Tuesday, June 10, 2008

the old lady at the door

in the apartment down the hall that faces the street there lives an old lady and her small dog. a young woman lives with her, too. twentysomething. past college, easily. young and working and playing in the city. i've seen her chatting with paul and chad. paul is the one that introduced us. and yes, her name escapes me.

i'm not sure if she is the old lady's niece or her granddaughter or what but they seem close. the old lady is puerto rican or probably dominican. she speaks no english. in the few times that i've seen her in the hallway, she's usually carrying on a running conversation with her dog. the young woman looks white but she speaks spanish. they have the same heavy-lidded brown eyes, the same wiry determined frame. the same kind of pretty.

sometimes during the day when everything has levelled off sonically and there is a lull in the construction, i can hear the old lady at the door. at first i thought it was my bad 8th grade spanish playing tricks on me. but no. it was definitely her, and she was completely distraught. later, i asked paul and chad about it -- because they lived right next door to them, they must have seen and heard much more than i ever could. paul (who's nosy enough to know) said that the old lady is going senile. when the young woman leaves for work, she locks the door with a special lock from the outside in, so the old lady can't unlock it and wander off. evidently, she fell into the habit of doing just that and was found some blocks away in her gown and robe and slippers, her hair in pincurls, confused and scared, her little dog at her feet, faithfully following her lead.

the young woman comes home on her lunch hour to make sure that she's alright. but when she leaves, she locks her in again, and i can sometimes hear her messing around with the doorknob and the locks as her little dog scratches at the door and she begs for help in spanish.

today was especially bad, probably because it was almost 100 degrees outside. i'm sure she's okay, i reasoned to myself as i went into my apartment. i'm sure she has plenty of water. i'm sure the a/c is on. i'm sure that she's eaten breakfast. i'm sure that white-looking dominican girl will be here soon. i'm sure there's food and water in there for the dog. i'm sure, i told myself again and again. but the truth is, i wasn't sure. and neither was anyone else.

i went into my apartment with my mail and my groceries and my piano lesson and my problems. but i couldn't stop thinking about her, no matter how hard i practiced. so i went back out there, into that hot, sun-drenched hallway, to face the source of all of that whimpering.

as i approached the door with what little spanish i knew, i could hear the dog scratching, and when i spoke he began to bark. but she quieted it down with one sharp word. i heard myself talking through the doorjam and asking her: es mucho calor, no? que haces? tienes hambre? que quieres? somehow, we began to talk.

(evidently, that spanish i took in middle school still works. don't let them fool you, not for a minute -- nothing learned is ever wasted.)

of course i thought of my grandmother in charleston, sc and how comfortable her life is right now and what i would do if it were her and me against the world. it would break my heart to have to lock her up in an apartment in an urban setting like this one, but i'd do it in a heartbeat if that's what it took to keep a job and pay the rent.

the old lady was fine, sort of. she didn't like feeling trapped and i think that more than anything else, she wanted her husband. he died in the apartment a few years ago. either she thinks he's lost outside somewhere or she's waiting for him to come back from the store, or both. or something else. hey, my spanish isn't that good. but it was a nice chat.

she may be senile, but she isn't blind. apparently, she knows what i look like. she kept calling me morena.

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