People knew the place, but the woman. The only evidence she existed were cats languishing in the storefront windows, the hint of bright candy boxes that might have been there long ago. Miss Weaver lived above what once was her father's shop. Her yard, larger than a normal back or side yard, seemed more like a forest. She remained a shadow to most of people. Yet I came to know her after the tree fell; the mole on her left cheek and the men's flannel shirts covered in animal hair. Oh, and lipstick, I never saw her without lipstick.
One autumn day, the ring-ging-ging of a turning blade caught my attention as I watched from the bedroom window to the shared fence line. Limbs fell into our yard, swooshed and slumped, thumped to the ground. When a tree is felled it is odd to see the limbs stretching upward toward the sky and to see the bark with sun shining on a place unused to light. Trunk and branch, dried leaves and the smell of burnt wood from the chainsaw hung in the air as I watched Miss Weaver take stock of a fallen friend.
The dogs often came to the fence wanting a pet. Her tail-wagging mutts pressed against the diamond shaped metal of the chain link whenever I played in the yard. The day the tree came down I had nothing better to do than to go out and see if I could get a couple pieces of the wood. As I’d grown into a teenager, I adopted a bohemian lifestyle and fancied myself something of a carpenter at fifteen. From the bedroom, I saw the rich dark veins flowing through the blond of the exposed rings of the old tree.
“Was that the black walnut tree?” I asked.
She whipped around with a surprised look on her face. “Why yes, how did you know?” and that is how she transformed from the witch in the haunted house on Fifth Street to my friend.
After that we met frequently over the fence. She in those frumpy old clothes, replete with cat hair, a French twist to her dark curls, and always that bobbing strand over her left eye. But seeing her in the light of day, I noticed more than that. She walked like a performer, had brilliant brown eyes that seemed to dance in conversation, and a set to her smile that often made me think she had just finished a concerto on some foreign stage, a smile reflective of my own mother’s dreams from when she was young.
Once, Miss Weaver invited me to come to her yard and I readily accepted, nearly running around Sixth to Main to Fifth. She told me she used to play piano and organ in night clubs. She asked if I’d like to hear her play. “Yes, I would.” I said, hoping to go inside, curious about what it looked like in there, the animals, the treasure that must have been inside the darkened storefront.
But she said, “Sit tight, I’ll be right back.” And up the stairs she went. Soon the swirl of melody came through the window, and nearly tumbled down the steps of the old place. When the organ music had stopped she came back down with a wide grin on her face. “How was that?”
I thought about stories of old theaters where someone played music in a pit while images flashed on the screen. I told her that my mother had dreamed of playing piano in nightclubs. I told her how I loved to sew. And somehow, she and I found friendship that would last for years.
She said, “Wait here.” And up the steps she went again. When she returned, she carried a bolt of fabric, white satin. She said, “I want you to have this.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t,” I said. Eventually she convinced me to take it and I made a dress for myself to wear to a dance, feeling the elegance of a nightclub performer in the antique satin that an old woman had bought in the forties with the intention of making a dress for herself.
Years later, when my life had been complicated by children and tight purse strings, I took my dream of dress and cut it up for a smaller fit, my four-year-old daughter, who believed that she could step into a Disney film and become Belle to some other beast.