I LIVE ON A STREET called Tall Oaks Drive, but the nearest trees are a half-mile away in the city park. And they aren’t even oaks, but birches—fine in their own right but not at all equal to the stately, majestic oak.
My apartment is on the third floor of an old brick building, behind an outer steel door and three inner security doors with narrow, mesh-lined windows set high. It’s like living in a prison, except it is one of my own choosing.
I like hiding behind doors and locks. I like knowing the world is outside. As my mother would say, “You can’t be too careful these days. You never know who is out to get you.”
There are three floors between my room and the world—a total of six flights to climb and descend each day, four locks to release and re-lock behind me. Sometimes I have to do the whole process an extra time, if I have run out of cigarettes at three in the morning.
It’s a terrible feeling to need to inhale that gray cloud of smoke, to imagine your lungs expanding and contracting, to crave that heady rush as the nicotine barrels through your bloodstream—only to find your last pack empty and crumpled on the kitchen floor.
They say smoking will kill you. It will probably kill me. But since dying isn’t an option, what does it matter how it happens?
I’ve lived here for five years and have never met my next-door neighbors. But I know their names—Gladys and Joe—because the walls are thin and Joe shouts loudly and Gladys cries out his name a lot.
“Joe! Joe! Where have you been?”
“Listen, you stupid bitch, I don’t have to tell you anything!”
“Joe! Joe! Where are you going now? Joe!”
Sometimes Gladys doesn’t stop until he hits her. Through the cardboard-thin walls, I can hear the sharp crack as his hand meets her skin, echoing in the silence that follows.
Gladys cries when he doesn’t come home and cries when he gets there. I wonder if the day will come when a blow isn’t enough to stop her tears. Then what will Joe do to make her quiet?
Not that it matters to me. Why should it? My mother always said not to get involved in other people’s lives.
“Mind your own business,” she used to warn me. “It’s better that way—easier.”
But for whom?
When I came here, I thought I would put a small pot of flowers on the window sill—the only window sill in the apartment—the only window in the apartment—just to have something alive to talk to. I wasn’t used to living alone.
I bought a small African violet, leaves velvet-furred, with tiny delicate blooms, from the store around the corner. The shopkeeper said it would grow.
“Guaranteed to survive, little lady,” were his exact words, bitten off between nicotine-stained teeth. I didn’t like the way he looked at me, all the while stroking one tender leaf. His fingers were stained from cigarettes, or maybe it was just potting soil caught in the tips. I wouldn’t have minded that so much. At least it would have shown that he took care of the plants himself.
But he wasn’t very careful with the one I picked out. Or maybe it was my fault—too much in a hurry to escape from his eyes and those dirty, stroking fingers. When I came home and freed the plant from the paper sack, I noticed one of the stems had broken and was lying there on the soil.
I tried to save it, whispering to it all the while as I dug a small hole for the broken end. “Be strong, be brave. I can fix you good as new,” I promised.
But some things can’t be fixed. Some things, when they break, are broken so totally that all you can do is bury them and then forget them—put them clean out of your mind.
It’s better that way. I haven’t gone back to my mother’s grave once in five years and now barely remember what it was like living with her.
And I don’t mind forgetting—not really.
But the flower died. Little by little, leaf by leaf, it shriveled and withered and died. The petals fell off and lay on the floor beneath the dirty window sill until they crumbled into nothingness.
And I never figured out what went wrong. Too much to drink? Not enough love? I just know she died one day.
The pot is still there. Maybe I should throw it out or bury it next to the graffiti-scrawled trashbin where the teenage boys gather to trade drugs and sex magazines. But that would be taking a lot of trouble over something that wasn’t really that important—and left me anyway.
“No calling hours?’ The funeral director’s eyebrows—black caterpillars crawling across his forehead—had raised up their midsection at my decision. “Surely friends or relatives—”
But I had it my way. No long, drawn-out ceremony, no last prayers, or weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth. The only reason I even went to the cemetery was because he insisted—probably to ensure he got paid for his time and trouble and bit of dirt.
I paid him—in cash, because I don’t trust banks either.
“Keep hold of what’s yours,” my mother always advised. “Get what you can and never let go of it.”
Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you try, things get away and you’re left with nothing to show for your efforts. Sometimes, you just can’t hold on long enough or tight enough. Sometimes, nothing you do matters at all.
When I am at work, I think about coming home—how I’ll lock the doors, pull down the yellowed shade, dim the single light until it’s dark as a cave. I like it better that way. It’s not that I’m unhappy, you understand. It’s just that my expectations never even came close to being realized and that’s an easier fact to face in the darkness. Although, after all this time, I’m not even certain I remember what I expected after all.
Fortunately, my job requires little in the way of attention. If I have to work anywhere, it might as well be there. But sometimes I get so tired of sliding small cans of peas and corn and carrots past the scanner, of telling customers “Sixteen dollars and twelve cents, please,” of having to place each item carefully in the bag so nothing is dented or crushed or damaged. I’m just so tired of it all.
If I’m having a good day, I play a little game with the customers—not that they are aware of it. This is how it goes—one can, two cans, three cans past the scanner—“It looks like a nice day out there” (Or a bad day or a cold day. It doesn’t matter. The trick is for them to look at me instead of their cans and cartons and packages)—and somehow the fourth can escapes the all-seeing eye of the scanner and makes a mad dash for freedom.
Helped, of course, by my willing fingers. Freedom—and a safe haven in the deep, dark depths of my old leather handbag, laying open and ready on the floor by my feet.
The sense of accomplishment is unbelievable. Sometimes I won’t open the can for days, content to see it waiting there on my kitchen table—a tribute to my cleverness and skill.
“God helps those who help themselves,” my mother used to say, so that’s what I do. Help myself, that is. Not that her philosophy did her much good in the end. Or had she relied on God to help herself to die?
Some day, I know I’ll get caught. Some day, the customer will see what I’m doing or the boss will walk by at just the wrong moment or the strap on my old purse will break and the can will roll across the floor in front of everyone.
I know that. But if the end is already determined, why stop now?
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by Steven Gulvezan
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