Rule Number One
By: Carol Dixon
We were in her closet the day I made the promise.
I like my job delivering meals to old-timers and shut-ins. It’s easy work being my own boss, taking any highway or alley or side street, long as I deliver on time. And anybody can tell you, five days a week I’m regular as digital. I like my customers, too—mostly old people with stories they got to tell somebody while there’s time.
I’ll give you a for-instance: Gus and Hans Felhoffer (Gus being the wife whose real name is Augusta). I’m delivering Monday’s special, bean soup and corn bread, right to her kitchen when she sees me gawking at some old-timey pictures above her table. Next thing I know, she’s telling her family history back to the time of mud.
“Ven me and Hans get hitch, like you say, ve vus kids, me and him fifteen. Den no more school for us. Hans vash dishes and paint houses till now he’s vat you call geezer and can verk no more. You finish school, Billy, else you be a meal man and old like Hans.” Whatever we’re jabbering about, Gus is always on my case about school, but in a nice way, so I say “sure” like I mean it.
I’m delivering chicken potpies so it must be a Thursday when the closet thing happens. Like usual I start the morning at the senior center, pick up my nineteen foil-pack meals, and by the time I’m half way down the street, my Chevy-beater smells like some grandma’s kitchen on Sunday. I know the rules, and number two says you have to bring your own lunch. Today it’s a salami and mustard on white and a quart of chocolate milk bagged up on my front seat. My Rapper Joe CD blares bass sweet and steady, I make five green lights straight and I’m one happy dude when I pull up front of the Felhoffer’s building. It’s an all-right neighborhood in the day, probably not so good at night. From the front hall I take two stairs at a time up to the second floor, and like usual Gus has their door open a crack. She’s in the front room ironing, and Hans is bunched up like a kid with his baby blanket on the couch behind her. Gus’s face is red and sweaty, and she’s humming like she forgot Hans is sick with whatever he’s got. The head lady at the senior center says people’s sickness is none of our beeswax, so I don’t ask my customers. That’s rule number three.
“Is chicken day, yah Billy?” Gus says and yanks the iron cord till it pops out of the wall socket and smacks the leg of the little table with magazines. Hans stretches his neck, yawns, and goes back to being a one-man snoring band.
“Is fine, Billy. He’s up all night like a baby vit colic, sleeps all day like my babies ven ve haff babies,” she says and leads me and her potpies back to the kitchen. I don’t know anything about her babies. Maybe I don’t want to know, but long as I’m her meal man, she can tell me if she wants to. Like usual, Gus has a stack of ginger cookies on a nice blue platter on the kitchen table. Every week I tell her the rules for keeping my job, but the cookies are there anyway. She knows I can sit and jaw for a few minutes—but no eating. Rule number four.
“Tomorrow I take Hans to doctor vit his problem. You can leaf stew in here ven you come, yah?” she asks. While I’m thinking what rule I’d have to break, the front door bangs and there’s a guy in a Pluto mask standing maybe ten feet from me and Gus. The kid’s got green hair, a camo sweatshirt, black pants with a lot of pockets, and ratty Converse dragging dirty laces.
“There’s trouble in here,” Pluto’s sputtering through the plastic false face and patting his sweatshirt pocket.
“Vat you vant, vat you vant?” Gus says kind of loud. Hans rouses, flicks his eyes open and shut, pulls the blanket over his head and starts a new snort-and-whistle routine. Pluto takes a step back to look, practically trips on one of Gus’s little rugs and has to grab the back of a kitchen chair.
“I say vat you vant?” Gus repeats. In the living room Hans carries on like a champ practicing for the Olympics.
“I know somebody here got pills. I see you at the drugstore.” Pluto’s voice breaks like a busted trombone, and he’s swiveling his head between the kitchen and the racket in the living room. “I’ll find the stuff myself,” he says and shoves Gus, then me behind her, into a hall closet.
I crash into her back, the door slams and it’s dead dark and smells like we’re in mothball heaven. The lock clicks and the kid sounds kind of polite when he says through the keyhole, “Don’t try to get out for a while.”
I’m hanging onto some itchy, wooly thing that feels like a coat sleeve or a pants leg and thinking if mothballs kill bugs, what about people?. My mind races ahead doubletime to my obituary: “Billy Harper died on the job, a meal man to the end.” It’s not how I thought I’d go.
Gus is scuffling around in the clothes, and I can’t tell if she’s huffing mad or ready to bust out crying. Me, I’m stepping on somebody’s boots or shoes and kicking an umbrella or maybe it’s Hans’s cane.
“We’ll get out and Hans’ll be just fine, I promise.” Then I think maybe I ought to distract her with something else, so I say, “Listen, Gus, about that other thing I’m always promising—school I mean—I’ll go, really.”
“Yah, I know,” she says and clangs clothes hangers so loud Pluto must be thinking we invited the neighbors in for a party. I feel Gus’s hand poke through all the scratchy clothes, then she’s jabbing me in the chest. There’s a keychain with a bunch of stuff, some keys and a little flashlight.
“Where’d these come from?” I’m whispering.
“Hans gets confused so I hide things in here so he . . . ”
The way her voice breaks up, I’m thinking she’ll let out with a big boo-hoo any minute. “You okay, Gus?” I flash the light on her face, and she’s laughing like a crazy woman but no sound is coming out.
“The bad boy don’t look in here for the pills. He’s bad looker,” she says, trying to hold back a big hee-haw. “Ve trick bad boy, yah?”
After a while Gus’s front door bangs, and we wait for a long time and listen to a lot of quiet. Finally, I try all the keys and one works and Pluto’s gone and I’m breathing fresh air. Gus is leaning over Hans on the couch, talking right in his ear till he rouses and gives her a dopey wink.
Gus shrugs when we go in the bathroom and find medicine cabinet stuff—oothpaste and brushes, aspirin and vitamins, Q-tips and cough drops—scattered all over the floor. “Not to vorry, Billy,” she says. “Hans vas fine and ve get out yust like you promise.” She doesn’t even mention the big promise.
Next morning when I stop at the senior center for Friday’s mac-and-cheese, the head lady comes charging across the room with her boss look. One of my customers must’ve complained about me being late with the chicken yesterday. Before I can explain, she’s handing me a paper and going on and on, and I’m thinking, “She’s firing me and I’ll have to go to school now and I don’t have the money for classes and things aren’t working out like I planned.” Then all the other meal people are clapping, and the head lady’s pointing to the poster with the rules and saying, “Well done, Billy. Very well done.”
When I tell Gus I’ll be her meal man for a long time ’cause I have to work while I go to school part time, she says, “Not to vorry, Billy. I vill tell you my stories on soup and chicken days. On udder days you vill say vat you learn at school.”
I never told Gus rule number one, about keeping promises. I’ll tell her when I graduate.
Carol Dixon lives with three generations of her family on an organic farm in Hot Springs. She ‘s a school tutor, gardener, baker, writer and grandmother.