Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
© 2001 by Neta Jackson
“I don’t like the look of that dog.”
dropped the box marked “Gwen and Ray’s Bedroom” onto the back porch
of the cozy brick bungalow we’d just bought on
“Aw, we’re just strangers,” I said brightly. “See? She’s getting used to us already.” I couldn’t understand Ray’s reaction. He was a dyed-in-the-wool dog lover from childhood. In our old neighborhood, every dog within whistle distance went nuts when Ray came in sight, knowing they’d get an enthusiastic rump-scratching.
“Yeah, but they don’t take care of her right,” Ray muttered. “Take another look, Gwen. See that short chain? That’s no way to treat a dog. Water bowl’s tipped over. And the yard’s not totally fenced, either.” A chain link fence ran the length of the yard between our two houses, but stood alone, not connected to either house. It wasn’t even clear whose fence it was.
I saw Ray’s eyes anxiously search out the swing set where our three-year-old Erika was happily draped over the U-shaped rubber seat like a limp noodle, dragging her feet in the patch of dirt beneath. Okay, so he was feeling protective. “But, honey,” I reminded him, “we chose this neighborhood for its diversity. We can’t let a dog keep us from getting to know our neighbors. Maybe we can invite them to church.”
north side of
“Yeah,” Ray said glumly. “But one of the first things I’m going to do is fence in our yard.”
was a good thing, because it turned out I was
wrong. The dog didn’t get used to us.
But the house was full of friendly children who hung over the wire fence and ventured shyly into our yard from time to time to ask if they could play on Erika’s swing set. I wanted to say yes, but it never turned out to be that simple. One or two children coming over to play with Erika was one thing. But if I said yes to the constant requests, it usually meant seven or eight children of all sizes suddenly swarming all over the yard. No way could I work inside, with an occasional maternal glance out the back window to make sure two toddlers were not eating the sand in the sandbox. No, it meant full-scale supervision.
So I usually made up some lame excuse, wondering: who are these kids’ parents? I saw a menagerie of adults, men and women, flow in and out of the house, but had no idea who was who or which kids belonged to whom, or even who actually lived in the big three-story frame house.
Except for the grandmother, the matriarch. Mrs. T the neighbors called her—T for Thomas. But she rarely ventured outside, appearing at the back door only to yell at the dog or the kids or one of the silent men tinkering on one of the cars in the back alley. On the few occasions I saw her move heavily through the back yard to the garage, as though her back and her knees hurt, I called cheerfully, “Hello, Mrs. T!” But she either was hard of hearing or she ignored me. She never said hello back.
How could I invite her to church if she wouldn’t even say hello to me?
the retired Polish cop on our other side, approved of our plan to build
a fence. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he nodded wisely, jutting
his chin slightly in the direction of
had an invalid wife and seemed lonely for conversation. He “supervised”
construction of the fence and was free with his post-hole digger and
advice. “They don’t mix much with the rest of the neighbors,” he informed
us one day as Ray plunged the post-hole digger into the knotty ground
at eight-foot intervals. Joe always referred to the big family as “They.”
“This neighborhood used to be all Polish in the old days, but . . .
the old ones died off and the young ones moved away. I’m glad to see
young families like yourself moving in. Keeps
the neighborhood alive.” Another jerk of the head in
I caught Ray’s eye. Did Joe know something we didn’t know? Or was he just a gossip . . . or a bigot. But we said nothing. We were new here. We didn’t want to have to choose sides.
The sturdy cedar fence went up, right along the old chain-link, until it enclosed our backyard. We choose a style called, “The Good-Neighbor Fence.” It was tall enough to give a sense of privacy, but the top of the fence was scalloped between the eight-foot-apart posts to allow for friendly calls between yards. Surely Joe was right: good fences would make good neighbors.
his daughter safe from
I still hadn’t figured a way to actually speak to Mrs. T. or some of
the female members of the household. (Wives?
Sisters? Mothers of the kids?)
Everybody in this neighborhood used their back door to go in and out
because we all had garages standing back by the alley. But I certainly
wasn’t going to venture into their back yard and knock on the
back door. Not with
Once I went over and rang the front doorbell, trying the old trick of borrowing a cup of sugar, but one of the kids answered the door and simply yelled my request inside. “Gram! The lady next door wants sugar!” Then the boy shrugged. “She ain’t got no sugar.”
I went home feeling foolish. “Melting pot” was certainly a misnomer on this block. More like stew vegetables thrown in a pot, but somebody forgot to put the water and seasoning in.
But as the summer months brought more people out of their houses and on to their porches and sidewalks, we started getting to know a few more of the neighbors along the block and even behind us on the other side of the alley. Parents of pre-schoolers can sniff out other families with pre-schoolers like the Giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk: “I smell the blood of a Possible Playmate!” We’d found several PP’s in the neighborhood and to Erika’s delight arranged some “play exchanges”—the popular term for “I’ll take care of your kid for two hours today if you’ll take care of mine Thursday.” Whatever. We snapped them up like premium lottery tickets.
Daylight was fading fast one evening in late August when I headed down the alley to pick up Erika at a new playmate’s house. It had been a muggy summer day, but the breezes off the lake were rustling the leaves of the big old elm trees that arched over the alley, giving the impression of cooling off. I picked up Erika and we walked back down the alley, pointing out the old garages that used to be horse stables “in the old days,” as Joe often told us.
In the twilight I didn’t see the shadow that moved out between Mrs. T’s garage and our own until it stood in my path.
swung Erika high up on my hip and froze. But
Erika’s blood-curdling screams must have startled the dog because the shadow backed away. I seized the chance and with Erika screaming on my hip made a break for the back gate in our fence. Fumbling with the latch that seemed reluctant to open, I felt curses rise in my throat. The fence that was supposed to keep the dog out was keeping us out as well!
“Honey, Honey, we’re safe now,” I soothed Erika, grabbing a cookie from the Mickey Mouse cookie jar and practically shoving it into her mouth. Delighted with a cookie before dinner, she wandered off. Trembling, I locked myself in the bathroom and peeled off my jeans. Angry red welts circled an area the size of my hand on my right thigh. I examined the area closely. No broken skin! My jeans had saved the day.
Now that I knew I was all right, I started shaking like a leaf. That dog! Even our fence had been no protection. Maybe Ray was right. Maybe buying this house had been a big mistake.
Suddenly I was aware of Ray yelling in the yard next door. “ . . . keep that dog inside or I’m going to call the police! She bit my wife!”
Other voices rose and fell in the yard next door. And then Ray’s angry voice again, “Just do something about that dog, or I’m going to do something about it!”
I cringed. What if our friends at church heard him making threats like that? But I jerked my jeans back up, wincing in self-righteous anger. Any self-respecting husband in Ray’s shoes would react the same way if his wife got bit by a huge dog.
Later, after Erika was in bed, we sat together on the porch swing, listening to the cicadas in the elm trees practically drowning out the evening traffic going up our one-way residential street. I felt comforted by Ray’s arm around my shoulders, even though my leg was throbbing. But he was strangely silent.
He shook his head. “Oh, I dunno. Just feeling kinda bad about how angry I got. It’s taken me months to get on speaking terms with those guys next door. Now what? They’re our neighbors, after all.”
pulled out of his arm. “Hey, wait a minute. It’s not my fault
Ray reached out and snuggled me back under his arm. “I know, honey. It’s just that . . . what does ‘love thy neighbor’ mean? We have to live next door to them for . . . years!”
I should have been glad when I saw Ray talking to the guys under their
car hoods the next evening, but my pride was wounded. Did my husband
regret rising to my defense? But he came in the back door looking relieved.
“I apologized for getting so angry last night. Mort said he was real
By the time the bruise on my leg had faded, things seemed pretty much like they’d been before. The guys next door had accepted Ray’s apology, said they understood, they’d have done the same thing, and they still bantered with him as they puttered with the cars back by the alley. We never heard boo from Mrs. T, but like I said, things were pretty much the same.
one day we realized we hadn’t seen
I felt kinda bad in spite of myself. Maybe Mrs. T was upset about having to get rid of her dog. But I couldn’t say I was sorry the dog was gone. Except: now there was nothing standing in the way of me going to her back door and getting acquainted. So what was stopping me?
Then my opportunity to mend fences landed in our mailbox. I unfolded the garish pink flyer announcing a Neighborhood Block Party the last Saturday of September. The city would block off the street, the kids could rollerblade or ride their bikes and trikes, everybody was supposed to bring something for the grill and “a side dish to pass.”
I showed it to Ray and grinned. What a great way to meet and get to know our neighbors better!
The day of the Block Party, I brought out my dish of three-bean salad and set it on the makeshift plywood table. Ray helped Joe drag out his big charcoal grill and ended up flipping the steady supply of burgers and dogs donated by various neighbors. Keeping one anxious eye on Erika riding her tricycle out in the middle of the street amid flying two-wheelers, I wondered if our neighbors from next door were going to show up. Mrs. T didn’t come out; not even Mort or Kenny or Rod.
But the kids showed up. No meat for the grill, no side dishes, no paper plates or liters of pop. Just big appetites. They cleaned out my bowl of three-bean salad.
Well, I was going to make the best of it. At the Block Party I could be friendly to the kids for Jesus’ sake without all of them ending up in my back yard. I sat down on the curb with my soggy paper plate beside the kids from next door and tried to memorize the names they generously offered up: Kendra and Kevin and Mikey and D’Angelo and Damen and . . . well, it was a good start.
“So. Are you all brothers and sisters?” I asked.
Giggles. “Well, Mikey and D’Angelo are my brothers,” said Kendra, “but Damen and Kevin are my cousins . . . well, actually, Kevin’s mama is my big sister, so I’m actually his aunt . . .”
We resumed the sorting process after the watermelon had been cut. Erika sat in Kendra’s lap and happily consumed slice after slice that the other kids shared with her as I tried to sort out the mamas and papas. Mort was Damen’s daddy, but “Uncle Kenny” and “Uncle Rod” were single. Kendra’s mama was Mrs. T’s daughter, but she was at work all day, so Mrs. T seemed to be raising most of the kids.
“Those kids are cute,” I told Ray later that evening, after all the grills and plywood tables, wooden saw horses and lingering neighbors had disappeared off the street. “Pretty polite, too. I think I’ve got the family pretty well sorted out.”
My smugness was reinforced the next day as we came home from church when I saw Mrs. T hanging some dish towels out on a line in her back yard, and I called out cheerfully, “Good morning, Mrs. T!” The heavyset black woman actually looked up and started to come my way. My grin widened. This was great! We were actually going to speak over the fence. I was still carrying my Bible in its zippered cover. She would know for sure that Ray and I were Christians, that we really cared. What a great testimony this would make at church! Better still, maybe I could invite her and she would come and—
“Why are you asking all my kids so many questions, huh?”
Mrs. T’s tone felt like a slap in the face. My grin faded.
“Wha . . . uh, I was just . . . just trying to get acquainted with them.” My words felt like they were tripping all over my tongue.
“You got questions? You ask me. Don’t you go using little kids to be pryin’ and pokin’ into our business, you hear me now?”
Almost before I knew what was happening, she had turned around and was stalking back to her laundry basket, muttering under her breath.
I fled into the house. Ray was somewhere helping Erika get off her Sunday dress and into play clothes. Escaping down into the basement playroom, I threw myself on the old couch and let the tears flow.
“That old witch!” I raged. “What did I ever do to her? All I’ve ever done is say Hi and try to be friendly.” My shoulders shook with irate sobs. I felt humiliated. Rejected. Persecuted. “After all, I’m the one who got bit by her stupid old dog,” I yelled into the empty air. “She’s angry at me? I’m the one who has a right to be angry!”
Fresh sobs rose up from my gut, and I threw a pillow across the room.
“Honey?” It was Ray’s voice, calling down from the top of the basement stairs. I didn’t answer. But in a few moments I felt his comforting presence sit down on the couch beside me. “What happened, Honey?”
I poured out what Mrs. T had said to me, the injustice of it all. “We’ll never be good neighbors,” I stormed. “She’s just a sour old woman who doesn’t like anybody.”
Ray held me a long time until I quieted down in his arms. Then he said, “I don’t know if this makes any difference at all, but Mort told me something the other day that maybe we should think about.”
I pulled back and looked at him. I knew my eyes were red and my nose was runny. “What?” I sniffed.
told me that when his mother was a just a girl of fifteen, she saw her
older brother lynched by the Klan down in
I just looked at him.
Upstairs we could hear Erika calling, “Mommy? Daddy?” Ray kissed me on the forehead and went back up the basement steps.
I don’t know how long I sat down in the basement. For the longest time I couldn’t think. I just wanted to be angry. But slowly the face of a terrified young girl, watching a mob of white-hooded terrorists—white people—put a rope around her own brother’s neck and strangle him over the limb of a tree for who knows what reason, replaced the bitter lines of Mrs. T’s face yelling at me over the fence.
The tears came again. Helpless tears. Because the fence between Mrs. T and me had been building for generations—a fence of fear and prejudice and injustice and suspicion and distance. A fence of history standing between us, just like the sturdy cedar fence we had built between her life and ours.
What made me think I could cross over that fence in just a week, a month, or a year?
The calendar said November and the leaves from the big elms were all on the ground before I worked up my courage. But the day before Thanksgiving I stood on the back steps of the house next door and rang the doorbell. For a long time I thought no one was coming, but then the door opened a few inches and there stood Mrs. T.
I thrust out the apple pie I had made. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. T,” I croaked. “I hope you like it—Ray says I make pretty good pie.”
The door opened wider. Mrs. T took the pie. I thought I saw just the hint of a smile on the wrinkled old face.
“Thank you,” she said. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.” And then the door closed.
But as far as I was concerned, that day the fences started coming down.
By Neta Jackson, Fences, The Storytellers Collection 2 (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2001), pp. 223-231. NOTICE: This story is protected by copyright (© 2001 Neta Jackson).
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson