February 5th, 2015
There have been no people or dogs at Magpie’s house for over a week now. We worried that she would freeze and so we kept an eye out for the little piebald and when she visited, we brought her inside to warm up. Since Elizabeth’s boyfriend moved overseas and left Magpie here we have watched out for her. We can see her porch and front door from our kitchen window. So we are in the habit. Elizabeth and I have a standoffish connection. She has asked me not to feed Magpie, but she comes to our porch meowing; hungry and lonely. Elizabeth is a “dog person.” When she walks Toby in the morning, Magpie often follows behind. Neither Toby nor Elizabeth seem to notice.
Magpie sits and waits for her people. Elizabeth’s friend Claire moved in a year ago so she could be treated in Boston for cancer. The house had been full of friends, but now it is dark.
We learn that the people are with Claire in the hospital. Someone is coming to feed Magpie, but she is an outdoor cat and it is the extreme cold that worries us. I met Claire once when I opened the door to the basement to let Magpie in. A bright-eyed woman wearing a headscarf was doing her laundry. She didn’t look thirty-two.
“Hi, I’m Karen. I live across the street and I thought Magpie might want in ‘cause it’s so cold outside.”
“Thank You,” she said smiling. “It’s fine to do that.”
We haven’t seen Magpie for days and worry that she might have gone on one of her walkabouts. But there are lots of people inside the house now and she is a social cat. It is still frigid outside so we continue to look out for her.
The backup beeping of a large truck brings us back to the window. A woman with a clipboard has arrived at the same time as the truck. She opens the trunk of her small car where I can see large bottles of bleach and jumbo packages of paper towels. The back of the truck is open.
“They are probably bringing in a hospital bed,” my husband says.
We did not stay to see the bed carried inside.
People bundled up and carrying handle bags decorated with valentines are coming and going. I see them reach for the key above the door to let themselves in. Cars parked out front in sooty snow drifts make it difficult to pull out of our driveway. Claire’s family dog, “Roosevelt” is there. Her parents brought him from their home in Ohio.
We see someone different walking Toby and Roosevelt each day. The two blond dogs–one curly, one not—trot side by side sniffing the air, anticipating the freedom of the meadows behind our street.
A white van parks against the snow; children in colorful winter wrapping tumble out over the huge drifts and run to the front porch.
“How is Claire doing?” I ask a young ski-parka’d man shoveling the sidewalk in front of the house.
“Not well. She’s medicated a lot of the time– out of it.”
“I just saw the dogs going for a walk.”
“Oh yeah, Claire’s brother took Toby and Roosevelt for a run over at the dike.”
“I’m so glad that Roosevelt is here. Do you know Magpie?”
“Oh Yes!” He smiles. “Magpie is with us too.”
“It is so unfair….” I say.
“Ye…” the word fading to a nod.
“Do you need anything? Can we bring a meal?”
“There are so many people visiting, someone can always go out and get what we need. But Thanks. I’ll tell Elizabeth… What’s your name?”
“‘Karen’– across the street.”
A young man leaving the apartment stops on the front porch lifting his glasses to wipe tears. Others come out from time to time to sit and smoke. I am glad that I shoveled out their front porch after the last storm. Two people set up folding camp chairs in the snow on the side of the house where the sun is strong and drink their coffee. Magpie has lots of people in her house and she stays inside where it’s warm. I light a small candle in our kitchen window in the early morning dark.
I recognize a pair of Claire’s friends talking in the cold air some distance from the house. Later I see them sitting on the front porch; one bows his head into his hands, his upper body folding over suspended above his lap. I remember them in summer clothes sitting in a large circle of laughter.
It is eerie-quiet. No cars are parked out front. No people going in and out of the house. I see Elizabeth walking only Toby. Magpie is outside today. She sees us empty the recycling and meows as she crosses the street feeling the salty slush beneath her pink paw pads. I get her some food and sit with her on our porch in my parka and slippers. She alternates eating and rubbing against my shins, marking me.
My downstairs neighbor is emptying her car from a weekend in New York.
“I guess the young woman passed away,” she says.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “We haven’t seen anything.”
“The other night when I got home from work there was a group of people outside hugging and crying. The body language made me think she had passed.”
“What night was that?” I ask.
“Monday or Tuesday. I guess she is at peace.”
How could we have missed it? I wonder. We have been watching. Magpie is lying on her back on our porch rolling from side to side asking us to play with her.
Papery, mint green hospital bedding is piled on Magpie’s porch chair. I know exactly what is happening and my chest tightens. The three jumbo plastic bottles appear on the porch in front of the piled-up chair. Magpie is huddled on the railing looking cold.
We take care in picking out a card for Elizabeth expressing our condolences. We each choose birds, but our tastes are different. His is more “Spring” and mine is an owl. We go with “Spring.”
Walking home from town I see Elizabeth heading down our street with Toby. I call over, “How are you doing?” and begin to walk toward her. Toby’s dark eyes are looking hard at me. I am not familiar to him. In the moment I pause, I hear, “I’m fine, how are you?” reflexively called back as she continues to walk in the opposite direction. I think, “Why would she ask me how I am?”
A large cardboard box now occupies Magpie’s chair. I see Elizabeth’s mother leave the apartment to get something from her car parked out front. She has long, blond hair and wears a cape. I wonder whether she is a difficult mother to have.
We open the back door and hear Magpie’s meow as she navigates the snow drifts to cross the street. Elizabeth’s door suddenly opens and her mother comes out with a tan-colored Boxer dog wearing a black muzzle. Elizabeth comes out with Toby to join her and we know that Magpie will manage to get inside when they return from walking the dogs.
I go downstairs to feed my neighbor’s cat while she is away. As I fill the kitty’s bowl with dry food, I see a sticky note that she has left for me on the counter. It is attached to an obituary. Deep sadness floods my chest. I can’t read this alone.
Elizabeth’s mother is on the front porch without a coat in the frigid air. She is matter-of-factly shaking the wrinkles out of a small skirt, but then slowly folds it and places it in the open cardboard box still occupying Magpie’s chair. Magpie has found a sunspot on the porch stairs and is watching the birds.
The wind has picked up and our chimes are clanging madly. I go out to grab them and see Elizabeth carrying the open box piled high with clothing threatening to fly away. Her car trunk is closed and I wonder how she will manage to open it. Her mother leaves the house carrying a small, colorfully painted shelf that she takes to her car. Magpie watches from the porch rail.
Elizabeth has squeezed the box into the trunk of her packed wagon and is sitting in the driver’s seat. Her mother walks toward the wagon and I wonder whether she is saying “goodbye” or getting into the passenger side.