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Ms. Miller and the Midas Man
By Mary Kay McComas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Mary Kay McComas
All rights reserved.
The whole town was atwitter with the news.
Scott Hammond was back and nothing would be dull or boring again—according to the gossip. This very same, totally reliable source of information also claimed he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, snatch small children from the paths of speeding locomotives, and resurrect truth, justice, and the American Way within the local school system with one hand tied behind his back.
Augusta Miller was no skeptic. She wanted to believe in magic and fairy tales as much as the next person. Truly. But experience had taught her that fairy tales just weren't true, and unfortunately, the next person didn't have Scott Hammond for a next-door neighbor.
"Lydia, he's back," she whispered loudly over the phone.
"You know who. From next door. He's back. It's the third time this week. Can I call the police now?"
"No," her sister said, her voice tight with strained patience. "That's not the way things are handled in small towns. What's he doing?"
"Same as before," she said, leaning over the kitchen sink to stare back at the intruder. "Sitting in the middle of my backyard with his garbage strewn all over. Staring. Drooling."
"Can't you just ignore him? He'll get bored and go home eventually."
"And leave his trash behind," she added, spotting a stray bread crumb on the counter, brushing it into the palm of her hand, and tossing it into the trash. "If he steps in my new flower beds, I'll shoot him. I swear. I'm not at all happy with this new neighbor of mine."
"Well, try talking to him."
"You know who. In your backyard. Talk to him nicely and maybe he'll move back to his own yard."
"Maybe I should use a little broomstick logic, huh?" she said, peering out at her uninvited guest once more. He was very big. He could probably snap a broomstick in half with his teeth.
"That's allowed. I don't think it would upset anyone if you shooed him away with a broom."
"What if he comes at me? Attacks me?"
"Well, then it would be okay to call the police, I'm sure."
Her sister's voice had taken on a great deal of humor that she didn't appreciate. "You've been a big help, Liddy. Thanks."
"Gus, honey, you're my favorite sister ..."
"I'm your only sister."
"But you have to learn to lighten up a little. You're so like Mother sometimes, it scares me."
"Oh, now ..."
"This isn't the big city. We're more tolerant of our neighbors here."
"Yes, well, there's tolerance and then there's being a gutless schmo who lets other people move in next door and take over."
"Attagirl, Gus. You march on out there and tell him what's what."
"I'm going to," she said, stretching the telephone cord to the broom closet. "And I'm taking my broom. Just in case."
She had a mental picture of Robin Hood fighting the sheriff off with a toothpick, but it was the best weapon she had.
"Good girl. Call me when the dust settles."
She hung up the phone and carried the broom to the back door, holding the calico curtains aside to check on the interloper. There he sat, staring and slobbering, the most enormous, gigantic dog she'd ever seen in her life. She swallowed around the lump of fear in her throat and turned the doorknob, making no sound at all, then jumped when he turned his large head in her direction.
"Look," she said, pushing the screen door open and taking one step out of the house. "I don't want to make you mad, but you and I are going to have to come to an understanding if we're going to be neighbors."
He continued to stare at her.
"Okay. First off, this is my yard. You live next door. I don't know how you keep getting the gate open, but you're not to do it anymore. Understand? You stay in your own yard and ... and take your trash with you. Please."
Bertram T. Goodfellow, Bert to his friends, was a reasonable animal. He didn't understand the woman's fear, but through the open gate he saw a barbecue-flavored Dog-Gone Dog Yummy land in the tall grass of his habitat ... And he did understand that.
Her heart raced with fear as she stood statue-still and watched in utter astonishment as the beast stood, shook himself from head to tail, ambled across her lawn, and moseyed through the garden gate as if he'd understood her completely and found her request to be reasonable.
Stunned by the simplicity of it, it was several more seconds before she hurried over to the tall gate to shut it and wedge a rock against the bottom, the latch being on the other side.
"All right," she said, most satisfied with herself. It had been some time, a long time, since she'd felt as if she had any control of her life. She wasn't exactly sure how she'd managed this small feat, but she wasn't above taking credit for it. She was pleased.
And angry when she turned around and saw the trash scattered across her tiny backyard.
"Okay. This is it. I've had it," she said to her neighbor's fence, tossing a beer can over the top. "I don't care who you are. I'm sick and tired of cleaning up your trash. And I'm sick and tired of finding it in my yard."
The fence had a dull despondent expression to it, its white paint peeling and chipped. It was an unsatisfactory target for the empty potato chip bag and the next two beer cans.
"The next time this happens, I'm calling—" she stopped, long-necked beer bottle poised mid-throw.
Would the police arrest a local hero for allowing his dog to trash her backyard? No, they'd just give him a stern talking to—if that. She sniffed indignantly. Maybe a hit man?
She liked nipping problems in the bud.
"I'm calling ... somebody. Somebody who'll tell you what's what and where to put your trash."
Technically, she should have a little talk with this new neighbor herself, she supposed. But sustaining a good head of anger for the time it would take to walk all the way to the front of the house, across the two driveways, onto his porch, and through an entire harangue simply wasn't in her lately. It was easier to throw the trash back over the fence.
Besides, she'd seen her new neighbor—tall, handsome, walked with long, sure strides. She wasn't what her sister, Lydia, called a worldly woman. Nor, in her opinion, was she particularly shy. Inexperienced described her better, and while scolding a tall, handsome man about his trash didn't seem beyond her, she imagined it would be rather ... difficult, and preferred to avoid it.
Still, she was past being nice about it.
"I haven't said a word about the loud music. Very tolerant, I think. And I didn't mind that your friend parked his car in my driveway the other night. I wasn't going anywhere, anyway." She picked up a rotting banana peel with two fingers and flipped it over the fence. "But this is where I draw the line. Trash your own yard if you must. Don't mow it. Don't trim the bushes. Don't paint this pathetic fence." Another bottle and one more soda can went sailing. "I don't care if I have to live next door to the messiest house on the street. I don't. That's your business. But this yard is mine."
She turned with her hands on her hips and surveyed the small, neatly trimmed patch of grass outlined with rows of primrose, red coral bells, and lupines and the big elm tree that shaded it all with deep satisfaction. It wasn't big, but it was beautiful. And it was all hers.
On the other side of the rather forlorn looking fence, Scotty smiled and patiently counted the cans, bottles, and wrappers. Sixteen. Same as yesterday. Same as the day before. The banana peel, of course, had been Bert's idea—but he'd come home willingly for a single yummy, so he wouldn't reprimand the animal this time. Now, if the pattern held, his pretty neighbor was about to disappear inside her house again.
Her soliloquy was unexpected and amusing, and he wasn't at all disappointed by the clear, even tone of her voice. It was a good sign that she was feeling chatty. Perhaps it was time to make his move ...
Slowly, so as not to make any noise, he unfolded his tall body from the lawn chair he'd parked himself in after tossing those few choice pieces of trash over the fence earlier. He left his copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the seat, tiptoed over a low bush and a hardy crop of garden weeds to the fence, and peered over.
She was the prettiest woman he'd ever seen. Not knock-'em-out beautiful like some, but pretty in a way that was hard to describe. Healthy. Wholesome. Sweet. All appropriate words, but not nearly enough to depict that quality about her that was also feminine and sexual in an earthy, lusty sort of way. She was a special, unique combination of woman, he thought, watching her stoop down to pinch dead-heads out of her flower garden.
It looked like her, the garden. Bright, neat, picture-book perfect. Maybe a little too perfect. A tiny bit of male ... dishevelment wouldn't hurt—her or her garden. He'd been trying to catch her eye and start a conversation for some time now, but she either wouldn't look his way or would merely smile a little, avert her eyes, and walk quickly into her house.
She was wearing a long-sleeved springy looking dress, her dark hair was tied back at the nape of her neck, and she was barefoot, he noticed, making her seem as vulnerable and natural as he'd imagined her to be.
"There, you see, that nasty beast and his trash almost made me forget why I wanted to come out here in the first place," Gus told the foliage. "You need water, don't you?"
Scotty cleared his throat, loudly, and when she spun around to face him, he calmly looked about the yard before asking, "Were you ... speaking to me?"
"What? No ... Well, yes. Before. I was. But no," she stammered, getting to her feet.
"Did you throw all this trash into my backyard?"
"No. Well, yes. I did. But ... it's not mine."
"It's not yours? What, it's borrowed? Stolen?"
"No. Of course not. It's ... it's your trash," she said finally, too stunned at being caught talking to herself to think straight. Too mortified at being caught tossing trash, even if it was his, to speak coherently. And too overwhelmed by her disorderly neighbor's dazzling smile and friendly dark eyes to do much more than keep her knees from buckling under her.
"Are you sure?" he asked, enjoying himself, enjoying the stir of desire he'd come to expect whenever he saw her.
"Are you sure it's my trash? It doesn't look familiar." He turned his head and winked at Bert.
The hundred-pound rottweiler yawned and appeared bored. Go next door. Come back. Human mating rituals were slow and tedious. He preferred a more obvious approach.
She frowned. She glanced at the back of Mrs. Falconetti's house, on the other side of hers. It was newly whitewashed, the shutters painted turquoise last fall, window boxes bulging with impatiens ... Her eyes slid back to the man.
"'Course, it all looks pretty much the same, doesn't it?" he went on, grinning as he turned back to her. Killer dimples winked at her from both cheeks. "I guess I don't mind if you throw it over the fence, a little more isn't going to make much difference at this point. Just be careful when I'm sitting out here, okay?"
"I didn't know you were sitting there," she said, feeling foolish despite the fact that she had no reason to. "And I threw it in your yard because it belongs to you. Your animal brought it over here."
He gave her a dubious look to keep the fun going. "Well, if you say so, but ..." Again he turned to Bert, who had sprawled out on his belly in the shade, completely aware that his job had been well done. "Bert," he said, reaching in his pocket for another barbecue-flavored Dog-Gone Dog Yummy. "Have you been in the garbage again?" The dog wagged his tail and barked once for his reward.
"He's such a dog," he said, shaking his head as he turned back to her.
"Yes, he is," she said, mustering her resolve. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd keep him and your trash in your own yard."
"Okay," he said simply, leaning on the fence. All he had to do was keep the gate latched. "Nice day, don't you think?"
"Yes. Very nice." Very like the last two weeks of fine summer weather. But warmer. Much, much warmer, now that she thought of it.
"When was the last time you saw a sky that blue?" he asked.
The day before, but for politeness' sake she looked at it again, then back at her neighbor. She could hardly take her eyes off him, as a matter of fact. He was tall—extremely tall, as the fence was high—with dark brown hair, his shoulders wide and thick under a cotton shirt, his bearing confident and easy. It was his eyes, however, that kept drawing her back to his face. Deep and dark like an all-consuming abyss. They were eyes a person could get lost in, disappear into ...
"Reminds me of when I was a kid," he said, flashing that smile again. "Bright blue sky. Long summer days with nothing to do."
She'd grown up in Seattle, where the sky was generally overcast. And if he had nothing to do, there was always his lawn and the fence and the trash and ... She merely nodded and started toward the back door. She could water the flowers later.
"You didn't grow up here in Tylerville, did you?" he asked. He would have remembered her for sure. You didn't see eyes like hers every day. Clear and perceptive. Hazel green, was his guess from a distance. Wide open, they were, but they revealed little of what she was thinking.
"Where are you from?"
"Seattle originally. Then New York." She wasn't accustomed to telling strangers her life's story. But if they were going to be neighbors, and if she wished to keep his animal and his trash out of her yard, diplomatic relations were in order.
"And now Tylerville?" He chuckled. "You hiding from someone?"
"What?" She looked startled.
"No one moves to Tylerville, Indiana, without a good reason. Rural living is fashionable now, but ... Tylerville? It's not exactly on the list of the ten best small towns to live in."
"Well, I like it." She didn't want to get into this with him. She had her reasons for moving to Tylerville, none of which concerned him. Besides, hadn't he just moved back to Tylerville? On purpose?
He made her nervous in a strange sort of way, as if he were interrogating her. He was watching her as if he'd like to crawl into her skin and make it his own, to know her that well.
"I grew up here," he said. And when she didn't seem particularly impressed by this, he added, "In this very house. My parents passed away a few years ago. I thought I'd come back and fix the place up."
This was when she might have asked where he'd been, what he'd been doing, why he hadn't come back sooner, if he planned to paint the house and the fence, if he'd had a happy childhood, or just about any other question she might come up with. But she didn't.
"I'm sorry about your parents."
Had she known them? Had she heard of the Hammond family? Was she from a large family? Was there going to be any additional information about her forthcoming? She was pretty tight-lipped for a woman, he thought. And in his mind, that was not a derogatory remark against her sex. It was simply one of the things he knew about women.
You see, if Scotty knew anything, he knew women. Nearly as many sisters as it would take to make a female basketball team, an ex-wife, a daughter, and several dozen female friends along the way made him an expert.
"They were pretty old," he said of his parents, as if that somehow made their passing easier. Truth to tell, he was already heading down another avenue of interest. "You've done a nice job on this old place. I like the flowers. Old Mr. Payne had allergies, so my mom planted hers on the other side of the house, as a courtesy, I guess. The Paynes were always complaining about something, as I recall. Me, mostly. I bet I broke a window in that house at least twice every baseball season growing up."
"It's a nice little house," she said, taking a few more steps toward the back door, glancing at the considerably bigger house next door. It wouldn't have surprised her to find out that the fence had been erected as a courtesy to the Paynes as well—though why the second gate opened into her yard, she had no idea. Easier baseball retrieval?
"You haven't lived here long. Someone else owned it the last time I was here, for my dad's funeral."
Excerpted from Ms. Miller and the Midas Man by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1998 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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