It starts with a funeral. Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan. The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church. Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck. She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.
A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property. She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor. He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.
“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”
Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story. Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news. For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.
Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church. Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building. They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks. It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money. Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought. She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.
Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line. He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm. She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied. It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s. Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.
“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances. The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.
She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten. At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows. She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother. The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.
“Can you believe this?” Fran says.
“Was he sick?” Cathy asks. “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”
Fran shook her head.
“He’d been in the hospital for a while. Declined rapidly. His old heart finally gave out.”
“Oh, boy. I wish I’d known.”
“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”
Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”
A thought flickers through Cathy’s head: the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news. In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.
“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”
Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks. Her husband and father in the same year. Play it off or admit we didn’t know?
“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.
How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran? Tea and a chat was always the invitation. Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.
After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand. They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived. Neither speaks on the short trip home.
They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home. Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks. Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood. She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.
Their neighborhood: not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland. Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above. Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.
The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake. Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly. He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.
Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street. They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.
But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were. Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary. That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.
A month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her. Always so much to do and never enough time to do it. And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.
“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”
Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside. They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her. These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.
“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.
“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.
Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come. The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.
This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.