I usually assume that the work in the little garage behind my townhouse on the limbic fringe of a stillborn subdivision goes mostly unnoticed. Naturally, it’s hard to ignore the resounding roar of a pneumatic dual-action sander upon a Beetle roof (it sounds like a Messerschmidt in a power dive) but hopefully those days of noise are behind me now. Hopefully, the next motorized sound emanating from my garage will be the gentle, civilized purr of a freshly-rebuilt forty-horse Volkswagen engine.
Life goes on around me. The country-clubbers who had been renting the townhouse next door have moved on. Their lives seemed to be an endless whir of activity. He traveled constantly. She always seemed harried, always running late for something. Her BMW came and went many times on any given day. Sometimes she would stop and chat — mostly about her ten-year-old daughter, to whom she was
immensely dedicated. Once she confided in me about some medical problems she was having, of the female variety. I didn’t know how to take this so I just kept my trap shut and listened. Surgery, she said. Hysterectomy, apparently. She didn’t seem particularly frightened but I bet she was. I know I would be. I wondered why she was telling me all of this — me, of all people, who really didn’t know her very well, and whose understanding of female plumbing is marginal, at best. Maybe it was exactly what she needed just
then — a neutral listener, a neighbor with whom she had merely a passing acquaintance, someone with no personal stake in the matter.
Soon enough things were back to normal over there, the comings and the goings back to their pre-hysterectomy level. Then in the spring he took a transfer, and they moved out at the end of theschool year. In spite of the noise (which I tried to keep to normal business hours, Monday through Friday) and the fact that my garage faces theirs, they showed very little interest in what I was doing over there. Which was more than fine by me. In spite of some early tensions regarding what I perceived as their taking an unfair portion of our shared driveway — which I resolved by simply blocking them in and disappearing for hours on my bicycle — one could do a lot worse in terms of immediate neighbors.
Slightly farther afield, I have other neighbors who seem to be rooting for me. This was clear within days of Rubylove leaving for the paint shop, vacating the spot in the garage where she had been resident for a thousand days. “Where’s the old Vee-Dubya?” Carl wanted to know. Carl is a friendly old guy a who lives two buildings over. I am the only male citizen of Athens, Georgia (or anywhere else in Georgia, I suspect) who knows absolutely nothing about football. But it is said that back in the day, Carl was quite a standout for the Georgia Bulldogs. I’ve changed his name here, but I just now Googled him by his real one — he comes up on the first page. I think he once told me he’s 78. It’s hard to believe, because that dude doesn’t seem to sit still. He spends hours working in his garden — even with the temperatures in the triple digits — and I often see him in the morning, power-walking along a road that’s popular for cyclists and runners like me. He is always smiling.
Another fan is Maribeth. Her interest apparently stems from the fact that she once owned a Jetta (don’t ask me). I might have her name wrong — at least, I think it’s Maribeth. But if it isn’t, she doesn’t seem to mind my mistake. She usually strolls by with a bunch of kids in tow. I’m never sure which are hers, but at least some of them are. There always seems to be another one on the way. “What color are you going to go with?” Maribeth asked. “It’s a secret,” I said, playfully. She seemed to appreciate that, and didn’t press the issue.
Paul often walks by with his older-than-dirt springer spaniel. “Well, where did it go?” he said, peering into my empty garage with a wide-eyed, stunned, and theatrical flourish. I’m not sure what to make of Paul. He’s a character, for sure. A retired high school teacher, he lives in one of the detached houses that front the neighborhood. Paul’s slow and thick Southern accent, in combination with his exaggerated facial expressions, might give the first impression of someone who is a little slow under the lid. With the level of amazement that animates him when I answer his questions about the project, you’d think I was attempting to build my own time machine in there.
As with most people, there’s more to Paul than meets the eye. From the little things he’s said, I’m pretty sure he smokes pot from time to time. He says that back in the 70’s, he actually owned a Westfalia for a time, and made numerous camping trips with his wife and kids. But he’s also a bit paranoid, possibly from
watching too much cable news (read: any cable news). Sometimes he makes oblique references to political
matters, but I know from having spent my entire adult life in Georgia that it’s probably best for me to let such things pass.
Recently there have been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood. I tend to take such things in stride — I don’t leave valuables in the Subaru (which is parked outside, an indignity for which I suspect it will forever hold a grudge against the Beetle), leave a porch light on at night, and make sure the doors are locked when I go out.
Paul shared with me a story of one recent nocturnal adventure, which saw him creeping around his house in the wee hours with his loaded .357 leading the way. He’d thought he’d “heard something.” Not only
that, but he had seen a “suspicious-looking” car cruising slowly through the neighborhood the previous day. “Kids,” he said, with a glare that was supposed to tell me something. It didn’t. “Black kids,” he added, by way of explanation. Perhaps he had forgotten that yes, the subdivision is overwhelmingly white, but there are one or two African-American families living here too. (And Jews. And lesbians. And even a Jewish lesbian, of all things! Those of us who celebrate such variety call it diversity.) The denouement of Paul’s story was hardly action-packed. In the end (spoiler alert!) our protagonist decided it was nothing after all. He went back to bed.
Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice? Hard to say for sure. But the way I see it, unless I am directly threatened, it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to shoot some kid for trying to steal my television set. But then again, I do not own a gun. Or a television set.
In spite of the fact that he and I differ greatly in our way of seeing things, I seem to be able to tolerate Paul reasonably well. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the curious affinity I have for anyone who’s slightly off-kilter. Maybe with those yellow-lensed Ray-Ban shooters he always wears, his histrionics, and his less-than-savory worldview, he strikes me as an amusing amalgam of characters consisting of one part Hunter S. Thompson, one part Jack Nicholson, and one part Jim Bob Bunker (Archie’s long-lost Southern brother).
There are certain individuals who, I am certain, are placed in this world for the sole purpose of testing my patience. The retiree who actually owns the townhouse next door was one of them. But he only lived there
for a short time before heading further south, much to my relief.
Another such individual is Darrell. Being a very insecure individual, I’m expert at finding faults in others. If there is a chink in your armor, you can bet your ass I’ll find it, poke around in there, and exploit it for my own personal gratification. Darrell remains a special case. I would be hard-pressed to actually sit down and create a list of the things I can’t stand about Darrell. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two. The first is that I feel sorry for him. Darrell is of indeterminate age — he might be sixty, or he might be eighty. In spite of his age, he seems compact and strong. From a distance one might guess he’s tall, but when he comes up close I always find myself surprised to find that I
have at least four or five inches on him.
Another thing that I find myself thinking at close range is how ugly that guy is. There is no charitable way of putting it. I’m well aware that I’m no Brad Pitt myself, but I can’t help but be struck by it, every single
time. The skin on his face is cratered badly, his nose bulbous, his eyes rheumy and swollen. There are styes, scars, and warts with little gray hairs sprouting out of them. He is missing many teeth. He has an extremely thick accent and whistles when he talks. I have a very hard time understanding him. Like me, in wintertime he has a penchant for plaid flannel. But unlike me, Darrell does not look like some woodsy wanna-be. With his battered face and sturdy frame, he could have come straight from yet another season at the logging camp.
I’m not sure what Darrell’s actual job title is. I do not follow closely the complex management arrangement of my dead subdivision, but the soporific details go something like this: The developer bailed when things went pear-shaped. Undeveloped tracts were sold off or foreclosed on. The remainder is owned by a law firm in which each of the many partners insisted upon being included in said firm’s name. That law firm contracts with a management company (bearing a more reasonable moniker consisting of one last name, followed by “& Associates”) to oversee what needs to be overseen. There is a homeowners’ association (of which my wife is a representative) which was to take over management when the subdivision was built out to a certain percentage. But as that seems likely to never occur, we are left in a state of limbo — for the most part at the mercy of the management company, to which the association serves an “advisory” role. Residents in the detached dwellings are mostly on their own in terms of maintenance. The common areas, as well as the townhouses, are maintained (or not, which would actually be my personal preference) by a landscaping company. Of course, with the coffers nearly empty and nobody exactly eager to see an increase of membership fees (a classic American conundrum in which we expect everything but don’t want to actually pay for it) this is a source of perpetual conflict.
Yet somehow, over the years, the management has found the means to keep a general handyman on retainer, a Jack of all trades, a man to step into the breach between where the homeowners’ responsibilities end and the landscaper’s begins. And that, apparently, is where Darrell fits in.
Darrell’s main occupation seems to be driving around the neighborhood in his rickety little Mitsubishi pickup. Sometimes he might be found spreading pine straw (the purpose of which is to cover up spaces which we didn’t seem inclined to leave well enough alone in the first place). Or he might be seen hauling river rocks for a homeowner building a koi pond. Once an alert neighbor spotted him at the controls of a
Bobcat, randomly thrashing the undergrowth among heretofore undisturbed and mature hardwoods near the entrance to the subdivision. When asked about it, Darrell claimed to be acting under the direction of a resident who had complained that said undergrowth detracted from the otherwise manicured character
of the neighborhood. As an added bonus, said resident wound up with a much better view of the highway.
Even though world history has demonstrated that there is a limit to what can be excused for “just following orders,” I do not grudge Darrell for any of this. He is getting paid (and likely not very well) for doing the menial chores that lie far below what can be expected from citizens of greater socioeconomic consequence. Given his age, the short shrift he gets, and the frustration he undoubtedly must feel at being subjected to the often conflicting whims of the various parties involved, Darrell might be forgiven for being bitter. But he is not. His is friendly, and seldom has a negative word to say.
Like I said, I feel sorry for him. Pity, of course, is antithetical to truly liking someone. Ironically, it is one of his better qualities — his friendliness — that is the root of the second thing, the thing that really bugs me about Darrell: He has a preternatural knack for suddenly appearing in the garage when I’m most frustrated, most overwhelmed, or most pressed for time. Not only that, but often he comes bearing gifts. Sometimes it’s simply the name and number of somebody he knows, who knows somebody who has a nephew who has a few old Beetles laying about his yard, who I might call if I need some parts. Other times
Darrell brings something physical. Once it was a couple of catalogs he’d gotten in the mail (Harbor Freight, JC Whitney) that he thought I’d be interested in, and which went straight to the recycling bin the moment his back was turned. Another time it was a rusty old jack of some sort, that Darrell insisted was from an old Volkswagen. Really, I’m convinced it came from a Model T (or earlier) instead, but that’s besides the point. Because I was no doubt in the middle of welding something (which usually entails me burning holes in it before coming up with a better plan), or discovering (after the fact) that no, the window
regulator needs to be in place before assembling the rest of the Rube Goldberg-engineered door innards,
or realizing that I’ve just spent hours meticulously installing the main wiring harness backwards — because I was so damn preoccupied with whatever all-important hell I was putting myself through, Darrell’s intended kindness was dismissed with a half-assed “thanks” which may as well have been appended with, “Now get lost!”
And therein lies the main reason I can’t stand Darrell. I am convinced he is the Buddha manifest, presenting himself as a golden opportunity to greatly enrich my karma. And I fail miserably, every single time. In his kindness, Darrell is a constant reminder of what a dickhead I can be sometimes.
It dawns on me now that maybe others are not rooting for me after all. Maybe Carl, Maribeth, Paul — all of them, except maybe Darrell — are secretly wishing for me to fail. Perhaps they would all revel in the schadenfreude of seeing their moody, unneighborly neighbor reap his just rewards, of witnessing the billowing, black clouds of smoke rising from the pyre of an abandoned restoration, fueled by the timbers of what had recently been his garage. Or maybe, in showing interest in his progress, they’re just hoping the noise is over, wishing that he would just be done with it already.