The Good Neighbor by Lawrence Buentello

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All her neighbors agreed that Henrietta Soames had murdered her husband.

An investigation followed the discovery of his body; his death was ultimately ruled a homicide. But after initially questioning Henrietta the police dismissed her as a suspect. Apparently, they had no evidence to charge her. Eventually the authorities ascribed his death to a botched burglary, which seemed reasonable to an objective observer, but not to anyone living nearby. The police simply didn’t know the circumstances the same way her neighbors knew them, nor did they take seriously her possible motives for killing him, and the crime remained unsolved.

The truth is that George Soames was a terrible man.

Not merely crude, or belligerent to others, or intentionally cruel to his wife—no, he was a feared commodity in the neighborhood. Threatening to poison dogs he considered a nuisance, secretly tossing nails in front of the driveways of those he considered annoying drivers, threatening lawsuits for every breach of etiquette he perceived in lawn care; yes, he was a nasty, unfriendly, unkind man, and when he retired and found himself at home the majority of his time he became an ever-present obstacle to peace.

Why Henrietta remained with such a man over the years was a mystery. He was the possessive type, though, and may have threatened her with terrible reprisals if she left him. The sad truth is that, because of his impossible temperament while alive, no one really befriended her; who would want to find themselves visiting the Soames’ residence only to be confronted by her completely objectionable husband? And then, after his death, who would want to find themselves in the company of a suspected murderer? She had no relatives of her own to speak of, and after his death his family never spoke to her again.

So poor Henrietta lived quite alone with only a small pension to cover her expenses and a pair of colorful parakeets for company.

This set of circumstances may have stayed unchanged had she not become ill in her later years. Without any family on which to depend, she found herself at the mercy of various social services, which must have been a depressing situation. Once or twice a week we watched her walking from her front door to the car that would take her to the hospital for her treatments; she was a frail old woman without a friend in the world.

That’s why I decided, against the advice of my neighbors, to finally visit the poor woman, if only to prove to her that she wasn’t completely alone in the universe. Don’t be foolish, I admonished my friends and family, she’s a fragile old woman, what possible threat could she represent? My own husband had died some years previous, and perhaps that was truly the reason why I took pity on her circumstances and arrived at her door one morning with some baked goods in a basket. She seemed surprised, genuinely perplexed by my presence, but she invited me inside that first day, and thereafter I found myself visiting her more frequently.

I was asked innumerable questions over the experience, nosy neighbors wondering what I’d learned of her diabolical ways. I had very little to report. She never spoke of her husband, or the circumstances surrounding his death, and I never asked. Instead, she spoke to me of her illness and her treatments, and the terrible weariness she endured because of the impact of the two on her. The parakeets were gone, of course, because she couldn’t properly care for them, and this saddened her immensely. With poor eyesight, a weakened heart and unhealthy kidneys, she sat in a faded, overstuffed chair in the living room and thanked me for everything I did for her, a wizened little woman with wiry gray hair who was living out her last days as bravely as possible.

Then one day, after slipping into that worn, patched chair, she braced her cane against her leg and smiled at me palely. Her rheumy eyes, distorted by thick glasses, gazed on me sadly as she said, “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

I stood before her with a laundry basket in my arms, intending to wash clothes for her, one of the many small tasks I performed that made her life more comfortable.

“You don’t have to thank me,” I said. “I’m happy to help.”

“But I do have to thank you, Liz,” she said, tapping her cane nervously. “I know what others must be saying. I know it takes a good soul to come to the assistance of someone with so poor a reputation.”

“Neighbors should help one another.”

“Despite what everyone believes about me?”

I didn’t know how to answer her question. Since I’d been one of those who’d kept away for so long, I understood why they’d shunned her. What could I say? She was a pariah, the woman suspected of murdering her husband and getting away with it. Still, she was in need and, despite what everyone believed, I couldn’t stand by and let her suffer. She’d already suffered so much in her life, first at the hands of her detestable husband, then from being ostracized by her neighbors, and finally by being stricken with unforgiving illness. Hadn’t she suffered enough?

Instead of saying any of this, I simply replied, “I don’t care what others say about you, Henrietta. I’m glad to help in any way I can. It may not get me into Heaven, but at least I can quiet my own conscience for my part in it.”

When I returned from the laundry room, she asked me to sit and talk with her a while. She seemed in a particularly vocal mood that day, so I obliged.

“Despite what anyone believes,” she said, still tapping her cane, “I didn’t kill my husband. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.”

I nodded sympathetically. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” I said. “It’s all right, really.”

“I’d like to talk about it,” she said adamantly. “I’d like to tell someone my side of the story.”

I sat back and smiled, uncomfortable. But she seemed desperate to say her piece, and what harm could it do to listen?

“He could be a cruel man,” she said. “That much most everyone knows. But he had his good points. His drinking got worse over the years, and he angered many people, perhaps too many people. But our relationship was sound. I accepted him for who he was, and was satisfied with our marriage. I didn’t kill my husband.”

Henrietta had ‘discovered’ George Soames’ body in their backyard, his skull fractured by a large rock found nearby. She’d insisted an intruder must have killed him without her knowledge; she’d found him, supposedly, after returning from a trip to the market. No witnesses came forward, and the police had very little in the way of evidence. We all knew Henrietta had a motive for killing him—but she insisted that it had to be a thief as the police believed.

“You don’t know how terrible it’s been for me, living in the shadow of everyone’s suspicions,” she said, “and all for nothing.”

I listened quietly, not wanting to disturb her catharsis, if that was the purpose of her declaration.

“And now with my illness,” she continued, “it’s just that much more miserable for me. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along to help me.”

“It’s the least I could do,” I said, studying the tears on her cheeks. I felt terribly sorry for her, and reached over to pat her hand. “I’m willing to help out, too, for as long as you need me.”

She smiled pathetically, then said, “That probably won’t be for very long.”

“Don’t say such things. You’ll be with us for a long, long time.”

“I won’t lie to myself about it. I’m just so happy someone’s finally shown me a little kindness. You’ve restored my faith in people, my dear.”

“I’m just trying to be a good neighbor.”

“I’ll always be indebted to you.”

When I left her that afternoon I lingered on her front steps for a while. Several people studied me from their windows, no doubt wondering what possessed me to help a woman they believed beyond redemption.

But life is never that simple, never that black and white. I wished I could explain my motivation to them, but then, they had their own beliefs, and I had no desire to do anything other than help a neighbor in her time of need. Henrietta was right, of course; she didn’t have much more time left, and I was only glad to do what I could for her to make up for all those years she’d spent in painful isolation.

I wish I could have taken those years back. But I wasn’t about to suffer the consequences for silencing so vile a man; not then, or now.

Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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