There’s an old guy who lives alone at the end of my block. I always thought he was odd, but now that I’m older, I think he was just lonely. Kenny Paulson had been retired for as long as I can remember. His wife, Laura, passed away a little over a decade ago. I was only about ten years old when it happened, but I remember the memorial held at the Paulson’s house. It was a very sad time, and Mr. Paulson was never quite the same after. He rarely left his home; much of his food and necessities were delivered to his house. He did, though, take many, many excursions to local thrift shops. What he was buying there, I have no idea. But he always had tons of bags to unload when he went on one of these ‘buying binges’.
It looked as if he’d just come home from a bout of shopping therapy. Mr. Paulson’s light blue Honda Civic sat in his driveway, the trunk open and stuffed to the roof with bright pink plastic bags. With a sack in each hand, he made many trips back and forth between the car and his house. Sitting on my front porch watching him, I felt as though it was the neighborly thing to do, to offer to help him out. I took one last drink of my nearly-empty glass of pink-lemonade, then sat it on the small white table next to the wicker rocker. Smacking my lips, sticky with the tasty, tart juice, I rose and made my way over to Mr. Paulson’s.
The short, white-haired old man was just coming from the front door for another round of bags. Seeing me, he slowed his pace, a slow smile hesitatingly spread across his wrinkled face.
“Hi, there, Eric.” Mr. Paulson stuck out a chubby hand.
I shook it, asking, “Hey, Mr. Paulson. I see you got a lot of stuff. You need any help carrying it all in?”
A panicked twinkle flashed through his eyes, and his smile wavered slightly. “Oh, no, no, no ,no. I – I’m fine. Really. Thank you, though. That’s a very kind offer.”
Incredulously, I looked from Mr. Paulson’s frail, aging figure to the mountain of rosy bags and back. “Are you sure? It’s no trouble. I’m on a four-day weekend with no plans. I’d be happy to help. Probably only take me about ten minutes to get it all in there for ya.”
Mr. Paulson surveyed his goods. I could tell he was weighing something in his head, wondering if it’d be worth it to let me help. I was baffled. Alone, the job would take an hour, easy. What person, in their right mind, would turn down help to make it a ten minute task, instead? With a sigh, Mr. Paulson seemed to come to a decision.
“Alright, Eric. I’ll accept your help. It’s just…” He bit his lip, casting his eyes to the pavement.
“What is it, Mr. Paulson? Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine… physically, anyway.” Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, my L-laura,” he sobbed openly now, “She’d be so ashamed of me!”
“Oh, come, now. I’m sure that’s not true. You were a wonderful husband. Mom and Dad always looked to you two as role models for their own marriage. I bet Laura’s looking down on you everyday, full of love.” I awkwardly patted his hunched back as he attempted to collect himself.
Reaching into his khaki’s pocket, he pulled out a crumpled handkerchief, wiped his eyes and loudly blew his nose, before wadding up the fabric and stuffing it away again.
“I’m sorry, son. It’s just been so long since I’ve spoken of her. I – I…”
I cut him off, “Please, Mr. Paulson, you don’t have to explain. It’s perfectly fine. Now, shall we get your bags in the house?”
“Erm… y-yes. Let’s do that.” He picked up four bags, carrying two in each hand, and I followed behind him with about twelve bags in my own. He shuffled along the paved driveway, moving so slow, I wondered if he was having trouble walking. I’d never seen him with a cane or walker, but there was definitely something affecting his pace. ‘Right,’ I thought to myself, ‘once we get in there, I’m ordering him to have a seat while I get the rest of these bags. Even if he can walk just fine, there’s no reason he should have to if I’m here.’
We came to the red brick porch, and Mr. Paulson swung the glass screen door aside. On the white front door hung a faded wreath reading “Welcome to the Paulson’s!”. Mr. Paulson twisted the brass knob and walked inside. I followed close behind him. It took a moment before I realized what I was seeing. I’d been in the Paulson’s home before, many years ago. When his wife was still alive, they used to throw block parties attended by throngs of people from the neighborhood. They’d been well known and well liked by all who met them. When Laura died, it all changed. Folks would try to stop by and make things easier for Kenny, but, over time, the visitors stopped. Now, I knew why.
When I was a kid, I remember the Paulson’s having a lot of fancy trinkets on display. There were family photos lining the walls, bright yellow curtains covering the bay window in the living area, and a brick fireplace, facing an ornate, foreign-looking rug. Their dining room and kitchen had been just as extravagant. The large house was built for entertaining guests, and it did the job well, up until Laura’s passing. After his wife’s death, Mr. Paulson had turned inward. He was no longer the social bumblebee he’d been with Laura at his side. It seemed, to cope with the trauma, he’d not only become a hermit, but a hoarder as well.
A bad one, too, from the looks of the house now. The once bright, cheery living room looked like a decrepit old storage locker… smelled like one, too. Though the lights were on, the room was dark, thanks to the piles upon piles of bags, just like the ones I carried, blocking the light. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to think. Undoubtedly, the rest of the house would be in the same state as the front room. I glanced toward the hallway, and, sure enough, there were darkened mounds of forgotten plastic bags as far as I could see.
I didn’t know what to say, but Mr. Paulson’s timid disposition tugged at my heart. Softly, I asked, “Mr. Paulson, is there anything I can do to help you?”
The old man sniffed and pointed to a fresh pile of pink bags. “Yeah, you can drop the bags there, and I thank you for your time, but I think I can manage the rest on my own, son. You’d best get on home and enjoy your time off.” His words came in one, breathless speech.
Discouraged, I was unsure whether or not to pursue the matter. Maybe it was because I knew he had no one else to look after him. Maybe it was because Laura’s portrait still hung on the wall and seemed to be staring straight through to my soul. Whatever the cause, my conscience refused to allow me to let this be. Mr. Paulson needed help. So, I decided to help.
I sat the bags I was carrying in the pile indicated, then turned toward the door. On the threshold, I stopped, casually offering, “Glad to be of service Mr. Paulson. Are you sure you don’t want me to carry in the rest? There’s about twenty bags left. I think I can muscle-man it with one trip.” I jokingly held up an arm and flexed my bicep.
Poor Mr. Paulson looked as if he was about to break into tears again. I could sense his inner conflict. He knew he needed help, but was so afraid of taking the steps forward to get it. And it wasn’t just help with the bags. He needed someone to care about him again. He needed a friend. Someone who would encourage him to live a happy, healthy life. I hoped he would allow me to be that friend. It hurt me to see a great man – a man even my father respected – suffering as he was.
The handkerchief made its second appearance, followed by a deep sigh, “Eric, your parents have raised a great man.” He blew his nose loudly, “Thank you for offering to help. Yes, if you would, please bring the rest of it in here for me.” One more trumpet blast from his bulbous schnoz, and he stuffed the handkerchief away again.
He stood to the side as best as he could manage, but I still had to squirm and squeeze to get past him and into the house with the rest of the bulky bags. Dropping the pink sacks in with the others, I lifted up and stretched my back. “So, did you get anything good today, Mr. Paulson?” I tried to keep a conversational tone, “I love Last Chance Lucy’s. They always have some really unique stuff there.”
“I did. Picked up some lovely little trinkets. And, please, call me Kenny. You’re an adult now, and I appreciate the show of respect, but I prefer ‘Kenny’, really.”
“Oh, sure. Kenny it is, then,” I smiled, gesturing toward the forty or so new bags marked LCL in big, block letters, “So, you find any valuable antiques hidden at the thrift store?”
Kenny chuckled, picking up one of the bags. We stood in the three or four foot-wide space just inside his front door. “Oh, no. Nothing like that, son.” He began rummaging through the bag, “I’m very selective in what I buy. Mostly, they’re animal figurines or something depicting nature in striking ways. Those were always the things that caught Laura’s eye.” His voice filtered to a whisper as he spoke his wife’s name.
I knew then, that’s what had happened to his home. To fill the void Laura’s death had left, Kenny had endlessly sought anything and everything that reminded him of her. He wasn’t addicted to shopping – he was broken-hearted.
I looked over the figurine he’d handed me. It was a small feminine figure, with no facial details. The girl sat in a casual position, legs crossed loosely at the shins. Her short hair was adorned with a small carving of a flower, and her clothes looked as if they were chiseled to resemble tree bark. A flicker of a memory popped up in my thoughts. A grade school trip to a potter’s workhouse. There, we’d spent time creating our own pieces of art. We’d had the choice of either taking our work home or gifting it to the potter who’d hosted us. I chose to gift mine, as did many others, and hadn’t thought of it again… until now.
Not only had I made the nature-girl, I distinctly recall naming her after my nice neighbor-lady, Laura. This had to be a sign. I felt Laura was truly watching over her grieving husband. I had to tell Kenny.
“Kenny, um – about this figurine…” I paused, unsure of how to proceed.
“Yeah, what about it?” With a nervous huff, he took the nature-girl back and cradled it in his hands. I had to tell him. I knew it would bring him comfort, and I fully believed Laura’s spirit was – somehow – here with us.
“Well, you see…” I told him everything. From the morning of the field trip to the two of us standing at his front door, I let him know the whole story. When I was through, he’d gone pale, and I was afraid he might faint. “Come on,” I said, gently guiding him by the elbow, “let’s have a seat on the porch, okay?”
Clutching the figurine, knuckles whitened, Kenny began to cry silent tears. He didn’t bother reaching for the hanky this time, simply let them roll down and fall from his bespeckled cheeks, as if he didn’t even notice them at all. Concerned, I leaned down, giving his shoulder a kindly squeeze, “I’m just going to run across the street to my house and grab you something to drink. I’ll be right back.”
I left Kenny sitting on his stoop and crossed the road. Taking the porch steps two at a time, I quickly grabbed the pitcher of iced pink lemonade and refilled the empty glass. Walking as rapidly as I could without spilling the drink, I rushed back to where Kenny was still sitting, holding the nature-girl and staring off into the distance.
“Kenny?” I asked, holding out the frosty glass.
Snapping out of it, Kenny’s eyes cleared and he focused on the cup I held out to him. Taking it, he tried to bring it to his mouth for a drink. The ice clinked together, and the juice splashed and spilled out, as his hand violently shook.
Steadying him, I just barely managed to stop the glass from falling and shattering onto the ground. “Here, let me help. Your nerves must be shot.” Taking the drink back, I lifted it to his mouth and tilted, allowing him a long, sweet swig.
“Ah! Thank you,” he said when he’d finished, “Now, I’ve had a bit of a think about what you said… about the figurine being a sign from Laura? I reckon you’re right. She’d be so ashamed of how I’ve been livin’. This isn’t honoring her memory one little bit. I may have lost my way for many years, but it’s never too late to change,” Kenny looked me in the eye and smiled, “ – right?” he tacked on with a nervous chuckle.
“Of course! That’s the spirit, Kenny! Now, don’t you worry about your house. Me and a few fellas will have it cleared out for you in a weekend. Then, you can sort through it all and choose the best way to really honor Laura. What do you say? Will you let us help?”
Kenny looked from the figurine in his hands to the house with its open door, revealing his dirty little secret and back to the nature-girl. “Yes, I will. And this little sprite is definitely on the ‘keep’ list!”
It took nonstop working into all hours of the night and day, but we did it. My team and I managed to salvage Kenny’s house, and boy oh boy, did he have some goodies in there! To be fair, most of the rare and collectible figurines had been acquired by Laura, herself. Still, Kenny’s obsession to possess similar items had led to him owning the largest collection of rare figurines in the Northern Hemisphere. In short, Kenny was about to be a very, very rich man.
Instead of hawking all the trinkets and profiting from their sale, Kenny was determined to leave a legacy in Laura’s name. He sold off a majority of the lesser-valued items – with the exception of nature-girl, of course – and put the money in a savings account, giving Eric unrestrained access. The rest of the figurines Kenny decided to donate to the Getty Museum in California as it was only a short drive away, meaning he could visit anytime. Thanks to his massive collection, the museum dedicated an entire wing to exhibit them, calling it ‘Laura’s Littles’.
Not written for any prompts. This one is ‘just because’ and ‘why not?’ inspired. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and thanks for reading!