Who Needs Who?

This is the fourth short story I’ve written that has the current pandemic as an underlying theme. The other three: Lost and Found (in five parts), Be the Change, and Gathering Storm, can be found by clicking on the category Short Stories and Poems, above.

I hope you enjoy it.   

Who Needs Who?

The quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes was just what Jen was looking for. After spending most of her 20s and early 30s living in the beach area, she had been ready for a change. The traffic, noise, and loud weekend parties—things that she energized her when she was younger—had started to wear on her. Then, Covid hit, and it all became too much. Her friends acted as if they were immune and continued to gather, unmasked and in large groups. She grew tired of complaining, and she knew that her friends weren’t going to change, so she decided to move to an area where she felt more comfortable.

The cute, two-bedroom, one-bath, bungalow she found was perfect. The house was big enough to have a separate work-from-home office but small enough so she could afford the rent by herself. The days of dealing with roommate drama were over. Her move in November was more than just from one abode to another; she felt like she finally had transitioned from her unmoored youth into adulthood.

Jen knew that she was one of the lucky ones. Her job as a project manager was easy to do from home; in fact, she preferred working there. The windows in her office allowed soft light into the room and offered a relaxing view of her front yard and the street. Although she hadn’t had a chance to meet any of her neighbors face-to-face, she was starting to recognize a few familiar faces as they walked by or worked in their yards. She was relieved to see that they were careful to wear masks and keep their distance when interacting with each other.

Jen was especially intrigued by the woman who lived directly across the street. She reminded Jen of her grandmother who, at nearly 80, was a tiny ball of energy topped with a puff of gray hair. The woman even used a cane like Gram, although, from what she could see, her neighbor’s brightly-colored cane looked to be as much of a fashion accessory as a walking aid.

One Saturday morning in mid-January, as Jen was cleaning her office, she glanced out her window and saw her neighbor walking down her driveway to retrieve her newspaper. Jen’s thoughts turned to her Gram and how hard the Covid restrictions had been on her; how lonely and isolated she said she felt. Jen kept in touch as much as possible, but she lived several hours away and Gram’s facility still didn’t allow visitors. Despite their distance, Jen was happy to have been able to help her grandmother get her first vaccine appointment the prior week. As Jen navigated through the convoluted and frustrating process, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for anyone who wasn’t internet-savvy and didn’t have assistance.

As she watched her neighbor, it occurred to Jen that she might need help signing up for her Covid vaccine too. Offering assistance to her neighbor would give her a great excuse to introduce herself and, perhaps, do a good deed. Jen figured that her neighbor probably felt as unsure of the process as her grandmother had.

Later that morning, Jen put on her coat and walked across the street. She didn’t know why she felt anxious, but she put on a big smile to cover her nervousness and knocked.   

After a few moments, her neighbor opened her door.

“Hi! I’m Jen. I moved into the house across the street a few months ago.” Jen smiled brightly, before putting on her mask. “I haven’t had the chance to meet any of my neighbors yet, but I’m really happy living here. This is the first time I’ve lived alone and, although I miss my roommates, I’m starting to appreciate the quiet.” Oh, gawd, I’m babbling like a nervous suiter, Jen thought to herself.

“Oh, hello, dear. I’ve been meaning to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighborhood but, well, you know, this virus makes those things so complicated. My name is Cora.”

Cora put on her mask, opened her screen door with her cane, and stepped onto her porch.

Jen’s confidence faltered a bit as Cora looked at her with questioning eyes. “Um, well, I was wondering if you might need some help setting up your vaccine appointment. The online process can be pretty confusing and there are a lot of forms to complete. I was able to help my grandmother, so I’m familiar with the procedure.”

“That’s so sweet of you. That would be lovely. I’m anxious to get vaccinated but I understand it can be difficult to get an appointment.”

Jen breathed a sigh of relief. “Great! I can either help you on your computer if you have one, or you can come over to my house and use mine. You can enter all of your personal information yourself, so you don’t need to worry about privacy.”

After some discussion, Cora agreed to meet later that day at Jen’s house. Jen assured Cora that they could do the work on her laptop outdoors in her small backyard. As Jen walked back across the street, she was filled with satisfaction. Not only was she helping someone who needed her assistance, Jen was also hopeful that she had just met her first friend in her new neighborhood.

That afternoon, sitting at a small table on Jen’s postage-stamp-sized patio, Cora and Jen worked together to find a vaccine appointment at a nearby facility. With Jen’s help, Cora filled out all the necessary information and, when they got to the screen that announced her success, they both spontaneously let out a cheer and clapped their hands. They both felt like they had won the lottery.

As Jen walked her new friend back across the street, she offered to drive Cora to her appointment the following Thursday. Although she knew Cora had a car, she figured her apparent leg injury might make driving difficult. Besides, if there was a long line or any other complications once she got there, Jen wanted to be able to help. Cora accepted her offer gratefully.

On Thursday morning, Jen sat in her tiny kitchen sipping her coffee. She had arranged to take the morning off from work and was looking forward to spending an hour or two with Cora. Jen knew that her Gram enjoyed their conversations and she imagined Cora would also appreciate having someone to talk to.  

A half an hour before they were due to leave, Jen went out to her car to tidy it up. She tended to use the passenger seat as a desk and there often were notebooks and file folders strewn about. As she opened the passenger door to grab her stuff, she saw a neighbor walk towards her waving.

“Hi, there! I’m so happy to finally have a chance to meet you. I’m Lisa, I live in the blue house two doors down.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jen replied, smiling. “Sorry I don’t have my mask with me, but I was just getting a few things from my car. I’m driving Cora to her first vaccine appointment this morning.”  

“That’s so nice of you! She is recovering well from her bike accident, but I know she still has trouble now and then.”

Bike accident? Suddenly Jen’s perception of her new friend shifted. As far as she knew, her Gram never cycled, and, even if she had, it would have been well before Jen was born. 

“Um, yeah. I helped her get her appointment. It can be difficult if you aren’t comfortable with the internet… you know, dealing with the various websites and forms. I helped my grandmother too.”

Jen was surprised to hear Lisa laugh. “You helped Cora get an appointment?”

“Yeah?” Jen didn’t mean for that to come out as a question.

“Cora and her late husband used to own a computer consulting business before he became ill and they had to sell it. She knows Macs, PCs, and the internet better than anyone in this neighborhood. In fact, if any of us have an issue, she is the one we go to for help. We are lucky to have our very own Geek Squad on our block.”

Just then, Cora stepped out of her front door and waved. “Good morning! I’ve been looking forward to this day. I’ll be over in ten.”

“Well, you two have a nice time,” Lisa said. “I envy her. My appointment isn’t for a few weeks.”

Jen went back inside her house to dump her notebooks and grab her purse and mask. When she came out, Cora was standing by the car. Jen opened the passenger door and waited as Cora climbed in and settled her cane on the floor. After closing the door, Jen walked around to her side, got in, and turned towards Cora.

“Lisa tells me that you hurt your leg biking.” Jen cringed a bit at the accusatory tone of her voice.

Cora sighed. “I should probably give it up at my age. My grandkids and I love to ride in circles around their cul-de-sac. It was a way to spend time with them outside. I fell several weeks ago and got a bit banged up. My son tells me that I’m nuts, and he is probably right.”

“Lisa also says that you used to own a computer consulting company.” There was that tone again. “That you are always helping your neighbors with their technical problems.”

Jen could see Cora winch behind her mask. “Oops,” she said with a slight giggle. “I guess my secret’s out.”

“You probably didn’t need my help making your appointment.”

“No, I didn’t. But I was so touched by your offer, I couldn’t say no. You also seemed a little lonely and I thought you could use a friend.”

Jen turned back and started her car. Her face flushed with indignation. She felt foolish. How dare Cora take advantage of my generosity? And, then to make it sound like she was doing me a favor?

As Jen drove a few blocks further, she began to reconsider her initial reaction. She was the one who made the offer, after all. She had assumed Cora needed help because her Gram did. Besides, she thought, I am lonely, and I really could use a friend.

As she waited for the light to change so she could turn onto the main thoroughfare, Jen looked over at Cora and smiled. “How about after your appointment, we stop for coffee? I’d love to get to know you better.”

Neighborhood Watch

I started to notice the changes about a year ago when I talked to her at neighborhood get-togethers or chatted with her when she was out walking her dog. Because I have a partial hearing loss, I first thought it was me. I must have misunderstood her words, or maybe they were muffled so I lost the context of what she was saying.

After a while, though, I started to realize that it wasn’t me. I may not have heard every word she said, but I knew that her sentences often didn’t make sense. She’d start talking about one subject and end up on another one altogether. She would forget a word and substitute another with a similar – but not equal – meaning (“big” for expensive, “little” for cheap). Every now and then she forgot the names of neighbors she had known for a long time.

Lately, other neighbors have started to talk about the changes they’ve observed. At first, we approached each other carefully because we didn’t want to set off any false alarms: “Have you noticed…?” “I’m not sure it means anything, but….” She is a well-loved neighbor; smart, funny, generous in spirit, and it breaks our hearts to see her struggling. Although an official diagnosis has yet to be made, we are pretty sure she isn’t going to get better.

Before Nancy retired, she had a high-powered job running the Special Ed program for a local school district. Although she loved her job, it was stressful, so she retired as soon as she was eligible for a pension. Not one to sit around, she filled her days with family, friends, and volunteer work. When her son and his wife had their daughter, Nancy embraced her new role as a grandmother. She happily looks after the baby several days each week and tells anyone within earshot how much she loves her granddaughter and relishes being her part-time caregiver.

Her son and daughter-in-law live fairly close and have witnessed the changes too. Although she doesn’t want to discuss it when her son tries to broach the subject, she apparently has willingly given up control of paying her bills. Her good friend and across-the-street-neighbor looks in on her regularly and helps her with once simple tasks that confuse her, like sending emails with attachments.

Her son wants her to be able to stay in her home for as long as she can. She is happy and, so far, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for a change. Fortunately, she lives in a neighborhood where everyone knows – and looks out for – each other.

So, we, the neighbors, worry and we watch. Worry for her and for her family; watch as someone we care for goes through a decline… one we are terrified to see in ourselves.

I scream for Halloween!

Most people when asked what holiday is their favorite will pick Christmas, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving. I have always put Halloween at the top of my list.

My brother displaying his loot.
My brother displaying his loot.

As a child, it was all about the costumes, candy, and the annual Halloween carnival held at my elementary school. A whole gang of us ghosts and goblins would trick or treat up one side of the ¾ mile route to the school, enjoy the carnival, then trick or treat on the other side of the street as we made our way home. Then, the mass ingestion of candy would begin. I’m sure our parents confiscated some of it so my brothers and I didn’t go into total sugar-comas, but for the most part what we extorted from our neighbors was all ours.

Now, as an adult, Halloween has taken on a different significance for me. I still love the costumes – on others, I rarely dress up – and I do admit buying trick or treat candy that I like so that any left overs won’t go to waist waste. My favorite part, though, are the decorations – and the scarier, the better. I can’t get enough of the skeletons, ghouls, and severed heads. One neighbor turns their front lawn into a haunted cemetery. Another, using spooky lighting, tattered draping, and eerie sounds, makes their porch appear to be the entrance to a haunted house. I don’t remember such elaborate house decorations when I was a child and, I admit, I’m a bit envious of today’s trick or treaters.

We don’t get many trick or treaters on our block anymore as most of the kids have grown up and moved on. A recent surge of babies being born in the neighborhood will hopefully change that in the future, but for now they are too young. Usually, by 6:30 or so, we have seen our last Harry Potter, witch, and Minion, and there are no more knocks at our door.

All is not lost, though because a neighbor’s house has become the spot for the adults in the hood to gather and celebrate all things Halloween. After we determine that most, if not all, of the trick or treaters are gone, we turn off our porch lights, lock our door and walk down the hill to join our neighbors. Some dress in costumes, some bring Halloween-themed edible offerings, and we all enjoy celebrating the holiday with a little Zombie Zin.

zombie-zin

GratiTuesday: Great neighbors, great friends

I had a different GratiTuesday written and ready to go this week, but then I read the posts of several bloggers I follow and decided to change it. These posts explored different types of friendships, and, more specifically, the varying strengths of friendships, how they change over the years, and how it can be difficult to meet new friends as we get older.

Reading those posts reminded me of how grateful I am that I have dear friends who are also neighbors.

neighborhood_houses_144641

When my husband and I moved into our neighborhood over 20 years ago, we already had good friends who lived just a few doors away. In fact, they were the ones who alerted us to the possible availability of our house before it went on the market.

Then, these original friends introduced us to several neighbors who also became our friends and, over the years, we’ve been lucky to acquire even more friends as they have moved into our hood. Although we have a core group of four couples who socialize regularly, we often get together for celebrations, barbeques, and holiday parties with many of our other neighbors too. Several of us are retired couples, but there are also a few singles, retired and not, and younger couples, with and without children.

Over the years, we’ve watched neighborhood children grow up and get successfully launched, helped each other with household projects, celebrated milestones, mourned losses, watched each other’s houses when traveling, and always knew we could rely on each other when any help was needed.

Our neighborhood feels very much like the one I grew up in during the 60s. It’s the type of neighborhood I hoped for when my husband and I were looking for a home to purchase, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. Unfortunately, neighborhoods like ours have become increasingly rare in our modern world, especially in larger cities. I’m sure there are many reasons why things have changed, but I believe, whatever the explanations, the loss to our sense of community is profound.

I am so grateful for all most (our neighborhood is great, but not perfect) of my neighbors, but primarily for our core group of eight. I am confident that any of them would jump to lend a hand if we needed it, and I hope they know the same about us. I’m also grateful that, after all these years, we still have fun together and have never gotten tired of celebrating our friendship.

Death Didn’t Take a Holiday

We had a death in the neighborhood yesterday. Actually, we aren’t sure when our neighbor died. It could have been yesterday, but more than likely he had been dead for several days – or more – before being discovered. The last time his neighbor across the street saw him alive was on Thanksgiving. She later became concerned after noticing that his garbage hadn’t been brought curb-side for pick-up and that a flyer hung on his door hadn’t been touched.

We live in a fairly tight-knit neighborhood. We pretty much know everyone up and down both sides of our long block. There are a lot of long-time residents; one or two are the original owners of their late 1950’s era homes. It’s almost impossible to walk from one end of the block to the other without stopping multiple times to chat. It is the type of neighborhood many people want to live in—friendly, sociable, supportive, and connected.

John’s mother was one of those original owners. Before Audrey passed away several years ago, she put the house and a sizable amount of money into a trust for her son. She did this because she knew that John wouldn’t be able to care for himself because of his mental illness. Despite his violent behavior towards her and others, and his pattern of eschewing medication for his bipolar disorder and instead feeding his meth habit, she decided that the best place for her son was in our neighborhood.

Most of the time, we were able to ignore John and his craziness. He could often be seen walking in the area wearing multiple layers of clothing (even in the summer) and large headphones, constantly talking to himself. Other than being odd, he was mostly harmless; he avoided us and we avoided him. Other times, though, he’d become enraged and verbally attacked those who lived around him. He was enough of a threat that a few neighbors took out restraining orders against him. It was not unusual to see several police cars in front of his house. We quickly learned, though, that it’s not possible to force a mentally ill person into treatment if he refuses. Even if he doesn’t have water or gas service because of unpaid bills. Even if it is obvious that his mental and physical health is deteriorating. Even if we think he could be a threat to himself or others. Even if.

John had a sister and two kids from an earlier marriage. All had been victims of his abuse and all had become estranged from him over the years. Once his mother died the only people who “cared” about him were those who could profit from him; the ones who took advantage of his mental state by crashing at his house, eating his food, or selling him drugs.

So, now John is dead and the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief. Whether he died of drugs or a heart attack; whether he had been dead one day or six before being found, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that he died alone and without a friend in the world. His kids – both now young adults and seemingly reasonably-adjusted – will live with a memory of a father they could never know. They also now have a house to dispose of- the inside of which is probably so disgusting a sane person wouldn’t live there. They have a lot of work ahead of them to get it in any shape to sell.

We are a neighborhood that looks out for one another. We help each other with house and car projects. We celebrate good times together and support each other when bad things happen. But, this one got away from us. We watched helplessly as John’s life careened out of control and spiraled down to its inevitable conclusion.

I admit that I wasn’t sad when I found out that John had died. His pain is over and his neighbors no longer need to be afraid of what he might do. I am sad that we can’t, as a society, do more to aid these tortured souls. Because of lack of funding and a few probably well-intentioned laws that had unintended consequences, we are often helpless to intervene.

I think we can do better.