They Play Solitaire


10) Mrs Bert Gets Out Of The House

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—-There was one room in Mrs. Bert’s house that she didn’t have to worry about. It was empty. And when the novelty of that empty room wore off, she could empty another room into it. In the process, some baggage was always inevitably diverted for disposal. Prized junk sat on top.

—-She tried to have a new arrangement for at least part of her house at least once a week, even if that only meant the emptying contents of one room into another. She had lost Mr. Bert six and a half years earlier. They were beyond middle-age, but his death was still what you might call “untimely,” if there might be any other kind, and it had her life “in disarray,” as she put it. Her continuing immediate problem was that the house was in disarray, which always seemed to get in the way of resolving the project that the death of Mr. Bert had become.

—-So, you wouldn’t find much of anything in the house anywhere you would expect to find it in just about any other home. The dining area off the kitchen served as a potting shed, because it had a large sliding glass door that opened directly to the back yard and gardening was a diversion that she wanted to be able to take up at any time. The living room looked like a thrift store, with racks of clothes and shelves of odd housewares — all the furniture having been moved into one of the back bedrooms. She had moved the dining table into the living room. It had one chair — a desk chair — and a notebook computer.

—-She sat at this desk finishing her morning coffee, half choosing what to wear and half using that choice to decide what clothes to keep — which went into determining how long she would stay in the house, which meant that her personal finances had yet to be resolved.

—-She looked at her legs extending from the split in the front of her bathrobe, stood and took a few steps to where the living room verged on the dining area and a door leading to the garage. She pushed the door open with a bare foot, looked into the half-light that came through a bad curtain on the far wall and then closed the door completely. She had left it ajar a few days earlier. Not much in there had moved in years. She had accounts and financial records that had languished the same way; things that might or might not matter, if she did or did not sell the house and move someplace smaller; things that might or might not dwindle, depending on how soon she did or did not move out.

—-She sat back down and picked up a seedling in a section cut from an egg carton that she had on the desk as an ornament, looking at it in order to avoid thinking about what to wear. She said that she actively compared things like that seed cup, in abstract ways, to the life that she and Mr. Bert might have continued to have together. Sometimes she would tell us that we might be surprised how things seemed to equate, depending on the circumstances and we would say, “No,” that she might only have to consider that for some of us the circumstances would be more like the attitudes that Mr. Bert had when he was sixteen to eighteen years old.

—-She got up from her chair again and went into the garage, got out an electric drill and selected what looked like an appropriate bit for it, brought them out and set them on the desk. Something in the garden would be getting a hole, later.

—-Within a month, she would be sitting in her front yard — on the corner, up by the street — with some friends, talking about that drill with one of her neighbors, as if it represented something important.

—-“I wish there were a place,” she would say, “where people could just take all the tools in their garage and not even care if they were lost or broken or stolen, because if everybody did that, nobody would have to keep track of any of it but there’d be such a huge supply you could always get whatever tool you needed once every year or two.” That being about the average use that the average electric drill ever sees.

—-The old retired guy she was talking to responded with talk about some kind of incompatibility he had with his old drill’s battery pack on a new drill, and Mrs. Bert said, “You see, that wouldn’t matter,” and he about went off on a discussion of the economics of the kinds of equipment that tool rental places had.

—-He said, “You can borrow one from me anytime you want.”

—-“My point is,” she said, “that I have a drill and I don’t want to. I just want to have immediate access to one about every two years without having to bother with anybody about who owns it. Everybody can have all the stuff in my garage, if I can use it every once in a while, no questions asked. We’ll get you a little warehouse and you can hang out there all day not worrying about exactly what’s where or why and you can talk tools with anybody who has nothing better to do.”

—-“Where would we get all these tools?” he asked. “Who’s gonna pay for ‘em?”

—-Mrs. Bert tried again. “We just get everybody to empty their garage. We can start with mine. There’s a couple of rooms we could empty too. Start another place full of ‘home electronics’ that have been orphaned by the latest gadget, kitchen things that we never cook with, but that somebody else might, or that we might realize we could use a year and a half later.”

—-He said, “Now, you go to a thrift store and tell me if there’s anything there you want to use. It’s there because it’s useless or probably doesn’t work.”

—-“Everything at my house works. I just don’t want it around,” she said.

—-“Then sell it,” he said.

—-“And have to buy one when I need it next year,” she said.

—-“If you’re going to need it, why don’t you just keep it?” he demanded.

—-She let it go.

—-She was sure that Mr. Bert would not agree with her about how she was tentatively, rather than definitively dealing with everything and yet at the same time she was sure that he would agree, if he could somehow have the experience — with her, right there and then — of his being gone. They had always worked through everything together, no matter how obvious the standard way of doing things might have been. She told us that this had actually made it easier for her during the time they had to spend apart. “Excluding, of course, the one time that he never made it back.”

—-She looked at a clock and decided to go out and check the horizon for the truck that might be coming to bring a package and take two others. From anywhere up on the sidewalk near her corner of the intersection, you could see the tops of almost every other house for miles around and most of what little traffic there might be on the roads among the houses. She would be able to spot the truck if it was within a mile.

—-On her second step down from her front door, she thought she had stepped on a small animal. There was no howl, so maybe it was a stuffed toy. (‘How did that get there?’) After several spongy steps across the lawn, pain in her right ankle cleared up the confusion. The pain was soon great enough that she had to sit down, and then lay down, right there on the lawn. Out on the slope below the sidewalk, she was too far from the house and just out of sight of anybody driving by. She figured she could put up a hand that would be seen, but what would that mean to anybody?

—-She lay there looking straight up into the sky, considering the pain as it came and went and found that not moving the foot helped. When she started to get a little bored, she looked over her toes at the front of her house. It was a nice enough house, but she was not amused by it; found it easy to ignore. Same with the yard — the front yard being mostly generic. She could not remember having planted any of it. She had never had to do the watering and mowing. But she was very impressed with the sky and the few clouds that gave it some dimension, and decided that she was as happy laying there as she could remember having been anytime recently.

—-She became aware of the way the grass felt; how well the ground conformed to her body; got used to some tiny stinging sensations on her bare arms and legs. She noticed things that were eye-level now, at ground level. There was a lip of rough concrete below the straight side of the sidewalk, where it had spilled out a little under the form when it was poured. She followed it along in both directions above her head, tilting it from one side to the other, examining where the ragged concrete edge was covered up and where the ground had washed away from it. To her left, the sidewalk rose to about three feet above her head. It was about four feet away, curving around the corner and disappearing behind a fence along the side of her house.

—-When she lost interest in the sidewalk edge, she went back to taking in the sky; updating what little the clouds had moved and approving of wherever they had drifted to, then she looked for anything else that would only be noticeable with her eyes inches above the ground. There were things that deviated from the usual uniformity of the grass as it appeared from above — tiny plants among its leaves, some with tiny white or yellow flowers; a bluish one on a miniscule vine. Here and there, she saw a fat oval leaf. Near her left elbow, she saw what she knew to be a stunted, flattened bush; a two-inch bonsai. It had obviously been abused by the mower more than once; dense for its size — lots of stems, and there were torn edges on most of its small leaves.

—-She heard cars and saw parts of their roofs go by. She could see whole cars down the road off to her right, but they were too far away to make anything of her laying there, even when they were headed up the hill toward her. She started listening for cars when there weren’t any that she could see. Sometimes she could hear tire noise in the distance and the engine of a truck downshifting for a hill. For long intervals, there wasn’t a sound. There was a whisper of ringing in her ears that came and went as she thought about it or ignored it. She ran her hand through the grass to see how that sounded. She heard a small bang, several houses away and another, different, later, from another direction; one short cry from a child. She couldn’t hear any birds.

—-She spent what seemed to be at least an hour, just thinking about her garden in back. Maybe the little abused bush would be happy in a pot on the bench with other things she didn’t trust in the ground. She mentally inventoried everything and each bit of care it might be getting — what to prune, divide, replant elsewhere; how to maybe lift out the whole garden an take it to an empty shelf of land above a beach on a lake or stream somewhere; lay it outside a little high-tech shack with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and a fireplace built into the rocks that made the fourth wall, until the impracticality of all that brought her back home.

—-She stared at the aggregate that showed in the edge of the sidewalk where it was nearest, until she could distinguish all the kinds of rock and gravel in it and then looked up and around, above her head, at whatever little bits of the neighbors trees she could see; at a light pole a hundred yards away to her right — trying to form a mental image of the part of the neighborhood that she could see if she were standing up or even sitting in a chair right there. This now seemed like something she might want to do. Get some lawn furniture out of the back, order some stuff, get a few things ready to ship and sit there waiting for the truck to come. Read the paper, a book; wave at people going by.

—-When she saw some one coming toward her along the sidewalk at the side of her house, she wasn’t ready to give up on the reverie and reluctantly started working on whether or not she knew this younger woman’s name and how to initially explain what she was doing there. Anne something, but she could remember nothing about her or how she knew that. Anne stopped when she was still twenty feet away.

—-“Mrs. Bert. Are you okay?”

—-“Ankle. Doesn’t hurt unless I move it. Chair… Any chance…?” was all Mrs. Bert could come up with.

—-Anne said, “I’ll call… Who? You don’t need an ambulance…” walking closer.

—-“If I could just get a chair… One from the back. There’s a gate…”

—-Anne had passed it and was just about to where she could look down at Mrs. Bert. She stopped so that Mrs. Bert would only have to turn her head to talk to her.

—-“Sure. I’ll get you one. I can get to the back through there?” Anne asked, pointing.

—-First she brought out a folding chair, which obviously wouldn’t be sure to stay upright on the slight slope anywhere near where Mrs. Bert could scramble into it, so she went to get another and came back with a solid, sort of reclining one that was still light enough to hold above her head with both hands, to get it past Mr. Bert’s motorhome in the side yard. Mrs. Bert had her position it facing the street. She pulled herself up into it with a little help, trying to take in everything that came into view — the top half of all the houses, a few parked cars.

—-Anne started to ask about who might drive Mrs. Bert where; offering to get a car and drive her. Mrs. Bert had not gotten that far. She was still getting used to all the things she could now see. She was almost completely preoccupied with that and with what she should try not try to tell Anne about the experience of the last few hours — doctors, x-rays and such could wait that much longer — finally asking Anne, “Where were you off to? Have a seat?”

—-Anne set up the folding chair and tried a couple of positions for it until she found a firm one. “I came up to look for the truck with something I ordered.”

—-Mrs. Bert said, “That’s what I was going to do. I must have stepped down wrong coming out the front door.”

—-Anne asked, “How long were you laying there?”

—-“I have know way of knowing. I’m sure it wasn’t more than a couple of hours.”

—-Anne gave her a politely shocked look.

—-“No, no. I didn’t mind a bit. It was nice. You come back tomorrow and you’ll find me sitting right here.”

—-“If you can hobble out here with a cast on your foot.”

—-“I don’t think that will be a big deal. If I have to sit, this is where I want to.”

—-Anne looked around, down the street, back the way she came, gave Mrs. Bert an unsure smile, sat back. “You let me know when you’re ready to travel.”

—-By the middle of that summer, all the stay-at-home types for blocks around — some home-office workers, some older kids out of school and “empty-nesters,” — the lower percentile of arbitrarily solitary people you could comb out of any housing tract — were getting together every day on lawn furniture that they had accumulated on that corner of Mrs. Bert’s front yard. If you were waiting for a delivery, you could sit right up on the sidewalk and scan the horizon. All the drivers knew that Mrs. Bert’s corner was where they could get that signature. Among other things, these people have a perpetual contest to see who can buy the most entertainingly incomprehensible thing from somebody on the web and get it delivered there. Extra points for how cheap it is. Double points if you can sell it to somebody else on the web.

—-Mrs. Bert looked happy about the whole thing. I asked her why all this should be so.

—-“It’s someplace to go. Why be at home by yourself watching the world go on without you when you can watch that from here with us and have people to talk to about it? …or whatever. Who knows where that might lead?”

—-I said, “This is not ‘reality’ TV.”

—-“We don’t have any designs on your soul or your hairstyle,” she said. “I wish we could be doing this where there was a little more traffic. More kinds of things going by.”

—-“Like maybe somewhere along Boulevard Saint-Germain,” I suggested.

—-She grabbed my upper arm with both hands and pulled me in. “Nobody likes a dreamer.”

—-“You just need to get about two hundred more people out here, spread out on all four corners,” I said.


Written by Kenny Mann

07/13/2008 at 4:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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