NEIGHBORS

Cherry Branch 2011

A month or two ago I mentioned in passing the sweet little Russian couple who live upstairs from me. We continue to wave to each other – me from my chair on the patio, they from their many trips up and down the stairs.

Last weekend the Mr., whose name was once told to me but I’ve since forgotten – I am tempted to say Vladislav but know I am just making it up – was dropped off at 7 in the evening by another short, graying man wearing a flannel shirt and driving a jeep.

After a quick discussion at the back of the vehicle in a language I did not understand, the Mr. unloaded a fishing pole, a no-nonsense steel rimmed fishing net, sturdy tackle box and backpack. As he mounted the stairs I made pole casting motions with my arms and smiled and he replied with a laugh and said, “Fish, yes. Fishing, I go.”

Yesterday, upon returning from running first-of-the-month errands, I came home to find a red fire truck parked in front of the apartment. This is always a bad sign, particularly at a senior apartment complex, for it means ambulances and paramedics. Since the truck was blocking my parking space, I pulled over to the side of the drive and waited.

About ten minutes later, three men carried a gurney down the outside stairs, packed it in the truck and left. I was relieved to see the gurney was empty, meaning the situation was not critical but I didn’t know if it was the Mr. or the Mrs. who had required attention.

Yesterday afternoon as I was enjoying the spring sun, the Mrs. came down the stairs and when she saw me she said hello. This was unusual in itself for she is the more silent of the two and rarely makes an effort to communicate other than a smile or nod.

This time, however, her face was tense and worn, and her hands were trembling. Through a combination of sign language, broken English and telepathy I discovered that the Mr. was suffering from kidney stones and was at home resting. “Old. Not good,” she said with a shrug that carried a depth of silent meaning. “Yes,” I agreed to her what-can-you-do message.

Today I heard the Mrs. coming down the stairs again and as soon as she came into view, she said, “Hello.” I put aside the book I was reading and asked “How is your husband?” pointing upstairs. “No good,” she replied, shaking her kerchiefed head and hanging on to the stair railing, her brown eyes blinking.

“Pain,” I inquired. She nodded yes and pointed to her back and stomach, explaining how the kidney stone was torturing him. “I’m so sorry,” I said, wanting her to know through these inadequate words that I understood. She shook her head in resignation. “It’s hard,” I added, and thought not only for him who is suffering but for her who is witnessing.

I wanted to hug her to lend her some strength but the iron railings separated us so I blew her a kiss. “God bless you,” she said in her broken English and blew one back. There were tears in both our eyes as we acknowledged that Life sometimes shows its power rather than its mercy.

When she left I was reminded that just last Sunday I had hugged another of the ladies in residence here. That time it was Gina, the one I had formerly thought of as Jayne Mansfield because of her waist-length blonde wig and large bosom. It was the first time Gina and I had talked and she shared some of her history – her forty-plus years as a waitress, her love of plants, her sadness that she no longer had a garden to tend.

But it was the story of Lenora, her parrot of more than twenty years that had prompted the tears. “I never had no children and didn’t want none. Lenora was my little companion and now I’m all alone.” As she dabbed a kleenex on her eyes, she said, “Please don’t be mad I cried,” and I wondered who had made her ashamed of tears.

There are so many stories waiting to be told and the richest ones have a thread of sadness running through to give it depth and definition. Those are the stories that teach us about life and resilience and the beauty of the heart.

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THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD

So how big is a neighborhood, I asked myself. Maybe about four square blocks, I thought. Maybe 15 minutes of walking time in any one direction which for me now means about to the corner. Once my neighborhood was characterized by flotillas of children on skate boards and bicycles. Now it is populated by old gentlemen putting along in electric carts or women accompanied by small poodles recklessly propelling wheeled walkers.

I have lived at my senior apartment complex since September but I am still getting to know my neighbors. I sit on my patio every day after lunch and occasionally snare the unwary. There are two chairs, both uncomfortable no matter how many pillows I use, that are occupied by my cat, Sweetie Pie, and me. Sweetie loves to take an afternoon sun bath and I use this indulgence to my own advantage. For, in truth, she lies like an odalisque, her black and white fur casually draped across the pillow, an irresistible magnet for the passerby.

“Oh, isn’t she a beauty,” they proclaim, putting the brakes on the walker to stare admiringly at Sweetie Pie, who languidly opens one eye and blinks. Sweetie isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but she does know how to be fetching. This gives me an opening to strike up the casual conversation and remark on the clement weather, high price of potatoes this week or ask the name of the poodle, Chihuahua, terrier, Rottweiler, etc. they are airing. This tactic has resulted in a few fish swimming in my conversational nets.

The most elusive and mysterious is my neighbor to the right. Of a hermetic disposition, I see her only on Sunday morning on her way to church when she emerges from her apartment impeccably dressed with an elaborate hat. Although she is of average height, when she is behind the wheel of her large sedan I can see only the feather of her hat turning this way and that as she struggles to back out of the parking space. The return trip after church is even more taxing and requires a half dozen or more tries to align the car within the white parking lines. She is never successful. There is one green metal chair on her patio which has never been sat in and the blinds on her windows are always tightly closed.

To the left of my apartment live a couple I call Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, not because they wear striped leggings, in fact they wear a lot of plaid flannel, but because of their uncanny similarity. Both are tall, large friendly people with rounded stomachs that precede them when turning corners. Fittingly, they also have a 20+ pound orange striped cat named Fred who never goes outside but who was brought over for my inspection at the time I moved in.

Dum and Dee drive a large Cadillac, and when they get in it lists first to the right then to the left before settling itself. They take frequent trips in the car, often returning home with multiple bags of groceries. We share an adjoining interior wall and at night I hear the deep snore of contented sleepers rumbling from the other side of the room.

Directly over my apartment lives Linda, an ex-hippie chick with white hair nearly to her waist. She is maybe a size six and looks like a vegan with multiple exotic allergies. Her steely blue eyes emanate not so much brotherhood as unflinching principles. Like the white rabbit, she is always scurrying up and the down the stairs on her way to an Important Date.

She told me her whole life revolves around music and dance, which I believe, for every evening about 10 pm she gets inspired. The floor begins to thump in rhythmic steps, a keyboard soars and a thin soprano can be heard in the background singing about peace and love.

Last, but not least, to my right and above, are the old Russian couple who look like nesting dolls. Both short, round and wearing clothes in unusual color combinations they speak little English. Our conversations are limited to a lot of arm waving and smiles interspersed with comments about the beautiful weather.

I see them going up and down the stairs several times a day. The old man makes kitty noises at Sweetie Pie but she, cunning wench, pretends not to understand Russian. The other day, after returning from grocery shopping, the old woman tried to tell me something with a lot of arm motions pointing to her car. “Back. Open. Number. All fall out,” she said, to which I offered wide, unbelieving eyes and a sympathetic shake of the head implying this is what the world has come to.

There are other less frequently seen but unique characters who stroll up and down the noon sidewalk. One I call Jayne Mansfield because of her long blond wig, enormous bosom and high heels. Diane the Talker always stops to keep me updated on her battles with social services, legal services and other providers. Then there is the fat lady who wears sunglasses even at night. Other less obvious tactics will be required to see beneath her veil of secrecy.

The city of Sacramento has a half million residents, each with their own story. These have been a few of them.

A neighborhood is where, when you go out of it, you get beat up. Murray Kempton

Picture: Odalisque by Ingres