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Pen Pals



I’d never taken much interest in the woman across the street with the yippy dogs until the ambulance came. It rushed to a halt in the driveway of the red house, the siren and the flashing lights invading my living room.


The toddlers climbed up on the couch next to me. Their fingers jabbed remnants of the banana they’d been eating at the window pane. An ambulance: Exciting!


Later, I took them on a walk to the pharmacy. My girl had a skin something-or-other. Her brother’s nose was constantly running. I cursed southern California’s constant flower bloom. I held it responsible for both conditions.


Mr. Nosy-what’s-his-name on the corner caught us as we were walking. He asked if we’d seen the ambulance. (Yes, duh.) He said it was her husband. Heart attack. Gone. (Wince.)


My mother had always found husbands useful. Mine hadn’t been able to find a use for me.


The sympathy card stared reproachfully at me from the shelf on my way to allergy and vitamins. I paused. It prodded a memory.


I balanced it on top of my double-wide stroller and charged ahead down the aisle before either baby woke up. Or maybe I just didn’t like how this whole thing was starting to prod my personal bubble.


Personal bubbles keep people out and my feelings tucked in. Mine doesn’t like prodding.


Later, that evening, I allowed myself to feel redeemed as I slipped my cardboard condolences into my neighbor’s mailbox:




Can’t imagine your loss. Let me know if there is something?


All best, Hillary


(across the street)


That was that. I felt I could return to my bubble.


Except it wasn’t.


The next day, a folded-over slip of yellow notepaper appeared through my letter slot.


Hello back,


Loss is never good, especially this one. Being thought of is a lift. I could use help with the dogs.


Thanks, Linda



Deliverance wasn’t coming cheaply. The second sentence of my sympathy note had come back to bite me.




Sorry, don’t mix with dogs. Allergies. Plus, I’m unreliable (babies, job, house). But I cook (occasionally). Interested?


Double the daily crock pot concoction (easy), while not actually having to interact with yet another living being (perfect).


Works for me. Can I take spaghetti and meatballs? Thinking of my St. Paul, Minnesota Italian days. And the babies? Boy/girl/mix?


There went my plan. Bit by the third sentence of my follow-up note. Now it’s Widow’s Spaghetti.


I pulled out my family-pack of post-its. No way was I investing in more cards or giving out my cell number.


Can do spaghetti. Will bring it by tomorrow. Babies are boy/girl twins.  


Goodness - A feast! Shared with Meg and Allen, my grown twins. Wait till yours are fifteen, or twenty. I can’t decide which was worse. So enjoy them now. 


Linda slowly nudged her way into my world. I couldn’t ignore her notes taped to my front door every few days. Spaghetti got easy.


Thanks for the latest Italian. Could you knock and say hi sometime? Or maybe a walk?


Hi! My schedule is crazy right now, but I’ll see if you’re home next time I come by. Enjoy the meatballs!


Redemption was not easy. Even when I tried to be real careful with my sentences.


We all need fresh air. Let’s take a walk with your babies. Tomorrow. I’ll leave the dogs at home. Or am I becoming a bother?


You’re not a bother, I just like to stick to food. I’m not really much for conversation. But tomorrow works. I’ll be home at six.


I was turning into Linda’s project, that I was fairly sure of. Though I minded the intrusion, it relieved a little of my guilt. Our walks grew to almost nightly affairs. I made spaghetti less often but when I did, we ate it together. 


Then, it all crashed to an end with a yellow post-it:


My cancer’s back. Meg’s coming to help out. It’s hospice this time. Going to try doing it at home. It sucks.


Just like that, we were back to just being pen pals. All I could offer was spaghetti and meatballs.


Linda answered the door, much frailer than when I’d last seen her.


Her eyes. Tired. Guarded.


Never saw them again.   


Meg took over.


I started making larger dinners to share. I knocked on the door, hoping to see signs of Linda. It never opened. Meg always seemed to be off driving one of her mother’s upscale cars.


I learned to cover the food and leave it.


Then, a note:


Thanks for the food. I’m mostly resting upstairs reading Tolstoy, when I can. How are the kids? 


Tolstoy – that’s something. Have you tried Hemingway? I’d be happy to come read it with you.


Thanks for your offer, but no. I got some Hemingway on audio. Like it so far.


The writing was barely legible. 


A week later, another ambulance showed up at the red house across the street.


I chased Meg down to confirm that it was Linda. Lung failure. Gone.


In her honor, I called my mother. She even agreed to see me, though I think it was probably the kids that really interested her. Can’t blame her.


I booked our flight the next day. Thanks to Linda, my mother saw her grandkids before the cancer took her three months later.


Someone or other has moved into Linda’s house. It’s an awkward yellow tannish color now.


I liked the red, spaghetti color better.


The bubble is back. I just don’t remember being so lonely inside it.

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