In the middle of a neighborhood of dilapidated houses that had long since been turned into student rentals, there were three neat white homes in a row. They were early twentieth century wood frame houses, nothing special, surely destined to become dilapidated student housing as soon as their inhabitants died or entered nursing care. All three houses hosted front porches, but none of the porches displayed the usual furnishings – no swings or rocking chairs. Furniture left outside soon disappeared in this neighborhood. For similar reasons, the white houses had no front gardens to be trampled and cars were either pulled around back or kept carefully garaged. The student were not thieves, but they were definitely intermittent drunks who left their mark as they migrated back and forth to the bars downtown.
It was just a coincidence that just these three single residences still remained side by side on West Church Street. The women inhabiting them were all around the same age (eighty more or less) and had all lived in their houses for many years. They had seen the town of Cortland decline from its peak in the mid-twentieth century to an aging college town. Many years ago, Cortland workers built Brockway Trucks (later acquired and moved by Mack Trucks) and Smith Corona typewriters (no need to say what happened to that business).
Even though the college in town seemed to grow, it simultaneously declined as academics became secondary to sports and partying. The State University of New York at Cortland had always given out more degrees in physical education than almost any college anywhere – New York public schools were stocked with coaches and phys ed teachers who had survived the Cortland curriculum and parties. (Young athletes play hard.) Large enrollments and rule changes at the college over the years had pushed or enticed more students out of the dormitories and into the community, where living conditions were shoddy, but there was no oversight at all except a mandatory damage fee that was usually not returned. So, the three old ladies – Fanny, Dotty, and Bettina – lived quiet lives among the young and noisy.
There were churches in Cortland of most varieties. The Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches were on East Church Street, but West Church Street got its name by extension only. The Roman Catholic Church was on the downtown. Cortland was not considered a very spiritual place. Yet, at the center of each white house on West Church Street, there were shrines, temples to the guiding lights of each of the ladies. None of the three were regular church goers, but they all made regular attendance upon their own household gods.
The fireplace in Fanny’s house had not worked in many years; it was filled with pretty birch logs. A bed for Amos, the cat, was pushed up to the hearth, as if the cat could be fooled into thinking he would get some warmth there. On the mantle was a large brass sculpture of three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil – that Fanny’s father had brought back from his time in military service in the occupation of Japan after WWII. The monkeys sported colorful enameled shirts of red, blue and green. Fanny’s father was a college professor of history, and the monkeys always graced his desk at home. Often, when he wanted to end a conversation with his wife or daughter, he would just point to the apes. Somehow Fanny had absorbed the assurance that these monkeys held the moral answers to all of life’s dilemmas.
Fanny never married; she left home when she finished college and moved to New York City to take on a clerical job with a fancy title. Although never brilliant or fierce enough to get very far in the city, she stayed employed and useful, coming back to Cortland by bus for holidays and vacations. When her mother died and her father relocated to the nursing home, he took the monkeys with him, and the monkeys were the only thing Fanny rescued from his personal effects when he died. As the only child, Fanny inherited his house and furnishings, so she retired and moved home. Now she often sat in the winter and looked at the brass monkeys with their hands braced against any evil sensual experience, calm in the knowledge of the monkey’s lesson and the connection to her father.
When Fanny moved back to Cortland. She learned to drive for the first time. She drove her father’s old green Subaru to the meeting of the Friends of the Library and to volunteer at Red Cross blood drives and occasionally at the Open Pantry. Mostly, though, she stayed home and, if moved to something more religious, attended services at the Unitarian Church.
Dotty’s husband took a job with the Cortland Police Department the year before they married, and they moved down from Syracuse and bought the house she still lived in with a $1,500 down payment from Dottie’s grandfather. They raised their children there, and both boys attended the local college. Andy Jr. became a gym teacher and later died in the AIDs epidemic, dead before his family even knew he was sick or gay. His younger brother Sam majored in history and still taught in a high school on Long Island. At first he came home frequently to party with his old friends over holidays and for class reunions, but he had married in his thirties and then seldom made the journey to see his mother more than once a year. Dotty didn’t mind. Unlike many women, her primary relationship always resided in her husband Andrew. She wondered sometimes whether life would have been different if she had had a daughter, but that was doubtful.
Andrew died over ten years ago shoveling lake effect snow with his lumbering body – dead on the sidewalk by the time Dotty realized he was down and called the EMTs. A Methodist minister he had never met oversaw his funeral service.. Dotty thought of moving to Long Island to be close to Sam and her sister who lived in White Plains, but she could not bear to leave the house. Nor could she bear to part with Andrew’s ashes. The brass urn took its place of honor on the mantle in the parlor. Dotty had a gas fire installed in her fireplace, so she sat in her recliner and looked at the fire and the urn while the television played all of Andrew’s favorite programs, punctuated by fits of Fox News (also a favorite of Andrew). Most often, though, Dotty ignored the television, and gazed at the urn.
Bettina was Puerto Rican, a single mother; she moved to Cortland in her thirties when her three kids were small, because her sister was already there working at the college dining commons. She found work as a custodian in the residence halls and eventually married one of the grounds staff. Roy, as a single man of forty, adopted the kids and provided enough money for a down payment on the house on West Church Street. Unfortunately, he drowned in a hunting accident, paying to much attention to the ducks and not enough to the stability of his canoe. His insurance at the college paid off the mortgage, and, while Bettina missed him, his death was not the worst tragedy of her life.
The main tragedy of Bettina’s life was that her oldest child and only boy, Paulo, abandoned his artistic talent and his doting mother and moved back to Puerto Rico. Bettina, chagrined all her efforts to get her children off that hapless island had come to naught, was more upset Paulo had not become a great artist. She knew he was a great artist at heart. Over her mantle hung a picture he painted in high school, a tropical scene with a miniscule Adam and Eve in the corner. But both of Bettina’s daughters lived nearby, in Ithaca and Syracuse. Their children, her grandchildren, were all adults already and came to see her once in a while, but her heart was held by Paulo and his picture of paradise. Why had he given up painting? What was he doing in Puerto Rico? In truth, Paulo and Roy had not gotten on well; but there hadn’t been any real fights, no yelling – just resentment at the new man in the house.
After Paulo left, no one heard anything from him. Bettina tracked down Paulo’s father who still lived on his parents’ farm on the island, but he had not seen Paulo and neither had anyone else. Bettina would sit in front of the cold fireplace, look at the painting, listen to music, work on her tatting – Bettina made beautiful lace in a way she had learned from her abuela – and wonder what Paulo was doing, whether he was still alive. She always pictured him as he was when he left, although he would be almost sixty. Bettina went to Mass only on the feast day of the Lady of Guadalupe, on Epiphany, and several times during Easter week. She also went on Paulo’s birthday.
All three women were well aware of the shrines on the mantles of each other’s homes. Dotty could not abide the brass monkeys, and Bettina told Fanny that if she were Dotty she would be afraid of ghosts keeping her husband’s ashes in the house. Neither Dotty nor Fanny thought much of Paulo’s painting, but they praised it lavishly when Bettina referred to it. They were kind women.
In the way of people in their ninth decade, the three women had illnesses and surgeries. They helped each other – especially Dotty and Fanny, who had no family nearby. Dotty took care of Fanny’s cat when Fanny had her gall bladder out; Fanny drove Dotty to the hospital when she needed a heart catheterization. Bettina delivered soup whenever either the others was ill, and they all were willing to pick up extra groceries whenever they went to the store. But, also in the way of the very elderly, eventually someone died. Fanny did manage to call 911 when she started feeling strange, but didn’t get as far as unlocking her door for the EMTs. Luckily, Dotty hurried over when she saw the ambulance and had a key. Unluckily, Fanny died a couple of days later.
Dottie used the key again to let Fanny’s cousin in when she arrived to arrange the funeral. Celeste, a cousin on Fanny’s mother’s side, seemed overwhelmed with her tasks as Fanny’s nearest relation (but not so near that she knew anything about her), and asked Dotty about arranging for the house to be emptied before it was sold. Dotty gave her some advice and phone numbers. Celeste said she didn’t really want anything from the house and dubiously asked if Dotty wanted anything. Dotty would have preferred to ask for some of Fanny’s thistle teacups, but felt compelled to rescue her neighbor’s special monkeys. So the three brass monkeys joined the urn on Dotty’s mantle. Bettina took Fanny’s cat.
And so it went. Dotty was the next to leave West Church Street. She fell going out to get the paper on a February morning, broke her hip, and had a long and bad recovery. Her son Sam thought a nursing home near him on Long Island was the best idea and considered it too morbid to let his mother transfer his father’s ashes to the nursing home. He ended up spreading the remains in Cortland’s fairly murky Tioughnioga River, as Sam was also repelled by the idea of motoring back to Long Island with his father in his trunk. Before Dotty left in a chartered ambulance, she called Bettina and asked her to rescue Fanny’s monkeys. Bettina put them on her mantle right below Paulo’s painting.
But, of course, eventually Bettina of died (of cancer and at home), cared for by two of her daughters but still hoping that Paulo would show up before the end. He didn’t. After she died, the daughters took the monkeys, the painting, and other unwanted items from Bettina’s house to a flea market. The monkeys went fast, apparently the motif was fashionable in the 1950’s and there were collectors. Paulo’s painting was still around at the end of the day. Neither of the daughters was interested in this reminder of their doted-upon brother, so they gave the painting to one of the vendors who dealt in such stuff, and who quietly thought that the frame, at least, was worth something.
As would be anticipated, the three houses were all bought by partnerships that dealt in cheap student rentals. The fireplaces – considered a hazard in a house where young people would have no idea whether or how to use them – were sealed up and the mantles, which were made of oak and had some carving on them, were sold to dealers in such things, as were the stained-glass transoms and anything else of too much value to leave with barbaric college students. There was soon no sign that there had ever been shrines on West Church Street and it was unlikely that there ever would be again.