Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Remembering my old man neighbor...

John Hallman died. I always referred to him as "my old man neighbor." And he was such a great neighbor. He lived across the street from me, alone, when I was alone. We frequently kept each other company despite the many, many years between us. When I heard a mouse in my house, I called John, regardless of the time of day or night. He'd make his way across the street, smirking the whole time at the young single girl who was afraid of a little bitty mouse.

Somehow, I think he loved playing the hero. He'd get that thing, and dispose of it, turning to leave without much more to say beyond his forced muttering. When he'd be half way across the street, I'd yell after him, "What time you go to bed anyway - just in case." He wave me off without missing a step.

The few times I decided to sun privately in my yard, John would suddenly be there, pulling up a chair to join me - well, sort of - he always kept on his gray pants and red flannel shirt, regardless of the time of year. While he obviously didn't care much for the sun, it soon became clear that he cared a great deal for me.

And we chatted about life, my visitors he kept track of amazingly well; his life and choice to remain single despite his longing for one woman years ago. He just never found the time to pursue something more.

I remember one of our chats from the lawn chairs, a heartfelt time when he described the first 50 years of his life as an alcoholic. He started drinking when he was young = and continued on the bottle for most of his adult years. He and his brother shared the road as truckers, frequently traveling the highways and biways together. One early morning, as the sun began to rise, he looked in his rearview mirror to see his brother's rig explode into a ball of fire.

His words that afternoon stopped suddenly.

After a long pause, he said that since that tragic day, he never had another drink. He kept his copy of the 12 steps close to his easy chair, within reach of most of his activities in those days.

He said he liked life sober so much more than being drunk. He had more money to buy nice things, like shiny plum-colored Buick he polished every single morning, long before I arose for the day. He had a warm home, good food, nice clothes. He was sober and grateful - despite being alone.

After moving and marrying and having kids, there were many, many days I thought of John and our lazy days in the sun. Though he swore like a sailor, I wanted my kids to know him, to see past his gruff exterior to the gentle hero I knew him to be. I took them to his place and they stared at his huff, having never witnessed such a sight. They kept watching him, then me, wondering how I could laugh and smile at the old grumpy guy who could barely move from that old dusty easy chair.

I saw his 12 step book that day. It was well worn with a beatup black leather cover. Looking around his place, there was nothing more symbolic and meaningful to his life than the frayed=edged book and thin, semi torn pages. I summoned the courage to suggest that if and when he should die, could he leave the book to me, as a membrance of his life.


We went looking for John today, not knowing the exact time I last saw him. It has been years since I received his annual Christmas amd birthday card. So much had happened since 9/11 - the death of my Dad, David's Mom, his Grandparents. The fog of life - when was it exactly when I took the kids to meet him? As we drove slowly by his place, the tall uncut grass was enough for me to know he couldn't live there anymore. Even on his stiffest, worst feeling days, John would mow his lawn, even if it took all day. The front blinds were disheveled, doors hanging open on his shed. I turned away with a chill.

We asked at the office - the help had never heard of him, but she knew his place was abandoned.

After dropping me off, with a sense of uncertain sadness, David phoned to say he found John's death certificate. My old man neighbor died Nov. 11. 2002 - in the midst of the fog of my own life, I had missed the end of another.

I will never forget John. I just wonder what happened to that well-worn book, sitting next to his easy chair...


Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful writing, this one bittersweet.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I loved this one Sue, finally got on and looked. Since Mom came I've not had the time to check, but this was well worth it! Love your writing, it's so insightful! Love you too, skt