The Stories in My Neighborhood

Nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in has had certain elements in common. There’s the house with too many cars. At least one is missing wheels and it’s up on cinderblocks. Another will be missing an engine. The one next to that will be wearing a minstrel’s motley of mismatched panels. 

There’s the house where the kids run wild. You’re never sure if adults actually live there because you’ve never seen them. Only the kids.  

Halfway down the street is the older couple who become surrogate grandparents to you and your children. The wild kids eat there a lot. 

There’s the nosy neighbor who always happens to be out walking when you’re in the garden, happily weeding away in a blank mental space because chapter eighteen isn’t working and why, oh, why isn’t chapter eighteen working. You don’t really want to talk to Bob, but Bob wants to talk to you because he’s an extrovert living alone in a house that’s much too big for him, so he spends his days roaming the neighborhood looking for people to talk to.  

(You’ll also run into Bob at the supermarket, library, bagel shop, and bank because Bob is always on the prowl.) 

There’s the family with THE pool. Other neighbors have pools (some in interesting places), but this is the one everyone wants to swim in. They have the best floats and a jacuzzi. Also, they regularly fire up the grill and, well, grill things. (These were the folks who, when you were a kid, always had batteries in their toys. Always.) 

The house on the corner is the ghost place. You’re pretty sure someone lives there. Lights flick on and off occasionally and someone is mowing the lawn (not quite frequently enough), but you’ve never seen them. Across the street is the couple who don’t socialize. They don’t even wave from their garden when you’re passing by on the street, leaving you feeling like Bob.  

There’s the house that only gets used on weekends. They come out to the Poconos to play loud music and let off fireworks. In January. And there’s the house where tents pop up every weekend when the grandkids come to visit.  

And then, there’s the guy who lives in his garage. I don’t know if every neighborhood has one of these. He’s my first. 

We moved out here shortly before Hurricane Irene swept through, knocking down trees and tearing off roofs. Garage-Guy had a house, then. It looked like it’d weathered a few Irenes before we got here. After Irene, the roof looked ready to slide off. A year later, Sandy swept through, and the front porch began to sag. The damaged roof had been leaning heavily on it, and a few days after the hurricane, part of the roof let go and landed on the porch.  

It was pretty obvious the guy had moved into his garage after Irene. Heck, he might have been living there before we moved out here. My original idea was that he’d set up camp in the detached garage while he renovated the sad house. After the roof fell off, we could all see there was no saving the place. He’d have to demolish it and build something else.  

So, that’s what he did. Demolish it. By hand. About half of the house went into a skip (what you all call a dumpster). The other half? Broken down and packed into heavy-duty rubbish bags. The leaf and lawn kind. Two bags traveled to the curb every Monday night to be collected with the trash.  

Half a house. Put out with the trash.  

The bags sat in a row across the front of the property for a year and a half until, finally, all of them made it up to the curb. Every time we drove past, we’d check for updates. Watch the line of bags diminish. Watch as Garage-Guy set up one of those pop-up garages (like a carport/tent) next to the actual garage. His car doesn’t fit in it. 

We watched as he built a wall across the front of his property with the stones that grow in the ground around here like weeds. He installed an electric gate. We’ve had to stop behind his car while he causes a traffic jam on this winding country road, all of us waiting for his electric gate to open. The gate that’s set into a two-foot-high wall that anyone could step over. 

Have I mentioned the weeds? 

One year, he weeded his lot, around the broken concrete slab that once supported a house, and down behind the garage. The brick one. He didn’t have the pop-up one then. And he laid these weeds (they were about two feet long) over his wall. For a day, the wall was green. Then the weeds turned brown and rotted. They’re still there, some of them, caught in crevices. Old, desiccated wisps of vegetation.  

Two years ago, he rented a digger. I was pretty excited by the digger. I thought he might be going to tear up the remains of the concrete slab, preparing that side of the lot for a new house. I expected to see him build this house the same way he tore the old one down. By hand. I wanted to watch. 

One day, I saw him driving the digger around his lot. The next day, nothing appeared dug. Then the bright yellow machine sat there for about a month. Then it disappeared.  

Back when I was writing and submitting short stories to speculative magazines, I tossed around a lot of theories about this guy. For some reason, I decided he’d torn the house apart to expose a hole to the center of the Earth. Thinking about it now, the idea makes no sense. If I had a hole to the center of the Earth under my house, I’d keep it covered up. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d feel safer moving into my detached garage just in case my house got sucked down into the magma one night. 

I also thought he might have a tunnel under the garage. I seem to remember I was also writing a story around this time that had a hole opening up in our front lawn, one that sucked me into a time warp. I guess I was obsessed with dangerous holes. Thankfully, none of these stories were ever published. (I wonder why…) 

What I really want to know, though, is the why of it all. I mean, okay, the house was falling down and had to go, but was it falling down when he got there or was he living there all along, house crumbling to bits around him until he woke up one morning, mouth full of rotten plaster and spiders, and thought, I should move into the garage? 

Did he buy the property intending to knock the place down all along and eventually build something else there? Is he planning an estate (it’d have to be very, very small) to go with his electric gate? Or does he simply like living in a garage? I mean, it’s essentially one room. Must be easy to heat. I assume he has insulated it. He’d have had to. The concrete floor would be cold, though, and humidity would be an issue. He couldn’t be keeping books out there. They’d be plumping and curling and getting that moldy paper smell.  

What are his plans?  

Also, how does he feel about the family across the street who have a pool in their front yard? A big, four-foot-deep, bright blue, soft-sided pool jutting out from the front steps. On the weekend, the whole family is in that pool, their towels draped all around the stair railings. If you were to walk past with your dog while they were swimming, like the egg people do, you’d get wet with their splashing. The pool is that close to the street.  

Oh, the egg people sell eggs. They have a sign they flip over their front railing when they have eggs.  

Anyway… 

I actually kind of admire the pool people. I’d love to say, whatever, my front garden will never be pretty enough to win any sort of award, so why not plunk a pool right there, just below the steps so I can run through the front door, take a flying leap, and land with a splash. The beach towels dotted all over the grass and rails would be as bright and vibrant as flowers. The deer don’t eat towels, do they? It’d be so much less work.  

(You might think I’m being sarcastic. I’m not. Sometimes it’s nice to imagine letting go.) 

But… but. Their house is on the high side of the street. And when the pool popped, it took half their lawn across the road to pile up against Garage-Guy’s weedy wall.  

I guess he built it for a reason. He must have known.  

Have I mentioned the woman who weeds the side of the road? Do you have one of those in your neighborhood? She carries a collection of Shoprite bags over one arm. They’re empty when I pass her on the way into town. They’re bulging when I pass on the way back.  

I wonder if she talks to the guy in orange who jogs along that stretch of road every day through rain, snow, and perhaps a hurricane. Do they talk about the house with all the blue lights in the basement? It looks like a fish tank down there. Do they know the people who sell the eggs? Do they have their own theories about Garage-Guy? 

Have they met Bob? I’m sure Bob ranges that far on occasion. 

I have thought about visiting Garage-Guy, explaining that I’m a writer and asking him to share his story. I’d ask if he’s a Jules Verne fan. It’d probably be a weird conversation. I really want to know about the weeds. I mean… why? The wall looks terrible.  

Oh, and the gate. What’s with the gate? 

Then again, if I did find out what he planned to do with his property, I’d no longer be able to speculate. His mystery would be solved. We, as a family, would no longer have to lean to the left as we drive past, checking to see what’s new.  

My time might better be spent figuring out chapter eighteen. Because, really, some stories can’t be simply told. They have to be left alone to just… be. To develop. To tickle our curiosity, and to spark new ideas. To add color to the stories we can tell.  

Okay, that’s enough rambling for one day. It’s time for my walk. I need to check on the place where they’re building a deck. And see if the people two streets over have mowed their lawn yet. It’s high enough to decorate another wall. And the people in the cul-de-sac behind me were digging holes last time I walked past. I want to see what they’ve planted.  

Will number twelve have hung their new garage doors yet? Oh, and the roof of number 24 was being replaced… 

5 thoughts on “The Stories in My Neighborhood

  1. 16forward

    Your neighborhood is so much more interesting than mine!
    Though it does seem this summer, in lieu of going on vacations, everyone is doing home improvements…kitchen remodels, putting in (in ground) pools, repairing driveways, having foundations repaired and building pavestone brick flowerbeds the length of their houses and garages.
    I think I’d rather be with you…
    Especially when you plot and ruminate over chapter 18 and garage guy…

    • Kelly Jensen

      I’m the neighborhood busy-body! I’m out walking nearly every day, so I keep an eye on things. But, yes! So many people doing home improvements. It’s nice to see. 🙂

  2. Laurie

    It was a treat to read your rambling neighborhood thoughts. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who does that. I missed (!!!) your posts while my computer was out of commission for two days. (Which is why I’m still online at 7:42 a.m. I’ve missed ALL the things for two days!)

    Many thanks to my awesome daughter who spent hours figuring out what was wrong and how to fix it, and from three states away got my weird Ubuntu system back up and running.

    Kelly, you’d probably find my neighborhood quirkily interesting too. When we moved here eons ago, the guy next door had named their three kids after racehorses. (How’d you like to be a boy going through life as Fancy Dan? No kidding. Never just Dan, always Fancy Dan.)

    After the couple split (surprisingly unrelated to the kids’ names), the mom decided manufacturing meth was a genius way of supporting herself. She once “explained” to me that the horrendously nasty chemical smell in her garage was caused by “accidentally locking the cat in the garage overnight”. But I still can’t figure out how that explained the used needles and condoms regularly littering my yard. Well, yeah, okay, but try explaining it to your kids.

    We’re pretty happy about the replacement neighbors. Ecstatic, in fact. Even though the guy is seriously grouchy and periodically yells loudly right outside our bedroom windows – at people on the phone. He also periodically shoots his pistol in the back yard.

    Surprisingly, his wife is always friendly and one of the nicest people you could ever meet.

  3. Laurie

    Right? Another example of “life is stranger than fiction”.

    After enjoying the euphoria of being back online again, I finally got to sleep around 9:30a.m. today. Was waked by a phone call at 5:15p.m., which just reinforces my impression that I should move to New Zealand.

    After the 75-minute phone call from a friend, I was finally able to get online today (jonesing something awful), only to be greeted by a message from Linux Mint saying I need to upgrade to their latest version, which would be bad enough. But the new ones (of three – and which one am I meant to choose??) have pages of instructions, the most relevant of which is undoubtedly “Don’t panic” (thus, automatically triggering panic).

    The new versions also have a Russian nickname, which does not exactly inspire me with trust. They might just about as well have named it after our current prez.

    Much chocolate may be needed in order to accomplish the traumatic task ahead.

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