As a child, we lived next to a jerk. Big John was a bear of a man with a mousy wife named Bessie and a little boy named Little John. Think of a man who had to bellow and berate to feel alive. Think of a mouse about five-foot-nothing and greying hair. Think of a little boy who was afraid all the time. Those were the neighbors.
Early on, John made enemies of us. He built a common fence without asking us or consulting on the design and then demanded that we pay 50%. My parents refused. A prodigious silence ensued between our families for the rest of our days in that house, which lasted another 17 years. We didn’t want to have anything to do with them. We felt they were below us.
To us kids, John was the grouchy man who lived next door. When my friends and I were playing in the backyard and the ball went over the fence, they would never throw it back over. Usually, balls would hit the wall of John’s back house and fall into a 2-foot-wide space between the wall and the back house. Over the years, a bunch of our balls collected back there. When I got a little older, I sometimes got brave. I would make sure John wasn’t looking, and then jump over the fence, quickly retrieve the ball, and then jump back over before their little dachshund could rush me in a frothing, barking frenzy, and shred my ankles and heels.
All through my childhood, though, John provided one special burden in my life: My bedroom window was right next to their kitchen window (in the photograph below, it’s the window on the right at the top). I could hear every single argument that they had in that room for years and years.
“Why do you walk around like that, son, you look like a queer!”
“Why is everybody in this house so useless all the time? Why do I have to do everything myself?”
But quoting individual lines doesn’t do it justice. When Big John’s bellowing erupted, it was a thunderstorm that raged and crackled and boomed over the span of an hour or two, sometimes all evening. I remember the word sonuvabitch being used a lot. Often, I sat in my bedroom and listened to its ugliness, curious about the drama that was unfolding but not wanting to be detected. There is a voyeuristic interest that arises, after all, when you are secretly privy to other people’s drama.
Looking back, though, I know that hearing such abuse is like secondhand smoke: You don’t have to be smoking it to be affected by it. First of all, it was unpleasant. There is something toxic about the sound of a man bellowing and berating those in his own family. Over a period of hours, it gave me headaches.
And secondly, my personality formed at least partly in reaction to that smoke. I remember making a pledge to myself during those arguments:
You will never be like Big John’s family.
Thank God I’ve fulfilled that promise to myself. I’ve had an aversion to drama, melodrama, and rage all my life. When the media talks about No-Drama Obama, that’s one of the best things they could say about him, in my book.
Once, a woman told me she got up in the morning and argued with her boyfriend for two hours, went to work, then argued with him for two hours in the evening before going to bed. It had been going that way for two years. I shrunk away from her like a hemophiliac from a knife convention.
There’s a certain kind of contentment that I’ve striven for in my life, even more than passion or achievement. It’s my version of a buzz. The contentment that I so crave is created by eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, not allowing myself to get overstressed, being with the right woman, and surrounding myself with the right people. Brown rice gives me that buzz. Riding my bicycle for over 45 minutes does, too. And so does Claire, whose positivity is contagious. Drama destroys it.
I still remember things about those Big John arguments. I remember sitting in my bedroom listening to the raging storm next door. I remember sticking my eye up to catch a glimpse, because I got curious what his raging face looked like. Sometimes, however, I got caught, although thankfully, there was no punishment for it.
I remember Little John being very quiet when he was young. But then when he became an adolescent, gaining height, girth, and testosterone, he became a second booming voice. He was no longer Little John; he had become a thunderstorm of his own. And I just can’t forget the face of that little tired mouse, tentative and fearful, with a look on her face that said, Oh my God, what have I done?
I often thought, How much longer can she last?
Astonishingly, in conducting an Internet search for this post, I discovered that Bessie died just last September at age 100. Thankfully, she outlived her husband John and married a second one. One can only hope that he was more loving than the first. My mother says that he died of cancer. After he was diagnosed, she says, they bought a house with a guarantee that if the owner dies before the mortgage is paid off, the debt is forgiven in full. He died six months later and they had no problem collecting.
And in that search, I found Bessie’s son Little John, too. He was arrested in June, 2012, on charges of public intoxication. I looked closely at the mugshot. I didn’t recognize him in those tired and reddened eyes, that wild, wet hair, and that downturned mouth. He looked like someone who’s damaged but doesn’t know he’s damaged. He looked like that famous arrest mug shot of Nick Nolte. I was amazed, but not surprised.