THE MYSTERIOUS LADY AT 407 EAST FIRST by Walt Sehnert

For a long time we’ve had the rental property at 407 E. 1st St. in McCook. For the most part it has been a good property. It’s in a nice neighborhood, right across the alley from the Congregational Church. And it has been a happy place. At one time Mrs. Gaye and Mrs. Smiley each had an apartment in the large building at the same time that Mrs. Joy lived in a little cottage on the same property. Once the place was a little too friendly – the time that the young woman in #4 took a particular attraction to members of the local Junior Chamber of Commerce membership and came close to shutting down our local chapter. But that is another story, probably best forgotten.

 

But things change over time. Mrs. Gaye went a rest home. Mrs. Joy went to live with her daughter and Mrs. Smiley’s husband was transferred to the oil fields in Oklahoma. And the popular lady in #4 opted to move out of state, much to the relief of the local J.C. Chapter.

 

For many years after that, Vera, a very strange lady, occupied the cottage. I supposed that she was a widow, though it was rumored that she still had a husband, a railroad man. I never saw him. She was as close to a recluse as I’ve ever known. All day, every day, she stayed in her little cottage, with the blinds drawn. Only at night, about 10 p.m. did she venture out, and this was to take her evening meal at the Olympia Cafe, near the depot. On these outings she walked very fast and kept to the side streets.

 

Once each week, late on a Sunday night, Vera burned trash in the incinerator back of her cottage on the alley. What she burned no one was ever sure, but she carefully attended the flame, feeding bits of paper and boxes into the fire. In the firelight she had a rather grotesque look, quite ghostly, with her hair flying in the breeze.

 

But when she took her nightly trip to the Olympia she dressed up. Her appearance, on these trips, added to the mystery of Vera. She wore very heavy makeup and her cheeks were a very bright red, under a very full black hat which shielded her eyes. She always wore the same long, old fashioned dress which ended halfway between her knees and her ankles, and when the weather was cold she had a long black overcoat, which she wore unbuttoned, so that it flapped in the breeze behind her as she walked.. Canvas running shoes and baggy brown stockings completed her ensemble.

 

The reason I can recall her appearance so well is that once each month she would stop at our house on her way back from the Olympia, to pay her rent – always between 11 and 12 at night. On these occasions she would visit pleasantly as Jean made out her receipt, and was surprisingly well informed about what was going on about town. One of the things that she told us was that her teeth had started to grow again and that they continued to grow until they simply dropped out of her mouth. For sometime she appeared to have fangs, giving her a rather ghoulish countenance.

 

Alex Gochis, the proprietor at the Olympia, told me that Vera always ordered the same thing to eat – a bowl of soup and a six pack of beer. She would eat the soup with crackers, put extra crackers into her purse, and drink one can of beer. The other five cans of beer she took home. Apparently, during the day she finished off the six pack and ate the crackers. Only rarely did I ever see the grocery deliveryman bring something to her door. Then, he was instructed to leave the bag on the doorstep, and she would shove the money for the groceries through a slit in the screen.

 

Years later, our son, Matt, told us that he and the neighborhood boys would often stop to see Vera, and visit with her (through the window of course), and after their conversation Vera would give each boy a single stick of gum, usually Juicy Fruit or Doublemint. There was a one inch notch between the sill and the screen, just large enough to pass the gum, one stick at a time. They liked talking with her, like talking with a real witch. They thought she wore her Halloween costume year around.

 

One time we had abnormally high water bills at that address. The plumber was there several times, each time finding a minor problem that he fixed. But the water bills kept getting worse. “I’m sure the problem is in the cottage”, he said. “But that strange old lady won’t let me in to see”.

 

I tried to get in the cottage. Each time I’d ask, Vera would say that she thought that the problem was fixed, or she was not feeling well that day and could I come back later. She always had an excuse, and I never did get in.

 

The plumber and I had decided that we would have to wait until she took her nightly trip to the Olympia and steal into her cottage between 10 and 11 at night if we were ever to find out if there really was a serious leak.

 

We had just not gotten around to take that drastic step when we got a call from a lady acquaintance of Vera, in McCook. Had we seen anything of Vera? She had not been to the Olympia for several nights and she was worried.

 

I was out of town, so Jean and the lady went to the cottage together, afraid of what they might find. And what they found was bad. Vera was lying on the couch. She had been dead for, the undertaker figured, 3 days. In her closet were boxes of clothes, new clothes and shoes that had never been worn. For some reason had she been saving them. We could only guess why.

 

Little by little, we learned Vera’s story, a very sad story indeed. We learned that in her youth she been a beautiful young lady, with a lovely singing voice, truly the belle of McCook, with many potential suitors. She was well educated and had taught school for a few years before she met and married the railroad man who became her husband. When he strayed she became incensed, took extreme measures, and threatened him and his new friend with a shotgun. The husband then decided to take a transfer to the Denver office and never came back to McCook. After that Vera retreated into her shell more and more, and lived her reclusive life for more than 50 years, leaving no family, no close friends, and only a handful of acquaintances.

 

And the water leak in the cottage? Yes, there was a drip, no, it was rather a constant stream, in the kitchen sink. Since the water in McCook is naturally hard, the buildup of lime in the sink was almost 1/2 an inch thick, so thick, in fact, that it was possible, and really quite easy, to chip it off, returning the sink back to the original porcelain. And yes, our water bills dropped back to normal.