It was about fifty yards to Irene’s house, if that. A dilapidated, eternally gray Victorian that, as I recall, was never touched during my boyhood. Just leave it as is. It’s like sticking one of your new Keds in a drainage ditch. It won’t get any muddier now, so why worry about it? But the house might as well have been in another planetary system, and we rarely launched probes in that direction. It wasn’t the space travel we found daunting, just the landing that posed a problem. Or so we thought. So we kept a safe distance. But we continued to monitor developments from our side of the DMZ, over by our swing set and the rhubarb. Duck and cover. Sometimes from behind the rabbit hutch I would fire a few BB rounds at her house to spook our pigeons, because they would land over there and poop on her roof. Which would then put Irene through another roof. But otherwise I tried to minimize the engagement.
Because Irene was a witch. Or at least we were pretty sure. She was round and tired, and wore washed-out gingham, and would suddenly appear from nowhere, which was disturbing. But it seemed most obvious when she would wash her hair and step out onto her porch to comb it. That was spooky. Her hair was salt and peppery and hung down to her knees, and after combing it out she’d twist it up in a bun. Probably so it would fit up under her witch hat, which she must have only worn indoors, since she never sported it out on the porch or while gardening. And I’m sure Dave down at Schurg’s grocery would have told me if she ever wore it in the produce section. And, speaking of the garden, one time Irene fell while weeding and couldn’t get up. We just crouched down and stared. It was like watching a turtle on its back trying to flip over. And of course, we didn’t come to her rescue. We hid behind the garage until she somehow got to her feet, because we didn’t think those things happened to witches. Damn kids.
It was a curious world, Irene’s. She also had boarders living there. And one time Irene called my dad at the hardware store. She had a big, clipped voice. “MARVIN!”, she said, “what would you do if someone died?” Dad replied, “Well, Irene, I’d probably call Ralph Lightle" (the local funeral director). “Well, ya better call him, cuz Ole’s dead.” So dad, a former undertaker himself, went out the back door of the store and up to Irene’s house and walked right in. She was at the kitchen sink washing dishes. “He’s in there… I heard him drop.” So dad walked into Ole’s room and yep, sure enough, there was Ole, dead as a post. So dad closed Ole’s eyes, made certain he was laid out nicely, and walked back down to the store.
One of the great things about a DMZ, with its installed separations, is that it allows you to never get close enough to notice certain stuff, like tears rolling down someone’s face, or the lines that a hard life has drawn, so you don’t have to get mixed up in any of that. One can be heavily invested in the distance from another’s life so you can just get on with what you’re doing. Irene was a character in a novel, and when it was time for baseball practice I just closed the book and grabbed my glove. I was on a tight schedule.
Besides, I’m sure she was busy with her own concerns and never thought twice about us. Who knows, it’s possible she feared the DMZ as well. And over the years our relationship dropped into a broken place that I don’t suppose she knew how to fix either. Too late now. Maybe all she hoped for was that we would come over sometime and sit with her. Break through a bit. We could look out across an orange evening sky and talk a little, or just be still. Out on the porch. She could put that hat on for us. And wouldn’t that be something?