It happened one evening in 1957.
Officer Andrew Wesley was in the car when the call came in.
“Elderly woman complaining she had a break-in,” the dispatcher said.
Andrew took the call and drove eight blocks to a run-down two-flat, split into four apartments. He walked down the gangway and around to a peeling yellow door lit in the dusk by a sickly yellow bulb, and rapped on the glass window.
The woman’s face appeared when she pushed aside a dishcloth hanging as a curtain on the small window. She studied his face, the neat silver star pinned to his breast, and dropped the curtain.
There was a rattle of chain, the locks drew back and she let him in.
In her spare and haggard kitchen, tired of too many meager dinners, too many sinks of dishes washed with only cold water and soap flakes poorly dissolved, he learned a little of Mrs Elaine Moore.
His eye swept across the kitchen sill with collected cans and jars of carrots, damson plums and peanut butter, an old tin of roast beef holding wadded cloth. The beaming face of the Quaker Oats man found in every Chicago kitchen looked down over the room.
A pierced can of evaporated milk sat on the table with a sour smell of brewed coffee hanging in the still air of the room. He pulled out his notebook and gently began asking the old lady the opening questions. What? When? How?
She fretfully described coming home from her job ironing at the dry cleaners down the street. She had put on a pot of coffee and went into the living room to find her cardigan, but instead, found the evidence somebody had broken into her home.
The small bent woman with hair in disarray, dressed in her overcoat despite the warm July evening, took him by the sleeve and guided him to the place in her living room. She wordlessly indicated the damage with a shaking small hand; the fractured bits of Dresden milkmaids and dancers.
He studied the forced window and followed her pointing finger and took notes.
Books on floor
Plant on floor
A framed photograph stood untouched on the room’s only table, and Andrew picked up the frame.
A young woman in a white dress, a wedding dress, with all the accouterments of the turn of the century. He looked closely at the image of who must have been Mrs Moore without her groom in studio, her left hand loose.
Maybe a woman who had posed for too many photos. Her eyes, resigned.
He thought maybe someone had used the old lady’s rug as the pot, and guided her carefully back into the kitchen where he completed her statement.
She sat unsettled, sometimes looking worriedly at the darkening doorway to the living room, sometimes meeting his eyes with her own small, dark pupils. Her curled hands anxiously grizzled on her lap.
“Have you got somebody I can call for you Mrs Moore?” he asked, but she sat twisting a handkerchief in her hands. “Mrs Moore? Ma’am?” he repeated.
“No, son. There’s nobody anymore,” she said and met his eyes.
Her face relaxed and mouth softened from the tight line.
“You’re trying to be kind,” she said. “I’m sorry, son.
“They’re all gone now. Just me,” and her face fell into a reverie and her gaze dropped from his face into her lap.
She had not long left her family home, and Elaine was working as a milliner for The Fair, when she met the man who would become her husband, Stanley Moore He was a salesman from Massachusetts, and walking from the store with a sale complete, when he caught her gaze.
They married a year later after he had made several trips back to Chicago, met her parents, who endorsed his thoughtful presence in their parlor. She made her own dress, but the photographer was a fussy man who complained she did not look like a happy bride.
He bustled around her, insisting she stand this way, look that way until her arms hung loosely at her sides, the silk studio bouquet a weary tribute to the ceremony she would share with Stanley that Sunday.
In the end, she looked steadily at the pea-green velvet jacket his assistant had hung on a hook.
They had two twin boys and an infant baby girl she called Emily after her grandmother in North Dakota.
Their home was a suite of rooms in Brockton, Mass, tucked within one of many sprawling residences, once grand, but by the time the family was established, began to show signs of decay.
The children never left those stately rooms after one hot summer in 1919 when her twins and little Emily fell like saplings to the Spanish influenza. She and Stanley made a go of it, but the graceful regal-blue buildings became victims of drafts and damp, wood-rot and leaks, though still lovely with their high-ceilinged foyers.
Stanley left her suddenly. He died from a heart attack in 1940, and she packed up a few things, abandoned the drafty rooms where you could hear the footfalls two storeys up on the bare dried or swollen floorboards, depending on the season, and moved home to Chicago.
“Well, I’ll just get someone from next door if you don’t mind ma’am,” Andrew said. When she didn’t respond, he watched her for a moment and then went down the hall and knocked on the front apartment.
“Just a minute,” a voice called. Labored footsteps and a middle-aged man opened the door. He held a can of beer in a moist hand and a newspaper tucked under his arm. When he saw the police officer, he straightened up a little.
“Your neighbor has reported a break-in, sir,” Andrew said. “Your name sir?
“Philip O’Connor,” the man said, a little defensively. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s your neighbor Elaine Moore, sir. She’s had a break-in with some damage. She hasn’t got anybody to stay with her. Would you be able to just look in on her a little later? I think she’s had a scare.”
The man looked blankly at Andrew, his face relaxed and he blinked, put the beer down on a telephone table, and nodded quickly.
“Of course, of course. Elaine’s a good old girl. What exactly happened?” and Andrew told him about the mess, and the broken ballet dancer lying in pieces across the darkly stained carpet. The trail of potting soil.
Philip followed him into the apartment and Andrew was happy to see Elaine smile tiredly when her neighbor came into the kitchen.
“Hello dear,” she said. “Just look at this mess. Look,” and took his sleeve as she had Andrew’s, leading him into the living room.
“Well, geez Elaine. What a damned mess. Let’s get this cleaned up,” Philip said, and when Andrew left the pair, Philip was bending over the plant with a bucket, dustpan and whisk-broom and Elaine was re-heating the cold coffee.
He sat pensively at the steering wheel for a few moments before starting the rumbling patrol car when his radio came to life and he drove a mile west. Two men were brawling on the pavement outside a corner bar, while a young woman stood heckling the pair.
Andrew was joined by a second car, and the officers pried the men from the fight, gave them a stern warning and sent them and the woman, now weeping, home.