Old Mother Hubbard
At the close of a Texas summer weekday, John turned onto Versailles Street. Just beyond his driveway he saw old mother Hubbard’s squalid frame impending over the curb as if she was about to march into the street. He sighed, hoping that the old bat hadn’t come from their home and that he wouldn’t have to listen to Cindy talk for three hours about her annoying cat and whatever other unpleasantness they had discussed. Any conversation with old mother Hubbard was awkward, tense and depleting, and as soon as he walked in that tenseness would transfer to his own conversation with his wife. At least Cindy was the one who had to deal with her. John was happily one step removed from the frustration, whatever it was.
Old mother Hubbard was “the toothache of the neighborhood,” as the McCauleys had told them when they first moved in. The main issue in dealing with the old woman, John had concluded, was that she would never smile. This always determined the mood. In fact he couldn’t now think of what a smile would look like on the ancient wrinkled visage: a smile seemed like such a foreign pattern to fit upon her frame. John knew he was a visual learner so it seemed odd that he could not imagine such an expression on her. Or perhaps it was by virtue of his visual nature and that he had never seen the crone smile that he couldn’t imagine it.
At the moment John turned into the driveway, a squirrel dashed across their front lawn from the base of the sycamore tree to right in front of his hood. Her black cat, which had been hiding among the old woman’s legs leapt after the squirrel, darting under John’s front passenger-side tire. John gasped; the brakes squealed; the car bumped to a halt. The horrified visage of the old woman peered downward. John quickly unbuckled and opened the door, already speaking.
“I’m so so sorry, Mrs. Hubbard.” He walked around the front. “It just leapt out, just leapt right out in front, I didn’t have time.” She was now standing beside him, peering down at the still black shape with legs splayed in three directions. John fell silent as she bent over to inspect. With a long finger whose curving nail protruded further than nails ought, the old crone jabbed the small mass.
John sighed. The number four hundred sprang into his head. No, make it four thousand. She would be an extortionist for sure. She’ll probably claim it’s a rare breed. And on top of it all he and Cindy would now be the endless targets of the old hag’s ire, just like the Falks.
The old woman’s knobby hand reached back grasping the air until it could seize John’s wrist. Using him as a support she stood upright. In her other hand dangled the remnants of her pet until both knobby hands scooped it together and presented it for John to see.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. The intensity of her stare forced John to think on other things. He could find no words to say and so stood dumbly while his mind searched for things to display so that he wouldn’t experience her hate. All he could do was form pictures in his mind of the pictures he believed she was forming in her mind. She must have been thinking of clawing him with those long nails and licking the blood from her finger tips. John’s lip began to tremble, he knew he had to say something as the tension mounted. The old woman suddenly turned around and with heavily varicosed legs waddled off. The heaviness of the moment stayed with him such that John turned towards his front door and left the car sticking halfway out into the street without realizing it.
Inside Cindy boiled noodles and spaghetti sauce. The pungency of the smell interrupted his thoughts for just one moment.
“Hello?” Cindy said after he had been inside, silent for some time.
John’s mind revolved around the events next to his front tire.
“Hey?” she said. “Come here and give me a hug.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“What?” Her voice was calm.
“You know Old Mother Hubbard?”
“Of course I know Mrs. Hubbard. Don’t keep calling her that, you’re not a neighborhood kid.” Cindy stopped stirring and walked over to where he lay slumped in an easy chair. Her voice was reproving but her face was filled with concern. “What about her?”
“Oh no. Just tell me. I can tell this is bad,” she said.
He looked up. John suddenly had the urge to conceal everything from Cindy. He didn’t lie to her very often. But if there was a time to lie it was to save Cindy from worry. He frowned at himself for having already set the mood. She knew something was up.
He said, “I think I’ve done something I can’t undo.”
“What? What?” she implored. The water bubbled over the edge of the pan and made fizzling sounds as it plunged onto the stove top. John looked through the archway into the kitchen.
“That can all wait,” Cindy said.
John looked down at his hands. He didn’t want to worry Cindy, but he already said too much. “Her black cat is dead.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. “What did you do, hit it in the street?” He nodded. She continued, “well, is there a dent on your car? Or blood marks? She can’t know it was you.” He shook his head.
“Okay,” she said again slowly. “This must be the beginning of our own bad experience with the old woman. It had to come sooner or later.” She pulled her dark hair down over her temples and twirled it with both hands. “Everyone in the neighborhood had warned us that if you lived on Versailles Street in the north tip of Dallas, you will have a bad experience with old mother Hubbard. But since we know it’s coming, we can be prepared, right?” Cindy now dashed into the kitchen to quell the raging waters. In a moment she called back to him, “or offense. Don’t you always say offense is the best defense? But we do need some kind of defense. Remember what happened to Ann? That can’t happen to us.”
John racked his brain for what had happened to Ann. He couldn’t remember exactly which event it was. Each family in the neighborhood had related a different bad experience about the woman and with so many John had forgotten which story belonged to whom.
“Yes,” he lied.
“That can’t happen to us,” she repeated.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be that big a deal,” he said. “She didn’t say anything to me. At first I thought she’d ask for money but…”
Cindy cut him off, saying, “there ain’t a wicked thing she wouldn’t do, just like Ann, just like everyone says actually. You believe that, right? It’s going to be a big deal, John.”
Cindy almost never said “John.” She always said honey or sweetie, or didn’t call him by anything. He knew she was really worried and determined. A bad combination. But John did believe her. His own trite words ringed hollow to him. Old Mother Hubbard was going to do something to get back at them.
Her voice startled him with its nearness. He hadn’t heard her re-enter the living room. “Every single window of Ann’s house had been broken when she came home from her vacation, even the little attic windows. I know you don’t really remember.”
“Is dinner ready yet? Let’s watch Monk while we eat,” John said. He put his hands on the armrests to help him stand.
“We’re not doing anything yet. Dinner can get cold as ice. We’re not doing anything until you figure this out.”
John relaxed his arms and laid them on the armrests again. “Ok. I’ll buy her a new cat,” he said.
“That is great. But it’s not the same cat. Is she going to do something mean anyway?”
“I’ll buy her two cats. I don’t know, honey. Has anyone ever gotten even a smile for doing anything nice for her?”
“I don’t care if she smiles at me. I just don’t want her to slash our tires at night.” Cindy’s eyes grew wide and she made diagonal stabbing motions with her right hand above her left hand in the air.
“Then we’ll just always park ‘em with the garage closed,” John said, grasping her hands in his, then pulling her down to his level.
“Then you’re going to have to clean out the garage,” Cindy exhaled deeply.
“Fine. I’ll just go clean out the garage. That’ll show her,” said John.
Cindy sighed again.
John touched his closed eyelids with his fingers. He knew this atmosphere wasn’t good. Thinking of what to do wouldn’t work like this. He stood up and started walking into his office.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I can’t think like this.” He turned around. “We have to clear our minds. We’re not talking about what to do, we’re just agonizing over the fact that Old Mother Hubbard hates us.”
“Well she does.”
“That’s not what I mean. I know she does,” John growled.
Cindy stomped into the kitchen and began clunking the unused dishes into the sink. She poured the spaghetti into a tupperware container and placed it in the fridge. She called to him, “you can’t ever just do something manly, can you? Your solution is to just hide the cars in the garage? Proactive is sexy, John. And besides, how’re we gonna hide the windows from her rocks?”
John thought about life. It was usually a grand panorama he gazed across, surveying the beautiful forests and majestic hills and vales. The landscape was always broken in a few parts with bogs and marsh or a spot of barrenness. He now thought he could see into the future and glimpse the ugly wilderness that was coming. He hated that he would have to walk through it, even if it was short lived. And then a picture began to slink into the land from the outer edges of his mind where the river blurs into the trees. A solution to the problem; a ruse.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” he said loudly.
“I’m sorry. While we eat I’ll tell you all about it.”
“All about what?” she asked.
“All about the plan.”
John knew he had to mitigate the retaliation of Old Mother Hubbard, not a trivial task to accomplish. He also felt he needed to replace her dead pet, though he thought that this by itself would not suffice. But the solution he devised was simple. And better yet, it involved zero direct involvement with the person of Old Mother Hubbard herself. He and Cindy would purchase a new black cat and place a collar on it labeling the cat as their’s, with their phone number inscribed. This cat would be abandoned in Old Mother Hubbard’s yard. The aim was to pry into Old Mother Hubbard’s vengeful temperament so that, supposing this cat belonged to John and Cindy, she felt she had a right to kidnap it and take it as her own. This ploy would cost John and Cindy little. The real beauty, however, was that Old Mother Hubbard who loved her own pet and doubtless felt that John would love his, would consider this particular revenge both just and meaningful and therefore she would hopefully feel that the matter was settled. She was an ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ mean sort of bitch, after all.
Relishing his final mouthful and feeling gratified that Cindy approved of the plan, John suggested he go out and fetch a black and white cat just then. He was being proactive and she couldn’t say he wasn’t. Furthermore, she couldn’t complain to her mom that he wasn’t.
“Get a black one. Solid black, it’s how she’ll like it,” Cindy said.
“I don’t want her to be too suspicious we made this all up. That would be too perfect.”
“Then get one with a white spot on its belly or something.”
“That’s not going to matter,” John said.
“I think it will,” Cindy said.
“You wanted me to come up with a plan, so I did it. Now you have to listen to me. I’m not going to get a pure black cat. I’m being proactive. Go call your mom and tell her! Geez.”
Cindy rolled her eyes and said, “you’d better hurry because the shops will probably close around seven.”
“Bye,” John said as he grabbed his keys.
“I’m not going to call my mom.”
“You’d tell her if I made a dumb decision. I’m glad to know that’s the only time you talk about me with her.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
The summer sun descended slowly. John waited until sunset down the street for fear that the old woman could still see him. The cat curled up in the passenger seat and closed its eyes. Cindy was strolling around the neighborhood putting up lost pet signs that she had crafted. John replayed the conversation he had with Cindy before he left to get this cat. Cindy was wrong. Not only would it be less suspicious if the cat was a different color, but maybe the old woman might want a new looking cat. She was old and probably bored with the same black cat for so long. Not only had John devised this whole plan, but the details he prepared for were superior to Cindy’s suggestions. This plan was awesome. He began to feel that he had almost done the old woman a favor in having killed her cat. This change in pace of life with a new pet was probably just what the old crone needed.
At just the right moment of darkness John grinned and hoisted the cat into his arms. The collar and tag tinkled. The cat yawned. One side of Old Mother Hubbard’s house was bereft of windows, being too close to the neighbor’s. This was where John deposited the cat and shooed it into the bushes. Around the brick corner he spied two bowls, one with cat food another with water under the porch awning. Perfect, he thought. The cat would find these and hang around.
A knock came to the front door before the morning alarm could zap John and Cindy awake. John slowly opened his eyes and blurrily discovered the time to be 5:47 am.
“Who in the hell is that?” John gurgled. Cindy still appeared asleep, or faking it rather adeptly.
He came to the door in his robe and slippers, unlocked it and opened it without peering through the spy hole. In the dark blue dawn stood neatly combed Old Mother Hubbard. She was not smiling, but there was a gleam in her eyes that woke John up more fully. She offered the bundle in her arms to John.
“I think this is yours,” she said.
“What, what is…” John began. Upturned ears and glowing eyes alerted John to the cat’s presence. It leaped out of the woman’s arms, passed John’s awkwardly moving hands and onto the tiled floor.
“Pickles must have found my old cat’s bowls. I found her this morning meowing in the bushes.” She stood there as if she needed a prompting to continue, but would not leave.
“Thank you,” John said after a pause. He wasn’t sure if she had discovered the ruse and was playing along or if this was part of some nefarious counter-scheme.
Old Mother Hubbard said in a soft voice, “I’ve lived a long life and I’ve known many times how hard it is to lose someone you love.”
The alarm blared like a siren from the bedroom.
“Mrs. Hubbard,” John began again. Then he stopped, staring at her wrinkled face. Beep! Her voice had held no portent of ill will. He had to reorient himself. Bleep bleep! Old Mother Hubbard was actually being nice. Thoughtful, even. What the Hell?
The alarm finally shut off.
“I feel so bad,” he said.
“I do too.”
“I was planning on taking the day off today.” John looked down at his feet and the patterns of light and dark painted by the peeking dawn. “Do you want me to drive you downtown and buy you a new cat? I mean when the stores open up?” He tried to fake a smile.
“John, I only take in strays. I couldn’t buy one. There’s enough wandering hopeless cats out there. I thought it was my lucky day this morning that I had found a new friend just the day after I lost one. When I saw the collar my heart sank again. But there will be another one by and by.”
John stood, blank-minded. Mrs. Hubbard slumped her shoulders ever so slightly as if she was about to turn around.
John said, “but if I find one, I’ll call, I’ll tell you right away. Me and Cindy will be on the look out.”
“Take good care of that one of yours. She is precious.”
“Ok. Then I’ll see you later. I hope I didn’t disturb you this early.” The old woman turned rather quickly and hobbled away.
“I’m sorry again.”
John didn’t close the door for several minutes. She hadn’t smiled during their whole conversation.