March Men's Room
I’d heard about my new next-door neighbors from the previous owner of my house – mainly that he didn’t know them well because they stuck to themselves, and to his endless irritation, they let their dog roam into his (now my) yard every morning to do dirty business in the shrubs.
Over time, though, I’ve learned that he was a curmudgeon who never bothered to get to know them. The neighbors, meanwhile, are wonderfully gracious and social, upbeat and funny, wry, kind, always welcoming. I don’t think they’ve ever owned a dog.
She’s a retired real estate agent who spends her mornings hunched over her newspaper, humiliating the folks who think they’ve designed a challenging crossword puzzle. He’s retired, too, though I’ve never known from what. He played golf until his bad back stopped him, and now he watches endless hours of golf on TV, along with any football and only college basketball and no baseball whatsoever. When some game isn’t playing, they turn to the Hallmark Channel, and the two of them binge on an endless loop of happy movies.
And, they cook. Most every day for the thirteen years I’ve lived next to them, they’ve schemed up a dinner plan, usually inspired by some dish they saw on the Cooking Channel. Then, she starts the kitchen preparations while he drives to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients, typically one at a time. On any given day, he makes at least three trips to Food Lion, and sometimes half a dozen. Their beef stroganoff for two must cost a small fortune in gas and auto wear and tear.
And, they share.
“Tim,” one of them says when I answer the phone, “we’ve baked caramel cake squares. You’re welcome to have some, if you’re interested.”
I’m interested. They’ve sent me plates of fudge, cookies, cakes, biscuits, jellies, pickles, muffins, tiramisu, and some unnamed heavenly something that was basically baked powdered sugar and peanut butter. At Christmas, they’ve come bearing tins of cheese bites, toffee, and peppermint chocolate. When my doctor asks why I’m not shedding the extra pounds, I say it’s because of my neighbors.
Our neighborhood’s developers, those rapacious profiteers, built the houses barely 10 feet apart, so living next door to people feels, at times, like living with them. In all these years so close, my neighbors and I have developed a casual common ownership of our tight space.
When I see the bathroom light burning at 7:15 a.m., I know they’re up for the day. When I pass their always-open front door in the evenings, I see that they’re having their ritual hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. We shared expenses as we tried (and failed) to grow grass on the sorry patch of dirt between our houses. We negotiated a package discount on roof replacements.
I borrow their tools without asking. They use my garbage can when they max theirs out. When I got a new refrigerator, they took my old one as their backup. When their car’s brake lights malfunctioned, I fumbled around under the hood and in the floorboard late at night, removing fuses while they slept. They could’ve had me arrested any number of times. I’m sure they’ve seen me in my underwear.
That’s how it goes with next-door neighbors. If you’re as lucky as me.
Tim Bass is coordinator of UNCW’s bachelor of fine arts program in creative writing.
To view more of illustrator Mark Weber’s work, go to www.markweberart.blogspot.com.