Like A Good Neighbor by Lainy Carslaw
My neighbor’s house was empty. It had been dark and way too quiet for days now. I was sitting on my concrete walkway, pulling weeds from what you could have called a garden, intermittently looking over at Shelly’s house—checking for signs of life.
Shelly’s garden was much nicer than mine and so was her house. “The nicest in the neighborhood,” as Shelly called it, and she could have been right. While my house was covered in dirty white siding, hers was made of a dark maroon brick. While I had a plain, shingle roof and rusty metal railings surrounding my porch, Shelly’s roof had different levels and rounded metal shingles, giving it the feel of a castle. Such order to disguise such chaos, I thought.
If she were home right now, she would be hovering over me, giving me gardening advice, complaining about her evil sisters, or bringing me her latest homemade dish. In all honesty, I didn’t want her food or her conversation, but it was so strange not see her for this long and I couldn’t help wondering if she was okay.
We had moved onto this quiet city street nine years ago, and it didn’t take long to figure out Shelly had some problems. On the first night we had moved into our new neighborhood, I was sitting on the steps of my back porch, enjoying a beer with a friend, when a woman appeared at the fence. In the dim porch light, I could see that her skin was overly tan, baked almost, like she spent too much time in the tanning bed. Her body was thin and frail, her head too big for her body. She could have said she was seventy or fifty and I would have believed her either way.
“Hello,” she waved cheerily. “Welcome to our little slice of heaven.” She cackled in a way that reminded me of the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz. Me and my friend raised our eyebrows at each other.
She must have taken our silence as an invitation and was at the bottom of my porch steps in a flash. She introduced herself as Shelly, and then she introduced everyone else. “That over there is Tube-socks,” she said pointing to the house across the alleyway. “What an ass. And this is Eileen-do-gooder,” she pointed to the right. “And that is Charlie-know-it-all. But this guy,” she said pointing to her left, “that is Jack. Jacko-the-Whacko.”
Shelly sounded like she was drunk, slurring her words together, and I again looked at my friend thinking, “Oh shit, are houses returnable?”
Over the years we got used to Shelly showing up on our back porch with one wild story or another. We got used to her bringing us flea market gifts that we never would have bought for ourselves. And we got used to her bringing us food.
On one particular afternoon, she brought me a vegetable stew in a Styrofoam bowl. Seemingly not wanting to alienate anyone from the vegetable family, she crammed them all in, and I winced as I watched peppers, mushrooms, beets, olives (I hated olives), stewed tomatoes (I hated mushy tomatoes)—all drowning in a thick red sauce. “Try it,” she said, standing over me. “Everything is from my garden.”
She handed me a spoon and I took a bite, smiling with sealed lips as I swallowed. I managed to choke down another, but the minute she left my house I bolted to the kitchen and dumped the sludge down the disposal. When I heard the front door open again, I froze at the kitchen sink. I looked out my open kitchen window into Shelly’s open kitchen window, which was only an arm’s length away. No way, I thought. I’m just being paranoid. No way.
Shelly appeared in my kitchen with scissors in her hand, pointing them right at me with an unpredictable look in her dark eyes. “I forgot,” she said, “let me cut you some fresh basil into your stew.”
“I ummm…” I started, my face turning red. “I ate it all. Just cleaning the bowl out now.” I took a step backward.
She took a step forward.
“You threw it away,” she accused.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t.” I had suddenly reverted to an eight-year-old child who’d just been busted but refused to admit it.
“You hurt my feelings. I’ll never make you anything again,” she said turning to leave.
When the door slammed with her exit and I realized she hadn’t meant to murder me with the scissors, I felt awful. I felt less awful when she brought me key lime pie two days later, seemingly forgetting her vow to never bring me food again.
I thought of that story now, as I ripped another weed from the dirt, pricking my finger on what my son called “the pokies.” I put my finger in my mouth to stop the bleeding and saw Jack coming down the sidewalk. Jacko-the Whacko.
Jack’s house, on the other side of Shelly’s, was shrouded with trees so thick you couldn’t even see it from the road. It was usually left dark and seemed like one children might skip while trick-or-treating. Not just because of the house, but because of him. He was a fifty-or-so-year-old man with a big nose, greasy face, and large glasses. At first, I thought he would walk right by me like he always did, but this time he stopped and looked up at me. He wanted to know if I knew where Shelly was.
“No,” I answered. “I haven’t seen her in a week or so. I’ve been a little worried, do you know where she is?”
“Jail,” he said abruptly. He said it as simply as if he’d said she were on vacation, or at the store. “She’s in jail,” he repeated.
“Why?” I asked. “What did she do this time?”
“She grabbed someone’s balls,” he said. He said this matter-of-factly, too, like he might have told me she went on a weekend vacation. He may have considered this normal, but if I had had a drink in my mouth at that moment, I would have spit it right in his face. This was surprising, even for Shelly.
When we had first moved in, Shelly was still working at her pharmacy downtown, and although we may have found her a bit strange, we wouldn’t have considered her dangerous. But when a bigger pharmacy bought her out, she seemed to lose all direction, all clarity, like the thin thread that kept her tied to sanity had finally been cut.
I couldn’t say for sure if Shelly had taken too many of her pills, if she was an alcoholic, or if she suffered from schizophrenia, manic depression, or some other undiagnosed mental illness. There were certain days she seemed completely fine, as if she had just woken up and decided to be normal—like her oddness was just some kind of mild flu to overcome. Other times her pupils were swollen and her eyes looked like they had been drowned in a thick, black syrup. Her focus became distant, like she was there, but also somewhere else—somewhere lonely and far away.
I saw that look in her eyes the morning she stood on her porch, completely still, like a tortured cement sculpture. She was still in her pink silk PJs, her hair was mangled, and she was wearing a white neck brace and work gloves, which believe it or not, was not that strange. What was strange was that she had a swollen black eye, and she also refused to acknowledge me. She seemed frozen, locked behind a waist-high steel railing, as if she didn’t know that all she had to do was take three steps to the right, where the latch was, to earn her freedom.
“Shelly, what happened?” I called to her from my porch.
I started down the steps and walked to where my yard met hers, trying to reach her. “What happened to your eye?” I asked again softly.
She didn’t budge. She didn’t even look at me. And when I returned from the grocery store an hour later, she still had not moved, not even an inch.
Where was she? I wondered. Where had her mind gone, leaving her body to fend for itself? I ran into the house and told my husband to call 911.
As the medics wheeled her out on a stretcher, my five and three-year-old sons watched from the window. My older son asked where she was going. They wanted to know what had happened to her. They liked Shelly, and I didn’t know what to tell them.
“Shelly has some problems,” I said to my boys. “She is going where they can help her.”
“Is dat why Shelly’s sisters hate her?” he asked. He said Shelly’s name with more of a W sound than an L.
“No, Honey. Who told you that?”
“Shelly did,” he answered.
“No one hates Shelly,” I said, pulling him in for a hug. “We’ll help her too.”
My husband tracked her down at the mental hospital and went to visit her while I stayed with the kids. When he signed in at the window the receptionist told him that he was the only one who had come to see her. Showing up was not all we did for her. When she was released, my husband continued to mow her lawn, I picked up her medication, and when Shelly called because she had dropped her prosthetic front tooth down the drain, in an immense act of heroism, he stuck his fingers down inside it and helped her dig it out.
Maybe we shouldn’t have, but we let our kids keep her company, too. She taught them words in Italian as they helped her water her garden. She had been home for about a month before the lights went out and never came back on.
Jack continued filling me in on the mystery of my missing neighbor, telling me that Shelly hadn’t just grabbed anyone’s balls, but the balls of an Amish roofer who was working on the house across the alleyway. And when the police came, she grabbed their balls too. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was all too ridiculous, even for Shelly. I laughed until I was practically crying, and Jack joined right in. For a second, he wasn’t Jack-the-Whacko, he was just another neighbor.
The laughter between us seemed to create a soft and comfortable environment and I stepped into it, telling him something else Shelly had said when she had returned from the mental hospital. Looking back now, I don’t know why I said it. Maybe because I never truly believed Shelly. Maybe because I never believed her to be a reliable source. Maybe because there were nine steps between Jack and I, me up in my yard, him down on the sidewalk, a safe distance away. I guess that doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I wish I wouldn’t have opened my mouth.
“Shelly said you hit her in the face with a baseball bat and gave her that black eye,” I said.
Jack stopped laughing. He turned serious, like he had become someone else altogether. He took off his glasses and looked at me hard.
“She tells me about you, too,” he said. “She said you’re writing a book. She goes in your house when you’re at work and reads it. She tells me things about your past.”
What the hell? That could not be. It just couldn’t.
Could it? I blinked once. Twice. A bird chirped in the tree above me. A woman pushed a stroller casually past Jack. Life was still going about its business and I tried to act like I was a totally calm part of it on the outside while my insides were busy twisting themselves into knots.
My mind raced. If Jack was telling the truth, then Shelly invaded my life and my house every day while I went to work, which was a horrifying thought. And if he was lying, then he must have gone into my house, which was even more terrifying. There was no other way he could have known about my book.
“That’s messed up,” I said. I stood up and brushed some dirt from my legs, thinking movement might hide my emotions and, at the same time, signal that although this had been fun, it was over. Jack only smiled.
“Well, I’m off,” he said. “Good riddance to Shelly.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
I was beside myself when he left. I was angry but more importantly, I was afraid. I had written some very personal things in that book. What had he read? What had he seen? And who else would he tell? This, I thought, is how people end up on “60 Minutes.”
I relayed my conversation with Jack to my husband and he responded appropriately. “If and when Shelly gets out of jail, we will have absolutely nothing to do with her,” he said. “She is a danger to us and our kids. And we better start locking the damn doors!”
At that moment, I completely agreed. And when I saw her return home, looking frail as ever, dragging her feet up the sidewalk to her dark and empty house that seemed to swallow her up, not spitting her out for four whole days, I still agreed. Even after my kids took out the 3-D chalk she had bought them for Christmas and began to draw her a picture on her part of the sidewalk, I still agreed. Their yellow and pink fluorescent characters lasted for only a few days, smearing under foot traffic, and it reminded me of the stick figures Shelly had drawn in permanent marker on the back of our home.
Awhile back, Shelly had measured my kids against the dirty white siding of our house. Next to the line that tracked their height, she wrote their names and drew symbolic figures to represent them. This was a strange thing to do, no doubt. But it was stranger, a few days later, when she measured herself. For the last few years, every time I walked into my back door, I was eye to eye with a red, curly-haired stick figure labeled “Shelly.”
I had tried to get rid of that ridiculous stick figure at least a dozen times, but no matter how hard I scrubbed, I was never able to erase her.
A few days after Shelly’s return, my husband and I were sitting on my back porch steps. It was not night or day, but a beautiful in between. Our kids were running shirtless and barefoot through the grass, their blonde mushroom cuts bouncing up and down like jellyfish.
Shelly walked outside and without saying a word, she began watering her plants. Every few minutes she inched a little bit closer to us, like a child testing the heat of a flame. Finally, she came right up to the fence and asked if the boys could come help her water her broccoli.
“No,” my husband snapped.
“But Daa-ad,” Koda whined.
“I said No!”
I flinched. I knew this was the plan, but the cruelty still gave me a jolt. I shot him a look, tears filling my eyes and ran inside. Through the window I saw her retreat to her yard. I wish I couldn’t see her between the tiny slits in the fence, but I could. I could see all of her.
Over the next few hours, I tried to get her out of my head, but I couldn’t. I realized that somewhere along the line I had stopped worrying about myself, my book, my kids. I knew I would be fine. We had a big, loving family, good jobs—door locks. Instead, I started to worry about Shelly and wondered what it was exactly that we owed our neighbors—the people who existed right beside us? What was it we should do for those who were clearly in need of help but seemed to have nowhere to turn, except back towards us?
Didn’t they deserve a smile, a listening ear? In the least a wave, and at the most, every single thing we had to offer?
Over the next few weeks, Shelly became like a ghost. She was never there, but somehow always around, leaving little hints of her presence on our porch—tennis rackets, Precious Moments figurines, and fresh mint from her garden.
I would see her slumped shadow pass by her kitchen window. I would see her outside in a black bikini, a mini-skirt, or some other inappropriate outfit that a pop-singer like Madonna might have worn. She was so skinny I could see her rib bones. Her skin seemed to be sagging more and more—hanging off her bones like clothes on a hanger. In these moments, I knew it would be only minutes before hired help would pull up in front of her house. A landscaper. A cable guy. A roofer.
One morning, she came outside and stood on her back porch. Despite the sunshine, she lifted an umbrella over her head and began to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a sad and distant voice. She had that far-off look in her eyes, like her body was there but her mind was some place no one else knew. She didn’t look that way all the time. Sometimes she was in there, not buried, or far away—but awake and aware. Perhaps, right then, she just felt like she had no reason to be.
She looked over at me and I smiled, opening my hand in a stiff wave. She smiled back and I saw into a void, the black hole where there had once been a tooth. My heart surged.
“I love that movie,” I told her—shattering the silence, shattering whatever else it had been, that kept us separated.
Lainy Carslaw is a writer, gymnastics coach, and mother of three boys from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has a poetry degree from University of Pittsburgh and her MFA from Chatham University. Her work can be found with Brevity, Pink Pangea, Technique Magazine, and the Sandy River Review.
Follow her on Instagram @lainycarslaw or visit livebravewritebrave.com.