Friends in low places

I was mowing the grass yesterday in my front yard when I saw a neighbor pull up in his white Lincoln Continental.  My son hightailed it into the house with a quick “bye.”

This neighbor lives down the street — maybe 5 or 6 houses down — but always parks near our house.  I have no idea why.

He was most likely coming home from work, and I thought the loudness from the lawnmower would deter him from stopping and chatting.  It didn’t.

He walked right up to our fence and started talking.  Out of politeness, I stopped the lawnmower.

He was talking about baseball.  About his Orioles and an upcoming series with the Jays.  Something about the Yankees.  We both despise the Yankees.

He mumbles a lot and is difficult to understand.  I usually respond with broad statements.  “Yep.”  “I dunno.”  “We’ll see.”  “You never know.”

These cover a lot of ground.

He’s an older man in his late 60s or maybe early 70s.  Trim with a white beard and soft features.  He reminds me of Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazard except he’s skinnier and never wears denim overalls.  He refers to himself and his friends as “good ol’ boys.”

He first approached me right after we moved into our house.  He saw our Phillies flag and struck up a conversation about baseball.  We talked starting pitching, the Red Birds and the standings in the AL East.  I strained to maintain my end of the muddled conversation.

Jesse Duke of Dukes of Hazard fame

That’s when he dropped the K-bomb.  Or, the KKK-bomb, to be exact.I didn’t know what to say.  Didn’t he know he was talking to a lesbian?  I’m pretty easy to spot.  I’m what you call a 100 footer.  “A girl/woman that you can tell is a lesbian from 100 feet away,” the Urban Dictionary says.

I probably should have indicated my disgust with anything that has to do with the Ku Klux Klan or racism or discrimination in general.

But, I didn’t.  I thought I would just steer clear.

And, that’s what I did.  I dodged him as best as I could, circling the block if I saw him walking up the street or waiting to leave the house if he was parking his car nearby.

I started becoming aware of the neighbor’s tics and tocks as he traveled up and down our street.  Sometimes he has these outbursts — profanity laced tirades — that can be heard from inside our home.  On occasion, there are shouting matches that take place in front of his house.  He yells that they’ll be sorry — all of them.  He talks and gestures to invisible companions in an agitated manner.  Fists raised and wagging.

I soon realized that our neighbor has a mental illness.

And, that’s all I know.  I don’t know his first name or last.  I don’t know whether he really knows any KKK Grand Wizards or clansmen or if he has a white hood in his closet.   I don’t know if he hates blacks and gays and Jews.  I don’t know where he works or what he does.  I don’t know if he takes medication or is supposed to and just doesn’t.  I don’t know who he lives with.  Or, if he was ever married.  Or, ever fell in love.  If someone was ever sweet and tender with him.

I see his soft, rounded features and immediately think that he has had a hard life.  That life was so hard and brutal that it beat its fists against him until any sharp spots or angles were forcefully transformed into curves and half circles.

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I believe.

As the years have passed, the neighbor still strikes up conversations with me.  And, I try my best to listen and respond appropriately.  I don’t avoid him as much as I used to.  He has never been aggressive, rude or threatening in my presence.

We mostly talk baseball. He knows the standings in each division to the half game.  He asks if I know who Johnnie B. Baker is.  (Answer: Dusty Baker, former Dodgers great and current manager of the Cincinnati Reds.)  He tells me his Orioles can’t let up with the play-offs on the horizon.  “Yep,” I say.

Sometimes he tells me about his “gals.”

He thought his newly acquired Lincoln would be a chick magnet of sorts.  All long and fancy and shiny and white.  A status symbol from a bygone era.

1975 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

He tells me about the gal that he has his eye on.  Someone that he knew from the old days.  And, another who waited on him last week.  I imagine someone like Flo with tall hair serving him hotcakes with a side of wise cracks and a snap of pink bubblegum.  That’s the kind of woman he would like.  Someone with some spark and spunk and a twinkle in her eye, even though they would get into heated, throw-the-plate-at-the-floor fights nearly every day of the week.

Florence Jean Castleberry

I often wonder if he realizes that I am a woman in men’s cargo shorts and Phillies T-shirts.  Sometimes I wait for him to punch me on the shoulder and give me a wink.  “You know how them gals can be,” I imagine him saying.

But it always comes back to baseball.  His beloved Orioles are surging, 3.5 games behind the dreaded Yankees.  My Phillies are in the tank.  “Maybe next year,” I tell him.  “You never know,” I add.

I go in the house and one of the kids asks who I was talking to.

“A friend,” I say.

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