The latest in a series about what it’s like to be out and about in this small town in a rural county in the Midwest….
Our neighbors are four mentally disabled men. I’ll call them George, Ryan, Jimmy, and Chuck. The house is owned by a private organization and staffed around the clock by caregivers.
When we first looked at our house, the realtor announced that the previous owners had “no problems” with these neighbors.
To help assuage any imagined apprehension, she said “the worst” that had ever happened was one afternoon when a caregiver didn’t arrived for a shift to get the guys off their bus. They panicked and came running next door for help.
Until moving here, we’d always lived where you were lucky to get a decent, affordable place to live. Few questions were asked about neighbors. Looking back, I think we should have thought a little more about our block, if only because it’d be nice to have some younger kids close for Miles. But at the time, there wasn’t much else on the market that fit our primary criteria of affordability, proximity to my partner’s work, and non-pukey interiors.
Once we moved in, I started thinking more about what it meant to have mentally disabled neighbors. I had little information about the nature of each man’s disability and wondered how and if we’d interact. I wondered if they’d sense something different about us too.
Soon enough, small talk was made possible because we used our front porch almost as much as they use theirs.
George has almost no social capabilities. His expression never changes, and he sucks cigarettes like I imagine a crack addict sucking down crack. Ryan is boisterous and sometimes I hear him shouting happily, but with us, he says little. When I wave, though, he offers a quick flutter of his hand in return and says, “Hi neighbor.”
Jimmy is one of my Miles’s favorite people. This week, he told us he has to go to the hospital for a sleep test. He said, “You stop by and bring me a card, okay? With a dollar bill.” Since then he and Miles have been engaged in a very sweet daily exchange of drawings. Jimmy drew a picture of the Cleveland Indians’ pitcher for Miles; Miles colored a map of Wisconsin for Jimmy.
Arguably, Jimmy was the first one to take stock of us as a family unit. He’d ask, “Where’s the little girl?” I wasn’t sure if he thought Miles was a girl or if he was remembering the two girls who used to live in our house. I did my best to explain there was no girl but instead a little boy who is our son. Now if we’re on the porch without Miles, he hollers across the way, “Where’s your boy?”
Chuck, with his slicked back hair and long wallet chain, is my favorite. Whenever he sees me working outside, he comes outside and does his own work too—shoveling snow, taking out trash, etc. He gruffly shouts things like, “That’s a lot of snow! Pretty strong! Pretty strong!”
More often he’s surly. That’s when he sits on the floor of the porch instead of the chair. Out of sight from us, he smokes and rocks. He constantly hits his hand against his chin.
Once the others have retreated into the house, he unleashes a stream of staccato profanity. This is a many-times-daily activity. “Shout your fucking mouth! I’m sick of it! Shout your fucking mouth!” It goes on and on and sounds like he’s exorcising some serious anxiety and hostility. Which I kind of appreciate, even if it is involuntary.
About two months after moving in, I was near our bedroom window, which overlooks their porch, when I heard Chuck on another verbal bender. Lots of fucks and shits.
And then, “What do you mean they don’t like girls?!? What do you mean they don’t like girls!?!”
Had I really heard that? I leaned my ear against the screen. He sounded pretty pissed about it.
“What do you mean they don’t like girls?!?” Short pause. “What do you mean they don’t like girls?!?”
I hadn’t misheard. He said it and kept saying it for some time.
It’s hard not to read this as being about us. I imagined Chuck saying something about us to one of the caregivers and her making an attempt to explain our situation, but I can’t know for sure. Since then, I haven’t noticed any change in how Chuck interacts us with us.