I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside. The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first. It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh…
It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust. It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth. it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit. It is the sound of eternal despair. Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.
This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.
I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.
There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging. He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs. I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on. I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name. After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names. This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.
I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…
A physical description of the pair would look something like this…
The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features. He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s. Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century. His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.
His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face. I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up. This, however, is not a short coming of her face. This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.
Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair. In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other. And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up. Something was strange. Something was wrong. Something somewhere was not right…
On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.
The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock. A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting. Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it. When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me. Hurry, hurry, hurry. The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.
The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery. I nod but he doesn’t move. I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond. Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant. I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…
He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better. He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there. How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings. My sister is watching me. My brother-in-law is watching me. My wife is watching me. This man is watching me. I do not know his name. I do not know his wife’s name. He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names. I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy. Secondly, there is a hedge separating us. I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart. I say, “Your… what!? What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.
How does one respond appropriately?
Why is this man telling me this? Who am I to him?
And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life. I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition. When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile. I say hi. I do nothing. I don’t do enough. But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else. I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes. I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.
My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes. The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street. They can’t hear anything. They don’t know. They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.
I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.
He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver. When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma. Two days ago she caught a cold. Night before last it got worse. I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill. Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing. She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea. When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died. I tried giving her CPR. I tried like hell. I called the paramedics. This was at 7:45 in the ay-em. They came and tried to revive her. They really did try their best. They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true. She was dead at 7:45. She died here. In our bed.”
And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit. I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not. I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all. I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him. I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact. I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…
I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief. It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.
He says, “We always thought I’d die first. I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years. I’m 57. We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46. She was healthy…”
The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives. I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.
He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from. He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”). He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go. He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of…
He shrugs, done with his story. Done talking. Done, maybe, with everything. I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.” He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny. What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.
He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.” I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me. I see your kids. Hug them. Enjoy every day. Because it will be taken away…”
And then he turns and walks up the driveway.
Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch. I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.
Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door. They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.
Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.
It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.