On the rural road where I live, neighbors matter. Sometimes they matter because, yes thanks, you need a cup of sugar or a ride to town, or maybe there’s a guy coming through with a cherry picker who’s willing to cut dead limbs for a cheap group price. Other times they matter because this is upstate New York downwind of Lake Ontario, we average about twelve or thirteen feet of snow per season, and it can be a harsh place that scares the everliving shit out of you.
My road, Ridge Road, is a stretch of chip seal on a highish, glacier-deposited ridge that used to boast stony farmland. The last remaining son of farmers on Ridge Road died a decade ago in a small trailer on top of the ridge. I did not know him—he kept himself to himself as they say around here—but I often saw him out and about, tending his quarter acre vegetable garden, mowing his yard with a reel mower, tinkering with one of several old trucks in his gravel drive, or shoveling snow at a slow steady pace with a dirt shovel. I don’t believe the farming in his blood was ever extinguished, although my understanding is that he worked all his life for the steam plant in Oswego. By the time I moved here he had long been retired and seemed a 19th century figure. It was a secret wish of mine for a long time that I might get to know him and become his neighbor. But one day he yelled at me and shook a filthy fist when I was picking some wild grapes across the street from his property, and so my thoughts of softening the heart of a Silas Marner drifted away.
Nowadays Ridge Road has no more farmland, is in fact surrounded by second growth trees that are at least sixty or seventy years old. A woman who owns a real estate business rents out the Silas Marner trailer at a cheap price, though most of them leave immediately after the first harsh winter. Over time the takers have become more and more desperate people. The last couple were opioid addicts and once asked me for fifty bucks, their eyes as hollow and dark as pockets. They left in the early winter. It would be impossible to juggle the full-time job of an opioid addiction with the nearly full-time job of snow removal on the ridge. I don’t know that there will be a second growth crop of possible neighbors at the trailer.
My closest neighbors to the south recently sold out and moved west to the suburbs of Chicago where they have a daughter, a son-in-law and a new granddaughter. When they moved away the wife gave me a stone she’d created with Love, Your Neighbor painted on it. The comma, she said, was a mistake. The husband left me a couple dozen treated lumber boards that I’ll be able to use on my decks. We got along very nicely and often I’d snowblow parts of their driveway when I was first of us out after a storm, and they’d snowblow mine when they were. Their daughter and son-in-law lived for a while on Ridge Road and I got to know the latter because of an incident with my pet chipmunk, Bebe.
Bebe, I must amend, is not really a pet though I have come to like him a great deal and, not so unusual in the country, I spend a lot of time in his company. When I read outside in summer, often in a lawn chair with peanuts I share with Bebe, he will sit on his rump beside me, companionably facing the direction I face, his little hands, perfect for a book, hanging in front of him like a washerwoman’s.
One day I was chopping wood down behind the house, occasionally stopping to throw rocks at a yellow cat that had begun to hang around the property and look for trouble. At some point, resting between swings of the axe, I happened to look to my right and see the yellow cat race by with Bebe in its mouth. I could always identify Bebe because of the white stripe up his behind and that stripe was all I could see in the yellow cat’s mouth. I took off after the cat with the axe, cursing the whole way, jumping over the rock wall that separated my neighbor’s property from mine, lurching like a madwoman though the axe was heavy. The son-in-law, a sophisticated metrosexual Belgian whom I suspected of hating our rural road, came out of the house at this moment.
“But Leigh,” he asked, “vhat is wrong?” I stood still in their front yard, apoplectic with rage.
“That fucking yellow cat,” I said, breathing hard and pointing with the axe, “it has my chipmunk.”
He gave a brief glance at the axe, saying no more, then he turned and took off at a brisk walk up their driveway and out of sight, a sane man. I went sadly back to chopping my wood, crying now. In spite of the fact that he never gave me rides into town or brought me a peanut, Bebe was a neighbor as far as I was concerned. I kept thinking of his little hands, futilely punching inside the cat’s mouth.
“So where do you vant him?” It was the son-in-law, holding his hands in a loose ball. Bebe’s head poked out between a thumb and forefinger. I showed him where Bebe’s hole was, up near the garage, he put him down on the ground, and the last we saw of Bebe that day was the white stripe up his behind. I think it’s worth noting that until that day the chipmunk had no name—afterwards he did, in honor of Belgium. And the son-in-law, my neighbor.
By far the closest neighbors I have had are to my north. Their son was an early favorite of mine, helping me out with odd jobs and shooting the breeze whenever we met up, a sweet and charming kid who eventually asked me to marry him to his girlfriend, which necessitated an online ordination and an outdoor sound system that could be heard in the next county. His father, a contractor as it happens, built my house and his own house and the house of my ex-neighbors to the south, sturdy homes that have stood the test of time in terms of design and character. His mother once gave a piece of her mind to a guy at the bottom of the ridge whose dog bit me on the hand. We know where to find each other’s keys and have often used them because of some trouble or other. We know when one of us is out of town and keep an eye out. We have given each other food and clothes and on occasion money and we have shared time and effort on behalf of each other’s property or domestic peace of mind.
It’s only fair to add that we have also baffled each other and, at times, annoyed the hell out of each other. For example, although I can present to the world the very picture of an extrovert, I am a private person and do a fair amount of my own keeping myself to myself. This means that I have repeatedly turned down my neighbors’ dinner invitations and party invitations over the years, which must strike them—has had to strike them—as damned odd. One minute I’m chattering on in an amusing way about a woodpecker we all know, the next I’m turning down an invitation as if I secretly can’t stand them. Once I used my binoculars from the study window to look at birds at the bird feeder next door only to see one of my neighbors using binoculars for the same reason. It was awkward and I became convinced that they thought I was creepy. One last confession though there are plenty more where this comes from: they have said zip to me about this, but the truth is, I mow my yard more often than necessary because I enjoy it; I’ve been told by others that such a neighbor can be maddening, like an alarm clock that goes off hours before it’s supposed to.
I’m thinking our neighbors are a lot like our families. Unlike friends, they are always around. There is no end to the frissons of potential guilt or potential blame. One of my neighbors, as I said, is the contractor who built my house. I have often asked him to fix something at my house, from the small hole a gigantic milk snake got through into my kitchen, almost giving me a heart attack, to the renovation of whole rooms. At times he offers to do things he believes ought to be done, like supervise the building of a second back yard or begin the construction on an outdoor sauna. I don’t always agree to these things, but once we embark on a project, large or small, he never ever gives me the slightest ballpark sense of what something will cost. In the case of the milk snake hole he charged nothing, jovially patching it up while snatching rolled up dish towels and suddenly “finding” them near me. After the room renovation, the bills just kept rolling in on a regular, daunting basis, as though it were an expensive subscription. For the second back yard, months passed before I got a single, large bill about which I had forgotten. Many times his wife has had to take over and charge me for something he’s done for me because I’ve gotten snippy about the bills and he has grown shy. It is enlightening about the nature of neighbors (and family) that all of the information I have given you above could represent a pro about me and a con about him, or else a con about me and a pro about him. There is no accurate knowing of these distinctions in a neighborly way.
All of this—the essay so far—is but a prelude to the following.
This past weekend at two in the morning a barking began in the back yard of these neighbors. I recognized the voice immediately. It belonged to the fourth German shepherd in a series of them I have known since I moved to Ridge Road. This one’s name is Bernie, after Bernie Sanders, and a nicer guy you couldn’t ask to meet. He’s immense, the size of a pony, and several times a week I will look out my sliding doors in the morning and see Bernie’s gigantic nose pressed against the glass, sniffing for the dog biscuit he always gets. He isn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the porch, but he’s always ready with a handshake and when you give him a treat he takes it as politely as a debutante.
So I woke to the sound of Bernie barking. I wasn’t happy about it. It is mid-January, was about nine degrees outside, and the barking went on long enough that I knew my neighbor had fallen back to sleep. Bernie’s got Iditarod-class fur but still. Nine degrees. I weighed the barking and my odds of falling asleep soon. I weighed the thickness of Bernie’s fur and his odds of surviving the cold. Pros, cons, who knew.
I got up in the pitch dark and put on some sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt that were both already on my bedroom floor. I knocked into the side of my dresser and let out a suppressed yelp. Downstairs in the kitchen I found some indoor boots to slip onto my bare feet, and then tugged on the dress coat I wear to work because it happened to be hung on the back of a chair. It only has three buttons. Somehow it made sense to me that it would be only a three button problem.
I got about three yards outside my back door and began to slip and slide on the snow. These indoor boots are boots only in the sense that they come up to mid-shin and in all other ways they are more like striding forth onto ice with plastic wrap on your feet. Until that night I had never understood the irony in the fact that I usually called them slippers. Bernie has a run that’s hooked to a tree in my back yard and goes all the way over to my neighbor’s side porch about fifty yards away. I met up with him on my side of the run where, ecstatic to see me, he jumped up and immediately knocked me down. There was suddenly snow in the places where my clothing didn’t meet. I had no socks. I couldn’t stand up in my slippers and wrestling with Bernie was like handling a bronze statue that could move. Around then I began to whimper.
I don’t know how I actually got to my feet, but I vaguely recall climbing Bernie like a ladder. Basically I rode on his immense back over to my neighbor’s porch where I knew their sliding door would be open. Done, I thought. But there was something wrong with the clip at the end of the lead—it seemed to be a solid piece of brass. Whimpering, I pummeled and pulled at the clip to no avail. There were no moving parts in that mechanism. I moved on to Bernie’s collar, blessedly leather and supple, though when I tried to drop the clip it stuck to the flesh of one finger and I had to blow warm breath on it to get it off. Nine degrees.
For some reason undoing that collar was not unlike changing a tire. I had to get leverage to pull but Bernie, unlike a tire, kept moving around. Who wouldn’t have, with this whimpering woman crawling all around your neck? Plus there was snow on the porch and I kept slithering across it without traction. I fell down a couple of times holding onto the collar. I began to curse under my breath, feeling that Bernie was the biggest pain in the ass in the world while simultaneously feeling that Bernie was a scholar and a gentleman, a fricking saint. Finally the collar released. I have no idea why. Perhaps I tore the leather apart with my bare hands, the lunatic strength of desperation. I was crying a little by then. The sliding door, as I’d known, was unlocked and slid easily open, Bernie slipped easily in, and I closed the door easily. Done. I said “Thank God” out loud, one foot hit something solid on the porch, a frozen dog blanket I think, and then I did a flip over the stairs and onto the snow. Again all of the places where my clothes didn’t meet filled with snow. My feet and hands were already numb. In a real sense, as I lay there, I would have welcomed death. But I got up and slipped and slid across their back yard and my back yard until finally, at last, I returned home.
The word neighbor comes from two Old English words, one of them meaning “near” and the other meaning “dweller.” Neighbors are defined solely by their proximity to us. But I think this is a misleading definition, too concentrated on feet, yards, acres. For I have come to believe that those who live nearest to us–who share every aspect of our weather and our landscape and our domestic activities and the daily nuances of going elsewhere or of returning home again—our neighbors are in many ways mirrors of ourselves truer than family, truer than friends. We did not choose them any more than they chose us, but here they are, living their most intimate lives right there with us, partners somehow in the act of behaving to others as we would have others behave to us.
The morning after I got Bernie home again I got a text. “When I woke up in my chair to get him I was surprised…. thought he did a Houdini,” it said. “Thanks, your neighbor.”