Book: Ask the Right Question

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32

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I am from the U.S. Department of Immigration, and I’d like a few moments of your time.”

Up close the old guy looked about sixty-five, lots of white hair and in pretty good shape. It’s the thin ones who last a long time.

“My name is Joe Jenkins. I’m eighty-three years old, youngster, never had a drop to drink in my life. I’ve never had no trouble with any kind of police, and I’ve never worried a day in my life. Now is there anything else you want to know?”

It was a little after nine thirty. I’d been out a half hour canvassing Mrs. Forebush’s neighbors looking for people who’d been around since 1953 or so. I was trying to get a little information about the alien tenant. It had occurred to me that somebody in the neighborhood might remember her. It seemed worth a shot.

The way the Forebush house is placed, there are a lot of neighbors who might be able to keep track of a tenant there. It is one house in from a corner house, and the other side borders on an alley. That gave me the corner house and two or three around the corner whose backyards might overlook Forebush’s, as well as the house across the alley which gave me two families because it was a double. And maybe a few across the street.

I had worked my way around the corner and although I had found a lot people who lived in the area that long, or longer, only one remembered anything at all. She was a lady named Fay. She had raised her children, twins, Newton and Norman, in her house and she intended to die there, or so she said. At length, She remembered vaguely that there had been a young couple in the house “before the Forebush woman got it.” She didn’t know really anything about them, she only saw the man a few times. It was possible that Newton or Norman remembered more. They were married now. She gave me their names and addresses.

It was the best I had done.

I had stopped at the two houses which faced Forebush’s across the street, but found only one occupied. A girl, about twenty, was unpacking crates and had just moved in. I asked about the former residents, hoping to track them down. The question didn’t turn her on. They had died in a car crash the month before.

I was now at the double on the same side as Forebush’s but across the alley. My last chance. The old guy I’d seen on the porch the first time I’d visited Fiftieth Street.

I asked him how long he had lived in the neighborhood.

“Lived? Here? Since creation, sonny, since creation. I’ve been here as long as it has, since 1926. I bought it outright then, and a good thing I did because it was a lifesaver during the depression, a real lifesaver.”

He seemed willing to chat.

“Now, what do you want? I can tell you anything you want to know. For instance, the house you just came from. The old geezer piled them up on the highway to Kokomo last month, on the twenty-sixth it was. He was too old to drive. Too old. Even had his license taken away for six months about four years back. But he got it back. Now see what it’s got him. And his little woman. She deserved better, she did. Real nice little lady.

“And the house you went to before that—”

I cut him off, fascinated though I was. “It’s the one next door.” I pointed across the alley.

“I reckoned it was,” he said sagely. “At least you’ve been in and out of it a few times the last couple of weeks. What is it? Mrs. Forebush figuring to sell it? Nice little house, you could do worse.”

“No, I’m just trying to find out about the people who lived there before Mrs. Forebush.”

“Ah, that’s right. Some government official or something you said. What’s the matter? They do something? Are they wanted?”

“No, I just need to know about them.”

“Well, let’s see.” He scratched his chin. He really did. “For a long time there it belonged to Railroad Mackeson. Would it be him that you were wanting to know about?”

“I don’t know. Was he the occupant of the house just before Mrs. Forebush?”

“Well, the only one that was worth a damn. But he’s dead now. That ain’t gonna help you.”

“Who came into the house after him?” The serial approach.

“Well, lemme see. House stood empty for a while while the kids wrangled over who got it. Then they decided to sell it and split the money instead. That would be 1952 or 1953. Just about the time Ike was getting himself elected. For the first time, that was. Good time to sell a house. So they sold it, pretty quick too. I remember that the new owner, whoever it was, had some changes done. Bit of a shame too, not that old Mackeson ever did much with the garden, but the yard looks a whole lot bigger with flowers than it did with big bushes. I guess that’s why it stood empty for so long.”

“It stood empty?”

“Yes, sir. Several months. The way I figure the owner bought it to rent out. Had it fixed up like. I saw a lot of furniture go in. And then I figure he couldn’t rent it for quite a while. Maybe a bad time for renting houses furnished. I don’t know. But there it stood.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well, except for a young couple lived there for a few months, it’s been Mrs. Forebush.”

“I think it’s the young couple that I want to know about.”

He peered at me. He wore no glasses. “Why? Why them? Is it because the lady was a foreigner?”

“That’s it, old-timer.”

“Where’d you say you was from?”

“Department of Immigration.”

“Why’d you come here then?”

“We can’t find her. That house is the last address we have for her.”

“Well, by God! She ain’t lived there for more’n fifteen years. Why you just getting around to her now?”

“You know how it is. We get a lot of paperwork and things pile up.”

“Whewee! Son, let me tell you a little something. That’s no way to run a business. I run a couple of mighty successful businesses in my time, and this one of yours ain’t gonna last that way.”

“What do you know about the young couple?”

“Not much. They wasn’t here very long. Spent a lot of time in the house, I can tell you that. Both of them. They’d go shopping together. Didn’t seem to get along all that well. You can tell about couples. I guess’d they were just married before they came here, and I could see after a while why there was some troubles. She started putting a belly on her, and I don’t mean from overeating. Now my wife, God rest her soul, she could have told you how old it was to within a couple of weeks. But I don’t remember.”

“Did they have the child before they left?”

“Nope. I just figure they got fed up of the place or maybe each other. They just left one day, with some suitcases. Didn’t come back.”

“Can you tell me what they looked like?”

“Well, they’ll have changed a lot by now, of course. But at the time.” He thought. “The girl, apart from her belly, a little slip of a thing. Brown hair, pretty young. Maybe twenty, twenty-five. He was a lot older. Well, maybe not a lot older, but he looked it. Like forty or so. He had brown hair too, well as I could remember. What there was of it.”

“He was bald?”

“Pert near. Reckon he’s looking pretty shiny by now.”

“Do you remember when they left?”

“Not really. But Mrs. Forebush’ll tell you. She didn’t move in but a couple of weeks after. Real nice little lady, that Mrs. Forebush. Real friendly. And real cute little package for her age. You reckon she’d be interested in an older man? Older, but young at heart? You ask her that for me, will you, youngster?”

“Mr. Jenkins, I would, but I somehow figure that in the fifteen years you’ve been here you might have had a chance to ask her yourself.”

“Sonny, I might have done but that wouldn’t be quite right, would it? I mean with one wife already. My Mrs., God rest her soul, she only died four months ago. I reckoned to have a little chat with Mrs. Forebush, but I can’t hardly do that before decent mourning is over, now, can I? I just thought, you know, if you’re friendly with her that you could sound her out for me. That wouldn’t be immoral, now, would it? And then I’d have a little more to go on, a little more to look forward to in the next eight months.”

“Tell you what I’ll do. If I can fit it into the conversation I’ll ask her how she feels about remarriage. And if she’d consider it, I’ll give you thumbs up as I leave, how’s that?”

“That’ll do real well, sonny. Anymore it seems like no one will do a favor for an old man. I really appreciate it. I purely do. Mighty fetching little piece she is. For her age.”

I left him drooling mentally, and with each step toward Mrs. Forebush’s door I felt more and more like a Golden Years Pandarus.

Mrs. Forebush was in, and surprised to see me so early. Earlier than she usually took visitors, but I imposed. After all we had a relationship. I only stayed a few minutes and told her what I was working on. She couldn’t add much, just that she had moved in September 14, 1954, and that when she had moved in the previous tenants had left a lot of stuff. Not a lot of stuff to live with, but a lot of stuff to have left. Beds, one each in two of the rooms, some furniture, food, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, sheets and bedding.

“What did you do with it?” I asked her.

“Put the whole lot out. All to the Salvation Army. Mr. Crystal told me before he left that when I moved in I could do absolutely whatever I wanted to with it, that it was mine. And that’s what I wanted.”

“And was it only the girl the Immigration people asked you about?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been talking with your neighbor across the alley.”

“The old man. Sits in the front window all day keeping track of everything that goes on in this street.”

“His wife died recently.”

“I know. I didn’t know her but it was probably the effort of cleaning all his field glasses and sharpening his pencils.”

I took my leave.

Walking down the steps to my car I gave the old man thumbs up.

At the car door I paused and then I walked back over to have a couple more words with him.

“She really likes me, huh?” His expression was as close to a leer as he could manage with no teeth.

“I didn’t say that. I just asked her if she had ever considered remarrying and she said that she had.”

“Oh, boy,” he said.

“I wanted to ask you something else. You don’t by any chance keep any records of goings-on down this street, do you? Like of cars that come down here and so on.”

“Don’t I! You just wait there, sonny.”

I waited, not believing, half hoping. It would be a bit sticky tracking down lists of cars registered fifteen years before, but I could have it done. Money is a wonderful lubricant.

He brought out an old ledger and showed me the first page.

“I started in 1935. I had figured out there was gonna be a war. I thought somebody might be interested in just who came and went around here. Could be useful. You know, if there was somebody on every street, keeping track of comings and goings. Maybe catch us a spy or two.”

“Could I see a little farther on?”

“Say when, sonny.”

He thumbed on slowly. About three-quarters through, he came to a blank page. “That’s it.”

“There’s no more?” The last page was titled “December 21 to December 31, 1949.”

“What do you want, sonny? War was long over by then. And my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Any help to you?”

“’Fraid not. But I appreciate it. I purely do.”

“Oh, that’s OK. Never did figure it was worth much to anybody. Would take a whole network of people like me.”

“I guess it would. Take it easy.”

“Say, sonny, what with times gettin’ permissive, do you think that six months’ mourning would be enough?”

“Still a year. Good people still respect traditions.”

“I guess so. Guess so.” I left him scratching his chin.

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