When Paul died Ella knew she would have to get rid of the house. It had been too big and expensive for the two of them for some time. The unused bedrooms smelled stagnant and the ceilings gathered cobwebs. But when Ella was cooking and the TV was on, or when she was out in the garden drawing in the early morning, sometimes she forgot for a moment that Paul was dead, and it was the house, she knew, that did this.
Ella’s sister pestered her about a nice apartment in the city that could be gotten cheap and finally, Ella consented to go look at it. The apartment was on the third floor in a chain link fence neighborhood. The walls and ceiling were white and the floor was white tile, making the place feel to Ella like the inside of a refrigerator, but it had one winning feature: a floor to ceiling picture window that slanted inwards as it went up.
Ella put her house on the market and agonized over which plants from her once thriving garden to rescue from the weeds. She felt sorry and miserable as she dug them up, and wondered if she was making the right decision to move. She sponged the walls and even the ceiling of her new apartment with soft gold paint and had a man lay pine floors over the tile. Ella took the things and furniture that she could from the places they had been for so many years. She cried over silly things, like the matches in the utility drawer and an old chipped mug.
Her first night she lay in the strange moving bed that her sister had convinced her to buy in place of the bulky, cozy queen that would not fit. From the alley outside came strange sounds: screams, laughter, barks, and cries; human or animal she could not tell. When she finally fell asleep she dreamed she was running through a jungle in her wedding gown, screaming for Paul.
Ella spent her days quietly, and she had to admit she liked the ease of living in her new apartment. She trimmed and wired her bonsai, which she loved because they could not be brought into existence in a season like the pretty annuals but had to be shaped and guided into beauty over the course of years. She liked orchids too, for their glamorous blooms but also for the way their fat green roots clung and crept across their wooden frames or hung suspended in the air, swelling with water she misted from a little spray bottle.
Nonetheless, there was a silence that hung about the apartment no matter how loudly she played the television or radio, or how much noise came from the alley below. It was, she thought, the silence of solitude, which can’t be filled with any noise.
Portraits were commissioned and she painted them: dignified patriarchs and grinning children, deceased pets and prize-winning horses. Between portraits, she worked on her own painting of a delicate lacy purple orchid. She spent three days just laying in the purple-black background, layering to create the depth of night, peppering stars of metallic yellow-white in a patch that suggested trees blocking the sky.
Ella looked out the big window while she worked, while she gardened, and sometimes while she did nothing at all. Sometimes teenagers gathered in the alley and Ella watched their lives play out: scenes of love and dismay, anger and indifference.
Across the alley there was a drab brown duplex with two small square yards. One yard was lush with flowers, green grass, and a charming young maple tree. Ella loved to watch the young couple tend their small yard as the woman’s belly grew large. She looked forward to seeing the child play among the flowers and smiled as the man hung a little swing from the tree.
The other yard had only dirt and a struggling shrub. Ella took little notice of the man who lived there, who sometimes came out to smoke a cigarette in the sunset, the smoke a thin grey trail into the red sky.
Slowly Ella developed the orchid painting. She thought it was coming along very well, taking on an identity of its own that urged her to ever more care and methodical attention to detail. The swelling roots began to take shape against the rough bark of the tree, then the long and graceful leaves with water droplets beading on them.
As the painting took shape Ella worked with a contained urgency, like the painting would dry up in her if she didn’t spill it fast enough onto the canvas. She never allowed herself to rush but gave the paint the time it needed to dry and rest, going section by section so she could keep working. She neglected her clients’ work and the nice man at the gallery sent apologetic letters to them.
When she was done she slept nearly straight for a week, waking only to order takeout and heat up freezer dinners. Her sister visited and laughed at her that she was living like a college kid. Ella had been prone to such fits of creation and the need for rest all her life, but not for years had she experienced such a cycle. She glimpsed at the painting between eating and naps and thought that perhaps she had never made something so good before.
At the end of her recovery time she woke feeling refreshed early on a Monday morning and went to the store, returning with eggs, milk, and English muffins, and made herself eggs benedict, which she hadn’t done in years. She was proud to find that she could still poach an egg perfectly.
She was nearly done eating when she heard an anxious yipping, a sound which at first she could not place. She went to the window and looked out. In the drab brown yard of the duplex across the alley a little white dog was running in frantic circles around the yard. The man who she’d occasionally seen smoking in the yard came out and the dog went to him. He rubbed his forehead as the dog went inside. A moment later she heard the terrible yelping again, this time from inside, muffled, but still loud enough to be audible through her closed window.
For a week Ella observed a strange ritual as she caught up on the portraits she’d been neglecting. Every morning and evening the man would go outside with the little dog. He played with a worn green tennis ball that he threw hard at the fence, the little dog leaping to catch it wherever it flew. For the first time Ella saw the man smile. Every morning when the man left, the terrible yelping began and continued nearly continuously until he returned.
On the Saturday following Ella was working at her window and the man and dog were outside when the husband of the couple came to the fence between their yards and spoke to the man through a broken slat. Ella couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she saw both of them gesturing to the little dog, who sat in the middle of the yard tilting its head. When the young husband walked away the man sat on his stoop, his head in his hands, and the dog crawled into his lap. They sat like that for a long time.
Ella had thought she would look forward to the silence of the weekend, with the man home from work and the dog quiet, but she did not. The silence ached at her, and she kept checking out the window. The dog pestered the man to play, but he just sat and smoked. It occurred to Ella that she had not seen him smoke for some time.
Suddenly Ella put on her coat and went out. She hadn’t any idea what she was going to do or say, but she found herself walking to the next alley and knocking on the man’s front door. She heard the little dog barking crazily and the man’s gentle reproofs as he came to the door.
“Can I help you?” He looked confused and a little red-eyed. The little dog ran in circles around her ankles, yipping.
“I’m…” Ella hesitated, embarrassed, “I live in the apartment building behind you,”
“Oh.” The man seemed to sink even lower, his eyes on the dog now jumping up and down trying to sniff her elbow. “I know, the neighbor next door told me he wouldn’t take it for another week. I’ll have to get rid of her. I understand. He’s just had a baby. This is just a dog. I just found her and…” the man trailed off, scuffing his foot on his front step.
“I can take her,” Ella said breathlessly, “just while you’re gone at work, I mean, I can keep her.”
The man looked stunned. He stared at her with his eyebrows way up in his longish greying hair. “You would do that? Why? I…”
Ella shrugged, a strange and wonderful joy coursing through her. “My place is too quiet,” she said.