“You’re going to freeze your ass off,” Tizi says.
I’m piling tin-foil food containers on a tray so I can walk them over to the neighbors. It’s a February evening in Michigan, dark at 6:00 p.m., cold and damp. There’s no snow to speak of, just bone-chilling 30 degree weather, what my mother-in-law called “aria rigida.” Rigid air. Some winter nights two below zero doesn’t even faze you, when it’s that crisp dry winter cold, with no wind. When I step out on the front porch to shake a tablecloth, I’ll want to linger a few minutes in shirt sleeves, under the porch lamp. If I knew a soliloquy, I would perform it.
This is not one of those nights.
“Freeze your ass off,” I sing to Tizi, to the tune of Handel’s Hallalujeh chorus. It’s a catchy tune. “Hallelujeh, freeze your ass off, freeze your ass off.” I’ve offloaded braised chicken thighs, a modified cacciatore, from a pan on the stove into a large container. In the three smaller containers are three side dishes. When they’re arranged on the tray, I pull on a light jacket and slip my feet into flip-flops. Still singing: “Freeze your ass off, freeze your ass off.”
“That’s enough,” she says.
“That’s Handel,” I say. “Catchy tune.”
She shakes her head. “Are you sure they’re there?”
“I just saw the car pull in the drive. And Debbie sent me a text.”
Debbie is Beverly’s daughter, up from Cincinnati. With her sister Cindy, who’s up from Nashville, she’s here to make arrangements. Their mother, our nextdoor neighbor Beverly, died day before yesterday. She was 94.
“At least zip your jacket up,” Tizi says.
The chicken smells great. I tell her that.
She watches to make sure I zip up, glowering at my stocking feet in flip-flops, arguably the wrong foot wear for the season. Or maybe it’s Handel’s freeze your ass off she’s glowering at. I don’t know. But I feel good.
“I know why you’re doing this,” she says.
“This zipper has always given me trouble.”
“This is about Madelyn, isn’t it?”
She means taking food next door. She means another neighbor and what happened over ten years ago.
When I step outside and turn to look back at Tizi, I feel my jacket popping open, unzipping from the bottom up. A busted zipper.
Madelyn, whose husband died in 2012. And I did nothing.
We’ve lived in this neighborhood for 38 years. Generally, unless they’re outsourced to assisted living, people live here until they die. Five years ago I was out for a walk one summer day. Up the street I came upon Bill Case, 82 years old, lying on his back on the Benneker’s lawn. “Bill,” I said, “do you need help?” “Oh, I’m okay,” he said. “I just need a few minutes to rest.” A year later, he was gone. We went to his funeral. Patty Hodges, who walked the block, then trudged the block, then eventually stopped the walk. We went to her funeral. And Dick, her husband, his too. Harold, Beverly next door’s husband, has been gone 15 years. Jed, the other side next door. We went both of those. Most of these houses are named for their long-time residents. The Case house. The Dion house. The Stahl house. The Benneker, the Wolf, the Doerr house. And the residents come named in couple format. Bill and Roxane, Patty and Dick, Richard and Michelle, Ellen and David, Harold and Beverly, Peggy and Jed. Word travels. Last month Michelle called. “Ellen’s mother died. I thought you would want to know.” We went to that funeral.
In the Doerr house, Madelyn. There was also a John in there somewhere, but he was elusive. An unknown quantity.
I know I should not become attached to things of this world, but I love my jacket with the now busted zipper. I love it the way I love an old Timex watch I don’t wear but keep next to my bed. When I press the stem, the dial lights up. It’s 3:00 a.m. Too early to get out of bed. I’ve changed the battery five times. The watch is that old. I’ve tried replacement watches but always gone back to the old Timex. When we travel, I take it with me–to Italy, to California when we drive out west to visit our son and his wife.
Last year I thought I left the watch in a Medora, North Dakota hotel. I was bereft, that’s the only word for it. I felt an irrational sense of loss totally out of proportion with the object, frantically unpacking my carry-on at our next location, Whitefish, Montana.
Then, there it was, under a sock.
“Well,” Madelyn said one afternoon, “John died.” I could swear she added “finally.” John, her elusive husband, sick six months.
On this warm afternoon in June I had walked down to the mailbox and found no mail. When Madelyn came around the corner a few hundred feet away, her walk looked normal. Slight in size, she was dressed in khaki slacks and a short sleeve chambray blouse. Her short brown hair fell just over her ears, framing her face. She didn’t so much walk as float the block. I might see her once or twice a month. We chatted. She gave me updates. She knew I knew John was sick.
I told her I was so sorry and took a few steps down the drive in her direction.
“Yesterday,” she said. “I’ve called the girls.” Daughters, two of them, living out of state.
I knew exactly this about Madelyn: What restaurants she’d been to recently and how she liked them. Where she went in Arizona, by herself for weeks at a time. Her life, it seemed, occurred mostly apart from her husband, who in retirement had begun riding a motorcycle. I would see him occasionally on a big road bike, wearing his black helmet with a visor, his inscrutable round face behind the windscreen. He was a white collar rider. She didn’t complain so much as aver: He rode long after he should have, he went off on long trips by himself, he was gone weeks at a time, rarely called. She said once, What if something happened? They were separate but equal, united in their separateness, it sounded like.
“You’ll let us know arrangements,” I said now.
“Oh, there won’t be any,” she said. “No funeral or memorial, I mean. We don’t do that.”
She lifted her head and looked at me, defiantly, it seemed. Or at least assessing my reaction.
At that moment Frank the mail carrier pulled up in his Jeep. I stepped down to the road and he handed me our mail. As he motored away, I gave Madelyn an awkward hug and said again how sorry I was.
“Tell Tizi,” she said.
I told her I would.
From the very beginning, the zipper on this jacket has given me trouble. It’s a small blue plastic zipper, on a lightweight garment. A heavier, more robust metal zipper wouldn’t be right, color-wise; it would be too much hardware for such a light jacket; overkill.
On this little blue zipper, the nub thingie, or pin, that fits into the bottom slot of the zipper on the left, the retaining box, sometimes called “the garage,” is short and difficult to seat, the way you need to fix it in place before drawing the slider, sometimes called “the car,” up the length of the zipper and joining the teeth. Typically zipping is a struggle and takes longer than it should. I curse the zipper, but I love the jacket.
I bought it a few years ago in Italy, at a store called Conbipel, on the road up to San Marino.
At that time Tizi and I were looking after her nonagenarian aunt. Looking after is probably the wrong term. We were being present. Tizi went up the street from our apartment almost every afternoon to sit with Zia. Some days to help out, I would drive Elena, Zia’s Ukrainian caregiver, to run errands–to the mercato up in Borgo Maggiore, to the grocery store and pharmacy, down in Dogana, to the flower shop and cemetery below the main road in Serravalle. One of these years Elena was getting ready to take the bus back to her home in Ukraine, a 72-hour trip she made once a year. For months before going, she would stock up on supplies and merchandise she couldn’t find back home. This one year she needed a winter coat for her daughter.
Along the depressing stretch of road connecting San Marino to Rimini, between a series of ugly bright yellow outlets I had never been in, was this clothing store, Conbipel.
Inside it felt like TJ Maxx. While Elena looked at coats, I passed the time in men’s stuff and found this inexpensive jacket, navy blue, lightly insulated, easily stuffed into the little blue nylon sack that came in its inside pocket, a jacket our niece says the Italians call a “cento grammi,” indicating its weight, 100 grams. It’s practically nothing. It cost practically nothing. But it has practical and sentimental value.
I wear it all the time. I remember that day, I remember Elena, I remember Zia. It’s more than just a jacket.
A few years after John’s death, a for-sale sign went up in front of Madelyn’s house. I was driving home from the grocery store one summer day. Seeing her in the yard, I stopped the car and put a window down.
“Madelyn,” I said, “you’re not leaving us, are you?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m moving down to Arizona.”
“Yes, for good.”
I said I was sorry to hear that. She was a fixture in the neighborhood, after all. She’d been there since we moved in. I said it wouldn’t be the same without her. I meant what I said.
She stood there, assessing me, giving her head a negative shake. It must have been June, because a warm breeze carried a white flurry of cottonwood fluff. A blanket of it lay on her lawn.
I said I figured we would have another week or two of cottonwood snow. She lifted her head and said nothing. “Well,” I added, “we’re going to miss you.”
She took a step toward the car. “I have nothing to say to you,” she said.
“What?” I said. “What?”
“I have nothing to say to you. After John died, you never called me. You never came to the house. You never did or said anything.”
This was true.
I put the window down further. She suddenly seemed smaller, older; brittle. I looked away, then back at her. She was right. I hadn’t done anything. I’d gone on with my life, driving by her house every day, seeing her walking the block, waving to her, and forgetting. She had seemed so self sufficient. And liberated, I must have imagined. I remembered her stating that day, so flatly, that John had died. “Finally.” But had she really said that?
“Madelyn,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sure that you are,” she said, “and I don’t care. I have nothing to say to you. Have a nice life.”
With that, she turned and walked across her lawn and into her house.
If I couldn’t budge the zipper on that blue insulated jacket, I wouldn’t be able to wear it. And I didn’t want to let it go.
I like to fix stuff, if I can. I’m not particularly good at it. Some things I render even more fatally broken when I try to fix them. The problem with the zipper, I imagined, must have been the car, the sliding device that magically joins the teeth on the zipper. With a screwdriver, I thought, I might widen the gap on the car and get it to slide down; with pliers, I could restore the gap, and maybe it would work. Maybe. But that fix also seemed like a good way to definitively ruin the zipper.
When I searched stuck zipper repair online I learned that the zipper is a relatively new invention–twentieth century–that we can thank Gideon Sundback, Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson, and BF Goodrich for their ingenuity, perseverance, and good offices; I learned that no one knew what to call it at first, hookless fastener, separable fastener, chain lock fastener, clasp locker, until finally it became the onomatopoeic zipper.
And I learned you can fix a stuck zipper with butter. I tried it. It worked.
I went home feeling the hate. We use that word casually. I hate oysters, I hate Florida, I hate those medicine commercials before Jeopardy, I hate the Julia Roberts character in Steel Magnolias. Those hates are cheap. We freely give of our hate. We throw it away. Receiving it is another matter. Real hate is cold. It’s formless, monolithic, it hollows you and possesses you. That I know of, only a few people in the world hate me. Really deeply, completely hate me. I’ve learned that it lasts, that it’s as powerful as love. Along with a few old hates, now there was Madelyn’s. Hers was fresh hate.
I drove home and sat by a window in the front of the house, in a chair with a view of the road. I explained things to myself. The summer John died I was driving 400 miles a week, back and forth to my parents’ home, helping my father and brother move my mother into assisted living. The days and weeks after John died, there was no service, no obituary, no death notice. And Madelyn, who had walked the street in front of the house, had seemed so independent all along, so complete unto herself.
I was making excuses. When someone dies, my daughter said once, you show up.
I got up from the chair, stepped outside, and walked three houses up the street, across her snowy front lawn to her porch. And knocked.
It took a minute. I wondered if she had decided not to answer the door. Then it opened.
“What?” she said.
“Madelyn,” I said, “I am really sorry. I know that I have hurt you and I am so sorry for that.” I said it again and again, in so many words, saying essentially the same thing in as many ways I could. I offered no excuses. I only said all those words.
“If you’re looking for forgiveness,” she said when I paused, “you’ll have to go somewhere else.” Then she stepped back and pushed the door shut.
“You did what you could,” Tizi said later.
“It helps to have a funeral,” I said. “You remember. You do something.”
“You tried to make things right,” she said. “I couldn’t have done that.”
“You show up,” I said.
“You showed up. And she kicked you in the teeth.”
That night I lay in bed, still feeling the full force of her words, the door closed in my face. Have a nice life. It was all I could think about, this fresh hate. It was all I had in me, and I knew it would be with me for a long time. Outside the wind was blowing. I pictured the cottonwood snow in the dark.
I imagined Madelyn walking the street in the dark, walking past our house one last time, looking up at our bedroom window, swirls of cottonwood snow surrounding her, lifting her, bearing her away, satisfied and broken.
Oh my, Madelyn was giving you peace, I’m sorry. We had a neighbor much like her, you gave her much more than we did. Great essay! Thanks for the butter tip!
Such an excellent portrayal of human emotion, unforgivable thought-provoking hurt expressing the truth about life, which is sometimes as human beings we blow it, sometimes we do not see clearly or feel more deeply because we are engrossed in our own lives, our own situations and circumstances, or because we simply cannot for reasons we are unaware of at the time of someone else’s expectations. Thank you Rick. Great writing!!!