The next day was Mother’s Day, and I got the rare treat of breakfast in bed. Everyone piled around me and handed me presents while I ate pancakes and sausage patties. Dylan gave me a painted macaroni necklace he’d made at school. Katie Nicole handed me a small clay bowl, shaped like a butterfly, that she’d made for her “favorite mom in the whole wide world.” Bill presented me with a slim velvet box. Inside was a delicate platinum charm bracelet, complete with all of our birthstones encircling it.
“Thank you. It’s beautiful,” I said. I hugged a kid tightly to each of my sides as I kissed Bill on the lips.
They took the tray and left me to a relaxing day of leisure. Some time later I called my own mother, and we watched the ending of ‘Terms of Endearment’ together, though we were miles apart. As we shared a good cry, I marveled over the wonders of cable TV. I took a nap in the afternoon, and didn’t bother showering until right before dinner.
The phone rang just as we’d finished eating.. Bill was closest and as he listened a puzzled look clouded his handsome face. He hung up the phone mere minutes after saying “Hello,” without ever uttering another word.
“Bethany needs to borrow you,” he said with a frown, using air quotes around the word “borrow.”
He had nothing new to add after further questioning, so I called a farewell to the living room before heading out the door. Dylan didn’t look away from the TV, and Katie Nicole was absorbed in a virtual reality game on the computer. Frank snorted and chased squirrels in his sleep. I doubted any of them even heard me leave.
I was greeted by such a strange sight in Bethany’s living room that my steps momentarily faltered. Bethany and Heather sat together on the couch, looking like Barbie bookends. Heather was Ice Barbie: tall with long legs, big boobs, narrow waist, long blond hair, and wide teal eyes. Bethany was a smaller, darker, more exotic version; perhaps Spice Barbie. The only thing they had in common were the identical looks of discomfort on their faces, caused by the close proximity of the other. Bethany tried to cover her unease with a benign smile, but Heather openly sneered around the room.
Between the two of them sat Ruth, who peered over her bifocals with undisguised curiosity at our most notorious neighbor. Ruth would never be compared to a Barbie, and she sat in stark plainness beside the other two women. She was like the dog-eared paperback sandwiched between the beautiful bookends.
Mrs. Matilda had her considerable bulk squeezed into an ill-fitting lilac caftan, and had parked herself in a dainty, gnarled hickory rocker. Her cane was snugly held upright between her gargantuan thighs. The chair groaned in protest as she rocked, and I hoped it wouldn’t collapse from the tremendous amount of stress being inflicted upon it.
Every time I saw Mrs. Matilda up close, I was struck by her resemblance to a character I’d created about the old lady who lived in a shoe. I’d only been living on Rain Lane for about a year when I’d begun the rough sketches, and I’d modeled the “old woman” after the mother from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. It wasn’t until the book went to print that I noticed the striking resemblance between the “old woman” and Mrs. Matilda. Ever since then, whenever I looked at Mrs. Matilda I saw a caricature superimposed over her image.
Ms. Gertrude was seated on an oversized ottoman, looking like a plump barn owl squatting on its roost. She wore a loud pantsuit in a Pepto-Bismol color, which happened to be only a few shades darker than her hair. Her glasses hung from a multi-colored strand of beads around her neck, and got lost somewhere in her bosom.
There was only one unoccupied seat in the room: an uncomfortable, yet beautifully elegant, throne-like armchair. Bethany graciously gestured for me to sit in it. I noticed a brightly colored folder on her lap and several sheets of paper were spread across the coffee table.
I had the wary sense of being ambushed, and my first instinct was to flee. Instead, I forced myself to perch stiffly on the edge of the useless chair. I met each woman’s unwavering gaze briefly, but was unable to read anything behind their artificial smiles.
Bethany cleared her throat. “We brought you here to inform you of your nomination as president of Misty Meadows’ Neighborhood Watch.”
I stared at Bethany’s beguiling smile, waiting for a punch line that never came. “I didn’t even know the Misty Meadows neighborhood had a Crime Watch program.”
“It doesn’t,” Bethany said.
“Yet,” Ms. Gertrude added.
“You nominated me as president of something that doesn’t even exist?” I asked. I could see Ms. Gertrude doing something like that, but not the rest of them; especially not Bethany.
“Doesn’t exist yet,” Ms. Gertrude amended.
“Ms. Gertie, please,” Bethany admonished, sounding annoyed by Ms. Gertrude’s inane interruptions.
“Yes, Ms. Gertie, hush please,” Mrs. Matilda mimicked with a snicker.
“You’re not helping, Mrs. Mattie,” Bethany scolded.
“It’s Mrs. Matilda,” she enunciated clearly. “You’re not too big to turn over my knee, young lady.” Mrs. Matilda shook her cane at Bethany.
“Sorry,” Bethany soothed, but didn’t sound worried by the prospect of getting a spanking by the stout older woman.
“I rather like it,” Ms. Gertrude announced. “I want y’all to call me Ms. Gertie from now on.”
“I certainly shall not,” Mrs. Matilda vowed.
The two women bickered amongst themselves until Ms. Gertie threatened to chisel “Mattie” on Mrs. Matilda’s headstone after she shuffled off this mortal world.
“Can we please get back to why we’re here?” Heather tapped a long crimson nail on the face of her diamond-encrusted watch.
“I agree,” Bethany said. “We need a Neighborhood Watch program-“
“And Bethany told us how you helped solve her dog doo problem,” Mrs. Matilda interjected.
“Well done,” Ruth complimented with a broad smile stretching across her narrow face.
“You fixed it up so good she managed to finally snag herself a man,” Ms Gertie said.
Bethany shot the older woman such a withering look that they all quieted down immediately. “I went door to door and got two hundred signatures to elect you as the official president of Misty Meadows’ Neighborhood Watch.” Bethany held up a rumpled paper, cramped with scrawled names.
“You did what?” I asked. I honestly didn’t think that many of neighbors even knew my name. “Why me?”
“Why not you, dear?” Ruth countered as her glasses slid down her beakish nose. I could always count on Ruth to be my champion.
Mrs. Matilda explained how the entire neighborhood had always wanted to organize a crime watch, but no one wanted the responsibilities and potential hassles of being the president of one.
“However, everyone was willing to pay an annual due to a president,” Bethany said as she handed me a check.
“Lazy people were more than willing to chip in a measly twenty-five dollars a year,” Ruth said, pursing her thin lips into a furrow of disdain.
“Cheap skates,” Ms. Gertie muttered.
“How did all this come about?” I asked.
“Well, I got to talking to Bethany at the grocery store after she got back,” Ms. Gertie began.
“And I mentioned how you solved my dog doo problem,” Bethany said.
“Then I told her if we had a Neighborhood Watch the poop problem would never have happened in the first place,” Mrs. Matilda stated.
“And one thing led to another . . .” Bethany trailed off with a shrug.
I looked at her strangely. “But why me?”
“Are you kidding?” Bethany seemed genuinely stumped. “You’re perfect.” She began ticking off reasons with her fingers. “You’re young. Everyone likes you and feels comfortable talking to you. You have an atypical job that allows you to be home most days. Plus you’re curious, inquisitive, and tenacious. All-in-all: you’re perfect.”
“We thought for sure you were on to us,” Ms. Gertie said, and I responded by giving her a blank look. “You were walking Frank earlier this week and we were certain you overheard us talking.”
I vaguely recalled the incident she was referring to. I had taken a break from painting to take Frank for a long overdue walk, and I’d come up behind Bethany, Ms. Gertie, and Mrs. Matilda. They’d been standing in front of Mrs. Matilda’s house, and Ms. Gertie had elbowed Bethany into silence when she saw me approaching. The three women had turned guilty eyes to me and smiled. Their strange behavior and my own desire to return to my painting had caused me to barely nod at them. As soon as I picked up my paintbrush I had promptly forgotten the whole incident.
Mrs. Matilda thumped the rubber tip of her cane on the floor. “I had my hotshot lawyer grandson write up a contract for you,” she proudly declared.
“Hmm,” I murmured, stalling for time as Bethany passed the legal document to me. I looked at the contract in my left hand and the check for five thousand dollars in my right. “Hmmm . . .”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” Bethany said. “We kind of put you on the spot.”
“But don’t dilly-dally too long,” Ms. Gertie pleaded.
“And don’t cash the check until you’ve signed the contract,” Mrs. Matilda snapped.
“That goes without saying, Mrs. Matilda,” Bethany said and rolled her eyes at me.
“What would the job of president entail?” I asked.
“Oh, just solving neighborhood problems as they arise,” Bethany answered obliquely.
Heather finally spoke up. “Like you solved Bethany’s problem.” Her snide voice dripped with sarcasm.
“It’s all in the contract.” Mrs. Matilda pointed at it impatiently, her finger almost as gnarled as the rocking chair she sat in.
It was the shortest, simplest contract I’d ever seen in my life; even Dylan’s soccer forms contained more legal jargon. Therefore, it only took me a few minutes to read it.
It simply stated: 1) All Neighborhood Watch members (refer to list of signatures) would direct all problems to the president, who would then try her very best to solve them in a timely manner. 2) Residents going out of town who wanted their house to be monitored during their absence needed to notify the president in writing at least two weeks in advance. 3) Any vandalism, damage to community property, or nocturnal disturbances would be reported to the president to deal with. And 4) Certain anonymous members had “delicate situations” they needed the president’s assistance with. These delicate situations required the utmost discretion and were considered above and beyond the call of duty. Hence, the president would be additionally compensated upon the resolution of said delicate situations. A final addendum had been added, reading almost like a P.S.: Annual membership dues were to be used for the community at the president’s discretion, with any money left over at the end of each year to be considered the president’s compensation.
I dropped the contract in my lap and stared at the women surrounding me. I was met with identical looks of expectancy in their various colored eyes: Bethany’s like onyx, Heather’s deep as the sea, Ruth’s like coffee beans, Mrs. Gertie’s twinkling lapis, and Mrs. Matilda’ indeterminate color as they peeked out of her bloated face behind the glare of her dark framed glasses. I was at a loss for words, and secretly flattered beyond measure.
“What’s with the delicate situation stuff?” I asked.
All eyes turned to Bethany, and Bethany turned her doe-like eyes to me. She silently handed me the folder on her lap.
“Open it once you leave,” she said before releasing it in my grasp. She went on to explain how several Neighborhood Watch members had problems of such a delicate nature they wished to remain anonymous to everyone but the president. Four such members had written letters for the president’s eyes only, pleading for her help.
“We realize you might not be able to help everyone,” Mrs. Matilda said.
“Or none of us.” Ms. Gertie inadvertently let it slip by her comment that the four troubled neighbors were all sitting in Bethany’s living room.
“But everyone’s willing to take their chances, dear,” Ruth hastened to add.
“You’ll get paid,” Heather said, trying to sweeten the pot.
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” Bethany urged.
I surprised even myself by saying, “Okay, as long as Bill is on board.”
I closed my eyes for a second before signing the legally binding contract. I realized Bethany was right: I didn’t have anything to lose. Besides, the whole idea was too intriguing for me to pass up.
Bethany, ever the gracious hostess, popped the cork off a chilled bottle of champagne to toast my new role in the community. Everyone raised their glasses except Heather, who tapped the face of her Cartier watch again, and escaped into the still night. She left in her wake the lingering smell of jasmine and her untouched flute of bubbly.
Everyone relaxed after Heather left, and relaxed even more after the first glasses of champagne were downed. The older women began to gossip about our neighbors, and I was preparing to leave when Mrs. Matilda said something to give me pause.
“I got my hair done at the Clip ’n Snip the other day, and I saw Tootsie there. Her house got robbed last Sunday morning.”
“No!” Ruth exclaimed.
Ms. Gertie was nodding her head excitedly, and I knew she had already heard the news. However, I hadn’t heard about it since I didn’t get my hair done at an old lady salon like the Clip ’n Snip. I tuned out Mrs. Matilda’s recital of the robbery because I knew Tootsie wasn’t the most reliable source. I immediately figured the burglar was probably her teen-aged grandson, who came to visit her once a month or so. The previous Fourth of July I had caught him tying firecrackers onto a stray cat’s tail, and my children were no longer allowed to play with him. I even gave him a wide berth because his intense black eyes gave me the willies. I nodded to myself: he had to be the robber. He knew Tootsie attended church every Sunday morning, and he knew where she kept her spare house key hidden inside a fake rock.
“I think it’s funny,” Mrs. Matilda was saying.
“What’s that?” Ruth asked politely.
“The robbery happened right after the new family with teen-agers moved in. The new African American family.” She cut her eyes to me. “There’s something off about them.”
“Oh, brother,” I mumbled before making my hasty farewells and heading for home.
I updated Bill as soon as I got home, and he didn’t seem nearly as shocked by my presidential nomination as I had been. He listened attentively with a look of indulgent pride on his face until I was finished speaking. Then he hugged me and pointed out that I finally had something to get me out of the house; a periodic complaint of mine over the years as a stay-a-home mom.
The kids wandered into the room then, and I had to repeat everything to them. They were flabbergasted and had numerous questions for me. Especially Dylan, who wanted to know if I would start carrying a badge and gun, have Secret Service agents at my disposal, or patrol the neighborhood in a special squad car. Katie Nicole was much more pragmatic and only wanted to know how my new position would affect her. It was their bedtimes when I’d finished answering their onslaught of questions.
I was mentally exhausted from the events of the day, so Bill and I turned in shortly after the kids. I brought the four mysterious letters to bed with me and read them as Bill lay snoring beside me.
The first letter I opened was written on floral stationary, and I recognized Ruth’s handwriting immediately.
“My Dearest Cami Jo:
You know better than anyone how I think the world of my Bert --- why, nearly fifty years of marriage proves that! However, since he’s retired he has become quite a nuisance to me. He fixes things in my kitchen that aren’t broken. He leaves his toenail clippings on the bathroom counter. He constantly watches cartoons on TV. He has no hobbies, no friends, no direction, and he’s always underfoot! I’ve suggested various hobbies or games, but he only scoffs at me.
Bert needs an activity that he enjoys, and more importantly: gets him out of the house on a semi-daily basis. He enjoys sitting, reading the funny pages in the Sunday paper, and eating candy. The man has a sweet tooth a mile long!
If you can somehow accomplish this perplexing task I will pay you $500.
Ruth Ann Roberts”
The second letter was written in a spidery hand on a sheet of lined paper. An official police report and a list of (mostly) antique jewelry were stapled to it.
I shall be blunt: Over the past two weeks things have been disappearing around my house. And I know I’m not just misplacing them. I believe my house is infested by a poltergeist. Often, late at night, I hear floorboards creak and feel like I’m not alone. I’ve filed a police report on the missing pieces and have attached a copy, along with the missing items.
I assure you that my mental facilities are intact, but Officer Jackson’s laughter at my poltergeist theory has prompted me to seek help elsewhere.
Your fee for retrieving my lost property is the same reward I would offer anyone: $1,000.
Mrs. Matilda Montgomery
P.S. I trust you’ll keep this to yourself, young lady!”
The next letter I opened was sealed in a business envelope and typed on crisp white bond paper.
“Dear Mrs. Smith:
My daughter Tiffani has been dating a boy named Chavez for the past six months. I do not approve of their relationship for a variety of legitimate reasons. I’ve tried everything to break them up, but have failed miserably. I’m now at my wits end.
I’m willing to pay you the same fee I used to pay our family therapist. Please contact me to set up an appointment to discuss further details.
The last letter was rumpled, with the heading “From Gertrude’s Desk” emblazoned across the top. On the back, written upside down, was a grocery list with a tiny check mark next to each item. I snorted when I saw Depends halfway down the list.
“Dear Cami Jo:
My problem is simple, yet complex. I’ve known Matilda Montgomery my whole life and I love her like a sister. But, like a sister, she annoys me to no end. I’m fed up with her buzzing in my ear like a gnat day and night! I don’t like her popping in unannounced all the livelong day. I don’t enjoy her telephone calls in the middle of the night. I don’t want her hanging over my fence every two minutes, sometimes even chatting to me through my open kitchen window!
The last thing I want to do is hurt her feelings. Perhaps you can understand my dilemma: I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.
Keeping my friendship with Matilda intact is priceless to me. However, I’ll try to put a price on it by making the opening bid of $50,000.
Best of Luck!
I dropped the last letter onto my lap and stared at the ceiling as I thought about everything I’d just read. I assumed Ms. Gertie’s offer of fifty grand was a type-o. Ruth’s problem with Bert seemed like it could be a simple fix with a little creative thinking. However, I was at a loss over the other two letters.
I didn’t know if I believed in poltergeists or not, but I did know that I had no desire to encounter one. It sounded to me like Mrs. Matilda needed the help of an exorcist, not the Neighborhood Watch president.
As for teen-age daughters and their boyfriends: I could still vividly remember what it was like to be fifteen and madly in love with a good-looking bad boy. I had gone on to eventually marry mine. Heather could rage against it, as my own mother had done, but in the end whatever would be, would be.
It struck me how little I knew about the unseen lives of my neighbors. On the surface they looked like camera commercials on TV. But underneath was anger, frustration, and even fear. I never would have guessed that the waspish Mrs. Matilda was being cowed by a poltergeist in her own home. Nor would I have dreamed that Bert and Ruth’s blissful relationship was under strain. The pleasantly plump Ms. Gertie, who always seemed so jovial, was inwardly seething at her best friend. As for Heather: perhaps it was Botox, but her expressionless face camouflaged a head full of parental concern. The complexities of human relationships never failed to astound me.
I must have dreamed about Ruth’s problem because I awoke with Bert on my brain. The hint of a good idea niggled at my subconscious as I packed lunches and drove the kids to school.
As soon as I got home I decided to do the responsible thing and make my title as president official. I called the local police station and explained myself to the front desk sergeant. I was transferred three different times, having to explain myself each time, before being transferred back to the front desk. The sergeant transferred me to an Officer Jackson, and I left the following message on his voice mail:
“This is Cami Jo Smith. I just wanted to let you know that I’m the new Neighborhood Watch President for the Misty Meadows community. Thank you.” I left him my address and phone number before hanging up.
I didn’t know if there was anything else I was supposed to do, and surmised it would have to be good enough. I began thinking about Ruth’s problem with Bert again, and the idea that had been niggling at me bloomed into a full-fledged plan when I entered my studio.
‘Celestial Flight’ was too large to stand on an easel, so it stood against the wall opposite the door. It was massive, and it was finished, and I needed help hauling it to Comical Candies. By the time I’d scrawled my signature on the bottom right hand corner, I knew my plan for Bert was as done as the painting.
I ran next door before I could change my mind. They didn’t mind me interrupting their breakfast of Coco Puffs (for Bert) and cinnamon toast and tea (for Ruth). I declined their offer to join them, and nonchalantly asked Bert to help me transport a large painting the following morning. He readily agreed, as I knew he would, barely looking up from his comic strip to ask me what time he should be ready.
“Around ten,” I said.
Ruth gave me a quizzical look over the top of her glasses, but I merely winked and patted her bony shoulder before taking my leave.
I was halfway across my wet lawn when I heard a jangle from across the street, followed by a loud “Shit!” Amanda was juggling the baby carrier, a bulky brown grocery bag, her oversized purse, and an overflowing diaper bag. And she had just dropped her keys on the driveway.
I jogged up to her before she had a chance to put down any of her precariously balanced bundles. I took the grocery bag from her trembling arm and passed her keys into her free hand.
“Thanks,” she said as she opened the door.
I followed her into the kitchen and placed the grocery sack onto the butcher block atop the center island. A kitchen could tell a lot about its owner, and Amanda’s efficient kitchen told me that someone loved to cook. Judging by how easily Amanda moved about, I figured her to be the chef in the Johnson house.
Amanda set the carrier onto the floor and unstrapped the baby as I gazed around. There were normal things I recognized: a toaster, blender, and coffee maker, but there were far more gadgets that left me baffled. I glanced over at Amanda and saw that she was holding Gabby and watching my reaction. Her topaz-yellow eyes were narrowed slightly and faint crow’s feet were visible in her smooth chocolaty skin. She shifted Gabby to her other arm and raised her eyebrows expectantly at me. The crow’s feet were replaced by a few horizontal lines on her forehead.
“Nice kitchen,” I said.
“Thanks. I love to cook.”
“I love to bake. My husband does most of the cooking in my house.”
Amanda began to put food stuff away. The baby cooed from the crook of Amanda’s arm, and I longed to smell her wispy black curls and to stroke her tiny hands.
“I could hold her while you put everything away,” I offered, trying not to sound too eager.
Amanda immediately relieved herself of the baby, and I found myself gazing down into the most incredible brown eyes I’d ever seen. I discreetly sniffed the top of her head when Amanda’s back was turned, and she smelled just like I knew she would. She had that unique clean baby smell: a combination of milk and lavender talcum powder and new life. Her hair was as soft as I had imagined and her skin felt like silk.
Amanda finished putting the groceries away and took Gabby from my reluctant arms. She placed her in a vibrating bouncy seat on the floor and buckled her in. Then her hand was on my back and we were edging toward the door.
“I noticed you replaced the bay window,” I commented as we bypassed her fully decorated living room.
Amanda opened the front door and paused. “Yes, it was one of the old-fashioned kinds, made out of lead crystal or something. It made everything outside look distorted and it wasn’t very energy efficient. We have a bit more remodeling to do, but that bay window was first on the list.”
“Well, everything sure looks amazing around here,” I said, with one foot on the porch and one on the threshold of her foyer.
“Thanks.” She smiled brightly at me. “Now that we’re more settled, feel free to stop by any time. I’m home with Gabby most days.”
“Okay. It was nice seeing you again.”
“You too,” she said. Just then we heard Gabby’s distant wail. Amanda glanced over her shoulder then smiled at me again. “Thanks for your help,” she said before closing the door behind me.
There were a couple of messages waiting for me when I got home. The first was from Officer Jackson. He left me his cell number, which I jotted down on a notepad, and asked me to call him so we could coordinate our schedules, and plan Misty Meadows First Annual Neighborhood Watch Meeting.
The second message was from Lenore Baker, my agent. She informed me she had sent me a children’s book to illustrate. All paperwork was included in the package. Same contract and deadline as usual. She finished by telling me I could call her, but she’d probably be in meetings for the rest of the day.
Lenore had been my agent since the beginning of my career. She tended to treat me as if I was slow because I had a southern accent. In her mind, the southern accent made me a hick. I didn’t mind the label, because she was a terrific agent. Also, my sweet southern disposition allowed me to overlook her New York superiority complex.
I didn’t need to call Lenore back, so I dialed Officer Jackson’s number. I was surprised when he answered on the first ring. I barely introduced myself before he began suggesting dates and times. We finally agreed, and made notes on our respective calendars. He brusquely thanked me and disconnected.
Between my conversation with Officer Jackson, and my conversation with Amanda, and my new illustration contract I was feeling a little unsettled. I had never been involved with the police before and, though I had nothing to hide, I found myself still nervous by the prospect of working with Officer Jackson. And there was just something off about my encounter with Amanda. I wasn’t particularly bothered by either incident separately, but together in such rapid succession they had left me feeling discombobulated. I did the only thing I could think to do to relax me: I took Frank for a walk, cleaned the kitchen and bathrooms, and sat in my studio, staring at ‘Celestial Flight’ until my kids arrived home from school.
Bill surprised me over dinner by handing me a present. I thought at first it was a certificate, but quickly realized it was a resume of sorts.
“I thought you could pass them out to your new Neighborhood Watch clients,” Bill said.
I read it aloud to the kids between bites of chicken and honey-glazed carrots. I didn’t know how relevant the resume was, but I did know it was one of the most thoughtful gifts Bill had every given me.
I set the paper down beside my plate and stood up to give Bill a kiss. My thighs bumped the tabletop and my glass of iced tea overturned. A puddle quickly spread across the table, and a few drops were sopped up by the corner of my new resume. I snatched it up before any more harm could come to it and shook it off. I glanced at Bill and saw he was smiling.
“I’ll make you a new one tomorrow,” he said.
“Thank you.” I leaned down and finally kissed him. Then I whispered in his ear, “You’re going to get so lucky tonight.”
Cami Jo Smith’s Vital Statistics
Age:_______18-25 ___X___26-40 ______41-60 ______60+
Height:______-5’ ___X___5’-5’4” __heels__5’5”-5’8” ______5’9”+
During During 1st
Weight:___X___100-115# __Holidays__116-130# __Pregnancy__131-145#
Hair Color:___X___Brown ___X___Red ___X____Blond _______Other
Eye Color:______Brown ___X___Blue ___X___Green ________Hazel
Education:_______Diploma/GED ____X____2-4yr College ________4+yr College
Work History & Special Skills
Freelance Artist, Published Illustrator, Children’s Story-Teller, Neighborhood Crime Watch President, Devoted wife and mother of two amazing children