🎃Lewis (short story)
Sometimes a visitor got onto the property, just as far as stepping over the ditch. The postman only stopped his car, and almost never did, only for bills. It was not a mystery…people knew an old woman lived in the Lewis house, alone. They saw her, but rarely, when she would come out to sweep snow off her porch. The meter reader had not seen her, ever; but Ray, old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they always did to keep up, when they did nothing else.
“Does she get food?” Mary Anne had asked, in a voice that allowed he was making Mrs. Lewis up.
“I see a white van go up that way. It’s not like I watch all the time.”
She swept her porch of snow, not leaves. Not acorns, and a heavy crop of these littered the steps, the six inches or so of porch outside the rail. The lamp, seen through the front glass, came on at night. There was an armchair with its back to the window; now and then a figure moved, difficult to make out, but for the movement. The window had a generation’s worth of grime. The curtains were never pulled.
There was another thing, and few people knew about it. Those who knew would not have said they knew.
Ray had been up fairly often; he’d had success in early years, bringing her a Christmas box, shooting a little breeze. Weather’s not too bad. Quiet holiday’s the best kind, ma’am. And good luck to you…happy new year.
His daughter tried to find things he would use.
She’d subscribed him to fruit, and he didn’t want it, but the critters did, so every day he’d bowl out a grapefruit or a pear, wait to see the raccoons sneak after it. But he’d also, as he had with the hat and scarf set, gone carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled now with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door. That last time, she’d answered.
“Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
The phrase didn’t mean a great deal. He was pleased she knew him to be Ray. It was all right…Mrs. Lewis was all right…in the head, then. She could pass away, and there’d be no reason he had to be the one to find out. Her mister must have passed away.
“What you think she lives on?” He’d said it to the postman.
“Social security, I guess.”
Ray took this as discretion, since the postman would know.
The big windstorm just Sunday had peeled back the tar paper that Ray, spending a summer’s worth of energy, had stapled up—hoping it would stop the leak. He’d constructed his porch from plywood and decking, ten years past, and the job held up okay…only the bolts he’d used to fix it to the trailer wall didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, a gap growing wider from earth to roof.
But he used it for a junk room, and the junk was all garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. Couldn’t pay. He hadn’t known the floor was going too, not until the corner where ice always built up on the windowsill slumped in.
He wasn’t bothering with it anymore.
But thoughts of winding down…because you had no money and no gumption left, made Ray peer up the hill. Whenever he passed the front window, the distance and the heavy growth of scrub made it hard, but Ray began to think he was seeing a limb down, a nest of black lines clawing over the gable. He thought she would probably not do anything about it.
Or…there’d be two of them up there, and someone would find out after a while, and they’d knock at Ray’s door and say, “You’re the closest neighbor. Didn’t you see anything?”
His daughter didn’t want him at home with her. Ray, also, if he was going to die, wanted to be here in his living room, sunk in his chair, watching a gospel show on TV, hearing the choir sing. He made up his mind he’d climb the hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
He thought he should have put a hat on.
He pictured, as the road steepened, flagging down the white van. A handy thing, if this were its day. Settle the question. If the driver was a home helper, after all, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
Then he could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
No one passed. Wind gusted, yellow leaves came down in a zig-zag line, skirting the roadside. The clouds seemed wanting to spit a little rain. He reached the point where the angle of the hill, if he cut across the ditch, would be just as testing to his lung-power as to keep going, and turn where she’d once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over…he ought to tell easy enough, then, if van tracks had been pressed into the tall grass, and he saw no sign of it. He didn’t like coming through this way, having to wedge round, right next to what had been the outhouse.
But getting to the porch by way of the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would’ve killed the mud-daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between glass and screen.
The glass grey over the kitchen sink, showing an oval of light from the parlor. He came to a standstill.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)