The House Next Door: a diary
by Jeff Oaks
1/ March 13
Is today the day? The “developer” of the lot next door has parked two backhoes in it. They sit like two scorpions, bucket arms curled up, near the back of the lot, and the no parking signs are up along our half of the already crowded street. Nobody is going to get to park comfortably for a while, and it will be even worse on weekends.
Breathe, I say to my chest and mind. It will be all right eventually. Breathe in anxiety and breathe out peace. If anything happens, I can sue. Although the house is old, the basement is old, and I am afraid, no other equally old house or equally frightened neighbor has fallen apart because of the new construction in one of the empty lots. Some nice houses have been built, and some horrors, it’s true, but about taste, there’s not a whole lot to do. The plans make this one coming seem decent.
Breathe, I have to keep saying, as if I am my own respirator. I notice tightness of muscles everywhere. It can be hard to tell it from excitement sometimes but this own has much powerlessness in it. I will have to accept most of what comes the way I’ve had to accept changes already: the loss of the pear tree and the spruce that grew in that lot and sheltered birds. I will be penned in on one side now as I never have been. The noise will be obnoxious for at least a year.
I write to ameliorate my fear of change, which I have never loved. Even though I have lived through enormous changes which have been wonderful I still fear it. Does anyone love the threshold over which one has to pass if one is to act, to speak? Why is it that there is always an apocalypse at the ready in my mind and not the peaceable kingdom? This is test says the spiritual pilgrim I’ve installed in my head. (This is “only” a test, says the internal joker-voice, echoing the old tv “emergency broadcast system” we used to hear periodically.)
There was also supposed to be a snowstorm today, that same voice reminds. What fell so far? I look out onto our little street. Nothing.
2/ March 14
Shall I mention the cool precision of the man who runs the backhoe when I come home for lunch, the way he guides the bucket expertly in the alleyway between the two houses behind ours? He’s digging out a new waterline, I think. And despite the apparent clunkiness of the backhoe, he’s maneuvering it with such delicacy it surprises me. I think of metal and mechanical things as unsubtle tools of men, but as I watch quietly from the car before getting out with the dog and my bags, I can see the care the man inside the machine is exercising. The neck of the backhoe extends slowly and carefully between the houses where he has to dig like the neck of a goose nibbling grass.
What I expect, as I said, as I have to remind myself day after day, is always the worst of humans. I expect men who work with their hands or in some physical way to be rough, uncaring, nonverbal, insensitive to the emotional lives of others. Yesterday when I left the house with the dog, the contractors were just getting out of their oversized white truck. The guy from the passenger side was exactly what I expected: large and scowling. He looked at us without a word, though I smiled. When we walked around the front of the truck to get to my car, we encountered the driver of the truck, who was exactly the opposite. He said Good Morning loudly, and I smiled and said it back. I said I wasn’t sure anything was happening today because we’d expected snow and he laughed and said Yeah, we were surprised too. We both laughed. I got the dog inside the car and turned to the driver to ask about the work going on, so I had, I told him, some sense of what to expect. He told me in a voice that was neither irritated by having been asked or nervous about where I might be going with my question. He seemed genuinely human.
The result? I wasn’t panicked the whole day about what was going on.
Which is not to say that later in the day when I came home and saw one of the men running the backhoe so expertly, I felt happy to lose the lot to these strangers who didn’t know our little cluster of folks or feel the need to care about our emotional lives. But I did think: I can survive this.
That the dog wasn’t nervous about the sound of the work next door helped too. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I’d feared.
Then my house shuddered.
3/ March 16
But nothing happened. Nothing that I could see anyway. I looked out the front door and though the backhoe was close to the house, there was nothing I could see wrong or dented or marked.
It does occur to me that since the house is attached to the earth around it, I might be misjudging the sound of the house being hit and the sound of the earth around us moving. One I can sue over. The other I’m not so sure about.
I’ve begun looking over the walls on that side for new cracks. I put my palms on the big wall going upstairs the way I’d put my hand on the flank of a big horse: to steady myself against its presence.
At the same time, of course, the nation is actually shuddering. The Republican congress, with the new Narcissist-in-Chief is at work rearranging the American government, are today about to strip away the Arts, defund scientific research, and aid to the poor here and abroad.
Breathe, I say to my chest and mind. Breathe in anxiety and breathe out peace. If anything happens, I can sue. Although the house is old, the basement is old, and I am afraid, no other equally old house or equally frightened neighbor has fallen apart because of the new construction in one of the empty lots.
I say it again and again to my apocalyptic mind, and the nation is not likely to completely collapse either. I honestly don’t know what will happen, though, to the nation I hoped would be better than this by now. Some days I do feel as if a house has fallen on me. I have never won an NEA fellowship, but many of the literary journals I’ve published in seem to depend on that body for funding in large and small ways. Not that the Republicans care or think about the literary infrastructure. They can’t even seem to think about public infrastructure. Their transparency, their utter devotion to their corporate sponsors is abundantly apparent. They don’t care if the government falls; they have accounts elsewhere, expect windfalls from lobbying jobs. They will never be touched by hardship or emotional crisis.
They have replaced the weather in their inhumanity. I’m insured against the house falling over or a hurricane.