Neighborhood: Taking it to the Grass
This morning, Tuesday, April 22, 5:45 a.m. he revved his old pick-up, pulled out at 6 and returned at 6:10. Last night — after my cell rang around 9, and it was him, and I didn’t answer, and he left no message — he was outside mowing in the dark. Under a streetlight, his silhouette paused, as if he’d hit a bump or the mower blades had become jammed in high grass. But it barely grows in April, and he had just cut his grass two days before.
Finally his form lurched forward again, unstuck. As I remember, I think I heard his breath likewise catch and heave. But of course the image was silent.
I’d been warned. My new neighbors on one side told me the neighbor on the other side was odd. People have various definitions of odd. Theirs was: D— hardly ever comes out of the house, then sometimes he comes out and mows his lawn several days in a row. Sometimes talks and yells to himself. I am sure, now, that they left a lot out of this summary. If they’d told me more before the deal was closed on my house, and if I’d backed out of the purchase, and if the former owners had deduced why I’d reneged, the tale-telling neighbor could be sued.
During a muted first year, I’d noted: D— didn’t come out of his house much. When he did it was to mow his lawn. More frequently than most. He had no flowers or bushes, but the lawn was a uniform, green crew-cut, taller than mine. The difference in how high we set our mowers became a contour of the property line. He did talk out loud, but the Bluetooth earpiece he wore disclosed that it was not a manic conversation with phantoms. Yes, someone had suggested a routine pop-psychological diagnosis. I slotted that as pop-culture pigeonholing. This time, I was wrong.
Once D— told me I had a nice mower. True, a fly-yellow Canadian-made Cub Cadet with a Honda engine and coaster wheels. He saw my White Sox flag and said he was a lifetime Cubs fan (thankfully did not say “I bleed Cubby blue”). He knew I am from California, and after I returned from a visit asked me “How was it in Cali?” (Lingo which suggests he could’ve said “I bleed Cubby blue.”) He’d been in the marines at Camp Pendleton and liked the zoo in San Diego. Could any chitchat be more throwaway trivial?
I never wanted to live in a neighborhood. At least not again. It was cool, in my 20s, renting tiny war-era houses in the college and post-college neighborhoods of San Diego that attracted vegetarian restaurants, bookstores and cult theatres. It was tolerable, in my early 30s, to actually own a post-war slab house in a working-class neighborhood, until the teenaged boy across the street rattled my walls and appropriated my heartbeat with a stereo his parents attempted (and failed) to secure with locks. It was a respite, in my late 30s, in the Midwest and renting again in a train-stop suburb surrounding a thriving village, living in the smallest, oldest bungalow (with the biggest lot) on a street where 100 year old trees dwarfed houses, even though houses that sold were demolished so a newer deluxe mimeo-manor could fill the lot. Sure enough, two days after I moved out, the bulldozers came to flatten my bungalow. Then it was deliverance, in my 40s, to again own, but this time over an acre, with a treeline bordering a cornfield that bordered another treeline that bordered a creek. The neighboring house was on five acres, so association with the inhabitants there only amounted to an occasional wave.
I am back in a cul-de-sac, on a quarter acre, in one of a developer’s 6 or 7 floor plans, houses called “homes” before they were ever lived in. Besides the price range suitable for a fractured budget, this one was chosen because behind it lays the common area, and a pond with natural borders. It’s supposed to be a more responsible way of developing, instead of bigger individual yards with expansive lawns, there’s common open-space. The houses on the edge of that space have the most benefit, as the pond, the trees, the birds, the reeds, the plot of wildflowers are outside my back gate.
But on either side of me: people. The gentle curve of the cul-de-sac also changes, slightly, the direction each house faces, and on a patio or deck that’s snug to the house, each neighbor’s patio or deck can barely (or not-at-all) be seen.
This is where I fixed a home for Mark when, after 30 years apart, we made the required sacrifices to put our lives together. His forfeit: After 30 years of teaching middle school band, 4/5 of every pension check goes to an ex who already had banked almost half of the whole account, then when he retired he still pays 2K a month spousal support out of his remaining portion. Mine: that finally-reached goal of a non-suburban property, with neighbors only at a distance.
The barely-there contact with my new, closer neighbors changed last February. Still in the midst of one of the snowiest winters on record, I was scraping another overnight coating off the front porch. The snow in the yard was now higher than the step-up porch. But being on the concrete slab outside the front door still might have given me another 4 to 6 inches of height when D— came across my snow-covered lawn to stand in front of me, 10 feet away. Had I seen him coming? Memory doesn’t provide that framework. He was just there, saying “I hear you a dog trainer.”
I smiled. “Yes.”
I’d done some training outside during the past year. Enough that it was obvious we weren’t just playing fetch. My dogs’ exploits at performance events are a quiet source of fulfillment.
“So, how you call you-self a trainer. Your dogs bark at me when I go into my yard. You could train them not to, if you a trainer. You not much of a trainer. The way they bark at me.”
Thoughts are supposed to race at moments like this. Time stands still when tension speeds up. A fiction writer can add sensual details, stage directions, small movements and gestures, distant sounds. My thoughts did not race. My head went somewhat silent. There were no background sounds or images to swell out-of-proportion. Snow is not as serene as it is cold. Sometimes harsh. Very quiet.
Only now, in this different kind of quiet at a keyboard, there’s another clanging alarm: what I’m not saying. What I’ve said by reproducing D—’s vernacular without directly disclosing his race. By making the omission seem unconscious when it’s actually the opposite. Sometime in the late 70s, my budding progressive brain locked onto a policy that it was uncool to describe a person using their race. I actually learned this (via a book) from a baseball player who was mugged and refused to tell the police the race of the perpetrator. That code still being maintained in this account until it is becoming an evasion rather than a statement. I did want to keep this episode from being something that happened because of race. I still don’t think race is the chief reason that the situation arose. But the experience and the narrative are never going to be the same thing. And is the latter — especially now that I’ve noticed — at least partially also about the evasion?
Eventually, that day on the cold porch, I did say something. I said my dogs were hardly ever in the yard, only to relieve themselves, then they come back— it’s too cold for them to stay out. He said he was talking about last fall. After another moment of scene paralysis, I mentioned that my other neighbor’s dog barks at me in my yard.
“I knew trained dogs in the military. I been around trained dogs. You call yourself a dog trainer.”
I don’t recall how the dialogue ended. At some point I went back into the house and he returned to his property. I don’t recall which of us turned first.
I had his email address from when I’d first moved in and had introduced myself. I’d put a handwritten note in his mailbox, and he’d responded via email, just something like “let me know if you need anything.” It hadn’t gone any further. I give this detail because it was all so innocuous and normal. Accordingly, after this February exchange, I wrote a brief email apologizing for being unable to respond in a useful way when we’d spoken on my porch. I explained the dogs are trained to come instantly when called, so if they bark, I would not hesitate to call them in. He answered that he hadn’t meant to sound harsh and he’d been under a lot of pressure lately trying to avoid neck surgery. This still sounds unexceptional.
An over-the-fence dialogue a few days later, on one of the few days of mid-winter clemency (in the upper 30s), was likewise nothing more than conventional. I was trying to exercise the dogs in the yard, and D— stepped out into his. The dogs came eagerly for attention from a new friend, and he wanted to tell me he’d seen the news about my faculty union holding a 2-day strike. I was trying to tell him that when they barked, he could call the dogs over to the fence and pat them — it would make them stop barking and get to know him. He wanted to talk about his public-employee union and the current fight to protect his pension. Even though we were having two different conversations, it still seemed the typical surface exchange of neighbors who only talk when they are (seemingly) inadvertently out at the same time.
Two weeks later, I stood on the back stoop while the dogs relieved themselves in the snow. In a rapid causal chain, when D— appeared on his deck, the dogs bolted toward that side of the yard, barking; I called them; they wheeled in their tracks and just as swiftly sprinted to the door and came inside.
A day later, an email:
I HAVE BEEN AROUND DOGS ALL MY LIFE. YOU DOGS RUNNING TO
THE FENCE & BARKING @ ME IS INTENTIONAL & BIAS !!!!!!!
ANY CANINE BEHAVIOR = purposely trained
FAMILIARITY = expertise
Wednesday, April 23, a day after I’d drafted this narrative’s first paragraph, D— was conjointly rattled and medicated. Both ungainly and wired. Maniacal and wobbly. I couldn’t smell alcohol nor pot. He wasn’t slow and dopey nor in physical high-speed frenzy. He couldn’t finish a sentence, although he started many, one after another, and saliva both spewed and dribbled. In the backyard, after he’d produced wooden stakes and a sledge hammer to reinforce his fence posts, he leaned backwards on the same wobbly fence — while I held the stakes and Mark pounded them in — as though to disguise that he wasn’t standing up on his own power. Once he squeezed my arm with a comment about how strong I seemed. He babbled about his ex-wife who’d just bought an 80-thousand-dollar Audi; how his grandchildren were graduating high school and could I email him something to give them because they needed to know what to do next; about the successful professionals in his family and how they could send someone a thousand dollars just like that if it was needed, and how it hurt him that his sister only contacted him when she needed money; about how he could break a man in half with his hands and if he got angered he wasn’t responsible for what might happen; about his mother who had washed her hair in rain water from a barrel and worked in a laundry where the owner tried to make her stay in the back cleaning the clothes but she insisted that she wanted to be up front where the people were; about how he was going to the pound to rescue a dog, a German shepherd; about how he had a nightmare and could have hurt a woman who was with him. Laced between almost every half-sentence foray, something about how he can’t sleep and when he gets racing he has to take something to calm him down, and why he has trouble trusting, and how it was that the people who used to live in my house came to hate him so much that they moved so now the other neighbors are mad that their friends moved away so they hate him too.
Since the first breath of spring, since the grass first greened, his mower has run every day. His back lawn has yet to be cut.
Friday, April 25. I gave up writing this today when the cul-de-sac filled with police cars, an ambulance and fire truck.
The ambulance and fire truck were first. In the gutter between my driveway and his, a red traffic cone and a spray-painted white line, just about at the property border. D— was still in the front yard when the first heavily garbed fireman came across the lawn from the side. As the first police cruiser circled the curb of the cul-de-sac, D— retrieved the red cone, brought it back to his garage where he met the fireman. Voices resounded, not angry or arguing, just unnatural in a midmorning weekday, like a dramatic performance staged beneath our windows.
Because a cul-de-sac is curved, his front porch is not visible from the gallery seats at our windows. D— exited the stage, into his house, and did not return for over an hour. That was when the other five police vehicles arrived. The paramedics waited in the ambulance. Firemen met in the driveway, police back and forth in the driveway. No crackle of loud radios from the cars. No more audible dialogue. The drama continued as a silent movie. One without any development or action. A convention of police cars. The quota, it would seem, for our quadrant of the city.
On the phone with neighbors: it’s happened before. He might have guns. He barricades himself in the house. Last time they evacuated the whole cul-de-sac, everyone had ten seconds to get out.
Usually, in the calm of past tense, writing a personal account approximates, even surrounds and converges on forms of illumination, new perception and thus new impressions, some sort of closing. The in-writing complication of seeing more angles, more possibilities, more layers in the surrounding detail — from what I was wearing to what was happening at work in-between episodes to my mother’s simultaneous rapid decline 2000 miles away — would actually be a move toward controlling chaos. Toward sealing a memory like a thorn enclosed in scar tissue. Real-time writing does not feel that way. It’s like solo cooking a fancy meal for 8 people while having a political debate with 3 of them. Something will be overcooked, something will be raw, something will be missing ingredients, and the cook will have no pleasure in finally sitting down to eat two hours later than planned. A simile fit for one who isn’t a good cook in the first place.
Even the mixed metaphors speak the chaos, no closer to a solace of resolution. There is only trust that, in writing, I usually do get close. Or closer.
So I'll go back to late winter, I answered the INTENTIONAL & BIAS email.
Hi D—, Sometimes I am dense, so I wasn't sure if you were joking — you have to hit me over the head, like write "HAHA" so I'll know.
I hope by this you're not suggesting that I am sic’ing my dogs on you. My dogs are not attack trained. There are children playing in the cul-de-sac while I write this, and when I let the dogs out for the last time before bed, they will bark at those kids. My dogs are high-spirited because they are show dogs. They have to have a lot of energy to be able to perform under pressure.
MY (AKC) GERMAN SHEPARD WILL REMEDY THAT !!!I was unsure what was to be cured with the German shepherd. Kids playing outside? My dogs’ high spirits? That I don’t get jokes? It was the last time I answered an email.
GERMAN SHEPHERD = shut up
Another March snowfall had us out shoveling again a week later. For most of the winter, D— had run his snow-thrower along the sidewalk around the whole cul-de-sac, but on this day he was keeping close to his driveway, letting the machine sit and run while he tinkered with it, then retreating into his garage. Mark and I began our Sisyphus routine re-clearing the driveway, the area in front of the mailbox and this time the sidewalk, including the last 8-foot portion on D—’s side of the property line.
D— approached along the cleared sidewalk while I was digging out the space for the postal truck to reach the mailbox.
“I been around dogs all my life. You taught those dogs to bark at me.”
My mouth remained closed. There seemed not enough air to begin an explanation of how difficult it is to train negative commands (i.e. “don’t bark”), let alone the professional skill it would take to teach a dog to only bark at a specific person, based on some kind of ‘marker’ (scent of contraband, scent of internal disease) in which case the bark would not be “at” the person but an alarm for the handler. Had anyone taught dogs to bark at (or attack/hold, as military or police dogs are trained) a particular race? If dogs show this behavior, it’s often a result of how the owner acts/changes when in the presence of particular “types” of people (long hair and beards, or extreme height, for example; or, I suppose, different races, although I don’t know how well a dog would comprehend differences in skin color or eye shape, whereas being able to identify a beard and long hair, or a ball cap, or boots is probable).
While that was zigzagging through my mind, Mark was answering. Probably pointing out that we’d created a barrier in the yard and the dogs could no longer access the side of the yard where D—’s house was.
“I know dogs all my life, I was around dogs in the military, they bark at who you want them to bark at.”
“They’re not military-trained dogs.” My voice as flat as my momentum, lifting yet another load of snow to the mountain on the parkway.
D— was already leaving. “I know what I know. I know what I see. You send those dogs to bark — it’s bias.”
By the time he was back in front of his house and started fiddling with a porch light, I had returned to our garage. Mark had the wider shovel and would clear the rest of the driveway. But Mark followed D—.
“You’re wrong. If you just knew her, if you could possibly know, you’d know how wrong you are.”
“Mark, you can stand there and tell me this snow is green, but that not going to change that it’s white.”
SNOW = white
DOGS BARK = racism
On an isolated stretch of mild weather in mid-March, the doorbell rang. The dogs barked. I stuffed them behind me and slipped out, closing the door most of the way but staying in front it, perched on the doorjamb and partially sandwiched by the glass storm door which I held open. D— stood on the porch holding out two solar patio lights. “What’s this?” I said, as I took them. As soon as the lights were in my possession, D— extended a hand to shake, which I did. He did not answer — at least not in full sentences — my stammering attempt to ask why he was bringing me a gift. Of course I recognized it was some sort of apology, so I ignored what it was an apology for, and shifted to building good-will. Flattery. Interest. Attention. Basic human needs (and uphill work for the anti-social among us).
I noted that it looked like he was full of spring clean-up energy (he had hung some ugly plastic sunflower wind chimes in the walnut tree between his driveway and our front yard). He said he had to get the place in shape, he was a good neighbor, and liked to help the older couple across the street. Falling in with the looping of non-sequiturs, I said I’d noticed he cleared their snow, and it looked like he’d lost weight. He said he was going to the rec center every morning. I asked if it was expensive. He said he was trying to avoid surgery on his neck. I asked if it cost a lot to go. He said he did everything over there, even used the pool. In a while I knew that his ex-wife had bought a very expensive German car because he’d been fleeced in the divorce, that he had a speech impediment (which makes him difficult to understand), how many kids he had (two sons), where his eldest son went to college (University of Illinois), where D— went to college (also University of Illinois), what he majored in (criminology), when he’d graduated (1978), that he’d lost his front teeth playing college basketball (which is the speech impediment). He was down off the porch by this time, sort of swinging from side to side, shifting his weight, unable to stand still, grinning like a Jack-o-Lantern, gradually moving away from the porch. I let the storm door close behind me. Maybe it was relief that the bizarre accusations had been lifted, I got chatty too, told him I’d also graduated from college in 1978, of course in San Diego, he already knew that, but that Mark as well had graduated in 1978, from the same college as me, in fact Mark and I had also gone to high school together, had known each other since we were 16.
Mark came home from his afternoon music lessons before we were finished. D— continued his swaying retreat into the driveway to extend the handshake to Mark. I took the opportunity to return into the house.
SOLAR LIGHTS = spring
GIFTS = good neighbors
My gift to D— was to set a paver landscape border around a tree planted by the city on the property line in the parkway. D—had purchased the pavers, along with bags of red mulch on one of his daily trips to the hardware store around the time it opened (between 6 and 7 a.m.). But when he mounded the mulch up a foot high on the little tree, then jammed the bricks against the pile in a tight circle, I told him I would create a bigger circle out further, to make sure grass didn’t grow up through the mulch, and because the “beehive” look of mulch piles against trees was not good for them, trunks need to breathe. He smiled and said he hadn’t known that, and proceeded to pull a second, bigger mountain of mulch away from his walnut tree, so it appeared that tree was growing out of a red volcano.
During the two hours I spent on my knees in the chilly spring mud, removing turf and leveling the bricks, D— puttered in his driveway and garage, the door rolled open. The first year I’d lived here up through this past winter, two of his cars fit into the garage with the old truck always in the street. Now his slicked-up Nissan and new huge black SUV were always either in the street or the driveway, his garage door usually open, and a pile of paraphernalia growing in the garage. I’d seen him move a used organ out of his truck one day. He said he’d bought it off Craigslist. There was also a lawn tractor with a snowplow attachment, 4 new lawn chairs he’d purchased as soon as the hardware stores featured the trappings for outdoor living in earliest spring, more bags of mulch, and the remaining jumble of junk unknown to me because I had never stood there long enough to take an inventory. How I knew as much as I did: his coming and going was difficult to not just notice, but watch. And my watching would become even more acute. Plus the doorbell had rung more than once, the barking dogs stuffed behind me or Mark, and D— would be on the porch to request Mark’s help to load or unload something into the old pickup.
While I was on my knees finishing the tree, I learned that D— or his son had lost the garage door opener and he’d been on the phone with Liftmaster all morning trying to get the universal code, and then found an opener in a jacket pocket.
Days later, this time just after Mark got home from his private lessons, the doorbell rang. The dogs barked. I stuffed them down the basement stairs while Mark went to answer. I heard Mark’s amiable neighbor-greeting, “Yo, D—, what’s up?” I heard him say, “What?” I heard him say, “What are you talking about?”
When I got to the door and joined them on the porch, D— said, “What do I hafta do to lock this place down?”
I echoed, “What?”
D— stepped backwards. Swaying again. “What do I hafta do? Mark just drove in and was messing with my garage door from his car.”
My head cocked to indicate I was having trouble hearing him (i.e. I couldn’t understand him; I figured out what he was saying from Mark’s response). I leaned, touched my ear, then stepped forward again.
“Don’t come closer, I’m special ops.” By that time D— was on the edge of the lawn. “I’m dangerous when riled. Keep back.”
Meanwhile, Mark had already said, “I’ll show you I didn’t open your garage.” He went into the house, into our garage, opened our door, backed his car into the driveway, closed the door, backed into the cul-de-sac, opened the door, drove up the driveway and into our garage, closed the door.
“You said you just reprogrammed your garage door the other day,” I told D—.
“Don’t crowd me, I’m dangerous. I was special ops. I react.”
And during the sound of our garage door closing again behind Mark’s car, D— either said, “I got guns” or “I know what you done.”
I added the incident to the log I’d started after the last indictment, almost a month previous. The rest of the afternoon, the evening, the attempt to read before sleep, the half hour to an hour before the Ibuprofen PM had any effect, Mark and I tried to think and talk about benign frivolous things: the week-old baseball season, whether or not to do an early spring lawn feeding, how the dogs lying on their backs and holding toys over their faces was an example of evolution-in-action. It was all edgy and eerie.
“There’ll be an apology,” Mark said before we slept, and the next morning, “Your apology is here.”
Four bags of dark brown mulch were stacked in a bare place in my front garden. As much as I could use them, we decided that Mark would go out and give them back.
“Did he seem mad?” I asked as soon as Mark returned to the house.
“No. He claimed he bought brown by mistake, and instead of taking them back thought you could use them because you like brown better than red. He looked like his back wasn’t doing so well, so I put them into his truck for him.”
No mention, by either of them, of yesterday’s scene.
But the gifts continued. D— began to cook outdoors and he brought portions of grilled chicken and bratwurst over to us. He tried to hand me a shopping sack with a brand new pair of men’s pants, too small for either him or Mark, “I don’t know why I bought these,” and he seemed surprised they wouldn’t fit me either. The same shopping sack was used again on Easter to hold a box of chocolates, handed to me over the backyard fence. Mark’s Easter gift a case of beer.
In the name of social living, which I was supposed to be learning to do — that is living as a neighbor in a neighborhood, where front lawns had no physical demarcation on property borders — I asked D— if his lawn service would give us both a discount if Mark and I used it too, on the same days. He said he would call and find out, then asked for my phone number.
I hesitated. “No, I don’t want them calling me.”
“Okay, write your number down and I’ll call you with the answer.”
What could I do? Tell him no, I didn’t want him, my neighbor, to have my number either? Give him a fake? Admit that I’d already put a filter on my email to throw any of his messages into a folder titled “neighbor issues”? I gave him my number. That day we exchanged three calls regarding the lawn service (which did not give either of us a discount, but continued to court me for two months anyway).
Then one evening soon afterwards, my cell rang, displaying his name. After a hesitation, I answered. I’m not sure I ever knew what the chief purpose of the call might have originally been. He talked and talked. About the new state pension overhaul and how he’d worked for the state as a youth probation officer for 30 years only to have them yank everything out from underneath him. Similar to how his ex-wife had raked him over. About why the police had been by his house earlier that week (“sometimes they come to pick my brain about cases they’re working on”). About how he had to go get something from a friend who lives in a ritzy neighborhood but couldn’t drive his old truck, and maybe not even the metallic-red Nissan, or it would look like he was going over there from the ‘hood to clean out some cat’s house. About a law firm named Duey, Cheetum and Howe. About how he’d thought someone might have broken into his house and taken an attaché that contained, among other things, a microcassette recorder where he stored ideas he might forget, but that now he thought it was an “inside job,” someone who’d been visiting him. And then: “so if I met a woman at 7-11 and then go to where she’s staying in a motel, what do they know, it might be my sister, see what I’m saying, they don’t know if it’s not my sister, right?” It was either before or after that when he informed me: “I don’t date Black women, not that I don’t appreciate them, see, but I been burned, they out for what they can get, see? I leave ‘em alone. I have an Asian girlfriend, a RN, but she went to her country to help out her people there.” Somehow he brought up the price I’d paid for my house — “It’s public knowledge, you know that, right?” — and how if he’d known they would be selling so cheap he might’ve bought it himself and rented it out. Then about the people who used to live in my house: “She didn’t travel for work, she hardly worked, she had to lay out in the yard any time the sun was out, had to catch her some rays.” Invisible threads between the non-sequiturs were starting to show.
I stopped answering when the cell showed his name. There were also texts I didn’t answer:
4/10/2014 5:25 p.m. What days u work in Chicago?
4/10/2014 6:13 p.m. I be in the city.
4/14/2014 4:21 p.m. Hey Cris, how are u ??
4/14/2014 8:51 p.m. How was your day ?
My calendar tells me I was in New York April 15 through 17. I’d asked Mark to let D— know — as soon as the next circuitous dialogue inevitably occurred — that we didn’t have texting in our cell plan and had to pay for each text. This had recently become not true. We were changing: one of the things Mark said he’d always loved about me was my staunch candor. And Mark, the one who could (and would) strike up conversations everywhere, with anyone, in grocery stores and on airplanes (offended by the social dictum that says don’t bother the person next to you on an airplane), suddenly didn’t want to go outside if D— was patrolling his yard and driveway.
If this account has the same unruly sense of time and logic as those dialogues with D—, it’s because my memory careens from static moment to frozen image when I try to construct plotted narrative. And there are elements I can’t shoehorn into the fragmented timeline, like how my ex, Jim — who’d helped me search-for then refurbish this house, and loaned me most of the entire purchase price — nearly wept his angst over the mounting incidents and tried to figure out a way Mark and I could buy and live in the twice-as-large house on a private acre-and-a-half I’d moved out of and quit-claimed to him. Meanwhile, it’s been several weeks since I started writing, and D— has mowed his front lawn every night, starting around 8:30, the last glimmering of twilight.
So I’m back, not to the beginning but to where I started, the day D— was weaving, unsteady, and babbling apologetic excuses while Mark and I pounded the posts D— had bought to stabilize the fence bordering our backyards. That afternoon of fence-mending (an obvious idiom which I swear wasn’t invented for this purpose) was just after the fevered nighttime mowing of my opening paragraph. It was the middle of the week that ended with emergency vehicles flooding the cul-de-sac. There is still the rest of that week, the before and after, to try to navigate here.
LAWN MOWER = identity
FRESHLY MOWED LAWN = order, harmony, peace
Thursday, April 17, the day I returned from New York, we stopped on the way home from the airport to purchase our rain barrel.
Friday, April 18, I brought Mark to campus with me for an afternoon lecture. Afterwards, in my office, my cell rang. I held my phone at arm’s length to show Mark D—’s name on the lighted display while the phone rang, and then stopped. We waited for a voicemail chime, but none came. The plan we arrived at was that Mark would call back, on his phone, and say that I was busy at school and had called Mark to ask him to call D— back. Seemingly unruffled by this, D— told Mark that he’d purchased a small snow-thrower at a yard sale and Mark could have it if he wanted.
When we returned home and spotted D— lurking in his open garage amid the junk that had continued to amass, Mark muttered, “I’ll get it over with,” and headed over there while I went into the house to greet the dogs. “Don’t let them go outside and bark,” Mark added.
“OK,” I said, “and don’t bring home the snow-thrower.”
So he told D— that he appreciated the thought, but shoveling was good exercise, and we didn’t have room in our garage for a snow-thrower anyway because we had two lawn mowers. I don’t know if D— asked for an explanation or Mark offered more: We each like our own mower better, my yellow Cub Cadet and the standard red one Mark moved from California, so we kept both. D—’s response was to mock-chide Mark for being sexist (which he called chauvinist but I’m not sure what Mark could have said about my lawn mower partisanship to earn it), said that he’d seen me pushing the Cub Cadet around last summer and it was too big for me. At some point D— asked to borrow the red mower because his was broken. Mark said the mower needed an oil change, and D— volunteered to do the spring tune-up. By the following morning, Saturday April 19, the red mower crooned tranquilly from D—’s garage, and then out on D—’s lawn it became the first mower buzz of the season to announce the shift from gusting snow to flourishing grass.
Saturday, April 19, we needed to install the rain barrel and till the vegetable garden, both located on D—’s side of our yard, so we checked through the front door glass to see if any of his vehicles were gone, or if his garage door was open. Not the first time we expressed to each other that we couldn’t start living like hostages. Mark would have to leave at 11:30 for afternoon music lessons, so we got our tools and went into the yard. Besides, there was an extra car in D—’s driveway, so perhaps a guest would keep him too busy to come give us food or clothes or yard ornaments.
But in fact D— wasted little time in introducing his guest. It was an Asian woman named something like Stephanie or Melanie. When he called her over to the fence, she was circling his house with a watering can, pouring water on volunteer junk trees that had sprouted in his fallow garden beds over the past several years. She shook our hands and said hello, not much more than that, then there was an opportunity when she went to water another big weed for me to ask if this was the nurse he’d told me about. “She a nurse, yeah, that’s right, but a different one.”
As always, looking for something more than chitchat to occupy myself, I wiggled the fence post a little, looking down to where it disappeared into the ground and must be rotting. “I’m getting to that,” D— said.
Later in mid-afternoon, Mark still gone to his music lessons, I bathed and washed my hair. I had a dog show the next morning and would be getting up at 5. We would eat an early supper, watch part of the ballgame then go to bed. I was still soaking in the tub when my phone rang. Leaving pooled footprints of water on the tile, I went to get the phone. Mark often called to tell me when the last lesson was that day, or if he was stopping on the way home for something to grill. But it was D— . I put the still-ringing phone back down. Instead of returning to finish my bath, I dropped to hands-and-knees and crawled from the bedroom to my study and crouched below the window where I could see D—’s driveway. The guest’s silver sedan was still parked there. The dogs stood on either side of me, rattling the vertical blinds, chins on the windowsill, to share what I was watching. When I crept back to the bedroom, I called them in with me and closed the door to prevent them from charging downstairs barking, should the doorbell ring. Back to kneeling, bent forward, huddled in warm water in the tub, waiting for the voicemail chime, but it never sounded.
I was still there when I heard Mark came home. The bath water growing tepid, my bent body curled into a tighter ball.
It seemed to take longer than usual for Mark to unload his instruments, carry them into the house, then begin the trips to bring them upstairs. I was finally wrapped in a towel preparing to dry my hair when Mark released the dogs from the bedroom and came in to ask why we were closed off in there, did the doorbell ring?
“He called, just a little while ago. But his friend is still there.”
Once again, we planned how Mark would call back, tell D— he’d come home and I was sleeping and he saw a missed call on my phone. If that made it look as though Mark was checking my phone log, Mark would call back on his phone, make it a signal that Mark’s phone is the one he should call. Or even tell D— outright my phone is for my writing and school business and Mark’s is our “home phone.” Our strategy as disheveled as it sounds. Probably good that little of it was used, just the part where Mark used his phone to call back. “Hey, D— , we noticed a missed call from you. What’s up?” D—’s reply was it must have been a “pocket call.”
Is this it? The race part I’m avoiding — where a white woman is afraid to tell a Black man to stop calling her because it’ll look like a white woman telling a Black man he can’t call her, laced with flagrant assumptions on why he’s calling? And is that even what’s happening? Twice in the months after this, D— has asked me why Mark answered my phone, but that’s not what Mark did.
Monday, April 21, before breakfast and again afterwards, I scanned the conditions outside. Every time we behaved as though under siege, we commented that we shouldn’t, then went on living as though barricaded.
But sometimes our garage had to be open, like that day when Mark went to prepare my Cub Cadet for its first use of spring. The door rumbled opened like an invitation, and before Mark could even check the oil, D— was on the driveway, just like a neighbor sharing the relief of an early spring day when the lawn mowers reemerge. I could hear their voices from upstairs in my study.
It was the kind of day that brought other adult males out of the two houses on our other side. Raking sticks and leaves scattered during the winter, checking mailbox posts for heave or snowplow damage, a sweatshirt-only day in a week of revisiting the winter coats. After D— had gone back to his own garage, Mark joined the other two men for a moment on the sidewalk. He’d recently shared with me reveries of enjoying beers in the backyard with Tony and Joe — the former like Mark, recently retired, the latter a much younger father of small children whose daughter took weekly flute lessons with Mark. The klatch didn’t last long. Sweatshirts weren’t really enough, unless you were raking more vigorously, or mowing.
When I came downstairs for lunch, Mark told me that Joe had asked him if we were going to use a lawn service for feeding and weed control, and when Mark had said that we’d decided it cost more than we were willing to pay, Joe had said, “Good, I’m not either.” Since now we wouldn’t be the first to mow (and thereby look lawn-neurotic), I suggested maybe Mark could shave off the rowdy sprigs and tufts of our no-professional-lawn-service patch of grass in front of the house. Our red mower had already rumbled across D—’s seamless grass more than once.
So before Mark walked two doors down for the flute lesson, he went the opposite direction to D—’s garage, as usual standing open, with D— tinkering or shifting things around inside. He asked if D— was finished with the red mower. “If not, go ahead and use it all you need to, but if you’re finished, I’d like to use it because Cris wants me to mow and I don’t like her mower.” He thinks his inquiry after the red mower was met, at worst, with neutrality.
At some point during the half-hour flute lesson, the dogs bolted to the door and barked. Braced for the doorbell, I froze. Nothing. My hand went to my phone in my pocket, waiting for the vibration. Nothing. After enough moments had lapsed, I went to check out the door’s window, and saw the red mower had been pushed onto our front lawn and left there.
Coming home from Joe’s house, Mark called out a thanks to D—, but received no response. Nor, he admits, did he wait for one.
One of those scattered-showers passed over. Enough to forestall the ritual first mowing. Enough to propel Mark to the rain barrel to check his first harvest and discover a 5-minute shower can half-fill the 55 gallon barrel, so he set about attaching a hose to the overflow nozzle.
By now it might have been unsurprising that when Mark went out to that side of the yard, at some point D— was there in his backyard as well. His is one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a door from his garage to the backyard, an easy flow from driveway to garage to backyard and back, with access to his kitchen from another door inside the garage. Mark called, “Hey, D—,” but before he could process D—’s starched body language and lack of response, Mark was reporting the news that the rain barrel was already half full.
“Don’t talk to me.” D— began to walk away, but parallel to the fence. A dismissive wave of his hand, his back still only half turned, and he continued, “You the same, that coward who used to live here, he was racist.”
Unable to simply retreat into the house, Mark asked what D— was talking about.
“You know. You tell me. Go look it up if you don’t know, go find out who the Grand Wizard of the neighborhood is.”
“What are you talking about, D—?”
“You call me Mister J— . I told that guy before you, I’d kick his ass if he called me D— again, it’s Mister J— to you. That guy, he thought I wanted his woman. That skinny Olive Oyl, I can get any woman I want, and I want someone with meat on her bones. You just go ahead and look it up, go find who’s the Grand Wizard of this neighborhood.”
This is where I began writing: D—purchased his new mower that afternoon. That evening my cell rang and displayed his name. Not 15 minutes later he began the ritual of nighttime mowing.
Wednesday, April 23, was the afternoon we mended his fence. It was a band-aide applied to a concussion. Plus Mark and I had to stop the not-yet-finished tilling of our vegetable plot when D— came to his side of the fence to restart the oscillating dialogue that had been going on all week.
That morning, as Mark and I returned from an errand, we did not think to immediately close the garage door after pulling in. Or maybe we did, but when Mark reached for the transmitter, he saw D— already standing in the driveway behind the car. As we unloaded our groceries, D— wandered into the garage with his face tiled up, admiring the shelves and organizers we had installed, burbling about how he’s also tidy and women who visit him notice, but skeptically. Then he spied two unopened cans of WD40 and said “I need soma that.”
“Take one,” Mark said, “I’ll never use that much in a hundred years.”
D— broke the cans apart and took one. I was going in and out of the house with bags, and only have a last image from that encounter: D— back on the driveway, still talking, holding the WD40, his mouth foaming a little at the corners from the excessive babbling. His speech lubricated but no easier to follow, so my memory holds the image, not any gist of what he was saying.
Some time after that, in the backyard, when D— first came out, Mark left what he was doing and met D— at the fence. I did not, at that point, abandon my task. I couldn’t hear them well enough to follow anything. It was later that Mark reported to me that D— had wanted to apologize, by way of explanation, for the things he’d said two days before. The explanation was circuitous, twisty, a switchback trail that sometimes ended up below the point where it started instead of zigzagging up toward a new message. But D— did have a theme: once again having to do with the people who used to live in our house, how they were at first friendly, and the woman even brought D— portions of meals when she made too much, but then she started coming over to see what D— was doing, and maybe the man himself sent her over to find out things, or else the woman was trying to shame her man into getting off his butt and working like D— did (he gave both possibilities, but did not use an either/or); then the man started to think D— was “after his woman,” but “he shoulda never been allowing her to be coming over with food to give, what would you think if your woman did that?” But the upshot being that when those people rather suddenly decided to sell the house and move, the two other neighbors on the other side were upset that their friend moved away, and they blamed D— , so when D— saw Mark talking to the other guys on the sidewalk, and right afterwards Mark asked D— if he could have his mower back, D— knew— “when you add two and two you get four, right? Am I right?” — it could only mean the other two neighbors had told Mark not to trust D— with his mower and advised him to get it back.
It’s possible D— was wiggling the rotten fencepost during this monologue. After they parted, with the apology aired, if not coherent, D— returned a few minutes later with a package of cedar garden stakes. He was unable to even unwrap the cellophane binding the stakes together, let alone pound them in with the full-sized sledge hammer he’d also produced. Mark, still or once again over at the fence, called me over. “D— says you told him to get these to shore up the fence. How do you mean?”
I’d actually suggested he get rebar stakes that could be pounded in alongside the fence posts. But it was clear D— was in no condition to receive a new explanation any more than he could have wielded a sledge hammer. His speech was slurry, his mouth still foaming, his gestures wonky, his gait and carriage lurching and weaving. I got my own tools, including cordless drill and screws. Mark and I pounded the sakes on three sides of the most rotten fencepost, then fastened them with screws to the post. D—watched us, blathering a string of non sequiturs. The fence was somewhat, but not entirely, more sturdy when we finished.
On Thursday, April 24, D— wasn’t physically as precarious. When Mark went to get the mail we’d forgotten the previous evening, D— was already lurking between his driveway and open garage. When Mark asked how he was feeling, D— returned that he’s always better when he gets his rest. That was probably 7 a.m.
At 8 the doorbell rang. “You never got back to me,” D— said, “about who’s the Grand Wizard of the neighborhood. Did you look that up? Who leads the neighborhood Klan?”
“I’m not going to talk about this shit,” Mark said. “When you have something worthwhile to talk about, come back and we’ll talk.”
At some point on Wednesday I’d heard the news about a mass killing in California, then on the morning of Thursday there were more details on how a distressed young man had fulfilled his plan for retribution against all girls who would not relent to his need to have sex with them. He killed 6 people, then himself, and wounded 13.
That evening I spotted another man with D— on his deck. Probably I was checking to see if I could go outside. Or because I had heard voices outside. Or both. D— was speaking animatedly, pacing and making broad gestures.
Friday, April 25, like a daily appointment, the doorbell rang. Mark was in the middle of his bowl of granola and cantaloupe, still chewing. I’m sure he said “fuck” at the sound of the bell. Maybe we both did. Tasks we’d been conditioned to perform on cue, he went to the door while I stuffed the dogs into the basement. Then I stood well behind Mark where I could hear without becoming a participant.
“I’m dressed down,” D— declared.
“You look nice,” Mark said. D— was wearing khakis or maybe canvas painter pants. Even though much earlier that same morning, he’d been wearing a suit, he still looked dressed to go somewhere. Mark asked if he was dressed up for something.
“No, I dressed down.”
“Yes, it looks nice,” Mark repeated.
“You saw my man here last night — he’s special ops too. What’s it going to take, how many men do I have to bring in, to lock this place down.” Once again, D— began shifting his weight side to side.
“What are you talking about?”
“Go get those two cowards from over there on the other side, those two cowards Tony and Joe, get them out here, let’s settle this right here like men.”
I was first to retreat to my soggy granola, my tepid coffee. Mark finally joined me and we sat staring. Not at each other.
DOWN = sometimes up, sometimes not up
COWARDS = not men
Not much later was when the ambulance arrived, then the fire truck, then the police cruisers, 3 or 4 of them plus an SUV. Across the street, a Nicor gas truck, a worker returning to it and driving away as the cul-de-sac filled with emergency vehicles, blocking our driveways. The story we heard later: D— had reported a gas leak, but the responding agent had sensed a different kind of problem. Whatever occurred between them, the Nicor man chose to dial 911 instead of just leaving.
We watched from the windows, occasionally on the phone with another neighbor, until D— came out of his house, walked beside a policeman and paramedic to the ambulance, climbed in, the doors were secured behind him, and one by one the vehicles began to depart.
It was a strangely calm, strangely calmly tense, strangely tensely tranquil day.
This has got to end. I know I’ve got to find an ending, even though there isn’t one, D— is still next door, Mark and I are still spontaneously coordinating our time outside to when one of D—’s vehicles is gone. Then we rush, do sloppy work with too much frustration and too little joy. Is the same true of this essay?
D— was only gone until early evening. My ex, Jim, was over to visit the dogs and have dinner. The doorbell rang. On cue: the dogs barked, I stuffed them into the basement, Mark went to the door.
“He tried to talk to me when I got here, but I just said Hi and got into your garage,” Jim muttered before following Mark to the door. I stayed behind, as usual, staring this time at congealing pizza.
“Hey, you saw what went down this morning, now you people ducking me, let’s get this out, let’s just take it to the grass, come on out, let’s settle this.”
“There’s nothing to settle,” Mark said.
Jim added, “We’re just trying to live our lives, trying to enjoy our dinner, let’s just let each other relax at home, no one wants trouble.”
“I know what you think, you think I don’t know? I see.”
“There’s nothing to see, we’re eating dinner …”
“…Just like that last guy living here, all up in my face about how I mow my lawn and sending his woman over to ask me what I’m doing and why.”
It went several more exchanges, and could have continued to circle, until Mark said, “If people are avoiding you, it’s because they’re afraid of you. Because you do things like this. The police talked to us, this morning, know what he said? That if you ever act like this, like what you’re doing right now, we should call them, call 911. They’ll come back.”
D—’s swaying retreated back, to the step below the porch. He was no longer as close but also no longer taller. “I don’t sleep and I have bad nerves. I hear ‘em going off over my head. I’m supposed to take something, for my nerves, you know?”
“Then take your meds, D—,” Mark said. “I’m sorry you have to do that, but we shouldn’t have to pay the consequences when you don’t take care of yourself.”
This is so anticlimactic, so unexciting, me sitting there listening, face toward the tabletop, pushing my finger into hardening pizza cheese, two men, the former and the present, shielding my doorway. Our doorway.
Even before today, Saturday, May 31, when I have resumed my work to complete this narrative, the news had already emerged that several weeks before the California gunman’s rampage, the young man’s mother had sensed something amiss — and she didn’t have to use a mother’s intuition to understand his flagrant internet-available rants ¬— so had called his psychiatrist who then requested a police welfare check. Approximately half a dozen officers arrived simultaneously at his apartment. But the law enforcement contingent determined that the young man did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold and psych evaluation. Then I discovered this today: A spokesperson for the police department told a reporter that the police had no information or reason to believe the young man possessed any weapons. But according to the New York Daily News, the young man’s “ownership of the semiautomatic weapons was available in law enforcement databases, which apparently were not checked despite his increasingly erratic behavior.”
After the ambulance was gone, we had joined neighbors gathering on the sidewalk around a police sergeant. He told us they were aware of D— and his unbalanced, even volatile behavior; they kept an occasional eye on him, sometimes stopped by unannounced, but they didn’t think D— had weapons. The neighbors said they thought he did, but perhaps they’d been taken away; they told the sergeant about the time the cul-de-sac had been evacuated, so they weren’t there to see who or what was brought out of the house. We didn’t ask specifics about how they’d ended D—’s reverse siege this time. D— had walked on his own to the ambulance, so the psych-eval was voluntary; they couldn’t hold him.
A few days ago, I was out beyond my back fence, at the edge of the pond where a community garden is allowed to grow and bloom wilder and more jungly than the plots in my yard, and I am the community of one who cultivates there, keeping the thistles out and the prairie flowers in balance with the perennials I’ve introduced. I can go out there whenever I need to be outside but want to be alone, especially if the conditions are such that a closer proximity inside my yard isn’t advisable, for these now-obvious reasons. But, this time in the community garden, I did not let my view of the houses become obstructed, and I was not working with my usual focus-on-the-ground obliviousness. So I saw him coming. No back-to-reality flinch that regularly jolts me, even at a knock on my open office door during scheduled office hours.
“Here,” D— extended three plant pots, three near-dead begonias swimming in muddy water because the containers didn’t drain yet had been watered faithfully. “From my Mom’s grave.”
“Thanks.” I took them. “They’ll be happy out here.”
I expected a siege would follow. I’d be out there trying to follow (and end) a fragmented non sequitur monologue that might well contain something funny, something true, something informative, but would also always be about how the world has treated him — and wasn’t I part of that world?
But he didn’t. He turned and returned home. He probably mowed his lawn soon afterwards.
Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past. She has sixteen other titles including her most recent novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com
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