Usually, I don’t like to read stories in the present tense. And more usually, I don’t like to write them. I have only written one or two present tense fiction stories in my entire career. To my surprise, this story demanded it, and only flowed if I wrote in the present. If you don’t like present tense like I didn’t, try sticking with it. I found after a while I forgot about what tense it was and just got involved in the story. Maybe you can tell why it demanded being told in present tense 🙂
Head down, one step after another. The snow is deep and the biting wind is icy. She shrugs into her black coat, out of style for decades, but still in good shape, no patches or tears that I can see.
Every day except Sunday, she walks down the road, head down, one step after the other. Always at the same time…3pm. I wonder where she goes and why. She walks in the rain or in the blazing sun. Snow and wind can push against her, but she walks.
I know she lives in the little wood house across the road and down a block or so. It is neat, but a little on the shabby side. The paint is still good, but I would say it is at least five years, maybe more, since it was painted that pale blue that’s almost white, until you see the white trim and then you realize it’s blue. The matching white picket fence is missing a picket near the corner. It has been like that ever since I moved in here. I guess I’m finding it hard to figure out my life, so I concentrate on hers.
I could probably go to her house with a casserole or something, as a neighborly gesture, but I hold back. I’m not that much of a cook, although Ben used to eat everything I made. We also ate out a lot.
Here she comes back again, head down, one step after the other. I can see her face when she comes back from wherever she goes, even with her head down. She is a frail little thing, maybe 5 ft. tall, and maybe 95 pounds or so. Her face is pink, but that could be just from the cold weather. She has a fringe of very curly white hair sticking out from beneath her black hat. The hat is almost like a Salvation Army bonnet, but it doesn’t tie under the chin and it doesn’t come down over the ears. It is as out of date as her coat. It is also in good shape, although a little faded.
It’s like this every day…did I mention except Sunday? In the winter, spring, and fall, she wears her black coat. In the summer, she wears a fuzzy white sweater that is newer looking, always spotlessly white. And she wears white orthopedic shoes, instead of the black galoshes she wears in winter. In summer she almost looks like a nurse. Almost.
One day, I was watching for her as I usually do. Don’t ask me why? I’m curious. It’s not a sin to be curious. And it’s not like I have a whole lot to do or a whole lot of people to talk to. I guess Ben has turned me off people. Being alone is a better choice.
Anyhow, I’m watching and watching. By the time it gets to be 3:30pm, I’m getting worried. By 4pm, I’m really worried. I phone my dentist’s assistant with whom I have become somewhat friendly. “Tammy, there’s an old lady who lives near me? She’s pretty late coming back from her walk,” I say.
“So?” Tammy says.
“She’s as punctual as clockwork,” I say.
“Maybe she had a visitor, or a phone call, or she’s not feeling well. I think you must worry too much, Karen. I gotta go. Spongepants needs me.”
She calls her boss “Spongepants.” I sat and looked at the phone for a moment.
Then I look at Spitspot. “She’s late today, Spit. What should we do?”
The dog cocks his head, looking adorable as usual. However, I know he isn’t thinking about the old lady. He is wondering if he can wheedle a treat out of me.
“Not bloody likely, Spit, old boy. You’re supposed to be on a diet.”
I return to the window. Did I miss seeing her and she was just a little late today? I know deep down that I did not miss her.
I can’t stand it anymore. I run into the kitchen, grab a box of cookies I was saving for the weekend, pull on my jacket and head for the door.
“I won’t be long, Spit,” I tell him. “Be a good boy.”
He wags his tail at the “good boy” bit and sits down, cocking his head again. He knows I think he’s adorable when he does that. It’s his last-ditch effort to charm me into giving him a treat before I go. He’s my best friend, but I’m on to his little cons. I smile and carefully lock the door behind me.
I hurry along the street, mentally rehearsing what I will say to her when I knock on the door and she opens it. My heart is beating a mile a minute and I’m starting to get a headache. Maybe I should just go home. I have a feeling that knocking on that door is going to change my comfortable hidey-hole way of living.
I ring the doorbell instead of knocking. Hey, it sounds politer than knocking. There is no sound from the house. I ring again and wait. Nothing. Now I’m getting really worried. Finally, I knock on the door. It may not be politer but it’s loud and I know it sounds on the other side. For a few moments, I hear nothing. I’m just about to give up and turn to go down the three steps to the path. I hear a faint sound.
Uneasily, I try the door…it’s not locked. I open it tentatively and poke my head into a small living room. “Hello? It’s Karen Dealing, your neighbor from down the street on the other side.”
I hear a faint quavering… “Come in. I shall be there directly.”
I can barely hear what she is saying, but I get the gist of it. I come in and perch on a straight-backed chair in the living room. The room is almost a cliché of ancient grand living…old overstuffed furniture in faded gold, worked with some kind of green material, with spotlessly white antimacassars on the back and arms. Matching cushions, spindly end tables with really valuable Tiffany lamps, sheer glass curtains on the window beneath plush draperies topped with a matching gold valence. A few plants are scattered in places, but I figure she’s not much of a gardener. On one of the end tables is a picture of her in younger days with a mischievous grin on her face. I like the photo.
She enters the room, leaning heavily on a cane. I’ve never seen her with a cane before. Her eyes seem somewhat red.
“Hello,” she says.
I stand up and tower over her. My hefty 5’7” frame seems twice as big as hers. “Sorry, Mrs….uh…Mrs…” I trail off.
“Wentworth,” she says, not cracking a smile.
“Thank you, Mrs.Wentworth. As I said, I’m your neighbor, Karen Dealing, from just down the road, in the blue house.”
She nods and waits politely, not sitting, but smoothing her navy blue self-belted house dress, presumably to make sure there were no creases.
“I noticed you didn’t take your walk today and wondered if something was wrong.” I shove the box of cookies at her. “Here, I brought you these.”
She doesn’t take the cookies and I take them back, awkwardly shoving them in my purse. I don’t know what to do or say. She just stands there staring at me. I am afraid I had mortally offended her. I turn to go, stammering an apology.
She says, “Wait!” and I turn back. A tear creeps down her peach fuzzy cheek.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I blurt out. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I live alone too, and I know how awkward life can be when there’s no one there when you need them and…” I stop because she is shaking her head.
“You didn’t offend me,” she says. “Au contraire.” Good thing I remembered my high school French and knew that meant “on the contrary.” I waited for more.
She doesn’t say more though. She walks with difficulty to the entryway closet and takes out her old black coat. Up close, I can see how shabby it really is. I can’t believe she has Tiffany lamps worth a fortune and only one really old coat.
“Come with me, Miss Dealing,” she says.
I stand up, with the cookies crumbling in my purse, and follow her out the door. Once we get on the road, I offer her my arm. She takes it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I have to walk very slowly to keep pace with her.
“By the way,” I say, by way of conversation, “it’s Mrs. Dealing, but please call me Karen.”
“Oh, my apologies, Karen. I never see your husband about.”
So she knows where I live. I try not to sound bitter and I fail. “We are divorced,” I say.
“I see,” she says and just keeps walking. We cross the road to the medical clinic and walk down the next long block. It’s kind of a hike, but I’m not out of breath yet, thank goodness. I could never respect myself again if a little old woman could outwalk me.
“This is quite a hike,” I tell her. “Is this where you go every day?”
“Yes,” she says. “Excellent exercise.”
We turn the corner, and my curiosity climbs as I see we are headed towards the Norwood Care Home. This town has four or five care homes because of the high senior population…retired farmers and their spouses. Yet, I know that Mrs. Wentworth is a home dweller, not a care home inmate. Well, I think I know.
We walk slowly up the sloping path to the entrance and walk in. Mrs. Wentworth knows exactly where she is going and takes the lead. I’m looking around at the facility, which I’ve never viewed before. It’s clean and cheerful, with plants hanging in the windows and groupings of comfortable armchairs in the main lounge.
Mrs. Wentworth leads me down a hall with open doorways revealing rooms occupied by elderly folk. The rooms are clean and cheerful as well, with bright bedspreads and colorful curtains. Some of the rooms are empty and some are occupied. Mrs. Wentworth stops at an empty room.
“This is Emma’s room,” she says softly.
“Ah, Emma,” I say, somewhat bewildered.
“She was the best of my senior friends. Then she became my only friend. When George died…” Mrs. Wentworth stops talking and limps into the room. I stand respectfully behind her, wondering why I have a sinking feeling.
Mrs. Wentworth sighs. “When George died, Emma invited me to move from down east to live with her. She wasn’t sick then.” Mrs. Wentworth moves all the way into the room and sits on a small armchair in the corner. Her eyes have a faraway look in them…a sad, faraway look. Surprisingly, I recognize the look…almost.
“I was so lonely without George. I am…was a nurse. I took care of him while he was ill. He was my life.” Mrs. Wentworth folds her hands in her lap and looks down at them. “Emma was one of my nursing teachers with whom I kept in touch. I respected and liked her, so when she offered her home to me, I accepted.”
Mrs. Wentworth gets up and moves around the room, touching this figurine and that book, lightly, with the tips of her fingers, almost as if she is blessing the items in the room. Where is Emma? I wonder, although I’m pretty sure I know.
Stopping and looking me straight in the eye, Mrs. Wentworth says, “Emma died at 4am this morning. I stayed with her until she was fully in the arms of the Lord.”
I nodded somberly. I could feel the pain like scissors stabbing me in the heart.
“And now I’m alone again,” Mrs. Wentworth whispers.
I’m nodding now, like a nanny goat.
“We’re both alone now,” Mrs. Wentworth says. How does she know? I guess the discarded and abandoned recognize their own.
She puts her hand on my shoulder, frail like a little bird perching, fluttering and slightly afraid. “Mrs. Dealing…Karen…I would like to invite you to come and live with me. We wouldn’t be alone anymore.”
I stare at her, tears filling my eyes. I’m not sure why, but it feels good, like a cleansing, like standing out in a gentle rain, after a hot, sticky day..
It doesn’t take me long. “Yes, Mrs.Wentworth, I think I would like that,” I say. “Do you like dogs?”