“That woman better not start with me,” Maureen grumbled as she made her way onto her balcony, glass in hand.
Today was her seventy-third birthday, and she was going to celebrate with an Old fashioned. She anticipated some sniffs of disapproval from her neighbor’s balcony, but baiting Peggy was part of the fun. A week ago Maureen had had a beer with her lunch at her little patio table and Peggy had asked if it wasn’t a little early for that sort of thing. She had looked so far down her nose, Maureen wondered if she could see out of her own nostrils.
“I never drink,” Peggy had said. “That’s why I’ve maintained my girlish figure.”
Maureen had maintained a calculated silence. There were lines she would never cross, even if Peggy deserved it.
Ever since Maureen moved into the retirement community, she had taken most of her breakfasts out on her balcony, enjoying the fresh air and the light scent of pine. She had always been an outdoorsy person and she chose this community for its wooded backyard. After two years of relative peace, Peggy moved next door. Her balcony was catty corner to Maureen’s, and she quickly began to take her breakfasts outside as well. Peggy was a pushy woman, and she never missed an opportunity to comment on Maureen’s life. Maureen chose to ignore her or reply with what she hoped were off putting grunts, but Peggy refused to be put off.
Eventually Maureen bought a potted plant. A large and bright bird of paradise that took up an entire side of her patio, and blocked Peggy’s view. Maureen sat behind it for about a month eating her morning egg and coffee, and pretending the plant blocked her hearing as well. The trouble was, the plant didn’t last. Eventually it just up and died no matter what pains Maureen took to keep it alive.
“Never mind dear,” Peggy had said when she noticed Maureen grimacing over the wilted plant. “It was far too garish for the neighborhood. Think of a lady your age buying something like that.”
Maureen could think of it, because she had.
“I liked it,” she said, “I might buy another.”
“Put it on the other side then. That way I don’t have to look at it all day. I’d hate to bring the neighborhood association into this.”
Maureen pursed her lips and didn’t reply. Peggy wouldn’t mind getting the neighborhood association involved at all. The only reason she hadn’t done it yet is that neither of them really knew the policy on potted plants. Neither of them knew any of the neighborhood association’s policies at all. At the meetings there was always some twaddle about beneficial living, and most people just did whatever they wanted, figuring it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Most of the time people got away with it, but occasionally the association would step in. The problem was, if you were caught infringing on other people’s “beneficial living,” or if you were caught with a false claim, either of those things would be a strike against you. It was a regular mutually assured destruction, and Maureen wasn’t going to be the one to test it. She moved the potted plant.
Peggy settled back into her favorite sport, questioning everything Maureen did. The most obnoxious thing she did was treating Maureen like she was old and frail. Maureen would bring a book outside and Peggy would tell her it was important to ladies of Maureen’s age to not strain her eyes. When it was a particularly sunny day Peggy would question the impact of the sun on a lady like Maureen’s skin. Peggy even began questioning Maureen’s daily egg which could potentially cause her cholesterol to skyrocket.
Three days ago Maureen had bought some cushions for her patio furniture that were a beautiful pink and yellow paisley. Maureen had always loved bright colors and could not understand when young women had begun dousing their good looks in “neutrals.” All that beige-on-beige hardly seemed worth getting dressed at all, she thought.
Peggy had bounced out of her house just as Maureen was tying the cushions to the chair backs.
“New cushions Reenie?” she trilled.
Maureen didn’t answer. Peggy had just come up with this nickname and she wasn’t going to be answering to it unless it was an emergency.
“Reenie,” Peggy sang, and after waiting a few seconds, “Maureen!”
Maureen looked up at her and adjusted her sunglasses.
“I said are those new cushions.”
“Bit bright for a lady in your time of life, don’t you think?”
“I’ve had enough of this ‘my time of life’ crap. You and I are the exact same age. I asked the super.”
That wasn’t true. Maureen had probably never exchanged more than a curt hello with the super, but it was a good bluff. Peggy retreated a bit with her hand over her heart as if she had been struck. The old phony.
“Well, of course I meant our time of life, dear.”
“Maybe you feel like some old boring person, but I sure don’t.”
Peggy was outright refusing to be flustered and it was making Maureen mad.
“That is not my name. You can call me Maureen or quit talking to me altogether.”
Maureen didn’t wait to hear Peggy’s reply. She stomped off into her apartment and slammed the door, determined to stay inside the rest of the day. The small spat probably wouldn’t stop Peggy’s nosy comments and questions, but at least Maureen had spoken her mind.
It wasn’t all fighting with Peggy though, Maureen thought as she settled in her patio chair. Sometimes Peggy just talked to her about the golden years of being an actress in New York. She mainly talked about the men who would line up in droves at her dressing room door “just for the chance to bring me a blossom.” They were probably waiting for a chance to do something else, Maureen thought uncharitably, but she didn’t say it.
Peggy had never seemed to want to know much about Maureen. She hardly ever asked a question unless the conversation could somehow be steered back to her, but Maureen had to grudgingly admit she didn’t always mind. Sometimes she would go for a week before she realized she wouldn’t have said one word to anyone if it wasn’t for Peggy. Maybe that’s what nosy neighbors were good for, she thought, making sure your voice still worked.
Peggy had a son who used to visit five or six times a year when she first moved in. Maureen knew about his visits because Peggy made sure to take him onto the balcony and show him off to Maureen, while she fed him some healthy sunflower cake he pretended to enjoy Peggy knew perfectly well Maureen’s daughter had a large family and could only afford to visit her about once a year, if that. But she flaunted her son’s visits anyway.
Sometimes on the days Peggy’s son came Maureen stayed inside all day. She missed her fresh air, but it made her throat ache just a little bit to see Peggy with her child.
When Maureen’s daughter and her family visited it felt like a desperate day where Maureen tried to pack her memory full of the feel of her daughter hugging her, and the voices of her grandchildren before they inevitably left. She couldn’t imagine wasting one of their visits by showing them off to Peggy. Maureen wasn’t sure it was even worth it to see them at all, considering how much it hurt to say goodbye. She didn’t cry in front of them though. She never wanted her daughter to feel guilty. She just spent the next two days crying and avoiding the balcony. Peggy, on the other hand absolutely gushed with tears when her son left, as if she wasn’t perfectly aware she would see him again in the next two or three months. Really it was quite indecent.
And then he just stopped visiting. Maureen didn’t know why. She didn’t ask, and Peggy never told her. He just stopped. It certainly evened the playing field between them.
Maureen took a few sips of her Old fashioned and looked over at Peggy’s balcony. Peggy wasn’t out this morning. She actually hadn’t come out at all yesterday either. Maureen had loved being out alone with the fresh air and watching the birds swoop by, calling to each other in the sheer joy of living. She didn’t even have to worry about defending her small strip of bacon she had added to her morning egg for a little treat. It felt like her first two years of living here alone before Peggy moved in.
Today didn’t seem as fun. She had an empty, not quite right feeling in her stomach. After all, she had made this Old fashioned on purpose to get a rise out of Peggy. Peggy could tolerate the occasional glass of wine or beer with only a few caustic comments. Hard alcohol would drive her out of her mind, and Maureen was looking forward to it. Besides, Maureen’s daughter had called yesterday, and Maureen didn’t want to make her feel bad by telling her she called on the wrong day. She wanted to talk to someone on her birthday, even if it was only Peggy.
But Peggy didn’t come. Maureen finished her drink as slowly as she could, allowing even the ice cubes to melt as she waited. She stood up to pour the melted ice over the side of her balcony, and glanced over at her neighbor’s apartment. She could just barely see inside. There seemed to be a lot of large objects grouped around the apartment, but closest to the window appeared to be a body, lying on the floor.
Maureen dropped her glass and sprinted back into her apartment and out the door. It was the fastest she had moved in years. She almost heard Peggy’s voice in her head telling her that ladies of Maureen’s age really shouldn’t be running. She reached Peggy’s door, and realized she hadn’t formulated a plan at all. Surely the door would be locked.
It wasn’t. Maureen turned the handle and the door pushed open.
“Peggy!” she called.
She heard something. It was the sort of noise a dead person doesn’t make, but a sick person might. She walked into the apartment.
The first thing she noticed was an overwhelming and nauseating smell. Then she saw the piles. What she thought were large items grouped in Peggy’s apartment were mounds of paper, clothes, boxes, dust, and dolls. It was a vast sea of belongings about waist high. She didn’t even know if she could get to the living room to find out if the body lying on the floor was Peggy.
There was another garbled sound from the living room. She took a deep breath and began to climb and shove her way through the boxes and papers in an attempt to get to the living room. Thankfully it appeared that most of the mold and garbage smells were coming from the kitchen. She was worried she would step in something nauseating, but everything out here appeared to be newspapers or magazines or just scraps of paper heaped all over the floor. Why did Peggy have all these things? No wonder she spent so much time out on the balcony.
Finally she pushed over a stack of books which barely missed Peggy who was lying prone on the ground. Her eyes were open and looking right at Maureen. As Maureen made her way across the stacks toward her, she seemed to struggle and shake her head.
“Look, you ungrateful biddy,” Maureen said. “I’m all you’ve got. So settle down.”
Peggy closed her eyes but managed to look pained.
She still thinks she’s too good for me, Maureen thought bitterly as she knelt beside Peggy. Then she saw the stain around Peggy’s pelvic area and down her legs. She looked into Peggy’s eyes and saw naked embarrassment. Maureen was in her house, surrounded by her smell, seeing her life for the mess it really was. Maybe this was why Peggy’s son had stopped visiting.
“Can you talk?” Maureen asked.
Peggy’s eyes filled with tears. She looked small and scared.
“Where’s your telephone?”
Peggy flicked her eyes to the left. It seemed like she had been trying to get to the telephone and had almost got there when this happened. Whatever this was.
Maureen struggled to her feet and called 911. Then she sat down and grabbed Peggy’s hand. Peggy didn’t have much of a choice in this since she couldn’t move, but Maureen knew she hadn’t touched another person since her son’s last visit almost two years ago. Maureen knew how that felt. She couldn’t clean up this mess, and she couldn’t fix whatever was wrong with Peggy, but she did know how to hold a hand.
When the paramedics arrived, they acted like they didn’t even see the mess or smell the smell. They probably see a lot we try to keep hidden, Maureen thought, wondering if she ought to throw out her stash of cookies in case she had some kind of medical emergency. They were fortunately strong enough to clear a path for the gurney.
As they loaded Peggy up, one of them turned to Maureen.
“Is this her apartment?” he asked.
Maureen looked at Peggy and the hurt and embarrassment in her eyes.
“Nah,” she said, turning back to the paramedic. “It’s mine.”
They’d find out soon enough she was lying, but at least Peggy could be spared this.
As they wheeled Peggy out of the room, Maureen saw her put her tongue between her teeth as if trying to form the first sound in “Thank you."