Maria heard her knees pop and snap as she straightened up from pulling weeds in the front garden. She sampled all the arthritis drugs, all with names she couldn’t pronounce. Some made her sick, or constipated, or gave her diarrhea. None slayed the pain. The warnings on the bottles told her to call 911 in the event she felt suicidal. She had to get the magnifying glass to read it, and by the time she found that and squinted at the little letters, well, she did feel a little preoccupied with killing someone, just not herself.
“Duke’s gone, the Jensen’s took him in early this mornin’.” Maria said after walking across the street, and after she exchanged the obligatory greeting rituals with Nate.
“Ah, no. Oh Duke.” Nate paused, “I remember one winter, he pulled the kids’ sleigh,” Nate engaged the entirety of his ample torso with his snicker. “The more the kids laugh, the faster he runs,” Nate bellowed a full laugh as he remembered. “All three kids fall off, a rainbow tangle of squirming limbs, Duke trampling the snow, barking. Those kids, they’ve known him their whole life.”
Maria wiped her eyes. “I’m not lookin’ forward to the day when Missy goes. She’ll be my last, I won’t out live another, and it wouldn’t be right to die and leave one behind.”
Nate would have squirmed if he could, but with his large frame a fluid writhing motion was out of the question, so he just twitched a little at Maria so boldly talking about her own death.
What you got goin’ on?”
“I thought Brian and I would replace that leaning fence that borders our property, he won’t answer my calls, though.” Nate looked off in the distance towards Brian’s place.
“Ah, yeah. He’s on a bender again,” Maria said.
“Oh, gosh, I thought he’d do okay this time. I’ll ask Jenn if she needs anything. You’ve talked to her, then?”
Maria shook her head. “No, I haven’t. Andrea’s back from college. Her first year complete.”
“Great, good news,” Nate smiled. “How’d she do?”
“She’s a smart kid, I’m sure she did fine. Haven’t seen them, though.”
Nate’s brows creased, and then he heard the low rumble of a garage door open. “Ah, there’s Justin. I need to see how’s he’s doing.” He nodded at Maria, and waddled across the street to Justin’s place, next to Maria’s house. “Hey, Justin, I heard about Duke. Man, I’m sorry.”
“Huh? How…?” Justin’s shoulders wilted, his head hung, drooped like a flower bud deprived of water.
“Maria told me.”
Maria strolled back to her house as the afternoon stepped into evening. She caught Justin watching her walk across her yard and thought he visibly bristled when they made eye contact.
In the days to come, Maria noticed a change in her neighbors. They’d be smiling and laughing, and then they turned away when she approached. Fidgety silences followed when she tried to join the conversation. One afternoon when Justin was working on his car, alone in his driveway, she marched right over to him.
“Justin, what’s goin’ on? Now I’m not one to go around actin’ like a high school girl because I’ve been shunned from the clique, but I’ve noticed a distinct change in people around here. Nobody’s talkin’ to me.”
Justin looked around Maria, behind her, looked at his car with the hood up, then with longing at the wrench in his hand.
“Now, don’t you go lookin’ up at the clouds like something intrestin’ was going on up there. There ain’t no paratrooper headed for your yard, you look at me.” Maria commanded, and put her hands on her hips for emphasis. He’d know she was serious then.
Justin did look at her, and stammered a bit before he summoned the courage to speak. “Maria,” he sighed, “we all like you, but…, we’re uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable? UNCOMFORTABLE? I’ve been livin’ here longer than you been alive, what have you got to be uncomfortable about?”
“Um, ah…, you know a lot about us. You know everything that goes on. And we, well…, we don’t pry into your life. You gossip a lot. People don’t like that.”
“Pry? PRY? Well, you’d know plenty about me if you’d jus’ listen. All you got to do is listen.” Maria stabbed her index finger at Justin’s chest as he backed up against his car. “If you jus’ listen, you’d hear me talkin’ to your kids while I watch them get on the bus. If you jus listen, you’d know I had a pile of tree limbs to go to the dump when you took yours. Would it hurt to ask an old widow if she has somethin’ to go? Now I don’t wanna say your momma didn’t raise you right, I don’t wanna say nothin’ bad about your momma, more likely your impolite behavior is because you didn’t listen to her either!” Maria wiped a tear and straightened her shoulders. “It’s nothin’ I go lookin’ for, I don’t wanna know all your problems, you think I wanna be bothered by all that? You don’t want me to know anything about you? Then don’t be noisy!”
Maria stomped off across her lawn, muttering, “uncomfortable, he don’t know uncomfortable, not yet he don’t.” She picked up a large fluffy Siamese cat on the way to her front door.
Later, deep in the belly of the night, the sound of Old Faithful gushing replaced the familiar whisper of dainty water droplets falling on petals. A sprinkler gone rogue. Maria made a mental note to tell Justin about it when she saw him next. It would be the neighborly thing to do, in spite of their sharp words earlier. She knew returning sleep would be elusive. Her old achy hips would keep her turning back and forth until she gave up and read until the sun yawning crimson and gold heralded the day’s arrival. Her thoughts returned to a morning not long ago, in these same peculiar hours before dawn, when solitary sounds were amplified. A jumble of children’s voices and car doors opened, Justin’s plea to hurry and get in, an agonized howl before the last door slammed shut and the car raced away.
The neighborhood relinquished her secrets between midnight and daybreak with the windows open.