Georgia Baldwin, old and lonely, gladly spends time with her curmudgeonly neighbour, and maybe one day they’ll understand each other better; by Jonathan Lash.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
Georgia Baldwin swayed gently on the old glider, stretching to give an occasional push with her short legs. She watched the beads of condensation that ran down the sides of the glass of sweet tea staining the low table. It was hot, but she didn’t really mind. Washington’s muggy heat bothered her less and less as she grew older. She turned to her neighbor, Henry Gray, sitting in the green painted wicker rocker.
“Why are you looking so cross, Henry?”
“You need to oil that thing, Georgie, so it doesn’t squeak when you swing.”
“Why? It’s a comforting sound.”
“No, it’s aggravating.”
“To you. Not to me. It’s like the cicadas. It’s a summer sound.”
“I could oil it for you.”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble.”
She shook her head and continued to move back and forth. A ceiling fan rotated slowly above them, and each time she swung back the soft flow of air moved over her face. When she eased forward again it blew on her back where her damp dress stuck to the slats of the glider seat.
“No need to go. I’ll keep still awhile.”
They sat in silence, that is, they did not speak, and the squeaking of the rings that held the ropes from the glider was silenced, but that only made the chorus of August cicadas that rose and fell all around them seem more insistent. Georgia looked at her neighbor and giggled. He grimaced and asked.
“You’d have to oil their wings.”
“They don’t use their wings to make sound, that’s crickets. Cicadas have a sort of a drum called a ‘tymbal.'”
“Oh, well, pardon my ignorance. Anyway, you can’t silence them.”
“Who says I want to?”
“You’re always wanting to silence somebody, Henry. The first time I met you it was about those kids demonstrating against the war.”
“Not that again.”
“All I did was hang a peace banner over the railing and you came marching over here to accuse me of being un-American.”
“You told me you sided with the demonstrators.”
“I did. You said that they needed to shut up and support their country.”
“I’m a patriot.”
“They were right.”
A look of anguish creased his narrow face. He mumbled, “Yes… yes, perhaps they were.”
Georgia frowned and said, “We haven’t argued about the war in a long time. You haven’t stopped being a patriot, have you?”
He wiped a long hand across his eyes, sighed, and asked, “Is there any more of this tea?”
“Yes, I’ll get some.”
“No, you stay. I’ll get it.”
He rose and pulled open the screen door and disappeared toward the kitchen, letting the door slam behind him. He reappeared moments later with a bowl of ice, a pitcher of tea, and two big sprigs of mint. She held up her hand and said, “The afternoon’s getting on. I think we ought to add a dash of bourbon to that.”
He nodded, and went to get the bottle off the sideboard in the dining room.
“Why do you drink this cheap stuff, Georgie?”
“Mostly you drink it. Anyway, Old Grandad seems to fit the situation… and don’t tell me about the time you had Pappy Van Winkle.”
“I keep talking about it because it was that good.”
He poured a stiff shot into each glass, sat down, raised his glass and said, “To neighbors.”
They sipped their tea. A blue jay appeared on the tray on the railing where Georgia spread seed and little chunks of beef suet.
“I keep telling you, that’s going to attract rats.”
“I clean it away every night.”
“Those birds are sloppy eaters.”
“Why don’t you get another little terrier and teach him to be a ratter.”
“I’m too old. Either I’d die first and leave the poor dog alone with you, or he’d die first and break my heart.”
“A dog would be company.”
“I’m fine as I am.”
“No, you’re not. You’re miserable.”
“What do you know?”
“I’ve known you for fifty years. You act mean to protect your sadness.”
“I don’t talk about my feelings. That doesn’t mean I’m sad.”
She shook her head gently, wondering whether he believed what he was saying. Long wrinkles tracked from his eyes and the corners of his mouth. His face had changed, as if it could no longer keep up the pretense. His eyelids drooped, his thin lips pressed together, perhaps afraid of what he might say. She offered more tea and bourbon, and he held out his glass without a word. The afternoon light faded to purple. The family two doors down was grilling. Smokey, sweet ribs. Their kids were spraying each other with a hose.
She wanted him to talk. She believed in talk. She thought that once he started, he would open up. She hesitated, then asked, “It’s coming up soon, isn’t it, Zeke’s birthday?”
“September 19, as you well know. It isn’t something I celebrate.”
“Grieving can be a form of celebration.”
“Is that how you feel when you remember Eddy?”
“No, just an ache. I miss him.”
She knew she shouldn’t have asked. His son had left in anger. It was something he never spoke of. She braced herself for a bitter response. He looked down at his drink and asked, “Eddy’s been gone a while, have you forgotten?”
“No never. He was my soulmate. You knew how I felt but you never said anything.”
“You won’t forgive me. You’re still angry.”
“Never angry. Confused. Sad. I thought he was your friend too.”
She saw him lean forward, but if he was going to say something, he swallowed it.
“What were you going to say?”
“You were. You were going to say something about not saying something.”
“Why’d you ask then?”
“If you know what I’m thinking why’d you ask what I was going to say?”
“So, you were going to say something.”
“Why are you doing this, Georgie? It’s a summer evening. We can just be here, looking at the street… looking at life. We’re getting old.”
“We are old, but still, it’s hard when old silences accumulate between us.”
“Life is mostly silence.”
“No. No. No, it isn’t. That’s death.”
The evening air was thick and still when he left. The high-pitched fiddling of crickets had replaced the cicadas. She watched him walk unsteadily down the block, almost doddering. She wondered whether the meanness had begun to leak out of him. She had learned to brush it aside, but now his bitterness seemed diluted. It made her sad. Hatchet-faced and acerbic was how she knew him. It was how she enjoyed him.
The next morning, she saw him leave in a decrepit ginger and black DC cab. Had he given up driving? She kept watch out the kitchen window as she baked the cookies she had promised for the church sale. He had not returned by the time she left to shop and visit her friend Anne. Anne had met Henry a few times. Prim and contained, she did not find Henry amusing. She scoffed when Georgia mentioned that she was worried by her neighbor’s behavior.
“He’s an old grouch, Georgie. Don’t let him get to you.”
“No, something’s wrong, Anne, I know it.”
“You’re worried because he’s grown more human?”
“The way he was was human, just not very nice. We managed to get along.”
“Now I’m not sure who he is or what’s going on.”
“Maybe he’s too old and tired to be mean?”
Lugging her shopping bags up the porch steps she glanced over at Henry’s house. She couldn’t tell whether he was home, but later, as dusk settled, she saw a light go on in the living room. She considered stopping by, but figured he must be hiding. He didn’t want to see her. The next day she never saw him emerge at all. She worried that she should call and make sure he was alright, but in the past he had blown up at her for checking in on him. “We’re neighbors,” he’d shouted. “You’re not my goddamned minder. Leave me in peace.” He knew perfectly well that it was only because she cared about him, and she knew that would provoke him. She didn’t call, she took her tea and a book and sat on the porch and waited. She’d wait him out. He didn’t appear.
The following day she called Mrs. Graham, who was running the church sale.
“Marilyn, I need to stay and look after a friend. Could you get one of the young men to come over and pick up the cookies I baked?”
“Why, of course, dear. I hope everything is alright?”
“I’m not sure.”
As she watched, a cab pulled up and Henry scuttled out of his house, eyes cast down. He wore a baseball cap and a windbreaker despite the heat. She did not move from her spot on the porch. Later, when another cab swung around the corner with Henry slouched in the back seat, she was down the steps and in front of his house while he was still fussing with his wallet to pay the driver. He opened the door, and hesitated, not looking at her. His face was gray.
“Georgia, I… I’ll come back.” He turned to go.
“No, Henry, wait!”
“I just need to go to the toilet.”
She wasn’t sure she believed him. She waited, standing in front of his house. The sun was hot. Heat shimmered above the pavement. She heard a mockingbird’s triple song. When Henry emerged, he looked as if he had sloshed water on his face and head. He had changed to a summer shirt. He glanced at her once and then started toward the weathered steps of her porch. She followed. He lowered himself slowly into his usual chair.
“Georgie, I… I need to ask you a favor.”
“What is it?”
“I have a document I’d need… I’d be grateful if you would sign.”
“You want me to witness something?”
“No, not that.” He took a folded paper from his pocket, opened it, and handed it to her. It was a form, several pages long. “Read it.”
She fumbled with the reading glasses hanging around her neck, perched them on her damp nose, and flattened the document uneasily. It was titled “Health Care Proxy,” and Henry had written his name in a space near the top. She wrinkled her brow and tried to read. It said something about a “medical directive,” but the words blurred.
“Tell me what it says.”
“Can’t you read it?”
She thought he was snarling, but she looked up and was startled by the misery constricting his harsh features.
“I don’t think that I can.”
“They say I have to decide who can make decisions if, well, if I’m not able to.”
“About my care.”
“Why? Why, wouldn’t you be able…?”
“If I was very sick.”
“Are you sick?”
He lifted a trembling hand to his mouth, looked at her, then lowered his eyes.
“What is it?”
“I have cancer.”
“But you’ll get it treated? You’ll recover.”
“No, I won’t. I waited too long. I don’t trust doctors. I hoped it would go away, but it spread.” He put his fingers together then slowly spread the out. “I’m dying, Georgie. I need someone who can tell the doctors what’s OK.”
“Oh no. No, Henry.”
“I don’t have anyone else.”
“No… I mean, no, you can’t be dying.”
The corners of his mouth twitched as if to smile. He nodded.
“You tell the SOB, Georgie, you tell the goddamned cancer. This guy’s got his claws in me. Maybe you can scare him off.”
She couldn’t speak. Her mind had stopped. She felt her eyes filling but didn’t want to retreat behind tears. Henry gestured at the paper with his long chin. She remembered Eddy, wired up in the hospital. He had seemed ready to die, but no smile had crossed his face. She had wept without restraint.
“Please, Georgie, please sign this thing. I need you to protect me from the doctors. I need someone to make them let me die when I’m ready.”
“I can’t. I don’t want you to die.”
“But I am dying and I don’t want to do it alone.” He took a breath. “I beg you.”
She stared. She had never heard him admit he needed anyone or anything. He was shaking his head, and mumbling. She saw tears channel down the deep wrinkles by his eyes.
“But that’s you, Henry. You keep the doors closed and the shades down.”
“And even so, you never went away.”
“Are we going to talk now?”
“Hell yes, ’til you tell me to shut up.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“I think we need a drink, Georgie, but let’s skip the tea.”
She found herself chuckling as she walked to the kitchen. What was happening? It was ridiculous. He was boiling with emotion and she was uneasy with it. She put two tall glasses on a tray, filled them with ice, took sprigs of mint from the vase beside the sink, crushed the leaves and put them in the glasses, added sugar, and filled the glasses with bourbon. She put the glasses on the low table in front of the glider and started to sit, then straightened up, stepped over and looked down at the man in the chair, took his hands, pulled him up, held him, then sat him beside her. They each took a deep sip. He turned toward her, looked over the rim of his glass and, with a crooked, uncontrolled grin said, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
“You’re no Bogart.”
“Your light is brighter than hers. You are real and beautiful.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Intoxicated. I am dying, but I still have life.”
She was appalled. She hugged him and he docilely accepted the gesture of physical affection. Who was this man? They had accumulated years of silences and taboos. Still, she thought she knew him, this bitter, disappointed man. She had known how to meet his disapproval with kindness, and to dismiss acerbic words with a smile. She noticed that his fresh shirt was already soaked with sweat.
“Is that what you’ve been doing this week, Henry, getting the diagnosis?”
“Yup. Blood tests, scans, biopsies. I knew, in my heart I knew what it was. It was almost a relief to have certainty instead of fear.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“Of course I’m afraid. I’ve been afraid of one thing or another all my life. But death is what hangs over us, and now I know how I’ll die. I just want to keep some control, and that’s why I want your help.”
She picked up the paper and signed it. He took her hand and squeezed it.
“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”
“Sometimes. They’ve been pretty free with the pain killers.”
She wanted to ask what kind of cancer it was and how long the doctors said he had to live, but, since he hadn’t mentioned it, she didn’t know if she should. As if he’d read her mind, he said, “They say I’ve probably got six months to a year. I need to do my living now, while I can.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’ll sit here on the porch with you… if you’re willing.”
She started to cry. He shook his head.
“No use weeping. I have a better idea. Let’s order a really good take-out dinner and eat it right here. Indian? Chinese?”
“But you don’t like Asian food.”
“How the hell would I know? I’ve never tried it.”
“What about Thai? That would be a place to start.”
“Okay, you call ’em, it’s on me.”
When she returned from phoning in their order, he had pulled a bottle wrapped in brown paper out of his bag. He held it out to her. She guessed instantly that he’d brought his favorite bourbon.
“Pappy Van Winkle! Oh gosh Henry, that must have cost you fifty dollars, and it’s wasted on me.”
“A lot more than that, and it won’t be wasted if you enjoy it.”
“We shouldn’t be celebrating.”
“Yes, we should. I don’t know how to die. I haven’t had much practice, but I’m sure this is better than hushed tones and a darkened room.”
He extracted two crystal tumblers from his bag and a bottle of branch water. His hand trembled as he started to pour the bourbon. She reached out and steadied it. He laughed.
“There was a time when you’d have been in trouble doing that.”
“But I’m not?”
He leaned back, took a sip, closed his eyes, sighed, and said, “No, Georgie, you’re not.”
That uncontrolled grin spread across his face again and he asked, “While we’re waiting for the food could we…” He paused. Her eyes widened. “Could we put some music on your old machine?”
“Oh. Oh! Sure, yes. You choose.”
He went into the stuffy living room and flipped through the old LPs. He found an old Hot Tuna album and a Miles Davis recording and came back out chuckling to himself.
“I never knew you had this stuff. It’s great.”
“Well, I never knew you even liked music.”
“OK, there’s a lot you don’t know.”
“There sure is. Not my fault.”
“That’s true. Were those albums Eddy’s?”
A tiny car with a Thai flag tied to its antenna rolled to a stop. A young man wearing shorts, a flowered shirt, and a Washington Nationals hat leapt out with several bags. He jogged up the path and said, “Oh, hello Ms. Baldwin, is there a Mister Gray?”
“That’ll be fifty-two dollars and ninety-five cents.”
She saw Henry pull a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket and hand it to the driver.
“Keep the change.”
The young man turned wordlessly and walked quickly away.
“I think he must be afraid I’ll realize how much of a tip I gave him.”
Georgie brought big linen napkins, plates, soda water and ice, and a huge jar of mango chutney. Henry was leaning back, eyes closed. She wondered how long his mood would last. Maybe it was the medications. She opened the bags. Pad Thai, Crispy Duck, Shumai, Yum Woon Salad.
Henry sniffed. “It smells good.”
“What would you like to try?”
“How should I know. Everything, I guess.”
She described each dish as she served it. The salad with its glass noodles, the duck with its crisp and spicy skin. “The amazing thing about Thai food is the way they mix tastes and textures and use things from all the cultures around them.”
“Then if I like this I’ll probably like Chinese?”
“Well, Chinese is so many different cuisines, and it’s thousands of years old. But yes, you will.”
He picked up a plastic fork, and she said, “Oh, no, you have to use chop sticks.” She showed him and laughed as the noodles in the salad fell on his shirt.
“It’s OK to hold the plate up close to your mouth and kinda shovel stuff.”
“Lucky thing. I might have starved.”
He struggled with the chopsticks for a while, set them down and seized a piece of crispy duck in his fingers. “Good!” He pulled a couple of pill bottles from his pocket, shook out a couple of pills from each and swallowed. One, he told her, was a pain med. Another for anxiety.
“So that’s why you’re so mellow.”
“Maybe. Pills, or the imminence of death. The real question is why I’ve been so mean.”
“Closed, dark and nasty. Yes, why?”
“You have no idea?”
“No, I’ve just thought that was who you were.”
He looked at her, eyebrows raised, lips eased, and then smiled mischievously.
“In some ways that’s true, but I never liked who I was, and then I met you. I knew you were special, with your big heart and your generous soul, but you belonged to Eddy. And I envied him. When he got sick I couldn’t stop myself, I thought if he died… I was so ashamed. I thought you would be disgusted if you knew. I closed the shades.”
Georgia started to object but stopped. She had always known and had never let him know. Never let herself…
“Don’t die too soon, Henry.”
“I thought you might tell me to go away.”