Neighbors

Gap

It was June of 1998 when I moved to the small town of Latrobe, PA, population almost 9,000. I’d just bought a nice brick house with a fenced-in yard for my dog, about four minutes from my job. It had room for a vegetable garden, and I didn’t mind that it backed up to a battered alley, or that some of the houses around it weren’t nearly as well kept-up. I could relate; I could hardly call myself “handy,” and I wasn’t about to judge anyone else.

The house across the street, though, was at a different level of disrepair. Long ago, someone had planted two pine trees in the front yard. From that day to now, no one had so much as taken a set of clippers to them. They towered over the one-level house, and shed needles directly onto the sagging roof, their acids further corroding and staining the old roofing tiles.

The gutter was almost off. The garage door wouldn’t close. I would watch as the wife, Nancy, would shimmy her way past an old green Buick (which never moved) to get to the garage refrigerator. The chipped wooden shingles on the house were gray and dull, and on the 3′ x 3′ front porch there usually sat a man.

We called him “Skippy”.

(I say “we” because not long after I moved in, my friend Rick needed a cheap room, finding himself unceremoniously ejected from his girlfriend’s house. I had little reason to refuse, and I thought I’d enjoy the company.)

Rick worked on the dock at my company. After work, we spent many evenings on the side porch in the summer, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and trying to figure out how to get him a new girlfriend. Or, we talked about his old girlfriends, his kids, and what his next career and educational moves would be.

It was during these talks, and while gardening on weekends, that we learned to really appreciate Skippy. (In the time I lived there, I never actually met him, and before he died, I never knew his name.) When we didn’t call him “Skippy”, we called him “Asshole”.

We called him “Asshole” mainly because he sat on his porch all day in his boxer shorts and thin white tank top (or minus the tank top), and yelled at his wife. He had a gray, swollen body, and even though I was never within 20 feet of the man, his dark eye circles and matted ashen hair were visible from across the street, if you cared to look. As he sat, atrophying, he would use his scraping, sepulchral voice to bellow demands (and occasionally insults) at his gaunt, gray-haired wife. And then, she would shuffle-step to his side.

“Nancy! I dropped my pen! Come get it.”

“Nancy! I need a beer!”

“Nancy! Get me batteries for the radio!”

The radio. Most of the time he had it tuned to something innocuous enough. A game, or the local oldies station. We never really heard it. Except on Sundays.

On Sunday mornings, at around 8am, Skippy used to like to hunch in his chair in front of his ruined house, turn the radio as loud as it would go, and tune in to the weekly polka hour. (Surely, it was more than an hour.) FYI, loud polka music from across the street on a quiet Sunday morning is the soundtrack to a horror movie where razor-wielding puppets eat children.

As neighbors go, I felt I had hit a kind of grotesque lottery. Apparently, the former owners of my house felt that way too, as they had planted a tree in the front yard, strategically in front of the picture window, almost totally obscuring the other house. Inside, with windows closed, we could pretend they weren’t there at all.

During this time, I’d had a conversation with their next-door neighbor, a 92-year-old woman whose name escapes me at the moment. She was a smallish, no-nonsense woman who I liked immediately. She told me that, some years ago, the two had knocked on her door and asked to use the phone. Theirs had apparently gotten shut off. The woman’s impressions of Nancy–and especially of Skippy–were not charitable, and she let me know that they were not to be trusted.

All the same, I felt that at some point, I should probably summon the courage (and the olfactory will) to go over there and introduce myself. However, the longer you live somewhere, the harder it is to walk up to someone and say you’re the “new neighbor”. A little over a year after I’d bought the house, I still had not been over there to visit.

In October of 1999, I had to make a trip back to New Jersey. Rick stayed behind to watch the dog and get some things done. Therefore, I wasn’t there when the event occurred, but upon my return, Rick told it to me like this:

“I was outside mowing the lawn, when I realized that Nancy was trying to get my attention. So I turned off the mower and walked over to her.

“‘He’s dead,’ she said. ‘I think he had a heart attack. I was trying to call to you before, but you couldn’t hear.’

“‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry,’ I said.

“Then Nancy said, ‘I tried to bring him over here, but I couldn’t get him on the dolly.’”

I wish I had taken a picture of Rick’s face for you, as he re-enacted this moment, and his expression changed from sympathy to utter puzzlement. Because you read that right: A woman who was probably about 95 lbs, at some point in the confines of that decaying house, had tried to put her very large dead husband on a dolly, with the intent of wheeling him over to my house.

(I want to treat this with the proper gravity because in retrospect, maybe she was just in shock, or possibly she was mentally addled in some way.

But try as we might, we simply couldn’t help ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times Rick and I went over the possible scenarios had she succeeded. First, she’d have had to get him over their curb, then across the street, then up over our curb. “The-thunk” was a sound that we might have frequently uttered in the aftermath. And we wondered what drivers in waiting cars might have thought, as Nancy tugged a body across the street.

And then… why on earth? What in her observations of our daily behavior told her that we had knowledge of / need for / expertise in the handling of dead husbands? It’s a terrible truth that we spent more than a few drunken evenings on the side porch, both oddly nostalgic for Skippy and also coming up with imaginative uses for him in his post-breathing state. It’s possible we were only returning the charm and consideration that he had afforded us, or perhaps we allowed ourselves a level of tastelessness that we would never inflict on the memory of a different human. Either way, he wasn’t around to mind, so we had a hard time seeing the downside.)

The real tragedy in this story happened a few days later. Apparently, after having gone in the house to pick him up, the ambulance crew reported the state of the house to the city. Nancy, as it turned out, was moved into a home. And–the most bizarre part–we discovered that they had a daughter living with them who had special needs. In the year plus that we lived there, we had never seen the girl out of the house. In fact, we didn’t know she existed, though apparently she was known to ambulance drivers and other medical caregivers. She was eventually also put in a home.

I have wondered–what if I’d gone over there and introduced myself? Could I have helped? Surely a man as boorish as that wouldn’t have allowed an interloper to help in any way. There was little chance that Nancy or her daughter would have been aided by any meager intervention I would have brought. Still. It’s eerie to know that kind of gruesome existence was happening right across the street.

Stories after that time were filled with tales of the litany of people that Skippy–his real name was Richard–had angered over the years, including family. Details of the extent of the decrepitness of the house came out, and while it was bad from the outside, we would never have guessed at the infestations and animal remains that were found in the ensuing days.

Eventually, the house was knocked down. A modular home was put in its place. We liked the new neighbors, turns out they worked at the same place as a friend of ours; such is the common tale of a city of 9,000 people. Memories of my loud, dirty neighbors were swallowed up by earth and time, and soon enough, the neighborhood settled into a sleepier, less hostile, state.


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