Our House is Like Switzerland

by Jennifer Simpson

Her red coat came to mid thigh and the gold buttons shimmered in the early morning sun. She wore well-fitted grey slacks and black pumps. Her blond hair was drawn up into a chignon. Had I been in a big city, or even a different part of town, I might not have noticed her, but this was Albuquerque and I was living in a part of town some called the student ghetto. Most of my neighbors wore more casual attire: jeans, t-shirts, coats from the second hand store, good walking shoes. Girls wore pony tails, not chignons. My own green pea coat was worn and pilled and one of the plastic black buttons was missing.

The chill in the air hastened my pace from my usual saunter to an almost jog over to the Smith's grocery store two blocks away and by the time I was cruising the aisles trying to remember what I'd come for I had forgotten about the blond woman.  'Coffee.  I need my coffee.  Now where's the creamer?' I muttered. 

On my way back home I was just about cross the street to my house when I noticed her again. She lay crumpled on the sidewalk, sobbing. I admit it, for just a moment I thought about my coffee, the coffee I had not yet had, the coffee that was waiting for me to push a button on my coffee maker, the coffee that was waiting for the creamer that was in the bag that was in my hand, the coffee that was in my warm house. Maybe I debated this point for a bit longer than a moment.

'Are you okay?' I asked, crouching down and putting my hand on her shoulder, recognizing that had she not been so well dressed I would not have touched her.

She sobbed louder, her body rocked. It was the kind of keening cry that came from deep in her soul. I knew that cry; I'd cried it myself when my husband Paul died.

'Can I do something for you?' I asked.

'No,' she wailed, lifting her head slightly.

'Can I call someone for you?'

'There's. No. One,' she said between gasps and sobs before collapsing again onto the pavement.

I stood and looked around, looking for someone, I don't even know who.  The bare branches of trees reached up into the bluing sky. The streets were empty streets, the houses quiet and dark. It was barely 7 a.m.

I'd not seen what direction she had come from, and I'd never seen her in the neighborhood before. Maybe she was crazy. Maybe this was some kind of ploy. I'd heard stories about people who took advantage of people like me. Maybe this line of reasoning was me trying to justify what I really wanted to do which was go back inside my house and have my coffee. But I also wanted to do the right thing, be the good Samaritan. I didn't feel right leaving her there.

The air was cold on my face and neck, and my ears were beginning to hurt.  Thirty degrees was too cold for this Californian. I pulled my coat in closer, flipped up my collar and looked around one last time before stepping across the street to my house. Even now I can't say if I was looking for someone to help or making sure no one would see me abandoning this woman wailing on the sidewalk.

I scooped the coffee beans into the grinder, one, two, three'. I had an unfettered view of her from my kitchen window.  Her face was pressed against the cold concrete. I imagined bits of gravel mingling with her tears and sticking to her skin and I touched my own cheek. Did she even feel the cold?  I stared at the beans in the grinder. They were shiny and dark.  How many scoops? I emptied the beans back into their original canister and started again. 'One. Two. Three. Four. And one for the pot, five,' I said. Sometimes this was the only way to keep track of things, to say them out loud, even though the only ones listening were my two cats, Calliope and Cleo, weaving between my feet begging for their morning treat.

'What do you think I should do, girls?' I asked, looking out the window once again. She was still there.

'I know, I can't leave her there,' I said as I popped open a can of Fancy Feast and dolloped some into their bowl. 'But I just don't know what to do with her,' I said, as the scent of brewing coffee warmed the kitchen. 

Some days I thought these two cats kept me sane, and others I wondered if having them didn't make me just a little kooky.  I certainly didn't talk to them when Paul was alive. How many cats did one have to own before qualifying as The Crazy Cat Lady of Albuquerque?  Or was talking out loud to them the deciding factor?  'They were the last two left in the litter,' I'd told Paul.  'I couldn't split up a family,' I added, widening my eyes and batting my eyelashes for emphasis.  Paul could never say no to me, and besides, he was the one who'd said we should get a cat.  Ironically I was the one who'd insisted that one was enough.  Maybe the fact that I regale guests with the story of their origin made me a little nutty.  At least I didn't dress them up, but I can't swear it's because both of them would claw through an artery if I tried.

I bent down and scratched Cleo's head while she ate, 'Do you miss Daddy as much as I do?'  She didn't answer, but she did purr.  She always purred when she ate.

When my coffee pot beeped I poured myself a cup, then saw out the window that the woman was still there, sobbing.  I sipped, grasping the warm mug with both hands, holding it up close to my nose so I could inhale the warmth.

When Recycling Man came down the alley pushing his shopping cart and started circling the woman, I knew it was time to act.  I'd never had trouble with him myself. We used to leave our cans out for him packaged neatly in a bag in the alley. 'He probably won't do anything, right?' 

'You're so paranoid,' Paul used to tell me and I'd look up at him.  He was nearly a foot taller than I, so at six feet two, he was imposing even though he had boyish good looks.

I'd say, 'Easy to believe in the good side of people when you can take care of yourself.'

Then I closed my eyes remembering how it felt to be in Paul's arms and how safe I felt when he would say, 'I'll take care of you.'

But I didn't want him to take care of everything, at least not all the time and until we figured that out between us we had some tough times.  I think our whole generation was confused.  Half of our mothers stayed at home, the other half were burning bras and demanding equal rights.  Half our fathers were hard working family men, the other half had midlife crises and ran off with their secretaries. Now I'm the one taking care of things.

'I don't know what I am waiting for,' I said.  Both cats ignored me, licking every last scrap of wet food from their bowls.

'Do you think she'd like some coffee?'  The girls ignored me again as I grabbed a to-go mug from the cabinet.  I chose my favorite, a purple insulated cup decorated with sparkly butterflies and a secure drip-proof flip-top lid.

'I bet you would like butterflies, wouldn't you?  The butterfly may be a little too symbolic, but I think she'll like it.'  Whether the butterfly represented someone who had died, or rebirth, or just a hot cup of coffee with a solid lid, it was the right choice.  We make symbols where and when we need them. I poured the coffee, and topped it off with a little Hazelnut creamer. 

When my husband was in the emergency room some nurse brought me coffee.  I remember thinking that coffee was the last thing I needed.  I was already nervous, sitting in that waiting room.  Strangely though, the coffee calmed me. Maybe it was the warmth, the ritual of stirring in the creamer, sprinkling sugar, blowing on hot liquid. It was something familiar in an unfamiliar place, something warm in a cold place.  For a moment everything felt normal, like maybe I'd just woken from a bad dream and was in my own kitchen.  He was young.  Only fifty-five.

Outside the street was still quiet.  An occasional car slid by oblivious to the laments of the red-coated woman. Recycling Man had moved on.

'Hey lady,' I said. With both hands full, one cup of coffee for her and one for me, I was tempted to nudge her with my foot.  I did not.

The sobbing stopped. She lifted her body toward my voice, though she did not look up.  Her hair fell across her face and her bare hands were splayed on the cold concrete.

'I brought you some coffee. I'm gonna put it right here,' I said as I set the cup down next to her right hand.  I hoped she was right handed. I am. 'There's a little hazelnut cream in there, since I didn't know how you take it. I hope it's okay.'

She did not answer.

'Are you sure I can't call someone for you?'

She let out a big sigh. Her body folded onto the sidewalk. Her forehead rested on the pavement.  The wailing started again and I felt guilty, as if I were to blame, as if I could stop her pain.  I needed to do something.  She'd been here at least a half an hour.  Her coat was wool but she wore no gloves. It was about thirty five degrees. I know I was cold.  She didn't look physically hurt; there was no blood that I could see, just the sound of deep wrenching pain. How long would it take someone to die from exposure?  Paul would know. If he didn't know he'd make up an answer and say it with such conviction that everyone believed him.  It took me a long time to figure out his tell, the little extra blink and a quick look to the left. 

'Can I call someone for you?' I asked again.

'There's. No. One.'

Paul would have known what to do.  He had a way about him. People trusted him. They let him help them.  It used to bother me, the stray people he was always bringing home.  I swear every one of his nieces and nephews had lived at our house at one time or another, usually during the worst of the angst-ridden teen years when their parents couldn't handle them anymore. 'Our house is like Switzerland,' Paul would joke.  He was the calm older brother from a family of five.  'It's more like Saigon, circa 1975,' I would answer.  I grew up the only child of academics in a quiet house. 

Paul would have gotten her off the curb, served her coffee at our kitchen table, not on the street.  He would have gotten her to talk, or at least calm down enough to tell us who to call. I couldn't even get her to look at me.  And I couldn't stand out here in the cold any longer.

'Okay then. I'm gonna go back inside. I'm right across the street in that little red house,' I was practically shouting at her, hoping she'd hear me over her own crying.  'You come knock on the door when you want.'

For the next few minutes I found reasons to be in the kitchen, to look out that window. I cleaned the encrusted mug that had been sitting on my desk for over a week.  Then I hand-washed a silk top that had been at the bottom of the clothes hamper since Easter.  And still she was there.  In a way, I admired her stamina, keening for over an hour.  Pretty much non-stop.  Even the day of Paul's funeral I could only cry for twenty minutes at a stretch, and that was when I was alone.  Of course I was rarely alone. I think my friends thought I might follow Paul into the ever-after. 

It's not that I hadn't thought about it, but it was more of an intellectual exercise. Mostly.  Overdosing would be the easiest, but probably the most unreliable.  No doubt someone would find me, get me to the emergency room that was only five blocks from my house, and have my stomach pumped.  I thought about shooting myself; Paul's gun was in the lockbox in the closet.  The key was in the bedside nightstand, on his side.  I knew how to use it; Paul had insisted on taking me to the shooting range until I could hit the silhouetted bad guy.  But guns weren't my thing, and I couldn't help but think of the mess I would leave for someone to clean up, or the trauma of someone finding me with my head blown off, brain goo splattered all over a wall.  With my luck I'd miss and wind up in a nursing home drooling for the rest of my life.  I would probably be more accurate with a knife, slitting my wrists. I even knew to slit lengthwise, rather than across. I'd read that somewhere.  The problem was I am afraid of blood. My own anyway. 

The only way I could realistically imagine killing myself would be to drive my car off of a cliff.  I could sail off into the sunset. Literally.  There was one cliff in particular, along the Southern California coast, a curve in the road that seemed to be just sharp enough that the accident would be believable, a sheer drop, the ocean below.  I'd gun the accelerator and hold the steering wheel straight.   I imagined it would be like flying. Maybe what I really wanted was to fly.  I didn't know anymore. 

At 8:30 a.m. the doorbell rang.  I thought for sure the woman had come to her senses. Instead it was Jillian.  'Hi Auntie Jenny!' 

'Did you lose your key?'  I asked even though I knew all the kids still had keys. 

'Yeah, but I didn't want to scare you. Or interrupt or something.'

'Or something?' I asked.

'I don't know. You know what I mean.  Can I leave my car here? I have class at nine. I brought back the blender that I borrowed. Here,' she said, walking past me towards the kitchen Cuisinart in hand.  I followed her and before I could answer she continued, 'Hey, did you know there's a lady over there crying?'

'I tried to talk to her earlier. I took her coffee.'

Jillian laughed, 'Coffee? Did you bake a Danish too?'

'Very funny,' I said. 'Seriously. I was about to call the police.'

'Why would you call the police?'

'I'm worried about her. I couldn't get her to come in. And I think she could freeze to death.' I didn't mention that I had just looked this up on the internet, but all I could find were references to how long one could live in cold water before dying of exposure.

'Well, whatever, can I leave my car here? I'm late,' she said.

Paul hadn't liked to admit it, but Jillian was his favorite.  And while his brother Sam and his wife Irene had gone nuts when she dyed her hair blue, Paul told me he liked it. 'I think it takes guts,' he had said. I agreed then added 'Just don't you go blue on me! I like your blond locks.' 

I liked Jillian's blond locks too, and I was glad she was going with her natural color these days.

'We're family,' I told her.  'You don't have to ask.' I smiled. It had been a while since she had stopped by and I was so glad to see her.  I'm sure she felt awkward with Paul gone. I felt awkward. It was like we didn't know who 'we' were without him.

When Jillian left I called the police and reported a crying woman.  It sounded ridiculous; I think the officer who took the report agreed, though he said nothing. I'm sure he thought they had actual crimes to investigate, but I didn't know what else to do, and I couldn't stand vigil all day long. I went back to my Saturday morning chores.  'How'd you like a nice clean binkie?' I asked Calliope as I pulled the blanket she was sleeping on out from under her.  'Let me clean here,' I told Cleo, dust buster in hand as I tilted the dining room chair and dumped her onto the floor.  'Don't give me that look.  Would you rather I start up the vacuum and scare the hell out of you?' I asked.

Paul used to tell me about this big ole tom cat his family had growing up that loved the vacuum, that loved to be vacuumed. I didn't entirely believe him, but was envious and had tried it on both Cleo and Calliope.  I had hoped that vacuuming their fur while it was still on their bodies would cut down on shedding.  Neither cat seemed to see it that way. 

I couldn't say that I forgot about the wailing woman, but I pretended to for awhile, averting my gaze as I passed the kitchen window, catching only a flash of red out of the corner of my eye.  Then at some point there was no flash of red. There was no wailing woman. 

I don't know if she got up and walked away on her own or if the police came, maybe accompanied by men in white jackets, and took her away. 

During the last year I looked for her every time I walked in the neighborhood, though if she weren't wearing that red coat I probably wouldn't have recognized her.  Jillian told me I was nuts, that the lady was probably carted off to the loony bin, but I liked to think that she got up and walked home, or went to a friend's house.  I liked to think I helped her, even just a little, that maybe the coffee reminded her of some kind of normal. 

This morning when I made another early morning run for creamer I found my purple travel mug sitting on my doorstep.  I set it on the table next to the week's mail and then dashed across the street where I paused and looked back at my own kitchen window, one of the few lights on in the neighborhood.  It was early, not quite light, and the trees were bare again.  I stood where she had lain, then crouched down onto pavement. I placed my cheek where her cheek had been, my hands where hers had been.  I felt the rough concrete, cold and hard, press into my skin, a pebble under my hip, a wayward chunk of gravel from my neighbor's driveway lodged under my knee.  I closed my eyes and let the tears come, slowly making a small puddle under my cheek. I wondered if it was too salty to freeze.  How easy it would be to stay here forever, but I could smell the snow and needed my coffee.

BIO: Jennifer Simpson is a student in the MFA/Creative Writing Program at the University of New Mexico where she writes what she calls 'very creative mostly non-fiction.'  Her work has been published in community newspapers as well as in Practical Welding Today and The Fabricator magazine.  She sporadically maintains a personal blog at http://akajesais.com. This is her first official foray into fiction.