I stand at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy water. I mindlessly caress the water for any signs of leftover dishes from dinner. It’s still early, though. In the west, the sun shines just above purple mountain peaks. Usually, I like to have dinner made and finished before the sun sets, so I can sit on the porch and enjoy tea and cookies.
I won’t be sitting on the porch tonight, though. Across the street, my neighbor, Emily Hale, hunches over rose shrubs and marigolds in her yard. Her head bobs among the different plants, inspecting and analyzing each before she hacks away at weeds and unruly vines. Occasionally, she gets up and stands behind the shrubs, which still have some blossoms despite the coming winter, to admire or criticize her work; then, it’s back to hacking. I creep down a little at the sink when she stands up, so she won’t see me watching her.
I can’t take my eyes off her. I have never seen a face as strange as hers. She has a long, pointed nose and black eyes surrounded by the wrinkles of crow’s feet. Emily’s jet-black hair once fell to the middle of her back, which made her pale face appear striking. A few weeks ago, though, she hacked her hair to pieces and left only an inch or two that now look like mangy feathers. There’s a furrow so deep in her brow line that even across the street, I can visibly see it. She’s ten years younger than I am. She looks so much older than thirty-three.
There aren’t any laugh lines around her mouth. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen her smile.
My fingers brush past the edge of one of my favorite porcelain plates. “Gotcha,” I say to myself. I clean the last dish and drain the sink water.
I reach the living room and lean on the door frame. My husband watches the local evening news on his 52 inch flat screen television. He sits on my favorite plush blue sofa. Under each elbow is a pink and white embroidered pillow. I narrow my eyes at him.
“Eric, elbows off my pillows,” I say.
His forehead wrinkles and his lip puckers. “Jesus, Maggie. What’s the point of having these things if I can’t ever use ‘em?” My nose crinkles at him, and I waddle over to the couch and pluck one of the pillows from under his arms.
He glares at me and puts all of his body weight on the remaining pillow. “Please,” I beg. “You know how important they are to me.”
“Everything is important to you.” His lip snarls, and he refocuses his attention on the news.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
He doesn’t look at me. His reply comes from the side of his mouth as if answering my question isn’t worth all of his effort. “I’m tired of not being able to touch anything in my house.”
I roll my eyes and sit on the couch. I think of Emily across the street. “She’s lucky her husband isn’t around to ruin all her prized possessions,” I mumble.
He turns the TV off and looks at me. “What was that, darling?” He says with a sarcastic scowl.
“Nothing. I was just thinking about Emily. You can keep watching television if you want.”
“Thank you for the permission, but if you’re sitting here, I know you’re gonna interrupt it anyway. What were you sayin’?”
“I was just thinking about our neighbor. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her smile. I just wonder about her, especially after she hacked off all her beautiful hair.”
“It looks sexy.”
My eyes widen. “Well, I think it looks atrocious.” I say it like a challenge, daring him to argue with me.
“She’s in shock.”
“She’s losing it,” I say.
“Give her a break. She’s had a hard year, Margaret.”
“I know. The ladies in town are concerned.”
“I’m sure you’re all very concerned.” His eyes roll.
I ignore his comment. “It’s been a year since Tristan left her. She’s had plenty of time to move on and get on with her life. Now is not the time to hack your hair to bits and be rolling in dirt all evening. She should be meeting other men, falling in love again.”
Eric laughs, and it takes me off guard. “What?” I ask.
“If I dragged ya away from your home and all the people you love and then left ya for a younger woman, it would take ya years to recover.”
“So you do listen to the neighborhood gossip,” I say and smile. He shakes his head.
“I talked to her.”
“When?” My eyes go wide again.
I don’t say anything.
“She didn’t even get to go to her daddy’s funeral a couple years ago because Tristen said they couldn’t afford it.”
“I heard she didn’t get along with her father.”
“If ya asked, you’d know she loved her father. His death crushed her.”
“She didn’t act crushed. She just pouted all around the neighborhood.”
“Probably ‘cause she couldn’t go to California. She doesn’t have anyone left.”
“No one?” I ask.
He nods. “Ya may want her to leave, but she’s got nowhere to go.”
Again, I don’t respond. I call my mother every week, even to this day. I still see my big sister a few times a year. I can’t imagine not having anyone.
I straighten myself. “I know it’s been hard for her, but that’s still no excuse for her behavior lately. Just last week, someone saw her in the grocery store and tried to say hi, and she didn’t respond. Who does that? And someone else saw her yelling on the phone, swearing up a storm. She’s very rude.”
Eric shakes his head and turns the television back on.
I stand up, and as I stomp back to the window to resume watching Emily, the wood flooring whimpers under my weight. The skyline lingers in orange, pink, and the lightest of blues. I try to take it all in, but Emily is hard to ignore. Her angry scowl distracts me from the beautiful Midwest sunset. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for thirty-eight years, and I won’t let some bitter woman ruin this place for me. If I can talk some sense into her, maybe she can learn to act normal. I march towards the front door.
“Maggie, where are you going?” My husband calls. The television volume turns down. “I’m just going to talk to Emily. I’m worried,” I yell to the living room.
“You aren’t worried.”
“No, I really am!” I am worried, I tell myself. The better she’s doing, the better the neighborhood does. I’m sure I can help out. She just needs someone to listen.