Sunday, June 6, 2010


I’ve lost a set of neighbors whom I liked, and whom I lived beside for a good fifteen years. They were a strange couple, or perhaps I should say strangely coupled. It was a second marriage for both of them. She was a thin little thing, all arms and diminutiveness and enormous eyes behind her glasses. She talked endlessly about her first husband, and his beautiful black curly hair. She also talked endlessly about her father, who had been a policeman in Omaha and was killed in the line of duty when she was six years old. They had never told her, she complained, exactly how he died. She only knew something about his being in the back of a patrol car.

For his part, the husband was an active, wiry, handsome old man with thick, wavy gray-white hair. He didn’t so much talk endlessly as think endlessly about his service in the Navy. His car’s license plate bore the name of the ship he had served on. One day I spotted him at the grocery store. He had not noticed me. While waiting in one cashier's check out line, he tapped gently on a metal display rack to get the attention of another cashier nearby. Helen was prim and pixie-like, with perfect, short, iron grey hair. She turned to the sound, saw him, thrilled, smiled, and looked away.

My neighbors never traveled, not even to see their children (they each had two from their previous marriages, and the step-siblings never got along). The wife grew foggy in her later years, and was a bit of a trial to talk to. She would come over on summer days and look at my garden, and then move into the shade and tell me she had to stay out of the sun because she tinted her hair. It was the same faded coppery-salmon color that so many older women choose, the faint non-shade of a tabby kitten's nose -- I wonder if the Clairol box assigns it an actual name. Then she would ask what plant that was, and say it looked like a weed, and then ask what it was again. She wore nylon stockings with shorts even in the worst heat – said it was nothing like New Orleans, where she had lived with her first husband for twenty years – and did not wear earmuffs in winter, because her current husband didn’t like them.

One winter they both kept indoors suddenly, and for months into the spring I saw strange cars in their driveway. It gradually occurred to me that there must be something wrong with him, for if she had been ill or injured, it would not have prevented him from going out. And there was something; he had cancer. I saw him a few times. He was thin, his eyes deeply hollowed out. He kept as busy as he could. "I'm not going to sit around asking 'why me?' " he said. In July, he died. That summer morning, fresh and sunny, quiet and beautiful, his live-in nurse emerged from the house, smiling, tired, but fulfilled and relieved. "It's over," she repeated to a neighbor who had crossed the street to ask just that. Later his ashes, at his request, were scattered over the Pacific.

A few days before, his wife, completely gone in her mind, had been taken away to a nursing home by her children. They soon reported her to be in much better spirits and eager for visitors. Helen disappeared from her job at the grocery store, too.

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