The Lady Next Door
J L Higgs
Everybody is scared of the lady next door, Miss Shirley. Except me. I ain’t scared. But everybody else is, like the whole town. They say she killed her own daughter-in-law. The two of them got to arguing one day, she put those bullfrog eyes of hers on the girl and bam, the girl dropped dead right on the spot and was never seen again. That was before I was born, but that’s what they say.
My best friend Charlene’s mom says Miss Shirley’s too ugly to even be a man. Ugly to the bone. That probably accounts for why she’s so skinny, bones sticking right out through her skin. With those ashy toothpick legs and dark-skinned bony body, you’d think a strong breeze could whisk her away. But nope. Guess maybe even the wind’s scared of her.
Outback of Miss Shirley’s house there’s a chicken coop. She’ll be out there with those chickens wearing a house dress that’s been washed so much the color’s been bleached right out of it. Her dresses hang off her, real loose, looking like they’re about to fall off, cause of how skinny she is.
Folks can’t figure how she did it, but Miss Shirley’s got a husband. His name’s, Mr. George. He’s skinny too. And he’s way shorter than Miss Shirley! But he’s as nice as she’s mean. He’s got this gray hat he’s always wearing that’s got a little feather tucked into the band on one side. I think it’s silly, but he’s even named his hat. Calls it, Fadora or something like that.
One day, when Mr. George saw me and Charlene practicing double dutch he offered to turn the other end of the rope. He untied it from the porch’s column and we took turns jumping. After a while, he said he had to be on his way. But before he left, he said he’d give each of us a penny for every successful jump we made. I got a quarter. Charlene only got fifteen cents. We spent the money on candy.
It being summer, we didn’t have no school. Me and Charlene were bored. We was sitting on the porch braiding each others hair when ole lunchbox head Anthony came by. My momma don’t like us calling him that. And I know it ain’t right. But he’s always bothering people. He calls me and Charlene Laurel and Hardy on account of her being what my mother calls pleasantly plump and me a string bean. I told her Anthony calls us names and she said, “Danielle, that’s my real name, but people call me Dee, you know two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Anyway, Anthony’s gonna be the biggest and oldest boy in our fourth grade class when we go back to school. That’s because he’s stayed back twice. But that’s not why me and Charlene don’t like him. The real reason is, because he picks on people, especially the littler kids. When we play kick soccer at recess, you’re supposed to throw the ball to the person covering the base. Not Anthony. He’s a head hunter. You kick the ball to him, he’s gonna throw it at you, and try to hit you in the head. Big jerk.
Well, Anthony asked us what we were doing and we said, nothing. Then he said, “You all doin’ stupid girl stuff.”
I was about to tell him he’s the king of stupid, but Charlene shushed me with a look. So, I said, “What you doin’ that’s so important, Anthony?”
He stood there, confused, hands in his pockets, looking around. Finally his eyes settled on Miss Shirley’s chicken coop. “I’m gonna scare Miss Shirley’s chickens.”
Now that was stupid! On the way home from school, lots of the kids take a shortcut across the railroad tracks and through Miss Shirley’s backyard. Not me. Miss Shirley didn’t like them chickens getting all crazy, feathers flying all over the place, and what not.
I told Anthony he best leave them chickens alone if he knew what was good for him. That’s when he said I was just scared of Miss Shirley, but he wasn’t no girl and he wasn’t scared. Well, I wasn’t about to let Anthony call me no chicken. So I dared him to do it. What’s more, I said I’d do it if he did.
Charlene looked at me like I was crazy. Anthony stood there thinking it over. Just when I thought he was going to slink on away, he said, “Let’s do it, then.”
It’s not that I wanted Miss Shirley’s evil killing eyes on me, but I wasn’t going to back down. I stood up and looked at Charlene.
“Nope!” She shook her head from side to side. “I ain’t ready to die.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna be dying,” answered Anthony as we walked toward Miss Shirley’s backyard.
So off I went, with only one side of my head braided.
As we crossed into Miss Shirley’s yard, we got down low, sneaking, in case she looked out a window. When we reached the chicken coop, Anthony grabbed the wire and started shakin’ it and saying, “here chicken, chicken, chicken...”
Well, they started jumping around, making a whole bunch of noise. And that’s when I saw her. Miss Shirley burst out the house, arms and legs going every which a way.
Anthony didn’t see her, so I yelled, “She’s coming!”
And I took off running. Miss Shirley was ugly, but now she was mad ugly and that’s a powerful combination. Though she must’ve been about 100 years old, she was fast despite them old gnarly toes painted bright red and those pink flip flops she always wore.
I glanced back and she was gaining on Anthony. But I didn’t think she’d catch me, I was fast too. I’d been the fastest girl in the third grade, always winning the relay races at recess. Anyway, I knew if I could get to the railroad tracks behind her house I’d be home free. So, I turned on the jets. When I reached the tracks a bunch of train cars were sitting there. I knew they wouldn’t be going nowhere any time soon. I grabbed the hand rail of one of the cars, jumped up its steps, and shot into the car. About halfway through it, I stopped, got down low, and crept to a window to sneak a peek.
She had Anthony by the neck. Stupid fool, must have looked back to see how close she was and fell. He was done for. Probably good as dead. In a way I felt bad. We’d probably never see old lunchbox head Anthony again. But me, I’d gotten away. I’d survived.
For the next couple of days me and Charlene stayed inside. I didn’t know if Miss Shirley had known it was me or not. Being cooped up indoors was no fun, especially with it being summer and all. But we didn’t go back to hanging outside until we thought it was safe.
“Got him,” said Charlene, grabbing the cork stapled to the end of her pop gun’s string and shoving it back into the barrel.
The hedges in front of our house were full of locusts. Everybody said they couldn’t remember when there’d been so many of them. Day and night they made such a racket it like to drive me crazy. So, since me and Charlene couldn’t think of anything to do, we figured we’d bop locusts in the head. It wasn’t hard or nothing. You just lined their heads up with the cork and pulled the trigger. And pop, the cork smacked them in the head. They’d fall to the ground all stunned. Then you’d stick the cork back in the gun and do it all over again.
I was lining up a shot when I heard, “Your mother home?”
It was Mr. George. Me and Charlene had been so focused on hunting locusts we hadn’t even heard him come up on us. I told him momma had gone to the laundromat ‘cause our washer had broke down. He took off his hat and stood fidgeting with it in his hands. I looked away and held my breath.
“Well,” he finally said. “I need some help. Something’s wrong with the missus.”
Charlene and I looked at each other as I let out my breath. What did he want us to do about it?
“Can you help me?” he asked, looking right at me.
“Yup, she can,” said Charlene.
I shot her a look. She didn’t need to be answering for me. I could answer for myself. If she was so bent on helping Mr. George, why didn’t she volunteer?
Mr. George looked downright pitiful. I could hear my momma, “Dee, men are plain worthless when it comes to important things like child birth, raising children, girls starting to bleed, and dealing with any kind of sickness.”
“Let’s go,” I said to Mr. George, “I’ll see what I can do.”
It was real dark inside their house on account of all the blinds being closed. Miss Shirley was lying on a ratty old couch, moaning, her eyes closed, a hand on her forehead.
“I can’t get her up,” said Mr. George, standing there worrying that hat something fierce with his hands.
I walked over to Miss Shirley nice and slow. She didn’t look good. Not saying she ever had. Just less good than her usual not good. Anyway, I leaned down and whispered, “Miss Shirley? You dead?”
She turned her head toward me and as her lips touched my ear she said, “Do I look dead to you?”
Well, I realized that was sort of a stupid question, her there moaning and all, so I tried again. “Well, are you dying?”
She shook her head all disgusted like.
“She ain’t dead or dying,” I said turning toward Mr. George.
“Well what’s wrong with her?”
“Well, alright,” he said, putting on his hat. “I’ll be out back if you all need me.”
With Mr. George gone, it was just me and Miss Shirley in that dark room. What was I supposed to do now?
“Child,” she said. “Would you go get a wash cloth, run some cold water on it, and bring it to me?”
I was about to do as she asked and then realized I’d never been inside their house before.
“Where you keep them?”
She pointed, so I headed in that direction.
After getting the wash cloth and soaking it good, I brought it back and handed it to her.
“Girl, you need to squeeze the water out it. I don’t need to get all wet!”
“Sorry,” I said. I took the wash cloth and came back after squeezing it out. When I put it on her forehead, my hand grazed her. She was hot.
“You want me to open a window?
“That’d be nice,” she said.
I went to the window across from the couch and shoved it open. Almost immediately, a breeze swept in, chasing away the stale air in the room. Then I stood there, looking at her, wondering what I should do next.
“Why don’t you come over here and sit down where you can talk to me?”
“What you wanna talk about?” I asked as I walked over, slid up a foot stool and plopped down.
“You pick,” she said.
I sat, thinking for a couple minutes, before something came to mind.
“How many people you killed?” I asked.
She responded with a cackle.
“Ten? Twenty? More than that?”
She laughed even harder, her whole body shaking and bouncing up and down on the couch making its springs squeak. Finally she stopped laughing and took a deep breath.
“I figure at least around a hundred. Mostly bad children. Especially them that mess with my chickens.” She burst out laughing.
I quickly pushed the stool back, the floor’s boards creaking. That wasn’t the least bit funny to me.
“I know you were one of the kids that was bothering my chickens.”
“Don’t lie to me. I know it’s you. If you’re going to tell a lie, it should be for a good reason. Not something stupid.”
What could I say? It was bad to tell a lie and even worse to get caught having told one. So, I mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
“Well, just so you know,” she said, opening her eyes and extending the washcloth toward me. “I ain’t never killed nobody. Would you freshen this up for me?”
I took the washcloth, making sure our fingers didn’t touch. Miss Shirley was dangerous. Everybody said so.
When I returned with the washcloth, I handed it to her and she placed it back on her forehead.
“So, why’s everybody say you kill people?”
“That’s a long story,” she said, swallowing deeply.
“Well, I got plenty of time,” I said, “Seeing as Mr. George pulled me from popping locusts with Charlene to sit here with you.”
“All right. I’ll tell you. But it’s got to be a secret just between you and me.”
I knew how to keep a secret, so I nodded my head.
“When I was a little girl, like you, growing up around here, the kids used to tease me. They’d call me monkey face, baldy, take things from me, throw rocks at me, etc… The only one who didn’t was Mr. George. He was kind of quiet and shy and didn’t go in for bothering people. Anyway, one summer, when I was a teenager, my parents sent me to spend the summer with my grandparents in Louisiana. It was nice not having to put up with all the name calling, but when I came back, it started up all over again. So, with George’s help, I started a rumor that my grandmother had taught me to put spells on people. Like voodoo. And the other kids believed it. George and I thought it was funny, especially when we heard that I’d killed people down in Louisiana. Anyway, we let it be. The stories just grew and grew until they believed me capable of all kinds of evil things. Since then, people have left me alone. And that’s exactly how I like it.”
I was sitting there with my mouth wide open. Thank goodness they had screens on their windows or a fly liked to have flown in my mouth. And they taste nasty.
Then, I remembered the story I’d heard about her daughter-in-law. Was she trying to trick me?
“What about your daughter-in-law?” I said. “They say you all were arguing, you gave her a look that killed her and she ain’t never been seen since.”
“Well, the arguing part is definitely true. She and my son, Henry, were living with me and George at the time. I told Henry not to marry that girl, she was trouble, but he didn’t listen. One night they got into a big row about her drinking and though I should have known better, I got drawn into it. We was all yelling and screaming, except of course George. They could probably hear us five miles away.” She shook her head sadly.
“Anyway, after cussing me out, she walked out the door that very night and I ain’t seen her since. Henry left a few weeks after that. They’re divorced now. That was years ago. I don’t know if she’s dead or alive today. But if she’s dead, I ain’t had nothing to do with it.”
A few days after that Mr. George came over to our house. He told my momma what I’d done to help and that Miss Shirley was all better. He said, it’d been some kind of bad headache that makes people want to lie around in the dark and not move. Mr. George was so thankful he gave me two quarters. I gave one to Charlene and we went to the store and bought red hot dollars. They’re really not hot, just gummy, but you can get two for a penny.
Me and Charlene were on the porch enjoying our candy and picking the stuck pieces out our teeth when old lunchbox head Anthony came walking by. He stopped and asked what we were eating and we told him candy. He asked Charlene to give him some. I said, no. Then he started in, calling us Laurel and Hardy.
He puffed out his cheeks and said Charlene didn’t need candy, because she was fat! I told him he was slower than molasses and lucky Miss Shirley hadn’t killed him.
Right then and there, he said he wanted a do over. He said I’d started running before she even came out the house, because I was scared. Charlene told Anthony, to leave us alone. She said he was acting like a big baby, because he’d gotten caught and I hadn’t.
Lunchbox head started flapping his arms, clucking, and calling me a chicken. That’s when I got mad and told him he was on. As I stood up, Charlene grabbed my arm. She looked scared as a rabbit. She poked out her lips making a frowny face and shook her head no. I handed her my bag of candy and told her I’d be all right.
We weren’t but a couple steps into Miss Shirley’s backyard when she came tearing out the house. She was screaming we better leave those chickens alone and what she was going to do to us when she caught us. Anthony took off running toward the railroad tracks.
And as I turned to run Miss Shirley smiled, winked at me, then went right back to yelling.
J L Higgs: "My short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. The primary goal of my writing is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.
"I have been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
My wife and I currently reside outside of Boston as do our son and daughter."