It took two years to get a smile 


I noticed the old lady across the street watching me all summer when I slipped outside at 2am to put out the trash before bed. 

There would be a movement behind the slats of lit shutters and the window would open very slowly. It happened more often when the summer heat was at its worst. 

Sometimes a full moon shone down on our alley, and I would stop for a moment to look at it because I liked the way it made me feel so late at night and so alone. She watched me at those times too, and I thought I sensed her judgements change.

She sat in her downstairs window all day facing slightly sideways with an arm draped across the sill. Other old ladies stopped by for a chat, and a few brought her groceries, but I never once saw her leave home. 

Her window was exactly opposite our front door, across a small open space, and our eyes met each time I stepped out. I’d never failed to wave and say hello, but my greetings were always met with a scowl. 

Once I greeted her in Maltese with great enthusiasm. I was watching her the whole time, and I’m still not sure how she accomplished this. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that she receded very subtly. Her expression never changed, she just drifted backwards as though she were on castors and slowly closed the shutter. 

That stalemate lasted for nearly two years.

And then one day we parked our car next to her window. The sidewalk was always musty with piss because she fed a community of cats. One of the regulars, a three-legged stray, slinked around the corner just as my wife was closing her door. 

She turned to the old lady without thinking and said, “What happened to her leg?” 

“She had an accident once,” the lady replied. “A car.” 

It wasn’t as though a mannequin had made cryptic utterances. She just spoke as though she’d never not talked to us. 

“Did the car cut her leg off?” Tomoko asked, concealing her surprise much better than I hid mine.

“No, she was hurt. I took her to a doctor.” It must have sensed we were talking about it, because three-legs hopped up to the window, slithered around the old lady’s arm, and vanished inside.

“She’s very agile!” Tomoko said, and the old lady’s face lit up in the nicest smile. 

From that day on, she smiled and waved at us every time we left the house.

We were in Africa for most of December working on a story for a travel magazine. There was something strange about the old lady’s house when we returned. 

Someone was refilling the tin plate below the window for her cats, but the character of the house had changed. It felt as though it had closed in on itself.

I tried an internet search using her family name and found an obituary. She’d been taken to hospital while we were away, and died a couple weeks later. The Barber told me her house had been broken into that same day. 

“It was probably her relatives,” he said. 

“What, they waited until they knew she wasn’t coming back, and looted her house?”

“It happens often here. They don’t want to wait for the will to go through the courts. They’re afraid they’ll be cut out, or that someone else will get the things they want.” He shrugged. “She had a lot of antiques. Everyone knew.”

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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