The Old Lady and the House
Forty years ago, Lucy bought the land, split the lot, built two houses, sold one, lived in the other. Ten years ago, we moved in next door. For months we only saw Paul, her husband, faithfully out for a smoke on the front lawn, with Sue their playful grey Shih Tzu in tow. “She loved the previous owners’ kids,” was his welcoming remark, her poop across our lot. Our son was one-year old, Paul was about to enter his seventies, and Lucy, a good few years older, was fitter, more vigorous, but neither walked their Sue. Paul watched the chronicles of the neighborhood, a paradisiac Bantustan, our little city of god. A year earlier Fatima and I visited San Miguel de Allende to restore our minds in eco-friendly destinations. She was five months pregnant. We were living in an apartment complex that a hurricane would also drench after toppling its papier-mâché chimney. In San Miguel, the Gringo-run B&B was a fairytale Structure, out of the palaces in Sentra. Half-owner, the local wife cooked us Christmas dinner, denounced the natives who “like being poor,” as her husband radiated his traumatized Californian youth through a book’s help that scored all religions to a barometer of Zen. Islam scored lowest. Paul was a veteran with an enlarged prostate. His advice was that I should “watch out for them” who blow my live oak leaves, they’re bound by law to dispose of the waste “free of charge,” leave none of it in black plastic bags on my curb, an eyesore for other residents. A month later, I asked Jesus (leader of the landscapers who’d come to the US during the Zapatista Revolution) to trim the live oak branches including those that straddled the corners of the two backyards, and Jesus remonstrated that as dogs and fire hydrants are as good as apple pie, he wouldn’t cut a single branch that covered a parallax of that man’s yard. “Your neighbor, he’s, how you say it,” as Jesus stuttered a rhyme with a cystic illness attributed to Ra, the ancient sun god. I corrected Jesus’s pronunciation. Paul’s health began to change. Lumbago herniated his golf swing. He quit smoking. The body that nicotine infused turned diffuse. His abdomen grew rotund. He contracted diabetes. Soon there was no more small talk, no navy stories. I’d find Paul outside, his shoulders closed toward a street I couldn’t call him back from. Dementia and hospitalization started their record of his life. Lucy struggled with the decision to put him away in a nursing home. “I remarried a younger man so that he’d take care of me when I’m older,” she said woefully to me, “and I hate fat people,” she added with a shiver as she bearhugged herself. Thin throughout her life, and always in proper robe on the grass, and if intercepted in greeting, she’d quickly apologize for her hair and the Texas sky, though I’d never seen her or Paul out to Church on Sunday. Paul was now well cushioned into his dying. When he stopped recognizing her, she stopped visiting him. I began to see her daily, watering her yard and plants, mowing her grass, a sloth born a bee in a solo hive. One day she knocked at my door, her voice trembling, and I let her in. She said her landline was out of commission, that she’d just been released from the hospital for hypertension, a minor stroke, a fibrillation. I plugged her phone back into the wall. I thought her end was near. Our niceties atrophied. She was the tea-drop-stained figure in a photo. She no longer heard my car come up the driveway, my doors slam open and shut, my half-hearted hellos. That was five years ago. And yet when she and I had hardly exchanged a word, whenever she’d run into my mom outside our front door, Lucy, unprompted, would praise me. A testament to her classy decorum, thoughtful of another mother’s heart. Then rain fell biblical, anthropogenic. And all the houses on our street flooded, left us hydrophobic of a swollen sky. When water receded, everyone on the street walked out to talk with each other, nouveaux ions in calamity’s bonds. Lucy’s son came to her rescue and cut to the chase: a woman of 90 can’t live in a house under repair unassisted. The property would be sold. But his mother wouldn’t sanction the sale, and a few months later moved back in. During remodeling, amid the rubble that lined her front lawn and engulfed the white crape myrtle that stood on the border zone between us, a burgundy leather shoe bulged like a boat. It was Paul’s right edematous foot. For two months it stayed there waiting for the city’s waste management services. Twice I stood by the heap looking for the left shoe, and what would I have done with it had I found it? Lucy is still living in her house and will die there.
Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the Attic; Alight; Textu, a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.