That spring, after Bobby’s long hiatus from the garden, what I noticed first were his fingernails: big and otherworldly, the shiny purple-blue of scarab beetles. I saw them as I unbent from the dirt—his brown hands gripping the top rail of the chain-link fence, a gray rod running between us.
Along the fence that divided our yard from the Justs’, at one of the yard’s few sunny places, I had sacrificed some turf for a flower garden. On his side, Bobby did the same. Together, our beds made a whole circle, the fence bisecting it. Each August, my riotous zinnias grew high enough to obscure the fence, and I told Bobby to cut any he wanted. The previous summer he had conjured huge elephant-ear plants from his dirt. The year before that, pumpkins.
On that May afternoon, as I tip-toed between my just-emerged rows, he tramped across his weedy plot to meet me. “What’s the word, Bobby Just?” I asked. “I haven’t seen you in months.” I leaned my shovel against the fence, pressed my hands to the small of my back as I straightened. My swollen belly strained my back, and these days I dreamed about how light I would feel once the baby was out. I’d be able to run again, to wear something other than the single pair of leather walking shoes that fit me, size 10s I was forced to buy once my feet swelled and spread from standing all day at the bank.
“Hasn’t been much of me to see. I’ve been seeing you out the window, working hard. You’re growing while I’m shrinking. Glad to see someone’s going in the right direction.” He chuckled, leaned back from the fence rail, turned his face toward the pale blue sky.
“Well, I’ve been wondering about you. Your car’s been sitting. You still off work?”
“Been off five months. It’s gonna be some more, too, what with this big thing coming.”
It sounded like a train, the way he said it, something huge and heavy heading down the track. Did he think Jackie had told me? I hadn’t seen her any more recently than I’d seen him. When was the last time I’d talked to him? Just before his last chemo? He’d worn a knit cap, but didn’t have one on now—his hair looked like a thin, dark layer of velvet on his skull. I’d been so busy at the bank, training my replacement, planning our move from DC to Charlotte—I was ashamed to think that so many days had passed with me coming and going, never thinking to ask after him, which now I did, sheepishly. “Big thing?”
“Transplant. Bone marrow. It knocks you out for a good long while. My brother from Carolina’s coming up to donate—it kills me to have to ask him, but what you gonna do? I need somebody.” He shook his head.
My hand shot to clasp his wrist. “Bobby,” I said, “You hang in there.” I gave him a squeeze, saw my winter-whitened skin against his, smooth and dark as an acorn, and then returned my hands to my shovel, jabbing it into the earth a few times. I pushed my sunglasses up on top of my head. I wanted him to see my eyes. “Anything I can do, you just say the word. You want me to put some plants in over on your side? It’s no problem. I can pick some up next time I’m out at Behnke’s.”
“Nah. I think you got enough on your plate.” He waved his hand at me, then at the “For Sale” sign on our lawn. “I’m just counting this year as a wash. A blank slate. Dreaming of next season. You got to get your mind beyond—eyes on the prize and all that jazz. You divide those blue hostas next year, I’ll take a few,” he said, and then turned and walked slowly the ten steps back to his front door. “See you ‘round, Aubrey.”
Next season, I thought, I won’t be here. Next season, I hope you’re here, Bobby Just, getting to know your new neighbors. Imagining someone else in our house—our first house together—felt strange. The small yellow Cape Cod had only been ours for five years. One of the first things Pete and I did when we’d moved in was to pull out the part of the chain-link fence that enclosed the front yard. Along the front where the fence had been, we made a rock garden on the slope. Lilies, daisies, and phlox now blanketed the bank.
The fence between our house and the Justs, though, would not have been easy to take out, even if we’d wanted to. The only visible part of the fence was the place where Bobby and I made our gardens (complete with a strange little gate between the two yards, which was hard to imagine anyone using). I let bamboo obscure a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary—the aqua paint on her robes chipped and faded. Forsythia and honeysuckle tangled with each other and with the fence’s diamonds, swallowing it whole. The feet of these plants—set into motion decades ago—seemed to be on our side, but it was hard to be sure. Sometimes I trimmed the bushes. Sometimes Bobby did. Since Bobby announced his leukemia, I’d been trimming from their side. Yardwork didn’t seem to be Jackie’s bag, and Lord knows, she had enough to do with Bobby in and out of the hospital.
When Pete and I pulled out the fence, some of our elderly neighbors, both named Polly, came by to chat. Both were widows. Polly 1 was short and sturdy, wore khakis with boat shoes, dyed her short hair rusty brown. Polly 2 was larger and more florid in all ways. Her flowered dresses billowed over her significant frame, and generous silver curls scalloped her head, just short enough to reveal her customary clip-on rhinestone earrings.
Polly 2 sidled up to chat as we loaded the fence into my brother’s pickup to take to the dump. “Keep that fence up between you and them other neighbors. A little space between neighbors never hurts,” she said ominously. Then in a mock-whisper: “The Negroes can be the worst.”
Polly 1 jumped in: “They’re a good family, Polly. Stop your nonsense!”
“Oh, they might seem good,” said Polly 2, “But they’re not like us. Remember those boys on the other side of me that ended up in jail for selling marijuana at the bus stop? Since those King riots, since they burned down their own neighborhoods and moved out to ours, it’s never been the same.”
Polly 1 waved her hand, as if to swat a fly. “Oh, that’s old news. A lot has changed in the last 25 years.”
“All I’m saying is I wish they had left our little neighborhood alone, kept on going outside the Beltway and headed north out into the country. Made a place for their own kind. Before you know it, we’ll be the only white houses on the block.”
Pete cleared his throat. “Bobby and Jackie seem like model neighbors to me. We’re good with neighbors who are neighborly, whatever their color. Right, Aubrey?” He put his hand on the small of my back, and I nodded absently.
Polly’s words disoriented me. They belonged to a world I thought I’d packed up and left behind in elementary school, when our town’s only swimming pool did not accept black members. When, halfway through sixth grade my elementary school was integrated. Half the white kids were whisked away to a school in another part of the county; the next day black kids sat in their desks. I lost a few friends in the trade, but none of my best friends, and I gained my new friend Lillian. When we shared a hotel room on our class trip to New York City, I silently watched her put her hair up in pink foam rollers at night, excited to see a jar of AfroSheen in person, not just on commercials during Soul Train. I never saw Lillian’s house, and she never came to mine, but still we were friends until a different busing plan sent us to different junior highs.
Pete was patting my back more insistently now. “Right, Aubrey?”
“Right, right. Bobby and Jackie are quite friendly. They’re our friends.” And it was true that they were the closest thing to friends we had on the block.
How well can you get to know your neighbors in five years? Very well if you have something in common, if you have kids to bring you together, or if you spend time together at block parties or other neighborly institutions. Not so well if you don’t. I talked with the Pollys when they were out in their yards and they would shout something across the street—Nice day! or Looks good! Sometimes one of us would cross the street to tell a story. From Nice Polly, I heard about the roller skating parties held in the basement of our house, about how she’d raised nine children in her three-bedroom, one-bath house. I had been in each of the Polly’s houses once. The first time I stopped in to borrow a garden tool, Nice Polly offered me lemonade and sat me down in a scratchy brown upholstered chair. My bare legs chafed against the fabric, and the shelves of framed family photos bore down upon me, weighty decades of dusty freeze-frame. I jiggled my leg impatiently, waiting for Polly to bring my drink and be done with the cool indoors on such a sunny day.
I had talked to Bobby more than any other neighbor but had never been in the Just house. I can’t recall a time when the fence did not stand between us. His wife Jackie had once stood on our stoop with a bag of tomatoes brought from her family down South, but I did not invite her in, just thanked her with the screened door propped open and took the tomatoes. Perhaps I had just arrived home from work and had something on the stove. More likely, the house was a mess and I was embarrassed to let her see it. To be fair, she had never invited me into her house either.
To some, perhaps, inviting a neighbor in signaled trust and intimacy, but I found such intimacy in our outdoor spaces. Across the fence, Bobby and I discussed plans for our annual beds, whether we needed to inoculate pea seeds before planting them and the best time for putting in gladiolus bulbs. We talked about his teenaged son and his victories on the tennis team. I complimented him on the bird houses made from round golden gourds that he carved and hung from the trees, including the massive maple tree that arched over a third of our backyard, a third of theirs. The tree’s trunk was in our yard, very near the fence. We commiserated each spring about all the twigs the tree dropped. I mused that we’d need to get the tree trimmed one day.
About a month before my due date, I came home from work, propped my feet on the coffee table in the living room, and rifled through the mail. One envelope stood out—a letter from our real estate agent. I wondered as I tore it open: more papers to sign? We finally had a signed contract on our house, a closing date three weeks after the baby was due. I was relieved to stop thinking about what would happen if we didn’t sell the house, happy to focus on what it would be like to meet my son.
The handwritten note read: I’m enclosing a copy of a letter I received from one of your neighbors. Not really a matter for me but rather one to be addressed between neighbors. Kind regards—Sally
I could not imagine the letter’s contents or which neighbor might have sent it. The insurance company letterhead conjured few possibilities. A neighbor wanted a leg up on selling homeowners’ insurance to the new owners? Wanted to sell us health insurance for our soon-to-arrive child?
It was none of these. Instead it was Bobby’s wife Jackie using her employer’s letterhead to make a personal argument. She urged our real estate agent to prevent the sale of the house until we made good on our promises. On numerous occasions, Mrs. Bales and my husband spoke about their intention to have the maple tree in their backyard trimmed. We awaited completion of this work for several years, but it never occurred. We feel it imperative that the Bales have this work done before moving, as the branches dropped into our yard and onto our roof have become more than a nuisance—they are a liability that should not pass to the future owner.
My heart pumped faster. My face flushed. God damn her, I thought. Don’t we have enough to worry about? The new owners could ask for money we didn’t have after the inspection. The baby could come early. The delivery could be complicated. The moving van could arrive late. “We don’t owe her anything,” I said aloud to the empty room. But underneath, another thought wove itself like a thin thread: We never did get around to that, did we?
When I reached her on the phone and told her why I was calling, Jackie’s voice was pitched unnaturally high. “Yes, Mrs. Bales, you did promise my husband. You did say you would take care of it. And I’m not going to let you slip out of your promise and just go away.”
I hated the logical tone of my voice, its smarmy factualness as I told her we had no intention of trimming the tree. “Listen. Jackie. You have to understand that we are bleeding money here, and we expect to be laying out a whole lot more in starting our new life. We’re not going to plunk down a few hundred more to trim a tree that won’t be ours in a month. Really, we have no legal obligation to do it.”
“Bleeding money, huh? Losing blood and money? We know more about both of those than I hope you’ll ever know.” I could taste the metallic bitterness in her voice. I sat down at the kitchen table—round and wooden, rubbed of finish and decorated with water rings. I glanced out the window. Jackie stood at her kitchen window, no more than twenty feet away, her back to me, the double straps of her bra and slip showing through her white blouse. One strap had fallen down off her shoulder, and I wanted to reach across our yard and slide it back up for her. Her left hand rested on top of her head, like she was keeping it from flying off, and her right hand rested on a stack of papers on the counter, a stack I now imagined as hospital bills.
I slid the curtains closed, their metal rings screeching along the rod, mimicking the sound of hospital curtains coming between two patients. I closed my eyes. Inside my lids danced IV lines and hydrating fluids and bone marrow and bags of blood. Surgical needles and thread and umbilical cord and placenta. I felt like I would vomit. I’d had no morning sickness during eight months of pregnancy—could it come on now, after so long? I walked with the cordless phone across the house and stood in front of the toilet. Jackie yammered on: “What I understand, Mrs. Bales, is that you agreed to do it. What I understand is that your branches fall on our roof and damage it a bit more each time there’s a storm. What about that next big storm that brings a limb crashing through our bedroom window? You should know that you’d be liable for any damage.” She went on about whose insurance would pay, about our high deductible, likely more than a tree-trimming would cost, as if working for an insurance company gave her some power to make us do what she wanted.
By now, I was kneeling on the white fluffy rug, my forearms resting on the toilet seat, hair dangling around my drooping face, thighs cradling my ballooning belly. At least we don’t have to worry about keeping the house clean for prospective buyers, I told myself. At least if I vomit, the smell won’t offend anyone. “Call me Aubrey,” I whispered into the receiver.
“What?” she snapped.
“Not Mrs. Bales. Maybe Ms., but not Mrs. Or call me Aubrey. That would be better.”
“Of course,” she said primly, “Ms. Bales.”
My mind went to our new house awaiting us in Charlotte, only seven years old, with no trees big enough to shake their arms over anyone else’s house. I thought about Bobby walking around his yard once we were gone, picking up our tree’s branches after he recovered from his bone marrow transplant. My nausea had passed. “Listen,” I said, sighing. “If you want this tree trimmed so badly, you need to pitch in. If you want to pay half, great, we’ll do it.”
“We were always willing to pitch in. Didn’t Bobby tell you we were willing to pitch in?”
“We didn’t get that far. I don’t even know where to start looking for someone to do the job.”
“I know a guy. I can call him if you want.”
And just like that, the fate of the maple was in Jackie’s hands. I let her take care of it because I did not need another task on my list. This was our first home. We were not even 30 years old and the Justs had more than ten years on us. We did not know what neighbors owed each other. By the time my husband arrived home that evening, the bomb had been defused, the matter settled, and my heart was beating at its normal rate again. I explained the situation while he chopped vegetables for dinner. “Okay by me,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. We’ve already burned through most of our savings.”
The next day, Jackie had a quote. Three hundred—we’d each pay $150. The man could do it the following week. I wouldn’t even need to be around. We settled it by phone, but this time I sat in our office on the other side of the house, far away from our kitchen windows. The tension between us had faded to a slight hum. I thanked her for taking care of the tree. I would stick a check in their mailslot. We could talk niceties now. How was Bobby doing? When would his brother be coming up? How much time could she take off of work? Was my baby moving around a lot? Would we be packing ourselves?
I had forgotten it was tree-trimming day until I pulled up to the curb after work. Leaves shaped like pointed hands littered our yards, along with a smattering of twigs, but the bigger limbs had been removed. The white aluminum siding of the Just house gathered the setting sun in a new way, blaring brightness in even stripes. The tree that had been shaped like a large inverted shovel that morning now pointed skyward as half a spade. The trunk on our side was intact, but above the fence line, an invisible boundary rose up: tree on our side, air on theirs. They had sliced the tree in half.
I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. I felt sick. I wanted to scurry back to the moment when I could have taken charge. They had maimed the old tree with a trunk so big I could not reach my arms around its girth, and I could not undo it. I got out of the car, slammed the door, and gravitated toward the tree. If Jackie had been there, I would have spit at her. I would have reached across the fence and scratched her smirking face. I could see it—the triumphant we asked you nicely smile. The here’s what you made me do look. The challenge in her eyes. Without her there, I did not know where to direct my rage. I kicked at the tree’s trunk, and then looked up at the rash of raw incisions, round yellowish circles where limbs used to arch out over our neighbors’ lawn.
A leaf stuck in my clog as I went back to our house and stood at the locked door. My keys and briefcase and purse were still in the car. Sitting on the top step, I reached down to pull the leaf out of my shoe. I laid the leaf on my flattened palm and studied it. It was about the size of my hand, with white veins stretching tautly out to the five points. Our neighborhood was called Oakwood; its entrance was on a street called White Oak Boulevard, but we did not have any oaks in our yard. We had a holly tree taller than our house, a red maple on one side of our backyard, and this now-halved white maple on the other side. Would the tree bleed sap from its wounds? Could we collect it and boil it down for maple syrup, salvage something?
I was still sitting on our stoop when Pete’s car pulled up. The Justs’ house and yard were quiet and still. “Whoa,” he said as he walked toward me across the lawn. “What happened here?”
“It was done when I arrived. I don’t know what to say.”
“I know what to say: This is bullshit!” He snapped a twig violently, tossed it toward their yard, but it landed in ours. “What did they think they were doing? Have you talked to them yet?”
“It’s my fault as much as theirs.”
“What do you mean? You didn’t tell the guy to cut the tree in half. If this fucks up our sale…. Wouldn’t you notice if you bought a house with a tree, then came back and saw only half a tree?” His hands were manic, chopping and circling and pointing.
“Well,” I said quietly, “I guess the new owners are the least of my concerns.”
Later in the evening, Pete confronted Jackie over the fence as she surveyed the tree work. I went out onto the front stoop. The glossy-leafed camellia hid me. The level of anger he spewed was uncharacteristic, and it saddened me to think of how this polluted him, me, our son in utero, how it snapped our connection with the Justs, how we’d leave the neighborhood now untethered to them. Then I saw the Pollys gathered at the curb, watching, leaning together in conversation. I didn’t know what to do—go explain to them or go to Pete. A chant from the elementary school playground shrieked into my head—“Fight! Fight! A nigger and a white!”—and I screwed my eyes together to squeeze it out. This was the legacy I would leave behind, I thought—a story for a neighborhood to regurgitate until the Pollys passed on. I imagined Polly 2’s comments—you see, she thought she could be friends with those people and look where it got her.
My swollen legs throbbed with varicose veins, and I longed to go back inside and lie down in the cool basement. Polly 1 waved to me, and I raised my hand from the wrought-iron railing and waved back. Stepping down toward the Pollys, I glanced over to the fence line, where Pete and Jackie had lowered their voices but still snapped at each other. I saw Bobby standing with her, gaunt and silent, head bowed and hands outturned. If I’d draped a cloth over his head and shoulders, he’d have looked like the Mary statue in the back garden, shrouded in bamboo.
As I approached, they stopped talking. I reached across the fence and put my hand on Jackie’s shoulder. She shrugged it away. “Come inside,” I said. “This is no place to air our dirty laundry.”
Jackie raised her chin. “I don’t have anything more to say.”
I looked at Bobby. I had never noticed the color of his eyes: dark green with a chestnut starburst at the center. Placid yet lively pools. “Come. Tell me what you’ll grow next year in your now-sunny backyard,” I said.
He smiled. “Do you have any sweet tea?”
“With mint,” I said.
Bobby put his hand on Jackie’s back to lead her. The top half of her body swayed like an aspen in the wind, saying yes, saying movement, but her feet did not budge.
They could have walked along the fence, down to the sidewalk and up our front walk, but I was afraid Jackie would change her mind in the time it would take to go around, afraid the Pollys would spook her. The mystery gate’s latch, an old aluminum horseshoe shape, creaked as I raised it. “This way,” I said, and everyone watched, breathless it seemed, as I shook the gate against its bondage of morning glories, rattled their blue heads, closed now for evening, snapped the vines, revealed an opening none of us had witnessed in the five years that we’d lived side-by-side. The resistance of the gate’s hinges made a sound like a gasp, and along the bottom edge the tines of the cut-metal diamonds combed the grass blades back, laid them down neat and prostrate and welcoming for our neighbors’ feet.