I was more at a loss than ever over Ms. Gertie’s relationship with Mrs. Matilda. It still seemed to me that Mrs. Matilda moving in with Ms. Gertie was the perfect solution, albeit an extremely risky one. I feared their friendship couldn’t stand the pressure of them both living under the same roof. I decided to broach the subject with Mrs. Matilda on Friday night at our sleep-over. I was still mulling it over when my kids came home from school, and I was thrilled by their raucous distraction.
After snacks, homework, and changing into play clothes, we took Frank for a long walk around the neighborhood. Dylan was still working on his family history project at school and he seemed to have a million questions. Katie Nicole answered some of them and I was impressed by how much she knew about me.
We walked along: the picture-perfect family in their picture-perfect neighborhood. I’d often thought Rain Lane should be the backdrop on a movie set. My kids, in their shorts and t-shirts, looked as all-American as the neighborhood around them. Katie Nicole’s ponytail swung around her shoulders, shining like spun gold in the sunlight, as she patiently explained our roots in Holland.
Dylan was surprised to learn our heritage was Dutch, although my grandparents lived in Amsterdam. I’ve noticed that children tend to forget things as obvious as the noses on their faces if they aren’t constantly reminded of them.
“Where do you think the KinderEggs come from?” Katie Nicole asked him.
“Actually, they’re from Germany,” I corrected.
Then Dylan surprised me by thinking I was old enough to recall first-hand knowledge of “man’s precipitation.” It was my turn to look at him strangely then glance at the sky for signs of rain. He patiently explained how Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves.
“You man emancipation,” Katie Nicole crowed, overjoyed to correct her little brother yet again.
I couldn’t help but laugh over “man’s precipitation,” and their silly banter helped push Ms. Gertie and Mrs. Matilda out of my head for the remainder of the evening. I started to tell Bill about “man’s precipitation” as we sat down to eat dinner, but was interrupted by Katie Nicole’s whine.
“Yuck! I hate meatloaf.”
“I love meatloaf,” Dylan said, sliding into his chair.
I resumed my antidote as Katie Nicole tried to hide her peas under a mound of mashed potatoes. Bill laughed at Dylan’s take on emancipation, and Dylan hung his head.
“Hey, I’m not laughing at you,” Bill said. He leaned over to tousle Dylan’s hair and it responded by sticking up in a couple of places like antennae. “I used to think the Pledge of Allegiance said ’I pledge all legions.” I would picture a legion of goblins defending America and it would crack me up.”
“I bet your teacher just loved you,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. I got in trouble a whole lot that first year. But by first grade I knew what it really said.”
We ate in silence for a moment, until I heard the sound of noisy chewing coming from underneath the table. I poked my head under it and saw Frank wolfing down a slice of meatloaf. I sat up and looked across the table at Katie Nicole’s wide-eyed stare. Then I looked down at her empty plate.
“I’m all done. May I please be excused?”
She grabbed her plate, deposited it in the kitchen, and disappeared into her room before I could scold her.
After clearing the dishes and loading them into the dishwasher, Bill suggested a rousing game of Clue before bedtime. Katie Nicole broke her self-imposed exile to join us, and Dylan triumphantly won for the first time ever!
“It sure makes it easier to play when you know how to read,” Dylan commented as he gathered up the tiny murder weapons.
“It’s like that with most things in life,” Bill said, folding up the board and returning it to the box. “Once you know all the facts, it’s easy to see the solution.”
The phrase was still resounding in my ears the next morning. “Once you know all the facts, it’s easy to see the solution,” I muttered to myself as I stepped out of the shower. I applied a little cream under my eyes from the Pot of Gold, and decided to compile a list of facts pertaining to the Ms. Gertie/ Mrs. Matilda situation.
I sat cross-legged on my bed in a matching bra and panty set and jotted in my notebook. I believed the idea of Mrs. Matilda moving in with Ms Gertie would be much better received if Mrs. Matilda somehow thought of it herself. I was stymied, however, on how to lead her down the path to come up with the proper conclusion. I came up with a few points I could use in my favor, and I quickly wrote them down. All of my scribblings could be summarized in two simple sentences: Mrs. Matilda was frightened, lonely, and was willing to move out of her house but only if Ms. Gertie was nearby. Ms. Gertie, on the other hand, simply wanted to go about her normal daily routine with her close relationship with Mrs. Matilda intact. I closed my notebook and placed it on top of my nightstand.
I scrunched mousse into my wavy hair and twisted a few strands around my fingers to created ringlets, and wondered again if the older women’s friendship could survive them living together. I used the blow-dryer for a few minutes and, for the very first time, considered Mrs. Matilda’s tremendous amount of stuff in relation to the size of Ms. Gertie’s house. Unfortunately, I knew that would pose another problem.
I took care in choosing my outfit and spent extra time on my makeup because I was attending the kids’ Award Ceremony at school. I wore a cream colored skirt suit, with a slit up my thigh. Under the jacket, I wore a scarlet camisole, and the bright color made me feel perky and confidant.
I thought I looked pretty good as I scanned the half full auditorium. I spotted Bill, saving a seat for me near the front. I gratefully slid into it just as Principal Fowler began the presentation. Dylan got a certificate for perfect attendance and Katie Nicole got a Good Citizen award. I was amused by all the gap-toothed faces smiling out at us from Dylan’s class. I also noticed several girls in my daughter’s class had dressed alike, Katie Nicole among them.
I suddenly remembered how I’d missed Katie Nicole’s very first Awards Ceremony. I had the flu and felt like I was on my deathbed, otherwise wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. Bill had been in charge of getting our beautiful daughter ready. When the pictures got developed, I’d been horrified to see her in a pair of filthy jeans from the hamper and her unbrushed hair starting to twist into dreadlocks.
I brought myself back to reality and tried to focus, but the tedium of the ceremony soon overcame me and my eyes and thoughts began to wander. I started thinking about Mrs. Matilda’s poltergeist. The thought of a poltergeist still left me apprehensive, but the thought of an intruder made me downright afraid. Still, I was looking forward to spending the night in her house and seeing for myself. I also couldn’t wait to suggest she should move in with Ms. Gertie.
Principal Fowler’s voice broke into my thoughts as she wrapped up the ceremony by listing all the students who were on the Honor Roll. Both my kids were named and as Bill and I filed out the door, I was handed two new bumper stickers to prove how proud I was of them. I smiled at Bill before handing him one to put on his pick-up truck.
Bill followed me home for lunch, and the rare luxury of a quiet meal together inspired us to make a lunch date of it. Complete with linen napkins, candles, and Perrier in the good crystal stemware.
We also managed to have a lunch time “quickie” before Bill had to return to work for an important meeting with a Pentagon representative. We made love on the living room rug; another luxury we rarely indulged in ever since Katie Nicole had walked in on us late at night when she was three. The ensuing questions were so candid I hoped to never relive the experience again.
“Thanks for the nooner, Mrs. Smith,” Bill said, adjusting his belt and throwing his jacket over his shoulder.
“Anytime Mr. Smith,” I said before he headed out the door.
I spent a lazy afternoon waiting for the kids to come home from school. I wiled away the hours by writing down ideas on how to convince Mrs. Matilda to move in with Ms. Gertie. And how to convince Ms. Gertie it was in her best interest to take on Mrs. Matilda as a roommate. I knew I could just approach Mrs. Matilda and ask her outright, but I still thought the idea would be better received if she thought of it herself. However, finding a way to accomplish that seemed to be no small feat.
We rewarded our kids for their academic accomplishments by taking them to DQ that night. Katie Nicole and I got the exact same thing as always: a large chocolate Blizzard with Oreos and Reese’s Pieces. As we were leaving, Bert and Ruth strolled in, holding hands and making moon eyes at each other.
There was a message from Heather on the answering machine when we returned home. “I just wanted to let you know that I took your advice. Chavez is coming to dinner tomorrow night so I can get to know him better.”
“She doesn’t sound very happy about it,” Bill commented.
“I probably wouldn’t be either.” But at least she’s still speaking to me, I thought.
I spent all of Friday painting, knowing the piece was small enough to stash somewhere if I finished it before selling anything else. I ruminated over the Mrs. Matilda/ Ms. Gertie situation as I painted. Some of my most profound thoughts came to me while I was painting, and once again I wasn’t disappointed.
The two older women moving in together still seemed like the perfect solution, no matter what angle I looked at it from. But how to get the proud women to come to that conclusion on their own still eluded me. I knew by Friday afternoon they needed a gentle push in the right direction. Besides, I needed Ms. Gertie’s consent before my sleepover with Mrs. Matilda. I tossed down my paintbrush without rinsing it, and stalked off down the street.
Ms. Gertie’s oven timer dinged just as she let me in and I followed her to the kitchen. She wore yellow polyester pants with an elastic waistband and a yellow and white checkered poplin blouse. Around her protruding belly a frilly white apron was tied. I sat at her breakfast nook and admired her gleaming new appliances and how spacious the room was. The outside of her house did a fine job hiding the vast size of the interior.
At first, Ms. Gertie was uncomfortable accepting a visitor in her kitchen but I assured her that I, unlike Mrs. Matilda, “was as right as rain with it.” She pulled the cookie sheet out of the oven and sat down beside me. She handed me a glass of iced tea and a steaming Snickerdoodle, and smiled expectantly at me. For once, she seemed to have no interest in making small talk and I realized she must not have any new gossip to share with me. I took a deep breath and got right to the point.
“Have you given any more thought to Mrs. Matilda moving in with you?” I asked.
“You were serious?” She looked flabbergasted by the suggestion and tea sloshed from her glass onto the shiny oak table. She absently wiped it up with her apron as she squinted around the room.
Her cozy home was surprisingly immense, with a kitchen two women could easily bake in without getting in each others way. I knew the rear of the house contained Ms. Gertie’s bedroom, a sewing room, and a spare bedroom. A spare bedroom eternally made up for a guest who never arrived.
Ms. Gertie clucked her tongue. “Does she even want to?”
I shrugged. “I wanted to run the idea by you before talking to her.”
“Hmm,” Ms. Gertie said, looking with narrowed eyes through the doorway into her precisely uncluttered living room. I knew she was trying to envision the room with Mrs. Matilda’s vast collection of antique knickknacks strewn about. Her decorating taste differed from Mrs. Matilda’s as much as her looks, but I thought the situation was feasible with a bit of compromise on both their parts. Well, mostly on Mrs. Matilda’s part, by the look of things.
“You let me know what she says first,” Ms. Gertie finally said.
A victorious smile lit up my face as I patted her blue-veined hand. As far as I was concerned, half the battle was won. I didn’t have enough time to talk to Mrs. Matilda before my kids were due home from school, so I made my farewells to Ms. Gertie and headed for home.
Bert and Ruth were swinging on their glider when I walked by. They simultaneously raised their hands in greeting then waved me over. I checked my watch before joining them, and sat on their porch step with my face tipped up to the warm sunshine. Summer was rapidly approaching and a hint of the infernal heat yet to come was already in the air.
There’s not much to do during the summer in the south except swim, eat copious amounts of ice cream, and stand in front of any air conditioning available. Every rainy day would be spent at the library and the trips to the playground would cease. I knew the weekly Slurpee jaunts to the corner 7-11 would soon begin again. As well as long, blistering days lounging by the neighborhood pool, slathered in a strange-smelling combination of sunscreen and sweat.
“It’s gonna be a hot one this year,” Bert said around a mouthful of bubble gum.
The statement was a standard one for the old-timers around the neighborhood. They spent nine months out of the year complaining how hot it was going to be, and spent the other three months complaining about how hot it actually was.
I nodded in agreement because every year was a hot one during the dog days of summer. Each year by mid-June I’d think it couldn’t possibly get any hotter, and by mid-August I would inevitably be proven wrong. I believe the phrase “hotter than blue blazes” originated in my hometown.
“By this time next month it’ll be too hot to sit out here,” Ruth remarked.
“I’m surprised to see you at home,” I directed at Bert, but looked at Ruth. She met my eyes with such a wide smile that I knew she was no longer bothered by his presence.
“I took the day off from Ralph’s.” He slipped his arm around Ruth’s bony shoulder. “I was afraid I was neglecting my beautiful bride. Besides, Ralph has someone else to help him look after the store.”
“Who?” Ruth and I asked.
“Henry,” Bert said.
“Tootsie’s grandson?” Ruth asked.
“That’s the one. He’s been hanging around for the past few days.” I was about to tell him to keep his eye on Henry when Bert said, “I caught him swiping a couple of comics the other day.”
“What did you do?” Ruth asked.
“Do?” He looked at her sharply. “I didn’t do anything. It seems to me the boy has enough problems right now. If he wants to steal a couple of comics and get the thrill of thinking he’s getting over on a couple of old coots, then Ralph and I are fine with that. We figure it’s well worth the few bucks loss if it keeps him out of trouble elsewhere around town. At least he’s reading.”
The kids’ bus came then, and Bert reached into his shirt pocket and tossed me two pieces of gum for them. Ruth walked me to the sidewalk as an excuse to whisper in my ear.
“He’s gone enough now that I miss him. And when I miss him, I thoroughly enjoy our time together.”
She gave my wrist a friendly squeeze with her claw-like hand, then waved at my kids before returning to her loving husband’s side. I was genuinely happy that everything had worked out so well for her, and I wished the other three problems were so simple.
We had a Stouffer’s family-sized lasagna, salad, and garlic bread for dinner. Occasionally, Bill and I would create a three-layer vegetarian lasagna together. It was fun, but extremely time-consuming, so we usually had frozen lasagnas instead. Besides, I thought Stouffer’s was every bit as good.
Dylan picked the tomatoes out of his salad and Katie Nicole picked ground beef out of her lasagna. Frank lay under the center of the table, waiting for anything to hit the floor. Bill and I ate everything, and I reminded them yet again of my sleepover with Mrs. Matilda later that evening. I also told them Mrs. Matilda might move in with Ms. Gertie. To which Bill suggested it might be better if it were the other way around.
“What do you mean?” Katie Nicole asked.
“Well, Ms. Gertie’s house might not seem so big once Mrs. Matilda gets in it.”
“Yeah, she sure does have a lot of stuff,” Dylan said.
Bill and I exchanged a bemused glance. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant.”
We laughed and the rest of the dinner passed by uneventfully. We cleared the table together, and a very disappointed Frank emerged a few seconds later.
Bethany dropped by just in time for dessert. She must have come straight from work because she was wearing one of her severe, no-nonsense power suits. I spooned dollops of whipped cream on the bowls of strawberry shortcake and remembered that Heather was having dinner with Tiffani and Chavez. I absently wondered how she was holding up and I vowed to visit her the next day.
“Tomorrow night’s our third date,” Bethany whispered around a mouthful of strawberries and cream.
We sat on the back porch for a little “adult-only” time while Bill watched TV in the living room with the kids. I wondered at the significance of the number until Bethany winked at me. I realized she was contemplating sleeping with Brandon for the first time, and I raised my eyebrows at her.
“Is that a rule nowadays?”
She rolled her large eyes at my dating ignorance before confiding she was falling in love with him. She wondered aloud if he felt the same way, and I asked her what her heart had to say to that question. She haltingly admitted she thought he felt the same way, but “sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a guy who’s falling in love and a guy who just wants to get into your pants.”
It had been a long time since I’d had a third date, but I still clearly remembered the “Does or doesn’t he?” feeling attached to the memory. I instructed Bethany to listen to her heart.
“Just follow your instincts and you’ll be fine.”
“So, you think I should tell him how I feel?” Bethany asked, sounding flustered by the prospect.
“Good.” Bethany breathed a sigh of relief. “I’d rather he say it first.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Bethany left after extracting my promise to help her dress the following afternoon. For a relaxing Saturday, I had a very busy day ahead of me. Bill and I were taking the kids roller skating in the morning. After skating, I had to drop Katie Nicole off at Kiley’s house for a sleepover. Dylan had expressed interest in taking Frank on a moonlit walk and I’d promised him we would before his bedtime. Plus, I couldn’t forget to see how Heather had held up against Chavez. Now, I added “helping Bethany dress” to the list.
After Bethany left, I changed into a t-shirt and a pair of shorts with a draw-string waist. I pulled my hair into a ponytail and tossed my toothbrush and toothpaste into my purse. When I walked into the living room a few minutes later, Bill was shuffling a deck of cards and explaining the rules of ‘21’ to our kids. I gave each of them a kiss and patted Frank’s head then quickly walked to Mrs. Matilda’s house.
Her house had one dim light shining through the front window. From the sidewalk, its massive size and peaked roofs made it look like a foreboding mansion. Perhaps not, I decided. No, it definitely looked more like a haunted house.
Mrs. Matilda let me in wearing an extra-long, extra-extra large nightshirt, with vertical blue stripes. Vertical stripes were supposed to be slimming, but they seemed to have the opposite effect on Mrs. Matilda. She wore pink sponge curlers in her hair and she appeared larger than life. Never before had she resembled the ‘Old Lady in the Shoe’ character I had drawn than at that precise moment.
All her curtains were pulled tight against the approaching night, and I was thankful the temperature was only in the low seventies. Otherwise, the rancid smell in her house would have been too strong for me to sleep.
We sat amongst the shadows in her living room, with only one flickering Tiffany lamp to illuminate the vast space. I’d already declined her offer of something to eat or drink, and I’d assured her I didn’t want to watch TV, nor did I wish to play cards. I didn’t bother to mention I didn’t know how to play any of the “granny games” she listed. I was too afraid she would insist on teaching me. I did, however, want to talk to her. I’d gone round and round and finally decided the best approach was to be blunt.
“How do you feel about moving in with Ms. Gertie?”
The lamp chose that moment to dim, buzz, and go black for a second, before blazing forth with a temporary glow.
“Have you discussed it with her?” Mrs. Matilda asked.
I shrugged. “She wanted to know what you thought.”
“I think I rather like the idea.” Her bushy gray eyebrows lifted into the deep creases of her forehead in delighted surprise.
“Well, I guess that’s settled then,” I said, feeling incredibly smug.
Mrs. Matilda thumped her cane on the floor. “Just as soon as you speak to Gertrude.”
“Don’t you think it would be better if you told her the good news yourself?”
“Certainly not,” she snapped. Her glasses slid down her nose and her close-set eyes were glowering at me from the doughy flesh of her face, like a couple of raisins squished into a cookie. “And have her think I’m feeble and can’t take care of myself? Certainly not!”
“Okay,” I sighed, despondently wondering how long the present situation would take to play itself out. I’d had enough and decided my services would be withdrawn after talking to Ms. Gertie on Mrs. Matilda’s behalf one last time.
We went to bed shortly after that, and as we ascended the stairs the temperature climbed right along with us. The second floor was a good ten degrees hotter, but the smell wasn’t nearly as bad. I was grateful she kept the third floor sealed off, because I knew it would be even hotter still.
I slept across the hall from Mrs. Matilda’s room, in what had once been the nanny’s quarters. Hence, the private bathroom that Mrs. Matilda was quick to point out to me. There was a pedestal sink, claw-foot bathtub, and porcelain toilet with a rust stain in it. The bed was a cast iron monstrosity with curlicue vines climbing up the wall to make a crisscrossed-patterned headboard.
“I hope you find it comfortable,” Mrs. Matilda said from the doorway. “Just give a holler if you need anything during the night. I’ll be sure to hear you because we shall leave our doors open.” She inclined her head at me and smiled. “Good night, dear.”
“Good night, Mrs. Matilda.”
I removed my shoes, brushed my teeth, and lay down on top of the blankets on the bed. My eyes darted here and there, trying to track every strange sound. And there were a lot of them to be heard. Her big old house creaked and groaned, clicked and squeaked, and there was even the occasional clank and tap. It took me quite a while to realize most of the sounds were actually Mrs. Matilda thrashing around in her noisy bed.
Even after I figured it out, I still couldn’t get to sleep. I was nervous by the prospect of seeing either a poltergeist or an intruder. I wasn’t sure which one made me more apprehensive. I contemplated sneaking out and going home; I knew Bill and the kids were still up, probably playing Gin/Rummy. But I knew I couldn’t just bail on Mrs. Matilda, though, so I spent a sleepless night twitching at every sound and repeatedly checking the clock.
Fortunately, Mrs. Matilda was an early riser, and as soon as I heard her stirring about I got up and brushed my teeth again and met her in the hallway. She asked me if I wanted breakfast, coffee, or tea as we descended the steep stairs. I declined because I had other plans.
I hurried home and slid into bed beside Bill at 5:14. I think I was asleep by 5:15 and didn’t wake up until eight, when the kids brought me breakfast in bed for no reason other than their love for me.