“You gotta move your car. That’s where my husband parks.”
“Oh, Hi. I’m Jeff, nice to meet you. We just moved in across the street and down and I had to move the car so that the truck could fit in.” She stared at him, saying nothing.
“Okay, then I guess I’ll move it up to the cross street?”
She eyed him another moment and turned and went back inside.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
That evening, Jeff was unloading boxes from the station wagon. A barrel-chested man in blue denim coveralls and a broad brimmed hat walked down the street and introduced himself to Jeff.
“Martin Johnson. Heard you met the wife.”
“I sort of did, yeah.”
“People on Afton Place are particular about their parking spots; Private road, and all that. I suppose no one told you about the drainage problem here at your end of the street?”
Mr. Johnson launched into a detailed history of the faulty drainage and run off system occurring in front of our driveway dating back to his wife’s arrival on Afton Place in 1967. The term “roving easement” was used many times. Jeff tried to follow along as he continued to unload the boxes.
“We’re just renters here, Mr. Johnson.”
“You should tell the landlord to get that pump going again or you’ll be looking at four feet of standing water in front of your house come the rains.”
For awhile our interaction with the Johnsons was limited to long stares from Mrs. Johnson as she stood on their porch with her crutches and an occasional monologue from Mr. Johnson about the easement and drainage problem to Jeff or me if we were in the front yard.
Christmas morning, we opened the front door to find a plate of cookies and loaves of sweet breads from some of the neighbors including a bag with hot chocolate and cookies in it from the Johnsons. In the afternoon we went down the block, from house to house, thanking people and wishing them a merry Christmas.
“That’s all from the wife,” said Mr. Johnson. “She’s crazy about the holidays.” She didn’t come to the door.
We had monthly potlucks and invited friends, relatives, and everyone on our street. Mr. Johnson was a regular. He always arrived first, about twenty minutes before the party began. I would put him to work, stacking napkins or emptying salad greens into a bowl. We would hang out and talk. I got to hear the low down on all the neighbors. He told me about his career in electrical engineering. I learned that his mother-in-law was born the year the titanic sank, and there was always something about the easement. He held court at our back patio table, telling guests the history of the street and drinking hot cups of sugared coffee. Mrs. Johnson never came over due to her “bad knees.”
One evening, it started raining hard. Mr. Johnson called and advised us to move our cars up the street for the night.”
“You can pull in front of Delores’ place. If you keep those cars in the driveway, they’ll flood when you pull into the street. The only way out will be by pontoon.”
When our neighbor Delores was in the hospital, Mr. Johnson took care of her five cats, all female. He explained that the cats ruled her house and were “living the life of Riley,” eating whole rotisserie chickens that Delores bought just for them. He complained that now he was taking care of seven ladies including the cats and his mother and mother-in-law. I often saw him sitting on the bench on his front porch, drinking coffee with one of the cats in his lap.
After Delores passed away, Mr. Johnson informed me that I would be taking one of her cats. I met him at Delores’ cluttered house and met Violet, that cat he had picked out for us.
“She’s an inside cat, so she should be easy to keep track of,” he said.
I had met most of Delores’ cats and I was sure we were getting the best one. I think Mr. Johnson thought so too.
Last year, Mr. Johnson started losing weight and complained of pain in his stomach. A few months later he was diagnosed with colon cancer. I drove him to his chemo appointments in the afternoons. Each time I waited in the driveway for him to come out the back door, I saw him kiss Mrs. Johnson goodbye.
“I’m getting so skinny, it hurts my bony ass just to sit down.”
“I wish I could give you some of mine, I have extra,” I said.
“It looks good on you, like that Pippy Middleton gal in England.”
As the treatment progressed and he grew weaker, we brought a wheel chair with us to the appointments. Mr. Johnson had a blue handicap placard to hang from the rearview mirror ensuring us the best parking. He referred to it as “the handi-crap.” After we left the medical building we headed straight to Soup Plantation. We cruised the steam tables and he picked out his lunch as we rolled through. We drank a lot of coffee. He brought chocolate chip cookies home for Mrs. Johnson. He always had a coupon.
Over time, Mr. Johnson’s condition worsened. One afternoon, we had plans to go to his internist. Mrs. Johnson called me to let me know that he wasn’t doing well but still wanted to go to his appointment. It had been a week since I’d seen him and as Mrs. Johnson ushered me into their bedroom, I wasn’t prepared for his sudden change in appearance. The big man looked small against the pillows he was propped up on, the life seemed to have been erased from his features. His breathing was shallow.
“Let’s go,” he whispered.
Mrs. Johnson pulled me aside.
“His pain is real bad. I found a loaded gun he put on his bed stand. You tell the doctor that.”
I held his hand as we drove to the doctor’s office, occasionally steadying him as he slid around in his seat. His eyes stayed closed. I told him that I was going to pull into the handicap space because it was closest, even though we had forgotten the placard.
“Not without the handi-crap,” he whispered. “Ticket’s three-fifty.”
I found a space near the entrance and left him in the car with the engine running and the air conditioning cranked up. I ran up the stairs to the office and told the receptionist that I needed a nurse to help with a transfer and that we were in a hurry and would need to be put in a room right away.
The nurse took Mr. Johnson’s vitals. The doctor came in and scanned his chart. We stepped into the hall.
“You’re his daughter?” the doctor asked.
“No, I’m his friend.”
“His blood pressure is so low that it’s not registering.”
I told him about Mr. Johnson’s rapid decline in the past week. I told him about the gun.
“It says on his chart that he has refused hospice care at his home. I would recommend it at this point so that he will have someone there to help manage the pain. See if you can get him to agree to it. Then take him back home and I will have the hospice nurse and the social worker meet you at the house.”
When we got back to the Johnson’s driveway, it was well over 90° outside. Mr. Johnson appeared to be unconscious. The hospice nurse hadn’t arrived yet. The station wagon’s fourteen-year old air conditioning system was failing and it was too hot to leave him in the car. I would be on my own to get him out of his seat and into the wheelchair.
I pulled his feet out onto the gravel. I placed his arms around my neck and heaved him awkwardly into the chair. He was balanced precariously at the seat’s edge. I stood behind the chair, one arm wrapped around his waist and pulled. He didn’t move. He was slipping towards the ground and he was taking me with him. I prayed out loud.
“Dear God, please, oh please Amen and everything please.”
Without opening his eyes, Mr. Johnson then stood up and shifted himself into the back of the seat.
“Thank you,” I prayed again. I stopped and wiped tears from my eyes.
I wheeled him into the house. The nurse arrived soon after and we moved him into the bed.
“Mr. Johnson, Anne is here. She’s a nurse and she’s going to help you with the pain. Don’t give her any problems.” I kissed him on the forehead and went out to meet the social worker.
Mr. Johnson died later that night. A few weeks later, Mrs. Johnson gave me his coffeemaker.
Last Sunday was the one-year anniversary of Mr. Johnson’s death. Jeff and Bob and Mrs. Johnson and I made the trip out to the cemetery for a visit. We didn’t bring flowers since, as Mrs. Johnson put it, “Martin wasn’t a flowery person.” We went out for lunch afterwards. I drank a lot of coffee.