Just Neighbors

Morgan Wagle

Through the rear-view mirror, I watch two pajama-clad guys smoking at the apartment across from mine. I step out of the car and head for my building. Without thinking, I turn my head to the east. The old man next door—let’s call him Clyde—enthusiastically waves a hand at me and says “hello,” in his strange deep-yet-musical-but-not-necessarily-pleasant way.

 

“Hi,” I say, dip my head, shoulder my backpack and avoid eye contact until I reach the door. He doesn’t say another word to me.

It didn’t use to be so easy.

 

“He’s just a harmless old man,” my coworker tells me as we watch Clyde leave the store. I’m feeling terribly guilty, so instead of holding the door open for him like I usually do, I’m standing behind the counter, burying the thank-you note among hoodies and miscellaneous retail items.

 

“What did he give you?” another coworker asks.


“A thank-you note.”


He wrinkles his nose. “Huh.”


I knew why he was confused; all of us help Clyde whenever he needs it.

 

All of us are courteous to him as he keeps us from our jobs with conversation and asks us to run around the store to gather the items he needs. I was no different from the others but he singled me out for praise.

 

I look at the note more closely later. It is homemade. In it, Clyde thanks me profusely for helping him and always having a smile. I remember thinking that it is my job to use dignity and kindness when interacting with all customers. I remember wondering how he doesn’t realize this. I remember my training; we aren’t supposed to accept anything from customers. I tried to tell Clyde this, but he wouldn’t have it. I toss the note in a drawer, slightly shaken, but warming up to the idea of my work ethic being appreciated. I feel terribly guilty for being the one earning the praise. I always worry too much and I think this is one of those times. I calm my mind and focus on one thought: it is a nice gesture.

 

The nice gesture turned into more nice gestures, and I was second-guessing whether they were nice or just plain creepy. Clyde came to visit me at work, but usually he would call ahead of time. Any time I wasn’t there, my coworkers told me that Clyde said “hi.” This might sound exaggerated, but I’m almost certain a week didn’t go by at work without me seeing Clyde at least once.

 

One day, I go home and tell my mom about him while she cooks dinner.

“Oh, he sounds nice. Old people just get lonely.”


“I can’t tell if it’s nice or weird.”


My older sister chimes in from the living room, “He sounds really creepy.”

 

My mom says something about a lot of old people having money and it’s good to be friends with them because you could inherit stuff when they die.

 

My sister still thinks he’s creepy.


I drop it and the conversation goes in a new direction. I don’t talk about Clyde to either of them again.

 

Clyde hobbles around with a walker and has difficulty speaking and walking. As I later learn from a newspaper clipping he gave me (the article was about himself and his various works of art), he has a medical condition called ataxia. Ataxia is a neurological disease that primarily affects movement and speech. Clyde’s movement and speech are a combination of choppy and slow.

 

I hate to say it, but I feel sorry for him. I feel bad that walking up the stairs—an activity so normal for me I don’t even think about it—is something he can only dream of doing. I’m patient when he takes a while to gather his thoughts and turn them into words. I find myself wanting to help him, to make his life easier. Maybe he feels compelled to be nice to me because I help him. Maybe it’s a cycle of misunderstanding.

 

 

 

I hear the door open. The sound a walker makes when it scuffs the floor.

I briefly consider conveniently disappearing in the backroom. Instead, I greet the customer.

 

“What’s on your list for today?”

 

Clyde smiles, like he always does. He tells me that he just wants to drop off something. I’m doing my best to resist a mental eye-roll and there’s a flicker of irritation in my chest as he hands me a yellow envelope.

 

“You really don’t have to do that.”


“You’re a good friend, and I like to do things for my friends.”


I dodge the anticipated you’re a good friend too by talking about something else. We get on the topic of the other employees, about how nice and helpful they are. Then Clyde gives me a wink.

 

“But they’re not as good-looking.”

 

Clyde continues to talk to me, but I don’t think I say anything. He has a habit of cocking his head like a dog, maybe to better look at your face. It’s something I didn’t find disconcerting until now.

 

I look for an escape. I should’ve looked sooner.

 

 

 

At the end of sophomore year, I make the move from on-campus housing to living in an apartment off-campus. Alex and I make sure we get an apartment on the first floor, because we’re tired of stairs.

 

It’s May and the weather is fantastic. Our moods are high. It’s moving time, but our landlord calls us last-minute and tells us that the apartment we are supposed to get is trashed from the previous tenants. There’s an apartment open, but it’s in a different building and on the second floor.

 

We tour the apartment. It looks nice enough. We decide we’ll take it with the idea that we can move into a first-floor apartment later. As we’re leaving, I see Clyde and his walker near the sidewalk. My heart freezes. He says “hi,” and I say it back, like some sort of voicemail machine. I think our landlord seems surprised that we recognize each other.

 

I walk away with the sinking knowledge that Clyde is my neighbor.

 

 

 

Sure enough, when I’m back at the store, he greets me as “neighbor.” I can only think that the old man is getting progressively irritating. I try hard not to roll my eyes.

 

Instead of bringing in thank-you notes while I’m at work, he starts taping them to the wall inside, on the first floor. I actually find myself glad that Alex and I don’t live on the first floor, after all, because he can’t get up the stairs. At least I don’t have to worry about him knocking on my door. My skin crawls when I think of it.

 

Thank God for stairs.

 

 

 

Clyde starts asking me more questions and giving me more things. I don’t mention it to anyone, because I’m too embarrassed. Instead, I put up with it. I tell myself I can handle it; the phase will pass. He buys me a game from China that consists of building things with metal balls, he makes me two shirts at his “studio,” and gives me a shawl that I will never wear. My mental state is inching closer towards irritation with everything he gives me. I find myself wanting to avoid him, rather than help him. I put all of the things he gives me deep in my closet and desk drawers.

 

I lose track of the time span, but over the next few months, Clyde gives me cookies (white-chocolate macadamia nut—my favorite) and cheesecake (another favorite) but I don’t eat them. I give the cookies to Alex and throw away the cheesecake. I wash his Tupperware and stow it away in a separate cabinet, not having the courage to return it.

 

For months, Clyde hounds me about coming over to visit and not being a stranger. While I’m at work, he asks me what I like to eat. I give him vague answers. He makes some comment on the reason why I’m thin. He settles on the fact that he’s going to make me a homemade pizza and invite me over to eat it. He asks what toppings I like so I give him a vague answer so he might leave me alone. But, I’m at work, so I’m also smiling.

 

Clyde talks about this pizza for months. He expresses that he wants to give me a tour of his studio. I tell him that I’ll wait until Alex gets back because she went home for the summer to work and I’m living alone. I’m not prepared to take on a creepy old man, even though that creepy old man has ataxia and can’t even stand without a walker.

 

“You’ll have to come visit sometime,” he tells me.

 

I know full well that I won’t. “I promise,” I say, and pray Alex comes back soon, because I don’t know how long I can fight him off.

 

 

Clyde and I actually have some decent conversations, when he’s not hounding me to visit or trying to give me things. When he ensnares me in conversation, I figure I might as well make the most of it. I tell him a little about school and my writing (but not too much), we talk a lot about what it means to be a friend, and I listen politely when he tells me about his faith in God, and that people come into your life for a reason. I feel some sort of strange sadness when he says this.

 

I think about it later and realize that maybe the sadness I feel is actually guilt. He believes I’m such a good friend of his but I’m not—not even close. I complain about him to Alex and my other friends. I stuff everything he gives me somewhere out of sight. I throw away his cheesecake. I watch him smoke another cigarette and want to scream at him, tell him to quit because that’s how my grandfather died and I’ve never forgiven him for it.

 

 

 

I grow kinder to Clyde when I find out that he has lung cancer. He goes to a nearby hospital and keeps me updated on the tests and what they’re doing with him, though I don’t ask about it. Part of me wants to stay away from him because I’m almost afraid he’ll ask me to drive him to his ap- pointments. Another part of me remembers my mother’s advice. I think, ‘hey, if he dies, maybe since I’m such a good friend...’ but I stop myself. Besides, Clyde only has junk that I wouldn’t know what to do with. Plus, I don’t want him to die. Not really.

 

I tolerate him more than usual. I help him more than usual. He calls me a true friend and starts saying “good morning, sunshine,” every time he sees me. I want him to stop. I tell him all that he does really isn’t necessary and I’m just try to help people who need it. Every time he tells me I’m a great friend I can’t bring myself to say, “you are too, Clyde.” I hate him for ensnaring me, taking advantage of my kindness. Part of me just wants to say, fuck it, let the old guy take out his own fifty pound bag of trash; at least it might provide me with some entertainment.

 

But I just sigh and tell myself that I need to make up for my terrible thoughts, so I throw the bag of trash in the dumpster and disappear into my apartment as Clyde tells me I need to come over for pizza.

 

 

 

I keep the cards in a cabinet in my room. There are dozens of them.


I get angry at the sight of them on the wall. He knows exactly where to put them where I can see them as I go down the stairs. Sometimes, I’m so angry that I leave them there to sit for a few days, if not to leave as proof to my neighbors that the old man next door is kind of a creep, then to keep him from sending me more.


Once, when I opened the envelope taped to the wall, there was a yellow rose. The shawl he gave me was also yellow. “Your favorite color,” he says, and it is partially true. Any time someone asks me what my favorite color is, I tell them yellow. It’s something I’ve always done. Yellow is just as nice as the other colors, but people tend to call it ugly. Very few people I know say yellow is their favorite. I wonder if the people who do are saying it just because it seems like the right thing to do.

 

I put the rose on the windowsill.

 

 

 

At my last counseling session, my counselor and I run out of things to talk about, but there’s something nagging at me; I can feel it. When she asks me if I have any final questions, it hits me.

 

She listens patiently as I tell her about Clyde. When I’m through, she says, “I’m glad you live on the second floor.”

 

We both laugh. Then, the conversation becomes serious.


“It makes you uncomfortable?” she says.


“Yes.”


“Then his intent doesn’t matter. It’s okay to tell him you are just neighbors, not friends.”


The simplicity of this hits me. I don’t want to be mean to somebody who’s shown me nothing but kindness, albeit a strange, creepy kindness that makes me uncomfortable. But, I also don’t have to tolerate it anymore. I feel as if I’m in a daze. She says that he has probably done this before, shown special attention to a certain person. She asks me if I think he’s dangerous. I tell her he’s not. I think he’s just strange and utterly inept at reading people, or, if he can read people, he doesn’t care about making

them uncomfortable.


Either way, it still makes me angry.


I confront him on my walk home from counseling. He greets me with “good morning, sunshine!” Instead of returning the greeting, I pretty much tell him that we have to talk, and I see his face harden. I imagine tears in his eyes.

 

Out of a mixture of pure curiosity and a morbid desire to wound, I find myself wanting to see him cry while simultaneously wanting to forget it all and reply, “good morning!” even though it’s four in the afternoon.

 

I tell him I don’t want to hurt his feelings but that his gifts make me very uncomfortable. He assures me this wasn’t his intention. He would never want to do anything that would make me feel uncomfortable.

 

Good, I think. At least we’re on the same page.

 

I tell him that saying hello is fine, and I’m really very busy and don’t have time for long conversations.

 

He nods. His eyes are blue, by the way, which doesn’t seem too terribly important, except for the fact that I have difficulty reading eyes like his. There’s a difference in them today, and I find it hard to hold his gaze.

 

I can’t bring myself to say I am not his friend, never have been, and never will be, so I settle for the next best thing and tell him I just want to be neighbors.

 

I look him in the eye. I wish I could say I see defeat.

 

 

 

It’s been a while and I’ve received nothing from Clyde. I head down the stairs and don’t see it at first.

 

I think about leaving the envelope where it is, but no matter what mood I’m in, there’s a pinch of curiosity mixed in with the other emotions.

 

I rip the envelope off the wall and head back upstairs, forgetting the reason I was leaving in the first place.


There’s an article about Clyde in the envelope. I pace around the room and rant.


Alex doesn’t get it at first. I tell her that I don’t even want to live in our apartment. I don’t want to get the mail, for fear that he’d snag me in conversation. I tell her how he waited for me to get home from work so he could talk to me. I tell her that I don’t know how in the hell he thinks I’ll actually go to Dairy Queen with him or go over and eat his homemade pizza. I tell her I’m liable to die of boredom if I have to look at another one of his creations—I describe them to her as trash made out of trash—and she  tells me that I’m being a bit harsh, and his sculptures made from recycled bits of trash are actually decent. I know it’s harsh but it’s not untrue. Plus, it feels good saying it.

 

The thing that makes her really understand is when I show her the notes.

 

I spread them out on the floor. She didn’t realize how many there actually were. I don’t think I did either. We stare at them for a moment before we start sifting through them.

 

She picks one up and reads it aloud. It’s the note he gave me that day in the store; the one that preceded them all. It reads, Morgan, I want to thank you for greeting me with a smile and willingness to help whenever I stop by the store. It’s REALLY appreciated, and brightens my day. Your friend, Clyde.

 

The more recent ones are a different story.

 

One reads, Morgan, It’s having good friends like you that keep me up, positive, going. I couldn’t do it without you. With MUCH affection, Clyde.

 

Morgan, Trying to hide my feelings for you is like trying to hide an elephant behind my back. IMPOSSIBLE! Clyde

 

Another, Morgan, I yearn for you tragically. PLEASE come visit. Clyde

 

There’s one that I cannot find. Something about finding your soulmate. This is the one Alex is holding when we make eye contact.

 

“I didn’t realize it was this bad.”


“Can you return the Tupperware?” I ask.


She agrees to return the Tupperware and kindly tell Clyde to fuck off. She’s angry, I’m angry, and Alex declares that she’s going over to his place right that instant. All I can think is that I’m glad I didn’t eat the cheesecake. My only regret is that I washed the container instead of returning it dirty.

 

Alex has qualms about visiting him. We both know that we’re stronger than him, unless he pulls a gun, which isn’t likely, but we are well aware that we’re dealing with an unlikely character.

 

Equipped with the Tupperware, she heads to Clyde’s place. I follow behind, thinking I shouldn’t be a wuss, I should be returning the Tupperware, and that I don’t tell Alex that I love her as much as she deserves it.

 

I awkwardly and obviously stand under a tree, trying to conceal myself by hiding behind the trunk. It’s stupid and I know it, so I decide to switch it up. I walk around said tree, pretending to be absolutely and utterly absorbed by the patterns on the bark.

 

With each passing moment, there is an increasing probability that someone would see me obviously pretending to be transfixed by a tree. When enough time passed that the risk became too high to chance, I walk towards my apartment door. I think about rescuing Alex but instead, I head inside and sit.

 

I hear the sound of a doorknob turning and she’s standing in the doorway.

 

“Do you think it’s over?” I ask.

 

 

 

I get back from a quick run to Walmart, and notice my neighbor on the bench outside with two people flanking her.

 

Usually, I say hello and move on, the way neighbors do. Today though, she says more.

 

“I need to talk to you about something. Clyde used to leave you stuff, right?”

 

At first, I’m not sure I hear her correctly. She continues.

 

“He keeps talking to me and hugging me. And when he hugs you, he like sniffs your neck.”

 

She says it like I know what she’s going through, but really, I’m just surprised.

 

“Tell him to leave you alone,” I say. The words feel good as they leave my lips. “Tell him that you’re just neighbors.”

 

I feel like I’m passing on some sort of sacred obligation, words that somebody had to tell me before I believed in them.