A short story by LAURA SOLOMON
“Good fences make good neighbours.”
I bear this in mind as I high jump over the fence that separates Tony’s garden from mine. It’s a fence made of gingerbread, like something out of Hansel and Gretel. I knock on my neighbour’s front door. He’s new to the ‘hood, only moved in a few weeks ago. The doormat is made of interwoven strands of black licorice. The ‘flowers’ that bloom in the garden have marshmallow centres and barley sugars for petals. I break the stem of one and snack on it as I wait for Tony to open the door. I hear the tap-tap-tap of his cane upon the hallway floor. The door swings back on its hinge.
Tony used to be some kind of Hollywood big shot. Something in film… a producer or director… an actor or scriptwriter maybe. His hallway is lined with framed photographs of various starlets. They grin out at me as I stand in his hall. Their mouths are smiling but their eyes look dead. Tony had to give up his Hollywood career when he started having seizures. Nobody knew what the hell was wrong with him, but when the medical professionals finally got around to scanning his brain they found a tumour the size of a lemon in his right frontal lobe.
“It makes the nerves on the right hand side of my jaw go all numb,” he told me, bashing at the offending place on his face.
The doctors won’t operate until the tumour, which is currently indolent, starts getting aggressive.
“Some of these girls have had their lives invaded by the media”, he said, gesturing towards the portraits on the walls. “The line between private and public becomes blurred for them. It’s the same for the royals; Diana, Kate Middleton. They get shoved into the limelight; they’re expected to cope. Or Susan Boyle. You sometimes find the same thing with people who win lotto and become suddenly wealthy. Friends turn to enemies. You don’t know who to trust anymore. Nosey parker journalists come to their houses and go snipping through the rooms, looking for something to fill the tabloids with; dildos on the bed and so forth. It’s tragic really. They get what they think they wanted; wealth, fame, their dream man, their dream life. But it’s a house built on sand rather than solid rocks. Some emotional tsunami sweeps in and washes the whole thing away and they’re left with nothing. They find themselves surrounded by predators; people who just want to take from them, exploit them. They hook up with some Svengali or other. What goes up must come down. They die young; they choke on their own vomit while high on a blend of drink and drugs, they get in with a bad crowd, they don’t know how to say no. Their friends become envious of their success and start to bully them. Revenge sets in. Sweet turns to bitter. In other words – the wheels fall off, for some reason or another. Those who survive often become quite odd. Neurotic. Recluses, some of them, hiding from stalkers and fans both real and imaginary.”
It was a long speech. I tried not to drift off. After he had delivered it, the two of us retired to his swimming pool for a Pina Colada. I suppose he meant to lecture me on the perils, the pitfalls, of wealth and fame but it didn’t quite sink in.
The first time that I met Tony, the reception was extremely frosty. I had heard that a new neighbour was moving in, so I thought I had better introduce myself. I knocked on the front door of his house. He opened the door, wearing dark glasses.
“Oh hello,” he said, with icicles in his voice. “How can I help you?”
“I’m your new neighbour,” I said, with a smile.
He didn’t thaw.
“We’re friendly round here,” I said.
I handed him a banana cake I had baked for introductory purposes. He shoved it back into my arms.
I’m not much of anything myself. A nobody rather than a somebody. I used to be a painter of houses and I made a small amount of money at that. Then I did a Fine Arts course at the Polytech and became a painter of portraits. Locals in our small town would commission me to render them in oils. I got by. I could never save enough to buy my own house, but I managed. I guess you could call me an odd jobs man. Jack of all trades and all that. Master of none.
After that initial meeting, I went home and looked Tony up on Facebook. Added him as a friend. To my surprise, he accepted my friend request. We took to sending each other daily messages. Perking one another up when we got down. That sort of thing. Surely, everybody in the world has a friend like that. A pen pal, or an anonymous person to message. It’s a way of being close while keeping somebody at arm’s length. The faceless world of Facebook means that details can be shared online that would normally be kept secret.
I had a stroke in late 2011 and was rendered immobile for a number of months. I guess we had that in common; our disabilities. It was a glue that helped to bond us, though it wasn’t all that we talked about. Tony and I could blither on about a range of topics, from the pros and cons of social networking, to who the winner of the next X factor was going to be.
However, with Tony being my neighbour, it all got a bit odd. For instance, we would share some online secret from our past and then we would have to see each other out in the backyard the next day. For some reason or other, both of us would pretend that we didn’t have a Facebook relationship. Please don’t ask me to explain to you why we behaved like this. It was as if there was some unspoken agreement between us. There were our online selves and our real selves. It was a boundaries issue. A rope slung between the two of us. A big sign on the rope; no border crossings.
In the relationship between our real selves things progressed very slowly. Over the course of the next two or three months we gradually got to know each other. I don’t want you to think that we were homosexuals. There was nothing like that going on, although we were both bachelors. It was almost as if I had two identities, two selves; my online self and my real one. It wasn’t as though I had invented a different persona; it was more like I was trying on a different outfit – a new dress, an alternative wig. It was a form of experimentation. It wasn’t as if I had anything to hide. It was just that I felt more comfortable getting to know somebody virtually than I did meeting them in person.
Tony didn’t say much about his time in Hollywood. It was a black hole in his past. He didn’t want to delve into it. It was as if he was trying to invent a new self too. A new person to be. He was in the process of construction. Piecing himself together as if he were a jigsaw puzzle. We both had a public and a private self. So rather than one person meeting another, two people were meeting two others.
Tony loved being anonymous. He’d spent a large amount of his time creating films for other people to view. Now he just wanted to hide away. Keep out of the limelight. All the world’s a stage, as the bard would say. If that was the case, then Tony, whose work had once been centre stage, now liked being backstage. Out of the public eye. He’d had the big nervous breakdown that so many in showbiz suffer. He was happy with his life in the suburbs. His old life had been glamorous but superficial. Fame, sugary fame. Fame, capricious fame. He seemed contented. He’d never been a particularly ambitious person, he said. He’d done his fair share of booze and drugs. He now embodied homely virtues. A blazing log fire, a cup of steaming hot soup. Authenticity over artifice. The real over the virtual. He grew sick of always acting, always wearing a mask. This was the real him, he said. A nice guy, hanging out in the blurbs, playing a bit of baseball at the weekend. He got sick of being in charge, in a position of authority. It was too much responsibility. He was happy just sitting on the sidelines. An observer. One of life’s watchers.
Life in the twenty-first century had become so fake, so phoney. The world was swamped with crappy reality TV shows and their vapid guests. Oprah, Sally Jesse and others of their ilk. Dragon’s Den and the X-Factor. Public humiliation on a plate. Couples whingeing about each other’s faults in public, airing dirty laundry, never thinking to pay each other compliments. Tony hadn’t been involved with anything B-grade or trashy. He’d held his head high. Still, when I asked him if he’d maintained contact with any of his ‘girls’ he said he hadn’t. No connection. The cleverer ones had done a disappearing act and vanished into thin air. The dumber ones, the dopier ones, were dead.
As I got to know Tony better I realized that he had a big heart underneath his sometimes gruff exterior. I introduced him to my circle of friends and he fitted himself in. He acted in a mannerly fashion. He was polite without being sycophantic. Friendly, but not overly so.
We live in a small American town, like something out of Pleasantville. The women are all like Stepford wives, with their perfect bobs and their strings of pearls. They all look the same – well-groomed. Overly made-up. They are ever so compliant. The men play baseball and have cook-outs. I, myself, have been here for years. I was born and bred here.
I’d always led a quiet, small-town life, so I found the notion of Tony’s glamorous Hollywood lifestyle rather intriguing. I was in my mid-thirties. A shy, fragile person. Not quite, but nearly, a recluse. I lived in a sleep-out out the back of my parent’s house. I’d had a go at a ‘normal’ life in my twenties – I’d left home, moved into a flat, and taken a job as a secretary in a law firm. I’d had just one suitor; the mail boy, Jimmy. We’d gotten along like a flaming house for a number of weeks and then he dumped me unceremoniously over the phone. He didn’t even give me a reason. I was devastated. I struggled on for a few weeks and then it all became too much and I ran screaming back home to mother. The real world was a treacherous, dangerous place, full of wolves, gypsies, tramps and thieves. Setting out into it, I felt like Red Riding Hood heading out into the forest. A life of the mind was the one for me.
I existed in a fantasy world. I lived surrounded by books and DVDs. I preferred it that way. If I went a little stir crazy from time to time, so be it. When I say that Tony was my first real adult friend, I don’t want you to think of me as too much of a weirdo. I was out in the back garden, trimming the rose bushes, when first we met. Tony was mowing his lawn. Grass clippings blew away on the breeze. I moved on from the rose bushes and onto the box hedge, which I fashioned topiary-style into the shape of an ostrich.
Tony goes in for his neurosurgery today. He was over last night, came knocking on the door of the sleep-out. Tap-tap-tap. He was quaking with fear. Mum gave me a bottle of brandy last Christmas, so that I could be prepared for such occasions. I poured Tony a shot and he skulled it back.
“You’ll be alright”, I said. “Chin up, old thing.”
“How would you feel if somebody was planning to open up your skull and poke around?”
“Terrified. But you don’t have any choice. If you leave it in, it could turn malignant and then you’d be stuffed. You’ll just have to brace yourself for the surgery.”
He drank another snifter, took a cigar out of his pocket and lit it.
“Personally,” he said. “I can’t wait until the whole thing’s over and done with.”
Tony has returned from his operation. There’s a ring of stitches around the top of his head. He looks like one of Frankenstein’s creations.
“It went well,” he said. “I feel a bit exhausted but I’ll be alright.”
Three days later, he fell into a coma and then died. I missed him terribly. Life was awful lonely without him. Just me and my retired parents. He left me everything; his extensive music and book collection, his lawnmower, his photographs of the Hollywood starlets. SLQ