Written in 2004

THE LADY NEXT DOOR was a thin figure slightly gaunt in stature and form from the years to which her body had accumulated. Her height was nothing profound through the eyes of a small child—the pinnacle to her highest point no greater than 5’4” tall. This comparison may be slightly off for many years have passed since young eyes stared upward to gaze upon the lady next door. Thus, the only contrast to which my childish eyes can relate lay in my great grandfather, Charlie Marion, a man of Native American descent who stood at 6’7” with legs that stretched for miles and miles as if trying to touch eternity with the tip of his boot.

Mrs. Hartness, for that was her name, was a tiny thing indeed. Soaking wet, her weight may have faintly surpassed one-hundred pounds. A curve in the upper portion of her back was exposed through garments, which rested, swathing her delicate build. Her skin was stretched loose and markings of age covered her entire body from head to toe—from her neck all the way down to her swollen pale ankles.

The hair atop her head was thin and fine, the color of faded strawberries and silver and snowflakes like the cap on the peak of the Alps of Cisalpine with small hints of white flowing in between. From her larynx came a soft voice that shook with each word she spoke. Though, I must say, it would only be accurate in this account to mention that within her soft voice was contained a slight scratchiness and congestion. At any given moment, a cough would erupt and it would seem to those around that her lungs had surely failed her.

When this happened, she would stand up, her body as erect as gravity and arthritis would allow, and grasping for the closest solid object to balance herself, a wall or a doorframe, she expelled from within what the cilia had failed to catch.

Reaching upward to cover her mouth, the veins in Mrs. Hartness’s emaciated hands were quite noticeable and plump. Her fingers were thin and long; and much to the mimicry of her voice, her fingers shook with her every movement as if the last leaf in autumn blowing in the wind—quavering yet resilient.

Everyone she knew and loved from infancy to her adult years had by now passed away into the verve of the afterlife except her own flesh and blood: the precious children she weaned many years ago.

Yet, there was one without a drop of kinship that loved her just the same—not as if she were his grandmother or even a relative—but as his best friend.

The young boy was her neighbor. His stature was less than a foot in height shorter compared to his elderly friend with long, skinny arms that seemed out of proportion with the rest of his body. As the years passed, his body would grow into these long extremities, taking away from the disproportionate specter to which he had known for such a protracted period in his childhood. He had deep blue eyes reaching Caribbean depths, dirty blonde hair, and skin the color of fresh homemade biscuits straight out of the oven, painted as if with a blend of russet and taupe acrylics from an Impressionist’s palette.

Everyday, the young boy would scurry across the green grass, past the pale leaf Yucca plant one house over, to his elderly friend’s door. Her face so gentle and kind was the only face other than his immediate family and friends that he remembers distinctly from that age—a mere four years old.

Sometimes, more often times than not, the lady next door could be seen crouched over, the bumps of her vertebrae poking through her shirt, raking leaves that had fallen from the oak tree that adjoined her and her young friend’s residences. Other times, she was to be found hanging wet laundry from the turning wire clothesline that sat beside a leaning cement birdbath in her backyard. When the wind blew its breath against the clothesline, a slow but acute noise would follow.

“Nails on the chalkboard,” the lady next door would whisper under her breath. “Just like nails on a chalkboard,” the loose skin on her neck and underneath her chin all the while jiggling to and fro.

Her young neighbor referred to this loose skin as turkey neck.

“Mama, why does Mrs. Hartnence have a turkey neck?”

“Because she’s not a spring chicken anymore,” his mother would say. “Hartness,” she added.

“What?”

“It’s Hartness.”

“Hart-nence.”

“Hartness, but don’t worry. You’ll get it one day.”

But the young boy loved her turkey neck. He used to pull and stretch the skin as if trying to wrap it around his fingers as he sat on her lap while she rocked back and forth in the wooden chair on the front porch.

Mrs. Hartness let him do this never blinking an eye for a second.

It gave her sagging skin a certain kind of beauty she knew not before; well, that is to say until her young neighbor began visiting regularly; and visit he did.

If ever the boy wanted to find her after school as he stepped off the bus, there she would be, sitting on her front porch, one leg crossed over the other, smoking filter-less Lucky Strike cigarettes, rocking backwards and forwards in her faintly stained wooden chair. On rare occasions, too, it must be added, when the weather forbade her from escaping outside, she was to be found inside her home alone at the kitchen table with an ashtray, a Dr. Pepper, and the day’s newspaper.

Choking smoke danced from the end of her resting cigarette. Ashes un-ashed grew in length by the trice, but the lady next door was not bothered in the least. This was a pattern to which she belonged—the smell of smoke both a friend and foe; and so it was, she would lick the tip of her finger, sip a long sip of Dr. Pepper, and turn to the next page of the local weekly, The Charlotte Gazette.

The chill of the wind.

The downpour of rain.

Whatever condition the Heavens sent down would have to be waited out.

Mrs. Hartness’s young neighbor had much more mobility. He was a rambunctious little fellow. He could never quite keep still no matter what his mind found favor in doing. Because of this surfeit in energy and vigor, his mother allowed him to meet his older cousin, Robbie, early each morning at the basketball court before school. The parents of both families agreed: Exercise was not only necessary for these two but also indispensable if the sanity in their respective homes would continue. Not only that, but it would keep the two out of trouble once the playground was replaced with the school room, their weapons no longer walnuts and sticks, but #2 pencils and writing pads.

The young boy and his cousin were good kids: polite, well-mannered, and reverential to their elders, but a half-pint of chocolate milk at lunch and a chocolate-banana fudge bomb to follow and the very axis to which the universe rested would be tilted, disrupted of its very mellifluous harmony at the local elementary school. The basketball court would at least rid them of this surplus in energy. It was to them itself a sanctuary for the neighborhood kids and was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the young boy’s front doorstep.

Through this front door and just to his right lay the house of Mrs. Hartness, its gray and black speckled shingles holding on for dear life. As a souvenir of his adoration, the young boy used to bring her a handful of rocks as a gift: the prettiest, most beautiful rocks he could find to give to the little old lady as a gesture of his love and appreciation—for she was his best friend, he knew no other.

Two or three times each week he did this—never missing a step, never faltering the beat. What is more to say is that he never, oh never on his life would he, settle in giving her the dull, colorless rocks of gray and charcoal; no, only the best for the lady next door, only the prettiest and most beautiful in her eyes and his.

They were just ordinary rocks in a driveway to most people; but to the young neighbor they were much more than that. They were a precious token to the little old lady he cared for so deeply, so true and innocently.

To characterize the rocks distinguishing them from the rest in the driveway were the heavenly brushstrokes of color, epidote, and other mineral deposits. Some were speckled with green, others with pink and some the color of sunshine, and even more a light blue like the Heavens above that the lady next door stared at during the day as the young boy sat in Kindergarten class daydreaming.

Day after day, the young boy waited patiently yet with eager volition to get off that big, yellow school bus to go see his friend; and so, as his routine schedule was sentient of, one day after the bus let off, he knelt down in his driveway as he did everyday. Juggling the gravel in his hand, he fished out the most beautiful rocks that he could find from all the rest. Though he only gave her rocks two or three times a week, he would nevertheless collect them each day. In his room at night, he would pour them out like marbles onto his bed; and then again, the young boy would separate the most beautiful from the strictly beautiful.

His mother used to tell him not to dump the rocks out onto his bed sheets because it would cause a given spot on the cotton linen to turn all the beautiful colors of his gifts to the lady next door, but he paid no mind. Thus, when the lights went out and his mother had left his bedside, he would reach under his bed where the rocks lay hidden in a shoebox and repeat his partitioning of gifts. Subsequently, he would wipe away the residue from the consolidated minerals and close his eyes for the night. The dust of the rocks would itch him as he slept like cracker crumb morsels eaten in bed, imprinted in the skin of his back.

This day, as a repetition of previous days, the young boy stepped off Bus 38 and ran from the driveway in front of his home hurrying to his neighbor’s doorstep with his oversized book-bag nearly ripping at the seams. He pushed his tiny, little finger hard against the doorbell because it always took some extra effort for someone his size to make that old thing sound; but it is what he had to do to let Mrs. Hartness know that he was waiting for her; and so, he pushed and pushed in anticipation of seeing her face.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

The noise it made was always so drawn out. It was not a pleasant ring but the doorbell always made that particular clamor. It was a sharp-pitched tone like an antique wind-up clock one can still find at a Pawn Shop or Flea Market if searched for long and hard enough. Nevertheless, the young boy loved the sound that doorbell made. Its significance meant that soon after it was sounded the person he cared so profoundly for with all his heart would soon be on her way to open up the creaking and hinged screen door to ask him how his day went at school.

“I hope you are getting good grades and paying attention,” she would say as the door opened slowly. Then with his two little hands covered as if he were hiding a baby bird that had fallen from an oak tree, the young boy would open them, palms up together in unison, exposing his gift as his face lit up with joy; and there they were: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see.

“Aw, are those for me,” Mrs. Hartness would ask in question, knowing the answer already as she leaned out her fragile, shaking hands.

“They are beautiful,” she continued, giving a wrinkled smile his way and tapping her hand on her lap, and the young boy would hop up and give her a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you so much.”

Mrs. Hartness, with her young neighbor now firmly planted in her lap, would begin rocking back and forth in her chair. He grabbed four fingers of loose skin from her turkey neck and folded the layers over his finger as if a blanket. Not long after, he was sound asleep.

He pushed on the doorbell again and then waited a moment on the concrete slab at the entrance to her home. He jumped one step down and then back up. No one answered.

She might be sleeping, he thought. But she always answered the door. Sometimes she was slow to answer but she nevertheless came within a minute’s time. It had never taken this long all the other times he had come to visit, so he stretched his arm out once more elevating himself on his tippy toes and pressed the white, rectangle doorbell with a faint orange light inside yet again.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

He waited. No one answered.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

Still, she did not come to the door.

The young boy dropped his outstretched arm, cupped his lone, full hand together, and ran across the yard back toward his own home, his book bag smacking back and forth and all. As soon as he opened the door to his house, he asked his mom for a Zip-loc bag to place his rocks in for safe keeping. That way when his friend woke up, he could still give her his present and his beautiful pink and green and yellow and blue speckled rocks would not go to waste. With the Zip-loc bag in hand, the young boy hustled upstairs, jumping one step, then two steps at a time, and threw off his book bag onto the floor and ran directly back outside, grabbing his bike before heading over to the basketball court to wait for his friends, Robbie and Jeremiah.

Later that evening around 5:30 PM when his friends had to leave to get ready for dinner, the boy decided to go back over to his neighbor’s house.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

No answer.

RIIIIIiiiiing.

Still nothing.

She must still be asleep, he figured. It has only been two hours since I got home from school anyway.

The next afternoon upon his arrival back home from Kindergarten, the small boy noticed more cars than usual filling up the driveway next to his: the driveway of the lady next door. The Zip-loc bag full of rocks from the past day was in the small pocket at the front of his book bag with his pencils and crayons just waiting to be delivered. He even took them to school so that once he stepped off Bus 38 he would not have to run back in his house to fetch them.

He slowly edged off the bus this time in a non-haste like pace, unzipping the front pocket of his book bag, and pulling out the plastic bag. His eyes focused on the extra cars he saw in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway and then back toward the entrance to her home.

The wooden door was wide open and the screen door, too, where the top bolt had been locked as to keep it open so that someone could enter, leave, and then re-enter again.

He started to make his way from the road that passed from in front of both of their homes into her front yard, brushing up against the two bushes that had not more than three inches between them that were always connected by a thick spider web that forever had a few drops of moisture waning on top of it; but he went in between the bushes each and everyday regardless even though he was terrified to death of spiders.

The young neighbor made it about halfway through Mrs. Hartness’s yard when the door to the house to his right, his home, where he lived, opened. As he heard the turn of the door handle at his home, he turned his head. His mother appeared. He stopped, was at a standstill, and looked in his mother’s direction. Her mouth shifted downward and her eyes, cat green in color, had a very precise look to them, never blinking, not even for a second.

“Son, come here for a second,” she said with a maternal presence.

At that very moment a figure appeared from the inside of his neighbor’s home while he stood like a fixed statue in the yard, like the cement birdbath out back. The young boy turned back into the direction of Mrs. Hartness’s home, and holding his bag of beautiful rocks in his hand, he noticed how the dust from the gravel had settled on the sides along the bag.

“Hey,” he said kindly to the stranger who looked to be about in his fifties with light gray hair wearing a green sweater and dress slacks.

“Well hi there, young man,” the stranger responded quickly as he continued to walk toward what appeared to be his car in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway.

“Son, come here for a minute,” the boy’s mother said again.

“But I’ve gotta—” he started to reply before his mother interrupted.

“Please come here, Jeff. I need to talk to you.”

Ugh, he thought as he began to trample back toward his yard, his hand running along the two bushes. His little head went under his mother’s arm as she held the door open as he entered, still grasping his beautiful bag of rocks firmly in his hand.

Immediately the door to his home reopened and he appeared grabbing his bike from in front of his house. He pedaled as fast as he could and headed by the basketball court and straight toward the woods and creek that lay down the street from his home. He sniffled and his breathing was heavy now. He wiped his hand across his face as the wind tried in futility to dry the tears that poured from his eyes. His legs kept swiftly pedaling the entire time. Robbie and Jeremiah saw him at a distance and called his name. He heard nothing but the sound of his own whimper and running of his nose.

A few hours later the young boy returned home. His mother awaited him at the door. He laid down his bike and sat on the front steps to his house. His head was buried between his knees and his forehead rested heavily on his arms. You could still hear the young boy sniffling and his breath was hesitant as if he was gasping for air. His right foot moved from side to side as if he were stamping out a lit cigarette. The strange man he had met earlier with gray hair and a green sweater came from his right. The young boy looked up, his eyes painted red, his high cheekbones and face laced with dried tears, salted.

“Would you all like to come into my mother’s home for a few minutes?” the stranger asked.

“Yes we would like that,” the young boy’s mother answered as she motioned to her son for him to get up, but he did not want to.

“Come on, son. This nice man is inviting us into Mrs. Hartness’s house. Let’s not be rude.”

The young boy still did not want to get up but he did eventually just because his mom had asked him.

They made their way through the adjoining lawn and walked casually in the already open door. The little boy’s head was still down. He looked at his feet as he followed behind his mother. There was no reason to ring the doorbell anymore.

The three of them—Mrs. Hartness’s son, the young boy, and his mother—passed through the hallway, its wooden planks much the same as in his own home and into the kitchen where the man asked them to sit down and have a glass of tea. The young boy could smell the aroma of his familiar friend trickling in and out of his nose. A pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes sat beside a more than full ashtray next to the nightstand in Mrs. Hartness’s bedroom as they walked past. Yesterday’s paper was on the tabletop opened as was a Dr. Pepper can beside it.

As the man poured tea into tall glasses, the young boy reached inside the inner pocket of his coat, wondering exactly what that was rubbing up against the left side of his chest. What is that, he thought. As he moved his hand into the already open pocket of his coat, he wiped a tear from his cheek and then noticed something in the corner of his eye. His mother tapped him on the shoulder. The stranger, Mrs. Hartness’s son looked too.

The young boy’s mother pointed upward to the open top shelf that ran horizontally atop the kitchen sink and stove; and in his pocket, the boy pulled out the little plastic bag filled with rocks that had been pressing hard up against his chest. And on the shelf, one by one, hundreds and hundreds of pink and green rocks, and some the color of sunshine and light blue like the Heavens above sat in rows: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see, all lying silently in glass pickle jars, dozens of them.

The boy’s mother lifted him up eye level to the shelf. He stretched out his arm that shook with every movement and gently placed the bag of rocks beside the others that had already found their way into old Ball pickle jars on the shelf top. The stranger, still holding his glass of tea in one hand, stood up beside the young boy and then placed the glass of tea down, letting it rest on the countertop beside the sink. He turned one of the lids counter-clockwise, opening up a jar that was not quite full yet.

“I think those belong in here,” he said to the young boy.

They were just ordinary rocks found in a driveway to most people but not to the lady next door. They were the most beautiful rocks you would ever see and she kept every one.