We suffer losses, and it is such a Hobson’s Choice as to which one is the deeper cut. Those losses caused by death final and fatal and the ghosts that haunt from that place. Or those losses that linger and will not die and have the good grace to become ghosts. – Charissa Grace White
Mr. Jankowski is addicted to licorice. I flip open my notebook to page 10. 117 Spring Lane. No name Jankowski: seen twice. Last time on April 19 wearing pea green pants, a long denim shirt worn through at the elbows and horrible sandals. Should not wear sandals, I had written, toe nails like machetes. Refer to Dr. Goldberg, retired podiatrist, 402 Briar Patch Ct. Then I added, addicted to licorice. No one should eat that much licorice. Refer to Dr. Bowman, retired physician, 223 Bluebonnet Circle.
I put my notebook back in my pocket and chewed my pencil a little while I surveyed my street. Ms. Phillips had already brought out her trash. By now she was sipping her Clamato juice and dancing to Julio Iglesias’ greatest hits. She had been a prima ballerina and still donned pink tights, a black leotard with plunging back and a thin pink belt to exercise three days a week. “At 81,” she said, “I deserve the weekends off.”
I like to visit her on Mondays. She makes a pan of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies every Sunday and allows herself only one: her devotion being too great and her leotard too form-fitting to annihilate the pan. She told me if I don’t come over, she’ll have to throw them down the disposal and no 11-year-old with a heart would ever allow such deliciousness to meet such a horrible end. So, I make sure I’m there to do my part.
Booth Brantford lives two doors down from No name Jankowski. I visit him on Tuesdays. He lives in a two-bedroom ranch and the way he ties back his curtains make his house look like it’s winking. He was married for 65 years to Barbara Ann McClusky. She died last year, two days after Christmas and one day before their 66th wedding anniversary. He’s been a mess since. All he eats are microwavable meals, when he eats, and he’s worn the same sweater for five months now. Barbara Ann knitted it for him before she died and he can’t part with it. At least it’s been washed, but a navy blue snowflake sweater in mid-June is alarming.
When I visit he tells me about how they met and when he felt his love starting for her. He said it’s like a seed of longing was planted in the center of his heart. As is bloomed, he realized he couldn’t be without her. He found himself dreaming of her silken hair and how her slender shoulders would feel beneath his heavy hands. How he could sit for hours watching her, already having memorized the slightest details of her frame and face, like how her right eye had more green specks than her left and how the birthmark at the nape of her neck reminded him of four-leaf clover. It wasn’t really. Just a reminder of one.
He likes to show me pictures too. They had four children together. Two didn’t live much past birth: one had a lung disorder; the other was taken by rheumatic fever. The two that were left are grown now. The oldest is a lawyer in Brooklyn, who, according to Booth, sold his soul for a condo in Manhattan. The other is a playwright with an addiction to sadness. They never visit, which doesn’t seem to bother Booth, but it bothers me and I’m sure it would bother Barbara Ann.
On the other side of me live Marty and Irene Buchanan. They are transplants, like many on my street. They’d spent most of life in Dallas in the restaurant business. Morty was the sole-proprietor of Mort’s BBQ Pit. At the height of their smoked empire they had six locations and even bottled and sold their own sauce. He told me what was in it once, but I’d been transfixed by a spider spinning its web (that’s not learned, you know; they hatch knowing how to do it) and missed the last three secrets to the sauce.
I think Irene was truly beautiful. She has the softest looking skin that creases in places it should: around her mouth for having laughed and around her eyes for having cried. Her cheeks are perfectly round and always rose-colored. I know it’s natural because she doesn’t wear makeup, Morty wouldn’t hear of it.
They never had children; she miscarried nine times. The doctors never did discover what was wrong, so she took it that she was. She named each of them and collected seashells for them, neither of which she told Morty. He’d scream and yell about the nine vases of strategically placed and meticulously chosen shells around their home. He didn’t know, couldn’t have known really, that they were shrines to his children.
She’d told me once about a friend of hers who had lost a baby. Every year on the anniversary of his death she’d release 16 butterflies, one for every week of his life. Irene couldn’t understand it. God had already taken him so far away. Why would she let the butterflies go too? I thought of answering her question, but knew it was the sort you asked not expecting an answer. The answer was in the slump of her shoulders and the wetness of her eyes. I saw that too.
My house is in the exact middle of our street, which is perfect for me. A noticer. I live with my grandparents, Nan and Pop, in a retirement community in Florida. I’ve been here for four years, after cancer took my mother and booze took my father. Nan and Pop are special and not in the way the kids at school call me special. They say it as a bad thing when I know it to be good.
Nan was a therapist, so she’s always encouraging me to talk about my feelings, which sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t. I think she wants to try to right with me the wrong she feels she did my father. “Hollis, you know you can tell me anything, right?,” she always asks after she gulps a little of the air lying around. She gets a look a little like a crappie I once caught and waited too long to put back in the water: eyes too wide, cheeks sucked in. It pains her to say my name, I know; it reminds her of my father since Pop became Hollie long ago.
Nan makes me breakfast every morning: fluffy sourdough French toast with a little vanilla and a lot of cinnamon; thick-cut smoked bacon, which she always arranges in a heart on my plate; sausage links; a grapefruit half with a piranha-teethed spoon; strawberry pinwheels and, when I’ve been really good or she’s really sad; steel-cut oatmeal swirled with raspberry jam and chunky peanut butter. Pop has eaten this way for nearly ninety years. He thinks things like high cholesterol and heart disease are eventualities of a life well-lived and tells any doctor he meets just that. “When death comes knocking, I hope it’ll let me finish my French toast,” he says. And he has every confidence that it will.
Like most of the homes here, ours is a ranch. It’s painted a slate blue, that reminds me of my mother’s eyes, with big white shutters. There are flower boxes beneath every window, some with berry-colored impatiens and others with miniature roses, and a red door with a silver-plated knocker. Hanging outside the kitchen window are Nan’s wind chimes. She gets lost in a sea of bubbles when they play, washing the same dish again and again. Sometimes, when the wind is sleeping, I run my finger lightly across the front of them anticipating their canorous pings and tings. The sound is soothing, just like Nan says.
My room is the best room in the house (for obvious reasons). Nan said I could do whatever I wanted to the walls and even volunteered to help me paint. On one wall, I have a Scrabble board with the word combinations needed to make a 2,044-point move using the SOWPODS dictionary and the word sesquioxidizing (it’s not in the normal dictionary, but it should be).
I’ve always been into words. They fascinate me really. At age 6, I started reading the dictionary. I started with the letter a, which is an obvious beginning, and have continued since then. I study and memorize seven words a day, since people smarter than me say that that’s the magic number. By my calculations, that’s about 12,775 words to date, give or take. But, when I feel like I’m going at a snail’s pace, I let myself pick a word from elsewhere, like the SOWPODS dictionary (I know it’s a little renegade, but it seems to work) to let the color back in.
On another wall, I have a painting of Einstein, which I did myself, and one of my favorite quotes of his: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Actually, it doesn’t really look like Einstein; it looks more like Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound. But whatever.
On the third wall, is a painting of my house. The house where I lived with my parents before Mom got sick and Dad got lost. Nan and I had a picture to paint by, although I didn’t need one. I even remembered to put in the tulip garden Mom had planted and her garden maker: what is for you will not pass you. She spent hours out there, especially once she found out the cancer had come back. I think that’s why those flowers bloomed long after they should have died, like she did. I think they lived off her tears.