The Neighborhood -- a story by Colin Kelly

She’s elderly and is insular, seldom venturing from her home. Her husband would like her to take walks with him, but she resists. Walking would be good for her, she knows.
What would it be like if she took that first step?
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The Neighborhood
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She is 80 years old and never leaves her house to go for a walk. When she’s asked why she doesn’t go for walks, and is told that she should because it’s good for her health, she answers that she doesn’t need to. She says that when she needs to go out her husband takes her, to the supermarket, or to the mall, or downtown, or to have lunch, and when she’s at those places she walks quite enough, thank you. That’s what she and her husband do on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drive somewhere and shop, have lunch, visit friends. And walk, but just a little, just what’s necessary for what they are doing that day. As she’s gotten older, she’s become more insular. Her husband has always been outgoing and active, as she used to be, but it seems to her that as she ages, being alone in her home becomes more and more comfortable for her. She finds that now it’s all she needs.

Her husband still rides BART to his office in San Francisco to see the old friends who have been his clients for many years. He does this three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, even though he’s over 80 years old. It was his company, he founded it almost 55 years ago, the same year he and his wife were married, and it is now run by one of their three sons.

It is a Monday, and because her husband is working she is home alone. The only walking she does on the days he works is to her mailbox at the curb. On this particular Monday she goes out to the mailbox and it’s empty. Either the mailman hasn’t come yet, or there won’t be any mail for them this day.

The day is warm, the sky is blue, there are a few puffy clouds, there’s a pleasant breeze. It’s beautiful. She remembers back to when she was a little girl, how she liked the way the warm sun felt on her face. The way if feels now, how it feels on her face as she stands at the curb, next to her mailbox. She closes her eyes and concentrates on those feelings, feelings of the sun, of being warm, of the breeze, of being outside in the fresh air.

She opens her eyes and looks around. There are gardens with flowers and trees everywhere in the neighborhood. She notices the gardens in the neighborhood as she rides past them when her husband drives her somewhere, but she realizes that today she doesn’t just notice them, she sees them. The vibrant colors of the petals, the many different shades of green of the leaves, the sunlight shining through the leaves with a suffused pale green glow, how all these colors and the light blend and contrast at the same time. The effect is stunning, magical, and it’s almost like she’s never really seen this, seen it so clearly, before. She remembers when she was a young girl how she loved to look at colorful flowers and at people’s gardens. She wonders why she doesn’t do that any longer. Her neighborhood has many gardens. She could walk to the corner and see several gardens, if she wanted to.

She makes a decision, and turns and walks to the where her street starts, where it intersects another street, enjoying the gardens she passes. She turns and looks back, past her house, to the other end of the street, where it ends in a cul de sac. For the first time in a long time she really looks at the neighborhood. Her neighborhood. Her street. Her cul de sac with its five houses along each side. This is where she lives. Where her neighbors live, some of whom are now her friends. She walks back to her house and goes inside. As she turns to close the door she sees the mailman drive around the corner and begin delivering mail across the street. After he finishes and drives away, she goes out and gets her mail and goes back inside.

The following day is a Tuesday and her husband is at home. He walks every morning and every evening on the days when he’s home. When he leaves for his walk he always asks his wife if she would like to walk with him. She always says no. But this Tuesday morning is a little different. She actually hesitates a few seconds before she says no. That evening when he asks her, she hesitates again, a little longer this time, but again says no. Both times she thinks about walking with her husband, but decides not to. What if she gets tired and needs to return home before he is finished with his walk? He would stop walking and accompany her home. Of course she wouldn’t need to be accompanied home; she knows how to get home on her own. But she also knows that he would feel obligated to walk her home, perhaps thinking she needs protection even though they live in a very safe neighborhood where nothing ever happens to a woman walking alone in the evening. Still, she knows he would feel obligated. It’s part of his heritage, his upbringing, his time of life. And as a result he wouldn’t get the exercise he wants from his walk, the exercise his doctor has told him he needs, if he stops to walk her home. So she says no.

The following day is a Wednesday and her husband is at work. She looks out the window and sees that the weather is beautiful, perhaps even nicer than on Monday. She walks out her front door, closes and locks it, and puts the key in her pocket with her linen hankie and a piece of hard candy wrapped in cellophane. She walks purposefully up her street to the cross street. It is only two houses away from hers, but this seems like something exciting. More exciting than when she did the same thing on Monday. On Monday it was unplanned, she had already walked part of the way, to her mailbox at the curb, a very short part of the way but still a part of the way. Today her walk is planned. It is purposeful. It is even thrilling, in some small way.

She looks down the cross street, then up. It isn’t, she thinks as she stands at the cross street, really a cross street. Her street doesn’t cross the cross street. It ends there. No, on reflection she decides that what her street does is start there. It ends at its other end, where it widens into a cul de sac, a wide circle at the end of the road so cars can easily turn around and go back.

At this end, where her street starts, it forms a T with the cross street. She thinks about this. She doesn’t know a word to describe a street that doesn’t cross a street that it intersects, a street that forms a T at that intersection. There must be such a word, but she doesn’t know what it might be. She decides that she won’t worry about what the intersection should be called. She realizes that it really doesn’t make any difference to her; most certainly not.

What does make a difference to her is which way she should walk on the cross street. Down, to her right, the direction her husband always goes on his walks. Or up, to her left, which for her is uncharted territory; they never even drive in that direction. She stands and thinks about this choice, and she thinks about the “down” and “up” parts. Why is the direction to the right “down” and the direction to the left “up”? Does how it’s named make any difference to anyone? She realizes that it is her husband who named these directions “down” and “up”, and she uses his names for the directions of this street. She realizes that is what she does regularly, without thinking about it: she defers to her husband. Defers. That’s a very good word, a word she needs to remember. It is what married women of her age do. Defer to their husbands. It is what she does because it’s part of her heritage. Their heritage, hers and her husband’s, part of their upbringing, part of their time of life.

She thinks about what she is doing now, right at this moment. She isn’t deferring to anyone. She is making her own decisions. Is she deferring to herself? Is that even possible? Do such thoughts even make sense? And if they do, or if they don’t, is it important for her? Probably not, she decides. Probably not.

She looks to her right, then to her left. Down the cross street to the right, then up the cross street to the left. She needs to make a decision. She suddenly recognizes that the time she’s spent thinking about this is a way she uses to avoid making decisions. This is a very small, insignificant decision, the decision to either walk one direction or the other. It’s something she shouldn’t avoid; she should just go ahead and make a decision. Go up, or go down. Or go back, but that wouldn’t be a good decision.

She takes a deep breath, looks to her left, and starts to walk up the cross street. Into uncharted territory. There is a sidewalk alongside the house across the corner from where she’s been standing; it ends at the back fence of that house. Most of the streets here don’t have sidewalks. She will have to walk on the street, near the edge, to be out of the way of any cars that might come along. But she doesn’t worry; there isn’t much traffic in her neighborhood, and the streets are more than wide enough for a car and someone walking.

She walks slowly because she is 80 and has arthritis. She walks at a pace that is comfortable. She takes her time. She looks at the gardens with their flowers and trees as she passes, and sometimes pauses if a particular kind of flower or tree catches her eye. She walks to the end of the block, turns right, crosses the cross street, and walks up a street that is named a circle instead of a street or a road or a lane. It is named a circle because it starts at the cross street, loops around, and ends back at the cross street a little further down. It isn’t really a circle, it is a half-circle. In fact, it isn’t even a true half-circle, it isn’t a geometric circle. It curves, but also meanders as it loops back to the cross street. Maybe it should have been named a loop, she thinks. Or perhaps a meander. But she’s never heard of any street that was named a meander. They are named a street, or a road, or lane, or boulevard, avenue, circle, or even loop. But not a meander.

She shakes her head, as if to clear out these things she has been thinking. Rather silly things to be thinking about as she walks. They aren’t important. But she doesn’t have to think about important things all the time, does she? Her answer, to herself, is no. They aren’t important. They are pleasant, maybe silly, and perhaps even amusing, but not important.

She stops walking for a moment. This morning has been made up of things that are different for her. She smiles, for now she realizes that thinking and deciding different things is something else that is different than what she normally does, very different. She’s also aware that she has been realizing many things today, many different things. By the time she walks to the end of the circle that is a meander, and walks back up the cross street the short distance to the street where she lives, then down that street to her house, she feels enlivened. It has been a good day, an unusual day. She feels that she has enjoyed her day, enjoyed it in a way that is different than how she normally spends her days. Instead of being alone in the house all day, she has been outside enjoying the beautiful weather and the sun and the flowers and trees. She certainly enjoyed walking, and her arthritis didn’t bother her at all. And, best of all, she enjoyed doing something that was so very different for her.

As she unlocks her front door, she turns and looks back at her street. Yes, doing different things and thinking about different things is quite pleasant. Making her own decisions is very pleasant. As she stands there she decides that she will do this every Tuesday and Thursday. Maybe she’ll even say yes tomorrow when her husband, as usual, asks her if she wants to walk with him, in the morning and in the evening. Yes, she decides, she will do that. That will be something very different and very pleasant, she expects, for both of them.

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This story and the included images are Copyright 2008 by Colin Kelly (colinian). They cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey's World web site has written permission to publish this story. No other rights are granted.

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