Won’t You Be My Neighbor? by Barbara Presnell

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (Courtesy Barbara Presnell)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Courtesy Barbara Presnell)

My neighbors have painted their outside window casings red. Blood red. I don’t mean blood red that has dried to a soft, fall-like burgundy. I mean blood red the minute it seeps out the body, bright and shining. It’s a sloppy job, spilling onto the house brick, dripping onto the sidewalk and grass below. It looks really, really bad. It looks godawful.

We’re ready for them to move out anyway. Three sons are always in trouble—not innocent trouble like smoking cigarettes and cursing around small children, but trouble like breaking and entering. Jail-time trouble, drop out of school trouble. This is a nice neighborhood, with white painted wood and red brick houses, with children who finish college and go on to become bankers, counselors, insurance agents.

A year or two ago, another neighbor painted her house green. Mossy green over the formerly white wood, the trim a deeper hunter green. Nobody liked it, to the point that everybody said, “She’s ruining the neighborhood.” You could drive by and see neighbors gathered in a semi-circle on the opposite sidewalk, looking at the house, shaking their heads. She was Italian, people said to explain it, and didn’t know our ways. A year later, the house looked great. She’d built her front gardens with lush multicolored trees, plants, and flowers. Her sidewalk was inviting. A fresco decorated the inside wall of the porch behind two chairs for sitting and sipping wine. These days the neighbors make a point to drive by when friends or family come to town.

“Isn’t she just so artistic?” they say.

It’s risky in a neighborhood of white houses and uber-successful children to get out the paint can and just go for it. A neighborhood is a reminder that there are two types of change—that which you do yourself and that which is done to you.

In both cases, life unsettles before it rights itself. Who knows what might happen next with neighbor # 1—a vigilante group with appropriate paint? A sheriff with an arrest warrant? Or maybe the passage of time, a fresh viewing, a willingness to think outside the neighborhood box?

Change. It plays games with us. It messes with our heads. It confuses our sense of space and place. It’s time’s evil little sister. More often than not, in the most valiant of fights, change wins, and sometimes we actually learn to like it.

Barbara Presnell
Barbara Presnell

Barbara Presnell’s poetry collection, Piece Work,which documents the textile industry in North Carolina through the voices of workers, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize and was published by CSU in 2007. Her newest collection, titled Blue Star, to be published by Press 53 in 2016, traces her family’s involvement in war from the Civil War to the present through military records, census reports, letters, journals, and photographs. Other poems from the collection have appeared in storySouth; War, Literature, and the Arts; Appalachian Journal; Chariton Review; and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. As a documentary poet and essayist, she writes often of social and cultural change, particularly in the South.

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