--- K A R E N A D K I N S
Sylvia stretched and wriggled her toes, still pleasantly aware of wearing slippers at ten a.m. Retirement agreed with her. Being home agreed with her. She took another sip of coffee and looked happily around the kitchen. After years of remodeling and re-decorating everything was exactly the way she wanted it.
Sylvia spotted a cobweb out of the corner of her eye and stabbed at it with the end of a rolled-up newspaper. Throwing it away, she wished every irritation could be disposed of as easily. She had in mind a particularly nettlesome one: her neighbor Agnes Braxton.
Agnes was an annoying woman with equally annoying habits. She always scheduled noisy landscaping or construction projects for the break of day, often on Saturdays and, almost psychically, on her neighbor's days off.
Also, to the delight of the neighborhood, Mrs. Braxton conducted one sprawling, ongoing garage sale, with all its attendant noise, traffic, and litter from April to December.
She would wrap business up early in the evening so she could get what she called her "beauty sleep." Her calls complaining about barking dogs (always Harry), loud music, bright lights and drag racing could be expected shortly after eight o'clock.
For once Agnes' early-to-bed habit was about to benefit, rather than disturb, her neighbor.
While walking Harry, a wire-haired terrier, Sylvia checked to see if Agnes' lights were out. All but one. She always left the light in the bathroom turned on "so burglars will think someone's awake." All night? Every night? In what was obviously the bathroom?
By eleven-thirty, the surrounding homes would be dark, despite Mrs. Braxton's complaints of late-night parties. At midnight, Sylvia slipped out her freshly oiled side door, crept close to her juniper bushes, then darted across her neighbor's yard onto the front porch. Patches of ice still remained there from a child's half-hearted attempt at snow removal--she would only pay fifty cents, after all.
Sylvia planned to turn the woman's front porch into a skating rink and cause one of those accidents she had read about so often. She laid a section of her garden soaker-hose over the porch, supported by a pair of stone gnomes whose faces could only be improved by the weather. She fastened one end to the faucet and turned it on. Nothing.
Then, almost imperceptibly, water started to seep from the tiny holes in the hose. She would return to remove it in three hours.
Sylvia had found it all too easy to get used to sleeping late again. She had to force herself to open her eyes and keep them open. Ten-thirty! She jumped out of bed and tore open her curtains. No stretcher-laden paramedics. No parade of unfit neighbors, taking their first "daily" constitutional, hoping to get a look at what had happened. The street was deserted.
She pulled on sweats, ran a comb through her hair, attached a grateful Harry to his leash and, with pretended casualness, strolled out. To Harry's dismay, Sylvia stopped abruptly. Everything was melting--it must have been at least forty degrees!
She had called for the latest forecast before setting her plan in motion. The ridiculously robust voice advised all callers to expect "flurries tonight and much colder temperatures toward morning, well-below freezing, and wind chills in the single digits. This forecast brought to you courtesy of Fairweather Bank and Trust. Stop in and make some new friends today. She had hung up before the familiarly nauseating elevator-music arrangement of James Taylor.
Water from a pine bough dripped down the back of her neck, making her jump.
"What did we ever do to deserve such great weather?," asked Mrs. Darby brightly as she surveyed the world from her driveway.
"Just lucky I guess."
Going into the kitchen, Sylvia noticed the red light flashing on her answering machine. She pressed the message button, releasing a booming, demanding voice.
"Hello? Are you there? (A large pause. . .I know you're there, pick up the phone!) This is Connie Braxton. (Another pause. . .now that you know it's me, I'm sure you'll want to pick up.) Aunt Agnes had an accident. . . she fell down the escalator at the mall. They took her away in an ambulance! Luckily, no broken bones, just a bad sprained leg and some deep bruises. Of course, she'll be on crutches and painkillers for a while. I know you'll want to get her mail and help her out until she's back on both feet again. Aunt Agnes said you wouldn't mind, with all the time you have on your hands now. I'll be talking to you."
She watched the light blink, dumbly. Her plan ruined by a change in weather, then Fate taking a hand, but not finishing the job. And to be drafted to help her! Pushiness thy name is Braxton. She downed two aspirins with some cold coffee while she considered what her next move should be.
Sylvia's mind drifted back to last summer:
"What are you up to Syl? Pulling weeds I hope. I was wondering why I have so many dandelions this year. . .must've come from your yard. While you're at it, yank those tiger lilies--they're over for the year--I wish you'd dig 'em up and plant something nice. . .never could stand lilies. . .garbage flowers I call 'em. When are you going to get that maple trimmed? You really should get rid of it. . .your yard has too many trees. . .I thought I'd finally gotten you to see the light about getting it trimmed last year. . .guess the thought of a huge limb crashing through your roof doesn't scare you. . .the tree service said they could work me in early tomorrow. . .and I told them you'd like them to stop by and give you an estimate, hope you weren't planning on sleeping in."
The coffee and aspirin were doing their job; now that the pain was lessening, Sylvia could think. Press your advantage; she'll be more wobbly than ever; any accident now will be put down to her injury.
The mail had come an hour ago. Many of the next-door neighbors held each other's key as insurance against being locked out; Sylvia had Agnes Braxton's.
The rusty black box sporting the name BRAXTON in curling plastic letters was stuffed with catalogs, bills, and ads. No letters. A smile flittered across Sylvia's face: only she got letters. She remembered the relief of coming home after a particularly exhausting day just to feel it abruptly vanish with a familiar pounding on her door. There had stood Mrs. Braxton with one of her letters, opened.
She was so sorry but the mail carrier must have made a mistake.She'd already opened it before realizing it wasn't addressed to her. The look on Mrs. Braxton's face reflected more satisfaction than sorrow, however. And it wasn't the first letter she'd opened by "mistake."
Sylvia let herself in, dropped the mail on a dusty entry table and went into the kitchen.
Dirty coffee cups smeared with lipstick dotted the counter and table. Smatters of dried egg and bits of burnt toast decorated dishes stacked in the sink. Index-card lists, dog-eared catalogs and tabloids hid most tabletops, while magazines and yellowing newspapers were stacked precariously next to the few comfortable chairs.
In the midst of the clutter, four throw-rugs caught her attention. The worn chenille had not been attractive when new and was downright grotesque now. She tested one rug with her foot. It immediately bunched and slid forward. Talk about an accident waiting to happen. She knew just what would set things in motion: the silicone spray she used to lubricate her treadmill.
But how could she get her to come out here? She needed her to come tearing into the room, not paying attention to what she was doing. She would not want to move around much, let alone race into rooms, with that leg. There would have to be something that demanded her attention. Something impossible to ignore. A loud noise, maybe? Something that wouldn't stop? The smoke detector.
She had seen one in the kitchen. It didn't take much to set these older models off: dust, a wisp of smoke or steam from the stove and the ear-splitting noise would erupt. It had led many people to remove the batteries, as Mrs. Braxton had done, sacrificing safety for sanity.
While Sylvia wondered whether she had the right batteries at home, her gaze wandered to a humidifier, its light on empty. Its mist could set off these old smoke detectors. She could direct the mist anywhere by moving the nozzle. The rugs could be arranged under the smoke detector. Hurriedly, she straightened papers, loaded the dishwasher and took out the trash. She refilled the humidifier and then darted over to her house, seeing no one.
She gave Harry some fresh water and a bowl of kibble and retrieved the silicone spray and some thin latex gloves from the garage. Rooting through a drawer of odds and ends, she found a fresh pack of the batteries she needed. She put everything in her coat pockets and sprinted back next door.
Sylvia took a stepladder from the laundry room and placed it beneath the detector. She climbed up, attached the battery, and pressed a button. The shrieking was immediate. After resetting it, she returned the ladder and took out the silicone spray. She sprayed the linoleum and rearranged the rugs in a path to the detector.
She was admiring her handiwork when she heard their car pull up. From the peephole, she watched Connie attempt to help her aunt out of the car.
This was her cue.
Sylvia bounded out the door. "I was so sorry to hear about your accident, Agnes. How are you feeling?"
"How d'ja think I feel? Damn pills. Want to go to bed."
Connie rolled her eyes and muttered to Sylvia: "I'll bet my legs hurt more than hers. . .she's a load."
"Stop griping and let's go. I'm cold," snapped Agnes.
Connie looked as though she might use what energy she had left to push her aunt onto the driveway before peeling out.
"I'll get her into the house," Sylvia said quickly. She offered a shoulder and arm to Mrs. Braxton who leaned on them heavily. Connie wasn't kidding.
Sylvia helped unbutton and remove Agnes's coat and was removing her shoes when Connie finally reappeared. Together, they stuffed the unwieldy body into a nightgown.
Connie fished around in her aunt's bag for her medicine with no success until, exasperated, she took it to the more brightly lit bathroom and dumped the contents on the counter.
"It says 'take one pill every four hours,'" yelled Connie. "I'll get you some water."
"If that doctor thinks I'm wakin' up just to take his damn pills, he's got another think coming," said Agnes, pulling a dingy comforter under her chin.
Connie returned with the water and medicine.
"I heard that. Just take this pill and I'll set your alarm for four hours. You must follow the doctor's instructions," said Connie. She, no doubt, already saw herself in her hot tub surrounded by mounds of fragrant foam.
"I can take care of myself," mumbled Agnes. "Gonna sleep late. I'll call you when I want you."
"I'd be glad to check on her tomorrow morning."
"Thanks Sylvia, but I have some errands to run anyway, so I might as well get an early start."
"Quit gabbing and go! I'm trying to sleep!"
They talked and laughed their way to the front door as Connie regaled her with a less-than-flattering anecdote about Aunt Agnes, in retaliation for her crabbiness.
"I'll lock up. Go home and get some sleep."
Sylvia waved to no one as Connie sped away. Then, she turned off all but the kitchen light and glanced at the clock. The second hand clicked as it lurched between ceramic bunches of now-gray grapes. Her gloved hand switched on the humidifier, pointed the nozzle at the smoke detector and adjusted the mist intensity to high. She turned off the light and locked the door behind her.
Sylvia made some fresh coffee and waited. The only thing she wasn't sure about was how long it would take. She decided she'd return in two hours. If her plan failed and Mrs. Braxton was still alive, she'd say she'd come to check on her. If her plan was successful, everything would have to be cleaned up and put back before daylight. Nothing must seem out of place to Connie.
She tried to read but couldn't concentrate. The coffee wasn't helping her nerves. How could she have thought she'd need it to stay awake? She began to pace, and with increasing frequency, to stare out her bedroom window at Mrs. Braxton's house.
The house sat as quiet and dark as any other on the street. An hour crept to an end. Sylvia couldn't stand it any longer. She would get Harry and take a closer look from outside. Then "hearing something," and being the good and concerned neighbor she was, she'd go in to check on Mrs. Braxton.
Harry strained at his leash, determined to go everywhere, smell everything and claim new territory. Sylvia struck a pose of annoyance mixed with boredom at being dragged out of bed at this hour by her dog, in case a wayward neighbor might be driving by or looking out a window on the way to get an antacid. She was anything but bored, and all her senses were primed for any clue as to what was happening next door. But it was no use. The only one getting anything out of this expedition was Harry. She couldn't detect anything from the front.
Harry didn't need any prodding to redirect his operations to the back of the house.
The kitchen window shouldn't be dark. She should have turned on the light when she went to disconnect the alarm. What was going on?
Sylvia took Harry home, then returned and let herself in through the back door. The only sound she heard was the muffled whooshing of the furnace. From the kitchen doorway, she saw the steady stream of mist continue its climb towards the smoke detector. On the floor lay an overturned stepladder and a crumpled heap of flannel that had once been Mrs. Braxton.
It had worked. Finally.
"I wondered when you'd get here, " said a familiar voice from the darkened living room.
Sylvia jumped. Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, "I didn't know you were here, Connie. . .I was out walking Harry and I thought I heard a noise so I came over..."
"To check on my poor aunt," Connie finished. "That's very neighborly of you. I think that's the main reason I'm going to enjoy living here. . .the neighborliness."
"My aunt objected to relatives living too nearby, but that obstacle has been removed. . .thanks to you."
"Me? I was just coming by to check on her and see about the noise. . ."
"Oh yes, the noise," said Connie as she shifted her position on the couch and drew her aunt's afghan closer around her. "Do you think it might have come from something like this?"
Connie held up something small that Sylvia had trouble making out. She had a sinking feeling she knew what it was.
"In case your eyes haven't adjusted, it's the battery you installed in the smoke detector tonight."
"I didn't. . ."
"Don't interrupt," snapped Connie. "She always used to interrupt: another of my aunt's lovable traits. The smoke detector used to go off while she was cooking, so she disabled it years ago. Said she'd rather take her chances. When I came to check on her, it was blaring away.
I found her on the floor. Thought she must've lost her balance, but when I got out of the stepladder to stop the noise, I slipped on one of those damn throw rugs I've been asking her to get rid of for years and almost broke my neck."
Sylvia, who was periodically wiping her sweaty hands on her jacket and eyeing the nearest door, managed an "oh?"
"When I went to put the rug back, I slipped again and noticed the floor there was slick. I checked under the other rugs and found the same thing. I assume that's your doing, also? I know it isn't from cleaning. My aunt was never one for cleanliness. . .I don't know the last time she mopped the linoleum. A lot will have to be done to bring this place up to my standards."
Sylvia could only nod as though hypnotized. Connie seemed to know everything; what was the point of denying it?
"I don't see any reason why you should have to spend your retirement in prison. . .if you do as I say."
Sylvia eased herself carefully onto her couch, groaning as she did so. She was stiff and sore all over as if she'd been in a gardening marathon. She was engaged in a type of marathon, though it involved nothing as enjoyable as gardening. Every day now, beginning at dawn, she started a long-distance relay race whose seemingly unreachable goal was to carry out Connie's wishes.
Connie's wishes, her orders, were relentless and exacting. From morning till night Sylvia had to divide her time between the moderate sprucing up of Connie's soon-to-be previous residence and the extensive cleaning, repainting, and redecorating required to make Agnes Braxton's home habitable.
It was just past nine now; pleased with her progress, Connie had let her knock off early.
A real treat, thought Sylvia, bitterly sipping her cup of decaf. She gathered a week's worth of unread newspapers toward her and began skimming them, starting with the oldest. In a matter of minutes she tossed it aside. The news was stale. The radio she listened to while working kept her abreast of major stories. She was just looking for items of local interest: weddings, divorces, births, deaths. A couple more, then bed. (Now that mornings were so ridiculously early, bedtime had to be too.)
Sylvia skimmed several more papers and yawned. Responding to the noise, Harry rearranged himself on the floor but still slept with his back to her, silently protesting all the recent departures from his routine.
Sylvia was about to toss the last paper on the pile when a small item caught her eye: "Accidental overdose causes death." She read on: "The coroner's jury, Wednesday, ruled an accidental overdose was the cause of death of Agnes Braxton, age 76. Braxton was found dead in her home at 64 Laurel Lane, February 23. Autopsy results indicated an overdose of a painkiller recently prescribed for injuries received in a fall. Interviews with relatives led to the verdict of accidental overdose."
Sylvia was suddenly wide awake. An overdose killed her, not the fall. She read it again. There was no mention of injuries from a fall as the cause, or even a contributing cause, of death.
She took another gulp of coffee. Sylvia tried to recall exactly what happened when they were getting Agnes ready for bed. She remembered Connie saying something about how often the doctor wanted her to take the pills, then Agnes arguing, Connie bringing in the medicine and the water to take it with. . .
"Interviews with relatives led to the verdict. . ."
Connie had been Agnes Braxton's only living relative. And she had handled the medicine. And the water. And she was there waiting for Sylvia that night. And wasn't Connie with Agnes when she had that fall on the escalator?
Sylvia jumped up and began to do a little jig, until her sore muscles reminded her who was boss. She was free!
Tomorrow she would sleep in. Have a big breakfast. Read the morning paper at an unhurried pace. Not dress until noon. When Connie called, threatening her for being late, Sylvia would inform her she had recently caught up on her reading and found it most interesting. So would her attorney if ever anything should happen to her.
Sylvia smiled and (painfully) bent down to pat Harry before turning out the light.
So, Connie Braxton was going to be living next door.
Did she say living?
© crossconnect 1995-1999
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania kelly writers house |