Today, Here & Now broadcast one of our favorite stories by Sean Hurley, in which he discovers more than he expected about his neighbors.
They are everywhere. We are surrounded by them. You are probably one yourself. Of the range of people you can know in the world, the neighbor occupies a curious spot. As Sean Hurley writes, here in New Hampshire we have our own special kind of neighbor...and sometimes, they have helicopters.
Where we live, on a dead-end dirt road in the White Mountains, the houselights of our neighbors are mostly out with the sun.
We have three sets of neighbors, older couples, their children grown and gone. It is mostly the men I see and whose lives I know a bit, divided though we are by a river, by trees, by a great horse field.
All through the summer, as early as possible, nearly every day and no matter what, Neighbor One mows his lawn.
Retired now, with five acres to tend, One prefers to chip away at the grass an hour or so a day. On Monday he slaloms the pines beside the river on a sit-down mower. On Tuesday, he jets across the horse field in a full size farm tractor.
At 6 am Neighbor Two heads off to work in a big bellied pick up, his left elbow locked in the open window. Sunglasses before sunup, great moustache like a black sheep on a cliff, his headlights scan our curtains as he turns down the road. He tiptoes his truck by us as quietly as he can. You hear more the tires crushing gravel than the grumble of engine. At the end of the day, if he sees me he’ll nod down over the wing of his elbow as though I am a boy, as though he is passing high above me in a plane.
Neighbor Three lives on the river as we do. Excavators, bulldozers, cherry pickers come and go on his land. He turns trees into neat cords of wood and streamlines the earth around his part of the river so it never floods.
It took years for me to discover that he was also a race car driver. Dirt tracks in the summer, ice ponds in the winter.
Often the people you live closest to you know the least. You take it slow with neighbors. While you’ve got all the time in the world, you don’t have all the space. So you get to know them over the course of years and from a horizon of impressions. And the piecemeal story you put together about who they are is never right and never ends.
Neighbor One, for example, stops mowing at 9 or 10. Exhausted, I suppose, he’s reached his limit. I imagine him spent behind a checkered tablecloth, sipping lemonade, getting ready for tomorrow’s rotten case of mildly tall grass.
But then I hear he is a gardener. A green thumb, it is said. And on the far side of his yard, tipped from my view, he’s brought up a stunning landscape. Rows of canoe paddle corn. Huge red tomatoes inflate over polished curls of squash.
The heart of his day is not lawn mowing, but a secret garden. There is no checkered tablecloth, no long lemonade ruminations. But this, I am learning, is what neighbors do best. Slowly, suddenly they are someone else.
The neighbor who lived in the house before Neighbor One told me the moment he was leaving that his favorite thing in the world was hunting for a kind of extra wily goat on frozen mountains. Maybe, I reasoned, he meant the fast hopping deer in the cold hills nearby? But in the very final moment we were neighbors, he dragged from his red barn the spectacular dragonfly of a helicopter.
Which is the thing about neighbors that’s easy to forget. It doesn’t happen often, but eventually there’s a racing car, suddenly a secret garden. It could even be the very last moment when the helicopter comes flying out the red barn. But you can only go so long and be so blind to something so fantastic, so close, so far away.