The Neighbor

 

I rarely saw Bob these days, and I was okay with this. We had lived on the same street, a pleasant suburban cul-de-sac with 12 houses, for over 16 years now. He was not entirely unlikable. I just don’t think my family of five or my modern ways could merge with his archaic principles of what constituted good living. I imagined him judging our life from the grand piano perch in his picture window across the street. I was so worried about his silent opinions I did not know this past summer had been hard on him.

I was in line at the local grocery store before Thanksgiving with my nine-year-old daughter when he stepped in line behind me. I turned around to grab our supersized bag of potatoes when our eyes met.

Bob smiled and said, “Hello, how are you today?” This was the most pleasant his voice had ever sounded to me during our random interactions, or interpersonal collisions as I’d like to think of them sometimes, throughout the years.

I cleared my throat, “Great, just getting ready for Thanksgiving.”

“That’s quite the cartful you have there!” He was judging me.

“I have plenty of people to feed, Bob.” His eyes darkened ever so slightly. My daughter was now standing next to me with a gap-toothed smile wanting to intercede. She loved to be a part of every social interaction in which I desperately wanted to exit. Bob’s face lit up again. What came next was obligatory. I held back my eye roll.

“This is my little Luci. She is nine now.”

“Wow, you are lovely, Luci. I can’t believe how much time has snuck away from us.” He waved to my girl, and she waved back. I wish I could screen her thoughts before words come out of her mouth.

Luci cheerily chirped, “What’s your name, and how old are you? You seem old, very old.”

Even the cashier snorted. I was about to perform mommy cleanup for this threat level red “child who says whatever she wants” faux pas when Bob did me solid.

“I am old, so old that I stopped counting, little lady. I remember when your mom would walk you in a stroller during the spring and summer. Every so often, she would stop long enough for my wife and I to look at your beautiful little face and shock of ginger hair. You can call me Mr. Miller.”

Luci giggled. “Okay, Mr. Miller. Where is your wife?”

The air was suddenly sucked out of the grocery store, and I could imagine a rainstorm over Bob with the look that shadowed his face.

“She could not be here today unfortunately.” I softly reached for Luci’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. This had become our much-needed signal of recent days to not ask further questions of any human, animal, or inanimate object. She was smart and understood.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Miller.” Luci continued to smile, the air came back into the store, and we were right for now.

I finished up my order as Bob stood quietly behind us. I could not help but notice his meager grocery trip. It was a grocery order for one, something I had not seen since my days of being single in my early twenties. These days, I nearly needed a second cart. We exchanged the required farewells, and I only turned back once to see the light Luci shone upon Bob disappear as we neared the door.

That night, I shared the encounter with my husband.

“I saw Bob in the grocery store today.”

Dan rolled his eyes. “Did he issue a friendly suggestion that we clean up our leaves or buy a new roof? Or perhaps he asked for the thousandth time if we were going to replace our windows or siding.”

I chuckled. “No. He was different. He really liked Luci. He couldn’t believe how old she was.”

“Well, he is like Gandalf old. Maybe he could use some wizardry to clean our leaves up for us this year.” We had an early cold spell and snow. Nobody wanted to clean up the leaves at this point. Michigan could get to you like this, throwing two to three seasons at you in one week.

“That is not very nice, Dan. His wife was not with him, and his order was small and sad.”

“Maybe she couldn’t stand him either and had to go live in a home.”

“Or maybe she is sick or worse.”

Dan blinked rapidly as if I had made him nervous with my suggestion. “Well, let’s take a look.”

A short internet search later, and we were on the obituary page for Gladys Miller, beloved wife of Robert Miller. She had passed away this summer, July to be exact. I remember her as the stately elderly woman who donned a wide-brimmed sunhat and worked religiously in the Miller’s palace-like garden. I would stop every so often on walks with the kids or dogs to take it in and, if I was lucky, ask for a few tips for my own garden. Even messing about in dirt, Gladys looked fancy in a way that I could never hope to achieve. She was timeless. I was sad.

“I feel bad we didn’t know.” We had lived on this street for so long, it felt indecent not to know when a neighbor had passed. I sent no card. I visited no funeral home. It just happened, and my daughter awkwardly marked the occasion in a grocery store line.

“It wasn’t like we were close to them,” Dan said bringing me back to the moment. I love Dan because he is always trying to make me feel better about our messy life. I did not want to feel better about this though. I wanted to feel worse so I could be motivated to make it right. For now, we let it rest. He kissed my forehead and gave me a quick hug as he went back to cleaning our house for Thanksgiving festivities.

Thanksgiving was done, and our three children were excited by the buzz of the holidays. Luci was still our only generator of the myth of Santa. My teenage son and daughter now saw Christmas as the only time outside of their birthdays to ask for one hundred-dollar shoes or even bigger ticket items like phones and game systems. Despite their consumerism, Christmas was still fun.

Bob and his loss had quickly slipped my mind as I tried to keep up with our holiday family schedule, fueled by coffee and short runs in the bitter cold. It was exactly on one of these runs, light snow in the air, I saw Bob again. He was hanging an elaborate ball of white lights from his one expertly trimmed tree in the front yard. He was on a ladder. I waved as I ran by and smiled, trying to be more conscious of his loss and less conscious of his past judgment. He fell off the ladder as he smiled and waved back. I ran up on his lawn to help him, a form of trespassing on his perfect green carpet as we had discovered on occasion thanks to our kids.

“Bob, are you okay?” He looked bewildered, and he was grabbing at his arm. He shook his head no. I realized he had some blood on his head, too, possibly from hitting a metal container near his ladder. This was my fault for waving. Not only did my family irritate Bob’s sense of perfection throughout the years, I was now a danger to him. I called 911.

The emergency crew arrived quickly. No, I told them I was not his daughter, though I wondered why the daughter and son I knew he had never seemed to be around. Yes, he was on his own here as far as I knew. No, I did not have contact information for his family. Bob, coming to his senses a little, insisted that there was no one to contact. He became aggressive as they pushed him to disclose an emergency contact. I volunteered to stand in as the contact. Bob looked at me sheepishly at first, then grinned through his pain. I ran back home, grabbed my keys, and followed a few minutes behind the ambulance to the hospital leaving my family to wonder if I hit my head.

I waited forever in the emergency room. And after forever, I waited some more. I wanted the neighbor of the year award for this. I traveled through my memory banks of the last 16 years of living on Briarwood Court. I saw Bob as his younger self, a lawn farmer on the weekend and a lobbyist downtown during the week. He name-dropped to me on several occasions. I was Generation X, and I despised lobbyists. While I chose not to despise Bob as my neighbor, I can’t say that I chose to like him either. He was critical. He said rude things to Dan and me. He quipped at my young children to get off his lawn even though they were only touching the edge. Bob could annoy me from afar. Yet here I was being called up to his hospital room as he would have to stay for a surgical consult for a severely broken arm and observation for a concussion.

Bob smiled as I walked into the room. It was a warm smile which I assumed came from an IV full of painkillers.

I sat down by his bedside. He cut the silence with sincerity, “Thank you for taking care of me. I was just trying to hang a little Christmas décor.”

I felt like I, for once, needed to give Bob practical, unsolicited advice. It was part kindness, and three parts revenge for all of his advice giving through the years. “You really should ask for help. I feel partially responsible for waving at you, but you also should not be up there on your own.”

Bob blinked twice. “Well, I am on my own. I really don’t have a choice. I don’t know if you had heard. My dear Gladys passed away this past July. I wanted to tell you in the grocery store, but I did not want to make Luci sad.”

“Bob, I am so sorry. We did not know until the other day. After seeing you in the grocery store, I wondered. So, we did a quick search and found her obituary. I am so, so sorry we did not know.”

“It’s okay. We seem to leave this world a lot more quietly than we enter it. Also, while I am drugged and prone here, I guess we can get really honest. I sensed I was never one of your favorite people to start, so I did not expect you would be closely following the turns of my life.” Bob wound his lips up even further into what looked like a drug-induced super smile. I guess this was his form of a peace offering after dropping truth like a bomb.

“Well, now that you have put it out there, I always felt like nothing we could do would please you. We were always the last to clean up leaves and the most likely to step on your precious, perfect lawn. Seriously Bob, it looks like freshly laid, bright green carpet. You could be singlehandedly contaminating the water supply with pesticides.”

“Spoken like a true liberal of your generation, young lady.” We both laughed quietly, respectful, at first, of the hospital environment. I am not sure how I felt about being called young lady until I studied more closely the significant lines in Bob’s face and sadness in his eyes for the loss of Gladys. I was definitely young compared to him.

“Bob, where are your kids? Why didn’t you let the emergency crew call them? Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be here to help. I just don’t understand.”

“Oh, I think you do. My kids are a little older than you. I have grandkids, too, four of them. My kids all moved away, and they choose not to come back now that their mother is gone.”

“I’m sorry to hear this.” My heart was beating rapidly. I could not handle the thought of my kids doing the same as they grew older. I was fidgeting now. Bob probably sensed my panic.

He continued, “I don’t think you need to worry. You are a good mother. I can see. Dan is a good father. I can also see this. I was too hard on my kids. I was too busy trying to be a power player downtown. I missed so much. And now, here you sit in their place. Thank you for being here. I don’t deserve it, but I am thankful.”

I was going to give Bob some credit. “You know, I think you had a valid point about the leaves killing the lawn if not cleaned up in a timely manner. Remember when we had an entire patch of lawn turn yellow from it?”

“How could I forget? You live directly across from me. It was hideous.” We threw caution aside and laughed generously, causing a nurse to sternly look in on us with her finger to her mouth.

“Bob, do you have anywhere to be for Christmas?” He did not. “We are gone Christmas day, but we would love to host you Christmas Eve. Even if you have surgery, I bet you will be out of here by then.”

Bob’s stern look, his natural resting face, tried to creep onto his face so he could turn me down. It shorted out though and a genuine look of joy won. “That would be wonderful. Please let me know what I could bring. As you have seen, I have some room in my shopping cart these days.” We laughed again. We laughed some more over the next couple of hours, sharing neighborhood stories and quips with each other. Bob could be lovely. I could be less dismissive of his old school ways. I returned home liking Bob in a way I never thought I could.

Bob died in his sleep that night. When I went to see him the next day, I learned his heart had simply stopped. We attended his funeral. I cried, surprising both Dan and me. A young family moved into Bob’s house in the new year, and in the spring, children’s toys and weeds littered his lawn, causing me to shake my head when I came out of my front door. I cleaned up my leaves as early as possible the following fall. Years down the road, Bob was right. My kids and eventually their kids, came to see us often. Every Christmas, I hung a ball of white lights on one of the three unkempt trees in my front yard. I had taken it off of Bob’s lawn after finding out he died. I knew in my heart he would want me to have it.

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