Howard Chittum is a year older than my father and has lived next door to our family ever since my parents moved to McKinley Avenue in 1959. He has silver hair now and belongs to the Senior Citizens’ Group. Most of the other Senior citizens live in the high rise downtown, but Howard won’t sell his house. He says the government wants him to sell it so they can get their greedy paws on his profit. Taxes, you know. Well, he’s not about to do anything to please the government. Besides, he’s thinking about getting married again.
When my brothers and I were little, he used to come over about once a week and spend the whole evening. If my dad wasn’t home, Howard brought his wife with him for propriety’s sake. Her name was Pearl, and she always wore nylons. I used to sit on the floor next to her legs and run my small hand slowly from her ankle to her knee, feeling how smooth and slick the nylons made her skin. “Aunt Pearl,” I’d say, “you got the best legs I ever felt.”
Normally, we children were taught to address our elders as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, but with Howard and Pearl this presented a problem. None of us could get the hang of “Chittum.” It always came out “Shittum.” So Mom reluctantly instructed us to call our neighbors by their first names. “Aunt” and “Uncle” were necessary titles since no civilized child in the South would address an elder by first name only.
Howard was fascinating because he was missing the ring finger of his right hand. Mom would sometimes warn us before he came over not to stare at his missing finger. But our stares were caused by nothing less than respect. The missing finger made us believe in magic, and we believed Howard had been made from a special mold. Later I learned that he had lost the finger in some kind of accident I never understood—something about his sister pushing him into a kettle of hot lye when he was nine years old. Mom thought this also had something to do with Howard’s “not being all there.”
He had this Chihuahua he took with him everywhere he went. In the wintertime he wrapped her in a pink blanket and carried her like a baby. He named her Suzie but sometimes called her Twinkles or Cinderella. We were not to use these special names; only he and Pearl were allowed to use them.
Billy, my Mexican playmate, called her conchita. Suzie was a nervous, feisty dog. She had brown eyes and long, flirting eyelashes. Sometimes Billy let her lap beer from his hands, hoping to get her drunk, while I stood watch. But the beer never seemed to faze the dog. Her beer-drinking days ended one summer afternoon when Howard appeared unexpectedly from the garage and caught Billy in the act. “If I wasn’t a Christian man,” he told Billy, “I’d skin you alive.” Billy told me about it later, saying, “Conchita’s up to two handfuls a day now. She’s a good Mexican dog.”
Howard would have never suspected me as Billy’s accomplice. Like the rest of the neighborhood, he thought my brothers and I were little angels. Each Christmas he brought us simple but well-chosen gifts which we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve. Watching us tear into·them, he would stand by the door rocking back and forth on his feet and laughing. If Pearl was with him, she would put one white hand up to her face trying to hide the fact that she was as excited as we were.
Pearl died of cancer in 1979. She died in her own bedroom in her own bed. Mom had been nursing her for months-fixing meals, doing light housework, taking her to the doctor. The day after Pearl died, Mom came from next door about as mad as I’ve ever seen her.
“Stupidest one man I’ve ever dealt with,” she told me, stomping into the living room. It was Saturday, and I was folding towels.
“What do you mean?” I asked, looking up from my work.
“He won’t let go of that pillow.”
She looked annoyed at my stupidity. “The pillow Pearl was using when she died,” my mother said in a loud stage whisper.
Then I knew what she was talking about. The death crown. She’d told me all about death crowns when her Uncle Ray died. When a good person dies, some of the feathers of the pillow under the person’s head knot themselves into a hard ring the size of the person’s head. You’re supposed to bury the pillow with the crown in it after the person dies.
“Is there one in Pearl’s pillow?” I asked.
Mom looked embarrassed for me. “Of course there is,” she said quietly.
I should have known.
Pearl had wanted children but was childless. Howard used to tell us about her failed pregnancy whenever the occasion presented itself. ‘ ‘ She said she couldn’t feel the baby move no more,” he’d start out in his slow drawl. “Didn’t hurt her, but she couldn’t feel it move, and it kind of scared her. After a while she went to the doctor and the doctor told her, ‘Why, Pearl, that baby’s dead.’ Then they said she had to carry it full term. She walked around for days carrying that dead baby. Then she got sick and I took her to the doctor. He said she’d have to have an operation. When they cut inside, that baby was just rotten. Everything was rotten and they had to take it all out. Like to killed Pearl. She was real sick. And the baby was just rotten.”
He used to tell this story whenever he had an audience and Pearl wasn’t around. Our family was a polite audience and we’d listen to his story, but Mom or Dad would change the subject as soon as he was finished. It always made me sick to hear about the dead baby.
Then one day it occurred to me that a nine-fingered man couldn’t have healthy babies. This was the real reason for Pearl’s suffering. It wasn’t a blessing in disguise as Mom called it. It was Howard’s fault. And getting that Mexican dog was an attempt to make it up to Pearl, as though Suzie with her special names and pink fuzzy blanket could replace their dead daughter. I felt I had learned a mysterious truth and was proud of figuring it out on my own. I kept it to myself. I didn’t even tell my brothers. It seemed too sacred and holy.
After that I could hardly bear to look at his missing finger; its very absence seemed an accusation.
Howard changed after his wife’s death. He bought a new car and fine clothes. He started having ladies over from the Gateway Bible Church. They brought him rich brown coffee cakes, cooked meals for him in Pearl ‘s linoleum kitchen. I hated these women, who began coming not only on Sunday but throughout the week in polyester dresses ornamented with rhinestone fashion pins.
When I was home this past summer, Howard came over one evening and hinted that he might be getting married. “Of course Pauline is used to living in her own house and she thinks I ought to sell mine and move in with her. I don’t think I ought to seil though. What do you think?” he asked my father.
Dad, who is hard of hearing and doesn’t care what Howard does with his house, just said, “You never know.”
I saw Pauline a few days later as she was getting out of her old Mustang after bringing it to a sudden halt in front of Howard ‘s house. I watched her from behind the living room curtains as she made precise, efficient movements in getting a cake out of the back seat. I saw right away that she didn’t have Pearl’s softness, which had for years taken the edge off Howard ‘s sharp corners. This woman-this Pauline-was plucky and pert. Neither Mom nor I much care for her.
Dad calls us both “typical suspicious females” and scolds us for “spying on Howard’s business like a couple of country women that don’t have anything better to do with their time.” But my mother and I have an uneasy feeling about Pauline. Call it woman’s intuition if you want to. We have it in our heads that the government is not the only one who’d like to see Howard sell his house so they can get a share of the profit.