Bert rang my doorbell at ten o’clock sharp the next morning. He was dressed as if ready to work at a farm, with pressed chinos, a flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows, and red suspenders. A plaid handkerchief was folded up neatly in his breast pocket.
“Morning,” he said, his dentures clicking against a fireball, and the spicy smell of cinnamon wafted to my nostrils.
I led him around to the outside garage door and slid it up its track. My colossal six foot tall painting was precariously balanced in a wheelbarrow, perched at an odd, jutting angle against the wall. It appeared ready to topple over onto the dirty concrete floor at the slightest provocation.
The finished piece looked exactly as I’d hoped it would when I first started it, and I was immensely satisfied with the end result. That didn’t always happen, so when the finished painting was identical to my imaginings I was always left with a feeling of utter contentment.
Bert made no comment as he took off his glasses and cleaned them on his hankie, before replacing them on the tip of his bulbous nose. He studied the painting critically before shrugging his thin shoulders. Over the years I’d learned that my artwork wasn’t for everyone, and I no longer took offense to my critics.
“I do landscapes and watercolors for a couple of restaurants, too. This one’s going to Comical Candies on Oak Street.”
“That’s close enough,” Bert said.
I nodded. “But it’s too big to fit in my car and too awkward for me to carry.”
Bert hefted the wheelbarrow’s handles and I grabbed a corner of the painting to steady it. Together we began the painstaking walk to the comic shop. It was a glorious spring day, with birds chirping their way across the wispy clouds. We walked in sun-dappled shadows, and a cardinal screeched at our passage from his perch on a blossoming dogwood. We didn’t see another living soul and I wondered, as I often did, what exactly my neighbors did all day long.
I made small talk by asking Bert if he liked comic books. His face lit up as he told me about the Spider Man series he used to own. I knew Ralph had a vast selection, and I suggested Bert could begin to replace his lost collection. We were almost there before I spoke again.
“Comical Candies doesn’t just sell comics, though.” I craned my neck to watch Bert’s reaction. “There’s a candy counter, too.”
The wheelbarrow slipped in his grasp and I got a glimpse of what he must have looked like as a little boy. His ruddy fact was so full of delighted surprise that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.
“We’re here,” I announced.
Bert dropped the wheelbarrow with a thump, causing my painting to totter. I caught it in the nick of time and turned to scold Bert, but the gleeful expression on his face caused me to smile indulgently instead.
“I never knew such a place existed,” he whispered, rubbing his hands together like a cartoon character. Perhaps, I thought, it’s what Wile E. Coyote would look like if he ever managed to catch that pesky Roadrunner. I wasn’t surprised by his ignorance; his son had been grown and gone longer than Comical Candies had been in business.
Bert managed to remember his manners long enough to hold the door open for me as I struggled to wield the enormous painting. A long cowbell jangled from above the door, alerting Ralph to our presence.
Once inside, I immediately set about hanging my painting on the vast empty space where ‘Francesca’s Fury’ had previously been hanging. Bert stood just inside the door, his mind boggled by the sight before him. There was row after row of comic books on tables, shelves, and counters. There were even more comics stored in cartons underneath all of the tables.
The long glass counter by the front door was fairly bursting with an assortment of candy. An old fashioned cash register set atop the counter, and a two-way mirror ran down the entire length of the wall. I knew Ralph was behind the glass, in his office, and had glanced up when he’d first heard the doorbell ring.
The rear of the shop contained a conversation area; resplendent with a beat-up couch, scarred coffee table, and my undersea mural decorating the entire wall. The other three walls of the shop were plastered with my artwork and a few posters of movies, superheroes, and villains.
I applied the finishing touches to ‘Celestial Flight’ by straightening it and making sure the discreet price tag was clearly visible. I had placed such an astronomical price on it (even higher than ‘Francesca’s Fury’) that I was certain no one would ever buy it. I noticed my stock of business cards by the cash register were depleted, so I added a handful to the blown-glass carnival bowl.
I found Ralph in his office a few minutes later, pecking away at his computer and glancing out of the mirror; trying to monitor his shop while he worked. I saw Bert through the mirror, blissfully thumbing through a comic, and I knew my plan to help Ruth had worked.
Ralph was too busy to chat in his usual abrupt manner, and he was so distracted he pulled his thinning hair until it stood on end. He was short and round, with a gruff way of speaking to people, and had been mistaken for Danny DeVito on more than one occasion.
He handed me a check as he walked me back out to his storefront. His cell phone rang before I had a chance to introduce him to his newest customer, and he turned away to answer it. He remembered to turn back around, though, point at the new painting and give me a thumbs up before retreating to his office again.
“Thanks,” I called to his back as I pocketed the check.
I found Bert in the conversation pit, sprawled on the dilapidated tweed sofa. He sat between a couple of newfound friends, with a pile of crumpled candy wrappers spilling off the coffee table onto the floor. Bert was flipping through a Spider Man comic with a goofy smile on his face as he tightly clutched a Butterfinger with his other hand. He looked so at home that I knew Ruth’s house, and sanity, would soon be restored to proper working order.
I approached Bert to tell him I was leaving. He didn’t look up as he absently waved me away with his candy bar. I wasn’t even sure he heard me when I assured him I’d let Ruth know where to find him.
I pushed the empty wheelbarrow home, feeling quite pleased with my problem-solving abilities. I parked it in the garage before scampering next door. Ruth answered the door with a smudge of flour on her cheek, and wiping her hands on a pink polka-dotted apron.
“I was baking a pie since I have the house to myself,” she cheerfully explained as she opened the door.
“I can’t stay,” I said, remaining steadfastly on the porch. “I just wanted to let you know that Bert’s probably going to be at Comical Candies for a while.”
“Oh?” Ruth looked confused.
“They close at six, so he’ll definitely be home shortly after that.”
“Oh,” Ruth said with a frown on her face.
“I think I found somewhere for him to spend his days,” I patiently explained.
“Oh!” A smile lit up her craggy face. “Oh, thank goodness!”
I waved goodbye and met Amanda walking by on the sidewalk. Her dark skin shone in the sunlight and the caramel-colored highlights in her hair glinted. She was pushing Gabby in a stroller, who was gazing around in wide-eyed wonder. A line of slobber ran from the corner of her mouth down to the chubby folds of her nonexistent chin. She was awed into silence by the overwhelming sights and sounds of Rain Lane. I’d always figured that being a baby was something akin to being on a permanent LSD trip.
Amanda and I exchanged greetings and I strolled along beside her, after asking if she minded some company first. I felt frumpy compared to Amanda; even though we were dressed almost identically in drawstring yoga pants. She was the only woman I’d ever seen in real life who could make gym clothes look spectacular.
Amanda was almost as quiet as Gabby. I didn’t know if she was an extremely self-contained person, or shy, or what! It was unsettling, though, and I filled the silence by chattering about our neighbors as we passed by each house. Amanda got a crash course on our neighborhoods’ tales, whether she wanted one or not. I was careful to omit any gossip about her house, in case she didn’t know about Mrs. Peters’ death. I didn’t know whether realtors had to tell potential buyers about the previous owner’s death happening inside of the house, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one to inform her of the grisly news.
I sneaked glances at her as I talked; trying, in vain, to determine her age. Her skin, the same shade of cream-laced coffee I drank every morning, was flawless. I was certain her unlined skin didn’t come from a plastic surgeon, either. It’s hard to mistake good genes and lots of moisturizer. She wore her curly hair short, and frosted the front with a warm shade of honey. I saw a few gray hairs around her temples and suspected she colored her hair in a vain attempt to hide them.
It was her body I was most impressed with, though. It was even more remarkable because she was the mother of an infant and a couple of teen-agers. Personally, I thought Amanda looked better than her teen-aged daughter. Tonya looked good, no doubt, but was rounder than her mother; with fuller breasts and a softer belly. There was nothing soft about Amanda; absolutely nothing on her, from her boobs to her butt, jiggled as we walked.
By the time I reached my destination, Ms. Gertie’s house, I still had no clue as to how old Amanda might be. We paused on the sidewalk, and she encouraged me to walk with her anytime I saw her “out and about.”
“Maybe next time I’ll bring Frank,” I called over my shoulder as I walked up to Ms. Gertie’s front porch.
Ms. Gertie answered the door wearing rubber gloves and a pair of “knee-knockers.” She hurriedly stripped off her gloves, and as soon as they disappeared a plate of sugar cookies seemed to reappear in their place.
We sat in the living room, with the Shopping Network blaring from the TV. Her house smelled like lemon furniture polish and cookies; a surprisingly delicious aroma. She muted the TV and looked at me expectantly.
She brushed off my apology for interrupting her with her pudgy fingers, and I noticed she wore diamond rings on most of them. I’d never known anyone to clean their house in their best jewels before, and not for the first time, I was amused by her quirky idiosyncrasies.
“You’re in luck,” Ms. Gertie said. “Matilda’s gone shopping today in the city with her daughter.”
I found myself sitting on a maroon, velvet fainting couch from the Civil War era, while Ms. Gertie bustled about in the kitchen. I passed the time by looking around the room. A gilt frame sat on the side table next to me, and I instantly recognized the sepia-toned voluptuous young woman in it. I was surprised to learn that Ms. Gertie used to be the resident “hottie” of the neighborhood.
She returned a moment later with a silver serving tray, complete with a china tea set and embroidered linen napkins. Her looks may have faded over the years, along with the color of her hair, but she was still a charming woman to observe. Her posture was erect, and though she was short and plump, she still managed to carry herself with a regal air.
When I first entered her house I merely thought she needed a mediator to deal with Mrs. Matilda. But when I exited an hour later, I thought she might need a restraining order against her!
Mrs. Matilda was constantly interrupting Ms. Gertie, and social niceties always prevailed in those situations. In the grand southern tradition of eternal politeness, the lady of the house was expected to stop what she was doing when someone came calling. The hostess had to provide snacks for the guest, and visit attentively with them for as long as they wished to stay; which is why some out-of-town guests stopped by for just a “short visit” and ended up staying a fortnight. I believed the idea for a “mother-in-law’s suite” originated in the south.
I cast surreptitious glances around the room as Ms. Gertie hesitantly complained in her soft, lilting voice. I noticed her decorating style was sparse, yet exquisite. The few pieces of well-chosen artwork she possessed were priceless, and complimented the hand-crafted furniture and gleaming parquet floors.
Ms. Gertie shyly got around to the subject of my fee for helping get Mrs. Matilda out of her pink-hued hair. The $50,000 wasn’t an error - - - Ms. Gertie was loaded!
“I’ve been hoarding my father’s money my whole life,” she said. “I don’t have any family to spend it on, you see.”
I was still skeptical, and it must have shown on my face, because Ms. Gertie frowned at me before speaking.
“My mattress has become too heavy for me to lift recently, so I’ve begun prying up the floorboards and stashing cash there.” Her frown deepened, and she lowered her voice. “Although I can’t remember which floorboards they are anymore. Perhaps I’ll commission you in the near future, and with my help, you could draw me up a treasure map!”
I didn’t want to know anymore of her hidey-holes, so I gently steered the conversation back to the ubiquitous Mrs. Matilda.
“Perhaps you should just continue working during her visits,” I said.
Ms. Gertie held her dangling glasses up to her eyes in order to see me better as she scoffed at my suggestion. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t tell her friend that she was too busy to stop and sit a spell.
Ms Gertie was appalled. “My mama, God rest her soul, taught me better manners than that. Why, she’d turn over in her grave at the very idea!”
My own mother had taught me manners, too. But more importantly, she’d taught me to be practical. Unfortunately, Ms. Gertie’s generation didn’t encourage women to be very practical. Instead, women were encouraged to get married and have babies; a ship that had set sail long ago without Ms. Gertie on it. I reluctantly promised her I would mull over the information and try my very best to come up with a solution.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
“That’s all anyone can ask, sug,” Ms. Gertie said. I was honored she’d called me “sug,” the southern term of endearment for “sugar” and a nickname usually only bestowed on family members or the very closest of friends.
With business taken care of, Ms. Gertie steered the conversation to her favorite topic: gossip. She eagerly told me how Henry, Tootsie’s grandson, was temporarily living with her. Her blue eyes danced as she described how Henry’s father had just gone to prison for embezzlement and his mother’s way of dealing with it was by “popping pills and drinking like a fish.”
“Poor kid,” I remarked.
“Poor Tootsie,” Ms. Gertie scoffed. “Henry’s always been a handful and no one else in the family would take him in. If it weren’t for Tootsie, he’d be in foster care.”
Or juvenile detention, I thought. I shook my head, not knowing what to say, but positive I didn’t want to tell Ms. Gertie about my past experience with Henry. It wouldn’t take her long to spread the tale and it would become so distorted that Henry would become known as a serial killer in the making, because my elderly neighbors liked to watch Court TV and they knew that serial killers always started off their careers by torturing animals. Ms. Gertie had trailed off into silence, and I seized the opportunity to escape.
I slapped my palms onto my thighs and said, “Well, I should get going. Thanks for the cookies.”
She wrapped a few cookies into a cloth napkin and pressed it into my hand as I stood to go. “For your kids’ snack. They’ll be home from school soon.”
I smiled and nodded, though it wasn’t exactly the truth. I had over and hour before they were due home, but I figured Ms. Gertie didn’t need to know that. I also didn’t bother telling her that I made my kids eat fruit, or at least something a little healthier than cookies, for their afternoon snack. She walked me to the front door and followed me out onto her front porch. I wondered if she planned to escort me all the way home, but she stopped on the top porch step.
“The Jones’ are selling their house,” she said, shading her eyes with one hand and pointing two houses down with the other.
I hadn’t noticed the For Sale sign when I’d approached her house, probably because I’d been talking to Amanda. I called a final farewell to Ms. Gertie and studied my neighborhood as a stranger would as I walked home. Not a single yard had grass over three inches tall, every mature tree was trimmed into a symmetrical shape, and not one house was in disrepair. It was the typical American suburb that screen-writers dreamed about: a stately older neighborhood with an eclectic mix of houses, and massive trees stretching their limbs across the street to create a natural arbor. No chipped paint, sagging shutters, or loose shingles dared to blemish the landscape. But then something so out of place caught my eye, causing my steps to falter.
The only speed limit sign on Rain Lane normally posted a sedate twenty-five miles per hour, but someone had graffiti’d it to say eighty-five mph instead! I stared, wondering who had done it, and finally surmised it was probably the handiwork of the same teens who had egged cars during the Christmas break.
I hurried home to my studio and dug through my paint cabinet until I found a can of yellow, outdoor spray paint. I grabbed a brush and returned to the sign. I spent the better part of an hour touching it up, having a hard time with the running paint before I could dab it on the appropriate spot. I finally stood back to inspect my artistic skills. I smiled with pride to see the sign re-instating the safe twenty-five mph again.
All-in-all, I felt a sense of accomplishment and I gave myself a mental pat on the back. I was certain that Ruth’s problem with Bert was as cleaned up as the speed limit sign. I felt like I was kicking butt as the new president: I’d managed to solve two separate neighborhood problems all in a single day!
There was a package awaiting me when I got home. I opened it in the kitchen as soon as I put away my paint supplies. The package was from Lenore Baker and it contained a loose manuscript, entitled “A Puppy’s Tale.” Also enclosed was a standard contract, which was the same as the last seven I’d signed. The pay was the same, and the deadline gave me more than enough time. I signed the contract and faxed it to Lenore.
Then I sat at my secretary and read the story. It was a rather anticlimactic tale of a day in the life of a puppy. I recognized the author’s name, and after digging through my files, I realized why. The third book I’d ever illustrated had been for another one of her stories.
I began making thumbnail sketches, and managed to complete three before the kids came home from school. I had ideas for the entire story board, though, and knew I’d have the project finished long before the deadline.
It had been a while since I’d last illustrated a children’s story, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Abstract painting may have been my passion, and helped pay the bills, but illustration was why I went to art school in the first place.
I rationed out Ms. Gertie’s cookies for the kids’ snack and helped them with their homework. I looked forward to summer vacation and no homework almost as much as they did.
Over dinner, I told Bill and the kids about the story I’d started illustrating. They were as eager to see it as I was to show it to them. Everyone, Dylan in particular, loved the puppy I had drawn, and thought the story was “cute.”
We took Frank for a walk after dinner. I pointed out the sign I’d fixed, and answered more of the kids’ questions about what it meant to be president of the Neighborhood Watch. Dylan thought I was similar to the mayor, and he thought a street should be named after me, at the very least. He was sorely disappointed when I explained there would be no parade or inaugural ball in my honor.
“Well, it’s still cool,” he said.
Katie Nicole was less enthused; her usual bubbly personality was subdued as she cast dubious glances my way. I knew her opinion was reserved until she decided if my presidency would somehow embarrass her. On a deeper level, I believed she was concerned my new position would take me away from her.
Bill was unusually quiet, so I looked his way.
“I think it’s cool, too,” he said with a grin, slipping his arm around my shoulders.
A covered pie plate was awaiting our return on the front porch. Frank made a lunge for it, but Dylan jerked the leash and I snatched up the pie before a single drop of slobber could mar it. I opened the pie in the kitchen, and soon the all-American smell of spiced apples and sugared pie crust filled the house. I peeled off the sticky cellophane-wrapped envelope from the top. The pie was my favorite and the note was from Ruth.
“Thank you so much for the wonderful work you’ve done!
Stapled to the note was a check for five hundred dollars! Once I got over the initial guilt of getting something for nothing, the apple pie we had for dessert had never tasted sweeter.
I called Ruth, something I’d never done before, and thanked her. I felt like I’d done nothing to deserve her payment, but she strongly disagreed. She thought what I’d accomplished in twenty-four hours was nothing short of miraculous and “worth every last penny.”
I had such a productive day that I decided to deal with Heather’s problem head-on. I phoned her after hanging up with Ruth; another first for me. The only time I’d ever dialed Heather’s number in the past had been to ask Tiffani to babysit. Heather invited me to come over after my kids went to bed, and I cautiously agreed.
After the kids had showered and brushed their teeth, they sat on the couch in their pajamas and Dylan read us a story. Bill and I tucked them into their beds and kissed their cherubic faces. Then I kissed Bill and prepared to leave.
When I stepped onto the porch, I was greeted by two unexpected sights: a long box, tied up with a big satin bow and Bethany in her yard jumping up and down, stomping on certain spots with all her might.
I addressed the box first, because I had to move it in order to leave. Inside was a lifetime supply of business cards, which read:
Cami Jo Smith
Misty Meadows President
37 Rain Lane
There was no card attached, and I frowned as I set it inside my front door. Bethany was still hopping around on her lawn, and I watched her for a second before I crossed my yard to her.
“Is that some crazy new dance you young kids are doing nowadays?” I snickered.
She wheeled around with her hands fisted at her sides. “Yeah,” she snorted. “It’s called The Mole Dance.”
It took me second to get it. “You have a mole?”
“Oh, yeah. The darned thing is tearing up my lawn good and proper. I almost broke my ankle on one of its stupid spongy tunnels!”
I squinted around, but it was too dark for me to distinguish any tell-tale disturbances in the soil.
“Maybe you should let Prissy have a go at it,” I said.
“I think not,” Bethany snorted. “Did you like the business cards?”
“They were from you?”
She shot me a withering look. “Of course.”
“Oh, well, thank you. They’re nice.”
“You’re welcome.” She returned her attention back to her lawn, so I bid her farewell and headed off to Heather’s.
I arrived a little after nine o’clock, and as I approached her house in the dark I got a case of the heebie-jeebies. In broad daylight her house was a strange enough sight to behold, all jutting angles and staggered blocks. But at night, the jutting angles transformed into eerie protuberances, and the mismatched roof lines belonged in an M.C. Escher print.
Heather answered the door in a flowing, satin robe and perfectly pedicured bare feet. She held the door open and stepped aside, and as I brushed past her I caught the unmistakable scent of jasmine. Her long blond hair was damp on the ends, and I realized she must have just stepped out of the bathtub. Oh, how a bubble bath sounded heavenly, I thought enviously.
We sat on her white sectional sofa, with a chrome and glass coffee table before us. The sleek style surrounding me was ultra-modern; with lots of stark white, crimson, black, and metal. There were even more sharp angles inside the house than out, and everything was bathed in harsh, recessed track lighting.
After Heather and I exchanged small talk, and I declined her offer of a beverage, she got down to the business at hand. She started off by getting the topic of my fee out of the way, and I was more than satisfied by her offer. I was also astonished by the standard hourly rate she’d been paying her former family counselor. She concluded by telling me to keep track of my time and submit a bill to her when Chavez was “disposed of.”
“In light of the failed family counseling, I don’t know how much help I can be,” I admitted.
Heather closed her eyes and rubbed her unlined forehead for a second. “You’re my last resort,” she whispered.
My heart went out to her because I was a mother myself. “Tell me what’s going on.”
It didn’t take me long to piece the story together, despite the broken way Heather told it. It was your typical parent/teen tale of woe: Tiffani was infatuated with Chavez and Heather detested him. She believed Chavez was a trouble-maker, and “leading Tiffani down the wrong path.” She had no proof, except the overwhelming maternal instinct warning her that something was “terribly wrong with that boy.”
As a mother, I understood that gut instinct and had learned to trust it completely. The first time I’d encountered the maternal gut instinct myself (my “mom alert,” I’d coined it) had happened when Katie Nicole was three years old. She’d been playing in her room while I read a book in the living room. Out of the blue, something like the ring of an alarm clanged in my head. I raced to her room and found her choking on an eraser in absolute blue-faced silence. I used the Heimlich maneuver for the first time ever, and learned a very valuable lesson: Trust your Mom Alarm.
“But I still don’t know what you expect me to do,” I said.
“Maybe you could just talk to her.” Heather sounded desperate. “She looks up to you ever since her friends pointed out you’re the neighborhood hot mom.”
“I thought that title was awarded to you.”
She rolled her blue eyes and laughed. I was still reluctant to involve myself with her problems, and I couldn’t think of a single thing I could contribute to the situation. However, I relented when Tiffani passed through the room and I saw the naked look of concerned love on Heather’s face as she watched her daughter.
“Well, I guess I’ll see what I can do,” I said with a sigh.
“You know, I don’t know why we haven’t gotten together more often,” Heather commented as I stood to go.
I was dumbfounded. “You don’t?’
“Well, I know you don’t care for me, but I’m used to that. My mama always told me that the other girls didn’t like me because they were jealous.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” I said. “I always hung out with guys because they were so much easier to get along with than girls. But that’s not why I have a problem with you.”
“Then what is it?”
“I have a problem with anyone who kisses my husband.”
“I kissed Bill?” she asked incredulously.
I nodded and reminded her of the memorable (at least to me) New Year’s Eve party three years before. Her face turned as scarlet as the pillows on the couch. Clearly humiliated, she apologized profusely several times. She went on to admit she’d been drinking pretty heavily back then and didn’t remember a lot of things. She fumbled in her robe pocket and held aloft what I thought at first was a coin.
“But I got my thirty day chip yesterday,” she confided shyly before returning it to the safe confines of her pocket.
I walked home slowly, thinking about Ms. Gertie’s relationship with Mrs. Matilda, and Heather’s relationship with Tiffani. I had no idea what to say to Tiffani to get her to see the light about Chavez, and that was under the assumption that he was a bad guy like Heather thought. I’d never met him myself, but figured Heather probably had enough run-ins with bad guys to be able to recognize one when he tried to date her daughter. I was opening my front door, and tripping over the business cards Bethany had given me, when I proudly realized I only had Mrs. Matilda’s poltergeist problem left to address.
Bill was watching TV and waiting for me. I locked the door and he turned off the TV. Then he followed me upstairs. He was inevitably curious about my clandestine meeting with Heather, and a little frustrated when I wouldn’t satisfy his curiosity. I could tell he didn’t understand, or appreciate, all the secrecy.
“But I’m your husband,” he protested after I refused to share any details with him.
I hushed him with a kiss and changed the subject by unzipping his fly. It didn’t take long before I made him forget all about the Neighborhood Watch problems.