I usually don’t write much outside of what I have to produce for the office, and I doubt whether anybody really reads that – except, of course, the people I am writing about and their significant others. I write about these people because the college pays me for it, and they pay me for it because they have to fill up their alumni publications and ship them out four times a year to people who they hope will send back money – or at least remember dear old Ohaska in their wills. In any case, when I was a child I wrote stories and I thought that was what I wanted to do when I grew up, so I majored in English (not at dear old Ohaska) and took the only writing job I could get. That was a long time ago. The only stories I tell now are about successful graduates and the wonderful lives they lead because they were lucky enough to have graduated from Ohaska College. What I write is published as fact, but it is mostly fiction and very creative, which could be fun if it were not so repetitive. I’ve been doing these biographical makeovers for over eighteen years now. Pay is good, health insurance is great. Other opportunities are notably lacking. In any case, writing for the Ohaska Owl Alumni Journal pretty well drains me. Besides, I had what I thought were some pretty good stories rejected years ago and that also dampened my enthusiasm. I have had to be content with seeing my work in print quarterly in the very glossy Ohaska Owl, and this honor should have taught me by now that being published is greatly overestimated.
Every so often, however, I have experienced something or someone that I have felt the need to memorialize in the only way I know how – through words and on paper. It is my way of making sense of things and maybe my way of sharing things that seem too important to talk about. I live alone with my cat – and while my cat is philosophical in her own self-sufficient feline way, she is not really ready to discuss with me the great questions of life (although she is good at comforting me when I am in the midst of experiencing the agony of them). And one cannot really go into work and open up a discussion over the Mr. Coffee pot about the dream one had last night about the great beyond and how it got one thinking about the meaning of time and death. Well, it is tempting to try it, but . . . . And I don’t have a lot of close friends who would really understand. Actually, I don’t have a whole lot of any kind of friends, but I do have a few (although none of them have shown up around here lately). I have work friends, shopping friends, out to dinner friends, complaining about our families friends, traveling friends, weep on each other shoulders about our love life friends – but no real meaning of life friends, if that makes any sense. I am making some assumptions here, aren’t I? Because, of course, the point is that my friends wouldn’t know what I mean, and I am assuming that you, gentle reader, do know what I mean. See how highly I think of you? Of course, you have already proved very resourceful if you are reading this, as this document will probably spend its entire existence locked in my bottom desk drawer.
The thing that got me writing today is a very remarkable person that I have discovered living opposite me. I have been watching her from my window for a few weeks. It started when I was home from the office with a high fever that I thought was bronchitis, but turned out to be pneumonia. There was much fuss when I finally got to the emergency room, but the white coats ultimately agreed to send me home with antibiotics as long as I promised to come back every other day for a while (not that anyone ever checked) to make sure I hadn’t died in the interim. So I spent the next few weeks taking my pills and doctoring myself by drinking hot tea and cuddling with my cat in the living room on the couch which is up against the picture window. I was really, really sick for the first couple of weeks, but home for a lot longer than that. Actually, I had started to get a little depressed with my whole life including the dismal prospect of spending the rest of my life interviewing Ohaska graduates, and was not unhappy to stretch this bona fide illness out as far as I thought I could in terms of time away from the usual grind. So, instead of being miserable in my dismal office, I have spent six weeks in my almost equally dismal duplex. In the best of times, I am a poor housekeeper, but being feverish, short of breath, and depressed gave me an excuse to let my four rooms turn into a really oppressing sick chamber, smelling of the cat box, stale pizza, and fermenting cups of soup, decorated with used tissues and the splayed backs of abandoned books, and punctuated with the simultaneous sounds of bad talk television and a constantly recycling CD of the best music of the seventies – if there is such a thing. It was from this foul nest that I started watching my neighbor opposite me, getting to know a person who was nothing like anyone I had ever encountered before.
Let me say first that I do encounter a lot of people, and I get to ask them questions. My main job is to find interesting and successful – or maybe I should say successful and therefore interesting – alumni of Ohaska College and write them up for the alumni journal. Of course, regardless of what they say or what I think, they have to come across as happy, well-adjusted products of their good Lutheran liberal arts education, but that does not stop me from drawing my own conclusions. There are not many happy people out there and there are no perfect ones. After talking to one of these alums for a few hours, it becomes clear that in order to make these characters into magazine material, I will have to be a heavy editor of their lives and endlessly creative besides (both of which I am perfectly capable of) and that has made me somewhat of a skeptic. I am sure all those smiling authors writing self-help books about their perfect lives are also heavy editors – heck, they’re probably downright science-fiction writers. I try not to go that far. Selected (and perhaps slightly augmented) facts, that’s what I rely on. It works on the written page – it’s only in reality that the non-selected facts just keep pushing their way back in your life like a puppy trying to get on the couch with you.
Anyway, while I was on the couch trying to recover from pneumonia with own unruly crop of non-selected facts, I started watching this neighbor opposite me, across the street. The first thing that was noticeable was her house. It was not just that everything was in order, but she did all the things that we all knew we should do. No lawn to water for example – just a fairly attractive wild expanse punctuated by some fruit trees. The woman is environmentally correct. There is a big compost heap out to the side that she adds to every evening, and she has a fairly large vegetable garden. It’s fall now and I can see that while a lot of the things in it are brown, it is still full of winter squash and a few pumpkins. I bet there is a freezer in her basement just full of stuff to keep her through the winter and she probably even cans things. I can tell that she doesn’t buy much at the market because her pile of trash is infinitesimal – and it’s not because she uses a compactor because it’s not in those kinds of bags. And she doesn’t eat out because she comes home right after work.
In fact, at least two nights a week, she feeds an army of people. One of the nights I surmise it is some kind of meeting, because the folks arrive carrying books and leaflets and sometimes even cardboard cartons full of stuff. They arrive right at five-thirty and stay until after eight, which would be clue enough that she feeds them, but they often also leave with containers or plates of leftover food covered with foil. They never bring any food with them, but sometimes people bring soda or thermoses, so maybe they provide the drinks. Everyone always looks happier coming out than they did when they arrived, but – of course – they are arriving straight from work, so it might just be that they have had time to decompress. God knows I’m always happier by eight o’clock. I do wonder how she cooks for them as she only arrives at the house about ten minutes before they start arriving and she spends part of that time walking her poor old cocker spaniel which can barely get down her front steps. I can’t even get my act together to feed myself after work, which is why a good portion of my paycheck goes directly to Pizza Hut and a good portion of my waistline comes from there. And I would never ask anyone into this pit without three weeks notice.
On Friday nights, I think the group she feeds is social. They arrive on a more erratic schedule, are more varied in age, and include couples with children, old folks, and various combinations of singles, couples, and groups. I wondered if it might be her extended family, but there is a big racial mix and no real reason to think so. I would guess they are her friends. Most of them do bring something with them, but it is not always food. Sometimes it is a musical instrument, and I can hear music late into the night. She has a piano over there somewhere, and she must be the one who plays it, although I have seldom heard it other than on Friday nights and occasionally in the stillness of an early Sunday morning. Later on Sunday mornings, she goes out for the morning. I have wondered if she goes to church or some kind of meditation or study group. She never misses, in any case. She comes back at noon. If the weather is good, she picks up the dog and disappears for the rest of the day. If the weather is bad, she walks the dog in the rain and then disappears in the house. I imagine on good days she takes the dog out in the country, but if she goes for any really long hikes, she must have to carry the poor old spaniel occasionally.
It is hard to tell if she has any money. There is no sign that she spends much. She drives a very small, very old car. She is not in tatters, but has an extremely limited wardrobe. Within the month that I was watching, I could easily catalogue everything she owned and must have seen every outfit at least four or five times. She owns two pairs of shoes for work, one for hiking and recreation, and one for dirty garden and yard work – which is probably an old hiking pair. What I would give for her closet space to put all my useless junk in! I have never seen her come home with any shopping bags other than the environmentally correct net bags she brings with her to the grocery store and brings home full on Saturday mornings. Her graying hair is long and usually done up in a bun in the back, but sometimes scooped up more loosely in a barrette in the back. I doubt that she has ever been to a beauty parlor. Almost anyone would tell her to do something about her bushy eyebrows, but it is clear that she never has and never will. Clearly, whether or not she makes or has much money, she doesn’t need much. Looking at her life, I would guess that her biggest expense might be upcoming vet bills for that pitiful dog. Or vacations – but it is not at all clear that she ever goes on any and she looks like the kind of perfectly contented soul that would be just as happy at home as she would be on Waikiki.
Besides the semi-weekly social gatherings, it is obvious that she likes people. One Saturday, I was watching when the postman came while she was in the yard and it was clear that she had come to know him well. They had a long chat out in her vegetable patch. I have lived here for ten years and never exchanged a word with the mailman other than to complain when the deliveries were late one holiday season. I’ve watched her stop and talk to the kids in the neighborhood when she was walking the dog and even flag down the town cruiser to say hello. I certainly would never voluntarily talk to the police. She lives absolutely alone, though. I have never seen anyone spend the night or any sign of a boyfriend or lover and she does not seem to be doing anything to try to attract one. For all that, however, she is an attractive person and certainly never seems lonely.
She does like to read. On Saturdays she comes and goes in the late morning with piles of books and I am assuming she has been to the local library. If it is a warm Saturday, she often sits right out in the yard and dips into one of the new books right away, or even plops the pile beside her and leafs through each of them as if deciding which one to read first. They look like fairly serious books too – no paperbacks or anything with frivolous dust jackets from what I can tell. Nothing that looks like the lurid murder mysteries piled beside my couch. I think she reads in bed, as the light in her main room where her picture window is goes out relatively early unless she has company, but there is a light on very late in the left corner of the house and I am guessing that might be her bedroom. Once when I could not sleep, I saw her out with a flashlight at one a.m. walking the dog, and I suppose it’s possible she reads until then and then walks the wretched old thing to keep its bladder intact until morning.
Morning comes early for my neighbor, though, so she must not need much sleep. She’s walking the dog again by six-thirty, carrying something hot in a mug and looking very happy to start the day. She almost always looks pretty contented. She seems pleased as punch when she comes to the door to greet guests and wistfully cheerful when they leave. She beams with ecstasy while she works in the garden and even has a half-smile on her face when she sits outside reading. I have seen her look up with a vexed expression when a noisy truck or motorcycle goes by, but it doesn’t last long, and she can stand outside with that dog of hers – for however long it takes for it to do its business – without losing her temper. She even sings while she waits. I don’t recognize the tune and I can’t make out the words, but her voice is high and soft and easy to listen to. The melody is a short refrain that she repeats over and over again, but even so, when I try to imitate it on my own I have no luck. That is not surprising, however, as I was never able to carry a tune, as anyone in my family would be glad to attest.
I have never met this woman. If, gentler reader, you are thinking that she is too good to be true, you are wiser than I. At first, when I was very sick, I thought she was really there, but as the fog lifted I realized that there was no house across the street. The only thing across the street is the semi-landscaped buffer zone for a couple of large box stores that front on the major highway a couple of blocks over. I knew that. You, of course, did not know that, and I had apparently forgotten that fact when I was sick. So, at first I just thought I had been hallucinating and while the whole thing scared me, I figured it was better to have hallucinated about a nice lady than about a hairy monster in the basement, and tried to let it go. But I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t believe that the woman did not exist. I kept thinking about her. She was so real and I knew all about her. Not like those people in dreams that just float in and out. I knew about her books and her dogs and her friends and even that little tune she sang all the time. When did you ever know those things about a dream character? I kept looking out the window for her. When I woke in the middle of the night I would sit up quietly and suddenly part the curtains and look as if I could sneak up on her. Early in the morning, I would lie in bed and listen for her to come outside with her dog. I have caught another glimpse of her, but every so often during the day I will hear a bit of the tune she used to sing. It will come as the descant to a whistling teapot or dance on top of the rumble of the furnace as it starts up its cycle. And then it will disappear.
My grandmother used to tell me that we all have a saint living deep inside us and that our mission in life is to dig that creature out – to work with all our might to peel back all our bad parts (she looked at me kind of sternly when she was telling this part) so that the saint could come shining through. Now, I don’t go to church and I don’t much believe in saints. But I am beginning to think that maybe my grandmother was onto something. I think that woman across the street came from somewhere deep inside. She is the perfect person I would kind of like to be if only I could get it all together and forget other people’s expectations and my own disappointments and all the crazy things that have been force-fed into me in the last forty-one years. I always knew that I wanted to be different, but now I know exactly what different looks like. Don’t laugh. We all need models. Mine came with fever and heavy medication, but at least she’s all mine and I didn’t have to rely on some mystic from two millennia ago. I’ve had my own vision. I know what my saint looks like. I know how she lives. But she’s buried deep. Now all I have to do is split this nut open. And move across the street.