This morning I looked out the window and saw an ambulance, the sheriff and two emergency vehicles. I didn't see them take him away, but I soon learned Don was dead.
I moved here 12 years ago. Although the neighborhood was a little more bedraggled than I was used to, I liked its unpretentiousness, and the house felt like home the second I walked in the door. Exhausted from the death throes of my marriage, I wanted to live where no one was going to judge me if I didn't mow my lawn.
Don and Willard lived on the left side of the duplex across the street. Don spent most of his waking hours in an old lawn chair placed four feet outside their front door, smoking and drinking. He was often there at night, too - I would frequently awaken to the sound of violent coughing. Willard was friendly, with a flirtatious twinkle and the flat, slightly blurting way of speaking that indicates some kind of disability. That first summer, he came over and chatted me up every time I spent more than five minutes in the front yard. When Don thought Willard was stepping over the line of propriety with the new neighbor, he would intervene.
"Wil-lard," he'd growl, in the same tone your mother would use when you were about to do something you'd regret. It was effective; Willard would cheerfully bid me adieu and return to their side of the street.
Neither of them drove, so I'd offer them rides when I'd pass them on the road. If it was Don, I'd roll down all the windows as I approached. That way, when the tsunami of body odor, stale tobacco and alcohol hit, I could grip the steering wheel and know there was fresh air on the way. He was fastidious about buckling his seatbelt, so I'd wait patiently, holding my breath before accelerating. I didn't want to roll the windows down after he got in, in case he guessed the reason and became embarrassed.
The first winter, when the power went out, he knocked on my door and asked if we needed help. Don was so skinny he would have to stand in the same place twice to make a shadow. Even when sober, presuming that was ever technically the case, it was doubtful there was anything he could have done that I couldn't have done more successfully myself, with the exception of downing a case of Schlitz. But it was a kind gesture toward a single mother with two children, and I appreciated it. He was being a good neighbor, a manly and fatherly protector of women.
Last summer, he called excitedly to me when I was weeding.
"Hey Julie! Guess what?"
"What?" I responded, straightening up with my trowel.
"I won somethin' at Cozy's. It's beautiful!" he exclaimed, his voice filled with reverence. "Do you wanna see it?"
I said I did.
I'd never been inside, and I approached the threshold with some trepidation. Would there be moldy food? Cans of butts tipped over on the rug? Actually, it looked pretty much the way you would think an apartment shared by two aesthetically challenged, poor, middle aged guys would look - messy and dirty, sure, but nothing requiring a hazmat suit.
The revered object was on the television, and I moved to give it my full attention.
I can barely tell a Harley from a Schwinn, but it was a thing of beauty. It was metal, pewter maybe, about twelve inches long, mounted on a piece of wood. I couldn't name the parts of a motorcycle, but I am positive they were all there. I picked it up, and it was nice and heavy.
"That thing is worth $300 dollars!" he exclaimed, reminding me of my father, who also hails from a world where it is not considered in bad taste to announce the price of things with awe. A world where no one has ever possessed enough money for a plane ticket to anywhere.
"I told Willard right away, I'll never sell it," he continued.
"Never," he repeated, as if daring me to tell him he was crazy not to auction it off to the highest bidder.
"I never thought I'd own something like that," he said, shaking his head with wonder at his incredible fortune - the good fortune of someone who long since gave up expecting any. I said something that conveyed I understood.
"When I'm gone, Willard can have it as long as he promises never to sell it," he stated. "I already told him, and he promised."
He was so happy to have something of value to leave behind.
Soon after, he seemed to give up. He'd been in the hospital twice in the last year; the first time he was in a coma for 9 days. He was having trouble walking, and recently we'd looked out the front window to see him relieving himself on the lawn, barely able to rise from the chair enough to evade the pungent stream.
I don't know much about Don's life before alcohol took over. He was in the Service and sometimes referred to a time in Japan. Willard says he was briefly in Vietnam. I don't know when he began to drink or his history with women. I don't know how he was judged by those he'd once known.
It is likely many would say he was not a good man, but he was a man who was sometimes good. On many occasions, he was good to me.