The Stoop

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In the one stoplight, picket fence town of Willington, the dingy gray apartment building stood out like a sore thumb. Located behind the Smith’s grocery store, a mom-and-pop shop if ever there was one, the apartment building was home to various families over the years, though there were four who had lived there for ten.


The building itself, while larger and more conspicuous than the houses near it, was most noticeable for its stone stoop. In a town filled with porches, wrap around and others, all filled with lawn furniture and knitting women, the stoop always seemed like a little bit of city dropped into the town.


Old Man Granger had lived across the street from that apartment building for the last sixty years, and he had seen families come and go with nary a word. It was the stoop that he watched.


Sometimes he people-watched that stoop from his own seemingly luxurious porch -- at least three times the size of that stoop -- and sometimes, in the winter, feeling like a peeping tom, he peered out from behind the curtains of his living room.


His wife had, up until the day she passed, scolded him for his people watching and nosiness, but he knew it didn’t really bother her, because on the cool nights, they would curl up next to each other on the porch swing and watch the world breathe in and out all around them, watching people come and go.

***


Sixty years ago, when John and Mary Granger had just married and moved into their house, only three blocks from the street Mary had grown up on, they watched a family move into the top apartment. The father worked in the mill down the road, like most of the apartment’s occupants, and the mother kept house.


When they were young, the children came galloping through the middle of the street, like a stampede of horses, laughing and running, only to be instantly calm when their mother opened the door for them. John Granger could see the children head up the stairs, with their mother following them, and sometimes, if he closed his eyes, he could imagine them heading up the stairs and finally, into the kitchen of the apartment for some milk and cookies.


Of course, as the years passed, John had less time to spend watching the stoop and more time watching his own new children. There was less to watch anyway, as some of the elder children moved out to their own houses and those that remained tended to walk home separately, with their own friends. Their mother did not greet them at the door then, and they did have to walk single file to make room on the one-person stoop. Instead, they lounged and meandered and were the teenagers that John knew his own children would become someday soon. Eventually, the family moved out, and all that was left of them was a ghost of a memory of some children running up the walk.

***


Around the time John’s eldest turned twelve, a single mother moved into the empty apartment on the second floor. Mary heard people complain about the crying baby as she got her hair done at the beauty parlor, but she never once joined in with a “My, that is rude.” She told John all about the poor woman, widowed recently, over their dinner. There wasn’t much he could do for the struggling mother, but in between watching the family of the top floor and caring for his own three children, every so often, John kept an eye out for the mother. She didn’t spend much time on the stoop, but every so often, she would bring her baby out, and they would sit on the third step.


He would see her saying something, despite the fact that no one else was there, and though it took him quite a while, he eventually realized she was talking to her baby girl.


One day, John saw her push her baby’s stroller on his own walk, and he said, “Hello neighbor.”


She said hello back, and they were no longer strangers; they were neighbors. Somehow, that changed quite a bit.


Mary invited the poor dear over for tea, and John helped her shovel off her car. As the years passed, John would still catch a glimpse of her sitting on the stoop, whispering dreams of somethings instead of nothings to her baby girl.


***


Around the time John’s first child was preparing to leave for college, John often had to pull away his wife from her planning to sit on the porch. She never understood his insistence, but she placated him and joined him for an evening cup of tea.


Every night, about a half an hour before they would head in, the bottom tenant would slip out the front door. The young man would sit on the bottom step in silence for a moment, then he would reach into his jacket’s inside pocket and pull out a few pieces of paper and a pen. He would chew on the end of the pen, and in between lags in the conversations about Jacob leaving for college, Annie’s freshman year of high school, and Janie’s troubles with her maths, John and Mary would watch this boy begin to write. Sometimes he wrote for only a short time, and sometimes he wrote for longer than they knew, but he always seemed to find a way into their conversation. They wondered what he was writing, though Mary insisted he was writing to a special someone, a girlfriend, perhaps.


The young man wrote every night for two years until he was fired from his job at the mill and moved elsewhere. For the first few weeks after he left, John and Mary wondered every so often what had become of him and if he was, from wherever he was, still writing.

***


In the years after all the children had left, John and Mary would spend more than just an hour on the porch. Instead, on the cool nights, they would bring their plates of dinner out and eat next to each other, as much in love as they were twenty five years ago. Mary would talk about her bridge club, and John would share his work stories. Their eyes would flicker to the people walking past, the families on the other porches, and the newest occupant of the stoop across the street. John would put his head back in a bark of a laugh as he reminded Mary of the days she nagged him about his nosiness; oftentimes, she did so still.


Around seven thirty, like clockwork, a young teenager would come from the back of the building, shoulders hunched. The boy would sit on the second step for a moment, eyes flickering towards his own apartment‘s window. Then he would pull from his jean’s pocket a pack of cigarettes and some matches.


John didn’t have to look at his wife to know she disapproved, because he could hear her tsktsk of disapproval. John would wrap his arm around her waist, neither of them saying what they were hoping - that someone wasn’t watching their own grown children smoking out front of their own home.


John and Mary watched the boy smoke every night for a month before Mary unsuccessfully brought it up with the boy’s mother. They watched him smoke every night for three months after that too. John pulled Mary close as they observed, not quite able to look away.

***


When Mary died, his children all came to be with him. Jacob took a week off his job at the law firm, Annie left her husband at home with the kids, and Janie, herself, had already been home, visiting. They huddled in their grief the first day, all unsure of what to do with themselves. When dinnertime came, he ate with his children; then they drifted around the house, trying to do something helpful, while attempting to stifle their own grief.


John headed towards the porch for some air, and he found himself sitting, not on the swing, for that was far too painful, but on his own front step. He stared at, but didn’t see, the stoop across the street. Not five minutes later, he felt a hand on his shoulder and a presence behind him. Seconds later, he heard the screen door creak open and felt two more people join him.



His children sat with him on the steps, the swing empty, and they stared across the street at the stoop. John didn’t realize they had all been crying silent tears until he turned to look at his children and realized that his tears mirrored theirs.


He wondered, for a moment, what the people on the stoop thought when they saw him with his children and their grief on the porch.


***


Old Man Granger sat on the porch swing now. It felt empty sometimes, but he watched the leaves change colors, and he felt the wind blow, and he watched the stoop, with the families and the single mothers and all the other people his wife would have commented on.


His children joined him when they visited, but most of the time, he sat alone and thought about the stoop and why he still watched it, because he knew there wasn’t one reason; there was every reason. He watched the people, and he wondered who was watching back.


The world breathed in and out around them all.





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