A distant neighbor right across the street
I have a neighbor across the road whom I have never met…exactly. He moved in this past spring, alone, as I am. But he’s still working. At least I presume that what he does when he pulls his dually F 150 out the drive and down our rutted gravel road toward town on weekday mornings.
Now, I’m not the nosy-old-lady-at-her-window type of guy. But we do live out in the country aways where neighbors are neighborly. But this guy has never so much as waved hello. That annoys the hell out of me—his ignoring me. I mean, if he just stopped to shoot the shit with me every so often—“How about them Tigers?” or even, “Could use some rain,” for crissake—I wouldn’t give him a second thought. Instead, he’s got me captivated by his haughty disregard for his fellow human beings—namely me.
Between self-reflection and ‘constructive’ critique over the years, I’ve found that I hate to be ignored. It really annoys me to have someone look right through me. So, I’ve done some predictable things to get noticed like play varsity basketball—all state, second team point guard, 1963. And two years ago, I played Willie Loman in our community theater. Things like that. But if I get feeling too transparent, I’m liable to do some crazy things to get attention. Any attention. Negative works as well as positive. I’ve tobogganed off our roof after a blizzard. Got my picture in the Kalamazoo Gazette. In college, I streaked the girl’s dorm in zero weather and glowed with pride when one of the coeds asked, “Were you the asshole I saw last night?” My sister, who knows me as well as anyone, got me a T shirt that said: Hold My Beer and Watch This. She’s held my hand in a number of emergency rooms. So, you get the idea. My neighbor, acting like I was beneath his notice, was driving me nuts.
One Sunday morning I went out to get the paper. Both of our mailboxes had been smashed. You know the kind—shaped like little aluminum quonset huts. The kind that begs for a drive-by swat from every country boy on the road to maturity. One of his bills had blown into my ditch. Cal Riverton. That’s his name. I decided on the spot to take the initiative and introduce myself. I would play the good neighbor by offering to bump out his box and put up a barrier fence next to it to cut down on roadside batting practice.
I went to his back door and when he stuck out his hand for the envelope, I proposed my fix-it plan. He blinked twice with rainy-sky eyes. Now, I’m not the kind of Good Samaritan who needs profuse gratitude for a good deed. But, it irked me that he couldn’t even say ‘thanks’, or ‘no thanks,’ or ‘that’s okay, don’t bother’. Alls he said was, “Suit yourself,” which I interpreted as a pass on my offer.
For the next week, he chewed at the edge of my consciousness like a puppy worrying a slipper. I wanted a reaction, what my therapist would call affirmation or validation. I just call it attention. So, when I mulched leaves with my mower, I would be sure to aim them across the road, toward his house…hey, most of the leaves came from his trees. Or I would wait for the breeze to be blowing in the right direction and then stoke my burn-barrel with nice smoky green branches. But, I really didn’t want to start a sequel to Grumpy Old Men, so I got off that kick.
Driving through town a while later, I noticed a cute little cabinet on a post. It looked like an old-fashioned kitchen cupboard with a glass door and a peaked roof on top. It was filled with books. A sign underneath read, FREE…KNOCK YOURSELF OUT. I liked that idea so I put one up next to my mailbox. For the next five days, no books had been taken. There really wasn’t much traffic out our way.
It snowed one Friday night. Saturday morning, I spotted footprints coming from Cal’s house and back, like raccoon tracks around my live trap. Aha! Finally, I was drawing him out. When I went out to get my mail, I checked the library. Nothing missing. Apparently, he didn’t read Steven King novels. But what would he like to read? Something. Anything to get us connecting. I could keep raiding my extensive collection of pop fiction until we found some common literary ground. But lately, to be honest, I’ve become less and less enchanted with murder mysteries and action thrillers and have come to prefer reading my own stories. I find my cadence and flow and scintillating turn of phrase more entertaining than some name-brand author hogging three-feet of shelf in the library.
Before long I was at my computer banging out this tale.
I’m a mailman in Allegan County. I’ve got this one address on CR 301 that, besides the usual utility bills and flyers, regularly gets a plain brown #10 envelope from some PO Box in New Jersey addressed to R. Punzel.
As you might imagine, my job does not provide for much mental stimulation. So, I try to keep my mind busy by imagining what my customers are like and what they are getting in the mail. Foreign stamps are most intriguing. Perfumed letters are exciting. Victoria Secret packages can keep me guessing all afternoon. Like, I wonder how the guy with three daughters feels about paying for stuff he’ll never get to appreciate. But, this particular customer on 301 just east of Fennville—professional standards prevent me revealing the address—does tweak my curiosity something awful.
I can make some deductions. The mailbox is smashed. Has been for months and leaks when it’s raining. You could say he’s not a fixer-upper kind of guy. Or, maybe he’s a woman. In any case, whoever lives there is single, or at least living alone because there’s never any mail addressed to anyone else. So, okay, let’s figure R. Punzel is a woman. Anyhow, it’s more interesting that way.
One Saturday, the garage door open, I see a Lexus parked inside. Those aren’t cheap. So, this Punzel person probably works and makes a good buck. And since she leaves the same kind of envelope for pick up every couple of weeks addressed to the New Jersey PO box, I wonder if that relates to a business or just a hobby.
Like what if she is a writer, a freelance writer who spins copy for women’s catalogs with names like hibiscus puce and emerald pond for sweaters and wraps? Although, I really shouldn’t knock catalogs, they’re about the last regular mailings that provide job security these days. Or maybe she’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Could be. Or maybe she’s a contributor to some niche magazine like Tango World or Global Quilters.
Or, going to the dark side, what if she’s not a writer? What if she’s a computer hacker hiding inside snail mail throwback technology to receive and send assignments? Would that make me an accessory? Or how about some satanic cult that’s planning to put a snake display in front of the capitol building next to the nativity scene this Christmas?
Or maybe she’s not sinister. Maybe she’s just alone. Content. A widow. A former nun who got tired of the nunnery but not the solitude. People are that way. Live that way. Or better yet, maybe she’s a former CIA spook keeping in touch with Langley. Or an ex-moll in the witness protection program and the mail is her allowance and monthly reports. You never know.
All I’d have to do is steam open one of the envelopes and end the speculation. But what would be the fun in that? I’d rather imagine what she looks like. R. Punzel. Yesterday in the grocery store parking lot, I noticed a woman with waist-length hair, silver, fanning out in the breeze. A female Gandolf. The Good Witch of the West…or was it the North? A fairytale princess languishing for years in her castle, longing to be rescued…
But then it’s my break and I swing into Crane Orchards, grab a coffee and spend twenty minutes arranging my next drops. Surprise. I’ve got the monthly R. Punzel envelope. Only this time the flap is torn. I wriggle my finger in and…oops the tear is big enough to peek inside. Antique Tools. Damn. Nevermind.
As soon as I finished, I proofed the story one more time, printed it out and stuck it in a bright orange folder. Then I took it out to my lending library and placed it in front of the books, facing Cal across the road. The trap was baited.
I checked several times a day for three days. Nothing. Finally, on the fourth morning, the folder was gone. Now what?
That weekend, Saturday morning, I went out to get the mail. Cal came out of his house, grabbed a snow shovel and began shoveling his driveway. The wind blew his hair into a frizzy halo. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until he reached back with both hands and finger combed what had to be a silver Halloween wig into a ponytail that hung down to his waist. He never looked at me and I never waved or said a word. But we’ve been all right ever since.