Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

 Porch Tale    

 

 

My Neighbor's Secret

By Wayne Scheer

 
 


A few days after I moved to Atlanta back in 1982, I came home from my new teaching job at Georgia State to find my grass mowed and a lanky white man in his sixties, wearing overalls and a straw hat, trimming my hedges.  "What are you doing?" I asked, not too politely.  My Chicago cynicism was showing.  Why would a white man be mowing the lawn of a single black woman?  He wants something, I thought.

He took off his hat, displaying the remnants of white hair combed straight across an otherwise bare scalp, and, I swear, he bowed at the waist.  Holding his hat to his chest while smiling a big, yellow-toothed grin, he said, in an accent as thick as the Atlanta humidity, "Ah'm Mr. Beasley, your neigh-bah."  He pointed to the neat little brick cottage next door with a beautiful bed of pink and white roses still in bloom although it was early September.  I felt a little more comfortable because I assumed Mrs. Beasley tended to the flowers.  "I hope you don't mind me fixin' up your place a bit.  Just my way of welcomin' you to the neighborhood."

I wasn't sure how to react.  Should I be thankful or was this a subtle Southern way of telling me I need to get my black behind in gear if I was going to live next to white people?  I decided to keep my cynicism in check and held out my hand.  "I'm Valerie Harris," I said.  "I was planning on getting to the yard this weekend."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mz. Harris."  He showed me his hands were dirty and didn't shake mine. 

I told him if he gave me a few minutes to change my clothes I'd help with the hedges, but he said he was about finished.  Then he added, "But I'd be appreciative of some iced tea if it's not too much of a bother."

"Of course," I said, not quite sure what to expect next.

I set up a pitcher of tea and cookies on my front porch and I noticed that he washed his hands from the outside spigot.  When I suggested he come inside and use my bathroom, he declined.  "This'll do right fine, Mz. Harris."

I told him to call me Valerie. He made no mention of his first name.

We sat on the porch for about half an hour and he talked nonstop, like a man unaccustomed to conversation.  He told me he was a bachelor and that he bought his house in 1956 when he was working at the Ford plant in nearby Hapeville.  He retired about ten years back, he said.  Soon I had a history of the neighborhood, including how "the colored folk" had started moving in but he didn't mind as long as they were neighborly.  I smiled to keep from saying something I might regret. 

We developed a friendship based on proximity, but there was always an awareness of separation.  Was it race, age, gender, or cultural differences that separated us?  I was never sure.  But he was a good neighbor and, in time, he became a friend as well.  Routinely, we'd sit on my front porch with a pitcher of tea and talk. We'd always start our conversations with the weather.  Often, he'd make the standard, "Hot enough for you?" comment, but he'd go on to tell fascinating stories of Atlanta in the old days and I'd tell him about my own past.  I told him about the man I was engaged to in Chicago and how he left me when he discovered I couldn't have children because of a botched abortion I had as a girl before abortions were legal.  Mr. Beasley was shocked and I could see he was uncomfortable, but he offered no judgment. 

Not that Mr. Beasley was a man to hold back his opinions.  About a year ago, a group of black teenagers walked past our houses playing their music loud and cursing even louder.  Mr. Beasley was in his rose garden.  He approached them, holding his shovel threateningly, and shouting, "Git away from my property, you niggers!"  The young men stopped dead in their tracks and I ran out between them, telling Mr. Beasley to put down his shovel and saying to the teenagers, "You need to walk away now.  Please."

They did so, much to my relief, but Mr. Beasley, instead of thanking me, kept using the "n" word. 

"I'm offended by that word, Mr. Beasley," I told him.  "Please don't use it in my presence."

He looked at me like I was a simple-minded child. "But you're not a nigger, Mz. Valerie."  I just stared at him, shaking my head.

I think I lived in the neighborhood for nearly five years before I heard anyone call him anything other than Mr. Beasley.  I knew his name because I received his mail by mistake one day and I saw it was addressed to Woodrow Carson Beasley.  But I was as shocked as I'd be hearing a dog say, "Good morning," when I heard his friend, a man his age who lived down the street, call him Carson.

Although his friend visited Mr. Beasley regularly, he never offered me more than a friendly wave.  I brought them iced tea one hot, sticky August afternoon. 

Mr. Beasley made a simple introduction. "Mz. Valerie, this is Mr. Waverly."  We engaged in small talk, but when I asked Mr. Waverly how long he and Mr. Beasley had been friends, conversation ended abruptly.  We finished our tea in awkward silence.  I never knew Mr. Waverly's first name, and still don't.

Mr. Beasley is now well into his eighties.  He's stooped over, probably from osteoporosis, but he still tends his roses and has added a beautiful autumn flowerbed of orange and yellow chrysanthemums running along the front of his house.  Mr. Waverley used to help him; the two old men would be out there daily raking and weeding in the kind of rhythm that can only come from years of friendship.  But the last time I saw Mr. Waverly he looked weak.

Yesterday, Mr. Beasley rang my doorbell and asked if he could talk with me.  It was a chilly October morning, so I asked him in realizing he had never been inside my house.  He stood at the door, his hat in his hands.

"I'm movin'," he said, before I could coax him inside or offer him a drink.  "Mr. Waverley's heart isn't good and we're movin' to a nursin' home."  Then he looked at me, his eyes red and puffy.  "We been together for near fifty years, although we could never live in the same house because of the talk.  I want to be with him at the end."

When my face registered shock, he looked away momentarily but then regained his composure saying, "I wanted you to know."

He thanked me for being his neighbor and his friend.  And for the first time since we met, he shook my hand.

I couldn't stand it any longer.  Tears filled my eyes and I reached out to hug him.  He felt so frail, I was afraid he'd break in two.  His body shook.  I knew he was crying.

But he pulled away quickly.  Standing as straight as his twisted back would allow, he said, "Thank you for
your kindness, Mz. Valerie.  And he turned and walked slowly back to his house.

After teaching writing and literature for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer recently retired to follow his own advice and write.  Some of his stories and essays have appeared in Flashquake, Literary Potpourri, Blue Magnoloia, Dead Mule, Quintessence, E2K and The Fiction Warehouse.  In 2002, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife, and can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.

 

2004, Wayne Scheer, All Rights Reserved