Marlboros, the King, and 8 O’clock Bean
Part I: Twilight Time
A flat-bed manure truck sputtered by, coughing a grayish-blue smoke and carelessly dropping wet handfuls of horse manure onto Birch Street. Jolene Harrod took a long draw from her cigarette, tapped the top with her left forefinger, and blew a similar blue smoke from both of her nostrils. “Horseshit,” she snickered and glanced to her left. In her peripheral vision, she caught sight of her next-door neighbor, Lavinia Gallis, smiling slightly as she sipped her decaffeinated coffee from a cracked-and-glued blue porcelain cup she bought at a thrift store. The two women had shared a wall in the same brick duplex for 23 years. In that time, they had sat not ten feet from one another nearly every afternoon. They rarely spoke.
Lavinia tilted her head to the right, pretending to watch the passing truck. She looked sideways at Jolene who smoked and laughed at her own profanity. She listened to the slight whistling sound Jolene made when she blew smoke from her nose and imagined her neighbor as a steam locomotive. She chuckled to herself, and as she did, her partial set of false teeth fell from her gums with a slurping sound. The hot coffee had loosened the adhesive.
She clinched her teeth together; her lower teeth forced her falsies back to their rightful gums. Usually, the loosening of her dentures meant that the time had come to head inside for the evening, but Lavinia was comfortable in the fall air, so she decided to sit just a bit longer. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and imagined she was sitting on the beach with a young Bill Cosby.
Jolene had decided to count the number of smoke rings she could make in one minute. It was a contest she used to have with her deceased husband, Harry. They would sit just far enough apart as not to disturb each other’s smoke. The winner got a kiss. Even if she lost, Jolene always considered herself the winner. Harry called this part of the evening Twilight Time after his favorite song.
Jolene heard the familiar clicking sound that Lavinia’s dentures made. She turned her head around to the front door of the house to look at the Folger’s thermometer clock that hung next to her front door. 6:45. Time to go in for the evening. Jolene, making sure once again not to look too obvious, peeked over at Lavinia. Her eyes were closed and her coffee cup was sitting on the ground.
Jolene turned her entire body in Lavinia’s direction. Was she dead? Had she breathed in too much carbon monoxide from those trucks that use Birch Street like a freeway? Maybe her teeth clicked because she was having a heart attack. Jolene stared intently at Lavinia’s chest to see if she noticed any movement in Lavinia. She was dead. She had keeled over right there, right next to Jolene. Jolene hadn’t said three words to the woman in 10 years, and here she was dead, and I have been her neighbor all this time and what kind of neighbor am I? A horrible neighbor. Breathe, Lavinia. Just breathe, dammit. One breath, that’s all. You’re not dead. You’re not. You’re just…
“Well, hey there, Miss Jolene.”
Hardy Garrett’s salutation scared Jolene so much that she bit right through the filter of her cigarette, which dropped into her lap and burned right through her yellow flowered cotton dress. She leaped up, hit her head on a hanging fern, and dropped back down into her chair. The brittle chair collapsed under the pressure. Jolene spilled to the ground like groceries from a ripped sack.
The noise startled the daydreaming Lavinia who jumped from her seat. Anxiously, she stood looking at Jolene, limbs askew, choking on a used cigarette filter. Her hand over her mouth, Lavinia took a step forward as if to help.
Embarrassed and frightened, Hardy moved to assist Jolene who had coughed up the filter. He leaned in, but Jolene swung her arms wide as if she was being attacked by a swarm of bees. “Get off me, you nincompoop,” she stammered.
“Oh, gosh,” began Hardy. “I sure am sorry, Miss Jolene. I’s just tryin’ to say hello. You sure you don’t need some help?”
“I got it. I got it,” she forced. Jolene slowly raised herself from the concrete porch and stood next to Hardy. She, with her right hand, rubbed her sore behind. Her left searched for a pack of cigarettes in her dress pocket. When she found them, she knocked one from the pack, plunged it into her mouth and lit it, sucking in the smoke like it was the first breath she had ever taken.
Satisfied that Jolene was not hurt too seriously, Lavinia picked up her coffee cup and ambled inside.
Hardy, too scared to move or speak, just gawked at Jolene. “I’m OK, Hardy. You just scared me is all,” she reassured him in a grandmotherly manner. “Sorry I hollered at’cha.” He was a statue. “Go on home now. It’s getting dark.”
“Yes’m,” he whispered and skittered away.
Jolene peered over to Lavinia’s side of the porch. She was gone. She wasn’t dead after all. Jolene tossed her cigarette into the street and turned to go inside. As she did, she kicked the splintered chair. She sighed aloud and went in.
Part II: A Watched Clock
On Tuesdays, Lavinia always got up early to drive to the farmer’s market. She would heat two servings of instant grits in the microwave, fill the thermos full of steaming fresh ground decaffeinated coffee and sit out on her front porch until 8 a.m. She would then crank up her Skylark and make the five-mile trip.
Lavinia paid top dollar for Frog Hollow tomatoes, grown in central Kentucky. The tomatoes from Kroger tasted like old water balloons in comparison. She always thought that if she could grow her own tomatoes, she would want them to taste like Frog Hollow tomatoes. Unfortunately, her insignificant patch of lawn did not allow for a tomato garden. And don’t think she hadn’t tried.
She sat down on her front porch, heaved a thick wool blanket to her lap, set down her coffee, and began to nibble at her tepid grits. When she was finished eating, she went in to put her bowl in the sink. She knew that if she let the bowl sit out, the grit dregs would dry like plaster to the inside of the bowl. She would have to chip them off with a knife. In her younger days, she would not have thought twice about leaving dishes for later, but at 73 years old, she would rather have thrown the bowl in the garbage than wrestle with caked-on grits.
She came back out to enjoy her coffee. She knew she had about 15 minutes before she had to start thinking about leaving. As she sipped her coffee, she kept looking in the direction of Jolene’s door. Jolene was normally an early riser, but she was always out to get her paper by 7:30. There it sat, right next to a pile of wood and metal that used to be a deck chair. Maybe she was just sore today. Certainly she would pick it up later.
Returning from the farmers’ market at about nine, Lavinia noticed that the daily paper was still resting next to the broken chair. Was Jolene OK? Perhaps the events of the past evening had taken a toll on her. Lavinia shrugged and drove around to park. Jolene had picked up her paper much later than that before. Once, when she had the flu, she waited until the afternoon to come out and retrieve it. “That’s probably what she’ll do,” assumed Lavinia.
Lavinia only left the house once more that day. She walked downtown to the post office to mail in her Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes entry form. She didn’t trust the mailman to get the envelope to Publisher’s Clearing House. What if postage went up when she wasn’t looking and postage-paid envelope wasn’t good anymore? What if her entry sat in the back of a mail truck for weeks, stamped “Return to Sender”? She simply couldn’t risk it.
On her walks, Lavinia commented to herself how much Greenville had changed since she moved there with her late husband over 30 years before. He had taken a job with the Veteran’s Administration teaching woodworking and welding to retirees. It was one of the few well-paying jobs black men could get in 1962. She took work as a housekeeper. She remembered being scared to go outside by herself then.
She snickered. She couldn’t believe that back when America was wholesome and clean, she was scared of being attacked by racist white men, and now that the country had been littered by drugs and perversion, she, at 73-years-old, had no fears at all about walking by herself to the post office. She had to admit that she hadn’t heard the word “nigger” aloud, except on TV, in as long as she could remember.
On her way back from the post office, she noticed that the paper had remained on the front porch. She looked at her watch. The time was 4 p.m. Jolene usually inside watching Jeopardy at four. Lavinia could always hear Jolene shouting at her television through the wall. She stopped on the sidewalk in front of Jolene’s door. She closed her eyes, fixed her left ear on the duplex, and listened for the sound of Alex Trebek’s voice. She waited. She heard nothing. She held her breath. All she heard was the faint sound of music a few streets over and the kids across the street making flatulence noises with their arms. No Trebek. No Jeopardy. Maybe Lavinia was asleep. That’s it. Judging from the condition of the chair, she probably had to take a mammoth pain killer to relieve the pain in her rear. It made her drowsy. She slept all day. “She’s fine,” said Lavinia, making a dismissive gesture with her right hand.
Lavinia didn’t return to the porch until 6:30. The walk to the post office tired her out, so she fell asleep at the kitchen table. The sound of her own snoring woke her up. She wiped a stream of warm drool from her cheek and rubbed the back of her sore neck. The paper, she thought, and moved toward the front door to the porch. She opened the door and looked to the right. There it was, staring back at her like a rabid dog. She stepped back to get away from it. She thought that if she went back in, the paper would go away. Jolene would get up off her lazy duff and get her paper. A watched clock never chimes. “This is ridiculous,” she sneered at the paper. “She is fine. Leave it alone, you old busybody.” She heard her husband’s voice in her last remark. Lavinia swore that Curtis Gallis called her “you old busybody” more than he did her real name. She closed her eyes, turned her head, and marched back inside. She would not sit out on the front porch this evening.
Part III: Just Like Elvis
Lavinia woke in a cold sweat at 11:49 p.m. She sat up in bed and looked around her room. She had been dreaming of the night Curtis passed. “Is he going to die?” she asked every attendant, nurse, and doctor who stepped near her. Wanting to spend the last moments of his life in quiet reflection with his wife, Curtis touched Lavinia’s chin, looked her in the eyes and said, “Just calm down you old busybody.” That’s when Lavinia woke up. “She’s dead!” she found herself declaring.
Lavinia reached her feet down into her slippers, pulled on a jacket that was draped over her vanity and made a straight path for the front door. Before she opened it, she looked up in the direction of the doorbell chime, closed her eyes, and said a short prayer: “God, please don’t make her be dead.” She unlocked the deadbolt, turned the door handle, and stepped into the crisp night air.
She could not see well at night. Everything on Jolene’s porch was shrouded in shadow. She moved slowly, squinting her eyes more with each step. Then she saw it: the Greenville Journal. All the lights were off at Jolene’s place. Should she knock? “This is ridiculous,” whispered Lavinia. She hadn’t spoken to this woman years, except to maybe say hello and good evening. This was a woman who wouldn’t come out of her door for months after Lavinia moved in. When she did finally come out, she rarely even turned her head in Lavinia’s direction. Lavinia caught her looking a few times and forced her to say hello, but that was it. Now, here she was, shivering cold, standing like a thief out in front of Jolene’s door staring at a newspaper.
“Ree-diculous,” she repeated as she knocked on the door. Of course there was no answer. Jolene was obviously asleep. “I’ll just have to knock louder.” She did. And louder, and louder until she noticed she was pounding furiously on the door like a jealous spouse. Lavinia, feeling quite brave after having beaten on the door, decided to try the doorknob. The door was unlocked. She opened it. Immediately she inhaled the stale air of cigarette ashes and dusty furniture. She remembered seeing in some movie how this detective said he could smell death. She took a deeper whiff to see if she could too. She just smelled the musty air.
She had wondered for years what Jolene’s house must look like inside. She imagined photos of family reunion Klan rallies and framed Nazi table linens in oak shadow boxes. She daydreamed that Jolene had an arsenal of World War II artillery that would one day explode after one of her cigarettes caught the carpet on fire. Spooked by her own imagination, Lavinia flipped on the light switch by the front door. The miniature front foyer lit up, sending tangential light into both the dining room on the left and the living room on the right.
Lavinia was surprised at how much Jolene’s house looked like hers. She figured they had the same layout, being part of the same duplex and all, but she never would have thought Jolene would have similar taste in furnishings. Her sofa could have come from the same store. Her coffee table could have been cut from the same cherry tree. Her drapes could have been dyed in the same vat. Lavinia did notice one marked difference between the two living rooms—Jolene was not a very competent housekeeper. Cushions were askew, and dust had settled on the TV, coffee table and side table. Newspapers were stacked ten deep next to a rocking chair. Cigarette ashes had been dropped carelessly onto the carpet. She bent down and picked up a throw pillow from the floor.
Looking around, Lavinia thought how embarrassed she would be if Jolene were to find her standing in the living room casing the place. She placed the pillow, on which was embroidered, “Screw the Golden Years,” on the rocking chair. She took two steps back and stage-whispered, “Mrs. Harrod?” No response. “Jolene?” Nothing. She slunk down the hall, turning on the next light switch she came to. At the end of the hall was an open door. The bathroom. Judging from the outstretched hand on the floor, Lavinia figured Jolene was passed out or dead.
She gulped dry air into her throat and began walking down the hall to the bathroom. Weakened by her discovery, she had to use the wall to hold herself up. When she completed the five steps it took to arrive at the bathroom, Lavinia reached her arm around the corner and turned on the light. Jolene was laying face down on the tile floor, her left arm reaching for the far wall, her right arm tucked up under her. Her dress was hiked up, revealing her pink, fleshy behind and a large purple bruise spanning both cheeks. Lavinia was right. Jolene was dead. In her shock, Lavinia said out loud the first words that came to her mind: “She died on the toilet, just like Elvis.”
Part IV: The Neighborly Thing to Do
Perhaps it was the shock of finding her neighbor lying face down on her bathroom floor with her fanny sticking up in the air, but Lavinia was not scared any longer. She actually felt a great calm come over herself. She turned to go back to her house to call the police. She walked slowly down the hall, leaving the lights on so the police could see. As she passed the living room, she stopped.
She looked at the dust blanketing the room, the black tobacco ground into the carpet, and the cushions in disarray. If she died, she would want her house to be in immaculate condition. What would the police and the coroner think if they saw a mess like this? They would think that Jolene was a messy woman. They might even say that someone who allowed her house to fall into such disrepair deserved to die. Well, they might. “What if I just dust a bit?” she said. “It can’t hurt. It’s the neighborly thing to do.”
She had to nudge Jolene out of the way with her foot in order to get the cleaning supplies under the bathroom sink. She knew right where they’d be. After all, that’s where Lavinia kept hers. She went right to work, first on the living room and then on to the dining room, the kitchen and the bedroom. She made quick work of it and even commented that it really wasn’t as dirty as she first thought.
Dusting under Jolene’s bed, Lavinia’s broom made contact with a hard object. On closer inspection, she found it was a cardboard box, a nondescript shoebox, size seven. Curious, Lavinia removed the lid like a little girl on Christmas morning. Inside were blank envelopes. The envelopes weren’t empty though. Lavinia removed the one on top, peeled it open with her finger, and removed the folded paper inside.
She began reading: “Dear Mrs. Gallis…” Lavinia’s eyes became window blinds, shooting open to reveal the first sunshine after a long storm. She read on:
You watered my plants this morning. I sometimes forget, but you always notice when they get too dry. Did you use fertilizer? My flowers were never so beautiful before you moved in. Anyhow, thank you. That was sweet of you.
Your friend and neighbor,
She stared at the letter in trepidation like a teenage girl staring at a pregnancy test that has just revealed that her life will never be the same. Tossing the paper aside, she grabbed the next letter from the box.
Dear Mrs. Gallis,
I just wrote to say I think you have the loveliest hair. I always wondered what it would be like to have hair like a Negro woman. Do you have to work hard to get it to shine like that? What kind of shampoo do you use? Some Negro women have straight hair and some have curly. Yours is in-between. I would love to have hair like yours, Mine is so dull and straight. I wish I would just chop it off and get a wig. You’ll have to tell me how you do it.
Your friend and neighbor,
She tossed it aside and went for the next one. It was about Lavinia’s trips to town.
“Do you think you could take me with you one day?” Jolene had written. It was also sighed, “Your friend and neighbor.”
“Friend? “My friend,” said Lavinia. She read on. All of the letters were to her. All were about some bit of insignificance. All were signed the same way. She came across one letter that contained a store sample of perfume. A few had coupons for 8 O’clock Bean, Lavinia’s brand of coffee. “Do I think Alex Trebek is handsome?” Lavinia read.
There must have been at least 50 letters. Lavinia read them all. When she was finished, she collected the paper, folded it neatly, and stuffed it back in the box. She replaced the top, used the bed to help herself up, and walked in a daze out into the hall. Box in hand, she walked into the bathroom. She looked down at Jolene, still looking like a toppled Statue of Liberty. “Why?” she questioned. “What for?”
Lavinia bit her bottom lip and knelt down beside Jolene. She delicately pulled her underwear back up and her dress back down. With all of her strength, she rolled Jolene onto her back. For at least fifteen minutes, she stared into Jolene’s marble eyes. Perhaps she was looking for an answer. Perhaps she was looking for Jolene’s soul. She found neither. With her right hand, she closed Jolene’s eyes. “This just won’t do,” she decided.
Lavinia dug her heals into the carpet outside the bathroom. She held tight to Jolene’s wrists. Inch by inch she heaved and jerked until both she and her neighbor lay limp on the bedroom floor. She intended to haul Jolene up into her bed, but realized this was an impossibility. Instead, Lavinia left her lying next to her bed. “Close enough,” she said.
The dawn sun provided enough light for Lavinia to see her way out with the lights off. She took one last look at the living room before leaving Jolene’s house for the first and last time. “Same damn couch,” she commented.
Part V: Your Friend and Neighbor
Lavinia called the police as soon as she got home. She said she heard a noise next door like someone falling. She told the dispatcher that her neighbor was elderly and may have fallen.
Almost everyone in the neighborhood came out to see the ambulance in the road. Lavinia sat in her porch chair with her blanket on her lap, a cup of coffee sitting on the table next to her and a black pen and legal pad in her hands. She swore she heard—as he lifted the stretcher into the back of the ambulance—one of the paramedics remark, “Kept a clean house.” Lavinia grinned, took a sip of coffee and set down her cup. She took the pen in her right hand, ran the end through her hair, and put the point to the paper. She wrote:
Dear Mrs. Harrod,
I suppose it’s about time I wrote you back. This letter is long overdue. Let me begin by saying that you are certainly not the woman I took you for. You are more like me than I would ever have known. By the way, did you buy your sofa at American Warehouse Furniture? It is just like mine, except for the color. I actually like yours better.
If you really want to know, I got my hair secret from my mother. And that’s what it will stay, a secret. Ha ha.
I would love to have you come with me to the Farmers’ Marker. I’m sure you’d make better company than the radio.
There is so much to write, but I guess I should same some for the next letter.
Your friend and neighbor,
P.S. About the flowers, you’re welcome.