When I was a teenager, I once read a book whose setting was Japan of a couple hundred years ago. The narrator described how the walls of houses and living quarters were made of paper, and so the occupants and passers-by would respect the privacy of others by choosing not to listen to or at least not to comment upon what they might overhear. Californians should have that kind of sensibility, since each household's yard is separated from the next by six-foot 'privacy' fences that are just as good at preserving privacy as a paper wall. The degree of self-discipline varies according to how considerate one wishes to be and how nosy one is, and in the case of my northside neighbors, Bodie and Andersol, the twin Talles siblings and me, how many glasses of wine one has drunk.
It was the first of the really warm spring weekends, a few years after I had moved to Riverton. Andersol had cleverly made friends with the owner of the Greek restaurant downtown, and through that well-auspiced connection, had negotiated a case of a cheap but tasty wine called Trebbiano, and we were well into the second bottle when we heard Mary LeMay's kitchen phone ring. That was uninteresting, and we ignored it, continuing to speculate on when the first likely camping weekend could be. The low rise and fall of Mary's voice was familiar and blended with the swish of the wind in the bamboo on the other side of my back fence, and Andersol was hinting that we ought to try for a camping trip down on the coast near Monterey.
A second voice, male and accented, loud and grouchy-like, said, "You want to tell me about this guy who calls you at nine o'clock at night?" That got our attention better than a new superstar movie. Mary is taking calls from a man?
"That's her son, John, from New York," Bodie whispered; we moved our chairs closer to each other, quietly, quietly in the dark.
Mary's voice was a discreet murmur, but John's was not. "His wife is in a nursing home, and he's calling you? I don't care how long she's been there, it ain't right! I can't believe this!"
"Oh, John," Mary said, opening the screen door to her yard, "calm down. Did you hear anything immoral in my conversation with him? Did that sound like phone sex to you? The man is lonely and distraught and we go to the same church, for heaven's sake. I only met him because he goes and sits with her every day for hours, her not knowing who he is anymore and quite unresponsive. "
"So he spends his afternoons sitting on his ass reading a newspaper while his wife is dying, and then hits on you at church?"
"No, I met him while I was taking Communion to the nursing home. Hitting on people is what your generation does, not mine, John, so please don't judge me as you ought to judge yourself. "
All three of us had our hands clamped over our mouths and our wine-activated eyebrows raised nearly into our hairlines. Quiet on the southern front, she must have really hit home with that one.
"I haven't tried to tell you who to have as friends since you were fifteen. I think you can do me the same favor."
The son's rough voice found some words. "Yeah, well, he's just damn lucky I don't have jurisdiction in California."
"You're my son. You have no jurisdiction over my life, whatever the state," Mary's voice said, sternly. "Now let's drop it, please."
Her back door opened and closed again, this time the heavy sliding sound indicating that they had shut the house up for the night. We gestured at each other giddily that we should move indoors as well, and after we did, and moved to my front room to sit on the floor with Gabe licking our faces from time to time, we went over the conversation again, three busybodies with nothing more interesting to do than to speculate on our neighbor's life.
"Does Mary have a secret romance? What would you think if someone called your mother in the evening like that?" Bodie peered at some cork sediment in his glass.
"I'd think he was out of his mind. You haven't met my mother. I wonder if that's the old guy who has been stopping at our pew in church and kinda bowing and saying hello," I pondered aloud. "Next time, I'll ask Mary to introduce him."
"What surprised me was that her son would wig out like that. He lives on the other side of the continent, what does he care?"
"Mary's generally pretty old-fashioned. Maybe he is, too? Or is he worried about an inheritance? Or just that his Mom might be being taken advantage of?"
Andersol snorted. "Or he's such a creep that he thinks everyone is like him. He's rude enough. If I was Mary, I'd send him out the front door with a big shoeprint on his ass and tell him to get a motel room or go visit Kansas."
"No, you wouldn't," said Bodie. "You'd be glad your kid cared that much about you."
"I'd be glad, but he'd still get the ol' Shoe." Andersol poured us all another glass of the insidious Trebbiano. "Mary was sure a cool character with him, though, wasn't she? I'm never going to look at her again and not see her with a bright sword on her hip, ready to slice up the rude and uppity. Have you ever met her son? Is he always such a jerk?"
"I've seen him get out of his rental car, but usually his once-a-year visit coincides with me going to play with the kids. Seems to me that's been pretty fortunate. Bet Mary moved out here to get away from him. You know, this son might just be jealous that the dad's memory might be -- what -- diluted by a new man in Mary's life."
"Come on," Bodie grimaced. "He's got to be as old as we are -- if not as old as you, Sul," earning him a kick on the leg stretched out in front of mine, "he can't be a cop and be that pschologically messed up after all this time. Do you think?"
"I think that we ought to give Mary the benefit of the doubt, and wait and see if this intruder shows up at her door, at which point we can all run over to see if she has an extra cup of sugar to spare for the birthday cakes we're making for the twins and Owen, all five of whom will have been born on that auspicious day. And Mary is too kind and courteous and old fashioned to say, 'What, you nosy bunch of weirdos!'"
We chuckled for a while, and Andersol said, "I'm still amazed that John would talk to his mother like that, and she's still okay with him. We would never have dared question our parents to their faces. We openly disagreed with them once, and see how far from home that got us."
"Maybe he looks like his dad," I volunteered. "And that's his saving grace."
Bodie rubbed his face with both hands. "Sometimes I wish one of us looked like Dad. We could have used some saving graces."
Speculation on a secret romance for Mary was a silly mask on the face of a tragedy years playing out, a set of twins abandoned by family and still torn by the loss. At least I had never been shut completely out, like Bodie and Andersol had been, and back then, at least, three years before my father's death, I wasn't worried like the New York son about what my mother was up to, or what she might do to herself.