The Neighborly Thing
At first, Sylvia didn't know which way her neighbor leaned politically. She and her husband Phil had lived in the new house only three weeks and were so busy painting and arranging things that they hadn't had time for a social life. Somehow, even though people had warned her, she hadn't given much thought to whether it would be easy or difficult to find compatible local friends after they moved.
In the city, it was a breeze to meet people. She encountered them in parks, museums, classes, concerts and bookstores. Her professor buddy Anna she met in a painting class, and Richard, who taught dancing, was from her book club. She met people in her immigrant aid society and group that helped LGBTQ kids and took it for granted that friends were easy to make and easy to keep. But by friends, Sylvia meant people who, while all being different, pretty much shared her stance on politics and spirituality.
Now she realized how much she was going to miss being around those people.
After a month, Phil reminded Sylvia that he had to return to the city. "I just need a week or so at the office to get things in order and then I'll be back to set up shop here."
"Awww," said Sylvia. "I'll be so lonely."
"Well, you knew this was the plan. It'll give you time to get to know a neighbor or two. And there's your collection…"
He was referring to the anthology of short stories she was organizing. Since Phil worked for a publishing company, he had the proper "in" for her, though she was quite proficient at this work on her own.
They kissed, he got into his Prius and she was left alone in uncharted territory.
One can only make so many muffins, cookies and casseroles to store in the freezer. The time arose when she needed to reach out and next door was a wholesome looking woman who reminded Sylvia of her aunts when she was small and visited Pennsylvania. That look acquired by helpful church ladies and women who lived on prosperous farms, though this neighbor occupied a house of obvious suburban design. A traditional looking home, unlike Sylvia's which was a sprawling contemporary affair formerly owned by a psychiatrist. A wooded space separated the neighbor's home from Sylvia's, but the lady could easily be seen and studied from Sylvia's kitchen window.
She decided to make her move. It was imperative to know a neighbor in case of emergencies, though important not to get overly friendly. Her father had always warned her. "You don't want people dropping in all the time; you'll never get rid of them without turning them into enemies."
Sylvia filled a foil pan with an assortment of baked goods and carried it over. The woman was in her yard examining one of her azalea bushes and smiled broadly when she spotted her visitor. "Why, I was planning on taking something over to you! Figured I'd give you all time to settle in first. I'm worried about my bushes. Looks like something's eating them. But come on inside and we'll have a cup of coffee. I'm Cathy Bennet, by the way."
Sylvia introduced herself. She did not like coffee and mentally debated whether to come clean now and get things off to an honest start, but once inside she saw the coffee was already made. Cathy, with her short, puffy blonde hairdo, happily buzzed about setting her breakfast nook with plates, utensils and napkins and hummed while she poured the coffee.
"So, you're a city type lady, huh?" Cathy began, as they settled into the booth.
"Yes, but not sure what you mean," Sylvia said as she bit into one of her own muffins.
"Well, you know, liberal and all."
The muffin inside Sylvia's mouth morphed into a lump of cotton. She managed to swallow it. "Do you mean Democrat?"
"Well, yeah, that," said Cathy. "I don't mean anything bad about it, just mentioning that you probably have a different view of things than we do around here."
After a silence while Sylvia tried to tamp down a sudden and disconcerting rush of rage, she answered. "Are you saying that everyone around here is right-wing?"
"Well," said Cathy, "We're not Nazis if that's what you mean by 'right-wing.' We're just plain Republican. Not everyone, of course. I know that Jim, the mailman, is an Independent and Maria who runs the candy store is a Democrat, and that hippie woman who does the yoga classes is Green Party, but for the most part, we're Christian and loyal to the Red, White and Blue."
Sylvia set her muffin down. "I'm sorry, but are you saying that if you're a Democrat, you're disloyal to the country?"
"Well, I don't necessarily mean you, but in general Democrats just aren't patriotic. They pretty much hate America."
Sylvia, feeling herself growing almost feverish, said, "May I remind you that thousands of Democrats died fighting for this country in our various and endless wars; literally gave their lives so people like you can sit here in comfortable houses and call them names!"
Cathy set her own muffin down and looked at Sylvia with wide open, surprised blue eyes. "Well, I didn't mean--"
"And I, who supposedly hates her country, served in the Peace Corps while you did what exactly?" She stood up.
Cathy was crestfallen. "Oh, honey, I didn't mean to start all this. Obviously, I spoke out of turn. I don't want us to get off to a bad start!"
Sylvia paused while looking out Cathy's large kitchen window into her pretty wooded backyard, then sat back down. "Okay," she said. "Might be better if we don't discuss politics. Can we adhere to that?"
"Sure, sure," said Cathy, who stood up to refresh their coffee. "So, what does your husband do?"
"Not going to ask me what I do?" said Sylvia, still bristling.
"Oh, I didn't mean anything--"
Sylvia cut her off. "Phil is an editor with a publishing company. He edits books. He'll be working from home once he finishes up loose ends in the city. I'm a writer and editor myself. At the moment, I'm putting together a collection of stories and essays on women and aging."
"Women and aging, huh? But why would women want to read about that? It's hard enough to grow old without being reminded of it."
Sylvia internally rolled her eyes. What did Cathy like to read? Romance novels? "A lot of people like to hear about other people's experiences with what they're currently going through. It helps them feel better about themselves, maybe not to worry so much or be depressed."
"I don't," said Cathy. "I want to escape when I read. I want to forget about this place and time and go somewhere else where things are more interesting."
"Or romantic?" prompted Sylvia.
Cathy chuckled. "Well, yeah."
We are most definitely never going to be friends, Sylvia thought. "I like to escape too sometimes," she said, "though I want my escape to be reasonably realistic. I want the people I read about to be believable. No heaving bosoms for me."
Cathy's phone rang and Sylvia saw her glance at it lying on the kitchen counter, which gave her an excuse to leave. She rose and said, "Go ahead and take that. We'll visit another day." Though she had no intention of doing so. On her way out, she noticed a picture on the wall in the hall of a brown haired, blue-eyed Jesus with several Caucasian children gathered around him and this time rolled her eyes outright. It was with utter relief when she was back inside her own house where real art adorned the walls and the shelves were lined with intelligent reading material. And where, if there ever were a picture of Jesus (which there would not be), he would look properly Middle Eastern.
After Bill got home from his Home Depot errands, Cathy set his plate in front of him and asked if he wanted iced tea or Crystal Light. He had to drink sugar free beverages due to his diabetes. The poor man had that along with COPD from his smoking days. "Iced tea," he said. "That other stuff riles up my stomach."
She poured them both glassfuls and sat down for dinner. They were having a new recipe for salmon, which she didn't like but was trying to make herself do so. It was good for Bill.
"That new neighbor was here," she said.
"The city one?"
"Yes. And she's everything I thought she'd be though I don't see why we can't still be friends or at least good neighbors. I don't think she likes me though."
Bill bit into his unappetizing fish and said, "What's your clue?"
"Well, every single thing I say sets her off. I can't seem to say anything right."
"Don't worry about it," Bill said, his mouth full. What he wanted was Cathy's excellent fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, not this, whatever it was, cauliflower goo made to fool you into thinking it was mashed potatoes. "It's not important."
"Well, she's a liberal and all, so like most of them, she thinks she has a claim to being a better person than the rest of us. She mentioned she'd been in the Peace Corps, which I guess is supposed to mean she's done her good deed for life."
"Well, you don't really know that," said Bill, looking rather forlorn, his eyes darting about as if looking for a stray porkchop or French fry.
"No, I don't really. But I can tell she thinks she's smarter than me and that I'm too uneducated to have a serious conversation with. I did finish two years of college and would've done the rest if you hadn't knocked me up, Bill!" She chuckled.
"Well, if I remember right, you were sorry you started trained to be a teacher after visiting that classroom."
Cathy laughed. "Yeah, that horrible fifth grade turned me off. Those kids said things out loud you wouldn't believe."
"I suppose she hates the President," he said. "No respect there, I guess."
"Well, she didn't say specifically, but I'm sure you're right. Wanted us to respect that side's choice but they don't give that in return, do they?"
"I really hate salmon," said Bill.
"Well, you'd better learn to like it, end of story. Remember what the doctor said."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "How did people live in the old days without eating all this health food crap?"
"Well, for one thing, they did more physical exercise. And they didn't sit on their butts for hours watching TV."
They ate in silence for a while and then she said, "I suppose she's pro-abortion and all. Probably for those late term ones too. Yanking the babies out and chopping them up. Makes me so mad."
Bill didn't say anything.
"I wouldn't be here if my mother had done that."
Bill reached over and touched her hand. "I know, sweetie."
"What if she had? I'd never have grown up with Aunt Margie. I'd never have known Jerry and Kenny. For that matter, none of the cousins and I love them all so much."
"It was good of her," Bill said kindly, even though he'd heard this story countless times over the years.
"Think of all the children that might have been," Cathy said. "That could have enjoyed what I did."
"Well, or not," said Bill softly, but Cathy chose not to hear him; she didn't want to get into an argument, not that Bill was prochoice or anything. He'd leave that to the women to fight it out.
"There's fruit salad for dessert," she said, getting up from the table.
"I'll pass," said Bill, getting up himself. He had a Snickers Bar stashed in the garage for later. He gave her a kiss and went out.
Cathy hummed as she cleaned up the dishes, then headed down the hall to the bathroom, on her way passing her picture of Jesus on the wall. Whenever she looked at it, she remembered her grandma, to whom it had once belonged. Everyone had gotten to keep something of Grandma's after she passed, and Cathy had chosen this picture because it reminded her of when she was little and all the fun times she'd had staying over at Grandma's. Watching old movies on her TV and sucking on lemon drops while Grandma made pies and mint iced tea and fried chicken and all those wonderful things. Grandma had always been a personal friend of Jesus in her helpful, quiet, unassuming way and Cathy was sure she was with Him now.
Silvia felt an urge to clean off the cloying sweetness with its underlying treachery that she felt her neighbor exhibited. The coziness, the Jesus on the wall, so "Christian" and outwardly kind while all the while supporting a political body that locked children in cages, took away people's healthcare, undid environmental protections and…well, the list went on. Why, Cathy probably knitted socks for street people, took casseroles to the bereaved and slept like a baby, considering herself a "good Samaritan," while her political stance caused untold misery for millions. So angry was Sylvia that she mixed herself a martini to calm down. She regretted the muffin she'd eaten; it would slow down the buzz. She needed the buzz to help herself forget that people like Cathy existed. But the drink did not make her forget. She realized, that the longer Cathy's tribe was in control of everything, the more she grew to viscerally detest half of her countrymen.
That evening on the phone she expressed this to Phil. "If this is all that's around here, how am I going to stand it? I seem to have forgotten why we moved."
"We were sick of the traffic and fumes and noise. We can't afford to live there if I'm earning less. We wanted fresh air and nature! There simply have to be others in the area who share our views. Start a group or something. You'll have to take the ball into your own hands."
He was right but what he said made her feel lonely and scared. She'd been used to having a wide circle of friends with whom she felt safe. She could have tossed a pebble in the air and it would have hit a fellow liberal. The only conservatives she knew were the doorman, whom she tended to avoid unless absolutely necessary (he was a talker) and the receptionist at her dentist's, overheard expressing her bigoted views to someone on her cell. How had she taken all that for granted? She looked out a front window at the widely spaced houses, and thought I am in enemy territory. She felt fear in the pit of her stomach.
Phil, when he returned, easily made a new friend at the gym who shared his political and literary views. He whistled while he worked.
"I must get out and about," Sylvia told herself and she called the number given on Facebook for the county Democratic Party. A machine answered and said the next meeting was three weeks hence at a fire hall and would include a breakfast. No way would Phil agree to endure that and she herself had an aversion to listening to political speakers.
"Join a yoga class or something," said one city friend in a phone call.
Good idea, so Sylvia did, but no one was friendly after class and most were old hippies, not really her type and probably meant Green Party, a lost cause vote-wise.
She was forced, at least temporarily, to occasional socializing with Cathy. Not that she went after the woman, but vice versa. Telephone calls and dropping by, which Sylvia discouraged by saying that she and Phil were working.
And then the Covid19 pandemic arrived and with it, social distancing.
"We're so lucky to be out of the city," Phil said, and he was happy to work at home, talk occasionally to authors, other editors and old friends on Zoom while Sylvia felt the pinch. She missed lunches and dinners out and wandering through arty and ethnic shops. Yes, they were fortunate to be in a place with less people; she knew a lot of their city friends were frightened and isolated in their apartments. But it was frustrating for all this to happen before she had a chance to search for like-minded friends and she grew more enraged daily with White House policies.
"Bill," Cathy called from the kitchen where she was icing a poppyseed lemon cake. "You have that video appointment with the nurse practitioner this morning. I got everything set up for you in there. They'll call at 10:40 and you just click on the link. Did you comb your hair? No one looks very good on those things."
"Show her that spot on the side of your neck!" she yelled.
"One good thing about this corona bullshit," Bill called back. "Not having to go over there, drive into the damn city! I don't mind this at all."
Cathy was planning on making them lunch and then heading out to drop the cake off for the minister and his family. She knew he was busy as all get out setting up virtual calls to his congregation and could use a little treat. She was going to miss Sunday mornings seeing her friends, but then there were a few she wouldn't miss like Elaine Wiley who felt she had to run everything. Well, she'd tune in, like everyone else, to Rev. Decker's sermon which would probably once again be about supporting the President. A President who, in Cathy's opinion, if anyone cared to ask, was anything but a gentleman, but at least he was protecting the unborn and keeping their country free of dangerous immigrants. She'd give him that. And no one God chose to do his work was very perfect, that was for sure.
"I suppose Cathy next door is still worshipping the Orange Deranged One," said Sylvia at breakfast.
"Maybe you should give her a call," said Phil. "I know she's annoying but she's still our neighbor. And it's been almost a month since you talked to her, right?"
"She's like a Nazi neighbor during the Holocaust. She and her kind are causing the literal destruction of the world, don't you see?"
"Not the world," said Phil calmly, "but humanity. The world can easily continue without us."
"I'll give her a call, but I'll be gritting my teeth," she told Phil. "Talking to a right-winger is like visiting a serial killer in prison and having a conversation with him about gardening. All the while you're thinking about the rotting, buried bodies."
"That's the spirit," said Phil.
It might have been better for her blood pressure if she hadn't called Cathy.
"We just wanted to check on how you're doing over there," Silvia said.
"Oh, I'm fine. Bill is fine, no worries here."
"You're staying in then, keeping safe?"
"Oh, we're not making a big deal of anything. I think it's all exaggerated. You know the news media, always trying to make mountains out of molehills."
"Ya think?" Silvia said. "Lots of people have died in other countries so far. It's going to hit hard, give it time. It'll be like that here too, maybe worse."
"Well, we'll see," said Cathy. "But for now, I'm going about pretty much as usual. I've got a hair appointment this afternoon."
"Your hairdresser is open? Didn't the governor order nonessential businesses to be closed?" Her voice was growing shrilly.
"Oh," said Cathy, "it's inside her house. She has a setup in her basement."
"You're going to her house? That means you'll pick up all her family's germs and take all yours to hers! Not very responsible, Cathy."
"Oh, poof," she said. "They're blowing this out of proportion for political reasons."
"Hmmm, I guess your news source is FOX?"
"I watch it, yes. It's more balanced. Unlike some of the others."
Silvia immediately felt a need to take a blood pressure pill. She'd recently lost eight pounds and gotten off the meds, but now she could literally feel her artery walls tightening. "Actually," she said, "FOX is quite low on the accuracy meter. Your most accurate sources would be NPR, PBS, BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times!"
"Well, I don't know, honey," said Cathy, "I just know what I enjoy listening to and FOX is fine for me. Well, I got to get going, Mary Lynn is expecting me and then after that I'm dropping off some quilting material for my friend."
OMG, Silvia thought, she's going to another house? But she said nothing, what was the point?
"Would you like to come over later for coffee? Or tea?" Cathy finished off.
"What?" Was the woman mentally challenged? "No thanks, Cathy. I'm abiding by the social distancing rule. Make sure you wear a mask."
"Oh, I can't do that, I get claustrophobic. Don't worry, I'll stay back from people."
"Cathy, don't you care about protecting your husband? Didn't you tell me Bill has COPD?"
"Oh, he'll be fine. I wash my hands over and over when I get back."
Silvia got off the phone and made herself an even stronger martini than usual. "I'm drinking too much," she told Phil, standing in the doorway of his office.
"I don't think a martini a day is drinking too much," he said.
"I feel so angry. Now she's going out and exposing herself and Bill, not to mention other people. How stupid can she be?"
"I am seriously sorry this pandemic came now," said Phil. "Just when you most need to make your way out into the community so you don't have to focus on Cathy."
"I know," she said.
"She's just one small town woman who knows little of the world. Her world, like her mind, is very limited."
"But don't you see, Phil? We now live in a sea of small minds!"
He got up and held her.
Two weeks later, Cathy called. "Bill is in the hospital. He's got that virus and they have him on oxygen."
Sylvia tried to keep her voice even. "You brought it home to him?" she said.
Cathy was silent for a long moment and for the first time, her tone was slightly incensed. "He probably brought it home himself."
"What? He, with COPD, went out?"
Another silence. "He went to McDonald's where he and his cronies have coffee twice a week. They did sit outside. Here his friend Wayne Fitzgerald must have been carrying it. He got sick a few days later. He's doing all right, but Bill has lung involvement."
"Not yet," she said.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear this," Sylvia said, but she wasn't feeling sorry; she was feeling hateful. It was all she could do to hold back what she really wanted to say. "Please keep us posted," she said and got off the phone as soon as possible.
"He could die," she told Phil at dinner. "The idiot."
Phil sipped his Chablis. "Yes, he could. What is he, sixty-six?"
"Something like that. Why do those people imagine that they don't have to follow the rules of nature?"
"Willful ignorance," she insisted. "Their stupid attitude towards the advice of actual scientists! She probably thought Jesus would protect her, if the virus is even real!"
Phil looked at her musingly. "You want her to get sick."
She sipped her martini. "I have a dark side, Phil. I'm not a saint."
"Never thought you were," he said.
Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, The Speculative Edge and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. Her story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has stories included in several anthologies, published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.