Chapter 5 — The downstairs neighbor.
I saw Lena again one early afternoon when she was out in her small vegetable garden. The weather had turned nice. She bent over, picking some tomatoes. She always wore dresses but this particular day, she was not wearing her very thick support hose. She was bare legged and the first thing I noticed was how badly her legs were.
They were almost entirely purple and blue from the varicose veins that seemed to cover every inch of her legs. I had not noticed this before but then again, I didn’t see anyone very often and when I did, I kept it short and sweet.
She heard me come down the stairs and stood up and said hello. I nodded and walked towards her. I knew she was really old and for a moment I thought maybe she shouldn’t be doing all this hard work by herself. She might just drop dead from a stroke or heart attack and that would mean I would have to call someone and get involved in something I wanted no part of.
“How are you Lena? Do you need some help?” I asked her. I figured it was the polite thing to do.
“Ah, yes, maybe just a bit. I can’t seem to pull this carrot out of the ground and I want to have some to put into the stew I am making.”
“Sure, let me give it a shot,” I said as I leaned over and grabbed hold of it. It came right out. I handed it to her. “There you go. You probably stopped right before it was ready,” I said.
“Thank you Eli. No, my hands aren’t what they used to be,” she said and put her hands out in front of her as if to look at them for the very first time and took her gloves off. They were wrinkled and covered in age spots. Her fingers were slightly bent and looked swollen. I guessed she had arthritis.
“I guess that happens to all of us as we get older,” I said. There was something about her needing help and yet not asking for it. If she had that much trouble pulling one carrot out of the ground, then the others weren’t going to be any easier. I glanced at the basket she had for the vegetables and there were only tomatoes in it. “Did you need a few more carrots?”
“Yes, but please don’t trouble yourself. You were on your way out and I’m sure I can do it.”
She had pride. That’s what I was seeing. She wanted to do it herself and couldn’t but didn’t want anyone to know. I felt myself start to like her just a bit.
“No, it’s OK. I’m not in any hurry. How many do you want?” I asked.
“Oh, bless you! I only need 3 more…”
I bent down and easily got 3 more out of the ground and tossed them into her basket. It felt good to do that for her. “What else do you need?”
“That’s all I need. Thank you so much Eli! You’ve made an old woman very happy.”
I thought ‘How easily pleased she is’ and hoped I would never get so old that I couldn’t take care of myself.
She actually did look happy for the small favor I had done. Was it possible someone could be that easily pleased? She started to bend down to pick up the basket, but I grabbed it instead and held onto it. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” I asked. It was getting very hot again and I could see the beads of sweat forming on her upper lip and forehead. “I have some time this afternoon, so if you would like some more vegetables picked, I could do that,” I said.
She hesitated for a moment. I knew there was something she needed but didn’t want to ask. It was obvious she was worn out from the heat and yet was wearing a dress with long sleeves. I knew that sometimes elderly women didn’t like to show too much of themselves physically, but it was too hot to be worried about sagging arms or age spots.
“What is it Lena?” I asked. “Really, it’s OK if there is something I can do for you.”
“I need to go to the bank, but I can catch the bus….”
“Nonsense,” I said. “I have time. I can take you. It’s too hot for you to be out in the sun anyway. Plus you need to put on some cooler clothes and stop worrying about what you look like. Now, go grab your purse, put on a summer dress if you have one and I’ll bring the car around,” I said. I walked into her apartment and put the basket down on her kitchen counter. I passed her coming in. “I’ll be right back,” I said and went and got my car.
I quickly cleaned off a few things on the passenger seat. My car was a mess, but it always was. I just didn’t see the need to clean it if I was the only one who was ever in it. I started the engine, backed out as I gave a quick glance at Charles’ window and just like clockwork I saw the curtain move slightly. I swear that man never sleeps.
I pulled up and leaned over and opened the passenger door for Lena. She had her purse and had changed into a summer dress. She still wasn’t wearing her support hose and she had put on some lipstick. She looked quite adorable and I once again noticed how badly her legs looked. I had never seen legs looks so bad, but it made me like her more that she didn’t care today. I knew that women of her generation dressed very conservatively, but it was too hot to worry about today. Maybe me just mentioning it to her was all she needed to throw a bit of caution to the wind.
I took off and suddenly was trying to figure out some small chat. My car smoked a bit as I took off and lurched a few times. Lena said nothing and sat with her back straight and her hands folded on her lap over her purse. I switched on the air conditioner. She thanked me.
“It’s too hot not to have it on,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this but I just couldn’t let her be out in the sun.
She told me where her bank was and it was only a few blocks, so I was saved from making small talk.
We walked inside. She got in line and I told her I would sit in the lobby and wait. The bank was cool and quiet. We had come at a good time. I sat down and waited.
Three teenagers walked in, talking loudly and laughing. They were dressed for the heat with hats and the two girls had their hair pulled up. Both were wearing very short shorts and tank top. The boy was wearing baggy surfer shorts, no shirt and sunglasses. My first thought was they were rude. They stood in line behind Lena and continued to talk loudly and rudely. Lena turned around and smiled at them. They didn’t return her smile and ignored her. This didn’t seem to bother her.
When it was her turn, she walked up to the teller and chatted with her while she handed her something. Suddenly I heard one of the girls laugh really loud and saw her point at Lena.
“Oh gross! Oh my God! Look at her legs!” she said. I heard the other two start laughing. The other girl made a motion of sticking her finger down her throat which made the other two start to laugh even louder.
I looked up and saw that Lena had heard them. She subtly glanced at them and then looked down at herself and then back at the teller. Other people had heard them and were ignoring them. I was not going to.
I walked up the girl and stood in front of all of them. “What did you just say?” I asked as I stepped a bit closer.
She turned beet red and wouldn’t look at me. I put my hand on her arm and pulled her forward.
“Did you not hear me, bitch? What the fuck did you just say?” I dug my hand into her arm and held on.
“I didn’t say anything! Let go of my arm!” she said. The boy just looked at me. He stepped back, along with the other girls. There’s nothing like rats deserting a sinking ship.
I looked long and hard at her. She had a bad case of acne that she was trying to cover up with a heavy dose of foundation. It wasn’t working and made her look worse. She had bumps and cysts all over her face and heavy eye make-up as if thinking if she wore a lot of that, no one would notice how bad she looked.
“Yes you did say something. You made fun of how someone looks. Everyone here heard you. Well, I’m here to tell you that not only was that incredibly rude, you should know that her legs look like your face!” I stood back but kept my hand dug into her arm. I let my words just hang there and watched as tears sprang to her eyes. I let go and she covered her face with both her hands and ran out of the bank. Her two friends ran after her. I watched them go and then looked around. The employees said nothing, but a customer that was sitting at a desk smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I walked up to Lean and stood next to her.
She turned and smiled at me. “Thank you, child, but you should not have done that,” she said.
“Lena let me tell you something right now. No one tells me what to do, so don’t start.” I felt a smirk cross my face and she nodded her head. She then reached over and stroked my face gently with her left arm. I noticed a mark on the inside of it and took her arm by the wrist and looked at it.
It was some type of a tattoo. A very old one and it was numbers. She tried to pull her arm back but I held on. At first I was confused and then I understood. I understood too well and let go.
The silence between us was uncomfortable but I let it be. Now I understood why she always wore long sleeves. I also understood the shame that quickly passed over her eyes and then disappeared as she swallowed it and try to tuck it away. I silently wished her good luck with keeping it tucked away. You think it’s gone but it has a way of coming up, slamming you in the face and letting you know that you have a lot to be ashamed of. I found massive amounts of alcohol made it quiet, but I didn’t think she drank.
We left the bank. The teenagers were long gone. As we were driving home, Lena put her hand on my arm. “Thank you for saying something.”
I nodded and patted her hand. I suddenly felt very protective of her and I didn’t know why.
“It’s nothing,” was all I could think to say.
“No, it’s everything, but you’re still too young to know that,” she said and we continued our drive back to our apartments in silence.