Two raps at the door. I knew they’d come.
Raps? I chuckled, set my book down along with its far away plot I’d clearly been too wrapped in. I stood to answer what was really just a couple polite knocks.
“Mrs. Leaway? I’m Officer Merriman, this is Officer Bringle and Officer Townsen. It appears your doorbell is broken.”
On my sunny little deck were three policeman. The one who spoke was a bit taller than I, enough I had to look up into his brown eyes. He sported a lovely stereotypical mustache that made me smile at him, but also crows’ feet around his eyes. I hoped they were from smiling at maybe a first or second grandchild, and not squinting at suspects.
His companions appeared to have been chosen because they were exact opposites of each other. A cooked shrimp, in all senses- small, red, with a small spiny thin beard, versus a bison of a man- dark, tall, and bursting with muscles. I wondered for a moment if they were casting a buddy cop movie on my front porch.
“That’s me, sir. Sorry about the doorbell, I asked my husband to change the sound out for something less annoying- it had been this jangling thing since we moved in- and he didn’t. So I tried it myself and broke the whole dang thing. The electrician has to come in! I’m so embarrassed.”
Mustache and Bison chuckled, Shrimp was not amused.
“I’ve had similar DIY mishaps myself, ma’am,” Mustache nodded.
“Speaking of your husband-” Shrimp started, but Mustache put a hand out to quiet him and started again.
“Mrs. Leaway, we received a concerned tip from an anonymous source. We’d just like to clear that up with you.”
I nodded, making sure to send my smile to Shrimp as well, but he still frowned through his thin lips. “Of course, would you all like to come in? It’s muggy out today.”
“I know I would, thank you ma’am,” Bison stepped past his partners into the air-conditioning as I held the screen door for all three, noting their fully equipped belts as they shuffled by. I welcomed them into the den, where I’d just been reading my book and where my cats, Midnight and Cheesepuff, each opened an eye to inspect the new comers. Midnight decided it wasn’t worth investigation, but Cheesepuff hopped off his ottoman throne to sniff each boot.
“Handsome fella you have here,” Mustache noted, offering Cheesepuff his hand to sniff. I was leaning more towards the grandkids theory.
“Thank you! They’re both rescues, but act as if they’re bred straight from gold. You can take a seat, if you’d like.” I leaned up against the back of my sofa, pale pink bespeckeled with purple violets. It was an ugly thing, but it was a gift from Gerald’s mother and I had to admit it was comfortable.
“Thank you but no, we hopefully won’t be here long. Mrs. Leaway, the tip I mentioned.”
“Yes,” I tied my fingers together, “what was it about?”
“Apparently, yesterday afternoon, a witness saw you at the grocery store purchasing what they said were ‘troubling items’, and then you made a concerning statement to the cashier.”
“Oh…” I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks, how embarrassing for multiple someones to have witness my terrible attempt at comedy, “It was just a little joke… I was trying to be funny. I suppose I missed the mark,” I said quietly, staring at my feet, where Cheezepuff was now sitting, as if my tiny little queen’s guard.
“Well, we’d take it as such as well except that this same witness mentioned they normally see your husband each morning, walking your dog around the block, and then sometimes again in the evening, either walking the dog or strolling with you. The witness said they haven’t seen your husband do so in several days.”
I chanced a glance up at Mustache. He was giving me one of those Fatherly-Authortive stares. I was sure it worked on teenagers and young women everywhere. Shrimp was glancing around my den, leaning back to look down the hallway, making little marks into a spiral bound notebook. Bison and Midnight were having some sort of silent conversation.
“I’m sure you can see the implication the witness was making, Mrs. Leaway.”
“I can, Mr… Merriman, you said?” He nodded, “Mr. Merriman, as I said, my comment to the cashier was a joke, though clearly a bad one and at best inappropriate, and I’d be more than willing to apologize if I made the poor boy uncomfortable.”
“That’s not the problem here, ma’am-“
“As you can see though, sir, we don’t even have a dog. We’re cat people. There’s an elderly man next door, Mr. Charles Ridgeland, who we’re very close to- ever since we moved in he’s been just the most wonderful neighbor to us. So when his wife died three years ago this August, and he got a bit too tired to get his beagle Maggie out as much as she liked to go, of course we volunteered to take her! My husband kinda needs the fresh air in the morning anyway, and I loved joining him in the evening if we both got home on time.”
“I see,” Mustache was nodding at me, but I could see the calculations going on behind his eyes.
“And Mr. Ridgeland will be able to attest to all this?” Shrimp piped up with his notepad, like an eager reporter. I half expected him to switch hats to a 50’s fedora.
“Mmhmm, he will. But please don’t take it personally if he’s a bit stiff at first. Charles is a veteran, and was a lawyer until Betsy- his wife- begged him to retire, so he can come off a little strong. Please be kind.”
“Of course,” Shrimp responded automatically, and took out the door, seemingly pleased to have his own task. I wished it was Bison going to speak to Charles, as I was mildly afraid my strong-tempered neighbor would have just enough vigor to get a taste for seafood if that spindly little officer upset him so late in the afternoon.
I took a deep sigh, suddenly very tired myself, and leaned further back into the sofa.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Leaway?” Officer Bison asked, glancing at his partner.
“I am,” I nodded, “it’s just been a long couple of days. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sit? I’ve got a big table in the kitchen if you’d prefer that over the den.”
Mustache nodded, and I couldn’t tell if it was to me or Bison, but either way they followed me through the little hallway.
“My goodness, someone has been busy,” Officer Bringle/Bison’s deep voice rumbled through my little kitchen, it’s granite counters stacked high with pastries in every single tupperware I owned, and then those stacked with muffins and scones just wrapped in sullophane.
“Yes… I… I bake when I’m upset, you see.”
I had my back to them as I poured us each a glass of water, but I felt another look exchanged.
“I’m pretty good too, I’ve won the state fair’s pound cake with my buttered rum the past two years. Would you all like a slice?”
“You’re THAT Mrs. Leaway? My goodness, I thought the name looked familiar. Alright, if Officer Bringle here can keep a secret, I’ll take you up on that slice. I’ve heard it’s heavenly.”
I smiled over my shoulder at them, and happily uncovered the cake stand, slicing four thick pieces.
We each took a seat at the kitchen table, another gift from Gerald’s mother, but this one had been during a time before her cataracts so it was a beautiful slat of mahogany, the legs and chairs of which had carvings that reminded me of a nymph’s braided hair in those old mythology books.
Mustache took a large forkful of his cake, “The rumors are all true, Mrs. Leaway. Don’t tell my wife, but this is the best damn cake I’ve ever had in my life.”
Officer Bison nodded vigorously and mumbled something agreeing through a crumb-filled mouth.
“But if you don’t mind an old man asking,” Mustache swallowed, took another bite along with his gentlemanly tactic, swallowed again, “why have you been se upset lately that I can’t even guess the color of your countertops?”
I took a small sip from my water glass, then a sigh, “Well, what your little witness apparently doesn’t know is that Gerald- my husband, left me for another woman last week.”
“He left this??” Bison pointed at the cake with his fork.
I laughed, a real, full throated laugh.
“Ma’am, I am so sorry-” Mustache started.
“No,” I steadied myself, “no, oh my goodness I needed that, thank you.”
Mustache glared at Bison, Bison stared straight into his water glass.
They stayed silent, waiting for me to continue. I obliged.
“I’m an analyst for city planners-” I began, “I work from home most days, just researching and making calls. It’s why I started baking, honestly, what to do with your hands when you’re on your headset for three hours bickering with an Architect and his Engineer cronies? Honestly it helped negotiations to occasionally blur them out with the blender-” Mustache laughed here but pretended it was a loose crumb.
“-But some days I have to actually go out and meet with City Council, or the Bankers, whoever is investing in the town. Last Wednesday morning I told Gerald I had to do just that, way over in Blueville County, so I wouldn’t be back until late in the evening. Well, I got home that evening, expecting him to be just coming in from walking Maggie. Instead, he had just finished packing his last suitcase. The forest green one with his monogram that I gave him for Christmas! We were supposed use to our new luggage to visit Scotland this Spring. But he was using it to run off.”
Officer Bison swallowed his last bite of cake, “And did you confront him?”
I wanted to put my head in my hands, but didn’t want to look like I was hiding my face, so I tried to look at them even though I felt my eyes watering again, “Sort of. I didn’t know what to do! My family is not the type that has their husbands run off, you know? So I just stood there asking him ‘why’ over and over again, and he just kept saying that she was more fun, more interesting, more wild.”
And I had. I felt no reason to tell them the detail that my “why?”s had gotten louder and louder with each repetition. Is an omission of detail a lie?
“I will admit to you, gentlemen, that I was standing in the doorway, and when he tried to move past me, we had a little scuffle,” I rolled up my sleeve to show the olive-colored finger prints with yellowing petals still blooming across my arms, “It’s my own fault. All those warnings about heated arguments and such. You always hear ‘don’t start something when you can’t think straight, talk once everyone’s calm, blah blah blah.’ And what did I do? Literally stood in the way.”
“May I?” Mustache stood to closer examine my arm, and I nodded. His touch was kind, and his fingers slightly warm. “Could you further detail as-stated ‘scuffle’, Mrs. Leaway?”
“This was really the extent of it. I can’t even remember if he grabbed me first to move me, or if I grabbed him to make him stay. But it was like we stood there for a moment, still as statues. Then he pulled me the rest of the way out of the doorframe and kept going.” The officer gently pulled my sleeve back down my shoulder and moved back to his seat.
“Why didn’t you report him for that big a bruise?” Bison questioned, “I don’t mean to sound accusatory, but I will say we have had calls for less.”
I nodded, “And I understand those calls. But like I said, these kind of things just don’t happen to us. So it took several days for me to realize that it did happen to me, and by then, I wasn’t really sure if there was anything to do.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that, ma’am, we never know how we might act in those moments.” Mustache said reassuringly, and looking into his calm eyes, I thought how nice it probably was to have such a man around the house.
“Did he leave the house then, or did you continue to engage with one another?” Bison asked quietly.
Engage. I shook off the shudder that was rising up my spine. It’s strange; a moment so passionate and extraordinary can become so clinical and ordinary in just a word.
I took another sip of water to clear my throat, “Well he got by me, and walked through here, back out towards the garage,” I gestured his path through the kitchen, “and I followed him the whole way, just begging him to tell me what was going on.”
Or at least that’s what Gerald should have interpreted from my continued “Why!”s.
“And gentlemen, I’m embarrassed to say this,” they leaned in slightly, “but as I followed him through the kitchen, I picked up several of the banana walnut muffins I’d meant to take to our Home Owner’s Association meeting and launched them at him as hard as I could. He screamed at me- told me it was assault. Is it?”
Bison sucked his teeth, and I think it was to keep himself from laughing a bit.
Mustache shook his head, appearing to hold his breath, “No ma’am, I don’t believe it it would hold in a court of law.”
“I don’t even remember if I even hit him with one. He was out the door and in his car so fast, with me just begging for answers behind him…”
…I decided to also leave out the part where he’d peeled out of the driveway with my nail marks on his doorhandle. There was no need for that.
During my recounting, Shrimp had made his way back into the house and to the table. He’d stared at the cake in front of him and I only now realized I hadn’t provided a fork. I stood to get him one.
“Mrs. Leaway, were there any witnesses to him leaving the home?”
I returned to the table with the fork, but before I could answer, Shrimp coughed for attention, a new blush on him that hadn’t been there when he left.
“If you’re referring to Mr. Leaway’s departure, I got that confirmation from the neighbor Mr. Charles Ridgeland.”
Mustache turned to Shrimp, “Last Wednesday evening?”
“Last Wednesday evening confirmed. He says he was at the window, expecting Mr. Leaway to come retrieve Maggie the beagle as was their routine, but Mr. Leaway did not. When Mr. Leaway was quite late, Mr. Ridgeway stepped outside on his stoop and heard shouting, and then saw Mr. Leaway pull out of the driveway in his green Dodge. Mr. Ridgeway then went back inside his house to retrieve his walker, and then came over to the Leaway residence to see if all was well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Townsen,” I offered as much a smile I could.
“This is a correct retelling of the next few moments, Mrs. Leaway?” Mustache asked.
“Yes, it is. As I said, Charles is a wonderful neighbor. I suppose more a friend at this point. I wish I’d seen him coming over, I would have met him halfway but I was in such a state. I brought him in the house and he just sat there so sweetly holding my hand while I practically went into shock! Then he waited while I called my friend Leslie Bagsend to come over and stay with me for the night. She’s actually come and stayed with me a couple nights- I think she and Charles are in cahoots to keep me sane,” I giggled a bit to make it clear I was joking and my sanity was not actually a concern.
Mustache looked to Shrimp, Shrimp took another bite of cake, looked at his notepad, and nodded.
“And Ms. Bagsend can corroborate these details as well?”
I nodded, able to give a small smile on behalf of my friend, “Oh yes, the rest of the evening was a blur for me but she was so sweet to come over. She wanted to take me back to her house but I didn’t want to leave incase Gerald came home.”
“Leslie is my wife’s sister-in-law,” Bison offered nodding along with me, “a real reliable person. I’ll follow up but I suspect that’s why Leslie missed their little book club my wife was hosting couple nights ago.”
“Well, Mrs. Leaway,” Mustache stood, and the other two scrambled to do so as well, “it appears that instead of suspicious nature, we have instead a domestic disturbance here, and I do apologize for any further pain we’ve caused by making you recount the events. As you may know, we’ve had a few nasty occurrences in the county over the past couple years so we take every tip very seriously.”
Bison held up a hand to his partner, then turned to me, “I would like to ask, ma’am… about the grocery items?”
“Oh,” I stood again, retrieving my purse from the hook on the door, unfolding the receipt from my wallet, and placing it on the table in front of them.
“You see, like I said, my family isn’t the type to have their husbands run off. I was ashamed, and I supposed still in a bit of shock all those days later. So I bought the rope and the cookies, and made my terrible joke to the cashier. When I got home, I took one bite of those damn cookies-
I slapped the counter “-it was like a splash of cold water!”
They all jumped back a bit. I swear Shrimp even reached to his belt.
“Store bought cookies? In my house?! No man was going to do that to me. So I burned that rope. I wasn’t going to go out like that. Not while there was still air in my lungs. There might still be pieces of it out on the grill if you’d like to check.”
Mustache finally took a breath and straightened a stray whisker, “So you mean, the rope was going to be for you?”
“Yes sir, I was quite out of my mind. I didn’t think I could live as an abandoned wife with all the shame. But I’ll make it through. Charles says he still has contacts, will get me a good divorce lawyer. He says since Gerald ran, I can probably keep the house. I designed this kitchen myself a few years ago when I got really into my baking, and all the notes to the contractor are in my handwriting. And Leslie keeps insisting that the minute I give her the signal she’s knows five men with the hots for divorcee’s. Plus, over my dead body will Leann Goodwin’s keylime pie win at the State Fair. So.”
I’d tried to make a little joke. They didn’t laugh, but I saw a twinkle in Mustache’s eye, and Bison smiled at me.
“Quite the turn in just a few days.” Shrimp noted.
“Well, better than hanging from the ceiling,” I said, staring straight into his pale blue eyes until he looked away, “and would I love for him to come crawling back through that door on his hands and knees right this minute? Yes. But will he? I do not believe so. Gerald’s never done an impulsive thing in his life, so I don’t think this was either. He’d been planning to leave for a while, I was just the last to know.”
In fact, it would be quite impressive if he crawled through the door right now.
The officers tipped their hats, shook my hand, took their leave.
I waited several minutes after the last reflection off their silver studded cars were gone before I made my way over to Charles’s porch, where he waited, Maggie at his feet and three glasses of sweet tea on the table.
“A site for sore eyes, my gal! Leslie called, she’s at Rhonda’s to apologize for missing book club and spread a little gossip, then is on her way here.”
I scratched Maggie behind the ears and under her collar, she gave an approving “hrumphet” before flopping on her side.
“That’s excellent. Thank you, Charles, I hope Shrimpy wasn’t too annoying.”
“Ha!” Came Charles’s raspy voice, “You calling Shrimpy? I was thinking the simple Pinky. Or Pipsqueak.”
I laughed with him for a bit, leaning back in one of his iron chairs.
“Where is he?” I asked, more out of curiosity than care.
“You know you don’t get to know that, doll. You never get to know your own. Family rule.”
Leslie’s pearly white Cadillac was coming down the drive, just as the sun was starting to sink.
Telltale (adj): Revealing, indicating, or betraying something. (noun): 1. A person, especially a child, who reports others’ wrongdoings or reveals their secrets. 2. A device or object that automatically gives a visual indication of the state or presence of something.
Well, at least he’s not under the floorboards, right?
I should probably stop writing shorts about people taking care of their problems in such a way. But like, then what would I scare off potential suitors with? I only have the one cat.