By Robin Foster
Rifling through the fridge and considering dinner possibilities from what remained of the weekend’s takeaway containers, Veronica’s doorbell chimed a twenty-two-note melody. When she answered the door, the tune was still playing.
“Say, Polly, there was a two-for-one sale on Entenmann’s cakes at the Stop and Shop today. Can I give you one?” Veronica had stopped correcting her neighbour as to her actual name long ago. In fact, she liked answering to a name that sounded to her exotic, a throwback to another time that meant big band music and sitting under one of those big-domed dryers at the hair salon while your curls set and your nails dried, clutch purse neatly resting at your feet.
Ruth stood on Veronica’s front stoop with a canvas bag slung over her shoulder, tucking a handful of crumpled tissues between the crook in her elbow and her tiny body, car keys clutched in bony fingers. The blue of her veins threatened to leap free of the delicate, parchment-like skin that only barely contained what was beneath. Veronica considered her private assertion that Ruth probably shouldn’t be driving at her age, and certainly not after dark. She had watched as Ruth’s car careened down the street many times, wondering when Ruth’s son might take away the keys to her ’75 Mustang. But Veronica felt the validity of Ruth’s driver’s license wasn’t really any of her business.
Veronica followed Ruth next door to her driveway, where three double-bagged paper grocery bags sat in the back seat of the Mustang. Ruth tossed her car keys into the canvas Paris Review bag that she used for a purse. “Take those around the back, would you? The front door is stuck.” Veronica could see that the front door wasn’t stuck but was rather slightly ajar, amber light from inside the house spilling out into the evening twilight. She headed up the walkway, but Ruth was surprisingly fast for a woman in her eighties. Ruth scampered around back and entered her house through the kitchen. Ten seconds later, her tiny forearm emerged through the crack at the front door. A delicate gold watch, tiny oval face on a thin, bracelet-style band, slid down her wrist.
“If you’ll put the bags down on the front step, Polly, and push against the door, I think we can get it to budge.”
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Confident that one or two good shoves would dislodge whatever was preventing Ruth’s door from opening any further (were the hinges rusted out, or was the door off-kilter?), Veronica didn’t want to knock down a ninety-pound woman with her brute force. She advised Ruth to move away from the door. “Stand over by the window, Ruth. I’ve got it.” Ruth’s arm, which Veronica just then noticed was mottled with a fading but sizeable purple and yellow bruise, disappeared from the crack.
“I think you’d better just go around back, Polly. It’s not gonna be any use. Just come around back.”
Before she could get close enough to peer in through the three-inch crack between the door and the jamb, the smell hit Veronica like a tsunami. There was no anticipatory hint of a scent, no inkling in the back of her mind that some as-yet-to-be-identified scent molecules were just beginning to attach themselves to the smell receptors lining her nostrils, requiring a few seconds to relay sensory input to the brain for interpretation. The half-step required to lean her shoulder into the door crossed an invisible threshold between nothingness and onslaught. The transformation was much like the moment when The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to colour. A new reality. What she smelled was very clearly on the spectrum between urine and spoiled milk.
A quick glance inside revealed what Veronica estimated to be twenty years of yellowed issues of The New York Times, piled up in two and three-foot stacks around the perimeter of the room and creeping inward like clover across a meadow. The only clear path leading toward the kitchen was a crevasse formed between dozens – hundreds? Weathered moving boxes, each with varying degrees of pried-open top and marked Wilson in thick Magic Marker. The sofa against the back wall was piled high with an assortment of baskets, dinner trays, and Danish cookie tins. A midcentury television set, a hulking piece of furniture, stood beneath the bay window and a set of heavy damask drapes, tightly drawn. Veronica took in these images as she body-checked the door with her shoulder and forced it back another foot or so. A dozen or so badly stacked cases – flats, really – of generic Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt prevented the door from going any further. The individual containers bulged at the seams. The source, perhaps, of the sour milk smell.
“That’s just fine, Polly.” Ruth reemerged from around back, startling her neighbour with her stealth maneuvering, and stood behind Veronica with the Entenmann’s cake in hand. “I think the cat was blocking the door.”
Robin Foster is a writer and historian. She teaches history at George Mason University and is currently enrolled at Bennington Writing Seminars, class of 2023. She is the author of Carl Van Doren: A Man of Ideas, National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist for 2019.