We moved into Aunt Alice’s old house on a cold December morning. My aunt Alice had lived in that house in NE Minneapolis for nearly fifty years. The long winters were hard on her aging body, and after ten years of seasonal migrations she decided to stay south year round. She offered to rent the three bedroom house to me and my two best friends: Cali and Luna. The three of us had come together through the humble jumble of our early adult independence, and we wore each others’ love like a pendant around our necks. My aunt had offered us an escape from our soulless apartment building, a forty floor behemoth towering over the I-94 freeway. All of the units were identical, the windows didn’t open, and all of the angles within the building seemed a little too acute. The affect could be maddening over time.
On a cold December morning we pulled up among the sleepy snow covered houses, and even though we were nestled within the city a thick silence engulfed the neighborhood like water flowing around boulders. After a few hours of moving our belongings inside, we took a break to go for a walk and explore the neighborhood.
On the north side of our home sat a tall purple house. Christmas lights hung in the entry way, and a large Norfolk pine pressed against the window from the inside. The tree looked like it was suffocating in its pot. The branches sprawled against the window panes calling out to get our attention. Our pace slowed and we hovered near the walkway.
“We should introduce ourselves to the new neighbors.” I suggested. The small front yard was peppered with lumpy plots of snow. Dead flowers and bushes poked through the heavy white layer. The smell of the Norfolk pine surrounded the front step. Cali gave the door three eager knocks, and we waited on the doormat with dumb grins, stealing glances at each other. With the muddled sound of movement behind the door, we saw a tall middle-aged woman peer through the boughs of the pine with a dark scowl on her face. She looked at the three of us grinning back at her. Cali waved and the face disappeared leaving the boughs bouncing in the window. The door swung open and she met us with a puzzled look, waiting for an explanation.
“Hi, we just moved in next door, thought we’d introduce ourselves,” I said. The scowl melted off her face, and she smiled welcoming us into her entryway. She had short red-brown hair that resembled vines clinging to her head. She was strong and sharp; it seemed electricity coursed through her veins.
“So you bought Alice’s old house?” She asked.
“Alice is my aunt. We’re renting from her. My name is Amy, and this is Cali, and Luna.” The woman introduced herself to us as Christine.
“I was wondering how long it would be before she would leave us for good,” Christine said, adding “So she’s gone South then?”
“Yep, she joined her sister at a retirement community in Texas. Bingo on Tuesdays, Karaoke on Fridays - they keep themselves busy.” I replied.
“That’s nice.” Christine said as she eyed the three of us huddled in the entryway. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” she said ushering us out onto the front step, shutting the door behind us. We walked down toward the sidewalk in silence. “Shall we try another neighbor?” Cali asked knocking us back into our rhythm.
Walking to the beat of the music playing in our heads, we crossed in front of our little green house to try the south-side neighbor. We walked up to a large yellow house with dark red trim. A sticker in the door’s window depicted a dog and cat and human inside a big red heart. The text on the sticker read, “ANIMAL LOVER” in bold lettering and below that a note to emergency rescue workers read, “SAVE MY PETS.” The sticker listed four cats and one dog residing inside. Luna tapped the door with her fist. We listened to the door but no sound came, so we shuffled down the walk and set out to explore the rest of the neighborhood.
Spring came releasing the city’s inhabitants from endless cold days of hibernation. Rabbits had free reign in the neighborhood, constantly romping through backyards. A gang of stray cats could be spotted running through alleyways and stalking on fences. The smell of barbecue grills and melting snow wafted through the air like a finger poking around corners and pulling you into the street by your nose. Dog walkers marched up and down in front of our house all day long. The park on the hill poured out sounds of children screaming and laughing. Occasionally an aluminum bat would crack against a ball and parents would cheer. The sound trickled down the hill toward our row of houses.
Luna’s family cat, Pollie, came to live with us during the winter months, and after spending most of her life in the woods, the little Calico zipped back and forth across the living room aching for a chance to get outside. We all shared in her stir-crazy sentiments.
As time went on and we explored our surroundings, we got to know our neighbors. Across the street lived a slightly overweight family whose antics provided us a detached sense of family dynamics. Skateboarding in the street and high school romances played out in front of us.
Next to them lived a little girl who wore pink dresses, constantly running, skipping, or hopping about on the sidewalks. The local ice cream truck would often park and play its music waiting for her to come out.
Week by week the flowers my aunt had cared for over the years greeted us revealing their spring blooms. We made use of our backyard’s brick patio - relaxing in the long awaited heat of the sun, grilling our dinners, and enjoying our coffees in the morning and a few cold beers in the evening. It soon became clear that our neighbor Christine did not appreciate our presence in the backyard as her intentional ignorance of our “hellos” grew hard to ignore.
She spent hours every day tending her flower garden and its true, Christine had the nicest garden in the neighborhood. Walkers would stop and admire her bright orange poppies, often returning to take photos. In early spring a small tree in her front yard blossomed, sending pink blooms down the street on the wind. The fragrance mingled with the smell of barbecues and cold water.
In the morning Christine gathered rainwater, collected in clay discs scattered throughout her lawn, to nourish her many flower beds. She spent long afternoons and evenings in her yard weeding, pruning, trimming, and coaxing the flowers into their elegant arrangements. We all developed an appreciation for her green thumb.
With no fences separating our yards, it seemed natural to greet our neighbors with at least a wave of the hand or friendly nod, but Christine never returned a smile. She seemed aggravated by our presence. To kill the tension, Luna thought a sincere complement of her beautiful garden would be a good ice breaker. So one afternoon as Christine rolled out the hose, Luna walked up to the property line to admire an unusual purple flower with vibrant yellow coloring.
“Your flowers are beautiful,” she called over to Christine, who was walking along with the hose. Christine looked up with her eyes narrowed. She was tall and strong, and the sun lit her hair with a red shine.
“I don’t talk to people who leave dead rabbits in my yard,” she spat as she twisted the faucet and marched up to the front of her yard with the hose. Cali and I looked at each other with our eyes wide. Luna stood speechless and confused.
“Dead rabbits?” Luna said quietly as she turned around and walked back toward our patio. We could hear the sharp spattering of water from the hose hitting the side of the purple house.
“Should we go inside?” Cali asked. We saw Christine’s shadow falling only 15 feet away from where we sat. Slowly we gathered our things and moved into the living room.
“What is she talking about?” I asked as soon as the door was shut behind us. We peered out the window and watched Christine stomp between her delicate flowers.
“I have no idea. That is one crazy bird!” Cali said as she stepped away from the window.
We soon learned that Christine’s disgruntled attitude wasn’t reserved solely for us. She was cold towards everyone on the block, but most of them avoided her. We learned to do the same. One afternoon when Cali and Luna were at work, I awoke from a nap to find a message on our answering machine. I pushed the play button standing in front of the machine with my arms crossed. Christine’s voice played back strong and sharp. A high pitched,
“Hello this is your neighbor, Christine. I know someone is home. I was knocking on the door, but no one answered.” I looked over towards the front porch, but thankfully no one was there. The voice on the machine continued, “I have found another dead baby rabbit in my yard, and if your cat is going to be killing rabbits, then I am going to leave them in your yard, for you to bury.” Click.
Pollie, the accused, looked up at me from the floor. I looked out the window, worried I would see a pile of dead rabbits. I picked up the phone and called her back. Three rings before the answering machine kicked in, “If you are calling to solicit donations of any kind, I am not interested. Please take my name off of the call list. Leave a message after the beep. BEEP...Click.” I stared at the phone for a moment speechless. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Cali and Luna would both be home in the next hour or so.
I was in the basement when I heard the door shut and the sound of footsteps across the floor above me. I raced up the steps to find Luna in the kitchen, and I dragged her over to the message machine.
“Listen to this,” I said as I pushed the play button. We both listened to the message replay.
“She’s going to poison Pollie!” Luna gasped after the message finished. “She’s been dwelling on it. This isn’t going to just go away.”
We both peered out the window. She was back in the garden. We watched her kneeling next to a bed of flowers, tearing out the weeds and stacking them in a pile to the left of her knee. “Should we call her back?” Luna asked.
“I already tried.”
When Cali got home we played her the message.
“She’s an angry person. We should just try to ignore her,” Cali said. She nodded to herself adding, “Don’t let it affect you.”
From that point on Christine poked about her yard never mentioning the dead rabbits or Pollie. She seemed to completely ignore our existence and we tried to block out her chilling presence. I always kept my eye on Pollie when we were outside after that. I didn’t want to give Christine a reason for calling us again.
A week later in the heat of the summer, Cali, Luna and I were laying on the floor in the living room watching the shadows fall along the wall. The air was hot and sticky. Pollie sat on the couch flicking her tail and slowly blinking her eyes.
“Do you guys want to go get a drink somewhere?” I asked sitting up, “get out on our bikes?”
“Yeah, some physical activity would be good,” Cali agreed. We looked over at Luna, who still had her eyes closed. Slowly she responded, “I’m just going to stay here for a bit, maybe take a nap. I’ll meet up with you later.” She rolled over onto her stomach and reached for a pillow. Cali threw one down onto her head saying, “See you later!” as we walked out the back door.
Cali and I biked to a neighborhood bar with an outdoor patio. We ordered a pitcher of lemon beer, and sat down at a wooden table with an umbrella. It didn’t take long before we were philosophizing on the nature of life.
“You know...” Cali said to me as we sipped on our beers. “We all have stories. People often ask, ‘what’s your story?’ Each of us are writing our own story. We narrate our lives with an infinite cast of characters.”
We both drank deeply as my phone started rattling against the wooden table.
“Who is it?” Cali asked as I flipped it open.
“Amy! Something happened with Christine.” Luna said through the phone.
“What? What happened?” I asked looking at Cali who was listening.
“I’ll tell you when I get there. I’m getting on my bike.” Click.
“What’s going on?” Cali asked anxiously. “Why couldn’t she tell you?”
“She’s on her way here now.”
“You don’t think she did anything to Pollie?” Cali asked.
The electric lady and her purple house had grown into a dark storm cloud in my mind. Cali and I were sitting in silent reflection when Luna came zipping up on her bike. Her blonde hair was flailing in the wind and her cheeks were red. She walked up to the table smiling, and I poured her a beer.
“So, what happened?” Cali asked. Luna sat down and took a long gulp of the cold beer, wiped her hair out of her face and then began.
“So when you guys left I was still laying there on the floor. I was in and out of dreams until I woke up to the sound of the back door slamming. I was startled; I thought I heard someone in the house. I was real creeped out.”
“Someone came into the house?” I asked.
“At first I thought you came back for some reason, but as I walked into the kitchen I noticed a weird smell. It was very chemical-like, by the back door. Then I saw Christine creeping away down the back steps.”
“Was Pollie outside?” Cali asked.
“No, Pollie was still on the couch. I went outside and called her out. I said, ‘Hey! What are you doing?’ She turned around and looked me in the eye, and pointed her finger in my face and says ‘I didn’t think you were ever going to fix it.’ Then I saw in her hand she was holding a bottle of WD-40.”
“What? She fixed the squeaky hinge?” Cali said sitting back in her chair.
“Yeah, at first I thought she’d tried to poison Pollie, but once I realized she’d came into our house to spray WD-40 on our door, I let her have it. I was like, ‘You can’t just come into our house, this is private property!’ and then she was like, ‘Well you were never going to fix it. You girls are always waking me up whenever you go in and out of your house. I have sensitive hearing!’…Now I’m pissed, she’s pissed and we’re both just yelling at each other. I told her she can’t just traipse into our house. If we’re doing something that’s bothering her she should communicate with us instead of sneaking around. I think she started to realize she was out of line, because she told me that she wants us all to come over to her house tomorrow afternoon.”
“To discuss her issues?” I asked.
“Man, we wouldn’t have time to unpack that load” Cali said.
When the time came we walked over to her house and knocked on the door. The Norfolk pine filled the window. I felt like we were waiting to jump into a large unknown body of water, imagining a large creature from the depths waiting for us behind the door. Suddenly the door was pulled backward, and Christine invited us into the living room with a curt, “come inside.”
A fluffy grey cat jumped down from a table and ran into the kitchen. Spider plants hung down from the ceilings, and multi-colored Christmas lights surrounded the windows. Cali, Luna, and I sat down on the couch as Christine pulled her chair up to the coffee table.
I thought she looked rather pointy, as though her skin were lined with razors. I began to wonder how such a hard woman had such a beautiful garden when my thoughts were interrupted by Luna’s voice,
“So Christine, I think the best thing that could have came out of yesterday’s incident is this conversation, the door for communication is finally open. We want to get along, and if neighborly issues come up we’ll listen if you address us in a respectful way.”
“Well that would be a change, no one on this block respects me.” Christine said, sitting up tall in her chair as she continued, “Those kids over there,” she said raising her voice and pointing to the slightly overweight family across the street, “they’re always outside in the street; skateboarding, coming and going all day long.” The tight lines of her yet youthful face sharpened as we listened to her vent the grudges she carried against each one of our neighbors. “And that family’s always sitting in their front yard all the time.” She added about the family of the little girl who wore pink dresses. “And this guy,” she pointed to the north “he’s always outside grilling, like you girls. When the wind blows it fills up the house with that smell. I have to run around shutting windows all afternoon.” It felt like we were unplugging an inner tube; we were assaulted by the high pitched whine of the air rushing out.
“If you are so unhappy here, why do you stay?” Cali asked. Deflated, Christine answered in a quiet, calm manner.
“Do you know how much blood, sweat, and tears I have poured into that garden? I couldn’t just turn it over to some stranger.” She stopped speaking and looked at the three of us sitting on her couch, finally settling her eyes on me. “I could endure it here when you’re Aunt Alice lived next door. She was old and quiet.”
“Well, I think we’re done here.” Luna said as we all stood up to leave.
“Bye, girls.” Christine said as we walked past the Norfolk pine and out the door.
For weeks we didn’t notice Christine’s presence one way or another. Days were long, and we spent most evenings out and about on various adventures. Summer is the time for the beach, camping trips, and cabin get-a-ways. It wasn’t until the second week in August that we noticed any strange behavior coming from Christine’s garden.
The grill was lit; we were sitting on the patio listening to music when I noticed Cali staring over towards Christine’s house. I turned around to see her marching back and forth along the property line, knees high. She stopped and looked at us plugging her nose and clenching her fist. She pointed at the grill and then marched inside and began slamming her windows shut. We exchanged glances, eyes wide.
For the next two weeks we often woke up in the morning to messages on the answering machine from Christine, accusations of waking her up “coming home from the bar” every night. (Accusations that we knew couldn’t possibly be true knowing the facts of our own whereabouts at the offending times.) In addition, we received complaints about the stench of our compost bin. (She informed us that she stopped using her compost bin because of the smell and encouraged us to do the same.) But she crossed the line one afternoon in late August.
We were all in the backyard: me reading in a lounge chair, Luna weeding our own flower bed, Cali hanging clothes up on the clothes line, and Pollie roaming through the bushes. Christine was no-where to be seen. Pollie had wandered over the property line into Christine’s alley driveway, when Cali looked up to see Christine burst forth onto her backyard balcony, grab a potted plant from the railing and hurl it towards Pollie, crashing only three feet away from the unsuspecting cat.
Luna and I looked up and saw Christine glaring down towards Pollie.
“Did you just throw something at my cat?” Luna asked.
“Your cat was in my yard!” Christine yelled pointing at the broken plant on the driveway.
“You could have hit her, that’s not cool.” Luna said. Christine’s anger dispersed in a flash like a lightning bolt discharged to earth. She looked down at us meek and tired.
“I….uhh, well…sorry.” She said quietly as she backed into her house and shut the door.
Four days later, on my birthday, I woke up to find a very nice looking young man building a fence in the back yard. Cali and Luna joined me in the bay window, eating breakfast and watching the construction of a 9 foot tall privacy fence. We were out on the patio later that afternoon when we heard her car pull up on the driveway. She stepped out and walked towards the fence.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” she exclaimed in a joyful sob.
With the privacy fence dividing our yards we were no longer aware of whether Christine was in her backyard making faces at us or not. There was no sign of her for weeks. Christine faded into the backs of our minds as we had neither sight nor sound of her.
Then one day my aunt Alice called to see if everything was all right at the house. She informed us that Christine had called her inquiring how long she planned to rent to us. When she told Christine that we had no plans to move out and that she had no plans to sell, Christine slammed the phone down leaving Alice to the dial tone.
“She’s no treat,” Alice said, “but at least she has a nice garden.”
In December we noticed a “For Sale” sign in Christine’s front yard. There was still no sign of her, but the walk managed to stay shoveled through the winter. By February we heard rumors that she had been renting an apartment in Uptown. The first sunny day in March, moving men arrived to unpack her house and put it all in trucks. The Norfolk pine was the last to go.
As the snow and ice melted away we emerged from the long winter hibernation to break in the patio for the first time that spring. We were out in the yard when a small old woman came bursting out from the large yellow house on our south-side, followed by her yippy dog and a large brown cat. She walked towards us with her Dachshund in tow.
“I just want to thank you. I want to give you a hug! That woman made my life miserable, calling day and night about Jewel here, leaving messages about my cat, threatening to leave rabbits in my yard!” She said picking up the Dachshund, “She never would have left if it wasn’t for you girls.”
We looked back towards the fence. The new neighbors had not yet moved in. For now we were content. A shadow had passed, leaving our little green house shining in the sunlight.