43 Lake View Avenue, South
Upstairs it's the second night for sitting Shiva. The grandmother died – pancreatic cancer that kept her housebound, tethered to a rolling i.v. pole. I'm the middle neighbor, and downstairs, Brian and his new girlfriend are watching porn. Every couple of minutes someone bearing a fruit basket or box of hard candies will come in our communal front door and head upstairs, past my entryway.
When I take Tasha out for a walk, the leash gets tangled, caught between back leg and fore, and she pees on it. I'm too busy watching the splaying of naked bodies through Brian's front window to notice until it's too late and when I go back inside I have to rinse the leash in the sink and loop it on the railing outside to dry in the fall air.
Part of me wants to take something upstairs; a carton of cookies, a quiche, just to show I understand, that we are neighbors and that someone has died. Gwen, who has now lost her mother and father – is she a daughter anymore?- explained that the mourning ritual will last seven days. Since I'm sandwiched between her and Brian, who works the late-shift at Conbrin Electric, Gwen told me first about her mother's passing then continued downstairs to tell Brian.
This week Brian's got a girl staying with him from out of town. I was there when her taxi pulled up to the house. Tasha ate dinner late, leftovers from my mushroom lasagna, and she had to go out for her night walk close to eleven, just when this girl rolled her window down and motioned for Brian to come outside to her. He paid the driver and carried the suitcase up the stairs while the girl steadied herself on the banister. The case was one of those fake tapestry kinds and, even in the dim streetlight, it looked new. Somehow, this depressed me, thinking of this girl buying a new set of luggage just to come see Brian – Brain who watched porn every night and didn't bother to shut his blinds, Brain whose recycling container was filled with empty plastic non-fat ice cream sandwich boxes – did he not burn off the calories watching the movies?
Tasha liked better to lick the washed tins from Gwen's recycling, the pinto beans and organic vegetarian soups that came in oversized cans. Gwen was even thoughtful enough to put the sharp severed can tops in a separate container so Tasha wouldn't slice her tongue like she did on Brian's Reduced Calorie Mexican Macaroni Mix once. I had to rush her to Blakely Memorial and have them stitch her up, which made me late for work at the courthouse. I had to keep Tasha in the car, her head funneled off from the rest of her body so she wouldn't tear at the sutures, while I took my pads and supplies inside. I have a degree in graphic design but I work as a courtroom sketch artist and have to get to work very early when it's a case that's closed to the cameras. Tucked into some detail of my pictures – a briefcase corner, a fingernail – you'll see Margot written in tight letters; evidence I was there.
One time I had to do a road rage case – that guy who had the woman pull over on the interstate and then shot her. It's better for me just to draw, to concentrate on the charcoal and the way I get the sticks to move across the colored paper, than to think about the people I'm drawing. The past couple weeks I was hired for the case involving a white man who killed some black girls back in the sixties. I can't really say more than that for legal reasons but I can say that I'm a good judge of when someone looks truly sorry – maybe they are remorseful or maybe they're just excellent at pretending, but true sorrow pulls at the mouth, the muscle at the top of the cheeks near the ears, and you can't fake that.
The first night of Shiva, I went up just to bring Gwen some flowers that had been delivered and set on the front stoop. I held the pot of mums as I went upstairs – couldn't they have sent a different kind of flower to someone who just lost their mother? Gwen's front door was open and she was sitting off in the corner on a low stool while people picked at the side-table food and talked. Gwen nodded to me but didn't get up so I left the plant on her kitchen counter and looked again at the food. Bald white eggs gathered together on a platter like old men, sticky breads sheared of their ends were ready for slicing, and bowls of cashews and nectarines were at the back. I didn't want to take any of the food, and I didn't know what to do so I left and went to my apartment where I could hear people coming and going, a baby fussing, some crying. Two teenage boys – the dead woman's grandchildren? – took a seat on the stairs near my doorway and ate candied pecans. I could see them holding handfuls of the nuts while they talked about first about sports and then a party that had or maybe would occur.
At work, I have to produce a drawing every ten minutes or so, and I'm pretty good at guessing when people might move or rearrange themselves, so I knew beforehand that one of the boys was getting ready to stand up. Before he did, though, he looked over at me, peering from around the corner. He told the other boy to get a look at me. They both stood up and watched me watching them until some old lady came down and told them to get ready to go. One of them winked at me and the other made some gesture that excited me even though I didn't want it to.
Once the mourners left, the front hall had only Brian's boots, a couple of umbrellas none of us used much, and Gwen's blue raincoat that was missing its sash. I stood out there, listening to the sounds coming from Brian's apartment. It was difficult to tell the real moans from the televised. I took Tasha outside and let her have a good dig in the brush, nosing into the fallen leaves, so I could look through Brian's window. Naked, a man held a bare woman upside down so her face was to the bed. Tasha barked at a mole or a mouse hunching under the piled dirt by the curb. I'm not sure how long I stayed out there. Each time a car came by I patted Tasha or looked to the sky like I was searching for a meteor shower or was about to comment on the weather.
Today, I saw Brian's new girl towel-wrap her hair and head across to the market to buy their supper; cod cakes and coleslaw, and more ice cream. She went right over there in her robe as if that's what people did, parade around in their underwear or houseclothes, and then came back to where I stood sorting the mail. Our postman just shoves a rubberbanded pile of letters and fliers into the black box on the side of the house and leaves us to figure out what pieces go where. I handed her Brain's pile and she smiled without showing any teeth before slinging the plastic grocery bag over her shoulder and going inside to watch something on television.
Thursdays are my late days, when I drive to the courthouse at two in the afternoon and come home at eight. I'm not allowed to eat while people are testifying and I don't think I could hold a sandwich while I'm drawing, so when I come home I'm always hungry. Sometimes, I'm still sketching in my head when I'm trying to sleep; some people are harder to draw than others. Attorneys have certain gestures they do a lot but the hard part is when they won't face the crowd. It makes it tough to get a good sketch. When I get to the courtroom super early, and they're already at their table, taking notes, I'll sometimes do a quick sketch of their faces so I can know that I have them before they turn around. I like making the judge – you never have to draw below the chest, and the arms are plainly visible.
Through the ceiling, clomping and dragging – of furniture though maybe it's a body? It occurs to me that I don't even know what they did with the grandmother's body. She died while I was working and I came home to a quiet house. Brian sleeps during the day after he has his breakfast sandwich and leaves the crumpled waxed paper wrapped in the leg-hole of his boot. Gwen was upstairs I guess and a man – her brother, I think, who has the same curly dark hair and full belly, told me what had happened and that I should expect some noise when people came to visit for Shiva. I asked him what happens later, after the week has passed and he told me about Sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning where you try and get back to your normal activities even though you and everyone around you knows you're grieving. As he was explaining this I thought maybe I would meet someone if I went to pay respects to Gwen. She's always saying how she knows lots of nice available men but I haven't let her set me up. One time I was asked out by a jury member after the trial ended and he kissed me right in front of the cement horse and soldier statue in the park, but then I didn't hear from him again. Then, as Gwen's Supposed Brother was talking, he started crying and I felt ashamed for thinking his mother's death place could be my romantic redemption, and when I blushed I felt even worse because the Brother quickly wiped his tears and said he was sorry for taking up my time.
Now that it's the second night of Shiva, I am getting used to the sounds from upstairs. People are eating and feeling sad up there, and I'm somehow recording it just like I'm listening, almost wanting to press my ear to the ground to hear the girl and Brian rolling on each other. If I can't sleep tonight, I can always take Tasha for a walk, or even go and sit on my stoop – they're my stairs just as much as they are anyone else's, right? And then I will put my knees under my sweatshirt, move over to let the mourners pass. Or I'll hunch myself over to one side so Brian, if he can keep his pants up long enough, can get out the door. I will leave the door to my place open, in case the phone rings, in case someone needs something, and all the while I'll be checking to see what comes in our house and what goes out.
About the author:
Emily Franklin is the author of Liner Notes (Simon Schuster, 2003) and The Principles of Love (forthcoming from Penguin, June 2005). Her previous publications include The Boston Globe, Cargoes, The Improper Bostonian, Dialogue, and The Word. She lives in Boston and is on the staff of National Pubic Radio's "Car Talk" show.