“Good Neighbors” by Theresa Starkey

12 October 2018 on Blog, Nonfiction   Tags: ,

My mother and I lived in a tiny wood panel house shaped like a squat box. We had five sets of neighbors. The family to the left of us had two young boys and a teenage daughter. The boys were closer to me in age. I was ten. I raced the brother named Keith on a dare once. We positioned our bikes on top of the hill next to my house. The other brother stood at the bottom and yelled for us to go. We peddled fast. I was ahead, but hit a rut and went over my handlebars. I went the rest of the way down on my face. The wipeout made me look like an escapee from a 19th century workhouse. I was already an oddity with my crooked teeth, pale skin, and thin frame. The scabs on my face just gave the boys more verbal ammo.

They had a lot to work with, too. I missed quite a bit of school. When I did go I wore dirty clothes, or my mom’s, because they were the only things clean. I was on the free lunch program and in a class for the challenged. My parents were in the middle of a divorce, which was juicy for shaming. When my dad came around to see me it often ended with my mom yelling at him from the front door as I ran alongside his car crying. We had a lot of cats. To this day I am convinced that one of those brothers shot Snowball. She was a sweet tabby cat that died under the bed from the bullet that passed in and out of her plump body.

A reclusive, elderly man lived on the hill. His house was smaller than ours. It was no bigger than a lawnmower shed. Like me, he kept to himself, and was the subject of talk. Kids said he was a boozer. How he made a living was a mystery. One afternoon I walked up the hill to pass the time and found the old man home with his front door open. He sat in the doorway of his shack and listened to a radio that sat on the ground at his feet. He wore a pair of faded overalls. He looked at me with an indifference that I appreciated. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and gave me a nod, but no smile. I waved at him, and said, “Hey.” From where I stood I could see partway into his house. Papers were tossed on the floor next to a cot. The only other visible furniture was a sink and hotplate.

A retired widow, Betsy, lived in a prim trailer with a kept lawn. Her blinds were always open. She was home a lot. I liked to spend time at her house. Everything was cream-colored from the carpet to the furniture. She had glass side tables with gold trim and a glass coffee table with a crystal candy bowl, a Bible, and the TV Guide on top. She let me watch TV with her. One time when I was there Valley of the Dolls was on. I watched as young women took pills and tried to cope with life. My mom had a taste for dolls thanks to a doctor who was easy with his prescription pad. She washed her dolls down with alcohol. She was trying to cope with Dad’s inability to be around her.

Betsy loved to ask me questions. She wanted to know about me and my mom, what I had for dinner, why I wasn’t at school, did I want another Hostess cake. I knew she was thinking about me even when she wasn’t asking questions, because I’d see her watching me through her blinds as I’d walk to the end of road to catch the bus or go the opposite direction to wander up the street by myself.

Opposite Betsy’s trailer was a family who lived in a red brick, ranch-style house. They were a young couple with a daughter who was friendly to me whenever I saw her in her backyard playing, which wasn’t very often. They were always off doing things together like going on trips and visiting relatives on the weekend. Tall manicured bushes made a natural fence along the backside of their house and shielded the family’s driveway from the road that ended at our house and the base of the steep hill.

One Saturday the family was home and I knocked on their back door to see if their daughter could come out and play. We looked at bugs and ran from the grass snake that slithered along the edge of the carport. We were happy to be outside in the sunshine without our shoes on. The leaves and flowers shimmered in the breeze. The family had a large weeping willow with branches that stretched out like the many arms of a Hindu goddess. We decided to play a game called tell me if this hurts.

I grabbed hold of one of those long weeping willow branches and yanked hard until it came loose. The velvety tassels dropped down and coiled around my bare feet. I picked up the branch and danced around like a child athlete with a ribbon from a rhythmic gymnastics contest. I went from graceful gymnast to lion tamer with a whip. I told my playmate to turn around and tell me if the branch hurt. With one quick snap I hit across her bare calves. In an instant I knew it was a mistake from the puffy welts that appeared and the loud scream that came from deep down inside her. I dropped my weapon and ran home. As I ran I heard the back door to her house open and her parents rush out. Their voices were pitched in alarm and blended with her sobbing.

That evening her parents knocked at our front door. My mother got up off the couch to answer. I begged her not to do it. Thankfully she wasn’t dressed in her usual Fredrick’s of Hollywood loungewear, but a pair of navy polyester pants and a sweatshirt. She had rollers in her hair and her head was wrapped in a scarf. She was sober, which was a good thing for them and me.

The parents demanded an apology. My mom smoked her cigarette and told me to tell them I was sorry. They told her that they didn’t think I should play with their daughter anymore. My mom stood a little straighter at this. She told them it was one thing to want an apology, but not letting us play together anymore took things too far. That kind of thing wasn’t going to happen again. She was sure of that. It was clear that a lesson was learned. All they had to do was look at my face. “Well, look at it,” she said. But they had made up their mind.

We lived out of cardboard boxes. The spare bedroom was filled with unpacked knickknacks, clothes, blankets, dishes, and toys. It smelled strongly of cat urine, and this pungent odor mingled with smells from our kitchen where rotten food molded in pots, and an overflowing garbage can stood by the fridge. My mom didn’t keep house. Laundry, dishes, cooking, taking out the garbage, litter-box detail and grocery shopping were all chores delegated to me by circumstance.

My mom’s love for cats may have made our house smell weird, and turned us into a point of conversation, but the cats were our companions as she and I moved from one rented house or trailer to the next. In my loneliness these animals were my friends. They were small, vulnerable, resilient survivors. This was something I acutely understood and respected.

I can’t remember all their names, but there was Whiskers. She was all black with one eye. Someone shot out the other with a BB gun. She liked to sleep above my head at night and tried to clean my hair by licking it with a fierce determination. We also had Sister, a timid black cat, who was a littermate to Whiskers.

Angel was another. She lost a leg in a lawnmower incident. She got around just fine on three until a car hit her. I discovered our fifth set of neighbors in my search to find her. I crawled through a small opening in a tangle of vines and brush behind our house. Their lawn was wide, serene, and dotted with pines and dogwood.  Their house was made of painted white wood and had large windows draped with soft gauzy curtains that were tied on either side, revealing a soft world lit by gleaming lamps. The couple that lived there was seated on their porch enjoying the last rays of daylight. They both had white hair and were trimly dressed in casual wear that made me think of clothes displayed in the windows of our small town’s fine department store. They offered me lemonade from a pitcher filled with lots of ice and floating lemon wheels.

They listened to me as I described Angel and promised me they’d keep watch for her. They were tickled to learn that I had crawled through a hole in the thicket and told me to come back for a visit anytime I liked. We sat together and watched the lightning bugs blink as the evening sky turned deep violet.

II

My mom pulled her Gremlin up to the gas pump. She was out of smokes, and promised to buy me a box of peanut butter cups, a natural version sold from the health food shop adjacent to the gas station.  The fluorescent light over the pump was bright and contrasted with the darkness that surrounded the station. It lit the inside of our car and made the interior dashboard and seats look a deep burgundy, rather than the usual rusty red. Between the seats, next to the emergency brake, were some of her pill bottles.  I watched her from the car as she walked around inside the gas station. She still had to go next door for the candy. It had been a particularly hard and long day. She had started drinking early and spent much of the day in heated jeremiad against certain members of our family who were so damn high-minded about the way she was living, though they wouldn’t turn over a dime to us. They knew times were tight. As she saw it, they were a bunch of hypocrites.  Opening up the pocketbook for family should be an act of kindness.

She was broken. She had a history before I came into the world. My half-brother, who was over a decade older than me, lived with our grandmother, and had since I was born. This separation was only some of what she carried inside. She was adrift, angry, lost, and mad. She felt betrayed on all fronts. She saw herself as the mother rebel in the Jeannie C. Riley song “Harper Valley P.T.A.” She was a spitfire to be sure, a hometown beauty in her youth who many said looked like Elizabeth Taylor.

Her view of the world, intensified by our nomadic life, was eating me whole. For her it was the two of us against the world. She was raising me to be her little soldier. My father used to tell me, “Life is rough and you have to be tough.” He told me this as a way to encourage me to hold fast so I could make it through living with her.

I emptied one of her bottles into my hand and chased the contents with a swig of flat RC Cola. My mom got back in the car and started it. She handed me a box of candy, then turned on the radio. Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” played. She headed back for Highway 5.  We were going home. I sat silent with my secret. I was tired, though I wasn’t sure if it was from the pills in my stomach or from my day. I wasn’t afraid of drifting off or worried about how my not waking up might punish her. What I did think about was how this couldn’t be all there was. What the something else was I didn’t know. I sure hadn’t seen it.

A long, eternal rest was an appealing thought. One of my favorite stars was the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. He said we’d all gather at the glorious river and be united with our loved ones one day. Why not get a head start. My grandfather Buck would be there to meet me. If he were watching he wouldn’t be happy about a whole lot of things happening with my mom and the rest of the family.

I listened to Glen Campbell, and to Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” and Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” My voice was calm when I finally spoke. I told my mom she’d better take me to the hospital because I had swallowed a bunch of her pills. She almost took us off the road from fright.

My stomach was pumped. When we left the hospital the doctors instructed my mom to sit up with me for a few more hours and not let me sleep. She kept me awake as the TV show Soap aired in the background. The family on TV was crazy and strange, but they made the live studio audience laugh.

The knock on the door came early in the morning. The first knock was followed by several other louder ones, then by a fist pound. I ran from the back bedroom to the front of the house. A county sheriff pushed the door open as my mother tried to block his entrance. He was followed by a woman who called to me as I stood in the doorway. My mother was crying and screaming. The officer told her it would be best for her to calm down and not make a scene. There is nothing like an early morning ambush by the local police and social services to make you feel like degenerate trash. The woman grabbed me by the arm and asked me to please come with her. She told me to not worry, that things were going to be just fine. I’d be able to see and talk to my mother very soon. What was happening convinced me otherwise.

She pulled me forward past my mother and the policeman. He pushed my mother back as she reached out to me. I flailed and swung my fists at the caseworker. I was put in the back of the police car and the woman slid in beside me. The sheriff got in the car and shut his door. My mother ran around the patrol car and tried to open my car door. She beat on the window and kept trying the handle. The car started to move and picked up speed. My mom ran behind it. I turned backwards, watching her through back window. I saw the two boys standing with their parents watching us from their front porch. Betsy stood at her living room window with a cup of coffee.

The woman tried to console me. She said I was lucky to have people interested in me. People had been so helpful and had been watching my situation for some time. She was able to put quite a file together thanks to such good neighbors.

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Theresa Starkey is the associate director for the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi, where she also teaches. Her writing has appeared in the Mississippi Review, The Oxford American, storySouth, and elsewhere. 

“Caper” is a mixed media piece by Marc D Regan, a visual and recording artist, and writer. Marc’s work has appeared numerous times in
Microfiction Monday Magazine, as well as Crab Fat Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, Grub Street, and other publications. Marc is a two-time Glimmer Train finalist. He lived in rural Northern California for twenty years, now resides in Florida, and was raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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