If it hadn’t been for the mini clay flowerpot falling from her windowsill, they may never have come close to her, but it narrowly missed Henry’s left foot. Shards of it scattered and bounced on the street; a piece lodged itself under Lena’s bicycle tire as she came to a halt. The purple pansies–three flowerets–landed without fanfare.
Henry was sixteen, hanging out at the curb, impatient for his finals to be done and summer to be fully loaded with sunshine and freedom. Lena, three years younger, had ridden her bike to the store to get sweet onion and potatoes for hash their mother was to make with leftover corned beef. She was just returning. Tate, aka Tattler, eight, had been picking at a scab on his left elbow. He kept an eye on a gathering of ants that was about to swarm a tidbit of salami he’d dropped for that express purpose.
Tattler ran over, stood beneath Mrs. Hemming’s window and pointed his grubby index finger at her.
“Wait ’til my ma hears about this! A pot on that narrow windowsill? About killed us!”
Mrs. Hemming poked out her pale face, then faded back into shadow again, grabbing her big black cat. She didn’t like people looking up at her. She wanted to be the one looking, and spent countless hours each day watching cars cough and speed along, bikes slip between pedestrians and vehicles with a brringbrring of bells, the hectic lives of husbands and wives. And those children who were forced to go to school plus the ones who got to take a day off for a cold that wouldn’t quit, so they leaned out their own windows and made faces at her if she stared too much. The teenagers intimidated her with their carrying on, loud tossing of words, their gauche laughter and groans dominating the airwaves. Sometimes, if they or anyone else awakened her from nap or nighttime slumber, she had an angry word or two for them. Henry and his siblings had been admonished to pay her no mind.
“A pot! That’s the third time since winter something has crashed down from her third story window. Careless,” Lena said, parking her bike and kneeling to look at her tire. “But… I guess no harm done.”
“I’m telling Mom. She’s a menace.”
Henry gave a sharp laugh. “Big word for you, shrimp. The old lady is bored, probably. Maybe she bumped into it. Or Black Velvet pushed it over when she sat down. You know she’s not right or she’d be out and about like everyone else, have a life.”
Henry picked up the shards after two cars whizzed by and there was a lull. He dumped them into Mrs. Hemming’s trash can and looked up. She was still absent, but he heard her cat, Black Velvet (they named it as it looked quite plush), cry a few times, as if the fallen pot offended her, as well.
Lena trudged up the stairs with bulging mesh bag in tow. “I’m going in to give these to Mom.” She turned back to Henry. “We should take the flowers, replant them. Better they live than die.” She had a soft, pained look on her face as she glanced at them, limp and forgotten by the road.
Lena was always saying dramatic things. She was usually level-headed and Henry liked that but there were times she was so much heart and soul he wanted to run for cover. He liked things that made sense. He was into drawing but that made sense, too, the perspective, depth; shapes and colors changing white space.
“Henry.” Lena turned to face him, her wide eyes pleading. “Please?”
“I have to take this food into Mom and get an iced tea.”
He frowned at her hard. Lena went inside and slammed the door.
“They’re dead already, leave ’em,” Tattler said as he lay down to better scrutinize the ants at work. “This meat smells gross.”
Henry crossed the street with a dismissive wave at his brother.
“Don’t go!” Tattler called after him. “Lena tries to make us do stuff just like Mom.”
Henry craned his neck to get a better look at Mrs. Hemming’s window–only scrubby grey emptiness was there now–and then picked up the bedraggled flowers. He looked around for something to put them in and saw a discarded paper coffee cup a few feet away. It was clean enough so he tucked them in and dashed between a red scooter, a battered Ford truck, and a very fast bike. He thought he heard Mrs. Hemming but when he looked again all he saw was Black Velvet.
He could see his mother raise their own window sash.
“Bring those poor flowers in and set the table. And tell Tate to come take out the trash.”
“I’ll take out the trash and Tattler can do the table.”
After Tattler took out the trash and Henry set the plates ’round the oak table, their father got home. They filled up on hash, their own green beans and fruit salad. No one mentioned the pot falling; it seemed unimportant as their father told them about another lay-off at work.
Afterwards, Lena carried the battered cup of pansies to the back yard. Henry followed to see where she was planting them. Instead, she took them out and nearly cradled them.
“You’d think they were babies,” Henry laughed. “Put them over by the African daisies.”
“I’m leaning towards putting them in another pot. And maybe taking them over to her.”
“Why? She dropped them.”
“Did she?” Lena’s blue eyes fixed their powerful gaze on him. “I think Black Velvet tipped them over. She doesn’t usually put flowers out there. Maybe they needed some air and light and the cat sat next to them and they fell over.”
“You’re suddenly the good neighbor? We’ve known she was there all our lives–well, for almost ten years–and she has never spoken to us except to tell us to quiet down. She sits there every day, rudely peers at people, keeps track of where they go and when, who they hang out with, who moves out and in. Drops stuff! Remember the used plastic fork and knife with paper plate that sailed down in spring? Dad picked those up.”
“I guess you’ve kept an eye on her, too, Henry.” She got an empty green shiny-glazed pot. “That’s her life.” She scooped out potting soil from the big value-sized bag, spooned some in the pot, added the flowers, then more soil.
The narrow rectangular yard was a carnival of colors and shapes, bees and birds. Their parents worked hard on it every year, planting vegetables and flowers, building it up and diversifying. The spiders and other creeping things were in heaven. Henry and his family sometimes gathered at a picnic table after the sun went down. He knew he’d miss all that when he left home eventually.
Lena was patting the soil down, her thin, dark blonde hair a sheer veil across her face. She held it up to Henry for his approval so he showed his admirable teeth in mock appreciation. But the pansies did look more than decent. Tattler opened the back screen door and let it bang a couple of times before he closed it tight, then sat by his older brother.
“Looks good. I know you think we need to take it march it back to her.”
“What? No way!” Tattler banged his knee.
Lena’s face lit up. “Yes! That’s what I wanted you to say–not you, Tattler, Henry–I know you don’t care. Perfect. Let’s go.”
“What will Mom and Dad think of that? What if she’s…you know, a little scary?” Their little brother had more bravado than either of them but he was often cowardly in the end.
“I don’t think they’d mind us doing that–they belong to her, anyway. How scary can she be? No one has complained except to say she’s a loner and odd.”
They had been in the apartment building to visit a few friends over the years, but not up to the third floor, to the door number that was noted on Mrs. Hemmings main entry mailbox. But there they were, just like that after a lifetime.
They looked at each other, Lena’s eyebrows rising and falling. Henry rubbed his chin and sucked his lower lip in. Tattler punched the doorbell twice, two sharp rings heard beyond the door. There was a peephole and they all stared at it. No sound came to them at first so they waited in uneasy silence. Then there was shuffling along the wooden floor and Black Velvet meowing tiredly as if it was a bother to pad alongside Mrs. Hemming to deal with a nuisance.
“Saw you out there.” The muted words seemed to emanate through the keyhole. She had a low voice, a little scratchy. Was she bent down to it, speaking into it as if it was a telephonic device? “Go away.”
Lean bent over and talked back through the keyhole. “Mrs. Hemming, we have your flowers.”
No answer. Black Velvet mewed louder now, scratched the door.
“The ones you about dropped on our heads!” Tattler offered.
Henry stepped forward. “If you’ll just open the door a little, we can slide through the flower pot. We fixed them for you.”
“She’s not going to open her door to us,” Lena hissed at him. “She doesn’t even know us. Let’s just leave them.”
“She knows us,” Henry whispered back.”She sees us nearly every day, I’ll bet you.” He knocked lightly on the door. “Please open so we may give the pansies back. We know you didn’t mean harm. They fell, right?”
“Gosh, Mrs. Hemming, open up, we’re almost actual neighbors!” Tattler stared at the keyhole, then started down the hall. “I’m leaving!”
Henry hesitated, then touched his sister’s arm, signalling time to go but Lena looked intensely at the door as if she could will the doorknob to turn. He couldn’t believe she was going to wait but that was how she was when she had an idea accompanied by big feelings. Sure enough, she bent down to the keyhole again.
“Mrs. Hemming, I just want to tell you we have a wonderful garden. I could bring you vegetables. Maybe. I’ll check with Mom. I love your pretty black cat. We even named it Black Velvet. I see you at your window, too. I even wave, you know that, right?”
Henry made a noise in his throat, a harrumph sort of sound. He didn’t wave. Well, maybe on holidays if no one was nearby.
The cat stopped meowing and pawing at the door. They began to think the woman had left for somewhere else, her room to get away from them, to her television corner–did she have one?–to distract her from two young hooligans who were bothering her. Maybe she was nervous, even scared.
Lena put the flowerpot down by the door, the purple pansies nodding their lovely revived heads with the movement. The two of them studied the worn wooden door. There was a hook on it that must have once held a plaque or a holiday wreath. Something.
He chimed in a last thing, “They’re in a new pot, green and shiny.” But it was feeling stranger to yak at a closed door in a dim, empty hallway to someone who didn’t care.
Lena leaned her shoulder against the door jamb. “I’m sorry…about things. If you’re happy to have the flowers back, maybe put them on the window sill so we know…”
Henry tugged at his sister. He knew she was disappointed even though it would have been surprising if Mrs. Hemming opened the door even a hair. She had been apart from others so long; she was aged enough to have pure white hair wound into a fat knot on top of her head. No one did that, anymore, they cut it all off. She was bent over from a painful back or from hunching up at the window all these years. Just that much he could tell from the street when he saw her. He had heard from his mother that volunteers for the elderly shopped for her, even took her out if needed but he’d only seen that happen once when she had pneumonia last winter. He was amazed she’d returned.
They ran down two flights of stairs. Mrs. Hemming just didn’t want to hear from them, didn’t care about the flowers or their efforts. She liked being left to the companionship of Black Velvet. She couldn’t face the world, he guessed. Maybe it had disappointed her, maybe one day she had gone outside to do an ordinary errand on a blue sky day and something terrible had happened right before her or she’d lost her way and panicked. Or her husband dropped dead before sixty and that was that for sociable living. No one seemed to know, everyone had a different story when asked. And no one really cared about it one way or the other, now. Or her.
They burst through the main door and into early summer air, light sweetness replacing dusty, clingy smells, that cave-like feel. Lena went into the townhouse without a backward glance and was met by an excited Tattler. Henry sat down on a step to call his friend. It was surprising, what they had done, and not altogether good, he thought. They might have made things worse.
The friend’s line was ringing when he saw a slight movement at the third story window, the waning light flashing off a windowpane. A hand grasped the green flowerpot of pansies. It was placed inside, facing the wide open window, a safer spot. They looked lively up there, so colorful. Black Velvet jumped up, took her post near the pot. It all felt right and good. Henry ended the call. Maybe he’d grab his sketchbook.
One of the two narrow window doors were partially closed against a cooling breeze. But Mrs. Hemming reached out and made the smallest salute to the dusk, to Henry, that empty, ancient palm suspended as if waiting for more from the quieting street, the tired and misunderstanding world. Then it withdrew once more. She had seen him. And he had at last seen her.