Finn, remember our first evening here? We ate cold turkey and cheese sandwiches for dinner. We sat on our unfinished floor dressed in sawdust and dried paint. There were no curtains to cover the windows. You said the light that bled in looked like melting butter across my face. The new neighbors moved in today.
I look out of the second story window toward the darkening cul-de-sac. I sip Red Rose tea, lightened with cream. A cigarette burns in the ashtray. I can see them through their windows. Two women, their little daughter. She twirls around holding a stuffed animal. She spots me through my window. As she looks I have the urge to smooth my hair with my hand. I have the urge to check over my shoulder, but I squash this feeling quickly. Of course she is looking at me. I am here alone in this house. Nobody can see you, Finn. Not even me.
She is a child, I remind myself. She is looking at me because I am simply here. Looking at me because I am looking at her. She releases her stuffed animal and waves at me with the tips of her fingers. She keeps her hand close to the side of her face. She smiles at me, a tiny gesture of greeting. Our porch light, motion-sensing, illuminates just then and I am distracted.
I call Ann to tell her of the new neighbors but the phone just rings and rings.
I go out onto the patio. Nothing. Ann usually leaves me gifts on my front porch. Fresh flowers standing in plastic cups of water. A half dozen blueberry muffins wrapped in foil. Small reasons to open the front door and take a step outside now. I miss the tiny gifts when they don’t appear. I look forward to them. It’s good to have small things to look forward to. She understands because she is a widow, too. She knows this second part of life. The after, of the before and after. She’s there for the times life requires me to leave and do things other people do with ease and regularity.
On our last weekly trip to the grocery store, a jar slipped from her hands. She confessed to not feeling like herself as we searched for someone to help clean the mess. I’d asked her if she had told her son this, if she was planning to go to a doctor. She’d said she would be just fine. She avoids talking about her sons. I think she knows I don’t care for the one who lives with her.
The bare porch this week means she will probably not feel up to going to the grocery store or the library or the laundromat. It’s selfish, but I’m sad for it.
I hear someone then.
One of my new neighbors is at the far end of my porch. She smiles and waves. Again, I start to look behind me as if the woman were waving to someone else. I feel silly—embarrassed not have realized that I can be seen. That I am not a ghost. Barefoot on the wood of my own porch. Blue veins with actual blood inside rise along the arches of both feet.
She comes up. “I’m Jen. We moved into the house across from yours.” She smiles broadly. I give a smile too, though I wonder if it looks forced to this new neighbor. “I was at my car and I saw you here. Just thought I should introduce myself.”
“Well,” I say, “hi.”
She nods at me almost encouragingly.
We stand there.
We look at each other.
Her haircut is masculine, cropped and spiked. Her shirt, the color of eggplant. Loose brown pants cuffed at the bottom reveal blue sneakers. The black lines of a cartoon character tattoo peek from beneath her short sleeve.
Who does she see on the porch when she looks at me? Barefoot, house clothes, cigarette in hand. Jen starts to look uncomfortable. I have been silent for too long. Ann is not unsettled by my silence. I forget that I don’t know how to talk to anyone but you and Ann now, Finn.
“My name is Kathleen,” I say.
“Good to meet you, Kathleen.” Jen turns and strides back across the cul-de-sac with her hands in her pockets.
“You too,” I say to the empty porch.
Your funeral was awful. I think of it often. Mostly at night or when I’m eating dinner in solitude. I think of your waxy skin against your suit, and how you laid exposed in your mahogany coffin. I got mahogany to match our bedroom furniture. I meant it to be sweet, but I think it may have led people to believe you looked at rest.
What do you know of me now? How many of my thoughts can you hear outside of what I direct to you?
—MY NAME IS CHRYSANTHEMUM, LIKE THE BOOK.
The girl presses the paper with her message against the window. I don’t know what book she means or what kind of name that is, but I like it. I give her a nod to let her know that I’ve read her message. She ducks down to write another. Through the soft light of her window I can see her brows furrow. Her tongue touches the corner of her mouth in concentration.
Her handwriting is a shaky cursive. I have no paper. Just cigarettes and tea. I become aware of my cigarette still lit and burning in the ashtray. I put it out, feeling it’s inappropriate somehow for the child to see. I hold up one finger to her before I hurry to find one of your old yellow legal pads and a permanent marker. Chrysanthemum gives a nod back, all business.
I feel around your desk for these things. I keep my eyes half closed, preferring to not really see how they have grown dusty. I don’t like to move things around from the way you last left them. But I also don’t like to see how they have remained untouched.
Chrysanthemum is still at her windowsill when I return. She waits patiently with her chin in her hand.
—KATHLEEN (NO BOOK).
—WE’RE NEW HERE.
—I’M OLD HERE.
—I LIKE YOUR YELLOW HOUSE.
—THANK YOU. I CHOSE THE COLOR.
—OK. GOODNIGHT NOW.
Just like that Chrysanthemum turns out her lights. The next morning, my porch is again bare.
Do you remember my strawberry jam? How you used to enjoy it on thick slices of toast? A layer of butter melting beneath. I haven’t made it since you left.
No word still from Ann. Maybe she is not just sick. Maybe she is sad, too. Maybe she is tired of me. About a month ago, she declined a trip to the library. I didn’t make anything of it but maybe I should have.
I try calling her twice, back to back. I hang up before the answering machine can turn on. Those machines make me feel like I’m talking to air.
There is a photo of us on our fridge. It is held up by a magnet in the shape of a firefly; another of her small porch gifts.
Maybe I’ll leave her something. A small gift of my own for her doorstep. Do you think she might enjoy that jam?
Chrysanthemum is on my porch when I open the door. She wears a green vest nearly covered in patches. She holds a pen in one hand and a long order form in the other. I glance at her feet. Still nothing.
“You eat cookies, right Kathleen?”
“Good,” she holds up the order form. “I have to sell at least 20 more boxes in order to receive the patch,” she points to an empty space on her vest, “and stuffed prize. This year it’s a giraffe.”
I look across the cul-de-sac. Her mother, the one I haven’t met yet, is sitting on their lawn. She glances towards her daughter every few seconds. My porch light flicks on then, and I look up to the bulb above me. She catches me do this in one of her glances. I pull my robe in closer. She smiles awkwardly, her gaze just beyond my shoulder.
“Do you like peanut butter?” Chrysanthemum continues, unperturbed by my pause or the porch light. “It’s the best flavor.”
“I like the mint cookies a lot.”
“Suit yourself.” She shrugs her shoulders. “How many?’
“Better make it ten mint and ten peanut butter.” I watch her eyes get round and large. I like to see her surprise. An order of cookies is like a tiny gift, something I can look forward to.
The strawberries feel good in my hands. Heavy, waxy. I clean two cups worth. Water droplets cling to their red skin. Hulled, they look like small, wet hearts pulsating together. When I slice into them, I imagine myself to be a surgeon. Fruit-blood makes the countertop sticky. I toss sugar, thickener, lemon juice, and halved hearts into a pot on the stove. I turn on the heat and stir. I bring them to a red boil. I take in the sweet scent and notice I am smiling. You really did love this recipe, and in a way I’m sorry to have resisted it for so long. I forgot how much we both enjoyed it. I, in the making. You, in the tasting.
I go to Ann’s house with the jam. The house is dark and large. The shingles and porch are wrapped in ivy vines. I step up to the porch. I think of just leaving my gift there for her to find, but decide against this and ring the bell.
I ring the bell again.
It’s John, the son I don’t like, who answers. His shirt is rumpled. His face is unshaven. He is so tall that I am eye level with his chest. He stands close; I can smell him.
“Mrs. O’Keefe,” John says, like he is surprised to be seen.
“Good morning, John. I brought this for Ann.” I hold up the jam, a harmless gesture.
“Thank you, I’ll take—”
“May I come in?” I ask too quickly. He smells sour. The house behind him smells sour like expired groceries.
“My mother isn’t really here though, ma’am.”
“Where is she?” I resist the urge to call her name. I resist the urge to cover my nose.
“Out for the day. Errands.”
“Will you have her call me, then? When she comes back?” I take a step away from him.
“Sure thing, ma’am.” John nods. He closes the door in my face and leaves me to stand with the jar still in my hand. I knock again. This time, he opens the door just a crack. The phone inside the house rings.
“The jam, John.”
“Of course,” he says. He reaches his hand out through the narrow opening and grabs it from me. He closes the door without another word. The sour smell lingers. The phone inside rings and rings. I regret having rung the bell.
It’s late. If you can hear me, and I’ll continue to assume you can, you know nighttime is the hardest. I’ve had too many cigarettes and I’ve had enough tea. Everyone in the cul-de-sac has gone to bed. On nights like these when you were alive and I couldn’t sleep, I’d count the beats between your snores. Did you know that? Your snoring helped me sleep. Our porch light has flickered a few times this evening. I like to imagine the brown rabbits and skunks that set it off, the flying insects who celebrate every time it blinks to life.
Chocolate from Chrysanthemum’s cookie melts on her fingertips. She pops her fingers into her mouth. She dries them on her shorts. I am surprised to be charmed. The trail left behind on her shorts makes me laugh. When a smudge of mint chocolate is between my own thumb and forefinger, I lick my skin before I dry it on my own shorts. A stuffed giraffe in a green vest rests between us on my porch.
“My mother says she sees a man around this house sometimes at night.”
“I think your mother meant a different house.”
“No she meant this one. I hear her say it to my other mom. She said, ‘I sometimes see a man on the lawn of the yellow house.’ This is the only yellow house.”
“I don’t have men come to this house. I don’t have anyone come to this house.”
“I’m at your house right now.”
“Yes, you are. Usually I only have one visitor and she is a woman.”
“Mom said she sees him on the lawn looking up at the window where I always see you. Like he is listening or watching or something.”
I watch for the light. To see when it flicks on and off. To see if there is some shadow of my own, reflected. The cul-de-sac is silent. Chrysanthemum and her family are not home tonight.
I dial Ann but no one picks up. I dial again, thinking of the sour smell. This time I leave a voice message. I want her to know I am concerned. I want her to know about the man who was seen on my porch.
Down near the ground, the remaining summer fireflies gather, hovered and blinking.
Do you remember that time a firefly landed on your hand? I doubt you would. By then we’d had curtains up for years. We’d taken to drinking tea in the evenings outside. You liked the way the air mingled with the scent of the tea. I liked to watch as the circle of houses was painted gray, then purple, then blue. Insects came out then, lights winking from tall grass and hydrangea bushes. This, before the diagnosis.
A bold one had come to rest on you without you noticing. Against your skin, the firefly’s light had a yellow-green pallor. I didn’t like the way it looked then, so I brushed the insect away.
Chrysanthemum holds construction paper to the window.
—HE’S HERE. She points to my house. I look behind me. She means down on my lawn, I know, but I have to look behind me regardless. I scramble for the legal pad and marker.
—WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
—HEARD MOM SAY IT TO OTHER MOM. She pauses to add more on the other side of the paper. RAN UP HERE TO TELL YOU.
—CAN YOU SEE HIM?
—NO. She pauses to think. CAN YOU?
Carefully I lean closer to the glass. I imagine a hulking form in the dark. All I see is my porch, illuminated and empty.
“My daughter thinks you’re great. Thank you for buying those cookies.” Jen leans casually against my doorframe.
“I think your daughter is great, too.”
“She struggles to make friends. Other children think she’s a little weird.”
“She’s very smart.”
“She is.” Jen smiles. I’m happy she has returned. I’m happy our introduction was not unsettling. I offer her something to eat, a cookie. She declines. “Again, thank you. You’re a good neighbor to have, Kathleen.” Jen turns to leave.
“Before you go, I just want to know what Chrysanthemum meant when she said her mother saw a man outside my house.”
“I didn’t know she’d said that. I’m sorry she worried you.”
“Is it true though?”
“Chrys heard my wife mention it to me once. “
“Your wife saw him, then.”
“My wife gets a little imaginative sometimes. I doubt she really saw a man, or anyone, outside your house. There’s nothing to worry about. Trust me.” Jen smiles again. She stuffs her hands in her pockets. She nods at me. “Enjoy the cookies,” she says, then crosses the circle to her own house.
I wash the remaining strawberries. I plate an entire sleeve of cookies. I lighten my tea with cream. I rest a cigarette between two fingers. I take these things to my porch. The houses in the circle are dusted gray; I’m right on time. It’s been days since I left my gift for Ann. It’s been days since she called, answered the phone, came to the house. I think it’s time I reach her other son, don’t you? The one I like more, who lives out of town.
I eat two cookies at a time. I have nineteen boxes in the cabinet. I think again of the firefly. Many of them emerge in front of me now. They swirl around my head, following the steam from my tea. There are things I hope to catalog. They are things like these fireflies. While I live among them, I wish to keep them. I hope to store these things away safely so that I might be able to recollect them later on. Did you feel that way, too? Have you found that now you’ve gone to mist, consciousness, electricity—whatever you may be—the things you hoped to catalog actually remain? The cul-de-sac deepens further into blue. The porch light glows; I am alone and surrounded. I asked Ann that once. She said she could count on one hand the things she needed to catalog. She didn’t tell me what they were. I never asked.
Michele Zimmerman is a queer writer and MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She received her BA from the same institution in 2014. Her work appears in Sequestrum, The Westchester Review, and Sugar Mule. Two of her short stories were Top-25 Finalists for the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers.