Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reduced Circumstances

Keap Sreet, 2005

When my wife and I got married we lived in a comfortable old apartment building a block away from Richmond’s majestic Monument Avenue. Most of the other tenants were retired widows and widowers, some of them so reclusive that in three years of living there we never saw them.

By far the nicest of the widows was Mrs. A, who shared an apartment on the first floor with her sister. Mrs. A was the resident greeter and building historian, always ready with a smile and advice on how to deal with the landlord.

Mrs. A and her sister had once worked at a fancy women’s store downtown. They’d had husbands with good jobs and nice homes. But by 1976 they'd outlived their husbands and their husbands' pensions and were alone and dependent on each other and their combined Social Security income to pay the rent.

This arrangement was fine until the summer the sister died. Mrs. A announced that she would be taking in a boarder to make ends meet. She told us she had a few pieces of silver and jewelry that she could have sold. But like a character out of Tennessee Williams, they were her last vestiges of dignity in her reduced circumstances—Richmond is big on dignity and circumstances—and she wouldn't part with them.

The first boarder was a quiet man who didn’t stay long. The second was an itinerant house painter. Bruce was a large crude man in his late forties who spent his free time sitting on Mrs. A’s porch drinking beer and talking big to anyone who walked by.

As summer ended some of Bruce’s friends started hanging around. They were a rough group. They were loud and drank a lot. Sometimes they stayed over. We saw less and less of Mrs. A. The other ladies in the building stopped visiting her because they were afraid of Bruce. When they phoned Mrs. A she insisted everything was okay.

During the fall, Bruce’s friends started playing cards each night in Mrs. A’s little living room. We knew about this because of the noise and because they left the front door of the apartment open to let the cigarette smoke out.

Just after Christmas my wife and I went away to visit relatives. When we returned on New Year’s Day we walked into the lobby of the building and found Mrs. A’s door ajar and a framed photograph of Mrs. A, taken when she was a young woman, propped up against the doorjamb.

A quick visit to the widow who lived across the hall from us revealed that a 25 year-old kid, one of Bruce’s friends, had gotten all hopped up on drugs the night before and bludgeoned Mrs. A to death. Our neighbor leaned over and whispered to me that when the coroner arrived, Mrs. A was not wearing the diamond ring “she never took off.”

Bruce left later that night. Our neighbor swore she saw him back his van up to the side of the building just before midnight and carry out through a window the silver platters that Mrs. A kept hidden between the mattresses of her bed.


  1. Oh, what a phenomenally sad tale. It never ceases to amaze me how anyone can prey on others, but especially an older, frail individual who never harmed a soul. Life can be so cruel. The floor in that place reminds me of the floor in the hallway of an old apartment my own grandmother lived in once--it was a beautiful old apt building and after she sold her house, she moved there. It had no elevator, but it was a lovely building, and she got lots of exercise climbing 3 flights of stairs every day! Brought back memories of her...I'm very thankful that she didn't have such a sad end.

  2. Oh that's terrible!

    So sad and unfair.

  3. Wow... What a story! Well told, too.