In my neighborhood, the biggest changes generally occur with the shifting of the seasons rather than among its few inhabitants and their homes, and in my eyes, that has always been a positive. Every morning when I wake up, every evening when I return home from work, and every night before I fall asleep, I know what I can expect from the people living on my block, and I know exactly what I'll see, should I look out my windows or walk down the street. Quiet, calm, and predictable are the words I would use to describe Oakdale Street, and even when I was still young enough that being addressed by "ma'am" was a surprise rather than an expectation, this suited me just fine.
Of course, any neighborhood will have the odd change occurring, given enough time, and mine was no different. Back in 2009, there was a fire in the Neatherys' yard from the bonfire their teenaged son tried to make out of raked up leaves, but it wasn't serious enough to reach their house, and no one was injured, with nothing more than grass damaged. A few dogs and cats have been run over, but most of the time, the person who hit them will stop, locate the owner, apologize profusely, and arrange to pay for the vet bill or cremation. Donald Lomax died of a heart attack in his home, but as he was over 80, this was unsurprising and not traumatizing to anyone but perhaps his own family. My family has been the only people to shake things up in the past fifteen years- first by moving in, then by my ex-husband, Darren, moving out two years ago, and my daughter Savannah heading to college this August. All three events, mundane as they might be to most, fed the neighbor's gossip for weeks, to the point that any time I ran into one of them at the grocery store or post office, I had to field off questions crossing the line over from concerned to just plain nosy.
Given all this as background information, I'm sure you can understand why seeing a moving van parked directly across the street from my own home on Saturday afternoon, in the weathered driveway of the house that had stood vacant for at least fifteen years and probably for closer to the forty years I'd been alive, was surprising enough to stir my interest. The place had always been something of an eyesore and only seemed to deteriorate more with each year. Frankly, I had been hoping whoever it was that owned it, if anyone, would just tear it down and be done with it, because if I ever did choose to sell my own property, I was sure living across from such a rundown building would lower its value. I couldn't imagine who would choose to buy such a house. Maybe they meant to fix it up and resell it?
I didn't want to be overly pushy or curious towards my newest neighbor, so I confined my interest to simply glancing out the window occasionally. Other than the movers themselves, the only person I saw going in and out of the house was an older man, perhaps in his sixties or early seventies, balding and heavyset without being quite overweight. He appeared irritable even from the distance, his glower clear even from the distance and with a window in between us. I reserved judgment. Moving was stressful, even more so if he lived alone, with no family willing to help or support him on a busy day.
I waited until Tuesday, several days after the new neighbor's move in date, before walking across the road to introduce myself. By that time, I reasoned, he must have started to settle in, and although the house was still likely a chaos of boxes and half unpacked belongings, I had given him enough time before intruding so that I didn't seem overly nosey or rude.
I made my way over with an apple pie in hand early evening, just after work. The pie was store bought, but it was the thought that counted, I reassured myself. It seemed more trouble than it was worth, these days, to cook for only myself, and somewhat sad besides. Without Savannah home, and certainly without her father, food seemed to last so long it would be near spoiling before it ran out.
The house was old enough that no doorbell had been installed, so I knocked firmly and waited for the new neighbor to answer. I was fairly sure he was home, as his car was still parked in the driveway and hadn't seemed to move since Saturday morning. After a minute or two, when I heard no signs of movement within the house, I knocked again, wondering if he could be hard of hearing. I was about to knock for a third and final time when the door cracked open, and my neighbor's scowling face stared out at me, one weathered hand cinched around the door's frame.
"I don't want to buy anything you've got to sell, I'm not joining your religion, and you can't convince me otherwise," he almost growled.
He made a motion as though to shut the door again, but I held out my hand to stop him, hurrying to cut him off.
"No, no, you misunderstand, I'm not a salesperson or evangelist, though I certainly can understand your response to them," I laughed, shaking my head. "No, I'm just your neighbor. I live across the street from you, the house with the blue curtains in the front."
The man's expression didn't soften or shift in the slightest. If anything, I thought his bushy eyebrows slanted into a more impatient angle.
"And…I wanted to drop by to introduce myself," I said slowly, somewhat put off by his abruptness. "I'm Stacy Tate. I thought I would come by to welcome you to the neighborhood." I held the pie out towards him in offering. "I brought this for you."
The man neither held out a hand to shake, nor even gave a nod of acknowledgement. He certainly didn't bother to offer up his own name, although I had noted as I walked up his driveway that the name Whitaker had been recently spelled out on his mailbox. Instead, he stared down at the pie with the suspicion of a man who suspected it to be poisoned.
"Why?" he barked.
"Why?" I blinked at him, taken aback by the question. "Why did I bring you the pie? Well, I guess because I thought it would be nice. It seemed like a welcoming, neighborly thing to do. Is there a problem?"
I generally associate eye-rolling with teenagers or at least younger adults, but Whitaker, as I assumed him to be, rolled his eyes at me then, taking the pie none too gently from my hands. As he stepped back again, the door inched further towards being closed.
"Well, Stacy Tate, you've introduced yourself, and you've brought the pie. Is that all now?"
Over my forty years, I've spent a lot of time around a lot of badly behaved or unpleasant people. My current job as a privately practicing therapist currently exposes me often enough to difficult people, and it's become second nature to understand and reserve criticism towards people showing temper, pettiness, or even abusive behavior. But Whitaker's behavior rankled me. What sort of person was so rude to someone simply trying to be kind towards them, especially someone they had to leave so close to?
"Yes," I said shortly, my words almost bitten off. "That's about all now. Sorry to disturb you."
He shut the door in my face without another word, leaving me to stand alone and fuming on his doorstep. But by the time I had reached my own house again a few minutes later, my anger had settled, and my usual logical way of thinking had returned to me. Maybe, I reasoned to myself, Whitaker was developing dementia and was often paranoid or suspicious of any change in his routine. Maybe he had mental illness, such as PTSD or undiagnosed autism, and his rudeness masked fear or anxiety. Whatever it was that had caused his behavior, it had likely had little to do with me.
Over the next few days, I forgot about the new neighbor and his odd response to my effort at a visit. It was easy enough to become absorbed in my daily life. Even with my new status of living alone the majority of the time, there were always the same tedious tasks of dishes and laundry, grocery shopping and catching up on notes and bills to tackle. I thought of Whitaker only in passing, just long enough to note that no new cars ever seemed to join his at his driveway, nor did his ever seem to leave. It appeared that he lived alone and didn't get out much, not unusual for a person of his age.
I think a little less than a week had passed before I began to notice his window. Or to be more accurately, Whitaker himself, standing at his window.
The first several times I saw the outline of his figure, standing nearly motionless and looking out the front window of his house, I barely registered it. I assumed, I guess, that he was checking the weather, or watching birds. One day, however, I realized that every time I glanced towards his home, he was still standing there, in the same spot, staring out with what appeared to be very little break in his focus. It gave me an eerie, uncomfortable feeling to observe him. From the distance, I could not make out his expression, but he seemed to be looking not towards anything in particular in his yard or in the street. In fact, it looked to me as if he were looking towards my yard, maybe even into the interior of my house.
I reacted with impulsive jumpiness, pulling down the shades at the window I was standing at and even walking out of the room entirely, aware of my heart's rapid thudding in my chest. Moments later I felt silly about it; even if Whitaker could see inside my house, what could he see that would be so embarrassing or personal? He was just a strange old man, probably bored of his monotonous existence, or just tenacious of protecting his property and too cheap to simply buy a security system.
But when I let the blinds back up about an hour later, I could see that Whitaker was still standing at his window, still staring across the lawn. And although I couldn't be sure, it certainly seemed that he was looking into my house, even as I looked out from it.