It was one o’clock in the morning and I was driving out of town with a man I had only known for ten minutes, contemplating running a red light or exceeding the speed limit to attract any police cars that might be around. But at that hour, at that distance from the city, there was almost no traffic. And even if a cop had pulled me over, what could he have done? What would he have said?
“So you’re telling me that this man here forced you out of your apartment.”
“Not exactly, officer. ‘Forced’ is too strong a word. It was more like an invitation, a request.”
“You went with him voluntarily.”
“That’s right. It was . . . consensual. It was kidnapping with consent.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t arrest people for that. Have a nice night.”
I share the longest wall of my living room with the middle unit of three conjoined apartments occupied by low wage earners like myself and retirees like Sarah, an eightysomething woman who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, received frequent visits from her caretaker daughter, and once told me she’d fallen down in her yard and been carried back inside by angels. Edna, who lived on the other side of Sarah, was in her seventies, lived independently and walked to and from her car with vigorous strides that belied her age. But Edna’s health began to fail a few years after Sarah’s death and in the middle of a spring day she collapsed on her stoop where she remained for two hours. No angels lifted her to her feet and wafted her indoors. By the time she was discovered she was near death and gone soon after.
Except for Sarah’s television, few sounds penetrated my side of our common wall. She had regular, predictable habits. And she didn’t move very fast. When her front door was open, which it often was during the milder months of the year, I could usually park my car and negotiate the short walk to our common stoop without detection, open the screen door while putting the key in the lock, then ease it shut to prevent it from slamming and slip soundlessly inside.
Sarah was ever-vigilant, the neighborhood watchdog, on the lookout for any irregular activities or aesthetic outrages. One of the latter was my doormat, a filthy thing that disappeared from the stoop one day. Sarah’s doormat had “Welcome” cheerily scripted across it and was immaculate in appearance. The contrast between our doormats could have been too much for her. It shamed me to think I might have driven her to a criminal act.
I’m not a good neighbor; I’m not a neighbor at all. I keep my curtains drawn and my blinds down. I never leave my front door open, even on the prettiest days. I never open my windows, because they’re painted shut, but also because, thanks to central air, I don’t have to. I’m sure Sarah would have preferred the kind of neighbor who cared about the property, who cracked the front door once in a while, who, instead of dashing in and out, paused for leisurely chats on the stoop.
In the ten years we shared a wall she knocked on my door maybe a dozen times, ostensibly to give me surplus food, bakery items she didn’t want to go bad. She would lead me through her smoky apartment, overcrowded with bulky pieces of Early American furniture that once filled the house she’d shared with her late husband. In the kitchen she would cut a loaf of pound cake in half, then wrap it in aluminum foil, her discolored, spidery fingers making a neat fold all around. Immediately, I would begin edging toward the living room and escape, resisting her efforts to draw me too deeply into a discussion about the weather, the latest power outage, or anything else.
When I was boy an elderly woman on my paper route asked me to cut her grass. At that point in my life I’d never denied a grown-up anything and had no idea how to tell her no. I promised to return the next day and mow her front and back lawn for five dollars. Walking home, I imagined an obligation that might extend years into the future, that might include other, more onerous, tasks that I would be helpless to refuse. I told my mother what had happened. She called the woman who was understanding and apologetic, who’d just needed someone to mow her lawn and thought I could use the extra money. I won’t say I was traumatized by the experience, but it did make me more wary of old people who, like children, are given to a brash familiarity.
I don’t remember when I learned that Sarah was rescued by angels, that she had a son as well as a daughter, that she’d been smoking since she was fourteen. When I started to feel safer with her, when I realized she wasn’t a lonely woman with nothing better to do than pry a secretive neighbor out of his apartment, that she wasn’t angling for a reciprocal visit, I relaxed a bit. I allowed something like a normal conversation to unfold without, however, losing sight of my goal–getting back inside my apartment place.
I know I’m giving the impression that I’m a friendless recluse with a pathological fear of strangers. But, in fact, I have friends I socialize with on a regular basis. I’m seldom lonely. I work in a library where I deal with the public five days a week. My livelihood depends on my ability to interact congenially with strangers. It’s only at home that I withdraw, slipping deep inside my cave.
With Sarah as my only source for news about the neighborhood, the latest break-in, a change in the lawn service, I had no way of knowing why, suddenly, all was silent on her side of the wall. I thought she’d died, of course, but I had no way to confirm this unless I spoke to Edna, which wasn’t going to happen. One day as I was leaving for work, locking up and, out of habit, making sure the screen door didn’t slam, I turned around just as Sarah was struggling up the front stoop with the aid of her daughter. Sarah’s face was ravaged, her eyes fierce and staring. Her daughter looked at me and mouthed, “Stroke.”
Over the next few weeks, I observed the comings and goings of nurses who tended to Sarah on an around-the-clock basis. Her daughter, as well as a man who must have been her son, also stayed for long periods. I didn’t hear the television and assumed she spent all of her time convalescing in bed. One Saturday I was grocery shopping when I ran into the daughter in the paper products aisle. I remembered all the times I’d seen her pick up Sarah for their weekly trip to Harris Teeter. Now, of course, she had to do all the shopping herself. I said to her,
“How’s your mother doing?”
Tears filled her eyes, pain pulled at her face. “She died,” she said, and fled with her shopping cart.
I called after her, “She was a wonderful person. I’m glad I knew her.”
She didn’t turn around.
I felt terrible. I’d forgotten to say I was sorry, for one thing. Also, I’d lied when I told her I knew her mother. I’d done everything in my power not to know her. Worse, I’d blind-sided the woman in her grief, refreshed her pain, forced her to confess in a public place a loss which, for all I knew, had occurred that very day.
My new neighbor sounded like she was forced, due to a bad connection, to shout her mundane business into a telephone. “SHOULD I MAKE TOAST FOR YOU?!” “I THINK I’LL VACUUM!” “DON’T FORGET YOUR JACKET!”This was actually her normal speaking voice, a full-throated braying with an undercurrent of hysteria. A high school student, she was sharing the apartment with her autistic brother. The mother, who came by often, had set them up in their own place as an experiment, I surmised, to give John his first taste of semi-independent living while still being looked after by his younger sister. Tall, blond, slight, he had a gay affect and a voice uncannily similar to his sister’s. Through the living room wall, I could barely tell them apart.
John worked part time at Harris Teeter where he collected stray shopping carts in the parking lot and greeted the customers.
“HOW ARE YOU TODAY, SIR?!”
“Fine, thank you,” I’d say.
“BEAUTIFUL WEATHER WE’RE HAVING!”
“Yes, it is.”
“HAVE A NICE DAY!”
These were our only conversations. He gave no indication he knew I was his neighbor.
Sarah had spoiled me. She was so…not there. She did, however, have one thing in common with the new neighbors, John in particular: regular habits. He did exactly the same thing at precisely the same time every single day. His sister had already left for school when the television came on at eight-thirty. It was so loud that even with my bedroom door closed I could hear the merry sounds of Dragon Tales. At nine, Sesame Street came on. At ten, Barney and his Friends. I was moving around the apartment by this time and was waylaid most mornings by the Barney song: “I love you, you love me…” I’d grab my coffee and retreat to the second bedroom, the more distant one, until 10:55 when I heard a door slam, John leaving for the bus stop on the corner and Harris Teeter.
Brother and sister left their door open, year round. No matter what the air temperature, blazing or arctic, if either one was home, the front door was wide open. I would catch disturbing glimpses of John in front of the TV. He would be sitting as close to the screen as he could get, bouncing in place and flapping his hands, typical behavior for the autistic I’ve learned since, but which at the time embarrassed and fascinated me, as if I were witness to an obscene ritual.
When his sister was there in the evening she made him keep the volume down until nine o’clock, when, apparently resigned to his hour-long bedtime ritual, she would let him put in a video of some interactive kids’ show, the same one every night, and crank it up. The show consisted of a man with a goofy, haranguing voice (“All right, you wranglers, let me hear you this time!”) and an audience of screaming children. After his monologue, he would lead the children through a series of songs, each one louder and more frenzied than the last, John singing along, word for word. During the show’s climactic number, the floor would begin to vibrate. What felt like an earthquake of terrifying duration was John jumping up and down, in time to the music, sending tremor after tremor through my apartment, as if he were making the best of what would be his last chance of the day to pound the energy out of his unruly body.
I knew something about bedtime rituals. As a boy, I made my parents perform the same routine every night. Standing in their bedroom in my pajamas, I’d say,
“Have a good night,”
“Have a good night,” they’d repeat.
“See you in the morning.”
“See you in the morning.”
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
And so on for two or three minutes. In bed, it took another half-hour to complete my other rituals (recalling certain dreams in a certain order, tracing the shadows on the walls with my finger, praying the identical prayer), rituals, I was convinced, that must be completed if there was any chance of sleep.
So I empathized with John and his guardian-sister. And over time my empathy increased as similarities between John and me became more apparent. I began to wonder if I didn’t have a touch of autism myself, only some of which I’d outgrown. I’d had so many tics and nervous habits growing up that my parents took me to chiropractors, neurologists and other specialists to try to explain my strange behavior. Autism’s most salient feature is an isolating lack of social skills. I spent most of my childhood playing made-up games in my bedroom or in the basement. Whenever my mother had another homemaker over for coffee, I would refuse to move through the house until the outsider was gone. Not until my early twenties could I look people in the eye, another trait of autism. As an adult, hadn’t I just substituted ritualized memory games and rote prayers with ritualized drinking and TV viewing? Wasn’t my refusal to engage with the neighbors a textbook example of anti-social behavior? Couldn’t it be argued that I was afflicted with the lingering effects of social dysfunction, confined to my home life now but all the more intense for that, a sort of domestic autism?
I tolerated John’s antics for two years. Then all was silent again. No Barney, no seismic songfests. I found out from the owners of the unit, whom I finally met, that while alone in the apartment and making popcorn, John let a paper napkin touch one of the burners. Instead of running water over it he put it in the trash. He called his mother who called the fire department. Nothing burned but damage from the smoke ran into the hundreds of dollars.
John’s experiment in independence was over.
The owners, a nice couple with whom I conversed freely and comfortably since, technically, they weren’t neighbors, completely renovated the place, but they had a hard time finding a new renter. The whole development was dotted with “For Rent” signs. We were in the middle of a small crime wave, ladders and bicycles and anything else of value left outdoors mysteriously disappearing. The brick house on the corner was rumored to be a crack-house. Its tenant was an easy-going, middle-aged black man who was always home, either relaxing in a lawn chair on his porch or working in his garden. A BMW with a flat tire was parked at the curb. He befriended everyone on the block, except me, of course. I doubted such an amiable fellow could be a crack dealer, but his otiose life-style aroused suspicions and more than once I’d seen a police car in front of his house.
The owners finally found someone, a no-account young woman with a no-account boyfriend. I heard her scream through the wall, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” and on another occasion, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” She refused to pay the second month’s rent and, under some mistaken notion about squatters rights, dared the owners to evict her. They did.
The next tenant was an attractive single woman in her thirties. She stayed for a year or so. The day she moved in, I arrived home as she was unloading her U-Haul and introduced myself, because it would have been too obnoxious not to. After that, we never spoke again. I didn’t catch her name.
The current occupant is a middle-aged mother with a teenage son and a little dog. Overweight, depressed, Karen likes to sit on the front stoop and make calls on her cell-phone or just slump dejectedly and gaze out at the “For Rent” signs. By now I’m so adept at avoiding the neighbors, especially those desperate for the balm of human contact, I’m usually able to scoot past her with a minimum of interaction. I feel guilty for shunning her, so I was pleased when I discovered she’d made friends with the man in the corner house. One Friday I heard them out on the stoop.
“They only want one thing,” Karen said, between sobs, “and when you give it to them, they dump you.”
“I know,” the man said.
She cried some more. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually let people see me like this.”
“That’s all right.”
“But goddamnit, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being treated like dirt. I don’t deserve it.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Fucking bastards, selfish sons-a-bitches.”
“I know. I know.”
Karen’s little dog’s name is Flip, a scrawny, trembling, neurasthenic animal who looks like he’s a hundred in human years but is actually little older than a pup. When he’s alone in the apartment he moans continually. On the nights Karen works her second job at a downtown sports bar (despite my fleet-footedness, she sometimes manages to impart a bit of personal information) and her teenage son is out somewhere, Flip wails and groans and yips from early evening until four or five in the morning. Shouting at him through the wall or pounding on it with my fists has no effect. If I want to read in the living room I have to wear my walkman. If I’ve rented a video, only an action movie with a deafening sound track will do; a comedy or drama, anything that depends on verisimilitude for its effects, is impossible, the illusion it’s trying so hard to sustain punctured again and again by Flip’s real-life lamentations.
I’ve almost gotten used to Flip, who is really only a problem on weekends. By the time I return from the library at twelve-fifteen on weekday nights, Flip and everyone with a first shift job have turned in. I’m free to unwind in peaceful solitude. It is my favorite moment of the day, and has been for many years. I drink two glasses of wine followed by two bourbon and seltzers, smoke four cigarettes, munch cheese and crackers, and watch whatever TV program I recorded on the VCR, lulling myself into a state of perfect drowsiness.
On a warm night early last October I was watching a documentary on PBS, American Experience, about Lucille Ball. I’d taped it before, but I didn’t mind seeing it again. I had just finished my first glass of Pinot Noir and was anticipating the moment Lucy rebounds from her floundering movie career to become the biggest thing on TV, when there was a knock on my front door. I don’t know why I answered it. It might have been the wine: lowered inhibitions; it might have been the fact that no one had ever knocked on my door at that hour; it might have been that I was weary, more weary than I knew, of guarding the castle.
On the other side of the screen door was a young black man, slim, handsome, neatly dressed. He explained in a quiet, hurried voice that he was “up from New Orleans,” leaving me to understand that he was one of the tens of thousands of refugees who had fled hurricane Katrina two months before. He was staying with a “good friend of his” who lived two blocks down on Pembroke, but who, for reasons unstated, wasn’t home that night.
“Eddie,” he said. “Do you know Eddie?”
I didn’t. I didn’t know anybody.
“I locked my keys in my car,” he went on. “Over at the mall? I feel so stupid. I need to use a phone to call this buddy of mine. He’s a locksmith. I’m sorry to bother you. I feel really stupid about this.” He shook his head, baffled by his own idiocy.
“We all do stupid things,” I said, holding the screen door open.
“Not like this. This is…if I could just use your phone I’ll be on my way.”
And so, for the first time in eighteen years, I let someone from the neighborhood, albeit a transient, into my home. He sat on the edge of the couch and punched out a number. The receiver pressed to his ear, he shook his head at me. “So stupid.” I stood with my arms crossed and my feet apart. In my shorts and T-shirt, I felt underdressed, exposed.
There was no answer. He redialed. No answer again, of course. “Must be asleep,” he said, and hung up. More head shaking. “Would you have any money for cab fare? Say, twenty bucks? I’ll pay you back.”
I fetched my wallet from the bedroom. Twenty dollars to be rid of him sounded cheap. Normally, I kept at least twenty in my wallet, but I’d spent almost that much treating a friend to a birthday lunch that day and hadn’t replenished. “Sorry,” I said.
He didn’t move from the couch. I couldn’t see any bulges in his clothing but that didn’t mean he wasn’t concealing some sleek weapon under his black jeans and red polo shirt. “Is your ATM around here?” he asked. His expression was bland, neutral.
“Would you mind? I’d be real grateful.”
Little about his story made any sense, and desperate for reassurance I grilled him in a nonthreatening way.
“You say you’re living with this Eddie person?”
“Yeah. But just till I’m back on my feet.”
“And your car is where?”
Hanes Mall was in Winston-Salem, thirty miles away. “Do you mean Four Seasons?”
“That’s it. I only just moved here. I don’t know your malls yet.”
“And this locksmith? Where does he live?”
“It’s not far.”
He sat with his knees apart, hands loosely clasped in front of him. He looked as relaxed as I was anxious. And why not? He had his rap down, and it appeared to be working. The Katrina part was new, an innovation–no doubt he prided himself on his creativity–but the basic features of the con were rehearsed and polished. How many other doors had he knocked on that night? I was reassured only in the sense that if I continued to play my role, if I stayed in character, a denouement satisfactory to both actors seemed more likely.
“Let me put some shoes on.”
With no traffic it only took three minutes to get to my bank. I made sure to turn off the engine and take my keys when I went to the ATM machine. I withdrew twenty dollars. I handed him the crisp bill which he stuffed deep in his front trouser pocket. No wallet. No credit card, library card, driver’s license either, I guessed.
“‘Preciate it,” he said.
I drove out of the parking lot.
“Mighty nice town you got here,” he said. “You a native?”
“No,” I said without volunteering anymore information.
“Fella could get used to a place like this.”
He directed me to a road that edged the downtown area. He didn’t mention looking for a cab. Why bother when he was already in one? We were on a four lane highway that led away from the city. Minutes later the highway narrowed to two lanes and we were skirting a row of ranch houses. I’d never been in this part of town before. The only businesses were gas stations and fast-food restaurants, closed for the night. Street lights were few and far between; so were other cars and none of them police cars.
“About how much farther?” I said, offhand, as if merely curious, as if he weren’t the first stranger I’d taxied to points unknown in the middle of the night.
He was scrunched down in his seat, as if settling in for a long ride. He hadn’t buckled up. “We’re gettin’ there.”
We entered another residential area, rundown bungalows, broken sidewalks, abandoned buildings, the poor side of town. We left it behind. It had rained on and off all day and the sky was overcast, moonless. We passed upscale apartment developments newly built in the outlying suburbs, gated communities with names like “Greenleaf Manor” and “Northanger Square.” If we kept going straight we’d end up out in the country.
We were still in our roles, the credulous good Samaritan and the hapless refugee, but the scam or set-up was wearing thin, begging for resolution.
I could imagine him turning to me and saying, “You can end this any time you want, you know. All you have to do is stop the car and tell me to get out.”
“You might get upset with me.”
“You might get upset with me. Did you think of that?”
“Go ahead. Stop the car. You won’t do it, will you? You’re going to make me do it.”
“You started this.”
“And you can end it. It’s your place to end it. I want you to end it.”
The road started to bend and dip, portending winding country roads and, except for my headlights creeping up on the next turn, total darkness.
Finally he said, sitting up, “Those houses there.”
We were approaching some large two-story homes.
“Yeah. That one. Pull over.”
I stopped at the curb.
He turned and looked at me. “Thanks, neighbor.” He stepped from the car and started toward the corner house, dark inside like every house on the street. I completed my U-turn in time to see him stride past the supposed locksmith’s residence.
Driving back, I let out my anger. You see?! You see why I never leave my front door open? Why I keep my curtains drawn and my blinds down? Why I slip stealthily in and out of my own home? Why I never complain about the noise, no matter how irritating? Why any contact with the neighbors, however justified, however well-intentioned, must be avoided? The risk is too great. I could be putting myself in mortal danger. I could die!
I had always hated my passivity, my inability to say no. I was better than I used to be at evading its insidious grip–provided I saw the situation coming. Passivity, I knew, could be just as hard to control as aggression, and just as destructive. The neighbors were fine people, most of them, but they were still capable of breaching the private little sphere I’d spent years cultivating and protecting. I didn’t trust them. But I trusted myself even less–to say no to them, to draw lines they mustn’t cross, to keep them on their side of the wall.
As soon as I arrived at my apartment, I poured myself a fresh glass of wine and restarted the video. I felt little relief at not coming to harm. Mostly, I felt disgust–and guilt, guilt for not doing a better job of looking out for myself, for putting my life in jeopardy. I tried to suppress my feelings of self-loathing by concentrating on the documentary. Lucy was pretty feisty for a woman of the 1950s, both on and off the screen. She stood up to TV executives who wanted to drop the Mertzes from the cast. She defended herself ably against charges she was a communist. The ditzy red-head on the show was a no-nonsense taskmaster on the set. She didn’t take shit from anyone. And yet she put up with her husband’s philandering well into the marriage, when she knew Desi had cheated on her with countless women. As much pain as he caused her, she wouldn’t or couldn’t let him go. She still yearned to hear him bound through the front door and holler in his accented English,
“Honey, I’m home.”
She only left Desi after the hurt and humiliation became unbearable. She must have hated herself for not being stronger, tougher, wiser, an idea that made me feel a little better. If it was hard for Lucy, it was hard for all of us.
I haven’t answered my door since that night; but then, no one has knocked.