Artwork: The Three Graces by Elsie Russell. (194 k)
If I laid very still, with my cheek pressed hard upon the cold tile floor, I could look up through the front window and just barely see the top of the rose covered hill across the street. There, behind the endless blooming of flowers, were the front doors of the storybook house. My friend, Mrs. Bell, lived there. Mama said Mrs. Bell was crazy.
Outside our back door, I could see the ramshackle house of Mrs. Lockhard, the goat woman. Mrs. Lockhard's lopsided fence passed under our kitchen window.
Sunday mornings, Mrs. Lockhard favorite goat would be tied right where Mama's beloved lilac bush poked its purple blooms through the fence. Rushing outside, Mama would holler and wave her arms at the horned creature.
The goat would just stand there, nodding his head and patiently chewing Mama's flowers. The sweet fragrance of the blossoms would fade as the rancid stench of billy goat permeated Mama's neat little kitchen.
The quarrel always seemed to be about movable goats and windows which could shut as easily as they opened. Mama would burst into tears, and Mrs. Lockhard would relent.
Sweeping her cumbersome skirts aside, Mrs. Lockhard would groan as she bowed down upon her arthritic knees. "Yes, Your Royal Majesty, your wish is my command."
As she moved the goat, a small smile inevitably twitched across the old woman's otherwise stern lips. Peace would descend until the next Sunday morning. Mama said Mrs. Lockhard was crazy too.
Mrs. Lockhard only used candles, never electricity. Sometimes, when the candles were flickering by the upstairs windows, I thought I could see spirits walking. Those nights weren't for staying out late.
Bernice lived on the other side of Mrs. Bell. I was told to call her by her first name. Bernice lived with Ray, but they weren't married, so I couldn't call her Mrs. Thomas. Neither Bernice nor Mama would tell me her real last name.
Mama said we were not to judge her; that was the Lord's job. She was Mama's friend, but I wasn't supposed to tell anyone.
Everyone knew Mama was friends with the two Mrs. Stedrons.
Frieda and Ann had been best friends for as long as I could remember, except when Frieda's husband decided to get a divorce. Jim married Ann. Frieda and Ann couldn't be best friends after that.
When Jim died, Mama said it was very thoughtful, possibly the most considerate deed he had ever done.
Actually, Mama was miffed. Jim wasn't well liked, but his funeral was well attended. "People looking for scandal, that's all. Hardly a show of respect."
All eyes were upon the widow's chair. Frieda and Ann stood, one on each side, glaring through blackened veils, each with a single red rose. Neither would sit; neither would give up her right to sit.
Minister Armory's eyes flickered nervously and his mustache twitched as he chanted the words from memory. All the ladies twisted their hankies but not a single fragile square was stained by tears. The men worked hard to maintain their solemn frowns. Everyone waited.
After an eternity, Minister Armory murmured a cautious, "Amen."
Two black clad women stepped forward. Two red roses fell upon the casket. The crowd was silent. Minister Armory turned to walk away, rolling his eyes skyward and murmuring a ferverant prayer of thanks. His flock reluctantly began to follow.
"It was only fair," Mama would say later, "They needed to be friends again."
She said that because Frieda slapped Ann. Ann winced, then tore the lace from Frieda's bodice. Someone screamed; someone else laughed. Frieda recoiled in surprise. She stood staring downward for ever so long. Everyone held their breath. Unruffled, Frieda stepped closer to Ann and swore right in her face. The grave side soil was soft, thank goodness, because that was where they rolled and thrashed. Frieda spat; Ann bit.
Then, they were still. So was the crowd. Everyone waited. In the hush, a bird sang. Finally, the widows stirred.
Each helped the other, calmly brushing away the worst of the damage. Both took a handful of dirt and dropped it on the casket. Looking neither right nor left, they walked away, arm in arm.
Mama didn't think they were crazy.
My best friend, Dorothy, lived around the corner. I usually didn't think Dorothy was crazy, but Mama wouldn't say, so I was never quite sure.
I also wasn't sure about Mrs. Bell's husband. Everyone claimed he died awhile back, but nobody seemed to have told her. And that's what this story is all about.
To understand this story, you must remember I could just barely glimpse Mrs. Bell's storybook house through the front window as I was laying on the cold tile floor. This is important since it meant Mama couldn't see her doorway. I had to visit Mrs. Bell without Mama finding out since Mama thought she was crazy.
I already told you about Mrs. Lockhard's house at night, but the storybook house was different. It was the only other two story house in the neighborhood, but there the resemblance ended.
The storybook house had a foot bridge which curved gently up to the two big front doors. The driveway was cobbled with smooth stones and lined with old fashioned lights with big white globes.
At night, when the moon and stars were shining, and the driveway lights were glowing, it almost seemed as if a knight would come riding, sitting straight and tall upon a big white horse. On the front of his saddle would be a damsel in distress, whom he had rescued. Her dress would be long and frilly and very pretty.
They would ride across the foot bridge, stopping to dismount in the courtyard. I would be able to see them there, with the moonlight shining on the gray stones which go all the way up to the very top where the walls meet the roof.
Flower vines climbed up both stories of the gray stones and around the windows, which were leaded glass and had cross bars. At night, the light shined yellow out of these windows and spilled onto the exact spot where the knight would stop his horse, if he ever came. And since Mrs. Bell was my friend, I would be able to go over and talk to them.
Which seems silly, I know, but no sillier than Mrs. Bell talking to her husband, who everyone else thought was dead. She had long conversations with him. They seemed to have a lot of fun together; I didn't ask her if she knew what everyone else was saying. I just smiled and listened and wondered if I would ever get to see him.
When Mrs. Bell first spoke to me, she didn't even say hello. She just started complaining about Dorothy. She wanted Dorothy to stop sitting on top of her television set, since the Arthur Godfrey Show would start soon.
This was Mama's favorite show, too, but she wasn't home. Dorothy was. She was sitting right there on our couch, not the least bit interested in Mrs. Bell's TV.
Mrs. Bell didn't seem to believe me, so I went over and pretended to ask Dorothy to get off the TV set. It made Mrs. Bell happy. She asked me to stay for lunch, which was already cooked and on the table, with two places set: one for Mrs. Bell and one for her husband.
The table was long and dark, with big, solid chairs like King Arthur might have used. In the center was a pair of candles, unlit since this was daytime, and a big bowl of flowers. The place settings were at each end of the long table. It was the first time I had ever used real china and silver.
Mrs. Bell explained her husband had decided not to come home for lunch, so there was plenty for me. I sat way down the table from Mrs. Bell, which seemed safe enough.
She kept running back and forth to serve: first me, then herself. She did all of the talking, telling me about her husband's job as an accountant, which was the same kind of work Mrs. Lockhard used to do, only her husband was better at it. She talked about Mrs. Lockhard's smelly old goats, which her husband didn't like but never complained about, except on hot summer days.
She told me what she was going to fix him for dinner, and how they were going out to the opera afterward. Then she decided we had eaten long enough. She had to take a bath and get ready for the opera, so she asked me to leave.
Dorothy wasn't there when I went home. I just hoped she wouldn't get back on Mrs. Bell's TV, since Mama would be home soon. I went to my room.
In a little while, I could hear Mama laughing. She had Arthur Godfrey, and I had my swashbuckling, sword carrying, treasure burying pirate's book which was filled with color pictures big enough to almost climb inside. We were both happy that afternoon.
I didn't see Mrs. Bell for a couple of days. I was playing stick ball in the middle of our street, which was dirt, so the cars didn't go very fast. Bored with playing alone, I looked up and there she was. I asked her how she liked the opera.
She started dancing right there, whirling round and round, loudly singing words in a language I couldn't understand. She raised her long skirt and let it twirl free, and everyone could see her panties if they wanted.
I didn't. I looked around instead, trying to see if anyone was watching us. Only Mama, who said I had to come home. She made me go inside, then she shut the door and locked it. I couldn't play for the rest of the day because Mrs. Bell danced until after dark.
I watched from my window. She looked like a gypsy, in her colorful skirt and bandanna, whirling, leaping, singing. All she needed was a caravan wagon and a team of horses with a mustachioed man sitting upon the fancy seat while he played a happy fiddle. I think she enjoyed the opera, if not at night with her husband, then at least that afternoon in the middle of our dirt street.
Bernice was the only one who came out to talk to her. I could hear her voice clearly. "Why, Lila, look at you, all decked out. Aren't you the pretty lady."
Bernice stared into Mrs. Bell's smiling face. The next part she said gently. "Except, your hair is...so red. You look like a floozy."
Mrs. Bell stopped dancing for a moment, lost in thought. Then her wrinkled face brightened. She patted and primped her scraggly locks. "I like looking like a floozy."
The wild whirling began again. Bernice shrugged and joined hands with her, dancing right along in ever widening circles down the length of the street.
Their laughter caused curtains to slip open ever so slightly as housewives with trembling hands and startled eyes peered out. The two continued to carouse, waving at the onlookers.
I awoke to the rich aroma of coffee and instantly knew: the two Mrs. Stedrons had come to breakfast. Mama sat sipping her tea.
"Did you see her?" This from Mrs. Number One, who loved to complain. "Only three months dead and she's dancing in the street."
Mrs. Number Two was inclined to scoff. "Lila's daft. He was dead ten days before her son found out by pure chance. Imagine living with a corpse."
Mrs. Number One wasn't satisfied yet. "She's had plenty of time to buy something black. Why doesn't her son see to it?"
"Well," This was Mama's turn. "I really don't care as long as she stays away from me and mine. But Bernice was actually encouraging her."
The two Mrs. Stedrons were delighted to have another subject, spilling all the dirty talk about Bernice's sinful state until I accidentally scuffled my shoe. Gossip was over. Time for school.
* * * * *
Dorothy was up to the adventure, but not as excited as I. She didn't believe, I guess, but Mrs. Bell just laughed. The butterflies would come, she said, even in the winter. Just follow her.
So we did. Up the hill, into the grove, all the way through to the biggest fallen log I had ever seen. It was alive with worms which glistened in the sunlight. Mrs. Bell asked if I wanted to help. Not me, I shivered at the thought.
Scooping them up, Mrs. Bell dropped the squirming mass into her bucket. "They're good for the garden, makes the soil soft." She pushed her hair back with one slimy hand, then looked up, scanning the sky for butterflies. "They're not here yet." She announced before moving on.
The slime got rubbed off by the dirt and decaying leaves when she dug for mushrooms. Those were rubbed off in turn by rough bark as she shinnied up a tree trunk in search of an elusive robin's nest. The morning was gone and no butterflies.
Tired, discouraged, Dorothy and I lagged behind as Mrs. Bell led us to a sparkling stream which, I had thought, only ran in the spring time. We sat on damp rocks, lightly covered with soggy moss and let our tired feet dangle in the water, even though it was cold. Thankfully, the pallid sun was warm enough on our backs to lull us almost to sleep.
Mrs. Bell saw us close our eyes. She asked us to open them just slightly and look out between our eyelashes. She claimed that was when the butterflies would come. I didn't care anymore; all I wanted was to go home.
Just then, I felt a light ripple in the air. Careful to open my eyes exactly as instructed, I was just in time to see a butterfly light upon my nose. I couldn't move, couldn't speak. My eyes crossed, trying to see the beauty as it gently folded and unfolded its wings. Holding my breath delayed it only slightly. In barely a moment, it fluttered away again, doing a colorful dance on an unseen breeze.
"Did you see it? Did you?"
Dorothy jumped up, startled. No, she hadn't. No, she didn't think it had really happened. But Mrs. Bell smiled. "Time to go. The butterflies have left now."
* * * * *
Dorothy didn't go to Mrs. Bell's after that. She said she was a silly old woman. I continued to sneak over to her house, squeezing through the metal bars of the wrought iron fence at the bottom of the hill.
Dorothy would purse her lips and say Mrs. Bell was only my friend because she wanted me to help her clean the house.
I didn't mind. I never knew what would turn up. Once, it was a small, musical, jewelry box with a pink ballerina and a secret drawer. Another time, it was a purse full of money hidden under a stack of towels.
She let me take the ballerina home. She kept the money, slipping one silver dime into my pocket just as I left. The dime was a perfect treasure for the secret drawer.
So were magazine pictures of movie stars and a telephone number. Her son gave me the telephone number when I finally met him. He was there one day when I slipped in the back door.
She was trying to convince him to stay for dinner and visit with his father. He was trying to convince her his father would not be coming home to dinner anymore. Just then, she heard the phone ring. Apparently her son didn't, but she insisted on answering. It was her husband.
That was when her son spotted me. He pulled me into the kitchen and asked if I came to visit very often. Frightened of the consequences of being caught, I could only nod. He wrote his telephone number on a piece of paper and stuck it into my jacket. "Promise you'll call if anything happens? I worry about her. Okay?"
This last was because I was standing absolutely mute. I nodded again. He smiled. "Thanks."
Then she was calling him, saying Mr. Bell wouldn't be home after all; he had to work late. Her son looked at me and winked, while promising to visit his father another day.
It wasn't long afterward when Mrs. Bell began hearing demons in her attic. She would scream at them while poking at the ceiling with a broom handle.
"Can you hear them?" She'd ask. I'd try really hard, but couldn't hear a thing. She wasn't satisfied. She wanted me to climb up into the attic and scare them out.
I wasn't quite sure what a demon was, and being shy, I didn't ask. So I climbed up the rickety ladder into the musty darkness. Groping around, I could here her threatening them in case they harmed me. After a full eternity, I found a pull string. The light switched on, dim but better than before. I couldn't see any demons, or anyone else either.
I did find a stick and prodded into all the corners as she yelled instructions. I knocked over a pile of old clothes. Underneath was a trunk. Remembering the hidden money, I gingerly opened its dusty lid.
"What did you find?" She had heard the hinges squeaking. It was a treasure, to be sure. I carried it carefully down the ladder, handing the tiny velvet box to her like I was presenting emeralds to a queen.
"Ooh," She sighed, "What a wonderful present. Look at this." She held the necklace up to the light, its pale, clear stones glittering under the chandelier. "John? John? Where are you? What a clever way to give me a gift."
She went from room to room, searching for her generous husband, calling to him as she went, "Thank you, darling. Thank you."
She paused before a mirror to fasten the gems around her neck. Turning, she said, "Oh, there you are. Dear, its lovely. Can we go out tonight and show it off?"
Apparently he agreed, because she rushed to get dressed. I looked around the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Bell, even shutting my eyes, hoping he was like a butterfly. Nothing. Disappointed, I knew it was time to go home again.
At least now I knew what to do whenever she began to hear the demons. I would climb the creaky rungs back up into the attic and immediately open the trunk. There was always something there to use as a gift from John. Sometimes, I could use the same gift, if her son had been there and found the treasures. He must have clambered up the ladder and opened the dusty lid too. How else could the items keep making this round trip?
She was always delighted, never remembering, always thanking John for his thoughtfulness. They went out on the town many, many times while I went home to bed, tired but somehow content. As the starlight sparkled through my window, I went to sleep knowing she was happy, celebrating yet another special occasion.
MY HAPPINESS DIED ONE COLD NIGHT. FIRE ENGINES WOKE ME, WHILE BRIGHT FINGERS OF FLAME CRAWLED UP THE GRAY STONE OF THE STORYBOOK HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET. RACING OUT IN MY NIGHTIE AND ROBE, I SAW MRS. BELL SITTING ON THE CURB, COVERED WITH SOOT AND TRYING TO EXPLAIN ABOUT THE DEMONS.
She had locked all her doors. When the demons began climbing in the windows, she borrowed some candles from Mrs. Lockhard and placed them upon the sills. In moments, her beautiful lace curtains were ablaze.
I knew it was time to use the telephone number in the secret drawer. She was gone by morning. I missed her, although she wrote often. Mama said they took her to the funny farm, but Mrs. Bell described it as a wonderful hotel, with excellent views and room service.
Mr. Bell hadn't been able to go on vacation with her, she said, but John Jr. visited her often. She invited me to visit, which I didn't bother to mention to Mama.
The house hadn't been completely burnt, and though things in the attic were singed, the trunk survived. It was too big to move, so I took its treasures, one by one, sending them along with their old love letters. She never mentioned these packages. After I sent the last one, she wrote that John was going to be home soon, as the war was almost over. They were going to elope.
He must have made it, for I never heard from her again.
* * * * *
I'm all grown up now. My hair even has streaks of gray. I live in my own storybook house on top of my own rose covered hill. I have my own window overlooking my own cobbled drive, but I know it is useless to sit wishing for my knight in shining armor. He has already come and gone. I buried him yesterday.
The music I sigh over isn't a phantom refrain from a long ago opera, but his favorite CD. If I lay very still, cheek pressed against the cool, soft cushions of the lounge, I can almost hear the silky swish of his tuxedo as he waltzes, ever so graceful, around our living room floor.
I think of Mrs. Bell. Was it magic or madness? Perhaps, just perhaps, if I close my eyes, then open them barely enough to peer through the lashes...
The Three Graces by Elsie Russell. (194 k)
Other pieces in this issue by Loretta Kemsley: