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The Neighbors

During the winters when I was a kid, my mother kept a broom just inside the front door. The neighbors’ cat, Muffin, liked to wait on the porch on cold mornings and spring herself inside the house when Mom opened the door to get the newspaper. Twice Muffin made it up two flights to the attic before my mother chased her out. Mom was a soft-spoken Catholic school children’s librarian, but she could turn vicious when called for. 


Every morning, Mom would pick up the broom, open the screen door an inch and push the straw bristles through, saying “Shoo! Shoo!” If the paper was close to the house, Mom would keep eyes on Muffin and jab the broom toward her with one hand while the other swiped blindly at the ground. Once she got a grip, she eased the paper in behind the broom, then did a slow-motion withdrawal of bristles to close the door.


If the Inquirer deliverer had done a half-hearted throw, Mom had to get her whole body onto the porch broom-first, shut the door, walk over to get the paper from the front yard and then re-enter the house. Muffin knew her own odds for success were doubled. My mother got more aggressive. She celebrated loudly every time she made it into the house catless. 


In warmer temperatures, Muffin preferred the outdoors. She was gray and beefy, all fluff, and she owned the block, hiding under front-lawn bushes and staring down any human who approached her sunning zone on the sidewalk. She crossed deliberately in front of cars in a slow-hipped walk, giving off the jaywalker power eye: I got the right of way. Try me.  


Muffin’s owners lived on the other side of our twin house. They had four kids who, like Muffin, had the run of the neighborhood. Andy, the youngest, was the smallest on our block, but cursed out teenagers and held court on his fun-sized bike. There was a tree in their backyard, and I watched one summer day as Andy sat up there with a handsaw, hacking at the branch he was sitting on.  


I had goals of my own. At nine years old, I kept eyes and ears to the ground as publisher and beat reporter of a hard-hitting local newspaper (circulation: 1). I spent most of my time on the headlines (Chromie Fever; What’s With Movies?) and completed one investigative report detailing recent street brawls (Fight! Fight! Fight!). We all knew everything that was going on in the neighborhood, because we had nothing else to do. Kids gathered to spy, climb chain-link fences between yards, sneak attack with Super Soakers, hustle money, ride bikes, and fistfight. I feel for today’s children who only participate in organized activities. There’s no dance camp that can compete with the thrill of throwing pennies on the train tracks and waiting for them to get flattened. If I wanted to pedal my sweet self to a vacant lot and sit on the gravel pretending to be Matilda moving things with her eyeballs, there was no virtual breadcrumb trail or sunscreened adult watching from a lawn chair to kill the vibe. Our mothers had no idea where we were, and we were free, baby, free! Riding bikes without helmets, chomping candy cigarettes, laughing our way into the sunset. 


Muffin parked herself in the outfield during street Wiffle ball games, and as she got older, she spent a lot of time in our driveway, leaving gifts of dead mice on the front porch. She started sleeping under cars on hot days, and Chrissy Byrne’s mom accidentally ran over her. It was a shame, but I think she was ready to go. The neighbors got another pet, a Rottweiler named Lucky. Visitors came to their house often, and Lucky barked around the clock. 


We knew not to get too chummy with Andy’s dad. One day after a fight, he walked out front and shot all the windows out of his wife’s parked car. Thinking about it now, I’m sure he was the one who ended up taking the car for repair, because he worked at an auto body shop. Joke’s on you


Lucky kept his bark up as the kids on the block grew, put away the Super Soakers and splintered off. When I was in high school, the neighbors got backyard chickens. I looked out our kitchen window onto the coop every night as I washed dinner dishes. I had always had a childhood fantasy of living on a farm. It wasn’t an exact match. 


I moved across the city for college. When I came home for Easter during my sophomore year, there was a floral wreath on the neighbors’ door spelling out Lucky’s name. My mom filled me in with a child’s animation: she loved being the first to tell. Police had raided the house the week prior, kicked in the door, and shot the dog. They didn’t find the drugs they were looking for, though. Poor Lucky. It was quiet next door except for the chickens squawking out back. We ate our ham and pineapple. 


A couple weeks later, I stopped by again for dinner. The neighbors’ house was boarded up, and the chickens had been taken away. “Marth, wait’ll you hear,” Mom said, excited. The feds had come back and this time they found everything. The meth lab was shut down. 


My mother put her palm in the air as if eager to give an answer in class. “I knew it,” she said proudly, squaring her shoulders under her t-shirt that read, in Google-style font, Librarian: The Original Search Engine. “I smelled something. Didn’t I say it, I smelled something? I heard him hammering. He was hiding stuff in the walls.”


It was unnerving to realize I’d underestimated my mother. I thought I had better street smarts than her. More importantly, had she always known more about what was going on than I thought she did? I still tried for years going forward to hide new tattoos or financially irresponsible decisions, but she always knew. There was no point trying to keep secrets. Worse, she’d scooped me. The biggest news in the neighborhood had been right under my nose and I’d missed it. 


A few weeks ago, she had a new one. “Marth, look,” she said, pulling out a newspaper article she’d saved. “Verree Pharmacy up the street, the guy got sentenced for pushing more Oxy than anywhere else in the country. Remember, you guys used to buy candy there?” She still loved that we were close to any action. 


Like she always does, she’d written across the top of the clipping in pen: The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2022. Just in case I got pulled over and the cop asked me to cite my sources. 

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