What Bob Taught Me


I think about Bob every New Year’s Day when I wake up, and at some point, after the cooking is done and the football games become tiresome, I look for the shears. Bob was the first neighbor I ever had. Notice, I say, the first neighbor I ever had. He wasn’t my parents’ neighbor, he wasn’t a family neighbor, he was my neighbor.

When I was approaching 30, I decided I had to find a way to get into a house. I wanted to stop renting, and I wanted to stop having roommates. I wanted to own a home, and I figured out a way to get into one. I found a small house in a friendly neighborhood. It had a patio with a backyard, a small front porch, a kitchen and living room with a cathedral ceiling, two bedrooms and 1 ¼ baths. Yes, a ¼ bathroom. I didn’t know what it was either, until I stepped into the master bedroom and saw a sink that was right outside the bathroom door. That ¼ bath meant I could brush my teeth while my guest was peeing. It did come in handy every once in a while.

I was able to afford the house for one reason: it shared a wall with a neighbor. It wasn’t a duplex, where one owner owns two halves, but was a half house. It was one structure, where the garages were right next to each other, and the master bedroom wall, was also my neighbor’s master bedroom wall. Therefore, my master bedroom wall was Bob’s master bedroom wall. The shared wall wasn’t as bad as it seems: the noises from one side to the other could barely be heard. The shared wall seemed to be designed not to carry noise. It was the backyard fence that was the problem.

Bob was old, Bob was opinionated, and Bob was tall. Bob had fought in World War II, although he didn’t talk about it. I only knew it because my father showed up one day and asked Bob how old he was, and told Bob that that made him old enough to have fought in World War II. Bob, agreed with that deduction, and indicated he’d fought, but didn’t indicate much more. It had to have been the only thing Bob didn’t talk about. I was hard pressed to find other topics he didn’t offer his opinion on. As it happened, his first opinion was that my cat should be kept in my back yard and should be kept from jumping the fence into his back yard. He reported that he thought he saw it pooping in his tomato garden. Bob loved his plants and his garden more than his neighbor and more than any animal.

Unlike subsequent cats, who I find myself a little less attached to, this one seemed special, so I took offense to Bob taking offense to my cat being in his yard. I had moved into the house and three days later, I adopted the cat. Not only was it my first house, with my first neighbor, this would be my first pet. I got to pick it out, I got to choose a name. It was all mine.

My mom came to visit to see the house and help me get set up. She also came to the pound with me to get the cat. We still talk about the trip to the pound. There was a tabby in the back that had been dropped off by a family and came with a name. Its name was Pickles, and it meowed affectionately when I walked by. I said, “I want this one, Pickles.” My mom saw another one, though. It was a pretty, little calico, and it had a nice purr, but didn’t do anything special. My mom reminded me, though, that I’d always said I wanted a calico, and this cat was a calico. “Yes, you’re right,” I said, and I took the cat. The cat came with a free check up from a vet and a two-week guarantee. If any medical condition was found, I could take the cat back and have my money refunded.

I promptly took the cat, who I’d christened “Taco”, to the vet for its check-up and to get it fixed. When I came to pick her up, the technician said, “Hold on,” I need to get the vet. The vet came out and told me that when he was doing the procedure, he’d noticed that the cat had a tumor, which he was pretty sure was cancer. He said he’d scooped it out, and he thought he’d gotten it all, but if I wanted to return the cat, I’d have every right to do so. “You’ll know for sure by Thanksgiving,” the vet said. “If the cat starts coughing, it was cancer and I didn’t get it all. If the cat’s not coughing by Thanksgiving, I got it all.”

This house, this neighbor and this cat were mine, all mine, and it seemed so scary all of a sudden. I didn’t take the cat back. It felt like it belonged to me, so I waited it out, watching for the cough to arrive before Thanksgiving. The cough never arrived and the cat survived many subsequent years.

This was the cat Bob complained about, and I took it personally. I didn’t grow up with fences, but I grew up with cats, and everyone knows that cats roam. You can’t keep a cat in one yard.

“Bob,” I said, “you have my permission to spray it with the hose.” He didn’t seem to like that solution much. As I say, Bob was tall. Bob, standing flat footed, could see over the fence and could talk to me anytime he saw me in the back yard. Bob could talk to me every time he saw me in the backyard. The house on the other side of me was two stories, and had a second story deck that came out from the master bedroom. Every time those neighbors were on their deck, they were looking down at me, and every time Bob was doing anything in his backyard, he was looking down at me. Everything I planted, he noticed (which meant, by default, he commented on), every friend I had in the backyard he saw, anytime I walked outside to check the weather, he was ready to report it to me before my senses could breathe it in.

He was retired, and he had all day, every day, to watch my house, to watch my cat, to watch my life. When I bought the house, everyone was concerned about noises through the shared wall, but it was nothing compared to the intrusions from that shared fence.

Bob had a wife, but I rarely ever saw her. She wasn’t nearly tall enough to make herself seen over the fence, and she wasn’t loud enough to be heard through the shared wall. She didn’t say much, and I can’t recall having one conversation with her.

Then, one day she died. There’d been a lot of people coming and going at the house, and after most of them had disappeared, Bob walked up to the fence and said, “I guess you know my wife died. We just put in the bench with her name on it at the park today.” She’d had a stroke several weeks earlier and never recovered. I said I didn’t know, and I was sorry. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went to the nursery and bought Bob a hibiscus plant in a container that he could plant in his yard. When I knocked on his door, I realized it was the first time I’d ever done so. Every conversation we’d ever had had occurred over the fence. He invited me in, and I sat and talked for a few minutes, in that kind of way that you do in an older person’s house. I tried looking at him, but found my eyes darting around looking at the décor, looking at the knick knack collections and trying to look into the master bedroom in order to see what the shared wall looked like from the other side.

Some weeks went by, and winter approached, so I wasn’t seeing Bob in the backyard as much. He finally poked his head over the fence on New Year’s Day. “Are you pruning your roses?” he said. Not only was this my first house, first neighbor, first cat, it was my first attempt at growing roses.

“No. Should I be?” I said. He held up a big set of loppers over the fence and a set of pruning shears. “Yes, New Year’s Day is when you prune the roses. Do you want me to show you how?”

I walked around to the fence gate, let myself in and joined him in the back yard, watching how he artfully cut away the tiny, scraggly branches and left behind several large, healthy stalks. One of the plants still had a couple good roses on it. Before he cut back the plant, he snipped one with the shears and gave it to me. “Here’s a Mr. Lincoln,” he said. It was one of the most beautiful, fragrant roses I’d ever seen.

I must have talked to Bob when I sold that house and moved out. I must have said goodbye, but I don’t recall it. My last recollection was running into him at a local pizza place one Saturday night. By then, I was dating the man who would become my husband, and Bob was there on a date, too. When I introduced my boyfriend, Bob said, “Oh yeah, I know him. I’ve been watching him around in the back yard.” Then he introduced us to a woman he was with, saying, “Here’s one of my new hens.” There are certain things people say that just stick in your mind, and that thing about “one my hens” has stuck with me over the years.

It hasn’t stuck with me the way the rose pruning has, though. I still head outside every year on New Year’s Day to cut back the rose bushes, and I still clip away the branches the way he taught me. If I’m lucky, I snip one or two last roses.

I don’t know what became of Bob, but when I do the math, I believe, like many who fought in World War II, it’s likely he’s not around anymore. I’m certain he’s no longer in the house we “shared.” I drove past several years ago after a dentist’s appointment. It was late February, and the roses still had not been pruned.

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