Sarah Dunphy-Lelii

in common and gentrify
April 20, 2021 Dunphy-Lelii Sarah

“in common”
My neighbor Steve is one of these lawn guys, with an engined solution for every yard flaw. Just in that moment when I can again hear the mourning dove, or the rustle of bamboo, he leaps from his garage freshly goggled and appendaged with a trimmer, or a blower, or an edger. His place looks nice, sure it does, in the way that military bed checks do – everything tucked and tight. I myself take an unreasonable amount of pleasure in my own small porch pots of waving herbs, my wandering vine and loose-leafed fern. So I acknowledge his right to pleasure of a different sort.
My other neighbor Steve is a Halloween-decor guy. Several years ago he cut down two large trees by the street, curiously leaving both as 8 foot tall, limbless stumps. We presumed this was due to prohibitive removal expense, but by mid-October they were festooned with cohorts of climbing skeletons and faux webs. He covers the front of his house with a stretchy kind of gauze sheet, painted like a rising moon, to remarkable effect: after dark, car after car slows to a stop at the foot of my front walk to stare at the witch floating over his looming azalea. Her glow is visible as I lay in bed at night, through my front-facing bedroom window, but I don’t mind because it really is artistry and emerges only once per year, better than a groundhog, clearly a labor of love.
I’ve never seen the two speak. Steve With Two Daughters doesn’t seem to speak at all, but he flies his Ohio State flag in all seasons and has painted some sort of Irish pride shamrock on the ground out front. Steve With Three Sons has chatty opinions for any passersby. The Steves overlook a small home in between, where lives an older man with whom I engaged in a silent battle of kindness all summer. He waits until I’m gone to shuffle over with handfuls of homegrown tomatoes; I return his basket with a smiley post-it, and soon more arrive. If I hold onto the basket for a while, I’ll discover another round on my porch chair, rolling loose. Once I get too far behind I up the ante with a lemon pound cake wrapped in a cloth napkin, which I stealth-deliver to his garden bench. The napkin soon returns to my porch, with more tomatoes.
At the corner of public and private I sit, tea balanced on the wicker, one brick stoop above a yard all mine to mow, but not quite my own. Grateful for a life in common.


There is no private sound in this book cafe. No slow drip of a personal pot, but the sudden foaming roar of a thousand-dollar wand. No whispered correspondence, but a rescheduling shouted into a propped screen, tinny spousal protestations. No silently mouthed jazz, but an off-beat pencil percussion on the long common table. There are no blueberry muffins, instead tiny quiches sporting locavore cheese and pedigreed chive. A woman in front of me asks for cha-MOH-muh-lay and the barista hands her chamomile without blinking, ignoring my silent bid for shared delight.
There is more hair here than I’ve seen in a long time. Mouths hidden entirely by grey-flecked beard. Lady pits thick with silky brown. Baby locks untamed, wafting loose and sticky. A friend writes nearby, sensual curls piled aloft, cocooned admirably in her customary stopwatch-regulated work. Thirty minutes on, ten minutes off, the latter long enough for refills and hellos, not long enough for gossip. Two bald men at my table seem to be doing the reverse: brief silences for phone scroll and then lengthy humblebrag parries, each with a screenplay I’m certain I’ll never forget the name of, but now realize I have.
The books for sale pursue their private lives. Three thin, mismatched poetry hooligans slouch against a dormant radiator. A grey and black local history extends an uncertain foot over the artbook perimeter. Finnish fiction faces-off, over a small tented wifi password reminder, with a software manual in blue. I imagine the novels writing their own tiny rustic notecards after closing time, Charlotte’s Web-like, to keep their friends from the reusable shoulder bags of browsing weekenders. “This won no awards at all” they’ll say, or “This author is very mainstream and from New Jersey”.
In the gorgeous sunsoaked hour before the hum rises to an unworkable clamor, I watch a spider keep house against the other side of the dimpled pane, my wrists cool against reclaimed oak, surrounded by money and the written word. Ferns could make it lovelier, shadow textured with rising fiddleheads, but there are none. Soon, I’m sure.

Sarah Dunphy-Lelii teaches psychology at Bard College in Annandale, NY, with research interests in autism, primate cognition, and the way preschool aged children think. She recently spent a half year in Kibale National Park, Uganda, tracking wild chimpanzees. Her academic writing has appeared in journals including the Journal of Cognition and Development, Folia Primatologica, and Scientific American; the work published in Plume is her first as a creative writer.