I put the house up for sale after my wife died and moved into an apartment across town—a one-bedroom unit, ground floor, back-facing, with a patio. The complex was corporate-run with the management right onsite. The rules and regulations were posted in the hallways, and the lawn and shrubbery were well maintained. But my son and daughter, they thought the place was a dump, a real step down, they said, from the way I’d lived with their mother, and they wouldn’t leave me alone about it. For my son it was the look of my unit. “That green refrigerator is from the seventies,” he said. He didn’t like the popcorn ceiling. “Who looks up there?” I told him. The things they noticed. My daughter was worried about my neighbors. She stared incessantly out my sliding glass door. She whispered, “Daddy, who lives here?” and I whispered back, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
My daughter got in the habit of stopping by on her way home from work. She’d bring Chinese food from the Ling King (a restaurant we’d gone to when the kids were little. It was easy on the wallet and my wife liked the egg rolls). My daughter ate the chow mein straight from the carton with the wooden chopsticks they give you, she’s a bit of a show off that way, and we watched the evening news. All her talk about the military-industrial complex was tiresome, but my daughter had carried on that way since she was a teenager, I was used to it, and for the most part I thought we were getting along. But then she pointed a chopstick out my sliding glass door to a couple across the way grilling out on their patio. “Do you know these people?” she said. I put down my plate, leaned forward in my chair. I’d seen the man, he tinkered with his motorcycle in the parking lot, and the woman, she was a speed walker. “There’s nothing wrong with those people!” I said. Turned out my daughter had changed her tune a little about the complex. Not all the residents, she said, looked sketchy. “So why haven’t you made any friends?” she said. “Oh, go on,” I said. “It’s all younger people here. Everywhere they’re going, I’ve already been.” My daughter gave me the tight-lipped smile like she thought she really had me. “Well, there’s the grey-haired lady across the way,” she said, pointing to the unit kitty-corner to mine. “She’s retired. She’s obviously alone. You need to develop a game plan to meet her, Daddy.” I knew of the lady my daughter was referring to. She was always fussing out on her patio with the birdfeeders and tending to her roses. “Oh, go on,” I said.
There was heavier bombing in Baghdad the next few weeks so my daughter was pretty glued to the news. My son joined us a couple of the nights, and those two really carry on about civilian casualties, mosques burning, the oil, so I figured the previous conversation with my daughter had been put to rest. But then at the end of the broadcast my son opened up his briefcase and brought out a pocketed brochure. It was for a new senior community in town. “This would be so much nicer than where you’re living,” my son said. “And you’d be less isolated,” my daughter, right on his heels, chimed in. I could see she had taken it as a personal affront that I hadn’t followed her suggestion to introduce myself to the neighbor lady. Here we go, I thought, here we go.
I looked over the brochure after they left. A lot of pictures of old folks drinking cocktails out on a gazebo. What did I need with a goddamn gazebo? My wife and I had never considered a place like this for ourselves, and now that she had passed, I wasn’t about to. But I needed to get my kids off my back, so the next morning, I waved at the gardener as he rode by on his mower, and lo and behold, the young man waved back. I saluted the gal from management on her way to the office, and I devised a plan to just say hello to the grey-haired lady my daughter had been talking about. I’d do it quickly, just in passing, and be done with the whole business.
The lady lived to the left of me a ways, just beyond the shade of the walnut tree. She grew pink, white, and red roses and every morning before the sun got hot she was out there digging and clipping. A widow, I surmised, because along with her blue jeans she wore a man’s button-down shirt (all the ladies wear the husbands’ shirts after they pass away—some of them with the cufflinks). I stuffed some dirty clothes and a couple of towels in an old pillowcase and took the long way to the laundry room along the sidewalk that runs by the neighbor lady’s patio. My game plan was to say, “Good morning, lovely roses,” smile politely, then be on my way, but when I actually saw her there tending her garden, I couldn’t help myself, I said something that had been on my mind for quite some time. “Excuse me, but I believe there’s a rule against growing flowers out by your patio, I can show you in the lease.” She was on her hands and knees tending the pink roses. She had dirt on her nose, across one cheek—she looked ugly, ugly and old. “And who are you?” she said, squinting up through her thick glasses, looking at me like I was the sight for sore eyes. At first, I was offended, but then I could tell, the problem was that her eyesight was completely shot. We talked a little. Yes, she’d seen me around the complex, “but like a dark shadow passing,” she said, because of her poor vision. “Sometimes I feel like a dark shadow passing,” I said looking down at my big toe, which was starting to show through my canvas sneakers. My wife never would have put up with that. The wear had happened since she had passed. “I got special permission to grow the roses from the management,” the lady told me. “It’s in writing.” She stood up then, wiped her hands on her dead husband’s shirttails. She looked prettier when she was upright. Her back was straight, no hump to speak of. “You like bread?” she said. She had a nice way of asking. Her sliding glass door was open, and I could smell the loaf baking in her oven. “Oh, yeah,” I said, “especially with a little margarine on it.” She cut me a slice, put it on a sandwich plate, then packed the rest of the loaf up for me to take home. I showed the loaf to my daughter as evidence of my visit with the neighbor lady.
“Are you sure that’s not bread from the grocery store?” my daughter said. But after she had a slice, my daughter was appeased, and I thought I was finished with the neighbor lady for good. But then a week later, about mid-morning, the bread lady came by my patio with another loaf of bread, and then the week after that she came by again. “The bread sure is good,” I’d tell her each time. And it was. But truth is, after a while my tummy was getting bloated. It was too much. “You can freeze the bread, you know,” my daughter told me on the phone. “Thanks for the rocket science,” I said. But I had to admit it was a good idea. I did that.
Around that time, I got a notice in my mail slot from the apartment complex management. “As of May 15th,” it said, “all patio items must fit the category of outdoor seating.” A lot of them here fill up their patios with tricycles and laundry racks, mops and buckets. It was my son who mentioned how it looks junky. I’d filed a complaint with the management the week before, but what I’d complained about was the man in the apartment beside me, the man with the ponytail, all the junk out on his patio. (You think of young people wearing the ponytails, but this fellow’s was as grey as a squirrel’s tail.) Anyway, the man had plastic garbage bags he kept on his patio, one stacked on top of the other, three high, three across, black plastic leaf bags, and every few days, a pickup was pulling up, and another fellow was helping haul the bags in or haul them out. Mr. Ponytail didn’t seem to drive at all, just used an old ten-speed bicycle to get around. My son saw him, told me he looked like an ex-con. “Probably has a DUI,” my daughter said the next time she brought the Chinese. “It might not just be his patio that’s junkie,” she said. “What do you all know about ex-cons and junkies,” I told them. But when I complained to the management about Mr. Ponytail, my daughter became afraid I was going to be killed by him. She said old Ponytail looked like an axe murderer. But I had other concerns at the moment. Out on my patio, I had two metal lawn-chairs with plastic cushions, a long strip of outdoor carpet, and I had my three-legged stool there, where I set my coffee mug. But the stool, I realized, didn’t fit the category of outdoor lawn furniture. It was in violation of the management rules.
I never dreamed I’d have to give up that stool. I had built the stool some twenty-odd years ago at a class at the local rec center. I hadn’t learned to work with my hands as a younger person, it was an ability I’d always felt was lacking in me, but my wife encouraged me. “It’s never too late to learn a new skill, Charles Monroe. Sign up!” She had a way of generating excitement, my wife did. I took that class, and I made that stool. The legs came out a little crooked, but the stool was sturdy, and my wife and I used it over the years to keep our magazines on and as a place for the TV remote control. And then when my wife got the cancer, we used the stool for a time in the kitchen. My wife became pretty weak after the chemo, but even so, she didn’t like to be waited on. If we drew the stool up to the counter, she could still cook. And when I washed the dishes, she’d sit beside me and dry. And we’d talk, my wife was quite a talker. She’d tell me about how she was going to cure her cancer with the positive thinking—she was reading a book on it. “It works,” she said, “but only if you believe it’s going to.” I was never one for that sort of thing. I figured if you never got your hopes up, you were never let down, but I did like how the positive thinking made her brighten in the face, so I’d just wash, pass a dish, and listen to her. Then when my wife became weaker, we moved the stool into the bedroom, and she put her wig on it. My wife never wanted anyone to see her bald. “They’ll think I’m dying,” she said. “I don’t need the negative energy.” So she kept the wig on a Styrofoam head right by her bed so that when anyone came by, and they did, boy did they, she could quickly slip it on. “That crooked stool has come in handy,” my wife would say to me, and I’d reply with some pride, “Yes, it has.”
The next time my daughter came by my apartment, I showed her the notice from management to clear the non-patio items off, and my daughter said I didn’t need to remove the stool. She said, “Nobody in the complex is going to care about your old stool.” But rules are rules, regulations are regulations, as far as I’m concerned. “If I expect Mr. Ponytail to abide by them, I must, too,” I told my daughter. “So remind me when we’re coming on the fifteenth. Don’t let me leave that thing out there.” She agreed, albeit reluctantly.
The bread lady tended to stop by in the afternoons mostly. Sometimes she’d catch me napping in my recliner. “Oh I didn’t mean to wake you, Mr. Monroe,” she’d say through the screen door, “I’ll just set the loaf of bread out here on the stool.” She had a polite way about her. But as time passed, one thing that started worrying me was how to repay the bread lady for all she was doing for me. “It’s too much,” I’d tell her. But she didn’t stop. She brought by beef stroganoff, and I ate on it for days. She made me macaroni and cheese. She said she loved to cook, and since her husband had died she had no one but herself to cook for. “And I’ve got my figure to keep,” she said, smoothing out her shift dress. I invited her in for coffee. “Well, for a woman of your maturity you have a pretty good figure,” I said. “But tell me, how do you manage all this cooking just shopping at 7-Eleven?” The bread lady, with her bad eyes, she couldn’t drive. I’d seen her carrying her groceries home from there. “Oh well, sometimes the couple across the way takes me to Food Lion,” she said glancing out my sliding glass door. A little squirrel had come by and was looking in at us. “Don’t you have kids local?” I said. Turns out the bread lady’s son had disowned her. She didn’t say why. But can you imagine? My wife and I raised some kooks, but I couldn’t get rid of my kids if I wanted to.
I went in the kitchen to put on some water for the bread lady. I was thinking, should I offer to take her with me to Food Lion—I go every Tuesday, we could do our shopping at the same time. Except I liked to get in and get out, and women and all their dillydallying. And, I was worried about it becoming a regular thing. The last thing I needed at my age was a commitment. My son had brought by some dried fruits he’d won at a work party of his—figs, dates, apricots, each one individually wrapped up like candy in a cardboard box. I opened it up in the kitchen. “Gwen, do you want a date?” I called out. “Say what?” the bread lady said. I figured she was a little hard of hearing. “Do you wanna date?” I yelled over the kettle. “Why, why, yes,” I heard her reply. Then I realized what I had said. Oh, lord, I thought, oh lord. I fumbled around in the box, fished through the wrappers—“Or how about a fig!” I said, holding the piece of shriveled fruit between my fingers. The bread lady came around into the kitchen where I was standing. She looked disappointed, but she had a little ounce of fight in her, too. I could see a little ounce of trouble in her eyes, just like my daughter. “Why, I thought you said a date, Mr. Monroe.” I backed my way up against the refrigerator. “Well now,” I said sternly, “isn’t it a little soon after you husband’s death to be …?”
“You are mean!” my daughter said to me on the phone. “Mean, mean, mean! Why don’t you go out with her? You’re both widowed, you’re both alone.” “Oh, go on!” I said. “At eighty-one years of age, I don’t want any of that nonsense.” Besides, the bread lady seemed to take it all just fine. Within a few days, she’d left another loaf of bread out on my three-legged stool. I was really happy to see the bread this time. I’d had a good bowel movement, and I’d bought some strawberry jam at the Food Lion. I was looking forward to trying it. But when I opened the plastic bag she wrapped the bread in, I felt a tickling on the back of my hands, like a feather passing lightly over. “What in the world?” I said. “What in the …?” It was ants. Ants all over the bread, on my hand, and crawling up my arm. I called my daughter. I said, “I can’t eat the bread, it’s got ants.” “Throw it out, Daddy,” she said. “Right now, and tell the bread lady not to leave it outside like that anymore.” “Oh, I can’t do that,” I said. “I can’t tell her that.”
About a week later, the bread lady left another loaf of bread for me. I opened the plastic wrap carefully this time. I was really looking forward—but lo and behold, the ants again. I dumped the loaf into the kitchen sink. The tiny insects circled the drain. I looked underneath for a black garbage bag to dispose the bread in. It occurred to me the loaf in the freezer might have the ants, too, so I dropped that big brick in the bag, and hauled it all out, along with my usual kitchen trash to the garbage containers out near the laundry. One more day until I’ve got to bring that piece of furniture in off the patio, I thought, as I passed by the three-legged stool. Maybe that’ll stop the bread lady from leaving the loaves out there. It’s one benefit, I thought, to the new regulations.
When you’re old you do crazy things. I got all the way out to the garbage cans, put the one bag of trash, the one from my kitchen container, in the garbage tin, but then I left the other bag, the one with the bread in it, just sitting there on the ground. I was heading off toward the bread lady’s apartment to thank her for the latest loaf, when there she was coming towards me on the walk. For a near blind lady she sure sees when she wants to. “What’s that?” she said, pointing to the black garbage bag I’d forgotten there on the ground. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. She moved up closer, situated her glasses lower on her nose. “I think we’d better leave it be,” I said. “My neighbor, the gentleman with the ponytail, keeps some pretty strange things in bags like that. You should see his patio—it’s full of …” But the bread lady wouldn’t be stopped. She kept charging for the black bag. I hadn’t tied it up well, and when she bent over and pulled at it, the bag fell open and out tumbled the two loaves, the frozen brick first, then the other loaf fresh from her oven just that morning. The bread lady flung her hand against her heart. We both stared down at the loaves. Then she looked up at me—but like I was just a dark shadow passing. “Why Mr. Monroe,” she said, “I had thought you were sincere.”
She stopped coming by after that. No bread lady, no bread. The next time I saw her I was in my car. She was walking back from the 7-Eleven. A man was with her, and he was carrying a bag of groceries for her. Why, it’s her son, I thought. Lo and behold, they’ve reconciled. But when I got closer, I realized I knew the fellow. It was my neighbor, Mr. Ponytail, only he’d chopped the darn squirrel’s tail off. He wore a crisp plaid button-down shirt, neat trousers. The man looked downright clean-cut for an axe murderer. I wondered what he was putting on his bread.
The nights my daughter didn’t come by, I rarely turned on the television. I’d pull the throw over me and would fall asleep in the recliner before dark. “I’m an old man,” I told myself. “What are you going to do?” But sometimes I’d be up and down to the restroom all night long, and would end up staring at the blank TV screen trying to shake off a bad dream I’d had or some ugly thought, and the evening after I saw the bread lady out with ponytail I had a night like that.
My wife was on my mind, the last days before she died, when her head was so shrunken she couldn’t wear the wig anymore, and her hollow cheeks made her look mean even when she smiled. She didn’t want any visitors those last days. “They’ll take one look at me and say I’m dying,” she said. “And I’m not. I’m positive I’m not.” When she stopped being able to eat, I fed her little bits of popsicle. “Cherry,” she said, one evening, “I want cherry.” I had to tell her we were out, we only had the orange and the lime. Our daughter was looking in the other stores, I told her, but don’t get your hopes up because when one store doesn’t have it, a lot of times none of them do. But it was the wrong thing to say to my wife. I should have known that. Her face went flush, and, weak and gaunt as she was, she rose up from the pillow, and her eyes bore into me. “Don’t give me your negativity, Charles Monroe!” she said. “All these years, all these years. I’m so tired, I’m so sick and tired of the NEG-ativity!”
She fell back into the pillow, and I placed a warm damp rag on her forehead. Her head swayed from side to side as she muttered “thank you,” or “damn you,” I couldn’t make out which—to me, or was it to Jack? My wife’s positive-thinking book was there on the nightstand. She couldn’t read anymore, but she said just having the book beside her gave her energy, and “he,” she said, was the only one who was positive, was the only one who believed that she would survive the cancer. She meant the author, Jack Sparr, there on the book jacket. The man was on a tropical beach, the sun rising behind him. A handsomer fellow than I had ever been, that Jack, he had the good hair and teeth. “Son of bitch,” I said under my breath, “you goddamn …”
Those hours just before dawn when you are there all alone, the things that happen, but in the morning my wife’s presence had faded, and my mind was on the bread lady again, the trouble I was in with her. Over breakfast, I devised a plan to rectify the situation. I knew one thing I could do for her that Mr. Ponytail, without his driver’s license, couldn’t. I called my daughter and got her to read from her cookbook the ingredients for beef stroganoff. I’d already made one trip to the grocery store, but that afternoon I made a second.
Sometimes the bread lady worked in her rose garden in the late afternoon, when the sun was shaded by the trees, and when you could catch a cooling breeze. At about four o’clock, I saw her out there on her knees snipping away and wiping her brow with the back of her garden gloves. I ran and changed my shirt and got the bag of groceries from the kitchen, then stepped out on my patio and looked across to hers. I was excited about my plan, so excited I tripped over my lawn chair. One more day ‘til I need to put that three-legged stool inside, I noted to myself as I regained my balance. It was then that I saw that the stool was gone. Gone? How could that be? The notice said the fifteenth. I had the right to one more day. I was a wreck about it, but I’d have to worry about the stool later, I decided. The meat I had in the bag would go bad if I didn’t get it to the bread lady.
She was bent over the roses so didn’t see me pause a few feet away to collect myself. I’d always admired the bread lady’s patio, the pretty canvas chairs, the little wrought-iron side table for the potted plants, a red, white, and blue pinwheel stuck into one. Her husband had been military. It was so inviting, nicer than all the other patios in the complex. How relaxing it would be, I thought, to sit out here some quiet afternoon. But then I heard a noise—a rustling inside her apartment. I looked, I looked again. I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was Mr. Ponytail inside moving slowly just behind the screen door, like a dark shadow passing. I braced myself, I was sure the man was coming out after me. But no, he sat himself down, sat himself down just behind the screen—on a stool, the man was sitting on a stool, and he was watching me. I hurried my step over to the roses. “Look Gwen,” I said, one eye still on that Mr. Ponytail, “can we bury the hatchet?”
She stared up at me then with a queer little smile. “Why, Mr. Monroe,” she said. “Whatever in the world are you talking about?” She pulled her glasses low on her nose to see my grocery bag. The blood from the meat was dripping onto her patio. I heard another rustling from behind her, a creak. It was Ponytail moving again behind the screen. “I need to go—put the groceries away,” I told the bread lady, and ran across the lawn to my apartment.
I called my daughter and told her what had happened. She could tell I was shaken, and she came right over. “Are you sure it was him in her apartment, Daddy? Are you sure it was your stool? It all seems so far-fetched.” I was at the kitchen table, my head in my hands. “My mind can play tricks,” I said, rubbing my scalp. “I don’t know, I’m old.” My daughter shoved the meat down the garbage disposal, and put the rest of the ingredients for the stroganoff away in the refrigerator. “Are you hungry, Daddy?” she said. She heated up a can of Chef Boyardee she found in my cupboard and joined me at the table to eat. “Mommy was a good cook,” she said, and we both chuckled. We’d eaten the canned spaghetti a lot when the kids were small, my wife always ready with cloth napkins for us to wipe our chins. My daughter finished up before me and took her bowl to the sink. She ran the water, and I could hear her washing, her bowl, then all my dishes, they had a way of piling up. Then the faucet was off, and when I looked up, I saw my daughter’s eyes fixed on something down at the end of my hallway. “Daddy,” she said. “Is that …?” I leapt up from the table and pushed in front of my daughter to shield her view. The head, the wig, I had forgotten to put it away from the night before. I ran and grabbed onto it to put it back in the hall closet. “No Daddy, don’t. Leave it!” she said.
The head was perched precariously on the edge of the stool now, and I had mussed the hair and tilted the wig forward. My wife had always said, “If my wig is on crooked, you help me with it, Charles Monroe, you pull me aside and help me, I don’t want to be walking around looking like a crazy woman.” But my daughter had come up beside me, she was holding tight onto my arm, and so we just stood. And then as it would happen, my wife’s features emerged—her little nose first, then that dear sweet smile, and through the bangs of the crooked wig, her eyes were shining. My daughter leaned in close. “Daddy, it’s like she’s here,” she whispered. “It is,” I said. “It is.”
Cathy Rose’s fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Rosebud, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Steel Toe Review, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, CA with an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University.