He wears tats upon his thin frame and silver studs on his lips. His jeans fall inches below his gray Calvin underwear. The first day I spoke with him, he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He was standing in his driveway talking to his wife. She’s a pretty gal with stylish short hair, manicured hands and glossy red lips. She fits into this suburban neighborhood of ours, the one I call Trumanville because every house and family looks so much like the other one.
Except for theirs.
There has always been something not quite right about their place. Too many cars coming and going all hours of the night. The camper trailer in the backyard where the marijuana grows. The pit bull dog that ate the unsuspecting cat.
Sometimes the bright green car with the shiny chrome wheels is parked right on the front lawn, in full redneck fashion. Loud music thumps from unseen speakers. The curtains are always closed. No trespassing signs are posted on the fence and front porch post. A warning to the rest of Trumanville that the people in this house play by their own rules.
Kids live inside. Boys. High school and elementary. They are rarely outside the way the other kids in the neighborhood are, riding bikes, playing hoops, running to the Little Library.
Not long ago, early in the morning, police barricaded the street outside our front door. Using a megaphone they woke us up and told everyone to “Stay Inside.” Red and blue lights flashed. A police officer stood in the middle of the road. A Drug Enforcement team raided the house.
He told me they came through the door with baseball bats drawn.
They probably weren’t carrying baseball bats, but I got the idea.
I was never sure what they found there. The newspaper likely printed it, but I didn’t bother reading about it. They arrested him, but he was out not long afterwards. Having worked as a reporter, I knew the gig, knew that he wouldn’t likely be held long. Jails are underfunded around here. The Sheriff doesn’t want to run a lodge for the misdirected. Besides I knew he had a license to grow and sell that “medical” marijuana.
A time or two in the summers when I have been working on a book project, inside my house, in my office and the music was thumping so loud I couldn’t concentrate, I’ve asked if they would mind turning the music down, and they would do that.
So when I drove up the street this week and noticed the yard was a carpet of overgrown dandelions, I walked up to the pretty gal in the car and the tatted-up fellow and said, “Hey, I’m wondering, would you mind mowing your grass? These dandelions blow and get into everyone else’s yard.”
And he came undone. Started yelling at me about if the neighbors were going to hold meetings and call the police on him for being a nuisance then F-K it, he’d show us what a nuisance he could be. He ranted this way for a good five minutes. All the while I was thinking that Tim would have thought it ill-advised of me to have approached him in the first place. The one thing the police did find in their raid was a firearm. But I didn’t rant back, I simply listened.
Hey buddy, I said, finally, I don’t know anything about any meetings or about anyone calling and reporting you as a nuisance. I know I could have. We have a code enforcement officer for that sort of thing, but I just thought I’d come ask you, neighbor to neighbor, since it’s Easter and all, you know.
He hardly took a breath. Maybe you didn’t have anything to do with it, he said. But the rest of these neighbors did and now I am going to prison over it and …
I didn’t hear what else he said. I was trying to figure out why dandelions growing in the yard would equate to prison time, but I didn’t want to ask. He was obviously very distraught at the moment.
Well, I don’t know about all that, I said. I just thought I’d ask you to mow your yard, but it’s okay. No worries. Sorry I bothered you.
And I walked off.
When I told Tim about it later, he wasn’t happy with me. He hates it when I go about trying to fix other people’s problems. He worries that I am going to meet up with the wrong individual one of these days. There’s a bit of my lawman grandaddy in me, though. I just want people to do the right thing, and sometimes when they aren’t, I think it’s my duty, my obligation to help them see a better way. Tim would rather I keep to myself. MYOB.
Yesterday, the tatted-up neighbor stopped me in my driveway.
Hey, I just want to apologize, he said. I shouldn’t have come down on you the way I did. It wasn’t fair. I was wrong and I’m really sorry about that. His head hung low, the way Poe’s does whenever I tell him “Kennel.”
I walked to the end of the drive and said, No worries. I just thought I’d ask.
Then we had a long discussion, me standing next to the Little Library and him standing near the mailbox. He told me that he’s done some things wrong in the past, but he’s trying to come clean. He got addicted to pills for awhile, but he hasn’t taken them for 18 months. He’s enrolled in an online college program. He’s grew up hard, without parents to nurture him. He didn’t finish high school, didn’t always make good choices. But I’m trying now, he said. It’s just I have to deal with all this anxiety. I can’t sleep at nights. I can’t go out of my house during the day. It’s hard living like this.
I told him about my brother, the one who tried every drug on the street for years and years. How scared I’d been that he would die from it all. How he finally spent two years in a military prison and how that had been a good drug rehab program. How he’d finally gotten out, got his degree and was now a big-shot businessman in LA.
I’ve never been to prison, he said.
I could tell he didn’t want to go.
We talked some more and he told me things, troubling things, the kind of things you don’t usually tell neighbors in a driveway moment. And as he spoke, I kept thinking this is what life looks like for the person with no hope. The Baptist in me wanted to jump in and say, Can I pray for you? But the Methodist in me suggested that I show some restraint.
It can be hard to see Jesus when one gets all tangled up in the kudzu of religious fervor or the despair of daily living.
So you are a writer? he asked.
Yes, I said.
What kind of things do you write? I loaned him a couple of books – Where’s Your Jesus Now? and After the Flag has been Folded.
Risky choices, but perhaps if he reads them, he will see something of himself in the stories there. Sometimes such stories can impart hope and faith to others.
I told him that it had been difficult being the younger sister to the druggie brother. That I worried a lot about whether my brother would ever survive. That I might have ended up taking that same path myself had it not been for Rose Hill Baptist Church and the way those people loved me to Jesus. I didn’t use those exact words, but I did tell him that praying helped me a lot.
I pray, he said.
And I believe him.
I asked him about whether he had ever considered that maybe untreated depression was his problem and not all this other stuff. That sometimes when people are bi-polar or depressed they self-medicate to get through their days, when what they really need is the appropriate medical care. Growing up hard can leave a person anxious and depressed.
I suppose I could have told him that Jesus is Risen and that if he, too, would turn his life over to Christ, he could be a new man. But I didn’t. I simply said, Thank you for the apology. It shows me something about your heart and your character. I appreciate it.
I’m going to get that yard mowed, he said.
And we shook hands, the way good neighbors do.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? (Zondervan).