Lenore opened the door to her back porch and dropped a bag of rotting garbage into a trashcan. It was mid June. She wore terry cloth slippers and a housedress covered with yellow daisies and fist-sized bumblebees. After wiping her hands on the dress's hem, she still could smell onions on her fingers. Great, she thought, her lips frozen in a miserly kiss, another summer of stinking produce.
There would be more rank onions, and big black ants marching out from the woodwork. Fruit flies would invade her kitchen—Why were there so many insects, anyway?—and if it were as hot as last year, she'd have to sleep on the mildewed sofa in the basement.
But she wouldn't worry, not today. It was her birthday. She had planned to buy one of the large cans of Budweiser at the liquor store, the tall ones she liked to drink out of a brown paper bag like her father once did. She'd also watch TV, whatever she wanted, maybe the talk show where fat women fought over a skinny man with tattoos.
She scratched her burst of white hair and scanned the small yard with steely blue eyes. Patches of dark green grass stretched skyward; manic birds hopped from branch to branch in the dogwood, shrieking for attention. The birthday beer bubbled into her thoughts, and she almost could feel the cold foam slipping between her lips. Deciding not to wait any longer she took eager steps towards the door, just as Glickman, her next-door neighbor, stepped out of his Oldsmobile. Their eyes met and both looked away.
Her impressions of him were as varied as the liver spots on the backs of her hands. Glickman was a pompous Republican and had taped cheap, dime store American flags to every window of his house. His quick, short steps gave him the air of a man whose life was filled with officiousness, but then he whistled, too. And his hair—only military men and meat cutters wore crew cuts. Every year Glickman bought a new car, probably with the insurance money from his dead wife, a cranky woman who'd died of a heart attack four years ago, and he was forever sweeping his driveway. Lenore watched this man every day from her windows, also maintaining her secret—she was fascinated by the abundance of his body, his sagging jowls and cherubic face.
Entering her small brick house, Lenore nearly tripped over an assortment of dusty shoes that had accumulated inside the back door. She pulled a pair of tasseled, tan loafers from the pile, slipped them on and grabbed her handbag.
The kind cashier, a lanky and emaciated young man with a hardware store of metal hooked to his ears and nose, gave her a second can for free when she told him it was her birthday. He then asked if she wanted to see his band perform—her ticket would be free—and she said thanks, but no. In the car she opened one of the chilly beers and squeezed it between her wiry legs. She took quick, cautious sips as she drove, nervously checking her mirrors and the drivers next to her.
Lenore drank the second beer in her driveway and began to experience the familiar swim of alcohol. At noon, sunlight warmed the air around her, and the smell of gasoline vapors crept into the ailing Buick LeSabre. The longer she sat the more lonely she felt; the old car's stiff vinyl seats, broken radio, and stained carpet were reminders of a world that was indifferent and decaying. She glanced over to Glickman's yard, and the Oldsmobile was gone. His brick house, identical to hers, had the quiet presence of a tomb.
Glickman had been a friend of Cliff, Lenore's dead husband, and had lived next door, across the driveway, for seven years. The two men stood under the raised door of Glickman's garage for countless evenings, talking in hushed voices, as though they were conspiring to leave their wives or rob the savings and loan. Lenore had wanted to be a part of their conversation. She wanted to know the man who once had taught high school history and phys ed and had ridden a motorcycle from Pennsylvania to Mexico. Surely, his thoughts were more interesting than Cliff's. But her husband had never shared their neighbor, not even his first name. She only knew him as Glickman.
Instead of watching TV she switched on her favorite radio station, WKQR and its Stone Cold Oldies. Humming along with Mel Carter's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me," Lenore swayed before the mirror in the hallway and teased her baby fine hair with a finger. Her fair skin had resisted the wrinkling that claimed most sexagenarians, but once fiery eyes now revealed an apprehension that could be mistaken for excitement. Lenore felt resentment towards this woman in front of her; she was living the wrong life. She should've had new furniture, coifed hair and perfect nails. Her husband should've been napping in the other room because he planned to take her dancing.
She went to her kitchen window, pulled back the gauzy white curtain, and peered down at the concrete driveway that lay between her house and Glickman's. It may as well be the Mississippi, she thought, he's never going to cross it.
Lenore had never known a man who could live without a woman. Sure, Glickman had had a visitor a year ago, a trampy thing who wore turquoise spandex and carried a little white dog. But no one had been to the house since. She pictured him alone, eating bowls of sticky oatmeal for breakfast, and mopping his floor with Spic and Span. Standing at the kitchen sink he fumbled with silverware and plates, greasy frying pans and stained coffee cups. She could see him shuffling around the house, wearing his baggy khakis and brilliant white tee shirts, whistling a song, something romantic from Dean Martin.
Lenore fought the pull of sedation and clutched the windowsill. She then coaxed her mind to paint a new scene in her neighbor's kitchen, one where she busied herself at the sink as Glickman stood behind her. His paunch nudged the small of her back; doughy fingers slid from her wrists to her elbows, and then he whispered playfully into her ear. She turned to give him a kiss, and the fantasy burst like a defective light bulb. Her hand had slipped from the grimy windowsill and she took a staggering step towards a kitchen chair to steady herself. Minutes later she was snoring in bed, wearing her shoes and clutching her pillow.
On the Fourth of July Glickman waved to Lenore from his back door.
"I'm having hotdogs," he yelled. "Wanna join me?"
She had been shaking rugs, her least favorite monthly chore. Grains of dirt had found their way into her mouth and had stuck to the pearls of sweat on her forehead. She wanted to say yes—tuna salad waited in her refrigerator; stale reruns and baseball were on TV.
"I'm good," she said, her words betraying her. "I've got cleaning to do."
"If you change your mind, you know where I live."
"Of course I do." Lenore's tone was harsher than intended. "I can see you standing there, can't I?"
He gave a jaunty wave then entered the house.
Lenore snorted with disappointment. She wanted him to be angry. She wanted him to throw expletives at her over the fence because she'd declined his offer. Carrying her rugs into the house, she turned up the volume on her radio and paced in the living room. She called herself stupid and kicked the ugly plaid sofa Cliff had bought from his brother.
"He finally invited you," she yelled above Frankie Vallie's whining falsetto, "and you did nothing!"
Wiping the shine of sweat from her upper lip, she went to the basement. Bacteria permeated the air and smelled like swamp water; her nose began to itch. She kicked a few cartons, and a shoebox containing Cliff's old wallets and wristwatches, two of the many objects he'd saved, spilled out onto the damp floor. Muttering that Cliff was still a pain in the ass, she pushed the clutter of metal and folded leather against the wall.
Her husband had been dead from cancer for two and half years, and she no longer missed him. But as a retired drug store cashier she did miss his paycheck. Cliff had been a prissy office supply salesman and had dyed blond hair and a delicate nose. He wore bowties and dry-cleaned shirts, and maintained his squeaky hygiene by sometimes showering twice a day. He also flossed his teeth in front of the TV, and then checked them in a small, round mirror kept next to the sofa.
But when they dated, after being introduced by Cliff's cousin, he bought her flowers and made her laugh, and waited two months before reaching into her blouse to knead her breast. Her mother called him Cliffy Boy, and her father gave him a favorite stainless steel letter opener. Lenore's engagement ring contained a real diamond, and the wedding cake had three tiers—it wasn't love, but it was close.
Sitting on the basement stairs, tired and wanting a nap, she found herself missing the life she'd had before Cliff. It replayed in her mind like a Sunday afternoon movie, slow and dreamy, with long-forgotten actors. At twenty-four she had lived in an old house with four other people. The lazy hippies smoked pot on bare mattresses, discussing politics and the urgent need for change, change that others should initiate. No one bathed or cleaned the toilet; meals were made with rice, apples, cheese and honey.
Lenore smiled at these halcyon days, but then a muscle twitched in her groin. One of the sour smelling men had used her for sex, getting her stoned, and drunk on wine, and later her vagina would ache then throb, and she sometimes wanted not to have one. She never said no to this maggot and his ever-present erection, and still hated her weakness. The emotion was a rusty nail that moved through her mind, occasionally lodging itself as a reminder of her inability to assert herself. She then recalled peanut-sized flies crashing into every window and seeing one of the men, Zowie, urinating off the roof before falling to the ground.
Swelling with pride, she again reminded herself that she had found the courage to leave. The others had gone to a concert in Ohio, and Lenore drizzled smiling faces of honey on the counters, floors and mattresses. Then opening doors and windows, she invited the world of insects in for feast. She left with a pillowcase of clothing, and smiled when two bumblebees swept past her head to enter the house. During the Greyhound ride back to her parent's home in Pennsylvania, she sat next to the grandfatherly man who bought her cheeseburgers during one of their stops. Lenore embraced these warm feelings as she lumbered up the steps, and then ate a bowl of generic ice cream that contained bits of wax. Peter, Paul and Mary sang on WKQR; her holiday had been salvaged.
The Fourth of July passed and made room for the hot blanket of August. With the temperature in the nineties, Lenore took frequent cold showers and wasted money on carryout. After a disappointing lunch of gyros from Go-Go Coney Island, the cramped restaurant at the end of the street, Lenore went to her back porch, fighting the rise of indigestion. Normally she avoided Go-Go—hairy men wearing white tank tops sometimes kept her change and gave her old buns, and one metallic tasting hotdog had given her noxious gas that had lingered for days?but the temptation of greasy meat had been to much to resist. In her lawn chair she belched onto the back of her wrist, and then heard Glickman's distinctive, braying laugh. Standing behind the chain link fence he wore blue pajama bottoms and held a hose in his hand. Water ran off his protruding white belly and dropped in rivulets to his feet.
Lenore shook her head and yelled from her chair: "Glickman, what are you, an eight-year-old?"
He turned toward her, the nub of his penis revealing itself behind his wet pajamas. "I'm cooling off; you should try it."
"No thanks. It's not dignified."
"Dignified? Who wants to be dignified? It's ninety-five degrees! You need to loosen up, Lenore."
Prickly heat spread from her neck to her loins—he had said her name. But instead of breaking free from her years of containment, she waved her hand. "Listen, Glickman—I don't need lessons from you."
"Suit yourself." He made an adjustment to hose's nozzle and sprayed a high arc over the driveway. Bouncing spits of water struck the concrete, splashing Lenore's feet and legs.
Rage and giddiness tore through her sweat-glazed bosom, and she stomped into the house. Inside her back door she felt the itch of water trickling down her ankles and fought the urge to go back outside. She saw herself climbing the fence, grabbing the hose, and spraying Glickman in the face. He'd spray her, too, and then they'd sit in lawn chairs and share bottles of cold beer, finally having the conversation she'd been craving for years. Crossing her arms she told herself, "Do something, Lenore! Damn it, do something!"
Facing the knot of frustration took her back to nights with Cliff. The nights she lay in bed waiting for him to roll onto her, waiting for him to cover her mouth with his. He'd been so stingy with his stupid little pecker. It hid in his boxers like piece of expensive candy, and she never had the courage to reach over and grab it. Something restrained her then and something restrained her now. It might've been the memory of Lenore's mother slapping her hand at Thanksgiving when she reached for another deviled egg. Or never denying the gamy, longhaired lecher who'd occupied the space between her legs.
Lenore again felt shackled and went to the bathroom. She tore at her clothes and then stood beneath a rain of cold water.
The humidity of August left Lenore feeling bloated. She stood at the kitchen window, drinking out of a perspiring water glass, with sweat dripping between her legs. She wore one of Cliff's old shirts and tattered underpants, nothing else. Somewhere a lawn mower choked through a yard of dying grass, and a dog barked as though it were being hit with rocks. She looked away from the window, where a housefly lay dying on its back, and carried the glass to the living room. The graying walls hadn't been painted since Cliff's disastrous three-week project, and she had a better chance of running a marathon than painting them now. Sitting on the sofa she thumbed through her address book, longing to hear a familiar voice. She flipped page after page and saw the names of a second cousin, friends of Cliff, a slightly crazy niece in Seattle, the nice man who had repaired her dryer, and a podiatrist she hadn't seen in fifteen years. "Glickman" appeared on the back cover and her heart jumped. Phoning these strangers felt pitiful and desperate, so she ordered Chinese carryout, Kung Pao Beef, from Lucky Town Wok. Anxious to chat with the woman on the line, Lenore said she just loved the restaurant's egg rolls.
"You pick up? You pick up?" the hurried voice cackled into the phone.
The sour drop of rejection sank in Lenore's stomach. Pushing herself to try again she meekly said, "Hasn't it been hot?"
"No, No—you pick up?"
Saying, "Never mind," she hung up the phone.
Weeks later the temperature dropped to upper-seventies, and Lenore moved through her afternoon grateful and relieved—she'd survived another summer. It was Monday, the day she liked to have breakfast for dinner and, as she waited for her newspaper, she savored the thought of sausage links and pancakes adorning her plate. She'd been trying to break her habit of watching TV from morning till night and needed the newspaper, her connection to the outside world. Now liberated from the television's plastic box, she saw less of the annoying commercials and less of the happy teenagers with their tight pants and mouths full of Chicken McNuggets.
The paper was nowhere in sight. Jason, the paperboy, would sometimes toss it into the bushes, and she'd have to retrieve it with a rake. She suspected the little bastard, with his earring, frosted hair and flashy bike, did this on purpose and she never gave him a tip.
Stepping onto her front porch she saw Glickman sitting in the wooden swing he had once shared with his wife. He'd been aloof since the incident with the hose, and read his newspaper while pushing the swing with his foot.
Lenore scanned the driveway, the gulf between their two worlds, and sensed her life was offering its last brave act. Tucking strands of hair behind an ear, she left her house, walked down her steps and through her front gate. She strode with trembling knees the twenty feet to Glickman's walk, and then opened his gate and closed it behind her. The scrape of metal hitting metal climbed her spine, sounding deliberate, a door lock being turned. She filled her lungs and approached the front of the house, as Glickman dropped his paper. He studied her as she stepped onto the porch and said nothing when she sat beside him. In silence he gave Lenore a section of the newspaper, the comics, and she exhaled through her nose and began reading.