“Now this house – This house! - It's right in your price range and even has an amenity or two you hadn't specified,” the Realtor beamed a smile, “Added bonus's you might say.”
“Oh?” I sighed as I climbed out of her car and put my cane on the pavement to help lever myself up. I'd never considered the possibility of using a cane before being an old man; I was still getting used to the idea.
“Oh yes, pool in the backyard and this one does have a central heat and air unit. Oh and the roof is only three years old.” She continued. I glanced at the house, a nice ranch style done in brick. The lawn was small and a bit long. Hedges ran along the side of the house with the occasional window peeking out at the neighborhood from behind the leaves. They too needed a trim; these things you noticed as a home buyer but not as an owner. I reached for the back door of the car and let Marshall out.
“Well Marshall, let's take a look.”
“Oh, are you sure?” the realtor asked while wrinkling her nose and smiling all at once.
“Well, it's a new space. What if he has an...well an accident?”
“Don't worry, he put on clean underwear.” I rolled my eyes while I clipped Marshall's collar. His nose hit the ground and the brick house wasn't even a speck in his consciousness. I glanced at the house while the realtor popped on a professional smile and handed me the fact sheet on the property with tax information, square footage and average power for the previous owner. She began walking some of the yard, hoping Marsh would spill before rather than after. Marshall trotted to the light post at the end of the walk and sniffed, lifted his leg, then double checked to be sure he'd gone there.
If anything the realtor looked more nervous than before. She walked to the door with Marshall and I ambling behind her and began working the numeric lock to get the key. I took a moment to glance around the neighborhood. It was built in the '50's or '60's, mostly single story buildings. Most lawns were thin, many had the corners worn through to the dirt from people cutting across them. Many looked somewhat similar in style to the one I was viewing, with small front porches, some of which had been enclosed. I decided that if I wanted to sit out here in high mosquito season that I spray myself and put a huge bug zapper out. Listening to the little blood suckers fly and fry was decent entertainment.
“Here we go, so this would be the living room,” she started. I held the screen door for Marshall and then followed him through, allowing the screen to wheeze shut behind me. The living room was small by any standard; I think the term she was using was cozy. Just to the right as you entered the house there was a step down and the living room officially began; that was a feature, called a sunken floor. About five or six feet ahead of me a door stood open and the hallway went off, I expect, to the two bedrooms and a bath the fact sheet mentioned. The living room carpet was orange except where a piece of furniture had obviously been, and there it was bright orange. It was as if someone looked at Bozo the clown's hair and wanted that exact shade. It ran the length of the room and to the step up to the dining room which was dominated by faded linoleum.
“Well, new carpeting would probably be in order.” She smiled.
“You think so?” I put a hand to my chin and glanced around the room, “I think my living room would go well with orange.”
“Well then, one less thing you have to change!” she replied merrily.
“On second though, nothing I have goes with orange. Oh well.” I sighed and walked across the living room and to into the eat in kitchen. The listing claimed a separate dining room but in fact the kitchen and dining area were one room. They too were cozy and the end of the kitchen looped back to allow you access to the hallway. Large sliding glass doors looked out into the backyard and the pool she'd mentioned earlier. I didn't want a pool, too much work and expense.
“Now the kitchen could use some updating, but everything in here is in very good shape, well cared for. It looks like you stepped right back into the fifties, doesn't it?” she added a small nervous laugh. I glanced at the little kitchen, which could be termed serviceable. It had the original steel cabinets the house was probably built with, Republic Steel logo's emblazoned here and there. A large ceramic coated iron deep sink was placed against the back wall with a window over it to look into the back yard. I walked to the glass doors and looked out on the tiny patio and the pool.
“Now the stove is gas, and so is the furnace by the way. I just love this sink with the goose neck faucet, makes clean up so much easier!” She glanced over at me and noticed I was looking at the yard. “Isn't it the cutest yard? Now I know you didn't specify a pool, but the yard definitely fit with your desire to have only a small space to care for.”
“Does the body cost extra?” I asked. Marshall snuffed at the door.
“Pardon?” the nervous laugh was back. I pointed at the built in pool.
“The body floating in the pool. Does it come with the house?”
Her shoes clacked quickly over to the window and she let out a frustrated sigh. “Every time I show this house...” and she clacked to the sliding door and unlocked it with more force than was, strictly speaking, necessary. “I have told you that is not your pool!” she hollered as she stepped out the back door and onto the patio. It was a small step down and she wobbled for a moment on her high heels. Of course at the sound of the door opening the floating body miraculously recovered and swam to the edge of the pool. Marshall huffed in greeting, but the swimmer grabbed his things and was gone over the chain link.
“I am so sorry about that. I have told that boy more than once,” she sighed and put her hand on her forehead and tried to take a calming breath. Marshall trotted over to sniff where he'd been and slowly followed the scent to the fence. You could hear his nose taking large samples of the intruders scent, the sides of his mouth flapping like a bellows.
“So are the bedrooms on the same scale as the living room?” I asked. Marshall laid on his side and was content to sniff the grass where the swimmer had last been.
“Oh. Well, yes, they are on the cozy side,” she said trying to rally her realtor abilities. “All the rooms could use a fresh coat of paint, to be honest, but the master bedroom does have the attached bath to compliment it.” She wobbled back into the kitchen and, with a last look at Marshall who was now absently wagging his tail, I followed her deeper into the house. She was right, each bedroom needed new paint. It had faded except for the points where something had obviously been on the wall for a long time and blocked the sun.
“You know what I love about this house is the small touches, it's how you know it was loved.” She smiled.
“Well, the small things like these shelves that were built right into the wall are just darling and not built when the house was I don't think. The columns on either side of the living room entrance? No,” she shook her head with a smile, maybe a real one, “I picture a husband and wife just starting out and he was handy, making all these improvements to their house to put their mark and sensibility on it.”
I thumped into the bedroom, which was a shade of green that didn't exist in nature and glanced at the closets and the master bath. Pink tile. It was like she held out a bottle of Pepto Bismol to the tile clerk and said 'I want that shade'. Although, I mused, in that light it was a tad soothing, or could be if I had indigestion. I thumped back through the room and glanced at the spare bedroom, all the while checking the ceilings for signs of water damage. This room had a worn burgundy carpet that just made the room look smaller.
“Well what do you think?” She beamed at me. It was the smile of a realtor who has shown a house so many times she's become convinced it will never sell.
“The rooms are pretty small and I'd have to replace all the carpet and paint the rooms; not something easy for me to do.” I said as I made my way back to the kitchen and leaned on the counter.
“Frankly speaking, I think most homes in the range you specified are going to need most of those things. Now if you wanted to look higher in price, there will be more move in ready homes.” She leaned against the counter and smiled brightly, “On the bright side the upkeep is low, the major things are newer, like the roof and I think the furnace is less than five years old. It does have a lot of pluses!”
“Yes, those tings are true. Never the less, I will have to do those extras and they will cost.” I glanced out the window where Marshall still lay. His snout was quivering as he sampled the air and the sides of his mouth puffed with his inquiries; his tail still idly thumped. I glanced at the realtor. “Let's talk numbers.”
Walls painted and carpet replaced I stood in the cool morning air directing the movers as to what went where. After having been in a large house I'd had to get rid of some of the heavier, larger pieces of furniture. The realities of a new existence I guess. The movers were quick to get what now passed for my large pieces of furniture in place and the boxes to their rooms. I released a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding once the couch made it into the living room. I admit, it dominated the room, but so would a card table.
Marshall had returned to what was becoming a favorite corner of his in the yard; at least until he spotted a squirrel then every other thought left his furry head and he chased it. Fortunately for the local squirrel population Marshall wasn't exactly known for his speed and agility. By midday the movers were gone and just Marshall and I were left to unpack; which meant I'd unpack and Marshall would hang out in the yard.
I'd just made the bed when I heard the doorbell chime, a sickly muted metallic 'tink'. I thumped my way up the hall and answered the door with mild curiosity.
“Hi!” the woman at the door sang out, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” Her hair was huge. I mean pelicans could nest in it huge. It explained the size of her eyeglasses though, everything being kept in balance.
“Hello.” I replied without opening the screen. She took the liberty of removing that obstacle.
“I'm Grace DuPree I live just across the way from you!” She held out a large plate of plastic wrapped cookies in one hand and the other had a carafe with two Styrofoam cups riding atop the lid. I'm still not completely sure how she managed to get the screen door open. “Well just look at this room, my how paint and carpet changes things!”
“Won't you come in?” I said to her back as she crossed the living room and into the kitchen to set her items on the table.
“Oh you have so much done already, those movers are handy,” she set her housewarming gifts down and loosened the top on the carafe. “You know Lucinda and I,” she glanced at me, “She was who lived here before? She and I used to take morning coffee together and since she's been gone I've missed her and this kitchen so much.” She ran a hand along the textured metal surface of a cabinet door. “These were the cabinets to have when they were installed, never need replacing George told her.” She smiled and wrinkled her nose, “I hope I didn't offend by barging in.”
I was ready to tell her that she was, in fact, being rude when two things hit me. One was the smell of the coffee which was nothing short of a revelation to the olfactory senses. The second was Marshall had come to investigate and, as was his norm, had completely subjugated another grown adult into baby talk and nonsense words.
“Is it all right if he has a cookie? There's no chocolate in them,” Grace glanced at me through her enormous glasses.
“Sure,” I said in defeat as I sat at the table and rubbed my sore leg. I'd been standing on it too much lately and it was fatigued.
“Oh, you like my cookies? Do you? Sit up for me, look sharp now! What's his name?”
“Oh what a handsome name for such a rogue of a creature. You know how handsome you are? Yes I'll just bet you do!” Grace fussed over Marsh for a few more minutes before dragging her offerings to the table where she poured the two cups of coffee and put the cookies out before sitting.
“I'm sorry I didn't bring cream or sugar, but my hands were so darned full!” she smiled wide and I took in the details of her face. Her hair was iron gray and the lines on her face seemed more from laughter than worry. Her face caused a riot of moving wrinkles and crinkles. There is something powerful and interesting about black women with gray hair; something authoritative and comforting.
“The coffee smells very good,” I tried to smile.
“It was Lucinda's favorite. I'd bought some before she'd passed, thinking we'd share it. She didn't drive anymore you see but I can still get around so I'd buy it for her.” She smiled as she reached down to scratch Marsh's head. “Sometimes I make a pot just to think about her, that smell you know?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“Where are my manners? I didn't even ask your name!” She smiled widely and I tried to respond in kind.
“John Potenza,” I replied.
“Well it's so nice to meet you! I hope you love this house, it's a great place to live.”
“What makes you say that?” I sipped from the steaming cup. This was real coffee.
“Well Lucinda and George put a lot of love into this house before he passed on. They were here for years and years and then poor Lucinda lived on her own for what seemed like forever. It was George's life insurance that made it so she could keep the house, you know. Now the neighborhood is quiet; mostly old folks like me and we don't really burn the midnight oil like we used to you know.” She chuckled.
“Funny you mention the age of the neighborhood, when the realtor showed me the house there was a kid in the pool.”
“Oh? Well now, let's see,” her eyebrows drew together. “Oh well yes, I guess that would be Mauvin, Rita and Charles Franklin's grandson. Such a sad, sad story there.”
“I don't want to get involved, it was just strange to find someone in the pool.” I demurred.
“It's probably the only one around, the yards here are too small for that in general.” She placed a hand over mine and patted it, “Thank goodness you're not a gossip, not wanting to be involved. But to be honest you should get the skinny on the situations in this neighborhood before you're here long.”
I gave her what I hoped was an uninterested look and sipped the coffee. To my dismay, she plowed forward with her mental dossier on the neighborhood residents.
“The Franklin's are very nice people, but they were very strict with their children. Too strict if you ask me,” she tilted her head as if to look over her glasses at me, but they were far too large to allow for that. “They were the kind of strict that, well, as soon as those kids got out from under their thumbs they just went wild, that's what they did.”
I sipped my coffee and no sooner had I set the cup down than she refilled it while pushing the plate of cookies at me.
“The boy? Charles junior? He went off and married a stripper.” her hands went up and she smiled, closing her eyes for a moment. “Now where are my manners? They call them exotic dancers now, bless their hearts.”
I sipped on my coffee and took a cookie for good measure. Marshall put a paw on my leg and I gave him half the cookie.
“Turns out that temptress had a temper, used to beat the tar out of poor junior. I heard he came back to his parents house with cuts and bruises like a shaved raccoon that had gotten in a fight with a polecat. I think he just moved into his own place maybe a year ago?” She glanced at the ceiling as she searched her memory. I sipped my coffee while Marsh huffed next to me, requesting another cookie. I ignored him.
“The daughter, her name was Caroline. She went off to this conservative girls school and caused quite a ruckus. Way I hear it she gave bedspread a whole new meaning.” She frowned as if to show her opinion of that.
“I'm sorry, I'm not sure what all this has to do with...”
“Oh you'll see sugar, you'll see. Now have that big cookie there, make sure Marsh gets a healthy bite. All natural ingredients and home baked, he'll be all right with them.”
Marsh pushed against my leg as if in agreement. I handed him half the cookie and rubbed my leg wondering which was worse; the pain it gave me or inane boredom Grace was inflicting on me.
“So Caroline married Bill Miller, such a nice man,” She smiled and waved a hand at me as she spoke. “He was tall and handsome for a pale Irish fellow, but he knew how to treat her right. You know what I mean?”
I began to nod, agreement seemed safest, but she continued without really waiting for an answer.
“He treated her so that she wanted to reach up and be a better person, be the lady her parents foolishly tried to make her be instead of letting her want to be if you see my meaning. Aren't these cookies good? What do you think Marshall?” He wagged in response. Of course he was just hoping for another cookie and would agree to let me roast on an open flame if it advanced his cause.
“Caroline and Bill had two beautiful children, Sean and Mauvin. Now Sean was the older and he took after his momma with that raven hair and his daddy's pale complexion. Mmm hmm but he was a handsome boy. But about a year ago,” she put her hand around her coffee cup and adopted a contemplative expression. “Yes right about a year ago he killed himself. It still makes me so sad to think of that beautiful child no longer being in this world.”
A silence settled into the room, one not even Marshall seemed to be inclined to break. I tried not to be affected by her story of woe, to let it roll. I no longer had anyone besides Marshall and caring about others only opened you up to unhappiness. I decided I needed to change the topic and in so doing try and ease her towards the door. I also decided I needed to stop answering the door.
“Why would Lucinda have a pool if she lived here alone?” I asked. Marsh nudged me and and I gave him a cookie. I decided I'd better eat one too lest she be offended that only the dog ate her baked goods.
“Oh the exercise as she got on. Sure,” she waved her hands while she spoke, “she'd do the water aerobics and some swimming to keep in shape and her younger sister Maria would bring her kids and grand kids for cookouts and family get togethers and what not. Lucinda never did have children, it was a very sad thing for her.”
At last Grace stood and began walking towards the door with her now empty carafe in hand. “Now you holler if you want some company while you unload your worldly treasures. Oh,” she stopped suddenly and brought me up short. “Watch out for Henderson on your right there. He's whacko.” With that, she was gone. I closed the door and looked at Marshall.
He snuffed, went to his water dish and began pushing it. “If you didn't have so many cookies you wouldn't be so thirsty you know.” Marsh wagged as I filled his dish and he danced in anticipation of the cool drink. I put the water bowl on the floor and Marsh lapped it up, making a puddle all over the immediate floor.
“You're a messy drinker, Marsh. Clean it up,” I smiled at him as he wagged his tail and waddled on out the back door.
It had taken the better part of a month to go through the closing, the carpeting and painting. The moving had been relatively fast, but the unpacking...the unpacking lingered. If I wasn't sure what to do with something, in the spare bedroom it went. If I didn't start making more decisions I wouldn't be able to enter the spare room anymore. It wasn't easy though, finding homes for some things.
Sometimes things have a purpose when two people share them, and when one is gone, it loses that purpose. Even when it has no use, sometimes letting go of it is hard to do. I had a bunch of stuff that was hard to let go of. It was kind of stupid, after all I'd paid to have these things moved here. But I guess Andy'd paid too, so there was some off the wall justice in that. Or maybe I was just rationalizing, putting off things until I was ready. If I'd ever be.
I had a small rolling cart, like something a granny in the city would use. It was collapsible so I could take it on the bus and back, filled with groceries. One of these days I'd have to think about a car again, but not yet. For now I'd just head down the street with my cart trailing behind me, my cane thumping out a beat you couldn't really dance to and that weird, enormous Chrysler Imperial above whose wheel one could see hair and perhaps the tops of very, very large glasses. The horn honked. I wasn't sure it was intentional.
“Oh, Mr. John! Hello! It's Grace!” The voice warbled out of the open window as the car coasted to a stop, front wheel kissing the curb. I bent down to the open window to see that smiling, wrinkled face and those huge glasses. Her hair was squashed against the roof of the car and a very bored looking man sat next to her.
“Hello Mr. John! Hank and I were going to the Piggly Wiggly, would you be heading there too?”
“Fellow if you have a brain in your head you will not let this woman drive you anywhere.” Remarked Hank.
“But you're riding with her,” I pointed out, then mentally slapped myself.
He rolled his eyes and said tiredly, “What can I say, I'm a thrill seeker?”
“Hank! Will you stop flappin' your gums? You're going to make a bad impression on our new neighbor!”
“Can't make it worse, he's met you already, hadn't he?” He grumped.
“He hasn't met Henderson yet.”
“Oh,” his voice turned serious as he fixed me with a sober look. “Watch him, he's whacko.”
Grace nodded as if to say she'd told me so, which she had of course. “Get in Mr. John, it's fixin' to rain.”
I glanced up at the clear blue sky and wondered from where this rain would come.
“Grace, I told you it's raining in Biloxi, not here!” Hank humphed.
“Oh?” She squinted and looked out the windshield at the sky. I glanced at my watch and realized I'd stood too long listening to these people and would now miss my bus.
“Well, I do appreciate the offer. Mind if I put this in the trunk?” I pointed at my cart.
“Your funeral.” Hank muttered.
Grace seemed to have no issues driving, despite her glasses and near constant sparring with Hank, who seemed to be her husband. Once at the store I thanked them and headed off to do my own shopping, but inevitably kept running into them. Hank eventually found me and started keeping time with me rather than Grace.
“Grace says she pestered you over coffee the other day.”
“She did visit,” I conceded. I picked up a can and tried to pretend to focus on it.
“Have trouble bein' regular, huh?”
“Excuse me?” my head whipped to face him.
“Well, you do have a can of fiber in your hands. If you need more fiber, you ain't regular, now are you?”
My eyes darted back to the can and, dammit, he was right. I put it back quickly. “No, I...thought it was something else.”
“Can't think of anything besides fiber comes in a can like that. 'Cept maybe Old Gold,” he placed a hand on my arm to get my full attention, “You don't drink Old Gold do you?”
“Oh, no, no.” I shook my head, “Never even heard of it. I've heard of Old English, but that's furniture polish.”
“Pretty near the same thing,” He nodded sagely.
“Um. Right.” I thumped forward and pulled my list from my pocket and hoped Hank would go find Grace.
“So you like that fancy coffee too, huh?” No such luck.
“Lucinda used to like it, got Grace hooked. That Italian coffee, Lavazza. She said you liked it t'other day.”
“Oh, is that what that was? Yes, it was very good, I should have asked her what it was but...well.” I shrugged.
“Oh, yeah, I know. She came in and yapped forever about nothing just to hear her head rattle. I told her a hunnert times, I don't mind that she talks if she'd just say something!”
“Oh, well she was telling me about Lucinda, the neighborhood...” Coffee, where was the coffee aisle? I bet Grace was there and I can get some coffee and dump Hank.
“Oh yeah, she said Mauvin was in your pool. Poor kid. He's had it rough.”
“Haven't we all?” I muttered.
“Losing someone, a sibling? That's a singular kind of pain. Way I hear it, his folks can't bear to look on him right now.”
“That...that's a shame.” I replied lamely, wishing this conversation was over.
“Yeah, sure is. But considering how messed up their mother was? Still, Mauvin's always been a nice kid. Sean was going to be the big man on campus though, he was a bear of a kid. Took after his mamma like that too.”
“She was big boned, stop being so mean.” Grace suddenly wheeled up and I said a silent thank you to a deity I didn't believe in.
“Big bones don't give you dappled skin, woman.”
“She's going through a hard time, quit being so ornery.”
“Not like I'm telling her now, am I? She's not standing here so I can inform her that bones just don't come that big outside of a dinosaur!”
“Mrs. Grace? Here's the coffee you asked for ma'am.” An average sized kid with reddish tinged blond hair held out a can of Lavazza to Grace who pursed her lips at Hank and then smiled at the clerk.
“Thank you Mauvin, thank you kindly.”
I really wanted to get away from the scene right then and caught the clerk's attention. “Do you have any more of that? Mind showing me where it is?” Alas it was not to be.
“Oh, my manners, I've forgotten them again!” Grace put a dramatic hand over her heart.
“Long as you remember where the car keys are,” muttered Hank. She ignored him.
“Mauvin this is Mr. John. He moved in to Lucinda's old house. He has a marvelous dog named Marshall, a real handsome rogue that one. Oh!” She turned to face me, “You know marrow bones are very good for their teeth, just let me run to the meat counter.” She trundled off with Hank muttering behind her.
“Coffee is this way, Mr. John.” the clerk turned and started down the aisle and I thumped afterward. At least it was the opposite direction my unfortunate companions had gone. I took stock of the fellow as we walked, although there really wasn't much to say. He wore the standard khaki pants, white button down shirt covered with an apron, and sneakers with a Piggly Wiggly ball cap. He was average size in height and weight and, unlike me, walked unimpeded with both legs. Yep, he was a boy.
Turning at the end of the aisle he led me down two rows and to a set of shelves filled with coffee. There was a small, circular stool with wheels under it. He stepped up onto the stool, which collapsed down over the wheels while he reached on the top shelf for a can of coffee; the requested Lavazza.
Handing it to me, I thanked him and turned to continue my shopping. I was stopped by a glance at his impassive, lifeless face as he climbed down from the stool, which popped back up to expose its wheels without his weight to hold it in place. In my minds eye I saw Marshall sniffing the grass where he'd hopped the fence, laying on his side with his tail thumping. I groaned inwardly.
“So, you're a swimmer? Ah Mauvin, right?”
His face went from neutral to guarded in moments flat. I lifted a hand and tried to smile. “Not making a fuss, just thought you ought to know I nearly gave the Realtor a heart attack when I asked if the body floating in the pool came with the house.”
A fleeting smile passed his lips, flickered in his eyes and was gone. I grew uncomfortable, wondering what I thought I was doing talking to this strange boy that my dog seemed to think smelled good or something.
“Well, just so we're clear, pools open.” I turned and thumped away wondering why in the world I'd say such a thing.
I had evaded Grace and Hank at the checkout and managed to make it out of the parking lot unobserved. Well, by those two anyway. Mauvin was watching me go with a look I can't properly describe. There were definitely wheels turning in his head but whether it was to call the police about a potential pervert or considering the luxury of a swim I couldn't say. I blame Marshall.
I caught the bus without incident, and finally arrived back on my doorstep and was greeted with dancing and snorting as soon as I'd cleared the door. After wheeling into the kitchen I opened the door and let Marsh out while putting things away. I reflected on the trip to the store and tried to make sense of it. Andy could probably have helped me to sort it out, but all there was to handle this was myself. And Marshall of course.
Andy and I had been together three years before we married. Our families weren't thrilled and most sent a gift or card, but attendance was sparse. A year later Marshall wandered into our lives, a rescue for a sort of friend that was downsizing. How do you downsize a life? Regardless, Marshall was the child we'd never had; spoiled and oddly intuitive. He had a sixth sense for people in need and, almost a year to the day later when Andy died suddenly, Marsh was there to support and lend his own furry brand of comfort.
He trotted back inside and began sniffing the cart, looking for the items that belonged to him, no doubt.
“Dinner isn't for a while yet.” I told him while reaching into his treat bucket. I held out the biscuit to him and he promptly dropped his butt to the floor and stared at me, ignoring the cookie.
“What? You liked these last week!” I scolded. Marsh wagged his tail in response, as if to say 'yeah, this is a new week'. I balanced the snack on his nose and he let it drop to the floor without so much as sniffing it.
“Listen mister finicky, you're not getting anything else until dinner.” At the mention of the evening meal his gave a muted woof. “No, forget it. It's three in the afternoon, I'm not starting now!” I thumped to the coffee pot and opened the strong coffee Mauvin had gotten me from the top shelf. Marshall whined behind me and I set the coffee can down. I stared at it, and slowly turned to look at an expectant Marshall.
“Your boy's name is Mauvin, Marsh.” He stood up and nudged my leg, pushing against me. I squatted down and began to rub his fur. “I don't know what you see in him Marshall, but I'm pretty sure you'll never see him again.”
He just sat down and leaned into my hand, tail swishing on the floor.
I spent the evening trying to put more things in place and make some sort of dent in the items in the spare room. Marshall sat on the couch, watching me go back and forth with very little interest. Eventually he wanted to go out and I left him out there to sniff around the yard while I puttered, finally I settled on the couch with a glass of wine, a good book and a dog who pushed me in his sleep to gain ever more of the couch. At last I collapsed into bed at about twelve thirty. I was slowly drifting off to sleep when I heard the sound of tiny claws running across the ceiling. Yeah, I was now wide awake.
In the morning I put the coffee pot on while I went to shower and psyche myself up for the excursion to the hardware store for a mouse trap. The nearest one was at least a mile away and my leg was going to be killing me. I was thinking about taking Marshall, he'd like the walk a lot more than I would. I sat down at the kitchen table when my doorbell went off. I began struggling to my feet but I heard the door open and Grace sing out, 'Good morning!'
I mentally sighed. Had I forgotten to lock the door? I called out a halfhearted greeting to Grace and she beamed as she crossed the living room with a bag in hand.
“Oh I'm so glad you're awake! I wanted to have some of this pastry, from that bakery over on Smithson? But Hank can't eat this sort of thing, the diabetes you know, it's far too sweet. But he's always complaining how inconsiderate it is of me to eat it in front of him!” She babbled on while unpacking the pastry and grabbing herself a cup of coffee. Marshall snuffed at her in greeting and she dropped right down to rub his ears. “Oh hello handsome, I brought you marrow bones! Yes I did!”
I sighed mentally and realized this wasn't the worst thing in the world, to have a nice if nosy neighbor with boundary issues. I vaguely began to wonder if she'd leave if I told her I'd made friends with Henderson.
“We lost you at the Piggly Wiggly yesterday. I had them cut the bones special for Marshall here,” she told me as she pulled a plate down and slid the pastry onto it. She snagged a few small plates and utensils as well before joining me at the table.
“I put the marrow bones in the freezer, they are better for Marsh's teeth like that.”
“Thank you that's very kind of you.”
“I hope Hank wasn't insulting, we were a little worried when we couldn't find you after shopping. Mauvin was kind enough to let us know you'd left.” She said all this in a neutral tone, but it was clear there was reproach in her words. I felt a tiny bit crummy, even though I didn't want to.
“I've recently...the circumstances that brought me here...” I sighed, “Have left me wanting to limit my contact with people. I apologize.”
“Well now let's try this pastry, shall we? It's ever so good. Did you not sleep well last night? You look a little puffy in the eyes Mr. John.” She resumed her normal prattle and began cutting up the pastry and dishing it out.
“I, ah, no I didn't sleep well. I heard mice in the attic last night.”
“Oh dear, what do you plan to do?” she asked with more interest than the question deserved.
“Well, I thought Marshall and I would walk to the hardware store for a mouse trap,” I conceded.
“Oh no, let me drive you. Marshall can come along, he likes car rides doesn't he? All dogs do, I think.” Marshall wagged his tail at the mention of his name and whined a little. Grace smiled and snuck him a bite of the pastry which he wolfed down.
“I don't want to impose,” I began to protest.
“Now, no imposition at all. Anything that gets me away from mister sunshine and rainbows for a little while can't be all bad,” she laughed.
“You two do have a...unique relationship.”
“Honey we've been fighting since the day we met. I hated him at first sight!” she burst out laughing and I couldn't help but return a ghost of it.
“So I was right, you did like the coffee. Mauvin get it down for you? He's such a nice boy.”
“He did,” I confirmed. “He has a very unusual name.”
“Yes, he does. His mother, bless her heart, she claimed it was an old Irish name. I got on that Google thing though, and it looks like it was English. She probably thought she was doing something kind for Bill, beings as he's Irish you know.”
“I see.” I nodded, not really sure how to respond.
“She's never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, lord no. It was a good thing the schools stopped using dunce caps before she showed up. Why,” She began laughing a bit in her hand. “I'm sorry, this is surely the devil in me, but I remember one time her momma nearly snatched her bald-headed. She had some paper due for school? So she took her brothers old paper and turned that in. No rewrite, no trying to make it original,” she smiled again giggling to herself, “She even turned it on with her brothers name on it!”
I felt the corners of my mouth curling up and a chuckle building deep in my chest. The dumb things we do, I thought as I shook my head.
“And her father? He was so upset he didn't know whether to wind his butt or wipe his watch!” She had little tears forming in her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. She slowly settled down before looking up at the ceiling light. “She actually did all right marrying Mr. Bill, probably the smartest thing the poor dear ever did, bless her heart. She always was a sensitive thing though, I'd imagine she's about as heartbroken as you can get right now. How a parent ever manages to keep on after losing a child, I don't know.”
“Losing someone close to you is...always hard.” I replied.
“Yes, lord knows it is. Poor Mauvin, it must be so much harder. Sean was the firstborn, the apple of his parents eye. I think Mauvin was a surprise if Anita Franklin can be believed. That family just doted on Sean and poor Mauvin was just in his shadow. I can't imagine how that boy must feel.”
There didn't seem to be much left to say after that, and so I held my peace as I wondered what information Marshall had gotten from Mauvin's scent. Could he tell this kid was hurting? Just from his scent? Or was I attributing supernatural olfactory senses to my dog?
After we'd had the pastry, which was as good as advertised, and our coffee I actually felt a bit energized. I clipped Marsh to his leash and asked him if he wanted to go bye bye and he started dancing and chuffing at the door. We made our way down to the huge Imperial and I ushered Marsh into the back, with the window down. He promptly put his butt on the seat and stuck his nose out the window to sniff all there was to smell.
We lurched from the curb out to the road and made our way over to the hardware store. I glanced in the side mirror and caught Marsh's reflection, wind flapping his ears and the sides of his mouth; it made him look like he was grinning. We arrived without incident at the hardware store and Grace decided she'd accompany me inside. I thumped along and Marshall sniffed as we went.
The hardware store was something you don't see much of, outside of small towns I think. It was independent, had tools set out in front on display and a window with the name painted on the inside of the glass. Grace and I made our way along the wooden boards of the floor to the counter where a man who ate well at home greeted us.
“Grace, where'd you leave Hank this time? You ready to ditch him and run away with me yet?” he chuckled.
“Now you get on, I'll tell Sheila on you!” Grace smiled and wagged her finger.
“Oh don't do that, it'll be meatloaf for a week!”
“Well just you remember your manners then. I brought you a new customer Glen! This here is Mister John Potenza, moved into Lucinda's old home.”
“I was sorry to hear she passed, what a grand gal she was, her and George; nicest folks.” Glen nodded at me as if it were my loss. Maybe it was, in a way. “But what brings you in today?”
“I have a mouse in my attic,” I told him.
“Ah, yeah, probably more than one then.” Glen nodded sagely.
“More than...” I faltered.
“Yeah, they can have a litter as often as every six or eight weeks. Chances are you have a family up there. The snap traps are probably best, as long as you dispose of them and reset em careful. I don't carry the glue ones, there inhumane.”
“That's right they are.” Grace agreed.
“Glue traps?” I asked.
“Sure, like those roach motel things? 'Cept mice get stuck in them and die real slow of dehydration, sometimes pull chunks off themselves trying to get out of that mess. It's not right.”
“No, it doesn't sound right.” I agreed.
“They are living creatures, just trying to make a home. If you absolutely have to kill them, I'd use the snap trap, it's immediate at least.” Grace opined.
“Well,” I thought for a moment. I was never into killing things. If it weren't for the grocery store I'd be a vegetarian as I couldn't picture myself killing anything to eat it when I could have nuts and berries or a grocery store. “There isn't really any other option is there?”
“Well, there is the Have a Heart trap. You could catch them and set them loose in a field or something.” Glen stated.
“Well, I guess I'll do that then.” Glen walked us over and explained the trap and how to bait it and set it up. We took it and headed back to my house, with Grace chattering a mile a minute and Marshall loving the ride. As we pulled up two people were just turning away from my front door, one of them I recognized as Mauvin, the other was older and unfamiliar to me.
“That's Charles Franklin, Mauvin's grandfather. He acts like a drill sergeant but I think he got kicked out of boot camp. What do they call it when you're too stupid to train?” Grace gave me a sunny smile and, once more, I felt the corners of my mouth tugging up. I levered myself out of the vehicle and snapped Marshall's leash on him before heading towards the house.
“Grace, I see you're welcoming the new neighbor.” he observed. Charles Franklin, while perhaps nice as Grace had stated over coffee during her first visit, was gruff and didn't appear friendly.
“Yes, Charles, went to the hardware store just now. Hello Mauvin.” She waved.
“Hello Mrs. Grace. Mr. John,” he ducked his head.
“Afternoon Mauvin, Mr. Franklin.”
“Call me Charles,” he extended his hand. “Mauvin and I were chatting and he mentioned you had a cane. I thought with all the work there is to moving you could use a hand.”
“Oh, that's kind of you to volunteer.” I replied halfheartedly.
“So I brought Mauvin over. He works a few days at the Piggly Wiggly, keeps him out of trouble, but he'd be glad to help paint or trim the lawn,” he paused in his offerings of Mauvin's services to glance at the yard, “or the hedges.”
“Well, that is generous of you to offer his services,” I started and glanced apologetically at Mauvin who was a full pace behind his grandfather with the same vacant, lifeless expression I'd seen at the store. What the hell was that all about?
“Oh Mauvin isn't that wonderful? Come here and let me show you this mouse trap, it has to go in the attic and I'm sure Mr John can't climb up there to take care of it.” Grace snagged his arm and Mauvin shot a tight smile as she led him into the house. Wait, had I not locked the door again?
“Well, thank you again.” I stated as I began walking towards my door.
“It's no problem, send him back when you don't need him but...he has a lot of time on his hands. Being busy, that's the best thing for him.” He paused caught my attention, “Oh and watch out for Henderson, he's a whacko.” With that he turned and strolled briskly down the sidewalk. I thumped into the house to find Marshall holding Mauvin down on the couch, getting his ears scratched and leaning into every second of it.
“Marshall's made a friend,” Grace smiled at me.
“Yeah, he tends to do that.” I mumbled. “Where did I put the aspirin?”
I sat at the table the following morning with my hands around the coffee cup and wondering to myself when Grace would come and ring my bell. Half an hour later the bell did ring, but it was Mauvin at the door. Marshall trotted up and made what was, in his opinion, a proper greeting. Licking, sniffing and tail wagging. One nice thing about a dog, their intentions were pretty well communicated.
“Good morning, I was still having coffee, would you...do you drink coffee?” I asked.
“I told him it was too early, he made me come over. You want me to wait out front?” Mauvin asked apologetically.
“No, no I just...I don't exactly...well why don't we sit down any way?” I thumped over to the table and sat down heavily, Mauvin taking a seat across from me.
“I get it, you don't have to say it. Just let the old man think I'm here and I'll disappear every day.”
“Look, I know you don't want me here, I get that. I don't even blame you. But if I go back now, my grandfather will just blame me. I can show up in the morning and just...go hang out somewhere.”
“Uh, no, I don't think that's a good...why would your grandfather blame you?”
“Everything comes down to me. The unexpected pregnancy, the extra mouth to feed and body to clothe. The one responsible for...why my family isn't together.”
“Well, I had no idea you were the anti-Christ. If you are though, does that mean you turn water into vodka or something? If so I have some tap water I'd like you to swap for me before you head out.”
He stared at me, unsure how to take my words. I was frankly wondering myself. But my mouth wasn't concerned with checking in with my brain before continuing. “How about you skim the pool, since you like it so much, and I'll go get cleaned up and maybe we can make some sense out of...whatever this is.”
“Uh, yeah.” Mauvin nodded and stood, “Sure I'll get started.” He headed into the backyard and Marsh followed him, tail wagging and barking as he tried to engage him. I held my head in my hands, looking down at the coffee cup, what was I thinking? I can't play counselor to someone when I'm so screwed up myself.
A shower brought me no revelation, and so I simply pulled on jeans and a tee shirt and thumped my way through the house to the backyard. Marshall had finally won Mauvin over and they were engaged in a tug of war to end the ages. Marshall's tail was wagging and he was growling his defiance as he set his stubby feet into the ground and pulled. Mauvin had a hold of the other end of the play rope and was shaking it back and forth, trying to dislodge it from Marshall's firm grip.
I stopped for a moment and just watched them play. A boy and his dog, wasn't that the phrase? Marshall had claimed Mauvin before they ever formally met, and now he was simply exercising the rights of his claim. Mauvin noticed me and his grin began to fade as he let go of the rope. Marshall promptly brought it over and began to hit him with it, swinging it in his mouth to try and entice a rematch.
“Marshall won't stop until he loses, just so you know.” I said softly.
“I was supposed to be skimming the pool,” Mauvin replied quietly.
“Oh, I think that can wait. Marshall wants you right now.” I allowed myself the smallest of smiles, and turned to go back inside. Moments later the sounds of growling could be heard, the struggle renewed.
In the afternoon, after we'd had lunch, Mauvin climbed up to check the trap and he descended, trap in hand, with a tiny brown and white house mouse. The little creature sat in one corner, clearly afraid, it's little sides puffing in and out at an alarming rate. Mauvin set it down on the table and I sat to consider this little fellow.
“Well, I guess the best thing is to find a field to let him loose in, right?”
“Not many around here,” Mauvin replied.
“Really?” I asked. We lived in the country, for all intents and purposes, where better to find an open field?
“Yeah, closest state park is miles away and the town park has no place for a guy like this to find shelter.” Mauvin was watching the furry captive through the sides of the trap. “Besides, mice can find their way back to their nest from something like two miles away. You have to go farther than that to be sort of sure they won't just come back.
I glanced down at the little creature who sat still, sides still a flutter, but watching me with his huge dark eyes. I realized then that I held a life in my hands. I wonder, if there is a god, if he looks in on us humans and sees our fear at the moment of our death? Does he decide if we get released to an open field to build new lives or does he simply use snap traps and call it a day? Maybe in my case I was stuck in the glue trap, slowly expiring without Andy.
“I saw a fish tank in your attic.” Mauvin said quietly.
“A fish tank? Really? What else is up there?”
“Couple small boxes, I dunno really, I just noticed yesterday is all.”
“Hmm. Is it big? Think you can hand it down to me?”
“Yeah, I'm pretty sure.” He hopped up and opened the trap to the attic, then lowered the folding ladder to ascend the small space. I could hear the creaks as he stepped on the beams and the boards that must be set up for storage.“Here it is.”
I hobbled over without my cane and stood at the bottom rung. Slowly he handed down a dusty fish tank, maybe a ten gallon one, with its covers inside. He scurried down the ladder and took the tank from me and into the kitchen. I lifted up the ladder into place and pushed the trapdoor back into the ceiling. I hobbled back into the kitchen and tried to help, but Mauvin was a demon. The items were emptied from the tank and he ran hot water to clean it inside and out. In fifteen minutes flat everything was spic and span.
“Um, we need...” Mauvin ran back towards the bathroom and came back with a couple of toilet paper cores and dropped them into the tank. “Bedding, cardboard, paper towels or an old dishrag.”
“Uh, under the sink, I bought new ones but they were cheap.”
He darted under the sink and pulled out a scrubbing cloth, and with a glance at me to approve, he pulled a second one. Into the tank it went. He moved the tank to the table and put the covers in place, which were wire with a flexible connector between each one. He then took the trap and tilted it slowly, before opening the end nearest the trap. The mouse slid down right into the tank, which I closed over while Mauvin withdrew the trap.
The mouse ran in circles, checking the glass, looking for openings and darting into the cardboard cores from the toilet paper. Mauvin and I just watched him, wondering what the hell I was going to do with a mouse.
Mauvin did manage to skim the pool that day, in between tug of war battles with Marshall, and reset the trap in the attic for me by the time he left for dinner. I was tired and my leg was sore. The mouse was in its tank on a table in the living room and I stood in the doorway of our spare room. All of Andy's things were here, what I still had of them. I began to wonder again about if a god made choices like I had today, relocating that mouse. Were Andy and I mice as well, and whatever invisible hand that took him decided I was to be released in this new field to start again? Or was this the glue trap I'd morbidly considered before?
I walked in to the room and to the closet, slowly sliding the door back to reveal all his hanging clothes. I should have given them to the charities by now. I'd had it on my to do list for ages, but somehow never quite made it. I touched the clothes, the scent in them combined wasn't enough to remind me of him anymore. I pulled one out by the arm and breathed through it, trying to pull him back to me.
“I feel strange, Andy.” I said to the emptiness, to all the shared items we had that were forlornly stacked in the room. “I wish I could ask you what to do, or what the hell I'm doing.” I slid down slowly, sitting on the floor, easing the pressure on my leg.
“Marshall was our kid, you know? Remember we always said that we'd see how we did with Marsh and then decide if we could adopt or something?” I barked out a laugh and dimly realized tears were forming in my eyes. “Damn dog found his own kid without us, Andy. He's smarter than we ever thought.”
I awoke earlier than I would have liked, but that may have had something to do with the fact I was on the floor in the spare room. I must have dropped off while vainly asking Andy what to do. I slowly stood, glanced at the open closet and slowly closed the sliding door. “No, I'm not ready to donate them yet.” I spoke to the empty room. I thumped out of the room and over to the bathroom before hitting the kitchen. I started to make coffee when I wondered where Marshall was.
I put the pot on while calling out to him, to no avail. I walked the rooms of the house but there was no sign of Marshall. I hurried to the back door, which was closed and locked, and didn't see him in the yard. I began to panic, where was he? I called to him again and hobbled to the bedroom but he wasn't there either. I went back to the living room and tried to gather my wits, tried to think of what to do next. My front door opened and Marshall came trotting in with Grace behind him.
“Oh thank goodness! I was so worried!” She blurted before leaning against the wall. “Mauvin was so upset I couldn't imagine what could have happened!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I snapped as I dropped to my knees to embrace Marshall. “Marsh I was so worried, what the hell were you doing?”
“Mauvin came by this morning, he wanted to tell you he had to work this morning at the Piggly Wiggly and when he came in Marshall was crying but he couldn't find you. He didn't have the heart to leave Marshall behind so he brought him over to me, and I just came now to check on you.”
“Mauvin took my dog? What the hell was he thinking?” I nearly shouted.
“I'm going to go out on a limb and say he was worried and wasn't really sure what to think.” Grace said dryly. “Now that I see you're fine, I have to go home and finish putting my sauce together. I let grumpy sleep in this morning for a little peace and quiet.” So saying she closed the door behind her and left.
I felt miserable. My panic at finding Marshall gone was subsiding, and even my anger was turning into guilt and shame. I collapsed on the couch and covered my forehead with one hand feeling utterly miserable. Marshall came out of the kitchen, trailing water from his mouth and hopped up next to me. He leaned in, resting against me and put his head in my lap. I looked down at him, with his eyes tilted up at me and my dam broke.
I finally cried. When Andy died I had been incapable. At first I think I was stunned, I had been recovering and the physical therapy was every bit as harsh as I'd ever heard. The funeral, so few people who had turned out for my Andy; even most of his family wouldn't show for that. My family had left me behind a long time ago; a proud southern tradition of ostracizing the black sheep from the rest of the herd. The weirdest thing was that I had to hold it together for Marshall.
When we'd gotten him the idea of giving up a living thing, a part of your family, to downsize your life seemed unfathomable. Now it was just Marsh and I against the world. In the end I think I had to admit, for just a few panicked moments I had to wonder what use my life had without Marshall in it. He licked my hand, as if on cue, and I put my free hand on his warm fuzzy head. His head suddenly lurched up and he belched water that he'd drunk too quickly all over my lap.
“Marshall!” I fumed as I stood up and he simply lay on the couch, wagging his tail. I sighed and decided it was time to go get cleaned up and start my day.
I wanted to apologize to Grace, but I had no idea how to find her. I decided that I'd start by walking the neighborhood and see what turned up, and Marshall would enjoy it anyway. I decided that I'd have lunch first and, after doing so, clipped Marsh's leash and headed out into the neighborhood. The homes in this area were older, maybe fifty or sixty years or so. Many were brick like my own with rectangular windows set in lengthwise and higher up the wall than you might expect.
We rounded the corner at the end of the block and crossed the street. Marshall led the way, sniffing and stopping to sniff more as he saw fit. I tried to get him to move along, especially if it looked like he was fixing to squat, but for the most part that was all in vain. I had a plastic grocery bag in my pocket just in case. A white Chrysler Imperial in a carport announced I'd found my target, only a two and a half blocks or so from my own home.
I glanced around and it took a me a moment to notice Hank slowly waving his arm from the screened in side porch just beyond the nose of the car. I returned the wave and started towards him.
“Get yourself back regular?”
“You know, that can looked like Old Gold? Oh, maybe you didn't buy it.” Hank muttered to himself. Marshall trudged right up and sniffed his leg. “No humping, fella.” Hank rubbed Marsh's ears briefly before leaning back into his aluminum framed lawn chair.
He waved me to a matching chair and I sank into it, the short walk and lots of standing while Marsh took his olfactory surveys wearing on my leg. Hank switched on a radio standing on a small table and then dipped his hand into a cooler, handing me a beer. I put up an apologetic hand.
“Sorry, I'm not much of a drinker.”
“Neither is he, Mister John,” Grace offered as she stepped out of a side door. “Although forty years later he still tries. He'll drink one or two and then fall asleep in the chair. He'll fart and burp a little in his sleep just to let me know he's still alive.”
“My drinking prowess is well known, woman. The menfolk are going to listen to the ball game, don't you have some gossipin' to do or some such?”
“Mister John I was just going to run this sauce over to the Coleman's, would you like me to spirit you away from my wreck of a husband?”
“I should probably take Marshall home,” I began as I stood.
“I thought so, just you go on and get Marsh in the backseat. Oh, my stars, maybe I have a cookie leftover. Would you like that Marshall? Of course you would.” She smiled and the screen door clapped against the side of the house.
“You are a Cardinals fan aren't you?” Hank eyed me.
“Of course he is, Hank, land sakes! Who do you think he is, Henderson?” Grace stepped back out with a covered pot in her hands. “Mister John would you get the trunk for me? My husband will just sit and watch me struggle otherwise.”
“If you had a lick of sense in your head you'd open the trunk up before you brought the pot out. If I've told you once I've told you a hunert times!” Hank grumbled.
“Oh, I knew I should have married George Hebert! I'd have had a new Ford every year if I had, you know.” Grace shot me a meaningful look.
“Yeah, that and the clap once a month. Ford's are crap anyhow.”
I hobbled to the trunk and opened it, with Grace thanking me as she set the pot inside and braced it with clear plastic containers she had staked through out with emergency supplies. There were jumper cables, tow ropes, flares and water with a package of granola bars as well. She was ready to take a road trip through the apocalypse it seemed.
“I'll just get the keys and be back in a jiff.” She untied her apron as she walked, the screen door squeaking as it opened and clapping shut again. I opened the back door of the Imperial and Marshall made himself at home. I wasn't sure if waiting for the driver to come back before seating myself would be impolite, but I knew I'd pay for all this standing later and decided to apologize when she got back. I'd be doing that anyway.
She bustled out moments later, purse like a duffel bag on her hip and her hand was rifling through it absently while she and Hank exchanged words I couldn't quite make out. Her door opened and she climbed in, setting the bag between us and resuming her search.
“I know I put those keys in here. Good lord, this purse looks like I have a five and dime in here,” she clucked. She pulled out a small plastic baggie and withdrew a cookie. “I almost forgot, Marsh I have a treat for you!”
Once we began to roll down the street I realized we were heading away from my house. Since she was probably dropping that pot off, I decided not to say anything. After all, she was giving me a ride and I'd already been rude this morning.
“It was such a nice surprise to see you at the house. Is Marshall all right after his adventure this morning?”
“Yes, he was thank you. Listen, about this morning...”
“Oh go on now. Marshall is your baby, of course you were worried out of your mind!” she waved a hand.
“Still, I apologize for being...so rude.”
“Aw, you're sweet,” she patted my hand before returning it to the steering wheel. “But you know, living with Hank, what you said was almost sweet nothings in comparison!” she giggled and I smiled a bit, in spite of myself.
“So...I've been meaning to ask, why does everyone say Henderson is whacko?”
“Oh dear, no one told you?” She frowned as she glanced back and forth from the street ahead to my face.
“Is he rude? Drinks too much? Runs naked through the street?”
“Run naked...” she burst out laughing, holding one hand to her throat. “Mr. John if he did run naked through the street he'd have us all standing in line to watch, probably pay to see it!” She giggled furiously.
“Well...?” I let the question hang in the air.
“Well, it's very serious. You see, he's a Chicago fan. That, well, that just don't go 'round here.”
Apparently baseball is taken seriously here.
“Mr. John, I just have to drop this sauce off, and I hope you don't mind.” She spun the wheel sharply and took a turn down a side road that was heading back towards my place. “But I was bringing this sauce over to Barbara and Edward Coleman? You probably don't know then, nice folks, very nice.”
“No, I have only met a very few people,” I replied.
“Of course, of course,” she agreed. “Barbara and Edward loved dogs, but with them being so unsteady? They couldn't keep them around anymore for fear of going ass over teakettle, you understand.”
“I don't...oh, Marshall.”
“I figure it'd give them a smile to have a visit, maybe even watch him in the backyard for a few minutes. If you wouldn't mind?” She tried and, again, failed to look over the top of her glasses at me.
“Sure, that's fine. I'm sure Marshall will be happy too.”
She gave me a sunny smile and I realized what I'd become since Andy died. Miserable. Not just to me, but to everyone. As rotten as I'd been, she was still smiling at me and being pleasant and friendly. I realized that if I didn't straighten up I'd lose the truly good people that were left in the world as well, and I had to decide if I cared about that or not.
“And here we are! I'll get the sauce if you wouldn't mind closing the trunk for me?” She asked as she levered herself out of the seat and let her door drift shut. I clambered out and clipped Marsh's collar before pushing the trunk back into place. The house was another variation on my own, cracked concrete side walk running up to the front door. As we approached the door opened to reveal a well dressed elderly man, smiling as he slowly backed up to allow Grace to get by him.
“'Lo Grace, nice to see you!” His smile broadened across his face as he saw Marshall, who was busy sniffing the front stoop. “Oh my, who's your friend?”
“Why that's Marshall, isn't he handsome? Mr. John there isn't so bad himself,” Grace laughed raucously and a warbling voice from inside called out a question. Probably just wondering what was going on.
“Edward Coleman,” the papery hand trembled in front of me. I reached out and shook it, surprised at the firmness of the grip.
“He surely is a wonderful dog you have there. Would he mind being petted?”
“He'd like nothing more,” I smiled.
For the next ten minutes Marshall was fawned over, first by Edward who slowly got Marshall into the house and then by his wife. They produced coffee and cake and sat in a very nice parlor. The furniture was a tufted style set upon a thick carpet. Pale walls sported paintings with gilded frames. The conversation was light and seemed to be staying that way when it turned to the merits of dog people.
“I think dogs have an innate sense, they can tell good people from bad.” Barbara said while leaning back with her coffee cup. “We had Charlie, our yellow Lab? He used to bark something awful at Richard Nixon every time he came on the TV.”
“Nixon had a dog, didn't he? Checkers? Something like that?” Grace asked.
“Sure, famous speech. Still, I bet the dog pissed on his shoes or threw up in his slippers.” Edward added.
“Marshall has a good nose for people too,” Grace nodded at our hosts. “You know Mauvin Miller? The Franklin's grandson? Marshall has just adopted that poor child!”
“Can you believe that Charles Franklin?” Edward shook his head in wonder, “He's got a brain of stone to match his heart.”
“Edward!” Barbara chided, “There's no need to be disparaging about stone!”
“He's right, that man is dumb and unpleasant. But what makes you mention him?” Grace asked before sipping from her cup.
“Well, after Sean passed away? Poor soul,” Barbara crossed herself. “Well the truth has been just coming out like an overflowing storm drain.”
“More like a sewer,” Edward opined.
“Turns out that nice Bill Miller wasn't so nice,” Barbara nodded in emphasis. “The way I hear it he got himself a habit.”
“A habit?” Grace echoed doubtfully.
“Oh yes, the kind where you put powders and whatnot up your nose.” Edward waved a hand, “I never understood that sort of thing.”
“Well, he did live with Caroline, that surely was a free ticket to heaven right there.” Barbara laughed. “I swear she was dumb as a post.”
“Here we go. You criticize me for putting down stone and now I have to remind you to be nice to posts!” Edward coughed out a laugh.
“You two are wicked!” Grace laughed with them. My mind was turning over, thinking about that lost expression on Mauvin's face I'd seen. I realized his face was the mirror to the way I'd been feeling since Andy.
“What happened then?” I asked quietly.
“What's that?” Edward asked.
“Mr. John has had Mauvin come for a visit. Marshall is quite taken with him and you know, Charles? He just walks Mauvin over to Mr. John's – a complete stranger to them! And he just volunteers Mauvin to help do odd jobs! Why Mr. John could have been a serial killer, no offense.” Grace nodded at me.
“He did not!” Barbara covered her mouth as she looked at me. I wondered, briefly, if she thought I just might be a serial killer.
“It sounds like him. I heard Caroline went off to some island or something to mourn Sean and Bill is coked up out of his mind. That's why Anita and Charles have Mauvin – but you know they don't want him. All of them loved Sean, there was nothing left for another child. Besides, you know the Franklin's raised their kids. They don't want anymore.” Edward shook his head. “Shame. Mauvin will come to no good, mark my words.”
“He seems like a nice boy,” I replied, unsure of why I was defending him.
“Of course he is!” Barbara exclaimed, “But for how long? If you keep up that meanness to someone, what do you think they learn about the world?”
Dinner sat cold on the table and I stared out the sliding glass door to the water shimmering in the fading light. My mind had wandered since Grace had dropped us off. I thought about Andy, of course, and wondered what he'd think of the man I was right now, this broken version of the one he married. Of course, I knew what he'd say. He'd smile and say, “John, you can't live your life worried about what someone else thinks”.
He was right, in a way. He'd also be the first to acknowledge that his statement was qualified by what the person meant to you. We always care what others whom we care about think of us. I do believe that Andy would consider me morbid at this point, unhealthy to be sure. He would always live in my heart, no matter how battered and broken it may be – the point was that it still beat. Waiting to outlive my dog wasn't enough, and I knew Andy wouldn't want that for me. I knew because I wouldn't want that for him.
The screen door shook with a knock and then the door opened. “Mr. John?” Mauvin called out.
“At the table.”
“Oh, hi. I thought I'd come over and see...oh, I'm sorry, you're having dinner. I can wait outside.” He began to back up apologetically.
“Come sit down.” I said quietly. He approached slowly, a question on his face and then, like a switch was thrown, his face dipped into misery and schooled into that blank face he wore at work.
“About you? I know gossip,” I said. “Sit down.”
“I don't want your pity.”
“Well, too bad. Sit down anyway.”
He did, slowly, with a touch of confusion coloring his dark green eyes. I did feel bad for this kid, I really did. Maybe, if I believed in god or God or life after this one I might be tempted to think that Mauvin showing up in my life was Andy's doing. But I don't believe in any gods and I don't believe in ghosts. I do believe in dog, however, and mine knew that this boy and I were feeling the same hurt.
“My husband, Andy, died eight months ago in a car accident. It wasn't his fault, but that didn't matter in the end. My leg,” I patted the one in question, “will never be the same. After he died I lost my way. The house we shared was too big for just Marshall and I, and filled with too many memories.”
“Not good memories?” he asked quietly.
“Oh some very good memories,” I said and smiled, “Some of my very best memories. But they hurt, too. Sometimes when we lose people even the good things we shared with them can hurt – because it reminds you that you will never again have a good memory with them.”
Mauvin shifted in his chair. “So that's why you moved here?”
“Yes. I sold the old house and used Andy's life insurance to buy a different home. I brought a lot of Andy with me, or so I thought. The spare room is full of his clothes, things we shared.” I looked at my ceiling and wiped my eyes. “But those things, they aren't Andy. I don't need them anymore.”
“I know your grandfather thinks working over here is good for you.” He snorted but made no other reply, so I continued. “I'd like you to help me. I need to donate his things. I'll need help because putting them in boxes to send away is still going to hurt. I could use a friendly face.”
“I can get Mrs. Grace...”
“No. It has to be you.”
“Because you understand,” My hand drifted down and lay flat on the table and I did my level best to look him in the eye. “You know the hurt I feel. The loss of someone close.”
“No, I don't really.” He looked away. “I don't know what you heard, what kind of gossip is floating around Mr. John...”
“Just call me John.”
“Okay...John.” He hesitated, allowed his hand to stray to Marshall's head while he spoke. “Sean and I weren't close. He was a big athlete and my dad spent all his time working with him – they'd run together, work out, run drills. Mom made special meals to help him and she went to all his games and practices.
“You know in the times when we had kings and stuff, they'd always have the 'heir and a spare', you ever hear that?”
“That's what I ended up being, even though they didn't want a spare,” he said bitterly. “Thing was I didn't know how bitter Sean really was. All the pressure, all the expectation, it was too much. The...uh...night he....died.” Mauvin closed his eyes and spoke slowly, carefully. “He came back from one of dad's workouts. They were brutal, I was always kind of glad Sean was the star because of stuff like dad's workouts. But dad was yelling at Sean, again. Telling him he didn't work hard enough and he didn't want it. Called him a pussy boy and told him he'd end up sucking cock for a living if he didn't get a football scholarship.”
Tears ran down Mauvin's face. He turned to look at me, sniffing and absently and ineffectively trying to stem the tide on his face. I reached out and put my hand on his, the one that had fallen still on Marsh's head.
“You don't have to,” I said softly.
“They were arguing because Sean had come out. Dad went nuts! He was working Sean like he was crazy, said he was going to sweat the fag out of him.” Mauvin was shaking his head, “Sean couldn't take it. He went on a rampage, broke all his trophies, smashed the case dad kept them in. Right out in the living room, so he could brag. That's what got him,” Mauvin's voice had trained into a whisper.
I stayed silent, trying to decide if this was cathartic, if I should even be the one he should be saying this to. Then I realized, horribly, that he may not have anyone else to unburden himself to.
“Sean lost his grip on a trophy, a big one. He fell...a huge piece of broken glass it went...it went right into his stomach and,” he sniffed loudly and covered his face with his free hand, never relinquishing his contact with Marshall and myself. “I could see it sticking out his back.”
“Oh my God.”
“It was awful, so awful. After, when the...body was gone. My mom, she couldn't stop crying. My dad was so...so mad. He said it was her fault, he screamed at her and he...he hit her. She doesn't even talk anymore.” Mauvin glanced up at me, guardedly, “They put her in a looney bin.”
I let my hand squeeze his for a moment, not trusting myself to speak.
“No one knows where my dad is. Not for sure. I heard he got fired for drinking at work, like in his office. My grandparents...they didn't know I could hear. Plus...they don't want me there.”
He broke down in sobs and, I hate to admit, I was no better off.
“Do you know what that's like, John? That no one wants you around?”
Marshall whined and then chuffed as he pushed his head against Mauvin's leg. The boys' hand went back to Marsh's head, but Marshall was having none of it. He stood up on his hind legs and put his stubby front paws an Mauvin's leg. Mauvin bent to adjust, probably so Marsh didn't tip him right out of the chair, and Marsh met him with a series of ferocious, loving licks.
“Mauvin,” I said with a voice that seemed alien to me, so choked with emotion. “Marshall wants you here and...and so do I.”
“What?” Mauvin barked out in disbelief. “You don't even know me.”
“I know you a little. But Marshall? He knows you. He knew you the first day we saw you and he's been waiting for you ever since. You know,” I said as I leaned back in my chair and regarded this devastated teenager. “I don't believe in God. I never believed in ghosts, but I do believe in Marshall.”
“In dog we trust?” Mauvin allowed a sliver of a smile as he petted Marsh.
“What about my grandparents?” Mauvin frowned.
“You can tell them you walk the dog. Tell them you're the pool boy or that we're going to tile the bathroom – which isn't a bad idea, by the way.” I leaned forward and smiled at him. “But one thing is for certain. You and I? We're not done with life yet.”
“Sometimes, you know, I do miss him.” Mauvin buried his face in Marshall's shoulder. “After all that time in the same house, we finally had something in common. And we never even got to talk about it.”
I realized then that there would be a never ending stream of things he'd have to do here. We couldn't fake everything for his grandparents, they might one day want to see proof of his labors. Maybe there would be other ways, but in the end, we'd both survive.
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