There were strange things happening at the Pauley house. Things had not been right since Mr. Pauley died. I knew he had died, not because anyone had told me, but because I could see things. My mom tells me I was nosy; I shouldn’t spend all my time keeping track of the people in our neighborhood. What else was I to do? The room we shared didn’t have a TV. The other people in our rooming house, although nice enough, kept to themselves. I think they resented me being here. I was the only kid in the house. They looked at me like I was a foreign object, one to be inspected from a safe distance and not to be trusted.
Mr. Pauley was different. He lived in the house across the street, the only one on the street that had not been turned into a rooming house. It was a wonder to me that only he and Mrs. Pauley lived in the huge looming house that mirrored the one we shared with 12 other people. Each house was three stories tall, with a large commanding front door, ours painted white, the color only faintly visible below a layer of grime> Mr. Pauley’s door was a shiny wood grain. Our yard, surrounded by a battered wire fence, consisted of dirt beaten down and packed by the sun and too many footsteps to count. It was littered with discarded food wrappers and shreds of broken dreams. The neat white fence that surrounded the Pauley house enclosed a thick carpet of flawless precisely cut lawn.
It was because of this lawn, I came to know Mr. Pauley. Shortly after moving into our room, trudging in with two laundry baskets that contained our only possessions, I started sitting on the warped steps of the rooming house. I preferred the changing sunlight, to our bleak room, or the “common” room that smelled of desperation and cigarettes. After plodding home from school, usually a brutal day punctuated with periods of taunting from my new classmates, I took refuge in my thoughts on the front steps. The experience of changing schools for the third time in four years, taught me to stop trying to fit in, to avoid making friends that I would have to abandon when my father found us. It was a cycle I desperately wished would stop.
I first noticed Mr. Pauley as the drone of a lawn mower pulled me from my thoughts. He was a short man, whose head was ringed by a fringe of gray hair. Bent in concentration, he slowly followed the lawn mower as it cut swath after swath of lawn. This routine was repeated every third day. The sound of the lawn mower and the sight of Mr. Pauley became routine and some how comforting. At first our contact was a simple nod from Mr. Pauley. The nod graduated to a wave, until one day he beckoned me from my perch. Unsure, my steps were timid as I navigated the street and approached the now familiar man. Our friendship grew as every third day Mr. Pauley ventured out to mow his lawn and I would cross the street to join him. He offered me small hard candies wrapped in cellophane. They really didn’t taste that good, but I was always eager to take them. He told me stories of the families that had once lived on the street. Eventually he spoke about his six sons. His voice a croak he revealed how they were now grown and flung across six different states with sons of their own. His head hung low as he shared he had grandsons he had never met. I was startled to I realized Mr. Pauley was as lonely as I was.
Our conversations were frequently cut short by Mrs. Pauley shouting from the front door, “You get away now, leave Mr. Pauley alone.” Mrs. Pauley was an imposing figure, tall with hair pulled back from her severe face and held tight in a bun. Piercing eyes surveyed the world with disdain. Her voice was sharp, her manner threatening. “You leave leave Mr. Pauley alone. You upset him,” would follow me as I slunk away. Head down, Mr. Pauley would resume his pacing, back and forth with the lawn mower. Following these encounters, I returned to my step my imagination running wild with stories of the evil Mrs. Pauley, the long-suffering Mr. Pauley and the mysterious sons. The villain in each was the shrill Mrs. Pauley.
And then he missed it. It was the third day and Mr. Pauley didn’t come out to mow his lawn and resume his conversation with me. I sat on the step long after dark. The next day I watched stunned as six different cars pulled up and six different versions of Mr. Pauley made their way into the house. The following day as the cars left, I knew Mr. Pauley would never come out to tend his lawn. I knew that I had lost my only friend.
The days flowed b. I continued my vigil on the step. Now my thoughts were never interrupted. I was left alone to deal with my demons. I watched saddened as the Pauley house deteriorated in front of me. The lawn grew long and then withered under the unrelenting sun. Debris blown in from the littered street dotted the once pristine landscape. I watched as a long black car parked in front of the Pauley house. A severe man in a stark black suit emerged and approached the front door. He knocked, then pounded on its wooden surface. Finally he taped a paper to the door, shook his head, and retreated.
School finished for the year and long summer days stretched before me. My time on the front steps grew longer as the days grew longer. On a hot, dusty day the monotony was broken by the arrival, once again, of the large black car. It was followed shortly by a police car. My heart skipped a beat. Police cars signaled trouble. In the past the arrival of police meant an abrupt departure by myself and my usually battered mother. The police officer pounded on the front door, still marred by the now faded piece of paper. The door opened slowly. A now shrunken Mrs. Pauley lead the men into the house. I waited what felt like days until Mrs. Pauley, gripping a battered suitcase in her hands and supported by the police officer, emerged. Her hair was a tangled nest. Wild eyes darted around the street and then rested on me. It was hard for me to hold her gaze. I recognized a broken person when I saw one.