A Season of Neighbors

(published in J Journal)

Beneath a brilliantly blue spring sky, I perched on the backyard swing and eyed the space behind my apartment building. The tomatoes would go there, I decided, and there, the peppers. When I was satisfied with my mental calculations, I got up from the swing, laid my tools and beds of seedlings out on the lawn, and getting down on my knees, began to tuck tomato, pepper, cauliflower and cucumber plants into the loamy earth.

The four little girls who had recently moved in downstairs were watching me from across the yard. They hopped around, jostling each other, fascinated. “What are you doing? Can we help?”

Ours was a small apartment complex owned by the city, mostly occupied by the elderly or people with disabilities. Dogged by chronic health problems, I’d lived here for eight years: a white man in his forties. Walnut and locust trees towered over the large yard next to the raised garden beds and wooden swing set. It was a nice, quiet place to live. It was unusual to have kids here, but I was happy to see them; I’ve always liked kids, though I have none of my own.

I waved the girls over, explaining how to fill the plastic yogurt containers with water from the outside tap and bring them to the garden, then watched as they jockeyed to see who had more and who could sprinkle it over the leafy plants first. There were water fights, shrieking.

“A little more on this one,” I cajoled. “You guys are doing a great job!”

At eight, Qweneesha was the oldest sister; her round face beamed a shy trust, and she always murmured hello when I passed in the yard. Qwenteneesha was a year younger, and seemed more the prankster, sometimes manipulative of her sisters, determined to get what she wanted in this world. Destiny, maybe five, a bit adrift, played in the shadows of her older siblings. And there was the baby, Nookie, just learning to take her first steps, toddling up and down the sidewalk next to the parking lot. They were good kids.

“Is it time to water the plants yet?” became the girls’ daily refrain, even on a rainy day. And at the first sighting of tiny vegetable life, they danced with excitement.

I felt good about introducing these kids to the world of gardening. I was sure they’d find joy, as I had, in nurturing living things; that they’d learn to respect the land, to put everything in its proper place. These organic tomatoes would connect all of us in the little apartment complex, I imagined, to a simple, quiet life.

 

Life was anything but quiet.

On Saturday afternoon the girls’ mother, Kim, threw a birthday party for herself and invited over some friends. By evening, beer cans lay strewn about the backyard; sickly-sweet clouds of marijuana smoke hung in the stairwell. As I made my way downstairs to water the garden, the girls were sitting at the picnic table, gabbing and laughing. One of them excitedly called her uncle, with whom they lived, to come see the now-ripening tomatoes. Sprawled in a lawn chair, Michael, a burly black man in his 20’s, responded with a snort and a wave of his hand, “Ahhh, I’ve seen them already.”

Then, from inside their apartment, a crescendo of voices erupted. Kim and another woman were mixing it up. “Get the fuck out of my house!” Kim sputtered.

The girls stared at their shoes, quiet now.

 

Michael had moved in first, about a year ago. He has a slight learning disability, which qualified him to live here. I made a point to introduce myself. We got on all right; occasionally he played his music loud, but more often he sat on the front stoop, plugged into an Ipod, chopping the air with his hands, working out some hip-hop rhymes.

I didn’t notice when Kim and the girls moved in but soon after that I heard her for the first time. Heard, that is, a female voice screaming at the top of her lungs. Startled, I looked out in time to see a young, pretty black woman being cuffed and escorted to a police car, its lights silently revolving outside our building. The cop placed his hand on the back of her head and pressed down as she got into the back of the car, her eyes flashing as she kicked and squirmed in protest.

I never learned what the charges were, but Kim was soon released and returned to the apartment below, where she and her kids were temporarily staying with Michael. After this, angry curse-cadences floated up through the heating vents set in my floor almost every day.

I heard it all, or touches of it all. Kim yelled about having been kicked out of another apartment complex and wanting to stay here for good with her kids, though Michael was resisting. He wanted the place to himself, a bachelor pad. She maligned other women who had crossed her. She cursed the unfairness of her life.

Until Kim arrived, I hadn’t often witnessed that kind of unbridled anger; its intensity made me jump. I didn’t like it.

 

Occasionally after doing some weeding in the garden I pushed the sisters on the swing, or watched as they pushed each other. At such times the yard sprang to life. Two of the girls usually lay toe to toe on the swing, squealing with laughter and holding on, while a third kept them in motion. But one day Qwenteneesha pushed so hard that the beams propping the aging overhead supports rocked violently in the ground, with each push coming a little looser.

It could’ve been disastrous. A little more pressure and the supports might have snapped from their place, the kids at their apogee sent spinning into space.

“Careful,” I warned the girls. “Be careful!”

 

When Kim and Michael weren’t arguing, they were partying, with lots of people passing through. Most every night, bass notes from their stereo pounded through the building – BA DA BUMP BUMP – jolting me and the other neighbors awake.

I’m generally a shy person and, keen to avoid a confrontation, I usually cranked the thermostat, hoping the sound of air pouring from the vents would muffle the racket from below. Or I covered my head with a pillow. When I was younger, I reminded myself, I liked to pump my music, too.

But then again, this wasn’t the place for it. Most of the people here just wanted peace and quiet. And without a good night’s sleep, I knew I wouldn’t be able to think straight.

So I went down and knocked on their door. The rhythms of their speech, as I heard them through the wall, were different from mine, and they stirred an impression. Images of gangster rappers, bling medallions dangling around their necks, representing, came, if unbidden, to mind. I tried to put them out of my head.

Kim answered the door. “Yeah?”

I stood there and stammered.

When I finally got out my request, she agreed to turn the music down, but I could see by the way she twisted her mouth she believed a certain level of noise to be normal, simply the way people expressed themselves. She was polite, but it seemed a tempered politeness, a forced amiability, as if she was trying to hold at bay her general bitterness toward the world, toward anyone other than her children.

It was a little strange carrying on a conversation with someone whom you suspected could blow up at any moment. Like walking on mined land. But perhaps the police arrest had forced her to reconsider things. Perhaps she realized she had to get her act together, to rein herself in, for the sake of her kids. She was, I think, considering what it meant to be a good neighbor.

 

I grew up in Texas, a place where race was often slapped on the table as a card in an unsettling game of one-upmanship. Sometimes things turned violent. One night during junior high, a redneck trumpet player shattered the windshield of a black family’s car with a full Coke can in the parking lot after a football game. Tension between people of different backgrounds simmered, and though my parents raised me to see people for who they were, I didn’t have many black friends. After college I left the wide horizons and narrow visions of Texas to live overseas, working with a social service organization. It was easier, I noticed, to connect with the Africans I met abroad than with African-Americans at home; less historical baggage between us, I supposed.

It was overseas, though, that I became sick, a chronic illness which continued after I returned to the States. Settling in Iowa, where I had relatives, a long process of adjustment ensued. My health was so poor that I was unable to work; I had to rely on social security payments, and move into subsidized housing. It felt strange, but this was the hand life had dealt me. Anyway, my time abroad had instilled a hopeful idealism; I wanted to help create a sense of community. One thing I could do was start a garden, hoping it would bring people together.

Slightly trumping my interest in community-building, though, was the need for rest. And it was this need that came into direct conflict with my new neighbors.

 

As the weather turned nice, the girls took to lounging on folding chairs in the back yard near the little garden, shooting the breeze. They had been bugging me for days to bring out my guitar. So finally I did, to great enthusiasm. We sat in a circle and I let them hold the guitar.

“Let me do it now!” Qwenteneesha strong-armed Qweneesha, pulling the instrument away from her. She pounded on the strings, until I showed her how to strum more gently. Then she giggled and repeated the lyrics of a suggestive song she’d heard somewhere. “Oh baby, gimme some of that…”

Trying to divert the conversation, I jumped in with a joke, something silly. “Knock knock.”

Qweneesha brightened. “Who’s there?”

“Interrupting Cow.”

“Interrupting Cow Wh–?” and before she could finish her bit I let loose with a boisterous “Moooo!”

Qweneesha fell off the bench. She was laughing harder than the joke merited, as if she wanted to make sure I knew she appreciated it. In her eyes I saw the need to please, an old vigilance to avoid setting off explosions.

We sang a few bars of “Old MacDonald,” until the girls got bored and started running around the yard.

 

One day I got the idea to pass along to Kim some children’s books left over from a gig I’d had tutoring at an elementary school. After this, she seemed to warm a little and told me about her new job, cleaning motel rooms. I learned that they were originally from Chicago’s south side, from what’s considered to be a rough neighborhood, and that they moved to this smaller Iowa city in search of better schools and housing.

I found myself wondering – would the girls be able to move beyond the cycle of anger and poverty in which their mother seemed caught? At 23, Kim was a young black woman without a partner or many resources, mother to four little girls, her own challenging upbringing replaying itself before her eyes. Some of the anger began to make sense.

History pressed down upon us all with a weight considerable. It shaped the contours of the lives we’d been given, and the lives we hoped to live. And yet, each morning I heard Kim calling out to her kids – “I love you!” – as they bounced off to school, and this somewhat offset my misgivings about the effect her anger might be having on them.

I wanted to talk more to my neighbors about the anger and the noise, both to let them know that I was on their side, and to remind them that as neighbors we had to act respectfully toward each other. We’re all in this together, I could’ve said. We’re all, you know, God’s children. But that was a conversation I let slide, for I was always tired. Or I felt intimidated. Or the differences between us didn’t lend themselves to that kind of conversation. Despite my ideals, in the end I just wanted to live my life, and let them live theirs.

As the summer progressed, the girls helped me in the garden almost every day. We shared the fruits of our labor – cucumbers and yellow squash, tomatoes and chilis – with the other residents.

But like history, things remained complicated. At nightfall, shouting and music continued to radiate through the complex, rattling my nerves, and lending a schizophrenic edge to our neighborly relationship.

 

A chill in the evenings presaged the onset of autumn. By now, the garden had yielded most of its crop; withering stalks lined the plot’s edges. A few of the tomatoes had split due to blight and gone unharvested, and the girls liked to pick these and fling them as artillery as they chased each other around the yard.

One day, music blared from below louder than I’d ever heard it before. I’d been feeling unwell. And something snapped inside of me. Why, I thought, should I have to put up with this?

I cranked my own music to try to drown out theirs. I fumed and I cursed. I went down and pounded on their door, but there was no response. Those people! Fed up, I did something that seemed to violate the spirit of our little community, which prided itself on being able to deal with its own stuff. I called the Housing Authority.

“The people downstairs, umm, they’re making too much noise.”
“They? There should only be one person living there, and that’s Michael.”

“Oh. I… I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”

As it turned out, Kim and the girls weren’t on the lease, and shouldn’t have been living there. I didn’t know this, and now I’d inadvertently tipped off the city. True, they had already received some complaints about Michael’s apartment, and had been preparing to look into it. But it was my call that rolled things into motion.

 

For a while I worried about what had happened. But by the time Halloween rolled around, I’d forgotten about it. That evening, I popped downstairs to share some candy with the kids, hoping to see their costumes.

Kim answered the door, but instead of inviting me in, she stared coolly, then dropped her eyes and said, “We don’t like that man. Don’t have nothin’ to do with him.” And turned her back, leaving the door ajar, as if she couldn’t bring herself to slam it.

Thrown off balance, I peered into the other room, where the girls were preparing their plastic masks and costumes for the evening. Qwenteneesha would be a witch! Destiny a princess! The girls waved at me, then looked to their mother, and stopped waving. All I could think to do was offer the kids the candy, which they scampered forward and accepted. Then we both retreated.

The next day a neighbor told me she’d heard that Kim and the children had been asked to leave, and that Kim blamed her neighbors for betraying her. This would explain the chilly reception I received the night before. A mixture of emotions welled in me: mainly frustration and regret. This was not at all what I had wanted.

Especially when, a few days later, I watched Qweneesha, Qwenteneesha, Destiny, and Nookie struggle down the sidewalk, leaving the building for the last time, each of them clutching an armful of bags and toys. As Kim shepherded them, my four little friends toddled along, trying to keep up. Destiny dropped one of her stuffed animals. She began to cry.

I waved, from my distance, but no one responded.

 

So I returned to the backyard, where I sat and rocked slowly on the swing. It had been a good tomato harvest this year, and there were one or two red ones left on the vines. I picked them, alone in the quiet of the garden.

 

 

You can get your copy of "Curve of the World" at the following outlets: Direct from the publisher, Bottom Dog Press, or at Amazon.com