MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The fat lady across the street died. At home, on Sunday. The one in the green house with the aluminum siding. Susan, my mom, told me in an email. She saw it in the local paper, the Ithaca Journal, at work, on Tuesday.
At first Susan wasn’t sure if it was the thin woman or the fat woman. There was also a really short fat guy who lived there. You hardly ever saw any of them. The shades were always drawn, and they never used the front door. Except every once in a while an ambulance would pull up at night and they’d take the fat guy out on a stretcher, with an oxygen mask on his face.
If anything, we thought he’d be the first to go. They all seemed to be in their sixties or seventies, and they never seemed to go out except to get in this gray Chevrolet Impala, maybe to go grocery shopping or to the doctor. Once in a while one of the women would come out to the front porch to get the mail. Or the skinny woman or the fat woman would take the trash out to the strip of grass between the sidewalk and street, where the city had planted trees, on the side street from the back, because their house was on the corner.
Sometimes, if you passed them and they happened to be on the porch or taking the trash out or getting in the car, they’d nod or say hello, and I’d nod or say hello back. You never saw anybody visit, anybody stop in to have a cup of coffee or a beer or whatever people do when they visit each other. That was it. In fifteen or twenty years.
Well, seventeen years, because that’s how old I was. But Susan was forty-three, and we’d lived across the street from them for all that time. And I don’t think I ever said a word to the fat man, because I almost never saw him except when the ambulance was taking him away—always at night, and always out the front door on a stretcher, down the steps, the red light on top flashing and twirling, and the oxygen mask on his face. And I’d think, Maybe this is his last ride.
A few times I saw him standing in the driveway at the back of the house, on the side street, wearing a white shirt and dark pants, looking very neat, but strange because he was one of those people who was pretty much as wide as he was tall. He had a square face and black hair that was neatly combed back off his forehead.
The fat woman was not that wide, and had a round face and reddish hair, and none of them looked like each other, and Susan said none of them, as far as she knew, were related.
The fat lady who died was Dakota Goddell, the man was Harold W. Smithie, and the thin woman was Martha Nelson.
The name Dakota surprised me. She looked like a Mary or an Alice or a Kathy or a Norma. The obituary in the Journal said she was sixty-two, had died at home after a brief illness, and had “enjoyed living in the country and worked on farms prior to relocating to Ithaca in 1986. She loved animals and had owned many dogs. Dakota was a friendly person who never disagreed with anyone. She was always happy and never shirked a task. Survivors include friends and companions Harold W. Smithie and Martha Nelson.” That was all.
I tried to remember what I had been doing Sunday night. I’m sure I was home because I don’t go out much. They must have called the police or an ambulance or something to take the body away, but I didn’t notice, didn’t know, didn’t have any idea that the fat lady, that Dakota Goddell, who had lived across the street for so many years, had died.
And so often over the years, four or five or six times, I had watched from the curtains at the front door as they took Mr. Smithie down the steps on a stretcher, with an oxygen mask on his face, and every time I had thought, This is it. He won’t be back. This is the last time.
I always thought of the closed curtains, and what life must be like for them, and where they came from, and what they did all day.
And that’s how this whole thing began—with Meg, my teacher, counselor, adviser, shrink at this special school I went to, who said I had to write a senior project to graduate. And how I met Sam, who was new to the town and the school, and had just spent most of a year in mental hospitals.
This was an English/writing seminar. We were to write a few pages each week about our lives, past and present. What we were doing and thinking, what our pasts had been like. We’d spend all of senior year on this. I would show nobody what I wrote except for Meg and Sam. Sam and I would read each other’s versions and make comments and suggestions. The idea was to come to a deeper understanding of both ourselves and our pasts. And Meg would contact other people for us to solicit stories about us, and other students’ versions of senior year, but she would limit telling anyone about the specifics or scope of the project, and they would be sworn to secrecy. She’d talk to former teachers, shrinks, roommates, fellow students, parents, anyone whose name she could come up with from our files. Meg would withhold outside input from us till the end of the year. The whole thing was pretty funny because I’d never met Samantha, who preferred to be called Sam. Just heard a little about her from Meg.
We were both supposed to be gifted, and we were both on meds, and we were both avoidant, or maybe somewhere on the broad spectrum of Asperger’s, or depressed or ADD or something else the psychiatrists pulled out of the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Because everything needs a label, right? Everything fits into a neat little box? Then we can understand it and treat it, usually with drugs? Especially human beings? Their histories and souls?
Not that Meg did that, or even Susan, who was a neurobiologist. It was just kind of the way things went. When the boxes they put us in spilled over and fell off the shelves, everybody—honest to God—meant well, and they didn’t want anyone, especially us kids, to get hurt. But it was really just about taking a complex kid, struggling to grow up, and giving him some labels so you had a set of symptoms you could treat and have a more orderly classroom. All of it was made up in the end.
I wouldn’t even have considered doing the project, but I’d known Meg a long time, for all five years I’d been at the school, and I trusted her as much as I trusted anybody, maybe even my mom. And she said that she thought that Sam was talented, really talented, and complicated, and vulnerable. Sam was reluctant but willing.
This would be a yearlong project, Meg said. Who knew? she said. It could be a book people might read someday.
Meg said, I told her you were one of the most interesting kids in the school. And by far the best-read.
She smiled. And I said you were a nice guy, and occasionally charming.
I said, Oh.
And between you and me, kiddo, she’s one of the most interesting, brightest kids I’ve come across in ages. Extremely well-read. And potentially funny and charming, if—if you can draw her out.
She handed me a piece of paper that had the name Sam and her email address.
She has yours, Meg said, but I think you make the first play. Otherwise I doubt you’ll hear from her.
The paper was a pink Post-it note with the name Sam printed clearly, and the initials sav, three numerals, a star, a pound sign, two parenthesis signs with a question mark between the parens, @gmail.com.
I’d never seen such a strange email address.
This is her email? I asked Meg.
Exactly, she said.
Text copyright © 2017 by Paul Cody