Sunday, January 19, 2014

Neighbors

Martin and I lived in Silver Lake, in a house on a hillside, a hillside with a staircase, a staircase of 200 steps or so. If you climbed the staircase, south to north, bottom to top, starting at the bus stop on the corner of Clayton and Sunset, you'd get a view of downtown, then Century City, and ultimately, Catalina Island. If really fit, you could jog the entire vertical exercise, rising from relative poverty to absolute luxury in about half an hour.

Our rental sunk a shaky foundation around step 14. Our closest neighbor, a family from Guatemala, made do with a cottage and camper shell near step 8. The Drinkwaters owned the house somewhere close to step 20.

The Drinkwaters were a middle aged-bordering-on-elderly British couple. They tried, no, they went out of their way, to avoid all neighbors, including Martin, me, and the Guatemalans. Ironically, for Martin, me, and the Guatemalans, the Drinkwaters themselves were unavoidable.

For one thing, they sang opera arias morning and evening, windows open, weekends included. I'm not sure exactly which arias were their favorites, everything they sang sounded eerily the same -- eight long screams capped by a death rattle, the final note an excruciating punctuation, as though throats had been slit, side-to-side, with a dull bread knife.

When not practicing their craft, Mr. and Mrs. Drinkwater argued with each other, enthusiastically. Martin and I tried to eavesdrop, but the most we ever caught was some string beginning with You can't, You didn't, You haven't, or You never will.

When not singing or fighting, the Drinkwaters spent the balance of the day calling for their cat, Sebastian.

Often, when I was in the backyard, Maria would whisper over the fence, "You think someone is hurt this time?" And we'd both listen for a beat. "No," I'd say, "they're singing." or "Sounds like Sebastian took a powder." I think the papers at step #8 weren't entirely in order, but that didn't stop the owners, Maria and Paco, from caring. Caring about neighbors who never had and never would profer a single Hello.

The first time I actually met Mrs. Drinkwater was at 2 a.m. on a New Year's Day. The doorbell rang. Martin answered the door. He woke me up. "Ding-dong," he said. "Lady MacBeth calling," then fell face down on the bed. It had been a long night.

She was wearing a bathrobe, her hair in an untidy gray braid. I remember those details, now, but they didn't register at the time. Because all I saw was the bloody arm she waved in my general direction.

It took awhile, but eventually I understood that the blood was hers, and the perp was Sebastian. But Sebastian was also the victim of some sort of dog attack.

I told her to take the cat to the Eagle Rock emergency clinic, and to this day can't understand how I ended up as their chauffeur.

When we arrived at the Eagle Rock clinic, my passengers were in a more positive frame of mine. Mrs. Drinkwater, because she and Sebastian had stopped bleeding, and Sebastian because Mrs. Drinkwater had tucked him in with the wool scarf she found in my backseat.

"You don't mind, do you." It wasn't a question. "After all, Sebastian is in shock, we have to keep him warm."

Mind? I thought. Mind that you destroyed a scarf, a scarf I received from the most beautiful man I ever met, one weekend in Scotland, when we did what we did and will never do again.

"No," I said, "no, I don't mind."

As I provided information at the reception desk, Mrs. Drinkwater, feeling better and better, whipped herself into a New Year's Day party mood. She chatted up the others in the waiting room. "Well, now," she said, cozying up to a sobbing woman who held a dying dachshund on her lap. "Aren't you the cutest little wiener dog? -- Woochie, woochie, woochie."

As the hours wore on, Mrs. Drinkwater continued to work the room while I leaned my forehead on my hand in a desperate attempt to keep the skull and neck attached.

Hours, I don't know, maybe years, decades later, the vet decided to keep Sebastian for observation, overnight. Driving home, I said, "Mrs. Drinkwater, you'll have to handle the pick-up by yourself. Where is you husband?"

"He's not." she said.

"He's not what? At home?"

"He's not my husband," she answered. "We live in sin."

I could see she wanted to talk about this, so I turned on the radio, really really loud.

I never met up with the Drinkwaters again, though she did leave my scarf, dry-cleaned but torn stem to stern, on our doorstep. With a Thank-You note and what I can only assume is some cello-wrapped British version of the Twinkie.

For a few months, everything stayed pretty much the same, though the voices calling for Sebastian from step 20 grew in frequency and urgency. I'd see Sebastian jump from El Norte to our yard and then make another daring leap to the south.

Eventually, Martin and I decided to move, plaster ourselves against another hillside, but this time in Glendale. The day we left, I stopped by to say farewell to Maria. And I saw a familiar face, peering from the camper shell window.

"Isn't that..."

"Yes, he moved in some weeks ago and won't leave. The children love him, they call him Mijo.

She winked, "Mijo likes carnitas."

"Who doesn't?"

She handed me a present. I peeked; inside were a dozen tamales.

"We'll meet again," I said, feeling sad, knowing we wouldn't.

43 comments:

  1. I hope this is your book. If it isn't, well, please get started on it. Soon. Please?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I once lived with a Martin on a hillside, but there were no opera-singing Drinkwaters around. You have so many rich and varied stories. It's kind of like you're a cat with nine lives.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wonderful! I would love for some of my old neighbors to meet your ex-neighbors. Hoo boy, that would be something! Who will direct your movie? Jim Jarmusch? Alexander Payne? David Lynch?

    ReplyDelete
  4. She's baaaack--
    always worth the wait.
    Damn.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Glad the cat found such a fine home.

    ReplyDelete
  6. KBF & Paula, as my writer friends know, my inability to focus on a single project borders on the pathological. PA blogged about new neighbors, and I couldn't get the concept out of my mind, how you can't choose your family and you can't choose your neighbors.

    Susan, you have Marting/hillside stories, too?

    Thanks KM.

    Doris, oh, Jim Jarmusch, please. Did you ever see Strnager Than Paradise?

    Des, I guess I'm cheating.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I guess Strnager is even stranger than the one I saw, which was pretty strange.

    Remind me one day to tell you about my Russian neighbor/landlord who came to fix a minor under-sink leak. It involved lots of white tape, string and many, many elbow joints. Rube G. would have loved it. Oops! I guess I just did.

    ReplyDelete
  8. On behalf of the Queen, the British people and the entire Commonwealth (including Canada), I apologize for the behavior of the Drinkwaters. When you publish this in your book of short stories, could you recast them as French?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Bellis, I'll do better than that, I'll make them Swedes!

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. mmm good story. Maybe I'll get the guts to write about when I lived in a guesthouse of well-to-do punk rockers on an enormous estate in the Crenshaw. Somehow, I know it won't be half as interesting or fun to read as this.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What a great story! I hope this is part of a book you're working on....

    ReplyDelete
  13. Well for fuck's sake, we should put out a compilation of neighbor essays. Something you give every time you lose a neighbor or get a new one -- both celebratory and cautionary.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thanks for making me giggle with this charming story. All of my neighbors have been quiet bores. Why have I never run across any Drinkwaters in my life time? They sound exotic in a sick way lol.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm glad that cat found a better place to live.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, and what happened to Martin, may I ask?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Karin, your last two posts have been neighbor stories, something we are all apparently full of. Maybe we have even been someone else's stories. [Oh lord, I hope no one was looking/listening!] I love the idea of The Big Book of Neighbor Stories. Just disguise the names.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Anon, I don't know. Martin was an actor and all around great guy; smart and funny as hell. We parted company at the Glendale hillside. I hope he doesn't remember me as an uncaring jerk, because I remember him, most fondly. And have some good stories.

    ReplyDelete
  19. You know the most interesting people. "Stem to stern" is not a phrase you hear every day - great visual. My last set of neighbors was a bit crazy and very noisy, which is an annoying combination.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I think the worst part of bad neighbors is always asking yourself why you don't leave this bad relationship, just move on but then you remember you have a mortgage, dreams, etc. It's like being in a bad marriage without a single fringe benefits.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm late arriving, but thoroughly enjoyed this walk (even if it involved stairs! Ugh!) up memory lane. Such characters you've chanced to meet in your lifetime.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Carolynn, if I have any belief in life, it's that everyone's a character.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Your paragraph about their singing, complete with throats being slit, is about the funniest and most descriptive writing I've come across in a long time. I could say "masterful" and "well-crafted," but mainly, it was funny as hell. And that's the kicker, to me.

    Bet a LOT of your readers have stories from their previous neighborhoods. I know I do. Maybe one day I'll write about Mr. & Mrs. Conehead.

    Yes. Worth the wait.

    ReplyDelete
  25. That was really good. You had some of everything on that hillside.
    The ending was sweet and classic!
    Sebastian made it out of that crazy house.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I like the story, Karin.
    I think it is part of your book. Am I right?

    ReplyDelete
  27. AT the end of our street, on the side opposite mine, live a chiropractor and his opera singer wife. Large Italian lady, large beehive hairdo, large mumu, trained at Julliard, the real deal. Two gorgeous sons; all the girls in town swooned over them. Anyway, I get UPS deliveries and pickups every day, so I was on very friendly terms with Bob, the driver. One day, he arrived for our pickup, laughing his ass off. Seems he had a muckety-muck riding around with him that day, and they arrived to deliver an Oriental rug to Mrs. P. She answered the door while singing whatever aria she was singing, waved, making big gestures to indicate where she wanted the rug, strode around while signing the clipboard, then escorted them out, never missing a note. The ride-along guy, back in the truck, earnestly inquired of Bob, "What the hell was that?"

    ReplyDelete
  28. All ya'll are hilarious. I've got neighbor stories, but off the top of my head, I'm afraid in most of 'em we'd be the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Oh, Margie, that was fine, so fine. I kind of hope she was singing Wagner because that would scared the shit out of me, too.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Vitch Vagner? Mariano Fortuny loved Wagner and that's troubling. Why not Puccini? Dvorak?

    ReplyDelete
  31. On second thought, here's what I hope Margie's neighbor sang to the delivery man.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Paragraph 4 is where I knew I was going to like this and care about its characters. As always, you keep things moving, so reading is a pleasure.

    The Drinkwaters may be easy to write off, but I think that's too easy. They're also fascinating, and Mrs. D creates some pathos. Maybe Mr. too, who knows. I'd love to know more about their backgrounds and motives, and since they're somewhat fictional, that door is wide open.

    Well done! Enjoyable and troubling--the best combination.

    ReplyDelete
  33. An interesting post that I enjoyed reading.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I hope 2014 proves to be a good year for you and yours.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Eight long screams capped by a death rattle, the final note an excruciating punctuation, as though throats had been slit, side-to-side, with a dull bread knife? Oh, clearly it's the finale of Verdi's Rigoletto! You could have hired Sparafucile to whack them.

    ReplyDelete