1988 was an unusually dry summer in a place known for humidity. This drought produced ideal conditions for a Boxelder bug infestation. Streams of the hard, red-and-black-shelled dots lined cracks in the pavement, inhabited corners of garages, and provided veils for porch screen windows; like massive curtains they fell from the tops of trees in swarms when trunks were shaken.
The window of my hospital room looked out onto a parking lot, though today the view was obscured by a sheet of them. Meanwhile, his face was above me as he said they finally found the Hans Christian Anderson tape. We’ll all watch it together later.
Did I mention my daughter was born with a lung deficiency? Her name is Julie, and during her first days, the doctor would look at me with a faltering smile and say,
She’ll outgrow it I’m sure.
He’d pull my husband aside for discussions in low voices, later giving me the same half smile as the doctor in saying
What a beautiful girl!
Yet he didn’t touch her. They assumed I hadn’t figured it out, but I knew that they thought she wouldn’t be able to breathe. He, my husband, wouldn’t even look at her, as if he’d never been given her in the first place.
But it didn’t come to that, the defect healed itself and of my three children, Julie has always been the strongest. Although, for the rest of her life, it was as if she didn’t exist. Our son he spoke to, the girls were almost invisible.
I keep losing that Hans Christian Anderson tape. She loves it, and I can’t bring myself to tell her it’s lost. I can distract her with Gin Rummy for a while, but that can only last so long. Sooner or later, Cindy will ask for it.
Julie called me one week ago
Why won’t you go back to that aquatic class? I bought you a ten-class package and you’ve only been once.
So you’re checking my attendance?
Got a call from the instructor.
I knew she was an asshole.
Well, she is. I’m an adult, I can come and go whenever I like.
Your neighbour also called.
Oh, what does she want this time?
No, the new one across the street.
Oh? Why d’he call you?
Because I gave him my number when he moved in.
You’ve asked him to spy on me?
No, it’s just a neighborhood watch.
I’m not a criminal.
It’s for your protection.
You never know what can happen.
Oh yes, you’re right, I could be enjoying myself, or watering the plants. Never mind. So what did this spying neighbor want?
According to him, it’s you who are spying.
Well he has a little girl, about seven, she’s insisting to meet you.
So this guy says you’ve been watching his family from your window. Which, by the way, is strange. Any rate, he could’ve called the police, instead he called me. I’d consider that very lucky for us.
But here’s the thing, he says his daughter won’t speak to anyone.
Yes so he says she’s very shy, and she’s insisting to see the inside of your house. Her dad asked if they could visit you sometime next week to get her over it. Hopefully this will get you over it too.
Well I need to see who’s living across the street. It’s not such a crime.
It’s weird Mom.
Maybe to you. But I’ve known this neighborhood forty-five years, and I need to have an idea of who’s around for when the kids are outside.
We’re grown now, you forget for a minute?
Oh. I guess so. Thanks. But what about my grandchildren? To be sure of their safety I need to know who’s coming.
The following silence confirmed a tacit understanding that none of my children brought their children to visit enough for their safety on my street to be a concern. Some topics are better as a large, unacknowledged bubble.
So this meeting, how about next Sunday evening?
Won’t work, dinner with your brother on Sundays.
Then Tuesday? When you and I meet?
Sure, oh, you mean tomorrow then? But that’s our day, isn’t it?
He was hoping for next week, but I’ll check and let you know.
Great, now I’ve got to get going.
She hung up before I could ask her to pick up my antibiotics from the pharmacy. You see, there’s that tree across the street, and I don’t think my allergy shots from Monday will be enough to withstand it.
Where is that tape? I know how much she likes the stories, so how can I say no to her? And now I’ve lost it. The thing is, well, no one warned me that this is how it would be? I can’t remember anything and it’s irritating.
The worst part is, I’m aware of what I’m not remembering. Would have been much better had this turned out as I’d always imagined it: a long slide into forgetfulness, like a senile cloud of oblivion. But that’s what your predecessors don’t tell you – it comes, and you know it’s coming. Can try to resist, many do, I did, but it comes nevertheless.
They knew once I started dropping the ball with the bill payments, I’d always been so punctual. My husband and I had perfect credit because I paid every bill on time and looked after our finances without mistake or complaint. In fact I don’t think I was ever late with a payment, always in full, and usually in advance. At the bank, they gave us their first Gold Account. Not because we had money, because we didn’t, but because we were so organised. Until we weren’t.
There were all of the medical charges to start, more than I’d ever imagined. It was impossible for me to both be at the hospital, while at the same time keeping up with the bills. This is what I told myself when the bank first reduced the Gold Account credit line.
Conspiratorial looks thickened the air on the morning my children sat us down for a discussion about my then-uncharacteristic forgetfulness, yet the conversation soon returned to our preoccupation with his health.
On Tuesday afternoons my first daughter visits for coffee and to help water the hanging plants. My second daughter drives me to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. Sunday evenings are spent with my son Tom and his family for dinner. Once he and the kids migrate to the television room, his wife Tanya washes the dishes while I dry them. It’s obvious she finds nearly everything I say tedious; I can hear her count the moments until her husband drives me home again. And really, that’s the other thing they didn’t tell me about being old—no one actually wants to see you, you are merely tolerated as you recycle old stories before an impatient audience.
Six months ago they moved across the street. You don’t often see a single father, but there he was, with two boys and a girl. When I look out the window in the afternoon, I see them playing in the front yard. The boys pummel each other with sticks and balls and whatever else they find, while the girl sits on the steps and writes her name over and over on the concrete with pieces of chalk. There is a tree on their front lawn and when the two boys aren’t aiming at each other, they direct their attention at its large trunk, smacking it with sticks and loosening the leaves from their branches to produce a shower of green leaves and black bugs. These are among the only moments when the girl looks up.
My kids tell me I need to start attending an aquatic exercise class in order to keep in shape and in touch with my friends. Yet none of those old betties are my friends. Most of my friends moved away to be with their children in other states, are in hospitals, or gone. Sometimes I hear that single father across the street say something similar
Don’t you want to go to Day Camp so you can meet other kids your age?
The little girl never says yes or no to him. Not even a nod of the head, or a shrug of the shoulder. Her response is a return to writing her name on the sidewalk until it gets dark, while the boys keep hitting the tree. This was what I observed many days of the summer.
But with the start of school in September, the boys moved their all-day battles with the tree to early mornings, while the girl sat at their living room window watching them through curtains parted just enough to make room for her head.
The school bus stop was directly in front of my house, and when it arrived, the boys dropped their sticks on the lawn, picked up their book bags and ran to get on it, while the girl walked out their front door with her hand in her father’s. The two tentatively walked toward my front lawn until they reached the door of the bus. She looked terrified as she clung to her father’s neck with tiny hands, until he persuaded her to walk inside.
Once there, she sat two seats behind the driver and looked straight ahead. The brothers were daily seated in the back of the bus, where they hit each other’s heads with their book bags alongside other boys seated around them, each engaged in the midst of similar activity.
This routine repeated itself each morning of September, and once October arrived the little girl stopped clinging as tightly to her father’s neck.
But I really felt like October replaced September on about the fifth of the month. That morning she reluctantly stepped onto the bus as usual, and as usual the brothers’ heads and book bags bopped up and down in the back. She occupied her usual seat, third from the front, yet that day she turned her head to look in the direction of my house and saw me seeing her. We stayed in this mutual looking until the bus pulled away from the curb and drove down the street.
So, knowing I’d been caught, I walked quickly from the window and let the curtains drop behind me. In order to appease my embarrassment I vacuumed the sofas; which worked because they looked much cleaner after I was finished, and this sense of accomplishment distracted me from that house across the street for nearly a week, during which time I kept away from the window, and though curious about her activities, busied myself with further projects in the basement and the front lawn, even a visit to that aquatic exercise class.
But by the next week I couldn’t wait any longer, so on a Monday morning I returned to the window and carefully lifted up the curtain flap as I heard the morning school bus approach. The boys got on the bus, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. She wasn’t even at their front window. Meanwhile the tree’s leaves were yellow, orange, and brown.
It was Monday night that Julie called about the neighbours, so the next afternoon I watched the little girl and her father walk out their front door, across the street, up my driveway and knock at the front door. Julie answered and showed them into the living room, populated by the furniture we purchased when we moved in.
We each introduced ourselves amid smiles, and I showed them pictures of the children when they were small. Julie rolled her eyes and tightened her shoulders throughout this review. A few times we all looked up and saw her full body cringe, for which she compensated with a smile through clenched teeth and pursed lips.
You know that tree needs attention.
Mom, let’s leave their lawn to them.
Oh it’s fine Julie, said the father from across the street. He turned and continued
Cindy, what have you noticed about it?
So that’s her name! I thought to myself. Cindy.
Mom, would you like a cookie?
Julie then lifted the plate of Oreo cookies and held it in front of me, interrupting Cindy’s response with one sweeping, patronising gesture. I thought to rescue Cindy’s likely anxiety with a distraction, so continued
You can’t hit a tree repeatedly on its legs and expect it won’t suffer?
Jesus can we stop with this.
No, it’s okay, I’m listening.
Thank you. I said to my neighbour, then continued, Your sons hit the tree everyday, and it is suffering on account of it.
And those bugs aren’t helping.
Let me finish Julie.
I looked at him again, It’s not just the bugs, but they do spread it.
How do you mean?
Julie, I’m making a point, let me, he and I have a conversation.
He looked at me with a half smile as I proceeded
So, they come down from that sick tree and onto my lawn, where they burrow into the dirt and make their way to my drains, which they clog and contaminate. As well as the central air conditioning.
He replied, Well it’s a good thing you won’t need that much longer with fall coming.
No, then it will be the central heat.
Well! Came Julie’s interruption, It’s been so nice to meet you.
I saw her turn her head to Cindy and her father, mouthing the words ‘I’m sorry.’ All the while he kept staring at me. In a few moments, as they walked out the door, he looked at me and said
But I can’t now remember if I said this aloud or to myself. I was then preoccupied by a growing annoyance that Julie wouldn’t acknowledge my concerns about that tree. We, me and the tree, were getting sicker each day, and no one could be bothered by it. Although I should have expected as much, I’d been told about this too, you can’t say anything right once you’re old.
And really, no matter how measured your words or well-informed your warning, they roll their eyes. You could be saying ‘Watch out! A car is coming!’ as they cross the street. Will they stop? No. They’ll cut you off and say something about how it’s time for lunch.
Once the door closed I looked back at the table and noticed that Cindy had eaten nearly every Oreo cookie I’d put out. Since I laid out half the box, this adds up to a lot of Oreo cookies. My children never ate this much sugar, and certainly not Oreo cookies. You know that that white filling comes from horse hooves, right? So, apparently, do the best french fries.
What was more surprising, later that night Julie came into my room to tell me she and the neighbour agreed Cindy would come over to my house to play in two days. Her father needed a babysitter for her that afternoon, and I, according to everyone else, needed something to occupy myself.
I still can’t find that tape, she loves it, and I also forgot her cookies.
Julie, Where d‘you put that Hans Christian Anderson tape? You know your sister wanted to watch it. You and your brother are terrible. You torture her, and think I don’t see it.
Mom stop, slow down. It’s now.
Oh, so you’re bribing me?
As I remember it, we both drew in and exhaled a few breaths.
And that tree is really suffering. The neighbours hit it so often, the leaves haven’t even grown properly, and it’s spreading disease.
Mom, sit down. We’ll check on the tree tomorrow.
Julie it’s urgent. Check on it now. You keep saying you will, and then you don’t. There’s something really wrong with it. You’re letting it suffer on account of your own laziness, while I’m getting sicker every hour and those boys keep hitting it.
The next day I woke up and heard Cindy playing in the front room with my grandchildren, while Julie prepared what smelled like spaghetti in the kitchen. I heard them talking about the disease.
Without me in the room, they clearly agreed its leaves hadn’t looked good last year, and by this past spring and summer it was looking even worse. The leaves grew in April and May, yet they seemed deformed, brown and dead almost as soon as they sprouted. I heard one say it’s because of the bugs, but it’s me who knows it’s because of her brothers. They’ve whacked the poor tree every day since moving in, so it was bound to show signs of trauma at some point.
Anyway, I put my feet on the ground next to the bed with a thump, then walked to the bathroom, where I checked my still-old face in the mirror, put on my house robe and opened the door of the bedroom onto the hallway, which led to the staircase and a lot of noise. Turns out Julie was vacuuming each individual step while Cindy sat at its base with a deck of cards in front of her.
Since this was her first visit, we played three rounds of Gin Rummy. She was a natural. She told me her brothers were at basketball practice after school, yet halfway through the afternoon I heard that whacking sound across the street again.
Cindy turned around in her chair, then looked back at me and said
They must be home early.
My left hand started to shake as I heard the vacuum cleaner stop, and in a moment Julie shouted from the other room
I found the tape mom.
Cindy agreed to watch it with me, so for the rest of the afternoon she sat on the sofa in front of the television as Hans Christian Anderson sang fables to village children. After Julie and I left her alone in the room we could hear her sing along.
At six o’clock, her father crossed the street to pick her up, and when she heard the doorbell ring, the tape kept playing in the background as she stood up from the sofa and bounced toward him while he held her jacket in one hand and her book bag in the other. They both smiled, said Thank you, and walked out the door, across the street, and into their house. Only then did those boys stop hitting the tree.
Over the weekend my elbows started to itch, though by Sunday night the discomfort abated. Despite my own relief, the same could not be said for the tree, which by Monday morning looked even worse.
Standing at my window, I could see that almost all its leaves were gone, and the bark was peeling. Adding to my stress, I lost the Hans Christian Anderson tape again and now found myself needing even more naps than I had the week before.
On Tuesday morning I saw those bugs falling from it. That afternoon, during Gin Rummy, Cindy spent our entire game scratching her skin. In fact her arms were raw from scratching and she had a few red bumps on her legs. Toward the end of our fourth round, we heard that whacking again. Again she turned in her seat, then turned back toward me and said
Practice must have ended early again.
Later in the afternoon, and amid the incessant sound of her brothers hitting that tree, Cindy fell asleep in front of the Hans Christian Anderson movie. When her father rang the doorbell at six o’clock to take her home, she walked down the hall toward him, still scratching her legs and arms.
I watched from the window as they crossed the street and up their driveway, passing her brothers along they way, who were also scratching their bodies – necks and faces. After another ten minutes of their usual with the Boxelder tree, they dropped their sticks and ran inside their house. I maintained my position at the window, better to examine the tree.
The phone rang five minutes later and I heard Julie answer. After a brief conversation of muffled tones and a little sighing, I heard her hang up and walk into the living room behind me. She explained that according to her father, Cindy had a rash on her skin and was wondering if I had given her any lotions or washed her hands with the green soap in the guest bedroom (which Julie didn’t like the smell of).
Of course I said, No, and recommended they stop investigating my toiletries and start giving some attention to the health of the tree. It had, as I had told them many times, long been ill, and was by now surely contagious. Especially while those boys are in contact with it so often. I also reminded her about the black bugs covering my windows.
Later on I set about vacuuming the inside of the piano. To increase my tasks, the top of my foot itched; in case you’ve never experienced this sensation, let me tell you, it’s almost as uncomfortable as when my elbows itched.
You see there’s very little cartilage between the skin and the bone on the top of the foot, so when scratching, it’s as if you’re directly scratching the bone. In fact I think I bruised myself in attending to the itch on the top of my foot.
It is similarly uncomfortable when your knuckles itch. To have a rash on other parts of the body? Okay, inconvenient. But on the knuckles? This is too much. When you straighten your fingers so that the folds in the knuckles collapse, like a backwards accordion, the itch is unbearable, and you are forced to keep fingers bent with skin constantly taut.
Now, I had this sensation all day Wednesday. When Julie walked into my room that afternoon to see me, her mouth opened wide as she turned and quickly walked back out of my room, down the stairs, and, from the sound of the muffled conversation and controlled shouts, she was upset. I made my way from the bed to the bathroom mirror and found in its reflection my chest covered in red spots. When I put the tips of my fingers to touch the skin, it burnt, and I knew right away, Cindy had caught it from her brothers who caught it from that tree; now I had it.
At this point I also realized I’d really been kidding about the whole tree situation, but now my suspicions, okay fine, my perversions, had turned out to be real.
On Sunday morning they walked me out my front door, down the steps, across the sidewalk that led to the driveway and into the passenger’s seat of my car. Tom linked his arm with mine on one side, while my daughter held up my other arm. I saw a bulldozer take down the tree across the street. Must have been those terrible brothers, now grown and able to wield larger machinery.
As a matter of fact, I think I won’t leave this hospital. The doctor gives me the nervous smile I recognise from when Julie was born. He speaks to my husband, to Julie, and to Tom in the same whispered tones. They’ve also forbid Cindy to visit me because her skin is covered by the tree disease.
Its just such a shame, forty-five years ago, when we moved into our house, its trunk was so small and the leaves so bright a green. Then, it was ladybugs who occupied its top, middle and roots.
The little girl across the street. You know Cindy. Remember?
More conspiratorial looks between Julie, my son, and my husband.
Yesterday the doctor found that Hans Christian Anderson tape at last and we all watched it in the room together.
Oh, Julie, you must tell her to stay away from that Boxelder tree in the front lawn, it’s infected.
Honey that house has been empty for a year. The Andersons cut it down before they moved, remember?
You’re getting mixed up Mom, you must be tired, came Julie’s voice as my husband held my hand, smiled, and said
How about lunch Cindy?
Beyond his face, the window that looked out onto the hospital parking lot was obscured by a sheet of those red and black bugs.
Excerpted from the compendium In the style of, consisting of four short stories around the notion of a parasite.
by Mary Rinebold
Design by Hyo Kwon
Edition of 100