The Other Side of Your Wall
by YVONNE GEORGINA PUIG
You never forget your childhood next door neighbors. I have a strange metaphor for mine: the buns of my family sandwich. There they were, always on either side, listening to us or ignoring us, bringing over tins of Christmas popcorn or never bringing over anything, waving at me and my sister Vanessa, or writing complaint letters to our parents. The Jennings and the Spellmans were our unessential constants.
Mr. and Mrs. Jennings were an older couple whose children had grown and gone. Mrs. Jennings was quiet and wore large thick-rimmed glasses and took evening walks. Mr. Jennings is an unforgettable, almost magnificent figure in my mind. He had a balding round-as-a-pumpkin head and stood probably six feet tall on the skinniest legs I’d seen on a man, legs which hung loose and marionette-like from his extraordinarily narrow pot belly. Mr. Jennings was from the front a slim man who wore plaid shirts and who cinched his polyester pants far below his belly button. From the side, Mr. Jennings was a man who cinched his pants far below his belly button because his middle protruded three feet from his body. He smoked Virginia Slims and often stood at the end of his driveway with his skinny cigarette and taking in the scene.
Mr. Jennings was a grump who delighted in being grumpy, and to his surprise I imagine, was most benevolent at his grumpiest. He caught me and Vanessa writing our initials in a square of wet sidewalk and made us smooth it out, but a few days later brought each of us a handmade wet stepping stone, which we imprinted with our hands and the paws of our cats. He enjoyed when our cat Muffy slept on his sprinkler heads, because then he could turn the water on and scare the hell out of her. This was upsetting to our mother.
The Jennings’ front door was mossy green. Their living room was beige and thickly carpeted. They only drove Buicks. It was on Mr. Jennings' sedan that I discovered the keyhole to the trunk of a Buick is hidden beneath the logo. Our relations with the Jennings were mostly cordial, even friendly, except when Mr. Jennings tired of our rooster. He threatened to report our backyard menagerie to the community police, and so we took Sam White to live on a farm.
The Spellmans were a more complex case. The problems began when Vanessa and I were little girls, and decided, with our friend Margaret who lived on the other side of the Spellmans, to have a tea party on the flat rock in their front yard. I don’t remember the day, but the story goes that Mrs. Spellman bitterly cast us away, despite our being harmless and most likely adorable. The Spellmans then forbade us from even crossing their yard to get to Margaret’s house, which meant we had to walk on the street and this worried our mother. No one liked the Spellmans.
I have little physical memory of them, because in my memory they never left their house. Even now, I’m not sure how many Spellmans there were. When we threw our frisbee into their backyard and called to retrieve it, Mrs. Spellman was cold and cryptic: What. Goes. In. Our. Yard. Stays. In. Our. Yard., she said, and hung up. There would be no sneaking around because the Spellmans had a pet hyena that snarled and snapped at even an eyeball pressed to the fence boards, thus we never saw the frisbee again.
As the years went on we convinced ourselves that the Spellmans had an underground dungeon beneath their house where they stored bodies and worshipped the devil. I found this more fascinating than scary, and spent many hours hiding in the pittosporum bushes across the street from the Spellman’s house, deciphering messages out of the mortar in their bricks. I was certain, for example, that the flaws in the mortar below their front window spelled Satan. I’m not sure if I actually saw this, I only know that I very badly wanted it to be true.
All our young mysteries were attributed to the Spellmans. When our Fisher-Price cassette player broke down we stomped fearlessly to their house. I was probably 7, Vanessa 9. Grandma Spellman opened the door — just a crack — and Vanessa ruffled her feathers and announced herself. “Excuse me,” she said, deftly presenting the evidence like the lawyer she became, “but do you know anything about this?” She pressed the play button, and the Fisher-Price cassette player proceeded to sputter the low, warped song of Michael Jackson, and my memory stops there. I can’t imagine how outrageous we must have looked to Grandma Spellman, righteous little princesses that we were, standing on her doorstep, accusing her of sabotaging our beloved plastic tape player.
Our parents prohibited all interaction with the Spellmans when we were in junior high, after we threw pinecones at their windows in an attempt to goad them into revealing their evilness once and for all. They called the police, we got in trouble, Mrs. Spellman sent my parents a scolding, lawyerly letter, and we didn’t bother them after that. We did, however, bury a quarter in their front yard. According to some legend I’d heard at a slumber party, doing this would make objectionable neighbors move away within a year. The Spellmans didn’t move away until many years later, and we never knew what became of them.
Who were your childhood next door neighbors?
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