Smile Politely


Alice’s old barn, faded red, was the only place I could rely on to observe a swooping owl at dawn. Once, a tiny owlet, perched in the orange tube, startled me when I attempted to deliver the Sunday paper. Wary or curious, it glared at me and the oversize bundle of newsprint before flying off. I was thankful it didn’t fly through the open car window.

I lost track of the number of years I have delivered papers to Alice. The seasons would come and go and I drove up to the well-kept farmhouse, the trees in the driveway sometimes providing shade from the summer heat or dripping with ice as I made my way through unplowed snow.

One day, on my birthday, Alice met me out by the car, carrying a flat rectangular package in her hands. It was a perfect rhubarb pie, criss-crossed on top with sugar strips of crust. I still don’t know how she knew it was my birthday, but to this day it was the best pie I’ve ever eaten.

Some years ago, again the exact date eludes me, Alice met me again at the car and asked if I would mind bringing the paper up to the back door every day. She had a problem with her hip, she said, and it was getting harder for her to walk down the sidewalk to her mailboxes.

I agreed, although she seemed healthy enough, and it would add several minutes to my delivery time, but I really couldn’t say no. So every day I parked the car by the barn and walked up the sidewalk.

About that time, workmen arrived to tear down the unused barn, replacing it with nothing but a better view of the cornfield stretching out to the sunset horizon. I rarely see the barn owls anymore, I don’t know where they live, although occasionally there is a swooping form in the dark that I presume indicates a hungry bird prowling for field mice.

Alice always made a point of saving and returning the rubber bands used to hold the paper. Attaching as many as would fit inside a clasped safety pin, she placed them on the step, waiting for me by the back door.

Now and then I would still meet her because she was an early riser. At some point she started using a walker. She told me about her husband who had died thirty years earlier. The graveyard was just two miles away. One day I made a point of finding the gravestone. Her name was on it, with the year of her birth engraved, the other side still blank.

In the summer, sometimes there would be full bags of sweet corn or tomatoes left for me. Most holidays (or sometimes for no discernible reason) there would be carrot cake, brownies, cookies, and fruit pies all baked with consummate skill. In her day, no doubt Alice dominated the blue ribbons at the fair and church socials. The woman could bake.

Then one year, my birthday came and went and there was no pie on the step. And the following Christmas, there was no recognition of the holiday. More than a year passed and I had not seen or heard her inside the house, a house far larger than was necessary for a woman alone. But the rubber bands continued to appear waiting for me inside the unlocked back door.

This spring, as I walked up to her door in the pre-dawn, a young coyote ran in from the field and stood stock still in the yard, just twenty feet from me. I froze. We looked at each other for a suspended moment, neither creature knowing what the other might be intending.

All things pass. The barn, the seasons, and even newspapers. Many people over the years have passed on. Mary, another widow who made a mean chocolate chip cookie as well, suddenly canceled her subscription, trucks outside her house loading up furniture. Dorothy boasted of being 90 and once had taken the train as far east as Indianapolis; she never married and lived in the same small run-down house where she had been born. Two years ago, relatives moved her to a home. Mr. Archer used to sit inside by the big picture window and assemble wicker baskets. I read in the paper he had died, a paper I delivered that same day to his house. Mr. Hubert wheeled himself out to get the paper and would tell me about his wife’s Alzheimer’s, and they’re both gone now. There is a growing list, some of whom I no longer recall, just as I tend to lose track of the days and years and the sunrises.

This past Sunday, a nurse greeted me at the door of Alice’s house at 4:30 in the morning. Alice would like to see you, she said.

She was in a wheelchair. She smiled and you could still see the lovely, cheerful and composed woman she always was. It was the first time I had actually been inside the house, which was neat, clean, filled with books and warmth, once a home with children and family and friends and meals. Her hearing was mostly gone. She reached out and wanted to shake my hand, and she asked me how I was doing.

Getting old is hard, she said, still smiling. I think about you, I told her. I think about you, too, she said.

“I have the rubber bands for him,” the nurse said in a loud voice as she handed them to me.

“Try to keep cool now, OK,” I told her.

I’ll keep watching for the light to be on by the back door. I’m not sure she even reads the paper any more, but I’ll keep parking in the driveway and walking up the sidewalk until it’s time not to any longer.

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