Saturday, March 7, 2009

Condemned Concert



Condemned Concert

In Scurry Downs, houses huddle together, shoulder to shoulder, so close they almost touch. Stella wonders how the owners ever painted the sides. It doesn’t look as if there is enough room for a skinny person to squeeze through sideways between neighboring homes, it’d be impossible for a ladder be unfolded in the space between them. That doesn‘t appear to be a big concern on this block, none of these homes have been painted in over a decade. Their porches sag as if about to cry and balusters are missing from snaggle-toothed railings. Stella is reminded of the smiling toothless seniors, crowded in the nursing home dining hall where she plays piano on Thursdays after dinner. The old folks have crinkled faces like wadded up love letters and dimly lit eyes: pilot lights.

Many of these dilapidated homes have been condemned. Their roofs slouch, foundations are crippled, but they still have great character in spite of wear. Each has a distinct individual charm, whether Victorian or Craftsman. Hand-made stained-glass windows, with that same ornate and colorful detail as antique costume jewelry, sparkle in the glow of the setting sun. Stella finds the home with address numbers that match the ones on the letter she is carrying. This southern charmer with wide country porch has an allure of a simpler time. Its tea-stained lace curtains sway as the sleepy house breathes through opened windows. It’s serenaded by a fork and spoon wind chime as a choir of song-birds congregates around seed filled tea-cups and saucers resting on a wrought iron table by the stairs.

Stella tip-toes up the stairs and knocks on the frayed screen door--barely hanging by rusty hinges. She waits. There’s no answer. She knocks again, “Hello?” she calls out with a hand cupped by her mouth, but still no answer. She stuffs the letter back into her tote bag and decides to walk around to the rear. As she climbs over knotted roots that have cracked the asphalt driveway, she smells the familiar aroma of chocolate chip cookies. When reaches the backdoor, she finds it wide open, smells from the kitchen fill her with fond memories of home and grandmother.

“Hello?” she calls, poking her head inside the door, just an inch or so. She sees an elderly woman by the sink. The woman doesn’t appear to hear her. She calls out again, but no response. Stella enters the kitchen and touches the woman’s shoulder. The gray-haired woman jumps and spins around with a frightened expression, her glasses make her eyes look like blue jaw-breakers--speckled white with cataracts. Stella says, “Don’t be scared. I knocked, but you didn’t hear me.”

The old woman reaches for her white cane leaning against the counter, taps it left to right on the linoleum, and makes her way to the kitchen table, visibly shaken by the intrusion. “Who that?”

In a slow loud voice Stella says, “Stella. My name is Stella Singletary. I’ve been sent to deliver an important letter. You were sent some forms in the mail, but you haven’t responded, so they sent me out here.”

“Eh? Speak up. Who they?” The old woman seems irritated, but she manages to find the edge of the platter of cookies and slides it toward Stella, as she takes a seat at the table. “Have a cookie, they fresh.”

Stella reaches for a warm cookie. “Thank you.” She takes a bite; chocolate chips melt on her tongue.

“You with them people? They keep sticking stuff on my door?” The old woman furrows her brow and seems to scold.

“Yes ma’am. I’ve been sent to make sure you get the forms. You haven’t responded to the mail or to the flyers attached to your door. Haven’t your neighbors told you?” Stella pulls out the letter and slips it under the old woman’s fingers. She drags her thin blue-veined hand over the words ‘Condemned Property - Notice of Eviction’, as if she is trying to read Braille.

“You read it to me.” The old woman pushes the letter back to Stella.
Stella swallows down the last delicious bite of the chocolate chip cookie, looks at the refrigerator door loaded down with family pictures--some appear to have been taken in that very kitchen, years ago when avocado linoleum was actually in style. She recognizes a younger version of the old woman’s face smiling at a little girl--chocolate smeared all around the child’s bright smile with two front teeth missing. Stella clears her throat, takes a seat beside the old woman, and says, “You’ve been invited to a piano concert at Silver Stream nursing home this Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m. Transportation will be provided upon request.”

“Silver Stream? I have a couple of neighbors who moved out there; which one sent the invite?” The old woman smiles and takes a cookie for herself.

Paula Ray



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