Rose sat on the front porch, her custom at that dwindling time of day, watching. She tucked a strand of gray-white hair behind an ear. Her rocker squeaked against the floorboards. Light had fallen near gloaming. She tugged her cardigan around her girth. Not much happening in the old neighborhood. The lady across the street took in laundry from her side yard. At the two-family house a few doors further down, a young couple potted a plant together on their second-floor balcony. A little girl Rose didn’t recognize peddled by on a bicycle with training wheels, making a fierce noise with her lips. Just short of Rose’s driveway, the girl’s front tire hit a raised lip in the sidewalk, and the bicycle tipped over. The little girl fell with it.
Rose hurried down off the porch as quickly as her size and age would allow and reached the little girl as she was climbing to her knees. “Here,” she said. “Let me help you.”
Their eyes met. The girl’s had filled with tears, but none had fallen. Rose used both her hands under the girl’s armpits and lifted her to her feet, then righted the bicycle next to her. The girl straddled it, nodded once with a trembling lower lip, and said, “Thanks.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes.” She pointed. “I hit a bump.”
“I saw.” Rose brushed a bit of dirt from the girl’s shoulder. “But you’re sure you haven’t hurt anything? Should I call your parents?”
The girl shook her head and set her jaw. “No, I’m fine.”
She steadied herself, then wobbled off in the direction she’d been going. She made no more noise as she peddled and went slowly. Rose watched until she’d turned at the next corner, then returned to her rocker on the porch.
The late afternoon’s light continued to fall. Here and there along the street, windows in houses lit into warm, yellow specks. Occasionally, a vehicle crawled by. An ice cream truck’s jingle died away off towards the fire station; it seemed late in the season to Rose for it to be still making its rounds. Her heart dipped realizing that fall had somehow snuck in again. More darkness and cold just around the corner, another year soon to pass. She slowly shook her head; the number of those she had left, she knew, was dwindling. How had that happened?
Rose called for Gus, her old Jack Russell terrier. She heard his paws make their unsteady way across the living room carpet until they reached the screen door. He nosed his way through it, hobbled to her feet, and made two feeble attempts to jump up to her. She let him whine a bit before reaching down and scooping him onto her lap. Rose resumed rocking, scratching Gus behind his ears the way he liked.
They sat together like that for another handful of minutes before the streetlights blinked on. Soon after, the sound of a television arose faintly from several houses away. Rose watched a bird light upon the telephone wire above her sidewalk—a wren or perhaps a swallow. Almost immediately, another lit next to it. They faced in opposite directions. Rose whispered, “Why?” She pulled her sweater closer.
When full darkness had all but fallen, Rose went inside, had dinner, then finished the last of the library books she’d checked out. A little before ten, she readied herself for bed. She changed into her flannel nightgown and hung her clothes in the closet, using both sides since she’d never been with someone who might have shared one or the other. She turned out her bedside lamp. Crickets called. Rose hoisted Gus up onto the bed, then got under the covers on the other side. Gus farted, settled against her hip, and went to sleep.
Rose listened to a siren wind its way in the distance across town. She sighed, pursed her lips, and stared off into the murky darkness. She was aware of the furnace in the basement kicking on, and a few minutes later, ticking off again. She was aware of Gus stretching against her hip in his sleep. Rose turned over on her side. The grandfather wall clock in the living room offered ten small chimes. Sprinklers hissed on in a neighbor’s yard. Rose closed her eyes. Then, per most nights anymore, she was asleep almost immediately, before the sprinklers became suddenly silent again.
Like always, Rose awoke just after five-thirty. She lay still for a while and watched the faint gray light of dawn trickle under her curtain. Finally, she got out of bed gently so as not to disturb Gus, pulled on her robe and slippers, and went into the bathroom in the middle of the hall. Rose relieved herself, splashed water on her face, and brushed her teeth. She regarded herself briefly in the mirror, made a sour face, shook her head, and flipped off the light.
Rose walked down to the kitchen and started the kettle on the stove. Then she let herself out the side door into the gathering dawn, retrieved the morning newspaper from the edge of her driveway, and walked her neighbors’ up onto their porch. The old couple who lived there, Earl and Dot, both used walkers and had a difficult time navigating the porch steps.
Fifteen minutes later, Rose was seated in her recliner in the living room sipping tea and nibbling toast as she read the newspaper. She lingered over each; she had nowhere special to go, nothing pressing to do. The room slowly filled with wan light. Traffic gradually picked up down the hill on the avenue. She heard the back-up bell of the morning’s first delivery truck approach the loading dock at the grocery store down at the corner. The truck’s door slammed closed. Then two male voices followed, happy and chiding, punctuated with laughter until interrupted by the ratcheting sound of the truck’s rear cargo door being lifted. A small smile creased Rose’s lips, and she turned a page.
She’d reheated her tea and was halfway through the newspaper’s crossword puzzle by the time Gus finally made his slow way to his scrap of fuzzy carpet next to her recliner. Rose had already put out his food and water there. He looked up at her, gave a yawn, then ate a little food and took a sip of water. A moment later, he was stretched out on the carpet asleep again. Rose frowned; he ate and drank less and less, it seemed, each day. She chased that thought away, licked the pencil’s tip, and moved on to the next clue in the crossword.
Before she’d finished the puzzle, the sound of calling children gathering at the school bus stop up the street had come and gone. So had the sound of the bus itself: the sigh of its brakes, the hiss and slap of its doors, the grind of its gears as it pulled away. And the sounds of the other early morning delivery trucks down at the grocery store had also passed, as well as the southbound commuter train beyond the woods behind her house. Other sounds had begun: carpenters building a back deck partway down the hill. Birds in the trees. Dogs barking and others answering. The indistinct report of a radio tuned to a news station in Earl and Dot’s kitchen.
Around nine, Rose got dressed, pulled on her father’s old plaid Mackintosh jacket, and took down Gus’s leash from its hook next to the side door off the kitchen. At the sound of its jangle, Gus awoke, made his halting way into the kitchen, then whined expectantly. She clipped the leash to his collar, checked for plastic bags in its handle, and let them both outside.
It was a hazy-gray morning, but not too cold. Gus pulled Rose up the sidewalk in their customary direction. They passed the same houses she had since she was a young child, some still dark, others bright and active. They passed mailboxes at the ends of driveways with names stenciled on them, many of which hadn’t changed in years, if at all. Gus sniffed and yanked along the patches of grass separating sidewalk from curb. Just before the hill began to flatten, he found a spot to his liking and took care of his business. Several starts and stops were needed to finish the process. Rose cleaned up after him, and they began retracing their steps. A little sun had crept through the clouds. A silent plane flew by high overhead, etching behind it a thin vapor line. Here and there as they walked, Rose picked up scraps of garbage.
Back home, Rose dropped the trash she’d accumulated along with the plastic bag into the garbage can by the back gate, then let herself through it with Gus, and unleashed him. More sun had found its way through the haze; he curled up in a patch of it in the back yard and went to sleep. Rose tinkered in her garden against the rear fence for a while. With fall’s approach, most of its growth had passed, but she found a few late ears of corn, a half-dozen cherry tomatoes, and a handful of scrawny carrots to pick. She set those aside on the grass, then weeded, and finally watered it well with the hose. As she worked, the morning continued to warm and brighten and she unzipped her jacket, then removed it entirely.
When she finished, Rose wrapped the vegetables inside her jacket and called for Gus. He opened one eye to regard her, but didn’t move. She gave him a nudge with her toe, and he made a grumbling sound following her back to the gate. Before going through it, Rose arranged half of the vegetables in the basket she’d hung long before on Earl and Dot’s side of the short fence that divided their yard from her own. Then she draped Gus’s leash over her shoulder and let them both inside the kitchen. She dumped out the remaining vegetables onto the kitchen counter and hung up her jacket and Gus’s leash while he went into the living room. Through the door that connected the two rooms, she watched him ignore his food and water, curl up on his scrap of carpet again, and close his eyes. She shook her head. The grandfather clock chimed eleven times.
By eleven-thirty, Rose had scraped the carrots and cherry tomatoes she’d chopped into a salad, boiled an ear of corn, rolled it on a cake of butter, and was eating lunch at the kitchen table. She’d turned on the radio and listened to the same local show she did daily while she ate during which people called in to buy, sell, or trade items. Before she’d finished lunch, she’d heard people who wanted to sell an antique sewing machine, a mature cockateel, and a stacking washer/dryer, two folks who were looking for someone to provide child care, and one who wanted to trade collectible coins for nursery furniture. She cleaned up her dishes, turned off the radio, and walked down to her bedroom for her nap.
Rose awoke shortly after two, went into the living room, and coaxed a little more food and water into Gus before he fell asleep again. She gave him a few pats, then collected the books she’d finished and drove to the library. There were plenty of spots in its parking lot, but she still had to stop herself from pulling into one of those reserved for staff.
As always, a wave of nostalgia swept over her when she pushed through the front doors into the high-ceilinged reception area with its combination of smells: old leather, dust, floor wax. Even though it had only been six years since she’d retired there, she recognized no one behind the front counter. The overweight young man who took her returned books and retrieved the two new biographies she’d reserved had discs in his ear lobes and fingernails painted purple. She smiled as she thanked him, and the one he returned was gentle and kind. Rose noticed with a pang of chagrin a notice in a placard on the counter announcing that the library’s monthly poetry readings had been cancelled due to lack of attendance. On her way out, she saw a homeless man reading in the periodical section who’d always hidden his shopping cart of belongings in the bushes along the far side of library; she used to sneak him leftover meals stored in Tupperware.
Rose stopped on her way home at the grocery store at the bottom of her hill. She used a plastic basket cradled under one arm to collect the few items she wanted as she walked through the aisles. A neighborhood woman named Mabel who she knew mostly from volunteering at the children’s hospital got in the check-out line behind her, and they exchanged greetings. Although they both knitted things for the hospital gift shop, Mabel also volunteered in other departments and caught her up on news there as the line inched forward.
“Terrible about Andrew, the Grissom boy,” Mabel said. “Have you heard?”
Rose shook her head.
“Cancer.” Mabel shook her own head. “Something to do with his bones. So sad. He’s already gone near bald from the chemo. Hasn’t delivered papers in months.”
Rose pictured Andrew pulling his wagon of rolled newspapers through the neighborhood streets, a small, waifish boy with a shock of brown curls. She guessed he was ten or eleven years old. She heard herself say, “That’s awful.”
“It is,” Mabel said quietly. “It is, indeed.”
Rose felt numb. She found herself blinking as she moved in front of the cashier. She swallowed over a hardness in her throat and began unloading the items from her basket onto the moving belt.
After she’d put away her groceries at home, Rose brought her sewing satchel into the living room and settled with it in her recliner. She took out the beanie she’d been knitting for the hospital gift shop and resumed work on it. She was almost done with it, just a few inches more to finish on the rolled cuff. It was royal blue, thick wool, rib-stitched, with a tassel on top. Light in the room fell as she worked; eventually, she turned on the lamp on the end table and tilted its shade towards her. Occasionally, Gus groaned in his sleep next to her, dreaming, she supposed. At one point, a car passed in the street with the bass from its stereo turned up so high her recliner trembled. Otherwise, it remained quiet. Against the silence and her memory from the grocery store, Rose tried humming, but gave that up. She considered switching on the television or radio, but decided instead to stay steady to her task.
The grandfather clock had already tolled four by the time she’d roused and leashed Gus, zipped up her jacket, and let them out of the side door. Gus pulled her in the same direction as their morning walk. Clouds had gathered covering the descending sun, and it had grown chillier. Rose turned up the collar on her jacket. Not many people were out; they had the neighborhood mostly to themselves.
Gus urinated near where he’d taken care of his business that morning, then turned back towards home. But Rose gave a little yank on the leash, stopping him. Gus regarded her with a tilted head and a whine, then struggled to trot along beside her when she continued in the direction they’d been going.
Just as the flat part of the hill began its opposite descent, Rose came upon the name on the mailbox she’d been looking for. She glanced around her; no one was nearby. She reached inside her jacket, took out the beanie she’d just finished knitting, and opened the little door on the mailbox. It was empty, that day’s mail already collected. Rose slid the beanie inside so that the scrap of paper she’d pinned to the bottom was face up. On it, she’d written: “For Andrew”.
She walked home slowly, the afternoon’s light sliding further towards evening. A northbound commuter train rumbled by off beyond the woods; it took a long time to pass. When they were almost home, she stopped to pick up an empty water bottle, then pulled Gus quickly to the side so a teenaged boy with an unbuckled helmet could zoom past them on a skateboard. At the end of her driveway, Rose stopped for her own mail: nothing but flyers and a couple of bills. She dropped the flyers and water bottle in the recycling bin beside her garbage can, but before she let herself and Gus in the side door, the one across the fence opened, and Dot appeared behind the screen leaning on her walker.
“Hey, there, you,” Dot said. “Just wanted to thank you for the vegetables.”
Rose smiled. “No problem.”
“Nice of you. Like always.”
“Not much left back there, I’m afraid.”
Rose followed the small woman’s gaze over the fence into her back yard. “Your parents started that garden when you were five or six. Just a little bitty thing.”
“I remember,” Rose said.“Sort of.”
A small breeze rose, and a few leaves, their tips curled golden, blew across the garden’s surface.
“Seasons turning again.” Dot sighed. “No stopping that, I guess.” She looked back at Rose. “You doing okay?”
Rose considered for a moment, then shrugged. “No complaints. You?”
Dot made the same gesture. “Same . . . you know.”
“Earl all right?”
Dot gave a little snort. “Ornery as ever.”
“Say hi for me.”
They both nodded. Gus used a paw to scratch at their side door.
“Well, then,” Rose said.
Rose waited for Dot to close her door before opening her own. She turned on the kitchen light. While she hung up her jacket and Gus’s leash, she heard him find his way back to his scrap of carpet. She waited, but no sound of him using his food or water bowl followed; she closed her eyes and shook her head. Rose dropped the bills on the counter, then headed into the living room herself. She paused at the little table just inside the front door and lifted the framed photograph off of it. In it, she stood between her parents in the front yard when she was about six years old. They each had a hand on one of her shoulders and wore quiet smiles. She brushed a little dust off the glass, replaced it carefully, then went outside onto the porch, and sat down in her rocker.
She let her mind wander as she rocked. She thought she’d reheat some homemade pea soup for dinner. She looked forward to starting one of her new biographies afterwards. She was glad she’d remembered to include tuna fish while grocery shopping in case she saw that feral tabby with the missing ear nosing around her garbage can again. She hoped so badly that Gus would eat and drink more, that he wouldn’t sleep so much. Rose folded her hands into steeples, tapped them against her lips, then closed them onto her lap.
The ice cream truck’s jingle came from off towards the fire station, then died off. The woman across the street came out to collect her laundry again: sheets and towels that afternoon. The balcony of the two-family house remained empty, the new potted plant with its red bloom perched on the center of the railing. Rose looked up and down her block; if that little girl was riding her bicycle somewhere, it was on another street. She pulled her sweater tighter around her and shivered a little. Partly from the chill, but more, she admitted to herself, because of the passing seasons. Another fall. It wouldn’t be long before all the trees would turn and lose their leaves. Not long before it would be dark completely while she rocked. Not long before she’d have her first fire in the fireplace. Not long for those sorts of things, but no rush for their arrival. No rush at all. None. In fact, if she could, she’d make time stand still right then and there, for good, once and for all.
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