By Kevin Krein
We met our next-door neighbor for the first time around seven months after we bought our house.
It is early spring, and my wife and I are digging a giant hole in the backyard—a hole that will eventually resemble a garden plot. Our neighbor sees us, as well as the giant hole, and lumbers over into our yard.
“You sure have a hell of a lot of Creeping Charlie in your yard,” he says to us, quite sternly. Not “Hello,” or “Nice to meet you.”
I’m not sure what Creeping Charlie is because, at this point, I am in my mid-20s and have never owned a home or cared for a yard before. Puzzled looks descend upon both my face as well as my wife’s; rather than respond, we just continue to dig deeper, and deeper, into the ground in an effort to escape the conversation.
Eventually, we tell him our names, but he won’t remember them. For the next eight years, he’ll call me “young feller” when he addresses me, and he won’t call my wife anything at all. Instead, he’ll just slowly bellow, “Hey,” if he needs to get her attention.
* * *
Our neighbor lives alone.
He is a widower—his wife passed away before we moved in next door. He has adult children and at least one adult grandchild. They visit, though probably not as often as he’d like.
Our neighbor is 84 years old and is hard of hearing. He chooses not to use any kind of hearing aid.
“You’ll have to speak up,” he’ll stammer when we have conversations—meaning that I will have to speak up to the point where it feels like I am screaming at him, and even then, he still may not hear, or understand, what I am trying to tell him.
When he doesn’t understand what you are telling him, he gets a bewildered, slightly fearful look of confusion on his face—similar to how George W. Bush looked throughout the eight years of his presidency. The face will be accompanied by sad, small whimpering noises.
* * *
Our neighbor is an alcoholic.
His car can frequently be found parked in front of the VFW hall, and during the summer months, he sits for an hour or two on the edge of the bed of his enormous pickup truck, letting his legs dangle back and forth like a little kid, sipping what is presumably inexpensive light beer from a can—the can nestled in one of those foam “koozies”—literally letting the remaining moments of his life pass by as he sits in the safety of his garage, drinking alone.
During a rather tense exchange I will have with him many years after we move into the neighborhood, the stale smell of beer on his breath is nauseating.
This exchange occurs at five o’clock in the afternoon.
* * *
Our neighbor cares about his yard more than I am capable of caring about anything in this world.
At the very least, he cuts the grass once a week, sometimes twice depending on how quickly it has grown. He powers his noisy, ancient John Deere riding mower straight along the property line between our homes—his way of indicating that he is the better neighbor (and person) for keeping his grass cut so short, and that I am a gigantic piece of shit for simply existing next door to him.
He dodders around his backyard, spraying who knows what directly at the ground (again, right along the property line) to keep things like dandelions and the infernal Creeping Charlie at bay.
He clumsily hoists an old weed whacker around the edge of his house; it runs on gas, and occasionally a thick, black smoke pours out of its engine.
I, on the other hand, can barely be bothered to cut the grass at all, and in fact, this year I have given up on it almost completely, opting to do what I have done with so many things in my adult life—throw money at a problem and make it go away.
For a small fee, a service will come and cut the grass twice a month, saving me the unfathomable hassle of forcing our flimsy, dull, and rusting reel mower through the grass, no longer actually cutting anything, but rather flattening it in uneven rows, as I sweat profusely, am devoured by mosquitoes, and swear under my breath for 90 minutes.
There have been times when our neighbor’s interest and concern over our lawn, and my lack of interest and concern in it, has crossed the line—literally and figuratively.
Without asking, or without being asked, he has mowed part of our yard at least twice in the past. When I ask him why he did it, he stammers that he put some “bad gas” into his riding mower, and that it wouldn’t turn off, so he just needed to drive it around to run the tank down to empty.
I give a skeptical look at this half-assed fabrication, but thank him never the less, reminding him that it was not necessary to do.
* * *
On July 5, 2016, a gigantic storm moved through our town, and the near-tornadic levels of wind took out trees everywhere.
During the storm, I realize that a rather large branch from a tree in our backyard didn’t survive. The tree itself, an enormous and ancient silver maple, teeters along the property line between the houses, and many of the branches jut out into the sky above his home and backyard. The branch in question probably didn’t fall very far, and a small corner of our neighbor’s garage caught it as it plummeted toward the ground.
Our neighbor is nowhere to be found following the storm. Since my wife and I both work during the day, and I have no idea when he’ll return, I leave a note attached to the branch that explains what happened, and what steps we are taking to rectify the situation—that we contacted our insurance agent, and that he needs to contact his own insurance agent, and things will proceed from there.
He returns home a full two days after the branch falls, and needless to say, he is not pleased.
Sometimes throughout this whole ordeal I try to put myself in his position—he’s gone for a few days, and he comes back to find a large branch has fallen next to his garage, with minimal damage done to his property. I suppose I too would be upset by the inconvenience as well. I can be a curmudgeon, especially about inconveniences that I have no control over, but I’d like to think I’d at least try to remain calm about it while it was being handled.
As I approach to speak with our neighbor on the matter, he’s already irate; he refuses to take our insurance agent’s information, and barks at me about how he’s not going to pay for the damage done to his garage. During our exchange, I assure him that we have been in contact with a service to come and remove the branch from between the houses, as well as to do other clean up to the tree, but it’s just going to take some time because the service is swamped with other jobs caused by the storm.
Perhaps it is our neighbor’s age; perhaps it his hearing impairment. Perhaps it is his brain clouded by the volume of alcohol in cans of light beer. But despite my assurance that we would have someone remove the branch, our neighbor decides to take matters into his own hands.
I arrive home a few days later to find the branch missing. What remains of it is being cut up by our neighbor and his grandson, and is being placed in rickety trailer attached to an obscenely large pickup truck. When I ask him why he’s done this, and reminded him that we were having it taking care of, he has no recollection of this exchange at all, but my insistence that we did enrages him to the point where he snaps at me, and tells me that I am a liar.
Our neighbor may not want to pay for the repairs to his garage roof, but that’s actually how homeowner’s insurance works, strangely enough. Despite the fact that the tree is on our property, the damage was done to his house, so it is his financial responsibility.
This also enrages him.
With stale breath reeking like a gutter filled with piss, our neighbor begins to hurl accusations at me, beginning sentences with, “Now you listen here…” He tells me that he knows trees, and that we should have had the tree in question trimmed a long time ago. He says we are negligent, and that the branch falling down during a storm was our fault, not what our insurance agent describes as “an act of nature.”
Seven years of hard feelings over my lack of interest in caring for our yard comes bubbling up and over the surface, as our neighbor continues to berate me.
He drunkenly places his hand on my shoulder in an effort to force me into the backyard; I pull away, a motion that confuses him momentarily. He regains his focus, and implores me to follow him down along the property line, where he pauses and points at a line of pine trees in our backyard. We’ve allowed parts of the trees become overrun with an invasive species and this is problematic for our neighbor.
He tells me that I have to do a better job of maintaining and caring for things.
When the conversation circles back around to be about the fallen tree branch, he again tells me how negligent I have been, that I am a liar, and implies yet again that we need to pay his homeowner’s insurance deductible for the damage repair. He begins to wander away, lumbering toward his garage. I am so angry; I don’t even know what to do with the rage that is filling inside me.
I want to scream so loud and so hard that my larynx begins to shred, and I vomit blood into the tall grass below me.
* * *
Because of the apparent misunderstanding and miscommunication, we begin to give our neighbor everything in writing. Despite his childish behavior, my wife and I agree that we will pay half of his homeowner’s insurance deductible, an act of charity yes, but also just to get him to shut up and leave us alone—but only after he has the repair work done, the insurance claim has been filed, and that he provides documentation of this.
He agrees to this, and surprisingly thanks us. He tells us he’s trying to be a “good neighbor” about all of this, and I have to work incredibly hard to stifle a huge laugh. He takes this opportunity, as my wife and I stand on his front step, to again remind me that I am a liar, and regales us about how hard of a life he’s had, alluding to the fact that he believes that because we are a young couple, we have had everything handed to us.
Yes. I certainly have had everything handed to me, which is why I have no savings account to speak of, having been driving the same car for 12 years, will be paying off my student loans until I am 40, and work two jobs, seven days a week.
* * *
As the summer continues, our neighbor’s actions become more erratic; there are days that he opts to park his car on his front lawn, rather than in his driveway, a strange act considering how much he cares about his lawn.
There’s the day when he leaves the door into his garage wide open for a couple of hours.
He has the garage roof repaired, but the summer becomes the fall, proof of an insurance claim being filed never materializes. We wonder if, or when, he’ll ever dodder over and demand payment.
We continue to endure his glares when we come and go from the house; in September as he harvests vegetables from his garden, he bellows over to me and asks if I’d like any zucchini. I can’t even muster the words to say “no thank you.” I just slowly shake my head “no,” and I turn away to head back inside.
* * *
I will never understand how somebody can care for a thing as meaningless as a yard—the length of the grass, the weeds that grow, their garden, et. al—as much as our neighbor does. Maybe it has to do with maintaining some kind of façade of what kind of person he is, or wants to be.
In turn, I am certain our neighbor doesn’t understand how somebody could not care for something like their yard—how I could be some kind of awful monster person that is unable to find the joy and fulfillment in cutting the grass in perfectly straight rows.
There are times when I wonder how our neighbor has made it this far—how he has managed to make it to 84. And as my disdain for him festers, a part of me hopes he doesn’t make it another year. I wonder if this year will be the year he drops dead in his backyard while gardening or spraying abrasive chemicals on the grass, and that no one finds his body for hours as it cooks in the hot summer sun.
Maybe this will be the year he crashes his car on the way to have another drink at the VFW Hall.
There was a day in the early winter when it was still 30 degrees or so outside, and I was walking the compost out. A light snow was just starting to fall, and I saw our neighbor, sitting on a bench in his backyard, staring out into the distance.
As I walked back inside, I realized that even though we have our differences, he and I are both waiting for the same abyss.
His wait is shorter than mine.
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the SouthernMinn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. If he cared about his lawn as much as he cared about Twitter, maybe none of this would have happened: @KevEFly.
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