By William Wetherall

Getting to know one's neighbors

Began 2015-08-12, last revised 2015-09-24 (1,830 words)


By William Wetherall

The woman was sitting on a stool in a recess between the gate to her home and the cinder-block wall that separated the small garden in front of the home from the street. The stool was in the recess, but the woman's feet were planted on the narrow strip of asphalt that a stripe of white luminescent paint on the pavement declared was a sidewalk. There were several potted plants around the stool, and along the sidewalk at the base of the block wall.

No one paid attention to the distinction between the sidewalk and the street. Both belonged to whomever and whatever came first. Two or three people walking abreast would fill the car lane, and should a car come, it would just have to navigate around or through them as one would a herd of sheep on a back-country road. Cars passing from opposite directions would veer into the sidewalks if there were no pedestrians.

The woman, sitting on the stool or standing near it, watched the passing people and vehicles, or talked to a passerby, a cat on its rounds, or herself. She could have been a police woman if she had been in uniform, was half a century younger, and didn't have a crescent moon for a spine.

When not around her stool, she limped from plant to plant, watering each or engaging them in conversation. Or she loitered on the south side of the street, toward which the rain drained off the pavement into the covered gutter that ran down the middle of the sidewalk there. On nice days in the dead of winter, she would take her stool to the sidewalk across the street to bask in the sun.

The stretch of road was straight, and if looking we could spot each other long before I got near enough to talk. Initially we averted our eyes. The first time they locked I nodded, but she just peered at me. Did I belong to someone, or was I a stray? Did I have rabies or fleas? The next time she also nodded, and the next time I smiled and eventually she began returning my smiles. She was the first to wave, and within a year or two we were calling out greetings as I peddled by on my bike.

By the fifth or sixth year after I had moved into the area our ohayogozaimasues and konnichiwas evolved to comments about the weather or the latest typhoon or earthquake, all exchanged as I coasted by, sitting high on the saddle of my bike, which I sometimes braked to a near stop to accommodate longer greetings. Our conversations were longer if I was walking, usually on the other side of the street, which faced the traffic.

Many other passersby also greeted her, and now and then someone stopped to converse about something. She seemed on particularly intimate terms with the family that ran the tatami shop immediately to the west of her home. The tatami man's wife sometimes brought her food, and his son, who helped his father in the shop and took his older sister out for daily spins in a wheelchair, would stop and talk to her for a while if she was there.

No one cared that her arboretum
squatted on the public sidewalk.

Once, on impulse, I stopped and complimented her on a plant which had managed to blossom. She grinned and told me it was a camellia. It's nice, I said, though it looked more like a gardenia. At times I had seen her watering them, and of course there was the rain, but some of the plants needed a different quality of care, more or less sun, a change of soil. I spotted new plants from time to time, and over the years the street along the entire stretch of her property came to be lined with plants, some set on the pavement, others on boxes or make-shift shelves on cinder blocks. No one cared that her arboretum squatted on the public sidewalk.

The woman appears to have developed an attachment for garbage. One day I saw some plastic merchandise bags, of the semi-transparent kind used by many stores, which everyone re-used for garbage, just inside the gate of her home. I figured she intended to put them out on collection day, but the next day they were still there. And they would stay there, and over time be joined by others, until the area between her gate and front door was practically full, and she began tossing bags into her open garage.

Just on her side of the boundary between her property and the tatami shop was a one-car parking space under a tinted plastic cantilever roof. It sheltered only a rusty bicycle, some garden tools and supplies, and a few red kerosene cans when I first saw it. In recent years it filled with furniture and appliances, potted plants, and bags of garbage. The plants all but blocked the entrance. One, a goldcrest, refused to stop growing and pushed through the roof, turned brittle from the sun, before its roots chocked in the pot and it turned a brownish yellow.

The utility poles were on the other side of the street, and one of them marked the spot where residents in the woman's part of the neighborhood brought their kitchen garbage, garden refuse, and recyclable items on weekly collection days. In the depths of winter, she sometimes moved her stool to the south side to bask in the sun. Once I saw her sitting beside a white chest-of-drawers someone had set out with the over-sized garbage.

Allowing my sense of humor to warp, I imagined that the woman's husband -- though I'd never seen anyone else at the home -- had set her out to be hauled away by the garbage collector. In ancient times, according to legends still told today in novels and films, some people carried their aged parents deep into the mountains and left them them, to have more food to feed the young. Was this the new way of disposing of the frail, wrinkled, and weary?

But the next day the woman was sitting in front of her home, and I saw no garbage company sticker stating that this item is not on the list of items that qualify for city garbage pick-up. She was there, in fact, practically every day I went shopping, or to keep a doctor's appointment, or into the city to lunch with a friend.

One day, though, a car, a small pick-up, and a mini-van were in front of the house. One man was loading the pick-up with plants and garbage bags along the street. The other men had set up a relay line from the front door to the pick-up and van. Garbage bags went into the pick-up, boxes of whatever, ancient appliances, and bundles of old clothes went into the van.

This operation continued for a week until all but the stool and a few plants remained in the small recess by the front gate. A week went by with no signs of the woman or activity and then, one day on my way to the post office, the car and the minivan pulled up in front of the house. On my way back I saw two men around the vehicles, which now included another small truck.

I veered to the other side of the street and dismounted my bike just short of the house and walked it by the vehicles toward the gate. The younger and older man I'd seen before were loading some junk in the back of the van. A third man was an electrician, judging from the equipment I saw in the open the back of his truck.

The older man disappeared through the front door of the house, and the younger man, his back to me, had just said something to the older man, when I said "Excuse me." He turned his face toward me and I said, "Is the lady who lives here okay?"

"She's here," he said, smiling, and called into the house. The older man appeared at the door, noticed me, and stepped out.

"This is her son," the younger man said.

"Mai mazaa," he said. "Are you from the neighborhood?"

"Not this one," I said, then pointing down the street, "The one beyond the next one."

"She's sleeping now," he said.

"I just wanted to know that she's okay."

"She had a small stroke. But she'll be out on her stool in a few days. In the meantime, we're been cleaning the place up and putting in some new appliances. She wouldn't let us do anything before. Things got a bit messy."

"Tell her everyone appreciates her smile."

"I'll do that. Thanks."

The men went back to work, and I mounted my bike and peddled off.

Over the next few days, I looked for her each time I passed but didn't see her. Her home was a two-minute walk from the 7-Eleven, where she shopped for her meals, but I didn't see her there either.

Then one morning, on my way into Tokyo, I noticed a couple of bouquets of fresh flowers in front of her gate. On my way back that evening, I saw a small pile of flowers and a red rose bush in a green-ribboned pot by the stool.

By the end of the week, the entire stretch of her property along the street was lined with bouquets of every make up and size, an assortment of plants in plastic and clay pots, and even a couple of bonsai, probably from her neighbor on the east side, who had a large collection of bonsai in a side hard between their homes.

A few stuffed animals, bottles and cans of beverage, bags of senbei, cookies, and candies, and a couple of scarves and a muffler would join the flowers and plants. Everything would sit there for a couple of weeks, before one weekend her son and the younger man I'd first talked to, who turned out to be her grandson, and his wife and their two teenage children, hauled everything away.

They left only the stool, and immediately above it, mounted on the block wall at waist level as if you were standing there and talking to her, a large black-framed color portrait of her smiling face, taken perhaps the day she came of age, as she was wearing a kimono and her hair was bunned with combs. A plaque at the bottom read Matsumoto Yuri, 1923-2015.

On the stool was a mikan, a 7-Eleven natto norimaki, and a pair of reading glasses. There was also a small ceramic bowl of sand with several ash-tipped stubs of incense sticks. Beside the bowl was a box of sticks and a burning candle. I lit a couple of sticks and prayed. Blooming from the mouth of a tall, emerald-glazed vase sitting on the tile by the stool, was a lily.