When a Neighbor Dies

When I get home from my morning run, there are two police officers hanging around my driveway. They look like babies, plump skin and short bangs under their caps. Barely in their twenties. They stand under our ancient weeping cherry tree, and scant snowflakes flutter down between the tired skeleton branches. It’s not cold enough to see our breath.

“Are you here for this house?” I ask, a bit incredulous, pointing up our driveway.

One of the officers shakes his head.

“That one,” he says. Next door.

A more senior officer stands at the neighbors’ side entrance, and I see Mrs. J. behind the screen, her hair choppy, flyaway. She’s in her gray sweats.

I shower and make my coffee, wondering about what might be going on. When I sit down at my desk, I see that a white van has pulled up in front of our house. I text my husband.

The medical examiner just showed up.

That can’t be good, he texts back.

I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other.

Our neighbors are older, but not old. Mrs. J. might be sixty. She travels a lot for work. I overlap with her when we garden, but she’s got a sharp edge, exudes weariness. Mr. J., an unfit man in his early seventies, is more acerbic, off-putting. He parks his worn pickup truck in front of our house, the bumper plastered in NRA stickers. Our days are punctuated by his loud voice calling sternly to his hunting dogs or hacking out a dry cough. When my husband went over once to help him with his printer in their basement, I pictured the walls covered in rifles or shot guns and kept an eye on the clock to see how long they’d been down there together. We’re in an unfinished, uncomfortable discussion with Mr. J. about whether he can paint their side of our fence, and it makes me glad that it’s now December and no one’s wanting to paint anything for at least another four months.

Two guys open the back of the van and pop out a gurney, its spindly wheels dropping to the street. They disappear up the walkway, and I keep guard out my window like a meddling Parisian concierge. It’s impossible to work. The shorthaired cat sleeps by the heater vent behind my desk, the longhaired cat stalks something outside in the front lawn; the sky above all of us is city-gray. The medical examiner team emerges on the walkway.

They have to carry the gurney carefully over the brick steps. Their burden: a thick plastic body bag zipped and belted to the stretcher. Its contents are large, bulky. Man-like. Past the walkway, the wheels drop, and the men roll out to the street. Through the leggy branches of the weeping cherry, I watch them load the gurney into the back of the van. The doors snap shut. Several minutes after the van drives away, the police cars disappear, too. Then it’s quiet out my study window.

I wait for activity. For the adult daughter who lives nearby to arrive, skid into a parking spot, and run up the walkway with her blond hair covering her face and her short-legged blond dog yipping at her heels. I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other. But the street is silent.

In the afternoon, Mrs. J. leaves on an errand. Our two kids come home from school, and I tell them the shocking news that Mr. J. probably died. We don’t know our neighbors well, nor do we have warm feelings about them, but we see them every day. We are disturbed by the turn of events. It is devastating to imagine losing a spouse.

I phone my in-laws.

“What do I do? When should I stop by?”

“As soon as possible,” my mother-in-law tells me.

So I draft a vague card and deliver it before dinner.

Dear Mrs. J., We are so sorry for what has happened. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you during this difficult time.

I include our phone number because I’m not sure she has it.

Mrs. J. answers the door in her sweats, rubber cleaning gloves up to her elbows, a cell phone between her shoulder and ear. I hand the card to her, and she closes the door.

We have a neighborhood email list, and I decide it’s my duty to inform the street of Mr. J.’s passing.

“But you don’t know that he actually died,” my husband says.

“I saw a body,” I say. Isn’t a body irrevocable evidence? It’s too awful that no one has stopped by—not even their daughter—to support Mrs. J. There is drama on the street, and I feel information needs to be disseminated. I craft the email.

Dear Neighbors, I wanted to share the sad news that Mr. J. died this morning.

I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

I dislike(d) Mr. J. immensely. We’ve overheard wicked, abusive yelling matches between Mr. J. and his daughter, one time with his wife. His dogs bark furiously at us whenever we are in our backyard; we can’t let the kids retrieve their basketball because we worry for their safety with those dogs. I blame both Mr. and Mrs. J. for the used syringes and cigarette butts we sometimes find on our side of the fence, and wish they had more control over their adult daughter and what she does at their house. The best news to our being homeowners would be that the Js. are moving away.

But there’s no other way to say it: the sad news. Death on a gray winter day is sad. And, equally compelling, is the proximity of tragedy. I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

My husband’s caution tickles my send finger. I decide to wait to publicize the news until I’ve talked with Mrs. J. in person.

The next day, there is no sign of her, no sign of the daughter, no sign of any activity. The dogs are silent. I look at the yellow light from a bedroom, what in most homes would exude warmth now speaks of only loneliness to me. The cold humidity pushes against our two houses. I text Mrs. J.

Hi Mrs. J. I will drop off dinner for you tonight. I’ll bring it by around 6:00. It will be packaged so you can put it right in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it today.

I see a welcomed closure, for myself. I will deliver the food. If I don’t make direct contact with Mrs. J. tonight, at least I will have fulfilled my neighborly duty of expressing sympathy and providing food and offers of support. I don’t look forward to listening to her tell me the details of her loss, but there is no way to avoid it when our two side doors look right at each other and we tend to pick the same sunny days to weed. At least the fence painting disagreement with her husband can be put to bed.

It rains, and I cook curried cream of chicken soup to memories of the Amadeus cinematic funeral scene. I bake cranberry nut bread. I shop for firm grapes and make a last-minute decision to include two small squares of dark chocolate, gourmet and indulgent. Everything fits in a few disposable Tupperware and some layers of aluminum foil. I am particularly attuned to portioning small sizes for Mrs. J., what I entertain as a “widow’s dinner.” I pack it all in a plastic grocery bag.

I leave the kids to their homework and ring Mrs. J.’s door. The dogs are back. They bark murderously from the inside, and bells jingle as someone undoes the locks.

Mr. J. answers the door.

He stands there in front of me, filling the doorframe. I hadn’t remembered him being such a large person, and his presence looms over me like an indictment. The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

“Hi. Mr. J.,” I say, feeling ridiculous about everything that’s gone through my head during the past thirty-six hours. Confused. And also disappointed. “Um.”

Mrs. J. appears behind her husband. Neither of them is smiling, but then they never were before, either.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi. Sorry.” Does my script from when I thought Mr. J. had died still apply? “I saw the police here yesterday. Also, the medical examiner.” They look at each other, raise their eyebrows. The dogs smash their muzzles against the screen, frantic, trying to get to me. “I don’t know what happened. I thought you could use—some help.” I hold up the small—so small—bag of food. “I made you a few things to eat, just a little something. Very little. I’m not sure it will feed,” and I make eye contact with Mr. J., “everyone.”

They look at each other again.

“Should we tell her?” Mrs. J. asks her husband.

“I don’t care. But do it outside,” Mr. J. says, and yells at the dogs to get back while Mrs. J. slips out. She raises her arms like, what can she do?

The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

We step over to the bushes that my husband and I planted near the property line the first year we moved in to block our view of Mr. J.’s marathon television-watching. It’s the first time I’ve noticed translucent red berries tucked into the branches, although in the evening light they look blue. Mr. J. closes the door, disappears.

“Oh, I don’t need to know anything, really,” I say, trying to convey both concern and disinterest. She takes a noisy breath.

“Our daughter’s awful boyfriend overdosed here last night. She was going to break up with him…. But she never wanted this.”

I picture the stuffed body bag. A large man. The colorless, cold body first of Mr. J. with his square frame and glittering pokes of silver facial stubble, his pockmarked cheeks and irritated frown, and then not Mr. J. A man we’ve never met. Never seen, presumably much younger, younger than me.

“Of course not,” I say. The Js.’ porch lights are boxy and dim. I can smell a wood burning fire from their chimney, a smell that always makes me think of my grandparents, and skiing. On dark winter nights, I am grateful for that smell.

“She’s beside herself. I have to leave town for a few days, but Mr. J. will be at home with her.”

I have to fight myself from saying, If there’s anything I can do to help. I hand the food to her.

“It’s very small,” I say. “Honestly,” and I hide my mouth like I’m telling a secret, “we were worried it was Mr. J.”

She laughs out loud. Sometimes, she does share a giant laugh with our kids.

“No, no.” Mrs. J. shakes her head. “Nope.” She thanks me for the food, says Mr. J. and their daughter will save it for lunch the next day, and we retreat to our separate houses.

“Thank god I didn’t send that email,” I say to my husband after telling him that Mr. J. is, in fact, still alive. “Can you imagine?”

“I actually was kind of glad he had died,” my husband says.

It’s true. Since we aren’t able to break up with our neighbors, death would have been our lucky out. Instead, we have the blue lights of their television to flicker outside our windows all winter, and several contentious fence-painting discussions lined up for when the first crocuses peek out of the ground. I set the table for chicken soup and cranberry nut bread. It will feed the four of us.

Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Compose Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs. For many years, Milena worked as a research psychologist and as the director of a non-profit evaluation group. She has recently finished a collection of short stories.