Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Richmond, Virginia and still live there. My momma was from Franklin County and grew up on bootleg money. My daddy’s from Johnson City, Tennessee. When it’s warm I try to jump in the James River once a day. As a kid, before I left the house, Momma would lick her palm and paste down my hair, “A lick and a promise,” she’d say and shoo me out of the door.
Sydney was grading the last of his essays when the ring of the hallway phone made him pull his pen from Jennifer Ham’s mediocre essay on Boo Radley. Sydney jumped up from his hallway desk, trying to grab the receiver before the second ring. His wife, Jane, was trying to put the baby to sleep in the nursery on the second floor. In his clumsy and clueless first year of fatherhood, he had discovered a few things; one was that a ringing phone or a slamming door could wake a sleeping baby and delay or destroy the one free hour you might have, an hour Sydney might spend grading papers, or watching the Braves play a few innings, or even having sex with his beautiful, exhausted wife.
He reached the receiver and whispered,“Hello.”
“Yes?” He didn’t recognize the voice. The speaker, female, sounded like she was holding the phone a few feet from her mouth, a tired voice, with barely enough energy to say the words.
“Talmadge is gone. Can you help me?”
He knew now this was his neighbor, Mrs. Crumley. In three years of living beside this 79-year old retired nurse, a transplant from the tiny town of Moultrie, Georgia, Sydney had almost never seen her smile, unless she was plotting something, and he had only heard her say nice things about the Lord, her long-suffering husband, and the renters, two college girls, who lived in the house before Sydney and Jane. Apparently they had made her cookies. . . once. She complained about the “colored” mailman, fat people, chipmunks; the list was updated each time he talked to her. Talmadge was her ghost of a husband. Sydney had only seen the man one time in the three years since he and Jane had bought the house.
Talmadge Crumley looked like he was a hundred years old and was suffering from
late-stage scleroderma, a disease, Mrs. Crumley had told him, that caused a hardening of the skin and muscle on the hands and feet, so much so that the affected areas atrophied and died. For Mr. Crumley, the disease attacked his fingers and toes; these appendages had to be amputated one by one. The disease also affected his vocal chords, and the one time Sydney heard him speak, his words sounded like leaking sandy moans.
That day, the time he saw Mr. Crumley, Sydney was starting to clean up the backyard which had been untouched by renters for years. He guessed the old guy had crept up on him as he raked rotting leaves into manageable piles, because he nearly screamed when Mr. Crumley called out, “Neighbor?” from his side yard. Sydney turned and saw him there, completely bald, his skin wrinkled and pale-white, shrunken, mummy-like fashion around his face, no eyebrows, leaning against the chain-link fence that separated their yards. His white, untucked oxford ruffled around his boney frame like a sail. Then he noticed the man’s mouth as he spoke, shriveled, turned inward, even whiter than his pale face, a lipless ring of scar tissue.
Sydney dropped his rake, forced a smile, and reached out to shake his hand, which was really a bony knob. “Good morning, sir. Sydney Wickam.” The knob was cold and smooth.
“There was a dog. Before you moved in,” he said. “I would watch it from here, running back and forth.” Mr. Crumley squinted at Sydney, smiling a little in the memory and tapping his knob on the chain-link fence.
“We have a cat,” Sydney said, praying that this crazed looking figure wouldn’t soon be casting a spell on his new neighbors.
“Ohhhhh,” he said, like a torturer had pushed a large volume syringe into his bicep. “Mrs. Crumley doesn’t like cats. Best keep it inside,” he warned. Sydney had learned about Mrs. Crumley’s hatred of cats directly from the source. “Scoot, scoot,” he would hear her shriek sometimes when he left the house and he would see her there humpbacked, but still fairly sturdy, throwing pebbles from her driveway at some neighborhood stray no closer than a hundred feet from her property. “Those things poo poo in my yard. I should poison them,” she said looking to him for agreement, her lips curled into a snarl.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Crumley,” he would say and drive off toward school thinking of the morphine addict, Mrs. Dubose, in Harper Lee’s novel.
Mr. Crumley was looking up into the sun, like it was broiling his skin, and winced as he said through the chapped hole of his mouth, “Nice meeting you, neighbor. Have a blessed day.” And he hobbled away and into the house.
And so Sydney crept upstairs to tell Jane he was going to the neighbors. When he reached the top step, he could hear the spray of the shower hitting her shampoo bottles. He paused and didn’t speak; this was a good sign, maybe a chance there would be love-making in his future. He crept further into the landing and peeked into Arthur’s room. His one year-old was wrapped in a blanket the librarian at Sydney’s school had knitted for him. Sydney watched and counted Arthur’s chest rise four times in the semi-darkness before he turned and padded downstairs. He hoped he would be back in a few minutes.
Sydney didn’t know much about his neighbors, but he began piecing together a fuzzy puzzle about their strange lives. Mrs. Crumley always seemed to be standing guard in her front yard whenever Sydney left the house, yelling at stray cats or staring at her grass, pulling up what seemed to be tiny weeds from her otherwise perfect lawn. “Cherry Laurel seedlings . . . from your . . . tree” she would say, smirking with scorn at Sydney’s only tree. Jane loved the tree, and it stood proudly in the side yard, shading the front stoop and maybe leaning an inch or two into the Crumley’s air-space; it was one of the reasons she wanted to buy the house. “Sorry, Mrs. Crumley. Maybe I could get it trimmed, so it wouldn’t make such a mess.”
She shrugged like that wouldn’t do a damn thing. “Well, I’ll tell you, I go to sleep worrying about that tree,” she looked up into its heavy canopy, “that it’s gonna crush me and Mr. Crumley . . . to death.” But then she smiled like she might be planning to slit Sydney’s throat in his sleep. “But maybe that would be a good thing as Talmadge has suffered so much. What a man to bear his pain. He deserves a good seat up there.” She paused, looking again at my tree. “Yes, crush our bodies. And go be with the Lord.” She clapped her hands violently and squealed. “Happy with the Lord. Happy with the Lord.” She was suddenly somewhere else, and Sydney felt like he was watching a front-yard exorcism.
“Well, have a nice day, Mrs. Crumley.” And as he turned to go, she huffed to herself obviously back from her happy reveries and shouted, “Trees and cats, I wish I could kill em’ all.”
Sydney felt guilty about the tree and being a less than perfect neighbor, but when he told Jane about Mrs. Crumley’s complaints, she said “Screw that old lady. She messes with my tree or my cat, I’m calling the cops.” Jane was feeding crushed bananas to Arthur who was babbling and eating happily. Sydney dragged a finger through a fallen glop on Arthur’s tray and tasted it.
“You’re disgusting,” she said flatly and did the same thing.
So Sydney walked out into the steamy Savannah night, not clearly understanding what Mrs. Crumley wanted. He looked back at his house, and Stella, their cat, stood on the window sill, inside the living room. In the shadow of the curtains, he could see her mouth open, maybe meowing, a warning perhaps, maybe just a yawn. He looked at his watch and thought about Jane towelling her hair dry. The palmetto bugs skittered in light from the street lamps and into the grass. He walked up to the Crumley’s door and knocked.
She opened the door. Though it was nine o’clock, she was still in her weed-picking clothes, a long-sleeved men’s shirt, probably her husband’s and a long gray skirt. Her eyes looked darker than usual, but she would not meet his gaze directly.
She turned and waved her hand, beckoning him in. “He’s in the bedroom,” she said. At this point, Sydney swallowed hard and tried to process the old woman’s words. Sydney did not like scary things. He would not watch horror movies with Jane. He did not like Halloween. In college he switched from pre-med to English because carving up the fetal pig in the lab had disturbed him so deeply. And, of course, he’d never seen a dead body.
He followed her back to the bedroom. The smell in the house was of wood polish and very strong carpet deodorizer and something else, maybe the faint scent of shit? The carpets were off-white, spotless, and Sydney nervously wondered if he had tracked in dirt behind him. As they walked through the dark kitchen and towards the bedroom, Sydney could see Mr. Crumley. He was sitting on one of those movable toilets, his head folded over, his khakis and boxers around his ankles. Sydney stopped in the doorway.
And here it was, a man of means, a banker before he got sick, Mrs. Crumley had told Sydney, no kids, but much pain and suffering, a shut-in, nursed by a bitter old woman, to die, in a bedroom, trying to stumble, to limp, to a cheap, plastic toilet, a glorified bucket, placed indignantly in a corner, before he emptied his friggin bowels on his wife’s beloved shag carpet.
But Mrs. Crumley was beside him now, kissing his bald head. “Oh, he was a good man, a good man.” And Sydney thought he heard her coo. “He’s gone home, gone home.” In her voice, Sydney thought, was a hint of joy and some other-worldly thing he couldn’t put his finger on.
“I need to get him off the commode and into his favorite chair . . . before folks get here.” The word “commode” froze him there, like a flash of light. She looked at Sydney now and pointed to the carpet which he could see was stained, smeared with a tan substance. He looked closer, and thought it looked like sawdust paste. “You see . . . he didn’t make it.” Her face was twisted into a slight frown, like she was disappointed at a puppy for crapping in its crate. Sydney wondered what the hell she had been feeding Mr. Crumley, wood chips?
“I’ll work on the stain after you get him settled.”
“So you want me to carry your husband from here,” he pointed in the direction of the white plastic toilet and the crumpled old man on top of it “to his favorite chair?”
“Yes.” She said it like she expected that Sydney could do anything, like maybe eat a live eel.
“And where is his favorite chair?” he asked.
“The La-Z-Boy . . . in the front room.”
Sydney, closed his eyes and prayed, something he didn’t normally do. God, this is truly fucked up, and I don’t know if this is punishment or some kind of test, but I’m going to do it. Please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die.
He walked to the bed and grabbed an afghan off the foot of it. He squinted trying to make Mr. Crumley a flesh-colored blur and lowered the blanket on the old man’s naked lap. He scooted it around the corpse’s hips. Again Sydney tried not to look, but he saw his gaping mouth and his frozen eyes. Finally he was ready and crouched in front of Mr. Crumley and picked him up, fireman style. The old man was oddly heavy, and his whiskery cheek rubbed on Sydney’s neck, and goddamn if it wasn’t still warm; his reaction was a half-vomitty gag and half-muffled screech, but Sydney tried to hold his breath and follow Mrs. Crumley.
Sydney hoped he wouldn’t smell the old man’s sawdust-shit stained underpants. When he stopped, mid-carry, to shift the corpse’s weight into a less painful angle on his shoulder, he thought he felt the slap of Mr. Crumley’s rigor mortis-ed hand on his lower back. After twenty steps of surreal terror, Sydney finally spotted the crimson-red La-Z-Boy and Mrs. Crumley standing beside it, beckoning him with her long, crepey arms. “Almost here, honey.” She was smiling like her man was coming home from war, but Sydney was the one marching, and he had a dead man on his shoulder.
Sydney finally dropped Mr. Crumley down into his favorite chair, the old man’s teeth clicking together like he was ready to eat, and his frantic wife went about straightening him up for . . . who was coming over?
“Oh Sydney,” she said, “This means the world to me.” He looked around the room, turning from this strange couple, and was drawn to a shelf full of china figurines. He squinted and thought he spied rows and rows of tiny miniature cats.
Mr. Crumley’s pants were up now, and she had closed his eyes.
He stood there and watched her fiddling with her man. “I was his nurse at Memorial, early in his illness; it was the first of his many amputations. I showed him how to hold a fork again. Then one day, they were getting him ready to leave, he asked me to marry him.” She stopped and straightened his shirt, and lifted his whiskery chin, looking into his very dead face.
“ ‘Susan,’ he said, ‘will you marry me? I know I am a mess, and you know it’s going to get worse. But I’ll try to be a good man, and I have resources.’ ” She turned to me, “And he was a good man. To deal with all that pain, he never whined about it.” And she kissed his head again.
The doorbell rang, and Sydney left them. He opened the door to two paramedics, both younger than Sydney, both sporting scraggly mustaches. “Gotta a call about a deceased elderly male.” Sydney was glad to see them; he wanted to get the hell out of the Crumley’s house. He looked back to Mrs. Crumley, the cat hater, the tree hater, mean, bitter, but now sitting on the arm of the La-Z-Boy proudly waiting to present her man to the world, loving him still.
“Mrs. Crumley, the ambulance folks are here. I am going to leave.” She lifted her head. “Thank you, Sydney.” On her face wasn’t quite a smile, but a look of relief, and some kind of beautiful exhaustion.
Sydney pointed the paramedics to the Crumley’s, and he walked past them and into the night. Within a few steps of his own porch, Sydney’s head was swamped with images, the shit smear on the carpet, the dead of eyes his neighbor, the traumatized but oddly jubilant behavior of Mrs. Crumley, and of course the cat figurines–had he imagined them?
He opened the door, and climbed the steps to his bedroom. Jane was watching a PBS show, Egyptian tombs it looked like. “Were you taking the trash out? I thought I heard the door.” She was lovely and sleepy. She was wearing the silky pajamas that Sydney liked. Her ratty Smiths t-shirt, the one she usually wore to bed, was hanging on the doorknob of her closet.
Jane turned off the television, and Sydney sat on the bed. “What happened? You look funny.”
Sydney told her his tale, the toilet in the corner, the body, the carrying of the body, Mrs. Crumley’s twisted love-story.
“You poor guy!” She wrapped arms around him, pulling him into her chest. Sydney smelled shampoo and Dior. He wanted to cry; it seemed okay, under the circumstances, but the visions that flew past were too vibrant and his tears wouldn’t come.
She rubbed his shoulders like she did when they were first dating, and he listened to her heart beat.
“Is Arthur, okay?” he asked
“He’s fine. Go look at him.” It was what they did sometimes. When life was too much, when the worries came faster than they could dismiss them. The baby was their drug.
He let go of Jane and walked down the hall to Arthur’s room. He was in nearly the same position that he had been when Sydney had left the house. Had it been ten minutes or an hour? Sydney had no idea. He stepped closer, lowered his hand to the boy’s ribs, feeling them move up and down. As he turned to leave, he heard the mattress shift and squeak, and he heard the boy murmur. “Uhh, Uhh.” He was standing, holding the crib with one hand and reaching with the other for Sydney, his eyes squinting at the hallway light.
He picked him up, pulling his warm pajama-ed body out of the crib, Arthur, rubbing his groggy head into Sydney’s neck.
“Who do you have there?” Jane smiled, like he had brought her a fine trinket.
“I guess I woke him up,” Sydney said as he lowered the boy into the bed beside Jane. He turned off the light and got into bed too, Arthur already still and falling back to sleep, Jane reaching across to hold Sydney’s hand.
“I love you,” she said and Sydney knew it, and he loved her too and the boy, and for the rest of the night, though he wouldn’t sleep much, their breathing, their warmth was enough to keep the death and the darkness away.