Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Neighbors and Strangers

Ellis was not a neighbor watcher but, nonetheless, she stared out her windows more times than she could count. Her mind was on a netherworld-like pause, somewhere between cottony oblivion and sleepwalking auto-pilot. Why not set her body down, more rag doll than efficient biological organism, right on the desk chair in her back bedroom, or frayed floral wing back in the living room, or schoolhouse wooden chair at the kitchen table? She rotated: morning at the kitchen chair; afternoon at wing back; and desk chair in evening before flopping into bed.

Five weeks with no work. The seconds had ticked loudly in her head at first, small clicks that grew louder, then minutes and hours began to beat away, giving her a headache, until they ebbed and flowed with a swish, a flow without direction that still refused to let her go. Ellis was on a sailboat with no wind and no recourse. This thought made her perk up a second. Sam Towne had taken her sailing last August and she’d imagined it a beginning of something. It was–a friendship that was loosely woven across two hundred miles. He had called every other Thursday. Week-ends he’d been out and about. Not so now with the virus snaring their lives. Sam already had worked remotely and felt guilty he had paying work and she did not. He called less now, though he was at home like she was.

Only a few called at all–a couple old friends, her father, a cousin across town. Her ex-co-workers, never. They were work partners, never lunched or gossiped together. She was the boss then. Now they all were without a job.

She hadn’t loved her manager’s position at a large jewelry store. Ellis appreciated the product yet daily tasks were monotonous, customers’ relentless demands were taxing. Her paychecks eventually afforded her the 975 square foot frame house. It helped her even now feel better. She’d fallen in love with it at first sight four years ago. She could still wrap herself in its natural good ambiance despite a lurking depression.

Now she stayed in bed awhile, let her eyes take in first light as it spilled through sheer ivory curtains. The old maple’s branches gave up two or three robins that trilled, hopped about, flew off with stealth and returned to resume their singing. Ellis watched the leaves unfurl–the tree was that close, close enough to scrape the window in a thunderstorm, to offer shade in summer heat, and to cast a pale green sheen over her compact room as the sun took the sky into its arms. Sometimes this made her cry, all that brilliant new sunshine, but she couldn’t think why…it just all felt tender.

This morning after two slices of toast with cream cheese and a coffee, she had checked her neighbors’ yards. It was becoming the usual routine. The one to her left was quiet at first, then Heidi came out and whacked away at a rectangle of grassy dirt with a hoe. It had been decades since she had seen anyone with a hoe–her father had used one to break up, turn over earth to plant flower bulbs for her mother–and saw that Heidi was making a garden.

At the edge of her own trim back yard was a low stone wall, and then an alley, and beyond that lilac bushes primarily lined the perimeter of Genevieve’s wide, deep lawn. Except that there was an open space and a low gate set between two oaks. A pathway wound through Genevieve’s yard, and Ellis could see quite well much of what went on if she stood close to the wall or sat on it, looking past the gate. Which she did when she walked around. Genevieve didn’t care, it seemed, though she never beckoned exactly but nodded at Ellis, her pale face a smile of an aging goddess. She and Alf lived in a smallish mansion (albeit crumbling after 100 years). But the older woman didn’t get out much even before the pandemic. Another man came and went. Ellis thought he was someone who helped them out, and then a nurse, too, for the husband, she was sure of that.

Lately in daytime Genevieve sat at her patio table with a book, her wide brimmed straw hat shielding her face. And also her cat, Tucker, who stalked a bug or other invisible prey in the lush grass.

Ellis took the plate and cup and set them in the sink, then considered more cleaning. She held up her hands, spread her fingers apart. The ring on her right hand turned so the glittering sapphire was face down. She took it off and put it in a pocket. Her skin was cracked from constant disinfecting, the scrubbing, the attempts to hold every germ at bay. It was becoming a war. She felt battle fatigue already, to her dismay. Sapphires and platinum meant nothing.

She wished Sam Towne would call again, then almost spontaneously called him. Instead, she played an album of old standards and browsed through a home and garden magazine until she fell blissfully asleep.

******

Heidi had never gardened before. Well, she had helped her mother with an herb garden, so she did know a bit about those plants. But she wasn’t a great cook–not like her mother–and the thought of failure hit her in the knees, making them tremble. She gripped square-palmed hands about the hoe tighter and scraped and dug into the topsoil. Surely she could manage to plant a few seeds. That was the main goal now: make sure they had enough food. Her daughter must not be deprived of fresh vegetables and she was not going to the store every week, exposing them to the terrible virus. It had taken four weeks for five seed packets to arrive. When Heidi had checked on the order status, a notice appeared that no more orders would be taken. They were so backlogged that the company couldn’t keep up with demand and deliveries.

It was tiring. Not just the surprisingly sweaty dirt digging, but the way life had left them in this spot. She had been hopeful about that teaching post in Indiana but in these times that was no longer an option. She would stay where she was, then, and make the best of it at the private school, teaching online classes. Who knew how much longer the term would last? They hoped until June. Then she had summer off, as usual, then hopefully when fall returned….but it was too much to think on. Whether or not the country would be safe and healthy enough. Whether her ten year old, Marie, who stuttered when anxiety increased, would stay strong with her. Well, it was up to Heidi, of course, to make things secure. And a garden would be a good way to shore them up in all ways. You fed people and they knew you loved them well, her mother had said. It worked, Heidi knew that.

Yet her mother had loved her brother better. And look where Mason had ended up: Nova Scotia, as far away as he could get from them all. Far from most of the havoc that was wreaked on everyone else’s lives, it seemed. When did they last talk or email?

Marie had taken to sleeping in on week-ends. Heidi did not. She believed if she kept to her routines, starting laundry at 8 o’clock sharp, making coffee while soapy water swirled in the washer tub, making eggs for them both after she finally awakened her daughter, and so on–if she was diligent, nothing could come apart at the seams. It was ritualized living, a spell said against a negative outcome, and she hoped beyond hope that it’d work. Because she was starting to feel soft at the center, as if her abdominal muscles were going lame despite a half hour or more of yoga each afternoon.

Marie opened the screen door and let it crash behind her. She had a fashion catalog in her hand. She liked to browse even though she knew she could ask for nothing new. Maybe not until next fall.

“You find anything good in there?”

“Naw, it’s the usual dumb stuff, leggings, ankle jeans. I have all that. Maybe a jacket.”

“You have two spring jackets.”

Marie shrugged and folded herself into the hanging egg chair suspended from the ceiling of their rectangular covered patio.

“What are you doing with that tool thing?”

“I told you I wanted a garden.”

“But do you know how?”

Heidi stopped her labor and stood with hoe handle cupped in both hands , her chin resting there.

“That never stopped me from doing anything. You can learn things as you go.”

“True, I guess…maybe call Grandma Jean? She has the green thumb, ya know.” She held the catalog close to squinting eyes. She might need glasses, she wasn’t sure, but was saying nothing about it. She flipped the pages. “We could Zoom her tonight.”

Heidi picked up the hoe and worked harder, sweat accumulating under her faded denim shirt collar. Her mother. The woman of many careers. Now there was a person whose luck just got better. What a surprising business, her herb sales soaring as if customers thought little green things might redeem and save them. Heidi’s grip held firm and she put her back right into it and the soil gave way. At the damp end of an hour she saw things were progressing, after all. She imagined food coming from warm dewy air and then serving it up to Marie with a whistle, a jig and a hug. Musicals, she thought, her lost destiny, and laughed aloud.

Heidi heard her neighbor’s door swing closed and looked over at Ellis’ house. The yard was empty; she must have come out and gone back in. Why didn’t they talk more? Now that Ellis was home for good. For now, anyway. The woman was quite pleasant, a cheery greeting at yard’s boundary when she was home–she used to fly off to various trainings and gem trade shows. Must be hard staying home. But Ellis was not that approachable. Even Marie said so, and she could get anybody engaged in a good chat.

She took a seat beside Marie and peered at the bright leggings on a page. “We could get one pair,” she said.

Marie put her hand atop her mother’s dirty one and stared at the freshly turned soil. “Naw, I can wait. Before we know it, we can wear shorts.”

******

Within a lemony warmth spread over walls and floor of the solarium, Alf stirred in his wheelchair and looked at Genevieve longingly. Not that she could see him. He’d join her, but first he just wanted to look.

Genevieve was the most beautiful woman he had ever met when he was twenty-one, and that had never changed. Tall–taller than his five ft. ten inches–and willowy, graceful to the point of seeming less human than most, and her straight blond hair cropped at chin length, her ivory skin forever smoothed in sunscreen…she shimmered. Her words still came to him as they had from the start: liquid, warm, rich with deeper meanings as her alto voice slipped into ordinary air and jazzed it up. He was in love just like that and he never fell out or away. Even when he suspected she was smarter than he was–it added to her allure.

Genevieve was less enthralled with him at start. His potential, she said, was amazing, and hopefully he would follow his great instincts and dream beyond the usual–his dream then was to become the best something in the city. So he made lots of money as a stockbroker and wasn’t happy. Neither was she; her tastes and material wants were not terribly elevated, though her heart and mind reached higher. She kept painting large canvasses from seven to noon each day; it helped her discontent with her narrowed vision, his disappointments. So he tried out a pubic relations firm, became VP, and that was barely closer to what he longed to do. But what was to come next? What was his calling?

After a heart attack at forty-nine, he left the PR work and began to dictate into a machine some story lines for mysteries. To pass the tedium of halting days and a burden of too-long nights. To distract from his severe failure to remain a specimen of health.

Soon those jottings became stories. He asked Genevieve’s opinion as she was far better read than was he. He trusted her. She found the weak spots and magnetic aspects, suggested character strengths, weaknesses or quirks he might add. She smiled more. She became his happy shadow in his study, plying him with herbal tea and lemon poppy seed scones as she gradually worked alongside him in the afternoons. Those stories turned into books–he simply had a knack for it. And he was finally content. And Genevieve found her way to selling paintings, a show here and there.

Then came the stroke at 73, and it swept him off his feet and landed him in a cave of grief. He wrote nothing–for that matter, he spoke almost nothing of any kind of value– for seven, eight months as he worked to make his various appendages move in a less tentative or spastic way, to create strength out of little, and mental and spiritual plenty out of such paucity as he had never known. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, shuddered at the heap he had become. His legs never got as well as he wanted. he sat more in the wheelchair than he though he’d allow of himself. But surrender sometimes is best when you are clearly on a losing streak.

Yet there was Genevieve, talking with him, helping him. reading to him, painting and humming beside him as he adjusted to the wheelchair. She was not a sentimental woman despite pale beauty or considerable other assets. Every time Alf thought to give up–what good was he to anyone? how could she even bear his presence now? what stories were left in the wide world to share?– she told him no such thoughts were allowed to park in his brain cells, only the knowledge that he would go forward, and find the good in each day, in every hour. It sounded nuts. But they would grow old together, and now the process was well underway, and only a few complaints.

So, he’d learned how to write again and he had another book coming out. It was about them, their love and smarts more or less, with a crime or two tossed in.

She turned then in her chair on the patio, one hand holding her hat in place. Her hair was kept golden, cropped close about a lined face; her figure was still narrow and tensile, at ease in the world. Basic good health clothed her though she was slower than last year in gait and sparser of hearing. She didn’t care; she was still pleased with their life. Even though his books sold a bit less well and the house was not quite up to standards for a place that took up half a block, lawn included. They were entirely at home with each other and generous surroundings.

They could care less that they had to remain in place due to the pandemic, though the terrible loss of life and the mess of politics were points of head-shaking woe every day they spoke of it. They might stay well, or they might not, and meanwhile they lived.

Alf raised a shaky hand, half-waved. She waved back, her hand moving like that of a beauty queen–though she’d scoff at such a foolish picture. He wheeled himself close as she poured two glasses of iced tea. April might seem early, but it was iced tea as soon as it was sweater weather.

Alf took a long draft and then held her pale blue eyes. Tucker lept off her lap with a meow, lept onto his then left very fast to chase a bee.

“I think we might entertain more,” he said.

She cocked her head. “Entertain? How might we manage that, darling Alf?”

“You know, invite people closer, serve tea and food, maybe something good Clive can cook; he cooks four days a week, anyway.”

Her right eyebrow rose in a gentle arch and she murmured, ‘That’s true. He’d not complain of a few more now and then. But we have to remain apart, you know, socially distanced. Quite a lot of distance, Alf, remember? Hard to hold a group conversation that is not around a table. Or the fire pit.”

“Still.” He wheeled himself farther out to the patio’s tiled edge, almost halfway to the large fire pit where they used to gather people every week-end. Long ago. He gestured across the alleyway. “Those two. Three, I guess. They watch us, and we watch them. What are they called?”

Genevieve got up and went to him. Hands then rested on the wheelchair handlebars, readied to push is needed.”You mean Ellis and Heidi and her daughter….Mary or Marissa…no, Marie, I think. You’re suggesting we have them over here?”

“We might certainly do that. We can stay in our chairs on the patio to eat, while they can come in the yard, enjoy a small spring table well laid. We can still chat at the requisite number of feet–six is it now? Or they can stay at the edges, back here by the fire pit, enjoy its glow.” He looked up at her. “I miss other people sometimes, don’t you? We had such fun.”

She patted his shoulder then walked toward the lilac bushes and the gate at the alley; looked over the stone wall of Ellis’ and at the child with Heidi, her mother, then walked slowly back again.

“Extraordinary idea,” Genevieve said. She tapped her upper lip twice with a long finger, a bent elbow cradled in her other hand, a habit of hers. “I like it.” She leaned down, planted a kiss on a bristly cheek. “Let me think it over more. Come up with a plan. What a surprising person you turned out to be, Alf!”

Alf had heard that many times and it always filled him up with a warm humming. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath– the perfume of nearby cherry blossoms came to him, and cinnamon from the iced tea he had propped in his lap with his better hand, and her signature scent of lilies of the valley. And Genevieve smelled these, too, and the faint tang of sweat from her husband, and she laughed softly, thinking how fortunate they had been. And she felt it like a miraculous thing, a blessing amid the worst of times.

******

They all met there once a week thereafter. Ellis brought masks that they sometimes used, other times tucked into their pockets. They were never too close, always counting mentally the feet between them– yet never that far away, just placed so they could hear to share ideas and swap vignettes, even dumb jokes. Marie instituted a “show and tell”: they had to bring something quirky, interesting, or of real personal value. They felt safe standing like that in the evening, sitting apart around the fire, Alf and Genevieve seated ehind them but pitching in thoughts often enough. The savory and sweet foods they took turns making were satisfying, and the night air at once invigorating and calming. If it rained, they missed the time with each other but stored up more talk and searched for odd things to bring, items that told of their lives and wove more stories.

It was the best they could do, considering, even much more than Heidi and Ellis imagined possible a few weeks before. Or Genevieve and Alf. Marie wondered what took them so long, but she never said that to any of them, not even her mom. She knew adults had to take their time to figure things out right. But somehow she knew the oldest of them, Alf, as welcoming as her old teddy bear, had been the one who got it all going. Genevieve, too, but she was like a worn silk scarf; it took a little time to get comfortable with her, and then you were glad you did.

As they talked to one another more it felt as if they were becoming friends. The best things could come out of weird, scary times, Marie thought, and she couldn’t wait to wheel Alf around the block when the world got better.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Neighbors and Strangers

I'm happy to hear from you! Tell me what you think.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s