My Neighbor Has a Chainsaw

What I learned when I knocked on the front door of the house around the corner

Photo: Karrin Murphy/EyeEm/Getty Images

This is a story about how I met my neighbor. It happened on a Sunday in 2011. I had just bought the home of my dreams; an old house with hard wood floors in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

I spent that first hot summer in my new house mostly out of town. At the time I was unsettled, unmarried and without children. During the week, I worked. On the weekends I would flee to higher elevations. My boyfriend and most of my friends still lived 6,000 feet above me in the High Sierra.

One sunny day in September, I was on my way home from another weekend away. The drive down the western slope of the Sierras is long, hot and hectic. Three blocks from my house, I stopped at the gas station for an ice cream sundae. It is the perfect ending to my weekend. I feel contented, spontaneous and free.

When I pull up to my house, my mood instantly sours. Splayed across the front yard is a giant limb of the front yard’s biggest tree. Doom has befallen my new home.

I exit the car still holding the ice cream wrapper in my right hand and survey the scene.

The limb has ripped off a piece of my gutter and smashed the corner of my HVAC unit.

I don’t see any major damage, but it is hard to tell. A proper assessment is difficult. There is tree everywhere: branches, leaves. I take huge steps through the foliage, feeling a strange sense of intimacy as I place my hands on something that was once too high to touch. I think about birds. I feel the leaves.

Aside from the fallen limb, there is something else new in my yard: a yellow piece of paper, sticking out from underneath my front mat. It is a note.

Hi,

MARK WILLIAMS

(Right around the corner

5020 Flower St.

Big Brown Ford Truck)

Chainsaw ready to help! [smiley face]

Sorry Boot Your Tree!

MW

He has given me his phone number. I feel nervous. It is 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday and the weather looks threatening. I must get this tree cleaned up before I start my week.

I call Mark.

I introduce myself and mention the note. I ask if he knows how the limb fell. He tells me there was a windy storm over the weekend. I ask for the help he has offered in his note. He tells me he is feeding his parents, but he can help when he is done.

I change into work clothes. I choose a shirt that covers my tattoos in case this is something he cares about, which I deem likely. Then I sit on the couch and wait. Twice, I resist the urge to call my mom.

Mark drives his dirty brown pickup truck around the corner, from his house to mine. The first thing I notice as he approaches my yard is that he has a hairy back. Then, that he is bald. He chain smokes while we talk and is drinking an Arizona Green Tea. In his left earlobe is an earring, a small hoop. He reminds me of someone I know from London named Magic Steve.

After he introduces himself, I attempt to engage in some quick pleasantries. I learn right away that he is hard of hearing. He tells me he is legally deaf. I find that he prefers it when you really shout at him. After you say something, he cups his hand around his left ear in a specific gesture that communicates both that he didn’t hear you and could you please repeat yourself. No matter how loudly you say it the first time, he gives you that signal and you have to say it a second time, even louder.

Mark turns out to be a fast worker. He is dexterous with a chainsaw. He gives me a pair of clippers and tells me to break down the branches and start a pile.

He slices while I snip, haul, and pile. I want to show him that I can work so I move quickly. I do not stop, even though I’m prone to daydreaming and often move slowly, without method or technique. I channel my boyfriend’s work ethic and feel excessively proud of myself.

I bring Mark a glass of water. I feel very neighborly when I do this, like Mrs. Beaver. I put ice in Mark’s glass because despite the rain, it is hot.

We break down the whole fallen limb in one hour, then we rake the yard. Mark outdoes himself by producing a leaf blower to remove the sawdust from the walkways. The yard hasn’t looked this good since I moved in five months ago.

He leaves as abruptly as he came. His only payment is me screaming my gratitude at him as he drives back up the street.

A week after our encounter, I follow through with a plan I had devised as soon as Mark had left. I walk over to his address with three gifts: a loaf of freshly baked banana bread, a thank-you card that actually says the words “You turned my frown upside down” (I thought he would like that), and a white envelope with $50 inside.

His only payment is me screaming my gratitude as he drives back up the street.

His house is right around the corner from mine. The front door is open, so I knock on the screen.

An old woman answers. I smile and tell her why I have come. She smiles back and tells me her name is Isabelle. Mark is her son. Standing in the doorway, holding open the screen, she tells me that she is 88 years old and her husband is 87. She thinks I have given Mark the nicest gift he has ever received. She has a hard time remembering my name. She calls me Penelope, then invites me in. I accept.

She asks my name again but before I can answer she says, “Wait, don’t tell me! Just tell me the first letter.” I say the letter J. She recites the French alphabet and stops at the letter J. “I have to find the letter in French first. Ah, there it is. Your name is… Josephine?”

“Close,” I say.

“I was close!” she yells in earnest thrill.

I ask her if she speaks French. She tells me that she is from Peru. She was born there and considers herself Peruvian, but her mother moved her and her sister to Paris when she was five years old. She attended boarding school in England, where she learned proper English.

We sit inside her manicured living room and talk for a bit. She is very old and a little senile. She speaks French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. It makes me homesick.

She tells me that she lost her only daughter to a motorcycle accident when her daughter was just 19 years old. She tells me that Mark thinks of himself as worthless, even though he has many special talents. I tell her that I agree and that I think Mark is wonderful.

“Hello?” A voice calls from the back. It is her husband.

“Daddy, I have company. Do you want to join us in the living room?” She yells.

It is quiet. Silence is the response. I know men. I know this means that he does not want to join us in the living room. Isabelle and I understand each other. I stand up and tell her I need to return to my laundry.

“Yes,” she agrees. “You go to your laundry, and I’ll go to my husband.”

It has been eight years since my visit with Isabelle. Both she and her husband have passed away. After his parents’ death, Mark was unable to keep the house. He filled it with trash until he was evicted by the bank. The house was sold to an unmarried woman who plays violin. When I walk by the house at night, I can see her playing violin in the living room. She plays standing up, with sheet music on a tall stand.

After the eviction, Mark lived in his car, sometimes parking in front of my neighbor’s yard to use her internet.

Last fall, I finally had enough money to replace the gutters that had been damaged by the falling limb. The house bears no more reminders of the incident. But the tree still has a mark where the limb broke free, indicating loss.

I write about marriage, motherhood, existence, nature, and other invisible things. Visit me on Instagram.com/@jzkrebsbach. Read more on jzkrebsbach.com.

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