The air conditioner
It all started with the window air conditioning unit giving up the ghost one hot night in the summer of 2003. In the silence following its final death rattle, I glanced at the clock and called it. Time of death: 3:27 a.m. We’d just have to sweat our way through the rest of the night—and summer, it turned out. But in April 2004, with me eight months pregnant and already feeling overheated, we decided to spring for central air.
A workman installed our new air conditioner. At the end of the job, he told us he couldn’t legally do the electrical wiring of the unit, but he could hire an electrician to complete the finishing touches for us. Or he could just tell Husband what to do.
Husband went for the do-it-yourself option, and he’d do it later that evening when he got home from work, he said. By the time he returned, though, it was already dark, so he rigged up a couple of work lights surrounding the new unit and set to work.
The next day, someone pounded on our screen door, shaking the windows on the front of the house. Through the curtains, I saw a man, his mouth a tight line and his brows furrowed. I stepped onto our porch to see what he wanted but kept the screen door between us locked.
“I live over there,” he said, jabbing his finger in the direction of his home. “And you were shining a light into my house last night.”
“Why were you shining a light into my house? Were you trying to watch me?”
I remembered the late-night wiring job.
“No, my husband was hooking up our air conditioner. Sorry we bothered you. I’ll send him over later to talk to you.”
But Husband didn’t go over right away after work to talk to Mr. Neighbor. In fact, he didn’t go over the next day either. Or the day after that.
Mr. Neighbor came back a second time. More pounding on the door. Again, Husband was gone at work.
“Your man didn’t come over like you said.”
I apologized again, and sent Mr. N home with another promise of a visit. I called Husband. He’d go see Mr. N when he got back, he assured me.
After work, Husband knocked on Mr. N’s front door. The man opened it, but kept the screen door shut, and stood back in the shadows of his dark house. Husband set the record straight, wrapping his facts in a crisp apology. Mr. N said he wasn’t accusing us of anything, but only asking what we were doing with the light. And no, he didn’t have any issues with us. Husband returned home.
I had seen Mr. N only once before the doorstep confrontation—a year earlier on Valentine’s Day. I remembered an ambulance parked in front of Mr. N’s place. The paramedics removed a body, covered in a white sheet, on a stretcher from his house. When the ambulance drove away into the night, Mr. N stood in his open doorway, leaning against the doorjamb, and sobbed. He kept to himself after that. Until now.
Suddenly, Mr. N was out and about every day. He danced on the sidewalk in front of his house in a trench coat with a top hat and umbrella. He talked to the boulevard tree and then bowed to it. He set up a rummage sale in the middle of the street. Nervous, I called the police.
A female officer stopped by to check on Mr. N and had a brief chat with him. After she left, he moved his rummage sale items to his front lawn so cars could drive through again.
When Husband returned home from work, Mr. N and a female friend, sitting in lawn chairs amongst their rummage sale wares, saw him and flagged him over.
The woman pointed at Husband’s gun in its holster and accused him of having it “hanging all out there.”
“You called me over. I just got home from work,” he said.
“I remember your mama from juvie,” Mr. N said, sneering. “She loved the devil.”
“I don’t think so,” Husband said. “She’s never been to juvie.”
The one-sided accusations and ranting escalated.
“Have a good day,” Husband said, ending the tirade and heading home.
Out-of-town relatives visited that weekend. A large number of us filled the living room one evening and spilled out onto our front porch. Mr. N stopped over. He was jovial and asked to meet the family. Husband introduced him around the room. I eyed the growing ash on the end of Mr. N’s cigarette as he talked.
“Can I have some money?” Mr. N asked my brother-in-law.
“Okay, let’s go,” Husband said with a smile and walked Mr. N to the door.
Two days later, I ventured out to weed in our backyard garden. Playing on the grass near me, Flicka and Ricka blew soap bubbles at each other. Pregnant out to there and feeling creaky as I got on my hands and knees, I decided this would be the last time gardening before the baby came.
Suddenly, eight police cars pulled up on the street. Profanity wafted over into my garden. An ambulance parked out front. Obscenities punctuated the air. Flicka and Ricka were oblivious, still blowing bubbles, but now at Dexter, the wiener dog, who chomped at the air, bursting them.
“Get your hands on your head!”
From the backyard, I could see the officers handcuff Mr. N, strap him to a gurney, and shut him into the back of an ambulance. The girls, delighted by the dog’s antics, poured the whole bottle of bubbles on the pooch.
“Don’t waste the bubbles, girls,” I said, distracted, still watching the activity out front. The ambulance drove away, along with the police cars, and soon the street was quiet again.
I surveyed the garden—my mind far away—and frowned. We had gotten off on the wrong foot with Mr. N. I wondered when he would come back again. And I wondered what I could do.
Just then I heard a car door slam. Two male voices floated through the chain-link fence from the street. The men entered the Isenbergs’ old house, and minutes later, emerged, strolling out into the back yard. I stood, brushed off my hands, and rubbed out the kinks in my lower back. The men nodded at me, and I waved. The five-gallon bucket still lay on its side in the garden.
One of the men—shorter than me—was a realtor, he told me. Then his client, at least six-and-a-half-feet tall, bald, and with distinctive black eyebrows, introduced himself.
“I’m Dallas,” he said. “And I’m checking out the house.”
We chatted for a few minutes, and as we did, Dallas’ laugh rang out over the entire yard. I couldn’t help but smile. We talked some more. I had prayed for homeowners, not renters. This might be our answer.
“Please buy the house,” I said. Again, the lilting laugh from Dallas.
I imagined barbecues, impromptu neighborly visits, and sharing tips for eradicating pesky weeds. And I hoped that laugh would make us smile in the future over our shared chain-link fence.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.