Lauren watched Kathy’s shoulders grow more rigid as she stared out the window above the kitchen sink. Finally she turned back to the others, her thin, red lips turned down in distaste, her red, acrylic nails tapping ceaselessly against the porcelain mug in her hand. “Something needs to be done. For two bits I’d go out there and settle this myself,” she barked.
Lauren finished dealing the cards. She was hosting Tuesday’s card game and light lunch for the ladies of the Jay Bird Lane cul-de-sac before they got back to the business of being housewives until the following Tuesday. “Do you suppose maybe he is jotting down thoughts for a story? Maybe he’s a writer. He’s a veteran, you know,” Lauren ventured, trying to waylay the oncoming storm as she picked up her hand and ventured a peek at Kathy. “I saw him dressed in a uniform and heading out last Remembrance Day. He looked very—”
“Writer, my ass,” Carol blurted, picking up her hand and arranging the cards. Lauren winced inwardly at the harsh assessment remembering the impressive uniform and array of medals across his chest.
“He stood at the edge of my driveway when I was in the garden, writing in that damn notebook,” chimed in Doreen. She leaned over the table, her eyes glinting brightly as she relayed the latest attack by the newest resident to the neighborhood, Walter Miller. “When I looked at him, I realized he was looking at the garbage can I forgot on the sidewalk from that morning. I walked down to get it but he had already yanked it up the driveway himself. He was wheezing. Such an old busybody. I can’t even look at him.”
The card game long forgotten, Kathy returned to the table, and plopped down heavily in her chair. “He doesn’t have the decency to come to us with any complaints, too passive aggressive. Just stands there looking at the ‘misdemeanor’ and writing it in his little black book,” she griped.
“I hate him,” Doreen added, with an emphatic nod. “I should send Pete over there to set him straight.”
Lauren looked around the table. She was seriously outnumbered on this one, and thought better of pushing her perception when the group got on this particular topic. “Still, we’re not really sure what he is writing down. He could be—,”
“I don’t need a knock on the head to know he’s up to no good,” Kathy interrupted, her face hard. “I don’t understand why you always defend him.”
“What about that time my sprinkler was wetting the sidewalk and he deliberately walked through it. He got wet and then stopped and took out that God forsaken notebook and started scribbling away. Couldn’t step out a foot,” Carol groaned bitterly, her eyes boring into Lauren’s from over her cards.
“And the time I left the newspaper on the front lawn. It got rained on so he tossed it all soggy on my steps,” Doreen said, indignantly.
“He sneers at the kids,” Kathy said matter-of-factly.
“Tim has met him and said he’s suffered a facial injury somewhere in his past—it’s not actually a sneer.”
“He’s a bully,” Doreen said, coolly, shooting a warning glare at Lauren.
“He’s a veteran, you see,” Lauren finished, rising from table and taking the coffee pot from the maker to top up cups in deliberate motions more to hide her discomfort and sooth her frazzled nerves than to be a good hostess.
“When I was calling in Jackson and Kate for dinner the other night, he came out of his house to stand and stare at me,” so creepy, Carol added.
“He’s done that to me too.” Tanis said, chiming in.
“It’s only that he IS a veteran, Lauren dear, that I haven’t marched over there and given him a piece of my mind,” Kathy drawled.
“I’m just saying,” Lauren started before she was cut off, joining her neighbors back at the small table.
“So……cards?” Kathy interrupted, too brightly, throwing Lauren a warning look.
Lauren picked up her cards. Next week would be at Kathy’s house, and she could just leave when she wanted she thought miserably. Tuesday’s were becoming more tedious by the week since Walter Miller moved in six months previous. The conversation ran to him and his antics every week, and every week Lauren felt the conversation grow more contentious regarding the temperament of their newest neighbor.
It had been a surprise when the elderly widower, Walter Miller, bought the three-bed, two-bath house across the street from Lauren. She had never seen anyone resembling family around and Walter appeared to live a life of solitude. They had never spoken, but she had seen the warmth in his eyes when she looked rather in them rather than at the scars that had ravaged his lower face. Where he was definitely mysterious, she just had not experienced the difficulties the other neighbors had allegedly suffered so frequently. Then again, she was indoors and trying to jump start her writing career during the days and didn’t spend much time gardening or being social as the others.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Kathy. “Lauren, where are you. In or out,” she barked.
“I’m out,” she said with an inward sigh. Next week she could leave when she wanted if she went at all.
Lauren and Tim moved silently around the front room turning out lights as was their nightly bedtime ritual. When she got to the front door, Tim was already there, a concerned look on his handsome face.
“Something on ol’ Walter’s lawn,” he said, peering through the window on the front door. Unlocking the deadbolt, they both stepped into the cool night air.
“Call 911,” Lauren yelled, already moving. Tim pulling his cell from his pocket as he followed.
“Mr. Miller,” Lauren called, setting down gently beside his prone body on the slope of his lawn. She touched his face. Cool, but not cold. She touched his shoulder, squeezing gently.
At the touch of Lauren’s fingers he moved slowly and painfully, reaching. He was reaching for the notebook that was just beyond his fingertips, when Tim said, softly, “They’re coming, Walter. Hang on.” Without appearing to hear, he continued groping in the cool grass for the ever-present notebook. Tim pushed it into his searching fingers.
Walter pulled the book to his chest with marked effort, and nudging it roughly into Lauren’s hand, relaxed his body into the grass.
Distant sirens could be heard, and Lauren hoped Walter heard them too. Walter’s hand tightened around hers holding the notebook, and he appeared to fall into sleep, a wet snore rumbling on his lips.
It seemed an eternity that they stayed like that until the ambulance arrived and bustled Walter, still seeming to be asleep off into the night. Neighbors had now gathered on their lawns and in the cul-de-sac. Curious. Watchful. But no one approached the three on the lawn or the busy professionals as they carted the old man off. Lauren touched the black notebook in her pocket lightly. He’d wanted to her to have it she thought curiously. She would return once he was home. If he came home.
One week, then two, passed and on a bright late-Spring morning Lauren watched as the slender, realtor pounded the for sale sign into the front lawn of Walter’s too-big-for-one house. Lauren had gone to the hospital twice, but Walter had not been allowed visitors. The stage four lung cancer had hit its crescendo and took Walter Miller several days after he was admitted. She thought of the notebook that had caused such animosity. She hadn’t thought of it for days, but remembered suddenly it was in her purse. She’d dropped it in there on the first trip to the hospital.
She pulled her handbag from the closet and retrieved the small notebook and sat down at her dining room table. Opening the book gingerly Lauren set about getting to know Captain Walter Miller.
It wasn’t many pages into reading Walter’s notebook that she understood. She had a job to do, and the writing contest was the perfect opportunity to give Walter a voice.
Lauren sat in her upstairs office and unveiled Captain Walter Miller. She shared that he had moved to a family subdivision to be near children, where he could hear them play and be transported to a life that he may have lived if his own beloved Claire had survived the breast cancer that ultimately took her life. Lauren wrote about when Walter observed the young mothers tending to gardens, run their errands and administering to their families how it made him feel closer to his wife and the life they had dreamed of in the style of home she always wanted.
Lauren wrote about Walter’s appreciation for the sound of mothers calling their children for dinner, and seeing the dropped balls and empty hockey nets as the kids ran to their homes, and he imagined the noisy, happy conversations around the tables. He would move inside then as well and eat his own dinner. With only thin walls separating him from the happy, boisterous families enjoying their evening meal, he felt part of the neighborhood—part of a family. It’s how Claire would have made life if she was there.
Lauren wrote of the day that Walter, with skin feeling parched from radiation therapy, had deliberately walked through the sprinkler parked close to the sidewalk, grateful for the strength to walk and the coolness of the drops. He had smiled often and felt much as he witnessed the children’s antics always wondering how different his own experience may have been with children and grandchildren.
Finally Lauren shared how Walter felt so much more fortunate that so many of his friends. Friends had not made it home from the war, and where his scars were visible reminders, he’d been fortunate to come home and spend several blissful years with his beautiful Claire and be there for her when she needed him most. On those days, his heart heavy with loss, he would walk the cul-de-sac sidewalk and write down every thing that he witnessed that lifted his aching heart to a place of gratitude. The neighbor’s perfectly tended gardens and lawns where they worked so hard. Children’s piping voices outside in play. On one day he helped the poor little lady with her garbage can that was nearly bigger than her. Then he realized too late that his face had frightened her, and he felt ashamed at his intrusion. He reminded himself after that to keep a distance.
Lauren took several weeks to write Walter’s story—one of grace and kindness. Loss, strength but ultimately a story of courage and faith as he prepared in his final days to meet with Claire and prayed for worthiness. Alone in the dark on the final night of writing Lauren realized she had lost a dear friend she never knew she had—and she allowed herself to grieve. Walter had perceived his neighbors to be busy in the life of householders—busy in the love of, and caring for, their families and wanted only to witness it—to reaffirm his belief in human beings and remember why he’d served. Lauren turned out the desk lamp and let the tears come.
It wasn’t for three weeks that Lauren learned she had won the grand prize of $20,000 for the writing contest. A smile lit Lauren’s face. Walter Miller’s story had been told. If even one person read it, that was all that mattered. His voice would be heard. Walter’s house had sold already and a young family had taken possession just that day. As well, Tim and Lauren were donating the winnings of the writing contest to Veterans Affairs. After all, it was the story that Walter wrote in his little black book.