Essay by J. W. Young
I’m in the front yard—still wearing my old pajama pants, ratty T-shirt, and
no bra—watering the maples. I know the drill in a drought because I grew up in
the Southern California desert: to hell with the grass, water the trees and shrubs.
I seem to be the only person on my street paying any attention to the watering
bans issued by the State of Georgia because everyone else has a lawn like the
back nine at Augusta. It’s because I’m seething over water waste, and thinking
that it’s noon so I should probably put on a bra, that I don’t notice the neighbor
girls walk right into our house.
I’m onto the shrubs near the front door when the two blondes burst from
my home all giggles and fast-moving feet. They stop cold when they see me,
then laugh again. “We saw Mr. Adam taking a tee tee.” They giggle. The
younger girl, three, flutters back to her own garage. The older, eight, slumps
into my porch rocker and picks up the book I’m reading, Augusten Burroughs’
Running with Scissors. I’ve left it sitting spine-cracked, face up, and she flips
a couple of pages and says, “That word is masturbation.”
By now I’ve dropped my hose and am wondering what I’ve done moving
myself and my husband into the suburbs where not only stray dogs and cats
wander into our yard, but where children seem to view the inside of our home
as their personal playground. As usual, their parents are nowhere in sight, but
have their Tahoe parked in the drive—the mammoth vehicle with personalized
decals on the door: Little Miss Warner Robins Queen 2006-2007. The back
end is open and there are suitcases in the drive. I say to Pageant Queen, “You
read very well.”
She points to another word. “That says alcoholic.”
I take the book from her. “You guys going somewhere?”
“To the beach. Wanna come?”
Pageant Queen is always inviting me places—the pool, the movies, her
beauty contests. Sometimes, she does this in front of her mother, who gets a
horrified look on her face. I think she’s afraid I might accept. But I always
decline. And I’ve learned from much banter that I need to decline with a
reason. “No,” I say, “I have to stay here and mop the floor.”
Pageant Queen has no idea how long this will take, so she shrugs and
chirps, “Okay,” then skips back to her house.
I make a break for my own front door just in time to meet my husband,
who’s on his way outside. “What happened?” I say.
“They walked in while I was on the toilet.”
“What? You’re kidding.”
“Why did you let them in?”
“I didn’t! I was watering and didn’t even see them. What did you say?”
“I told them to get the hell out of here. I think I scared them a little.”
“I doubt that. They were laughing.”
It isn’t until a couple of hours later, when the Tahoe is gone and the coast
is clear, that I return to my watering and reading. And I begin to laugh, playing
out a curious scenario in my mind. As their Tahoe guzzles its way to the coast,
Pageant Queen will look away from the DVD player in the backseat and tell
her parents, “We saw Mr. Adam taking a tee tee.” Her father will squint at her
in the rear view mirror, her mother will turn around, but before they have time
to ask her for clarification she’ll say, “What does masturbation mean? And
Although this may cause her parents to turn around and crash their tank
into our house, it may keep Pageant Queen and her little sister from treating
our home like the local park. Or at least it will make their parents watch them
We’ve lived in our house 1,828 days. Of that time the girls next door
have walked in, attempted to walk in, or banged on our windows so we’d let
them come in on 912 of those days, or two and a half years.
One morning Adam had gone to the recycling center and I sat on the
couch reading. A fast-moving shadow flashed across the window. I quickly
looked to my right—a view of the garage—and Damn! Adam had the left the
door open. The kids were now banging on the window to be let in. I’ve been
able to avoid them if the door is down. “I was in the backyard,” I’d say. Or
in the shower. Or handcuffed to the bed. But they could see me sitting there,
feet propped, finally getting some time to finish a book. To them, I must have
seemed like a bored playmate. Who in their right mind would spend an
afternoon reading Faulkner?
“Miss Joyce,” they called. “Miss Joyce, Miss Joyce!”
“I could kill Adam,” I said under my breath as I cracked the front door.
“What is it, girls?”
“Miss Joyce, can we play with your cats?”
“They’re all outside.”
“Well can we come in?”
“There’s nothing to do in here but read.”
“Okay, you can read to us.” They were already pushing past me and
getting comfortable on the couch when their father called them back to their
own yard. I watched as he herded them around, having them pick up all of
their plastic toys and drive their Barbie Power Wheel into the garage. Then he
got out the riding mower.
I closed the garage and lowered the blinds in the living room and spent the
rest of the afternoon reading in the semi-darkness. I held my breath when they
came calling again, sure they could hear me breathing over the sound of their
I grew up in my grandmother’s house, in a small neighborhood surrounded
by peach orchards where most people knew one another by name. Our two
streets formed a U off the main street of town and were named U-2 and U-3.
No joke. Ours was the third house on the left of U-2—the only house with a
stucco wall surrounding the front yard and large-thorned roses lining the drive.
Next door lived a Mormon family with six children, on the other side a family
with two kids, across the street an elderly man dying from emphysema. I
vaguely knew who these people were because I’d seen them in their yards or
out at their mailboxes. I was never allowed to wander beyond my own
property line, and on the rare occasion that I could have another child over, we
could only play in the backyard. My grandmother lived under the firm
conviction that most people hid bodies in their attics. Or worse, they ate potato
chips from a bag. If I visited another home I might be in mortal peril or come
home with poor eating habits.
Once I was actually allowed to spend the afternoon at my best friend’s
house to go swimming in her pool. While I was there, her mother made us giant
chocolate chip cookies as a snack. When I reported this to my grandmother
she said, “Just because those damn people eat cookies for a meal doesn’t mean
the whole world does it.”
The Mormon family had the world’s largest jungle gym and an above-
ground pool in their backyard. In the seven years we were neighbors I was
never allowed to play with them, even though the pool and swings were visible
from our back patio. I’d feign reading a book out back and watch them over
the top of the pages. They’d laugh and squeal and occasionally splash water
over the fence. My grandmother would say, “Those damn kids are killing my
roses. Go over there and tell them to stop that.” I’d walk, head down, over to
the fence and try to explain to the oldest son, a boy my age, that the chlorine
from the pool was killing my grandmother’s flowers. He’d apologize and I’d
retreat into the house so she wouldn’t make me tell them to stop when the
splashing started up again a few minutes later.
If we needed anything—an egg, cup of milk, roll of toilet paper—we
went to the store and charged it, even if it was ten at night. Never had it ever
been suggested to me that I could go beyond my stucco wall and ask a
neighbor, who would happily hand me these things for free. My grandmother
was paranoid about injuries I could accrue—she was once sued by a family
whose child had broken his arm when a rock from our property lodged in his
skateboard wheel—but her outrageous idea that I should never be alone with
an adult male burned the fear of my neighbors into me. In every house lurked
an older brother who could hurt a young girl like me. Some of them were just
waiting for the chance. I have no idea what made my grandmother think such
things; she only ever watched Clark Gable movies and corny musicals where
all the people were happy. But I came to understand that a neighborhood
was only a place to live. The actual neighbors’ homes were cesspools of
I’m sitting in the backyard, enjoying the late spring, when I spy over the
six-foot privacy fence a moving tree. Sure it’s my imagination, I glance
around at the trees in my own yard. No breeze. Out of the corner of my eye
I see the tree move again, with purpose, with direction. And I hear my
neighbor’s gruff voice yelling to Pageant Queen, “Get out of the way. I’m
lifting it over.” The green canopy shoots into his backyard.
Pageant Queen yells back, “I’ll bring it in the front!”
“It’s too big for you. Don’t you touch that tree.”
“But I wanna help!”
“No! Get in the front with your mama!” My neighbor walks out of the
woods. Through the slats of my fence he moves strobe light-like, dragging a
shovel and pick behind him.
It’s not until I come into the house and sit on the couch that I see what
purpose this newly harvested tree serves—my neighbors have replaced their
last dead tree with the one they’ve stolen from the woods behind their house.
Woods that belong to the people in the old gray Victorian that was here
before our subdivision was built.
Two weeks ago Pageant Queen and one of her fans built a fort in the
woods. They cut through my front yard, the yard of the man next to me, swung
a wide U-turn around his house and walked back along the fence line. They
took an inflatable pool, discarded once their larger above-ground pool was
installed last year, and turned it upside down atop some shrubs. This was their
playhouse. So I’m not sure why I’m so upset to see her father stealing trees
from the same woods; these people seem to think that anything they see belongs
In my world, it’s rude to ask something of someone if it’s clear they don’t
want to give it. You should never ask someone, “Can I have your car?” or
“Can you give me a kidney?” or “Can I come over and play with you?” In the
world of my neighbors, these things are not taboo. No matter there’s a privacy
fence between us—I’m sitting in my lawn chair enjoying the sun, when I hear
feet trampling atop a dog house and two blonde heads pop up. “Miss Joyce!
“Can we come over?”
Their mother is with them, plucking weeds from her flowerbeds, watering
the birdbath, putting out corn for the squirrels my cats will eventually catch and
eat. She is silent, not once ever saying to them, “If Miss Joyce wanted you to
come over, she’d ask” or “Leave Miss Joyce alone, she’s busy” or even
“Come over here and help me.”
Adam suspects she lets them do this on purpose, has even sent them over
to our house to get them out of her hair. She finds her own children so
annoying that she says to them, “Go next door and bug the neighbors for a
I’ve refused to believe she’s this malicious until today. I sit in my pajamas
trying to soak up some much-needed sunshine to rid myself of a lingering cold,
yet the questioning over the fence continues.
“We want to play with your cats,” they say.
“Well, they’re all in the woods.”
“Why are you in your pajamas?”
“I’m sick. Don’t you wear your pajamas when you’re sick?”
“No. Miss Joyce, when you’re well can we come over and play?”
“Sure. I’ll let you know.”
“Miss Joyce, we really want to play in your yard.”
Through the fence their mother is working hard. There’s a pool, a set
of swings, a playhouse, a trampoline, and about fifty fading toys lying around
their yard, compared to nothing but trees and a sad patch of grass in my own.
“Why do you want to come over here?” I ask.
“Not today,” I say. “Maybe when I feel better.”
This conversation happens six or seven times until I finally decide that
my backyard is a minefield and retreat back into the house. Truly, is this the
price of living in a suburb? None of my other neighbors act like these spoiled
little irritants. The rest of us are content to watch each others’ homes for
strange guests, speculate as to what goes on behind closed doors, and spy
through fences. Not once do we ask for names, let alone invite ourselves in.
When I was a child, I was not allowed to play with a toy unless I kept
the original package, cleaned it, and put it back when I was finished.
Subsequently, I didn’t play with toys that much. But some were so great that
the fanatic scouring was worth it. My Nintendo was placed in its original
Styrofoam every night, The Legend of Zelda in its flimsy gold box, and slid
under my bed. All of my board games’ original boxes were pristine, save
Clue, whose corner my cousin ripped and I had to meticulously glue back
together. Once, a piece of my Lego castle set lost a button and I buried it in
the backyard for fear that if she found it damaged, my grandmother would
make me throw away the entire kit. Each time I constructed the castle with
drawbridge and debtor’s prison, I had to take it apart and place each piece
in the package, careful not to rip any of the cellophane corners.
As my toys got older, I played with them less and less. Not because I
disliked them, but because I was afraid that any smudge or fingerprint might
be taken for wear and tear and the toy would be thrown out or given away.
My father’s parents once bought me a train set with real metal tracks and
twelve cars, fake trees, a station, and light poles. I’d set it up to run all over
my room, careful not to lose a single copper connector. “It’s too big and too
boyish,” my grandmother said. And she gave it away to a boy down the street.
It wasn’t until recently that I freed my Cabbage Patch doll from his tatty
cellophane cell. I don’t care how much he may be worth in his original
package, with original adoption papers; each time I looked at him trapped in
that box I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I see the three-year-old barreling full speed toward our house, and panic.
I stand in the middle of the living room then run to the far wall and press my
body to it. It’s too late to close the blinds or she’ll know I’m home. I strain
my neck to spy around the corner of the window just in time to see my small
white cat, ZuZu, chasing the child back into her own yard. The cat is like a
small ball of cotton, darting across our lawn, hissing and spitting, while the
little girl screams for her life as she runs.
Later, when Adam and I are out back watering the trees, the little girl
climbs to the top of her dog’s house and says, “Can I come over?”
“What do you want to come over here for?” Adam says. “There’s nothing
to play with.”
“I can play with you.” We look at each other. Although I can’t tell for
sure, I think her mother is lurking somewhere in their backyard. “We can play
catch, Mr. Adam,” she says.
My husband shrugs. “Okay.”
“Is that white cat outside?”
“Can you put her in the house?”
“No,” I say. “She needs to be outside.”
“Well, I’m not coming over. She’s mean and scratches.”
“Okay,” Adam and I say at the same time.
That night ZuZu earns herself extra food. Although she weighs only five
pounds and I only let her out occasionally I look at her and say, “You can now
go outside whenever you want.”
The more I think about the stolen tree, the more irritated I become.
When we bought our house, Adam and I made a commitment to planting trees.
We’ve planted a new one each year and we water and feed them on a regular
basis, knowing that eventually they will shade our home, that our children will
climb on their branches. Because we saw them as an investment, we bought
them at a nursery instead of sneaking them from wooded areas. They’re now
dwarfing the next door neighbor’s puny stolen tree and their other skimpy
one—which we suspect was stolen before we moved in.
Dare I say the reason our trees are thriving is because of the care we
give them? Instead of focusing on the lawn, the trimming, and the TruChem,
we prune and mulch and expand the drip lines of our trees each winter.
While I’ve seen my neighbor mow his lawn in fifteen degree weather I’ve
never seen him actually mulch the trees. His grass is like a carpet that he chops
to within an inch of its life each weekend, yet he seems content to let tree after
tree go neglected.
Once, we arrived home to find our own lawn scalped. Down to the dirt
in some places. At first we didn’t know what had happened. Had a lawn
service mistaken us for paying customers? Then Adam found the tire marks
leading toward our neighbor’s shed. It was at that moment we realized our
sad grass was an item of contention. And because we were assholes, we were
letting the weeds soar as we meticulously groomed our trees.
Their mother comes over on Monday to ask if Pageant Queen can come
over after school. “She rode the bus and I’m not going to be here to pick her
up in time to get to a meeting at work. Could she stay for an hour?”
“Sure,” I say. I’m in a particularly good mood for some reason and
don’t mind the inconvenience. “I’ll make sure she does her homework.”
“Oh, good luck with that,” she says, waving as she walks home.
That day actually goes well. I think Pageant Queen and I reach an
understanding. I explain to her, as she completes her vocabulary homework,
that I am a writer. That words to me are like taffy and I have to spend a lot
of time on them in peace and quiet. Although she does little more than smile,
I detect she can read the message between the lines: Leave me the hell alone.
But on Tuesday, when the yellow bus pulls in front of their house, she
gets off, glances at her own home, and makes a bee-line for mine. “My
mom’s not home yet. Can I come in and have some chocolate milk?”
This happens again on Wednesday.
The rest of the week is uneventful, but the following Tuesday she’s back
at the door.
At first I think I’ve misunderstood her mother. So I play the conversation
over in my head. No, I’m sure she only meant that one day, not whenever
When I explain what’s been happening to Adam he says, “Just don’t
answer the door.” This seems so mean, but at the same time I know they’re
taking advantage of me and I can’t be expected to be home for someone
else’s child. That’s what daycare is for. So Wednesday I’m ready at 4:15
for the bus. I pull the shades and close the garage, and when Pageant Queen
knocks on my door I mute the television and hide myself in the guest room
closet. After pounding on my door and windows, she gives up and sits down
in one of our porch rockers. I creep around my own house until 4:33 when
her mother finally arrives. When I go outside to inspect the damage she may
have inflicted with her pounding, I find she’s left behind a pencil box and a
Chinese jump rope.
When I was a freshman in high school I arrived home to find my
grandmother gone. I waited twenty minutes on the front porch before I threw
my book bag over the fence and tried the back door. Our house, in its
uneventful neighborhood, was locked up. After another twenty minutes I
hopped the fence again and rang the bell at my neighbor’s. The Mormon
woman didn’t know where my grandmother was but said, “You’re welcome
to come inside and wait.” Her house may have smelled like fresh bread, but
I couldn’t be tempted. Surely there was a man lurking there somewhere,
waiting to behead me and add my scalp to his collection under the floorboards.
I told the woman I’d wait in my backyard. Then when I got there I
thought how foolish I’d been. She could easily tell the scalper where I’d be.
So I hefted my backpack, jumped the fence again, and sat on the front porch.
I was halfway through my math homework when my grandmother arrived.
“You knew I was out with your aunt,” she said, when I told her how long I’d
been waiting. “Why didn’t you go to the neighbor’s?” I was shocked into
The following week, she was sick and needed a pack of cigarettes. Too
ill to drive to the store, she sent me across the street with three dollars to give
to the man with emphysema. When I asked her to watch me through the
curtains she said, “Why? Are you going to run away on three dollars?”
When the man with emphysema answered the door, I said, “Could I buy
a pack of cigarettes from you for my grandma?”
He looked over my shoulder to our front window and I prayed what he
saw there was my grandmother’s face watching him closely for any sign of a
hatchet. “You sure they’re for her?” He laughed. Then his laugh turned into
gurgling coughs that finally subsided after a minute. I fidgeted, trying not to
look at his bluing face, wondering if one day my grandmother would suffer this
same fate. “Come in,” he finally managed to say.
I quickly scanned the room for exits and kept my hand on the doorknob.
The living room was dark—wood paneling, beer steins and a dozen cuckoo
clocks. He beckoned me toward the kitchen, a lighter room with a sliding
door out into a dirt yard littered with tumbleweeds. Two gray poodles
twisted themselves around my ankles and all I could think about was how I’d
kick them across the room if he made a move toward me.
He set the packet of cigarettes down on the Formica table and I handed
him the cash, making sure his yellowed fingers didn’t touch mine.
“Tell your grandma if she needs anything else, she can call me.”
“Okay,” I said, backing toward the door. Although the man was
attaching an oxygen mask to his face, I still didn’t want to turn my back on
him. My grandmother was the only person who knew where I was, and she
could easily die from her cold before anyone would find my mutilated corpse.
The stolen tree is gone now. There’s nothing but a big black hole in the
ground, neatly hemmed in with black plastic edging. The wife has told me she
doesn’t want another tree. “It’s so wet right there from the sprinklers, I’d
rather just have grass.”
We’re standing on what was once my lawn but has become, because
of this drought, a bed of crackling weeds. My neighbor is leaning on the
shovel she’s come to borrow and I haven’t asked why she needs it. I want to
suggest that they try a crepe myrtle, but I can’t stand to see one more tree go
down in flames. I look from the black hole in the ground, to the fading toys in
their yard, to my neighbor holding my shovel, and smile. I don’t know what
she expects me to say.
I’m ignorant of neighborly ways. What I really want to do is forego this
absurd exchange and tell this woman, “Look, no hard feelings, but you’ve got
to quit letting your kids come over here whenever they want to. I don’t mind
letting you borrow my shovel, or milk, or Wite-Out, but could you please get
your kids to leave me alone?” Clearly, there’s no nice way to say this, so I
don’t. Instead I shrug and say, “Well, just look at our yard. We really don’t
do too well with grass.”
“But your trees are beautiful. Just look at them. What have you done?”
I smile again. Still not knowing what it is she expects me to tell her.
If it’s true that you reap what you sow, then my neighbors will soon
harvest bushels of plastic toys made in China and children who will eventually
grow into teens who’ll sneak into other people’s homes. And I will eventually
begin to glean bushels of envy. That’s what bothers me so much about these
children. Not that they’re annoying, not that their parents are too consumed
with whatever it is they’re doing to watch their attention-starved brats. It’s
their freedom. Their absolute fearlessness when it comes to moving in and
out of houses. Their mother hasn’t told them about heads in freezers or child
molesters. They see no problem with driving their Power Wheel through our
yard or knocking on the door at ten at night for an egg. I’m the one with the
hang-up. I’m the one with the fear of mutilated corpses and drowned kittens
in my neighbors’ yards. This is why I want to be left alone. If they let me in,
I may find something I didn’t want to find. Clearly, I don’t belong in the
suburbs; I’m reaping the fear my grandmother sowed in me.
Pageant Queen comes out of the house and her mother yells, “Come get
The little girl walks more slowly than she usually does. “Our dog died,”
she says, taking the shovel from her mom. Her mother explains that they’d
been trying to breed puppies and were two weeks shy of delivery when their
dog lost all the babies and died. Although I was familiar with their dog house,
I didn’t know what type of dog they’d had. “We’ll bring the shovel back
when we’re done,” my neighbor says.
I sit on my porch for a long time, waiting for Pageant Queen to bring
back the shovel. I have no idea what to say to her about her dog, but feel like
I should say something. I was close to her age when my grandmother put my
dog to sleep, and all I remember about that is the anger and hurt it still causes
me. That same anger and hurt has kept me from getting another dog. For
thirty minutes I try to formulate an apology that an eight-year-old might
understand. Then, when Pageant Queen skips back with my shovel and I’m
about to say how sorry I am, she says, “I’m gonna get a German Shepherd
now. Or a bulldog.”
“Oh,” I say, taking the tool from her. I look closely, trying to detect if
she’s been crying, but nothing in her face says she has. My eyes fall on the
black hole in their yard. “Okay. Well, let me know what you get.”
She smiles and walks back to her yard. Halfway home she turns and
calls, “Thanks for the shovel, Miss Joyce.”
“Sure,” I say. “Anytime.”
J. W. Young teaches writing at Middle Georgia College when she is not
writing, gardening, or spending time with her husband and daughter. Her
non-fiction has appeared in various journals and has been anthologized in
Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books) and Twentysomething Essays by
Twentysomething Writers (Random House). She has recently completed
a draft of a memoir she’s tentatively titled Cadillac Woman, which
chronicles the years she was raised by her agoraphobic, depressed maternal
On “Love Thy Neighbor”:
Sadly, these Pageant People have moved and are no longer my neighbors.
I have no idea what I will write about now!
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 5, Number 1
Copyright © 2010
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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