The porch was gone and the windows had been removed from their frames. Lumber was piled in the small side yard. To Delilah, in the back seat of a taxi parked across the street, the house looked exposed, like a woman caught with her buttons undone.
The blue-haired receptionist at the physical therapy place was right. Margaret something. Delilah had known her for years from bingo. "Looks like they're ready to tear down your old house, honey." In that chirpy voice, like she was talking to a three-year-old.
Delilah, fighting off panic, had wanted to see for herself. That took awhile, because after the damn knee surgery, even hobbling to the bathroom was a production. Today, finally able to get around, she'd called the taxi service and stepped out into a chilly spring rain.
Well, she'd had her look, and now the panic was gripping her so bad she could hardly breathe. As she struggled to get out of the cab, she thought if she dropped dead that minute, she'd know who to blame--her nephew, that son-of-a-bitch, pasty-faced lawyer.
The driver jumped out of the cab to help her, but she waved him off and managed the few steps to where the street butted up against the narrow strip of beach. Leaning on her cane, she looked out at the water and breathed in the smells of the channel and honeysuckle and salt-tinged air. How many hours had her kids spent playing on that beach, like it was their own backyard?
When the flutter in her chest eased, she got back in the cab and gave the driver directions. He took her straight up Gerritsen Avenue, past the laundromat and the bagel place and the library. Then he made an illegal U-turn and stopped in front of the white brick building across from the ball field. She told him to wait.
Her nephew was at his desk when she teetered into his office, swinging her cane to ward off the little blonde secretary with the perky behind, and then slamming the cane down on the desktop, leaving a nice scar on the mahogany.
Clyde yelled to the secretary, "Shut the door, why don't you! And bring her a glass of water before she passes out on me." Then, to Delilah, "How'd you get here?"
"I took a cab. How do you think I got here when you sold the car out from under me?" She sank into a chair, short of breath now.
"Which car is that, Aunt Dee? The one you almost drove into Shell Bank Creek?" Clyde, in his jokey way, pretending nothing she could do or say would make him mad. "The whole of Gerritsen Beach, the whole of Brooklyn, is on its knees every night giving thanks you're not behind the wheel."
Delilah waved away the glass of water the secretary held under her nose and gripped the cane with both hands. "I want to know how those people come to tear down my house when you were told to put in the contract that they could not do that, not if they owned the place for a hundred years."
"I did put it in the contract, but you hit the nail on the head." Then, very slowly, like he was talking to a dummy, he said, "They don't own it anymore. They sold the place six months ago. It's the new owners that are tearing it down. I hear they're going after that whole street to put up condos."
She sat back, taking that in. She'd sold the house only three years ago. That's how it was these days, buy and sell, buy and sell, everyone getting rich except the working people who could hardly afford to pay their taxes. She'd lived in that house for more than sixty years, and never thought of selling until Clyde started nagging at her. The stairs were too much for her, the roof was going, the boiler was making sounds like an old man taking his last breath. Still, Clyde should have realized what could happen.
She scowled at him. "Why didn't you put in the contract that no one could ever tear it down? You know how to say that in lawyer talk."
Clyde was tapping a pencil on his teeth, the way he did. It drove her crazy.
"I didn't put it in the contract," he said, "because no one in his right mind would have bought the house that way. So now someone's tearing it down before it falls down, and it's no concern of yours."
No concern of hers. If he only knew.
Clyde was going on about her beautiful apartment, no stairs to worry about with an elevator to take her right up to her floor, a chance to make new friends.
"Bullshit." Delilah pushed herself to her feet, leaning on the cane. "How'd you like to live in some damn senior housing with nothing but a bunch of old people?"
"Aunt Dee, you're eighty-four years old."
"Screw you, Junior. I know exactly how old I am. And you better know that eighty-four isn't too old to call the State Bar, and tell them to take your license away because you are nothing but a piece-of-shit lawyer."
When the driver helped her into the cab, she shut her eyes and pressed her hand to her chest, as if she could stop her heart from bumping. Telling herself not to get worked up, that she still had one stop to make, one last hope. She directed the driver to one of the narrow streets that ran down to Shell Bank Creek, just a few blocks from where she'd grown up. Small houses, the neighbors so close they could hear each other spit. It was hard keeping a secret in a place like this, but she'd managed until now.
Walter's house had a tidy side yard and a bright blue door with shutters to match. Between her cane and the wrought iron railing, she made it up the steps. The rain had stopped but she felt the chill in her bones. She pushed the doorbell, waited, and then rapped on the door with her cane.
"Hold your horses!" she heard from inside the house. Then the door opened.
Surprised wasn't the word for the look on Walter's face. Struck dumb was more like it. They'd seen each other around town over the years--you couldn't help running into people in Gerritsen Beach--so she knew he recognized her old-lady face. And she'd know him anywhere, once she got past the white hair and the skin hanging under his chin like a rooster's wattle. The blue eyes and shaggy brows were the same. The same thin lips.
"Delilah." A smile crept into his voice.
"We got a problem," she said. Before she could go on, a high-pitched whine came from inside the house demanding to know who was at the door.
Delilah threw Walter a long hard look. Some things didn't change. "If your keeper will let you out, I need you to come over to my place. My new place." She told him the address.
"Give me a half hour," he said.
Delilah sat at the kitchen table listening for Walter's knock. Her new place, a pile of yellow bricks, the apartment so dark she may as well be underground. Now he'd see how she'd come down in the world. Her old house hadn't been fancy, but at least it got the daylight, just two steps to the beach. We're going to the ocean, her kids used to say, trotting across the street to the channel with their tin buckets. It wasn't the ocean, but close enough. And now here she was stuck in a hole on Knapp Street. Jail for old people was what it was.
The knock came and she let Walter in. He followed her to the living room, settling in the gray armchair she'd brought with her from the old house. Seeing him there, with his long legs stretched out, it was hard to think how many years had passed. "If you want a drink, there's a bottle of Jameson in the cupboard next to the sink," she said.
"A little early in the day."
"Never knew you to be a clock watcher, Walter. How about some coffee, then?"
He stood before she could get up. "You stay where you are. I'll take care of it." Then, with a smile, "I don't suppose you still keep those ginger snaps in the house."
"The things you remember," she called after him as he went out to the kitchen. She heard him moving around, opening and closing doors, finding what he needed. If she had to name Walter's best quality, that would be it. The way he'd been ready, from the very first, to take care of things.
How old had she been the first time he'd knocked on the back door looking for her husband? Not more than twenty-five, already with two babies, and married to a man who didn't have a good word to say about anyone or anything. George and Walter had just started working together, George putting up houses and Walter doing the brickwork.
That first time, she'd come to the door with a baby on her hip, her breasts heavy with milk and pushing against her cotton blouse, her blonde hair wild from the humid weather. She'd caught Walter's look and knew what he was thinking. Oh yes she had. And she remembered what she'd thought, taking in his smile and his blue eyes. Here was a man who knew how to care for a woman. Still, nothing ever passed between them, nothing but looks, until the night she phoned him asking for help.
Walter appeared now with two cups of coffee, saying, "What the hell. I gave us each a splash of Irish." Then he went back for the ginger snaps, which he set on the low table between them. After a deep sip of coffee, he said, "So Dee. Just what sort of problem do we have?"
"They're tearing down my old house." Delilah watched his face for a reaction.
He dunked a cookie into his coffee, as he'd always done, and nibbled off the edge. "Now why is that a problem?"
She gave him a hard look, seeing a cast to his eyes she hadn't noticed before. "Why is that a problem? Christ, man, have you gone mental?"
He laughed, clapping a fist to his mouth to keep from sputtering coffee. After he swallowed, he said, "Oh Delilah, Delilah. You were always the one, that mouth on you, that temper."
"I guess we both know about my temper."
"I guess we do." Another laugh. Then, in a soft voice, "You're still a beautiful woman, do you know that?"
"Save your breath, Walter."
"It's the truth," he said. "If I had my prostate, we wouldn't be wasting our time on conversation."
It was her turn to laugh now, throwing back her head. She couldn't remember the last time she'd done that. Then her laugh died, the truth coming at her like a cold wind. Her old house would soon be a pile of rubble.
Still with a smile, he said, "I know why I'm here."
"That's a relief," she said. "Now why don't you tell me what we're supposed to do?"
Walter rubbed his hand over his hair, white as coconut, clipped close to his scalp. "There's nothing to do."
"What do you mean? We sit and wait for the cops to turn up and haul our asses off to prison?" She was surprised at how calm she felt saying that. The whiskey had softened the edges of her panic.
"Delilah, you're talking about ancient history."
Ancient history? She'd been right. The man wasn't playing with a full deck. "Walter, there's no statue--whatever you call it--for murder."
"Statute of limitations."
She stared, trying to figure out who she was talking to. A loony old man or the Walter who'd stood by her sixty years before.
"Listen to me." He was relaxed as can be, one arm over the back of his chair. "For one thing, it wasn't murder. At least not first degree. You didn't plan to kill George."
"I was just trying to shut him up."
"And you succeeded." Walter's laugh came out like a bark. "I don't believe he spoke another word after you whacked him across the head."