Mrs. H. wakes up slowly. For too many years she’d gotten up quickly, swatting down a clock that jangled or beeped too insistently to be ignored. When Boots knocked the last clock off the nightstand and broke its ringer, Mrs. H figured that she’d reached the point where she no longer needed to be alarmed by things. The hungry cat would do just fine in making sure she got up in time to feed him.
This morning Boots is doing just that. He pokes her ear gently with his paw, claws retracted like a little white boxing glove. “Mreow?” the cat asks. “Good morning to you too, Mr. Boots.” Mrs. H. replies, slowly moving her feet from under the covers, shifting feet to floor, fumbling around for her slippers and her comfy robe.
Mrs. H. turns the heat down every night but she has a big down quilt and a cat so it’s plenty warm for sleeping, although not as warm as it was when Henry was still alive. For such a small man, Henry sure generated a lot of heat. She misses that about him and the way he’d tell her silly stories and make up songs and tell her she would always be his girl.
“Mrreow?” Boots insists. Mrs. H. turns up the heat and follows the cat into the kitchen. She pours his morning food into the dish and fills his bowl with fresh water for the day. Mrs. H. then makes her morning tea and toast. Some mornings she listens to the news on the radio but the news is mostly forgettable things, which is convenient because then later when she sees Mr. Chan she can say “what’s news?” and it will be very new and very interesting. It is always more interesting when Mr. Chan tells her things. Today Mrs. H. doesn’t listen to the radio, she sings a little song to herself, one of Henry’s old songs, and she looks at her list. She makes herself lists these days, lists of things to remember. Today’s list looks like this:
Make Brownies for Mrs. Clarke
Two items isn’t much of a list, Mrs. H. thinks. Even Henry, God bless him, who had a mind like a steel sieve, would only make a list when he had more than three things to remember. Two items isn’t much of a list. And Boots is getting low on food. Mrs. H. adds
Food for Boots
Boots isn’t the only one needing to eat so below that she adds
Something for dinner.
Mrs. H. finishes her tea and toast, goes to the bedroom and gets dressed to go outside.
The day looks like it will be warm, but Mrs. H. gets cold easily these days, so she brings a jacket and her gardening gloves. The gloves aren’t just for warmth, she’ll be going to the garden today. It’s not a big garden, just some roses and a bit of green, but land without life is just death, so she tends it as best she can. The plants will be getting high now and will need to be cut back.
She and Henry had never been gardeners until the last years, when Henry was sick. Those times were hard, of course, the chemo sessions and the awful weakness. There were good times as well, when the disease was in remission; when Henry was again strong enough to walk and ride his bicycle. The garden had been his idea “as long we have a bit of land, we should put it to use” and the little plot got both enough sun and rain for the plants to do well. The people at the cemetery had resisted at first. Well the living ones had, the dead expressed no opinion, but Henry had been stubborn and logical. “We’ve paid for the land and if you’re fine with putting cut flowers on other graves I can’t see no reason why the Mrs. and me can’t grow roses on mine.”
And so, with the promise that they’d keep it tidy and do the extra work when the time came, they planted Henry’s plot. On the good days they both rode there, side by side where the road was wide enough and the traffic was light, on the bicycles they’d ridden since their courting days. They’d ridden more quickly when they were younger, and farther of course, but that old saying about bicycles is true, “once you learn to ride you never forget” and while Mrs. H. would forget things some days now if she didn’t put them on her list, she never forgot how to ride her bicycle or how it reminded her of all the rides she and Henry had taken together over the years. Henry would always ride beside her or behind her, letting her set the pace and never racing on ahead. “It’s a beautiful day and I’m with the woman I love,” he’d say, “Where would I want to hurry off to?”
Her bicycle lives in the living room. That’s the way she and Henry had always said it, “our bicycles live in the living room.” The apartment doesn’t have a garage, which is fine because Mrs. H. and Henry never owned a car and she’d be scared to death to drive. Too big, too fast, too noisy and too hard to find parking places in the city. The bicycles always made more sense.
When Henry passed she’d asked Mr. Cooper at the bike shop what he thought should be done with Henry’s bicycle. She knew it was old and not fancy like the new racing bikes but perhaps someone could still use it? Mr. Cooper had assured her that he could find a buyer and sure enough not more than two days later he’d stopped by to pay her what she was sure was too much money for an old bicycle. Mrs. H. suspected that Mr. Cooper being overly generous, perhaps thinking, not incorrectly, that she could use the extra money to help with the last of Henry’s doctor bills. But Mr. Cooper told her that this wasn’t so and when she checked with the buyer, a nice young man with old style glasses and a neatly trimmed beard, he’d assured her that he felt the price he’d paid for Henry’s old bike was very fair.
Mrs. H. rides alone now but she still sees Henry’s bike in the neighborhood and that makes her happy. Sometimes she sees the young man riding it, but more often she sees it parked by the little shop, the one with the complicated kinds of coffee. The young man is often there, staring into his phone or typing on his little computer. She’s not sure how he makes his living. Something with computers and it pays enough that he seems to be able to pay more than she would for an old bicycle or a cup of coffee.
Mrs. H. has never been a coffee drinker, but she buys her tea and other groceries at Mr. Chan’s market. Mr. Chan’s market is still called “Garcia’s Grocery” because Mr. Chan never saw any need to change the name when he bought the market a couple of years ago. Mrs. H. used to shop at the Safeway across town, but Mr. Chan’s market has everything she needs.
Mr. Chan had watched Mrs. H. ride by every day and he had thought about this. One day, he installed a bicycle rack out front. The next time Mrs. H. rode by, Mr. Chan had waved her down. “You, Bike Lady,” Mr. Chan said proudly, “You always riding somewhere. You stop sometime, buy food. You stop here now.” Mrs. H. had stopped. “You, Grocery Man. How much you charge for tea?”
Today Mrs. H. locks her bicycle carefully to the rack in front of Mr. Chan’s market. She takes her bag from the bike basket and steps inside the cramped but well-ordered market. “Ah, Mrs. H.” says Mr. Chan, “Good to see you. What’s news?” Mrs. H. tells Mr. Chan about how Nancy fractured her hip and how Mrs. Clarke’s chemo sessions are going, “she’s at that terrible, no hair, no appetite stage. The drugs are better now, but they’re still horrible.” Mr. Chan tells her about the latest politics and how his daughter is doing in school. “Not so good,” he says “She used to be good at the math, but now she think too much about the boys!”
Mrs. H. buys brownie mix, cat food for Boots and some spaghetti and sauce for dinner. She also buys a small onion and a clove of garlic. Yes, she buys her sauce in a jar, but she learned long ago that a little bit of onion and garlic chopped and fried up in olive oil added to the sauce as it simmers makes it so much better. Mrs. H. has developed a reputation as some kind of wonderful cook and she is often asked for her recipes. Folks always seem slightly disappointed when she tells them the whole truth, so she’s learned to keep a little mystery. “Oh, it’s nothing special,” she’ll say, “It’s just spaghetti from a box and sauce from a jar. It’s just made with extra love.”
Mr. Chan bags her groceries and tosses in a day-old bagel that he’s “just going to throw out, you feed to bird.” As she leaves, Mr. Chan gives the weather forecast. “No rain," he says, “my knee get stiff when rain is coming. It feel good today. No rain."
Mrs. H. rides to the park and watches the young mothers and nannies watch the kids on the swings. An old man and a young man sit at a picnic table playing chess. They say little, but take long pauses to think between moves. Mrs. H. rolls past the mothers and the nannies and the men, past where most of the people and the pigeons are. She doesn’t feed the pigeons anymore. Once an earnest young man had instructed her not to feed the pigeons. “There are too many of them and they spread disease.” She’d listened politely, thinking not so much that the young man was right but that there seemed to be too many earnest, polite young men with nothing better to do than to make up rules and laws telling other people exactly how and when they can be kind. But she’d listened to the young man and perhaps he’d had a point. There were a lot of pigeons and they didn’t seem to care if she fed them or not.
Crows are another story. Mrs. H. likes crows. While the pigeons just seem to stumble on food by chance, the crows are always clever at seeking it out. Mrs. H. knows a particular crow, a big one that Henry named Edgar. They’d first met him on one of their cemetery picnics. Edgar makes a regular circuit of the neighborhood and he knows which trash cans get set out on which days and which lids can be pryed open with his beak. Every Thursday morning he can be seen working the lid off Sam Johnson’s trash can across the street while Boots watches, fascinated, from Mrs. H.’s window. A weekly crow visit is like having a favorite TV show for a cat.
The cemetery is on the far side of the park and Mr. Simmons, the grounds-keeper, nods as Mrs. H. pedals through the open iron gate and into the quiet green space. Mr. Simmons has never been a chatty man and this job suits him well. People generally don’t come to graveyards to talk, at least not to talk to the living. He does his job and keeps to himself. Of course he knows about Mrs. H. and her little garden with the rose bushes and the greenery. That plot is one of the nicer looking ones in the yard and Mrs. H. keeps it looking nice. It’s one less grave for Mr. Simmons to mow, so what’s the harm?
Mr. Simmons leaves her in peace but Edgar Allen Crow is right there, swooping down on her basket before she can even park her bike. “Patience!” Mrs. H. laughs, “yes I brought you something, hang on.” She reaches in the bag, extracts the bagel and hands it to the bird. While the crow picks apart the bagel, Mrs. H. gets out her clippers. She’s learned to feed Edgar first, otherwise he gives her no peace and tries to peck at the shiny clippers.
She talks to Henry while she works; a conversation not unlike the one she’d had with Mr. Chan with the additional details of mutual friends, how Boots is doing and how much the plants have grown. She trims the broad green leaves back, packing the clippings carefully in a plastic bag. She’ll dry them later at home. The supply of dried leaves is getting low.
She can’t stay too long today, she explains to Henry. She still has to pick up Nancy’s prescription and make the brownies for Mrs. Clarke. She’ll be back tomorrow. It’s been a good day. She only cried a little this time.
Mrs. H. rides to the drug store. She doesn’t like the drug store. The lights are too bright and the music is too loud. They are too happy to sell you pills if you have insurance and too busy to talk to you if you don’t. She’d rather not go there, but Nancy has a hard time getting out now and she had told Nancy that she’d pick up her prescription for her. She has Nancy’s driver’s license with her and Nancy’d told her that she’d called in the prescription and it would be ready today. “Just say you’re me and they’ll give it to you. It’s all paid for and all old ladies look alike to them.” Mrs. H. didn’t like to lie and she didn’t like Nancy calling her an old lady. But Nancy was an old friend and Mrs. H. had said that she would help.
Mrs. H. doesn’t lie. If you do things right, you don’t have to, she thinks, so she says “Prescription for Terwilliger” and presents Nancy’s driver’s license to the young woman behind the counter. The girl doesn’t ask if Mrs. H. is in fact Nancy Terwilliger and simply hands over the white bag with the bottle of pills inside. Mrs. H. isn’t sure what the pills are for, if they are for Nancy’s liver or her hip or her blood pressure or what. Nancy is always telling her the things that are wrong and it is a lot of things and Mrs. H. hasn’t bothered to make a list.
The drug store doesn’t have a bike rack, so she’d locked her bike to an iron fence around the corner. The fence is solid and strong. Her bike lock is very big. When she and Henry had moved to the city, they had gotten the biggest locks they could find, the ones Mr. Cooper at the bike store called Fahgettaboudit. Mr. Cooper had advised always locking up to something big and solid. Mrs. H. follows that advice always, except, of course, when she’s at the cemetery. Nobody ever bothers her at the cemetery.
She comes around the corner and she sees a young man. He’s fiddling at the lock with a knife, an action unlikely to yield any meaningful results, but as Henry had been fond of noting “there’s a lot of stupid in this world.” Mrs. H. has a fraction of a second, an instant where she sees the criminal but he doesn’t see her. She has a chance to step back, to retreat around the corner, but that wouldn’t be right. Mrs. H. doesn’t retreat. She doesn’t stop and think. She just blurts out “Hey!”
She says it loudly, yells it actually. She wanted to sound like Clint Eastwood, but as the word leaves her lips she knows that she sounds like an old lady. She hopes that the young man will drop the knife and run away. At least run away.
He doesn’t. He smiles at her. There are smiles that are reassuring and friendly, smiles that make you feel safe. This is not one of those. The young man motions towards her with the knife and says “Why donchu hand me that bag?”
Mrs. H. thinks that Boots will get awfully hungry if she doesn’t come home. On the other hand, Henry’s been waiting for her for a while now...
Mrs. H. smiles.
The young man repeats the threatening motion with the knife, a glint in the sunlight. “Whatchu grinnin’ at granny?”
“I’m not your granny,” Mrs. H. says softly, remembering that Clint Eastwood never yelled. He would growl. Softly. Gruffly. Like something you’d have to be an idiot to mess with. Her lowered voice is steady in her ears, “You call me Mrs. H. Everybody calls me Mrs. H.”
She has no plan beyond this moment. She supposes a bag full of cat food and spaghetti could be swung as a weapon but only an idiot would bet on an old lady with a bag against a punk with a knife. She didn’t get this old by being an idiot.
“What the hell?!?” A dark shape, all wings and beak and beady eyes is suddenly at the punk’s wrist.
“I’m a witch, and this is my Familiar,” says Mrs. H. working hard to keep her voice low and menacing. “Didn’t your mama teach you not to bother witches? I’m a crazy old lady who hangs out in graveyards and talks to dead people. You don’t want to mess with me. Scram!”
Mrs. H. is not sure how much of her quiet speech the young man hears, he’s rather distracted by the bird. To a crow, a shiny blade is a trinket worthy of a closer look, certainly nothing like a threat. To a city kid, a big black crow is something sudden, wild and dangerous. The young man flails, fumbles and flees.
Edgar turns his attention to Mrs. H. “Caw?” the bird asks. “Sorry,” Mrs. H. replies, “no bagels, see?” She opens up the bag and shows the crow. He cocks his head as if he understands. “But thank you,” Mrs. H. adds “I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise. I’ll bring you something extra.”
The crow shrugs; an action which is extra expressive in a winged creature. He flies off. Those garbage cans over on Third still need to be examined.
Back at home Mrs. H. parks her bike safely in the living room. Boots tears himself away from the window to bother her about food until she feeds him. She takes the green leaves out of the plastic bag and lays them on the drying rack. The dried leaves, of course, are going into today’s batch of brownies. She heats up the double boiler and starts the butter melting.
She and Henry learned to make the brownies back when he was in chemo. Awful stuff that chemo, you lose your hair and you lose your appetite for everything.
Well, almost everything.
They’d learned about the plants and figured out how to cultivate them alongside the roses. People look at the pretty flowers and tend not to pay attention to the leaves.
Mrs. H. adds the dried leaves to the butter, gets out her mixing bowl and greases the brownie pan. Henry doesn’t need the brownies anymore, but Mrs. Clarke can use some kindness. A batch of brownies, made with extra love.