“Getting old ain’t for sissies.” Bette Davis
I was surrounded by widows that summer—widows and more widows, all up and down the street. I’d see them in their gardens wearing straw hats, or looking through their curtains when I came home from work. They were old and curious and creatures of habit. They didn’t bother anybody.
I’d just moved into a bungalow on the street, one of those low-slung late 1930s jobs. The whole neighbourhood was the same, same concrete porches painted burgundy or green, same ramshackle garages at the back with sagging doors. It was quiet, anyway. That’s all that mattered to me.
“Take her until I find somewhere to live,” she said. “It won’t be long. You still love her, don’t you?”
The day I moved in, my ex-wife came by with the cat. “Take her until I find somewhere to live,” she said. “It won’t be long. You still love her, don’t you?” The cat ran to the bsement and hid in a closet. She stayed there while I unpacked. My ex-wife left her food in Tupperware containers on the counter.
My second day, the power went out. It was the middle of the longest heatwave in years. I didn’t even have a fan. I just lay on the couch, falling asleep, waking up to the television going, the cat on my chest.
Even she was sweating. She put her paw on my chin, and I got up and fed her. I looked outside. The widows were on their concrete porches, happy because their power was back on. The cat was happy because she was being fed, and I was happy to be alone.
The divorce was uncontested. My ex-wife’s brother, a lawyer, took care of the details. She went her way, I went mine. Our real estate agent found this bungalow. It was too small for my ex-wife. She was holding out for something better. I took it and signed the papers the same night.
She sat on her front porch, hands folded, staring straight ahead. Her hands were huge.
My second day in the house, I found an old hose in the garage, turned it on and watched water come out a million holes. The garden was overgrown, the eavestroughs full of saplings. As I cleared out the weeds, one of my widow neighbours came outside in a faded floral dress. She sat on her front porch, hands folded, staring straight ahead. Her hands were huge.
I kept on working until I noticed the widow on my other side. She was standing on a kitchen chair in her garden. She looked over and smiled. “I’m Maureen,” she said. “I grew up in this house. When I was a little girl, we had wonderful birthday parties here.”
She got off the kitchen chair and walked over. She was wearing old slippers and had big yellow teeth. She looked across at the other widow still sitting on her porch. “Hi, Olga,” she said.“Your garden looks lovely.”
Olga nodded, getting up, turning on a hose. Her whole place was a garden. She had rusty taps sticking out of the ground and gray hoses.
“Olga’s been here thirty-eight years now,” Maureen said. “I think thirty-eight. Her husband died ten years ago.” Then she leaned over like she had something special to say to me. “Olga keeps putting old vegetable peels under her plants,” she said. “Attracts ants. We’ve warned her but she keeps doing it. Now I’ve got ants in my roses.”
She went back to her house, shuffling in those slippers. Meanwhile, Olga kept watering her flowers, going from one rusty spigot to another. The whole place smelled like a damp mop. The flowers grew, though. Big blooms all over the place. Some even grew between the flagstones.
It was Olga handing me a big paper bag. How did she know my name? She must’ve heard me give it to Maureen.
I bought a folding lawn chair and put it under a tree. The tree was on Olga’s side of the fence, a beech or something. It stretched out, hanging over my driveway. I’d get under there in my lawn chair and have a nap. One day, drifting off, a husky voice suddenly says, “Bob!” I jumped up. It was Olga handing me a big paper bag. How did she know my name? She must’ve heard me give it to Maureen. And what was in the bag?
“Grapes,” she said, pointing to this tunnel of vines next to her garage. Grapes hung down in massive clusters. I tried one of the grapes. It was too sour to eat. It didn’t stop Olga from bringing me more. She kept leaving bags of them on my chair.
One Saturday morning, I looked out back and saw three paper bags on my lawn chair. I hadn’t noticed them before. They may have been there all week. Now they were rotting through the chair’s webbing. I had to get a new chair.
We had a strange communion after that, me weeding my garden, Olga watering her plants. We didn’t speak except to nod. I don’t think she spoke much English. Maureen would come out and tell me about her rose bushes. They grew straight up the side of her garage. She asked me to tie them to her eavestroughs. I got a ladder and did that. All the while Olga kept watering her flowers with those huge mottled hands.
There on the steps was a plate wrapped in tin foil. It was a full turkey dinner. There was a present, too, wrapped in cheap paper and a wrinkled bow.
Fall came, then the first snows, then it was Christmas. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I liked to sleep in during the holidays. Around 11 o’clock Christmas Day, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Certainly not my ex-wife. I didn’t answer. I tried going back to sleep. Ten minutes later, another ring, then a knock. I finally got up and went to the front door. There on the steps was a plate wrapped in tin foil. It was a full turkey dinner. There was a present, too, wrapped in cheap paper and a wrinkled bow.
Inside was a pair of socks.
I looked across and saw Olga’s curtains move. It had to be her bringing the food. Maureen’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She was probably at church. No, it had to be Olga. When the curtains moved again, I was sure of it.
What could I do? I went out Boxing Day and bought one of those baskets with bath salts and stuff. I took it over and knocked on Olga’s door. I had her plate with me, too. “Thanks for the dinner,” I said. She nodded and took the basket. Then she closed the door.
My ex-wife found a place. The cat was back with her. I missed the cat. She was good company. Some nights, it felt lonely without her. I went to work, came home, shovelled the driveway. I’d see Maureen and Olga and the other widows out there trying to clear their sidewalks.
I figured I should help out. Pretty soon I was shovelling for all the widows. Maureen would say, “Thanks so much.” Olga didn’t say anything. I didn’t know who she talked to. Maybe the Italian grocer down the street. She’d go there every Saturday morning, pulling one of those fold-up carts. Even in winter, she’d wheel that thing down the sidewalk.
I’d find a dish or a bowl wrapped in tin foil. One time it was fish soup. Another it was macaroni.
Sometimes there’d be a knock at the door. I’d find a dish or a bowl wrapped in tin foil. One time it was fish soup. Another it was macaroni.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d return the dishes, thanking Olga, getting the usual grunt. Then I’d see her there at the window.
When spring came, one of the neighbours on the other side of the street, a Greek contractor told me Olga liked to go to the track. She’d take the bus. I asked if she was Greek. Nobody knew what nationality she was. Her husband was the one who talked to everybody. There was a daughter, too. She used to run up and down the street screaming that her father was trying to kill her.
“Nicest guy in the world,” the contractor said. “I helped him dig his basement twenty years ago.”
“Where’s the daughter now?” I asked.
“Victoria,” he said. “Daughter’s married, two kids. I think her husband pans for gold at the top of the island.”
Even while he was talking, you could see Olga’s curtains move. She’d come out and sit on the front stoop, hands together, old shoes and stockings. An East Indian woman, new to the neighbourhood, came and sat on the porch with her. She tried to strike up a conversation. Olga ignored her. The woman finally gave up and went home.
Olga stopped putting food out on my porch. I don’t know what happened or why she stopped. She seemed sullen at the best of times, so you never knew what was going on in her head. She never smiled.
“Olga’s harmless,” Maureen used to say, but then she’d start telling me how Olga had hallucinations. “What kind?” I asked. Maureen didn’t know what kind, only that Olga saw things. How she explained this to Maureen was beyond me.
“You take,” she said. “I am poor. Please, give back. Give me back my money.”
One day I was gardening by Olga’s fence. I looked up and there she was, same faded floral dress, same straw hat tied around her chin. “You take,” she said. “I am poor. Please, give back. Give me my money.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What money, Olga?” I asked. “I’ve never taken your money.”
“Yes, one hundred percent,” she said, slapping her fist into her palm. “My jewellery, too. I am a poor woman. You give back.”
She walked away. I was shaken. I went over to Maureen’s.
“It’s the hallucinations,” she said, telling me to ignore her. I figured maybe I should call the police. She was accusing me of theft. I went to work, drank afterwards at a local pub, expecting everything to calm down. Then I came home one night to flashing lights. Police cars were lined up along the street. A guy in a trench coat was standing on my steps, notepad out, taking down my address. He looked like a detective. Two cops were over on Olga’s porch.
“What happened?” I asked the detective.
“You live here?” he asked, rolling something around in his mouth. He didn’t look concerned or particularly interested. He scratched behind his ear.
“Yes,” I said. “Is something wrong with Olga?”
“She says you’ve been running around her house yelling at her.”
“I’m just getting home from work.”
“Maybe last night?”
“I’ve never yelled at Olga.”
Then I remembered her accusing me of theft.
“She came over one time and accused me of stealing her money. One of the neighbours said she’s having hallucinations.”
“Which neighbour?” he asked.
“Maureen,” I said, pointing next door. “She lives there.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to her.”
“Am I in trouble?”
Another cop came out of Olga’s place, tall guy, straightening his belt. He talked to the two cops on the porch first, then walked over to the detective.
“One minute, she says she let him in the house, the next she said she didn’t.”
“Anything?” the detective asked.
“Her story keeps changing,” the cop said. “One minute, she says she let him in the house, the next she said she didn’t.” He looked at me. “Are you the neighbour?” I told him I was. “She claims you’re related,” he said.
“We’re not related.”
“She says you are.”
“Should we get a psychological assessment?” the detective asked.
“I think we’d better,” the cop said, then looked at me again.
“She says you’re her son from a second marriage. I asked for the husband’s name. She couldn’t give it.”
“I think she’s only been married once,” I said. “Maureen would know.”
“Who’s Maureen?” the cop asked.
“She lives on the other side,” the detective said. “I was just going over there. Supposedly Olga’s been hallucinating lately.”
“We should talk to Maureen,” the cop said.
Early the next morning, there was a knock on my door. It was five thirty. I thought it was the cops. It was Olga still in her dressing gown and slippers.
“What is it, Olga?” I asked.
“You called me.”
“No I didn’t.”
She mumbled something, then shuffled back in her house.
“The police called us,” she said. “We’re taking Mom out to Victoria before she hurts herself.”
Someone must have called her daughter. They showed up from Victoria in a Hertz rental truck, “they” being her and her husband. He started loading Olga’s things into the back. Then the daughter came over, cigarette going between her lips. “The police called us,” she said. “We’re taking Mom out to Victoria before she hurts herself.”
That was it for Olga. The daughter and son-in-law put her in the front seat of the truck between them and headed off. Nothing else happened until Maureen got a call from Olga’s daughter, Nora. They were thinking of putting Olga in a facility. She kept saying her money was stolen.
“Poor Olga,” she said to me. “She never was right after her husband died.”
“Birdbrain’s more like it,” Maureen said. “I don’t know about crazy.”
“The guy across the road said the daughter’s crazy, too,” I said.
“Birdbrain’s more like it,” Maureen said. “I don’t know about crazy.”
“I hope Olga makes out okay.”
Maureen was already making plans to go into an exclusive retirement home herself. She had all these brochures, showing rooms with big windows and everyone happily playing cards. “They do everything for you,” she said. “I don’t have to lift a finger. I’ll miss my roses, though.”
When they’d see elderly people walking around the neighbourhood, they’d stare at them like they were zoo animals.
The street changed after that. Young couples started moving in, fixing up the bungalows. When they’d see elderly people walking around the neighbourhood, they’d stare at them like they were zoo animals.
One couple trying to clean out their eavestroughs with a garden hose. It kept falling out and spraying them with water. They didn’t have a ladder. An elderly man stopped on the sidewalk. “I got a ladder if you want it,” he said.
“Sure,” the young husband said. “That would be great.”
He had it over his shoulder like it was nothing. He must’ve been in his early eighties.
The old guy went home and brought back the ladder. He had it over his shoulder like it was nothing. He must’ve been in his early eighties. He told the young couple there was no rush bringing it back. So they cleaned their eavestroughs, washed their windows, then Brad got up on the roof and checked the chimney for racoons. When they finished, they went inside, leaving the ladder on the grass. Anyone could’ve picked it up.
The old guy finally came and got it.
I was alone, in other words, like the widows and the old man.
I was sitting that evening watching the television. Nothing was on. I realized I missed the cat. I didn’t miss my ex wife. I hadn’t heard from her since the papers were signed. I was alone, in other words, like the widows and the old man. For some reason, it made me miss the cat even more. I might’ve even missed the widows. But the cat, she was really good company.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, satirist, and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available through Skyhorse Press. You can read Robert’s other articles and stories at robertcormack.net