The New Neighbor

by Nicholas Grider


The new neighbor is moving in. I'm still in my wheelchair because it's early in my partial rehab from the accident, so I watch from my kitchen window and can't see much, just a tall, thin, clean-cut man in a tweed suit arriving in a busted-looking SUV and carrying in banker's boxes of equal size and shape and color and nothing else except for what looks like copper wiring, only it's closer to silver. No furniture, no family, nothing qualifying as a domestic or personal belonging. Later when I'm out on the back porch watering the plants, I see him carrying in more boxes through the back door. He sees me, waves cheerfully, and grins when I wave back.


Early Saturday morning, there's knocking on my bedroom window. It doesn't stop when I ignore it, and when I pull the shade, I see the new neighbor. As when he moved in, he's wearing a tailored tweed suit, though this suit looks like a different shade of brown. The new neighbor waves cheerfully and motions for me to open the window, and when I do, he says he's noticed I'm not out and about much and asks if there's anything he can do. When I explain what happened to my legs and my brain and my left arm, the new neighbor frowns and apologizes. "I'm sorry you have a body," he says, "but then again, so does everyone. Well, almost everyone." Then he says he kind of knows what it's like to have a body that confuses even the most considerate people, but also kind of doesn't know, then says it's a long story he promises not to bore me with.


Lately, at night, I've been hearing howling. I’ve decided not to investigate, but it's late and I can't sleep. Though my legs are getting a bit better, they'll never be 100%, but I'm able to make it somewhat quickly over to my bedroom window, which is closest to the source of the sound. I lift the shade to see the new neighbor, still in a tweed suit, standing in his backyard backlit by his porch light, head tilted up, howling at the night sky. After a minute or two, he realizes I'm watching but doesn't seem embarrassed or concerned, just happy to see me, because he waves cheerfully, again, before howling one more time and heading back inside. I decide that, although I could be curious about this, it would be exhausting, so instead, I go back to bed.


The new neighbor sees me when I'm out back watering the plants and comes over, explaining that he’s decided to reintroduce himself in a more human and comprehensive way. The new neighbor doesn't provide his name but offers that he's a history professor at a nearby college in the city sprawled out at the other end of a scrub-brush valley dividing it from our backyards. When I reply with what I hope is an adequate mix of reservation and interest, asking him his field of specialty, he says he'd rather not get in the weeds but that it's the pre-modern social history of epistemology in Europe and the Near East, with a specialty in folklore as a vessel for shared social practices. When I respond with specific questions as to what that might include, he brightens and says that if I'm ever up to it, I should come over and see his study, adding that he has a lot of books on the general subject, some quite rare. "An old book isn't always exciting," he says as he straightens his vest and suit coat, "but it's exciting when it's the only copy left."


The new neighbor, for the first time, is wearing something besides a tweed suit; in this case, he’s wearing gray running shorts with a very short inseam, black running shoes, and nothing else. I answer the door when he rings and he displays himself, asking me if I think he looks like he could blend in. When I ask what he means, the new neighbor says he was taught from a young age to dress for the life he has and/or wants, a lesson he learned from a long line of men who wore their suits to bed. He then asks again if his body or the lack of clothing covering it will be, as he puts it, attention-getting for good reasons or bad. When I say no but suggest the possibility of a t-shirt, not for modesty but for blending in, he says he can't be bothered to buy nip scrape tape because he's got a lot on his mind, and he's inherited his ancestors’ sensitive skin. I wait for him to explain what he means by this, but he doesn't, just verifies again that he doesn't look like a threat. After telling me he'll report back on whether or not he is found threatening, he dashes off in a precise and controlled run. From this point on, I only ever see him in three-piece tweeds or his running gear, never anything else, but I'm too tired to get curious about it; I have my own body to concern myself with. It is not lean and muscular like the new neighbor's, but it does what I want it to do most of the time, and I've decided that as long as the pain fades a bit more, "mostly functional" is good enough.


After another night of howling, the new neighbor knocks on my window and asks me if I keep track of the lunar cycle and would maybe have some time, about once a month, to help him out. He says some nights he needs to be locked in a silver-lined cabinet in his basement and that I seem like I'm on the up and up and wouldn't take advantage of his vulnerabilities. He adds that if I could use some cash, he'd be more than happy to oblige. Before telling me to think about it and walking off while waving cheerfully, he half-jokes and half-explains that he's definitely not a werewolf because werewolves don't live in this part of the world or work in academia, generally speaking, but nevertheless, discretion is the better part of valor, and being sorry isn't so bad but being safe is better.


I'm about at the point where I can mostly use the arm braces instead of the wheelchair, and when I'm out watering the flowers, the new neighbor sees me, waves cheerfully, and walks over to ask me if I like adventure. Before I can answer, he asks me about the braces, and when I'll be fully recovered. When I explain that full recovery isn't possible because of brain stuff, that the goal is maximum mobility without relying on external devices and aids, he shrugs and tells me independence is always nice but so is being able to see and use science and magic and the natural world as extensions of yourself. Then he offers to have the arm braces chromed and polished for me, which I decline. He asks me about the lunar basement thing again, and when I agree, he seems absolutely giddy. He then asks me if I need a bespoke business suit (not necessarily tweed) because his guy in the city owes him, considering the new neighbor constantly gets rips and tears in even his finest tweed suits—but for the moment the world is calm and cloudy, so he has more than enough. He seems pleased when I say yes. The next full moon, when I lock him in, nothing happens to him as far as I can tell, but I do get to peek around his house, which looks more like a movie set version of an all-purpose villain's lair. He never explains the house and I decide I don't want to know, so I don't ask.


The scrub-brush forest valley that separates us from the city is on fire again, which is common this time of year but probably not an immediate danger, and the new neighbor, after asking me if I'm okay with getting wet, invites me over to fire-watch. He has set up two adjacent kiddie pools in his backyard, one for each of us. I put on my bathing suit (he's in his running gear, sans shoes) and head over to his yard, where he’s also set out some chilled champagne. We sit for a while in the pools sipping our drinks and watching snowy ash fall over the smoking valley and I try not to devote my mind to comparing the relative weirdness of this or that behavior or event or cluster of facts. The new neighbor points at the fire with his glass and says, as if he's given it careful consideration, "You know, there's a certain solemn beauty to destruction, especially natural destruction, so long as it doesn't come knocking on your kitchen door." I decide I mostly agree with this and tell him so. He seems pleased and pours us each another glass.


The new neighbor, a little out of breath, pounds on my back door, and when I open it, he looks disheveled but happy to see me. He asks me how well I think my body works, and before I can answer, the new neighbor explains that my body should only work as well or as badly as it does, he's just being judgmental, just curious. Before I respond, he says he has a lot of money, which has to do with why he's hiding, but that he's also restless and might need to hide better and wants to know if I would like to come along. I ask where and for how long and he ignores the questions but tells me it will be lots of fun, saying the only things we have to lose are the illusion of safety and the comfort of routine. I want him to stop talking, so I tell him I'll think about it. He says he's glad because thinking about things is almost as good as having adventures. Then he tells me again that he's not a werewolf, and even if he were, his current activities have nothing to do with it, plus, he's obviously harmless, as are most werewolves so long as proper precautions are taken. The new neighbor ends by requesting that if anyone comes by and insinuates he might be a werewolf, I deny it, to which I agree because, as I tell him, nobody would believe me anyway. When I start to tell him that the pain in my legs is more manageable but still needs work—as a way of explaining my distraction—he waves it off and says monsters are monsters, no need to explain mine to him.


The last time I ever see the new neighbor he's loading banker's boxes back into his SUV while wearing another tweed suit, a near-perfect mirror of how he arrived. He sees me and waves and explains that he can't explain—he knows I wouldn't want him to—but one way of looking at it is that he has a great opportunity very far away that he can't pass up. He has to leave for it right now because it's kind of a surprise, and not just for him. Then he tells me he's grown fond of me and says I look better in arm braces than anyone he's ever known. I try to decide if that's a compliment but don't have time, as the new neighbor apologizes for his hasty exit and offers me a final wish. Speaking a little slower, as if reciting a poem or a spell, the new neighbor says that what he hopes for me is that one day, maybe soon, I have the desire, the ability, and the means to do whatever I want, whenever I want. Absolutely anything, he stresses, in the future and the past. Then he shakes my hand, loads the last two boxes into the SUV, and drives off. The new neighbor, whose name I never learned, has left the front door of his now-former house wide open. Looking at the door, I wonder what to do. Whom to inform, if anyone. I decide to head inside and take a nap because I cannot, in past, present, or future, do whatever the fuck I want, but I do have the power to shrug and do nothing besides sleepwalk around my house in the charcoal gray wool suit my former neighbor gave me for helping him avoid doing whatever he deemed unimaginable. I don't want a bad unimaginable or a good one, or new neighbors, or new suits, or the ability to abruptly disappear. I just want the next week to not be crowded with beginnings or endings, progress or stasis, wildfires or werewolves. I want next week to be ordinary. And the week after that. And the week after that.