The old Victorian off Haight Street was once a grand painted lady, with lavender, gold and green accents on the cupolas, spires and intricate window frames. The dormers, turrets, and wrap-around porch gave it an almost transcendent appearance. But by 2010, it had become a testament to ill-fortune and a recessed housing market that had decimated even the finest estates of San Francisco.
I was a widower, having endured the horror of watching Riley, my beloved wife of twelve years succumb to a long and devastating battle with breast cancer.
The city had become my companion, my moody friend, my breath of fresh air, accented with patchouli and sage-bundles and a temperamental ocean breeze.
Six months after her death, I was getting scads of unsolicited advice from well-meaning co-workers who were pushing me to get back to the real world, to date, to get a dog, or to take up yoga.
Good for them, but not for me. I wanted to be alone. I lacked vicissitudes. I needed to eat by myself, and drink strong coffee and walk in circles around the Panhandle.
One morning while I was walking towards the bus stop in a fog as thick as chowder, I noticed a small sign posted in the door window of the old Victorian. It read “Free Room, Must Qualify with Owner. Call 516-595-6909.” It was small, the size of a large postcard, on white paper, hand-written with something like a black sharpie.
Its location, up twenty flights of stairs and set back on the porch was hard to see, even from the side walk. It was as if the owner wasn’t looking for a stampede of applicants.
“Free Room, but must qualify with owner? What did that mean? Was it some kind of quack or sociopath? Perhaps a burned-out hippy?” I thought.
I dialed the number and a high-pitched voice answered.
“I’m calling about the free room you’re advertising on the house on Clayton Street. Is it still available?”
=“What’s the catch? Is it really free?”
“Yes, it’s free, but I need to know there’ll be a good fit before I agree to anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll need to do a brief interview before I say yes.”
“An interview? What kind of interview, like references or income?”
No, I’m not particularly interested in references or income. I just need to know that we’ll be compatible housemates.”
“Well I’m certainly interested. When can we talk?”
“Right now, if you want.”
“Can we do it over the phone? I’m a bit pressed for time. I need to make the 7:30 connection on the Fulton Five for work.”
“No, I’m afraid we’ll need to do it in person, but if you like, you can drop by after work and we can talk then.”
“That would be great. I don’t want to lose it, if possible.”
“I’ll take down the sign until we have a chance to talk.”
“Yes young man. Now come by later and just knock on the door, I’ll be here.”
“Thank you, it should be around 6:30. Is that okay?”
“By the way, mam, I didn’t get your name.”
“Of course, my name is Mrs. Popperwell.”
“Thanks Mrs. Popperwell, my name is Tucker, Tucker Clement.”
“Okay Sucker, we’ll talk later.”
I thought about the house all day.
“Great location, considering rooms in Victorians were running around $750. The voice sounded like an old woman maybe in her eighties. How weird could that be? I wouldn’t have to cancel my studio until I knew she wasn’t some psychopathic killer or sexual deviant. Probably wanted someone to feed an army of cats or water her philodendrons.”
At 6:40 p.m. I walked up a flight of about twenty, paint-flaking wooden stairs and knocked on an intricately carved door. A squeaky high voice answered after a long minute.
“Sucker, is that you?”
“Mrs. Popperwell, it’s Tucker with a “T.”
I heard a giggle. “Oh I know silly, I couldn’t resist.”
The door opened and I stood facing an old woman perhaps ninety, in an ankle-length, powder-blue dress with scalloped trim at the waist and collar and bodice, and an intricate scroll pattern on the skirt and sleeves. Her face was covered by a translucent white veil and she wore what appeared to be latex gloves.
I extended my hand, “Hello Mrs. Popperwell, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hello Tucker, I’d shake your hand but I have a condition that prevents me from touching you. It’s why I’m covered-up like this.”
“Is it something serious?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. It’s called Variola. Dear Doctor Barnett told me it’s highly contagious. You know he used to make house calls, bless his heart. I’ve known him forever. I used to make coconut macaroons when I knew he was coming.”
“Where is his office?”
“He’s been dead now for almost twenty years.”
“Oh,” I responded, as I began to grasp the situation with a bit more clarity.
She read my mind. “Oh don’t worry; I haven’t lost my metaphorical CPU, not yet at least.”
“You know about CPU’s?” I asked.
“Of course. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m obtuse. I work on a Dell Notebook. It’s got a duel-core 2.5 Gigahertz, Intel processor and a 330-Gigabite hard drive.”
“Wow, I’m impressed. But you said your doctor is dead, how does he make house-calls?”
“He stopped making them twenty-years ago.”
“Okay, she was eccentric, smart, and perhaps a bit senile.”
Would it be safe for me to live here?” I asked, coughing nervously.
“Yes, unless you plan on jumping off the roof when you get depressed.”
“I’ve watched you every day for some time now from my parlor window. You used to walk by the house with your wife who must have been accompanying you to the bus stop. I liked the way you touched each other and the way you looked at her. She’d usually run her hand over the iron gate and she always stopped to admire my lovely roses. She was quite beautiful. But I knew she was ill. I could tell by the way she walked, by the way she hung her head, and by the way you attended her. And now you walk alone. It must have been hard when she died?”
“How do you know she’s dead?”
“I read the obits in the Chronicle. I usually upload it to my Kindle. What a marvelous invention. I don’t even need glasses, not with a 48-point font. I notice you’re still wearing your wedding ring.”
“So you’ve been spying on me?” I said, pretending to be serious.
“Well not exactly, I watch everyone who passes by. I had been watching you for a while. I saw you change. I saw you become forlorn and serious.
“Yea, my wife Riley died about six months ago and I think about her every day.”
“I understand. I lost my husband Frank twenty years ago.”
“If you don’t mind me saying Mrs. Popperwell, 1990 sounds like a very bad year for you. You lost your husband — and your doctor!”
She chuckled, “And I lost my cat, Queen Victoria. I agree Tucker, 1990 was a really bad year.”
Something about her demeanor and wit and sparkle attracted me. In some ways, she reminded me of my own mother Doris who died of ovarian cancer several years before Riley. I liked her — this woman who was covered head to toe, who talked in a tone as if she’d been inhaling helium, who watched people from her parlor window, and who could discuss computer technology as if she were twenty.
“If I were to stay here, what would you expect of me?”
“Not much really, I have some house plants that need watering — some philodendrons and begonias. Perhaps I’ll need help with some general maintenance that might arise from time to time. The plumbing pre-dates the dawn of man and has a mind of its own, oh, and perhaps an occasional trip to the market for some basic necessities.”
“May I see the room you’re sign referred to?”
“It’s more than a room — you can have the entire second floor and full use of the kitchen which is on this floor.”
“Are you joking?”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
“Are you flirting with me Tucker?” she said, as she slowly walked towards a lavish staircase that was a throwback to the opulent architecture of a bygone era — of hardwoods and magnificent newels, and balusters, and hand-carved railings.
“Follow me,” she said, leading me up the steps, in slow, labored movements.
At the landing she appeared unsteady, and paused. I put my arm around her thin waist for support.
“Thank you Tucker. Now you can see why I don’t get up here much. Climbing these stairs feels like climbing Everest in a blizzard.”
“Have you ever climbed Everest?” I asked.
“Not quite. Mr. Popperwell and I were turned back at Camp Three, above the Khumbu Icefall in horrible, ghastly weather. Mr. Popperwell developed a pulmonary embolism and our Sherpa Guide, and I practically carried him back to base camp.
=“Nothing you say surprises me Mrs. Popperwell. It’s almost too good to be true. Your home is lovely. Are you interviewing any other prospects?”
“No Tucker, if you want it, it’s all yours.”
“I don’t know what to say!”
“Well the Swahili term for thank-you is Asante. In the outback, Aborigines say Mur-rom-boo!”
“You’re too much. When can I move in?”
“Tonight if you like.”
Within two weeks, I was completely settled into my new quarters. The master suite was a large circular room with a wrap-around balcony facing west. It offered magnificent afternoon light and sunsets. As the days grew longer, I’d sit on the balcony in an overstuffed wicker chair. Often times I’d visit with Mrs. Popperwell in her downstairs parlor room, the same room she used to observe me before we met.
She was extremely conversant on a wide variety of topics and her knowledge of foreign people and places was impressive. She and Mr. Popperwell had spent a lifetime travelling the globe. He as a writer/novelist and she as a devoted wife and partner who knew no fear.
One early evening in July, as the daily wall of fog began its slow encroachment over the city, I remarked to her that I thought her and Mr. Popperwell’s resemblance was striking.
“Yes, we heard that a lot. Some people thought we were brother and sister. You wouldn’t say that if you saw us in our twenties, but of course that was before the camera was invented.”
“Mrs. Popperwell, you know that’s not true.”
“Well I guess they had cameras in the Civil War.”
“Oh Tucker, quit being so serious. Yes we did look alike and some people assumed we were related, but when Mr. Popperwell kissed me, let’s just say there was no mistaking that he was my husband.”
“I’ve noticed that he still gets quite a lot of mail. That seems a bit strange after twenty years.”
“I just never transferred things over. He still makes regular donations to the Smithsonian and Red Cross. At least that’s what they think. I enjoy getting their thank-you letters and solicitations at year-end. I do wish he was still here. I miss him dearly,” she said, sniffling and rubbing her eyes through her veil. “You probably won’t find any mail addressed to me. We were kind of old-fashioned that way.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Popperwell, I didn’t mean to upset you. You know, I still keep some of Riley’s messages on my cell phone. I just like hearing her voice — it stays with me wherever I go.”
“I understand Tucker, I guess we’re both pathetic,” she said, now crying into a handkerchief.
I gave her a hug.
“Tucker you shouldn’t,” she said, between sobs, “I’m highly….”
“Mrs. Popperwell, you’re covered head to toe and I’m not the least bit afraid of you. Now you just let yourself cry.”
Suddenly my own floodgates were also opened, and I cried along with her in a torrent that wouldn’t stop.
Finally we both settled down and she asked me a serious question.
“Tucker, do you believe in God?”
“I can’t say that I do. Do you?”
“No, but it scares me a bit to think that I might be wrong.”
“On his last night alive — a priest from St. Patrick’s Church stopped by. The meeting started out well enough, but soon deteriorated into a one-man attack on everything the church held sacred. Mr. Popperwell soon had the Catholic Church linked to every plague and scourge known to man and was beginning to spout on the Popes coalescence with the Nazi’s when the priest finally gave up and walked out of the room. Seems Mr. Popperwell still had the strength to toss a bible, which he did, striking the priest on the back of his head, before he made his escape. Mr. Popperwell laughed for a brief moment and then cried. He must have cried for an hour. He was inconsolable. All he could say was that he was sorry. He repeated it over and over and over. Later that night he passed away.”
“But you said yourself that he lived a full and happy life — of love and adventure and romance and charity.”
“And guilt,” she said, looking down at her feet.
“Guilt?” I asked.
“Yes guilt. The world we grew up in Tucker was so unlike the world we live in today.”
“It just is. People who are different are so ridiculed, so distrusted, and so frowned upon.”
“But you said everyone loved and respected Mr. Popperwell.”
“Not everyone, not by a long shot.”
“How could anyone possibly not like a man like that?”
“Ignorant small people, that’s who,” she said, as she began to cough.
“Mrs. Popperwell, I think we’ve had quite enough for one night, I’ve noticed you’ve been coughing a lot more. If you don’t improve in the next day or so, I’m going to throw you over my shoulder and haul you into the hospital.”
“You’ll do know such thing. I’ve told you how much I hate hospitals.”
“Yes and you’ve also told me how much you detested the tsetse fly in the heart of the Congo. Friends don’t let other friends die of pneumonia, and furthermore, they won’t listen when those same friends talk gibberish nonsense.”
She chuckled, “Tucker, you’re a good man, but I think I’ll raise the rent.”
“Mrs. Popperwell, I know you better than that.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.” She replied, weakly.
She coughed again into a small handkerchief which she held in her lap.
“Do tell me how you might believe,” she said.
“It’s like this — on paper, the equation for PI which is the relationship between a circles circumference and its ….”she interrupted me.
“Tucker I know what PI is. I may not have been born yesterday, but I was born within the last century, please go on.”
“On paper, the formula appears infinite, but when we step back and look at a circle, we know it can’t be infinite, because it’s a circle! Evolution and science are impressive when it comes to exploring fossils in deep canyons and recording the half-life of Carbon-14 molecules, but none of these do much when explaining the questions of eternity. I for one don’t believe in Noah’s Ark any more than I believe in Puff the Magic Dragon, but to say we’re here by chance — that we morphed into humans from a seabed of ancient clams is just inconceivable.”
“Tucker, that’s the best explanation I’ve ever heard. Why don’t we both agree to just believe, and we’ll keep it to ourselves, as our little secret.”
“I agree Mrs. Popperwell, now you need to get to bed.”
I retired a bit later than usual and fell into a deep sleep. I had vivid dreams.
I was in a dense jungle, exploring on foot with Mr. Popperwell as my guide. We trekked across mountains and dense forests and took dugout canoes across swollen muddy rivers, and we photographed elephants and lions and gorillas and exotic birds, and then we floated in a giant balloon above the canopy and then drifted into a violent storm that forced us to land in an alligator infested swamp. Then we sipped strong black coffee and drank whiskey straight from the bottle and finished the night with a four-layer chocolate cake in a safari-tent as gunshots exploded in the distance. Mrs. Popperwell was exhausted from the safari and laid with me, putting her hand on my shoulder. She was young and beautiful, and yet I didn’t feel any romantic attraction to her or that she felt any towards me. I didn’t feel threatened by her presence and knew Mr. Popperwell would surely understand. She was simply tired and he had gone away.
The next morning I woke to the familiar cold air from the summer fog outside my window.
Mrs. Popperwell was lying next to me and I jumped up in a panic. She wasn’t breathing.
I tried gently shaking her but she remained still. I was afraid to touch her skin for fear of contracting her disease
I called 911 immediately and within ten minutes heard the distinctive whine of a siren in the distance.
I let the paramedics in when they arrived and directed them to the upstairs bedroom where my friend was waiting. Within ten minutes they returned.
“I’m sorry but he’s gone, are you related?”