Displacement

Neighbors

by William Cass

 
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1

Henry and his father, Glen, sat eating dinner at the rickety picnic table their new landlord had left in the backyard. Light fell towards full evening. A screen door banged next door, and they watched their neighbor slowly descend her back steps, one hand on her cane, the other clutching a plastic sack.

Henry whispered, “How old is she?”

“Pretty old.”

“Seventy? Seventy-five?”

“At least.”

 The old woman completed the halting journey to and from her garbage can, then hoisted herself back up the three steps. When the screen door clapped shut behind her, Glen and Henry both blinked. The short hedge of rosemary dividing their backyards gave off a faint, pungent scent.

2

The next afternoon, Henry was out back playing with his action figures. He’d built up two warring factions amidst clumps of dirt, rocks, and hunks of brush. He lay on his stomach on the worn grass rearranging formations and mumbling battle narrations with little bursts of explosions puffing his cheeks. He didn’t hear the old woman open her screen door and emerge partway behind it onto her top step.

She regarded the boy for several moments before saying, “Where’s your father?”

Henry went still. His eyes widened looking up at her. He shrugged, then said, “Working.”

The old woman frowned. The prior month, between drawn curtains, she’d observed the two of them moving their few things into the house that had long sat empty. She hadn’t yet initiated any acquaintance.

“You big enough to be on your own?”

He shrugged again. “I’m ten.”

The crease between her eyebrows deepened. She tapped the step with her cane.

“He’ll be home soon, my dad. And he’s trying to find after-school care.”

“I see.” She took a tissue from her cardigan pocket and blew her nose. “What’s your name?”

“Henry.” He struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. “What’s yours?”

“Mrs. Baker.”

“Where’s Mr. Baker?”

“Dead.”

“Oh.” The boy dropped the action figure he was holding onto the grass and said, “Okay.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“Gone.”

He stared straight at her. She saw no change in his scarred face except for his eyes.

“You scrape your cheek or something?”

“Called a malar rash. I just have it.”

Mrs. Baker nodded slowly, but her frown intensified further. “All right, then,” she finally said. A breeze rustled the colored leaves on her maple tree. “Best put on a warmer jacket before you catch cold.”

He continued staring at her but made no movement. Somewhere nearby, a dog barked.

“All right, then,” Mrs. Baker repeated. She tapped her cane once more as if in punctuation, then went back inside. Henry blinked again at the screen door’s slap.

3

Later that week, Glen took Henry to an appointment with the boy’s pediatric rheumatologist, Dr. Seinz. He’d made it with her after Henry experienced some heightened swelling in his feet and ankles, as well as slightly darkened urine. Dr. Seinz had ordered bloodwork and a urinalysis several days beforehand. She started the appointment by reviewing the results.

“Well, your white and red blood cell counts look okay,” she said. “No worse than usual, anyway. But your kidney function is a little depressed, so I’m going to increase the dosage of one of your antimalarials. Let’s me see those peds.”

Henry had already removed his shoes and socks and rolled up his jeans. Dr. Seinz carefully inspected the joints in his lower extremities, pausing when he winced, then did a more cursory whole-body exam. She wrapped her stethoscope around her neck, pursed her lips, and said, “So, I’m going to up your naproxen a little, too, which should help with the swelling. Let me know if it doesn’t or if you develop any oral ulcers. In combination, that could be sign your lupus is starting to flare up again.”

Glen watched his son stiffen and said, “Will do.”

Dr. Seinz gave Henry’s knee a quick pat, then left the exam room while he rolled down his jeans. When Glen tried to help him with his shoes and socks, Henry brushed his hand away.

4

Mrs. Baker filled each new day much the same as the one before it. She rose a little before dawn, used the bathroom, dressed, and had tea and toast at the kitchen table while she read the newspaper. She labored once around the block listening to the birds and watching the sky lighten. Glancing at her morning TV talk shows, she rotated between crocheting and needlepoint projects. A couple of hours were spent after that reading, mostly memoirs she replaced often at the public library. Very occasionally, a little halfhearted organization was attempted of her husband’s files and papers from their fifty-four years together; Mrs. Baker mostly shuffled items from one pile to another in abject avoidance of throwing anything away. A sandwich with dill pickle chips comprised lunch. Her nap followed. She dabbled a bit afterwards with one of her word search magazines or the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles she kept going on the dining room table. An hour or so playing the upright piano on which she used to give lessons came next. Weather permitting, a bit of attention would be paid to her backyard garden. Her few houseplants sometimes needed watering or pruning. Although no family or real friends remained with whom she corresponded, her email was checked late each afternoon. She ate dinner early: a bowl of soup with crackers on a tray table accompanied by the nightly news on television. DVDs of British detective series that she also checked out from the library concluded her evening. She was normally in bed by eight.

After her husband died, she considered getting a cat or dog for companionship, but decided she couldn’t risk growing close to another beating heart that might also pass on.

5

On weekdays from 8 to 4, Glen worked as an occupational therapist at a rehab clinic across town not far from their old rental unit. His wife being gone meant leaving Henry alone for about an hour before and after school each day. The new district in which Henry was enrolled had no childcare program, and there was nothing private nearby with an opening available that Glen had been able to find since their move. He rued leaving his son at home alone and continued to look without success for alternative caretaking options.

His wife had moved out with no warning the previous year during Henry’s most serious hospitalization. A two-sentence note from her was waiting on the kitchen counter for Glen when he got home from the hospital one night. She couldn’t take it anymore, it said; she was done watching Henry suffer. Glen found her suitcase, a few clothes, and some toiletries missing, but nothing else. She never returned for any of her other belongings and wouldn’t respond to his cell phone messages, texts, or emails. He had no idea where she’d gone, nor did her mother or her few friends. She’d been between jobs at the time, so there was no employer with whom to check.

The hospital discharged Henry home a couple weeks later. Glen explained things to him in as brief, straightforward, and nonjudgmental a way as possible. He told Henry his mother loved him. Still, it took several months before he no longer heard his son crying himself to sleep.

6

Mrs. Baker continued to see Henry playing alone in his backyard almost every afternoon and noticed him walking to school each morning well after his father had left for work. She wondered about the butterfly scar on his cheek and the way he sometimes seemed to limp. The timing of her garden visits began to intentionally occur when she saw him in the backyard. Her raised beds bordered their shared hedge.

For more than a week out back together, they only exchanged curt nods in acknowledgement. A gray afternoon finally came when she caught him peeking her way and extended a couple of zucchinis across the hedge. She said, “Here.”

“What?”

His action figures that day were scattered under the rosemary hedge. He straightened up onto his knees, squinted at her with one eye closed, and cocked his head.

“Take these,” Mrs. Baker said. “Give them to your father. Cook them up with your supper.”

The boy’s expression remained impassive. He said, “That squash?”

“Something like. It’s good.”

He stood and took the vegetables from her. While he looked at them with suspicion, she said, “How about helping me with something in return?”

“What?”

“Rake those leaves.” She pointed at the curling carpet of yellow and red under her maple tree. “Too much for me to manage anymore.”

They stared at each other while she yanked her cardigan tighter. Henry could see her skull through her cap of white, cotton-candy hair. Her gray-blue eyes were hooded at the outside edges behind the rimless spectacles crooked on her small nose.

He said, “How?”

“Set those zucchinis on your picnic table and come through that gap in the hedge. She pointed back towards where their garages bordered the alley side by side. “Rake’s just inside my garage door there.”

He continued staring at her. Up close, the rash on his face looked angrier, creeping up the side of his nose. A sudden gust tossed his shock of brown curls. His hooded gray sweatshirt hung like an oversized drape on his waifish frame.

Mrs. Baker gestured with her chin. “Go on, get busy.”

The boy did as he was told. She took the rake from him, demonstrated how to use it, then handed it back and watched him work. Several blocks away and off through the woods, the second-to-last train of the day passed: the commuter. She didn’t say anything when some of the leaves escaped Henry’s grasp as he carried his scooped bundles over and dumped them inside her trash can.

Mrs. Baker closed the lid when he finished, and he replaced the rake inside her garage’s back door. They stood looking at each other again until she said, “Thanks.”

He nodded.

“I should have let you crawl down inside the pile first,” she said. “Covered you up. Didn’t think of it.”

“Never done that.”

“Next time.”

He gave a small sheepish grin, nodded again, and pushed through the hedge gap into his own backyard. The light had crept towards gloaming. She watched him pick up the zucchinis on his way to his back door. Before going inside, he looked over at her and said, “Goodnight.”

She took a turn nodding. His door clicked shut behind him. Her husband used to burn the leaves he raked up in an old oil drum. She had no idea what had happened to it, but the memory of that acrid smell pierced something inside her with renewed longing.

7

The next morning, with just the slightest wash of dawn blushing the eastern sky, Mrs. Baker and Glen emerged onto their front steps to retrieve their morning newspapers at the same time. Mrs. Baker watched him bend his tall, lanky frame and lift his paper from the mat. He watched her use her cane to do the same, then they stood looking at each other, separated by a half-dozen yards.

“Thanks for the squash,” Glen said.

“You’re welcome.”

“It was good.”

“I’m glad.”

He nodded. “My son said he helped you.”

“He did.” She paused. “Indeed.”

“Hope he does that again.”

A pick-up truck passed slowly in the street, its headlights creamy in the murky half-light.

Mrs. Baker said, “He’s a nice boy.”

The corners of Glen’s lips raised. He ran a hand over his thinning hair, used it to give a little mock salute, and they both returned inside their houses.

8

After his father left for work each morning, Henry slid the shoebox out from under his bed, sat on its edge, and looked through the few mementos of his mother he’d managed to accumulate. The box contained mostly photographs, but there was also a brush that held a few strands of her hair, a snow globe she’d brought for him during one of his longer hospitalizations, and a small spray bottle of her perfume.

He parceled out whiffs of the perfume in order to save her scent for as long as possible. Occasionally, he studied the snow globe, turning it this way and that. Often, he ran his fingertip across the brush’s bristles or particular photographs. Soon after their move, he chose one of the oldest snapshots of her holding him on her lap to keep in his daypack; he stole looks at it from time to time at his new school.

His bedroom faced Mrs. Baker’s at the side of the house. Sometimes, when she returned from her morning walk and was changing from sneakers into moccasins, she could see him going through the box from the edge of her own bed through her muslin curtains. When she did, she only watched for a few moments before pressing her mouth into a tight line and leaving him to the privacy of his revery.

9

The med changes Dr. Seinz made seemed to help a bit. Henry’s urine lightened some, and the swelling in his ankles diminished, although his feet remained tender. When he developed a small canker sore behind his lower lip, Henry kept it to himself and tried not to probe at it with his tongue when his father was around.

His new school was much bigger than his old one, and Henry was content to lose himself among its masses; he did well enough in class, spoke only when called upon, ate alone, and drew in a notebook during recess.

Glen had always been solitary by nature, grew more so with Henry’s medical challenges, and retreated even further after his wife left and they moved. He had an older sister in an adjoining state with whom he stayed in semi-regular contact by text. When pressed by work colleagues, he joined one of their TGIFs, but departed quickly because he felt ashamed about leaving Henry alone even a little longer than usual; he never went again.

Mrs. Baker’s social interactions had gradually diminished after the passing of her husband and others in their small social circle; the few remaining people she knew marginally well had all moved into retirement homes or closer to younger relatives. Almost no one in her neighborhood of small, clapboard houses had been a longtime owner like her, so she hardly recognized anyone there anymore.

10

Smiles and short, stiff waves became the accustomed greeting between the new neighbors. Mrs. Baker continued to pass on fall vegetables to Henry: beets, turnips, late corn, a small, mishappened pumpkin that he eventually carved for Halloween with his father’s assistance. He started helping her in the garden from time to time. She waited until enough additional leaves had accumulated to have him rake them into a pile she could cover him with and heard him giggling down inside it when she did.

One evening, Glen watched her struggle dragging her garbage can to the alley for collection, so without asking, began bringing that back and forth for her. In silent exchange, she baked them a loaf of pumpkin bread, wrapped it in cellophane, and left it on their front step before Glen came out for his newspaper one morning.

For Halloween itself, Henry insisted on wearing the same dinosaur costume his mother had made for him two years earlier. Their first trick-or-treating stop was at Mrs. Baker’s house. Glen stayed back at the dim edge of the front walk while Henry rang the bell. Mrs. Baker made a delighted fuss over him before offering him her black plastic cauldron of candy to choose from; after he took a couple pieces, she dropped another handful into his open pillowcase. Then she made him wait until she could get an old Polaroid camera and take his picture under her porchlight.

“This,” she told him as it slid out of the slot at the bottom, “will go on my fridge.”

When she held it up for Glen, he nodded and grinned, though it was too far away for him to see clearly.

11

Not long after Halloween, the weather turned too cold to be out in the backyard, so Mrs. Baker spent more time at her piano next to one of her living room’s side windows. On an afternoon after she finished playing a jaunty march, she looked up to see Henry watching her from his own living room window a few feet away. He stood very still wearing a far-off expression before suddenly clapping.

Mrs. Baker raised her window and gestured for him to do the same. When he had, she said, “You like music?”

“We had a piano. My mom used to play.” His shrug was slight. “She was going to teach me.”

The rosemary hedge stood taller between their houses where a few branches nodded above their windowsills on the cold breeze. Mrs. Baker squeezed the handle of her cane, then said, “I could do that. Write your dad a note and come over.” When Henry squinted and cocked his head, she added, “Go on now, get busy.”

After he disappeared, she cracked open her front door, sat back down on the piano bench, and scooted over, leaving room for him.

 

Forty-five minutes later, Glen knocked on her open door, but Mrs. Baker and Henry didn’t hear him over the music from the piano, so he stepped inside and listened to them. They were playing the Chopsticks duet, Henry using a single finger for the high part.

When they finished, Glen shifted his weight, and the two of them glanced over at him.

“Good…you found the note.” Mrs. Baker looked from Glen to Henry and back, then said, “This one learns fast. Why doesn’t he start coming over here after school so we can continue lessons?”

She hesitated for an extended beat. “No charge, and it won’t be a bother. He can come over, too, when you leave for work in the morning.”

Glen nodded. Seeing his son’s quiet smile, a heat rose behind his eyes.

12

When Henry pushed through the front door in the mornings, Mrs. Baker had hot chocolate waiting for him on the dining room table where they worked on the jigsaw together until it was time for him to leave for school. In the afternoons, he first finished his homework in the same spot with a snack while she did word searches or worked more on the puzzle. They spent the rest of their time until Glen arrived at the piano together.

As she had with all her former students, she started him on scales, then rudimentary exercises, and by the first snowfall, he was playing very simple songs with both hands. Glen let himself in each afternoon and perched for a few minutes on the arm of the couch watching and listening to them. Henry had long, narrow fingers like his mother’s, and he leaned over the keys just like she used to do.

When they finished playing, a few short pleasantries were exchanged. Mrs. Baker often sent them home with something she’d baked — cookies, scones, muffins. Every now and then, when Glen had stopped at the grocery store on the way home, he brought her a small bouquet of flowers from the tub at the check-out line. Gratitude was a mumbled utterance. Then the stillness of their own houses followed, along with the separate ticking of their furnaces, the groan of their floorboards, the wind rattling their windows when flurries came.

13

One afternoon, as Henry dumped his books from his daypack onto Mrs. Baker’s dining room table, the photograph of his mother and him came with them. It slid face-up between his hot chocolate mug and the collection of puzzle pieces she was sorting through. Their eyes met. His remained impassive, but she could see them struggling.

“She’s pretty,” Mrs. Baker said softly. “Your mom.”

He snatched the photograph, stuffed it back in his daypack, and opened a book.

She asked, “What’s she like?”

He turned a few pages, shrugged without looking at her, then mumbled, “Nice.”

He didn’t see Mrs. Baker nod slowly. She went back to sorting puzzle pieces. He opened a notebook and copied a math problem into it.

14

Mrs. Baker didn’t see Henry’s mother parked at the curb across and up the street until a blustery afternoon in early December. The old woman noticed her through the front door she always cracked for Glen. The streetlights had begun coming on earlier with the gathering darkness and one above her car cast a yellowish tint on her windshield. His mother looked older than the woman in the photograph, her hair shorter under a knit cap, but there was no mistaking the expression on her face as she stared at Mrs. Baker’s house; it matched the one that had been on Henry’s that afternoon in his living room window after she finished playing the piano march.

Mrs. Baker lowered the palm she’d raised instinctively against her chest. Behind her, Henry fingered in repetition the opening of Für Elise. She waited for her breathing to slow before resuming her place next to him on the piano bench and leaning her cane against her thigh.

15

One morning shortly afterward, Henry took a sip of hot chocolate, studied Mrs. Baker as she fit together two puzzle pieces and asked, “Do you have any children?”

The old woman set down the pieces and looked at him. She shook her head.

“Why not?”

“We couldn’t. My husband and I.”

“Shucks.”

“Yeah.”

When he turned back to the puzzle, she did, too. They worked for another couple of minutes until Henry said, “You don’t have any pictures of Mr. Baker around.”

“No.”

“How come?”

“Too hard for me to look at. They’re all stored away.”

“Tell me something about him.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head back and forth, considering, before saying, “He worked as a mechanic. He was solid, sturdy. I felt safe with him.”

“Like my dad.”

She nodded. “Yes, like that.”

16

When a second canker sore developed in the back of Henry’s mouth, he kept that to himself, too. He did the same with his increased joint pain and explained away his loss of appetite as being due to the extra snacks that Mrs. Baker had begun preparing for him. But he couldn’t hide the fact that fatigue began luring him to bed earlier and earlier or the fever that spiked the week before Christmas. Glen gave him aspirin, and although the fever inched down afterwards, he spent the night in his son’s bedroom slumped over in a folding chair.

During the wee hours, he awoke to a clipped cry from Henry, a sound he’d never heard before. He sprang to his feet to find his son jerking convulsively in bed with his eyes rolled back and a froth of foam at one corner of his mouth.

“Henry,” he cried. “No!”

He’d received limited training after Henry’s diagnosis should a seizure ever occur but could recall little of it. When his son’s right arm shot out as rigid as a board, Glen turned him as gently as possible on his side in the other direction, fished his cell phone from his pocket, and called 911.

 

Mrs. Baker awoke to the scream of an approaching siren. She was standing in her robe under the porchlight on her front step when the paramedics wheeled Henry to the ambulance at the curb. Glen hurried alongside holding his son’s hand and followed the stretcher up inside its open back doors. Breaths came in short, frosty clouds, including the one from the stretcher. She held the fingertips of one hand over her trembling lips and clutched her robe to her chest with the other as the flashing lights and whine of the siren dissipated into the black, frigid night.

17

The next day, Mrs. Baker checked often for any activity at the house next door. She did her best not to regard her empty dining room chair or piano bench, but it proved difficult. She waited until late afternoon before going over and bringing back Glen’s newspaper from the front step so their house wouldn’t appear vacant. She dropped it in a cardboard box she set in her entryway. The following afternoon at about the same time, she did the same and retrieved the contents of their mailbox as well, moving carefully and deliberately with her cane in a dusting of new snow. On each trip, she glanced up the street where Henry’s mother sat in her car at the curb under the streetlamp’s yellow canopy.

Her kitchen wall phone rang as she was washing her dinner dishes that second evening. It was Glen.

“Oh, Good Lord,” she said when she recognized his voice. “Please tell me he’s okay.”

“Well, I can’t tell you that, but he is stable.”

“What’s wrong?”

“He has lupus.” There was a pause. “Had it since birth. Very rare in children, especially boys, but there you go. Seizures can occur if it reaches certain stages, but he’d never had one before the other night.” Another muffled pause followed. “Sorry,” Glen resumed. “His nurse just told me they’re trying a new anti-convulsive med tonight because he had another milder seizure earlier today.”

Her palm had risen again to her chest. She said, “I’m so sorry.”

She heard him exhale before saying, “They tell me he’s out of the woods, that he’ll be okay. But we still have a ways to go. This is definitely new territory we’re into here.”

“Can I come visit?”

“Only family, I’m afraid.”

“I’m bringing over your newspaper and mail. What else can I do?”

“Thanks, nothing.”

Henry’s Halloween photo stared back at her from the refrigerator. She said, “Please tell him I send my best. I’m thinking of him…of you both.”

“Appreciate that.” Another voice came from the room. “Listen, I have to go. I’ll be in touch.”

The line went dead. Very slowly, Mrs. Baker replaced the receiver on its coiled cord. The furnace kicked on. Beyond the woods, the last evening train clattered past.

18

Over the next few days, Mrs. Baker had no real appetite; she had to force herself to eat. She curtailed her morning walks and trips to the library so she wouldn’t miss a call from Glen. None of her daily activities proved much of a distraction. She slept fitfully.

Her daily visits to retrieve Glen’s newspaper and mail continued. On each, she glanced at the familiar car with its lone passenger parked up the street a couple houses away. On the fourth afternoon, she stopped at the end of her front walk under the wash of her own streetlamp and looked at Henry’s mother. With half her face in shadow, the young woman stared back, completely still. Mrs. Baker slowly raised her cane, and after a moment, Henry’s mother tentatively returned the gesture with several fingers, her shoulders slumped. Mrs. Baker nodded once, then made her way up the walk and back into her house.

Perhaps five minutes passed before Mrs. Baker heard her doorbell ring. She wasn’t surprised and had been careful not to turn out the porchlight. She hadn’t even taken off her coat; she’d dropped the items she held in the cardboard box but hadn’t left the entryway at all. She licked her lips, took a deep breath, and reopened the door. Henry’s mother stood in her knit cap as perfectly still as she’d been behind the wheel of her parked car, and Mrs. Baker thought, he has your eyes.

For several, long moments, the two women regarded each other silently. Henry’s mother appeared older than Mrs. Baker had imagined, more worn and wearier, but that could have been due to her forehead wrinkling and those troubled eyes brimming. No tears fell.

Finally, Mrs. Baker said, “He’s in the hospital, but his father told me he’s going to be all right. Henry.”

His mother’s shoulders sagged, and she looked away, whether from relief or concern or both, Mrs. Baker couldn’t determine. The young woman nodded slowly, swallowed once hard, turned back and said, “Thank you.”

Mrs. Baker reached out and clasped one of her hands in both of her own. It felt cold, bone-dry, almost brittle. They looked at each other while Henry’s mother nodded a few more times, then withdrew her hand and went down the steps. Mrs. Baker watched her disappear up the sidewalk into the darkness and re-emerge under the streetlamp at her car. The old woman closed her front door, leaned back against it, and squeezed her eyes shut.

The car’s engine started, then it crawled away in a whisper through the covering of new snow.

19

Henry’s mother wasn’t parked at the curb when Mrs. Baker made her visit next door the following afternoon. She wasn’t surprised about that either. There was only one regional hospital nearby, and Mrs. Baker felt pretty sure her car was parked there now and probably had been since the prior evening. She wouldn’t speculate as to whether Henry’s mother had chosen to enter the hospital; she didn’t allow her thoughts to go there.

When she got home, her answering machine’s message light was blinking on the entryway table. She pushed the play button and listened to Glen tell her that Henry was about to be transferred to a larger, university-affiliated hospital up in the capital city several hours away where he could receive experimental treatments for the more serious challenges with his lupus that they were now dealing with. He said he was travelling in the ambulance with Henry and that his sister would come over to the house in a week or two and drive his car up. He said she’d probably pack up for movers then, too, because a relocation for them near the new hospital seemed a necessary next step. He said he’d call again to give her an update. He thanked her, told her they wouldn’t forget her, and that they were truly in her debt.

With a clatter, Mrs. Baker dropped the things she held into the cardboard box, hung her overcoat on its peg, and cinched her cardigan close. She used her cane to make her slow way over the creaking floorboards to the piano where she lowered herself onto its bench. Even if Henry’s mother wasn’t yet with them, which to Mrs. Baker seemed likely, the old woman supposed she would find her way up there at some point. She hoped so, anyway, as much as she’d hoped for anything. She fingered a few notes of Für Elise and thought of the young woman’s dry hand, her tortured eyes. Mrs. Baker’s fingers halted on the keys, her heart aching. A gust of wind rattled the window, the furnace ticked on, the late train rumbled past beyond the dark, empty woods.

end of story

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