[ToC]

 

HOW TO AVOID YOUR NEIGHBORS

Trey Moody

PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE

1. Buy plenty of food. Purchase a Costco or Sam's Club membership. If neither establishment has locations in your town or city, do the best you can. Buy frozen as much as possible. For the pantry, packaged and canned foods work well. Crackers, cereal, green beans, corn, peanut butter, tuna. For the refrigerator: ketchup, mustard, pickles, jelly. Items not to bother with: eggs, milk, fresh fruits or vegetables.

*

[Since he was a boy, John never liked the vegetables his parents grew in the backyard. He'd complain to his mother, who was insistent on serving broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, corn, cucumber, spinach, and tomatoes—each once a week. Usually, John could talk his way out of more than the few bites he had to suffer through slowly, every evening, because he had no dog to feed under the table. No dog—only Chester, the gray cat, and Rudolph, the goldfish, who John later learned was actually eight different goldfish, all named Rudolph by his parents, eager to avoid tragedy.]

2. Do not go outside. Keep all of the blinds closed, the lights low, the TV quiet. Make sure the car is in the garage. Without the need of a material world beyond your domestic sphere, you soon will forget about your neighbor. Until, of course, food begins to dwindle.

*

[John, thirty-six—not living alone but rather with his cat, Fred—sat silent on his brown leather couch, absorbing all that Cops had to offer. Hungry, John thought about the Burger King down the street, and for a moment convinced himself to submit to this desire. Had he seen an ad without realizing it? Regardless, he was ready: during the very next commercial break he would act. The segment ended. Paralyzed, John thought of them, his neighbors. He eyed his closed blinds and turned off the lamp next to him. He felt sure there were at least two slices of bread in the pantry. He felt sure there was plenty of peanut butter for one sandwich.] 

3. Closely observe your neighbors' routines. Know who leaves for work and at what time, know who comes home for lunch, and know who is retired or independently wealthy. This information is vital; without it, you might as well be walking out into the wild.

*

[He heard Linda every morning. Five a.m. She started the diesel. Let it run. Normally he could get back to sleep before his workday began, but that morning he couldn't. So he made coffee. Then Internet. The Cubs lost. Three emails: Netflix, spam, Amazon. He rated all his transactions five stars. He then had to pee; he decided when he got back he would begin looking through his copy for the day: as usual, hospital insurance.]

4. Instead of accidentally bumping into a neighbor while collecting the morning paper, read the news online. Beneficial to both you and the environment, the only difference in this method will be reading at a computer instead of at the breakfast table; either way, the point is not lost. This is especially important on weekends, when your neighbor might be fetching the newspaper in a robe—an encounter you should avoid altogether.

*

[When John was in junior high, he got paid minimally to deliver papers from his bicycle. Even as an adult, he likes remembering those early mornings, the sun still a few hours from rising, when most people were asleep. Their cars waited outside like solemn pets, and even in memory John can't remember anything quieter. Then Mr. Wilson, a workplace friend of John's father, realized his coworker's son was the one delivering papers. Mr. Wilson would get up early to make coffee and ask John in for some orange juice. John accepted his first invitation, but never again. Mr. Wilson was roughly twenty years older than John's father, and all John can remember of that one morning drinking orange juice was Mr. Wilson's thin old hands—how he asked John to pinch the skin on top of his worn right hand, which John did, resulting in a leathery wave that sustained itself for more than a few seconds.]

5. Get a wooden backyard fence of at least six feet. This way you can experience the natural world, only without being disturbed by anyone. In the spring or summer afternoons, you can bring your tea outside and sit, listening to the birds and squirrels interact.

*

[On a particularly chilly afternoon in late April, John brought Moby Dick outside to read. As he began, he didn't remember it being that difficult in high school. But would he even remember if it was, he thought. He heard Fred mewing to come outside. When Fred had been outside before, the birds seemed to warn each other from a safe distance in the branches. While considering this, something interrupted John: a weed-eater, Bob's. John closed the book and went inside.]

6. Pay your bills on time. Depending on the season, having your electricity or gas cancelled would force you to leave your house, whether for safety or to remedy your standing with the respective company. The cancellation of cable and/or telephone, less severe but equally annoying, would also create an unnecessary errand. To ensure expedient payment, consider switching all accounts to electronic bills, so long as your Internet has not been cancelled already.

*

[While paying bills online one night, John heard something he hadn't since moving into his house in October: a baby crying. With one eye, John peeked from the side of his second-story window to see Tina standing in her front yard with a baby. Linda and David were talking with her. The next day, Bob placed an updated neighborhood name chart in John's mailbox. The baby's name was William.]

7. When for any reason you are forced to leave your home, be sure to take some necessary precautions. If you have some type of blind or curtain system established on the windows, carefully pull the slats apart or pull the curtain gently to peer across the street and laterally as much as possible. If you do not have such systems, get them as soon as possible: an open window is an open invitation to your neighbor.

*

[The cat food ran out the night before. Fred hadn't eaten all day. He was mewing and rubbing against John's leg. Not sure of what to do, John looked between the slats of his blinds: Linda was sitting on her front porch, reading. John ate a bowl of Cheerios. He looked out from between the slats again, and Linda was gone. He left for the store.]

8. One of the most common situations in which you might encounter a neighbor is when leaving or returning to your home. Therefore, always park in the garage. With a garage door opener within arm's reach in your car, you can smile confidently and even unenthusiastically wave to your neighbor behind the safety of your sealed windows. But remember: keep extra batteries for the opener somewhere in your car, such as the glove box.

*

[John always wondered if his neighbors thought it strange that, upon returning home, he would close the garage door behind him before exiting the car. He sometimes felt foolish pressing the opener's plastic button while the radio played, since it's only a few steps from his car to the illuminated stationary button inside the garage. He wondered how long one could be in the garage with the car running before the situation became dangerous. Smirking, he realized he had contemplated this before.]

 

 

EXTERIOR ASSAULT & BEING OUTSIDE

9. When the doorbell rings, look through the peephole. If it is UPS, answer it. If it is anyone else, like your neighbor, do not. If you suspect that your neighbor noticed the lighting change from inside the peephole, do not move your face. This way, they will begin thinking they imagined the change in lighting and soon forget about the possibility that an actual person may be looking directly at them through that very peephole. It is your house. It is your right to answer the door or not. For all they know, you are in the shower or doing yard work out back, unaware of their presence.

*

[For three full minutes John kept his face against the inside of his door, looking through the peephole at Bob. Why wasn't he leaving? John counted 200 seconds. At that moment, Bob appeared to be looking around for other neighbors. 233. Bob left.]

10. You may occasionally find a note left on your door, explaining a neighborhood gathering or asking for your presence at a barbecue. There are two options. 1) Leave the note on the door. This way, your neighbor will believe you have not yet read the note, which relieves you from any obligation to respond. 2) Take the note but do not respond. This option may result in you looking inconsiderate, which may or may not cause guilt, but remember that it is not your fault your neighbor put a note on your door, unless fault is determined by simply existing. Warning: if you think performing 1 might incite your neighbor to phone you, move to 2.

*

[HI JOHN—WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR LABOR DAY PARTY. SUNDAY 4-7. IF YOU CAN BRING A SIDE OR DESSERT, THAT'D BE GREAT! HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!  —TINA]

11. When you accidentally receive your neighbor's mail, you will experience a moment of utter dread. But do not worry: if you know your neighbor's schedule, simply place the letter in their mailbox when they are gone. If your neighbor is retired, just watch for the absence of their car. Neighbors have to go somewhere, sometime. Be patient. Or throw it away.

*

[A letter for David had been on John's kitchen counter for four days. Every time he looked, David's white Corolla was in the driveway. John kept the letter for a fifth day, and a sixth. He realized he could not keep waiting, so he opened it. David was still paying off student loans, something John commiserated with. That night, he thought of a great idea. He tore the envelope even more to look like an accident, and then sealed it with tape. On it, he carefully wrote WRONG ADDRESS. John walked into the dark outside to sneak the letter into his own mailbox, erecting the flimsy red flag.]

12. Take out the trash at night, after all neighbors have taken out theirs. This is absolutely necessary, as it is the one moment during the week when your neighbors know you are obligated to venture outside without the safety of a car. It is also best to check the mail at night for the same reasons. But even at night, do not mistake darkness for confidence.

*

[Monday night, 11:30, was when John always took the trash out. He made sure to leave his porch light off to prevent any unnecessary illumination. When he set the plastic bin in its place on the street, after rolling it slowly down the driveway, the silence reminded John of his paper route. He sometimes considered taking a walk around the block. After all, no neighbors were awake at that hour on a Monday night. But he always decided that a walk was too much of a risk. So he'd return quietly inside, where Fred waited.]

13. Since it is nearly impossible to mow your grass or trim your bushes in the dark, consider hiring someone to take care of your yard, if you can afford it. Yard work requires you to stay visibly outside, exposed for sustained periods of time. Yet yard work is something that must be done in order to prevent your neighbor from coming over to discuss your neglect.

*

[When he was thirteen, John started mowing his family's half-acre lot. Despite John's complaining, his father wouldn't budge. John would go outside in the heat of the day, take off his shirt, and mow. He'd imagine cars of older girls driving by, impressed by the sweat on his muscles. A few cars would drive by, but they never stopped or slowed down. But to John, every car was magical and full of potential, no matter its vague inhabitants.]

14. If the garage door opener's batteries have run out, and if you have forgotten to put replacement batteries in the glove box, and if you are driving home and notice your neighbor is outside doing something—mowing, checking the mail, waiting—just pretend to be on your cell phone during a very important call. Stress each word as much as you can, sounding out even the most minor consonants. Discuss dates and times, or have memorized a fictional speech of advice to a friend or family member.

*

[John pulled onto his street, and he could see Tina's blue car parked next to the curb. The trees covered the lawns in the distance, so he couldn't make out anything yet. He rolled up his windows and released his seat belt; he was ready for anything. As he made his way past three or four houses, he could see: Linda was in Carol's yard, along with David, Bob, Tina, and Tina's three-month old, William. John was unclear what the conversation was about. He quickly put his cell phone to his ear, cradling it with his neck. He acknowledged the group with a smiling upward nod, but was already mouthing out the shapes of words, silently. After the moment passed, he reached for the opener and pressed it. Nothing. He tried it again. Nothing. He quickly grabbed his shopping bags from the passenger seat and opened the car door, cell phone still pressed to his neck. "I KNOW, FRIday WILL WORK, but I'M NOT SURE of the TIME. SIX THIRTy? HMM." It took what seemed like eternity to unlock his cold front door.]

15. Inevitably, you will enter into a verbal encounter with your neighbor. They might suggest having dinner together, or dropping by some time. They might even invite you to a gathering they are hosting. The most important fact to remember when engaged in such an encounter: always have plans. Oh no, you are meeting with a friend that night; oh no, you are traveling home to see your parents; oh no, you are going to be doing something else. Your neighbor will never know, so long as the car remains in the garage and the lights are off in the house. In any encounter such as this, all you have to do is smile and answer their questions, politely but briefly, and eventually they will tire, wanting nothing more than to return to their husband, wife, significant other, or pet inside the soft warmth of their home.

*

[One morning John had to go outside. There was a loud storm all through the night, and he noticed, through the window, that a large branch fell on his lawn—a visible fact of the weather that a neighbor might come over to talk about. So John took all his usual precautions before opening his door: there were no neighbors or vehicles in sight. He walked into the middle of his yard where the branch lay. As he reached for it, he heard a voice: "Hi John." It was Bob, who must have been behind the oak tree, fertilizing his lawn by hand. His car must have been in the shop. "Hi," John said. Bob said, "You know, we haven't seen much action at your place lately. Linda and I were thinking of asking you to dinner sometime." "Oh, yeah, well it's been busy," John replied, "and I'm leaving town soon, to visit friends." "Well, drop on by whenever, we'd love to make some plans," Bob said as he resumed his slow, deliberate fertilizing. Embarrassed and exhausted, John brought the stray branch to the backyard.]

 

 

IF ALL ELSE FAILS

16. Move, simply. The most effective way to remove possible encounters with your neighbors, the only downside to moving is that—depending if you move into a neighborhood or apartment building—there will be new neighbors to negotiate, new hurdles to jump.

*

[John was sure someone would come over. The yellow moving truck wouldn't fit in the garage, nor would it fit in the backyard. So there it sat, humongous and still, in the driveway. For a week the orange SOLD sign had been stuck in the yard like a flag. He tried to finish all the loading at night, but it was Friday morning and the buyers would have the keys by three and there was still work to be done. Box by box, John repeatedly exposed his presence in broad daylight via the path through the open garage to the truck's rear. After lunchtime, he locked the truck's latch and closed up the hollow house. The street was quiet. John never saw one neighbor. He rested his hands on the steering wheel while his stomach turned.]

 

__

I've always loved the opening paragraph to Gary Lutz's story "Yours": "Usually the most I care to say in the morning is: 'I have a couple of grown sons.' I say it for the neighbors on both sides." Terrifying, no?