Apr 20 ● BY Janelle Bassett
From my upstairs window I watch my elderly neighbors putter around their house and yard, and it feels like watching porn personalized just for me. Instead of hasty crotches, I seek out images of the unencumbered: See her shuffle with the kettle, no one tugging her sleeve or calling from the bathroom about an unwiped bum. See him in the backyard garden, trimming a bush that could remain untrimmed with no consequence. He’s only trimming it so that he’ll have done something today, moved his body enough for food to taste a bit better and for sleep to feel like a slight respite, earned and worked-toward.
That they are stiff and dying seems (from my vantage point) like a fair trade-off for being unneeded. They’re always sort of dragging one foot, but so am I. My foot has a small person on it, while theirs drag independently, an inside job—stiff veins and worn-down tendons. War injuries, could be. They can ignore the drag, while mine is a question. Mine is a child, one of my two children, who needs a sip of water and to be tickled until they stop making that face.
My drags love me so much.
I’d like to be in their backyard, fenced in, on the ground, planted inside the bush, holding the branches to help support my squat. I might gnaw on something under there, that would feel right—gnawing while squatting and hiding. No one could possibly need me, look how animal I am.
I keep the vacuum close by while I watch them from the window, so that if they look up and see me watching, I can grab the handle and stare down intently, like someone has spilled a houseplant and I must return the rug to a state of soil-lessness. But they never look up. Maybe once you hit eighty you stop assuming there will be an audience. What bliss. I shake and pose my shoulders even in the shower, behind a cloudy curtain plus a locked door.
My children have started watching them too. The children like to do what I do. It comforts them to be in sync with me—they follow me to the bathroom and into my closet when I dress. If I stick my head out the front door to check the mailbox for arrivals, I have to remember not to hastily close the door because there will be a trail of heads or fingers in the space between the black box and my back heel.
So now they, too, watch the old people from our upstairs window. The children have named the couple Stop and Go because it seems as if they take turns moving. If he’s shaking the hose above the flowers, she pauses, bent at the oven, until he turns the hose off and stands still making sure the flowers look wet. Only then will she straighten up and put on her oven mitt.
Look children, she’s left-handed. Let’s all remember that.
I should ask the pediatrician if looking out the window counts as screen time. The window is flat and reflective, but it has no port.
* * *
It’s early morning and I’m asleep until my son wakes me up by rubbing his hair against my nose and mouth. I wake up sputtering and wondering where these bristles have come from and why don’t they want me to breathe. It’s my son, it’s the top of his head. He pulls me to the window and points down at what I need to see. Stop and Go are outside, moving together with purpose. It’s a lot to be confused by at once. I look at my son for some sense-making. Can he make coffee yet?
He says, “I think they are making a chair.”
With this lovingly provided context, the scene below turns into something other than buzzy scrambling. The man is collecting twigs and vines from around the yard and along the fence line, and the woman is twisting them together and then affixing them to a base they’ve made from concrete blocks. The blocks are the chair’s legs, and the seat is a garden hose coiled like a snake, or like a cinnamon roll, and then kept coiled with tied rope. The hose sits upon the legs, so if someone sat down they’d fall into a crevice. Maybe it’s a trap.
I ask my son, “Do you think it’s a trap?”
He shakes his head and says, “They got up so early.”
The collected twigs and vines are being fashioned into the chair’s arms and back—so the arms and back are more natural and less found-in-yard items. The woman takes a break from twisting and nesting to drag another concrete block from the stack near the fence and slide it under the center of the hose seat. Now it will hold. I’m disappointed that it’s not a trap.
Should she be dragging that kind of bulk weight, in addition to the drags inherent to her aged body? They both look gray and out of breath. I bet their sweat smells odd, like pepper packets and trolley cars. But they are not stopping to rest, or even dabbing at their foreheads. It’s like they have a deadline or a harsh supervisor they mustn’t speak about. When he hands her a clipping from the bush I want to live under, I have a deep but immediately suppressed understanding that it is me—I’m the deadline and the supervisor.
I give my son a much less wildly narcissistic explanation. “Maybe they are making this chair to fulfill an old holiday tradition. Like the maypole . . . my great-grandmother had memories of dancing around the maypole with a ribbon on May Day. Someone had to erect those poles and attach the ribbons. Those people must have gotten up early too. And looked . . . hurried.”
He puts his fingertip against the window and then slides it down all the way to the bottom of the frame—an action that doesn’t make a sound but is so close to making one. Maybe if he’d licked his finger. “What’s the date today?”
He’s made a downward smear on the glass. I wipe it with the skirt of my nightgown—the scene is hard enough to follow without adding a smeared lens. “Uh . . . September. Twenty-sixth? Twenty-seventh?”
I get my phone from my nightstand. “Twenty-seventh.”
“Look it up, Mom. If there’s a holiday.”
While I’m googling my husband says from the bed, “It’s National Stop Peeping Day.”
He doesn’t like that I’ve turned the children into ghostly window starers. I’ve already told him about how windows do not have ports. After his little barb, he turns over to face the wall.
I tell my son, “It’s Corn Beef Hash Day. The accompanying photo is no cause for celebration, let me tell you. Crush a Can Day, to hype recycling. Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. You know, they could have lost a son in the Eighties. . . and they make this chair every year to honor him. That’s a nice thought . . . the remembering, not the loss. Oh, it’s Ancestor Appreciation Day! I bet that’s it! The chair is for the spirits of their ancestors to sit upon. I wonder if they’ll set the chair on fire.”
He’s looking down. “They are tying the arms to the back. They have an entire roll of rope. No fire yet.”
“Mama, are Stop and Go on fire?” My daughter has woken up and walked in from her room.
“No way, babybutt. Do you think we would stand here and just watch them burn?”
I say “Hey, be nice. She just woke up,” to my son, but my mind is more concerned with the idea of whether we would run and extinguish Stop and Go. We aren’t Do Harm types. Yet we aren’t Save The Day types…
My husband sits up in bed, giving up on sleep now that every member of the family is in his bedroom talking about fire. He looks out the window. “That’s not rope, it’s cord. It’s a matter of thickness.” He’s using his thumb and pointer finger to demonstrate thicknesses.
I say, “This is your contribution?”
“Yes. Do you three know where we keep the fire extinguisher? And how to operate it? It’s in the coat closet, affixed to the wall. You aim for the base of the flame and you want an oscillation of spray. We’re going to have to do a lesson and demonstration.”
The children say, “Daaaad” and I join in mentally. Daaaaady, let us pretend our lives are without risk.
My bare legs are freezing. I get back in bed, which makes my husband lie back down. I put my head on his chest, and deep down I’m glad he cares about our safety and that he houses all the practical knowledge for our family. He taught me how to make hard-boiled eggs.
The children are still looking down out the window. Now that they are doing it without me, it does feel creepy and intrusive, like when they stand up in our restaurant booth to watch the family behind us cutting up their meat.
Watching their watching feels ominous. I’m bracing for the reactions on their faces, increasingly worried that they’ll see a situation requiring action on our part. If they see it, then we are responsible, and if we are responsible then we will have to do something. And if we have to do something, I’ll have to move my head from this chest and cover my legs with fabric.
“Kids, get away from the window! Come get in bed with us.”
“No! You both smell bad when you wake up!” This comment on odor is from my daughter, who pees everywhere and licks the cart handle at the grocery store.
My husband says, “That’s no way to speak to your parents on Ancestor Appreciation Day. You should venerate our smells.” Since I’m on his chest, this all vibrates.
The children don’t move. What little spooks. I should have let them watch cartoons and eat food dyes.
“Listen to your mother!”
I nuzzle my nose into my husband’s chest cavity. I like when he says declarative sentences at the kids. I add, “And eat your vegetables!”
We laugh against each other, the closer the funnier.
The children are looking at us now. My son says “Gross” when he sees his parents touching each other while both relaxed and amused. I throw off the blankets, chastened, and lure my children away from the window with promises of special pancakes, pancakes colored red and blue with bottled coloring that’s barely fit for human consumption, but is nonetheless pleasing to human eyes.
My babies assume their traveling positions by clinging onto my thighs. As I drag them toward the kitchen, my husband calls, “I want my pancake the normal color but shaped like a crushed can. Or like a caveman. Get it, an early ancestor?”
I yell, “I get it!” and hope he’s not looking out the window. If a concrete block crushes the foot of Stop or Go, we will have to take them to Urgent Care, which would eat up the entire morning. And the afternoon would be spent watching them learn how to drag the new weight of the cast. A whole day, gone. Why can’t those two go inside and play cards?
* * *
My children are hitting each other with pairs of balled up socks they’ve stolen from the clean laundry. It’s like a warm, dry snowball fight. The dyes have hyperactivated them, but at least now they don’t have the attention span or focus to be entertained by our elderly neighbors and their impromptu chair construction.
I’m loading the dishwasher and wiping the counters. I keep bending over to put plates in the bottom rack and then being hit in the side of my ribcage by flying sockballs. (They cannot take their game into another room because I am not in that room).
I stand at the sink to pour out the gone-cold half inch of coffee from the carafe. The window above the kitchen sink looks back on our neighbors’ yard evenly, and I find it hard to reconcile with the aerial upstairs view. From here, the neighbors are dots of hair that move around like GPS points. Also visible are two points of chairback. I try to calibrate the different views by overlapping and aligning the two mental images of the shed’s roof. I give up immediately and rinse the carafe and set it upside down to dry.
When I look back up there is only one hair to be seen, the longer lady hair. A ball of socks lands in the sink. I yell, “Cut it out for a minute!”
I wait for the other head to come back—he could be kneeling. There’s a lot of kneeling in chair building. Her hair looks distressed. She puts her hands up into her hair and clutches her scalp like she cannot believe or handle what has happened.
I say to the children, “Stay right here!” and when they look horrified about standing there solo I amend my declaration to, “Grab onto your father!”
They run away and I wait until I hear my husband say, “Aww, come on!” before I leave out the back door.
I spend too long on the deck debating whether to run through my yard, which is only about twelve feet long. It’s hard to tell who I’m obligated to when no one is attached to me. My deepest urge (which could be my true obligation) is to get under the evergreen tree by our fence and squat and gnaw until this all has been solved by someone else, maybe by a paramedic or a take-charge son who just landed in town.
I think I hear the woman neighbor crying or muttering. My kids and I never picked which one of them was Stop and which one was Go, but in this particular situation—man down—I feel comfortable calling her Go.
I call out, “Hello,” which emboldens me to power walk to the fence between our yards. No answer, maybe crying? It’s either nearby crying or a cat five blocks away who wants in or out of confinement.
The fence comes up to my armpits, so I’ll have to climb over. “Hello, are you okay?” (Just want to rule out the possibility that they are fine and that I don’t need to scale this rickety wooden fence in my skirt.) I get a foothold on a board midway up the fence, but when I swing my other leg over, the whole section of fence starts to collapse. Falling while your legs are apart makes it hard to brace or regain balance, so I land hard on one elbow and one hip. The wind is knocked out of me and no one has come running. The fence is still between my legs, my skirt has ridden up and I feel like a perverse paperclip.
I unclip myself from the fallen fence. My legs are covered in red paint chips, but I don’t feel splinters. (My legs were so recently rewarmed inside the sheets. This is what I get for looking without wanting to see. My punishment is involvement and falling objects.)
I’ve fallen behind their shed, so as I walk out from behind it I call, “Hello? Is everyone alright?”
Stop is on the ground, flat on his back, and Go is kneeling beside him, fanning him with a handful of hosta leaves. She has yet to look up at me. She must be hard of hearing. I don’t want to startle her, but her husband has stopped, so she’s probably already somewhat startled.
“I’M YOUR NEIGHBOR. DO YOU NEED SOME HELP?”
She lifts her head and says, “Oh, usually!”
I come closer. “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“He’s just overheated. Could you get him some water?”
“From your house?” I gesture, like she doesn’t know where her house is.
Her response is to fan her husband harder. She doesn’t have time to agree with me about where she’s left her house. I start to run, but find my hip to be incredibly sore. I’ve really banged it. I can feel mud caked onto my elbow.
Their house is shabbier and more cluttered than it looks when filtered by my window, plus their window, plus the distance in between. Their kitchen smells of meat that’s been cooked for hours—liked stewed meat, more liquid than flesh. I survey the counters, table and light sources. All of the laminate and wood surfaces are grimy, but the metallic parts have been polished to shine. The oven door is greasy, which has invited dust to glom on, but the oven handle looks bright like a new car bumper.
Water! Cabinets! I try the cabinet to the right of the sink, because the left hand side feels more appropriate for occasional-use items like gravy boats and platters. I find a red plastic cup that says “Chicken Bob’s Chicken Knobs” and fill it with water from the tap. Their refrigerator doesn’t have an ice dispenser. I’m not going to serve room temp water to an overheated man. I look in their freezer and find three yellow boxes of frozen chicken strips and several different brands of Neapolitan ice cream—a flavor which seems to be sold by the bucket instead of the customary carton. There’s one ice cube left in a tray that sits upon the chicken box. I pop it into his drink and decide against taking the time to refill the tray. I’m on a time-sensitive mission. The sun’s only getting hotter out there. He’s only getting older while I tarry.
Before rushing out, I stand still and survey the feeling of being alone inside a home I’ve never even peed in. No one in this house needs me. This oven cannot make me clean it. The people and oven in my house are powerless over me here. I picture myself under the kitchen table gnawing on a cloth napkin, but direct my body back out the door.
Stop is sitting in the chair they’ve made and he has his legs crossed at the knee, which suggests a recovery so full that he’s even able to pose in healthful displays.
“Here’s your water.” I hold out the cup. He doesn’t reach for it until I bring it nearly to his chest.
His chest—now that I’m bringing things this close to it—appears to have shapely breasts.
Stop takes a long sip. Neither one of them thank me or say anything about Stop’s sudden going. They stare at me, and I don’t know if it’s a fear stare or an admiration stare. I don’t have a lot of experience with being looked at closely.
“So . . . you’re feeling better?”
He nods and she says, “Right as rain.” She appears to have an Adam’s apple. They are both wearing slacks. I stare at the chair, hoping they will offer some explanation for its existence. It’s more of a throne, really. I see that now. A crude but ingenious garden throne.
They offer nothing. I’ll leave then, I think I’ve intruded. Plus I need an ice pack and they are completely out of ice. I look at my house and see my children in the upstairs window. They don’t dare wave, but their eyes bug a little at me. Their mom is on the big screen!
I owe my babies an ending to this movie. I can’t return home without a conclusion.
“Why are you making this chair? What’s it for?”
Stop says, “We made it for you” and stands to vacate the chair. “Try it out and see how it fits.”
Go gestures toward the chair to get me going. I get the feeling that they are making this up as they go along. Maybe my elderly neighbors are a genderqueer improv duo. Maybe Stop was never overheated—maybe Stop’s temperature has remained steady this whole time. I sit in the chair because I think this will thrill my audience-children. “Why would you make a chair for me?”
Go says, “We know you from the window.”
“And from the walk you take from your car to your house.” Stop is yes-and-ing. They’re so old, maybe they invented improv.
I want to go home. At least I understand my children’s grabbing. “I am glad you’re feeling better. I need to get back . . .” I put my hands on my legs to leverage standing.
Go puts a hand in the air and says, “Sit!”
I try to bug-eye my children (without being obvious) the message, “Tell your Dad to come save me from this devious improv duo. I don’t understand what they want from me, but I have a feeling it’s something I don’t want to give.”
Go says, “We made you the chair so you’d come down and meet us.”
“Oh. Thank you?” I put my arms on the armrests in case I’m seeming ungrateful. “But why not write me a note?”
“We worried a written invitation would frighten you. We felt you’d respond to being needed.”
This is unnerving, being known and perceived by the people I’ve been watching. It’s like meeting a reality TV star on the street and instead of giving you their autograph, they recite the exact dialogue of the fight you had with your sister. The coiled hose is a surprisingly comfortable seat. If I could just get beneath it, down with the concrete blocks, and gnaw on the nozzle a bit I’d feel better. I move to stand again and Go tries a singsong voice. “We know how you feel in there.” She points to my house.
“And it’s the wrong way,” Stop adds. He’s very good at what he does.
I lean back against the chair. I let my belly puff out as defense against anything they think they know about me. “You know how I feel and that it’s wrong?”
Go nods in a genderfree way—knowing and gentle and assertive. “You envy us, but we’re so lonely. We long for a thigh glomming. You’ve fetishized our life deficit.”
I lift up my legs and hold them out in front of me. I seem to be fidgeting because I’m in trouble, like the kid outside the principal’s office tapping on his knees. “But you have each other.”
Go says, “We have each other, but we don’t need each other. The two of us are healthy, hearty. We can run our own baths. No cancer to speak of. Not even any cancer scares!”
Stop puts an arm around Go. “And our eyesight still corrects to 20/20. We continue to drive. We even both have the rare ability to tickle ourselves.”
I say, “What about the spell you just had? You were on the ground five minutes ago.” I’d put my legs down when they started being affectionate with each other.
Go places her hand on his chest and says, “Oh, he does that for me! He has spells for my benefit, so I can nurse him back to health and feel necessary. I scream and dab at him for his benefit. Then we switch. I was thinking of slipping in the shower tomorrow. He likes the nude spells best.”
“I thought . . .” Go cuts me off to continue her explanation. My seated position offers no authority. I’ve been sat here to listen. I’m summoned ears.
“My favorite spell is when he pretends to choke on his nightly chicken strip. I perform a mean Heimlich, I really thrust, because I imagine that he’s going blue and getting brain damage to the extent that he won’t remember how to do spells. I broke one of his ribs once, which was thrilling. He was taped up and had to rest in bed. I’d bring him broth and he’d let me poke the sore spot, so it wouldn’t heal too quickly. I don’t think it healed at all correctly! When he laughs there’s a click, like when you snap a lid onto a Tupperware container.”
I haven’t been listening closely. I am waiting to finish the thought that was silenced. “I thought . . . maybe his spell was for my benefit, to get me to come over?” I try not to sound like a date without a corsage.
Stop has put his hand over her hand, which is placed on his chest. They are doing a double pledge of allegiance to how wrong my feelings are. He says, “It was a dual purpose spell. Theater in the round. Big day for us! We’ll sleep well tonight.”
“Why make the chair, then, if the spell would get me over here?”
Go says, “We liked picturing you sitting somewhere special once you got here. We got up so early—all that being needed we’d planned for today. We sprang up!” She puts her thumb in his belt loop and adds, “We wanted to tell you, face-to-face, with no misrepresenting glass between us, that your outlook is phooey.”
Phooey?! I want to argue that it feels different when the being needed isn’t planned . . . or fake. It would be much less stressful to know that my kid who’s awake and puking at midnight was putting me on, was really just emptying cans of cream of mushroom soup on her sheets so that I felt essential. But I also don’t want to prolong this exchange by introducing more back-and-forth than necessary. I choose my words carefully—my brain gnaws on them before they come out of my mouth. “I love the chair. Such solid construction. And the arms are just the right height. I will think about what you’ve said. Maybe I’ll pat my children’s backs when they are attached to my thighs.”
(My brain has gnawed the idea of inviting them to dinner sometime down to an uninviting pulp.)
“Thanks for having me over!” I stand in one quick motion, out of the chair that both is and isn’t a trap. My peeping kids have their hands pressed flat to the glass.
“Wait!” Go calls out. “Can we have a photo of you in the chair? It would mean a lot to us. We can look at it on days when it’s too rainy to do yard work.”
Stop moves his foot between Go’s two feet, tangling them further. “It will only take a minute. We know you’re needed.”
I feel my children longing for me to come back inside. Their hands are pushing harder and harder against the glass, and that tension won’t be relieved until we are reconnected, which produces a corresponding tension in me, a held-back energy that pulses.
I can feel Stop and Go longing for me to come back to their chair. They are glommed onto each other, which might look sweet from the upstairs window, but from here it feels all-consuming, like their limbs will soon turn to vacuums and they’ll suck each other up while moaning and dabbing and then the suction will come after me and my lack of gratitude.
I return to the chair and plop down hard, hoping I might break it. Instead, the plop aggravates my sore hip. I cross my legs at the knee and openly wave at my children. “Make it quick please. I’m deeply needed elsewhere.”
Stop and Go move as one love lump to a spot directly in front of the chair. Their tied-up movements are slow and uncoordinated. Step drag slide, step drag huff. Then Go is fishing in her pockets for her phone and Stop is also putting his hands in her pockets. He finds the phone, only to realize it isn’t even on. The phone has to power up, they have to remember which icon to push, and then they have to turn the camera back around from selfie mode and it is taking the worst minutes, knowing I can’t get up until they’re done. I’m convinced that at any moment my children will press hard enough to shatter the window, bust the screen, and tumble down through the hole they made with their needs. By the time Go puts the camera up in the air to capture my likeness, the image on the screen is of me gnawing on a stick I’ve ripped from the chair’s back. I had to pull and rip and tug the stick loose, but it was worth it. I needed this.