The Company of Strangers

By NAILA MOREIRA 

Two men scrape blue paint from the wall of the building across the street. They sit cross-legged, each plying his scraper with energy. The one on the right is thickset, wearing a gray t-shirt stained with sweat. The one on the left is more striking. His tight white t-shirt rides up his torso, baring his muscular lower back and the crest of black underpants. His long army-green shorts droop, exposing still more of that black arc. His hair is black and spiky, sideburns visible when he turns his head.

Their task looks endless. Their progress is miniscule.
Isn’t writing like that? One tiny increment at a time, the paint flakes falling, one square inch of space coming to white clarity under the obscuring, faded blue paint. Clarity, first, before the wash of the new can be painted on, in long bold stripes, until the wall is complete.
The thickset man in the gray t-shirt rises. He stretches, looks exasperated. He opens his cell phone, begins to talk, pacing back and forth. But his companion remains: young strong arms extending from the tight sleeves of his t-shirt, one leg partly extended, foot firmly planted in its white sock and black sneaker. He shifts, rolls his shoulder. Then he scrapes on.
He stands, legs planted wide, putting energy into the motion. How attractive he is!

*

What a house of noises this is. Tonight the waterfall churns like a washing machine – SWISHswishSWISHswishSWISHSWISH – over a low booming. Meanwhile, in the apartment behind me, the dryer chugs like a poorly serviced train, clattering and bumping. I have taken to stuffing my ears with bright orange earplugs.
I’m sitting at the small kitchen table I purchased from the older couple living in the mobile home. Its legs are thick and neatly carved; its wood is shiny; four serviceable, varnished chairs flank it. My computer sits atop, and wobbles slightly as I type, because I haven’t a tool to tighten the legs of the table.

I met only Linda when I drove into the rural complex of manufactured homes to buy the table. Her husband had to work. I’d assured him on the phone I’d be able to lift the table myself.
Linda’s dog met me with an easy bark and a big, wagging tail. Poor in health, he staggered as he walked. I stroked him and called him inside. “He likes to run off when he can,” warned Linda – but at my summons he entered obediently. “I can see you like dogs,” she said admiringly, as he pottered in submissively at my heels.

“He wants to be where the action is,” I said, with a smile.

She and her husband, she explained, recently moved to this “Over 50” retirement community. Hamster-like and mild, she had blinking blue eyes, a retiring manner, and scraggly reddish hair that fell thinly to her shoulders. I paid out my $175 gladly. I could have haggled for a lower price, but why would I? It felt good to pay a proper price for the sturdy table, its center leaf tidily wrapped in a tattered felt blanket, the legs already loosened for me by her husband as I bent to untighten the screws by hand.
“You’re fast,” Linda said, when I’d already freed two legs.
“Well,” I said, undoing the next, “like I told your husband, I’m not a delicate flower. I may look like one, but I’m not!”
She laughed. “I like that,” she said, “a delicate flower. That’s funny.”
Linda herself, I thought, shouldn’t move heavy things. She wasn’t a tiny woman, but like her big golden retriever, she looked fragile, not in perfect health. So I bustled the shelf of the table into my car by myself, struggling a little, but managing okay. Linda brought the legs while I carried the chairs two at a time.
At last I slid the leaf into the back of my perky Subaru. I shook Linda’s hand, and we smiled and said goodbye. I didn’t make it far. I realized I’d left my coffee mug – just purchased, a red travel mug with Cup and Top emblazoned on its side. So I wheeled my car round.
“I forgot my coffee mug!” I laughed, as Linda opened the door for me.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “That’s important!”
“I realized it as soon as I drove off,” I said, “because it still has coffee in it. I reached for it and thought – oh, no!” She laughed.
I found the mug, and we said goodbye again at the door. “You’re nice –” she blurted suddenly, smiling. Startled, I could hardly reply; I simply beamed at her, and then off I went.

*

I love the look of the boys standing on the porch under the rowhouse awning, smoking and staring at the rain.
I like the casual moroseness. I like the ratty black coats and the battered boots. I like the refuse on the porch – the broken chair, the old pots and discarded furniture, and assorted unidentifiable bits and pieces. I like the rain streaming off the gutter past their eyes.
One goes in and the other stays to stare at the water. Down it comes, leaving a wet-dog look over the whole town. It dribbles down onto the steps of the rowhouses. But he’s dry, just close enough to the sheeting rain to know it’s there; far enough away for a devil-may-care comfort.
Back in he goes, to the yellow glow. And then just the porch sits there on its own, dilapidated in that bohemian kind of way.

*

A little voice in my head tends to repeat either “I hate my life,” or, “I love my life,” depending how things are going. It’s not very moderate, that little voice.
Today that little cuckoo is quite insistent. “I love my life,” it has bleated several times, popping out of its cage. “I love my life!”
I find everyone attractive when I’m like this. Today: the little barista, with her coffee-colored skin, full lips, snub nose, and enormous, limpid, almond-shaped eyes. The loose damp curls of her brown hair clung to her shoulders. She wore a lace shirt a shade lighter than her skin. Her hips, as she moved about making coffee, held just that slight accentuated and purposeful sway so common to the baristas here, a sway of, “I love my job… and don’t you like to look at me, as I move here, busy, serene, making coffee just for you?”
So I took my coffee and moved out into the downy falling snow. A young man below me as I descended the balcony ran to his car in his relaxed canvas coat, checked his parking meter, and then bounded off again. The fire escapes patterned the solid brick town-buildings around me. “I love my life!” pronounced the cuckoo. And I headed onward, to the library.

*

I see children running down my street in the gray evening. The air is as soft as a kitten. The last slugs of thick clouds are passing overhead. Blue sky is chasing them.
A little girl, running, braids swinging. She passes the gap between the hedge and the treeline. Through the leggy blueberries, from the window of my glassed-in back porch, I can see her passing. Her movements are definite; her hair frizzes from her flying braids.
Earlier, an older girl and a little boy crept into my garden, secretly, hand in hand. Under the arching branches of an old apple tree, they ducked between the trees that run along the river. Then they furtively vanished into the greenery.
They have a toy car they can ride in, and a bicycle; they have a lanky dog. Earlier the dog too roamed into my garden. Through the glass I watch them, as through a bird blind. They are living their secret childish lives.
Behind me, on the other side of the porch, the thickets of plants lead to the river. The other day I saw a mink there. The sleek brown body dipped in and out from the rocks to the water; black mercury slinking through the tunnels among the stones; at one point even swimming across the river, carried by current, with intention, head thrust intently up and forward, to arrive on my same bank and run upward until almost below my feet where I stood on the bank above.
These are visitations on the order of Hayden Caruth’s “brown rat [that] has taken up residence with me” – but the destruction here is of small order and the old denizens are still surviving. At least – I think they are. I am, certainly, here in my goldfish bowl, the glass prow of my ship, thrust outward from the end of my apartment into the green growing depths of the world: the forest, the creek, the tangled vines. Surviving.
Briefly I emerge out the porch door, for a swim into the failing evening. I call the children’s dog, passing again through my yard. As black as the mink he eyes me. Then he snuffs guardedly and playfully; play bows, jogs sideward, races away; returns on me, but not close enough to touch; and then, nonchalantly, as though I were not here, strides away after a hidden scented world.

 

Naila Moreira is a writer, journalist, and naturalist living in western Massachusetts.

Western Massachusetts photo from Creative Commons, user Maxine 2

Emma CroweThe Company of Strangers

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