Since moving to this beach-side neighborhood of contractors, ice cream truck owners, recent immigrants, old-school Italians and good old-fashioned white trash, I’ve had access to much better writing material. It almost makes up for getting priced out of a gentrified neighborhood. Almost.
These squat, uninspired houses with the smallest windows I’ve ever seen range from neat, winterized seaside cottages to tumbledown dwellings with swayback roof lines and smelling of cat piss. The neighborhood comes alive with the sound of kids returning from school and staying outside to play. Occasionally a fire truck siren punctures the evening quiet to put out a mattress fire set by the kids or give emergency aid to a neighbor who suffers from a chronic lack of health insurance.
OK, so maybe the white trash label is pretty harsh. With my own lack of housekeeping skills and love of Cheez Whiz, I could be accused of it in certain circles. Still, I miss my old neighborhood, and often take solace on my second story porch, where I relax with a glass of wine, watch the sunset and imagine I’m above it all, if not socially or psychologically, at least, physically.
It was from this perch that I discovered Gloria, my next door neighbor. Gloria, whose very name when spoken in a Boston accent is a sound I hear only as music. Glaawwria, my blood-red, long-nailed, 300-pound goddess. Her long jet-black hair framing her mascara-ringed eyes. Gloria.
It started with over-the-railing conversations, her calling out questions from her yard, and me answering from my porch. She gushed over my 4-year-old son, Lucas, who she called Andy, my husband’s name. Then came that memorable day Gloria appeared in her thong bikini bathing suit. Sunning herself next to her pool, she was a vision of unselfconsciousness that is hard to come by in a society that shames us for having eggshell colored teeth and dull hair. I grabbed my pen; Gloria was my writing ticket. Just eccentric enough to be interesting, but not too annoying or noisy, she was a writer’s perfect neighbor.
One day I saw her and her husband emerge from their tidy cottage. She paused on the middle step.
“Saaandy ,” She dragged the first vowel sound out a beat or two.
“Hi Gloria,” I replied.
“ Sandy , you know my son.” It wasn’t really a question. I shrugged noncommittally. “You know, tall, dahk hay-uh.” The adjectives described pretty much every man in the neighborhood, but to please my muse, I played along.
“Well, if you evah see him around hee-ah when we’re not home, would you call the cops?”
Sidetracked by a statement I had not anticipated, I found myself on the verge of making a promise to call the police on someone I didn’t even know. I managed to sidestep the issue with another question.
“Is everything all right?”
Her face lit up. “Oh ahn’t you sweet? Isn’t she sweet?” she said to her husband, who tended to be quiet. “Oh, it’ll be all right after it all gets straightened out. So, will you call?”
I succumbed. “OK, Gloria.” And decided that I wouldn’t sit out on the porch again until I deemed enough time had passed for “It all to get straightened out.” As they continued down the stairs and headed for their car, it occurred to me that they might be going away, which would really put my promise to the test. So I called out,
“Are you going on vacation?”
“No, just dinnah. Bye!” She smiled her big, red-lipstick smile and waved at me as if she had just asked me to water her plants. I went straight to pad of paper and started writing.
Even as winter drove us indoors, Gloria managed to give me material. When the light bulbs in our outside lamp were all blown out, she called out when I came home from work.
“Sandy!” she poked her head out of the door.
“Hello Gloria, how are you?”
“ Sandy , your lights ah out. It’s very dahk ovah they-uh.”
“I just haven’t had a chance to get new light bulbs.”
“I know, you’re so busy. I can give you some light bulbs if you need them. You know you should be more careful. Someone could hide in the dahk when you’re coming home. Before you moved in some kids set your hallway on fire and David did a beautiful job fixing it.”
This soliloquy nearly moved me to tears by succinctly providing me all kinds of information, some of which I didn’t want to know, such as David, the previous owner, neglecting to tell me about the fire. It also told me that Gloria perhaps wasn’t so concerned about my well-being as she was her ability to see any gossip-worthy actions a fully working lamp would illuminate.
As the stories accumulated, I began to envision a whole book of Gloria essays, and then the PEN award I would win for the book, the movie deal – Gloria had such movie appeal! Yes, but it would take time. Gloria certainly didn’t give it away, but knowing I wouldn’t have the money to move anytime soon, it made staying longer a worthy goal. What a rich reward!
That summer, in the middle of my feverish scheming, the “For Sale” sign appeared in front of her house. I couldn’t believe it! My dear, sweet Glaawwria, leaving me just when I needed her most. I ran out onto the porch and called over the railing,
“Gloria, you’re moving?”
“Yeah, it’s time to retie-yuh.”
I didn’t point out that she and Paul didn’t look more than 50 to me. Instead I asked, “Where you going?”
“Oh, that’s nice. I’ve never been there.”
Summer gave way to fall, and still the house sat unsold. I relished the extension, but then learned that Gloria was running out of time. Her husband’s chronic illness had recently grown worse, and he couldn’t work. They needed to sell.
“We’re moving soon,” Gloria reported one day. “Maybe Friday.” In the same breath, she turned to some new neighbors and their children and said, “Any time you want to come and play in the yahd or use the pool, just come on ovah.”
A few days later, a small U-Haul appeared in front of their house. That night I heard loud voices outside. Gloria and Paul were arguing with a cop about access to their house. Gloria was wailing and saying she needed her medication. I pressed my nose against the window in sympathy. Yes, I said silently, the Muse needs her medication! The cop was firm and would not allow them access. He helped them with a few of their possessions that had been thrown out of the house, and then they all left, leaving the truck there. The next day when they returned, I went over to see them.
In their haste to sell their house, they let a local man convince them not to go to auction, but to sell the house to him instead. They handed over the key before he gave them their money and he turned around and locked them out of their own house. Then he called in his cop friends to make sure they didn’t try to break in. The man kept promising to bring the money for the house, but then didn’t show up. They were waiting for that money to go to Florida.
As we were standing in her yard, discussing the situation, Gloria suddenly asked.
“Sandy , can I ask you a fayvah? I’m so embarrassed.” I was so stricken and overwhelmed by her plight, I was ready to give her anything.
“Do you have $10 we could borrow, just until tomorrow? I hate to ask—“
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll be right back,” I said quickly bolting upstairs to get her money. I came back with a $10 bill and Lucas in tow, hoping to cheer her up. I couldn’t help feeling the woeful inadequacy of that sum to counter the wrongs she had suffered.
“Oh, thank you. We’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry about it, really,” I begged her.
“Would you let me bless your son? He’s so beautiful. Do you mind?” she asked.
As a recovering Catholic agnostic, I didn’t hesitate. “Please!”
Glaawwria laid her blood-red nails on his head and made the sign of the cross over him. He looked uncertainly at me, and I just smiled, so he kept quiet, unsure but trusting that at the very least it wouldn’t hurt. The three of us hugged tearfully, and Lucas and I went back upstairs.
As I wrestled with my conscience, balancing my need to do more for her against not wanting to insult her pride, I heard a knock. I opened the door and there she was.
“I hate to bawthah you again, but could you give us 10 more dollars? I hate to ahsk, but we need to get some food, and we’ll pay you back tomorrow, I swear-uh.”
I dug in my wallet and handed her a 20, and pleaded with her not worry about paying us back.
“Thank you. You’ve been so good to us,” she said. “Do you mind if I bless your house? It’s the only gift gawd gave me,” she said. I nodded and she drew a cross in the air with her nails flashing. Teary once again, I gave her a big hug and she was gone.
Now determined to do more, I talked with my husband. We decided we could afford to give them $150. When I got home from work, money in my pocket, the truck was gone. I was too late. I hung on to the money, hoping she’d return. The next day, no truck. Finally, on the third evening, they showed up. Spotting them from my window, I grabbed the money, stuffed it in an envelope and scribbled a note that told her she could pay the money back by giving it to someone else who might need it. I ran down the stairs.
“Here,” I said thrusting it in her hand. “This is a gift for you.” She took it, and started crying, her mascara running down her face.
“A gift! A gift!” is all she could say. Her husband was there too and they recounted the tale of their last few days, staying with Gloria’s mother and trying to get their money. Gloria grew angry as they talked about it.
“I’m sorry. I’m Sicilian and I just have to do this,” she said suddenly, as she turned her back to us and faced her former home. “I’m going to put a curse on this house!”
The nails flashed, her fingers motioned cryptically. Her mouthed moved with inaudible words. I stood in awe and with little fear. After more hugs and crying, they departed at last to Florida , where they assured us that they had an apartment and work waiting for them.
It is not wise to underestimate the power of Glaawwria, as the man who swindled her soon found out. Shortly after they left, he gutted their house in the hopes of making some easy money by turning their one-bedroom cottage into a two-family house on the tiny lot. This required a variance that previously was very easy to get. Except that just as he was demolishing their walls, the city had a change of heart. We received a letter from the city notifying us that they had turned down his request for a variance to build a two-family house.