Mel would roll over in his grave if he knew that two gay guys bought his house less than a month after he died and installed a purple neon sconce in his living room. Before he retired, he sold sunglasses and costume jewelry to department stores. When I moved next door, he tried for several months to get me to join his lodge. Mel was a member of The Loyal Order of Moose and was always telling me they could use some younger members. They probably could. Mel was eighty-six years old when I met him. His wife had already been dead for ten years. Every afternoon he would put his huge red Cadillac sedan in reverse and back down the driveway until he hit my garbage cans or my other neighbor's fence. The car was riddled with dents and Mel could barely see over the steering wheel, but nobody had the nerve to tell him he was too old to drive. Once a day he would take off in the old Cadillac for a long lunch and a game of cards with his septuagenarian lodge buddies. He still smoked unfiltered cigarettes. He swore like a sailor. And he didn't mince words about the other neighbors.
Since Mel was usually smoking a cigarette in a lawn chair on his patio when I took my dog for his evening walk, we often spoke. As the sun set, he would tell me I paid too much for my house. He was convinced that Len, my neighbor behind the back fence was after his money. Once he confided in me that he'd put his yard boy in his will. Mel didn't particularly like any of the people in the neighborhood. But it was only after he died that I began to realize that his sentiments were shared by all the other neighbors as well.
I have often thought that the only reason any of my neighbors bothered to get to know me in the first place was because I functioned as a readily available audience they could prevail upon to gossip about other neighbors behind their back. They would smile and make pleasantries when they saw me walking down the street, but underneath the smiles they all hated each other. Dianne, the overweight recluse who lives immediately to my left was an object of intense speculation. Her house has always been badly in need of paint and she only mows her grass once or twice a summer, which partially explains her unique ability to generate suburban anger all the way to the end of the block. Some are irate that she never takes her garbage out. Others are steamed that she has an ugly child's wading pool on her front porch and sits in it in plain view of passing traffic during summer months.
I never had a problem with Dianne myself, but then I don't have time to fret about her domestic situation like the idle retired couples in the neighborhood who worry themselves sick about the length of their neighbor's grass. Once Dianne left me a little coffee cake on my front porch with a note that said "thanks for leaving me alone." The Norwegian Roof Rats that have made her house a permanent home still infest my greenhouse every winter, but I try to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Three years ago Dianne's house caught fire. She wasn't home at the time. All the neighbors from down the street gathered around the fire trucks whispering to each other that they hoped the house would burn to the ground. Some speculated that she must have set the blaze herself to get money from the insurance company. Nobody knew who it was who informed Dianne about the fire , but when she arrived on the scene she began screaming at all the assembled retirees and told them all to go to hell.
Some of the older neighbors are intensely homophobic. They almost had a stroke when the two gay guys next to me bought Mel's old house. A whispering campaign began almost immediately, but things took a turn for the better when the neighbors discovered the two gay guys loved to garden. Now that their grass looks greener than anyone else's in the neighborhood, the gay couple has been befriended by everyone. Republican World War II veterans now venture over to the guys house after work to share lawn care tips, carefully averting their gaze for a large oil painting of a nude man hanging on their dining room wall. A couple of catty old women down the street still refuse to acknowledge the men are gay. "Aren't those nice boys," they say. "I wonder when they're going to meet the right woman?"
Everybody likes my dog. I'm convinced that it wouldn't have taken long for the local neighborhood crime watch group to turn me in as a suspicious person if it weren't for Spot. Instead, they now offer big smiles and a friendly greeting as I pass by on my daily walks. Somehow having a Dalmatian at your side makes you above suspicion. It would behoove a pragmatic burgler or kidnapper to immediately go out and buy the best looking dalmatian they could find. When you walk a dog, your personality is immediatley transfered to the dog and you are no longer a subject of speculation yourself. People don't address me by name as I walk by. The universal greeting is "Hi Spot." Of course, I am expected to answer for the dog. People always expect an answer to questions they ask neighborhood dogs. If I respond as I am expected to, these neighbors with the big false smiles will inevitably begin talking excitedly to me about some other neighbor behind their back. I shudder to think what everyone says about me when I'm not around.
If my neighborhood represents a microcosm of the world at large, there isn't much hope for world peace. From everything I've been able to observe, people just don't tend to get along. They are almost universally judgemental and extremely territorial. Neighborhoods, states, countries. . .it's all the same. Most neighbors will give you a big smile and act friendly enough to your face, but the minute your back is turned, watch out. Of course, I am certainly not above reproach in this regard. I find myself talking about my neighbors behind their back just as much as they do. I'm doing it right now.
It is curious how essential lying has become in the modern world. Presidents lie to each other. Employers lie to employees. Husbands lie to wives. Wives lie to children. And neighbors lie to anyone who will listen. Maybe this preoccupation with lying is the essence of civilization. Lies are the grease that keeps the wheels of commerce turning. They are what keep relationships together. They are what keep my neighbors from killing each other.
I'm not sure I want to know the truth about neighbors. I'm not sure I want to know the truth about anybody. Just walking my dog, I've learned far too much already. Many neighbors are unfaithful to their spouse, Some are mean-spirited. And others are simply strange. The day I learned that one peculiar old lady four houses down from me kept her German Shepherd in her freezer for seven years after it died was the day I realized that good neighbors should always remain a mystery.