The Tale of Mrs. Yetzik and Mr. Burt
by Norman Waksler
Many years ago, Mrs. Yetzik lived alone in a rundown, pale yellow, five room house near the top of one of Carbury’s three hills. She was tiny, old, withered. In the shapeless housedresses she wore to insure that everyone knew she was very poor, she looked barely capable of climbing the hill from the grocery store on the corner with her two shopping bags, so that time and again neighbors, and strangers as well, would offer a ride which she almost always accepted.
As a young girl she’d emigrated from a Northern European country that had changed overlords every half century for millennia, but it was impossible to place her accent which came and went in strength depending on how well she wanted to be understood at any point of a conversation.
It was difficult to imagine that Mrs. Yetzik had ever engaged in sex, but she’d had a husband for many years, and had borne two sons, now middle aged, who lived in distant cities with their families. It was also hard to know where Mrs. Yetzik got the money she lived on. Probably her husband, a die cutter still employed at his demise, had earned enough for frugal Mrs. Yetzik to have saved a useful amount. No doubt she had his social security, perhaps the sons contributed. It wasn’t inconceivable that she had successfully invested in bonds, or had a quantity of high yield CD’s. It was a fact that her shopping bags were always full, though she never spent two cents without complaining that it was a penny more than she could afford.
Mrs. Yetzik had outlived most of the neighbors who remembered her husband, and the younger couples with children who had moved in simply saw her as the old woman who kept to herself and was hard to understand if they gave her a ride up the hill. Though now and again a couple did try to adopt her — the way a young pair might appropriate a senior as a good deed — but with no more success than when they solicited contributions for a medical or political cause.
In truth, Mrs. Yetzik and her husband never had much to do with their neighbors, socializing exclusively with immigrants of their generation from their home country, and even now an elderly survivor or another would come by and spend an afternoon eating her dense apple-raisin cake and drinking tea while deprecating how the world had changed.
The only person Mrs. Yetzik saw and spoke to regularly was Mr. Burt, who lived in the plank walled, backyard shed that had been her husband’s workshop and hideaway.
A burly man in his mid fifties with a large round face and little hair, Mr. Burt was extremely handy. The shed had already contained an old two burner propane stove with a built in space heater, also a toilet and tiny sink, and after he cleared the cobwebs, swept up the dirt, disinfected twice, he just had to move in a camp bed, a little refrigerator, and his belongings and he was ready to live there while he dry-walled over the planking, laid linoleum on the plywood floor, hung shelves on brackets, built a small closet, and sealed the roof where the shingles had slipped or blown away. Projects that took him the better part of a year.
Mr. Burt could also fix anything automotive —this was in the days before cars were computerized — and never had trouble finding work, except that every project he started took so long that, scream, beg, or threaten, no employer could speed him up, and each eventually let him go, only bringing him back when there was an impossible job to be done. Consequently, Mr. Burt often lived on unemployment, and sometimes on disability.
His way of working explained why Mr. Burt was living in a one room shed. For some time he’d had a three room apartment in a multi-unit, wood framed building, but the all-consuming effort of keeping it clean and orderly room by room, working by day, then sometimes staying up all night until the kitchen was spotless or the bedroom shone, had worn him out.
Then, fortuitously, he was walking down the hill past the driveway which allowed a view of the shed in back, at the same time Mrs. Yetzik was sweeping her front stairs, and seeing the old woman, who seemed the size of a garden gnome, Mr. Burt enjoyed a rare moment of inspiration and impulse, calling out, “Hey! Is anyone living in that shed?”
He had a high thin voice that tended to squeak at the end of sentences when he got excited, and Mrs. Yetzik was as taken aback as if she’d heard human speech from a creaky tree branch. Though she’d sold her husband’s tools after he died, she’d never thought of renting out the shed. Yet she recovered in a breath. “You want?” she said, and named a rent the exact equivalent of her monthly gas and electric bills.
“OK,” said Mr. Burt.
“You fix,” said Mrs. Yetzik.
Over the years they never became intimates. He never told her his first name, so he was always Mr. Burt, but he would have been anyway because there was a woodenness about him that deflected familiarity. And, because the uncomfortable Tz sound and the hard K made her name not feel like a real name, to him she was always Mrs. Y.
Yet they weren’t just accidental landlady and unlikely tenant either, she who collected the rent and he who paid it. For one thing, Mr. Burt was often in Mrs. Yetzik’s house — fixing a window, re-hanging a cabinet door, changing the float valve in her toilet — any number of little jobs that Mrs. Yetzik had no compunction asking him to do because she always gave him something in exchange for his labor: the last, solidified, piece of apple-raisin cake, a small unneeded mirror from her sons’ bedroom, her husband’s next-to-last, unsellable winter coat with the fur collar and the rip at the shoulder. “A piece of duct tape fix that nice.”
Mr. Burt always had something of his own to do, so he preferred to avoid any additional outside task, which he knew would require at least a half a day or more of his most careful attention.
“I’m really very busy right now, Mrs. Y.”
“How long you cleaning?”
“I don’t know. Probably all day. You know how it is when you start cleaning.”
“That OK. I wait here till you done.”
‘Here’ was outside Mr. Burt’s door, because Mr. Burt never let Mrs. Yetzik into the shed. In fact, the first thing Mr. Burt had done after paying the first month’s rent, was to install a lock with a deadbolt to replace the old padlock on a hasp that had secured the empty shed again intruders.
Mrs. Yetzik had asked for a duplicate key to the new lock. “Landlady should have key.”
“I’ll get one made up, Mrs. Y.”
“About key, Mr. Burt.”
“I made one up, but I lost it.”
“When I get key, Mr. Burt?”
“Soon, Mrs. Y.”
“After next week, Mrs. Y.”
“Oh. I forgot, Mrs. Y.”
Not being able to see inside Mr. Burt’s quarters was a perpetual aggravation to Mrs. Yetzik, not because she suspected him of anything weird or untoward, but simply out of frustrated curiosity, and frequently over the years when she knew he was gone for the day, she tried to find a way in, or at least manage a peek though one of the two windows. But Mr. Burt’s shades were always tight, the door was impenetrable, and the small cracks between the planks had been sealed by the wall board.
But in truth, every need, change, or wish became an impasse or a crisis for the two of them.
The yard behind the shed, maybe 600 square feet, was overgrown with whatever ugly grasses and tall flowering weeds were likely to find a home in untended urban earth. One mid-spring Mr. Burt began pulling up weeds in a patch, perhaps — no, precisely 8’ x 6’. He’d been working two hours and had cleared about four square feet when Mrs. Yetzik appeared. In her flowered housedress she was the height some of the taller weeds, and could have been a piece of fantastic garden statuary. “What doing, Mr. Burt?”
Mr. Burt looked up at her from his squared over position, sweat dripping down his big round face. “I’m making a tomato bed.”
“How big this bed?”
Mr. Burt creaked to a stand, brushed dirt off his blue work pants. “From here,” he pointed. “Across to there. I really like fresh tomatoes right from the garden.”
Mrs. Yetzik said, “I have to charge for use of land.”
“Only a few dollars. Use of land not included in rent for shed.”
“I’ll have to move.”
“Why you move? Where you find place as nice as this?” Gesturing toward the shed. “With a nice garden.”
“I’ve got to start packing.” He turned toward the shed and his moving boxes which were still flattened under the camp bed.
“No. No. You don’t want to do that. Maybe instead of rent for land, you take out trash every week.” Suddenly looking very tiny and helpless. “It so hard for me.”
“Wednesday morning on sidewalk.”
One year Mr. Burt said, “Mrs. Y., the pipe from the propane tank into the stove is rusting through. We need to get a plumber right away.” His voice rose to its characteristic squeak indicating his belief that the problem was an emergency.
“No. No. I can’t do that. It’s gas. It’s dangerous. You need a professional.”
“Put duct tape. I give you.”
“Mrs. Y. Duct tape’s not for this job. It’s not safe. If the pipe rusts all the way through and gas escapes, there could be an explosion.” Mr. Burt didn’t know if this was true. “Maybe both houses could burn down.”
“How much it cost?”
Mr. Burt named a figure based on hourly wages at a garage, though he also didn’t know if this was true.
“I won’t be able to eat whole week.”
“You could use some of the money you hide under your mattress, Mrs. Y.”
This was Mr. Burt’s standard joke, repeated mechanically each time he paid rent, that she kept her riches hidden in her bed, to which she always responded as she did then, “It not nice make fun of poor old woman.”
Mr. Burt drove a black, 1947, four door Pontiac sedan, with a high roof and three bar grille that looked like a yawning mouth. Under his endless, minutial care, the black shone like military shoes and the engine was a quiet as any 1966 model. But though Mrs. Yetzik accepted rides up the hill from an passing neighbor, she always refused a lift from Mr. Burt. “It look like hearse.”
“A hearse is a long box and has doors at the back.”
“It bad luck.” And she would make an automatic gesture with two fingers meant to ward off evil, which she also did each time she had to pass the car in the driveway.
“Well, let me take your grocery bags,” he would say leaning toward the rolled down window.
“Then food unlucky.”
“It’s just a car, Mrs. Y., like all the cars I fix.”
“Can’t fix bad luck.”
And Mrs. Yetzik would resume trudging up the hill as Mr. Burt accelerated with a whoosh as if to demonstrate that a car moving at such speed could have no relation to a hearse. Mrs. Yetzik, however, would never look up.
And then there was always the key.
“What if you sick? I can’t help.”
“I never get sick.”
“Everybody get sick.”
“If I start to feel sick, I’ll give you a key.”
“Then too late.”
“I’ll think about it.”
This repeated head-butting never affected how they got on; to a large extent, it was how they got on. But the visit by the building inspector from the city was a different matter entirely.
Though Mr. Burt had lived there forever, someone, possibly new to the neighborhood, had called the city and reported that the shed seemed to be permanently occupied.
The inspector, a gray haired man with a stomach that outweighed the rest of his body, was a lifelong city employee who’d seen every oddity of construction and every attempt to get around city codes.
He rang Mrs. Yetzik’s doorbell, but Mrs. Yetzik, always one eye on what she was doing and the other out the window, was already aware of his approach, and she peeked out from behind the partially open door, prepared to refuse contribution to all charities and political parties.
The inspector pointed a finger at his badge, identified himself by name, and city department. “Are you the owner?”
“I’m sorry, ma’m, what’s your name please?”
“I Mrs. Yetzik.”
“Well, Mrs. Yetzik, I need to get a look at that shed out back.” He raised the clipboard in his other hand. “Somebody called and said there’s somebody living there.”
“Is tool shed,” in her thickest accent.
“I’m sorry. What?”
Mrs. Yetzik repeated.
“Ah. Well, that’s fine, I just need to have a look inside and I’ll be on my way.”
“In that case, I need it to be unlocked.”
“I see.” This was hardly the first time the inspector had been stonewalled by an uncooperative householder, and the security of his position along with his sense of the job as an endless variation on similar themes had given him a good humored tolerance for almost any evasions. “Tell you what, ma’m, in that case, why don’t I just wander back anyway and see what I can see. Whose car is that in the driveway?”
“Is old car.”
“I can see that,” the inspector said. He touched a finger to his forehead and departed the porch.
At the shed he noted the drawn shade on the front window, so when he knocked at the door he was unsurprised to see it open, and Mr. Burt’s large head floating around the edge.
“Who are you?” Mr. Burt asked. In all the years he’d lived there, no-one except Mrs. Yetzik had ever knocked on that door.
The inspector identified himself by name and department. “Do you live here?”
Mr. Burt nodded, speechless.
Mr. Burt shook his head. “I don’t know. Forever, maybe. What’s the matter?” he squeaked.
“Well…” The inspector, seeing his fear, immediately understood the kind of individual he had to deal with. “Look. What’s your name?”
“Burt. Errol Burt.”
“Look, Mr. Burt. I’m not here to make trouble for you. But I have to make sure your place is safe and up to code. You know what I mean?”
“Sure. Electrical. Plumbing. Heating.”
“Right. Right. Exactly. So can I come in?”
“Do you have to?”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“Why did you come?”
“Tell you the truth, somebody called, reported somebody living here.”
“Who? Who called?”
“I really can’t tell you. So can I come in?”
The interior of the shed reminded the inspector of a summer cabin in the woods where men went to drink and tell stories between bouts of fishing: a single bulb fixture, a couple of lamps, open shelves and a camp bed, the old green linoleum, a small square table and an easy chair that looked like it had been rescued from curbside on trash day. No TV, no phone, a small brown radio on the table, and an inescapable sense of permanent temporariness.
Mr. Burt stood in the middle of the room swiveling his head wide-eyed watching the inspector xing the checklist on his clipboard as he went from the fuse box, over the wiring, to the little bathroom, to the stove with its built in space heater, to the vent which he examined carefully. “I’ll have to take a look at this outside. Check the pipes too. Is it warm enough for you in the winter?”
“Yes. Yes. I’m very warm.”
The inspector lowered his clip board, tucked his ball point pen into his shirt pocket. “Well, OK then, Mr. Burt. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t want to camp here myself, but if you’re happy, everything’s in order.”
“Yup, it’s OK. Only thing, though. I’ll bet your landlady never got an occupancy permit before you moved in. But you’ve been here so long, it’d just make trouble…. Anyway, nothing to worry about, you’re all set. Thanks for letting me in.”
When the inspector finally went down the driveway past the house, he saw Mrs. Yetzik on the front stoop with a broom in her hands that she wasn’t using, turned toward the street as though she wasn’t waiting to hear the results of the inspection. He stopped, she twisted slightly as if surprised to hear anyone near. The inspector said, “Now why’d you want to tell me that fairy tale about a tool shed?”
“I old woman,” said Mrs. Yetzik in her feeblest voice. “I forget. Everything good?”
The inspector smiled. “Yes, everything’s good. You have a good day now, ma’m.”
Possibly with two other individuals there would have been no consequences to the inspector’s visit. Unfortunately, since they never had conversations, it never occurred to either to talk about it, leaving both with suspicions whose only basis was what they pulled from their trunk-full of fears and fancies, each supposing that the other had called the city for some underhanded reason.
Mr. Burt figured that since Mrs. Yetzik couldn’t get into the shed, she wanted to hear from the inspector how nicely it had been fixed up so she could use that as a reason to raise his rent. He also figured that she was hoping it wasn’t up to code so she could throw him out, fix it up, and rent to someone else for more money. As well he assumed that this way she could claim that she really had to have a key because another inspector might come along when he was out. In addition, the inspector’s arrival had alarmed him and he could only blame his lingering anxiety on her.
Mrs. Yetzik thought Mr. Burt wanted an inspector so he would find problems which she would be legally obliged to fix. And that he just wanted an excuse to move out without paying any more rent. And that he’d been looking for an excuse to stay without paying rent until she fixed everything. And since everything was OK like the inspector said, he could have a reason to continue not giving her a key since there was nothing for her to see to. Plus he just wanted to scare her, which was a mean thing to do to a old woman like her.
Mr. Burt stopped joking about the money under Mrs. Yetzik’s mattress, and decided that if she told him to move out, he would refuse. He also decided to move out before she told him to, and went so far as to pack two boxes before deciding to unpack them again. He didn’t want to have to say hello to her, so when he was without work, he would be sure to stay up all night cleaning, or polishing his shoes, then sleep all day.
Mrs. Yetzik decided that she needed to raise Mr. Burt’s rent, and that she had to evict him before he asked to be paid for fixing up the shed. That she had to find someone else to live there, and that she had to make Mr. Burt give her a key once and for all. She also avoided speaking to him, but when she was forced to, it was in her thickest accent, sometimes also dropping in words from her native language.
However, as the year progressed into autumn, Mrs. Yetzik ran into a problem. It was all well and good to be mad at Mr. Burt, but for years now, every spring and fall, he had taken down and put up her wood framed storm windows — the old, old fashioned kind that were held in place by brass turn buttons and weighed half as much as Mrs. Yetzik herself.
She muttered to herself for two days in two languages, resenting the thought of having to be nice to Mr. Burt and dreading the cold which she had hated even as a little girl in whichever Northern European country she’d come from.
In the end, pragmatism won out. She caught Mr. Burt passing her front stoop on the way down the hill. “Mr. Burt,” she said in her weakest old lady voice. “You put up storm windows now, yes?”
Since Mr. Burt had been avoiding Mrs. Yetzik, he hadn’t noticed that she was avoiding him, so he was unsurprised at her request, and after so long, unaffected by her little old lady voice, but he surprised himself and Mrs. Yetzik by saying, ‘What’ll you pay me?”
“No worry. I give you something nice.”
“No. Money. Pay me for the work, or take something off the rent.”
“I can’t pay. I poor woman. Have many expenses.”
“I can’t do it then.”
“What I do?”
“Turn the heat up.”
“You not very nice, Mr. Burt, and I always so good to you.”
Mr. Burt shrugged, but it worried him. He’d never done anything like that to Mrs. Yetzik and he felt strange. He always dealt with the storm windows; it was part of the spring and summer routine filling a week each time, and not doing it left a hole in his regular pattern. He knew Mrs. Yetzik would let herself freeze before she turned up the heat, and that wouldn’t be good. Yet having taken a stand, he didn’t know how to move off it, and wasn’t even sure he should because it was her own fault, even if he didn’t know if he cared that much at this point.
Mrs. Yetzik never expected such treatment from Mr. Burt, so unlike him, and she was offended and dismayed. The fall temperature hadn’t dropped significantly, but she imagined arctic cold seeping in around the shrunken window frames and wrapping around her vulnerable old body. She began piling on sweaters, tied a babushka around her ears and chin, all the while blaming Mr. Burt and counting the cost of what heat she allowed herself as it slipped out the same cracks through which the cold entered.
A week went by, another, and a third, both of them brooding about the storm windows as the temperature gradually fell. How much longer this might have gone on if the woman from social services hadn’t showed up, it’s impossible to say.
She seemed very young despite her sober gray suit and dark coat and brown leather briefcase. But she rang Mrs. Yetzik’s doorbell with the self–confidence of one practiced in approaching unknown individuals and dealing with their problems.
“Hello,” she said to the small face wrapped in a kerchief and peering around the door. “You must be Mrs. Kati Yetzik.”
Mrs. Yetzik was so amazed to hear her given name from someone other than one of her ancient acquaintances that it shocked her beyond suspicion into an immediate barely accented ,”Yes. I am Mrs. Yetzik.”
“Very nice to meet you,” the clear, enthusiastic, genuinely kind voice of a young believer in doing good. Perceiving that Mrs. Yetzik wasn’t the type of person to whom you offered a handshake, the young woman introduced herself by name, then, “I’m from social services for the city. I’m looking for Mr. Burt. Mr. Errol Burt?”
“What you want Mr. Burt for?”
“The neighbors are very concerned about Mr. Burt’s living conditions; they called the city and the city has sent me to look into it.”
“Neighbors called? What do neighbors know? Nothing wrong with Mr. Burt’s conditions. What neighbors say that?”
“I really can’t tell you, but I do need to talk to Mr. Burt. I’d hoped to make an appointment, but he doesn’t seem to have a phone. Do you know if he’s home?”
“Maybe yes. Maybe no. You go down driveway past ugly old car.”
As the young social worker turned, Mrs. Yetzik said, “I come too.”
“Of course. We can all talk together.”
“I get coat. It very cold.”
If Mr. Burt had been surprised by the inspector, the appearance of a slender, formally dressed young woman with Mrs. Yetzik behind her was so incomprehensible as to cause a hiatus in his mental functioning, not at its peak in any case since he’d been dozing on the camp bed a minute before.
The social worker introduced herself, indicated her official position, said, “So how are you today Mr. Burt?”
She spoke gently, soothingly, as if his sleepy eyed lack of focus had convinced her that he was mentally delicate.
“I’m OK. What do you want?”
“Well, Mr. Burt, it seems that some of your neighbors are worried about you. And they called the city and the city called me …”
“That’s right. They’re concerned that your living conditions don’t conduce to your greatest welfare.”
“There was an inspector here. He said everything was OK.”
“Certainly. But that was from the point of view of safety. This is about your general welfare. You understand what I mean by general welfare?”
“I’ve got no problems with my welfare. I take care of myself, and Mrs. Y is very good to me. She gives me things, and doesn’t charge too much rent. I’ve got everything I need.”
“That right,” said Mrs. Yetzik. “Mr. Burt help me. Even share tomatoes he grow. I help him. He has very nice house, everything good. Small house, but nice. Mr. Burt like small, no, Mr. Burt?”
Mr. Burt nodded.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said the young social worker, “But why don’t we take a look inside and see if there’s anything we could improve that would make Mr. Burt more comfortable. Maybe there are groceries you need, or furnishings. The city can help.”
“No, no,” said Mrs. Yetzik. “Nobody allowed in Mr. Burt’s house. Is only his business. Even I not allowed. Is so, Mr. Burt?”
“That’s right. I don’t like visitors.”
Never losing her enthusiasm or kindness, asking specifics about food, clothing, and heat, the social worker tried to convince him that she and the city should be allowed to help, but the non-specific answers woven by Mr. Burt and Mrs. Yetzik made an impenetrable bramble, so that finally she said, “Mrs. Yetzik, would you mind if I spoke to Mr. Burt alone for a little while?”
Before Mrs. Yetzik could comply or refuse to comply. Mr. Burt said, “No. No. I don’t want to talk anymore,” his voice rising to a squeak.
The young social worker knew very well that when she’d alarmed a potential client it was time to back off. “That’s all right, Mr. Burt. But here, here’s my card. If you ever want to talk, for any reason, just call me. OK?”
Mr. Burt took the card, but didn’t look at it, and nothing in his attitude suggested intention to profit by her offer.
Once the social worker had gone along the driveway and they heard her car door slam, the engine rev and move off down the hill, Mrs. Yetzik said, “So you put up storm windows now? I have big cake.”
“That will be nice,” said Mr. Burt.
Then one year the rescue squad arrives, EMT’s rushing out with all their equipment. Has Mrs. Yetzik’s tough little heart finally given out, or has Mr. Burt, always so slow and precise, finally made a mistake, been smacked by his car slipping sideways off a jack? The ill or the injured are carried off to the hospital.
Mr. Burt nervous, upset, scared. What will happen to Mrs. Y? What will happen to him? To the shed? To the house?
Mrs. Yetzik flustered, put upon, worried. Will Mr. Burt ever return? Who help her? Why he so foolish? Should know better, Mr. Burt.
But it’s just a hard old sausage too tough for her aged system causing horrible indigestion.
But it’s just a glancing blow to the head causing a mild, dizzying concussion.
Mrs. Yetzik is so relieved that Mr. Burt is all right, that she waits two days before asking him to fix the shaky leg of a kitchen chair.
Mr. Burt is so pleased Mrs. Y is back, that he gives her a key, but it doesn’t fit.
And they lived happily, that way, ever after.
Norman Waksler has published fiction in a number of journals, most recently The Tidal Basin Review, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prick of the Spindle, Thickjam. Scholars and Rogues and The Yalobusha Review. His most recent story collection, Signs of Life is published by the Black Lawrence Press. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His website is NormanWakslerFiction.com