I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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When my husband and I were a young married couple, we had a neighbor who was a single mother and needed a lot of support. She often came over to use our washer and dryer, or just to drink coffee and visit.
One day I hosted a committee meeting for a community group. The members were all older and more affluent than I was, and I wanted them to think highly of me, so I served dessert and coffee on my best china. Everyone seemed comfortable — until my neighbor walked in with her robe on, got herself a cup of coffee, and pulled up a chair.
Once I’d introduced her, she took over the conversation and proceeded to tell everyone about her troubles with her boyfriend, who was a boating enthusiast. She was thinking of breaking up with him, she said: “He never seems to have any time for me. He’s too busy with his boat — and his wife!”
Three Rivers, Michigan
I have good neighbors here in prison, fourteen of them, all living within twenty feet of me. Charles is a black drug dealer from Mississippi; I’m a white lawyer from Memphis. He and I discuss the Bible, his children, and my writing. We condescend to each other, but still value one another’s company. Miguel, in the bunk below me, speaks English slowly but animatedly. He is a former restauranteur who sold cocaine along with Mexican cuisine. Though he’s long-winded, he is also generous to a fault.
I will get out of prison in a few months. My mother has kindly bought me a small house in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood, where I can rebuild my life. She has confided to a select few of my future neighbors that the house is for her son, who is in prison. Undoubtedly her “secret” has since been discussed at neighborhood-association meetings.
I worry: Will my new neighbors ever trust me? Will I like them? Will I feel isolated? I am more nervous about meeting my neighbors in the free world than I was about meeting my neighbors in prison.
John A. Jennings
My wife and I live at the end of a dirt road, in a cabin surrounded by the creeping branches of three live oaks. When we first moved here, we bragged to friends about having no neighbors: we could walk around naked and crank the stereo until midnight. But after a few days we realized that we did have neighbors, and they soon let us know who really owns the place: A wood rat occupies our shed. Squirrels use our roof as a runway, their claws screeching against the metal at 5 A.M. Mule deer graze on our herb garden. A skunk with an appetite for vociferous sex lives under our kitchen.
Our neighbors almost drove us back into town. But now, when we visit friends in the city, there’s something missing. These animals remind us that we’re alive, that each moment is an opportunity to howl, or hang from a tree limb, or romp in the bushes all night long.
Santa Barbara, California
Kitty belonged to Gladys, who lived next door. Old and scruffy, Kitty would often slink in through my open window and make herself at home. She and George, my big tom, would gaze lazily at one another for a while and then part — much the way Gladys and I did when we visited each other.
Gladys was in her seventies, and the first couple of times I knocked on her door, it took her a while to answer. Eventually Gladys quit getting up and simply shouted, “Come on in!” She was a good neighbor: quiet, unobtrusive, and understanding of our desire to have her trees topped so we might see the ocean. She had only a few guests each year: a sister from Minnesota, a son, a granddaughter. I didn’t visit her often, but I always brought her some of my dahlias when they were in bloom. Each time I visited, Gladys would ask, “Kitty’s not bothering you now, is she?” I’d tell her Kitty never bothered me.
Last winter I realized Kitty had not dropped by for some time. When I went next door to investigate, Gladys didn’t answer. That afternoon I saw a van parked in her driveway. I walked over and asked the driver, who turned out to be her son, if anything had happened to Gladys. He told me his mother had died. She’d been in the hospital, he said.
I was shocked. If I’d known, I would have visited her. Why had no one told me? I felt hurt and left out.
Then I realized that Gladys’s family had no reason to tell me about her condition. I had played only a peripheral role in the life — and now death — occurring on the other side of my property line. I wondered why I hadn’t taken more time to get to know her. Are we all so uninterested in the people who live just thirty feet away?
At the age of forty I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome. Then my health benefits were cut off. I didn’t know how I would survive, financially or physically.
I found a new living arrangement with a woman named Patty, who had multiple sclerosis. She needed in-home care; I needed free rent. But this home-sharing arrangement took care of only a third of my living expenses.
When my story got out, one of my new neighbors began bringing me food; she told me she volunteered at the Salvation Army, and the food came from there. I gave her a list of foods I ate (I have a restricted diet) and was surprised and grateful that the Salvation Army had so many of them.
Eventually I learned the truth: the food didn’t come from the nonprofit organization but from people in the neighborhood. Each time someone went grocery shopping, they bought a few items for me, which the one neighbor then doled out in small, believable increments.
When they learned that their cover was blown, my neighbors brought their gifts of food to me directly. This went on for six weeks, until my situation improved and I no longer needed their help.
After being out of town for a while, my boyfriend Abe and I arrived home to find the dirt road to the Buddhist retreat center where we live buried in knee-deep snow. Our truck got stuck four miles from the center, and Abe hiked to get the tractor while I stayed behind and began shoveling out the tires.
A few hours later, as daylight faded, I heard voices. There was only one other homestead on our ten-mile road, and the residents were rumored to be rough, toothless drug dealers with illicit sexual habits. The voices grew louder, and a group of people came walking up the neighbors’ driveway. I was excited to meet these notorious characters, but nervous to be so outnumbered.
There were three adults and two kids. (Nobody had mentioned kids before.) The grown-ups looked far from rough and toothless and greeted me amiably, offering me a cup of coffee while we talked about snow-removal techniques. The kids both had big blue eyes and freckles, and their apparent well-being made me less wary of the adults. Surely these people couldn’t be drug dealers.
One of the women eventually asked me about our property and what we were doing down there. They had heard rumors about us too. “Yes,” I verified, “we’re Buddhists.”
“Well, we’re nudists,” the woman replied.
Two years ago I moved into a studio apartment. It was my first time living alone, and I could have been lonely, but I wasn’t, thanks to my neighbors Heather and Dylan. We were the only ones in the building with direct access to the backyard, and the two of them had created a wild urban paradise there, with a tall fir, an overgrown fig tree, a trailing bougainvillea, and various herbs and flowering cactus plants that attracted hummingbirds.
Heather and I were both at crossroads in our lives, struggling to make decisions about relationships and careers. We pulled weeds together, had tea at my picture window overlooking the garden, and ate dinner at each other’s apartments. A couple of times I came home to find her playing her fiddle in the backyard. One evening she and Dylan and I sat at their kitchen table with small canvases and tubes of paint, and we spent the evening painting, drinking wine, and listening to music.
When Heather and Dylan moved on after a year, they left their potted plants and the butterfly kite they’d draped over the porch. I tried to create an outdoor space for myself after they were gone, but it wasn’t the same. Each night I came home to a quiet yard. It wasn’t long before I moved away too.
Dietlind J. Vander Schaaf
San Francisco, California
My neighbor wanted to cut down a beautiful maple near our property line to keep fallen leaves out of an aboveground pool she planned to install. (When we moved two and a half years later, there was still no pool.) I fought hard with her over the maple, though it wasn’t on my property. I even called the police to stop the tree cutters and contested the property line, forcing her to get a survey. I knew these were only delaying tactics, but I got much enjoyment out of the tree, whose limbs spread over our yard.
That same neighbor’s daughter made a game of knocking on our door and asking if our son could come out and play. By the time he could get his shoes on and make it outside, however, she would have disappeared into her house, laughing loudly at him from a window. This prank hurt my son’s feelings, so my wife and I decided to have a talk with the girl’s mother. It wasn’t pretty. There was cursing and name-calling. A month later the tree was cut, and my neighbor and I never spoke again.
When I think about neighbors, however, I also remember when I was thirteen, and my family got snowed in. A neighbor drove his tractor to our house to pick up my mom and my little sister, who had congestive heart failure and needed to get to a hospital. He brought them to the nearest clear road, where an ambulance met them. My sister died a couple of days later, as we’d all known she would, including the neighbor. Still, he’d come out at two in the morning in a snowstorm to help.
Altamonte Springs, Florida
One summer night my downstairs neighbor was raped by a knife-wielding intruder while I was sound asleep upstairs. The rapist was quickly arrested. In the weeks leading up to the trial, my neighbor badly needed moral support, but she didn’t get it from me, or anyone else. Men she dated distanced themselves (after sleeping with her). Our landlords — who lived in the house with us but had been on vacation when the rape occurred — theorized that perhaps she’d done something in a past life to bring the rape upon herself. Then they asked her to move out so they could “purify” their home.
I let my housemate down by leaving her alone in the empty house in the days following the rape, and by thoughtlessly talking to the defense attorney about her drug use. I even reflexively smiled at the rapist as he was led into the courtroom. He smiled back.
The defendant was convicted and sent to jail. During the trial, it came out that my neighbor had insisted her attacker not rape her on our landlords’ bed. She’d refused to yell to me for help, either, fearing I’d be raped too. When the rapist had asked if anyone else was home, she’d said no. Only after it was over had she woken me and told me to call the police.
Our neighbor deserved our gratitude and support, not our judgment.
When I was a girl, my mother told me that widows were older women who lived alone, hated noisy children, and confiscated toys and bikes left on their property. I was afraid of the widows in my neighborhood, especially the one next door, who wore long, dark dresses and had white hair, deep wrinkles, and a black cat. I saw her peer out through her lace curtains, as though waiting to catch children misbehaving. She once shook a finger at my brother when he used her yard as a shortcut, and he told me later that she’d tried to cast a spell on him. When I walked to school, I made sure to pass quietly in front of her house. I didn’t know what widows did when they got mad at girls, and I didn’t want to find out.
Every autumn the widow next door paid my brother to rake her leaves. One year my brother was away on a Boy Scout trip, and I got the job. I was nervous but eager to prove that I could work as hard as any boy, and I wanted to earn some money. I raked fast and thoroughly. When it was time to get paid, I tapped quietly on the widow’s door. She answered and, rather than just hand me the money, invited me in.
I froze. The story of Hansel and Gretel ran through my mind. Then the widow took my arm — I was surprised by the strength of her grip — and pulled me in.
While she went to fetch me a glass of water, I sat down at her polished kitchen table, its legs scratched as though her cat had sharpened its claws on them. The tabletop was covered with torn lace, and picture frames lined the counters. I wanted to examine them for clues about the widow’s life, but I stayed in my seat.
She returned with a glass of water, a plate of oatmeal cookies, and a starched white napkin. I had used a cloth napkin only at my grandmother’s Sunday dinners, and I hesitated to put this one on my dirty jeans.
The widow said I’d worked as hard as my brother. Sometimes, she told me, when she looked out the window at sunset, she would see me riding my bicycle or roller-skating, and it reminded her of when her son was young. She missed him, but he was too busy to visit her very often.
The black cat curled in her lap, and she petted it with long, gentle strokes. I wanted a cat, but my mother said they got hair all over everything. I didn’t see hair anywhere in the widow’s house. I wanted to sit at her kitchen table every night and hold her cat and listen to her stories.
The widow gave me a dollar for my work. I had never received so much money and was afraid my mother would make me give it back. I thanked the widow and skipped down her porch steps, planning to hide the money under my mattress. On the short walk home, I searched for cat hairs on my sweater.
On the Friday before Thanksgiving, in my sophomore year of high school, my mother woke up in a pool of her own blood. Our family doctor came and called for an ambulance to take her to the hospital. She was scheduled to have a complete hysterectomy on Monday and would not return home until after Thanksgiving.
My father gave me permission to stay home from school that day: he could see I was shaken up. The sight of my mother’s blood had frightened me, and I worried I might never see her alive again.
I decided to go for a walk in a nearby park. As I was leaving the building, I ran into our elderly neighbor from across the hall. She was dressed in black from head to toe, as always — though she wasn’t a widow; I’d seen her husband. She’d heard the commotion and asked about my mother. After I told her what had happened, she promised to say a prayer for my mother when she went to Mass.
Later that afternoon, the same neighbor knocked on our door and handed me a steaming tureen of chicken cacciatore and a loaf of warm garlic bread. When I tried to mumble my thanks, she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Oh, it’s nothing.”
She appeared again the next day with veal cutlets and pasta, and again on Sunday with a pork roast and potatoes. She never came inside to visit, but simply handed us the food and disappeared back into her apartment.
On the fourth day, when she brought food over, I invited her and her husband to have Thanksgiving dinner with us. She told me she planned to spend the holiday with her daughter’s family, so she wouldn’t be home.
“What about your husband?” I asked. “He’s welcome to come.”
She explained that her husband spent holidays with his mistress. Amused by my astonishment, she patted my hand and said, “Every day I go to Mass and light a candle for that woman.”
My first apartment after I got out of prison was small, but it felt like a mansion compared to my cell. Though most of the building’s residents were two steps away from being homeless, they were more pleasant than some of the men I’d known inside.
One day, as I was strumming my guitar on the stoop, a young woman plopped down beside me. She was less than half my age and androgynous-looking, with her buzz cut and heavy boots. She also had a brilliant smile and lively eyes. Her name was Suzy, she said, and she lived nearby. Talking to her, I learned she was a lesbian, a rebel, and a fighter. I immediately felt comfortable with her, and each day I looked forward to seeing her on the street.
Within a month Suzy had become my closest confidante. I told her things I didn’t tell anyone else, including the details of my prison time and my crimes. She told me about her own stretch in the county jail. When my building was closed down, she arranged for me to move into an apartment in hers and even helped carry my furniture over.
One night Suzy woke me at 2 A.M. and asked me to drive her to the hospital, where a friend of hers was having a baby. For the next week I drove her back and forth and listened to stories about the difficult labor and drug side effects, often stopping at the grocery store on the way. I started to feel as if I was being used.
One night, after I’d dropped Suzy off at the hospital, I got home and realized my wallet was gone. I remembered taking it out to loan Suzy my phone card, then putting it between the front seats of my van, which I hadn’t locked. Jack, the building’s security guard, helped me search the van, but my wallet wasn’t there. Because there had been no money in it, Jack thought whoever had taken it might have dropped it in a nearby alley, but we found nothing.
When Suzy called at 1 A.M. to ask me to pick her up, I told her I couldn’t come; someone had stolen my wallet, with my driver’s license in it.
“You can still drive out here,” she said. “Nobody’s going to pull you over.”
“I’m on probation!” I yelled. “If I got pulled over, that could be a violation! Maybe if I wasn’t so tired from driving you back and forth, I wouldn’t have left my damn car door unlocked!” After telling her to walk home, I slammed the phone down. For the next hour I lay in the darkness, angry and unable to sleep. I’d never spoken to Suzy that way before. I felt ashamed.
At two Suzy knocked on my door. I apologized for yelling and for making her walk. She asked if I really thought it was her fault that I’d forgotten to lock the car door. I told her no, that I’d been angry and hadn’t meant it. Suzy said to come and get her in the morning, and she’d help me look for the wallet.
At 8 A.M. I went to Suzy’s apartment. She answered my knock looking groggy. “How about we do it in a couple of hours?” she said. “I’m really tired.”
“Never mind,” I snapped. “I’ll look for it myself.”
She hurried out the door to come with me.
Suzy insisted we start with the van, even though I’d already searched it. She looked under the front seats, while I checked under the back. To my surprise, my hand touched my wallet. Suzy gave me a satisfied smile: “It must have slid back there while you were driving.”
“Thanks for helping me look,” I said, feeling thoroughly embarrassed. She grumbled that she needed to get some sleep and headed back to her apartment.
Jack, who was going off duty, walked out of the building as she went in. “Was that Suzy?” he asked me. “I’ll bet she’s tired.” He told me he’d found her going through dumpsters with a flashlight at 3 A.M. looking for my wallet. She must have gone through every dumpster within six blocks. “I see she found it,” Jack said, spotting the wallet in my hand. “I’ll tell you one thing: that is one crazy girl. She and you must be best friends.”
“Something like that,” I said.
St. Petersburg, Florida
In the 1980s my graduate-student husband and I lived in married-student housing at the University of California at Berkeley. Our neighbors across the hall had a four-year-old daughter named Leslie, who quickly became our good friend. She loved to come over and make cookies. Best of all, when I came home from work each day, Leslie would run down the hall and jump into my arms.
My husband and I eventually got divorced. We never had children. Now, twenty-six years later, I remember Leslie charging down the hall to greet me, and I wonder why I kept putting off becoming a parent, as if I had all the time in the world.
Jay, New York
After college, my Czech husband and I moved to a tiny village in the Czech Republic, where we planned to live off the land. We bought chickens and goats, designed a permaculture garden, gathered wood from the forest, and lived without phone, computer, or washing machine. We were full of conviction, but lacked farming experience.
Across the lane in a run-down cottage lived Mrs. Langová, an eighty-three-year-old woman with an acid tongue. She ridiculed my husband for his lack of farming skills and barked instructions at him when she found his methods unbearably idiotic.
As the hard reality of farm life set in, I began to feel lonely and isolated. I couldn’t speak the language and had no friends. One afternoon Mrs. Langová invited me over for coffee and cake. Between my broken Czech and German and her exaggerated gestures, she and I managed to communicate. I discovered she was self-educated and well-read. We became fast friends. She taught me Czech, showed me how to cook local recipes, and gave me advice about marriage. We giggled and rolled our eyes over men. She continued to criticize my husband, but never me.
One day my husband mowed the tall grass in our orchard by hand with a scythe. He asked me to turn the fresh hay and keep an eye out for rain while he went to town to get supplies. Our hay had become an obsession for Mrs. Langová. Whenever we cut the orchard, she would come out and, using the end of her cane, flip a tuft of hay in the air to determine whether it was dry enough to bring in.
That day I became so absorbed in a novel that I forgot about the hay. When I heard rain, I ran outside to find Mrs. Langová leaning against the fence with a pitchfork in her hand, exhausted. She’d already finished stacking half the hay. We worked together silently in the rain to finish the rest.
In the 1980s my husband and I worked in Fiji as Peace Corps volunteers. We lived in a village of 240 people, all of whom, it seemed, visited us frequently. It was considered rude to close your front door if you were at home, and an open door was an invitation to chat.
At first we loved this custom and enjoyed getting to know our neighbors. After a while, though, we guiltily craved time alone. On Sunday afternoons, when no one worked, we’d receive a stream of callers, among them two teenage girls we called the “mosquitoes.” They would pepper us with questions, pick up our belongings, look through our cupboards, and even draw on our walls.
One Sunday my husband and I were enjoying a game of Scrabble when we saw the mosquitoes approaching. Without exchanging a word, we both bolted out the door and into the jungle to hide, laughing like children who’d just escaped being caught.
If Bill weren’t my neighbor, I might be afraid of him. He has cloudy eyes, a huge jaw, and a coarse white beard, and he radiates pain and sadness.
From conversations with Bill, I’ve gotten to know his life story: He volunteered for Vietnam, enlisting with his best friend, George. They’d been in Vietnam nineteen days when George stepped on a land mine. Bill still has some of the shrapnel lodged in his body. Angry and bitter, Bill eventually returned to his small hometown and got a job with the county road crew — then he got crushed between a grader and a dump truck. They had to put metal rods in his back, and his twisted upper body makes him appear unsteady, as if he were always about to tip over.
Raised on a blueberry farm, Bill bought some land in the 1980s and later put in an acre of blueberries that he never maintained. My partner and I met him when we purchased some of this land, which Bill had to sell to pay off debts. Bill often expresses relief at having us for neighbors, rather than “obnoxious yuppies.” He complains about our other neighbors, talks about giving up drinking, and warns us when his heroin-addicted son might be around. He races up our driveway if he hears a loud noise or sees unexplained smoke, and he once brought his tractor over to help us pull one of our llamas out of a ditch.
Bill is a motorhead and collects broken-down tractors, dozers, excavators, riding lawn mowers, and hot-rod cars. I have counted more than seventy metal carcasses on his land, many gathered into a large circle to make a “fence” for some cows. Sometimes I get angry with him about the way he treats the land: He buries old wrecks, diverts our common creek, and runs his cows in knee-deep mud. But I feel his gentleness when he asks me to remove a dead animal from the creek where he gets his water: he cannot look at dead animals, he says; they remind him of the war. I’ve watched him struggle with sobriety, and with poverty — cutting and selling his last trees to pay his overdue taxes and subsisting on hot dogs and white bread for days.
One day I ride my bike to his trailer and find Bill standing outside with his usual brown bag of strawberry Boone’s Farm wine. I confess to him that I’ve been picking blueberries from his abandoned bushes again. I want to be a good neighbor and get his permission, even if it is after the fact.
“Have free rein, sweetheart,” he says. Then he adds, “Wait, I spoke out of turn. I don’t own the place anymore.” He recently sold it, he says, and arranged to continue living there in his trailer. “So the blueberries aren’t really mine.” But maybe I could just pick an extra bag for the new owners, he allows. We can give it to them the next time they come around.
© Rita Bernstein
My neighbor’s dog has been roaming for days, coming to us for food, because my neighbor and her new boyfriend haven’t been outside in more than a week. I can tell: there are no footprints in the snow outside their door. They are not young — she has children who are away at college — but they are in love.
Meanwhile my husband and I are sopping up baby vomit and weathering tantrums while suffering from sleep deprivation, a too-small bed, and bad feng shui. But just knowing my neighbor and her lover are there makes me kiss my husband again, slowly, in a way we had forgotten.
My husband and I buy a bungalow on a street of well-tended homes with green lawns all in a row and no fences. I purchase a push mower to cut our small square of grass, but then one day I come home to find our lawn manicured. Our neighbor tells us it’s her gift: she had her gardeners cut our grass — with the mathematical precision a push mower could never manage. She says the people who used to live here kept the lawn short. We take the hint and hire someone to mow.
I’m an organic gardener and like native plants. Our neighbor grows roses, spraying them religiously. Her yard is overwatered and chemically enhanced. Flower petals that fall to the earth are a “mess” to her. Each tendril or errant leaf that crosses the property line from our yard to hers has to be whacked. I put in plants I hope will please her, but it’s a losing battle. If a flower leans too far into her yard, I find it cut or broken. I consider tearing everything out and putting in a bed of rocks.
Our gardening battle hasn’t made us unneighborly. Our neighbor feeds our dog when we go away. My husband does tasks for her that she can’t manage, often marching over with a drill or saw. In summer we barbecue together, and on New Year’s we drink champagne.
Over the past year I’ve seen less and less of my neighbor. Emphysema has kept her housebound, and she has become increasingly agitated. One day she banged on our door and demanded to know why I’d “thrown” a gutter in her yard. Sure enough, a section of gutter was lying in her driveway. I told her I had no idea how it had gotten there, but I don’t think she believed me.
I’m growing weary of my neighbor’s complaints. After a hard day I come home to find her angry voice on the answering machine, upset about a fern that has breached the line. I want to scream at her to get a life. Instead I go and snip off the offending flora. I have decided to be her friend no matter what, because, with her failing health, we won’t be neighbors much longer.
My neighbors are lifesavers. Judy is a hippie who reminds me of my mother. Linda is a waitress who keeps a low profile. Paula is a post-op transsexual who still has a few Y chromosomes left over. (When I told her my boyfriend had described himself as “emotionally fucked up,” she cautioned, “Lisa, when a man makes a statement like that, believe him.”)
I’m a forty-year-old single woman and recovering alcoholic who lives with her two trusty felines. When my boyfriend ended our relationship and “forgot” to tell me, I fell to pieces. I can usually deaden the pain of heartache with chocolate cake, but this time it offered no comfort. Though I hadn’t touched vodka in twelve years, I was suddenly very thirsty.
Judy said no man was worth all that.
Paula told me even forty-year-old broken hearts mend.
Linda said, “It would be so much easier if ex-boyfriends just died.”
The bottle of vodka remained untouched. My neighbors saved me from myself.
Paterson, New Jersey
In the late 1960s I was a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans and founder of the Tulane chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. I was not well liked around town, having organized demonstrations, counseled young men on alternatives to military service, and been arrested for antiwar activity. I suspected that government operatives followed me, tapped my phone, and even broke into my apartment.
I tried to avoid my next-door neighbors, a poor family consisting of a sullen woman, three or four barefoot brats, and a loud, hard-drinking man who didn’t seem to have a job. The decals on their front door said it all: a Playboy bunny and a Confederate flag. I figured they’d want nothing to do with me, a Jew who drove a Volvo with Connecticut plates. But one day, when I pulled up in front of my house, my neighbor approached me. I was afraid he was going to point a gun in my face.
“Couple of guys around here looking for you today,” he said. “One stayed in the car, and the other went up to all the neighbors asking questions.”
“Wonder what that’s about,” I said, wanting to get inside my apartment and bolt the door as quickly as possible.
“Listen, buddy, I seen how them boys operate. Federal agents, you know.”
I knew perfectly well.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re doing, but don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t tell them nothing. You’re safe with me. I’m in the Klan.”
Eric A. Gordon
Los Angeles, California
I was eighteen and moving into a new apartment with the help of some of my homeboys. Because the apartment was at the top of a steep staircase, we were having trouble angling the sofa in the front door. We needed more room, and the only way to get it was to open my neighbor’s door across the hall, but he wasn’t home. Not wanting to wait, one of my friends got a butter knife and popped the latch on his door.
After we’d moved my sofa in, I spotted my homeboy going into my neighbor’s apartment, and I followed him. The place was practically empty: just a small color TV and a mattress on the living-room floor. My friend unplugged the TV and carried it back to my apartment. We also took a Hustler magazine we’d found beneath the mattress.
Later, as we were leaving my apartment, we saw my neighbor leaning against a car. The look he gave us told me that he knew we’d stolen his few possessions. I felt guilty, but I figured he was an illegal immigrant and wouldn’t call the cops. To be safe, however, I brought the TV to my mother’s house the next day.
That night I was arrested for a gang murder.
Years later, when my mom would write to me in prison, she’d tell me how well the TV was working. It always ate me up inside. I could still feel my neighbor’s sad, angry gaze. I pictured him working fourteen-hour days for less than minimum wage, sending most of what he earned back to his wife and kids in some impoverished Central American country, promising them that one day he’d bring them to the U.S. After his long hours at work, his only comforts had been his TV and that magazine.
I am still in prison. I have thought about my neighbor for twenty-three years.
My husband, Graham, and I live on a seventeen-acre, wooded Quaker cemetery. Graham serves as caretaker, and we live rent-free in the caretaker’s house. The gravestones are uniformly low to the ground, with only names and dates inscribed on them, an expression of Quaker humility.
We’ve buried several non-Quakers over the years, including Gina, who’d lived in the surrounding neighborhood and died from a heart attack. Her ashes arrived in a cherry red Cadillac convertible with about a hundred cars following behind. Everyone wore Hawaiian shirts, and a New Orleans–style band led the procession. When they reached the grave, Gina’s husband, Bill, put the urn with her ashes into the ground, then passed around a bottle of rum. (We had not been forewarned of these plans; Quakers have traditionally been teetotalers, and I could feel the dead taking disapproving notice.) Then Bill produced a small cannon (another detail he had failed to mention) and sent Gina off with a bang. At this point I thought I heard the Quakers spinning in their graves.
My mother, who was dying from breast cancer, was visiting, and she’d been planning her own send-off. As we watched these remarkable funeral proceedings together, I could tell my mom was impressed.
Lucy E. Duncan
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
I love my neighborhood, a historic district with a racially and ethnically diverse population of young families, same-sex couples, and senior citizens. My neighbors and I know each other’s names and frequently share potluck meals. Our little urban oasis is surrounded by high-crime neighborhoods, however, and it’s not uncommon to hear gunshots several blocks away.
On winter solstice my husband and I arrive home to find a sweat shirt in our driveway. It reeks of smoke, and there’s a cellphone in the pocket. I see a police car trolling our street, shining its floodlight between the houses, and I flag it down to let the officers inside know what we have found. One police officer shines his flashlight on the cellphone and says, “That’s blood, all right.”
He takes the phone and begins calling the people listed in the directory, telling them the phone’s owner has been seen bleeding on two people’s doorsteps, but no one — not even the person listed as “Dad” — will admit to knowing the man. Finally the officer reaches “Aunt Doris,” who reluctantly gives her nephew’s name and address — five blocks from our home.
The next morning I see bloody handprints on the porch railing of our neighbor’s house and a thick swath of blood on our white picket fence. The incident does not make the morning paper or the evening news. I don’t know whether this man is OK, or whether he was a victim, a perpetrator, or both. All I know is that he, too, is my neighbor.
The first time my neighbor James called for help, we barely knew each other. It was the middle of the night, and his voice was faint, high, and desperate. My boyfriend, Jon, and I dashed next door and found James lying in his doorway. “I fell out of bed and couldn’t get back up,” he said. “Would you bring me my pills?”
An eighty-nine-year-old Irishman, James was housebound and left his apartment only to vote, get the mail, and deliver the latest issues of left-wing publications to several neighbors. He had been a notorious political activist in his day and had once been tried for, and acquitted of, running guns to the IRA. Until age eighty-seven he had volunteered regularly for the socialist Committees of Correspondence.
After the night he fell out of bed, James began to ring my bell for reasons that were non-life-threatening, but nonetheless urgent. When the police shot and killed a nineteen-year-old African American on the roof of his own building, James asked me to type up a statement he’d drafted, demanding an investigation. He also issued statements when “Butcher Bush and Butcher Blair” invaded Iraq, when the New York Rangers traded Brian Leetch to Toronto (“vengeful and uncalled for”), and when Ronald Reagan died (“Reagan and Thatcher both have blood on their hands which soap can never clean”).
James’s calls in the night began to take on a boy-who-cried-wolf quality. I’d run to his apartment to find him sitting there breathing normally, his pulse steady. Then he’d launch into a joke or sing me an Irish ballad. I’d think: You woke me at 3 A.M. so you could sing to me? But by the time he’d finished, I’d feel lucky. His nurse Priscilla would apologize the next day and explain that James’s worst fear was that he’d die alone.
After I got pregnant, I had morning sickness around the clock, and I drifted away from James. But I worried every time I heard him coughing on the other side of the wall.
The last time James called for help, his voice was not high-pitched, but hoarse and loud and terrifying. I rushed to get my key into his lock, shouting, “I’m coming, James!”
I found him on the floor. “I’m dying,” he said.
His breathing sounded like fizzing seltzer. Another neighbor called an ambulance. By the time the paramedics arrived, James was unconscious. His muscles were going slack, and I realized this was it: the moment he had feared and I’d been practicing for since his first cry had roused me from my sleep. I knew he was probably in agony, drowning from the fluid in his lungs. I grabbed his hand, put my lips to his ear, and said, “You are not alone, and you are loved.” I heard a few sharp gulps, and then silence.
I often think of things I should have said. (Why didn’t I tell him I loved him in Irish, as he’d taught me?) But mostly I am glad I was home and not at work or out shopping. He called, and I came, and he died, but not alone.
Brooklyn, New York