The Gutter Garden and My Neighbor’s House
BY ALEXA PERLMUTTER
National Cathedral School, ’17
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
My mom once told me, as we were pulling out of our driveway, that if your gutter sprouted plants, you were doing something wrong. She said this as she pointed to our neighbor’s roof, upon which were small pockets of vegetation. You must keep a clean roof gutter at all times, she relayed, or it will cave in to your house. Skeptically, I looked at the small plants, seriously doubting that they would be the cause of a total collapse, but then again, I knew nothing about gutter maintenance and roof repair. Look at our roof, she continued, nothing growing up there, probably clean enough to eat off of! I looked at her, skeptically again, as she marveled our spotless gutter. We sped away. That, I think, was the first time that I really bothered to notice the state of our neighbor’s lives. A perspective first molded by my mother’s pride (and a bit of arrogance), I started to take note of the neighbors for the first time.
It wasn’t very hard. The left side of our house was less than four feet away from the right side of theirs, only separated by a poorly kept up stone path (theirs) and two large trashcans (ours), which we always made sure to close. I only had to look out the window of the living room to see the two boys scamper over the wooden picket fence to collect a ball tossed into our backyard. A glance outside the window in the den revealed what they were watching on TV, which was usually cartoons. There were a lot of cartoons, and when they finally decided to pause the monotonous marathon of SpongeBob (whose voice, if the volume was turned up enough, floated through two layers of double-panes into our house) and turn on the news, it was always FOX, never NBC.
It’s a little odd, if you really think about it, that we live in such close quarters with people who barely greet you with a weak smile as you both struggle to unlock your respective front doors with three bags of groceries in your arms. (Ours: Wholefoods. Theirs: Safeway.) For example, frequent errors in the delivery of our mail have clued me into the types of magazines they read (National Geographic and People) and what insurance they have (Blue Cross), but I couldn’t tell you the names of the three kids, much less pick their faces out of a lineup. When we first moved in, friendly notes, a batch of cookies, and many thanks were exchanged. I was inquired by the mom about my previous babysitting experience, of which I replied that I had plenty (an innocent stretch of the truth, as I had never once thought about babysitting a child). And I was inquired by the dad about my basketball skills, to which I replied enthusiastically that I would love to play sometime (I’d actually rather die).
I didn’t physically come into contact with them a lot after that. We left early and returned late, while their lights were never on between the hours of 10 pm and 8 am. Sometimes we did cross paths, and I watched as the three kids in their plaid skits and polo shits flung open the back doors of the car and retreated into the house, followed by their tired parents who dutifully rolled up the windows, locked the doors and grabbed the three discarded backpacks. They often smiled at me sheepishly when this happened, as if to say, kids, you know how it is, probably forgetting that I technically still was one. Or maybe they thought that with all of my babysitting experience, I would understand on a deeper level. On the weekends, they liked to play basketball and Frisbee in the backyard and football and baseball in the front yard. The games usually ended with a ball on our property or in the street, and always with high pitched whining. These games were all observed from inside, my lesson learned after once almost intercepting a touchdown pass on my way to the car.
Two summers before I was to leave for college, the neighbors started construction on their house. It’s about time, my mother proclaimed when she saw the steady flow of workers trotting through the narrow gap between our property and theirs to get into the backyard. The two houses were exact mirrors of each other. As I never went inside theirs, I could only imagine how they creatively stored three young children in two tiny bedrooms.
It looked as if the plan was to knock out the back wall and expand into the backyard on both the top and bottom levels. Somehow, my mom caught wind of the fact that they would have to move out for a while when the wall was knocked out, but this information was never verified, and they never ended up relocating, even temporarily. But, the construction was never finished, so maybe they will, eventually. A month or so in, everything came to a standstill. The dumpster (which unfortunately had been parked right in front of our house for four weeks) was towed away one night, the workers stopped working and lounged about outside (which bothered my mother to no end), and eventually the men stopped coming at all. I assume the wall was never knocked down, but I didn’t have a direct view. The shifting around of some dirt piles, it seemed to me, was the only thing that took place that month.
I was embarrassed for them, because they never seemed to be bothered by the fact that orange cones, planks of wood, several shovels, and even a few barrels of hay littered the front of their house years after the project began. The only time I saw them even comment on the existence of the stuff was to remind their son (the younger one, I think) not to jump from hay bale to hay bale with no shoes on. Was it about money, or did they, all of the sudden, decide that they actually did have enough space for three growing children? Every so often either my mom or I would make a comment along the lines of, I wonder if that construction’s ever gonna start back up again, or, I can’t believe that no one’s been back to clean that up.
Other than that, they kept their yard pretty tidy, until, one day, it just wasn’t. For as long as we had lived beside them, they stored their balls in a wicker basket on the front steps and kept their grass mowed to a short, acceptable length (though, that was usually through the use of our lawn mower). Two of their cars resided in the drive way, permanently, it seemed, because they were blocked in by the “ongoing” construction, and their third one was usually parked in front of the house.
But, soon, ivy began to creep up their outside walls until they were painted green and you had to look twice to see the remaining patches of visible red brick. The sprouts in their gutter grew into long vines that worried my mother to no end. Any day now, that roof will be gone, right down into the house. The roof never did collapse (at least not yet), but the neat basket of balls expanded messily to include cleats and shin guards, and eventually discarded socks that littered the small porch like bear bottles on a beach. And once the blade of our lawn mower became duller than a pair of kiddy scissors (from overuse, it seemed), their grass grew freely, enveloping the center path.
What started out as an exact mirror image of our house, turned into a strange industrial jungle, and even now, it confuses me greatly. I knew they were still there because the SpongeBob marathon continued almost every night, but from the outside it looked as if our neighbors may have well been on a long vacation, or possibly, rotting within.