Tonight we met Alma. Or Amla, depending on what day it is.
My sister and I were walking down Clara Lee Avenue and waved hello to an older lady with platinum blonde hair and a red sweater, who was spraying water from a hose onto her lawn.
“How are you?” I said, which is always strange to me when I say it in passing, because it’s not really a passing kind of question.
“Well, I got out of bed this morning,” she called back to us, “so I guess I can’t complain too much!”
We laughed politely; I meant it more than politely, I thought it was a great thing to say. It’s how I’ve been feeling lately, especially on days when I’m really not cool with myself.
“This tree seems to be shedding, though,” she said, directing our gaze upward with the spray of her hose. “Do you see that? I wonder if it’s some kind of fungus.”
As my friend Taylor said (ironically), I don’t know from trees. We speculated on what might be the cause of that, for a moment.
“I meant to plant winter rye out here,” she said. “But my husband said he’d do the yard work, and I said okay.”
She pursed her lips comically, and left the silence to brood.
“I’m not going to touch that,” I said.
“Well, I’ll tell you a story,” she said. “We met at work, at General Dynamics.”
She moved closer to us, rotating the spray of her hose as she went so that it stayed on the tufty dry grass.
“There was a big wall around it; I always said that they didn’t build that wall to keep secrets in, they built it to keep the wives out! But he wanted to marry me, and he hadn’t finished college. I said I wouldn’t marry him unless he went back to school. He worked ten hours a day, then came home to play with the children for a while, and then go on to night classes. Well, all those years, I did the yard work. I would push a lawnmower around–it was a hand-powered lawnmower–and I’d sweep all the leaves and dust down the street, two or three houses down in either direction, to keep the sidewalks clean, you know. Anyway, he finished school and said to me, ‘I’ll do the yard work now.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Well, he went out there and mowed the lawn one day…”
She pauses, rolling her eyes for effect.
“And he went out the very next day and bought a power mower.”
She wants to know where we live; I tell her I’m housesitting. I try to be vague, since that’s how it’s done in this day and age, but she asks a few pointed questions and before I know it, I’ve told her exactly where I’m living, and the names of the people I’m staying for, and how long I’ve known them. She says she’ll remember my sister’s name because it’s the same name as her granddaughter. She admires the baby, as she ought to, and when she hears that her name is Eden, quickly responds,
“Is she east?”
My sister waits a beat, then laughs politely.
We ask what her name is; she says, “Well, do you want my backwards name or my forwards name?”
“Can I have both?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you my backwards name first,” she says. “Because sometimes, you know, you wake up in the morning, and everything’s backwards, and you can just say ‘This is who I am today.'”
She fixes me with her gaze.
“Oh…so it’s Alma?” says my sister. “On a forwards day?”
The lady laughs.
“I just tell my husband, when I wake up on a day like that, ‘I’m Amla today. Watch out.'”
She wants to know where we’re from; she thinks I’m hedging when I tell her I’m not really from anywhere, at this point, but finally cedes the point by asking “Do you at least have your education?”
“Yes,” I say. “I do have that.”
“What level?” she asks.
“Bachelor’s degree,” I say.
“Oh, that’s fine!” She says it as though I’d won second prize at a pageant.
“I never really wanted to do any more school than that,” I say.
“Well, and if you want to, you can always go on to get a masters’ later,” she tells me brightly. “What would you do if you were going to get yours masters’?”
“Probably nothing very useful,” I say. “Something fun, like Shakespearean acting.”
“Well, but that’s useful!” she protests. “Because you can go to any city you like, and get a job in some little theatre. They’ll find something for you to do, even if it’s just handing out programs.” She looks at my sister for confirmation.
“And anyway,” she says, looking back at me, “You can just take your computer everywhere with you, and work. They don’t have to know that you don’t live in the same place as them.”
They always sort it out for themselves, eventually.