Lewis (part one)
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, he told Ray. But old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, Ray told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they 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 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 fog 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, in early years. He’d had success, 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 had subscribed him to fruit, that he didn’t want, but the critters did, so every day Ray would bowl out a grapefruit or a pear, wait to see the raccoons sneak after it. But he had gone, as with the hat and scarf set, carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door.
That last time, she had answered. “Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
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?”
“Social security, I guess.”
And 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. His porch he had constructed from plywood and decking ten years ago, and the job held up okay…only the bolts fixing it to the trailer didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, a gap growing from earth to roof.
But he used the porch for a junk room, and the junk was all garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. He had suspected the floor was going, but hadn’t known until the corner where ice built up slumped in.
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 a 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 would 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. You don’t mean you didn’t 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 have to climb that hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
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, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
He thought he should have put on a hat…
No, let the people, whoever they were, deal with it. He could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
Wind gusted, yellow leaves fluttered down to a zigzag 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 the old lady once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over. He ought to tell easy enough, then, if van tracks had 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 the outhouse.
But getting to the porch through the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would kill the mud daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between the glass and screen.
The glass grey over the kitchen sink, showing an oval of light from the parlor. He came to a standstill.
Looking at the little door, as ever just an inch or so cracked. He heard someone give a chuckle.
“You from down the hill.” The man used a tree branch to swing himself, coming up over the rise of the slope behind the privy.
“That’s right, I knowed ya.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)