I scurry quickly to the mailbox. By the time I turn around with several days worth of junk in my hands, he is standing outside waiting for me.
I really thought he’d gone out. Guess that was his wife’s car leaving a few minutes ago. My mistake.
I quicken my pace and keep my eyes cast down, pretending an advertisement for pizza is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read.
“Hey neighbor,” he calls out. “How are you?”
I consider pretending I didn’t hear him. I don’t look up for a few beats and foolishly think maybe he won’t try again.
“The kids sure are getting big,” he says.
He has mastered the art of starting a conversation before the other person can get away, a black belt of verbal assault.
“When do they start back to school?” he continues and takes a step toward me as I try to sneak past his perfectly green lawn.
Despite brown grass in every other lawn, he stubbornly refuses to allow his oasis to be thwarted by the government. He believes the drought is some conspiracy and he refuses to acknowledge it. Somehow Obama is behind it.
“We have about a month left of summer,” I say in a rush. “The kids are waiting on their lunch. I better hurry back. They get all cranky when they are hungry.”
“The girls are good,” he starts and I brace myself.
He stands squarely in the middle of the sidewalk and there is no polite way to leave now. I’m trapped in the social obligation of good neighbor.
I remember when we moved in. His sweet face all smiles and welcoming. Polished, handsome and always working in his perfect lawn and doting on his beautiful French wife. They seemed the ideal representation of the American dream.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve seem him age dramatically. He looks tired and unkempt today in a thin white t-shirt and sweatpants. He stands stooped and looks frail. There is a slight odor of aftershave mixed with something else that I can’t put my finger on.
That phrase “the girls are good” is always what he starts with. Those words have a physical effect on me. My blood pressure goes up and I get agitated because I know what follows: story after story about his three perfect granddaughters. His love for them is both beautiful and incredibly nauseating.
“Did I tell you that Samantha got straight A’s?”
“Hey did you hear that Celeste’s volleyball team made it to nationals?”
“We are sending Teresa to France for her senior trip. She is so excited!”
His love and dedication to them has been the topic of thousands of sidewalk conversations with rarely a chance to get a word in. I always smile and tell him that he must be proud.
“You know I have to take care of them,” he always says. “I have to be everything I know their father would have been.”
I remember the first time I was invited into his immaculate home, everything white and gleaming. In the living room is an enormous photo of his son. He is standing in a park somewhere, a handsome blond with tan skin. He has one daughter in a pack on his back, one attached to his leg looking up at him and the third he is pushing on a swing.
His son died shortly after the picture was taken. Brain tumor. Sudden. Tragic.
There have been many tears over the years on the sidewalk between our houses, as he would recount memories of the boy he lost. He and his wife put flowers on his grave every Sunday after church. Every spring they use a special cleaner to polish the gravestone.
His son’s death broke his heart and set him on this course of obsessively caring for the three young girls that were left behind.
I’ve watched as they’ve grown up with voice lessons, private school, yearly Hawaiian vacations, clothes, cell phones and anything else they could ask for. I’ve watched as he bought them each matching brand-new white Cadillac’s when they turned 16. I’ve listened to the stories of their trips and accomplishments.
I have watched these girls grow up and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been jealous. The ugly kind of jealousy that makes me loathe the sight of their privileged little blond heads in their matching Caddies as they park in front of my house to pick up cash from their loving grandparents.
I never had grandparents who thought everything I did was brilliant, perfect and worth bragging about. Never went on exotic vacations or had someone to ask for help paying for school. My legacy was mental illness and emotional distance. I was given bibles, prayed for and made to feel never enough.
Basically, I began feeling all kinds of sorry for myself. That turned into hatred of the girls for the “perfect life” that I observed from my place next door. I have spent over a decade developing my distaste of anything to do with them.
“The girls are good,” he says again and starts in.
The oldest is studying at an Ivy League college and is traveling through Europe for the summer. She is planning on being a doctor and studying the kind of tumor that killed her father. I have heard him tell me that for years now and have often wondered if it is her dream or her grandfather’s for her.
The middle girl is in Tennessee following her music career goals and he is certain she will be the next Taylor Swift. She has a boyfriend that is famous and has hired her to sing backup on his next album.
“Voice of an angel,” he says and trails off.
He stands there and kind of sways a little. I could see there was something he wasn’t saying. I was worried his cancer was back, or his wife was sick or something had happened to his daughter.
“It’s heroin,” he finally says, spitting out the words with a mixture of anger and pain. “I just don’t think I can save her. How did it happen?”
His youngest granddaughter, the athlete with the promising volleyball career, is a drug addict.
With a shaky voice he tells me how he keeps trying to get her to rehab, but she keeps leaving.
He tells me about picking her up at a filthy motel, the guys she was with wanted money and he had to call the police. He had borrowed a friend’s gun and was prepared to protect her, but realized he was over his head.
“I’m 74-years-old,” he says. “I can’t put myself in that position again. I could have been killed.”
The tears fall down his face and I hug him as hard as I can. We stand there for a few minutes and I cry into his shoulder. His sobs keep coming and I worry he might fall. He finally stops, steps back and looks at me.
“Pray for her,” he asks weakly. “Will you?”
“Of course,” I say.
He turns around and walks up the driveway without looking back. Wiping my face, I head inside to make lunch.
I have no idea why this young girl has turned to drugs. Abuse. Mental illness. Depression. Loneliness. I really have no idea.
All I know is that she is broken, her grandfather is being torn apart and I’m feeling guilt for all the bad things I’ve thought about her and her beautiful sisters.
I am the jerk next door.