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Mr. Maguire the boarder parked in the same spot every day. But that wasn't what made him strange. I had plenty of time to watch him when my older brother dropped me for girls and baseball. I noticed Mr. Maguire’s quirky ways, like walking on a slant with his newspaper over his head even on sunny days.
The boarding house butted up against the back yard of the house we lived in when we were little. My parents hadn't been able to afford the dream house they were always talking about.
After a day of packing boxes at the plant, my father would say to my mother, “Bernadette, we'll have a yard big enough for a tractor-mower, and a basketball net for Denny in the driveway.”
My mother, saint that she was, would listen to his dreams, wide-eyed and smiling, as if she never heard them before.
“And you'll look so handsome, Charlie, riding your mower.”
I didn't understand how she could keep it up, day after day. We were broke. Our house was a dump, and my entertainment was watching the weirdos in the boarding house out back. Especially, Mr. Maguire.
My boring life became more exciting when I noticed one day that Mr. Maguire switched parking spots. At first I thought it was a mirage, as I squinted from the morning sun. The crack in our dirty window didn't help. But there was his rust-colored Buick pulling into a spot close to the residents' entrance. His gait was swift as he rounded the driver's side to the trunk. He opened it and gently lifted out an oblong case with the care of a mother lifting her baby.
He held the case close to his chest and straightened up, looking less slanted.
I wonder what is making Mr. Maguire so transfixed? I probably didn't know that word at the time, but the memory of his transformation is imprinted in my mind, and that's the word I'm thinking now, years after our ascent into the suburbs.
He closed the trunk gently and he advanced toward the boarding house, moving the case to his left arm as he opened the door for Miss Perkins to come out. She was probably en route to the bus stop. I knew her routine too.
My interest in the residents was escalating into an obsession.
“Bernadette, Teresa spends too much time at that window,” my father whispered, on a rare day off from work.
“She's dreamy like you, Charlie.”
I knew it wouldn't be long before I crept over to the boarding house to see what was what. No matter what I saw, I wouldn't tell my brother who had the biggest mouth on the block.
Mr. Maguire, whom I was beginning to consider my friend, made things easier for me when he exited the door visible from my perch at the grimy window. He held his thin body more upright now as he carried the case clutched to his chest.
Grateful that I was fully dressed to go out, and that I had already promised to go to the grocery store, I called "Bye, Mom" before she could think up an excuse to keep me home. My mother may have painted rainbows with my Dad, but she was, at heart, a stark realist who knew the dangers of the city.
I followed Mr. Maguire down the street, checking my grocery list so I could whip through Caruso's Market quickly. My mother might have had a stop watch. She knew down to the minute how long an errand should last.
I had gotten to know the tilt of the boarder's gait so well, that I could see the difference in him these days. He walked nearly upright to the little park on the corner. When he reached a bench, he opened the case and pulled out a violin. He sat gazing tenderly at the caramel-colored instrument. Two harmless-looking older women chose seats on a bench near him. A look of panic overtook him. I was behind a tree and could see perfectly.
Did it take courage to come out of hiding to speak to him?
Perhaps. Especially since a side-trip to the park would show up on my mother's stop watch. I walked over to him and said, “Do you know how to play it?”
He nodded. And he began to play a tune that haunts me till today: "The Tennessee Waltz."