Ben Logan imagined what the interior of the house would be like before opening the front gate. He knew his mother would have the place neat and in order. The tattered old carpet in the living room would be freshly vacuumed. The kitchen sink might hold the morning coffee cups, but the plates and silverware would be put away. A search for dust anywhere would be futile. A scent of cleaning agents would mingle with the smell of the old woman, Ben’s grandmother, Dorothy.
Grandma Stark would be lodged in front of the flickering color television, dozing off and on in her favorite chair. From his mother’s letters, he knew Dorothy’s mind was finally deteriorating along with her hearing and eyesight. She was near the end, and Ben was happy he’d now have a chance to see her before she died. He hoped she would recognize him.
The mid-afternoon sun baked everything around him, and Ben knew the interior of the house would be cool and dark. He looked forward to getting out of the heat after his long walk across town. He looked around to see if any nosy neighbors were watching him. He didn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean they weren’t. In any case, it didn’t matter. What he had to do wouldn’t take long at all. He knew he had plenty of time. He unlatched the wrought-iron gate and pushed it open, expecting it to catch slightly on the concrete walkway, but it swung open freely. Someone had repaired it, which surprised him. Like a would-be home buyer, he closed the gate and opened it again, testing it for any possible flaws.
Certain now that it had been repaired, he wondered if Carl had done the handiwork. It wasn’t like Carl to do any chores around the house, he thought. From the time Carl moved in fifteen years prior, Ben couldn't recall him ever doing anything around the house. It seemed all he ever did was go to work at the plywood mill in the morning before coming home in the evening half-tanked and smelling like a brewery. On weekends, Carl went straight to the tavern, Pig’s Place over on Hoyt Street, and stayed there all day.
Maybe old Carl had turned over a new leaf, Ben thought, but he couldn't take the idea seriously.
The front door was locked, but Ben knew an extra key was in the mailbox where his mother always kept one. He pulled a few letters and advertising flyers out of the box and groped for the key. Silly, Ben thought. A thief looks in the mail box second. First he looks under the doormat, but since his mother didn’t keep a mat in front of her door the choice was easier yet.
Still, as far as he knew, no one had ever robbed the house. He considered that a matter of luck.
As he unlocked the door, Ben saw Mrs. Clemens come out of her house next door and peer toward him.
“Ben? Is that you?” Mrs. Clemens said.
“Hi, Irma,” Ben said. He tried to sound pleasant, but he didn't think he pulled it off very well. It appeared to him that Irma had lost a lot of weight since he'd last seen her. She almost looked pretty.
“What are you doing here?” Irma said, and Ben didn’t like the edge in her voice. It sounded like fear and disgust rolled up with a lot of disappointment. She was the first person to recognize him since he’d hopped off the bus an hour earlier, which seemed sort of strange to him. Walking from the depot, he’d passed several other people he knew, but they didn't notice him. Or maybe they did, but decided to ignore him. That was fine; he didn't want the attention anyway.
“I’m visiting, Irma. Just for a day or two.”
“Does Carl know about this?”
“No, he doesn’t. Mom doesn’t either. It was a last minute thing.”
Irma was wearing an apron. She pulled a cigarette out but didn't bother to light it.
“This doesn’t seem like a good idea, Ben.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“I don’t think Carl would agree. I don’t think Alice would, either.” Alice was his mother’s name. It had been a long time since he’d heard anyone other than himself say it. An image of Audrey Meadows and Jackie Gleason flashed in Ben’s mind like it always did when he was a kid and heard his real father yell at his mother, sometimes playing the joke out for Ben. He chuckled audibly.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, Irma. What do you think of this heat?”
Irma shrugged but didn't say anything. Her gaze was fastened on him again.Ben decided to leave the woman standing there on her front porch and went inside the house. She said something else before he closed the door, but he wasn't sure what. He didn't care, either. He dropped the letters and flyers on a small table next to the telephone. That is when it occurred to him that he’d have to do something about Irma Clemens.
Note: Maybe I'll try to finish this one.