The walk from one house to the other, from his house to his destination, was not the problem. The difficulty lay at the doorstep itself, in the knocking and the waiting. As mature for his twelve years as he was tall, Matthew accepted chores with resignation. However the expression on his baby-fat face showed that this task, assigned to him by his mother, to beg cigarettes from the neighbors, was at once odious and detestable. And yet his resentment was not nearly as intense as the fear and anxiety he felt upon arriving at this particular neighbor's door. Not that he hadn't received fair warning, for he knew that on days when his mother hustled about ransacking the house, tossing cushions off the couches, plunging her hands into the upholstered crevices of the chairs, and emptying her pocketbook out on the kitchen table, that he would inevitably be sent either to Joe's Mediterranean Market, or to petition the neighbors.
Of the two options, he preferred the walk to the store, despite the fact that the round trip exceeded a mile and that his mother would often pin a note to his shirt and dispatch him like an overgrown carrier pigeon. For the last quarter of a mile or so the sidewalk followed the gentle downward slope of the hill past the district elementary school, to the busy intersection where a pharmacy, a barber, two markets and assorted second-story professional offices vied to service a share of the local population in this town of 30,000. After such a walk it was a pleasure to step inside the familiar shop, shuffle through the sawdust on the floor, to browse the penny-candy bins and the rows of miscellaneous housewares, and to gaze about and wonder hoe Joe had managed to pack his shelves with so many odds and items, from clothespins to cotter pins, from hair spray to bug spray, from feta cheese to dried beans.
For all his swarthy severity. Joe the shopkeeper was friendly, genial, and sincerely concerned about his customers. Without a glance from his Greek newspaper, he would mutter, "You come for get ceegarette? You tell you mahther- meester Joe say no more."
Although at one time ignorant of these matters, Matthew had learned that the note on his shirt was like a flag indicating that he carried no cash in his pockets. The boy would patiently wait out Joe's rant while standing at the Marvel comics rack, half of his attention on Joe, the other half surreptitiously catching up on Spidey's latest chronicle. In fact, Joe never failed to extend credit for cheese, bread, or cigarettes, although he was known to refuse to put newspapers or soft drinks on the tab.
The tall shopkeeper would run his fingers through his thinning hair and groan:
"Hokay- meester Joe, meester faggat nice guy. Here you go. You tell for me, you mahther peen money to you shirt next time. Paper notes no good for pay my beels."
The scene played itself out in Matthew's mind as he summoned the gumption to ring the buzzer and to summon Mrs Albuquerque.
One last look around. If there was any truth to the rumors he had heard whispered by neighbors and classmates, then this could well be his last moment of freedom for the foreseeable future.
The unkempt Albuquerque yard sprawled in all directions, a profusion of scrawny shrubs and prickly rose bushes winding through a thicket of tall wild flowers, long-forgotten gardening implements barely visible among exultant tendrils and creepers. From one corner a crooked arbor leaned into the yard, leering and tottering as if it had had too much of the grape. Along the property line a row of lilac bushes, so prim, pruned and elegant on the side facing Mrs Rizzo's, presented a fascinating thicket of long tangled limbs and deep shadowy recesses where Matthew and his friends sometimes dared to hide and play.
In overall size and configuration, the house was much like other homes in the neighborhood. But few of the other porches slouched so, and myriad battle-ship gray paint chips, shed from the house like dandruff, dusted the porch as well as the adjacent bushes and the lawn, partially obscuring the rot in the sagging front steps. Next to the door, a 1940's era two-person rocker with a faded striped blue slip cover listed to one side, resting upon a galvanized metal milk box where the springs had surely long since corroded. A three legged end table of aluminum and green glass sported a mountain of cigarette butts and a coffee cup that appeared to be in the process of reclamation by an ant colony.
The moment of hesitation seemed to pass as a breeze lifted the leaves of nearby trees, and Matthew detected the stale exhalation of house funk issuing from the screened windows facing the porch. The funk was one of the things Matthew feared most about the house, that is, other than Mrs Albuquerque herself. Here on the porch the smell dissipated in the fresh morning air. But he knew from prior visits that the interior of the house was saturated with the odor, a stale old-lady mixture of musty furniture, mildew, cigarette smoke, alien cooking vapors, and dead animal. Man! Because of this he'd have to change his shirt before he went out to play with his friends. In the meantime he'd probably suffocate.
It was no use thinking; if he was going to get this ordeal over with, he'd have to start it first. The thick knuckle-buster oaken door offered a selection of a tarnished lion-head knocker that hung upside-down and off-center below the heavy crystal window, an old-fashioned door bell mechanism activated by a wind-up key that now spun uselessly in its socket, and a mother-of-pearl buzzer button set in a pewter escutcheon. After pressing the buzzer for a good Mississippi count, Matthew twiddled the obsolete bell key, hoping that Mrs Albuquerque was out for the day. A jumbo jet held his attention for a moment, tugging at his spirits as it soared high and away; while in a nearby maple tree a chickadee issued a plaintive challenge that was universally ignored.
Oh, shoot, she was coming!
Ever the polite little boy, Matthew straightened up his posture and tried to smile, but he despaired, and his stomach sank, his gaze falling as well to a spot on the floor somewhere down between his sneakers.
He had once tried to describe Mrs Albuquerque to a classmate, constrained to a large extent by his total dedication to manners and by his rote awareness of the prohibitions that his breeding placed upon such talk. His friend, not missing a trick, had immediately drawn a picture that would serve admirably as the illustration accompanying an encyclopedia entry for 'ogre'.
Matthew had no doubt that a real ogre would probably scare the piss out of a story-book ogre (should they ever happen to meet), and likewise, the real Mrs Albuquerque frightened Matthew far more than the version of her that he dreaded in all his fretful imaginings.
She wore an amiable expression under the frizzled fright-mop that was her hair, looking pleased, somewhat like a lion when it's about to pounce. Though toothless, her grin was nonetheless menacing, fixed in place by a bulbous red nose. Her puffy eyes squinted from deep creases that seemed to run all the way across her face. A large wart sprouted a menagerie of hairs at an angle oblique to her cheek, as out of place on her face as an oasis springing from the desert.
For all of that, her appearance might improve immeasurably if she were to avail herself of the services of a brawny barber armed with plenty of soap, hot water, and a well-honed straight razor.
"There you are!" She cackled with obvious pleasure.
"So good to see you, Matthew! Come to visit me, hey? Good boy! Let me see if I can find you a treat!"
"Um, that's okay. Mrs Albuquerque, um, ...my mother wanted me to..."
"I spoke to your mother on the the telephone!" claimed the old hag, as if to underscore a point she had made.
Matthew closed his mouth and pursed his lips, waiting for the logical conclusion, and daring to hope that this chore may end sooner and more successfully than expected.
"I just need you to do something for me. Alright? That's a good boy! Now come upstairs and I'll show you what I want you to do."
He stepped into the hallway.
"Um, Mrs Albuquerque, my mother's waiting for me. Could you just give me..."
"I'll give you a special treat! Just as soon as you do this one little thing for me."
The heavy door slammed shut as if to second her request.
The boy shoved his hands into the pockets of his dungarees and quickly glanced up the stairs. A wave of revulsion passed over him, dragging the pit of his stomach like a deep-sea trawler. He did not want to go up there. Boxes, books, and assorted junk-in-general cluttered the stairs, and old carpeting lay upon the treads like some of kind of molted organic remains.
No taller than Matthew, Mrs Albuquerque wore a pale cotton print housecoat, faded sheer. The mismatched slippers on her feet revealed gnarled broken toes, warts and corns, and her ankles, purple with edema and varicose veins. Beneath her robe she wore a slip that stretched thinly over her humped back as if to demonstrate the ratio between material and modesty. Again she beckoned.
"Come on, boy, let's go..."
Without waiting for a response she led the way up the stairs, ignoring obstacles, and inadvertently starting a minor avalanche that Matthew dodged with alacrity. In moments he too was on the second floor, far within a house in which he initially had not wished to set foot.
"Mrs Albuquerque," he started, hesitantly, "My mother wanted me to come over here and..."
"God bless your mother, son. Here; I want to show you something. Hang on for a jiff and I'll go get it."
She shuffled down the hallway, turned and opened a door on the right. There was another flight of stairs, ascending to the attic.
Matthew immediately resolved not to follow any further. He chewed on the smallest knuckle on his right hand, taking a moment to organize his thoughts and to remind himself what he was supposed to do. Get the cigarettes and go, that's all. But the old lady wanted him to do something. Then she wanted to show him something. What next?
From the top of the stairs she called back.
"Sonny! I forgot to get you a snack! I have to get you a snack. What would you like? Orange soda? Crackers? Gin and tonic? Hoo-hoo! Just kidding! I'll get you a snack and then you can do a little something for me, and then I have something that I want to show you..."
Her voice trailed off as she entered one of the attic rooms.
"Where are you?" She peered around the corner and shouted.
"Sonny Jim! Get up here! Come on now!"
No thank you. The list was getting longer. He had already gone too far, too deep within the house, where none of his friends would ever dare go. The fearful funk shortened his breath, and he suspected that each shallow gasp was probably full of vile contaminants and deadly contagions. Everyone knew the old lady was a witch. Even Melissa Clark, who was the smartest girl in his class, and probably the smartest girl Matthew knew, swore that she had seen the old lady riding a broomstick on Halloween. For his part, Matthew doubted that she ever left the house.
How did his mother know this woman, anyway? What did they have in common? It sure as heck wasn't kids, or school, or church, or shopping, or work.
He was the go-between for cigarettes, and as far as he knew, his mother had never personally visited Mrs Albuquerque. Furthermore it was possible that she had never been to this house. But then, none of the neighbors ever went to dinner or cookouts at the Albuquerque place. In fact among homes in the neighborhood, hers was pretty much isolated and unique in that regard.
However the neighbors were aware of Mrs Albuquerque, if only minimally. They took note of the milk and the mail and the newspapers and the trash, the evidence of a life; as well as the pattern of lights in the windows at night, vapors from the chimney in winter, all routine indicators of persistent humanity.
But how did his mother know that the old lady smoked? Or did she just assume that all old folks smoked? Come to think of it, Mathew had never seen an adult that didn't smoke, and he had always assumed that everyone smoked when they reached a certain age. Not that he could ever imagine smoking, because it disgusted him, and he was determined to avoid the habit at all costs.
Maybe it was his mother's smoke-filled kisses, or the putrid stench of the ashtrays in the house, or the gag-inducing air in the car, but Matthew found cigarettes repulsive. It was for this reason that he had formed a no-smoking club in school. After working out the wording and the format by himself, he had approached all of the kids in his class and asked them to sign a pledge never to smoke cigarettes. Perhaps he had been a bit optimistic in anticipating a positive response to his idea, for he had imagined that many if not all of his classmates rejected smoking and so they would eagerly make the pledge. But in the end he collected only seven signatures, each on a separate piece of hand-lettered lined yellow paper. Then during one windy fall recess period he gathered the signatories together in the schoolyard, and in their presence he carefully folded the slips, and jammed them into a crack in an exterior wall of the school. There they would remain, the protruding wad a visible reminder, proof of their determination and a testament to their will never to smoke.
As a boy-scout Matthew was well-versed in pledges and oaths and statements of purpose. During his years of scouting he had earned tokens of achievement that certified his accomplishment of given deeds, as well as badges that signified his comprehension of given concepts such as civic pride, civility, honor, respect for others, loyalty, etc. Still, concepts alone do not a good citizen make. Perfection came from practice, and it was the scout's duty to serve the community with faith, awareness and pragmatism.
The best place to start was at home, and accordingly Matthew had recently decided to turn his attention to the largest problem that loomed in his awareness. It had long bothered the boy that his mother smoked so much and that she drank to excess. She frequently started a new cigarette before she finished the one she was smoking, thus ensuring that she had a lit smoke available at all times. And every afternoon she mixed a pitcher
of Vermouth and Rye on the rocks and nursed the liquor until her husband came home from work. When he worked late she often passed out on the couch.
Sometimes while Matthew and his older brother struggled through their homework they could hear their mother cracking ice in the kitchen, forsaking dinner for the evening pitcher of booze.
With idealism reinforcing his naivete, and pragmatic resolve fortifying his courage, Matthew started destroying his mother's cigarettes and pouring her booze down the sink.
At first his mother was puzzled as she tried to reconcile her losses. Then she concluded that one or both of her boys must be experimenting with tobacco. This only provoked a hypocritical lecture on the evils of smoking, and to additional walks to the store for Matthew. She was slower to notice the missing booze, for Matthew had been clever to water down the remaining stock and to mask the odors in the sink.
However he inadvertently gave himself away by writing to the family doctor, informing him as to the situation and imploring him to take a proactive role that might effect change.
The letter was his undoing, for the doctor, a chain smoker with a prodigious appetite for Scotch, merely turned it over to Matthew's parents. Humiliated, they scolded the boy for butting in, for taking a holier-than-thou attitude and for failing to inform them of his concern before informing "the world".
From Mathew's perspective it seemed as though this mission was a punishment related to those events. His mother had never been less reluctant to send him out to fetch cigarettes. Scruples seemed to have little impact on her behavior. He was, after all, a minor.
One way or the other he was the go-fer. Yet it might have helped somehow for him to know that she had been having second thoughts about the wisdom of using her youngest son to help secure one of her favorite forms of self-destruction.
Frozen in indecision, Matthew looked longingly down the stairs at his escape route, just as he heard his supposed captor clumping about in the attic above. Suddenly a dramatic thump shook the ceiling overhead, and a shower of plaster dust rained down upon the boy's head. Then, just as suddenly, the noise ceased. As he stood quietly fluffing the grit out of his hair, the silence seemed to goad him to action. It was time to fly, to bolt for the door and to run away as fast as possible. And yet, he did not run. For reasons he neither possessed nor understood, Matthew instead walked toward the attic stairs.
As he hesitantly crept forward he caught a glimpse of a bedroom on one side of the hallway in which some monstrous apparatus was mounted over a hospital-style bed, with a confusing array of bars and straps. The unmade bed trailed tubes and wires, and on the floor between the bed and the door was a well-used cat box that reeked of ammonia and cat shit. Quickly turning away he inadvertently looked into the bathroom on the other side of the hall, and saw things he wished he had never seen, including a bedpan, various buckets, more bars and straps, what appeared to be a plastic bag of colored liquid hanging from a hook and an illuminated magnifying mirror mounted on a pivoting extension arm. Brief snapshots only, but to imprint images that he lacked a frame of reference to understand. Therefore his mind filled in supposition for knowledge and imagination for certainty.
These images inspired fear and dread and disgust, and furthermore his gut seemed to reject what his mind took to be real, with a wave of nausea that would have stopped him from proceeding toward the attic door. But he thought he heard the voice of Mes Albuquerque, barely audible over the thrashing pulse of his heartbeat in his ears.
He called out to her weakly, as if he would rather not receive a response, then he tentatively followed the echo of his own voice through the doorway and slowly up the stairs to the attic.
Whatever motivation had impelled him to climb the stairs was quickly forgotten as he sensed something else that drew him onward despite his qualms. The he realized with relief that it was a sudden cool fresh breeze from above that compelled him to seek the attic.
Now, despite the mysterious thump and the disappearance of Mrs Albuquerque, he simply wanted to fill his lungs and breathe freely again. But when he reached the top step and turned the corner into the attic, he stopped short, and almost turned around completely. The old lady was sitting flat on the floor with her legs spread wide. Her robe had fallen from her shoulders and one strap of her nightgown was hanging down to the flabby elbow on the outstretched arm that supported her weight With her other hand she was scratching her head, and she had a dazed but benevolent expression on her face.
"Me go boom!" giggled the crone, and she started to get up.
"Are you alright?" asked Matthew, still unsure as to whether he should be looking in her direction. Although she was an old lady she was practically undressed and sitting rather un-lady-like on her ass. He became convinced that he must face the other way when he noticed that her underwear was showing, and furthermore that it was horribly stained. Perhaps he might live to tell this story to his friends, but under no circumstances would he ever relate this part of the tale because he would never wish to recall it.
"Yeah, ah, yup, ah," she croaked, "...but I think I need some help."
He was afraid of that. Trembling, he side-stepped across the room, and approached the old lady, who was trying to roll onto her hands and knees. He saw bare lathing and plaster, ragged strips of insulation tacked between rafters, a clear light bulb hanging in a socket from a frayed helix of antique electrical wire. His foot bumped into a box, and turning he saw how his neighbor's mishap had apparently occurred. She had tried to stand upon a pile of boxes that were filled with reams of miscellaneous papers. The cartons were older and more friable than Mrs Albuquerque, and like her they lay upon the floor of the attic in a heap. Some of the boxes were open, some had the flaps folded shut, but Matthew knew that none of them would have supported his weight, let alone the old lady's.
"Upsy-daisy!" said Mrs Albuquerque, gripping Matthew's hand. Her fingers felt spongy and insubstantial, but he set his weight against hers as if he was prepping for a tug-of-war, and hauled back.
"Ouch!" she cried. "I'm an old lady, you know!"
With difficulty he prevented himself from saying something nasty in return. He wiped his hands on his pants and backed away in silence, wondering hoe he could help.
Sensing the boy's discomfort, the fallen woman uttered a wheezy chuckle and then got up on her hands and knees. Standing, she reached out as if to steady herself by grasping his shoulder, but as she gained posture she apparently passed gas, and the odor packed a wallop, almost knocking the poor boy over. He backed away in large, stiff-legged strides, his eyes watering, and fight-or-flee instincts filling his chest with dire desperation.
Earlier he had sensed fresh air coming from the attic, and now he followed it to the source- a broken pane of glass in a window facing the back yard. The remaining panes in the rotten frame were held in place with tape; and cracks around the sill had been stuffed with sheets of newspaper, now faded to a uniform color of creamed coffee. Nearby another old quarto of newsprint was still legible, advertising a new Chevrolet automobile for the sale price of $535.00. Matthew turned from the window to look Mrs Albuquerque, marveling with a new appreciation for her apparent decrepitude. Could she really be that old? When had cars ever been that cheap?
"Oh, my! That was an adventure! Good thing I landed on my padding (tee-hee!)"
"Are you alright?" asked Matthew, by way of reply.
Half pirouetting in self-examination, Mrs Albuquerque said, "Oh, I think so. Why? How do I look?"
Mathew had already seen more of her hide than decency would normally allow, and he had no desire to inspect her more closely. He drew another breath of air from the window as it were a respirator. Still wanting to be helpful, he said, "I think you're gonna have a bruise, that's for sure!"
"Huh? A bruise?"
She frowned. There were already bruises on her forearms and her shins, plus one on her right thigh and another on her neck.
"I'm more worried about the floor. Imagine if I had fallen through!"
As much as he might have enjoyed imagining, he again opted for discretion, and kept his thoughts to himself.
"Um, Mrs Albuquerque, what were you looking for? Did you find it?"
"Looking for? Looking for what?"
He blushed in embarrassment, not because of any new uncomfortable revelation, but because he had again immediately thought of bolting to escape his predicament. Perhaps there was another way to get out of here.
"Well, see, my mother sent me here to..."
"Of course! How could I forget! I still have to get you a treat!"
"That's OK, I don't want you to go to any trouble."
She continued as if she hadn't heard him. "And before I do, I want to show you something. It's up here somewhere."
Matthew looked around the attic, as if he might see what it was she had climbed atop the boxes to reach. There were no shelves, no furniture to speak of. Boxes, trunks, a rug rolled up and lying lengthwise under the eaves, an abandoned bird's nest, a small section of honeycomb beehive.
"First I had to turn on the light." She pointed toward the bulb, now burning brightly.
He shrugged, puzzled, as if to say, "So?"
"But the string broke, so I had to reach it somehow."
Oh, of course! The boy wondered how he might reach the lamp to fix a string to the remaining pull-chain.
"Do you want me to fix it? Where is the string?"
"My goodness, can you do that? The string? I don't know, it broke about twenty years ago."
The woman clearly had problems. Matthew wouldn't presume to question her sanity, but conversation was strangely unsettling. It reminded him of how his grandfather, who passed away when Matthew was nine, used to speak during the year or so before he died. He too had been somewhat house-bound, and his children, Matthew's aunts and uncles, would visit the kind old gentleman and fuss over him. He patiently endured the feeding, shaving and grooming, but all the while he would utter non-sequiturs, and say, "I want to go home now."
Matthew would get that same feeling he had now, looking into his grandfather's clear, twinkling blue eyes, and knowing in his heart that the old man wasn't quite all there.
"Oh, great God in heaven! Look-it! Right there all the time! I guess sometimes instead of using your head you have to bust your butt, eh?"
She bent over to one of the boxes at her feet, and from it selected what looked like a white cardboard tube.
"We'll go down to the kitchen and get a snack. How's that? The light's no good here anyway."
What could he say? At least the kitchen was closer to the back door. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he'd find some pretext to slip out and run home.
Matthew noticed that Mrs Albuquerque was careful to close the bathroom door as she passed through the hallway on the second floor. He might have been spared some trauma if she had only thought to do so earlier.
He felt emboldened now and asked, "Where is your cat?"
"Eh? My cat?"
"Ah, yeah, I thought I, uh, smelled a cat."
"Well then, you must have a darn good nose. I haven't had a cat in years. After Puss died, I just couldn't bring myself to get another one. Do you have a cat, Matthew?"
Man! What was going on? He felt more confused by the moment.
"No, I mean, yes!"
He shook his head, as if to clear it.
"My mother has a cat. Snooker. Not much of a house cat. Spends all his time in the yard, hunting birds and squirrels. I have a dog, though. But you know Shoofer, don't you?"
They had arrived at the kitchen now, and Mrs Albuquerque went directly to the sink where she washed her hands, inspecting them for damage.
"Snooker and Shoofer? That's cute. Do they get along?"
"Shoofie likes to chew shoes, you know. So that's how he got his name. My mother named Snooker. She said that's what he looked like when he was a kitten. Shoofie's too old to mess with Snooks, but the cat stays outside mostly..." Now he was repeating himself.
"Speaking of my mother..."
"How is she? I heard she had to have a procedure, the poor dear."
"She's fine. A procedure?" He thought for a moment.
"Oh, yeah, the gall stone thing."
Yeah, it was like, last summer or something.
"No, she's fine. Um. Mrs Albuquerque?"
"I know, dear. You want your snack. Hold your horses, I was just getting to that. But I want to show you this picture.
Matthew could be patient in most circumstances. For example, after sending away to the Captain Kangaroo television show he had waited for two months, almost the entire summer, for the tickets to arrive. Even his parents had been surprised at his tenacity. They knew that if he should succeed then one or both of them would have to accompany him to the studio. So they offered little optimism to help sustain him through his ordeal, and even less encouragement when he realized he would have to wait additional months for the date of the show to roll around.
If he could wait that long, then he would somehow manage to put up with this delay. Still, he fidgeted, and rocked from foot to foot in an attempt to bleed off some energy.
She unrolled the tube and held it at arm's length, turning it this way and that before spreading it out on the kitchen table, and tenderly smoothing the corners. After all the trouble and pain she endured to retrieve the photo, she must have cherished it. And yet she weighed it down with coffee cups as if it were of no more value than an old road map.
While he waited for his hostess to arrange the picture just so on the table top, Matthew looked around, irked by a feeling that the kitchen looked vaguely and unexpectedly familiar.
On other occasions when he had entered the house he had stayed only long enough to complete his assignment before dashing out as quickly as he had come in. He preferred to knock and wait at the back door, although in this neighborhood it was customary to simply enter, call out a salutation and wait in the kitchen to be greeted. This time, in order to comply with his mother's specific request. He had gone to the front door, certain that it was not a matter of manners or protocol. She simply wanted to be able to observe his progress from her living room window, and thus determine how long she would have to wait for him to return with her cigarettes.
It wasn't that he recognized the room per se, but a haunting deja vu seemed to call back an impression of early childhood. Peering about, he noticed the yellowing linoleum on the floor, the heavy cast-iron stove and the seemingly over-sized sink standing on thick white legs that terminated in molded cast and porcelain paw-shaped feet. The refrigerator seemed to suit its owner, squat and rounded, with one large door and a chrome handle that looked as though it had been salvaged from an old Buick.
This design might have been in style back when his parents got married. Of course Matthew's memory wasn't that extensive, but he still remembered the old apartment where his family used to live. Like many local folks, they got their start in the housing projects during the boom. Thinking back, he recalled that he had started first grade the year his family moved to a home of their own in this neighborhood, so he must have lived in the old apartment for five years, anyway. That old apartment was furnished much like Mrs Albuquerque's; and he knew, although it seemed inconceivable from his twelve-year-old perspective, that his mother used to bathe him an a kitchen sink very much like the one before him now. Funny how the oddest things triggered memories and emotions.
"See here, Sonny Jim?"
The witch's voice banished his reveries and brought him back to the here and now, and called his attention to the photographic there and then, as she pointed to a diminutive figure, one of many stationed in orderly rows and ranks so that their images might be preserved for posterity.
The colorless photograph was laced with a filigree of fine white veins, spreading and branching over what must once have been a glossy surface. In places where the veins intersected, portions of the picture had apparently flaked away, leaving odd, random blank polygons that obliterated most detail, and in some cases, obscured the faces of the subjects. A number of large creases in the paper had separated the image into a crazed jigsaw puzzle of smaller segments, reminding Matthew of the rear window of his father's sedan after it had accidentally gotten in the way of one of his better line drives.
Would it be polite, he wondered, to wait until she had removed her stubby finger from the photo before stepping closer to see it properly? The memory of her frightful fart had seared an indelible impression upon his senses, and he felt uncomfortably nervous standing so close to the old woman.
With a shiver he realized that the nail of her index finger was completely missing.
Despite its overall condition he knew that this was a commemorative class photo; and it reminded him that picture day was coming up in a couple of weeks at his school. Looking more closely now, it was clearly a group of students standing in a schoolyard, with a a banner propped up in front of the first row, and a proud teacher standing beside the assembly as if to provide a sense of scale. Again Matthew was struck by a strange sense of familiarity, clearly inspired by the photo, but then, he thought, all these school pictures pretty much looked the same. It was too bad he couldn't make out any of the faces, and that time and neglect had eradicated the name of the school.
"Do you see?" asked Mrs Albuquerque.
"Who? This one?" Matthew pointed to a boy in the second row, where he thought she had been pointing. These kids all looked so neat and well turned out; the boys with slick hair and the girls in Sunday dresses. They struck him as uniformly... geeky!
"That one? Oh, that's my Walter."
"He was your...?"
"Of course, they were all my kids, but Walter was, after all, the youngest, and..."
"You mean your son? This kid Walter was your son?"
Although she replied in the affirmative, the expression on her face was one of uncertainty, as if she were confused about something.
The back door was mere yards away, and Matthew was sorely tempted to make a run for it. Something was unsettling about the old bat, and he wasn't sure it was right to keep her talking. He backed up a couple of steps as if giving her room to think; getting close to the back hall but casually, as though he had no apparent goal in mind.
"This was, oh, I don't remember what year it was, but Walter must have been in the sixth grade by then. I was lucky to have him that year."
What did she mean by that? What was she talking about?
"Ahm; where is Walter now?" He looked around as if Walter might be in one of the other rooms. "Probably grown up with a family of his own, huh?"
"Well, no, well, yes, he would be all grown up by now, but I lost him. No, Walter never had a family. I lost him first, you see. In the war. He was Navy. Daniel was Marines, but Walter was Navy."
He waited, squirming inside. She was crazier than he thought, but the tone of her voice was controlled and gentle, and she was clearly checking her emotions, probably to avoid freaking him out.
"Funny thing was that John was Army. He wanted Walter to 'go Army', but Walter wanted to fly, and he thought he'd have a better chance in the navy. 'Course, with his eyes... well, you know. Daniel, on the other hand, just wanted to be different."
She had drifted back over to the stove, and was fussing with the burner, having little luck lighting it.
"Where did I leave those matches?"
Happy to change the subject, if there was one, Matthew spoke up.
"You have to light that? Doesn't the stove have a pilot?"
"I think so, but it hasn't worked in a long time. It's alright; if I can find my matches."
"Tell you what, uhm, why don't you let me take a look at that?"
Matthew had some experience; that is to say he sometimes helped and observed when his father worked on appliances, which he did for a living.
"All right; you see what you can do while I fill the kettle."
Again Mrs Albuquerque startled him with her 'jack-o-lantern' grin. But once he focused on the stove, the problem with the burner became apparent.
"This is a disgr- um, this needs to be cleaned. Let me see, now."
He put his hands on his hips and looked around the room, then started opening cabinets.
"What do you need, dear?" asked Mrs Albuquerque, as her kettle overflowed with water.
"Cleaning supplies... the matches, a paper bag, some steel wool, rubber gloves, a dustpan and brush..."
He listed each item as if they were individual questions.
She, in turn, started listing locations:
"Bottom cabinet on the left... above the sink... in the back of the hall on the shelf... in the broom closet..." and she trailed off, cackling with satisfaction.
First he removed the burner cap and cleaned the exposed jets with a match stick, then screwed the burner back together tightly, lit it, and set the kettle stop the flame. While the water came to temperature he checked each of the other burners in turn, cleaning them, lighting the pilots, adjusting the flash. There must have been decade of grease and food scraps below the lid of the old gas stove, along with spent matches and cockroach carcasses.
The oven would have to wait, primarily because it was loaded with pots and pans, many of which needed cleaning.
By the time he was finished he had filled the paper bag twice over with refuse and he had emptied and refilled the bucket three times for all of the scrubbing.
As he wiped the sweat from his brow he wondered what had possessed him to volunteer his labor so readily. He didn't work as hard for his own mother.
"Well, at least now you won't blow yourself up!" he said with some satisfaction.
"Blow myself up? Matthew! Why would I want to do such a thing?" replied Mrs Albuquerque.
Again her smile seemed ambiguous, and again he wondered whether she were quite in touch with reality.
Allowing just a beat for her rhetorical question, she continued.
"I'm sorry... I just sat back and had a cup of tea while you did all the work! How can I help? Or do you want to take a break? I think it's high time you got that snack."
"But Mrs Albuquerque, my mother sent me over here..."
"I know she did, Matthew, you're here now, aren't you?"
Just then an intuitive flash crossed his mind. Could it be that the old lady was making fun of him? Was she enjoying some kind of joke at his expense?
No, it couldn't be.
But one thing of which he was certain was that each attempt to get the cigarettes seemed to result in unexpected consequences. He decide on a change of tack, and relayed it tactfully.
"Um, thank you, Mrs Albuquerque. You're very kind to offer, but I have to go tell my moth... um, I mean I have to get back home because I have some things to do now before I meet my friends, ah, later. I think I better just bolt, ah, I mean head. Head home, that is. Bye!"
"But Matthew, there was something I needed you to do, and there was something I was going to show you. I didn't show you."
Now her voice was plaintive, somewhat grotesquely like a little girl.
"Well, I'm sorry, Mrs Albuquerque, I tried to tell you, but now I have to get going."
"Tell me what, Matthew? If it's important, maybe you had better tell me right now!"
For a moment she seemed almost familiar, like a librarian he might see every week, or like the crossing guard down at the school, or like some relative who would look totally different if you never saw them standing in front of you in their underwear.
"I didn't mean, oh, never mind! I'm sorry!"
"Don't be sorry! You don't have to apologize."
"No, it's just that my mother says that it's impolite to say 'never mind'."
"Oh she does, does she? My, my." She snorted. "So Dorothy thinks she's Miss Manners."
Again her statement confused him.
"Listen, Matthew," she continued, "I don't care if you say 'never mind'. I say it all the time. Most of the time it's because I can't remember what I was going to..." She paused.
"Say?" offered Matthew.
"Say what?" replied Mrs Albuquerque.
"No; you said you couldn't remember what you were going to... say."
"I did? When did I forget what I was going to say? Am I getting that bad?"
Flustered now, Matthew said, "Oh, never mind!"
"Hee, hee, hee! I was just kidding! See, I got you to say 'never mind' again! So it is alright, and I just proved it! Hey! Why aren't you smiling? It's not often I tell a joke. You're too serious."
A joke? Matthew was doubly confused. What part was the joke?
This whole crazy visit was a joke. But he did have to admit, the old lady sounded funny when she got going.
"I really do have to go, Mrs Albuquerque, but tell you what, I'll try to come back when I get a chance so I can do that thing..."
Why did he feel like he should apologize?
She was giving him a funny look, with one eyebrow raised.
"...that thing you wanted me to do. Or show me, or whatever... Oops, sorry! My mother says..."
"Don't tell me; let me guess. Your mother says that it's impolite to say 'whatever'."
"Good grief!" She shook her head. "I guess I have to let you go then, if you're in such a hurry! See you later, Matthew! Thanks for the help!"
In the joy of emancipation he practically skipped out of there.
Poor Matthew leaves the frying pan and finds himself in the fire.. Please review, or just let me know what you think.