The Kindness of Neighbors
Some things were just easier in the city. Dating, for instance. Also, not talking about dating.
Jen insisted she’d be happy renting in the suburbs. She wanted privacy. A porch. And the modest house offered both, and was affordable. Jen found she even liked the idea of “commuting.” It gave her something in common with the senior executives.
She wasn’t prepared, however, for the neighborliness of suburban neighbors. Or their interest in her life. And the suggestions about how she might consider living it. It wasn’t so bad when she first moved in a few months ago, but now that the weather was pleasant, they were all outdoors so much more often, and they seemed to think it was ok to drop in unannounced.
One of the worst offenders was Mrs. Warren, her landlady, who lived right next door. Mrs. Warren was full of advice about what flowers Jen might plant in the front flower beds or hang from the hooks already in the porch ceiling for that purpose. Or what birds she might attract if she filled the birdfeeders that were already on the trees. Or how if she backed her car in, she wouldn’t have to back out into the road on workday mornings.
So when she started up about her son’s still-single friend (again), Jen lied and said she was married, the words rolling off her tongue like too much wine.
“Oh, are you, I didn’t realize. We never see Mr. Martin,” Mrs. Warren said. Mrs. Danvers, who lived across the street, nodded her head rapidly a few times in agreement.
“He’s in Afghanistan,” Jen said, thinking that will get them to leave me alone. “He asked me not to put up a yellow ribbon; he didn’t want me to advertise that he’s gone. He’s a very careful sort of man, my Johnny.” She mentally kicked herself for using such a predictable name. “He’s a Green Beret,” she said, hoping that meant she’d have to answer fewer specific questions.
“Secret missions?” Mrs. Danvers suggested.
“Well, I can’t say,” Jen said, ducking her head so they didn’t see her flush. She should stop this charade. She didn’t have the easy anonymity of the city to duck into; she’d see these people every day. But already it seemed too late to back out of the lie.
“Well, hon, you just stay strong,” Mrs. Warren said.
“We’re so grateful for our men in the service,” Mrs. Danvers said.
“And our women,” Mrs. Warren added. “Are there women in the Green Berets, Mrs. Martin?”
“Not in Johnny’s unit,” Jen said, answering too quickly, and both women chuckled in a friendly, mothering way.
The next day, Jen was retrieving her mail at the foot of the driveway and Mr. Danvers crossed over to say, in a loud whisper, “Any news from the front?”
Jen hid her momentary confusion by sorting her mail. “No, nothing from my husband,” she said. “Bills. And this thing from the car dealership with a key to the car of my dreams.”
“I got one of those too,” Mr. Danvers said. He cleared his throat and said, “If you ever need anything.” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“What,” Jen wanted to say. “If I ever need anything, what?” But instead she smiled, sighed and said “Thank you.” She hadn’t expected news to travel so fast, hadn’t realized she’d be the topic of neighborhood conversation.
Mrs. Warren brought her a paper bag with cucumbers and a couple of peppers. “From our garden,” she said, handing her the paper bag. “We just want to help. And I see you hadn’t put in your garden yet.”
The next day, Jen popped her hood to check her oil. Mr. Warren came over while she squinted at the dipstick.
“No, no problem,” she said. “Johnny just told me always check the oil.”
Mr. Warren looked over her shoulder as she did and told her the level was fine, and though she knew that already she let him tell her anyway. Then he checked her tires. One was low, so she waited while he brought over his portable air-compressor and filled it for her, and some windshield wiper fluid because he noticed she could use some. Jen stood there the whole time, feeling awkward.
“Happy to help,” Mr. Warren said, waving off her thanks.
Later that day there was a peach cobbler from Mrs. Danvers.
And a bottle of homemade blackberry wine from her other next door neighbor, Tod Jablonsky. Tod was single, too, but he had 20 years on Jen and even the neighbors didn’t suggest him as a suitable date for Jen, though Jen suspected they’d thought it.
Jen began watching the news to see what was happening in Afghanistan. She wished she’d said some other country. She wondered how easy it was to find out about Green Beret involvement. She couldn’t find much, which was encouraging. She practiced a sad, vague look and a regretful shake of the head, “No, no news.”
She turned down a date from a woman she met at the gym because of Johnny.
News of a helicopter wreck in Afghanistan that killed nine soldiers brought her a steady round of neighbors, Mrs. Warren with pasta salad and another peach cobbler from Mrs. Danvers. It really was delicious peach cobbler.
She turned down lunch with the woman at the gym because of Johnny.
Jen came home from the gym and Mrs. Warren was in the dirt in front of her house in a garden hat. She smiled up at Jen. “I saw you missed spring planting. These are marigolds, they can take a later planting. When I lived in this house, before I built the one next door, I always could count on marigolds if I missed the window for geraniums.”
Jen nodded her thanks and went in the house.
Jen had lunch with the woman from the gym. Lunch became drinks and Jen came home late.
Jen went on a date with the woman from the gym – Lauren – the next night and came home late again.
“Is everything ok?” Mrs. Warren asked as she watered Jen’s flowers. “You were out late last night! Sleeping in a little this morning?”
“I thought I’d just water these for you. They looked a little thirsty.”
“Thanks,” Jen mumbled. She’d planned to have her coffee on the front porch but she’d not planned on talking to anyone before noon, or until her head felt less fuzzy.
“The grass is getting a little bit tall, too,” Mrs. Warren said. “If you need help starting the lawn mower, Mr. Warren will be happy to help.”
Jen made dinner for Lauren a few nights later, a dish with turmeric and a dessert with lemon. They stayed up late, drinking wine and dancing in the living room and the front porch to club music streaming from Paris. Lauren had worked in Paris for two years before coming home with her eye on a corner office. She was so patient, too, listening to Jen’s work woes and giving good advice.
Mr. Danvers didn’t say hello the next day at the mailbox, just sort of half-waved without looking.
The flowers wilted in the heat. Jen watered them but it didn’t seem to help.
The grass in her front lawn tickled her ankles when she walked in it. She noticed Mrs. Warren standing at the edge of the two lawns, one foot in each lawn, shaking her head. Jen started checking her mailbox after dark to avoid her.
Jen and Lauren sat on the porch drinking mint juleps. They talked with their faces close together and snuck quick kisses.
When Mrs. Warren came over to tut-tut over the dead marigolds, Jen had no choice but to introduce her to Lauren.
“How is Mr. Martin, your Johnny?” Mrs. Warren asked.
Lauren didn’t think the made-up-being-married scam was funny. She used the word “pathetic.” Her brother was in the service, she said, and it was terrible to be gathering vegetables from neighbors under false pretexts.
Jen tried to explain. She’d gotten herself involved with her neighbors when what she really wanted was to be left alone. They seemed so parental; it’d been easy.
Jen left Lauren seven text messages asking to meet her for drinks. She left a message on Facebook just in case Lauren didn’t get the texts. And sent her a SnapChat with puppy ears and a funny voice.
Jen needed to do something while she waited to hear from Lauren. She’d mow the lawn before Tod Jablonksy could get to it. She’d disentangle herself from these neighbors. She fired up the push lawnmower from the shed in the back yard. She fixed a heavy rubber doormat behind it. And she began mowing her lawn. It was maybe the hottest day of the year. After five minutes, she pulled her bra out from underneath her white tank top and hung it on a tree branch.
She mowed in circles, using the rubber mat to influence the way the grass laid so she could make a pattern in the lawn. It was a trick her father had used to baseball-diamond the yard. Jen worked doggedly, like a woman possessed. Beads of sweat dropped off the end of her nose, tickled her back, creased her eyelids. She walked behind the mower, head down, using her whole body to push the old thing, breathing in its gasoline smell as the heavy layer of tall grass stained her white sneakers.
She didn’t realize she was crying until she nearly ran the lawnmower into a tree.
Her lawnmower was just coughing itself off when Tod Jablonsky came over with his riding mower. He rode it on the street wearing big yellow headphones.
“Hey, I could’ve helped you with that!” he hollered, dropping the headphones around his neck. “Mrs. Warren asked me to come on over and mow for you.”
“It’s ok, I got it.” Jen walked past him into the street so she could see her lawn. She smiled then, a big smile. Tod Jablonsky looked where she was looking. He shut off the mower and got off it slowly, his eyes never leaving Jen’s lawn. He walked back to stand by Jen in the middle of the street.
“I can, uh, fix that,” he said.
Jen didn’t answer.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lawn quite like that before. How’d you do it?”
“I brought a couple beers. Want a beer?”
Jen cracked her beer, Tod Jablonsky cracked his, and they both stood in the road and looked at Jen’s yard with breasts mowed into it everywhere. There were pairs and there were singles, big and small, and the best ones had dark green areolas. Those Jen had made last, after she figured out her technique.
“I’m not Mrs. Martin,” Jen said. “I’m not married. I don’t know why I said that. They just… I just…”
She finished her beer, handed the empty to Tod, and walked across the breasts to her house.
There were no more vegetables or cobblers after that.
About the Author
Epiphany Ferrell lives on the edge of the Shawnee Forest in Southern Illinois. Her stories appear in Best Microfiction 2020, Newfound, and other places, and she has a story forthcoming in the 2020 National Flash Fiction Day anthology. She blogs for Ghost Parachute and reads for Mojave River Review. Learn more at her website.