The neighborhood had seen better days and so had Mrs. Pauley. She had lived there since before anyone could remember and raised a family of six boys, who’d all grown up and moved away. Since Mr. Pauley died three months ago however, she’d had no income. Though everyone had tried to help, she’d fallen far behind on the rent and it was way past due. That was why the landlord, Mr. Riley drove up there accompanied by the police. He had come for one thing and one thing only, to evict Mrs. Pauley from the house she’d lived in for over forty years.
I can never forget the very first time I met her, that day papa drove into Davidson, in his old Chevrolet pick-up truck as he pulled up right opposite her cottage. The house was brilliant, a sort of deep orange with a large brown chimney and circular gold tinted window frames. It was like something right out of the stories Sister Elise would read to us during the chapel’s monthly Sunday brunch.
Papa had gotten a new job at the law firm in Davidson at ‘Clark and Grent’s’ and had to move out as soon as possible because Ma was due any time soon. I felt sad leaving my friends behind but it was a better pay and Ma promised that the schools out here were much better.
Mrs. Pauley was bent down digging behind her white picket fence, her straw hat and stray wisps of jet black hair sticking up every so often amidst her bright red tomatoes and blossoming rhubarbs. Steadily, round and full of energy she straightened up and looked out at us; at me and smiled, shading her eyes beneath the soiled tangerine garden gloves. Tenderly with a piece of cloth she dabbed with her free hand at her sweaty face and waved. I waved back and returned the smile as my ma and papa got out of the car.
“You must be the new neighbors.”
She said as her pudgy fingers nudged the tiny gate wide open and walked out towards the truck. I was shocked at the fact that she moved rather quickly for her size and especially in her bulky muddy gumboots and check skirt.
“Yes…Charles Letterman, a pleasure to meet you…”
“Mrs. Sarah Pauley, a pleasure to meet you too.”
Her hand was short and stout extending from her quilted body warmer.
“This is my wife Jane…”
She said as she shook Ma’s hand.
“…and that there is my boy Danny…”
“Oh hi Danny…yes this one is definitely yours… he has your eyes.”
“You think so? I told you honey…they all fall for the eyes…”
My Papa reported winking at Ma as Mrs. Pauley laughed out, heartily and genuinely. Something about her reminded me quite a lot of Mrs. Claus. It could have been her blushed cheeks when she laughed or the rounded glasses that rested on her button nose in front of her clear glassy eyes.
“Danny, don’t be rude, say hi to Mrs. Pauley.”
My mother urged as I extended my hand reservedly to receive hers. It was soft and clean, kind of like Ma’s actually. She smiled again as she moved closer such that her head was now inside the car.
“Listen Danny, I just put out some cold beetroot juice from the fridge, would you like some?”
Yuck! I hated beetroot. Ma always forced me to eat it and said that it was good for me but somehow everything that was good for me was also unsurprisingly absolutely nasty. She laughed as she moved back, ma and papa were laughing too although I didn’t know why.
“That’s the exact same face he always makes every time Charles and I try and get him to eat it.”
My mum said as I quickly softened my expression.
“I’m just messing with you. How’s about a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies and cold milk? I’m sure you’re starving after such a long journey.”
I looked out at Ma. She had always told me not to take anything from strangers and I’m sure that still counted for warm chubby looking ones. She smiled in approval so I took that as a yes and nodded excitedly, rushing out after her into the fairytale cottage. I really was hungry and she certainly did not disappoint.
That night’s dinner was the best I had ever had. Not that Ma did not know how to cook of course because Papa’s fat belly told it all. It was different…good different.
Fresh cherry tomatoes with grilled salmon from the market, chicken pot pie and butter glazed rosemary duck, fluffy white mashed potatoes and green peas, all with a side of creamy hot chocolate to wash it down. It was heavenly.
Staring out at the hoary building from the stoop across the road however, even I had to admit that things had really changed. The orange wall master had long faded from the walls and her lush green garden had dried out to a brown barren patch. Old age and sickness had borne heavy on her, and Mr. Tom Pauley’s death did not make it any better. The sons were miles away from Davidson now; married, travelling or on business and she had no one to take care of her.
“Please Jack; just give me more time, I have nowhere else to go!”
“I’ve had enough of your excuses Mrs. Pauley, you and your husband have gotten too used to handouts.”
They were shouting now, policemen and auctioneers busy carrying her belongings out of the house. It was sad to watch. She still struggled though, her hair greyed and voice husky yet still as full of life and fight as ever.
“Don’t you talk about Tom like that… You know he tried everything he could after they shut down the factory and your father promised him this house as part of his retirement agreement, you have no right to do this…”
“My father is dead and so is his factory. Whatever agreement you had with the old man has nothing to do with me.”
“Please…have a heart Jack, you and my boys grew up together, you played in my garden…climbed that mulberry tree. I patched up more bruises on you than my own sons.”
There was a moment of hesitation from him. He seemed to be telling her something but their conversation was inaudible now. I then watched him place his hand on her shoulder as she bent her head down low. With that Jack walked out to his car, shut the door and sped off. She sank into her garden chair, eyes tired surveying her doyleys fluttering in the wind, clothes hanging from the picket fence, thrown out in a flurry and her straw hat bent and squashed under suitcases. I couldn’t just sit here and watch them take away the only thing she had left. I had to do something.
I gathered courage, put on the biggest smile that I could handle and walked on over to her picket fence, pushed the tiny creaky gate, rusted at the hinges open and made my way up the steps. She was crying, sobbing softly and silently, I didn’t know what to say so I just sat there, silently, softly rubbing her back.
“Are you ok Mrs. Pauley?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine darling, just need to call my boys and they’ll sort it all out, don’t worry.”
I was worried though. They hadn’t been around for years and frankly it didn’t seem as if they would be coming back anytime soon.
“There’s a saucer of cupcakes somewhere in there for you. For your help last night with the rats…”
“They better be big…because those were some very big rats…”
She giggled as I smiled. Mrs. Pauley really was the sweetest old lady that there ever was, and it killed me to see her like this. I had to do something, I had to help her.
“Did Mr. Pauley have the agreement written down anywhere?”
She went quiet for a moment, pondering the question and then brightened up suddenly.
“As a matter of fact he did. I kept it away because he was never good with storing important documents. Why? ”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
We both looked towards the house across the street; our house and then back at each other and shared a smile.
“My my…aren’t you the cleverest little twelve year old that ever was. Come…I have a plate of warm cookies and cold milk with your name on it.