Recently I estimated the combined ages of my six neighbors to be 1,467.
Well, one of them died a couple of Easters ago and her granddaughter and great-granddaughter have since moved in. That knocks the estimate down to 1,303 or so.
BUT THE WOMAN living on the other side of where she used to live – two brick houses down from mine – can be no younger than 122. She’s proof that more cigarette smoke than oxygen for an extended period of time doesn’t always kill a person.
“That … cat … of yours … was walking … across the road the other night,” she twice told in the same day a couple of weeks ago. She’s always on her back porch with a wrap-around wheelchair ramp it looks like one of her children built for her, holding a cigarette in one hand and her dog on a leash with the other.
On another day, it was news she and another neighbor had concluded the excessive dog barking of the previous night meant someone had started a dog fighting ring in the cemetery behind our houses. On another day, it was to warn me her son had seen a snake along a fence where I ran the weed whacker every week.
And she’ll say these things to me, using choppy sentence fragments, as if there’s something I’d be able to do about them if I cared to begin with. If I have time, I’ll walk to the neighbor’s fence separating us and say “really” or “wow” toward her to sound interested.
Then she’ll puff her cigarette, tug her dog’s leash and mutter something.
“Well, have a good day,” I’ll say.
Then she’ll mutter.
ONE PARTICULAR MORNING, at 4:15 a.m., my dog began barking from the living room as it does when someone’s at the door. Seconds later, the doorbell rang. I walked out to the living room, asked who it was through the door and the cigarette-smoking neighbor identified herself hesitantly. I opened the door to see her staring at me through the glass door, terrified.
“I need you … to get … that window open,” she stated, holding her dog’s leash with the dustmop-looking creature attached to the other end.
I was confused, but went outside with her nonetheless. Something was obviously wrong.
Come to find out, she’d locked herself outside while enjoying her 4:07 a.m. cigarette and needed help lifting the window to her mud room open so someone could climb inside and unlock the door. When I saw the window, I knew that someone would have to be her – the window frame was about the size of a microwave. Then came our second problem: this window was at least four feet off the ground.
So there I was at 4:25 a.m. one day, hoisting an old woman through a window head-first. I worried my hands would lose their grip on her polyester pants once she made it inside and she’d fall to the floor, but she somehow completed the mission unscathed.
A week later, we went through the same thing again – except this time she’d used a brick to smash her window and covered the glass fragments inside the jammed window frame with the welcome mat at her back door. I advised her to make a spare copy of her house key and hide it outside somewhere, which apparently solved the problem.
I CAME TO MEET ANOTHER of my century-old neighbors when Kalista’s cat disappeared. Actually, this experience led to a one-day relationship with an equally-old neighbor a few houses up another street.
“Are you the one who put up those posters saying you were missing a cat?” she asked me one night when she called the number printed on the posters, which happened to be mine.
“Oh. Well I think I found your cat.”
“Great! Do you still have it?”
“No. I gave it to another neighbor. One who likes cats.”
The lady calling me had found the cat on the side of the road one night after it’d apparently been hit by a car. She put it on her front porch with some food to give it a chance to recover. When it became clear it needed to see a vet, she called some other lady who “takes in a lot of strays,” told her about it, and that woman took the cat to the vet, racked up $200 in x-ray, antibiotic and vaccine (even though that cat’s shots were current) bills and made plans to keep it.
While I was glad the woman calling me took the cat in, I was not glad to hear her medical and family histories, marital status and eating habits in the process of receiving contact information for the woman who actually had the cat.
DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET from my house is another elderly couple. The wife always seems to be sitting on the front porch in a nightgown similar to the nightgown Ebenezer Scrooge wore in all those “Christmas Carol” movies. The husband is always making his way up the back steps to the house, waiting to make eye contact with me when I’m planting flowers, weeding, mowing or edging in the front yard so he can say, “It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?” These two are probably my favorite neighbors.
The woman in the house on the side of mine rarely sees daylight. I’ve never said a word to her because I’ve only seen her a handful of times, when she’s scurrying outside at night to a waiting taxi. By the looks of it, her life hasn’t gone on as long as my other neighbors’, but it certainly seems less traditional … which is fine by me.
THIS EVENING, I MET the woman who lives next to the vampire neighbor after a rather forthright greeting.
“You’re the man who doesn’t talk to anyone,” she told me. My daughter and I were out for a post-dinner stroll and the woman was sitting tucked away on her front porch. Come to find out, I’m known among my neighbors as the guy who’s always working in his yard but never waves when they drive by or stare at me from their front porches – which is pretty accurate.
I wanted to tell her I wasn’t crazy. I wanted to tell her my arms were tired enough when I work outside without having to endure the stress of waving at every passing motorist. Plus, it’s hard to edge a sidewalk if you’re not paying attention.
I wanted to tell her about helping one lady through her window, changing another neighbor’s flood light bulb and mowing another neighbor’s lawn for free every week. Actions supposedly speak louder than words and mundane etiquette stuff.
“See?” I wanted to say. “I must not be that bad.”
But I saved it. The truth was I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only person doing the judging in our neighborhood. Besides – the woman probably had a point.