It was a typical dinner at the Bristoli’s house, Carl’s wife, Jessica, passing around the plate of carved meat and cheerfully recounting the day’s sales at the antiques store where she worked part time, his sixteen year old son grunting in response to asked questions, and his sullen daughter scowling at the meal choices, until his seventy eight year old mother-in-law who had moved in after her husband died, announced: “a colored family bought the house next door.” The remark silenced everyone.
“Hooray, we are being integrated; it’s about time,” the boy shouted.
“What color are they?” the girl asked sarcastically.
“Mom, they are not called colored anymore,” Jessica said.
If they’re not called colored why do they all belong to the NAACP, which I know stands for the National Association of Colored People? ” the old woman asked.
Carl looked at his wife and then toward his mother-in-law with a facial gesture of someone asking a dog owner to stop the animal’s barking.
“Well, I’m going to bake them a pie to welcome them when they move in,” Jessica declared.
The son chuckled; “make it blackberry.”
“Let’s end the discussion of our new neighbors,” Carl said. But his appeal was disregarded.
“I wonder what their name is, how many children they have?” Jessica asked.
Carl cringed, knowing the opening her innocent questions would create.
His mother-in-law chimed in first, “probably Jefferson or Washington; they’re all named that.”
“That’s because they were dragged out of Africa in chains and no one cared what they were called, Grandma,” answered the daughter, Grace—a name Carl and his wife had often wished they could retract as inaccurate.
Later that evening as they got ready for bed, Jessica called out from the bathroom, “that was some discussion at dinner about the house next door.”
“Yea, the most animated dialogue at the table in a long time,” Carl said sardonically.
His wife stepped out of the bathroom and said, “it could be a vignette on the perceptions across the generations.”
Carl looked at wife; stripped of make-up, in a short nightgown that flared out over thick thighs, she was still pretty in an unremarkable way, he thought. They were in their early thirties when they married, mid-thirties when their son was born. Grace was a surprise, as they often referred to their child until they considered that the appellation was upsetting to her—a synonym for unwanted in the girl’s mind, and perhaps the basis for her sourness. Jessica was, as she’d once overheard and repeated to him in a quivering voice, “an older mother,” attending school events with women who deferred to her, being seated next to grandparents at school luncheons. Carl, on the other hand, when alone with his children in public places, especially his pre-teen daughter, got sly smiles from younger men as if a wink to acknowledged that he’d impregnated a twenty-something.
“I think it will be nice to have a black family in the neighborhood. Is it black or African-American?” she asked.
“I don’t think it makes a difference. Just don’t be overfriendly right away. It may seem condescending.”
“I won’t be condescending, just extra welcoming. Some people in the development may not be as accepting.”
In the following week, a large Bekins truck pulled into the driveway next door. Jessica shouted to her husband from the window, “the new neighbors are here. They used a big moving company; that’s a good sign. Why don’t you go out and introduce yourself to the husband, he’s standing on the front lawn, watching them unload.”
“Remember what I said about overfriendliness; it gives the wrong impression, like we’re trying too hard.”
Carl watched the unloading from an upper window while Jessica peered through the blinds in the living room, scanning the furniture lifted from the truck as if calculating value.
Carl did meet his neighbor the next day as the man walked around the yard kicking at the bare sections of grass and yanking at invading weeds. That gesture endeared the neighbor to Carl, “a nut about the lawn,” as Jessica described. Carl walked over as the man continued his inspection and introducing himself, launched into a tutorial on lawn repair until he realized he hadn’t given the neighbor a chance to talk.
“Fred Bennett,” the tall, slender man offered.
“My mother-in-law will be glad,”
“I’m sorry,” Fred said quizzically.
They talked for a while and then toured together except for a moment when Carl ran back into the house to get a tape measurer, pad and pen to record their observations, noting location, width of bare dirt and circumference of weeds. Fred, an accountant, grinned admiringly at Carl’s detailed notes. Later Mrs. Bennett, Carlotta, came out with two large lemonades and handed a glass to each. After introductions, Carl and Carlotta laughed at the similarity of their names. When the procession ended, now involving all three, Carl invited the Bennetts to dinner for the next weekend. “It’ll be great; our son is your older daughter’s age and Grace, our youngest, is near in age to your other girl.”
The dinner went well, although Carl was a bit on edge, concerned that he would have to interrupt his mother-in-law in mid-statement of an inappropriate comment. Only once, and when Carl slipped into the kitchen to help Jessica, did she ask a question that he’d wished he could have deflected: “are you going to put a basketball net in your driveway?” But the dinner went well and the farewells ended in promises to do this again.
Carl and Jessica, invigorated by the activities of the night stayed awake until after midnight, and sitting in the living room with coffee, conversed.
“I’m really pleased,” Jessica said, “they are wonderful people, so nice in comparison to that unpleasant couple that lived there before. I think she, Carlotta—that’s so funny—and I really hit it off. She even asked for my pie recipe, I hope it wasn’t out of politeness.”
“You make good pie,” Carl said.
“I bet she’s ten years younger than me, it’s hard to tell; no sun damage, you know.”
“I saw that our son and their daughter were whispering, almost intimately,” Carl said.
“Well, four adults in the room, their parents in particular, and two kid sisters must have been fodder for their youthful ridicule. I bet that’s all it was.”
In the following weeks the neighbors met several times. The boy and neighbors’ girl were becoming close, coyly holding hands in backyard chairs and going to movies. Both Carl and Jessica noticed the evolving relationship; even the mother-in-law was aware and asked the boy at the dinner table if he liked “the Negro girl.”. The boy blushed and said nothing.
One Saturday afternoon, when the house was quiet, Jessica asked Carl about their son’s budding romance.
“They’re being secretive at school. I saw them walk out one day and they barely acknowledged each other as if they were only acquaintances, likely out of shyness. But when they become open, can they deal with the gossip? One day, they’ll probably be intimate; can our son handle his first sexual experience and an interracial relationship? You don’t think he’s drawn by the novelty of it?” she added as if a sudden realization.
“There are a lot of assumptions in what you said. All we can do is watch this play out. If a problem develops, I can discuss it with our neighbors.”
“You don’t want to appear to be discouraging them because of race. Or is that what you think?’
“No, it’s as you said, a lot for the boy to take on.”
In a park outing with the couple next door, Jessica mentioned the teenagers. “Our son and your daughter are such a cute couple. I wasn’t snooping, but I saw them kiss once.”
The two families talked about their teenage children in a feigned, no-big-deal tone.
“The wedding will be a real black tie affair,” Fred joked. Jessica tee-heed.
For a few weeks, on Thursdays, they instituted wish dinner, in which one of the foursome would relate a favorite food, and the other couple would have to make that item for all. Carl was pleased that Fred favored simple steaks and fish. One time, Jessica ignored the neighbors’ preferences and made chitlins and corn bread, which everyone, excluding the cook, ate hurriedly and swallowed gulps of wines. When they ended each night, the couples hugged. Once, in longer-than-usual embrace, Carl could feel the tips of Carlotta’s unbound breast through her sweatshirt and that night, he stared past the television forming images of her naked form—a brown, plump, voluptuous body with black hair above her thighs. Never having fanaticized about a woman he knew, Carl shook his head as if to dislodge the images that kept returning.
In the warm weather, Fred and Carl played golf at the public course. Claiming the he was rusty, Fred’s first drive was straight down the fairway; Carl drove his ball into the rough. By the fourth hole, competitiveness had crept into their game, and each watched where the other’s ball landed, mentally tallying the score. When Fred told Jessica about the golfing, he said that he was inspired by the gamesmanship and look forward to the next round.
“He’s a good guy,” Carl said
“I’m glad you two are getting along so well,” she said.
“I am too; he’s a good friend.”
In the first week of June the rain continued for two days, followed by a cloudless sky for the balance of the week—ideal conditions for the grass, Carl realized. On Saturday, he mowed the front and back yards. The grassy area in the rear of the house was separated by a fence, installed as part of the original construction; the front section was a square of sod and a common strip of grass between the houses. Carl was meticulous in turning the mover at clear points so that a line, straight as a surveyor’s measure, was drawn in the cut grass.
Carl lost his job. It was sudden but unsurprising; his company began laying off in late spring and by fall, had let go of half the staff. Jessica cried at the news and paced at night, counting all they’d have to give up if unemployment lasted long. The Friday after the firing, Carl and Jessica hosted a game of bridge with Fred and Carlotta. The table was arrayed with bowls of chips and various dips, and as the custom, the couples sat across from each other. The first hand had barely begun when Jessica tearfully announced, in violation of Carl’s previous appeal not to, that her husband had lost his job. Carlotta put her hand over Jessica and was getting up to hug her friend, but Jessica signaled her to sit.
Fred said,” we have openings in my company. Do you have a resume?”
“I’m still working on it,” Carl answered. Jessica looked at him with a surprised expression.
For most of the evening, the Bennetts offered solace, recounting stories of friends who’d lost jobs and rebounded, “many doing much better, and are happier, too,” Carlotta explained.
After they left, Jessica said, “I think they let us win.”
“You’re probably right,” Carl said.
“Why wouldn’t you give him your resume?”
Carl answered, “he works for a minority-owned business that provides software services to the Air Force base in the next county. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable there. It’s a different kind of business,” he added.
After a month, Jessica pushed Carl to take Fred Bennett up on his offer. When he did call, Fred was enthusiastic and asked Carl to email the resume to him and he would, “take it to Human Resources right away. Akira Roberts, the head of HR, is a good friend.” Carl was uneffected by the encouragement.
In a week he got a call for an interview at Fred’s company. The office was a single level building with a glass front and red brick walls. On entering, Carl walked toward the reception desk. An olive skin woman was talking in Spanish on the phone; turning, she waved a clip board and application blank at him and pointed to a pen on her desk. Carl shook his head and removed a ballpoint from an inner pocket of his jacket. Next to him, a young man with a head of cornrow braids looked at him and smiled, expressing more amusement than greeting. The interviewer, a young woman in blue suit, walking uncertainly in high heels, escorted Carl into her office and immediately launched into a series of questions. Looking around the room when she began to describe the company, he saw the current-year diploma from Howard University on the wall. The young woman promised to keep in mind, “should an appropriate position develop,” she said in non-committal phrasing.
“I have some hopeful things pending,” Carl responded.
It took a few months but Carl did find a job, and while the pay was slightly less and his office area a cubicle, he was content that he was employed. During the time of unemployment, he declined most invitations by the neighbors.
“I like them, but I can’t deal with ‘how it’s going’ questions and the sympathetic frowns.”
After Carl settled in his job, the pattern of get-together resumed. One Saturday afternoon, Fred invited Carl and Jessica for what he said, but wouldn’t elaborate, was a political discussion. When they came in the front door, Carlotta grabbed the couple by the elbow and directed them into the living room.
“Everyone,” Fred yelled over the chatter of the thirty or so people in the room, “these are the folks in the next house, Carl and Jessica Bristoli.” He turned to his neighbors, “we’re forming a group to help re-elect Obama. 2012 is coming fast.”
Carl looked around the room, noticing only one other white couple in the room.
“Fred,” Carl stammered, “I’m not a Democrat.”
Most in the room began to laugh. A tall man in the back by the window, called out between guffaws, “a token—“dragging out the phrase—“Republican.”
The men surrounded him, and joked of converting him.
When they left, Jessica said nothing, staring at Carl time for reaction.
In a few years, the Bennetts sadly announced that they were leaving; Fred had found a job, “one with more money, more responsibility.” In the remaining weeks, they increased their time together, until the day the neighbors, in a tearful farewell and with lengthy hugs, promising to stay in touch, drove away to another state. Carl’s son was sullen for a long time afterwards, but eventually settled for emailing the Bennett daughter often; they were planning to go to colleges further apart.
“I really miss them,” Jessica said stretching out the word really.
In another month, a couple pulled up into the driveway—the O’Briens, Carl had learned from the realtor—their red hair displaying their blatant Irishness. Carl, looking out the window, was relieved.
James Hanley is a a human resources professional who lives in Leonardtown, Maryland. He has had articles published in occupational journals, but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. He has had stories accepted by mainstream/literary periodicals: Center, MacGuffin, South Dakota, Concho River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Foliate Oak and others.