January 27, 2008
Tales from the Notebook: Hello Neighbor
Dear Readers, It's time from another Mr. Grudge classic dug from the pages of one of his his old notebooks. This short story "Hello Neighbor" dates all the way back to 1992. I hope you all enjoy this one. Thanks for stopping by.
This is a tale of woe. It began as after my wife and I moved into an apartment after we got married. We rented the top floor of a two family house with our landlords
living downstairs. They were quiet folks never bothered us. The street we lived on was a dead end and had very little in the way of traffic. It seemed to be the type of area where we could lead our own lives in private and be left alone.
That was not to be the case, though. Our neighbor across the street, a short, bald man in his sixties who lived with his mother and his ailing wife, gradually began to rattle our existence. At least mine, anyway.
During my everyday comings and goings he would stop whatever he was doing; raking, washing his car, painting, etc, and stare at me whenever I was outside. The ice finally broke one day, after weeks of this, when I was taking a sack of laundry from the trunk of my car. He was in the street, dangerously close to me, standing next to his car. I couldn’t help but peek over at him when our eyes met.
“Laundry?” he said.
Stunned, I hesitated.
“Laundry?” he said again.
Oh yeah,” I answered. “I just picked it up.” I walked over and stuck out my hand waiting for him to shake it. He smirked and then climbed into his big, yellow Caprice and drove away.
This began a trend. A few days later I was trotting towards my car when I sensed “Mr. Eye Spy’s” laser beams burning through me. I didn’t even look up. My latest practice was to jog directly to my car without even a glance in his direction.
“Work?” he said.
I kept going like I didn’t hear him.
“Going to work?” he asked again.
I had to answer him; I was steeped in Catholic guilt, and my parents taught me to always be respectful to my elders.
“Oh no, I’m off today.” Once again, I headed over to him to make conversation, but he turned and entered his house.
Later, when my wife returned home from work, I brought this up to her. I explained how every time I went out outside it was like dodging sniper fire with this guy. He was everywhere. Even at night at two o’clock in the morning he was on his lawn sitting in a lounge chair making another one of his frivolous observations: “Home from work?’ “Off to work?” “Groceries?” “Books?” ad nauseum.
“You’re paranoid.” she said.
“I’m telling you, the man watches everything I do and always asks me about it.”
“He never does that to me.” she said. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen him more than three or four times.”
“Well, I see the guy all the time. He’s all over the place. Hell, he might as well come live with us and study me more closely.”
“Now you sound crazy. Go over and talk to the man. He’s probably just lonely. The only people he has to talk to are his sick wife and senile mother.”
“Maybe he’s senile too?” I said. “Anyway, I’ve tried talking to him. He just walks away.”
“Then ignore him.”
“I tried that.”
“Really honey, you’re making a big deal over nothing. And, quite frankly, I’m sick of hearing about it.”
“But…” I stammered.”
“No buts. If I hear another word about this, I’m going to have you checked out.”
I didn’t respond. She was right. Maybe I was blowing this all out of proportion? After some thought, I decided that he was just some lonely old man who wants to make friends but doesn’t know how. I shouldn’t let him get to me, I thought.
A few days later I came home from the supermarket with some things for a special dinner my wife was going to cook for us that night. I was at the door with my arms fully laden with grocery bags and struggling with my keys. Suddenly, the door opened and “HE” appeared. I learned later that he was visiting my landlords. Surprised by his appearance, I tumbled backwards and my bags spilled everywhere. Luckily, I landed on the lawn, but my groceries didn’t fare so well. Everything hit the walkway and shattered or was dented. He walked up to me, careful not to step in the puddle of goo forming on the brick pathway, and looked down.
I raised my arm so he could help me up.
“Fell, huh?” he said. Then he stepped over me and strolled across the street to his house.
That night I told my wife the latest. Even she was miffed by his callousness. She speculated that even if he was physically incapable of lifting me up, he should have at least acted concerned. She did maintain, however, that with or without him there, I probably would have dropped something anyway being as that she thinks I’m a total klutz.
After dinner when my wife wasn’t looking I pored over the real estate section of the newspaper looking for a new apartment. My plan was to convince my wife that even though we were saving to buy a house, we should rent an apartment closer to where we worked to save money on gas. Yet, I was too chicken to bring this up. Somehow she’d make the connection that I wanted to move just to get away from the jerk across the street. Plus, I was afraid that she’d start ranting again about me being obsessed or crazy. Also, I was afraid that she was right.
About a week later I was leaving for work for the night shift. I was making my usual sprint across the front lawn to jump into my car before “HE” appeared. I made it to my Honda and was putting the key in the door when it dawned on me that he was nowhere around. Then, I heard a strange, gurgling sound, like someone choking. The noise came from his yard across the road. I walked over in complete defiance of every convention I laid down for myself.
By the bushes in his side yard, I could make out the figure of a man laying on the ground in the darkness. It had to be him. After going back to retrieve my flashlight from the trunk of my car, I entered his yard and ran over to him to try and help. His face was so pale it seemed to glow in the dark. Sweat poured off him and he was clutching his chest. For the first time, I looked into his eyes and saw vulnerability.
Stricken with panic, I stood there with my mind racing. Should I call 911? Start CPR? I was confused.
Then, total calm came over me. I stepped closer, got down on one knee, looked him squarely in the eye and said “Heart attack?”
Then, I got up and went to work.
His wife, good woman, made some tasty sandwiches after the funeral.
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