By Danielle Susi
Our neighbors to the right both died last month. (To the right if you’re sitting on our front steps). There’s an empty driveway, now, where my brother and I used to ride our bikes up into when we were kids. The neighbors to the left are gone too, though only one of them has died.
The neighbors to the left used to be my favorite, because they were quiet. The husband, Stanley, drew pictures of Disney characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and would show me and my brother over the chain-link fence. We used to have to step up on the splintering wooden bench next to the fence to reach his height.
We grew up on a postage stamp lawn in a house my mother called “just the right size” for the four of us. There were few dead-end streets in our city, and we lived on one of them. My parents worked hard in jobs they hated, and I think my brother and I both knew.
Our neighbors to the right were quiet too, but only when I wasn’t riding my bike into their driveway with the other kids that lived on the street, or hopping the fence to their yard to rescue a stray wiffleball. They wouldn’t even come out to see if we were alright if we fell and skinned our knees. You could see them look out their windows, though. We knew it wasn’t just the shadows playing games with us either, because you could see the curtains push to the side and a pale face was blurred through the glass panes.
My mother told me in an email that Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had died and it took three more emails and a phone call to figure out that she meant Jean and Vinnie. We had never called our neighbors by their last names, and I didn’t even know it was Wilson until after the fact.
Vinnie was of very poor health, and had always been, even when I was growing up. My mom didn’t tell me exactly how he died, because I don’t think anyone on our street was really sure. She did tell me that Jean died only a few days after he did.
There were three people that lived on our street with the same birthday: August 23rd. My brother was one of them, along with Mrs. Daly who lived in the first house on the right at the start of the street, and Bobby McCarthy, who lived in the last house that was built on our street. I remember that they cleared out a bunch of trees to build the McCarthys’ house. My brother and I were upset because we used to play in that tiny patch of forest. Though, it did seem a lot bigger when we were younger.
I don’t know if anyone on our street was particularly sad that Jean and Vinnie had died. I don’t think anyone was really close with them, or even liked them to be honest. They were kind of mean. And crotchety. That’s the word people use to describe people in their old age once they’ve lost their sense of humor. Jean and Vinnie lost their humor a long time ago.
Jean was a small woman, with curly, white hair, cut short. I remember she went blind when I was about fourteen years old. Maybe earlier than that. She wore those slacks with the elastic waistband like so many older women do. She usually wore a thin, short-sleeved sweater with those pants. Often her outfits were variations of pale pastels like robin’s egg blue or were horribly boring and beige.
I never knew much of Vinnie, except that he used to mow their lawn early on Saturday mornings when I was still sleeping. All of the houses in my neighborhood were close together because that’s what happened when you lived in a city. Every year in the early summer, usually around the middle of May, Jean and Vinnie would set up a small screened-in room in their backyard. Our lawns were all so small that the tiny room took up most of the grassy area behind their house.
They had a tiny garden, which occupied the rest of the space in their yard, besides their tin shed. During the wind storms and snow storms, I could hear bits of branches fall from trees and hit the tin roof of their shed late at night when I was trying to fall asleep.
Sometimes, their son Rick would come over to their house with his family. They would bring their dog; a weimaraner that barked incessantly. After Jean and Vinnie died, their son and his wife, Sue, came to clean out some things from the house. I heard their dark blue pick-up truck roll into the driveway that my brother and I used to ride our bikes up into. In the bed of the truck were three two-by-four planks and a bag of dog food. I saw Rick load on old bird bath from the backyard into the bed of the truck, too.
At the end of the street I grew up on, there are tangles of thorn bushes and dead trees. And beyond those, there are the brick walls of the projects. No one ever talked about the bad parts of town, even when one was breathing down the neck of your property line.
I only ever knew one boy who lived in the projects, though I never knew his name. We used to stand in silence on the corner at the intersection of Shaw and Hayward and wait for the bus when we were in middle school. He didn’t know Jean and Vinnie and I doubt he knew anyone on my street but me; though he never really knew me either I suppose.
After Jean and Vinnie died, I heard my dad talking to Rick and Sue over the fence the day they took the bird bath. They asked my dad if he wouldn’t mind parking his car in Jean and Vinnie’s driveway to make it look like the house was occupied. They didn’t want people to break in, they said.
I borrowed my father’s car that night and when I came home I parked it behind the green dumpster in Jean and Vinnie’s driveway at midnight. It was eerie and forbidden. I had spent an entire childhood avoiding this tiny patch of asphalt, and now I was asked to roll up toward their house.
As I opened the door and walked away from the car, I looked back at their house to make sure they weren’t peering out of the window with pale faces, watching me click my boots across their driveway. Instead of walking to my own door, I padded through the thick, over-grown grass in front of Jean and Vinnie’s house and sat on their damp front steps.
When I looked out and the air was dark, a harsh glow of streetlights and blue flashing televisions shone from the project buildings and lit up the lower half of the street near the McCarthy house. Red, blinking airplane warning lights signaled from the Boston skyline from the tops of buildings. And the ceiling of the Earth was never really, truly black in a city.