BY DON HERALD
Copyright is held by the author.
SHE DOESN’T think of herself as a snoop or busybody. She just enjoys keeping an interested eye on the comings and goings in her neighbourhood. It’s really that simple.
Some women are enthusiastic about euchre, others about crocheting warming blankets for the newborns at City General. But Mary Ruth is obsessively committed to knowing as much as possible about the lives of any neighbour she finds interesting.
In good weather, when not much is happening in the neighbourhood, Mary Ruth sits on her favourite bench alongside the main walking path in Citadel Park. It’s always a pleasant few hours imagining the private lives of the walkers and joggers. The Park is excellent practice for her main passion in life – being profoundly interested in her neighbours.
In fairness, Mary Ruth hasn’t always been so fascinated by other people. Keeping the house in order and tending to the back garden had taken up much of her time in years past. And of course, there was volunteering at the General every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But after the sudden death of her precious Arthur five years ago this past April, Mary Ruth let most of the household chores and volunteering slide quite a bit.
She’d never been much of a TV fan but she’d patiently sit with Arthur just to keep him company while he followed the seasonal sports. As for spending more time on the computer, she barely knew how to turn on Arthur’s machine, so these days it just sits there gathering dust on his desk. Besides, if Mary Ruth feels an urgent need to communicate with someone, she’d either phone them or better still, handwrite and post them a letter. Mary Ruth has never been one for the social niceties of idle chit-chat about silly things that no one really cares about. So she has few friends who are interested in hearing about her new life without Arthur.
Immediately after his death, she had lots of idle time on her hands. So Mary Ruth took up casual watching of the many comings and goings on the street in front of her house.
At first, it was just a relaxing hour here and there sipping herbal tea, watching what was going on with the neighbours. But casual watching gradually became many hours each and every day. Often Mary Ruth would watch well into the night. After Arthur died, she had little need for sleep so it became her habit to cat nap here and there throughout the day or night. It surprised Mary Ruth that she could sleep so little yet still have so much energy to devote to her new passion.
What had started out as an innocent curiosity about her neighbours was fast becoming her obsession. Mary Ruth preferred to think of it as her new hobby.
In the beginning, Mary Ruth sat in Arthur’s leather recliner which she turned toward the large window in the front room. It wasn’t too long before she realized there was a better view from the upstairs bedroom. So she paid a well-mannered neighbourhood boy to carry the chair upstairs and place it in front of the window. To her delight, Mary Ruth discovered that sheer white lace curtains were perfect for looking out but not to be seen doing it. And her line of sight was excellent – on the left, fully both sides of the street, all the way to the Millers ten houses down; on the right, to Khan’s Variety directly across from Saint Jude’s RC church at the corner of Franklin and River.
Now that she had so much time devoted to watching, Mary Ruth realized there were many interesting things to keep track of. She furiously scribbled almost illegible but detailed observations into one of Arthur’s many empty spiral notebooks she’d found piled on the top shelf of the closet in his office.
Within two months, she’d completely filled several books with random comments about many of her neighbours. She even made detailed notes on interesting strangers who passed by. For example, there was the elderly couple who were always pulled along by a scruffy-looking dog with a twisted front leg. Or the well-dressed older woman who, on the third Monday of each month except December, left unwanted religious pamphlets in everyone’s mailboxes.
Mary Ruth had always worked best with structure and order in her life. Her first notebooks were just too disorganized to make possible a quick lookup of some interesting detail about any of her more interesting neighbours.
There was Jennifer Williams – a separated single mother with a wandering toddler named Violet. They lived down at number 36. Or the elderly Mr Stahl with the beautifully carved wooden cane. Every weekday afternoon, rain or shine, promptly at 2:30 pm, he would shuffle unsteadily to Kahn’s Variety, passing back in front of Mary Ruth’s upstairs window at exactly 3:05 pm. Or the Davis kid up at 104. He cut classes almost every Monday. He returned home after his parents left for work, always with the same mousy-looking girl hanging limply on his arm. This raging hormonal tryst happened so frequently that Mary Ruth came to seriously doubt there was anything limp once the teenagers were behind a locked front door. Of course, and she often reminded herself of this fact, today’s youth have absolutely no moral compass to guide them, so why should she be shocked at their secretive, lusty behaviour?
Mary Ruth started using highlighter pens and bright sticky tabs for tracking those few neighbours who, for one reason or another, were of particular interest. Soon the tab system didn’t work because Mary Ruth was exuberantly adding many pages of handwritten information far too quickly. Her beloved Arthur’s spiral notebooks were filled rapidly. Necessary and efficient referencing and fact-checking, both very important necessities to Mary Ruth’s record-keeping, became almost impossible.
Finally, Mary Ruth hit on an efficient system. She devoted a single notebook or a series of the same-coloured, sequentially dated notebooks to each neighbour she was watching. For example, last Tuesday evening Jennifer was sitting on her porch with a handsome young man. They were drinking and smoking. Mary Ruth decided that it was fair trade tea from northern India and most likely a joint of marijuana. Mary Ruth wrote the details in Jennifer’s notebook. She also checked earlier notes to see if this man had been with Jennifer before. Once she realized just how often eager young men visited on a regular basis, Mary Ruth set aside several back pages of Jennifer’s notebook. She marked this section with a bright yellow sticky labelled ‘Male Friends’. Mary Ruth entered the date and time of each visit, a detailed physical description of the visitor and very important to her, some quickly scribbled speculations about the possible motives the young man might possibly have for visiting Jennifer.
After about five or six months of documenting facts and her speculations about the basic comings and goings of the neighbours, Mary Ruth realized her notebook-keeping hobby just wasn’t as much fun as when she first started. Something more was needed. So she added two important items to her watching and documenting routine.
First, she bought lightweight, sixteen power Bushnell binoculars from Arthur’s friend Tim at Arnell’s Digital Photo and Copy Shop on Rye Street. Mary Ruth could easily hold the binoculars without tiring. The binoculars were capable of remarkably detailed long-distance magnification, so now Mary Ruth could literally get up-close and personal with anyone she chose to focus on. And best of all, she could do it secretly from behind the bedroom sheers which didn’t hamper her vision.
Next, Mary Ruth started writing longer, more enthusiastic notations of her imaginative speculations about the thoughts, interests, motivations, passions and secrets for each of her chosen neighbours. There was just so much to write about that Mary Ruth barely had time to prepare and eat nutritious meals during the day. Her weight fell away but Mary Ruth still took down all the mirrors in her home. The few she couldn’t remove, she papered over with old newspaper and masking tape from Arthur’s supply cupboard. Mary Ruth decided she could stand to lose a few extra pounds. While her Arthur had never come right out and said it to her face, she just knew he preferred her to look as she did in high school when they first met.
Not thinking about the why of it, Mary Ruth enjoyed writing vividly imagined lives for her few chosen neighbours. Each of these unique worlds was based on very little fact but a whole lot of wildly creative fantasy. Mary Ruth, as a silent observer and documenter, began to live more and more within each of these imagined worlds. She had absolutely no second thoughts or moral ambiguity about doing so. Afterall, being an observer and documenter was a perfectly enjoyable and reasonable pastime. No one was being hurt or inconvenienced by her secret fantasies so there was nothing to be concerned about. Besides, since she no longer needed to dedicate most of her daily life to pleasing dear Arthur, she had been blessed with a limitless opportunity to secretly enter into the lives of the chosen few.
One day, Mary Ruth made an important decision. She would focus almost exclusively on the four most interesting individuals on her street. Narrowing down the subjects of her watching would allow her to devote more time to properly document their lives. She could now become more intensely familiar with each of her chosen neighbours. The promise of such intimacy was very appealing to Mary Ruth.
First, was Jennifer – the separated mother of Violet. She was an obvious choice. This young woman had a lifestyle so unlike anything that Mary Ruth herself had ever experienced. Mary Ruth could only marvel at the freedoms and societal norm-busting that Jennifer represented – both in fact and in Mary Ruth’s rich fantasy world. Dope smoking and maybe some low-level dealing given the number of visitors Jennifer had at all hours of the night and day was an attractive activity.
Jennifer’s sexual promiscuity – in Mary Ruth’s world, that was the only word for it – evidenced by the several young, beautiful men who arrived, stayed a night or two then mysteriously disappeared, only to return some months later apparently eager as ever to enjoy the young woman’s company. Mary Ruth speculated that Jennifer supported her lifestyle not only with welfare cheques and reasonable income from dealing dope but also because the young men were probably willing to pay for her time.
Natural beauty and grace – two traits that a younger Mary Ruth could never claim to possess.
A free-range parenting style – often seemed to put the active toddler Violet at risk of falling from the porch steps or being run-down by a passing car. Never having any kids of her own to practice on, Mary Ruth’s intellectually favoured command and control style of parenting was being stretched beyond reasonable belief by Jennifer’s exceedingly laissez-faire approach to Violet’s upbringing and safety.
Next – Ray and Audrey, the married couple directly across the street. Ray was a salesman at Stafford’s Used Auto And Truck Sales in West City. Even though he had been one of Arthur’s closest friends, Mary Ruth disliked Raymond.
Just three weeks before he died, Arthur abruptly traded their perfectly fine ten-year-old Buick for a low mileage bright red truck. Mary Ruth had no interest in cars or trucks but she could read the badging on the truck’s side as well as the next person – Dodge Ram 1500. Arthur told her the truck would be perfect for hauling clutter from their basement to the landfill. He’d also been thinking about getting a fishing boat and trailer so the Ram would do just fine for that rig too. While she had no proof, Mary Ruth suspected Ray profited twice from selling Arthur that useless truck – he got the commission on the truck and another on the sale of Arthur’s Buick.
Mary Ruth believed Ray was long on nice words but very short on ethics. In her world, car salesmen were all cut from the same morally inferior cloth.
To soften tension caused by the sudden purchase of his truck, Arthur encouraged Mary Ruth to drive the Ram 1500 a few times. She had to admit it had more power than the Buick and so many fancy do-dads she just couldn’t count them all. But eventually, she got comfortable taking the truck around town. Since Arthur died, she took it out more often. Otherwise, the truck usually sat in the garage at the end of their side drive.
But it was Audrey that Mary Ruth was most interested in. An attractive, well put together, confident woman in her mid-fifties, Audrey, to Mary Ruth’s way of thinking, was an outrageous flirt. Mary Ruth had been keeping a close eye on Audrey and Arthur since she caught them shamelessly pawing at each other in the garage during the annual neighbourhood street festival on the July long weekend back in 1998.
With her soaring imagination, Mary Ruth had effortlessly created a slowly collapsing relationship between Audrey and her slimeball husband. She truly believed that marriage would end with Raymond’s surprising demise under highly suspicious circumstances. Of course, his timely death would leave Audrey totally free to put some of her flirtatious moves on Kent, the wealthy but lonely widower who lived in the neat, two-storey, green trimmed semi next to Khan’s.
Mary Ruth’s final choice for special attention was Selina – an impossibly beautiful, slim athletic girl of eighteen with long, raven-coloured hair and a smile that would surely melt the most hardened of hearts.
In real-life, Mary Ruth had watched Selina grow up. Her parents, Luis and Sofia, had moved onto the street when Selina was just learning to walk. Over the years, Mary Ruth quietly but deliberately inserted herself into Selina’s life, always stopping to chat with the child, giving her a few quarters every now and then for an iced Slurpee from Khan’s.
Sofia and Mary Ruth became friends. Sofia invited Mary Ruth to all of Selina’s school concerts. In 2006, Mary Ruth had been an honoured guest at the child’s first Communion of the Holy Sacrament in a beautiful service at St. Jude’s. In fact, a photo of a smiling seven-year-old Selina in a white lace communion dress and wrist-length gloves still held a special place on top of the upright Heintzman in Mary Ruth’s front room.
Somewhere in those early years, Selina became Mary Ruth’s imaginary daughter. Of course, Mary Ruth would never admit such a silly belief to anyone. It was her closely held secret.