Independence Day weekend was hot in Steubenville: breathtakingly hot. The grass was brown, it was hard to breathe, it was too hot to fill the kiddie pool for Rose, I couldn’t get out our tiny semicircle of a charcoal grill to cook dinner until well after dark.
My menacing neighbor seems to have believed my reference to a security camera. She hasn’t touched the property or let the dog out to threaten me with its chain so long that it wanders into my yard again. For two days, she didn’t leave her house at all, and then she was back, pacing carefully on her her side of the property line, never crossing over.
Sometimes she is wide awake, deliberately crafty and cruel. But lately, she is not awake enough to stop talking to herself or shake off the paranoia. Still, she’s alert enough to know what side of the property line is hers, to stay on it, to mow it twice weekly, to glare at our weeds as she tends her fussy flowers, to remember what I said about the camera.
On Friday night, I was in the front yard lighting a sparkler for Rose. The neighbor came out to her front porch, still in that bathrobe, to rant at me. She ranted just under her breath in rapid, manic speech, the words shooting out of her mouth so fast it sounded like she’d been filmed and then played at double speed for a joke. She ranted that I had a groundhog and was blaming her unjustly for damage to my garden– a foolish bluff, because I never told her that I know she’s the one who ruined my plants, and because she herself had threatened to do it to me again on the back porch when she knew there wouldn’t be witnesses, and because I’ve been tormented by a ground hog before. First of all, groundhogs have a series of getaway holes to their burrows somewhere nearby. Secondly, they eat plants down to the stump and leave no trace. They don’t grab only the tallest broccoli plants out of the ground, roots and all, and hurl them around the yard untasted. They don’t yank a bean pole out of the ground and throw it like a javelin. They certainly don’t neatly snip the growing sunflowers off the stems with scissors and set them on top of the compost heap. And they never finish their rampage by walking calmly around the front of the house and covering the porch with fresh dog droppings. Human vandals do that.
If I hadn’t been certain that this neighbor was responsible for the damage, I was certain she was after I heard her claim she’d been framed by a groundhog.
The neighbor started again: rapid, squeaky, fast-motion lamentations about how I didn’t know how to garden and was making my “baby” sick, the food I grew wasn’t edible, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know what chemicals to use, I was making my “baby” sick.
I only have one child. She is nearly nine years old and nearly five feet tall. But my neighbor always refers to her as “the baby.” She once made a call to social services that my husband was giving me black eyes and abusing our “baby,” and the social worker was shocked and confused to come to the house and see no baby at all, and me unbruised. And I know it was this same neighbor, because later she was outside ranting that “no one came for that baby” after her plot was foiled.
Now, I guessed, she’d rampaged in my garden because she shares that weird superstition that a lot of my neighbors have. I used to call it a Northern Appalachian superstition, but apparently it’s just a Steubenville and Weirton one: they think that fresh food is unhealthy somehow. Proper wholesome food comes out of cans or vacuum packs from the grocery store, according to the Steubenville view of things. I once gave Rosie a handful of sugar snap peas, still warm from the sun, and her friends across the street panicked and said that it was poison. I offered another neighbor a squash from my garden, and she declined because “It might not be clean.” Another time, Rosie picked a handful of clover, and her friend asked her why she was picking “poison flowers.”
I remember the neighbor boasting to me that “I only eat steak” and randomly trying to give me several cans of squishy peas and boxes of cheap instant dinner preparations, back when she pretended to be personable with us and thought the other neighbors were out to get her.
It all began to make sense. The neighbor lives through the looking glass, in a realm where eating your vegetables is bad for you. She is confused enough that she can’t speak clearly or explain what she has in mind. She thinks she’s being a hero.
When Rosie was a baby, and I was newly free from the Charismatic Renewal and reading and enjoying all the edgy, Gothic things that my upbringing called demonic, I read through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. I was especially struck by the grisly tale of the serial killer convention– a pack of bloodthirsty psychopaths meet in a hotel for a convention to discuss their craft. At the end of the story, they are all given the ultimate punishment: they’re magically robbed of the ability to see themselves as heroes. They have to see what they did clearly, instead. And that was the worst thing that could ever be.
Most everyone thinks of himself as the hero of his or her own life story. If we’re evil or, in this case, delirious, we can justify atrocious or just plain bizarre behaviors because heroes are allowed to do that. The looser our grip on reality, the more abuses that presumed heroism will justify.
In her own mind, my neighbor is a hero, and I am a villain.
She used to see herself as the hero rescuing Rose’s friend across the street, and when that friend moved away, she fixated on Rose.
All this erratic nonsense, this nonsense that in fact scares my daughter, is all meant to rescue a “baby.”
What wouldn’t you do, in your zeal, if you honestly thought you were a hero, and that there was a baby in danger?
Independence Day weekend is a uniquely sobering time to consider what atrocities a person, a culture or a nation might commit, once they’ve convinced themselves that they are heroes.
As I was pondering this, the evening fireworks began.
As I’ve written about before, people in LaBelle love their fireworks. They save up for a Fourth of July display all year long. And this year, with nowhere to go and so much terrible trauma in the country, the neighbors have been saving more than ever before. Even I got Rosie those sparklers and a package of smelly smoke bombs. The sky around here has been filled with gigantic, professional-looking, dubiously legal fireworks from the last day of June until the fifth of July. They start at dusk and sometimes aren’t done by midnight. They shoot them off from the alleys and the main one-way streets, and even in the dangerously dry grass in vacant lots, yet somehow we haven’t burned the whole neighborhood down. Not yet.
I helped Rosie play with another sparkler as we watched fireworks from the front of the house. Then we went around to the back, to watch from the back steps.
The back alley was chaos. It was pandemonium. It was madness, delirium itself sealed in a cardboard box with a warning label and a cheap wick. It was America.
The fireworks show being staged in the back was perilously, magnificently close, the chrysanthemums of sulfur and light embracing the whole skyline. There was even some kind of flashing yellow pyrotechnic that they let off close to the ground– I could see it in between the houses behind mine, illuminating the whole one-way street as if it were a cloud alive with lightning bolts. It was bright as day, rainbow suns dancing over mauve clouds of smoke at eleven o’clock at night, in a sweltering dry July in a world that is burning to death. The earth was on fire and the fire was beautiful, colorful, entertaining, terrifying, painful, potentially lethal, just like life always is.
After awhile, I noticed that my neighbor was sitting on the back steps in her bath robe, enjoying the fireworks. And then she saw that I had noticed her, and went to hide inside.
And it was night.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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