The Norliss Street Recluse

Henley Ann Mirabel was walking aimlessly in the gauzy bloom of heat, odds and ends crowding her head, like how absurdly high the cable bill was and Tony due to arrive from Maryland too soon (for her) and what was that extra ingredient in the peach cobbler she and her daughter consumed last night at Val’s Tasty Time Cafe. It was a morning like many others, the heat clinging like a web of plastic wrap so her clothes began to stick to her, too. It was not the best time to walk but when was it different? Ever since she had moved to Arlen, Tennessee she’d longed for a light breeze that was so void of moisture she could dry her hair on the patio over a cup of steaming coffee. Now she put ice in her mug. Her hair remained damp even when she pulled it back into a soft knot. She should know this; she had spent her first twelve years in Tennessee.

Sara didn’t care about any of that. As long as she had a nice second grade teacher–which she did, Miss Fran–and new friends (three so far), and her mom was waiting for her at the end of the day, all was alright. More or less. She missed her dad but he was around more than before and was again coming to visit. They always stayed in the terribly small but newer hotel (twenty-five rooms for a surprising boom) by the river. It had a giant outdoor pool, she informed her mom. It felt like a reprimand for leaving behind their private pool in Maryland; they’d enjoyed it only in brief summers.

They’d had a lot of things in Maryland: a bountiful flower garden just beyond the wraparound terrace, a contemporary glass and redwood home that allowed for parties of fifty, three cars, a housekeeper, a studio at the edge of the property for Henley’s writing of the next installment in her middle reader’s series. There was so much they had that it almost hid the danger spots in a marriage going off the rails. But sooner than expected it all fell apart.

Like Sara had finally yelled from the hall as her parents each slammed different bedroom doors and disappeared: “If you can’t actually be nice friends then why do you even say you’re trying to be better friends?”

That’s what did it for Henley. Even their child called them on their charade. Once the divorce was finalized, Aunt Roslyn suggested Henley and Sara come to Tennessee: time for them to spend more time with maternal family. Her parents lived in Florida; Henley refused to process her cracked up marriage on a Sarasota golf course. Her mother’s sister was her favorite aunt. Since Tony worked from home much of the time now, he could visit as often as he wished. The agreement was in place and so they tried it out.

Henley was not as malleable as her child, nor as accepting. She agreed to Tennessee because she had further nursing of woundedness. She was barely getting by more days than not. She wasn’t writing. The damage reversal took greater energy than expected. At least she wasn’t crawling back in bed after dropping Sara off, covering her head for two more hours. She now was able to keep eyelids pressed upward until she slumped into Great Grinds, ordered a mediocre cold brew coffee and requisite snack, then continued on her walk. This was a huge step. Within an hour she felt mostly conscious with less strain at frayed seams of her raw psyche.

In fact, walking was her one tangible pleasure, except when it thunderstormed or, rarely, acted wintry enough to spit slushy ice. She already had a route but was trying to change it up, relearn the lay of a once-familiar landscape. Their pleasant rental home wasn’t too close to her aunt and uncle, closer to countryside.

As she banished peckish thoughts, she turned onto a newer boulevard. She didn’t recall this street but the last time she’d spent more than a couple days in Arlen was in her late teens. Fifteen years ago.

The proud brick homes along Norliss Street sported good yards, wide porches and a several two car garages. It all looked fresh. She marveled over the newness until she walked halfway down to cross over. The structure before her was a two-story, a dulled white that had gone to the dogs, a peeling beige-to-grey. Henley saw it had been a farmhouse before development took over surrounding acreage, but didn’t stir a memory. Overgrown shrubbery obscured porch and windows. Its steps were crooked yet off the porch were hanging a limp, worn American flag by a second flag lively with daffodils and a fat robin. She felt sorry about its disrepair. She began to move on as she spotted in the unkempt yard a leaning post sporting a mailbox-type rectangle. Curious about it she stepped onto the grass and saw it was a poetry post with Plexiglas front. She could see behind the faded paper. It appeared indeed to hold a weathered poem.

She opened the lid, pulled it out, ran her eyes over it quickly then once more. It was about nature, “billowing treetops, elixir of water courting creatures…ebb and flow of light a sheer veil astir.. then a slow darkness like a tired magician fallen asleep.” Finding it interesting she read it again, then looked for the author’s name. E.R. was typed in the bottom right corner.

There was a creaking sound from the house. Henley looked deep into the shady porch but couldn’t make out a body or any other thing. She took a picture of the poem with her phone and started off, then changed her mind, returned. She rummaged for her tiny notebook and pen, took it out and held it against the poetry post and wrote, Lovely, keep at it-HM. Ripped off the page and stuck it in.

She hurried back home, for what she wasn’t sure. Slowly, she went to the small back room, a place meant for writing Number 6 of the Amanda Hartley series. It was painfully tidy, blaring with sunlight, claustrophobic. She longed to throw open a window but it would only taint things with moisture, make the stacked failed pages curl at the edges, waste air conditioning. She turned on her heel and left.

When Sara came home, tossed her book bag on the table and pulled out crackers to munch she asked her right away, “When are you writing another story?”

“Tomorrow.”

“But that’s what you said yesterday. And before.”

“Ask me tomorrow, maybe it will be different.”

Sara paused, a sesame studded cracker halfway into her small mouth. “You seem…tired, Mom. I like it better when you do the Amanda stories. When is Daddy coming for sure?”

Henley winced at the Daddy, his only name; when did Sara call her “Mama” or “Mommy”? Maybe when she got sick or scared. Daddy was the good times parent, it seemed.

“In three nights. Let me get you string cheese and juice to go with those, honey.”

“I finally told the kids at school you’re a writer and they didn’t believe me but Miss Fran said yes, you are, and told them about the books. She knows who you are! ” She giggled, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, stuffed three crackers into her mouth, then reached for the glass of grape juice to make the crackers suitably mushy.

Henley took out her cell phone, looked at the picture of the poem, enlarged the words. It was almost–reaching toward–lyrical. It was in essence pretty good. She felt her spirits lift a little and smiled at Sara.

******

Before Tony came she went out and sat on the porch swing. His loping gait carried his well-conditioned body quickly up the steps. At the screen door he raised a hand to knock, looked around, spotted Henley. She raised her palm in neutral greeting; he gave her the barest smile, Chiclet teeth glinting, eyes wary behind courtesy.

“All is well?” he asked.

“Just dandy.”

“The south still suits you then.”

“In some ways. You?”

“All good. Busier than ever.”

“The house shown more yet?”

“Picking up.”

“Daddy!” Sara cried. Their wonderful child thrust open the door, jumped into his arms.

******

There were two days to do nothing and it was the “nothing” that got to her before she even got out of bed. It would have been easy to lie there, let her dreams pull her farther under. Take her into a land of strangeness, folly, impossible beauty. She thought of her daughter laughing with him, of the fun which she was no longer shared with them. The thought soured her more so she got up, showered, pulled on her black knit capris and a grey T shirt–did she wear anything else, anymore?– and walked to Great Grinds. Rex the barista nodded at her; his pleasing eyes were bleary, too, and with mutual congeniality didn’t force a long chat.

Henley took a bite of walnut and apple scone for more strength. She took her new route, having decided Norliss Street was a good amendment and walked faster to the derelict house. The poetry post still held a paper or two. She hesitated then moved closer to see if there was another poem. Instead, there was a hand written note that began “Dear Lady.” She pulled it out to read, feeling the rise of more interest.

Dear Lady,

Thanks much for liking poem. Maybe more to come. I leave them til they fade, fall apart. No one reads poetry anymore, usually.

You new here?

E.R.

Henley felt someone or even a critter might be watching her but she couldn’t discern anything. Tangled forsythia bushes grew close to the sides of the house. An aging fence with a once-pretty gate enclosed the back yard. She rolled tight shoulders and took a good breath in, let it out slowly. Looked looked down the sidewalk and across the street, then back at the old place.

A poet lived there. She wanted to know how anyone in Arlen wrote like that, then dared share their work. She considered going right up to the door, introducing herself. Still the poem was wrinkled, apparently wet often, smudged. No one had taken it out to keep; not one new poem had likely replaced it in awhile.

There was no one coming out to greet her despite her standing in their yard for ten minutes but then a squeaky noise was emitted from above. A window perhaps pushed open. There were cafe-style curtains of pale yellow floral with a window shade partway drawn, leaving a few inches to look out. There was sudden movement, a blueness that passed before the window and vanished. Henley waited but saw and heard nothing more.

It came to her that maybe she shouldn’t be there writing notes to someone she couldn’t even see much less name. But she took out her notebook and pen.

Dear E.R.,

Sort of new. I have some family here.

Where is the next poem?

I write, too.

HM

She placed it back into the poetry post box, looked about a last time.

As she walked she thought about words, how they meant more, held a more decent weight and value if someone heard or read them. Otherwise, they were echoes of the self’s discharges of energy and various rumblings, and they’d feel so insubstantial they’d float away into some universal recycling center of all language. It probably accumulated so much it tipped the letters into blackness where they floated to nowhere, or became fodder for something better. She laughed at herself: this was what happened to her brain when she thought about writing but didn’t commit one word to the tangible world. They teased her, wound her up, made a mess of her innermost recesses, called out to her like sad lost things. Even sent her to private poetry posts boxes to write strangers, for lack of better purpose.

******

The next morning, early, the phone rang. By the time she got to her cell, a message was left.

“Henley Ann? We’re off to church, of course…. but we’re having a cook out in the afternoon so bring a salad and come on around 2. Is Tony here this week-end? We’d love to see Sara, of course, but please RSVP so I know how many.”

Henley shook her head. She found her aunt’s accent startling, still. Sara was SAY-R; her name was HAINLE-ANN. She erased the message, said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

After she got herself a big iced coffee-it was hotter than blazes out already–plus almond scone, Henley went straight to the poetry house. It was relatively early but a few dozen cars loosely lined the streets. When she approached the area, uncertainty rose up. On one hand, she maybe ought to have two coffees and scones. On the other, she felt she was way too desperate for company or why else would she be there again, even contemplate ringing the door bell? The neighbors probably wondered about her being there and, as if on cue, there was a violent splash of water from a hose. She turned. Sure enough, a heavy man across the street corner was staring right at her as water flowed over his monstrous black truck, down his wide driveway. She lifted her coffee at him; he nodded, went back to his own business. Then he looked over his shoulder as she kept on.

The house looked as if it had gone to sleep long ago and never awakened. How could it be so empty of life? Was reading more poems the best idea? She could keep on going but sipped her chilled coffee, gazing at the poetry post. There seemed to be something else there. She glanced at the porch and upstairs window and then got it out.

In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,

as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.

But when day drains its unease into night

the feathery thing that is darkness

alights on sloping shoulders,

covers secrets as we give up hope

and all that which was, until

sunrise dazzles and dances.

                                        E.R.

Henley blinked, eyes prickling. Who was this E.M.? Was this an author she just hadn’t heard of yet? Was it an old, maybe stolen poem? Aunt Rosalyn might know more about this person.

In the house there could have been someone sitting by a table or resting in bed, some old man confined to a wheelchair and seen by a nurse aide daily who grudgingly posted the poems. Or a woman who long ago deserted social norms, spurned the company of others; she put her poems into the world while others slept.

Mixed voices by the truck made her turn towards them. The man’s wife had come out with giant sponge and bucket; they were talking. Then the woman gestured her way with a laugh. Henley felt the mild sting of their gossip, so took another picture of the poem, wrote a note, placed it back in and hurried on.

E.R.,

You’re a very good poet. I’m Rosalyn Horn’s niece. Want to meet sometime on the porch?

HM

******

“Oh Lawd, that’s Everly Rainard. He burned near half to death in the Wilton Hardware fire, 2011. Maybe about forty-five. He doesn’t talk to anybody, gets his groceries delivered, has help in once every couple weeks.” She sucked her lower lip in, shook her head. “Terrible thing but yes, he likely still writes. He taught at the high school for quite awhile. Ruined his life, that tragedy. Parents left him the house when they passed. He’ll not see people, best leave it alone, Henley. No, he’s not exactly crazy but he’s still not too good. It’s hard. He was very good looking and now…”

That’s what Aunt Rosalyn said at the cook-out but it was enough. As she nibbled at food, fielded questions and made conversation, Henley thought about how she’d go to the door tomorrow, ring the bell. She would do it because he could write, no matter what happened.

Later Sara called to ask if she could stay one more  night with Tony; he’d take her to school. He came by to get her clothes and she waved from his rented Lincoln.

“You really okay, Henley? We can talk if you need to. Sara says you’re not even writing, that’s not like you.”

“What? No, I don’t need to talk. I’m fine. Have fun with Sara.” But she wanted to say, How do you know what’s like me? How do you know what I need? I need beautiful words and kindness and the right to feel sad, even lost for awhile. I need you to just be gone.

******

The next morning Henley carefully carried the cardboard container with two coffees and two raspberry muffins perched on top. He might or might not be willing to share the offerings.

The steps were rickety; she climbed them gingerly, hands out, holding the coffee and treats steady as she kept her eyes on the scratched and stained front door. When she got there, she put the cargo on the porch floor and spotted the door bell. A simple button long disused, might not even ring anymore. She pressed it long and firmly with an index finger.It buzzed inside summoned Everly Rainard. There was the sounds of traffic behind her, raucous robins, a few bees about the porch. No footsteps, no voice. She pressed it once more, feeling the edge of fear pull at her.

The door opened. Slowly, so slowly that if the hinges hadn’t moaned she might not have even seen it move. But an inch, then another inch, then a bit more until she saw just the end of a sofa, the wooden floor. But there was just the barest outline of someone through green gingham curtains on the window.

“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”

The door remained still.

She swallowed; her heart thundered at her throat. ” I really liked your poetry and since I write, too, I thought….I know about the fire, that’s not a reason for us to not talk. Is it?”

It opened more, enough so that if she wanted to she could’ve slipped in sideways but she waited until the space got wider, invited her in.

Henley moved through. Faced him. He wore a baseball cap over wispy hair. What remained of the skin on his neck and face was taut, rough and ruined, lizard skin she imagined it was cruelly whispered. His nose was off-kilter, lips were a once distorted shape that had healed into a reasonable state. Golden brown eyes stared at her shyly from under barest darkened lids, no eyelashes or eyebrows. His face seemed sparked with a furtive anxiety. And curiosity. He took the coffee and muffins from her, stepped away instinctively as she saw his hands, wrists, arms wrapped with more blotchy leathery skin. She felt a flush of pain in her own body that took her breath. Then a jittery relief to be let in, to get this far.

“Well, okay. Come in, Miss…” His deep voice was a soft scrape of the air.

“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”

Everly rested the drinks and food on a beat up coffee table and indicated she might sit down. He sat in a ragged armchair, lowered his head and held out a handful of more poems.

“Please, tell me about your writing first,” he said, raising his eyes and she felt him try to reach past fire’s wreckage, its damnation and its terror, to the refuge they both shared. Henley took his poems and held them gently like flowers in her lap.

 

Mrs. Hemming’s Broken Pot

Photo by Willy Ronis
Photo by Willy Ronis

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.

“Tattler, enough.”

“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?”

“Why me?”

“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.”

“Henry. Now.”

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?”

Stillness.

“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.