Even a remote community such as Point Clear had its share of transients. Sometimes they arrived on bicycles, sometimes on foot with tall backpacks. They typically had good stories to tell, which happened to be our asking price for a glass of iced tea and a roadside rest. Usually they didn’t linger for long, but I remember two who pitched tents in our backyard and stayed several days. The most memorable was determined to make a new home in the woods across from our backyard.
My younger brother, Murray, announced that he had found a witch.
“Where?” I asked him.
“In that fallen down house in the woods across the road. She’s all wrapped in blankets and stares at you.”
I knew the old one-room shack he was talking about. The driveway into it was overgrown with pine trees, and the building was nothing more than a roof caved in over rotting walls.
“Whatever, Murray, ” I said, annoyed. He was known to have a large imagination, even for an 8-year-old. And as a college kid with a summer job, I had better things to do than go after imaginary witches.
It wasn’t long before items started to go missing around the house. First, it was canned food. Then it was pots and cups and dishes. Finally, one morning, Murray called Mom and me into the kitchen and pointed out the window. Wandering about in our yard was a disoriented, disheveled woman in her late 50s in nothing but a blanket slung over her shoulder. Her hair was gray and stiff and looked like something birds had been nesting in.
“That’s her, ” Murray told us. “It’s I’llNeeda.”
“Good, Lord, ” Mom said.
“The witch?” I said.
“She’s not really a witch, ” Murray said. “We’re friends now.”
“Her name is I’llNeeda?” Mom said.
“That’s what I call her, ” Murray continued. “All she talks about is what she needs. Yesterday, she said ‘I’ll need a broom.’”
“Is that where my broom went?” Mom asked.
Murray nodded. “The day before that she needed cans of soup.”
“Is that where everything in my kitchen’s been going?”
“She told me she needed it all, ” he said.
Murray introduced Mom to I’llNeeda that morning. While I was at work, Mom investigated and verified the woman was homeless and living in the old shack just like Murray said. She’d already eaten most of the canned goods Murray had taken her, but Mom was able to get her broom back, along with several pots and pans and a flower vase.
“I’ll need a dress, ” I’llNeeda told her before she left.
Mom took I’llNeeda a dress and a plate of food. A new friendship was formed.
I’llNeeda began coming over in the mornings needing coffee. To the horror of my siblings and me, it became routine to see Mom and I’llNeeda taking coffee together in the kitchen. I felt that I could see the stench rising off her like gasoline vapor. My sisters estimated, in terms of years, how long it had been since she’d washed.
“Ten, ” Alice suggested.
“Twenty, ” Betsy said.
After coffee, I’llNeeda wandered up the highway into Fairhope. She spent the whole day on park benches telling passersby that she lived across from the Keys in Point Clear and had everything she needed there.
“Seriously, Mom, ” I said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I think she’s senile. We’re trying to find her family.”
“This is crazy, ” I said. “She can’t just stay here.”
“Well, it is a little embarrassing, ” Mom admitted.
With a light east breeze, our yard was sometimes enveloped in the smell and smoke of burning leaves. In an attempt to cook, stay warm, or both, I’llNeeda often built fires in front of the shack. They inevitably grew out of control, and we’d find her shrouded in blueish smoke, beating down the flames with her blankets.
“Mom, ” I complained, “she’s going to burn the woods down.”
Parental duties were rarely shared in our household. Any issue was either a Mom thing or a Dad thing. I’llNeeda was strictly a Mom thing for a good reason: Mom has a high tolerance for absurdities.
One afternoon, I got home from work to see I’llNeeda standing in next to nothing on the beach. Then, I noticed Murray was thrashing around out in the Bay.
“Mom!” I called. “What’s going on out there? I’llNeeda’s on the beach again. And Murray’s in the Bay.”
“Oh, it’s all right, ” she said. “She was washing her dress, and a ship wave took it. Murray’s just trying to find it for her.”
Mom’s inquiries into I’llNeeda’s family finally led to a call from the lady’s son who was living in Florida. He told Mom that I’llNeeda had a history of wandering off and had been missing for months. He came and got her and moved her into an assisted living home.
Life around the Key household returned to normal, but we all felt a little loss after I’llNeeda was gone. Mom went to visit her, and it made us feel better to hear that she had everything she needed at her new home.
Text by Watt Key