A Neighborhood Story

Arthritis made it hard for Miss Thelma to turn the pages of the photo album. I wanted to help as she struggled to grasp the corner of each page with her gnarled thumb and index finger, but I knew she'd slap my hand if I tried.

She was determined to find a particular picture of her son, Roy.

"It's here somewhere. This one of him in his ROTC uniform is good and this here other one where he's all dressed up for his high school prom is nice, too. Looks a little like that actor Denzel Washington, don't he?"

Miss Thelma was my neighbor. When we moved to Atlanta, we bought the house next to hers. She lived alone in a small, well-kept brick house with flowering vines cascading from pots hanging from her front porch. Although we waved at her a number of times, we hadn't spoken until she rang the bell one evening, maybe two weeks after we moved in. My son, who was almost eight at the time, my wife, Iris, and I were involved in a serious game of Monopoly. I answered the door.

"I'm Thelma James," she said. She was shorter than I had realized, heavier and darker. I live next to y'all." She squinted past me towards my son. "The boy play dominoes?"

"Uh, he's never played before."

She clicked her tongue and shook her head. "I reckon I can teach him."

And she did. Throughout most of our first summer in the neighborhood, while we worked on the house, Matt would run next door to play with Miss Thelma and eat the sugar cookies and sweet potato pies she baked. Along with dominoes, she also taught him Parcheesi, backgammon, and poker. One day Matt told us he lost seventeen cents to Miss Thelma in a poker game. When I approached her about it, she shrugged. "The boy lost fair and square."

Often I'd come home from teaching a night class at the college to find Miss Thelma and Iris on the porch sipping wine and talking. When they'd see me, they'd suddenly become as quiet as schoolchildren the first day of Sunday school, and as soon as I turned to leave, they'd talk again. I knew better than to try to intrude on the bond they had developed.

"She has a son," Iris told me one night after Miss Thelma went home. "A husband, too. But there was a fight. From what I could gather the son beat up the father and the father called the police. He had the boy locked up and Miss Thelma never forgave her husband. He left soon after that."

We lived next door to Miss Thelma for over a year before we met her son, a man nearly forty. He was lighter skinned than she, and while they had the same squinty eyes, there was something frightening about Roy, intimidating. Maybe it was the crude snake tattoos up and down his muscular arms or the way he walked with his elbows out as if warning others to steer clear of him.

He was weeding her garden when I walked out to my backyard one Sunday afternoon. She introduced him to me and said he'd be staying with her for a while.

"Glad to meet you," I said, holding out my hand over the short fence that divided our property.

He just glared in my direction, motioning that his hands were dirty. I tried joking, asking if he knew his mother's secret for growing tomatoes, but it was as if his frown were chiseled so deep into his face, a smile might crack him open.

I spoke to him only once, when he had locked himself out of the house. He asked if I had a key.

"No, I don't," I said. "But do you want a drink while you wait for your mother to come home?" It was an oppressively humid afternoon, and Roy's shirt, unbuttoned and hanging out of his pants, flapped behind him like a cape. His bare chest displayed an awkwardly drawn panther tattoo.

I brought two beers out to the front porch. When I returned I noticed he had buttoned his shirt. We spoke a little about the Braves, but he was a Hawks fan and I knew practically nothing about basketball. I had been listening to an old Charlie Mingus album, Me, Myself an Eye, that I had just picked up at a used record store in Little Five Points. I was reading the cover, and the album lay on a chair near where we were sitting. He was impressed that I still listened to albums and I knew Mingus.

"You can't listen to Mingus and Miles and Coltrane on a CD," he said.

I agreed, and put an old scratchy Billie Holiday recording on the turntable.

We talked about jazz and how it's changed. "Listen to Wynton," he said. "The man is technically fine. But then listen to the Bird." Somehow, that led us to the changes in the neighborhood.

"I teach at the college," I told him. It's great being able to walk to work. I love this neighborhood, the mix of old and young, black and white."

His face contorted as if in pain. "Neighborhood's changing, but a lot of the old people are still here. They'll stab you in the back if you're not careful. Call the po-lice if you don't say 'Good Morning' just so."

I felt a need to keep him on my side. "Most folk don't have enough in their own lives to worry about, I guess."

He nodded and finished the beer. I brought out two more. We talked some more, but mostly we sat in silence. He surprised me when he spoke. "You should have a key to my mama's house." He looked away. "She's near seventy, you know."

When Miss Thelma pulled her old Buick into her driveway, Roy stood up. I held out my hand, but he just nodded in my direction.

An elderly man from down the street saw me clipping my hedges a little while later. "You best lock up everything you own," he said. "When Roy, Jr. is out of jail, things get to missing 'round here."

I said I wasn't worried, but about a week later, someone entered my unlocked garage and stole my lawn mower and tiller along with some other gardening tools.

I mentioned this to Miss Thelma and told her I reported it to the police. Her lips tightened and her eyes squinted, but she said nothing that might incriminate her son. I didn't say anything to Roy.

Roy left soon after the robbery of my gardening equipment. Miss Thelma came by to talk to us. We small talked about the weather and the garden. Suddenly, she said, "He's my boy. What would God think of me if I turned my back on my own flesh and blood?"

Iris took her hand, but Miss Thelma pulled away.

"He was a good boy, you know? He was good in school. He used to love to sing. Church songs or anything on the radio. I even bought him a piano and paid someone to give him lessons. He used to make believe he was giving a concert, and he'd always dedicate a song to his mama. His father was jealous, that's what it was. He was too hard on the boy."

"He's not a boy anymore," I said. As soon as I said it, I regretted the words. It wasn't my place to pass judgment on Roy or Miss Thelma.

She looked up at me and shook her head slowly. I tried to apologize, but she interrupted.

"I know I shouldn't let him back. He took y'all's things. I know that. Every time he come home, I think it gonna be different."

As time passed, Roy occasionally appeared and disappeared. Sometimes the police came to Miss Thelma's house looking for him, and once people who scared Miss Thelma a lot more than the police came looking for him. She went to our house.

"Those thugs said they was friends of Roy. Oh Lord, what has that boy got hisself into now?"

Iris and I talked of moving, afraid of living so close to potential trouble. But then things would quiet down and Miss Thelma would return to her lovable self. Besides, she and Matt had developed a special grandmother/grandson relationship that they both thrived on. Matt even started calling her Mama T.

Before he went off to college, Miss Thelma and Matt played cards. He came home with a pocketful of change. "What?" he laughed. "She lost fair and square."

This past spring it was a lot harder for her to till her garden. I offered to help.

"Help? You the one what need help. A man with hair turning white like yours can't be tending two gardens." She tilled a smaller plot and planted half her usual garden. Her tomatoes were still bigger than mine.

I was in the garden digging up the last of the sweet potatoes when I heard a terrible racket next door. It was Roy banging on the front door, screaming and cursing for his mother to let him in.

I heard her shouting, "No. Not this time. I called the police. I won't let you in my house!"

I ran into our house, made sure Iris was inside, and called 911. I was told a police car had already been dispatched to that address. When the police arrived moments later, Roy was still on the front porch and Miss Thelma opened her front door screaming and crying. I never heard such a terrified, awful sound in my life.

"He got a gun!" I heard her yell as two police officers entered her front porch. I heard one officer call out, "Drop the gun. Now!" Miss Thelma screamed. I heard two pops. And then absolute quiet. I could see Roy's body crumple and fall to the floor.

Miss Thelma stood frozen as one of the officers checked the body. The other called for an ambulance. Once the police said it was all right, Iris went to Miss Thelma and held her. I watched them rock back and forth.

"I shouldn't have called the police," she moaned. "I killed my boy. I shouldn't have called the police."

- - -

The next evening, I sat with Miss Thelma as she searched through her photo album. "Here it is. Here's the picture I was looking for." Miss Thelma held up a professional photographer's picture of a handsome, young black boy, all dimples and promise, holding high a trophy. "First Place in Music," she said. "All the schools in the state competed and Roy won. This here's the picture I want at his wake."

About the author:

After teaching writing and literature in college for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer recently retired to follow his own advice and write. Some of his stories have appeared in Literary Potpourri, E2K, Scrivener's Pen, Flashquake, Insolent Rudder, Dana Literary Society Online Journal and Inkburns. In 2002, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Wayne lives with his wife in Atlanta, and can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.