As much of a wet-nap as my neighbor Janene was when playing Monkey In The Middle, beggars can’t be choosers. The older girls across the street didn’t want to play with me. When we’d first moved into our house, I was told there were girls my age who lived across the street. I didn’t know their names, or that they were two years older, or that it would even matter that they were two years older, so I stood in our front yard and yelled in a sing-song voice, "New neighbors, new neighbors, come out and play!" But they didn’t. It wasn’t because my lungs were underdeveloped. They’d heard me just fine. In fact, they’d sometimes peep their heads out from behind their screen doors and repeat the chant back to me in an exaggerated whine. "New neighbor, new neighbor…no." Then the sound of their front doors slamming.
So we had each other, Janene and I, and in all of two days, we’d forgotten what had come to pass earlier in the week. We were like middle-aged men that way. I’d sometimes go to Janene’s house, six houses down the block from mine, and we’d visit her neighbor, an elderly woman with breasts that hung like ferrets. Her neighbor–who incidentally was also my neighbor, though to this day, I’ve never considered her so–had thick slices of glass for spectacles, and when she spoke, I’d sometimes be in a position to see through them, a warped disproportionate world. I’d only ever been invited inside her kitchen, which smelled not of a restorative chicken broth, but of cat. I didn’t know if it was cat piss, or breath, or litter I smelled, but I knew, for certain, it was a cat house. Or a guinea pig. I couldn’t be sure. Still, no one but school-aged children borrowing from their kindergarten class had a guinea pig. Maybe she had a caged rabbit somewhere. I couldn’t be sure.
She served us Coca-Cola from a glass bottle and mixed it with whole milk. I leaned my cheek against the cool plastic place mat as I watched the contents of my glass, the meeting of two sides. It was a cloudy mix of black and white mingling as if a wave had just crashed and the currents were sorting things out. Who belonged where. No, you, you there, you go up there. That’s it. I imagined each bubble resisting the milky enzymes, rising to the top in struggle. And she wanted me to drink this? Milk?! It even sounded thick. It’s why I called milk "blulka" as an infant.
I remember wincing when the concoction was offered, telling Janene privately, "that’s so grossatating" in a very hushed tone, fearing I’d hurt the old woman’s feelings. Just the same, I accepted the woman’s offer with a smile, despite her need to pat at my head. Why did Janene suggest coming here? I wondered. Couldn’t we run now and go play Register at my house? But I just sat there, at the kitchen table of an elderly neighbor, holding my cola gumbo, straining to get a glimpse of a cat she claimed not to have.
"Do you like your drink, dears?"
I nodded as if I were auditioning for a Jell-O commercial. Considering my tendency to be a bit of a ham, I suppose I even licked my lips. She seemed so pleased, as if she’d just hailed us the moon. I couldn’t imagine refusing her. It was bad enough that she didn’t have any grass in her yard, which is not, incidentally, a euphemism.
She called the front of her house, her "garden." Which is just creepy when said by an old woman. Mystical, perhaps, if there were a trellis and actual leaves. Foliage. A decorative bench, some bird feed, pansies, and shrubs. Herbs, even. Perhaps a gaudy statue with overbalanced testicles holding a watering can while flexing. But it’s downright creepy when your garden consists of cement. "Rock" and "Garden" really shouldn’t be permitted to mingle.
And in the remembering, it now comes to mind that it was Janene’s plan all along. She liked to visit with this neighbor because she offered her cola and milk. This was the lure for her. It wasn’t a necessary task, an insistence from her own mother to visit with the elderly as a good deed. A chore that needed to be crossed off a list. It was probably done in spite of her mother’s insistence that she keep the hell away from the lady with the rocks in her head and yard. And it just goes to show, there’s no accounting for taste, or the friends we choose to keep.