She was in her front yard, with a camera on a tripod, trying to photograph the sun.
I’d been out running errands all day long; when I got back to LaBelle, I was exhausted. I wanted to go inside and rest and write. But my menacing neighbor who likes to abuse and terrorize us was out there in the front yard staring at the sun through her camera. I have no place to park except parallel to the street in front of my house, and I’m bad at that. I am especially bad at it under the eye of my neighbor who’s waved a knife at us, vandalized our home, lied about us to the other neighbors and terrorized us in one way or another for six years now. I knew I wouldn’t be able to park properly with her watching me. I knew she’d yell the most abusive taunts she could and spoil my whole evening when I got out of the car. I couldn’t face that. I drove right past my house and kept on going.
My neighbor has a lot of cameras and equipment. Sometimes she uses them for the nastiest things; she used to keep one in the window to surveil the family across the street, in order to get their disabled son taken away by Social Services. Ezra’s mother was frightened by the neighbor’s constantly shouting at her about things that went on in her living room, because the neighbor used such a powerful zoom lens she could see the children dancing and what they were watching on television. Ezra’s mother was beleaguered when social workers and police showed up at her house to investigate her, and found nothing but ordinary poverty and mess. Then after the house fire they were homeless for a time, and the menacing neighbor turned her cameras on us. She used with a spotlight on it to videotape Michael cutting the grass, because she claimed we were dumping the clippings on her side of the property line and she wanted to get us arrested. She screamed every obscene and racist slur you can imagine as she filmed him, to get him to repeat one of them so she could post a Backyard Becky video and go viral. But Michael didn’t speak. There was also a whole winter where I was slowly driven crazy by the occasional clicks and mechanical bloops of a digital camera by my window. I knew she was out there, trying to spy on us the way she’d tried to spy on Ezra’s family and take Rosie away like she hadn’t been able to take Ezra. I even heard her cooing at her dog, “Come on, let’s see what the baby is up to,” and remembered that she’d called Rose “the baby, “and realized my child was being watched by a voyeur. But there was nothing I could do except make sure all the blinds were closed and pray she didn’t find a crack in them to look through.
Sometimes, though, my neighbor takes photographs of other things, things I’d like to photograph as well. I’ve never seen her finished work, but if she’s any good at photography she probably has some lovely compositions. She comes outside at night to photograph the full moon. She darts out after rain to get shots of the rainbow from time to time. And sometimes, she takes photos of the sun.
I don’t think you’re supposed to look at the sun through a camera lens, but I remember her saying she had a special camera that could photograph the sun without harm– she said it to a man walking by in 2017, during the solar eclipse. The neighbor called back to her that he didn’t mind either way, since the sun has vitamin D so it must be good for your eyes.
The sun was beautiful over LaBelle just then: bright butter yellow, peeking out from a spectacular array of gray clouds. You could see where it was raining over near Mingo and over in Wintersville, but the sky was blue in Steubenville. Steubenville skies are expressive and lovely. They are just about the only thing around here that’s lovely. I would like to see my neighbor’s photographs of the sky. But I don’t want to see my neighbor.
I drove past my house and around LaBelle a few times, but every time I tried to go home she was still there, fussing over the camera.
Finally, I drove downtown, up and down grim streets past rotting derelict houses, until on a whim I came to the defunct cathedral. The cathedral in Steubenville closed for repairs all the way back in 2014, but it was never reopened because of the embezzlement scandal in the diocese; it just sits there, locked up, next to the bishop’s mansion. Near the bishop’s mansion is one of the public housing projects where poor people live crammed into townhouses that aren’t nearly as bad as the rotting derelicts– there’s even a field where noisy children were playing under the butter-yellow sky.
Between the bishop’s mansion and the projects is a little public rose garden, which is where I went to sit for awhile.
There’s a large statue of the risen Christ in the middle of the garden; then back in one corner, there is a small statue of Saint Anthony facing a large statue of the Virgin Mary. Both Mary and Saint Anthony are holding the Christ child. Mary’s Christ is asleep and Anthony’s Christ is awake. I don’t know why this arrangement of such commonplace Catholic imagery mystifies me–an enigma, one God in two places, asleep and awake, beside Himself.
I stared at Saint Anthony and begged him to distract my neighbor so I could drive home and go inside with the groceries. I stared at the Virgin Mary and wished I ever knew what to say to her. I wished for the thousandth time that I knew her, that I was confident she liked me, that her baby would wake up and look at me and try to break the ice between us.
I thought of the neighbor, back home, taking photos of the sun. And for a moment, instead of being angry, I just wanted to see the pictures she was taking.
I have come to believe that there is a world beyond this one, where every good thing is preserved and every bad thing healed and made well.
I suppose that someday, in that world beyond the butter-yellow firmament, I will meet a beautiful, happy, healthy person I don’t recognize at all. That person will say to me, “I’m so-and-so who used to live next door to you, on such-and-such a street, in LaBelle, in Steubenville, during some of the worst years of your life. I had a severe mental illness that made me hallucinate your husband’s face pressed against the window, and made me think that everyone was out to get me and that most of the women on the block were abusing their children. At first I manipulated you into thinking the other neighbors were persecuting me, and then I turned on you and decided you were the cause of all the trouble. I spied on you. I harassed you. I tore up your vegetables you were growing to share with the hungry because I thought they were poison. I told my fantasies about you to the new neighbors so that they would hate and shun you. I told my fantasies about you to the judge you begged for a restraining order. I lied to the police to try to get you shot or arrested. I terrorized you until you had a breakdown, and you had to spend the weekend in a hotel.”
And I will say, “Oh yes, I remember you,” and then I’ll try to think of something polite to say, which I suppose will come easier there. Finally I will ask, “May I see the picture you took of the sun?”
And she will show me.
I don’t know that it will make everything all right. But I want to see that picture.
On the way back to the car, I reached up without thinking and touched the wounded hand of the statue of the risen Christ. The wound was wet– with rainwater and not with blood. But I made the Sign of the Cross anyway as if it was a miracle.
She was still in the yard when I got home, but I drove past her and parked, only a little crooked.
She didn’t say a word as I walked into my house.
And then it was night.