“Neighbors Now” by Caleb Guard

It was a month after they started telling us to stay at home. I had my two children out in our yard playing with plastic swords. The front and back yards both are in such a slope as to prevent much ground-level play, but it’s all they’ve ever known. The yard is also small, so they tend to wander across the neighbor’s yard to the drainage ditch at the edge of the road. I’ll sometimes play along, leaping with them across the ditch. I also have to monitor their play so they don’t wind up in the road, which runs at such a slope that cars can easily speed by the house.

But on this day in April, we were running along the grass beside the ditch when an older lady approached the street corner in a light blue dress and orange flip flops. I recognized her from one of the nearby houses, but couldn’t remember which. She stood still and waved at us to get our attention. The look on her face was a strained one. She was facing the sun, so maybe it was just her squinting. She might be a little nuts. That was my first thought, and afterward, I felt like it was safe for it to be my first thought. I didn’t know her name, and we were approaching a time when we felt ourselves and others beginning to slide into different slots of fearfulness against one another. So that first notion was that she might think that my children are dirty, covered in germs. She was going to tell us that they can’t go running around the neighborhood like gremlins. They need to stay inside. They could be infected. I prepared for a confrontation with a sad, ignorant woman.

I smiled politely as I walked over, that disarming, accommodating smile you’re trained to perform for strangers who may or may not want to bother you with a little problem. I said hi.

The woman pointed. Not at us but at our house. It’s the point of shame like you’re about to hear that your children were doing some uncouth activity, or they’d crossed a boundary somewhere.

“Your boys are always playing in the yard,” she said. “I notice they always come around this way and you go with them up the road.”
I raised my eyebrows, put more sunbeam into my smile. That look of “uh huh? And what’s this about?”

What I said was, “They can’t be still. They’ve got to explore.”

She turned to her house. Here comes the accusation.

“Well, your boys are more than welcome to come play in my yard. It’s all flat and we don’t use it for anything, except when my granddaughter comes.”

Twice I blinked, kept smiling, made sure I understood her.

“Oh, that’s very nice of you,” I said.

She went on about how it must be hard for them to play ball or anything on our slanting yard. We can use hers any time.

“I’m Katherine, by the way.”

“I’m Caleb. This is Noah and Levi.”

And like that, if we weren’t neighbors before, we are now. While the entire interaction itself was superbly normal for unpretentious people in the lower and middle-class suburbs, my defensive thoughts came out of a time of uncertainty. I immediately suspected Katherine of suspecting my children of bringing harm to the peace on our street.

A month later I was out in my father-in-law’s yard, mowing the damp grass of April on a day dry enough to take it on. The backyard is fenced in, but there’s a good stretch along the other side that is part of his property. His neighbor on that side approached with a squint in his eyes that could be from the sun coming at his face or from a concern I’m unaware of. He had his little girl in his arms. I pulled out my earbuds and killed the motor. I said hi.

He said, “Hey, I notice you sometimes mow over this direction.”

I nodded and shrugged. This is it, I told myself. I’ve finally embroiled myself in a border conflict. What should I say to this?

He continued. “I’m not even sure where the property line is, but I always use a riding mower. It wouldn’t be any trouble if you wanted me to mow this strip right here too.” He gestured along this whole side of the fence.

Quite the opposite of a turf war, he had offered to mind the fence just to save me a few minutes of time. I get paid to do that yard, and I didn’t want him to feel obliged by his own word when we’d only talked a couple times.

“That’s fine,” I told him. “It’s kind of you, though. I need the exercise, anyway.”

Even on my property I never really knew where the divide was on either side, but I always imagined this line between the power units and the line of trees at the top of the hill. Nobody ever challenged me on it, but I recall that a while back a neighbor made the same offer, again since I had a push mower and his was a rider. When you don’t know the person, a part of you prepares to mitigate some altercation. Afterward, you feel relieved, but also embarrassed. Why put up your guard when they’re only reaching out?

And of all the times that neighbor could have offered the help, why now?

The following month, a week into the protests over the killing of George Floyd, I’m in our driveway getting the boys out of the car and I decide to retrieve the trash bin and roll it back to the house. No sooner do I begin to stride downhill, at this point only ten yards from the mailbox, when I see a familiar face jogging up the road. He’s a tall, athletic black man in his early forties who I’ve seen dozens of times over the past decade or so, but only when he’s jogging. I spot him as soon as I turn my body toward the trash bin, and in a microsecond I calculate that both he and I will intersect at the trash bin at the same time. Now, in order for me to continue toward the trash bin, I find that my feet must continue downward at an unnecessarily quick speed, since the trip is downhill. Due to the heightened racial tension in the news playing like a reel on the back of my skull next to that sensitive area triggered all too easily into white guilt, I second-guess my movements, and nearly stumble, worried that my speedy approach will look to him like a move toward confrontation, and my body twists a third of the way to the side as if to fake him out and show him that I am not coming toward him. But in the microsecond following this, I assess that my assumption is stupid, that he has no reason to suspect me of suspecting him of doing anything other than jogging; that turning aside could just as easily communicate that I was going to go for the trash bin until I saw a black man coming toward me; that changing direction upon spotting signals, at best, that I am both avoiding an awkward proximity, at worst that I am avoiding someone I don’t want in my hood; and that it is better for me to continue to the trash bin as I had aimed to do all along. Realizing that he might have seen me stumble, I grin at my clumsiness and realize that all I had to do was wave as I walked. Wave like a friendly neighbor on my way to fetch the trash bin.

Why was that so hard?


Something is happening with the neighbors. I know this, not because I can prove that everyone’s thoughts right now are as overlapping and paranoid as mine, but because that tucked-away nervousness and yearning for comfort has to be as universal as it always was. We’re close enough in these suburbs that we see and wave to one another, but not so close that we have to say much of anything. We can be comfortable with how we go out to get the mail, walk our dog, fire up the hedge trimmers. Denizens trying to demonstrate normalcy in the one place we’re allowed to be ourselves, but remain visible. We are acting like stones afraid to even let our ripples collide. But not so much at home, or the boundaries of home.

That we don’t feel that we are really the next door over, but in adjacent compartments sharing only a block, is not new. Not even the longing is new. The tension meets the longing now like continents spotting one another from the shore. We look at one another as if to say, about a new artifact washing up on the sand, “this is new.”

When I sit outside in my yard and read of Thoreau’s experiment in social isolation out at Walden Pond, there are passages that make me think he would fit right in during a pandemic. His house had three chairs, and when anyone came to visit nobody felt like they came too close to one another. They could not afford the feel of one another’s breath. His “withdrawing room” was the pine wood behind his his house. I can see him today manufacturing his own rugged knockoff Adirondack chairs, spaced six feet apart, not for medical distancing, but for philosophical reverberation. After two years in a cabin, he wrote that people need “suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them.” The pioneer was no recluse. He had his visitors, and he went into town on occasion. It was only by distancing himself from his neighbors that he gained a renewed insight into what it was like to have them at all.

Meanwhile, eighty miles away, Emily Dickenson wrote “The soul seeks her own society” without ever leaving the house. She was no neighbor of Thoreau, though their worlds were so close in thought and spirit. They would have made great Zoom neighbors.

And that’s the serendipity we’ve come to crave and find some satiation in when we stumbled on the sudden necessity of web conferences. Like the Brady Bunch peering at one another from panel to panel, we find our people under the illusion that they are closer than they ever have been. In a room of three or more, nobody knows exactly when anyone is looking them in the eye, but we know they can. We can see into one another’s offices, kitchens, and bathrooms. We are as face-to-face as we can come. Shut up in our homes and blocked off in a room within a room. It feels like it’s supposed to be new, but only Twenty-first Century new, as if we all want to simultaneously mourn and celebrate the loss of neighborhood cohesion and the rise of social media platforms.

I’m thinking of strangers in elevators who say not a word as they must occupy the same metal trap of a room for half a minute, who feel compelled to make eye contact when there is a noise, who try to smile when the room continues moving as it should. And having neighbors now is like that, only in wide open spaces, with a box we can withdraw to whenever.


We’ve grown accustomed to our box. Or our side of a box. We’ve lived in the same duplex for twelve years, Carrie and I. It was our starting out place. We swore we wouldn’t turn out like the family with two kids on the other side who had been there a whole decade, whose shouting voices we could hear through the walls when the kids acted up. They moved out three years after we moved in. Then came Diane, the elderly woman who smoked on the back patio and watched us fall in love with our little one. She even drove back to town after she moved out just so she could stop by our house and see our one-year-old. Then came Carrie’s sister, Laura, who would practice LARP combat in the backyard. Now we have Sarah, who plays the piano at night and watches The Office at seven in the morning. She isn’t in good health, and she’s gone much of the time, so we’ve often wondered if one day we’ll have to call an ambulance.

In all this time there were those so adjacent to us that they shared a mirror world that never determined how close we really were. It was always our prior relation or mutual commonality that defined our social proximity. It was weird to have this wall and on the other side of it a person in a space matching ours in size and division, but not in content. In a world so digitally interconnected by beliefs, hobbies, and preferences, the people adjacent to us are merely that—adjacent. We have convinced ourselves for the most part that our most local fellow people happen to be there, unless we also spot them at an event outside of this segmented living space. The mirror worlds we prefer are in the windows we gaze through on our computers, televisions, and mobile devices. We prefer even the fictional, the scripted, the performed. And when we go outside, we perform, we script, we fictionalize.

From our living space, we’ve seen time pass forward and backward. In the house next to us lived a high school friend of mine, then her and her fiancé, then a newly wedded couple, then a couple with a toddler who keeps bringing their trash to the curb on the wrong day. It is as if the kind of house we occupy is supposed to be temporary, for a stage, and not to plant any roots. If our neighbors stayed put long enough, however, we would know them just as well. We’d wave hello and retreat back into our boxes. As for Carrie and I, our stages have blended together, all in one continuous lot, but the boxes around us have changed their contents. Given the mirror world of neighbors on the other side of our wall, neighbors whose tussles and cries and entertainments we sometimes heard, we often had to ask ourselves how much of our lives they had access to. Did they hear our fights? Our lovemaking? It’s no wonder we feel comfortable just shielding ourselves from adjacent people, filtering as much of ourselves as we can, as we’ve learned to do elsewhere. Having a duplex in a neighborhood of houses grants us the experience of both the suburbs and the apartment life. We share walls, and we share lawns, and either way we only know what people let us know.


It’s summer now, days when you’ve bottled everything in all winter and spring and have to be out, days when the rain or the torpid sun put you right back in. It’s toward the end of summer, between August and September, when we all kind of know that we should take advantage of the milder weather, and everyone comes out to play and walk and intersect. I follow my sons as they run to the puppy, who has stopped to sniff the tires on the vehicle of the guy up the street who drives the Siemens truck. The couple across from him walk their baby over. The dad has gages in his ear and the mom wears an amber necklace, and one time I saw them fight while he was fixing her car. This is all I know about these people, but we’ve suddenly formed an impromptu gathering. We will get to know the names of the children and the dogs, and forget all of it in a week or so.

For me it’s nostalgic. My parents used to have block parties and progressive dinners with the people in our neighborhood. After a family moved across town, they still included them in the tradition for years. We would attend neighborhood picnics in the park, ride our go cart down the street for a quaint, residential July Fourth parade. Yard sales were more frequent. Old ladies gathered in the driveway and put out their green lawn chairs. As a kid I’d hang out daily with my next door neighbor, Jamie, and at night we would sit under the street lamp between our houses and tell vampire stories until we were so shaken we had to sprint to our front door.

In another era, my dad’s childhood is replete with stories that he and other older folks could still tell if we sat and listened. Homespun stories like the time my dad hit a baseball through a neighbor’s basement window and the neighbor casually came over to talk with his dad about how he would earn enough money to pay for the window. He remembers when the fences first went up, and doesn’t know why they ever did go up. The trees came down to keep the fences up, and the fences got reinforced to keep the dogs in. What told everyone to dodge the Robert Frost irony and decide that they would render a service to one another by partitioning their open spaces?

We don’t have our parades any more. Block parties are out. The neighbor who didn’t care too much that his window was broken now complains that the guy across the street built a raised garden in his front lawn that makes the street look asymmetrical and wild. The dogs we used to walk are in the ground, all the new ones on leashes. The green lawn chairs are folded up.


I haven’t been in that pool for over two decades. Countless summer days we received the invitation to swim in our neighbor’s above ground pool. My mother babysat Jamie, and on the hottest days we were in that water. Jamie has been gone longer than I have, and though his parents rarely use the pool, they open it up every summer. Here we are in the middle of semi-quarantine, my brother has come to visit, we spend as much time as we can outside to reduce exposure, and Jamie’s parents come out on the back porch. I guess they had enough sympathy for us, our family all together with a limited itinerary, and we receive what may be the first invitation in years. We head over to the pool with three children in tow. Then it rains, and we head back.

We’d had our children up to see my parents since my oldest, Noah, was born eight years ago. He hasn’t been in their neighbor’s pool until now. I have a theory that it was the virus that moved them to set it up just for us. Before my time, and as a part of every time, harder times would shape the shared spaces around people. World Wars, protests, terrorist bombings, ravaging storms, and outbreaks tend to shake everyone’s faith in everyone else. But they can also create truer neighbors. I would have thought that having to stay away from people and cover my face would push human beings further away from their skins, bar us from getting close enough to see one another’s hot breath in the cool air. It has done that some. But it has also woken us up to how much we miss the interconnectedness we lost long before the pandemic. Crises tend to create saints out of Samaritans, and strangers are not so strange when they bear the same burden. We go outside and get in our cars without our masks on, knowing we will have them on when we see one another at the store. The pandemic has given us an excuse to reboot the neighborhood, if we so choose it. We are all the traveller on the horse and the sick man on the road, and we have to ask ourselves, “Who is my neighbor, anyway?” Through social technology we’ve come to learn how much in common we can have with people on the other side of the world. Maybe we’ve forgotten what we also have in common with the people on the other side of our walls and fences.

I have a whole worldview in common with a small group of people whom I still meet up with in a backyard in another neighborhood a mile away from mine. We try to sit far apart but our numbers are over capacity. I know none of the friend’s neighbors, but I have this trust that none of them are going to call the authorities about our gatherings. We sit and eat cucumbers from his garden. He is not adjacent to me, but he is close to me. Instead of giving up on hanging out, we adapted. This is the new block party, people coming together because living around one another is not enough.


Every time a new neighbor moves in, you want to go out and greet them, give them a warm welcome. But the longer you’ve lived here, and the more people you’ve seen come and go, the more awkward it would be for you, as if everyone else who’s hung around is lurking behind the shades, wondering why you never strolled on over to their place. Or they’re thumbing through the same excuses you have. Nobody wants to be bothered, after all. We’re just here to live. But our sense of place might be stimulated by an order to shelter in place. The awakening won’t happen immediately, but like invigorated cells it begins to grow on you. Those three words that come up again will detach and reattach as a call to a transcendent truth as palpable and atmospheric as being itself. Shelter in your place. Your shelter is in a place. Where you are placed, there make your shelter. Shelter. In. Place.

Something like what Thoreau was getting at, even when the closest neighbor he had was a drunk who he only came across once or twice before hearing that he’d died. If he’d had closer neighbors, he would have come across them as often as he walked, which was daily. At the end of a self-imposed exile, for the health of the mind, he sought human connection more than he’d wanted to break away from it in the first place. “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the first time to any full-blooded man that comes my way.” It will be some time even now before we feel ready to latch on with such vigor to the skin of a stranger, to shake a hand and say how-dee-doo within breathing distance.

The old man across the street from me, whose name I don’t know, always waddles with a cane to check his mail. We wave sometimes, and he has this frown on his face like he’s in pain. He hardly says a word, and neither do I, and the words are always about the weather, and the good day we hope it’ll be. Is that all we need? I want to head over, just once, to ask him how he is, find out what kind of pain he carries, let him know I carry my own. It takes a kind of hardihood against awkwardness, the same kind it takes some of us to walk into a store with a cover over our face and not have to worry about getting stared at.

The people on whose street I co-dwell don’t know me at all, even after a decade with some of them. But I sit on my front steps and wonder if they are wondering the same, that instead of forever fearing human contact after one pandemic, we’re ready to give it an old-fashioned try. A strange time when adjacent strangers could restore my faith in humanity when I can no longer touch my friends and family at a whim. People as next to me as is comfortable, willing to put forth the effort to join hands across the stitches of our space. Neighbors now.

author headshot is submitted in Permission to Publish

The author’s biography goes here. Authors have submitted short bios in the Permission to Publish form. Please copy from there in order to have the most correct draft. The text should be italicized once it is complete. Please highlight any links to social media or websites and make sure the links are active and will open in a separate window.