UNITED STATES—She was sitting at the very end of the walkway, face obscured by the yellow flowers and stringy leaves hanging down from the branches that gnarled down. Her eyes were smiling. I kept staring and staring to decipher the connection with her. There had to be one—why else would she be seated there in front of my gate.
There she was gazing at me like someone who knew me, seated on the red rocking chair, made of pressed metal charmingly scarred by time. The chair is usually empty save for the yellow, scent-drenched flowers, said to be poisonous, that drop and shrivel there.
“I’m not taking your chair take, am I?” she said. I pretended I’d never seen the chair before.
“I saw the sign on the street, ‘Neighborhood Watch.’ Suspicious people will be reported to the police. I was hoping I could come down here and nobody would think I was suspicious looking.”
Smiling, she leaned her shoulders forward. I was worried she might notice the way I was looking or trying not to look at her. She was definitely young, but unlike many of the young, she was very mysterious, too.
“I came back here to collect myself before work,” she said. “This is the most beautiful place in all of Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s so beautiful and quiet.”
It’s hard to be unsympathetic when somebody says something so nice about where you live. Then again, it could have been a ploy. She held a cup of Farmer Bros. coffee and a danish, the kind that comes in a plastic wrapper and has slits on top to show the color of the filling.
“Are you from Los Angeles?” I asked.
“That’s what I’m deciding. If I want to stay.”
In a rush, she said she moved to Chicago with her parents from Belarus when she was six years old and that there was a situation back home she’d left. “That’s the short version,” she said with a short laugh, and her fuzzy green-blue eyes, lozenges dreamily out of focus, began to tear up. I sat down next to her on a little rusty stand there for wine glasses and ashtrays that never materialize.
I have seen these lawn-furniture vignettes—pretty chairs, benches and gazebos—many times in many neighborhoods, mostly affluent zones with lots of trees, and they never fail to awake in a passer-by dreams of indolence. It was good, I felt, that someone finally could use one of these beckoning chairs out of the whole city of Los Angeles.
All the same, my suspicious ways, honed in Hollywood, kicked in. Was she mad underneath the veneer of sanity? Yes, she spoke like a born American, all right; arriving at six years old from Belarus could explain that. There was a vagueness she had about her place in the city, and yet I perfectly understood what it is to find and need a secret place to collect. Maybe, in some strange way, I was the intruder.
Her fingers suddenly became self-conscious of the tears. She dabbed them up and talked brightly about the smell of the flowers—Gabriel’s trumpet or in Spanish, toloache. The yellow flowers like giant daffodils dangling from green branches have medicinal properties and can get you stoned… or worse. She laughed when I said I was careful to rake up the flowers that fell to the ground to avoid raking up the neighbor’s spaniel. Well, she had a sense of humor.
This morning between Thanksgiving and Christmas the sun caught the chalky whiteness and the bright-blue window frames of my house.
“I and a friend went to Athens last year. That house looks just like one of those houses perched on the hills of a Greek sea village.”
“That’s my house,” I said proudly. Later I was afraid I had said too much.
Off she went, certainly dressed for some kind of office work. She was obviously under a strain and found a bit of peace and repose on the red metal rocker. I was appreciative this visitor made me newly appreciate the rich peace and quiet where I live. You know, it’s true what they say. You only see a house where you live once, truly see it, the first time you look at it; after you move in to a place it becomes invisible. It takes a stranger, now and then, to shake us into seeing. And now for the life of me I still can’t decide who was the more suspicious—she or me?
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of “A Very Grady Christmas: Three L.A. Christmases,” available on Amazon.