Annie took a deep breath and stepped out of the protection of her home and into the bright sunlight. She had always considered sunshine energizing, but today it did nothing but expose her weakness.
“I should feel empowered. The neighborhood association voted me to be the one to represent them,” she muttered to herself as she made her way to the front sidewalk. “Instead I feel like the mean school principal, giving a bad student their punishment.”
She checked her mailbox when she reached the street. Anything to stall, she thought. The black metal box was empty. She flipped the door closed again.
From her stance at the road, she could see the object of the neighborhood’s scorn, just three houses down from hers. The un-mowed grass stood at least three inches taller than the lawns on either side. Block covenants required grass to be kept to a maximum of three inches, not to mention it should be watered regularly.
The yard in question resembled a patchwork quilt, and not a pretty one. Some of the grass was green, but much of it looked a burnt yellow. Dark patches of dirt spotted the yard where a small dog had been allowed to dig. The dog was another point of contention with the neighbors.
Annie chewed her bottom lip as she turned to face the house. Her stomach twisted. She hated conflict. She cringed at the idea of confrontation. She wanted to run.
“But you were the one who said something had to be done about them,” she nagged herself. “That’s what you get for gossiping. And this is what you get for not having a regular job. You get to be the one to do the dirty work.”
As she maneuvered the walkway to the front door, a short measure of courage found her. The concrete path was littered with toys and dog bones. At the porch a large tricycle lay on its side, and when Annie tried to set it upright, the little trap tried to pull her down with it. She scraped her left palm on the sidewalk trying to avoid a full-on spill.
Now she was angry.
She marched to the white painted door and rang the buzzer with resolve. From inside the house she heard a baby’s cry.
After several seconds a young woman answered the door. Her hair looked as though it hadn’t met a hairbrush in months. She wore a green tee shirt embellished with all sorts of food stains—Annie hoped it was food. On the woman’s right hip was perched a baby with a splotchy red tear-stained face.
“What can I do for you?” the young mother asked Annie.
Annie took another breath and tried to remember the speech she had prepared. “Good afternoon, I’m Anne Garber. I live in the red brick house on the corner—the one with the black shutters.”
The woman shifted the baby to her left hip and reached out her right hand to Annie. “How nice to meet you, Anne. I’m Liza, and this is Joey.”
Annie shook her hand for a second, and was surprised at Liza’s warm grip.
Liza took a step back. “Please come in and have a seat.” She gestured to the sofa on the other side of the crowded living room.
Annie again plotted a path though a jungle of toys and laundry to a small clear space on the worn sofa. Liza joined her, pushing a small pile of magazines to the floor. She grabbed a remote control from the coffee table and snapped the small television off.
A thousand awful thoughts ran through Annie’s mind. What kind of mother is she? This house is a mess! How can she raise children in a place like this?
Annie inhaled again, and the familiar odor of a baby in need of attention filled her nostrils. She smiled in order to mask the fact that she was breathing through her mouth.
Liza smiled back, but she seemed so exhausted that Annie had to pause and look more closely at the young mom. Liza’s eyes were bloodshot and her eyelids looked red and puffy. The dark circles under her eyes appeared sunken. Her lips were chapped and chewed. Liza’s eyebrows suddenly rose.
“My goodness,” she exclaimed. “Where are my manners? A friend comes to call and I don’t even offer anything. May I get you something to drink? I have water and apple juice.”
Annie shook her head, but Liza’s eyes begged.
“Please have something.”
“Water would be nice,” she heard her voice say.
Liza hopped to her feet and placed Joey on the corner of a blanket on the floor. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
As soon as Liza left the room, Joey crawled after her. Annie waited a second, and then followed, not wanting the child to be unattended.
She rounded the corner and found Liza filling two water glasses in a tiny kitchen with dishes in the sink. The baby found a toy and stopped to play with it where both Liza and Annie could watch. Everything in Annie’s sight looked old or dirty except for three beautiful flower arrangements overpowering the dining room table.
“These are lovely,” Annie said. She examined the bouquets of lilies and roses, and caught a glimpse of a card.
With deepest sympathy, it read.
Annie’s heart lurched into a lump in her throat. “I’m very sorry,” she choked out as she took the water from Liza’s hand. She sipped until she could think of something to say. “Did you lose someone?”
Genius, she thought. How stupid.
A tear formed in Liza’s eye. “Yes, actually I’ve lost two ‘someone’s.”
Annie felt like a skunk—intrusive and unwanted. She wanted to run back home, but knew she had to stay for at least a minute or two more. She followed as Liza scooped Joey into her arms and carried him back to the living room. The women sat down again and Liza hugged the baby in her lap.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” Annie said, hoping to end the whole encounter as quickly as possible.
“Do you believe in miracles?” Liza asked. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Annie shrugged. “I guess.” She sipped at her water again.
“This morning I prayed for help. You see, when I told my husband that I was pregnant with Joey, he packed up and left me. We already have two other children, and I had planned to go back to work this fall when Sarah started school—to help with the income. Well, he thought I got pregnant on purpose to keep from getting a job, so he left.”
“Gracious,” Annie said. She thought to herself, how can anyone be that cruel?
“When Pat left us, we moved in here with my mom. Sara and Cody started school and then Joey was born. Things were going better.”
“This is your mother’s house?” Annie asked, remembering the gray-haired woman that she often saw rocking in the chair on the porch.
“It was. Mom lost her battle with breast cancer last month and went home to be with my dad.” Liza’s voice cracked, and she wiped her tears on her sleeve.
Annie’s eyes felt red and sting-y. She sniffed.
“I haven’t been able to keep up with anything for the last six months. I just need a friend to talk with. I tried to find a church, but I can’t seem to get us all up and dressed in time for services.” Liza hugged her son tighter. “I just feel so alone. So this morning I prayed for help. And you rang my doorbell.”
Liza continued. “I don’t even know why you’re here, but I know for certain that God sent you.”
She smiled at Annie.
Suddenly, the piles of laundry and dishes and magazines and toys faded. Annie couldn’t see Liza’s dark circles or dirty clothes. She couldn’t even smell Joey’s diaper. She reached out and took her new friend’s baby boy into her arms and hugged him.
“You’re right,” Annie said. “He sent me to help.”