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Writers’ Dash: Third Prize

Published on Thursday, February 18, 2010 by

From the Verandah
by Thirza Ember

From Days Gone by From 'Mary' From Days Gone by –  by ‘Mary’

The shrinking violet dawn had shriveled to grey along Grant Street by the time Jenny Addison came outside with her third cup of coffee. It was a big verandah, and would seem even bigger when she had cleared up the last of the boxes, and thrown away the rest of the junk abandoned by the previous owner. Not that some of the antiquated furnishings weren’t useful; Jenny put the coffee on the old wicker table that looked as if it had been made when the house was built, and sat down on the matching lounger, next to a stack of her books. There was a sigh, and the stack of books slumped forwards. Missom’s The Periphrastic Wench fell to the floor with a disapproving thump, like a door closing in her mind. You will be loved, you most patient of all the stars… I really must finish that book, thought Jenny. I will finish all these books and fix the garden, and make apple pies, and learn how to… Her coffee-fuelled mind buzzed through its ritual of resolutions, do this, do this, do this… I should add stop drinking coffee to the list, she thought, and laughed aloud. The noise of her laughter bounced off the facing house-fronts, and came back to her like a question. Will I like it here? And behind it, the caboose to all her fevered thoughts and calculations, I should have said goodbye.

Starts more things than she finishes, someone had written that in her peer assessment, painful because recognizably true. Still, she should have gone round to say goodbye to everyone. The Greeks knew how to do these things; when the battle is over, you put up a trophy, bury your dead and head home. In Jenny‘s case a new home… and no-one could call this sideways promotion a trophy.

However, the little cream house with its generous verandah was a considerable consolation prize. It stood on high ground, overlooking genteel row houses from behind a well-established garden, now running a little wild, but bright with blossoms. To the left, a paved yard with two brand new cars parked neatly in the driveway, and no signs of life. On the right, a massive bush full of thorns blocked the view and access to the neighboring property. Jenny noted colors peeping through the peeling paint on the verandah. And now my layer, the freshest. The first morning in my home, my asylum from the wandering life, my new start, my neighborhood. The future lay before her like a frontispiece, formal, elegant, slightly mysterious. She sipped her coffee. My first morning. May it stay in my mind long after the tendrils of tedious living have smothered everything with daily cares.

Cars crouched coldly on the far side of the road. A dog barked in a distant kennel. On the sidewalk below the short, steep garden, a figure stood studying the big white flowering bush, a miracle of delicate blooms. Jenny had not seen her arrive, but she sensed that this pale woman had approached very slowly, and from far way.

“Good morning.” Jenny heard her own voice harden. “Is there something I can do for you?”

As soon as she spoke she regretted her polite yet icy rudeness. Must be all this coffee. Peters, with his savoir-faire, could get away with that sort of comment, but it makes me sound like a bitch. Which was why I, and not Peters, had to, move on. Yet again. Not a good start to being neighborly.

She had iron grey hair, cut short and curled neatly. The hairdo, the bulky purse, the matching shoes, and the pale grey shapeless raincoat formed an ensemble that breathed a single word. Over. How cruel life is, thought Jenny how quick we are to judge a book by its cover.

The pale woman hesitated, trying to find the way past that first line.

“Lovely camelia.”

“Yes, indeed. Thank you. I just moved in, so I can take no credit for it,” Jenny smiled, softening, “I don’t know anything about plants.”

“Oh!? Welcome to the neighborhood! I hope you like it here. This is Camelia japonica, ‘Verandah’. Over there,” pointing at the giant thorn bush with growing confidence, “Is Epanorthosis officinalis. The Pestilence plant.”

“Really?” said Jenny, looking skeptical. The name rang false. People invent Latin names all the time. They lie about the books they have read. They weave stories about the absent, for the edification of the newly-arrived. Jenny had already had an earful from the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Drew, ‘call me Pam’.

A whitewashed gate was cut into the shared fence, but it was trapped under the ancient woody bulk of the Pestilence plant. Pam was small and shriveled, like a specimen shrew left half-fleshed by a careless taxidermist. She had had to walk the long way around with her ‘welcome dozen’ – twelve sour brownies on a soggy paper plate, and as many stories about Bridget, Jenny’s predecessor, who ‘forgot’ to return borrowed items, and who quarreled with everyone, even her only child, until at last, when she could no longer take care of herself, she had been taken away by the Social Services.

“That’s rich, if you think about it, how Bridget ended up.” Pam squeaked, as Jenny gently walked her off the verandah, “The last resort of the ann-tie-social, is the Social Services!”

Jenny had made a mental note never to let anyone prune the great sprawling bush that separated her from Pam. Am I ann-tie social? Is that why Peters got the job, my job? Was the conspiracy just me, after all, conspiring my own downfall by not knowing how to act?
The pale woman was talking. “For decades – centuries – people used the bark of the bush to keep away diseases, like cholera, smallpox, influenza… the kind of thing you catch from your neighbor…”

“A useful bush to have about the place.”

“May I…?” The woman blushed, faltering.

“Look. Can I offer you a coffee? Perhaps you’d like to sit down awhile?”

Jenny returned with the coffee. The woman was perched on the lounger. The crimson had left her cheeks. She was pale again, matching the cream paintwork of the verandah, almost like a fixture.

“Lot of books you got there.”

“Yes. My new house resolution, to read them all. I don’t know when I’ll get to it, there’s so much to fix and clean. I picked up trash out back all yesterday – everything from beer cans to popsicle sticks. It’s great, though. Even a novice like me can see there’s an eclectic range of plants. Someone took a lot of trouble over it. I think it will be a new hobby for me,” She laughed, “Another new house resolution!” Jenny felt herself warming to the prospect as she spoke. “Restore the yard, learn the Latin names for the plants, see them all flowering in their season. It all looks a little sad and abandoned back there right now. Poor old house, left by itself.”

The pale woman sipped her coffee in silence.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” asked Jenny.

“I used to.”

Jenny‘s eye fell on the pile of mail. “Could you tell me where the nearest Post Office is? I have a mountain of paperwork, I should get stamps, organize my change of address…”

It was nice to verbalize the swarming mental To Do list that kept her from sleeping and prevented meaningful multitasking.

“That’s easy. It’s on Mason, three blocks from here. Turn right and go down until you see the bright yellow house. Turn right again, it’s by the church, in front of the Dairy Queen. My daughter was always wanting to walk to that Dairy Queen, by herself. Like an adventure, with ice cream. She’d say ‘Momma, you need me to get you any stamps?’ And I’d say, ‘Sure honey, and while you’re there, run in and get you a Blizzard.’ You could do that back then, send a kid down to the Dairy Queen. Only one road to cross, right there by the church, I never worried one bit.”

“Times have changed.”

“They sure have. People too. All grown and, if you’re not careful, overgrown. Like that pestilence plant. If you don‘t watch out, those thorns grow to be unneighborly.” She drained her cup.

“Thanks for the tip.”

The pale woman stood, surveying the garden and the quiet street below. Her skin seemed as thin as her raincoat, and as she breathed, a little cloud of mist slightly veiled her face.

“You’re right, I lived here for a long while, but not anymore. I’m just passing through, today. I…. You’ve been so welcoming. May I ask another… well, three small favors?”

Jenny got to her feet. She wondered if the three small favors would have the face of Andrew Jackson on them. The woman didn’t look down at heel. Jenny wished she’d thought to ask her name. Now seemed the wrong moment, a sign she didn’t trust her. Three small favors. Was this the price to pay to make a friend in the neighborhood, or was she setting a precedent she would live to regret? Getting involved where she shouldn’t? Lending things to someone who would ’forget’ to return them?

From her vast purse, the woman removed a little pair of pruning shears and a large round platter.

“May I take a cutting from your Camellia? I always admired it so.”

“Of course.” Jenny smiled. “For your new garden?”

“I hope so.”

She held up the ugliest piece of china Jenny had ever seen. Without it, her bag shrank almost to nothing. Jenny was amazed it had ever been able to hold anything quite so bulky.

“Here’s the second favor. May I leave this platter here for a while? I’d take it with me, but it’s kind of heavy.”

“Well… sure why not. Look, we’ll leave it here on the verandah table. When you’re in the neighborhood you can pick it up anytime. How’s that?”

“It’s a weight off my mind.”

Jenny smiled and stood up. “I think I’ll run round to the Post Office right now. Get this mail out of the way.”  She suddenly felt oddly, delightfully at home in the house, in the neighborhood, a place where people drop by and leave things on your verandah to pick up later. She followed the woman down to the sidewalk. By the camellia  Jenny said with a grin, “Goodbye, and happy gardening. Hope to see you again soon.”

“Can I ask one last kindness? You’re going that way anyway… Would you mail this letter for me? It’s to my daughter. We lost touch a while back, but I don’t like to leave the neighborhood without her knowing where I’ve gotten to…” The thin envelope was as white as her hand. “Seems crazy, these days, to be writing a letter, what with the email and the phone and all, but I just wanted to put it on paper. Let her know I was thinking of her.”

“It’s a lost art, letter writing,” said Jenny. “I’d be glad to mail it for you.”

“Jenny,” said the pale woman, “Thank you. Goodbye.”

A gust of wind brought a chill to Grant Street, and Jenny walked briskly without a backward glance.

The trip to the Post Office could not have been easier. Jenny admired the church. She peered in at the Dairy Queen. Maybe when it got warmer she’d come by for a Blizzard herself.

Grant Street was awake by the time she returned to her verandah.

Pam sat on the lounger, flicking disapprovingly through the books on the floor.

“Why Jenny, I just had to come. Fancy, we were just talking about her yesterday. I got the call first thing. Bridget, poor soul, passed away last night. My, you clever girl! Wherever did you find my platter? I knew she had it in there somewhere!”

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