Noe Valley Voice March 2003

The Last Page

By Carol Marshall

I CAUGHT A GLIMPSE of her once. A hunched figure, snailing along the sidewalk. An ancient puckered face. A living dried-apple doll. I thought I remembered an old dog wheezing along behind her, but I must have been mistaken.

A few inches separated our house from hers. At the rear, where our kitchens met, I think the walls actually touched. From our living room, overlooking a busy street, we couldn't hear our neighbor at all, and we took to having our "private times" there to avoid being overheard by her. The rest of the house was another matter. Even with the water running and various appliances humming away, it was impossible to lose the sensation that our neighbor was in the house with us. We learned to live with her. It was, we thought, a small price to pay for a great house in a great neighborhood in San Francisco.

I work at home and came to know her best, eagerly sharing little anecdotes about her with Jim when he returned from work. I knew our neighbor was very old. Even if I had never seen her, I would have gleaned that from the shuffling sound of her movements and the thinness of her voice. I knew she must be lonely. I knew that her clothes were frayed because I often saw them hanging on the line in her small garden.

The poor condition of her clothes I chalked up to poverty. The badly overgrown condition of her yard I attributed to her lack of strength. I also knew that although she liked to sing, she was not very good at it. Her favorites were old songs that were popular years before our parents were born, although she sometimes delighted us by singing along with something more current.

For some reason, we found her singing extremely funny. On one occasion when we heard her warbling away, we found ourselves actually rolling around on the floor, wiping tears of laughter from our eyes and holding our hands over one another's mouths to keep her from hearing how much fun we were having at her expense. We laughed even harder when Jim wondered aloud if she was dancing along.

One of us, I'm sure it was Jim and not me, tried to imitate what she might look like moving to rap music. Later, we did penance for our insensitivity by trudging up to 24th Street, where we bought a large box of pastries. We left them on our neighbor's doorstep.

We came somehow to the conclusion that she had a cat, although we never saw it and although I still carried with me that dim recollection of a dog. Senior citizens keep cats. Definitely. A cat was present. One day, in a burst of neighborly love, we left a brightly wrapped package containing a cat toy in her mailbox, so certain were we at one time about the existence of the cat. We never asked ourselves how it could be that despite the clarity of everything else we heard from her side of the wall, we never heard a single meow.

What we did hear was the scuffing of slippers against a wood floor, the rattle of pans, static from a badly tuned radio, water splashing in a sink, the flush of a toilet, pages being turned, the swoosh of broom bristles, the opening and closing of doors and windows. Occasionally, we heard the crash of something fragile hitting the floor and breaking. One day, this happened at least six times while I was trying to work, and when Jim arrived, I entertained him with a wildly exaggerated rendition of the broken pottery symphony.

We knew all about her. Her name we learned from mail mistakenly left in our box. Emily Anne Willows. How quaint, we thought. Old-fashioned. Dear. The return address on the envelope pleased us. Thrush & Darling. London. Positively Dickensian. We had never before detected a British accent in her, but suddenly we could hear it clearly. At Christmastime that year, we left on her threshold a box of Christmas-cracker party favors. On Christmas Day, we pictured her sitting in her drawing room, her sweet white head adorned with the colorful paper crown which had been released when she popped her cracker. In our imaginations, we saw her happily gobbling up her figgy pudding.

ONE DAY, I was treating myself to a glass of wine at Le Zinc, which had become a sort of secret afternoon addiction for me. I overheard a couple discussing an Englishman named Maxwell Thrush who was in Noe Valley to assist local law enforcement authorities in locating someone. Thrush? I recalled the return address on the envelope addressed to our neighbor.

Our Miss Emily Anne, the subject of an international woman hunt! I fled Le Zinc and called Jim on my cell phone as I raced home. Impressed by my excitement, Jim came home early to join in the fun. We spent the evening and well into the wee hours of the morning with our ears pressed to the wallpaper, struggling to hear what the fugitive next door might be up to. We heard a flush, a squeak, a swish, a strange rat-tat-tat. Periodically, we stumbled over one another to get to the living room. There we peered out from behind closed curtains hoping for a glimpse of Mr. Thrush and/or something sinister. Finally, we went to sleep.

Jim's business got busy over the following weeks and I had several deadlines to meet, so we kind of forgot about Emily Anne and Thrush and the rest of it.

TWO DAYS AGO, a policeman appeared at our door. He seemed pretty skeptical about our knowing our neighbor when neither of us could really describe her. Mentioning the phantom dog and cat didn't go over too well either. When we couldn't say for certain when we'd last heard any noise from next door, we really disappointed him, and telling him about the Thrush connection only seemed to make matters worse. Maxwell Thrush, he huffily informed us, had been searching for a young boy. Then he told us our neighbor's name was not Emily Anne Willows but Mary Jordan. We have since learned that the real Emily Anne lives at the same house number as our neighbor's, but on the next street. Apparently, when we stuffed that letter into Mary's box, we only compounded the postman's error.

I guess we really never knew Mary, who had been lying dead, inches from our bed, for several days before the police came to see us. Now we know that her clothes had been neglected because she chose to spend her wealth, which was substantial, on books and theater and had never cared much about fashion. The garden had been a mess because, frankly, it didn't interest her all that much. Mary had been a retired opera singer from Manhattan who hated cats and was puzzled but amused at the anonymous gift of a cat toy and the mysterious appearance of pastries. She had thought her young neighbors sweet but not too bright. The box of Christmas crackers was but one of many indications of their mental deficiencies. Mary hadn't a drop of British blood in her and would never be caught wearing a paper party hat. She really had no desire to get to know her neighbors better. She hadn't been lonely at all, to begin with, and moreover, they seemed, to put it charitably, a little dull. Finally, Mary had no real intrigue in her life and had died peacefully of natural causes at the not-very-old age of 72.

All of this I learned from Mary's niece in Santa Cruz, who came to her aunt's house to pack things up. Mary had spoken to her niece nearly every day from a telephone in her living room, the only room in the house in which she'd had any privacy from us. The niece knew us as the dopey kids next door, giggling uncontrollably, listening at the walls, falling over themselves to spy on her aunt, giving strange anonymous presents, and idling away their days drinking wine in cafés (apparently Mary had noticed me more often than I had her!).

Mary had liked us anyway, because we were cute and young and well intentioned. Given the proximity of our walls, it had seemed to her that, like it or not, we practically lived in her house. Small price to pay for a great house in a great neighborhood in San Francisco.

* * *

Carol Marshall knows what it's like to live in close proximity to others. She grew up in New York City, lived for a time in a tiny San Francisco apartment, and now resides in a house on a hill just a whisper away from her Mill Valley neighbors. She selected Noe Valley as the setting for her story because it is her favorite Bay Area "village." Twenty years as a mediator and arbitrator have taught her that relying on assumptions, stereotypes, and sketchy facts almost always leads to major roadblocks in communication.

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