Trouble was brewing in my paradise, the one I had thought was a forever thing. It seemed a certain honeymoon was over. It was happening suddenly, unlike other honeymoons that rather softly fizzle; this was more like a slamming door.
My inner children speculated, asked questions. I answered. Here’s how it went.
‘Is it like a brushfire taking over and leaving empty streets with sad tumbleweed lazing around in the wake?”
Kind of. Except that the ground hadn’t been prepared. Brushfires ought not just happen. They can be prevented.
“Is it like a perfect storm, perfect even in its terror?”
Very. And perfect storms are loud and violent. All the variables line up to make it perfect.
“Is it like what happened to Nancy of ‘Sid and Nancy’?” Viciously so. And I am reminded of what happens when people choose their habits and addictions over their passions and desires.
“Is it like a long built dream, a lifetime daily dream, decades in the making, made true in an unimaginable miracle—strangely and suddenly disappeared?” Let’s find out.
“Is it like when you need to bake something in order for things to begin to hope to heal?” Yes. “Something for someone else?”
I thought of The Tale of Alimona.
There lived a woman Alimona who was called so because her evil husbands had forced her to pay them alimony before they would agree to free her from their miserable reigns. Many, many evil husbands, too many to identify, lest you find her thoughtless or promiscuous, tortured Alimona’s good faith, good heart and good intentions.
What did they do? They betrayed her, they broke important promises, they criticized her, they ridiculed her. They crippled her freedom, they wandered when she needed them, they lied and lied and lied. They took her money, besmirched her pride. They gossiped about her viciously among their friends. Then they lied and lied and lied some more.
What did she do to deserve this? Nothing. Why didn’t she learn to avoid such cruelty? Who knows.
Alimona had evil bosses, too. But lest you question her judgment, we shall not tell how many. They stole her sunshine, they denied her authority, they humiliated her whenever they could think of a humiliating lie to tell, they dragged her across mountains of unnecessary work, they never said thank you, they took credit for her ideas, they didn’t share, they stared at her in ways that hurt her pride, and then they lied some more.
But her friends were as good as brand new shoes and her children were dreams that floated down from heaven. Perfect, perfect dreams. They begged to serve her meals on beautiful platters, they polished her china, they brushed her long and wavy hair, they sang to her and told her jokes so funny that she could never—no matter what evil was attacking her—never stay unhappy for more than a teardrop or two. These boys were shiningly handsome, shiningly smart, excellent dancers and the best storytellers ever to float down from heaven.
And while Alimona’s husbands and bosses were as mean as hatchet-faced and bitter tax collectors, her neighbors were more mean, more bitter and more hatchet-faced.
Was she like Snow White? Somewhat, because her natural joy and maternal bliss shone in her face like studied glamour, even though it was only honest beauty.
Was she like Cinderella? A little bit, because people seemed to envy her, you’ll see.
Was she like the Princess in Rumpelstiltskin? Yes, a lot. Because no matter how much she served others, how much evil straw she could spin into golden pleasures, somebody always wanted more from her.
Was she like no one else? Well, of course, because, no matter what hit her, Alimona was never down for the count. She went to bed laughing every night. She awakened laughing her head off every morning. She couldn’t believe how great it was to wake up and be alive. She could catch her husband with another woman, discover she had a terrible disease, get fired from her job, trip and fall down a thousand stairs in one day, but she’d take one look at her children and the giggling would start. And then came the dancing.
This is the story of the evil neighbor who tried to throw a bucket full of twenty-five extra years that was stuck into beautiful Alimona’s face, how she got away with it for a while, and how things changed.
Part One Wherein Alimona Moves Into Her New Home
After elegantly manipulating her way through a hundred trials of credit eligibility and general neighbor worthiness, Alimona purchased a modest apartment in a building she had long admired. As a young woman she looked upon its garden with a peasant-into-the-castle-like gaze. She begged her saints to let her live there someday. Since she so seldom did such begging, her modesty was rewarded, and, after succeeding a ponderous list of requirements and obstructions from the other residents, she found it possible to move in one stormy Saturday.
Immediately, Alimona was challenged by an unfriendly neighbor. “We don’t move on Saturdays!” shrieked a person who looked like this:
- unnatural shade of red hair, swinging sharply
- ridiculously red shiny lipstick painted well over the lip line
- a black beret with a poodle brooch attached
- a shiny black belt with a giant metal buckle against a white linen coat
- white stockings with a whiter shimmer effect
- black pumps, expensive, but not pretty, that smashed her feet into a pile of flesh against the instep
- a black-and-white striped tiny handbag with a giant metal clasp that went ‘snap’ when shut
- stumps of tiny fingernails, painted dark maroon against a wrinkled and gray mitt-like hand
- a nervous Dalmatian, a real one, connected to her by a stupid red leash
These were the first words spoken to Alimona by any one of the other residents. She replied gently, “Oh, when will you move?” Upon hearing this, her children laughed and applauded.
After answering a lengthy interview about her familiarity with the rules and bylaws of the building, Alimona apologized to the black-and-white woman and her dog for breaking the No Moving on Saturdays Rule.
That night, while Alimona sorted out her belongings, her children strummed stringed instruments softly in the garden. You can imagine Alimona’s deep joy at the scene: her two dreams realized in these adorable children and her wonderful new home. After only one song’s breath, however, a second neighbor summoned the authorities and attempted to have her sons jailed for disturbing the peace in singing their gentle poems. Alimona was horrified and deeply frightened.
When the police arrived, she explained the situation as well as she could. Her sons provided a demonstration of the concert that led to the emergency phone call from the second neighbor, that bitter shrew. But the police were so enchanted they asked to hear another song, and then another. Shortly, Alimona invited them upstairs for refreshment, and some new friendships were made.
Her children published this headline in a mock newspaper story that Alimona posted around the building the next day:
MAYOR ANNOUNCES TEN WORST DRESSED PEOPLE IN THE CITY:
A list then followed including the names of the black-and-white woman and the person who had telephoned the police.
Part Two Wherein Alimona Meets the Board President, The Meanest of All the Neighbors
One day, Alimona and her children were entering their main hallway at the close of a brilliant and productive day. All three produced keys to the front gate at one time, and there was some comedy in the way they tried to sort it out. Something like a swordfight with keys ensued, and in a moment they were all on the ground screaming and laughing. One would try to crawl up and unlock the door, the other two would scream, “Oh no, I’ve got it. Allow me!” and pull him down into the happy pile of mother and sons. All this time, they were blocking the doorway. And here is where and how they met the Board President, the Meanest of All the Neighbors.
The Meanest of All the Neighbors was what you might call buttoned up. She buttoned her ugly blouse all the way up her thick, bumpy throat. She buttoned her puffy jacket all the way up to her pointy, porous nose. She buttoned her heavy slacks all the way up her shapeless torso.
Alimona was open and clear. She couldn’t stand the confinement of a collar, so all her clothing flowed around her golden shoulders and mingled with her wavy hair. She couldn’t stand the tightness of a waistband, so all of her dresses moved around her motherly curves like a slow, clean river. And she was so warm in her heart and in her blood that she never kept her coat on for very long.
The Meanest of All the Neighbors was what you might call tight. Her voice blurted out in a tight pack of tight words. Her neck tightened up around every sentence. Her lips were like a tight slit across her mouth. And there was a pinch just above her eyebrows where the tightness pulled her face in.
Alimona was what you might call loose. She was one of those people who has to say whatever occurs to her. She never missed an opportunity to remind someone that she loved them. She kissed the mail carrier at Christmastime and wept openly about the story of a lost kitten. Perfect strangers would ask her, “Would you like to hear about my life?” because of the youthful encouragement in Alimona’s face.
The Meanest of All the Neighbors was what you might call short. She had a chopped off haircut to simulate the effect of having jammed her head into a pencil sharpener. In the mornings, she would try to feather it about her face with her fingers to give herself a more human look. But, come on. She had short, stubby fingers and short, heavy legs jammed briskly into size four brown and beige athletic shoes.
Despite constant criticism from more practical types, Alimona wore high-heeled slippers every day of her life beginning at age eleven, which was the earliest day she was allowed to. She liked long, glittering earrings. She liked her ensembles all to be of one color.
Isn’t it hard to imagine that these two people were drawn to live in the same building? Can you believe they shared a common garden? The confrontation in the doorway was stunning. For a brief second, Alimona and her sons became extremely quiet. The tension in the mean neighbor’s face made it so. But immediately, they all burst out laughing again, this time right at the mean neighbor.
Without warning, without apparent violence, without any permission from heaven, the Meanest of All the Neighbors cast a silent and invisible spell on Alimona as a punishment for her unbridled gaiety. Through Will and Magic twenty-five years of bitter rage was transferred from the mean neighbor’s face right onto Alimona’s.
Here’s the spell she used, although I’m leaving out a key part lest this story falls into the wrong hands:
This bitter film, my skin and hair,
Time and hatred put it there.
I plant these cruel years in your face,
Only to be moved by a mean neighbor’s embrace.
The next morning, Alimona did not awaken in joy and laughter. Upon arising, she did not say her usual, “Well, God be praised. Another dream of a day.” Instead she barked at her older son, “I’m so hagged out!” and to her younger, “I look like Hell in this outfit.” And to the mirror she wept, “Age is upon me. And age is unrelenting.”
Alimona wore her torment first with discomfort, then agitation, and eventually, with rage. Her self-loathing became a terrible distraction. Now when her sons tried to entertain her, she had to force her laughter. Sometimes she withdrew herself from their joyful sounds because theirs contrasted with her own state of mind in a way that felt brutal.
And, sorry to report this, but Alimona did look pretty bad. A very rough road straggled down her face. Her mouth became a dry, pinched thing, her hair, like broken sticks. And yes, you could plant corn in the bags under her eyes.
In the workplace her reputation shifted abruptly. Isn’t it amazing how quickly that can happen? Alimona had been everyone’s favorite friend, advisor, colleague, sympathizer. Hers was always the creative solution. Alimona was regularly heard to say, “No problem. It’s my job, and I love to do it.”
But after receiving the hex of twenty-five extra years in her face, Alimona was just plain rude. She took on the affectations of the snippy bureaucrat you dread to see on the other side of an official desk. She replaced her love of music and food with an obsession for lengthy forms and unnecessary paperwork.
Was she like the Wicked Witch of the West? A little, but it would hardly satisfy her to only be rude to Dorothy. And she was too cranky and inhospitable to maintain a stable of evil flying monkey colleagues.
Was she like the Troll under the Bridge? Kind of, but trolls enjoy mushrooms and root vegetables. Alimona came to despise natural foods.
Was she like a bitter, vain, envious mean old lady?
As mean as the Meanest of All the Neighbors?
Well, yes. Exactly that mean.
Part Three Wherein Alimona’s Sons Declare: “Something’s got to give here.”
As days passed, Alimona’s sons absorbed some of their mother’s somber manner. I guess that was inevitable. But on a certain day, it got to be a bit much for both of them. The three unhappy family members were dragging themselves down the street when Alimona caught her reflection in a window. “God help me,” she moaned. Immediately, a homeless newspaper vendor approached. “Get a job!” shouted Alimona. This shamed her sons deeply and moved their disappointment into the realm of fear.
Perhaps it was that motivational shame, perhaps it was the mounting disintegration of their former abundance. Perhaps it was like any moment in the universe of all moments—it was simply time to be happy.
Her sons blurted out in unison, “Let’s do something nice for that Board President.”
“You’re out of your minds” is what Alimona said.
“Yes, well, even so,” they responded.
“Like what?” Alimona demanded, “Sharpen her talons for her?”
“Perhaps a cake,” her younger son offered.
“And we can bake it together,” said the older.
“I’m not helping,” barked Alimona. And they sang to her,
“Your presence alone is a help, Mother.”
And so they prepared the batter for the cake for the Meanest of All the Neighbors.
In doing so, Alimona became aware of her senses returning. She began to smell flavors she hadn’t remembered smelling in weeks, orange extract, for example. That made her want to buy flowers; and buying flowers made her want to decorate the cake. And decorating the cake made her want to smile. And smiling melted the anguish from around her lips, and made a tiny doorway for the beauty to flow back in.
But it was in presenting the cake that she freed herself from the wretched spell. Alimona and her sons gathered around their planning table, the one they used to produce most of their schemes. Here are the methods of presentation they considered:
Plan One: Leave it outside her door.
Pro: What an adorable surprise!
Con: (as presented by the older son) She could accidentally step in it.
Con: (as presented by the younger son) She might think it was a poison cake, she is so mean and deserving of one.
Con: (as presented by Alimona) She might imagine that she had a suitor, and be disappointed to discover otherwise.
Plan Two: Knock at her door and offer it in person.
Pro: A very neighborly gesture.
Con: Since all Alimona and her sons had ever done was to mock and ridicule the Meanest of All the Neighbors, their gesture might lack credibility and inspire in her a defensive attitude. She just might slam the door in their faces. They agree that would be funny, but also sad.
Plan Three: Send her a letter of good wishes and include an invitation for dessert.
Pro: Very elegant. It gives the Board President room to decline if she’s a bit uncomfortable. Alimona and her sons could always enjoy the cake themselves. No one would accidentally step in it. “Probably not, anyway,” adds her younger son. No poison issue, as they would be eating the cake together. No confusion about possible suitors. “As if!” adds the older son.
So they chose to install Plan Three.
You know what’s interesting? It’s the way Alimona snapped right back into her true nature without a tiny wisp of residue in her transition. It’s how her face came shining through the twenty-five extra years and melted them away. “Mother, we missed you so,” said her charming and magical sons. “I do believe I missed myself,” declared Alimona.
When the three slipped the invitation gently under the Board President’s door, they felt it snatched away from their fingers and heard the envelope ripped apart. “What the?!” and “Hrrumph” pounded in a hideous excretion through the keyhole. The anticipation gave Alimona and her sons an uncontrollable case of maniacal giggles, and they ran away in a bundle.
Shortly, a rapid and hysterical knock came at their door. “Oh, sorry,” the Board President whined meekly, “I didn’t realize I was knocking so hard.”
“Are you here for the beautiful cake?” her younger son said quickly, undoing the weird tension they were all feeling.
“Is this some sort of trick?” asked the Meanest of All the Neighbors.
“Oh, you’ll think so, it’s so delicious,” claimed the older son. “But it’s just the way we do things here in the House of Alimona and Sons. We bake out of love of the art form, that’s all.”
Then Alimona gently took the Board President’s creepy little paw-like hand and led her into her home with a warm embrace.
And therefore did Alimona’s gentle kindness break that spell of twenty-five extra years in the face forever.