There was another knock, well not so much as a knock, as a string of unending knocks.
I walked stiff-legged to the front door.
The pipe was still warm.
I’d seen the old man smoking before, standing in front of his home, waiting on a package to be delivered late at night. The pipe belonged to him – Mrs. Shoeman would attest to it, and so would Mr. Rogers, and several other neighbors. And that sound I heard earlier was probably him.
I opened the front door. “Mr. Decker.”
He was standing there with a letter in his hand. “Mr. Stockhelm.”
“Call me Luc.” I lowered my eyes, looking at the letter.
“In some societies, shutting a door on a person before their conversation had concluded is considered rude.” He handed the letter to me.
I shrugged, “I suppose you’re correct,” and moved the lamp closer to him, slid the pipe into my pocket, then snatched the letter from his hand. I sorted through my cascading thoughts as to why he was here and why he left his pipe again. It hadn’t appeared on its own. I’d heard Mr. Rogers running out his house yelling for Mr. Decker to stop leaving his pipe on his front doorstep or he might crush it with his foot the next time. My neighbor assuredly did not get the message his annoyed neighbors were sending.
“Could this have waited until morning?”
The night sky lingered behind Decker.
He shrugged. “I found that letter in my mailbox. Delivered to the wrong address, I suppose.”
“Odd.” I inspected the address on the front of the letter. It was correct. “Teddy Shills has this route. Man’s impeccable. He’s timely, and over several years I’ve never heard of him delivering mail to the wrong address.” I examined the letter more closely. It was postmarked and canceled.
“You have the address correct,” I said.
“Sorry, I was talking to the letter.” I passed the letter to my hand that held the lamp, keeping it between my fingers and away from the heat.
The pipe was warm—I stressed to myself.
I carefully slipped my hand into my pocket and withdrew the pipe.I couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d left it in my sitting room. Was it out in the open inadvertently? Or was it to be obvious? Usually, I found it on my porch, to the right. One time I found it in my kitchen when Decker appeared in his timely quarter year visits. I’d let him inside for a moment, and there I’d found it next to the sink after he’d left my home. I was holding the pipe out for Decker to plainly see.
“My pipe,” Decker said.
I cocked my head to one side, examining him while my brow scrunched.
“Your door was open, and I came in to see if everything was all right.” He held out his hand.
I went to place the pipe into Decker’s hand but withdrew immediately. “What were you doing first?”
He looked a bit perturbed.
He reached again for the pipe, but I wouldn’t hand it over. “Not until you answer.”
Decker’s lips curled back, and then he spoke in a disgruntled tone. “The door was open.”
“And you came inside because you were concerned?”
I handed Decker his pipe. “Where’d you get the pipe?” I turned away and headed back into my front room, letter in hand. “Are you coming?” I said over my shoulder, limping along.
“I bought it coming back from Indianapolis,” he said, still in the doorway.
I heard him shut the door, his footsteps behind me as I made my way to my chair, sat, then waited for Decker to come around and sit in the chair adjacent to me.
I brought the envelope to my lap, feeling the thin paper between the pads of my fingers. There was more going on here with Decker, I just hadn’t figured it out was all. I watched and listened closely.
Mr. Decker was a strange old bird. I never saw anyone visit during the day, only those who came at night. Sometimes late in the night. There might be several of them, but I never thought them to be his friends, rather more acquaintances because they never stayed long. I did look out my window from time to time, suspicious of my neighbor’s dealings. We all should know who we live beside. Though in my case, I struggled.
Are they the kind you want to live next door to? Or are they the kind you want to veer clear of, or even possibly sell your property and move to a different state. I wasn’t sure if Decker was that sort of neighbor, but someone who comes into your home uninvited will make you wonder if additional security on the doors and windows is required.
I looked over at Decker and placed the letter on the table between us, then got up and walked to the table against the wall to my right where I kept my bourbon and glasses. I was tapping the side of my leg with my finger, thinking Mr. Decker had never called for me. He’d never come to the cellar door. A concerned citizen would have done those things at least. I went to pick up a glass and noticed one of them was slightly out of position, to the right maybe five inches. I usually kept the glasses paired next to each other, nearly touching. I tilted my head to the side, still wondering if I had misplaced it, but I couldn’t recall.
I let out my breath, then opened a bottle and poured the brown liquid into a tumbler. “Would you like one?”
“No, thank you.” His voice had a hint of northern, less twang in his enunciation than some locals. The dialect in New Cross was a mix of southern and northern. Decker’s voice was crisp, I’d say. Or maybe his accent was from somewhere else? It could be. He obviously traveled, being his pipe came from Indianapolis.
I finished pouring, placed the bottle on the table, and walked back to my chair.
“Has the weather treated you well?” I said to keep my neighbor occupied.
“Not really. It’s too cold on the road, not good for my aging body. Might snow tonight, but better than the rain that’s made the roads tough to travel.”
I sat and took a drink, thinking of how I might get him to tell me what he’d been doing.
“Yes, well, it is that time of year. Rain, snow, sometimes a little of both.”
“Fickle she is – never a day without mother nature changing her mind.”
The light was low, his face captured in shadows, making him almost unrecognizable.
“What news is there in the city?” More small talk. I wasn’t interested in small talk. I was interested in why my neighbor had come into my home.
“Heard the morgue is to be moved from the inner part of the city to the outer area.” He put his finger to his temple. “Actually, not far from here, past the cemetery.”
“Truly?” I went into my thoughts, but not about the morgue. I could not have cared less about where the city kept their dead so long as it wasn’t near my home.
Did I leave my door open? I tapped the side of the glass with my pinky.
“Well, I suppose they must have it somewhere,” I said.
I placed my glass on the table, adjusted my body in the chair to get more comfortable. “Did you move this drinking glass when you let yourself inside?”
I reached for the letter and opener to give Decker more time to tell me why he really came into my home. As I slid the letter opener inside the flap of the envelope, it made a rasping noise as it moved across with ease.
I skimmed over the letter, not really trying to read it but rather trying to be patient with the old man, to give him a chance to speak, but then my eye caught an unnerving phrase of words.
I scanned the words to make sense of them.
I laughed quietly to myself, though my laughter was cut away as I finished the letter. The words were sinking into my mind.
“Final reprimand?” I said. “For what?”
“A little trouble?” I heard Decker’s voice, and it held a hint of satisfaction, or maybe it was me putting it there after realizing I’d spoken out loud.
“What is this?” I looked at Decker. “Do you know anything about this?” I knew I was irrational; he knew nothing. Though he did know why he’d come into my home. I’d almost forgotten, and I had grown tired of playing this game. It was better to put this to rest and have it out.
I wadded up the letter and threw it across the room. “Thomas Fickle can go throw himself in the river,” I muttered through clenched teeth.
“Who’s Thomas Fickle?” Decker said.
I had to think a moment before I responded. “He’s the short little, hair loosing, bald postmaster.” Just thinking of the man sent jarring pulses through my body.
“And you, Mr. Decker. What do you have to say?”
Decker cleared his throat. “I have no idea what is in that letter.”
“No. But you did enter my home, came into my sitting room and left when you heard me coming up the cellar stairs. When you got outside, you waited knowing you’d left your pipe. You’d taken one of my bourbon glasses, placed it on the floor to listen to what I was doing in the cellar. And then you had my letter, and maybe you thought to use it to get back into my home so you could easily retrieve the pipe without my noticing. Am I right, Mr. Decker?”