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An unexpected trip to meet new neighbors.


A few days ago, my children tossed a dodgeball over the back fence while they chased one another around their trampoline before bedtime. They tossed two balls, in fact. One was their favorite. We call it the blue spiky ball, because that’s an apt description. The other was a red softball made of spongy foam. It doesn’t really matter what the balls looked like. What matters is that Daniel wanted them back.

He asked me to retrieve them, and I promised I would. To be honest, I hoped he’d forget. But while we brushed teeth, and read stories, and said prayers, he asked three or four more times about the balls. He told me that he loved them more than anything, and he stuck out his lower lip to cry. It’s sport for my son to persuade me of such things. He did not especially love those balls.

Still, by the time he fell asleep, Daniel had extracted from me not just the promise that I would get them, but an assurance that those newly beloved spheres would be back in the yard by morning. It was nine o’clock before I’d finished with chores, and I told Kate I would walk over to the neighbor’s house. The balls weren’t in the yard of the family directly behind us. They were in the yard kitty-korner to us, a rental home with neighbors we didn’t know.

Actually, we hardly know any of our neighbors. We live on a suburban loop in the Seventies sprawl southwest of Denver. We don’t live in a town. We live in a development, like dozens of other developments, fitted between the grid of major thoroughfares in the unincorporated part of our county.

I am ignorant about this place where we live, in many ways, and almost invincibly so. I have never seen a police officer in our development, and have only a hazy idea of what law enforcement body is sworn to protect us. The same goes for fire. A private company picks up our trash. I have no idea how our county is governed, or by whom, or what issues it faces. Power and water flow into my home, and garbage goes out, and I’ve no sense of the bond issues or infrastructure networks or T.I.F. funding that make it so.

I have opinions on state politics, and the leadership of the city of Denver, in whose boundaries I have not actually lived for almost a decade. I have views on the plight of Uighur people in Northwest China (the terrorists in Beijing must be stopped), and the denizens of the White House and Capitol Hill. But I cannot name even one lawmaker or administrator of Jefferson County, Colorado, and I’m not sure what newspaper I could look at to get up to speed.

Out of curiosity, I looked at Jefferson County’s Wikipedia entry just a moment ago. While I learned the county’s population and where the largest hospital is, I am still ignorant of its governance. A perusal of the Denver Post also reveals nothing. This should not surprise me. Since the paper was purchased by a hedge fund some years ago, journalists have been laid off, and Coloradans have been left with mostly wire syndicate articles, and even those are behind a paywall.

I have a sense of place, to be sure, but no sense for how that place is being managed. I presume that if I dial nine-one-one, help will come. But I haven’t actually tested that theory. I am not quite so ignorant of the people who populate our street, but very nearly so. I wave to the neighbors on either side of us, but I don’t remember their names. Once, I offered a beer to a man who lives across the street, but I was relieved when he said he had somewhere to be.

In our suburb, it is better to talk always of some future cold beer, to be had on some far-off hot day, than it is to sit down with a stranger and actually drink one. Down the street there lives an old man whom the kids call “Farmer McGregor,” because of the time and dedication he commits to his lawn. Across the street from him is an old woman with dachshunds. That is what I know of our neighborhood.

Of course, that means that to retrieve the balls, I had to knock on a stranger’s door, just after nine. Kate told me it would be too late. I said that was nonsense.

I waxed nostalgic about my childhood in a blue-collar New Jersey town, where at nine o’clock on a summer evening, the minister’s wife might stop by to gossip, or a man from our Scout troop might come over to enlist my dad’s help in some project. We didn’t have air conditioning; on warm nights we would listen out the open windows to my parents talking with some adult, well after we kids had been sent to bed.

I am not two hundred years old—there was cable and eventually dial-up internet in my youth—and so those summer nights don’t feel too long ago, I told Kate, when she rolled her eyes at the picture I painted. I mentioned next the few years we had spent living in Nebraska, where on summer nights, friends would come over after they’d put their kids to bed, to eat ice cream or to drink whiskey, and usually to tell filthy jokes. Nebraskans are nice, I learned, but they’re not all wholesome, and their farming knowledge gives them access to a range of dirty jokes city kids would never consider.

I insisted, against Kate’s protests, that nine o’clock is a perfectly normal hour to pop in on a neighbor one doesn’t know. By the time I was done insisting, I’d convinced myself that getting those balls was practically a matter of civic virtue.

It was five minutes past nine when I walked up to the neighbor’s porch. Kate had gotten into my head, and I wondered for a minute if maybe it was too late. But I could see through their front window that a giant television was on in the living room. So I knocked.

Nothing happened. I waited for a minute, and knocked again. Nothing. So I rang the bell.

Then I heard a woman’s voice: “What the f—?” she asked.

“Kids get upstairs.”

I heard little feet scamper up the stairs. Then I saw the faces of two boys peek out the curtain of an upstairs window. Still, no one came to the door.

I waited a while but no one came. I wondered whether I should leave. Clearly, inside the house, they knew I was there. And Daniel had been so persistent about the balls. And, talking to Kate, I had been so self-righteous about neighborliness. I couldn’t just back down. So I waited another minute. Then I sort of walked halfway down the house’s front sidewalk, with my eyes still on the door, half-inclined to walk away, but half-intent upon ringing the bell again.

I heard a bolt unslide.  The door opened. A man—a short man in his late twenties with long unkempt hair—was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the light inside. He had no shirt on. On his bare chest was a tattoo of some animal, but the light was low, and the tattoo was of poor quality, and I couldn’t make it out. There was another tattoo on his bare shoulder.

I had a shirt on. It was a blue pastel polo tucked into my shorts. With that, and my new pair of expensive strappy sandals, I wore the summer uniform of a suburban dad.  I felt suddenly overdressed.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m your neighbor!”

I walked back onto his porch and explained about the balls, and apologized if it was too late.

He invited me in.

In the living room was a white leather couch, the big T.V., and on the floor some toys, a few takeout boxes, and a couple of beer bottles.

I didn’t see the woman I’d heard, but the boys were peeking down the stairs.

“Well,” the man said, “follow me.”

The house was a tri-level. We walked out of the living room into the kitchen, and then I followed him down a flight of stairs toward a curtain, behind which was a dark room. I could see two things on his back: A large surgical bandage, and a gun tucked into his waistband. We were walking down the stairs to a dark room behind a curtain, and there was a black handgun in his pants.

“Wow,” I said. “When your doorbell rings, you prepare yourself for anything.”

I chuckled, trying to act like shirtless armed neighbors are exactly the people I usually hang out with.

“That’s right,” he said as he disappeared behind the curtain. “Come with me.”

Nine o’clock suddenly felt very late at night. I remembered that I had never seen a policeman on our street. I did not want to go behind that curtain. But I did have to get those stupid balls. Plus, gun or no gun, it seemed rude to decline.

I imagined him thinking that his snobby neighbor, with his polo shirt and goofy sandals, was rude enough to come over at nine o’clock, but too good to follow him and his gun down a dark staircase. I couldn’t abide it. I followed him. We walked through a room with a sticky floor, and then out the back door into the cool night air of the yard.

He had a small slab porch with a metal roof. The yard was a field of weeds. Walking into a suburban cliché, I clucked my tongue at the yard’s condition. I had to remind myself that he’d only recently moved in, and the house was a rental.

“Well,” he said. “You can go look for the balls.”

I turned on my cell phone flashlight and found the spiky ball sitting among the weeds. I was nervous. A man with a gun was standing behind me. So I tried to throw it back over the fence, but the ball hit a tree branch above my head and bounced back. It landed at his feet.

I went over, and bent down, and picked it up, and threw it over the fence. I realized I’d actually thrown the ball into my neighbor’s yard, and not my own, but I’d deal with that the next day. I was hoping he didn’t notice I threw like a girl.

“Well,” I said, “Thanks. I think they threw a foam baseball too, but I don’t see it. If you see it, would you toss it over?”

“Oh,” he said, “I’ll take care of that baseball.”

“Thanks,” I said sheepishly. “I’m J.D., by the way.”

“I’m Devin,” he said, and extended his hand.

I wondered whether he knew about the global pandemic. That we were supposed to tap elbows instead of shaking hands. I tried to picture Devin tapping elbows. I really couldn’t. That moment was not the time for my coronavirus squeamishness. I shook his hand.

“Well, thanks. And again, sorry for causing a disturbance. Do you want me to go out through your gate?”

“Nah, come through the house.”

We went in. The kids were staring at me. His wife was standing at the top of the stairs.

“This is our neighbor,” he told her.

“Hey,” I said.

She was clad in her pajamas. I didn’t want to look at her as I walked up the stairs. For modesty’s sake, but also because Devin had a gun.

So I studied a point on the floor, a tile next to the refrigerator in the kitchen. I looked at that spot until I got to the living room, where the boys asked me to play a video game with them. It seemed best to decline. At the door Devin stopped me and, unbidden, said, “Hey, man, listen. I come from a weird neighborhood. Have a good evening.”

I shook his hand and walked down the steps. On the way home, I thought about Devin growing up in a weird neighborhood.

I imagined that maybe he was in the witness protection program, and someone was looking for him. Or maybe he’d come from some mobbed-up neighborhood where only crooked cops, loan sharks, or pimps knocked at the door at nine o’clock. Or maybe he was just back from Afghanistan, or Syria. Or maybe Devin had just grown up around people he didn’t know.

I walked past the home of the old lady with the dachshunds, and then house after house occupied by total strangers. Curtains were closed, shades were drawn. Televisions emitted a blue glow from living room windows.

After the pandemic, I should have a block party. Or at least learn somebody’s name.

J.D. Flynn is editor-in-chief of the Pillar.

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