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Richard Risemberg

A Yellow Tea Mug


     Sometimes people die, and then they no longer walk past the window on their way to the store or the bus stop. Or maybe they don't die, they just move away, or are taken away. And then some are taken away but come back. The young man next door came back, several times. The old man next door never came back. The old man was quiet, the young man is not. He shouts on the phone, he shouts at his wife, he says terrible things. He is taken away, but he comes back. He walks past the window, alone and nervous, or calmly with his wife who holds his hand. The tops of their heads are familiar—the window is above the street. To see them walk by together, anyone would think he was not the sort of young man who says terrible things to his wife. That he was the sort of young man who would be taken away and not come back. She has a sweet voice. He has a weak voice but still says terrible things. They have been neighbors for a long time, it must be their first apartment. There is not much distance between the buildings, and there is another window on that side, so it is too easy to hear them. The terrible words are audible from the kitchen as well. Then later they walk past the front window, hand in hand. No one asks them what they go through. She smiles easily and seems relaxed when they meet on the sidewalk. But then he begins shouting terrible things again. Once they are inside.
     The bright yellow tea mug on the table by the window has not changed in nearly twenty years. It is a point of pride that it has never been chipped in washing. The tea in it has always been the same brand, bought at the store owned by a large Sikh with a beard. The Sikh's beard has gone gray in the time of the tea mug. Smiles have been exchanged but never names. The Sikh's smile appears in the swirls of steam rising from the tea. The tea is dark and yet clear, not like the coffee that occasionally fills the mug later in the day. This clarity in darkness is puzzling yet gives a certain pleasure. It is one of the advantages of tea. It is one of the advantages of the little room in which the tea is sipped, the room with the windows. In the morning the room is dark, yet the light in it, or the dark, one should say, is clear. The window is wide-open when the weather is good, and the view is clear. The neighbors' heads are easy to see and differentiate as they walk by on their way to the store or the bus stop. Yet there is darkness inside and outside. The steam rises from the mug of tea, smiles briefly, and then disappears. More neighbors walk past the window.
     More neighbors walk past the window: The man with the little dog, a miniature French bulldog, perhaps. The man is stocky, nondescript, on the far side of middle age, perhaps. Every morning he walks the little dog, who wears an elaborate harness that is probably not necessary for so small a dog. It is a well-behaved dog that has never barked, at least not while being walked past the window. The man always wears sweatshirts, summer and winter, always in darker colors but never black. Sometimes a woman walks the dog. She is a little younger but also a bit heavy. She may be a sister, as she looks too much like the man, but she may be a girlfriend or even a wife. They are serious but friendly when greeted on the sidewalk. They have ordinary names. Perhaps their lives are extraordinary but if so they give no indication of it. They have been walking past the window nearly as long as the teacup has been in service. This must be their second dog. It does not seem elderly, and dogs do not live that long. If so, it is to all appearances identical to its predecessor. The man is turning gray. The woman is not. Of course there are recourses that women often use in the world outside the window. Or she is just younger. She was not present during the earliest years of the tea mug.
     Many neighbors walk dogs past the window. Despite being a neighborhood of apartment buildings, it hosts many dogs. The friendly woman with red hair walks three of them at once, morning and evening. The dogs themselves are not friendly; they bark frantically at every other dog, at bicyclists, and sometimes, apparently, on general principle. The dogs match in color, being of that pale buff color common in the species, but they do not match in size. They are graduated, like measuring spoons: small, medium-small, and medium. They tangle their leashes regularly, and the friendly woman patiently untangles them. They dogs are annoying, but because the red-haired woman is friendly, no one has ever been heard to complain about them. The neighborhood is friendly.
     The neighborhood is friendly: neighbors have taken to looking up at the window in the morning and waving hello. A lift of the tea mug and a smile answer them. They are satisfied; there is no mystery to the tea mug in the window. In any case the ritual is now established. In the morning, neighbors walk past on their way to the store or the bus stop, or they are walking their dogs. Some of them look up, they are looking for the tea mug, they wish to share the smile and the greeting. The dogs look up too, sometimes; it is not to be known whether they understand the tea mug. Sometimes a greeting is discreetly shouted back and forth. Sometimes the tea mug itself is discussed in greetings at street level. The tea mug itself has become a neighbor. It is a part of the morning rituals of the street. The tea mug now must never be broken. Of course it may break anyway; a moment of distraction while washing dishes could end its reign. But if it were, then everyone would notice. It is a bright yellow tea mug, after all. It is the sort of tea mug that fits well in this friendly neighborhood. It feels warm in the hand, and so it also fits well into the rituals of the room behind the window. There is an importance to insignificant things that must never be forgotten. No one forgets the grand gestures of life: weddings, births, deaths, breakups, elections, the wars. But in the end it's little moments matter more, if the great ones are survived. The tea mug makes its appearance every morning shortly after sunrise, while the neighbors walk to the store or the bus stop or exercise their dogs. Neighbors have said that morning wouldn't be the same without it. Their smiles inhabit the steam that rises from the tea.
     It may have saved a marriage, though that statement is perhaps too grand. The couple next door, the young man was saying his terrible things to his wife. They were clearly visible through the kitchen window. The young man turned to face his own window, his mouth was contorted, his eyes wild. He saw the yellow tea mug, lifted in greeting across the narrow gulf between the buildings. Perhaps the steam rising from the yellow tea mug was visible; it is not the sort of question one would ask later, on the sidewalk. One would of course make no reference at all to the terrible words, the twisted face. But the young man saw the yellow tea mug, and the gesture of greeting, and perhaps the steam rising to smile in the dim kitchen light. The young man felt compelled to arrange his face, to quiet his voice, to nod a greeting himself. He turned back to his wife, who was hidden in the morning shadow of the room, and he did not say terrible things any more. Not that day, at least. Later, when the yellow tea mug had been filled again, they walked past the window, hand in hand on the sidewalk. The young woman looked up at the tea mug and released a quick, bright smile, and then walked on. The rising steam smiled back at her though she could not see it.
     The steam rises and smiles, curls towards the ceiling and fades away. The morning light brightens and becomes harsh, the noise of the street increases, people become hunched and impatient, they are late for work. More cars pass, and a clattering truck, then another. The dog walkers leave their dogs inside and hurry out to make their pay. Steam rises from the yellow tea mug and sweetens what remains of the dawn. Now daylight reigns, and the bright blinding hours tick away.


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