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May 20, 2024

Hamtramck Walk 06

By Amy Probst

On the front porch of the house where Mr. Elf presides over a sizeable community of flowerbeds and their decorative figurines, I saw one melting summer day while walking with my dog a plump elderly matron wearing only snug polyester shorts and an enormous brassiere, vintage, with cones that could take out an eye. I circled the block twice to gawk. Her small, fully clothed husband brought out glasses of iced tea and there they sat, amidst gnomes and limp wind catchers, watching the heat from white wicker lawn chairs.

Had the gent protested his lady's Madonna-esque attire and lost the argument? Maybe he was enjoying the exhibition? Or perhaps the practice had become so commonplace over decades of marriage that neither registered the shock of a passerby?

I wonder if she was always so comfortable baring her body to the eyes of her husband (let alone neighbors), or if he remembers a younger wife whose breasts and fleshy rolls of stomach roamed free only at night, with the lights off. I wonder which of these Madonnas he prefers. And I wonder to what extent my the shape of my guesses reveal myself, and which of the self-imposed versions of this woman I am most like today.

Across the street from my house lives a different sort of golden-years woman, one that I joke is a glimpse of my own future. Mary Jane. Like me, she lives alone, has few visitors, and walks up to The Clock in huge, ugly clothes for dinner. She's partial to bunny slippers, and there are frameless posters covering her living room walls, like a teenager's room. I don't know Mary Jane's story, but I'd like to. She's fragile the way of plants grown with no sun, found under a board in the backyard; easily bruised and unexposed. With her parents all her life, maybe, finally out-living them.

Zef, the charming Albanian who left behind every piece of crap furniture when he left this house I bought from him five years ago (not to mention a title-less, non-starting Dodge Raider in the garage), told me that Mary Jane was "a crazy old lady who don't come out of her house," and spies on neighbors. And that she owned both the house she lives in and the one next door, which she refused to sell to Zef despite its years of vacancy. This drove Zef insane -- the wasted -- space, as did learning that I would be living alone inside the house he'd shared with his own and extended family. "A big house for one person," he'd say to me, bushy brows raised and eyes looking down.

Zef liked to play the role of naive, fumbling immigrant. To my inquiry when first walking through the house as to why the washing machine hose emptied directly onto the basement floor, and not into the utility sink next to it, Zef smiled sheepishly with puppy eyes, brought his shoulders to his ears, and turned palms up: "We doesn't know." I was charmed. Until my first load of wash as a homeowner caused the sink to back up, bringing sewage with it.

The geriatric burlesque at the elf's house may, indeed, be the humorously tragic result of a mind "in its doties," the story of a kindly old woman who likes lawn gnomes and a million flowers, turned wanton and crass by the ravages of time. That's the story my Hallmark Hall of Fame sensibility puts together in its ceaseless mission of happy endings and pastel-colored glasses.

But maybe all credits aren't written in flowery fonts, rolling to syrupy soundtracks. Maybe some lives are too interesting to deconstruct on the sunny side of the street. Maybe that old broad and her fella are rebels or failures or mangled heros, winding down. Like me. Like my city. Garden variety humans from scrabbled backgrounds, trying to make something pretty of the whole affair.

Article © Amy Probst. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-01-17
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