Domestic Disturbance on Quiet Street ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Great-grandma was old, already seventy-three when I was born. When I stayed with her after school, I had to be careful not to wear her down too much or make too much noise.
She lived in a big white house on a corner lot with a fenced-in yard that felt cool all through the hottest part of summer because of the enormous shade trees. She had lots of flowers, bushes and trees in the yard, so that it resembled a tiny overgrown jungle. One whole fence at the side of the house was covered with honeysuckle vines; they scented the air but also drew bumblebees, of which I was deathly afraid. There was a cherry tree at the back of the house that I liked to climb when nobody was around; a peony bush that possums liked to hide under; poppies, azalea, bougainvillea, roses, lilac, hibiscus, and lots of other flowers and bushes that I didn’t know the name of.
In the side yard was an old garage that you could drive into from the street that ran alongside the house. It was easy to imagine the man of the house, great-grandma’s husband who died long before I was born, pulling his Model T or Model A Ford into the garage and closing the street doors and exiting on the other side of the garage in a door that opened up into the yard. The garage smelled of old dry wood, had a clean dirt floor, and lots of wasp nests in the rafters. I was as afraid of wasps as I was of bumblebees, so I didn’t usually go into the garage without a good reason.
With all the rooms in great-grandma’s house, she only lived in three of them: living room, bedroom and kitchen. The other rooms were taken up with her renters, or, as she sometimes called them, her “roomers.”
For a long time, since before I was born, a “deaf-and-dumb” man named Lonnie Legg had lived in great-grandma’s upstairs apartment. He seemed mysterious because he was silent, but I don’t think there was much mystery going on with him. He was in his late thirties and worked at the shoe factory in a neighboring town. He didn’t drive a car but always took taxi cabs wherever he went. Great-grandma was so used to him she hardly seemed to notice him. He paid his rent on time, took good care of the property and didn’t cause any trouble. When he wanted a cab, he would tap on her front door and she would go to the phone and call it for him. If it was raining or cold outside, she would let him wait in her front room until his cab came.
When the house was quiet, we could hear Lonnie Legg moving around upstairs in his apartment. Sometimes he laughed and it was an eerie laugh, like a ghost would make if a ghost could laugh. At night he would whistle and it was always the same note over and over. I asked great-grandma why he whistled and she said it was because he was happy. Of course, people in town said fantastic things about Lonnie Legg that you knew couldn’t be true; that he had a beautiful wife somewhere and children, that he worked for a foreign government, or that he was really an alien from a distant planet and being deaf and dumb was his “cover” to keep people from knowing what he really was.
In great-grandma’s living room was a double sliding door that was kept closed all the time. On the other side of the door were another three rooms: living room, bedroom and kitchen. This was her downstairs “apartment” where her “renters” lived. The current family living there was named Owsley: a man and his wife and three little girls.
Joyce Owsley was my age and in my class at school. She was sick much of the time with colds and sore throats and missed a lot of school. She told me the doctor wanted to take out her tonsils but that she would probably die before they ever got around to doing the operation. She had very pale and skin and tiny arms and legs like a fragile doll. Some of the kids at school made fun of her, calling her skeleton or spook, but I knew she had enough problems already and didn’t laugh at her. She had two little sisters, Cherry and Oona. Cherry was in first grade and Oona in third.
Mrs. Owsley, whose first name was Beulah, was a frowzy-haired woman with wide hips and thick ankles. She wore saddle oxfords and bobby socks and dresses that she bought for seventy-five cents apiece from the Goodwill. She had a hard, sour face that told you to stay away from her if you knew what was good for you.
Her husband, Maurice Owsley, was a funny-looking short man with a bald head. I thought he looked like Larry from the Three Stooges. He drove a green pickup truck and worked at a movie theatre in a nearby town. When I asked him what he did at the theatre, he told me he did whatever needed to be done. If the projectionist was sick and didn’t show up for work, it was up to him to run the projection machine. If teens sitting in the balcony became too explicit in their affection for each other, he had to go and shine a flashlight in their faces until they either stopped what they were doing or left and went somewhere else.
When I was staying with great-grandma, we could hear Maurice Owsley and his wife Beulah fighting and yelling at each other. They called each other names and swore at each other. They threw things and slammed doors. Beulah Owsley screamed and Maurice Owsley bellowed like a bull. Great-grandma said they sometimes went at it like that all night long. It sounded like war had broken out on the other side of the sliding doors.
The Owsleys made great-grandma nervous. She was afraid they would kill each other and she didn’t want anything like that going on in her house. She wanted them gone, but she didn’t know exactly how to go about getting them to leave. If she had to, she said, she would call the sheriff and have them evicted.
On a night when I was sleeping on great-grandmother’s couch when my mother was in the hospital having a cyst removed from her uterus, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of breaking glass and a woman screaming. I got up and turned on the lamp beside the couch and great-grandma came out of her bedroom in her nightdress.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Those trashy people are fighting again!” she said. “I’m going to tell them once and for all that they have to get out!”
We stood there in great-grandma’s front room and listened to the screaming and crashing until it became obvious that the Owsleys had taken their fight out into the front yard. Great-grandma opened the front door and turned on the porch light.
“Here! Here! Here!” she said, sounding like a schoolmarm. “What’s going on here?”
“The son of a bitch is trying to kill me!” Beulah Owsley shrieked. “Call the sheriff quick! He’s going to kill me!”
She was on her knees with blood streaming down her face. Her husband was standing over her, dressed only in his underpants and an undershirt. He was holding onto her hair with one hand and in his other hand he held a butcher knife over her head.
“I’m finally going to rid the world of this crazy whore!” he said. He had a gash on his temple; blood ran down the side of his face, onto his neck and arms.
“Put the knife down now, Mr. Owsley!” Great-grandma said. “I can’t have this kind of carrying-on in my house! Do you know what time it is?”
“I’m going to kill her!” Mr. Owsley said. “If you don’t want to see her die, ma’am, you’d better go back inside your house and close the door!”
“What must your three little girls think?” great-grandma asked. “You must be scaring them half to death!”
“She’s just been asking for it!”
He sawed off a large chunk of his wife’s hair with the knife and tossed the hair aside.
“Help!” Mrs. Owsley screamed. “Someone please help me!”
Some lights went on in the house across the street. Great-grandma groaned and said, “What are the neighbors going to think?”
Great-grandma went to the phone to call the sheriff. I stood at the door, watching the Owsleys. I had never seen two grown people fighting before. When Mr. Owsley dropped the butcher knife, Mrs. Owsley got up off her knees and began punching him in the face. He punched back, of course, and for a while they were like two boxers in the ring.
Two sheriff’s deputies pulled up in a patrol car in about five minutes. Seeing that Mr. Owsley was drunk and disorderly, they cuffed his hands behind his back and took him away in the patrol car. Mrs. Owsley stood there wailing and watching the car as it drove off. When the car was out of sight, she ran back into her apartment and slammed the door.
Great-grandma was a nervous wreck after things quieted down. She took a couple of pulls on a bottle of “soothing syrup” and picked up her knitting and began knitting. She didn’t sleep any more for the rest of the night.
The next day all was quiet until late afternoon when Mrs. Owsley knocked on great-grandma’s door. She wore a white turban on her head that looked like a bandage; her mouth was smeared with dark-red lipstick. Great-grandma reluctantly let her in.
“What have you got to say for yourself?” great-grandma asked Mrs. Owsley, as though scolding a child.
Mrs. Owsley smiled, showing her ugly horse teeth. “It wasn’t me, honey!” she said. “I was only trying to defend myself.”
“It takes two to fight, I believe,” great-grandma said.
“I just want to apologize for what happened last night and to tell you it won’t happen again.”
“Well, it better not!”
“The old asshole is gone and I hope it’s for good.”
“You’re talking about your husband, I presume,” great-grandma said.
“Where is he?”
“Right now he’s in jail. I don’t know how long they’ll keep him, but if it was up to me it’d be forever.”
“You know I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” great-grandma said. “I think I have to give you thirty days, but if it was up to me I wouldn’t give you one day.”
“You don’t have to throw me out. Me and my little girls will get along just fine here without that old lunatic around. We’ll never cause you a lick of trouble.”
“I’ve already talked it over with the sheriff,” great-grandma said. “I’m having you evicted.”
“Oh, don’t do that, honey!” Mrs. Owsley said. “Having to find another place to live right now just doesn’t fit in with my plans.”
“That’s too bad!”
“I’d like to stay, at least for the time being.”
“Well, if there’s a repeat of last night’s scene, it’s out you go!”
“Oh, I understand that, honey, and I promise you that nothing like that will ever happen again!”
“I won’t have drunkenness and carrying on in my house! This is a quiet street and I run a respectable house!”
“Of course you do, honey!”
“The sheriff is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for forty-five years.”
“I’m supposed to get a check in the mail tomorrow,” Mrs. Owsley said. “I’m going to pay you the rent for this month that I owe, plus the next month in advance.”
“Well, then,” great-grandma said, greatly mollified by the mention of money.
“We’ll be model renters,” Mrs. Owsley said. “We won’t cause you a bit of trouble. And we’ll pay the rent every month on time. Just you wait and see.”
When Mrs. Owsley was gone, great-grandma turned to me and said, “There’s something about that woman I just don’t like.”
“You’re letting them stay, though,” I said.
“It’s money in the bank,” great-grandma said.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp