Basement Uncle || Don J Rath


Credit: DuAll Services

Basement Uncle

by Don J Rath

Davey’s Uncle Bo arrived like an early summer thunderstorm — unexpected, loud, and at the worst possible time.

“Mom? There’s a man at the back door.”

His mother seemed as surprised as he was by Uncle Bo’s arrival that Saturday afternoon, a full day earlier than expected. She said she had planned to tell Davey about his uncle’s visit after dinner that night. She dried her hands on a dish towel like she always did when she was nervous and told him to wait in the family room. As he sat on the worn black leather Castro Convertible sofa, still sticky from the root beer he’d spilled on the cushion last week, Davey overheard Uncle Bo speak in a twangy sort of way, like country music. 

Uncle Bo was Davey’s late Grandpa Jeff’s son, his mother explained later, the word bastard unspoken but hovering over son like an unpleasant odor. Technically, Davey’s father’s half-brother. No one knew Uncle Bo even existed until the checks Davey’s dad had secretly sent all those years stopped after he passed away from a heart attack last September. 

“You can stay for two weeks,” his mother said. “That should be enough time to get settled, find a job, and get your own place.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Uncle Bo said. He paused. “Sooooo, is there any money for me?”

“There’s nothing,” she said. “All I can offer you is the cot in the basement and three meals a day.”

Davey’s new uncle wasn’t easy to smile at. He was no older than eighteen or nineteen, almost six feet tall and wispy thin. He had tousled blond hair and a smattering of reddish beard over his pale white face. His lips looked chapped like Davey’s sometimes did when he ran his tongue over them too much in the winter cold. The plaid pattern in his blue shirt did little to hide the food stains. His tan jeans had a frayed white tear just above his right knee. And man, his arms were so bony, covered with soft hair like a caterpillar. 

“Hey,” Uncle Bo said.


Uncle Bo picked the camo duffle off the floor, exposing his muddied work boots. The right lace was untied and hung loosely across the top of the shoe. “Guess I’ll go and get settled.”

“I’ll bring you a blanket and towels,” his mother said, and motioned toward the basement door. “The light switch is on the left.” Then she moved closer to him, her nose wrinkling, and pointed to the pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket. “And none of those in the house!”

Uncle Bo must have fallen asleep because he didn’t appear again until just before dinner time, his puffy eyes fixated on the stove like a starved animal on the hunt for food. 

“Jenna coming home?” Davey said as the three of them sat down to eat. His mother pushed the plate of baked chicken breasts toward Uncle Bo. 

“Guests first,” she said, then helped herself to the mixed greens. “She’ll eat at work.” 

Davey never heard her refer to his sister’s workplace by its name, as if his mother was ashamed that Jenna was a server at the Copper Kettle instead of a sophomore in college like the rest of her friends from high school. Though she never complained about the rent Jenna paid.

“Does she know about … him?” Davey asked.

His mother nodded. Davey was surprised he wasn’t reprimanded for his rudeness, referring to his uncle as if he weren’t at the same table.

“What grade of school are you in?” Uncle Bo asked.


Uncle Bo nodded. No more questions, like do you like your school, what’s your favorite subject, or is your homeroom teacher a fox.

Dinner went by quickly with no conversation. Davey cleared the plates, and Uncle Bo rose to his feet. “Sarah, let me help,” he said, reaching for his mother’s plate at the same time as Davey. The tug-of-war ended with the plate crashing onto the tile floor, shattering into seven pieces. Davey watched his mother breathing the way she did when she was fighting to suppress her temper.

“Sorry,” Uncle Bo said. “I was just —"

“It’s okay,” his mother said. “I’ve had these plates for twenty years. One was bound to break someday.”


The week went by pretty much as it did before Uncle Bo arrived. He never appeared for breakfast. The basement door was always shut from the night before. When Davey returned from school at 3:30, the door was still closed. His mother was usually home from her job at the printing company a couple of hours later and would start dinner as soon as she walked in the door. Uncle Bo appeared at exactly 6:30, rubbing his deep blue eyes like he had just woken up. If the meal wasn’t on the table already, he would lean his body against the wall next to the back door of the house, his sleeves rolled up, and his thumbs pressed inside the waistline of his jeans, saying nothing, just watching Davey’s mother at the stove. Then they would all sit down, just like the first night, mostly silent, unless his mother mentioned something that happened at work that day or an errand she needed to run over the weekend. 

Only on the nights Jenna was home for dinner did Uncle Bo talk much. She asked him many questions he probably didn’t want to answer but did anyway. No, he never met his father, their grandfather. Yeah, he had started at community college but dropped out when he decided to become a fireman but then couldn’t pass any of the tests. No, he had never lived anywhere but Ohio. Yeah, he had his own place before their father’s checks stopped coming and he was evicted.

“So, did you look for a job today?” his mother said, apparently uninterested in his hard luck stories.

Uncle Bo looked at her like she’d just accused him of something bad. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Not today.”

“Did you look at all this week?”

Uncle Bo shrugged. “I don’t have a car, so —“

“There’s a bus that goes downtown,” his mother said. “The stop is only a ten-minute walk from here. Like I told you the first day.”

“I’ll go tomorrow,” Uncle Bo said.

 “I really meant it when I said two weeks, you know.”

Uncle Bo looked down at his plate and rubbed his thighs with his bony hands. “I may need a bit more time, Sarah.”

“Well, I don’t have a bit more time, Bo. I can barely make ends meet as it is.”

“I can take him,” Jenna said. “On my way to work.”

“I’m sure he can make his own way,” his mother said, like Uncle Bo wasn’t there. Just like Davey had that first night. “He’s a grown man, isn’t he?”

“Mom,” Jenna said. But her mother ignored her plaintive expression. The table was silent again.

“We’ll clean up, Mom,” Jenna said. “You go rest.”

Davey’s mother got up from her chair and left the kitchen without saying anything. Davey watched his sister and uncle gather up the empty plates and silverware. He went into the living room to finish his homework. He could hear the two talking as they washed the cookware and loaded the dishwasher. His uncle’s voice still sounded like country music, only happier this time.


On Monday, Davey told his friend Neel about Uncle Bo as they finished lunch in the school cafeteria.

“A basement uncle,” Neel said.

“What’s that mean?”

“My mom had one,” Neel said. “Came from India to live with us. He sat around and smoked all day. We only saw him at dinnertime. Took a while for us to notice he died.”

The other two boys, Elmo and Gary, laughed. Davey kept quiet.

“Did he really live in the basement?” Gary said.

“Fool, of course not,” Neel said. “It’s just an expression. Who would really do that to an old man?”

“Sometimes they come from prison,” Elmo chimed in, as if he were an expert on the subject. “If they’re pervs, sometimes they let them live with a relative after they’re released from prison instead of going to a halfway house or getting their nuts cut off.”

“Didn’t the Addams Family have one, too?” Gary said. “Uncle Fester?”

“Was he a perv?” Neel said.

“Dunno,” Elmo said.

Davey didn’t know either. No one knew how Uncle Bo spent his time when they were out at work or school. Davey noticed his mother had started walking through the house when she got home, inspecting every room. At the dinner table, her brow looked a bit more furrowed than the night she asked Bo whether he had found a job yet. Davey wondered what would happen on Saturday when Uncle Bo’s two weeks were up. 

Jenna was working that Wednesday night, so again, it was just the three of them at dinner. Uncle Bo finished his meatloaf and mashed potatoes within five minutes of sitting down. His mother had barely touched her dinner, and Davey saw Uncle Bo’s blue eyes dancing toward her plate. His mother caught his gaze and wrinkled her brow more tightly than usual.

“I don’t suppose you’ve found work yet,” she said.

Bo looked down at his empty plate. “Not yet. I asked around after Jenna dropped me off yesterday and picked up a couple of applications.”

“You could have done that a week ago.”

“I know, but –”

“I was serious about the two weeks,” his mother said. “I need you out by the weekend.”

Uncle Bo wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand. Davey noticed a purple bruise just below his thumb. “Sarah, I need more time. Just a couple of weeks. Even if I score a job tomorrow, I still need to find a place to live.”

His mother put down her napkin. “This was supposed to be temporary because you had nowhere else to go. It isn’t my problem, you know.”

“I know that, Sarah. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not my fault that my dead husband’s father had a kid on the side with some –” She stopped herself. “Some woman,” she finally said.

“It’s not my fault either,” Bo said, his voice louder than usual.

Davey pressed the tines of his fork into the crust of the meatloaf. He wanted to leave the table but was afraid of what would happen if he did.

“Look, I have some cash I saved in case of an emergency. It’s all I got, but you can have it. Just let me –”

His mother stood up. “I don’t want your money. You can stay through the weekend. That’s it.” Then she left the table, dumping the rest of her dinner into the trash can at the side of the sink.

Davey sat and looked at his uncle, unsure of what to say.

“Guess I’ll be out of your hair soon, Davey,” Uncle Bo said, his face planted in his hands. 

“She was different when Dad was around,” Davey said. 

Bo nodded. He took his empty plate to the sink and rinsed it off. Then he retrieved a cigarette from his front pocket, tossing the empty red pack into the waste can. Through the kitchen window, Davey watched the warm red glow of his cigarette in the blackness, his uncle’s shadowy form barely visible, as if he had already started to disappear.


On Monday morning, Uncle Bo stood in the kitchen, dressed in the same shirt and jeans he wore the day he arrived, with his camo bag on the floor next to him. Jenna had offered to give him a ride into town. Davey’s mother stood by the sink, avoiding eye contact with her daughter. He had listened to the shouting late last night. His sister called their mother a heartless bitch, and his mother insisted she was no one’s fool. Ten minutes of silence passed before the next round woke him from the start of his sleep, the vitriol equally loud and bitter, the name-calling undoubtedly even nastier.

“What the hell is he to you?” his mother said.

“A human being, maybe. Unlike some people.”

His mother was already late for work but was adamant about staying home until she was sure Uncle Bo was out of the house. The three of them just stood there, not saying anything. It was already past the first-period bell, and Davey wondered if he should just walk to school.

“Let us know where you are once you’re settled,” his mother said.

Jenna glared at her. Bo didn’t respond. Davey knew she had only said it to be polite.

“Let’s go,” Jenna said to Bo, twirling the keys in her right hand.

Davey walked to the main office for a late pass after his mother dropped him off. He would avoid Neel today. He didn’t want any more questions about his basement uncle, because now he’d have to lie and make up a story. Like he found a job and got his own place, or he went to live with another relative. Or else tell something closer to the truth. He decided the wooden bench in the Greyhound depot was more comfortable than the musty cot in the basement. That’s him outside the 7-11, hustling money for food.

It was just Davey and his mother at dinner that evening. She seemed more relaxed, enjoying her baked chicken, occasionally smiling. They didn’t talk about Uncle Bo, as if they had agreed to pretend he was okay. They didn’t discuss her vicious fight with Jenna, as if they had agreed to pretend it would all blow over. And they didn’t mention Dad or Grandpa, as if they had decided to forget the dirty trick they’d played on them.


On Friday, Davey emerged from the lavatory stall, his face cold and sweaty, his stomach cramping from the bout of vomiting he had just endured. He wasn’t sure if it was something he had eaten or whether he was coming down with the same illness that had kept Elmo out of school for the last two days. He went to the nurse’s office and obtained the yellow permission slip to go home.

“My mom is picking me up out front,” he lied.

Davey walked the two miles home. His stomach was sour, but the cool air made the rest of him feel better. Maybe he’d feel well after a nap. As he turned the corner onto Baker Street, he saw his sister’s Civic in the driveway. He was surprised Jenna was already home. She usually worked the day shift at the Copper Kettle on Fridays so she could have the weekend free. Maybe she was sick, too, and left work early.

He tried to be quiet in case she was asleep. As he came through the back door, he heard a low humming noise coming from somewhere in the house. He walked from room to room, pausing momentarily at each entryway. Jenna’s bedroom door was open. He poked his head inside, but she wasn’t there. Davey walked back to the kitchen and heard a familiar sound as he passed by the basement door.

Like country music.

He opened the door and placed his foot on the top step. The humming noise became louder. It sounded like an electric fan. He moved slowly down the stairs, pausing on each step, trying to minimize the squeaking. Then, as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he looked around the corner. 

Uncle Bo was kneeling against the cot, his bare buttocks facing Davey, Jenna’s legs wrapped around his waist. Davey grabbed hold of a post, his stomach wrenching again. Then he stepped back, tripping over a cardboard box his mother had carried to the basement after Dad had died. His father’s magazines, five years of back issues of Road & Track, spilled onto the concrete floor. Bo turned around and stared at him, his tongue hanging out, his face grimacing and twisted. Then Davey saw his sister’s face peer out from behind him.

 “Oh, my God! she cried. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Davey froze for a moment, his eyes darting between his naked sister and the pictures of tricked-out red sports cars sprawled about his feet. 

“Get out!” Jenna screamed.

He ran up the stairs and slammed the door behind him, trying to catch his breath. He needed to leave the house. But he had nowhere he could go except maybe back to school. So he went into the family room and sat on the sticky couch, trying not to focus on what he had just witnessed.

A few minutes later, he heard Uncle Bo and Jenna emerge from the basement. 

“He’s going to tell her,” Jenna said. 

“Don’t worry about it,” Uncle Bo said. “I’ll take care of him.”

Take care of him? What the hell did he mean? Davey’s hands started to tremble.

His sister, now dressed, came into the family room, stomping her feet. “Goddam it, Davey! Why did you have to come home, huh?” Then she started to sob. “I fucking hate you!” She ran to her room, slamming the door behind her.

He had never seen Jenna that way. She had always been his protective big sister, defending his mistakes and deflecting their mother’s anger from him. And unlike his mother, Jenna actually talked to him. Sometimes it seemed she was the only one who understood him. Yet this stranger, this basement uncle, had turned her into a monster.

Davey walked back into the kitchen. Through the window, he saw Uncle Bo in the yard, the blue cigarette smoke blowing around him as he stared out toward the back fence. Davey wanted him gone. Now. He wanted to stand up to him just the way his mother had. He wanted to hurt him for what he had done to Jenna. 

I’ll take care of him.

Davey took one of the steak knives from the wooden block on the counter and tucked it inside his jacket. He walked outside into the yard.

Uncle Bo turned around, a sheepish grin on his face. He took a drag from his cigarette and tossed it on the ground, snuffing it out with the tip of his work boot.

“You have to leave,” Davey said, trying to sound like he was in charge. “You were supposed to be out on Monday.”

“Hate to break it to you, Davey, but I ain’t left yet.” He nodded toward the house. “She’s been sneaking me back in all week.” Then he smiled. Not the friendly Uncle Bo smile. A different kind of smile. 

“Guess your sister likes having me around,” he said.

Davey’s face reddened. He felt the handle of the knife brush against his ribs, but he couldn’t find the nerve to reach for it.

“C’mon, Davey. Grow up. It’s not like she’s my real niece.”

“Fuck you!” Davey shouted. 

“Hey, that ain’t no way to talk to your uncle, is it?”

Davey watched Uncle Bo walk back into the house. He stood outside, not sure what to do next. He could call his mother at work and tell her she needed to come home. Tell her what he’d seen him do to Jenna. Make Uncle Bo her problem. But what could she do about him, really? She could call the police and try to have him arrested. But for what? She had allowed him to stay in the house, hadn’t she? Even after she had asked him to leave, Jenna had let him stay. And it was as much her house as his mother’s, wasn’t it?

Or maybe he could call the police himself. Lie and tell them there was an intruder in the house. Tell them he’d raped his sister in the basement. Tell them he’d never seen him before, that he was no uncle of his. That his dead father never had a brother. But then Jenna would come to Uncle Bo’s rescue. She would tell them Davey was a liar, that he made the whole thing up.

 Suddenly the house didn’t feel like his home anymore.

Davey kicked the ground and watched the cloud of dirt rise in front of him. That was the problem with basement uncles, he guessed. First, they get you to feel sorry for them, and then they won’t leave. They just stay in the basement, almost invisible, but always present. What they do all day is their secret. You have no right to ask. 

It didn’t seem fair to him. 

Davey just needed to bide his time. It wouldn’t be so bad, really, having Uncle Bo around, as long as he kept his mouth shut at dinner, smoked his cigarettes outside, and stayed downstairs. He put his right hand in his pocket and pressed his index finger into the cold blade of the steak knife, just enough to feel its bite. It would only be for a while, more of a temporary inconvenience. Like his friend Neel’s basement uncle, people would barely notice when Uncle Bo was gone.

Don J. Rath holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.  A recently retired finance executive, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes short fiction and creative nonfiction, focusing on themes of identity, race, family, and LGBTQ+ experience.  His work has been published in Musepaper (New Millennium Writings), Hypnopomp, Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, Blood and Bourbon, Twelve Winters Journal, and the upcoming 42-Word Stories Anthology.

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