Every visit I have a long wait for her to answer. Sometimes she never does, but I always wait. I know she likes me to wait, though we have never actually talked about it.
Today I saunter off her porch and linger out by my car. I see her shadow as usual, and know she’s watching me from behind her gauze curtain. She always does. She’s human after all. We’re curious from within our sanctuaries. Today I stand out in the road, facing away.
Every visit, we never do more than start to play chess. We sip at our weak tea, and always mention how it has to cool more. Then, we both fall asleep for more than a few minutes, sitting in our chairs.
Her name and address, the second to the last on page four of the county’s Visiting Angels program booklet, gets neglected by the other volunteers who give up trying to visit because she lives so far from downtown. Angels mostly walk. Whenever a kind angel does drive out to her they end up checking the box “tried but no answer.”
I live a couple of miles just up the hill behind her house, so I come often. Well, at least two or three times a month for the last couple of years. Recently, this past month, I drop in almost every day. I plan to move further away so I’d have to take the new highway out of this town that grew into a city. I know I’ll have to end my visits. She will have no one. Ironically, since she has become my only client, I fear I too will have no one.
Directly across the street in front of the old woman’s house, the only house left on this dead end road, two rows of tombstones, cramped too close to each other and visible through the scrub only in weedless winter, rise between the broken curb and the rusting chain link fence. I count twenty-three. Beyond the fence, broken pieces lie askew, many more jumbled, not rising but falling down the slope. Exhaust haze and noise rise from stop and go traffic on the clogged roadway at the bottom of the steep hillside.
I try reading the etched names on the weathered granite. I wonder if any bodies are still under this ground and if they were moved up here to build the highway. Not much of a highway so far down below. I start visualizing the cars below as sluggish coffins on the city’s vein, bringing its waning life back to the heart from the suburbs. Hazy skyscrapers in the distance charge and keep the city’s pulse and its coffins in motion.
I turn around and I see she is standing at the bottom of her stoop, in her flimsy, silk house dress. I’m confused. She never comes out. She lets go of the handrail and begins to walk the forty feet to the street where I’m standing still. I call out, “It’s freezing out here. Wait up there, Mrs. Tierney. Wait for me.” But she is wobbling along toward me, her cane barely missing the yearning cracks trying to snag it. I call out again louder, knowing she still won’t hear me over the noise of the coffins below. “What are you doing? You know I’ll come back up there.” I don’t want her to see me crying. I’m an angel after all.
She shakes her cane at the sky and around at the few chimneys still standing above houseless foundations. “I would not let them take them away from me. They lived all around here. The county wanted to move them further up the hill way over there. I wouldn’t let them. So they put them together, right here. It is a shame, is it not?”
She reaches out and I take her hand to stabilize her as she lifts her cane again and points it back up to her house. “Would you please do me a slight favor? It does not have to be today. Sometime before the spring. Those window shutters used to move so easily. Now they are stuck open. The man who lived in that house over there, which is not over there anymore, glued them or something, and ever since then I have not been able to close them.”
I look and realize the impossibility of this task. I say, “Oh my.” Not only the shutters but the whole house has no paint left on it. A few portions of brick between its foundation piers have fallen in.
I imagine she sees my hesitation. “I really do not need to close them.” We both stare back at her house until she points her cane off to where her road stops a few hundred yards away and says, “Now that my road does not go through maybe I do not need the privacy anymore. Those shutters used to move so easily.”
“Let’s go inside, Mrs. Tierney. You must be freezing out here.” I had to get her moving so she would focus on her path and not see my tearing eyes.
I hear myself saying, “Maybe I can do something with those shutters.” Then, as we get closer to her house, I also hear, “I know I can even paint your home if you’d like, especially before it gets too cold.” She stops, clutches my arm tighter and as if we both just discovered something, she startles me with an unusual high-pitched voice, like a child, “Of course.”
She turns to me and looks up into my face and smiles wide, completely unashamed of flaunting her three remaining, tea-stained teeth and completely unaware of my drying eyes. “We can always play chess in the winter.”
John Sharkey’s career path has been as an artist specializing in scenic and decorative painting, all the time writing poems and short fiction, which he is finally gathering to polish and, hopefully, publish. Sharkey is working on his first novel and lives in Wilmington, NC.