Concrete steps behind chain link fence

The Old Woman on the Steps

I didn’t know the old woman, and, because it was years ago, she’s likely dead by now.

I’d seen her a number of times, sitting alone on the steps in front of her house in our run-down section of Cambridge. She scowled constantly, as if she disapproved of everyone walking by on the sidewalk.

Portuguese and Italian immigrants once occupied most of the neighborhood. Statues of the Virgin Mary still blessed a few concrete yards. The houses, mostly one and two-families with vinyl siding, were close together, nearly touching.

Yelling often disturbed the streets on Saturday nights, along with occasional fights and arrests. The area had seen better days, which was why I could afford a spacious apartment. In my time on Plymouth Street, I could feel the gentrification gaining speed. Housing prices would double in less than a decade.

I only thought about her when I saw her, sitting there, looking unhappy. At the time, I was waiting for my divorce to become final and dating like a madwoman, or a woman trying to make up for the last years of a dying marriage.

I’d guess she was in her eighties. Her hair was white, slightly curly, neither short nor long. She wore wire-rimmed glasses—granny glasses. She was average height, neither fat nor thin.

We never spoke. I never saw her interacting with anyone. The story I made up was that she’d lived in the house for years, maybe been born there. She’d married, but her husband had died years ago. If she had kids, they lived far away and seldom called. She was bitter and spent most of her days watching long-running soap operas. She hated what was happening to the neighborhood. She hated all the unfamiliar faces: the new immigrants, the start-up workers, the random interlopers like me.

The week I dated a tattooed biker, she saw us walking his two big dogs and her scowl seemed more displeased than usual.

The next time I saw her, I was walking alone. It was a warm September afternoon. She was dressed in a housecoat and slouching on the steps behind her chain link fence. A light wind blew her hair.

I don’t remember what kind of mood I was in, but for some reason, I waved and said hello.

And she, to my surprise, sat up, waved back, and smiled the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. She must have had dentures, because her teeth were white and perfect, but that had nothing to do with the beauty of her smile. Her face lit up, her whole aspect changed. Our eyes met and I smiled back at her with a smile so bursting and honest it filled me with joy. The moment lasted three seconds.

Though I left the neighborhood shortly after and never saw her again, I can easily recall her smile that day, her floral housecoat, the steps and fence. She was waiting for someone to acknowledge her, to show her the least bit of kindness, the slightest care.

At the time, my ambitions were far greater, though similar. For a moment, we found each other. For a moment, we were each other’s joy.