MY NEIGHBORS IRVING & BARBARA
It was only yesterday, Friday, November the 14th, when I learned that my neighbor Barbara had passed away. Around seven in the evening my wife, Terry, confirmed it for me. I had come home from work and noticed that outside Barbara’s house there was a "For Sale" sign. Then I opened my door and greeted Terry, and right away she asked me, "Did you see the sign?" In that very instant we had a revelation. My wife jumped to her laptop and typed in our neighbor’s name, then she looked up and with a broken voice said, “Oh my God, she died on July 30th.”
Terry, my daughter and I moved from Europe to New Hampshire in 2003. Initially we lived in the city of Portsmouth, then in Dover, and in June 2005 we settled in Rollinsford. I have previously mentioned that here I am the only Latino immigrant, the population is exclusively white, and the locals keep a distant cordiality. However, my neighbor Irving Young was the first friend I had in town.
I met Irving on the Saturday of my first weekend in the new house. That day, while raking the grass, I noticed that in the neighboring garden a friendly looking senior man was watching me. For a few minutes I pretended not to notice, but then I smiled slightly and greeted him with a nod, and he returned my greeting. Then I put my tools on the ground, removed my gloves and went over to introduce myself. "My name's Irving," he responded.
He was a tall gringo, seventy years old and retired from General Electric. I did not notice any obvious signs of ill health. What was evident was his good disposition for friendship and conversation. Many times he waited outside his door for me to return from work. Sometimes we exchanged a hello and other times shared a brief chat. But on weekends we talked at length while I weeded my garden and mowed the lawn.
On the evening of Thursday, October 27th, 2005, we greeted each other from our front steps. Later I went to the neighboring city of Dover for my usual yoga class and upon my return, from the distance, I saw an ambulance and a police car in front of Irving’s house. It was a cold and dark night. The emergency vehicle lights projected shapeless omens in the blackness of the street. And I went to bed with the bad taste of uncertainty.
The arrival of the new day confirmed what I had dreamed all night: Irving was no longer in this world. He died in the very same house where he was born and lived all his life. He had been an expert on the town, its streets and its houses. During the five months of our friendship he always repeated the same thing to me: "Go to rest, you'll never be able to grow grass in your yard. I’ve known your house since it was built, and all its owners before you. Animals were raised in the yard for many years, and it was always covered in shit”. I listened to him with respect, but in my mind I said to myself: “Well, if the ground was soaked with fertilizer, all the more reason for the grass to grow”.
One day I knocked on his door. I wanted to ask his permission to make a ring around a tree standing on the boundary line of our properties. I heard the TV noise inside but no one came to the door. When I was about to leave, Barbara came out. She was Irving's older sister and I had not yet met her. The meeting did not go well. I don’t know if the reason was the language barrier, or perhaps mistrust, but the point is that she did not tell me where he was. I made the tree ring anyway, and days later he thanked me and said he liked it.
After Irving's death, I began to see Barbara more regularly, especially on Saturday mornings when at eight o'clock our routines coincided and we both took our trash to the town dump. By then our interactions did not go beyond a slight nod. She had moved from New York where she had worked as a clerk, and settled in the house in Rollinsford. To take care of her yard she hired a neighbor who later lost his own house due to a bank debt and ended up leaving town. The lawn started to look abandoned. Sometimes I had the initiative to mow it. At other times it was done by the neighbor that lived on the other side of Barbara. We did the same thing with the autumn leaves. And in the winter Terry shoveled the snow from the front door so that Barbara could get out in an emergency. The ice of the initial distrust gave way to friendship.
One day I finished mowing her lawn and Barbara came out to meet me. She brought money in hand and offered it to me. I did not accept. She stepped forward to put the cash in my pocket and I stepped back. She chased me and, for an instant, we seemed like two school kids running around during recess, until I stopped, looked into her eyes, and I explained that I did not expect any money for my help. On that day I noticed that she had a resemblance to my mother, and later I learned that they were also the same age. Since then I sometimes wondered whether that was the reason why I always felt comfortable doing something to help her.
It’s quite possible that it was me who picked up the last piece of mail that came for her. It was Saturday, November the 1st. At the crack of dawn I was clearing the leaves in my front yard, and then I went to Barbara’s driveway to do the same. Near her mailbox, almost buried by the leaves, I found a telephone book inside a plastic bag. I carefully neatened it up so that it wouldn’t get wet, and put it on the hood of her car thinking that she would see it at eight in the morning when she came out to take her garbage to the dump.
Those who closely follow my stories know that I always write from the same place: a table against the window that faces the tree of my confessions. Just one step away from the tree is Barbara's driveway, where she always kept her silver Ford Taurus, so I've always had it in sight. Lately I had stopped seeing Barbara but I was not fully aware of it. An important clue of her absence was the telephone book I had put on her car, since after two weeks it continued to sit in the same spot.
Today, Saturday, November the 15th, I am filled with mixed feelings. I keep thinking about Barbara. She died on July 30th while I was in Peru, and since coming back I have failed to read the clues of her departure, until last night when I saw the “For Sale” sign outside her home. Earlier this morning I was listening to Leonardo Favio’s songs, but the music did not bring me the peace I sought. Through the window I saw the leafless tree, the ownerless silver car, and the empty house without its only occupant. Hours later, Terry finally got out of bed and made her first morning coffee, a sign that we could talk.
"I want to write about Barbara," I said. My wife took a sip from her cup, looked at me with sympathy and told me: "Since last night I’ve being expecting you to say that." I looked out again and noticed the new day’s beauty. The sky was blue and out in the yard my cat Kitty was chasing squirrels in the grass that I had managed to grow after all. Feeling better, I began to write this story.
New Hampshire, USA
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