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Walking by Windows

Author's Note: This piece was originally written in response to a flash fiction contest on the theme of Daylight Savings Time. It's loosely inspired by the goings-on in my own neighborhood, and as often happens in writing, the character revealed to me the depth of what actually needed to pan out in the plot. What began as a story about a grumpy elderly man strolling through his neighborhood soon became a heart-wrenching look into the life of someone living with dementia.

The doctor told me I should take walks for my health. Ridiculous. Apparently sitting at home made me rust, and walking would put oil back into my hinges. My cholesterol and blood pressure were getting higher, my mobility was getting lower, and my blood sugar was up and down every day. Depression seeped in, and he warned me Alzheimer’s would be close behind if I weren’t careful. But as I saw it, Yvette was gone, my family didn’t care about me, most of my friends were gone (or worse: senile), and the world was getting more and more horrible every day. Why would I want to live anymore? Why would I want to become healthy and prolong this existence? I just wanted to rest. But the doctor and I agreed on one thing: I didn’t want to lose my mind. If I was on the way out of this world, I wanted to at least be myself. So I listened to the doctor. I started walking.

There was no way I was buying a treadmill or investing in a gym membership, so I decided to take a lap around the neighborhood every day. Plus, the doctor said the bit of sunshine was good for the depression and the fresh air was good for my lungs. He suggested I go in the cool of the morning, but I liked to sleep in. He couldn’t rob me of that. So in the afternoon, between my nap and my dinner, I took my medications, put on my hat, slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and slammed the front door behind me. From the time I walked out that door to the time I sat back in my chair, all I could think about was how much I did not want to be outside walking. But at my first follow-up appointment, the doctor did say all my high numbers were going down and all my low numbers were going up. So I reckoned I might as well keep doing it.

I had to hire a landscaper long ago when the doctor told me I shouldn’t be doing yard work anymore. But I watched that landscaper like a hawk. He was just a kid too, and he didn’t know much about grass at all. So my yard that once looked so green and clean now looked rag-tag and messy. But on my walks, I noticed that some of the neighbors’ yards were even worse. One house two doors down had a willow tree–trashy trees, if you ask me–that was dead at the top. It really just needed to be chopped down. Another neighbor had problems with moles, the little unmistakable brown tunnels breaking through the grass. I hoped they wouldn’t make their way to my house. They’d be sorry if they did! These feet are good for stomping! And one house had a basketball hoop pointed out in the street for some of the neighborhood kids to play in (and be loud around, with their terrible music and foul language and yelling), but the trees and bushes behind the goal were looking worse and worse every day from wear and tear. I didn’t like that kid landscaper much, but he kept things looking okay at my house, I suppose.

This neighborhood was one of those cookie-cutter subdivisions thrown up in a frenzy to meet housing demands. I didn’t really want to live here; I wanted to stay in the house that Yvette and I raised the kids in. But when the kids moved out, they went to the four winds. This area was closer to them and the grandkids, and we downsized to a one-story ranch house. Surrounding neighborhoods were much higher quality, and as long as more “for rent” signs kept going up in our neighborhood, that price divide would keep increasing. I would walk and see house designs nearly all the same: mid-century ranch-style houses with more contemporary components added on, with a one- or two-car garage, a small covered front porch, and mostly brick exterior. And to think these houses were over four hundred thousand now! What was the housing market coming to?!

I had to keep my wits about me because the neighborhood was near a high school, and the teenagers drove wild in their rush to get home. They weren’t experienced enough behind the wheel to know how dangerous it could be. There was in particular one black Charger, with one of its windows covered in saran wrap, that always went way too fast and peeled out at the stop sign. “Slow down!” I yelled. “You’re going to get someone killed, you idiot!” Of course, he never listened. I’m sure he thought he was much more knowledgeable than me in the ways of being smart, but he had another thing coming.

And the trash! Walking on garbage day was awful because the garbage company would just leave the trash cans in the middle of the road! Sometimes trash would fall out, too, and they didn’t even have the decency to pick it up. The trash, of course, stank. I couldn’t understand why people just didn’t seem to care about their things and their jobs anymore. I had to weave in and out of rank trash cans and keep my head on a swivel for those high school drivers. We paid for the Homeowners Association, didn’t we? Why couldn’t we get a better trash pickup service? Or sidewalks? Or speed bumps, a gate, or an agreement for buyers only?

My walks kept me vigilant of changes like these in the neighborhood, and if it weren’t for me, who knows? Maybe there would be a lot more problems in the neighborhood. People just didn’t seem to care anymore. But I cared, and I let people know I cared. When I spotted something that shouldn’t be, I let them know. “Your dog should be on a leash!” I said to a jogger one day. “Remember to pick up your newspapers as soon as they arrive or else the rain will make them decompose on your driveway,” I called to a young man bleary-eyed in his pajamas. “You kids keep the noise down!” I said to a group of teens standing around their car. “There’s a noise ordinance, after all. Don’t want someone calling the police on you.”

Of course, I didn’t want to be known as the grumpy old man who just complained about the neighborhood. I noticed improvements too. One young man built a nice fence around his backyard. I asked him if it was up to code, and he assured me it was. It was good handiwork. Another house recently planted wildflowers around their mailbox. Yvette would have loved that. I just hoped they kept the flowers cared for. Weeds could spread easily.

And this led me to notice something: hardly anybody talked to me. When did neighbors stop talking to each other? I realized I hardly knew any of my neighbors, and when I thought about it, I discovered that it was always me who needed to start a conversation–not them. So many of us were what Yvette would call “waving neighbors”: we didn’t know their names, their families, their histories … but we were kind enough to wave when we saw each other. Whatever happened to respecting your elders? What if something were to happen to me? Would I just be left for dead in my house? Would no one come looking for me?

With the end of Daylight Savings Time in the fall, I thought the walks would get even worse. Yes, it got colder, and that made my joints hurt more, and it was darker, which made it harder to see, especially against the blinding headlights. But actually, despite these changes, I found the most enjoyment in taking a walk during this time. With the sun going down around 4:30, right when I was out for my walk, people remembered to turn on their lights but forgot to close their blinds.

I didn’t mean to look at first. I was walking, watching the ground so I wouldn’t stumble, and a light caught my eye. A young woman had flipped on the light in her living room. It was the house with the wildflowers around the mailbox: black-eyed susans, milkweed, and coneflowers this time of year. It appeared the young woman was just coming home from work. She wore scrubs, her badges all still clipped to her. She must have been a nurse of some kind, maybe coming home from a shift at the clinic or hospital. She looked exhausted, her hair frazzled and hands full. She happened to look up and see me walking past. I was scared maybe she would think me some sort of peeping Tom, this old geezer limping through the neighborhood and peeking into her life as he walked by. But instead, she waved with a small smile. I tipped my hat before she turned and went somewhere else in the house, and I continued on my walk. I passed by the wildflowers and could smell their aroma. They reminded me of Yvette, and I was a little less grumpy.

I began to lift my eyes more as I walked, and I noticed I could see just about everything. It was easiest to see TVs and computer screens. Not only were they the most prevalent–nearly every house had a screen on – but the glow from the screens made for easy viewing because it was in such contrast to the dark. I was amazed at how much negativity I saw on those screens: violence from video games, scenes from war and mugshots from the news, indecency, and lewdness – and with the blinds open! “Turn off that smut!” I yelled, but of course, they couldn’t hear me.

I saw lots of animals, too, because they would be there at the windows looking right back at me. It was fast to spot dogs because I could hear them too, scratching and barking at the glass like they were trapped. Cats often silently supervised from up high, staring at me like I didn’t deserve to live. But I also saw the occasional fish tank illuminating the window, and one neighbor even had a cockatoo that squawked as I walked by! The animals were often the only living creatures that acknowledged me on my walks. I would always stop to say hi to the cockatoo.

Sometimes the rooms were empty but the lights were left on, and I would be able to see how people decorated or how the layout of their house compared to mine. Why did they paint their kitchen that color? Who would want a staircase there? My house wasn’t the best in the neighborhood, but I seriously questioned several neighbors’ choices in design. I could also see more ways people weren’t caring for their property: broken blinds, trashy furniture, clutter in the yard, packages left on the front porch for days …. It was just asking for criminals to come, which was an endangerment to us all.

Of course, I also saw many people. I often saw a young boy jumping on the living room couch while watching cartoons. He reminded me of my boys when they were little, pretending like they were superheroes themselves. I saw older children helping to set the table for dinner and was happy to see that wasn’t a lost art. I saw many men come into the house and sit in the living room, wondering how sad it was that they wouldn’t engage more with their families but also knowing how dog-tired they were at the end of the day. I saw women cleaning or cooking, often looking at those husbands with disdain. “Get up and help her, you lazy bum!” I sometimes grumbled, wishing I could speak to my past self. I saw teenagers on their phones – always with the phones! - or, less likely, doing homework. I even saw my landscaper working on someone’s yard one day. I didn’t realize he had other customers, though it wasn’t surprising. “Laying down seed for the spring?” I asked, and he looked up at me inquisitively, pointing at his headphones. “Oh, nevermind.” When I looked up at the house, I saw that the nurse come home. So it was her house. I often saw her, and we would always wave. She was definitely a waving neighbor. But she was the exception; most of the people didn’t notice me as I walked by.

I began to form my own stories in my head as I walked. I started naming the animals and guessing about the people. The black Charger, for instance, was owned by a young man named Joseph. He had three older brothers, so he always felt like he needed to compete against them. He paid for the Charger himself and intentionally took off the muffler. He hated school and couldn’t wait to get out of there and begin a career in automotive work. Of course, he needed to pay more attention in school if he was going to succeed.

The landscaper’s name was Stephen, and he was fresh out of college, with a new wife and a baby girl. He studied entrepreneurship and hoped to run his own business one day, but he didn’t expect it to be lawn care. It was an honest living, though, and he was learning about the dos and don’ts of good business. He still had a lot to learn, though, and he hoped to have a career that would send him home a little less physically exhausted – though it did feel good to get his hands dirty.

The garbageman’s name was Darius. He liked watching the garbage truck since he was a young boy and hoped to get into city planning. For now, being a garbageman allowed him to see the ins and outs of small government management, and he reminded himself: it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it!

The noisy teens were cousins who all lived in the neighborhood. Their parents were away at work when they walked home from school, so they used their free afternoon hours to play basketball, dance to music, and hang out before the watchful eyes of their parents, aunts, and uncles came home.

The young man with the new fence and the power-washed driveway was named Miguel. He was the oldest of five children, and his parents were both hard workers. They taught him respect and the value of responsibility, and he used those lessons in his own family life now, to pay respect to the ones who raised him well.

The house that always had a shoot-em-up video game upstairs had a bunch of college bachelors. The house belonged to the father of one of the boys, and he rented it out to his son and his probably-too-many-subleasing buddies. They were all high school buds who stuck around each other in college, and they’re all part of the same fraternity. They play violent video games as a safe way to release their aggression and frustration in a messed up world.

That little Yorkie that always barked at me from inside the storm door was Frisky. He belonged to an old woman who spoiled him rotten. Though he was small, he sure was as dangerous as a police-trained rottweiler.

The house with the purple wall in the living room had an opinionated wife named Charlotte and a tool of a husband named Daniel. Though she was a stay-at-home wife and mother, she resented him for getting to work outside of the home, and that jealousy leaked into the way she treated him. She was a micromanaging control freak, though she would never admit it. Daniel, on the other hand, knew that a happy wife made for a happy life.

The boy who watched Spiderman was named Jimmy, and he wanted to be a superhero. He had a severe nut allergy that always kept his parents on edge, so they were often scared to let him play with other kids. They stuck him in front of the TV most of the time, where he dreamed of being invincible.

The nurse was named Tiffany, and she was a fresh graduate making her place in the professional world of medicine. She had a boyfriend named Ezekiel who she hoped would commit soon; she was tired of waiting. She went into medicine because her father died young from a congenital heart defect that made him progressively weak. She was raised by her mother, along with a younger brother, Nathaniel.

I felt like I knew these people because of the stories I imagined about them. It was fun to wonder what made them tick and why they did the things they did. I often tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and see the best in them, despite the difficulties they were probably going through. I reminded myself that we were all just trying to make our way through life. We all had shortfalls, dreams, fears, and passions. It helped me feel more connected with my neighbors, though I was lucky to get so much as a hello from any of them. I formed my own neighborhood – one that was more forgiving and friendly than what it really was.

When spring came and Daylight Savings rolled around again, yes, it was warmer, but people’s windows became darker. Their homes and their lives inside them became a mystery again. It became harder to keep the stories going, and I felt alone again in a treacherous, noisy, isolated mass-produced suburb. It was actually the first time I missed what my ridiculous walks had become.

One day in March, I walked toward Tiffany’s house and noticed she was outside already getting her mail. Rhododendron, columbine, and bloodroot were blooming now around her mailbox.

“Stephen’s done a good job on your yard! He’s improving, I reckon.”

“What’s that, Mr. McClain?” she asked with a polite smile.

“Oh, the, uh … the landscaper.” I realized I had let my story slip. She probably didn’t know who I was talking about. “Wait, you– you know my name?”

Her expression melted into a smile filled with pity. “Yes, of course I do. And do you remember my name?”

“Oh, uh … it’s Tiff—“ My eyes caught her badge. “Oh. Amaya. That’s … that’s right.” A strange feeling of realization filled my mind, and even though it brought some clarity, it also made me more confused.

“Yes sir, that’s right. And, yes, Landon is doing a good job to make sure Yvette’s wildflowers look nice. You must be very proud of your grandson.” The words Amaya said felt like a foreign language that I learned a long time ago. My brow tightened as I tried to understand.

“I’m sure your walks are more enjoyable now that it’s lighter out, aren’t they?”

I blinked a few times, still processing what she said. “Y-yes, they’re … they’re all right.”

She put her hand on my shoulder and led me toward the driveway. “Are you ready to come in for dinner now? I’ve almost got it ready for you.”

“Oh, uh … thank you. That’s … very kind of you.” As she helped me up the porch steps, I saw a sign next to the door: “George and Yvette McClain.”


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