Editor's Note: The New Neighbors | March 2020 | Editor's Note | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Editor's Note: The New Neighbors | March 2020 

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It started with an innocuous comment. A pleasantry. The type of conversational trifle people drop like confetti from a 10th-story window onto a ticker tape parade. Here's what I said: "Mmmm. Whatever you're grilling sure smells delicious." I was walking past the driveway of my next-door neighbor's house, the dogs pulling me home, where their dinner awaited. Johnny was grilling at the far end of his driveway, 150 feet from me, the grill half-in and half-out of the garage. It was snowing.

Allow me to admit that I have a poor sense of smell. Stopping to smell the roses is an intimate affair for me—I need to get my schnoz right up in there to get any sort of rosy whiff. So, when I told Johnny that what he was cooking smelled "delicious," it was a lie. But it was a harmless white lie, like the ones Hope Hicks told when she was White House communications director. I was just trying to help my new neighbor feel at home, part of the neighborhood that I had suddenly appointed myself welcome wagon of.

Not that Johnny and his wife (an assumption; she could also be his girlfriend/partner/sister/cousin/live-in accountant) appeared to need any help from me to feel at home. They had moved in—lock, stock, and Weber grill—seemingly overnight. I met Johnny the next day, when he bound down his front steps and thrust his hand in mine with the self-assurance and confidence one always associates with other people.

He introduced himself as "Johnny." Real chummy. And he didn't seem harried at all from the normally exhausting moving-in process. He was as fresh as an (odorless) daisy. Johnny's broken-down boxes, smoothly creased, were piled neatly on his porch the day after he moved in.

(It should be noted that moving in to a new home is ranked seventh on the list of 10 Most Stressful Life Events, as measured by the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, behind such things as death of a spouse, marriage itself, and being incarcerated. Eighteen years after Lee Anne and I moved into our house, there is a large brown tarp covering most of our porch. (It hasn't been there the whole time, but the tarp has a well-worn look.) There's an assortment of items underneath it—from a leather chair to medical equipment to boxes of old books—needing to be dealt with. At some indeterminate point in the future, of course.

Not that I felt intimidated by Johnny or his moving-in superpower—just kind of in awe. For one thing, it's tough for me to be intimated by a man in uniformed shorts. (Johnny works for FedEx.) And it didn't feel like our new neighbors led more interesting lives than ours that in some way made our lives seem small, like in the story "Neighbors" by Raymond Carver.

Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow, leaving Bill to attend to his bookkeeping duties and Arlene occupied by secretarial chores. They talked about it sometimes, mostly in comparison with the lives of their neighbors, Harriet and Jim Stone. It seemed to the Millers that the Stones lived a fuller and brighter life. The Stones were always going out for dinner, or entertaining at home, or traveling about the country somewhere in connection with Jim's work.

Lee Anne and I lead full lives—we're going on vacation this month, in fact. But as we don't know Johnny and his wife/girlfriend/partner/sister/cousin/live-in accountant well, there's still time to find out that they're totally fabulous and Lee Anne and I have our jealousy to look forward to.

But back to the grill and the driveway and the throwaway comment that became a butterfly-flapping-its-wings-type moment. My remark elicited the following response: "Seemed like a good day to get out of the house and grill up some meat and roast some peppers," Johnny said. I paused thoughtfully, said "Sounds delightful," and stepped over the big brown tarp and into my house.

Twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. The dogs were not pleased. They made their trademark get-the-hell-off-my-porch series of barks. I was in the middle of cooking dinner. At the door was Johnny, holding a heaping plate of food, covered in tin foil. It was a mound of skirt steak, short ribs, Italian sausage, and roasted jalapeños over Spanish rice. It looked (and smelled!) delightful. "I made too much for us," Johnny said, cleverly not mentioning the woman he lives with by name or in any way helping to define their relationship. "I made you a plate. I hope you like meat." Johnny winked and handed me the plate.

As I had already lied about the delicious grill smell, it seemed too late to tell him we were vegans. Not because we are vegans. We're not—I had beef stew cooking on the stove. It was because food served by someone I barely know is a trust exercise I normally pay good money for, like in restaurants or for sushi delivery. I thanked Johnny profusely, told him to mind the tarp, and closed the door.

"Who was that?" Lee Anne shouted over the berserk ravings of the dogs.

"It was our new neighbor, Johnny," I said, and shouted at the dogs to let me through to the kitchen.

"What did he want?" Lee Anne yelled over the dogs barking.

"To give us food," I yelled back.

"Why?" Lee Anne asked, peaking her head into the kitchen.

"Because I lied to him," I said, turning off the beef stew I was cooking.

We ate the food. It turned out that Johnny is quite adept with the flames and the meats.

This has become a semi-regular thing. So much so that it has thrown off the normal rhythm of dinner in our household. Typically, dinner is determined by a phone call to Lee Anne as I'm leaving my office. This phone call is normally inconclusive, leading me to search for inspiration wandering the aisles at the grocery store. But once Johnny started randomly gifting us meals, the routine changed. Here's one encounter:

"Whaddya want for dinner, toots?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know," Lee Anne said. "How about some skirt steak, short ribs, and Italian sausage, with a roasted jalapeño and some Spanish rice?"

"That's extremely specific," I said.

"I have a fairly good idea of what I'll be eating tonight," Lee Anne said.

"Johnny came by, didn't he?" I asked.

"Yup," she said. "It smells delicious."

It's hard, but I'm learning to live with our new neighbors.

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