The Garage Door

February 28, 2009 § 2 Comments


by Larkin Vonalt

The Realtor didn’t want us to buy the house. In the time we’d been looking at property in Dayton, he’d taken a kind of fatherly interest in us and this neighborhood made him nervous. (When he and his wife came for dinner a few months later, he parked downtown and we had to drive a few blocks and across the river to fetch them.) We liked the rambling old brick Victorian, though with its enormous garden, the price was absurdly low and school started in two weeks. So we signed the papers and flew back to Montana to finish packing. 

The day we moved in, we walked down to the garage to have a look at it, as we hadn’t seen it during the showing, the key had been missing. It’s a newer garage, built to open on the alley. I’ve lived in houses with garages before, but they’ve always been of the big barn door variety, and the one in Montana actually completed the transformation to barn and the cars had to live outdoors. The convenience of a garage door opener, with doors opening and closing at the push of a button is a novelty. 

We were standing in the garage, admiring its clean cement floor when I asked if there was a way to open the door without being in the car. 

“Yeah, right here,” said our friend Doug, pushing the button on the wall. The door rose before us like a curtain going up onstage.  Across the alley, a group of people gathered around the open hood of a little blue car. They all stopped to watch the rising of the door. If they were surprised to find a gaggle of white people standing there, they didn’t show it. 

A beat passed.

“Hi,” I said, grinning. “I’m your new neighbor.”  A young black woman holding an infant in the crook of her arm stepped forward.   

“Hi, I’m Alesha. This is Anthony,” she said, nodding to the sleeping infant. “That’s my husband, Anthony and this is my mother . . .”

“Hello, I’m Renae,” Alesha’s mother said stepping forward to offer her hand.

“And that’s my cousin, and this is our friend . . . ” 

“Junior,” the young man said. 

We stood in the alley in the August heat, trading pleasantries and hearing about our house’s former owner, the garage door standing open behind us. We still had to unload more stuff off the truck in the front of the house, so we didn’t linger too long, parting with friendly waves and smiles. 

That electric garage door was really something. Time to leave, push a button. Coming home, push a button. No more getting out of the car in the rain or cold, just push the button, glide into garage, close the door behind us and exit through the side door into my own yard. No wonder people drive cars like they are the kings of their own little kingdoms. The car insulates us from having to interact with everyone else out there, other than the occasional blat of a horn when someone dares impede your progress. The transition from car to castle is seamless through the magical garage door. 

We noticed that they managed to get Renae’s little blue car going again, and we would see her sometimes, coming home from wherever it was she was out to. They didn’t have a garage; the blue car was usually parked on the street, or sometimes next to another little blue car, that one utterly moribund, in the alley.  Junior came by once to ask if we had any work for him, but we didn’t at the time.  One afternoon Renae’s car was parked in the alley and it never moved again.  We’d see her, sometimes alone, sometimes with Alesha and the baby, waiting at the bus stop. We’d wave.

The Christmas before last, I decided to do a little something for the neighbors, and on Christmas day we took a Poinsettia and a plate of cookies and a box of fudge to Renae across the alley and to Clover, across the street.  I had a moment of uncertainty, both Renae and Clover are substantial women and diabetes can be a real problem in the black community. Maybe I shouldn’t bring sweet things?  Well, maybe other family members will enjoy them if they can’t, I decided.

Going to Clover’s house was like stepping into a Spike Lee movie; the house was packed to bursting with all manner of family, laughing, talking, eating. We had to very carefully thread our way from one end of the house to the other to find Clover in the kitchen. At Renae’s, on the other hand, it was totally quiet. 

“Oh, they all just left,” Renae said with a big smile. “I was looking forward to some peace and quiet. Come in, come in.” She seemed totally delighted with the cookies and the fudge. “Oh I am hiding this, this is going to be mine and I’m not going to share,” she said with a chuckle. 

With spring, Renae would be out on her porch, and occasionally, I’d find opportunity to stop and talk, if I was out in the yard, or picking up the trash that blows along the alley and catches in the edge of our fence. One time she told me that Alesha was getting out of the hospital later that day. Her daughter had a lifelong heart problem she said, and she’d undergone some more surgery. She was doing better, though, and Renae was feeling very positive about it, she said. We’d always wave whenever I sailed past emerging from or disappearing through the garage door.

On summer nights, we could hear the laughter of girls dancing to R&B on the porch of Renae’s house. I always looked to the porch when I drove past, and we all waved. Once, while Renae was away taking care of her niece in Cincinnati, a fight broke out at her house. It frightened me, the many voices were very angry, punctuated with crashing furniture and shrieking. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. 

This fall, we lost our dog. I knew the dog must be terrified and I was in an utter panic. Whatever anxiety I had about any Dayton neighborhood evaporated as I tacked up posters, and handed out flyers to people on the street. I flagged down one of the city buses a block down from our house, and handed the grumpy driver a flyer. Alesha was on the bus and she took a flyer from me. 

“Hey,” she said, with a broad smile. “Give me some more of those and I’ll hand them out.” I gave her a fistful and she turned to distribute them on the bus. “Hey, this is our neighbor, y’all, let’s help her find her dog.” I thanked her, stepped back down off the bus and it roared away. She waved at me standing on the sidewalk.  

A few days later, I saw Renae and Alesha on their porch.

“Did you find your dog yet?” they asked. I shook my head sadly. 

“No, not a sign of her.”  Renae told me about another shelter down on Edwin C. Moses to check and offered reassurances.

 “I bet she’ll come home soon, she’ll come right down that alley. We’ll keep an eye out for her.”  I thanked them, and headed back towards the garage. 

“Good luck!” Alesha sang out after me.

I don’t know if I ever went to tell them I found the dog, thin but safe, a week later.

Not too long after Christmas, I left Ohio to drive to South Carolina to take care of my mother who was to have heart surgery. Sometime during that Sunday, perhaps while I was getting up and washing my face; maybe while I was wending my way down through the Smokey Mountains, maybe while we were having supper with my aunt, sometime that Sunday, Alesha died. 

We didn’t know. 

The days passed. I was anxious, but I rejoiced in my mother’s successful surgery. I worried that my mother wasn’t eating enough, I worried that her pain was not being adequately managed, worried that she wasn’t breathing properly. I walked the long corridors of the Providence Heart Institute and I felt utterly alone. I didn’t have a clue. 

I talked with my husband and my son every day. My husband wondered aloud if Renae might have moved out. “There were lots of people over there, and now it’s totally quiet. Even her dogs are gone.”  I felt a pang of sadness. I really liked Renae and Alesha, and I hoped out loud that they’d found a nicer place. We didn’t know. The next day he reported that Renae’s dogs were back again. 

Coming home from taking our son to school one morning last week Elmer saw Renae outside and stopped to chat with her. How was she ?

“Just fine,” Renae said. Elmer explained that I was away in South Carolina taking care of my mother who’d had heart surgery. Heart. Surgery. Then, he said, came the news: Alesha has died.

Alesha, Renae’s smiling girl. Alesha with her baby boy in her arms, Alesha smiling, Alesha dancing in the hot summer nights. Alesha stepping forward first to meet the new neighbors. 

We didn’t know.

Still away from home, I combed through the online obituaries of the Dayton Daily News, and there I saw her, recognizing her beautiful smiling face under cap and mortarboard. Alesha Baker-Peagler. But in the obituary was another terrible shock. Somewhere along in all those ordinary days, baby Anthony had died too.

We didn’t know anything. 

Alesha was her mother’s only child, and she leaves behind her husband, stepchildren, a host of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and no doubt a hole in her mother’s life big enough to swallow up all the light.  

It is astounding to me that we went about our lives as if nothing in the universe had changed, as if our small worries and concerns amounted to anything. I want to do something for Renae, I want to stop the pages of this story, go back, and delete the lines of anguish. I still see Alesha waving to me from the bus.

I went out tonight and bought Renae a card. It’s not enough. I’m afraid there is nothing that is enough. We thought we were good neighbors, but we were oblivious, disappearing through the garage door everyday, into the confines of our comfortable life.


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