The old woman is missing. Or her car is, at least.
I first noticed the car when I moved here back in June. It’s hard to miss. I know next to nothing about cars, so the best description I can give is that it’s a junker. A small, boxy sedan, with the paint peeling so badly from the body that even the color is a sort of question mark, a mottle of grays and blacks. It was always parked in the first spot in the stretch of parking lot lining my building. I had read on an online forum, before moving in, that there were some questionable renters inhabiting the complex. I saw the junker, and thought: steer clear. A rough car like this probably belongs to a rough character. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw the frail, ancient woman climbing into the driver’s seat. It wasn’t until afterwards that I noticed that the objects dangling from the rearview mirror were not fuzzy dice, but shoes. Tiny, pale pink baby shoes, strung over the mirror by the laces.
She is stooped with age, but you can tell by looking at her that she was once tall—at least as far as women go. Her brown face is craggy and leathered with age, but kind. Her black hair is streaked all over with white. As far as I can tell, she lives alone. I have never seen her with another person. Her car is seldom missing from its place in the first parking space (which I am careful never to occupy), and when I do see her coming or going, it is always by herself. I wonder about her. I wonder about the shoes. Once, I saw her returning from the store with groceries. I almost stopped to offer to help her; but it was only one bag, and I was laden down with all my books and bags and my computer, and so I merely smiled and hurried away up the steps.
Over the weekend, I noticed that her car was missing. It was unusual because it was late at night. There was little chance she could be out buying groceries. Maybe, I thought, she is visiting the person who wore those tiny shoes—a child, or perhaps a grandchild. Maybe she went to visit family for the weekend. Today is Monday, though, and her car was gone this morning when I left for work at 6:30am. It was still gone when I returned home from work at 5pm.
Now I find myself beginning to wonder, and to worry. I feel a sharp pang of anxiety when I look at the emptiness of her parking spot, the tangible absence of the old junker. I think about the woman whose name and story I do not know. I picture the slowness of her movements, the stooping of her spine, the tiredness of the drooping eyes, still small in her face despite her enormous spectacles. I feel retrospectively guilty for not asking her if she needed help carrying the groceries. I wonder, irrationally, if I should go to the front office and ask about her. But what would I ask? I didn’t even know her.
It really makes me think about neighbors. The word has connotations of not only closeness, but also of community, of companionship. I live in an apartment complex, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of neighbors; but, for me, these are neighbors only in the most literal sense. They are nearby inhabitants, and little else.
I’m a student and a teacher. I interact with over a hundred people, individually, on a daily basis while in my high school and at my university. At home, though (during the few waking hours a day when I am actually there), I keep to myself. I don’t really know any of my neighbors by name, and only a few by sight. There’s the middle-aged couple with the fat old Chihuahua and the black and white cat who sit on the porch and watch the neighbors go by. There’s the chain-smoker who lives above me, all fake smiles and fake hair and the clothes that would be scandalous on someone half her age, with the yippy little dog that howled and howled all day and night the week she moved in. There’s the old foreign (Russian, perhaps?) couple who lives across the hall. There’s the medley of kids who splashed and screamed their way through summer in the community pool, and then abruptly vanished when school began again. I don’t know any of their names. I’m a girl, and a byproduct of what one professor of mine called Scary World Syndrome, that constant reminder from internal and external sources alike that we should not trust strangers. I’m not around much, I’ll probably move next June, and most importantly, I don’t know want people to know I live alone. I smile at passersby in the gym and on the stairwell, but do not stop to chat. I shut and lock my door.
I wonder, though, is this a mistake? I wonder if anyone else has noticed the old woman’s car is missing. Maybe she is still visiting family. Maybe she’s getting a new car. Maybe I’ll see her tomorrow as I leave for work. If she is really gone, I regret not meeting her for real. I regret that she may not have known that there was at least one person here, in this building, who would notice her absence, who would miss her. She is a passerby like the rest. But her absence registers like a loss. The parking lot seems empty without them—the old woman, the beat-up car, the baby shoes.