The Woman Next Door

by Laurie Ann Doyle

The woman next door died. She walked into the kitchen, crumpled to her knees, and died, the daughter said.
UtS 14 Photos Essays Doyle Houses.Close Together (upsized to 390 percent)
Our houses have stood side by side for more than a century, walls so close you can reach out and almost touch a windowsill. We share a narrow driveway. Standing at the kitchen sink for the first time sixteen years ago, I saw the face of the woman next door appear at her bedroom window in our mutual slice of morning sun. She was plucking out chin hairs. From upstairs, I watched her reposition pots of white cyclamen on the porch, sop up rainwater. At ten every night, the bathroom light switched off. At six-thirty each morning, the toilet flushed.
Her name was Ruth. She had eyes so blue they looked almost white and wore hats. Big bowls of beige for gardening, tightly woven black straw for opera and church. If I stopped to say hello she’d complain that weeds from our side had spread, that the maple leaves were littering her yard. Her blue stone and moss, grass-free front yard. The wrought iron fence surrounding it rose to sharp points. My husband put in this fence, you know, she told me. My husband, you know, was Chief of Staff at the hospital before he passed. Providence, just down the street. “So if you need anything, I have pull,” she said. I took to parking our car on her side so we’d have something else to talk about.
But after two, three years, invitations started to come. “You like martinis?” she phoned one morning. “Because I’ve got the Bombay, if you’ve got the olives.” My husband and I drank cocktails and watched the Giants on Ruth’s new twenty-four inch TV. “Big,” she said. “And delivered.” Her house smelled like cat litter, water gone green with slime. “That was nice,” she said when we left. “But bring a light bulb next time, would you? I could use an extra.” We laughed. When our son was born, she gave him a silver cup with his name engraved on it. “Every boy needs one,” she said with no further explanation.
A year ago, I began to see hands in Ruth’s window, arms reaching but no heads. Cars I didn’t recognize parked in the driveway. A sister, we heard. A nurse. Another nurse. Doors slammed.
The last time I saw Ruth, she stood inside the black fence. “Hello shoes,” she said as I walked closer. She’d piled stones on the yellow-flowers of sour grass that had sprung up in a corner of the yard. When she asked when her birthday was, I made something up. She smiled. “Good-bye shoes,” she waved to my feet as I left.
The day after Ruth died, a different daughter came to clean out the house. A son rode up in a white motorcycle, put the cat in a crate, drove off. I watched cardboard boxes carried down the steps, handmade pottery bowls, flabby cushions. After the daughter was gone, we went through the pile left on the sidewalk for pick-up. When no one was looking, I took last year’s Christmas present still in its box, a roll of uncoiling wrapping paper. Last week, a couple with a baby due next month moved in. An upright piano sits on the porch and the bathroom light comes on and off whenever it wants. This morning I caught the woman next door—the one I haven’t met yet—staring at me as sun filled the glass. I looked away, looked back, but still she was staring. As if my face, too, might suddenly disappear.