When the neighbors from hell with their two demon boys move in behind Alice Norris, the neighborhood is in for a shock.
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1958 –
Good Bye and Good Luck, Mrs. Kelsey
Norma A. Wrathall
It was the summer after I, Alice Norris, had my gall bladder operation that the Kelseys moved into the old Forrester place adjoining my property. I hadn’t been able to work as hard as usual that year, but my son-in-law had set out my tomato and pepper plants, and I planted the cucumbers myself. Between us, we put in the dahlia bulbs, with a tall stake beside each one. As president of the Linwood Flower society, I just about had to get in a few new flowers, although my yard is already planted nicely to perennials and roses. And I had a secret hope of exhibiting my deep maroon dahlia, the Star of Persia, at the State Fair.
Mine is a large corner lot, with old Mrs. Bates’ home on the east and the Forrester place at the back. It was once one of the finer homes of Linwood, but the Forresters had moved away, and the old frame house had fallen into disrepair. Weeds were rampant in the dooryard, and the field beyond, once a pasture, had become a tangle of wild grass and morning glory. Verner Hals, owner of Linwood’s Men’s Clothing Store, had the renting of the house to a succession of families that moved in and out of town. I had told him, “You’d get a better class of renters, if you’d fix up the house a bit.” He said he couldn’t on the small commission he collected. As it was, I tried to be a good neighbor to the renters, friendly, but distant. However, it was soon apparent that the little Kelsey boys didn’t know the meaning of distance.
I was working in my back yard on the afternoon that the Kelseys drove their dilapidated car along the adjoining driveway. Through the cloud of dust, I caught a glimpse of the top piled high with paraphernalia, the two little boys leaning out at the side, and the trailer bumping along behind, all but spilling bedsteads, bedding, pots and pans, and what-not. A few minutes later, as I knelt to fasten a tomato plant to its prop, a clod of dirt sailed over the fence and landed with a plump beside me.
The very next morning, as I started toward the yard to turn on the sprinklers, I heard “–sss-sss-tt–” and the scampering of feet. A frowzled black top, which I learned later belonged to Benny, and a carroty thatch which proved to be Pete’s, disappeared from view down behind my fence. I hurried to the garden to find green and ripe tomatoes thrown about, vines uprooted, cucumbers stepped on and smashed. I looked over the fence in time to see them scuttling for home. As I cleaned up my garden, I got to wondering how they had climbed over my straight high fence, unless they were part demon and part fly.
Mrs. Bates agreed that they were part demon, all right, on the day they pulled the wire from her hen-house, chased the setting hens from the nests, smashed the eggs, and pulled out the rooster’s tail feathers.
Things went from bad to worse. Almost every day there was new mischief. We talked it over, and decided that something would have to be done. I wondered if it would be best to try kindness, coupled with a grim attitude, of course. They immediately assigned me the task of making the complaint.
I started out one afternoon with a loaf of fresh raisin bread.
Mrs. Kelsey was on the sagging back porch, washing clothes in a large tin tub. She was a tall, large-boned woman, her face tanned and deeply lined. She pushed a strand of straight brown hair from her damp forehead, and greeted me. “Hot, isn’t it?”
After I had introduced myself, and she had thanked me for the bread, she pulled a backless chair from under a pile of boxes in a corner. I sat gingerly on the edge of it.
“I … suppose you’re getting settled by now?” I ventured.
She began sudsing some towels on the washboard. “Well, good as we ever will, I guess … I mean, Mr. Kelsey hasn’t got work right now. Thought he had a job at the railroad yard when we came, but turned out they didn’t need him. … Haven’t seen anything of Benny and Pete, have you?”
“I hope he gets some work soon,” I said. “And I wanted to talk to you about Benny and Pete.” I cleared my throat, and could feel my face getting red as she stopped washing, and turned suddenly to look at me.
“Er … I wouldn’t mind if the boys took some vegetables, Mrs. Kelsey. In fact, I’d be glad to give them some. But I don’t want them to tear up the vines and destroy things.”
She said nothing.
“Several other neighbors have complained, too,” I pushed on. “But maybe when they get better acquainted, they’ll have more playmates, and not get into so much mischief?”
She shrugged. “‘Taint likely. Seems like wherever we go, it’s hard for them to get playmates. Have they done anything real bad?”
“Well … unless you count smashing eggs and tomatoes and pulling out rooster’s tail feathers!”
Her gaze shifted to the sprawling apple tree which dropped its wizened crop to the yellowed tickle grass in the yard. “They’re such lively little boys …” she said.
Abruptly, she turned back to the tub. “Have to get on with my washing, if you’ll excuse me … nearly supper time,” and she resumed her vigorous scrubbing.
I understood that the visit, such as it was, had ended. As I walked home, I felt frustrated and more than a little vexed with myself. I was sure that old Mrs. Bates would take me to task for my failure.
One day, at the end of the month, I saw Verner Hals driving away from the Forrester place, so I hailed him as he came around the corner.
“Well, did you collect any rent from them?” I asked him, smiling to soften the impertinent question.
“Alice …” He sighed, and leaned back in the car seat. His round, firm face was more flushed than usual, his small straight mouth set resolutely into his cheeks, and his shrewd eyes, behind the thick lenses, had a harassed expression.
“I will admit that I certainly made a mistake with them. I was down with the flu when they came – didn’t take the time to check their references, if they had any. They paid their deposit – and since you asked, yes, she scraped up the rent money from various little places. Said he’d got a couple of weeks’ work at the cemetery, but he isn’t working now. So, I can’t force them to move. Anyway, I hate to evict people, except as a last resort. It makes such unpleasant publicity.”
“Maybe so, but those little boys are the scourge of the neighborhood. I should think you’d consider the rest of us!” I flared.
“As far as that goes, they have broken two windows in the house and pulled the front gate loose,” he said. But as he left, he said he’d see what he could do.
Then came the morning that I found the Star of Persia uprooted, wilting in the blistering sun.
“Oh, those wretched, wretched boys!” I muttered, kneeling beside my stricken beauty. My vegetables, maybe. But not my dahlia! I hurried to the house, the drums of battle beating in my ears, combed my hair, took off my apron, and prepared to sally forth.
I almost bumped into Mrs. Kelsey coming up the back walk.
Apparently, she didn’t notice my belligerent expression, although old Mrs. Bates says that I never look as fierce as I think I do.
“Thought I’d come over and tell you the news,” she began, not waiting for me to invite her in. I thought that her face was more relaxed than usual.
“We got a letter from Pa’s brother up in Oregon. Wants us to come up there. Says he has a steady job lined up. So … we’ll be moving right away.”
It took me a moment to find words. “That’s wonderful. For you, I mean. But – that’s a long trip. Will your old car make it?”
“Oh, very likely it will. Pa’s out there working on it now. He’s pretty good at fixing things, if you can get him at it.” She started away, then paused and lifted her head, a thin flush spreading up under her cheeks. “Guess the neighbors will be glad we’re moving. Guess it might be the best news they’ve had!”
“Oh … why … no …” I fumbled; but she was already halfway down the path.
The news ran like quicksilver over the party lines. A sort of glad relief surged over the neighborhood, and with it a trickling of belated good will. We had all snubbed the Kelseys, and as far as I know, no child had been allowed to play with Benny or Pete. But guilty feelings bring out strange behavior sometimes. One after another of us took over some little friendly offering. Dorothy Driggs took some good cotton T-shirts which her boys had outgrown; old Mrs. Bates took a blanket she had stored away and never used. The wound still hurt when I thought of my dahlia. But, after some deliberation, I gave Mrs. Kelsey a new dress which my sister in Chicago had sent me the previous year. I had never worn it, because, as my sister should have known, I can’t wear yellow. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she held it up. “New,” she breathed, “brand new …”
Even Verner Hals stopped by to tell me that he had found four good retreads for their car at his brother’s garage. “Couldn’t risk having the trip fall through for lack of transportation,” he said.
“That’s a kind act, but it lacks a charitable motive!” I told him.
He raised an eyebrow. “Who’s calling the kettle black?” he said, and laughed.
They were scheduled to leave on Saturday. On Friday morning, Mrs. Kelsey was again at my door. She’s come to say goodbye, I thought, and resolved to send her away with a kind feeling.
I asked her to come in and sit down, and passed a plate of oatmeal cookies. As she talked, her large, strong hands, usually still, pleated the side of her dress.
“Mrs. Norris, if I’d had to tell you this a week ago … well, I just couldn’t have, that’s all. I thought everyone was down on us then. But now … everyone’s changed. Or else, we’re just getting acquainted better.”
Premonitions truck me. “Has – anything happened?”
“Yes, I guess you might call it that. We got another letter from Pa’s brother in Oregon. Air mail. Says the job fell through. Says to come on up, anyway, if we want to.” Her wide mouth lifted in a smile. “But I guess he didn’t want us very bad. And the neighbors here have turned out to be so nice. I said to pa – ‘Why leave? Just as we’ve got to liking it?’”
I knew that my mouth was hanging open, but I couldn’t seem to get it shut. I must have said something, and, presently, she left.
By midafternoon, this new development had spread like a pall over the neighborhood. For some reason, they all seemed to hold me responsible. As if I could help it! “It’s all your do-good ways, Alice!” “… if you’d been more firm in the first place … I should think you’d learn, at your age …”
By the time I turned on my lawn sprinklers, my ears were burning, and I was in no mood to be pleasant when Verner Hals appeared at my front door.
“I don’t want to hear any more blame!” I snapped.
“Now, simmer down, Alice. No one’s blaming you.” He put his hat on the floor by his chair, and mopped his balding head with his handkerchief. I gave him a glass of ice water, and he sipped it as he talked.
“Alice, I realize that this new development is a blow to you, as it is to all of us – you, particularly, because of your proximity. And that’s what I want to talk to you about.” He pressed his mouth in carefully. “At last, after many letters back and forth, I’ve convinced the Forresters that they should sell their property. That way, there won’t be this moving in and out. So, I’ve got to have it vacant, renovate, and put it up for sale. I was just getting to the point of asking them to move, when they announced that they were leaving. But now – think what a spot I’m in! How will I get them out? Short of eviction?”
“Why ask me? I can’t get them out, either!”
He held up his hand. “Alice, you’re probably better acquainted with them than any of us. And they view me in the somewhat dubious light of landlord. Some of our interviews have been – unpleasant. I would find it very difficult to …”
“Now, see here, Verner. If you think that I’m going to tell them …”
“… To come to an understanding, Alice, I want you to go to them this evening. Before they get unpacked. Tell them the property has been put up for sale. They will have to move to Oregon. I will not press for the rent they owe, nor damages to the windows. Just do it in a calm and dignified way. Wish her a goodbye and good luck, something of that sort …” He picked up his hat.
“Coward!” I choked. But there was no use arguing with him.
An hour later, my feet dragged the short distance to the Kelseys. My arm was heavy as stone as my knock stilled the clamor within.
Mrs. Kelsey opened the door, and I saw that they were just sitting down to supper.
“Come right in, Mrs. Norris. It’s nice of you to come over.”
“Good evening. I … don’t want to interrupt your meal. But if I could speak to you for just a minute or two …”
“Why, sure. They can go ahead and eat without me. Let’s go out on the porch. It’s cooler.”
We sat on the slivery top step.
“You’ll have to excuse how the house looked,” she began, before I could speak. “We haven’t got everything unpacked yet.”
“That’s just what I … that is …”
“It’s real nice of you to come over, soon’s I told you we’re staying. Like I told Pa, ‘All good neighbors; that’s something you don’t always find.’ This is the first town where people have treated us decent. When you get kicked around from place to place, you get so you don’t care. But now, we feel different. Even the boys do.” She talked on, while I tried to get my tongue loose from the top of my mouth.
“I’m ashamed to admit that we haven’t been too good neighbors ourselves. I’m right sorry about the way those kids have pestered you. Today, Pa whaled them good. ‘Don’t go into her yard again, understand?’ he said. Benny yelled, ‘Okay!’ but Pete didn’t say anything, so Pa whaled him again, until he yelled ‘Okay!’ too.” Sudden anxiety creased her forehead. “Haven’t been over there today, have they?”
“Why, no. No, they haven’t.” I realized that in all the excitement, I hadn’t missed the Kelseys.
She was saying, “Pa’s promised to fix Mrs. Bates’ hen-house. He was over there today. That’s when she told him about your dahlia. I’m so sorry. I know how I’d feel. But things will be different now. You’ll see, Mrs. Norris.” She went on talking, saying that Pa had got his old job back as caretaker at the cemetery and that they’d promised him it would be permanent work, that she was going to pay all their bills up, and hoped the boys would be better. As she talked, her voice lifting and falling, I felt smaller and smaller. She had been in need of bread, and we had offered her a stone.
When I got home, I called Verner Hals on the phone. I told him all that had happened, and that if he wanted them to leave, he could take care of it himself. Then I hurried over to visit old Mrs. Bates before she could ring me back.
Verner stopped by next morning. Said he’d been thinking it over, and that things had probably turned out for the best. He’d decided to buy the old Forrester place himself; said he probably had intended to all the time but didn’t realize it. The old house wasn’t worth much, but he was buying it for the land at the back. Maybe it would be all right to have the Kelseys live there for awhile; maybe they’d clean up the place. He drew one of his deep sighs, and said that by some miracle, maybe Kelsey would even fix up the fences and look after the field.
I looked at him, wondering if he didn’t know that we’d already had a miracle, one that we wouldn’t forget in a while.
He turned his head suddenly, and his eyes met mine. The straight mouth lifted and softened, and as he turned his gaze quickly aside again, I saw something glisten, and I knew that he had shared my thought.