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April 15, 2024

The Girls Next Door

By Ralph Bland

When all is said and done I guess I am still a Southern Baptist at heart, even though I tell myself how proud I am of the fact I don't practice very many of those principles anymore. For years now I've made it a point to announce to the world at every opportunity how I left all that Conservative foolishness in my wake over a quarter of a century ago, but even now, approaching geezerhood as I am these days, there are still some puzzling moments when the old ingrained straight-laced mentality tenses up and accelerates through my veins, and suddenly I find myself peering down my nose at whatever manner of species or situation not akin to my own that has crossed my path, and I find something up in my head instinctively churning and clicking to beat the band, primed to begin passing judgment once more, just like in the old days of Southern Baptist yore.

Such was the case four years ago when the Edwards moved in next door.

Initially I learned all about the Edwards family from my wife and daughter, who informed me how our new neighbors were from Utah somewhere and, consequentially, Mormon to the bone, information which quite naturally pricked my senses and set my mental wheels to turning, and how these Edwards consisted of the father who was a roofer and the mother who was a housewife and five offspring of varying ages, with the youngest daughter being the same age as my own, who at this time was six years old.

After having previously endured during our residence in the neighborhood a snooty Yuppie-to-the-max lawyer and his pretentious wife -- whose joint obsession during their term as our neighbors was that no child or adult or animal of any variety should ever use their side yard as a shortcut -- and after them a one year doubleheader of six months dual rentals by, first, a vast collection of Hispanics who totaled possibly seventeen at peak occupancy and all closely resembled the payroll-robbing bandidos in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their lifestyles consisting of comings and goings at all hours of the day and night and involving, I'm certain, drugs and trafficking and sundry other illegalities, with their merciful eviction followed by a down-on-his-luck Music Row songwriter/criminal with a wife who left him after about a week and a vicious Chow demonic dog, who ran loose and amok nearly ninety percent of the time and made retrieving the mail and the paper not just a routine but a heartstopping adventure, and a sixteen year old juvenile delinquent son whose idea of fun was breaking in my back door and stealing a box of checks and writing himself in as the payee and subsequently cashing these checks throughout East Nashville by any merchant stupid enough to accept one -- and, believe me, there were quite a few takers. There were, in fact, legions. Nashville -- especially on my side of the Cumberland River -- never has been what anyone could mistake as a breeding ground for Rhodes Scholars.

So, having survived these traumas, I concluded that even if Joseph Smith and Brigham Young themselves were to begin admonishing the flocks from the neighboring front porch it would still be a major improvement on what I'd already experienced in the past, would damned well beat the hell out of getting plugged by stray gunfire or robbed by a burglar or mauled by a Chow, so I did my best to look the other way and mind my own business and not allow my Southern Baptist eye to train upon these new Utahites and instantly assess them as a cult. I'd had no previous experience with Mormons by then other than the occasional knock on the door by the clean-shaven young men in the white shirts and ties who pedaled all over Kingdom Come on bicycles looking for converts, them, or the frequent late night or early morning television commercials with the wholesome folks promoting peace and universal harmony on the planet, so, as far as living in close proximity and having daily interaction with such a group, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I didn't know if Mormons chanted or offered live sacrifices or exactly what they did for entertainment.

I had very little to worry about. The husband/roofer turned out to be this glum non-conversational type who had about as much to share with me as I to him, which was absolutely nothing, and on clear days was up and gone for long hours and sometimes even days at a time, so our relationship as neighbors consisted mostly of slight waves whenever we had the opportunity to see each other at all. We waved and never spoke, and in the meantime his youngest daughter, Alice, became best friends with my daughter Rachel. When first grade began some months later the two girls found themselves in the same class. The school bus stopped in front of our houses each morning and the two girls boarded together, not content unless they could find a vacant seat so they could huddle and whisper and giggle and plot and plan, involved as they were in all the common little girl conspiracies of their day. After the bus transported them back in the afternoons, Rachel and Alice would steal away inside Rachel's bedroom, pretending it was a classroom and they were teachers, to write the names of misbehaving boys on the dry erase board Santa had delivered the Christmas before.

There were times when, in her haste to get inside the make-believe classroom, that Alice forgot to go home first to her own house with her brothers and sisters, forgot to report to her mother after her day at school, forgot just entirely to remember how in her Mormon family there were always certain chores to be done, obligations to fulfill before it was time to play, and Alice would come into the house with Rachel and begin teaching school or turning gymnastic flips or forming secret clubs of which the two of them were the sole members, and soon the phone would ring, and on the other end a cool businesslike voice -- Alice's mother -- would ask if we could please tell Alice to come home.

The mother, Brenda, had lately become a study to me. In the afternoons I could spot her pruning the small trees in her front yard, tending her flowers, painting a shutter or just performing in general some form of manual labor that I, for the majority of my adulthood, had done my best to altogether avoid. This, I thought, is a woman with energy. This is no slacker. I could hear her over my hedges on Saturdays barking out orders to her brood, and on my off-day mornings I sat on the front porch with a mug of coffee and watched her traipse off down our street with her two golden retrievers, Fred and Ginger, clad in a BYU sweatshirt with her blonde hair caught back in a ponytail, a pair of faded sweatpants stretched tightly across her butt -- a butt, I considered on those occasions, in extremely fine shape for a woman who'd delivered five children over the last fifteen years. There were thousands of women I saw all the time who couldn't come close to her, women who had no excuse whatsoever for ballooning and expanding the way they had. Brenda Edwards, this Mormon mother of five, did have an excellent excuse, but hadn't. I noticed that fact right off the bat, and then I noticed it time and time again.

Okay, I admit it. I passed away about a year's time sitting on the porch having lascivious thoughts while Brenda Edwards walked her dogs. Or walked out to get her mail. Or embarked on any one of her many journeys picking up or transporting her kids. She seemed to be always coming or going, walking in or walking out, lingering here, hovering there, always present wherever my eyes tended to land. To ignore her was impossible, unless I truly believed my Southern Baptist training and plucked out my eyes for offending me, but about the only biblical inclinations I had ruminating through my thoughts were all tinged with the smuttier excerpts from the Song of Solomon, and no part of my vital organs took offense at anything it was offered in a sensory sort of way, so I just sat and I just watched and I pretty much descended into a world where parts of me were far more perky than they'd bothered to be for quite a while.

Nothing, of course, ever came of these daily meditations, because, for one, Brenda Edwards never seemed to care too much for me, at least not enough to stop and exchange pleasantries, and basically the only communication we shared for a couple of months were the phone calls from her requesting Alice's presence at home. I'd obediently reply, "Okay." I was eager to please, but it was slow going there for a while. I think if it wasn't for the fact I was crazy we might never have spoken at all.

Months went by and no conversations occurred between us, until one morning in May I awoke early and figured, since I was on vacation that week, it would be a good idea to throw on some old clothes and go outside to see what the breaking day had to offer, maybe take a walk or observe the first few moments of spring without having to worry about being anywhere. My spoiled cat Phil walked up to me during that peaceful moment of sunrise meowing and begging to be scratched, so I picked him up and began to stroke his fur, speaking to him in our own private intimate language about exactly how adorable he was and how, after all was said and done, he was still my baby and he'd best never forget it.

All this carrying on while I made kissing and smacking noises in his ear.

On the Edwards' back porch Brenda stood and listened to this form of cooing for god knows how long, and when I turned and saw her standing there I knew immediately I would be forever classified in her mind as the blithering idiot who lives next door.

Well, so much, I assumed, for romance. So much for any of my would-be sexual fantasies coming true in this lifetime, for how could any woman drum up any good old-fashioned hot-blooded passion for a fool who stands in his yard at daybreak whispering words of love to a smelly tomcat? But in some strange mystical way the fact that I actually engaged in such behavior had some sort of appeal to Brenda Edwards -- not that she was at this time or going to at any point in the future leap over the fence and demand I make passionate mad love to her on the spot -- but at least my aberrant behavior brought a smile momentarily to her face, at least she deemed my actions somewhat funny and silly enough to allow a spark of light to flicker in her cool blue eyes, caused her to think that any man who would go to such lengths to woo a cat must be worthy enough to be recognized as something more than a bug on the windshield of Life to be washed and wiped away as soon as possible. After all, hadn't I myself heard her voice on many a morning walk with her dogs discussing the weather or addressing certain negative elements of their canine behavior which she stated she was not particularly enamored of? Hadn't she just last week told Fred he was going to have to grow up and start acting his age? Of course she had. I'd heard her with my own ears. So if I in turn talked to my cat, so what? The way I looked at it was we both shared a common plain. We both preferred chatting with non-humans.

It's important for me to reiterate that nothing ever happened between us, other than the fact that for the next year we were able to acknowledge each other's existence and engage in passing conversations about our children and our pets and the general sorry state of Nashville's public school system and a whole bunch of other trivial things that people who decide to tolerate each other choose to talk about. What I'm trying to say is we weren't intimate. There was no big steamy affair going on that would rend our respective families apart and send shock waves rippling through the local P.T.A. No, we simply decided to let each other live. Brenda figured I wasn't the worst creep out in the world and I didn't mind having her nearby to look at when things got dull. See, when you get to be my age it's sometimes a whole lot better to play out all the illicit thoughts in your head rather than going through the motions in real life, because in real life there's danger lurking just about everywhere you look, and if you make a mess you have to clean it up or pay through the nose for the trouble you've managed to scatter around. It's better to just keep it all upstairs where only you can see it, and then you don't have to deal with the consequences of what you've went and done. You don't have to worry or fret about jealous husbands blowing your head off or divorce or ex-wives who sue you for everything you own. It's safer to keep it all in.

So while Brenda and I tolerated each other, Rachel and Alice became as close friends as girls their age could be. Their desks were side by side at school, and in the afternoons they rode bikes up and down the street before and after the private meetings of their exclusive secret club. Of course there were some spats that flared up from time to time, little jealousies and fights over dominance and whatever other little girl dared to infringe upon their territory, but always by the next morning all would be forgotten and back to normal again. Rachel and Alice would be best friends once more.

Maybe a year or two doesn't sound like too long a time anymore, because lately I've begun to notice how the older I get the faster things like birthdays and anniversaries and holidays appear before me, like all of a sudden, like I'm on a runaway merry-go-round and all the faces and scenery keep coming up way too fast, but to little girls of seven and eight a couple of years is a significant chunk out of their lives, and Alice and Rachel had very little history before their friendship began to look back upon and consider that before they'd met they'd actually had a separate life altogether. Actually they hadn't. Before they met they'd been babies, sleeping and eating and getting programmed by their parents. They hadn't had the opportunity to be real people yet.

Rachel brought the matter up at dinner on a night in early April.

"Alice is going to move," she told us. "It's because her dad hates Nashville."

Ah, I thought, he can't stand all us heathens any longer. The real world's too much for him. He wants to get back to the safety of his cult.

"They're going to move this summer," Rachel said, "after school's out." She hesitated a moment longer. "Alice doesn't want to go, and I don't want her to go either."

"Maybe they won't, honey," I reassured her. "Sometimes it's very hard to sell your house, and maybe if it takes a long time Alice's dad will change his mind."

People procrastinate, I thought. They do it all the time. They say things out loud and then the subject never comes up again. People never do much of anything but talk.

But by the next afternoon there was a For Sale sign staked up in the Edwards' front yard. I looked at it and immediately realized how much Rachel was going to miss Alice when moving day came, how, as weeks and months and birthdays passed, the two who were always together now would be growing apart, and I myself would have to sit on my porch and wait for something else to come along and divert my attention, some other natural phenomena to appear and allow my imagination to wander and romp again. Brenda Edwards wouldn't be walking Fred and Ginger up and down my street a whole lot longer.

"I see you guys are really going through with this," I spoke out loud.

Brenda was clipping weeds around her flower bed. I could see that today she'd already painted shutters and put out hanging plants, begun the process of sprucing up the house to attract a potential buyer's eye. The lawn was cut and the hedges neatly trimmed, and Operation House Beautiful was clearly in full swing. But I couldn't classify all this effort as the result of the new sign in the yard, because I knew that on a sunny spring day like this all these chores would have been performed anyway, sign or no sign. That was the way Brenda was. She was a go-getter, a mover and a shaker on the domestic front.

The afternoon birds were squawking and fluttering about, and I could see the world coming back to life turning green and blue and pink with flowers each time I so much as blinked. It seemed with each breath I took there was something new blooming around me, something growing a little more. Brenda looked my way and smiled, then went back to her clipping. Obviously it was a crime to stop working altogether just to talk.

"We've been thinking about doing this for a while," she said. "We almost didn't buy this house in the first place because we were wanting to move back then, but we got such a good deal on this one we thought we could fix it up and make enough when we sold it to go wherever we wanted later. Randy's from Utah, you know, and all my family lives in Kansas. It's hard being so far away sometimes."

"I can't imagine," I told her, thinking at the same time how this was and probably would remain the longest conversation the two of us would ever have. "All my relatives have always lived here. I think way back we got ran out of North Carolina as chicken thieves and were afraid to go anywhere else where they strung you up for crimes like that."

She didn't smile or laugh but kept on with her clipping.

"We've been here for two years," she said quietly, examining the concrete foundation of the porch before her.

"That's a long time," I said, "especially for little kids. They get settled into a routine and it's awfully hard for them to change."

Most afternoons after school the girls brought a boom box out on the porch and played music and twirled around in improvisational steps to whatever tune came on. Rachel had inherited an eclectic taste for musical variety from me, so the radio dial never remained on one station for too long, but roamed up and down the frequencies searching for different rhythms and melodies, country, praise, oldies, classic rock. Sometimes I'd recognize the song and singer and sometimes I had no idea, and there were times when the music grew so loud and esoterically obnoxious to my ears I was tempted to go into my grumpy old dad mode and demand the noise be immediately vanquished, but always in the end I just relinquished my seat on the porch and my vantage point of eying and coveting my neighbor's wife and went inside and left it to Rachel and Alice, because they were kids and friends and because those times were special, and because I knew one day they would be like me and find out that what they wanted to do they really couldn't, but because they couldn't it never would stop them from thinking about it anyway.

Then again, I figured, maybe all this pondering was just my brain taking another one of its flights. Maybe, despite all my efforts and protestations, I was still a Jimmy Carter Southern dyed-in-the-wool Baptist with a ton of lust in my heart and gallons of scarlet sins oozing out of me from every pore, and Dr. Billy Graham himself would have to cover an awful lot of Baptist doctrine to come up with a way for all my transgressions to be forgiven. And out of all that burgeoning denomination old Billy would probably be the only one to forgive me. The rest of all those opinionated creationists could never find that kind of kindness in their hearts. They'd prefer me roasting and howling in the other place instead.

"I wouldn't mind staying myself," Brenda said. "I really like this house and the kids are all happy in school and we're good and settled in. But Randy doesn't like it here. He says there's not enough work for him to make it. So he wants to move back to Kansas."

"Heck, there are as many roofs here as there are in Kansas. This city's getting bigger every day. There's construction going on everywhere you look. It seems to me Randy could make more money just by staying put."

"He's already made up his mind," Brenda said. She looked at the sign by her mailbox. For a minute I thought she was going to say something else, but she took off her garden gloves and walked up the porch steps to go inside. It was time to begin making dinner. That was her job.

"I'll miss you guys when you go," I said, almost like an afterthought. "It's not going to be the same around here without Fred and Ginger barking at me in the mornings. I'm not going to know how to act."

Brenda smiled. Once again it seemed there was something she started to say but didn't.

"We'll miss you too," she said instead, then disappeared into her house.


It didn't surprise me how quickly the Edwards' house sold. Nashville was on its way to being a boom town, what with new industry and migration from the north and immigration and the NFL and the NHL, and it was only a matter of months before the Sold sign appeared on the front lawn, and with the summer ending and the new school year getting ready to begin, one afternoon I watched a giant rental truck back into the Edwards' driveway. In a minute Randy and Brenda and the children and an enlisted troop of Mormon volunteers -- minus their white shirts and ties and name badges and bicycles -- rolled down a ramp and started loading furniture and boxes and clothes and dishes into the trailer, emptying the house for its next inhabitants to fill up again when they were gone.

Kansas. I had never been there and probably never would. To me it was just a square box on the map, a place for steers and dust and Count Basie and Judy Garland. I wondered what Rachel thought of such a place, if in her mind she considered Kansas as far away as the moon or just some unseen area on another street somewhere. I tried to prepare her for the fact that when Alice drove away on moving day it was probably for forever. I wanted to explain to her how people come and go, how friends just now and then disappear and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but sometimes there really is nothing you can say. Sometimes there's not a thing you can do. You see the hurt coming from way far off and it's like the sunset or tomorrow or next week. There's no way to avoid it.

Rachel and Alice held hands that last day before the move. They hugged a lot and held last final meetings for all their secret clubs and societies before adjourning them for good. I think Brenda had a lot of assigned chores for Alice to be helping with, but in the end decided to let her youngest daughter be, let her stay with Rachel as long as she could. There would be plenty of time for chores in Topeka.

It was bedtime, and the Edwards were turning in for the night. They had an early start planned for the morning, hoping to be gone before the rest of the neighborhood awoke. I wanted to say a last goodbye to Brenda, but that, I knew, was impossible now, for she was far too busy to stop and chat. She was following her husband's lead, working, keeping the family in gear, fulfilling her responsibility of organizing and obeying and steering her children down the proper path. She had no time to talk, for any flights of fantasy or mild flirtations or tempestuous romances. She was a woman busy with the real world, and now, as she had always really been before, she was gone from me forever.

So I hugged Alice goodbye instead. I'll miss you, honey, I told her. Be a good girl and keep in touch. What I didn't say was have a good life. I didn't say I'll never see you again. Or I won't see you go to the prom. Or graduate from high school. Or get married. Or anything. I didn't say it out loud. Little girls don't understand the terms words like that imply.

I walked inside our house and realized how empty I felt, like I hadn't eaten or something.

I wondered if the emptiness was there for Rachel too, or was this void inside me a lament for the way the earth turns every day, the mechanisms of this neat and orderly sphere we inhabit. There are paths to follow, slots to fill, duties to perform day in and day out. We occupy our spaces for whatever term we have and then we move on, to new houses, different cities, distant states. There's work out there to be done, chores waiting on you, and no time to be wasted pondering time and circumstance or what could have been or what might have happened. You walk away, move away, you go on. Scenes disappear and you never see them the same way again.

Houses, cities, people. At some time they all go somewhere.

Rachel has a new best friend down the street now. She seems content, but I know it is not the same. Sometimes Alice calls long distance and sometimes Rachel calls her, but I wonder how long this will last. Life is moving and they are growing up.

Our new neighbors have no dogs, as if I would care to watch this newest neighbor's wife walk herself or anything down the street anyway. It's not that she is unattractive or unfriendly -- it's really just a matter of where my mind has wandered off to these days. Right now I am too tired for gazing or thinking, too tired to fly or soar or allow my imagination to glide away. I'm feeling like whatever I see out here in the world in all probability isn't going to be there tomorrow.

And so time keeps moving by on me. I'm staying busy watching it go down our street, disappearing around the curve to a neighborhood I'm never going to see.

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Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-30
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
3 Reader Comments
Bob Wilson
12:25:28 PM
Great story, Ralph. Good job on the writing.
Nancy Bearden
08:05:04 PM
Ralph, I love this short story.
Rebecca Brooks
03:47:50 PM
Lovely, lovely story. Very philosophical and thoughtful about life and the way we realize how quickly time passes.
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