The next afternoon Mama and I were once again knocking on number 304. Once again the door opened a sliver but this time a voice came from within.
“Oh, you’re back.”
“Yes.” Mama answered, “Is now a good time?”
“I’m sorry… Still not my best. You live across the street?”
“Yes, directly across.” Mama responded.
“Give me a few days and I’ll come by, I promise.” There was a pause, “The pie was really good. Thank you for that.” The voice told us. “Tuesday, would Tuesday be okay?”
“I have … something so I can’t be there…” I told the voice.
“Tuesday is lovely if you don’t mind my daughter’s absence. About this time?”
“Yes, yes… ” Another pause, “I’m something of a bother.”
“Nonsense.” Mama replied to the door, “We quite understand that you aren’t well and I’ll be delighted to see you on Tuesday.”
“Quite welcome. We won’t take any more of your time.” Mama answered.
“Good bye.” We told the door as it closed.
We’d already finished the second floor – like I told you, Mama is methodical that way – except for Number 204 because no one was home earlier and Number 202 because we’d met elsewhere. Now, I would have rather gone home to ask Mama a couple pointed questions but no, I was sent home for the extra pie and once it was fetched, we tramped back in to see if the neighbor in 204 was home.
Mr. John Waterston was in fact home. And crotchety, very crotchety. Some people when they are crotchety send you away. I prefer them. Mr. Waterston was of the opposite kind – those that invite you in despite the fact that you aren’t actually welcome.
I sat on the couch trying to look interested and polite. I think I managed polite. Mama was on the love seat opposite his recliner. To be fair, he’d offered us tea and cookies. But then he started raving about the neighbors, most particularly Mrs. Elmore in 302.
When you’re from the South you get used to people telling you how horrid the South is – mostly those who’ve never been there. Usually, it’s a comment or two and they move on to something more interesting – like mopping floors. Not Mr. Waterston – he had a bone to pick with the South in general and Mrs. Elmore in particular.
“That woman,” Mr. Waterston was saying, meaning Mrs. Elmore, “drags that poor girl…” meaning Theresa, who is at least fifty years old, “…away from her home and kin and for what? So she can have her Mammie? That’s the worst kind of racist…”
“If you feel so strongly,” Mama began in a soft yet firm voice, “then why have you not discussed the matter with Theresa herself? She’s a grown woman who can speak for herself – and lives just across the hall in number 202 as you are no doubt aware. Which, sir, is the more racist? To employ a woman who is willing and able to be employed – or to assume the worst of her condition merely because her skin is of a darker tone than her employer’s? You might ask Theresa that yourself – perhaps when she comes over again?”
I stopped breathing. It’s not often that Mama throws down the gauntlet – and it’s really not wise to pick it up! Yet, honestly, I didn’t detect the slightest heat in Mama’s words – she wasn’t angry that I could tell – and I usually can tell! Nineteen years of self preservation had taught me very well!
Mr. Waterston stopped, glaring at Mama for what seemed an eternity. Mama met his gaze coolly with no faltering at all. Then the poor man lost his mind.
Mr. Waterston threw back his head and howled with laughter. I assumed he’d gone mad and was wondering just what we should do. Mama merely smiled serenely. I began to wonder if she had also lost her mind. Was it contagious?
When Mr. Waterston finally caught his breath he turned to Mama, “How did you know?”
“You remind me very much of my father.” Mama replied, “Nothing pleased him more than a good argument. He provoked our poor neighbors to distraction using much the same technique you employ.” Mama smiled, “And the home canned pickled okra on the kitchen counter was something of a clue.”
Mr. Waterston was still wiping tears from his eyes, “Gladys’ husband Howard and I became friends when they moved in. He got me addicted to pickled okra, blast him.” He chuckled some more, “I’m originally from Idaho – little town on the western border. Moved to NYC as a kid, got used to neighbors acting like strangers – but not Gladys and Howard. Like you folks, they had to meet everyone. This was a good neighborhood – they made it a bit better.”
His reminiscing was interrupted by what sounded like a herd of rats stampeding. Mr. Waterston looked at the ceiling, “Okay, made me better, I suppose. Ten years ago, I’da called the cops on that guy, letting all those rodents run loose, but truth be told, he’s just an odd duck that doesn’t bother anyone, except me twice a day when he runs his little rodeo up there.”
“That would be Mr. Chambers?” Mama asked.
“Yes, you’ve met then. He’s only been here a few months. Theresa thinks he’s a warlock.” Mr. Waterston chuckled. “Keeps to himself. I ran into him at the grocery once a few months back, said he worked as a freelance writer. Strange fellow, kind of sad, really.”
“Lonely, I suppose?”
Mr. Waterston shook his head, “More than that, it’s like he’s a prisoner in his own house. He got a call while we were talking and whoever it was on that phone was not happy at all that he wasn’t at home.”
“What should that matter to him?” Mama wondered aloud.
“Shouldn’t.” Mr. Waterston replied, “But he turned white as a sheet and nearly had a heart attack right there. Paid for his groceries and literally ran for the house.”
“How odd.” Mama agreed, “But perhaps an employer?”
Mr. Waterston shrugged, “Don’t know. I see him once in a great while but for the most part he stays in that apartment.”
The conversation turned away from the neighbors to Southern cooking – evidently Mr. Waterston was a big fan. The rest of the visit was warm and friendly. Mama had passed his test and in a big way.
But I was still distracted about that warlock. The sorcerer class is an odd one – probably why the Mistress has so little use for them. I should explain – there are tons of ‘practitioners’ – people who dabble in magic, or what they think is magic. You see them yourselves all the time. They call themselves witches and warlocks, but they aren’t the real thing.
The real ones are creatures, just like a vampire or werewolf. That’s because the price they pay for being able to manipulate demonic power is their own soul. There’s no such thing as a ‘white witch’ like in the movies – you can’t harness the demonic for good. Now, there are witches who are white in color – but they are really rare. A true witch usually contracts with a demon knowingly which means they are almost always black.
That was what made me wonder if he might be an arcane instead. Arcanes are sorcerer wannabes – unlike the dabblers, they have lost or are beginning to lose their souls but unlike sorcerers, they don’t have a contract with a demon. They are in the gray area between the two. They tend to be very knowledgeable about the sorcerer’s arts but not terribly powerful.
Sorcerers aren’t readily commanded – they are the one class that is difficult even for a Master or Mistress. That’s because of the contract with the demon – they already have a master. The Mistress says it just requires more effort for her – she can do it – but that it is more annoying. Arcanes, on the other hand. would be easily commanded by anything with a command power – they have no contract.
I was mentally debating all of that and more – sorcerer classes are extremely complex and have their own Compendium as a result – when Mama tapped my shoulder and said it was time to leave.
My manners came back to me and I said my good byes to our host – and thanked him for the really good chocolate chip cookies. He saw us to the door, inviting us back any time. Now that he wasn’t acting so crotchety, he was a really nice man.
Thinking about it as we walked home I realized we had a wealth of nice folks for neighbors. New York wasn’t anything like in the movies where everyone is a stranger. Oddly, it was even beginning to feel like home.