The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Living with shadows

Rachael Conlin Levy
“Hand Shadows to Be Thrown Upon the Wall” by Henry Bursill (1859).
Image courtesy of carla216

She lived in darkness and shadows. Long-forgotten memories possessed the shadows around her and flitted along the walls. The smaller shadows along the living-room wall took the form of her two children…(They) crawled and fought silently as slivers of moonlight filtered through them. In the kitchen, a larger shadow slouched back in a chair and kicked up his heels.

Excerpt from “Saints Alive” by Scott Alan Anderson, published in Glimmer Train, Winter 2008

There’s an old lady across the street living in the darkness and shadow that Anderson writes about. Her name is Betty and I can see her house from my kitchen window. It’s a house that draws no breath, heaves no sighs. It’s old, quiet, the opposite of mine where there’s so much frustration and laughter and tears that the house can’t contain us, so the energy spills outside and runs crazy-cat through the yard and up a tree and then back inside where it sprawls across the couch, and pants.

Nope, Betty’s house is hidden behind heavy drapes that are never opened. Maybe she’s just too damn weak to pull them aside. She wears turtle necks in July and looks thin enough to snap, like one of the cigarettes that she smokes. Her stoop smells of an ashtray and her door doesn’t open willingly. She’s never answered my knocks at Christmas time, so I leave the cookies or jam on her porch, and she’ll totter over a few days later with a bag of walnuts or M&M;’s in its own plastic candy dish.

“My son gave me too many nuts,” she’d say. Or “Thought your kids would enjoy these. Mine use to.”

Then she’d slip back inside her house and I wouldn’t see her for weeks, maybe a month. No smoke from the chimney, her pale blue sedan idle in the driveway, not a footstep across the snowy lawn, and I’d start to wonder if she were dead and if she was, how would anyone know?

In the summer, Betty’s next-door neighbor waters and mows the lawn. In return, she lets her poodle shit in the yard next to Betty’s car and never cleans it up. Is that their agreement, or is it the price the neighbor has decided her goodwill is worth? In the middle of the lawn is a bush that bursts into bloom, and I imagine there’s a link between Betty’s life and its lacy pink flowers. That the sap that warms in the sun knows of the house’s shadows and darkness, that it listens to the familiar old thump-thump of Betty’s heart, so if she were to die, it would stop blooming.

And I would shrug my shoulders and mention at dinner that Betty had died. And Marcel would say, “Ah, that’s too bad.” And the kids would ask, “Who’s Betty?”

“You know, the old lady who lived at the corner? The one with the blue car?”


And they’d jump up from dinner and run outside, where’d they play until I yelled at them to come in and do the dishes.

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