Here comes another teaser. If Josephine doesn't get you, maybe Hooley will. I recently started writing another book, but it's hard to shake off the Cuckoo Clock Caper characters. I lived with them in my head for over a year. They rode with me in my red pickup and inspired me with their antics late at night when I couldn't sleep.
It was Thursday morning, four days before my next mural job was due to start. I rolled over, yawned and suddenly remembered what seemed like a nightmare. But when I sorted it out in my mind, I realized the terrible fire had really happened. The Hooleys had lost their home. I heard a noise. Solow wasn’t in the room so I rolled out of bed, pulled on my robe and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen.
Solow stood by the backdoor wagging his tail, waiting to go outside.
“OK, big guy…out you go.” I watched him race after David’s furry white cat. Fluffy hopped through the deep grass like a short-eared bunny, and Solow galloped along behind. A few minutes later my basset was back, breathing hard, staring at the door with his tongue hanging loose. I let him in and laughed out loud.
I jumped when I heard an echo—a laugh behind my back, and spun around, fists raised in a defensive posture.
“Who are you?” I shrieked.
“Emmett,” the man said calmly as he took a step back. He was my height, about five-seven, but stringy, wrinkled and bent. He had a long narrow nose, dark eyes under fluffy white brows, a lower tooth missing and an Einstein scramble of white hair on top of his head. He wore an old leather vest over his wrinkled long sleeved shirt. His pants puddled over bare feet. Pa Kettle had nothing on this guy.
“How did you get in here? I didn’t hear anyone knock,” I snarled.
“The door wasn’t locked….”
“What are you doing in my house?” I put my hands on my hips and tried to look seriously mean, but the old coot wasn’t buying it.
“Your door wasn’t locked and I needed a place to sleep.”
“What are you talking about? You’re not making sense. Maybe I should call the police.”
“Please, Ma’am, no police.” Solow sidled over to the man for a backrub. “You have a nice home here and a good dog.”
“Looks like you and Solow know each other. What’s going on anyway?” I tried to ignore one of my favorite rules of life—if Solow likes you, you must be OK.
“Yes, we know each other. He’s been to my house before.”
“Where is your…is it up this road?” He nodded. “Don’t tell me it’s the one that….”
“…burned down last night.” He stroked the stubble on his chin.
An icy feeling swept through my body. I shivered.
“Mr. Hooley, sit down. I’m so sorry you lost your house. Where’s your sister?”
He looked at the floor.
“She didn’t come out of the house,” he groaned, dropping into a chair.
An even bigger chill hit me and lasted much longer.
“You spent the night…?”
“…on the couch. I like the fancy little pillow and the quilt was very nice.”
“Why did you come to my house? I don’t even know you.”
“You’re the only neighbor who doesn’t lock your door,” he smiled.
“I have a guard dog but maybe I’ll lock-up from now on. Are you hungry?”
“I can wait. I could boil coffee for you,” he said, with a slight accent. European, but I wasn’t sure which country.
“Boil? Ah, I’ll just put Mr. Coffee to work and you can pour yourself a cup in no time.” I left the coffee to perk and hurried to my room to get dressed. I decided to dress first and put the books away later. I jumped into cut-off Levis and a blouse, ran a comb through my unruly auburn hair and gave my teeth a quick brushing.
I didn’t feel completely comfortable leaving a strange man alone in my kitchen, but I felt sorry for him at the same time. Even though he’d entered my house and slept on my sofa, I couldn’t really blame him for trespassing. He’d lost his sister and his home. Maybe he was disoriented or had a bad case of dementia or amnesia or something.
I entered the kitchen. “I see that Solow brought you the newspaper.”
Emmett nodded as he drank coffee and read the saliva-soaked paper out loud to Solow.
I began preparing breakfast, glad to be helping Mr. Hooley in his time of sorrow.
Solow skipped his morning nap, preferring to listen to the old man read. There was no mention of a fire in the newspaper. After all, it had happened just five hours earlier. It would probably be Friday’s headline.
The phone rang. I smiled at the sound of David’s voice.
“Josie, honey, sorry I didn’t call last night. Things were pretty crazy around here. Harley had to make an insurance house call. One of his clients ran his truck off the road, over a sidewalk and into a bar.”
“Same bar he left?” I laughed. “So what did you and Monica do?”
“I played fairy princess with Monica until Harley came home. My back is killing me, right where my wings are supposed to be. So what’s happening with you?”
“David, you won’t believe it! There was an explosion last night. It shook my bed and then there was a big fire up the street. It was three in the morning, but you know me, I had to go see for myself so Solow and I….”
“That’s nice, sweetie. I’m afraid Monica, I mean the fairy princess, is calling me. Gotta run. I’ll call tonight.” We hung up and I turned my attention to making breakfast.
“Hilda always made the porridge,” Emmett said.
“I can make oatmeal if that’s what you want. I’ll share the waffles with Solow.”
“Oh no, no, I don’t like porridge. I never told Hilda that.”
“Why didn’t you tell her? Maybe she’d have cooked other things for you, like bacon and eggs or….”
“…biscuits and gravy. She only made food from the old country. Our mother taught her to make schnitzel, matzo balls and cheese blintzes. Hilda didn’t want to learn American ways, but I like the American hamburger.” He ran his boney thumb up and down the mug handle, eyes focused on the wall.
I never had a sister, but if I lost one I knew I’d have been devastated. Poor Mr. Hooley must have been out of his mind with grief.
“I need to buy groceries today. Would you like to come along? Might do you good to get out in the sunshine….”
“…and see people at the store.”
“Do you always finish other people’s….”
“…sentences? Just Hilda’s.” A quick smile flickered across his ancient lips.
“How old was your sister?”
“Eighty-seven. I’m two years older.” He dug into his waffle and bacon like a man who’d eaten mush for breakfast his whole life.