Upstairs in late afternoon, in the advancing dark of November, Clora resets the timer on her desk lamp. It should click on at five, switch off at one until the setting begins to drift again like other things she once supposed exact. She wonders how soon it will start to wander, if she’ll still be waiting for light at six or surprised by it at three. Will she be turning a page when it shuts off? She shrugs, but that question is relevant.
At sixty-two and with no obvious health problems yet, she might have a good many years left if she lives as long as Aunt Todie. But for the past month, in fact as soon as she decided to retire, each sign of ordinary wear has given her a twinge: a pen run dry, an empty can of coffee, a branch brought down by the wind, a less resilient step. “Get a grip,” she tells herself.
Taking an objective tack, she sits at her desk, spine nearly as straight as if sitting in the law library office, and figures the median of sixty-two and ninety-four. Arriving at seventy-eight, she winces, “Only sixteen more years?” Still, if she thinks of it as almost a fifth of a century, it isn’t too bad a chunk—depending on how it’s used. Why hadn’t she thought seriously about that long ago instead of surprising herself and the staff by capriciously announcing her retirement on a windy October day when she felt caged by the library walls?
Well. Now that she’s a month into it, what might she do? Easier—what should she not do? Tidying comes to mind at once. No more straightening of lampshades or rugs or books that have slipped askew. Useless weeding. Clipping from the paper, except cartoons for her bulletin board. Ironing, except for collars, plackets, and cuffs.
She adds travel to the growing list, crosses it out, but writes it again—too much nuisance to see things she already knows about.
Resentment will have to go in spite of a Sacramento daughter-in-law who passes the phone to Bruce after a short hello-how-are-you. A daughter-in-law who doesn’t write thank you notes and hasn’t taught her children to either. Those three children. Fears about them won’t be possible to squelch. One boy too argumentative for his own good, the other too rash, little Meg too compliant. Some days she can see nothing but pitfalls ahead for them.
Memories? The wretched ones have seared too deep to forget. The last look from her mother’s eyes. Meeting David at the restaurant. How they’d argued. How he’d stood up and walked out the door, then sauntered down the street arm in arm with that Janice. A week later, the letter from his attorney arrived.
But Clora nods her head as she reads down the list. At least trivia would be done with. She might—she would have to—swallow resentment. Worst fears and memories would always be with her, but with luck she might cushion them with...? What matters.
She instantly thinks of Suzanne. Perhaps she could meet her indomitable friend from grad school two or three times a year instead of only once. She could fly to Baltimore instead of meeting somewhere else. There might even be a direct flight from Portland. But then Clora thinks of their week in Santa Fe last summer, how Suzanne’s short red hair had the wispy look of someone on chemo. How she dismissed this but kept waiting for Suzanne to say something. She hadn’t. Clora tried not to stare and hesitated to ask. In every other respect, Suzanne had seemed the same. And she’d been no different when they’d talked on the phone since then. Clora tells herself now as she did last summer that it was just age and too much dyeing. She will not yet swerve from hope.
What else? Her garden. She could plant so much ground cover that weeds couldn’t tangle around the flowers, at least not enough to damage. She would start in early March with forget-me-nots and vinca around the fragrant Westerland roses before weeds took hold.
Well. Two cushions. But what else? She needs...? A project.
She swivels to look down through the bare maple toward the street of duplexes and porched two-story houses like her own. A few show bright yellow or white after a summer coat of paint. Lamps already glow through some of the curtained windows.
If she sees them on this street, she recognizes, nods to, occasionally waves at the people who live in those houses. She may exchange words about grass or leaves or the temperature with them as she does with Al Garcia next door. Who are they?
She turns back to her desk, shuts her eyes, tries to conjure up each face within five houses of her own. She pulls a sheet of paper from the printer supply, sketches a map of the street leaving space below each of the fifteen house squares to label. A few faces she’s unable to recall. Most she can’t name except Polly, the black-haired girl who sits so long on the porch steps two houses down. Well. That’s one thing she might—should—do. But never mind for now.
What matters to these people in their comings and goings? What do they think they need? Do they know? They must already have cereal in the cupboard, medicine in the cabinet, closets and drawers of clothes, beds to sleep in, clocks to wake them up, at least one car in the garage—and someone to talk to.
Yellow light flashes across the wall. Al’s van with its taxi-like roof sign Garcia Electric punctuated by a lightning bolt has pulled into his driveway. She hasn’t seen much of him lately now that outdoor work is mostly done for the year. She hears the engine cut off, turns slightly, and sees him get out, look toward her house. He goes to the back of the van and pulls out several coils of cable, cartons of what could be circuit breakers or junction boxes—or whatever he told her they’re called—and then some long thin boards. He shoves everything back into the van but the boards, picks them up and then walks toward the row of short boxwood separating their lots. He takes a step between the shrubs, then stops, steps back, and carries the boards toward his own back door.
He’s the one neighbor she’s talked to a bit and has some idea of what he’s about. When his sister, Elena, comes to visit from a town near Cuernavaca, she brings a supply of his favorite peppers, but he prefers to grow his own. When he and Clora are both out hoeing, watering, trimming, picking—he habaneros, poblanos, and small tomatoes, she daisies, peonies, dahlias, roses which several years ago they began to share—he’ll occasionally stop, pat the ends of his grizzled mustache, and remark on the latest headline. He reads the paper every day “to make the English grow.” And from this reading, he has opinions but usually waits for hers before asserting them, “What you think, Mrs. Clora?” She used to believe his deference is due more to her former occupation than her sex, but she’s begun to wonder.
He first offered her tomatoes, which she was glad to accept. Sensing her reluctance to receive peppers, he asked, “You know how to use?”
“Not this kind.”
“I show you.”
Several days later, he knocked at her door to give her some peppers and a sheet of paper with two recipes. He also handed her a pair of disposable gloves. “For the habaneros,” he warned.
Even though he is next door, strange that Al should be the one neighbor she talks with. But perhaps it’s not just proximity. They’re about the same age; they’ve both provided connections and illuminations in their work. Each has an interest in the world’s problems, knows a fair bit about what some of them are, and both enjoy helping something grow. Basis enough, she decides.
But boards? Why would he want to bring her long, thin boards and then think better of it?
Meanwhile this Friday evening, Al Garcia has walked into his kitchen, taken some paper and a pen from a drawer, and sat down at the wooden table. Now he crosses his legs, pressing the top knee against the underside of the table to keep it from wobbling, and begins a letter to his twin sister.
He writes in the date, November 29, and his sister’s name, Elena, instantly thinks better of it, and writes Dear preceding her name. But the Dear is squeezed too close to the margin, looking too much like the afterthought it is, so he crumples the paper and takes out another sheet.
“Dear Elena,” he begins anew. He stops. This isn’t going to be easy. He taps the pen on the table while thinking how to proceed. After some moments of this while gripped by an implacable resolve to protect his privacy, he decides he must be blunt but disguise that with a dollop of courtesy.
“I won’t be here in January when you usually come. Got my biggest contract ever—a clinic in Detroit (not the Detroit of cars but a town southeast of Portland on a lake near the mountains).” And on a river good for fishing, he thinks.
“It’s over a hundred miles away—too far to drive back and forth every day—so I’m renting a place there.” Knowing Elena and thinking of her determination to keep a close tie to him, he adds the word little to describe place, thinks again, and writes, “It’s a little room over a bakery and should do me just fine. The job will take three or four weeks—probably all of January.” If it goes well, he thinks, I could be done in two and a half and back in time for pruning with Clora. “Maybe you could come some other time,” knowing full well that she most probably couldn’t. “After I’m done there, I’ll be working back in Portland.” He strikes that out and writes, “I should be working back in Portland when I’m done, unless another job comes to me in Detroit.”
He’s been gripping the pen so tightly while writing these lies that his hand is shaking. “My god,” he says as he takes a deep breath and massages his fingers, “here I am, nearly sixty, and feeling like a ten-year-old about to be scolded.” Of course he still wants a tie with Elena—she’s one of the few close relatives he has left. But does she have to come every year? For so long? And cook up feasts she expects him to eat almost every day? Expect him to entertain her or drive her to the store the moment he walks in the door? And, worse, ask him questions about his dear neighbor and make him uncomfortable when Clora is in sight?
He does not want her here this year. He reads over the letter and, satisfied, makes a neat copy, puts it in an envelope, seals, addresses, and stamps it.
That done, he looks over at the boards leaning against his kitchen wall, savoring their smoothness, their pliancy. Tomorrow he will show them to Clora and announce his intention. With her permission and before he goes to Detroit, he will build a roofed arbor with its center exactly on the line separating their properties, a place for them to sit and rest and talk. By the time the climbing roses she will be sure to plant beside it have grown to the roof, they will be sitting together on one bench instead of the two he will have installed. They will talk, her head on his shoulder, their hands entwined.
Molly Gilchrist graduated magna cum laude from Duke with a BA in English. She received an MA from the University of Virginia in speech pathology and audiology and then worked in that area doing evaluation and treatment at Kennedy Memorial Hospital in a Boston suburb. She subsequently worked in a public school system in the Portland, Oregon area as a speech/language specialist and developed ESL programs for the district. Her present volunteer work in Portland is through Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Start Making A Reader Today.