Until the morning the naked old lady sat in the middle of the street, we thought the house directly in front of ours was vacant. It had a look of recent and hurried evacuation to it. No car in the drive, browning grass strew with a few pieces of junk mail that had escaped the overflowing slot in the door, pulled blinds that had a lank and deflated dinginess to them.
Our own house had been a foreclosure. When we first came to see it nine months ago it had looked pretty much the same as the one across the street. Actually, it was worse. It had stood empty for four months, and before walking away from it, in the final months of their despair, the former owners had lost interest or energy to do much upkeep. I’d had to really work to get Shannon to see my vision of what the house could be with a little loving care.
She was uncertain. Shannon was willing to settle for something smaller in a less conservative part of town. “They might not appreciate us here,” she had said after peering up and down the winding street.
“Don’t we have the right to live where we want?” I had asked rather smugly.
She had looked at me from over the top of her sunglasses. “Frida, Rosa sat on the bus and Martin walked to DC for our skin, not our hearts.”
“They were gettin’ around to that I’m sure. But, in the meantime, here I’ll have room for my studio and you’ll have a place for that installation you call exercise equipment.”
She got a keen gleam in her eyes but was still doubtful. I appealed to the residue of snobby materialism that I knew was there; I had pointed out that the community bordered one of the most exclusive enclaves.
Sometimes our flaws can be good things.
No welcome wagon pulled up when we moved in; but they didn’t burn crosses on the lawn either.
The Holdens, the childless younger couple on our right, were distantly pleasant. They smiled. They waved. They asked bland questions. When you turned your back on them, if you happened to look back quickly, you would catch a bewildered, bemused blankness falling over their pale faces as they evaluated the exchange as if it had been a judged performance. Had they shown enough teeth in their smile? Had they raised their hands high enough and with enough animation? Had they put enough bright punch behind the unintentional stumble in the question, “And your…partner? How is she today?” to push beyond the hesitation so that the fragile sincerity was heard there by which ever one of us they spoke to?
I always came away from brief encounters with the Holdens feeling that something had been left incomplete or undone. It was like when you drive five miles and suddenly wonder if you unplugged the iron, or when you climb in to bed, snuggle close to the woman you love and have an urge to jump up to check the back door.
Shannon calls the Holdens the Greenies. ”Green politics, green money, green naivety,” she grumbles when she looks out the kitchen window and sees their line-up of recycling bins, or when Mr. Holden tries to explain about the waste water reclamation system he is planning to present at the next community meeting. “Green stink,” Shannon concludes.
Mr. Holden always asks Shannon why we aren’t at the meetings. They leave at about the same time every morning so she sees him more than I do. He can’t understand, either, why we don’t get the flyers. He keeps promising to let her know when the next meeting will be.
He never does but the apologies he gives while getting into his Prius seem sincere.
The Holdens at least make an effort to acknowledge us unlike the Windsons on the left. At least, we thought that was their name– Mr and Mrs. Windson. They have never introduced themselves. We were the ones left standing in a daze of deep introspection after we encountered them or their purple haired son on the street. We were the ones asking ourselves if we hadn’t spoken loud enough, or had our wave been blocked by the shrubbery, or maybe our various weight loss plans had kicked into action when we weren’t looking and we’d actually lost pounds and were unaware that we’d shrunk down to nothing overnight.
I thought Windson an unlikely surname. Shannon swears that’s what was on a piece of misdirected mail that she had taken over one afternoon. “Are you sure? Maybe there was an ‘l’ in there? Maybe?” I had teased just to see her nostrils flare.
I still think she’s cute when her nostrils flutter with her exhaled irritation.
She does not find my teasing as endearing as she once did. Ten years ago she would have flashed to anger prepared to burn me with her sharp tongue only to find herself melting when she realized I was trying to push her to a laugh. Now it takes less to flare her nostrils. Higher melt-point, I guess.
“I think I know my letters, thank you,” she had snapped on that day. She did have every right to be angry. Mrs. Windson had responded to her ringing the doorbell by parting the sheer panels on her fancy front door’s window panes and staring out as if no one stood there waving a windowed envelope on the other side of the glass. “Bitch couldn’t even part her lily white lips to say hello, oh hi, oh thank you, nigger, for bringing my mail over,” Shannon had ranted. “Should have kept the damn MasterCard bill. Charged it up.” Her nostrils went from nastee to just nasty and I had walked away to another room where I only had to listen to her voice banging into the walls.
I won’t mention what Shannon usually calls the neighbors on the left.
Due to the fact that the street curves as it flows down a hill– and because we haven’t yet agreed on a pet to walk–we only had to deal with those three houses; the Greenie, the Windsons, and that vacant one.
It bothers me sometimes that we are not more neighborly, or more involved with the community. Shannon tells me it doesn’t matter; it comes down to having each other, as we always knew it would. She reassures me but sometimes I think she wonders too.
Sometimes I think she imagines how different it would be if we’d stayed on the other side of town.
Yesterday was a hectic morning. My car was in the shop and so Shannon was driving me in. I really didn’t have to be at work early and so had indulge my desire to play when I woke up. She hadn’t complained during the play but was nothing but vocal blaming as we rushed to get out of the house. At the door, I was walking behind her when I ran in to her back. I had stood on my tiptoes to look over her shoulder to see what had stopped her. At first I only saw Mr. Holden standing on the curb. He looked like a man who’d just had his traveler’s checks stolen in a foreign country–glancing around for both authority and a translator. Looking beyond him I saw what I thought was a lumpy discarded kitchen trash bag in the middle of the street. One of those tall white bags with the red drawstring.
I have to admit that my first thought was, “Oh great, someone dumped their trash in the middle of the street. Why’d they have to do that in front of our house?
And then the illusion of a bag split and there were weak white arms flailing and a piteous moan.
Shannon said later that I pushed her and yelled at her to call 911. I remember it as pushing around her. I ignored Mr. Holden as I stormed out into the street. My momentum seemed to pull him along. I felt him coming up behind me as I knelt down next to what was an elderly woman. She was blue white with a streak of nasty red down one shoulder. She looked like one of those models of a human body that has been stripped of its flesh, muscle, and fat to leave a map of collapsed veins, swollen arteries, and nerves. I was afraid her wrist was going to snap when I gently held it between my fingers. I could feel her heart racing as if there was not enough blood to fill her and each pump had to cover great distances to do any good for her cold body.
Her nails were curved thick talons and they raked at me. Not in violence; it was like she was trying to clutch something warm. Her toothless mouth hung open and her coated white tongue poked from it with each moan. I thought of baby birds as I pulled her into me, trying to cover her nakedness and press into her whatever it was of mine she needed.
Mr. Holden dropped to one knee beside me. His eyes were in puddles. His face was blanched white except for three red spots: his cheeks and the tip of his nose. His mouth worked like a baby bird’s, too. He reached toward the woman.
“I wouldn’t touch her.”
I turned to see Mrs. Windson bending for her morning paper. Her eyes were on Mr. Holden. “Just leave her alone. She’ll wander back into that hovel she calls a house eventually.” Her hand gestured with the paper to the house across the street. She smoothed the pleats of the white tennis skirt she wore. “No telling what kind of…vermin she has.”
“You know her, Barbara?” Mr. Holden said, his voice an incredulous whine. “Barbara? You know her?” The simple question repeated was really many questions. You know this poor woman? You know this woman was over there? You know what’s happening?
A bright yellow sweater tied around Mrs. Windson’s neck rose as she shrugged.
Mr. Holden’s eyes spilled some of the liquid to his cheeks. Still looking at the woman dressed for tennis, he placed a firm hand on the old woman’s back. He stroked her skin.
I was watching his face. Shannon told me later that as the sound of sirens came up the hill, Mrs. Windson had snapped open her paper, browsing it while strolling into her house.
I was shattered after the ambulance left. We–Mr. Holden, Shannon, and I–had stared down at a discarded hypodermic sheath as the siren warble, rushing down the hill, switched in and out of our hearing. Don, who Mr. Holden had become as we’d watched the paramedics work, pursed his lips in and out, twisted his mouth from left to right like he was deciding where to spit a watermelon seed. “I didn’t know,” he declared finally. He walked away. His car did not move that day and neither did ours.
Shannon held me all night. Her physical arms were gone in the morning. I woke up missing her though I knew it was Saturday and I could hear her on the other side of the house in the kitchen. I had weird thoughts laying there. I tried not to imagine Shannon in the middle of the street with Mrs. Windson staring out her windowpanes and Don Holden teetering on the curb unsure what to do. Or another scenario; our house on fire, Shannon and I trapped inside, Don Holden wondering if he would conserve more water running a hose from his front yard or the back and Mrs. Windson in a lawn chair holding a bag of marshmallows for s’mores. Or, how about this one? A mob in white robes burning crosses and Don with hands in pockets while Mrs. Holden pointed to our door. Or, maybe the mob was not racist at all, maybe they would just want to convert us through rape. I could not tell what Don would do in that situation but something told me Mrs. Windson would be at her property line handing out tubes of lube and condoms. Who knew what vermin we had, after all.
“What’s so funny?” Shannon came in with a breakfast tray.
I sat up to make room for her. “We are between bland uncertainty and malicious indifference.”
The folds of skin on her forehead said that she hadn’t a clue what I was talking about, or maybe just didn’t care. There was no nostril flare though. She had a blue flyer trapped under one well defined arm. “Announcement about the community meeting,” she waved it at me. She set it aside. Picked it up. Set it down again. She held it again. “I think it was the old woman’s son or maybe grandson I saw just now. Putting a ‘for sale’ sign up across the street.”
For a brief second I thought that was something she was reading from the flyer. “You want to move, don’t you?” I was glad when she didn’t answer me right away. An immediate yes would have meant that she was thinking it was my fault we were there.
She set the flyer down again. “Did you know the Windson with breasts was a realtor?”
“How would I?” I asked after a moment.
“Do you want to move?” I asked again thinking it wouldn’t be like we were running away. We’d done a lot, invested a lot. We could call it flipping.
“Do you?” She reached in a pocket and held up a business card. “Just got this from a motivated professional.”
“The bitch didn’t,” I laughed.
“The bitch did.” She threw the card aside and picked up a roll from the tray between us. She chewed and swallowed. “What would MLK do?”
“He wouldn’t give her the listing.”
A slight flare of her nostrils. “About moving, Frieda. What would Dr. King do, you think?”
“Oh,” I took the roll from her. “Have a dream, give a speech, be assasinated.”
She allowed a laugh before taking the roll back. “And our girl Rosa?”
“Keep her head low and her ass in the seat.”
Shannon gave me more a chortle than a laugh as she moved the tray. “Well, let’s be Rosa.”