Hank paused for a moment outside the small yellow house on Walnut Avenue, admiring the old-fashioned look of the cottage with its peaked roof. He smiled at the memory of working in that roof in the heat of summer, then stepped up quickly to the front porch and rang the electronic doorbell.
A short compact woman with wavy mostly brown hair and a pleasant smile opened the door. She was dressed in a light gray suit, he noticed, as if she was about to go to work in an office. She held the door open for him. “Come on in. You must be Hank McDonald.”
“I am,” he smiled back, stepping in. “And you must be Phoebe Park.”
“I am,” she replied with a slightly wider smile, closing the door behind them. “I appreciate your coming by. We thought it would be a good idea to make sure everything in the house is as it should be.”
He followed her from the entryway down the short hallway to the kitchen and dining area. “Have you noticed anything in particular?”
“Just a few things. Coffee?”
Phoebe poured herself a cup and leaned against the granite-topped counter. “I may be missing something, but it seems like a very well-built house.”
Hank grinned. “I know. I helped build it.”
Phoebe was startled. “I thought this was an old house.”
“Well, I probably should say rebuild,” Hank replied apologetically. “When Mrs. Robinson bought this, we did a lot of renovations.”
“You did a good job.” Phoebe looked around the open kitchen and dining area with a touch of sadness in her expression. “Lizzie told me many times how much she loved this house.”
“We will surely miss her,” Hank said quietly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Me too.” Phoebe straightened up and added, “But what better a tribute than to hear so many people say they will really miss her. A sign of life lived well.” She walked towards the entryway, where a door led to stairs down into the basement. “Let’s start in the basement, shall we? I noticed there was a leak down there….”
They went downstairs and Hank quickly found the leak in the original basement wall. It had seeped down through the drywall and under the molding to soak the carpet in one corner. A lot of work to fix, but not difficult. He checked the built-in bathroom, HVAC area, and family room. The door to the bathroom was out of true and a casement window was loose in one corner. He made notes in his little spiral notebook and then went back upstairs. There he thoroughly inspected the garage, laundry room, patio out back, front porch, and rooms on the main floor of the house.
Most of the house was tight and snug, but there were several items that due to normal wear-and-tear needed attention. He totaled everything up on a separate page in his notebook, tore it out, and handed it to Phoebe. “Looks reasonable,” Phoebe nodded, and he had a feeling she knew exactly what the estimate should be – and that she realized he had set it a little lower out of consideration for her loss. “When can you start?”
“How about this afternoon?”
“Sounds good to me.” She picked up a key ring from the table and removed one of the keys. “Here’s an extra key to the house.” A trace of sorrow moved across her face as she explained, “We have a lot to do for the funeral and all, so I won’t always be here.” She added with a teasing smile, “Just knock first to make sure I’m decent if I’m here.”
Hank couldn’t help laughing. “Oh yes ma’am, that I will do, thanks.” He added sincerely, “But you strike me as a woman who is always decent.”
She nodded in acknowledgment of his gallantry. “You’re Tom and Anne’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Thought so,” Phoebe responded firmly. “They raised you right, young man.”
Hank was surprised at how much that meant to him. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Phoebe looked at him sternly, with just a hint of teasing in her eyes. “If it won’t offend you too much, I’d appreciate it if you’d call me Phoebe. Every time you ma’am me, I get another year older.”
“How about Miss Phoebe?” he suggested, but at her horrified expression, he quickly amended, “Okay, okay, Phoebe it is.”
“Thank you,” she replied with exaggerated relief. He sensed she normally was a cheerful, witty person by nature. That suited him just fine.
“All right then,” he said, shoving his notebook and pencil stub in the back pocket of his well-worn jeans. “I’ll be back after lunch.”
“I probably won’t be here,” Phoebe responded as she showed him out. “My niece and I have a pretty full day. Just make yourself at home.”
He paused. “You don’t say that to just anyone, do you?”
Phoebe took no offense. “Of course not. I live in Chicago. But I know you, Hank McDonald, and I know I can say that to you.”
Oddly pleased, he touched his forehead in a quick salute. “Thank you –“ he hesitated. “Just one more ma’am?”
“No,” Phoebe laughed and pushed him out the door. And just like that, they were old friends.
Hank stopped by his dad’s building supply store at the edge of town to pick up some things he’d need for the afternoon’s work. His father was at the front of the store, stocking some insect repellent on the shelves behind the register. Tom McDonald stood about 5 feet 10 inches, but his strong build made him look taller. “Morning, son,” he called over his shoulder. “You been to see Phoebe Park?”
“Hi, Dad. Yep. House looks real good.”
Tom pushed up his sleeves as he turned around. “That was a labor of love, that was.”
Hank nodded, picking up some items from the closest aisle. “It was that. Just a few things to fix up. I think Mrs. Robinson had a tendency to let things slide, if she even noticed them.”
Tom followed him, carrying a hand-basket for Hank to put his choices in. “Sounds about right. She sure kept busy. So what did you think of Phoebe?”
“I like her,” Hank answered, smiling his thanks as he put a box of nails in the basket. “She’s smart and funny.”
“Yep, that’s how I remember her,” Tom nodded. “We went to school together. Ask her if she wants to come over to the house for dinner while she’s here, will you? Your mom would love to see her. Those two used to be thick as thieves back in high school.”
“I will, but I’m not sure when I’ll see her again. She said she’d be out this afternoon.”
Tom nodded sadly. “Guess she’s got a lot on her plate. At least her niece is here to help her.”
“Oh, yeah, she mentioned her niece.” Hank did his best to sound casual and disinterested, but he knew he’d failed when he saw his dad’s slow smile.
“Yeah, Lizzie’s daughter Callie. You remember her, don’t you?”
Hank pushed his dad’s shoulder, hard. “You know I do.”
“Thought so,” Tom answered, unperturbed.
Hank muttered under his breath and strode over to the next aisle. His father followed with a big grin. “You going back to Mom and Pop’s now?”
“Yep, I thought I’d have time to fix that door on the barn before I head over to Phoebe’s.” He saw his father’s raised eyebrow. “She insisted I call her that, Dad.”
“Don’t doubt it for a minute,” his dad said solemnly. Hank shook his head. “Could you ask your grandma for some of her grape jelly?”
“No problem, I’ll bring it back with me and drop it off at the house.”
“Thanks, son, I appreciate it. Oh, take some of that tape there, we just got that in. Works a treat from what I hear.”
Hank snagged a couple of rolls from their hook. “Thanks, Dad.” He added a few more items to the basket. “That should do it. Anything I can do for you here?”
His father smiled and clapped Hank on the shoulder. “No, but thanks for asking.”
“Any time, Dad, you know that.”
“I do.” Tom rang up the purchases and put them in a couple of plastic bags. He handed the bags to Hank and then said, quietly, “I’m proud of you, son.”
Hank felt like he had grown two inches. His dad was the finest man he knew, and if Dad was proud of him, well – that was all right. “Thanks, Dad.”
As Hank reached the door, his dad called out, “Let me know if you run into that niece!”
Hank looked heavenward, shook his head, and just kept going.
The McDonald farmhouse was about fifteen miles from downtown Ware, surrounded by acres of corn and soybeans. Will and Cara McDonald no longer farmed, having sold off most of the acreage. But they had no desire to move into town. Cara liked tending her large garden and chickens; Will liked growing his small orchard and fishing down at the creek.
Hank had built a small cottage some distance from the main house and lived there in exchange for doing chores and odd jobs around the property. He also pitched in with groceries to get a seat at his grandparents’ table. The arrangement suited them all, and Hank’s parents also felt more comfortable knowing Hank was around if anything happened out at the farmhouse.
Hank parked his pick-up truck near the house and went around to the back to go into the kitchen through the mudroom. His grandmother was there making pies, a small slight woman whose white hair was tied back in a bun at the nape of her neck. He came up behind her to give her a hug. “How ya doin’, Gramma?”
“Just fine, thank you, watch that you don’t get flour all over yourself,” Cara warned, raising up her arms from rolling out piecrust.
Hank obediently backed off and snagged an apple from a large bowl of fruit on the counter. “Dad asked if you could give him a jar of grape jelly.”
‘Sure, you know where I keep them,” Cara answered, returning to her piecrust. As Hank went out to the pie safe out in the mudroom, she called to him, “What did you think of Phoebe Park?”
Hank called back, “Nice lady. Smart, funny.” He came back in with a small Mason jar filled with deep purple jelly.
“Did you meet the niece?”
Hank wasn’t fooled by his grandmother’s casual tone. He sat down in a chair at the table where she was working and said, a little exasperated, “No, I did not. Yes, I knew her back in high school. No, I haven’t seen or heard from her since and, no, I don’t know if I will see here in the short time she’s here.”
“Well, that saves a lot of time,” Cara sniffed, holding back a laugh.
Hank took a bite of apple and started to say something. That earned him a stern “Don’t eat with your mouth full.” He swallowed and said meekly, "Yes, ma’am.”
“All right then,” she said approvingly. “What were you going to say?”
“I thought I’d fix that barn door before I went over to the Robinson house. Is there anything you need done?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, in about an hour I will need a pie taster. Do you think you could fit that in?”
Hank grinned. “Oh yes, ma’am! I can definitely fit that in.”
“Good,” Cara smiled back. “Come back in an hour or so.”
Hank nodded and, munching his apple, went back outside, humming to himself as he went. Yep, he thought. Life is just about perfect.
- "That Little Thing" Copyright © 2020 by Susan Stafford