Discovering A Hole in the Universe

Watching the NeighborhoodA neighbor’s message on our answering machine informed me that Marge had died. In her sleep. She was eighty-six.

My first reaction was rather dismissive: “Well, she had a long life, and it was time,” I told myself. Not until I passed the news on to my husband did my mixed bag of feelings surface.

“Oh, no!” Fred mourned. “Things won’t be the same around here. I’ll miss her.”

I felt a colossal stab of guilt. I wasn’t so sure I’d miss the nosy old lady across the street who loved gossip and watched us like a hawk.

Fred said he’d miss the early morning ritual of moving her newspaper from lawn to doorstep. He’d miss the evening ritual of waving as he passed her kitchen window on the way home.

He recalled admiring her dual-purpose band saw, which she used to split frozen filet mignon into manageable portions to fit her dwindling appetite—and to cut metal tubes for her distinctive wind chime creations.

He wondered how it would be to raise our flag on a national holiday without Marge hoisting hers in response. That was their arrangement because he was usually more sure of what day it was than she was.

No more sprinklers to fix. No more taking her baby blue 1966 “mint condition” Thunderbird out on the freeway for exercise. No more first-hand town history tales.

I felt terrible. Bad that I wasn’t as caring as Fred. Sad that I was supposed to feel differently than I did. Mad there was no way to avoid sorting out the truth of my relationship, or lack of it, with Marge.

Fred went off to telephone a neighbor for details. I tuned the TV to Jeopardy! and competed for answers to easier questions while pounding veal into see-through scaloppini.

After dinner, as I pulled the living room shade, I realized I had never lowered or raised it in four years without thinking of Marge. Without concern about closing her out or wondering about letting her in.

Shortly after we moved in, Marge invited us to her cocktail hour: one Bombay gin martini straight up with a Spanish olive. From her kitchen counter, the view took us straight through our own picture window across the way. Fred called it her command post. From her perch, she could keep tabs on everyone in the neighborhood.

When she came for tea, she told me her life story “except for the really sexy parts,” which she wanted to save so she’d have something new to tell later on. Soon I realized our “conversations” were one-sided. She chattered—about sex, death, other people, her short marriage, loneliness—and I listened. If I tried to talk, she would point out she didn’t have her hearing aid in. When I finally understood she needed more from me than I could give willingly, I pulled away.

Although I still waved as I passed her window, or stopped for quick hellos, all major communication happened through Fred. He can chat and easily say good-bye in ways that I cannot.

Birthday cards, garden tomatoes, fresh-baked cookies, well wishes—all crossed the road via Fred Express. I wondered how she felt, until Fred reported a message clearly intended for me: “Marge says she understands Gemini people are fickle.”

Remembering that, I decided we’d had a relationship too complex to sort out. I finished closing the shades and went to bed.

A few days later, I waved automatically as I drove past the command post. Without warning, I burst into tears.

No return wave. No smiling face in the window. No raised martini glass. No Marge.  A hole in the universe.

I knew more about what Fred missed: a part of our lives gone, some kind of security whisked away, home base changed forever. But I also felt something deeper. A part of me had gone with her. A part of her remained behind. Beneath our differences lay the inseparable connectedness of us all.

As I got out of the car, I heard the clear tones of the wind chimes Marge had made for us with her band saw.

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