Bertilda and the Cop


Anne and I had a little fright this morning. We never get together for coffee at her place, but we were chatting over the fence last night about medical pot, and she told me she had some sort of new vape pen she was trying out, and we got to giggling like coeds about sampling her stash. The result was our coffee date this morning; we intended to vape until we felt something, and then enjoy the biscotti.

So there we were, two 60-somethings who look it, discreetly approaching some cannabis, when I glanced out of her big picture window and saw a uniformed cop.

I freaked out but didn’t body-show it. My gasp made Anne look in my direction and her face appeared as alarmed as I felt. There’s a tendency now to chuckle about cannabis clubs at retirement homes, about gray-haired deadheads at concerts, but the truth is we were the first white kids to use pot epidemically, and most of us acquired bust-avoiding behavior unknown to Gen-Xers and the later cohorts. At that moment we were two old women goosed by adrenaline.

We moved as one toward the door.

I got there first and opened it. Anne said “Yes?” before I could. I’m not sure the officer heard her but he spoke anyway.

“Good morning. Is this Unit 2?”

He was young and attractive, with good posture and a well-fitting dark blue uniform. His silver badge rode nicely on his chest, and he didn’t look overloaded at the belt.

I started to shake my head. Anne said “This is Unit 1. Unit 2 is upstairs, and Unit 3 is over the garage.”

“I rang the bell for 2, but no one answered. I’m Tom Nguyen. Is there a way you can let me in the front door?”

Anne and I were in her kitchen/breakfast nook, which has a side door, split and with glass panes in the top section, to the garden between her house and mine. Her flat was in what had been a single-family home, with a front door that opened to a common-area hall which in turn gave access to her entrance and Bertilda’s upstairs. The third resident in their “development” was Jerry, and his place was built above the garage.

“I can let you into the foyer, but I don’t have a key to Unit 2,” Anne said. “We’re organized as a three unit condominium development.” I’m not sure why she offered that information – maybe it was because she’s the recordkeeper and bill-payer for the three households, and thus hyper-aware of the set-up. Or maybe it was to keep her from talking about what was really on our minds: Who called the police? Bertilda herself or a complainer? What has she done now??

Maybe we should have asked Officer Nguyen for wallet ID or some paper authorization – surely either of us would have done that 40 years ago – but we were too relieved that the visit wasn’t about us and too curious about what was up with Bertilda…we both acted as compliant as good kindergartners and let the man into the house. Then we sat quietly, our intended vaping postponed, and tried to hear.

Bertilda is a nasty soul. That’s an unkind-sounding statement, but I mean it. She’s in her 80s now, frail and crooked, with an appearance that would inspire sympathy and helpful offers if she didn’t wreck her image with a regular scowl and frequent raging.

As far as I can tell, she’s always been an asshole. I’ve only known her a few years, but even the first day exposed me to attempted graciousness interspersed with snarls. The woman can tear any visiting tradesman “a new one,” according to the plumber who dared to park in front of Bertilda’s house while doing a job in mine. Jerry’s way of describing her erratic moods is more along the lines of “one minute she goes thermonuclear on me, and the next minute she’s offering me a box of tomatoes.”

Bertilda is single and has never been married. She once told me a surreal story about a long engagement that was severed due to her fiance’s conclusion that she was anti-Semitic. She had a career in administration at the university, but she retired early due to some sort of dispute with her supervisor and under the influence of a monetary settlement she attributes to her complaint about sexual harassment. She then volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center, until the folks there let her go as gently as they could, with some statements Bertilda accepted about appreciating all she’d done for them but wanting to spare her the long commute.

She has no friends. She views Carol, who lives on the other side of me, as her BFF. Carol hasn’t been in the neighborhood long, but she’s a saintlike soul who seems to have a bottomless well of sympathy for damaged people. She and her husband are raising a challenging teenage son; her optimism about Jason’s future is only matched by her patience about Bertilda’s present. When Anne called the police after Bertilda tried to hose her in the front yard during a raging dispute about landscaping, Carol chastised her. “She needs sympathy! Not police action!” were the words. Anne has been a little intimidated around Carol since then.

Bertilda has a brother who still lives in the original home town in Germany. Those of us who know her are growing concerned about the future, but Carol’s emails to the brother have not been answered.

Anne and I jumped a little in our chairs when we heard the crash upstairs. We didn’t know what it was, but it was loud. We went to her front door and listened upward. “You Chinese snake!” screamed Bertilda. “Get out of my house! I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!” There were other words too. Unnecessary fuck-yous and motherfuckers amid the hate.

We then picked up tones of male voice. Sounding calm. Deep. Heard “not going to charge you…” as the footsteps started downstairs. We concluded that Bertilda hadn’t summoned the cops herself (but who did? Anne was told when she called the police that neither they nor Social Services could do anything until Bertilda injured someone or damaged property).

We felt like rubberneckers. We closed Anne’s door and stood behind it. After the officer (with the Vietnamese surname) left the house, we dared to venture upstairs. We saw that the crash had been the bookshelf Bertilda kept on the landing outside her door. It looked like she had smacked it hard enough to start it toppling and then the cop must have righted it. It wasn’t quite where it belonged, and most of the books were disheveled.

We tiptoed back to Anne’s kitchen and vaped some OG. It made both of us cough, and I didn’t like the taste. But ten minutes later the biscotti were wonderful.

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