The Good Neighbor
By Karen Treanor © 2002
Matilda Branston couldn't help but overhear. The yards on Walnut Street weren't big, and despite the fence and the bushes, the sound of the child's high voice came clearly on the darkening air.
"No, Mom, no, not Rags! We've had him forever; don't send him away."
"Charlie, there isn't any choice. You're old enough to understand these things. I can barely fed us; Rags is just too much."
"I'll get a job, I can deliver papers or something."
"Not with your legs. I'm sorry , it's out of the question. Now go and finish your homework." Mrs. Wilson's voice sounded as if she were about to break into tears. On the other side of the fence, Matilda almost had a lump in her own throat.
She tiptoed back to her kitchen and stood thinking for a long moment. She knew Mrs. Wilson was hard up: her husband had walked out, the neighborhood said he'd run off with a bimbo, which Matilda understood to be the current term for a floozy. What sort of man would do that to such a nice little family as he had? Men in general were pretty low on Matilda's list of life forms; her own husband hadn't been much of a catch.
Matilda put the tea kettle on and thought some more. Rags the dog was little Charlotte's best friend in the world. She could remember when the missing Mr. Wilson had brought the puppy home, must be all of four years ago. He'd thought that having a dog to play with might help her exercise more, overcome the wasting sickness that had made her legs barely able to support her inconsiderable weight.
I wonder if I dare to butt in? Matilda thought. Mrs. Wilson's problem could help solve my problem. All that meat in the freezer won't last forever. Quickly, before she thought better of it, she took off her apron, fluffed up her hair, and trotted out the front door and up the Wilsons' path.
When Mrs. Wilson came to the door, Matilda said, "You'll think I've got an awful nerve, but I couldn't help overhear you talking with Charlotte--I was cutting sweet peas near the fence you know. I think I have an answer to your problem, if you'd let me help. Please, it would solve a problem of mine, too."
Mrs. Wilson, a polite little woman, said, "Won't you come in, Mrs. Branston?"
"No, let's just sit here on the porch, in case you don't like my idea; there's no point in getting Charlotte's hopes up." She eased herself into a wicker chair and sighed as the weight came off her bunioned feet. "Ah, that's better. I'm supposed to rest ten minutes in ever hour, but it's so hard to remember to do it, you get busy with something, and--but you're not interested in my old feet. This is what I have in mind: I've got a freezer full of meat and soup bones. Mr. Branston was a keen cook, he was always cooking up a pot of soup or making meatloaf or sausages. When he went to Californ-eye-ay, he left it all, naturally. He's having a hard time finding a good job, so I'm stuck here until he sends for me."
"I'd heard he'd gone West," said Mrs. Wilson.
"Yes, the climate here's too severe for my health these days--neither Mister B or I are getting any younger, so we thought, why not up stakes now, while he can still work? Soon's he's settled, I'll probably be selling the house and moving out there too. Anyway, the problem is, I've got gout as well as the bunions, and I can't eat red meat any more. All that food's in there getting freezer burnt, no good to anyone. Why don't you let me give you a package of meat or a big bone every day for Rags, then you won't have to get rid of him? By the time I'm ready to leave, the freezer will be empty, and you might be in a better position. What do you say?"
Mrs. Wilson's tired face broke out in a very nice smile. Matilda thought again what a fool Mr. Wilson must be to have left her. "Mrs. Branston, you're like a fairy godmother! But I couldn't take your food for nothing."
"Nonsense; it's no good to me, and I certainly couldn't sell it for human consumption. Some of it's pretty old, but Rags won't mind if it's a bit freezer burnt in places, dogs are pretty easy to please. If you think you have to pay for it, why not let Charlotte help me in my garden for an hour here or there? I can't bend like I used to, and the dandelions are getting the better of me."
Mrs. Wilson thought this over. "All right, if Charlotte agrees, you have a deal." She got up and went to the door and called "Charlie, come here please."
Charlotte made her way slowly onto the porch. Her face was tear-spotted and her nose was red.
"Charlie, Mrs. Branston has a job for you. If you think you can do it, she'll pay you in food for Rags. What do you think?"
"I'll do it!" Charlotte said, a smile wrinkling her freckles.
"But you don't know what it is," said Matilda, "I might want you to sweep out my chimney."
"I don't care; I'll do anything," Charlotte said. "Rags would do anything for me, so I'll do anything for him."
"Then it's settled, you can help me with a bit of yard work and I'll feed Rags. Why don't you come over now and I'll give you a bone to start him off," Matilda said.
Mrs. Wilson stood smiling broadly on the porch as the old lady with the sore feet and the little girl with the withered legs went down the path and into the house next door. Soon Charlotte returned with a paper-wrapped parcel marked 'ground veal'. "It's froze, but Mrs. Branston says leave it out overnight and it will be OK for Rag's breakfast. She's nice, Mom, and I think she's lonely. She must miss Mr. Branston just like you miss Daddy."
Mrs. Wilson turned away sharply and pretended to fix the spring latch on the screen door. "That's enough chatter, finish that homework and get yourself to bed. It's late."
Over the next several weeks, Charlotte diligently dug dandelions for half an hour before supper every night. At the end of her stint, Mrs. Branston would always have a treat for her, an apple or some molasses cookies, and would hand her a parcel from the freezer with the words "Remember to thaw it well so Rags doesn’t get a sore tummy." Some nights it was chopped steak, other times it was minced pork, and every third or fourth night it would be another big bone. A couple of times Mrs. Branston gave her some mixed meat, saying "This was for steak and kidney pie, Bill's a great one for that, being English originally. He left this pie filling all ready to go, but I can't eat it."
As the summer went on, the level in the freezer sank. Mrs. Wilson began to fret what might happen when Mrs. Branston finally said "That's it, my dears, I'm off to Californ-ee-ay". A bit of luck came her way out of the blue when an elderly uncle of her departed husband came to visit. After Charlie had been sent out to play he said, "Herb's a fool, and there's no cure for that, but I want you not to have to suffer for his foolishness." She didn't know what he meant until a check showed up with a note "My bank will send this every month until you get on your feet. You're not depriving anyone, I've no children of my own and will take it kindly if you let a crabby old lawyer help."
The never-ending supply of bones and meat from next door didn't seem about to stop, and Mrs. Wilson didn't want to hurt Mrs. Branston's feelings by refusing the generous gift, so Charlie continued her evening visits. Having extirpated the hated dandelions, she got a start on the chickweed and other uninvited garden guests.
Rags caught a mouse in Mrs. Branston's garden shed, which earned him an extra bone that night. Mrs. Branston called him Nimrod, and explained to Charlotte that that meant he was a mighty hunter.
One day as Fall was approaching, Matilda Branston said to Charlotte, "Well, I'm almost all packed up. Mr. B. has a job and he's found us a nice apartment, so I'll be off to Californ-ee-ay soon. This is the last of the meat. Do you suppose your mother would like to have the freezer? It's old but it runs really well. I don't think I'd get much money for it, and I'd like you folks to have it. You've made a lonely old lady happy."
Charlie reported this conversation to her mother, who said "Well, I'd have to pay her something for it, I couldn't just take it, not after all she's done for us."
In the end, Mrs. Branston was persuaded to accept twenty dollars. When the movers came to take away her furniture, she had them take the freezer to Mrs. Wilson. The house was already sold, a complicated process that she said had required papers to be sent back and forth to Mr. Branston in California.
After the movers had gone, Mrs. Wilson had Matilda over for a final cup of tea. "We'll miss you, Charlie and Rags and I. Especially Rags, I think."
"I'll send you postcards of sunny Californ-ee-ay," chuckled Mrs. Branston. "Oh, that will be my taxi, somebody go and wave at him, tell him I'm coming."
At the front gate, she hugged Mrs.Wilson and Charlotte, ruffled Rag's fur, and clambered into the taxi with many grunts and sighs. The last the Wilsons saw of her was a plump gloved hand waving from the back window.
The following evening Mrs. Wilson's uncle-in-law came for dinner, something he did from time to time, just to be sure they were keeping well and not wanting for anything.
Mrs. Wilson served pot-roast and smashed potatoes, Charlie's favorite. "Uncle Harvey, we've lost our nice neighbour, Mrs. Branston. Her husband finally found a job, and she's gone off to California. She wanted to give me her freezer, but I insisted on paying her a bit for it; she's done so much for us, I couldn't just take it. All that meat she gave Rags, and those lovely big bones. He's out there gnawing on the last one now, he's been spoiled. I guess I'll have to get him one for a treat once in a while so he doesn't get withdrawal symptoms."
Hearing his name, Rags bounced into the kitchen with his prize to show it to Uncle Harvey.
"Rags, you horrid beast, take that nasty thing outside!" Mrs. Wilson protested.
"He just wants to show it off. I'll take him outside, I could use a breath of air after that delicious dinner. You help your mother clear the table, Charlotte, then you can join us." Uncle Harvey hustled the dog outdoors and encouraged him to bring his prize down to the end of the garden.
Rags wasn't about to give up his toy, but he did relent finally and condescend to chase a stick for a while. In between throws of the stick, Uncle Harvey looked at the bone's knobby end. It looked familiar, and the more he looked, the more his past life as an assistant district attorney came back to him.
Rags bounded up, demanding his bone. Uncle Harvey threw the stick again. As the evening gloom deepened, the bone seemed to glow. Uncle Harvey's keen mind hadn't lost much of its edge in the year he had been retired. It sifted through possible scenarios, tabloid paper harassment, unwanted publicity, life made unbearable for Charlie, her mother, and of course Rags, and set all that in the scales of justice against a man he'd never met, who might have been a thoroughly unlikeable person.
With a sigh, he kicked the human femur as far as he could into the thick bushes, and, calling Rags, turned his steps towards the welcoming bright windows of the little house on Walnut Street.