OLD AGE OF INNOCENCE
BY PHYLISS MERION SHANKEN
One would assume the Delgado family might have been on closer terms with the Wallace’s, the sweet eighty-plus-year-olds, who shared the Delgado stoop between their semi-detached homes. Ever since this old couple moved in about six months ago, the Delgado’s had spoken directly to Mr. Wallace, oh, about five times at the most, and they had never even heard the sound of Mrs. Wallace’s voice.
From the day they arrived, every night at 5:30, the Wallace’s emerged from their home to take an after-dinner stroll. Like clockwork, the Wallace’s, who had eaten their version of an Early Bird Special at 5 pm, consisting of canned soup and sandwiches, cleaned up like partners in a fast-food kitchen. The Delgado’s and hence the rest of the neighbors learned about this ritual because the Delgados’ middle son confessed to having spied on them on one of the days the Wallace’s had forgotten to close their shades, as they almost always did.
The day the new people moved in, Jill Delgado, as all good stoop-sharers will do, brought over a chocolate quinoa cake. When Mrs. Wallace opened the door, Jill proudly raised up the glass platform on which the cake rested, so that only her eyes shown from just above the white rose on top, imbuing the cake with a seeming ability to speak in Jill’s voice. In case old Mrs. Wallace was hard of hearing, and because Jill was shielded by the chocolate trophy, like a ventriloquist, Jill raised her voice and spoke through the dessert. “Welcome.”
Jill had observed that in the act of opening the door, Mrs. Wallace had quickly donned her extremely dark sunglasses, which resembled the chocolate color of the cake. With Mrs. Wallace’s wide-brimmed baseball hat pushed down low, her face was virtually gone! Presumably, Mrs. Wallace had some kind of visual impairment. To top it off, and to further enhance the weirdness of this gift, Jill’s permed hair resided above the dessert as if attached.
As soon as Jill lifted the cake even higher above her shoulders, Mrs. Wallace brusquely about-faced.
Suddenly, Mr. Wallace appeared as an instant replacement for his wife. “Yes?” he officiously inquired as if he were a police guard posted there primarily to protect his mentally challenged woman.
“I, uh, brought you this to wel-welcome you to the neighborhood.” With a tentative smile, Jill tacked on a follow up: “And welcome to the stoop!” She hesitated. Did he know what ‘stoop’ meant? Oh my. Jill hoped he didn’t think she meant, Stupid. “I live next door right there.”
In the shadow, Mr. Wallace’s face was difficult to discern since his baseball hat tilted down even lower than his wife’s had, but Jill did notice his wrinkly, lumpy, doughy facial features.
“What kind of cake is it?”
“Oh, it’s a Chocolate Quinoa cake.”
“Never heard of it.” Without warning, he jerked his arms up to retrieve the cake at the same time Jill was lowering it to hand it to him. The crystal plate crashed to the ground, but the cake remained intact, popped up in the air, and into Jill’s hands in one piece, a testament to its solidarity — and to Jill’s agility.
“I’m so sorry,” Jill blubbered while she picked up and put her hand through the large opening in the middle of the Bundt cake as if she were about to spin a gyroscope.
“I’ll bring over my dustpan and clean this up. I’ll make you another cake, I promise.”
“Not necessary.” Mr. Wallace snapped the door shut. Jill heard Mr. Wallace’s energetic sliding of the latch, a bit too emphatic, as if making a proclamation for her to remove herself immediately.
Jill, a wise woman, never attempted any other neighborly gestures.
The only exception to the Wallace’s routine occurred one time a week, on a different day each week. Precisely at 10 am, a large black limo pulled up to the curb in this middle-class neighborhood. Naturally, the presence of the town car piqued the neighbors’ curiosity but all they could do was scratch their heads.
On one of those five occasions when they came upon each other on the stoop, Mr. Wallace, dressed in his usual charcoal gray suit and red bowtie, had turned his back on Jill and scurried down the cement steps toward the limo. Mr. Wallace, always the gentleman, took Mrs. Wallace’s arm to guide her into the back seat, and basically stuffed her in behind the driver’s seat. The shabbily dressed chauffeur closed the door while Mr. Wallace ambled around to the front passenger side.
Taking advantage of the chance to finally break the ice, Jill called to him, “Have a nice trip!”
“Visiting our grandchildren,” Mr. Wallace announced through a megaphone formed by his cupped hands. “That’s my son.” Mr. Wallace pointed to the driver. Jill Delgado later told the nosey neighbors, “The guy was really scruffy. Needed a shave — real bad.”
This was more than Mr. Wallace had uttered to anyone in the months he had lived there. Through the windows of the other houses along the street, one could see people poised in various versions of a soldier’s stance, blocking out the sun with a stiff hand over their eyes as if saluting. Since they couldn’t hear what Mr. Wallace had said, they were clamoring for details and reaching for their phones.
On the evenings of these weekly excursions, the limo would return at 5:25 pm, just in time for the Wallace’s romantic 5:30 walk. Getting out of the car with assistance from their son, they immediately clasped hands, each using their free hand that wasn’t holding her cane or his walking stick. Without stopping to enter their house, not even to go to the bathroom, they promenaded to the end of the block and back.
In order to nourish their detective-like curiosity, many of the neighbors on Heathrow Street often hung out on the Delgado’s porch and smiled to each other with admiration whenever the enigmatic couple emerged from their home or one day a week from the limo at exactly 5:25 pm.
Even though the Wallace’s onlookers had never spoken to or had ever been acknowledged by the Wallaces, the neighbors still had concern for this non-intrusive, frail couple who, with their matching baseball caps, appeared to be still madly in love with each other. They were just adorable.
Mr. Wallace, so gallant, would take his wife’s elbow and guide her to the front door. He would put his walking stick into his other hand, release her elbow while she leaned against the the door molding. Then he would unlock the door, take his wife by the elbow again and lead her into the living room. From the entrance way, the peepers could see the lounge chairs draped with plaid, woolen blankets, the kind they had all used to cover their babies in the carriage. Even though none of the neighbors had ever been invited in, they knew that the Wallace’s were ambling their way toward their cushioned chairs, because once in awhile, the neighbors managed to sneak a peek through the window, only when the Wallace’s neglected to close the curtains. Mr. Wallace probably sensing all eyes on his privacy, snapped those drapes as if closing the shutter on his camera. But what the Peeping Toms saw on those few occasions was the couple lying on those recliners and warming their worn-out shriveled bodies.
Except for these few occasions when information leaked out from the snoops in the neighborhood, everyone was hungry to figure out how the Wallaces existed from day to day. As if it were opening night at the theater, the neighbors treated new information with the greatest fanfare.
For example, one story that circulated occurred on Halloween. A kid, Stevie, from another street who hadn’t been forewarned, rang the doorbell of the totally darkened Wallace house. Mr. Wallace, with a flashlight in hand, answered the bell. When he shone the light right into the child’s eyes, almost blinding him, Mr. Wallace, in his suit and red bowtie, appeared to be wearing makeup like that of a monster in a horror film and the boy mistook this for Mr. Wallace’s costume, kind of like one a male wicked witch of the West might wear just before being splashed with the dreaded water that causes witches to melt. The kid declared, “Awesome!”
As little Stevie reported later, “Then the monster man - it was the best costume! — made this scary sound like, I swear, really loud like a lion. Some kind of word like maybe, Scram. My mom told me later that ‘scram’ means ‘leave’ but I didn’t know it so I said, ‘Trick or Treat’, and the man said ‘Scram’ again and I said, ‘Don’t you have anything for me?’ Then my friend, Joey, showed up and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Stevie, we gotta get outa here!’ The monster man sounded like a lion again, shut the door hard — really loud. And Joey said, ‘My mom told me that guy is a real monster! My mom never told me that, I said. And he said, ‘Everyone knows.”
One brightly moonlit night, Jerry Delgado was looking out his bedroom window and saw a tall thin man dressed in black tights and turtleneck walking up the back alley and stopping by the Wallace’s basement door.
Given the slew of burglaries in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood watch group’s pledge to keep an eye on each other and especially on the vulnerable old Wallace’s, Jerry Delgado panicked and yelled to Jill, “Call 9-1-1. Someone is about to break into the Wallace’s house. Jerry heard Jill on the phone at the same time the guy in tights disappeared around the garage side of the Wallace house.
Holding onto each other, the Delgado’s ran downstairs onto their screened porch just as the sirens were blazing and the flashing lights lit the room. The police ran up the shared cement steps toward the Delgado’s front door. “No!” shouted frenetic Jerry, “Next door!” He vigorously pointed to the opposite side of the stoop.
Just as the cops started banging on the Wallace’s door, all three Delgado kids showed up, rubbing their eyes. Other lights in the neighborhood flicked on in tandem.
Luckily Mr. Wallace, breathless and dressed in a bathrobe covering his black jersey pajamas and a sleeping cap, unlatched the door just before the police were about to break it down. The Delgado’s remarked later that Bill’s face looked stranger than usual; he almost didn’t look like himself. Younger or something. And smoother. Was it possible, his wrinkles flattened out at night?
The police entered the house while all five Delgados waited.
After awhile, two policemen emerged and knocked on Jill and Jerry Delgado’s door. “Were you the ones who made the call?”
“Well, we saw no evidence of breaking and entering. Those people had no idea what was going on.”
Jerry shook his head. “I saw the guy trying to break in.”
“Will you come with us to file a report?”
Jerry nodded, “Of course.”
“Those people, the Wallaces is it? They said you and the other neighbors are always spying on them and invading their privacy. They were very angry you called the police.”
Jill couldn’t hold back. “Oh, would they rather be tied up and gagged like the Coopersmith’s were last week?”
“Yeah, and what about that rich family over on Carpenter Lane? Five thousand in cash gone. Just like that!” Jerry snapped his fingers!
“In any case, they’re going to file a harassment complaint.”
“This is nuts,” is all Jill could say. “Okay, next time, we’ll keep our mouths shut. If they die, it won’t be on us!”
A few weeks later, sirens were heard again, this time not at the behest of the Delgado’s. The police pulled up and broke down the Wallace’s door without waiting. There was even a guard posted at the back door seemingly so no one could escape. They took Mr. Wallace away in handcuffs — without his walking stick. Clearly visible at the window, Susan stood slumped over at the waist, sobbing so loudly, the neighbors later remarked how grateful they were to finally hear her voice.
At dawn the next day, the Wallace’s scruffy son showed up in his limo, now converted into a hearse, with a coffin, which lay in the collapsed back seat. Susan’s son, doubling for an undertaker this time, carried Mrs. Wallace’s dead body, slung over his shoulder, to the car and laid her rather roughly into the coffin, which he had to lift open with his free hand. So difficult to maneuver, he banged her head against the edge of the coffin and tried to slip her body through the initially narrow opening. Once he set her down and draped her over the edge, he was able to more fully open the lid and stuff her in. He jammed the lid down, forced the door closed, ran around to the drivers seat and slammed that door as well. Her son — or was it really her son — swiftly took poor Mrs. Wallace away.
Later, those who had gotten a slight glimpse of her face, marveled that Mrs. Wallace looked like a younger version of herself.
The police never reported to the neighborhood what happened to Mr. Wallace, and whether or notdownhearted Mrs. Wallace might have taken her own life. And how the Wallace’s son knew to pick Mrs. Wallace up and bring a coffin so he could save an extra trip?
The only thing the neighbors knew for sure: There was never another burglary in the neighborhood.
Phyliss Merion Shanken, retired psychologist, playwright, writing coach, author of a memoir plus two novels. Over twenty literary journal publications, “Eternal Elixir” 2021 nomination for Best of the Net. Produced plays: The Comeback Kid, Tiberius,Wise Old Owls, A Trilogy, Mister Peanut Rides Again!, Love N’ Zoom, Chance Meeting? , Do Stuff