by RICHARD SCHMITT
This morning I beat the old lady next door up, which makes me happy, kick-starts the day. She’s tough to beat up that one. Kind-of-a raw old lady, bare-knuckled and hunchbacked, knobby knees and elbows, walking bow-legged with a rocking-boat gait, and she hasn’t shit to do besides beat me up most mornings. Not that I give a roly-poly. I don’t lie in wait for her or set my alarm to ambush her in the dark A.M. I’m not spying on her across the way. It’s just every morning when I’m standing at my kitchen window above the sink waiting for my coffee machine to kick out the java, there she is across the dark gap between our houses, up, dressed and moving about her well-lighted kitchen. Her cheap-ass Mr. Coffee machine glowing, a full carafe already half down. Lit up through the kitchen windows, mine and hers, I see clearly all the mundane details of her kitchen, the paper-towel roll and the cans on the counters containing the bread and cereal grains and whatnot. I see she has a spice rack. I don’t have one. I haven’t even had coffee yet and she’s up scrubbing her countertops with Bon Ami and pulling food from her refrigerator cooking some stew or casserole and clamping her old lady chops down on the edge of her mouth-stained coffee mug which even from this distance appears disgusting. Is anything as grubby as another person’s ceramic mug used repeatedly day-in-day-out without adequate cleansing? Just rinse and swish in faucet water using maybe your fingers, sparing the Palmolive because who cares, no one else is going to use it, no one would, and you’ll need it again the next morning anyway, there being no end to mornings. So there’s no point in putting it into the cupboard with the other cups because that’s your special mug, the chosen one treasured but shoddily cared for, a vessel not shipshape, the glaze wornoff, maybe even chipped, the tainted-brown top-edge kissed with coffee-stained lips, stuck with bits of breakfast grit, and she smokes too so add that to the besmirched rim and nicotine-stained handle. A workhorse mug, well-used in half-daze and desperation, occupying a perpetual spot in the drying strainer or simply sitting on the counter all day next to Mr. Coffee until once again here comes the early A.M. unchecked.
She’s no old laughing lady, pretty serious this one, living alone as she does, no husband or son, and beating me up every morning wearing black rubber gloves for scrubbing pots and pans in the only light in the neighborhood at that hour besides the misty street lamps. Two bright windows facing each other like bookends across a dark divide, like plain parallel mirrors placed face-to-face, an infinite regress reflecting all the other windows windowswindowswindows on to infinity or back to the beginning of time or wherever those likenesses go.
Standing at the window half asleep still without coffee—cursing this slow machine—I have not a wide perspective on our pools of light. Yellow patches seen from afar like refuge in wilderness, rectangular stamps stuck down on coal-black plains, lit-up beacons in an otherwise shadowy landscape, two blazing portals into the three-dimensional staging areas we call lives: window, kitchen, house. Little boxes pressed together and surrounded by flat black, as if two spotlights have found us in a scullery theater where we carry on unseen except maybe from the heavens, some eye in the sky watching us play our parts day-in day-out, our sedentary patches of life, I mean light, as in “Let there be…”
What sparked that first flip of the switch? Could it have been nothing more than the need for coffee? Could this joke-on-us be nothing more than some groggy deity trying to get his blood moving? Did it all spring from mere craving? Some bored god slouching toward Mr. Coffee. Some early riser without shit to do. Who knows?
There may be other kitchens alive and striving this early, other coffee machines gurgling and spitting onto countertops, other cracked-glaze mugs a-steaming. But I don’t see them. I can’t imagine them at this hour. We are extreme, me and the old lady next door, up as early as three or four A.M. Does that creep you out? Disturb your slumber, haunt your dreams, feed your guilt? Make you uneasy knowing your neighbors are up and about, lurking in the dark, obscenely caffeinated and watching while you snooze?
Edward Hopper might have found us, etched and smeared us, like his Night Shadows and
Nighthawks and Night Windows. Us two sketched in, brushed and stroked, caught web-like within our clear frames of luminance, connected here and there and divided by our narrow way surrounded by dark,static at our sinks and scoured counters with coffee machines gasping in our kitchens full of light, I mean life.
My machine has finally spit out the java and I’ve filled a carefully scrubbed cup with cream which is nauseating at this hour, carelessly poured sugar too granulated across the counter into the cracks next to the sink—no wonder there are ants. The old lady’s got a big round plate draining in the strainer now. She’s eaten something apparently, moving about her kitchen, drying her hands on a dishrag. Steam coming off her stove has fogged her window slightly giving her a ghostly air. She’s paid me no mind over the years. Our kitchen windows unimpeded by drapes, shades, or flipping blinds, the light spills out, as they say, splashes out onto the dark ground between us.
For a long time her window had a minor crack that grew into two cracks and recently a razor-thin triangular shape fell out and smashed on the ground beneath the sash along the stone foundation where cats sleep. The old lady has a handyman for such mishaps, a geezer who cuts grass and cleans gutters. I wonder about them since he comes and goes during the day through her back door into the kitchen as if he has a key or maybe the door is unlocked. If he stayed the night I’d miss him sneaking out in the A.M. since she usually beats me up. Who cares anyway if two old farts get it on? That is to say, I’m not going to beat myself up over it.
Nor am I responsible if she dies. I mean, I’m the only one watching, buzzed on caffeine at 3 or 4 A.M. and this morning she has arrived a bit late, or I’m a bit early. But what if she doesn’t appear one day and she’s not sleeping with the handyman so there is no one to discover her dead in her bed? I’d see the lack of light after daze passed, before days went by, I mean. I’d see no life in her kitchen, no Mr. Coffee, the stove not steaming, the sullied mug unused in the strainer. Then what?
Only the dark mornings reveal her up and about, alive and well, scrubbing and cooking and so on. I rarely see her in the light of day, once in a while crossing the backyard from garage to kitchen door. Thirteen years the same old lady beating me up every day, thirteen years we wave, exchange fragments: I say hi, she says hi. Thirteen years goes by and that’s about it and why not? What the hell am I supposed to say to an old passing lady?
It takes about three cups of coffee for daylight to emerge. Clearly and imperceptibly our lively windows pale, lose definition, the light goes out of them, the life of our kitchens grows dim and gradually the windows turn from warm beacons of light to cold stone-gray slabs. The windowpanes invisible in the dark turn glossy and reflective in the rising dawn. Where does dark go with the coming of light? Well, it’s not a mystery, a desk lamp and a globe solves that question. But along the murky path between us I feel dark fading or light evolving—there is no difference. There are bushes on my side, minor greenery, nothing but plain gray clapboard on her side and the windows losing their flame. The sky appears first, stars fading into blue over the roof of her house. There is no raging here against the dying light, we stand mute watching all come and go, having one more cup of coffee for the road. The heartbeats kick up as if we may be the source of the day bled from our windows to the outside world. Morning comes on, we fade, evanescent, ephemeral. Standing still at the window over the sink by the coffee machine, my sparkling mug grown cold, the day imposes until our kitchens dwindle little by little and we disappear.
I’m thinking, as time goes on, if I could beat her up more often, get the jump on her daily by a few minutes, hours over weeks, days over months, months over years, with plenty of caffeine to harden the arteries and stain the teeth and crack glaze on mugs, I might grow old faster, catch up to her and marry her. We could be something then, a couple joined in kitchen solitude and coffee, steeped in domestic bliss, or at least in life less lonely, and maybe then live on after the morning comes.
Richard Schmitt has published fiction and nonfiction in Arts & Letters, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and other places. He is the author of a novel, The Aerialist (Harcourt 2001). His story “Leaving Venice, Florida” won 1st Prize in The Mississippi Review short-story contest, and was anthologized in New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best 1999. His essay, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” is anthologized in The Best American Essays 2013.