I packed lunches and sent the kids off to school, still bleary-eyed and half asleep. Then I was left alone for the one serene moment I had for the day and I tried to revive myself by gulping down a cup of coffee, managing to burn the roof of my mouth in the process.
I was going to be Mrs. Anderson’s art room assistant, and I had no idea what to wear for such an occasion. I wanted to look respectable, but the outfit couldn’t be anything I minded getting paint spilled on. I finally decided on a tangerine skirt set, not caring if the color clashed with my hair. Bright colors made me feel brave; so, wear it I did and clashing be damned.
I needn’t have worried about paint ruining my clothes because Mrs. Anderson had other plans for me. I was surprised when she started off each class period by reading a long introduction from an index card. Her monologue gave out personal information about me: where I’d attended school, the names and ages of my children, and where I showed my artwork. She also had several photographs of my paintings, which she passed around for the students to see.
Then she encouraged a Q & A time; getting the ball rolling by looking over the top of her horn rimmed glasses and asking, “What’s the most you ever got paid for a painting?” The ice would inevitably be broken and the children came up with an endless amount of questions, as if from a bottomless well. I was asked some pretty bizarre things, and afterward I wished I had written some of them down to share with Bill. I could clearly remember Dylan’s question, though.
“Do you do anything besides paint and illustrate books?”
After I told his class I was also the Neighborhood Watch President, Dylan smirked around at his classmates and jived his head like a chicken. Although I don’t think he was trying to look like a chicken; I guessed he was trying to look cool.
Katie Nicole didn’t have any questions for me, but the rest of her class sure did. Their questions were more thought-provoking because they were older kids. Although Katie Nicole didn’t ask any questions herself, she did listen attentively throughout the entire period. After the bell rang she gave me a smile and a thumbs-up and I was glad to know I’d met her approval with a group of her peers. At least I didn’t embarrass her, I thought proudly.
The kids did most of the talking at dinner that night, telling Bill about our day at school. I had thoroughly impressed their classmates, and both kids had been the center of attention all day long. I was pleased that I was the cause of their popularity and happiness - - - if only for a day.
I spent the next day working on “A Puppy’s Tale.” By early afternoon I was finished, and I spread the storyboard across the dining table to dry. I stood back and examined each illustration. I was most impressed by the last one; the scene where the puppy met the neighbor’s cat for the first time. The cat I had drawn looked like Prissy when she was in one of her foul moods. The cat’s tail seemed to be exploding off the end of her body, and the look of surprised confusion on the puppy’s face was priceless.
I carefully packaged it and walked the two blocks to the post office. Now, I thought, let’s hope Lenore and the author feel the same way about it as I do.
As a result, I was too busy to speak to Heather on Tiffani’s behalf until Tuesday evening. Besides, I dreaded reporting back to Heather about my utter failure. I had set out to convince Tiffani to break up with Chavez; instead, I’d ended up agreeing to convince Heather to let Tiffani go to the prom with him! I knew that I would be so mad at me if I was Heather, and I wondered how I’d managed to get things so topsy-turvy.
Tiffani was home when I arrived at Heather’s house. She was listening to thumping music in her bedroom and it was so loud that the windows rattled throughout the entire house. Heather and I took a walk around the block in the guise of “getting some air.”
“They want to do what?!?” Heather exclaimed after I told her about Tiffani’s desire to be Chavez’s prom date on Saturday night. She huffed a deep breath and her impressive chest heaved against her tight white t-shirt. Once again, I couldn’t help noticing she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“She claims they’re in love,” I said, desperately trying to avert my eyes from her nipples.
“Oh, give me a break,” Heather snorted with an eye roll which was identical to her daughter’s expression of dismissive disgust. “He’s just a horny boy.”
“True,” I agreed. “But I think Tiffani’s a good kid.”
Heather was incredulous. “You think I should let her?”
“I’m not saying that,” I backpedaled. “I’ve never even met him. I guess that’s my point: neither of us knows him very well.”
We had come full circle back to Heather’s house by then, and we paused as a man with a poodle walked by. We faced each other silently until he was out of earshot. Heather jerked her chin at me in an agitated feminine farewell, and her breasts jiggled along for emphasis. She unlatched her gate and stepped through.
We stood on opposite sides of the fence, in more ways than one, before Heather raised her hand and gave a small wave. Then she turned her back on me and walked to her front door. I didn’t blame her for being hostile; she’d asked for my help and I had teamed up with Tiffani and blindsided her.
The interrupted idea for a painting inspired by the sunset on Thursday evening, which had been brewing in the back of my mind, came bubbling to the surface like a volcano as I walked home. So, I started painting on a 16 x 20 canvas as soon as I reached my studio. The paintbrush seemed to flow across the canvas on its own accord; blending and highlighting in all the right places.
I let my mind drift as I worked, and it quickly settled on Heather’s obvious displeasure with me. I hoped our tentative friendship wouldn’t be negatively impacted by my perceived betrayal. I also felt uncomfortable being in the middle of Tiffani and Heather’s animosity. By the time I went to bed, I had decided to not play Tiffani’s advocate anymore.
The next morning I began painting as soon as the kids left for school. The abstract painting included all of the same swirling colors of the sunset that had originally inspired it. It resembled the Earth turned inside-out, and I’d tentatively named it ‘Gravity.’ I steadily worked until my stomach growled loudly and I realized I was starving. It was noon, so I checked the mail before making myself an egg salad sandwich. I stood at the counter as I ate, and read the only letter I’d received in the mail.
“Dear Ms. Smith,
As the new president of our Neighborhood Watch, I felt I should notify you of a recent break-in at my house. I filed a police report with Officer Jackson already.
-Miss Kitty McCain”
Miss Kitty McCain lived two houses down from Timmy Atkins, my lawn boy. She was a recluse and the resident “nut,” as most of my neighbors referred to her. I considered her more of the neighborhood witch, though. Her entire lawn was an herb garden and she brewed her own potions from them. She could read palms, tea leaves, and crystal balls. For a price, she would cast a spell on someone for you. For a higher price, she could put a curse on someone for you. Or so I heard.
She was Misty Meadows most infamous neighbor, yet no one admitted to knowing her. Even I had never told anyone, not even Bill, that I had paid her a visit after we’d been trying unsuccessfully to conceive a second child. Nine months after Miss Kitty gave me a “special medicine” to drink and whispered a few strange words to my stomach, Dylan had been born. She may have been odd, but I knew beyond a doubt that she was reliable.
I restlessly paced around my house and realized I was bored; something unusual for me. Everything was spotless, even the sofa pillows were plumped up. I was a meticulous housewife: scrubbing the kitchen sink and floor daily, scouring the rings from the bathtubs weekly, and constantly having to Lysol the toilets because of the dribbling male members of my family. As I blotted up a stray crumb from the kitchen counter, I made the impulsive decision to pay Miss Kitty a visit.
I saw Bethany as soon as I stepped onto my front porch. I stood there and stared for a second before I started laughing. She was far too engrossed in what she was doing to even notice me. Bethany was covered from head-to-toe in some sort of space-age white paper suit, with an attached bee-keepers hat. Under the mask she wore a pair of bug-eyed goggles. Her hands were gloved, and the paper pant legs were duct-taped around her ankles and fastened to her sneakers. On her back she carried a large plastic, pump-action backpack sprayer. She was pumping for all she was worth with one hand and spraying a noxious amber liquid on the mole tunnels with the other hand.
I turned and headed in the opposite direction without interrupting her work. Anyway, I thought I knew what she was doing. I’d heard of a homemade mixture using cayenne pepper, castor oil, and some sort of cleaning product that could be used as a mole repellent. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of what the cleaning product was, though. It finally came to me when I turned down Miss Kitty’s street: Murphy’s oil soap.
Just as I turned the corner and thought, “Oh, Murphy’s oil soap!” I saw Tootsie’s grandson, Henry. He was standing across the street, leaning against a tall pine tree, smoking a cigarette. The sunlight glittered on his multiple facial piercings and studded belt. He wore a black t-shirt, black jeans, and black leather boots. The kind of boots my dad always referred to as “shit-kickers” because they were perfect for kicking the shit out of someone. I vaguely wondered why he wasn’t in school but put him out of my mind after I’d passed him. I could hear wind chimes in the distance and I knew I was close to my destination.
I had only been to Miss Kitty’s house once, almost seven years earlier, and I never even walked Frank in that general direction. I never ran into her at the grocery store or anywhere else, and had only seen her once or twice over the years.
Miss Kitty’s street, Shady Hollow Road, was aptly named after the tall pines and fir trees that towered over everyone’s backyards. The yards were mostly all fenced in order to keep the riotous profusion of evergreens from completely reclaiming what was once theirs.
Miss Kitty’s house was exactly the same as I remembered it: like a charming cottage from a Thomas Kincaide painting. The only difference was her roof wasn’t thatched; instead it was constructed from split cedar shingles. Smoke constantly rose from the river stone chimney in the center of the roof. All the Dutch doors and windows were arched. The top half of the front door was always left open, even during the coldest winter day, to help ventilate the smoke and relieve the blistering heat from inside. There was a wrap-around screened-in porch with hundreds of wind chimes hanging about. There were seashell and sand dollar wind chimes, homemade bottle top wind chimes, stained glass wind chimes, tiny metal bells made into wind chimes, and, of course, the traditional tubular metal wind chimes. The combination of jangling created a haunting melody I could hear all the way up and down her street.
Miss Kitty didn’t have a traditional yard; instead, her entire house was surrounded by a garden. She grew vegetables in the back yard and herbs interlaced with vibrant flowers in the front. I looked over her picket fence as I approached the seashell foot path, and saw several different types of butterflies fluttering about. I spotted a Monarch and a Painted Lady. I even caught a glimpse of an elusive Great Purple Hairstreak flitting amongst some heather. There were stepping stones interspersed between the rosemary, poppies, and belladonna plants. A white oleander bush was planted alongside a hemlock, which had been consistently pruned into a stunted shrub. I recognized many other less ominous plants, as well: eucalyptus, chamomile, and catnip.
Instead of a gate, Miss Kitty’s fence had a break in it with an arbor to walk under. The arbor had climbing rosebushes on both sides of it, and their thorny branches and beautiful blossoms poked through the trellis and waved a greeting at me. I didn’t see Miss Kitty until my foot crunched on the path and she stood up from behind a bush I didn’t recognize.
“Cami Jo,” she said with a smile. “I was just wondering when you were going to stop by.” Miss Kitty was a stunning older woman, and like her house, she hadn’t changed a bit since I’d last seen her. Perhaps her red hair had faded a bit, but her face looked even younger! She wore her shoulder-length wavy hair parted in the middle, with a slight widow’s peak. She usually wore a wide-brimmed straw hat when she gardened, but she was currently wearing a headband. Not the kind to be worn on the top of the head to keep hair out of the eyes, but the kind that went around the head with a teardrop gemstone dangling from the forehead. Miss Kitty’s gemstone was amethyst, almost the same startling violet color of her eyes. She wore a periwinkle pinafore and a pair of suede moccasins. Over her dress she wore a gingham smock with a deep pocketed front. I could see the handles of a pair of pruning sheers sticking out of the bulging pocket. She bent down and picked up a basket full of fragrant cooking herbs and walked down the path to her front porch. She paused on the bottom step to glance over her shoulder at me.
“Well, come along then,” she called.
I hurried down the path, carefully weaving my way around the butterflies and bees, and joined her on the front porch. Her sun hat hung from a peg by the front door and she set her basket down on an old milking stool directly below it. She removed her smock and hung it next to her hat then slipped off her moccasins without bending over. She walked around the side of the porch in her bare feet, ducking her head several times to avoid the wind chimes, and gestured for me to follow before turning the corner.
The east-facing porch had a wicker table and four chairs on it. There was a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses on a tray atop it. Beads of condensation ran down the outside of the pitcher and ice cubes and lemon slices floated on top. The only other thing on top of the table was a large crystal ball, looking like some sort of odd centerpiece.
Miss Kitty pulled out a chair then seated herself in the one next to it. She patted the floral-printed cushion and silently beckoned for me to join her. I sat down while she poured us each a glass of lemonade. Neither of us spoke until we’d taken a few sips.
“You got my letter,” Miss Kitty said.
It was a statement, not a question; therefore I didn’t think it warranted a response. I liked that Miss Kitty didn’t waste time with mundane chit chat or idle gossip about our neighbors. I sat back in the chair and relaxed.
“So, what got stolen?” I asked.
Miss Kitty waved her hand as if she were shooing a fly. “It doesn’t matter.”
She shook her head. “That’s not why you’re here.”
“No, it’s not.” She began to trace a fingertip over the surface of the crystal ball. “What do you wish to know?”
The first answer to come to mind popped out of my mouth. “With all the stuff going on around the neighborhood lately, is anyone going to get hurt?”
Miss Kitty peered into the unfathomable depths of the crystal ball before answering. As I waited, I slowly felt like I was being sucked down a tunnel, straight into a dream. The sunshine dimmed and the wind chimes and bird song was replaced by a deafening silence.
“The stuff that’s been going on around here lately is a matter of the heart,” she finally said. She removed her hands from the ball and looked at me. “Someone always gets hurt when it’s a matter of the heart.”
“Hmm,” I said dubiously.
She chuckled. “I see my answer doesn’t satisfy your literal mind.”
“Well, then. Let me assure you that no one will physically get hurt.”
“Good.” I roused myself as if from a dream, even having to shake my head slightly to clear it. The sun brightened as if appearing from behind a cloud and the birds began to sing in time to the tinkling wind chimes. I was truly able to relax then, and I asked about her business. I didn’t expect any details, but it was all I could come up with by way of making conversation.
“Fine, thanks.” She paused to sip her lemonade. “My line of body products is finally picking up.”
“You make your own body products?”
“Oh, yes. I have a whole line of skin care products I sell at Brandon’s grocery store.”
“I didn’t know that.”
She nodded at me. “I also have a line of bath products I sell at Bethany’s store under a different name.”
“How are they doing?”
“So, so. Some of my regular customers still prefer to deal directly with me, though. You know, I have a sample of one of my top products.” She felt around inside the pocket of her pinafore and extracted a tiny jar, which she held out to me. “I call it ‘Pot of Gold.’ You just dab a little under your eyes and – Poof! - those dark circles and fine lines vanish.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Heather swears by it.”
That did it. I snatched the jar from her fingers and immediately smeared some underneath my eyes. I looked at Miss Kitty and raised my eyebrows.
“I can see a difference already. Now, you won’t let on to her that I told you, will you? My customers like to keep their business private.”
“Miss Kitty, you and I both know you wouldn’t have told me if you didn’t think I could be trusted.”
I glanced at my watch and drained the last of my lemonade. I still wanted to stop by Mrs. Matilda’s house before my kids were due home from school. I stood to go and paused, wondering if I owed her anything for her impromptu reading and Pot of Gold.
“Today was just a neighborly visit,” she said.
The woman was positively uncanny. I didn’t know if she could read my mind and thought it would be impolite to ask. Plus, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know or not. So, I thanked her and showed myself the way out, picking my way carefully over the cobblestones to the front seashell path.
I headed to Mrs. Matilda’s and thought about my visit with Miss Kitty as I walked. I was relieved to know that no one was going to get hurt during a burglary, and I simultaneously realized how much stock I put in Miss Kitty’s words.
I liked Miss Kitty and trusted her, and was also extremely curious about her. However, she presented herself in such a way that discouraged anything too personal. She probably knew everything about our neighborhood: who was sleeping with who and what couples were fighting. But no one seemed to be friends with her. In fact, no one claimed to know anything about her. People would come to her under the cloak of darkness and do their dealings over the top half of her front door. They would buy love potions or talismans to make their husbands love them again, or to get their husbands to lose interest in their lovers, or even to get their husbands to earn more money. Of course, I imagined men visited Miss Kitty too. But I was willing to bet anything that more ladies from the neighborhood called on Miss Kitty than their husbands. It saddened me to realize many of those same people wouldn’t even acknowledge Miss Kitty if they were to pass her on the street.
It occurred to me when I arrived at Mrs. Matilda’s house that I should have asked Miss Kitty for her help with Ms. Gertie’s problem. I smiled to myself as I knocked on Mrs. Matilda’s door, wondering if such a potion really existed.
“I don’t have any news,” I assured her hopeful look, once we were seated in her stifling living room with coffee and Hershey kissed peanut butter cookies. “I just wanted to let you know I’m working on it.” I’m also hoping to get an idea how to fix Ms. Gertie’s problem with you, I silently added.
“That’s all anyone can ask for,” she said. “It’s more than the police have done.” She fanned herself so vigorously with her pleated napkin that the tight coils on her head began to blow untidily about. She seemed completely unaware of the messy condition of her hair, though, and only fanned harder. A line of perspiration trickled down her cheek, erasing the powder and leaving behind a glistening pink streak. The bunches of grapes on her muu-muu were dampened by sweat spots under her flabby arms.
As I listened to the creaking ceiling fan overhead, I realized her old house had been built without central air conditioning. There were fancy brass vents installed above the doorways, but Mrs. Matilda always kept her heavy drapes pulled tight across the closed windows. Therefore, no air ever circulated throughout the house.
The end result was like a sauna during the summer months. As the heat rose, the peculiar smell in the house intensified. We weren’t there yet, and I vowed to resolve her problem long before then so I wouldn’t have to set foot in her house after June.
I asked if anything new had turned up missing and she shook her head before explaining she’d begun inventorying her house, top to bottom, first thing every morning. It seemed like quite an arduous task for such an out-of-shape elderly woman, but I bit into a cookie to keep from biting my tongue.
“It’s such a big old house to search, though,” she sighed as she picked up another napkin and blotted her glistening forehead.
It was the opening I’d been looking for. “It seems too big of a house for just one person, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Mrs. Matilda nodded sadly. “Some days I feel like a peanut rattling around in here.”
I glanced around the cavernous space and realized it was the only house in our neighborhood big enough to make Mrs. Matilda’s enormous frame appear the size of a peanut. I could picture Mrs. Matilda as a peanut, and with sudden insight I realized it was her consuming loneliness that drove her to Ms Gertie’s doorstep so often.
“Maybe you should get a roommate or take in a boarder,” I suggested, knowing full well she would be opposed to the idea.
“Certainly not!” She looked positively scandalized. Her eyes rolled around as she stammered, sputtered, and sweated.
“Okay, okay,” I relented. I was afraid she might have a stroke and I patted her hand, ready to retrieve the bourbon from the pantry if the need arose.
“I have considered putting the house up for sale, though,” she said as she fingered a hair on her chin. “But I’d have a few electrical kinks to work out first.”
“Oh.” That certainly would explain why she didn’t use her lights.
“I just love this neighborhood so much,” she said.
So, I proposed she move to a smaller house in our neighborhood. She agreed that would be the ideal solution. However, she insisted the new house would have to be within a one block radius because “dear Gertrude couldn’t bear for us to be parted.”
I snorted trying to choke back my laughter then recovered quickly by faking a hacking cough. Mrs. Matilda studied me reproachfully through her glasses before continuing.
“The pleasant memories I associate with this house can be taken with me wherever I go, but a friend like Gertrude can’t be replaced.”
“I’m sure she feels the same way about you,” I replied.
Her revelation that she’d considered putting her house up for sale was very good news for me. I was confident I’d steered her in the right direction and decided to not push my luck. She was, after all, a stubborn woman and would need to be prodded along slowly.
We chatted a while longer, mostly about the weather and the recent robberies. I hastily made my farewells when she began expounding on her theory about the Johnsons again. I may have thought something was off about Amanda and her family too, but I certainly didn’t think they were burglars. I paused at her front door and turned to face her.
“Mrs. Matilda, can I sleep over here on Friday night? I’d like to see your poltergeist in action.”
She just looked at me for a second with a frown on her face. Then she broke into a wide grin. “I haven’t had a sleepover with another woman in more than sixty years.”
“Is that a yes?”
I stopped next door to tell Ms. Gertie about Mrs. Matilda’s thoughts on moving. At my insistence, I remained on the porch and we talked through her screen door. I could feel cool air billowing out around Ms. Gertie’s lime green pantsuit. The unmistakable smell of banana bread was carried along on the air conditioning.
“She can’t do that!” Ms. Gertie blurted out.
I was disappointed. “But I thought that would be the perfect solution.”
“No, no, no,” Ms. Gertie admonished, shaking her head so hard that her strawberry milkshake colored wisps of hair fluttered slightly on her shiny pink scalp. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.” She seemed more puzzled than me by this admission.
I heard the “Ding!” of her kitchen timer and we both looked over her shoulder longingly for a second. I knew she needed to remove her loaf of bread from the oven, and I wished I’d stopped by an hour later so I could have had a slice.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do,” I said once again as I reluctantly turned to go.