THE CATALOGUE IDEA
A short story by Lewis Turco
Jasper peered out between the curtains and saw Widow Oliver looking back at him from her window next door. He muttered something under his breath, yanked the curtains back into place, and hauled down the shade. He turned back into the room.
It was so gray inside, all-ways gray, that he couldn't help but get the idea when the page of color rose up off the stack of old magazines and pounced into his eyes. The seams of his face folded upward in delight, and his shaggy eyebrows made two hair arches.
"Grief!" he said. "Wonder I didn't think of it before!"
He walked across the room and picked it up — it was a Burpee seed catalogue. He swiped a film of dust off the cover and saw even more vividly that his idea was a good one. A cluster of flowers radiated out into the room and encased Jasper in an aura of blazing summertime. For a few moments the clammy spring chill of the old house was staved off and Jasper let his mind immerse itself in the brooks and sandlots of his childhood. Then, at last, he shook his head to break the gaze of his eyes and the chain of fragrant images in his head.
A rickety rolltop desk stood nearby in one dim corner of the room, pigeonholes stuffed with yellow letters and faded receipts. He tossed the catalogue down there, opened a drawer, and began to rummage. He found the stub-end of a pencil, an envelope, and a stamp. He sat down, riffled through some pages until he found the order blank, and made out the order. Then he rummaged some more till he found his checkbook. When he had finished he folded the order so it would slide easily into the envelope and then put his return address on it. Gathering up the order, the check, the envelope, and the stamp, he rose and stepped back over to the window, raised the shade, and pulled the curtains wide open.
Cora Oliver was there still, her eyes peeling out over her little goat chin and across Jasper's sash. It took her face a second to register surprise at the old man's unorthodox movements, but Jasper saw it — just a flicker of a lash, maybe, and a tic of her cheek, but his distance vision was good and he saw her reaction. He grinned and planted himself broadside in the frame of the window. Cora couldn't possibly miss a single one of his motions.
Jasper stuck out his tongue. He could sense, more than see, the ice of her indignation begin to work its way up from her dingy dimity bodice into her face, but he held the pose just long enough to raise the envelope slowly, with both hands and from about waist high, the give the flap a thick, deliberate lick. Almost in slow motion he slid the order blank into the envelope and, in part of the same movement, slapped over the flap and made sure it was sealed. Then the stamp — another tonguing, another pasting, and it was done.
He put the envelope down on the sill, address-side aiming into his room so Mrs. Oliver couldn't use her little pair of opera glasses on it, and crossed the room into the hall to get his coat and the tam he wore. He brought his outdoor gear to the window where he shrugged himself into his sleeves and planted the tam on his head. Then — very slowly still — he bent to the envelope, took it, and headed for the front door.
By the time he reached the street Cora Oliver had shifted her lookout and was in the front window, her spindly old ghost of a figure barely discernible behind the gauze mesh of thin drapery. Jasper made believe he hadn't seen her. He chortled and hunched up against the chill April breeze which bunted against him down the street of old homes, once a neighborhood, but now merely a peeling reminder of a distant prosperity.
Though it was still early in the month, Jasper could sense May lurking among the puddles of the walks and along the crabgrass borders of stoops and verandahs. "It wants to break out. You can feel it," he said to himself. A fat man working in his yard overheard Jasper and looked oddly at him, but Jasper didn't recognize him, so he just kept walking and didn't say hello.
Jasper kept looking straight ahead until at the last possible moment he shot a glance back down the street, but he could no longer see Cora Oliver. "She's there, though," he said and stalked on until he reached the corner where the mailbox stood. Jasper pulled open the jaw of the iron box. It snapped once and swallowed. "Just like a fat tin bird," Jasper said and turned toward home.
Each day while he waited for the package to be delivered Jasper sat reading in the window overlooking Old Lady Oliver's yard. He made it an ostentatious performance. He had dragged a rocker over to the window and positioned it in a particular way. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed the sunlight on this side of the house. As he thought about it, he reckoned it up to be three years dating from the day Mrs. Oliver had bought the house next door. "She has the longest nose," he said into the catalogue spread open on his knees. "Near as long as her sight." He turned the page.
Jasper sat so that, no matter how he held the Burpee catalogue, she couldn't make out what it was he was reading. The curtains were drawn wide apart, the shade raised — Jasper would walk into the room at precisely nine in the morning, grab the pull, and let the shade snap up on its roller, with a fanfare of dust the first couple of times., the motes curling down into the streaming sunlight in sheets like a page full of bugle notes. The very first day after mailing the letter, indeed, Jasper had made a magnificent production of washing the window, both inside and out.
After the shade-pulling ceremony, much, he hoped, to his neighbor's confusion, he had removed the curtain, carefully but with flourishes, and disappeared. A few minutes later he had reappeared with a bucket of foaming water and a monstrous car-washing sponge he'd bought down at the hardware store. He had set to work slopping tides of water all over the inside panes until the walls were soaking wet and soil eroded from the glass onto the sill and over onto the floor. He had sloshed and sung in a wobbly baritone all the loud songs he could think of, then set to work wiping up the mess with armloads of toweling. As he worked he could see Widow Oliver exploding out of her window, curiosity and astonishment bulging in her eyes behind the flinty little spectacles she affected — they were made of pure unground crystal, Jasper was sure, and neither hindered nor helped her vision. "What they're for, Jasper informed the silence, "is to catch the light and throw it in the other fellow's eyes." He paused to rest for a moment, disappeared again, then came back and put up new white curtains fringed with flounces.
Then he went back to the kitchen for more supplies. With a sweater pulled on and a stepladder under his arm, Jasper went outside and repeated his performance. He worked until the window shone, regretting not the labor, but only that he couldn't see Mrs. Oliver while his back was to her. When he had finished and gathered up his materials he turned...and nearly dropped everything.
Mrs. Oliver had decided to fight fire with fire. She stood in her window, a cloth in one hand and a bottle of spray cleaner in the other, fogging up the panes and wiping them clean with jerky little motions of her arms, on each of which a single wattle of skin wobbled from armpit to elbow. Not that her window needed cleaning. She always kept it pellucid as a spring-fed pool. "The only one like it in the whole of her scabrous dwelling," Jasper mumbled to himself as he tried to control his surprise. He thought he had controlled his expression fairly well, so he went back inside and took his battle position in the rocker.
Each day was the same. He would sit for a couple of hours with the flinty eyes of his neighbor upon him, pricking and prodding like two little needles. She had, as a matter of fact, decided to escalate the war. Usually she was surreptitious about the use of her opera glasses. Jasper had caught her only a couple of times by kneeling at an upstairs window and looking out from under the bottom edge of the nearly-drawn shade. Her bird-like head, on these occasions, looked as though it had grown little black stalks. "A curious cross between a crow and a lobster,"" Jasper remembered observing, and then he had dropped back into bitter mourning for the window seat she had forced him to abandon.
A few days after Jasper had renewed the fight, though, Cora Oliver had begun using the binoculars openly. She would sit there on her Victorian love seat and move them slowly and deliberately up and down, now focusing on Jasper's face, now on what little she could spy of the catalogue.
When Jasper had shown no reaction, Mrs. Oliver had come up with a new tactic. One day when he showed up on the field of honor, Jasper looked across and, to his vast surprise, found no one opposite. Instead, a few minutes later he saw his neighbor's door open. She emerged dressed in an ancient cloth overcoat, bag in hand, and set off down the street at a prim crawl. It was an extreme ploy.
Jasper couldn't remember her ever leaving the confines of her house and yard. Everything she needed had been delivered. Burning with curiosity, Jasper had waited at the window until she had returned an hour or so later with a package in one hand and had let herself back into the house. But her window had remained vacant for the rest of the day. Jasper had had to wait until the following morning for the unveiling of her secret weapon.
It had turned out to be field glasses.
They were enormous, and from that point on Jasper had great difficulty in remaining at his station. While he turned the pages and tried to concentrate on the descriptions of plants and seeds, he could imagine what she must be seeing. In those glasses each grizzly bristle of his beard must rise up like a pine trunk out of a plain; every pore in his nose must be a pit big enough for an elephant to drown in. "Damn her eyes," he repeated over and over again as he tried to rock slowly and calmly, and not like a car trying to spin out of mud. He said that until he realized that she might be able to read his lips and tell that she was getting to him. Then it was twice as hard.
And then he got his second idea. He started to grow a beard. In spots. Each morning he would not shave a certain spot. As the days passed that spot of hair would grow longer and longer, and then he would start on another spot. After about ten days his face looked so strange he had trouble recognizing himself in the mirror. He didn't suppose it did much good, but it made him feel as though he were covered, and it gave her something ridiculous to look at. She didn't show a sign of anything. Mrs. Oliver just keep looking at him through the field glasses, and there was no telling what she thought.
So each day Jasper would sit there till he heard the rattle of the mailbox about eleven. The days slowly warmed into late April, and each day he would examine the mail, but it would contain nothing but circulars and magazines and bills.
One day, though, finally, there was a packet too, Burpee Seeds it said on the outside. Jasper hurried back into the house and over to the chair — she was still in hers across the way. He sat down. With trembling fingers, not caring if his excitement showed, he opened the package, and as he did so he could feel the worm beginning to turn.
He got it open and looked up. Mrs. Oliver's window was positively ballooning outward. It looked as though she were kneeling on the sill, her field glasses buried in the windowpane, her sharp little blue eyes enormously firing out of the two great tubes which were like twin cannon. Jasper didn't care. He let her see: Burpee Prize Giant Sunflower Seeds said each of the twelve little envelopes. He raised his head and grinned at her, rose, and pulled down the shade as hard as he could. He stood there in the semi-darkness of the musty room breathing hard, and then he began waiting for the next morning.
At nine o'clock sharp Jasper emerged from the house carrying the seeds. He went around in back to the shed, got out some gardening equipment, and brought it to the side of the house. Then he set to work while Cora Oliver sat and watched. He spaded and broke up the turf, mixed it with peat moss and fertilizer, raked it smooth, then with a narrow trowel he made a series of small holes, arranging them in seven or eight staggered rows which extended from three feet beyond one side of the window to three feet beyond the other side. He hoarded each trowel full of dirt in a cardboard box which he dragged along the ground with him as he crawled about. By the time he had finished, Jasper was aching in every joint. But it didn't matter. For the first time he was actually enjoying the feeling that Widow Oliver was watching him.
Then he went back over the route, dropped a seed into each hole which he filled with soil from his box, and tamped it down with his toe. Last of all he got out the hose and sprayed his little border garden. Each morning thereafter he watered the seeds until they sprouted. On that day, after he'd given his sproutlings their drink, Jasper sat in the window and drank a beer. With every sip he raised the can and toasted the old lady who did not respond, but only sat in her window peering out at him from her aquarium like some hoary fish that had swallowed a diver and stolen his goggles.
Jasper chuckled to himself. "You know as well as I, now," he mouthed silently across at her. "All we have to do is wait," and he toasted her again. She did nothing, but Jasper thought he might have spotted the wraith of a smile on her sallow chops. The possibility disturbed him, but the sun pouring in the window warmed and soothed him, and for the first time in three years he dozed off in his chair.
By the time the sunflowers reached the level of the sill, Jasper had a good growth of beard. Slowly, day by day, the plants inched upward, up at last to the lowest pane of the window. He could see the buds swelling at the tops of the sturdy stalks. The sunlight and the rain came down on the plants, and the green things absorbed both greedily in their fair lunge into the air. The taller they grew the more it seemed to Jasper that his beard itched. Then the plants were as tall as the second pane, and some of the shorter ones burst into bloom. The great dark eyes opened and surrounded themselves with aureoles of golden petals. The flowers stared across at Widow Oliver on her love seat, and for the first time Jasper sensed that she wavered, for a glass eye is no match for the eye of a flower, he thought.
At last the day came when the fringes of petals tipped upward into the line of vision that pinned Jasper and Cora Oliver on its opposite poles. On that day Jasper brought a steaming basin of water to the window, a towel, his razor, and a mug of soap, and he began to shave. He used the window as a mirror, for the plants cast a shadow upon it, and in the pane he could make out his image enough to do a clean job. He had to use three blades, but he worked slowly and tried not to hurt himself tugging. Cora Oliver peered at him till he had finished and stood wiping his face, which felt tender and unprotected now. Then he straightened and stared across at her over the sea of dark and golden flowers.
"So long, old woman," he said, not using his voice but only his lips. "I wish I could say it's been nice seeing you," and he grinned.
The woman did not move for a time, then she brought her glasses down and put them on the love seat beside her. There was something peculiar about her expression, Jasper could tell. At first he thought it might be anger or frustration, but then he realized he was wrong. It was a look more on the order of sadness, but sadness mixed with a thing he could only call hilarity. She shook her head from side to side, slowly, and said something he couldn't get. He looked hard. She repeated it. From what he could make out she was saying something like, "More's the pity, you old fool." But he couldn't be sure. And then she reached up and pulled her shade.
Jasper sat down in his rocker. He was tired, and he felt good for having won, but something bothered him, and the room, looming dark and gray out of its corners stacked with magazines and catalogues, out of the dust and the old furniture, felt chilly for late June.
And then he figured out what Cora must have meant. What would happen when the plants were tall enough to block the window and the sunlight entirely? He looked at them through the pane. Jasper nodded slowly, staring. It was a long time till fall. The flowers nodded back.
From The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Storiesby Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2008, 196 pp., ISBN 978-1-932842-1-66, trade paperback. Copyright © Lewis Turco, All rights reserved.