning. It was even hinted that they, the Dodds, came straight from Africa at the beginning of the eighteenth century. My parents were both very proud that their ancestors were never slaves. The only time I had ever seen my father get angry was when Clarance's father once asked him, "How can you be sure that one'a them Blakeys you so proud of wasn't a slave at one time or other?"

It was a lovely ride. The woods were deep and green down that way. There were three or four ponds in walking distance from the side of the road. I decided that I'd go fishing after asking Wilson for a job. I planned to tell him that I could begin working that next Monday. That way I could have a long weekend before going back to a job.

A group of eight or nine deer was crossing the road a ways up from me. I came to a stop and so did they. The big female looked at me with hard eyes, trying to glean my intentions. A sigh escaped my throat. I loved to watch deer watching me. They were so timid and ignorant of everything but the possible threat. People think that they're cowardly, but I've been charged by a male or two. I respected them, because with no defense except for their quick feet, they lived out in the wild with no law or protection.

I once saw a group of fifteen or more of them swimming out to Shelter Island. Their heads just above the water, they looked frightened and desperate out there. Cowards don't face terror. Cowards live on back roads, behind closed doors, with the TVs blasting out anything to keep the silence and the darkness from intruding.

The deer's caution made them move slower than they would have without my presence. I enjoyed the show. When the final white tail bobbed off into the wood, I was thoroughly satisfied.

My uncle Brent had been a hunter before he got sick. He killed hundreds of deer down in South Carolina, where he'd lived with his third wife.

"Hunt for the weekend hunters," he'd tell me in one of his few friendly moods. "Kill six bucks and make two forty."

When I was a child I imagined that the deer used to surround our house in the evening, hoping that Brent would come outside for a walk. Then they could stomp him to death for the crimes he'd committed against their race.

"Chuck," Wilson Ryder said. The tone of his voice mimicked surprise, but it was also leveled at me offensively.

"Mr. Ryder," I said in greeting. I hated the name Chuck. And he knew it because I had asked him not to call me by that name eighteen years before when I had my first summer job working for his family's construction company.

Wilson Ryder was an older white man with yellowish white hair and a big gut. His family had been in construction for three generations. Young men in my family had worked for his family almost the whole time. He had gray eyes, and fingers covered with yellow-and-black calluses from hard work and cigarettes.

We were standing in a wide circle of yellow soil that had been cleared out of a scrub-pine stand. The trees stood in an angry arc three hundred yards from the center of the circle. There were the beginnings of excavation here and there. Enough to give you the idea of the cul-de-sac of mansions that the Ryder family intended to build. They would level the whole island and sell it off stone by stone if they could.

"What can I do for you?" Ryder asked me.

"I'd like a job, Mr. Ryder."

His gray eyes squinted a hundredth of an inch, maybe less, but it was enough to say that he wasn't going to hire me. Even more than that, the pained wince said that he wouldn't hire me, not because there was no job but because there was something wrong somewhere—something wrong with me.

"You would?" He smiled. There was a yellowy tint to Ryder's teeth too. All that yellow made me feel a little nauseous.

"Yes, sir," I said, hating myself for it.

The squint again. This time a little more pronounced.

There were men working on one of the excavations behind the builder, to his right. One man had stopped digging and was looking at me. He was black, I could tell that, but I couldn't make out his features in the distance.

"You worked at that bank, didn't you, Chuck?"

"Charles," I said. "My name is Charles. And yeah, I worked at Harbor Savings."

"Why'd you leave there?"

"Let me go. I don't know. Downsizing, I guess."

Ryder's eyes were very expressive. He was the man in charge and not used to lying. I could see that he was wondering if I believed my own words. That, of course, made me question myself.

"No jobs," he said with a one-shoulder shrug.

I could tell that Ryder wanted me to disappear, just as I had felt about the white man at my door the day before. But I wasn't going to go away that easily. My family had given Wilson's grandfather one of his first jobs. My grand-mother delivered Wilson's brother and sister. He couldn't whisper two words and expect me to go away just like that.

"Well?" he said.

"I thought you had just started hiring."

"It's hard times, Charlie," he said. "You got to get there first if you want to work nowadays."

"But somebody told me last night that you'd still be hiring today."

"Well," Ryder began. He was ready to carry his lie further. But then he looked at me, really I think he was looking at himself, wondering why the hell he was going through all those changes over some unemployed local Negro.

"You used to work for that bank, didn't ya?" he asked.


"Why aren't you there anymore?"

"I don't know. They just let me go."

"Well let's just say that I'm lettin' you go too."

It didn't make any sense. How could he let me go if I didn't even work for him? I almost said something about it, but I knew that I'd just sound stupid.

Wilson gave me a crooked little smile and friendly nod. Can't win 'em all—that's what the gesture meant.

I cursed him all the way down the road to the town of Sag Harbor.

I grabbed a clam roll and a beer at the stand down by the pier, using the last of my paper dollars to pay for the meal. From then on I'd have to pay for whatever I bought in change. I could already hear the teenage cashiers snickering behind my back.

If suicide meant just giving up, I would have dropped dead at that moment. With no job, no money, and no chance for a job, I was as close to penniless as a man can get.

"Negro so poor," my uncle Brent used to say of his less-fortunate brothers, "that he'd sell his shadow just to stand in your shade."

The weather was pleasant. I went to the end of the pier and looked down at the tiny fishes coming up to get warm in the weak sunlight. Two small jellyfish were waving in the current. I sat on the edge of the big concrete dock and stared down at the water. That was 10:45. At 12:15 I was still there. From the time I was a child, I'd have moments like that. In class if I saw something interesting, usually something natural, I could stare the whole period long. I never thought anything at these times. I just stared at the spiderweb or the furious bird making her nest. One time I watched an ant search the entire third-grade floor for nearly an hour. She finally ended up under Mrs. Harkness's shoe. I was so shocked by the sudden death that I broke down crying and was sent to the nurse.


  • "Will hold readers rapt; it is Mosley's most philosophical novel to date."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A provocative, page-turning story that constitutes nothing less than a masterpiece."—Bookmarks Magazine
  • "This is fine, provocative writing from the prolific Mosley, whose gifts extend well beyond his excellent mysteries."—Booklist

On Sale
Jan 5, 2004
Page Count
256 pages

Walter Mosley

About the Author

WALTER MOSLEY is one of America’s most celebrated writers. He was given the 2020 National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and honored with the Anisfield-Wolf Award, a Grammy, a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award, the Robert Kirsch Award, numerous Edgars and several NAACP Image Awards. His work is translated into 25 languages.  He has published fiction and nonfiction in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Nation. As an executive producer, he adapted his novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, for AppleTV+ and serves as a writer and executive producer for FX’s “Snowfall.”

Learn more about this author