Good Neighbours

by Kenneth Radu

Karen knew that Emma saw her from the sunroom which provided an excellent view of the back yards of neighbours on all sides. With not much to preoccupy herself except nursing her wounds, Emma spent a lot of time staring out the window bird watching and, for want of a better word, spying. Well, Karen admitted that spying was putting it rather harshly, after all, windows in a sunroom offered an unobstructed vantage point. Still, the notion that Emma could watch her every move while she paid her respects to Amber and Opal annoyed Karen to no end. The neighbourhood already boasted its resident voyeur, it didn’t need Emma staring through her windows like some kind of idol overlooking the activities of lesser beings.

Ellen was returning home for the Christmas holidays. And her son was bringing his family to celebrate the day. She debated the idea of inviting Isaac and Emma for dinner. Her house was not wheelchair friendly and she didn’t want to be tripping over the ungainly thing. And wouldn’t Emma make everyone uncomfortable, the way crippled people did? Not their fault, of course, they couldn’t be blamed for their condition unless they had attempted suicide and failed, in which case, they had to stew in their own juices.

It was a shocking accident. Karen had tried, really she had, very hard, not to feel even the tiniest bit gratified over the misfortune of others. But she meant what she said to herself, Emma possessed that habit of looking down on lesser beings. She refused to stare back at Emma behind the glass and only wished that her fence had been constructed higher to block the view entirely except then she’d miss the pleasure of talking over the fence with Isaac.

She had done and said all the right things upon learning of the tragedy (no one had visited the rehabilitation centre more often than she), just as Emma had sent her a sympathy card after her beloved girls were put down. No real choice in the matter as they suffered excruciatingly from the cancer that wracked them both. It was one of those Hallmark things, cream coloured, embossed lilies on the front, with a pretty verse inside, something Maya Angelou might have written, it was that sincere and sweet, simply signed “Emma.” Not “Emma and Isaac.” Not “with love, Emma and Isaac,” nor simply “Love, Emma.” Just “Emma.” The name alone written in a firm hand – that was of course before the accident – and for some reason Karen had taken offense because Emma had not troubled herself to attend the reception in honour of Amber and Opal. Isaac offered the lamest excuse imaginable for Emma’s absence. Karen suspected that maybe deep down Emma’s dislike of her wasn’t so deep down at all, but perceptible beneath her mottled skin like a bug skittering upside down just under the surface of a pond.

Everyone else liked Emma, Karen recognized that, even her own daughter Ellen admired Emma, finding her “one of the most interesting women I know.” Karen couldn’t quite see where the interest lay because just what did that woman do that was so terribly interesting to anyone beside herself and presumably Isaac? After all, he had married her. Which was a pity because for years now Karen considered Isaac a solid, dependable, educated man with a heart of gold and a proper way of looking at things, a suitable husband material. He was right about the dog petition against the government’s racist anti-pit-bull legislation, and so sympathetic after the demise of her girls. Well, it was too cold standing outside and letting Emma get a good bird’s eye view of her.

She planned to carry the crock pot over, knowing how difficult Emma found cooking from a wheelchair and Isaac simply had too much on his hands, his friends being all mouth and no action when it came to helping him during this crisis, as far as she could see. They had mowed his lawn or shovelled the snow or cleaned his house, and that not too thoroughly she could tell the last time she stepped inside Emma’s sacred precincts. She had volunteered herself to dust furniture and mop the floors, it would give her so much pleasure but, dear man, Isaac, didn’t want to be a burden.

He would appreciate a stewed chicken with carrots and potatoes. Home baked bread also. Perhaps she should have given advance warning in case Isaac returned with a pizza (she had seen him drive away earlier today), but no matter. The chicken could keep in the refrigerator for another day. Enough for two meals. Of course, Emma would mew all the right words of gratitude, but she was really doing a favour for Isaac who had suffered terribly this past year having to deal with the accident and his crippled wife. When did it happen? Before last Christmas, if she remembered, at least thirteen months ago.

Poor dear Amber and Opal. She missed the girls dreadfully. They had been such lovely dogs, shocking that piece of legislation. Mercifully they had passed on before been subjected to further indignities. She was still fighting to have it repealed, and had appeared on two talk shows about animal rights, responsible ownership and training of dogs. More than a few kids in the neighbourhood could do with a leashing. Isaac would have enjoyed living with dogs, but Emma found little room in her heart for canine love, Karen supposed. Last spring she had erected that little white picket fence around the grave, and she had already selected and ordered a monument, nothing out of proportion. After all, hers was a back yard garden, not a public cemetery. She disapproved of people who made a display of their feelings, even though she enjoyed Oprah and Dr. Phil. Television, even the Internet, was one thing – entertainment – real life something else entirely. Elaborate tombstones or strapping yourself to a cross at Easter or publicly praying with your hands held up as if trying to catch manna from heaven. So you believed in God. Just about everyone did. Get over it.

Why, there was Isaac himself pulling into his driveway. She could only see the top of his car over the fence and then his handsome head as he emerged. Not everyone would call him handsome, of course, but they didn’t see the depth of his heart so full of kindness and concern that his very presence provided warmth on the coldest day. It was very difficult, though, to snuggle up to a man who lived in a different house with another woman who had enjoyed the good fortune of surviving a major car crash. Isaac had also been injured, poor boy. Her heart bled. Honestly it did.

She wondered if Emma appreciated what she had in Isaac. Isaac would move heaven and earth to bring comfort and joy to his wife. He was not one to desert his beloved in her hour of need. Perhaps Isaac would help her choose a new breed of dog now that socialists in government had outlawed pit bulls. Oh, dear, let her not think of those beautiful faithful girls and the companionship they had provided, but there were many kinds of dogs from which to choose. Something small. Something large?

That peeping Tom, after a respite, had resumed his prowling. Mrs. Patel swore that she had seen the pervert bobbing up and down outside her kitchen window, but she couldn’t quite describe him because he was hooded and his face was in shadows. You’d think the police would have apprehended him by now. She doubted if they spent much time anyway tracking him down. Karen considered a German Shepherd, excellent guard dogs, a breed not thus far outlawed although they also had a criminal record of biting. As long as the police employed them, no one was going to launch a vicious campaign of lies and slanders against the constabulary’s favourite dog. Waving to Emma over the fence, she huddled against a sudden sharp attack of winter wind, and smiled to think Isaac was just the sort of man who’d prefer a Labrador retriever, that great sloppy rug of a dog who nonetheless would sacrifice his life for his master.

Such a wicked thought crossed her mind as she removed her boots and placed them on the rubber mat inside her kitchen door that Karen, if she hadn’t been raised a Protestant, would have crossed herself as protection against evil. Suppose Emma had died in the accident, Isaac would have become an instant widower. Allowing a year’s grace period, now past, he would be free after “closure,” as people often said on television, as if life were a series of rooms crammed with the furnishings of bad experiences that you shut a door upon and locked up for good once you left, forgot, and began anew.

Life, though, consisted of challenges one had to meet and overcome. If motto she had, that one would suffice. She had met the challenges of life, Karen often thought, would be a proper inscription on her tombstone. The death of her girls had given her pause wherein she ruminated upon mortality and the significance of things. Not one to draw attention to her own accomplishments, she had picked herself up many a time after being kicked in the face by destiny, and got on with her business.

She had never been smashed up in a car crash, of course, but what difference did that make? We each of us had our own disasters – look at her own first choice of husband, for example--there was a walking disaster if ever there was one – what a dolt she had been to see potential there! – but his desertion, however thwarting, had not diminished her will to live. So hard – no one really knew how hard it had been to raise her children, to find enough money to meet the monthly bills, year after year without assistance – the bastard having evaded his financial responsibilities to his family – sending an odd cheque for a hundred dollars every several months before they stopped altogether when she needed it most. The courts had dismally failed her as they did so many women. No one had given her a hand-out or a hand-up, she might add, having taken real estate courses and earning accreditation while looking after kids at the same time. She hadn’t complained – well, not within anyone’s hearing range – and she had survived. Emma would also survive. And remain married to Isaac.

Preparing a snack for herself – tea and lemon cake – Karen imagined a wake after Emma’s funeral. The crowd was large. Emma knew so many people and was popular in the neighbourhood and her place of employment, a pharmaceutical research and testing centre. Needless to say, Emma’s last wishes did not include a church service. People who thought highly of themselves often dispensed with God. Pouring hot water over a tea bag in her favourite mug – a glazed picture of Amber painted on it – a gift from her children four years ago – Karen visualized an open coffin in which lay Emma’s waxy, perfectly poised corpse. Cheeks the colour of pale pink roses, lips slightly darker, almost smiling, her body clothed in a basic black dress (always serviceable), handsomely set off by the creamy white satin lining of the coffin.

There was Isaac, sitting in the corner of his living room, for the non-religious service at the crematorium would be a private family affair – like the service for her girls Amber and Opal --- looking so glum and weary it would take all of her compassion and charms to make the sweet man smile again. Staring at her snow-covered vegetable garden where her dogs lay buried, Karen remembered how kind and thoughtful Isaac had been on the day of her greatest distress. She had looked into his heart through her tears and recognized that, yes, Isaac, under different circumstances in another time would have been her chosen one. Sipping the tea, she wondered if choice were possible now, Emma still being very much alive, however broken and distorted and the obvious loss of allure, and Isaac too faithful to pant after another woman.

A dreadful thought raced – not raced for Karen slowed it down, savouring the sensation of wickedness casually meandering along the pathways of her brain, its rough fingers tickling the sensitive membrane of goodness and virtue: what if that Peeping Tom did more than just sneak a look? What if he were more than an obnoxious creep, more pernicious, positively deadly? Didn’t they begin by leering like adolescent boys jittery with hormones, then stalking, then...then…she trembled deliciously by the edge of the sink, closing her eyes against the pictures of the inevitable playing on the sparkling clean window pane, absent-mindedly biting into a piece of dry lemon cake.

Karen choked. She had made it a week ago for Isaac, but had been reluctant to knock on the door with yet another offering of food, having sensed disapproval in Emma’s thank you and restrained smile. Of course, the lemon cake was originally meant for Emma as well, just as the chicken in the crock pot was also for Emma. Perhaps she had been overly-effusive the week before and too insistent on making coffee right on the spot so they could all enjoy the oatmeal cookies together. Nonetheless, they had gladly taken the plate of cookies – come to think about it – she could kindly ask for the plate’s return – certainly one reason for going over – and personally inquire after Emma’s health.

One couldn’t be arrested for unspeakable imaginings: Karen would certainly never reveal what had just flicked on and off in her mind in vivid colour. Emma was a dear. Everyone loved her. Karen didn’t really dislike her...not really...and no one deserved to have her bones cracked and wracked, wrenched and splintered in a car accident. Emma did have Isaac, though. Some women had all the luck. Karen sipped the milkless tea. This coming spring she would plant deep purple petunias on the grave of her dearly beloved departed girls. Isaac would have planted marigolds on Emma’s grave, if his wife had died, while Karen stood over him, holding their puppy in her arms like a new-born baby, and blinking against the reflection of a sharp sunlight on her engagement ring.

© 2010 Kenneth Radu. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Kenneth Radu is the author of three collections of short stories, including A Private Performance (Montreal: Vehicule Press) which won the Quebec Federation of Writers' award for best English-language fiction. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming online in Foundling Review, LWOT, vis a tergo, Clearfield Review, and elsewhere. He is also the author of a memoir, The Devil Is Clever (Toronto: HarperCollins Canada).
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