The House Next Door
by L. Vocem
First published in riverSedge, University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, fall 2019.
I remember when the cops came, the blue lights and people taken out in handcuffs. After that, the house remained empty, some of the windows were broken, then boarded up. For a couple of years, the house next door stayed in a state of disrepair and bad shape, but so was this whole neighborhood.
They arrive in a banged-up white Ford pickup truck. I look out the window and call Dick to join me. We stare, wondering if we are going to get another crack or meth house, a whore house, or what. A short dark man with jet black straight hair, clothes covered in Georgia red clay comes out of the pickup truck and opens the door of the house. A tiny woman with long flowing black hair and a light dress with flowers eases her way out holding a child. Two other children jump out and go into the house.
We haven’t had families with children in this neighborhood in years – since the schools went bad –really bad. Only four blocks down the street are the city limits. They have good schools now, and houses are being rebuilt, and kids are everywhere. But not here, this is crack land or meth land, or whatever they call it these days, or home for the few old folk like Dick and I or Ms Taylor across the street.
In the evening a U-Haul comes over and a bunch of small dark people help move furniture into the house.
Dick whispers as if they could hear “Mildred, I think they’re Mexicans.”
“Should we welcome them?” I ask Dick and he says “No. We don’t know what type of people they are. For all we know they are rapists, drug dealers, even though some may be good.”
Within days I go outside and the small guy is cutting the yard with one of those push grass clippers that have no engine, the boards over the windows are gone, they are fixed and the children play on the street. I tell him that is dangerous, that the kids should not be on the streets and that they could get run over by cars, since there are people going up and down the street trying to score some drugs.
He doesn’t do anything, just smiles and waves, then walks towards me. I’m a little apprehensive and take a step back and hold my breath. He says something in his language. I guess it’s Mexican. I point at the children on the street and that they should not be playing there. He looks at the street, at the children and then back at me. Then says with a smile “Ana y Jose.”
“Pedro,” he says, hitting his own chest, then bows and walks away to the house next door.
I go to check on Ms Taylor. I knock on her door and call her name. She shouts to come in. She sits on a chair in front of the TV watching some gameshow. I ask if she noticed the new neighbors and tell her that they have children.
“Children. I love children. I miss back in the day when they used to ride their bikes up and down the street.”
She stares at the TV and doesn’t pay attention to anything I say after that. Ms Taylor is a brave woman. She is a black single mom that worked at a school cafeteria for many years until she retired. When we first moved into the neighborhood I remember her beating the crap out of her son, then a pre-teen and telling him to go inside and do his homework. That was before the neighborhood started turning, and crack and the drugs ran over the place. He was lucky, and ended up going to Morehouse and works at the Emergency Room at Grady. Her daughter, which at that time was just like those kids running around was not. She got into drugs, was a stripper for a few years, got pregnant, had a few kids and ended up driving a bus. She brings her kids around here every now and then.
In the next couple of weeks I notice how that nasty house next door gets a new paint job, new roof, new door. One morning, I hear what sounds like machine gun fire outside. My heart almost explodes, remembering the drive-by-shootings that we used to get around here all the time.
“Dick, Dick what is going on? Go check it out.”
“Are you nuts, Mildred. You should know better. I ain’t going out to check shit.”
The sound continues, so it has to be something else. I go to the window and peep outside. There are about a million of them little people filling a truck with pieces of their driveway.
Señor Pedro, stands with a jackhammer bouncing like a mad man breaking the concrete apart.
By early afternoon, a big truck comes over and pours fresh concrete on their driveway. They lean over the concrete and work it, looking as if they were praying on their knees or doing some meditation.
By the time of sunset they are still there, but now they are drinking and playing loud weird music from one of their vans. Women and children arrive. They set up a grill and cook and fill my own house with aromas I have never smelled before.
Then it stops. All the vans, beat up cars, and pickup trucks disappear.
“Next time I’m calling the police,” Dick says, looking out the window. A few minutes later, while we are having some sweet tea, the doorbell rings.
Dick looks at me. He doesn’t want to tell me that he is scared, not too long ago that would mean some drug dealer or someone looking for meth coming to the door. I open the door and notice that small woman from next door. She pushes forward a plate filled with grilled chicken and tortillas.
“Sorih,” she says and continues to say something in her language. I squint my eyes, and try to let her know I don’t understand.
“Ah. Too loud. No good. Tis for you.” She touches her chest and says “Margarita,” and smiles.
There is still at least one crack house in the neighborhood. Cars drive very slow as if they don’t really know where they are going and don’t want to bring attention to themselves. Then there are the regulars who fly through the street like they were in the Daytona 500, music blasting from their speakers, even at three in the morning.
Dick starts to complain because Señor Pedro many times has all kinds of construction equipment parked on the street or in his driveway. They leave very early. Then later on, I see Margarita walk her kids to school. They look like little ducks following mama duck down the road. I remember the times when I was a kid, when I would walk to school, but nobody does that anymore. Even when I go to visit my daughter Jenny in the suburbs and take her kids to school, we drive them and stay in her van until the school allows kids to go in.
An ambulance comes over across the street and takes Ms Taylor away. A few weeks later her son pushes her back into her house in a wheelchair. She had a minor stroke, her son says looking at his watch, and leaves. Later on Margarita comes over with all kinds of weird Mexican pastries and sweets. We sit around and try to understand each other. Ms Taylor’s daughter shows up with her kids and it turns out that she knows some Spanish and is able to communicate with Margarita.
A few days later, Señor Pedro unloads a bunch of lumber on Ms Taylor’s front yard and builds her a ramp for her wheel chair. Then invites everyone to what they call a “Serenata.”
Dick doesn’t want to go. He says that he hates that type of food, it’s too hot and it gives him heartburn, and who knows, even the runs. I try to convince him.
They have plastic chairs aligned on the driveway, two strange looking charcoal grills with a wheel on the side where they can move stuff up and down like a yo-yo. Under their open garage they have musical instruments and equipment. We sit to the side, trying to mind our own business and soon the place fills with families. The men wear cowboy hats, big belt buckles and pointy cowboy boots. The women wear colorful dresses, some have flowers on their hair. Yet some women wear spandex and big shirts. Children run up and down, playing on the driveway and street. Ms Taylor arrives, being pushed by her daughter.
“Ms Edwards, remember me? Yenaida.” Ms Taylor’s daughter says to me.
“It’s been a long time,” I say.
We talk about how the neighborhood went from a lower class white neighborhood to a middle class black neighborhood, to crack town years later.
A mariachi band arrives all dressed up. But to my surprise, they change their uniforms into street clothes. They have beers, talk to us in broken English and start to tune up their instruments. A couple of guys plug in some electric guitar and a bass. Another guy pulls out of a case a trumpet and begins to play. He starts a tune, then stops, talks to the other men, laughs, takes another sip, starts again like little accents to their conversation.
Margarita comes to where we sit with her daughter.
“My mom says hello,” she says in perfect English. “She feels so special because you have accepted us into this great neighborhood.”
One of the guys with the violins starts to sing. Margarita whispers something in Spanish to her daughter and she tells us that they are playing ballads that guys sang at the windows of a woman they wanted to court – to serenade. Soon the violins join in. The trumpet interjects with quick bursts until it takes over with a long solo that makes me want to cry. They play into the dark. At some point the men take a break and put their instruments away.
A car rushes into the driveway with their bright lights and stops one foot in front of the chairs. It startles me. Three men come out – two white men and a black man. I have seen them before but it doesn’t dawn on me who they are until Dick’s eyes look about to pop out of his sockets and he places his index finger on his arms and shoots it. They walk together towards the party and then speak aloud “Aren’t you going to invite us to your party?”
The Mexican men look at each other. I can tell by their expressions what they are saying, who in the hell are they. One calls Señor Pedro back in the kitchen. He comes out of the house holding a large spatula covered in red sauce and says hello in broken English.
One of the mariachi band guys comes by and asks them “Can help you?”
“We’re just neighbors from down the street. Were wondering why we didn’t get invited.”
The mariachi guy translates it to Pedro. They look at the guys with suspicion. They talk among themselves. The mariachi guy tells them “Have beer, enjoy.”
The three men move through the party, grab beers, smell the food and a few minutes later, they leave.
“What’ta hell was that all about?” Dick says.
A few days later I see out the window Señor Pedro talking to a tall skinny white man wearing a blue blazer. They stand next to a fancy car, I think it’s a Rolls or a Bentley, they all look the same to me. They point down one way, and up the other. They shake hands and the man drives away. Within three days, trucks come over our neighborhood and plop large metal dumpsters in front of the properties. Señor Pedro’s driveway is constantly filled with pickup trucks and all kinds of cars. Margarita sets tables outside with water and food around lunch time. Within three weeks they fix four houses in our dilapidated street, and then put “for rent” signs in the yards.
A couple moves in. The woman is all covered up.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” Dick says looking out the window. “They are muslims, that is how they force their women to dress. Look at them. They could be terrorists. What’ ta hell is going on?”
“What’s with you,” I sigh. “We still have crack houses and you’re worried about them.”
I see Margarita walk down the street to their house with a plate full of treats. Soon enough the muslim woman and Margarita are walking their kids to school together. The other houses are rented quickly and what was before overrun by kudzu, weeds is now grass and playground toys.
One of the boarded houses down the street gets a U-Haul and a white guy and blond woman come out. They look really weird. They have tattoos all over, the guy has short hair but a huge red beard.
I decide that I’m going to be like Margarita and welcome them. So I bake some cookies and walk over their house. The door is open and I hear some voices inside. As stupid as I can be, I go in, saying hello. Then I notice huge glass containers all around and stuff that looks like bags of chemicals. Oh my god. I have walked right into a meth house and I am about to die. The man with the red beard comes out of the kitchen and sees me. My heart pounds and I drop the plate and run outside. I fast walk towards our front door. I reach there and try to catch my breath. I’m definitely going to die. He looks menacing and imposing with those tattoos and that huge red beard.
“Ms Mildred, is that right?” The man with the red beard says, startling me. He stands a foot next to me. He extends two strange bottles. I am scared. I do not know what that is.
The blond woman shows up right behind him. She looks worried, like something is about to happen.
“I’m Shawn, this is Marla,” he says. “This is a gift.”
He looks at the two bottles. “Go ahead and take them.”
I look at my keychain and can’t even find the right freaking key. I don’t want anything from them. That is how that whole thing starts, they give you stuff for free. I don’t want anything free. We have survived so many years with all of them drug dealers around and we made it. If only I could get inside my house.
“It’s beer,” the blond woman says.
“We brew it,” the guy says. “It’s what we do. It’s all legal.”
“She may not drink,” the woman says to the man.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man says.
My sense of urgency goes down. I can take a deep breath and see them. They are looking at me with a forced silly smile.
“We just moved from Portland,” Shawn says.
“I baked you cookies,” I say, then I can’t help it but I start crying.
“It’s okay Miss…” the woman says, looking at the bearded man.
“Mildred, Margarita told me,” Shawn says.
“Sometimes people freak out when they come to our house and think we are…well… cooking meth.”
I start to giggle and laugh and clean my tears at the same time. The door opens abruptly and Dick is right there wielding a plastic soup spoon over his head as if it were a weapon.
That weekend we gather at the house next door. No mariachis, just neighbors. The kids play up front. The muslim couple brings some dishes that I can’t even pronounce, but I remember loving the one they call “tabouleh” and the “humus” with the bread. Señor Pedro slow cooks a “cabrito,” which turns out to be a goat. Margarita makes some “mole” while Ms Taylor makes incredible corn bread, collar greens and black-eye peas. Shawn and Marla bring a bucket of their own brewed beer and share. Margarita is getting really good with her English and is now trying to teach Señor Pedro how to pronounce some words.
Yenaida arrives with her three kids. They run right away into the yard with the other kids. She joins us.
“I can’t believe this place. I dreamed all my life of this and it never happened until now.”
Three cars rubbing engines flash across the street and go out of site, breaks squeak and they go into the driveway of a house. Señor Pedro jumps form his chair and runs to the edge of the driveway and looks into the distance and shakes his head. He comes back to the party angry, looking down the road. One of the kids jumps on his lap but I can see his head is twisting and thinking.
What started with mama duck and babies following, now looks like a moving bus. I don’t know how she does it, but at some point in the morning Margarita comes out of her house, goes in the opposite direction of the school with her kids and about ten minutes later is back with about four moms, a dad pushing a stroller and ten kids. By the time they reach the end of the street, they have a walking bus.
Yenaida moves back with her Mom. She tells us that her mom is getting too old, but mainly that she can’t afford to live in the suburbs with the money she makes. She feels bad because the schools there are supposed to be much better, but the rents have just gone out of reach. We want to throw her a welcome party but everyone is busy working and it never happens.
We start seeing cars going to one of the newly remodeled houses. Dick looks at me. “We can’t get a break, can’t we. Damn it.”
I tell him that he is wrong, that the neighborhood is turning.
“Just look Mildred.”
A car goes down the street, parks on the driveway, a man comes out, knocks on the door, the door opens, a person inside gives him a package, they get back in the vehicle and they drive away. Sometimes they exchange money, sometimes they do not. From five to nine, every night they are busy as hell.
“Should we call the police?” I ask Dick.
“Look what good it did us the last time. Some of those drive-by-shootings were not aimed at them, they were aimed at us.”
Winter arrives and is cold as hell. Time to hunker down. They are even expecting snow to hit us. This is the South so whenever we get an inch of snow, we close everything down, buy all the bread and beer from the stores. And people play like it’s a holiday.
We watch the news on TV. It comes down with a vengeance. Cars get stuck everywhere and because we have a lot of old trees in our street, it doesn’t melt. In the middle of the afternoon I see Shawn and Señor Pedro move a huge metal pit from their house to Señor Pedro’s house.
“We have fire and songs,” Margarita tells us. Shawn and Señor Pedro get a huge stack of wood and start the fire in the middle of the afternoon. Families gather. Kids make snowmen and have snowball fights. Señor Pedro removes the wheels of a wheelbarrow and turns it into a sled. Dick didn’t want to go to the store. So we end up drinking too much of Shawn’s beer. It is very strong. It’s more than I can handle. I notice that from the house where a lot of cars were going to, a man and a woman come out carrying a huge soup bowl, the type you would see in a restaurant. They plop it on a table and open the top. In the cold dry air the steam comes out like a dense cloud. A deep smell I am completely unfamiliar with fills the air. Everyone looks at each other as if they are about to do some drug, some strange thing that nobody knows about.
A woman speaking in an English accent tells us that they made extra, expecting their customers to buy a lot more because of the snowstorm, instead nobody showed, so well here they are.
What? What! I have no idea what they are talking about.
The woman brings to me a paper plate with an aluminum foil wrapped thing. Dick looks at me as if he is about to be tortured to eat or die. I open mine. It looks like a burrito but it smells of curry and strong spices. I take a bite and it has chicken and potatoes and other flavors that are not as spicy as Mexican food but very intense. I love it.
“Roti,” the woman says, almost sounding British but also Indian.
I was expecting it to be really hot, but it is not, yet the spices gang up on you as you eat along.
Margarita and Shawn comment on how good they are.
The woman sits next to me and asks what I think. I say “it’s a new taste, never had it before. Where is it from?”
“Trinidad,” she says, and spends a whole hour telling me about it. I should be an expert by now, but Shawn’s beers did too much of a good job.
A car comes around the corner surfing on the snow, swerving left and right, loud music inside. It swerves too deep and it takes out Señor Pedro’s mailbox. The car stalls. Two women in mini skirts come out of the back, two guys come out of the front.
“Shhiiiiet, man. What did you do to my car?” He screams into the driveway filled with families around the fire.
“Wow, there’s a lot of people here. Looks cool,” the man says. Señor Pedro comes from the back of the party and walks towards them. The tall skinny guy with a huge coat says some stuff to Señor Pedro. Señor Pedro points at the mailbox. The tall man laughs and throws some money into the snow, gets back in his car and his wheels spin trying to get some traction. Then it goes, swerves and takes out Ms Taylor’s mailbox as well, then they move forward.
“So long suckers,” one of them screams as they take off.
Everyone is freaked after this. Some people say, it’s time to go home. Señor Pedro says “No.
He walks back into the house and comes out. I could see how angry he is. He forces a smile at everyone and points to a black case he has with him. He opens it, and pulls out a violin. He forces another smile and places it on his chin. Then like something out of a movie he starts to play.
Everyone is mesmerized by this. Then one of the Middle Eastern women start to wail. I don’t think there were any words, just melodious wails. Señor Pedro stops and looks intently at the woman, then looks at his own wife Margarita. He tries to mimic the wail with his violin. The woman starts again. Shawn says “sounds like flamenco,” producing a smile full of teeth. He grabs two sticks of wood and hits them against an empty plastic garbage container, producing a low bass sound. Margarita starts to clap, following the rhythm of the sticks hitting the garbage bin. Soon enough we are all clapping, following Margarita’s moves, listening to the violin and the wailing sounds.
I drank too much. I’m too old for this.
The next time I see Señor Pedro he is digging a hole across the street and replacing Ms Taylor’s mailbox. I look at the house next door and he has replaced that mail box as well.
A few nights later I hear people screaming and fighting outside. I go to the window next to my door and I see that it’s Señor Pedro and Margarita fighting. I have never seen either one that agitated. They swing their arms around like I have seen Italians in the movies. She points down the street and then at the ground. He points at the ground and forms a fist at her and then points up the street.
“Should I call the police?” Dick asks me as he sneaks a look.
“No, I’ll handle this,” I tell him and open the door and walk outside. Margarita sees me. Señor Pedro keeps screaming at her. He then looks in my direction and stops screaming, points a finger at her and says something in a much lower voice, turns around, goes into the house and slams the door. Margarita walks towards me. She is practically in tears.
“Can I get you some tea,” I ask her.
She nods and starts crying.
“Machismo, soberbia,” she says. I go into the kitchen and boil some water. The doorbell rings. Dick looks at it with a strange look. I walk to the door. It’s Yenaida. She asks if everything is alright and comes in. I serve the three of us tea. Margarita talks very fast and then looks at Yenaida to translate.
“Machismo and pride. I think it’s what she meant, right?” Yenaida says. “He always has to solve everybody’s problems when he needs to be concerned about us, about our children.”
We look at each other and take sips of tea. Dick comes over to join us. But I tell him this is a girl thing so to go to the bedroom and watch TV. We talk for a while.
“We no want trouble, but Pedro not help self. He can be mean. Very mean. He no like drug peoples,” Margarita says.
A few days later a big van from one of the churches stops by the last of the boarded houses in the street. They cut the grass, fix the windows, remove all the trash around it. Yenaida and Margarita are watching the kids play and walk towards the property. I follow them. A fat short guy with white hair comes over and shakes our hands. He tells us that they’ve been watching how much this whole neighborhood has changed and they are going to use the house for new refugees. I already know what Dick is going to say, how soon enough we’re going to be crawling with terrorists but I am actually happy. The short man tells us that the family was stopped in New York because of the travel ban, even though they had been seriously vetted. They spent a couple of nights in jail but were eventually released. He was told that the children were in severe shock from all the bombs dropped in Aleppo, but somehow they made it.
Yenaida, Margarita, Marla and I go to see them the day after they arrive. They are quiet with an expression filled with fear. They are so thankful for what we have done. Their children remind me of the photos I have seen on the news of children covered in white dust and blood. So this is what they look like afterwards – if they make it. I want to throw them a welcome dinner where everyone could bring something, but they don’t want it. They don’t want anyone to even know they are here.
Soon their kids join Margarita’s bus walking to school and afterwards they play with other children running up and down all the different yards laughing and screaming and making noises like kids used to do long time ago when I was growing up.
One Saturday Shawn and Señor Pedro park down the street and unload neon-green plastic turtles with a sign that says, “slow down, children playing” and a huge flag that stands eight feet in the air. They place three of them per yard on both sides of the street all the way to the house before the crack house. They park the pick up truck next door, and pull out a couple of beers. I go to check about what is going on. Shawn says that one of his customers works for an Ace Hardwood Store that was going out of business and they gave him a great deal for all the little turtles. “We have to do something,” Shawn says.
“We choh dem,” Señor Pedro says, taking a sip of his beer.
Life is good for three days.
Late at night I hear a couple of cars driving very fast in the neighborhood and things being banged up. I don’t even dare look outside since this really feels like the old days. I can’t sleep so right before the sun comes up I go outside and take a look. All the green turtles have been run over and every single mail box from the beginning of the street to the house next to the crack house are destroyed. Señor Pedro is on his knees looking up and down the street. Margarita comes out and tells him “calmate, calmate. Ponte tranquilo. No vas ha hacer nada loco. For favor Papi, no.”
We call a neighborhood meeting and gather in front of Shawn’s house. People express their grievances, that we should call the police and not tolerate this type of thing. Dick reminds everyone that the last time we called the police on them, it started a gang war and there were drive-by-shootings practically every night, until all the nice people moved out.
“I have amigos,” Señor Pedro says. “So we fix thing first.”
In the next few days truck after truck filled with construction workers, short men with dark skin, come over, and one by one they rebuild all the mailboxes, but this time they are build out of brick. Margarita tells us that each of the men took bricks left over from many different construction sites they were working at and came over. Señor Pedro and Shawn build the last mailbox next to the crack house and park the truck in front of it and blasts Rancheras.
The women and children make posters with slogans and place them in every yard. I even help with duck tape and try to fix some of the broken turtles and place them back on the street. They look somehow eerie because you can tell that they have been run over.
We wait and wait. I hear cars going down the street, but they are not people going to buy meth but Rotis. In fact, I hardly ever see anyone go to the crack house anymore.
Then one night someone goes around and shoots at the mailboxes. Someone calls the police and there are blue lights flashing everywhere. The cops interview everyone. They talk to Señor Pedro and he looks nervous and shy. He points at the small indentations that the bullets made on his brick mailbox. I tell them of the crack house at the end of the street. They raid it, but it turns out to be empty. They are gone.
I can’t believe we’ve won.
We plan a huge party. There will be mariachis, belly dancers, a grilled goat, caribbean food, middle eastern food, Southern soul food, home brewed beer and even good ole American kosher hot dogs. Shawn, the Syrian guy and Señor Pedro place two tents on his driveway. This is going to be great.
I see reflections on the ceiling of my bedroom, blue lights. It’s about four in the morning. Good grief, I thought there were no people in the crack house so I go look out the window. There are at least five vehicles and two vans. But they are right in front of my house and on Señor Pedro’s driveway. What happened? Did he have a fight with Margarita? I know he has a temper, but I thought he had it under control. I go outside and one of the men with one of those black protective vest that says Police on the front comes towards me and tells me to please go back inside.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Just please go back inside the house,” he repeats and turns around. Then I notice the letters on the back of his vest. ICE and I realize what really happened.
The house next door remained empty, until one day, a “For Rent” sign is placed on the yard.
Yenaida tells me that Shawn tried to find out what happened and all he could get was that they were in some prison in South Georgia awaiting deportation.
Every morning when I see the parents walking the kids to school together I remember Margarita and Señor Pedro and what they did for us.
We will miss them.