When my neighbor’s wife passed away last year he told me how he had boxes of her things he could not bring himself to open. Boxes stashed in his attic and in a corner of their basement, spots she had selected.
He said he hardly knew what was in them though he had brought himself to open one. The box contained a picture of her in the newspaper when she was the first woman to wear slacks in a federal office. She had told him that story on one of their very first dates. He laughed as he recalled her passion, the fury with which she had talked politics until the very end of her life. I asked him whether she had made him political and he smiled and said that she made everyone political. No discussion was without debate.
What puzzled him was what to do with all of the letters, the papers, and memorabilia. He knew that he would not have room for it and it had been in boxes for decades. What its value was escaped him though he recognized that it had power because the prospect of going through the items scared him. His grief was raw.
This was last spring and summer. Our conversations, when she first died, always occurred on his driveway. I thought of having him over for coffee, but I sensed that the flow of words would be stanched if any of our talks were planned. He seemed to be in a confessional mood then, reaching out in many directions, seeking safe ground with those who knew him. Knew her. Which, I admit, astonished me a little since our families had hardly gotten along. His wife had insulted mine and one of his sons, while visiting, tried to hit our family dog. These memories were fresh and yet, something about his earnestness, the way he felt the need to talk about his past made me listen closely and want to be present. I hoped that my witness did not offend my own family.
But perhaps the biggest surprise I received came in my dreams. Often, after he told me specific things, I would dream about them the same night. The dreams seemed to follow a script: His wife -always his wife- would come to me and say “We need to talk.” Then she would list things that I had noticed. “Tell him to clean the eaves.” “Don’t have him hire the neighbor’s boy to rake the leaves. He needs to keep busy.” “Make sure he buys season tickets again next spring. He should keep going to the games.” “Tell him to visit our sons. Driving always did him good.”
At first, I hesitated to tell my wife about this. I was concerned she might think that I was developing an unhealthy fixation. I also felt my own twinge of guilt that I was dreaming regularly about another woman and that this woman was not someone my wife had ever respected. Perhaps my dreams were a sign of something unhealthy but I could never quite convince myself of this.
Then one-day last fall he told me how he was planning to sell his house in the spring. The dreams immediately stopped and we have hardly spoken since.
Sometimes I see him taking dinner by himself through the great bay window in his kitchen. When this happens, I recall how his wife always drew the shades when they sat down to eat. Dinner was their private affair but alone, he eats with open shades.
Edward Hopper has a painting most people have seen called “Nighthawks.” It’s a picture of a short order cook in uniform and three customers seated at the counter of an all-night diner. There are two men in suits and a woman in a red dress with red hair studying her nails. The diner is brightly lit and we look in on the scene from a deserted street. The shops are closed but the “Police Public Call Box” is lit. If you give the painting more than a casual glance it becomes entrancing. I sometimes feel I am inside of it.
Watching my neighbor at his dinner, I think of that scene. I don’t know whether he can see me glancing over at him as it has never come up. I will admit, I have watched him more than once.
And while our street is hardly deserted as this is a neighborhood of young families with kids who play outside on spring evenings, somehow, watching him, I feel that I am alone.