Finches in the Stovepipe
It was a glorious Spring day in New England and I was making small talk.
"This isn’t blue sky! This is nothing!" burst my neighbor from her front step. "The sky where I'm from is the bluest in the country! Anyone whose been there knows that. This isn't even blue - no comparison!" she chortled.
"Oh, really? I've never been to the mid-west." I said, crossing the street to stand in her gravel. Before a more sensible spot in my mind could make the connection that 'The sky is always bluer ... ' was an odd twist on 'The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence', I was standing with her and she had my full attention. I had been looking forward to meeting our neighbors and especially to get a peek inside their refurbished historic house with loads of curb appeal. The curiosity seemed mutual and my neighbor, let's call her Margeríne, asked if I wanted to join her for lemonade on the porch. "Sure," I said and she hurried inside to get the drinks. I looked up and wondered what brought her here then, to New England and our sub-par sky?
My husband and I were new to the North Shore neighborhood and I spotted her right away, gathering mint and peering over glasses with rectangular black frames. In the late '90s this accessory still marked the wearer as possibly an artsy European or maybe local and certainly cultured. Her thin lips stretched like a willow leaf across her face and called out to me with bright red lipstick that matched her nails. Her short haircut glowed with an expensive dye job and spikes that were propped up with just the right amount of product. I would learn later that the only stylist who understood her hair was to be found on Newbury Street in Boston. I cut my own over the sink with a pocket mirror and hadn't known there could be so much to understand about a short hairdo. I learned right off that she was an infertile interior designer who was adopted and pleased, actually, that the universe put her in a position to rescue a child herself. I waited a while to tell her that I was trying unsuccessfully to conceive. I settled into a white-washed wooden chair and hoped vaguely to myself, could the universe have me in mind, too, in pairing me with this like-minded neighbor? Margeríne reemerged with two tall glasses of iced lemonade garnished with sprigs of mint. She skillfully balanced the glasses on a big black album that served as the tray.
She passes me a glass, sets hers on a side table, then drops herself into the porch swing. The swing lurches to one side and the chains suspending the empty side go suddenly slack. "I will show you what blue sky looks like!" she says and pats the narrow space next to her. I want to stay in the matching side chair so I lean forward to look and say "Oh, no, it's fine, there isn't room." She tosses a cushion out of the spot beside her and onto the floor then pats the white slats again. Obliged by her persistent hospitality, I wedge into place next to her. We are now pressed together in the love seat from shoulder to knee. She is heavily perfumed. Margeríne slides the hefty photo album over from her lap to nestle its binding into the crack between us, then opens it across our conjoined thighs. As she starts on page one of the album, I think this unsolicited tour is meant to provide the answer to the question I didn't ask, "If the sky is better where you're from, then what brings you here?" She takes me through the collection of photos, tracing her fingers over faces as she names each member of her extended family until we reach a photograph of a big gathering where she stops. She presses her fingertip on a blurry little head and says, "This is my cousin so-and-so. She hates me. She's always been jealous of me."
"Why?" I say.
"Well," she pauses. "Because she looks like THAT," she jabs her glossy manicured fingertip into the face again, "…and I look like THIS - " she turns her thick neck to face me head-on, chuckling with pride at the obvious disparity. Her skinny lips purse and curl up as she peers down the bridge of her glasses awaiting signs of my assent. Margeríne wrinkles her nose in a tic that is a hopeless effort to coax her glasses up higher to see better. I look back down onto the face of her unwitting cousin. My neighbor presented the comparison with such easy confidence, she must have assumed that a tacit frame of reference for beauty lay between us. The woman in the photo looked fine, not ugly, not beautiful, but fine - a normal person about whom I could guess very little based on this small glimpse. Margeríne, however, locked into the wooden porch swing with me, I could see very well. When I had first laid eyes on her weeks before, I thought she played up her assets well. Her sparkly blue eyes and bright hair contrasted well with the black glasses and red lips. At this proximity on the loveseat, I see that just below her mouth was a squat plum of a chin that segued immediately into her neck.
When she let out a high-pitched laugh that ended with a gurgling from the back of her throat, I could see up into the dark of her nostrils.
A truck pulls in suddenly, crunching in fast on the white gravel drive with the radio blaring. The music cuts off with the engine and Greg jumps out, hoisting up a big white bag. This is Margeríne's landscaper husband. He eyes the dripping bag, holding it up like a newborn, and says, "Check this out! We got the whole thing covered heeyah!" He laughs as he kicks off his work boots before mounting the front steps to open up the bag packed with fresh shellfish in wax paper - "I got a good thing goin' with the fish-mahket down theya pass the station. I keep their flowizz alive and they keep us stuffed with lobstizz an' shit - clams - whatevah we want. All we can eat. Everybody's happy!" I like Greg immediately and somehow know already I'll be staying for dinner. He goes into the house in his tube socks which are bright white at the toes and have brown dirt rings around the ankles. The photo album viewing has been interrupted and I set down my empty lemonade glass to cue my intent to get out of that seat. Just then Greg reappears, his jeans rolled up around the ankles and feet bare. He presents a bottle of whisky, two glasses and a chilled Chardonnay which he passes to Margeríne. I take the glass he pours for me and break my sobriety without hesitation. I generally avoid whiskey because it electrifies me in a way beer or wine cannot do. Rusty parts of my brain ease into place and begin to move with my tongue in shiny harmony. I am clever, quick, and can shift from humor to empathy like a pro. I've got something for everyone. This is with one whiskey. Things get even more vibrant with two. Look out world. I try to never get to three because that is the point of no return. The problem here is that I am already intoxicated by Margeríne's leering attention and I decide whiskey will make it easier to bear. The liquor lacquers my throat upon entry, and I make a sport of cajoling more information out of this unbelievable woman who I inexplicably want to like me. She wrinkles her nose again like a bewitched bunny which suggests she knows exactly where her powers lie. The banter continues. I am drunk and my eyes wander up to survey where the bright chains of the swing are affixed to the roof. I can't move.
I briefly question the sturdiness of the scenario. My silence construes compliance and I know, if this thing falters, I'm going down with her.
It's as though merely being wedged in next to her is an endorsement of her side of any story and the whiskey bonds me to Greg, who is also bound to her. By the time my husband gets home from work we are ready for him and he too has no choice but to join the party. As night falls, a fire will be built in the back garden and shellfish will sizzle in foil pouches on the grill. Locally brewed beer and quality cuts of meat will appear as well. Someone will drag Adirondack chairs into a circle around the fire pit as I effortlessly pluck fresh greens from the garden. I will arrange these in an olive wood bowl with sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes while Margeríne fixes up a vinaigrette at the granite kitchen counter. Once fully surrounded in darkness with butter on our lips, more whisky gets poured and the couple from up the hill have joined the circle. The fire and the fast friendship must have summoned them. Greg regales us with tall tales of his customers' generosity and how he sneaks away from his crew midday to take in a matinee at a vacant theatre. Years later, while packing my house after the separation had been settled, I would receive a postcard saying 'Hey, I know you're having a wicked hard time. If you need anything or if you want to catch a movie, you can call me." Greg's number was scrawled on the bottom. I would hold in my hand a postcard sent from Boston from someone who lived across the street and would think perhaps that story around the fire pit had been planted specifically to seed this moment. The husband of the neighbor up the hill sets his whisky tumbler in the grass between our chairs, so that each time he reaches down to pluck it up, he brings his face close to mine and says something just to me. I don't remember any of his quips because the first one was, "You know, I've always had a thing for redheads." I want to move, to go pee, to create space between my drunken merriment and this micro-invasion. Adirondack chairs are built for lounging though and the slats set at such a pitch, you can't get up easily and you must just linger and drink some more and belt out your own blather over the fire, wanting to pull the attention back to full circle and away from the bent spoke of a man next to you.
These evenings would not be the only things I could not decline in Margeríne's orbit. My newly appointed best friend would begin to ask me favor upon favor. I was asked to look after the house while she and Greg were away in China negotiating an adoption. I don't remember if she had a cat or indoor plants or just wanted me to come over to covet the place. They had converted the early twentieth-century schoolhouse into a quaint and eclectic home. One of the most interesting features was a modern staircase with alternating treads that you had to fully concentrate on while climbing so as not to step into a void and break your leg on the way down to the hardwood floor below. To make the stairs an extra-bold design choice, there were no railings either. "You get used to it - muscle memory kicks in," Margeríne had explained. On my first trip to check on the house, I dared to ascend the custom staircase to the loft space above. Just at the landing, a small shrine was set up on a wooden trunk with a cushion on the floor. I stooped over to inspect her meditation altar. Set before a Buddha was a shrinking orange, a candle, some Mala beads, and a little basket with a single folded note in it. I bypassed my inlaid Catholic guilt and gently lifted the note to unfold the handwritten message inside: Money - lots of it!
I had heard it was OK to ask for material things in prayer, but still, I thought, Shouldn’t she have been asking for something more profound, like a peaceful heart? Or something more concrete, like the approval of adoption in China?
From up there, I hear a racket. Something is rattling around inside the tall pipe that extends from the wood stove in the center of the main living space down below all the way up to the high ceiling of the house. I slowly make my way down the surreal staircase and approach the stove. Listening carefully I hear chirps mixing with scratching sounds on the galvanized steel and know for sure that there are birds in there. They are in a panic and have descended quite a ways from the pipe entrance above. I go outside to see there is indeed a nest under the little shelter atop the bit of pipe that extends out from the roof. I get my husband and we agree it may work to make noise at the bottom of the pipe to scare them upward toward freedom. They are already distressed so we hope the clanging will put an end to their suffering before their little hearts wear out. I get a wooden spoon from the kitchen and kneel before the stove. With the cast iron door swung open, I reach my arm deep inside to position the spoon up into the pipe and begin to clang at the sides. My shoulder is fully inside the stove which position presses my face against the rough iron. The rescue takes nearly an hour and inch by inch, we can hear the birds' frantic flapping ascend the pipe. Once they are liberated, I clean the soot off my arm and massaged the spots on my forearm and armpit where I bruised my flesh against the metal. I am pleased with myself for a job well done and feel it absolves me a little for having snooped in Margeríne's shrine. When they return from their trip, I stop over to hear about the trials and tribulations of the long journey. When I finally tell Margeríne about the near-tragic incident of the finches in the stovepipe, she brushes off my valiance and says, "Oh, yeah - it happens every year - I usually just light a fire."
Despite that stunning remark, I did not stay away. Margeríne had latched on to me in a way I loathed yet supplicated myself to like a cut flower. Another afternoon she asked me over for five p.m. to get my advice on a craft project. I stepped onto the wooden porch and saw that the door was ajar. I knocked anyway and there was no answer but I heard a low grunting sound, a mumbling melody I couldn't identify at first. I craned my neck forward a bit to listen and followed the noise with my eyes up toward the loft shrine. There I saw the back of her teased shock of blonde hair. She was knelt before her altar and chanting with increasing gusto. It was 5:05 p.m. and I knew immediately this concert had been staged. She jerked her head around and said, "Oh! Come on in, I'm almost done," and then continued to howl and grovel. I waited outside on the porch for the show to end. Margeríne had told me how she chose a child from China because she already practiced Buddhism and it seemed the perfect match. Now that there was a date set for the arrival of her daughter, she asked me to plan her baby shower with her. She had already decided on the color palette and that everything was to follow a turtle theme. I found myself illustrating the invitations and a banner to prop at the end of my driveway, for the shower was to be held in my back garden, not hers. The planning for her child's arrival took up every spare moment I had after work and stole away time I should have been using to finish a self-portrait in my studio. On the day of the baby shower, something peculiar happened. Before the guests arrived, Margeríne and I were in my kitchen laying out the hors d'oeuvres I had prepared onto platters which we carried out to the folding tables decked in leaf-green cloths, flower pots, and napkins, all printed with turtles. Margeríne began to giggle and swoon as the ladies started to arrive. I left her in her glory to go upstairs to fetch trays of lemonade. When I returned to the back lawn it seemed all the guests had arrived at once. I approached a table to set the tray down and prepared to introduce myself and take a seat in a folding chair with them. Margeríne popped up and quickly handed all of the glasses off the tray out to the ladies, which left it hovering in my hand. Then she whispered, "You're a doll! Can you make sure the crudité is topped up?" She gestured with a wrinkle of her nose to the banquet table nearby, then sat back down and continued chatting to her friends. Made invisible, I handed each woman a turtle printed cocktail napkin from the tray I had balanced in the crook of my arm.
During the time I was hanging out with Margeríne, I had been yearning to become pregnant and would undergo fertility treatments and eventually suffer three miscarriages.
After the baby shower and by the time her daughter had arrived, I had already begun to distance myself from my neighbor. That particular summer would end with a heartbeat that disappeared from an ultrasound, and days later the World Trade Center would come crashing down before our collective eyes. My grief was quickly overwritten by the birth of this national loss. I was content to not talk about the baby I could not have and stopped seeing Margeríne altogether until one day later that fall. I learned that my mother-in-law had accepted a request from Margeríne to babysit two afternoons each week. My mother-in-law was a kind woman in her 80s who wasn't so good at saying No. I crossed the street and asked Margeríne why she had called my mother-in-law to provide daycare for her child. We stood on either side of her open door. "It's hard to get good help and," she continued, "This way, at least she can be a grandmother to someone’s kid." Quote / Unquote. The blood drained from my brain into my limbs. I do not remember if I uttered anything more. I can't call it a confrontation, but that was as brave as I could be back then. The weak exchange was an acceptable price to pay for freeing myself from one hungry soul who dealt with others in a veiled currency of cruelty. I stepped off the porch and walked away under the same blue sky for the last time.