The Professor and his wife move to a retirement community and find themselves suffering the company of an obnoxious neighbour; by L. S. Sharrow.
"My wife," said the Professor - and the lady seemed to wait for him to add, The Little Missus - "my wife and I must have quiet neighbors."
"I understand," she said.
"She paints," the Professor said.
Now that we've weaned her off crayons, the lady seemed to infer, we've moved her on to tempera colors.
The Professor added that it was but a simple request. A one-bedroom affordable apartment, with the quietest of neighbors. The real estate lady nodded and stared blankly past him. We had a most serene life, he continued, we were the most considerate neighbors, the fewest visitors - it was a permanent vacation, honestly, to live next to us. We asked only for a quiet retirement community with a next door neighbor who was courteous, reserved, and above all, kept to him or herself.
"I've got just the neighbor and just the place!" the real estate lady said. Barrington Ratcliff, she said. A fine gentleman. He was African-American, but very light-skinned. I was so acutely meditating the choice of the phrase: "but very light-skinned," that several further items expelled from her mouth were lost to me; then, a new name crept onto the plate.
"He's been at The Friendly Haven Senior Apartments for many years now."
I endeavored to look as if I'd heard that The Friendly Haven Senior Apartments was just about the cat's meow. The Professor said nothing.
"The Friendly Haven Senior Apartments at 120 W. Cherry Orchard Lane," the real estate lady explained. "That's one of our loveliest retirement communities. It's in a lovely neighborhood. And, yes of course, it's integrated with some of our city's loveliest retired professionals - especially Barrington Ratcliff. Friendly Haven - wait till you see what the tenants say."
She opened her laptop and scrolled down the screen to letters of appreciation from tenants, and it seemed like the coming together of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah with former President George W. Bush's tribute to his dog, Barney. She slid her gaze along the screen - her yellow eyes shining, then glossing over, then softening as croaks of ecstasy emitted from her mouth. "Fresh-cut flowers in the lobby. Free tickets to Midwest Sinfonietta's Wednesday matinees. Christmas carols sung by The Friendly Haven Chorus. The resident choral director a former opera singer. Drama Club Thursday nights. And much more!"
While the Professor filled out the application, she smiled at me and sighed, speaking of the tree-lined streets outside our windows, with lovely, horse-drawn carriages clippety-clopping by in the evenings. And a view of the lake! She marveled at the peace and perfection that were to be ours - a perfect apartment, in a perfect retirement community, with a perfect, genteel bachelor neighbor: Barrington Ratcliff. "Although I can't say how long he'll continue living there; he's been engaged to someone for quite sometime. What's her name, anyway? Dorothea something? Dorothea Parker! That's it! She has a lovely condominium on North Lake Shore Drive. Who knows, he may just set the date." The apartment was the only vacancy in the building, she said, but congratulated the Professor on our good fortune because, if we wanted the place, it was ours.
The Professor and I looked at each other with hope in our eyes; then, he asked if we might see it.
The building rose twenty stories. Trees and Fall flowers dotted the circular driveway. Moving through the revolving doors, the scent of fresh-cut lilies perfumed the lobby, and the ping of the elevator bell notified us that we were to be lifted, as if by magic flying carpet, to the third floor. As we exited the elevator, the real estate lady said to the Professor: "I like to think of myself as a true friend to all residents of Friendly Haven." The true friend also mentioned that Federal law required her to remind us that she represented Metropolitan Sanctuaries Corporate Real Estate Management Company and did not represent us nor the tenants. The Professor nodded, while clearing his throat.
"If you haven't hit the jackpot!" the real estate lady said as she unlocked the front door and ushered us into a one bedroom apartment, with an alcove off the living room, and floor-to-ceiling windows which looked out onto a tiny smidgen of lakefront - half an inch wide and a mile away. "You just run along home, pack your things and get ready to move into paradise."
We drove home to our temporary digs with fantasies of our wonderful, new home and our quiet, genteel neighbor - though the Professor worried whether Barrington would be too reserved for the likes of us. After all, an occasional friendly conversation might be nice.
Anxious for our move-in date's arrival, we packed our things, and swept the Pinkney's place pristine, while twice a week, the Professor left for his Urban Studies class as new adjunct teacher at the local community college. I was left to prepare dinner. The Professor, being the gourmet cook, came home that first night to my spaghetti and meatballs and asked: "What are these dregs? Army slop?" So, the Professor went back to doing the cooking and we arranged our dinners late Tuesdays and Thursdays.
When the movers carried in the last boxes, an early November snowfall appeared outside our window, and no sound announced Barrington Ratcliff's arrival. He was simply standing there as we opened our door - checking our keys. He stood ladened with a covered casserole dish in thick oven mitts, and the smell of tomato sauce mingling, in the hallway, with his aftershave lotion. He wore a wool navy peacoat, over a red wool sweater and wool gabardine slacks; he looked like an advertisement for some high-end men's magazine. Topped with a stylish wool cap, he was tall and trim; designer-framed glasses magnified his huge hazel-flecked eyes.
He spoke to us as if his throat and nasal passages had been pinched shut. "Here is my 'welcome-wagon lasagna,'" he said, in what could remind the uninitiated of a British accent. "I'm Barrington Ratcliff and I'm here to welcome you."
He shifted sideways where I saw an extra pair of oven mitts hanging from his peacoat pocket. I pulled them out, slid them on, and he handed me the casserole. He removed his cap, and shoved it in his pocket, revealing thinning, grey hair, with a hint of a wave around his earlobes. The Professor and I thanked him, and brought the casserole into our kitchen, placing it on our counter. When we turned around, Barrington was standing amidst the packing crates.
He moved forward and said: "I want you to know that my welcome wagon is open to you while you settle in."
"I want you to know," he said, "that my welcome wagon is always open. When I told my friends about the cultured couple who were moving in next door, they all said, 'Barrington, of course, you should be surrounded by such neighbors.' You wouldn't believe the bi-polar, crazy woman who used to live in your apartment. She moved up to the eighth floor, thank God, but you wouldn't believe all the times she tried to get money out of me. Well, enough about her for now. I'll tell you all about her another time. My fiancé Dorothea Parker, who lives on North Lake Shore Drive, always says to me, 'Barrington,' she says, 'you have the nicest, most refined friends.' My fiancé Dorothea Parker has a lovely condominium facing the lake. I want you to meet her and see her lovely place. When I told her you folks were moving in, 'Oh, Barrington,' she said, 'am I ever going to see you now that you have such nice neighbors?' Dorothea and I have been engaged thirty years. There always seemed to be something that came up to keep her from marrying me. But, I promised I'd marry her the minute she set the date. And, I promised I'd come see her often, even while I'm your welcome wagon. Dorothea's parents named her after that nasty New Yorker Magazine writer, Dorothy Parker. She changed her name to Dorothea so she couldn't be confused with the original Dorothy Parker. Not that there's a chance of that. Dorothy Parker's been dead for decades. Seems my fiancé Dorothea's parents had a thing for left-wing causes. Thank God, Dorothea isn't like them."
"Well," the Professor said, "thank you for the casserole. My wife and I are rather -"
"I want us," Barrington said, "to get to know each other. I'm going to do my best to get to know you. Folks will tell you I'm the kind of neighbor you'd want to have. When my niece and two nephews come by, I want you to meet them. People can hardly believe I have a grown niece and two nephews. They say, 'Barrington, I can hardly believe it!' You're going to meet that niece of mine. She plays the violin for the Gold Coast Symphony Orchestra. People talk about my niece, Josephine. My fiancé Dorothea Parker, she said to me, 'Barrington,' she said, 'That niece of yours is something else. She could be taken for a white girl any day of the week.' That's what my fiancé Dorothea Parker says."
"Well, look," the Professor said, "we appreciate the casserole. We're rather tired -"
"Tired! Why, that bi-polar woman who used to live here gave me no rest," Barrington said, waving his wrist. "She'd be up all hours, blasting her music, playing her TV loud. I'd knock on her door and she'd apologize, but don't you know, the same thing would happen the next night. I finally had to go to the manager. She got all in a huff and moved to the eighth floor. Good riddance to her and her painted red hair! I was so relieved when the real estate lady - what's her name? I can never remember her name - informed me you fine folks were moving in. But, I wanted to tell you more about my niece. Now, my two nephews are light-skinned like me. But, my niece! My niece, Josephine! There's not a thousand people would dream she wasn't one hundred percent white. And, her husband looks like a movie star! My, he's so handsome. They bring their exterminating business to the finest middle-class and upper-class communities. They don't go to the Black side of town. I told them not to do it and they listen to Uncle Barrington. I have nothing against Blacks; I just don't care to mix with them. That's all."
I remember the last time someone said that to us was thirteen years ago at a truck stop, outside Jackson, Mississippi; we were on our honeymoon traveling to New Orleans. The Professor restrained himself with great effort that time.
"Look," the Professor said, "would you mind if we chatted another day? My wife and I want to settle in. We'd like to partake of your delicious-smelling lasagna."
"Well, I'm telling you," Barrington said, "I make the best lasagna. My welcome wagon is open to you as long as you need it. My fiancé Dorothea Parker says, 'Barrington, you are the best cook. I've never tasted any better cuisine than yours.' Now, you know what I'm going to do for you? Well, I'm going to write you out a list of all the cultured people living in the building. Then, I'm going to write you out another list of the low-class types and where their apartments are. Why, do you know, there's a mother and daughter who came here from the Housing Projects? Can you believe it? The owners are opening up thirty percent of the vacant apartments to Federally-subsidized low-income ghetto types. Why, do you know, they've even stopped putting out fresh-cut flowers in the lobby! Can you believe it? I've told my fiancé Dorothea Parker all about it and she says, 'Barrington, you just ignore those ghetto types,' she says, and that's just what I try to do. Not that it's easy: You can smell their greasy cooking the minute you get off the elevator. But, don't you worry, I'll just slip those lists under your door. When Granny owned her apartment building on South Shore Drive - sixty-four flats, and not little studio apartments, either, no - all her apartments had two and three bedrooms. Took up nearly half a city block. Well, she only rented to white professionals. That was back when South Shore was a lovely neighborhood - before the Blacks moved in and everybody else moved out. Not that she had anything against Blacks, she just preferred not renting to them. She kept a lovely apartment building! Then had to sell it for a dime on the dollar! Can you imagine! Granny would be shocked to see me wallowing with ghetto trash. Well, you enjoy that lasagna! I'll be right next door if you need me."
He pulled the oven mitts off my hands, flashed us a toothy smile and walked out our front door.
The Professor followed Barrington and I heard the bolt clang into place; then, he walked to the windows and stood staring at the snow falling on the tree-lined streets below.
I said: "You know, if we play our cards right, we might be able to find out who Barrington is engaged to."
"To whom Barrington is engaged," the Professor corrected, absentmindedly.
"You think he'll notice the Pinkneys when they get back from sabbatical?"
"Possibly," the Professor muttered, his hands clasped behind his back.
The following morning, as the Professor and I returned from grocery shopping, I heard Barrington's door scrape along his welcome mat and he stepped into the hallway, where I caught a whiff of his expensive cologne swirling around us. My thoughts traveled to that chic bordello the Professor and I passed while on our honeymoon. Handsome young men, of various hues, in white linen suits lingered in languid fashion in front of the lilac-laced windows, while widows and other older women of means, coiffed in blonde bouffant hairdos and draped in mink stoles, strolled through the front door.
"Well, I thought I heard you two leave earlier. I've got some hot cocoa warming on the stove, and I'm going to warm some homemade quiche lorraine for lunch. You're welcome to join me in my apartment. You know, I'll just go pour you both some nice hot cups of cocoa, right now. You wait right here."
The Professor put his grocery bags down on the carpet, unlocked our door, marched into our apartment and shut the door.
Barrington returned with two steaming hot cups. He handed me one, grabbed hold of the Professor's bags and followed me into the apartment. When he put the bags down, he handed me the other cup. The Professor was barricaded behind our bedroom door.
"Wait'll I tell you," Barrington said, waving his wrist. "Wait'll I tell you how many Housing Project Negroes are moving into the building. I've seen three! Three signing leases through the manager's office blinds since yesterday! My fiancé Dorothea Parker says, 'Barrington, you and I are going to have to get married so you can come live with me.' She's crazy about me. I should have married her years ago, but she always had family problems. I don't know if I want to move into her condo, though. But, with these ghetto types moving in, I don't know what Granny would say. She never rented to Negroes - which is what we used to call them. Now, they're called: 'African-Americans.'" Barrington raised his head and snorted. "Dorothea could pass for white, too, you know. When I worked as night manager at that hotel off Lake Shore Drive, the desk clerk would say to me, 'Barrington, that fiancé of yours could pass for white any day of the week.' Of course, she's not a girl anymore, not by a long shot. You know, she always says, 'Barrington,' she says, 'I -'"
The Professor opened the bedroom door. "Look, Barrington, could you -"
"I suppose it's not gentleman-like of me to talk about her not being young and pretty anymore. Don't get me wrong, she's still attractive. But, she'd never come live here with all these changes. What's that real estate agency lady's name? She promised me, when I moved in here five years ago, they'd never rent to all those Housing Projects people. Now, they've built new condominiums over there and nice young professionals are scooping them up. Of course, those condos aren't as nice as my fiancé's condominium. Nothing could compare to that location. I guess those low-class Housing Projects people have been living somewhere because now they're moving here!" Barrington raised his head and snorted again. "My fiancé Dorothea Parker, she said: 'Barrington,' she said - "
"Barrington," I said, not knowing if I'd have another chance at a complete sentence. "Can we have those nice slices of quiche lorraine, if you're not too busy? I'm getting quite hungry and it sounds so good. And, do you mind if we eat here?" I said, determined not to be trapped in his apartment.
"My quiche lorraine!" Barrington said. "Why, of course, I'll go warm up three slices right now in my microwave oven. I cook for my fiancé all the time and she just loves it!"
He turned and scuttled out, and I heard his own door slam shut behind him.
"It appears that toady real estate lady wasn't telling us the truth about there being no other vacant apartments," I said.
"I swear, if I hear that fiancé's name one more time -"
"Let's go for a nice long walk after lunch," I said.
"No really. I mean it. If I hear the name 'Dorothea Parker' one more time -"
"He's coming." I said. Seconds later, Barrington sauntered in, carrying an antique silver tray crowned with savory smelling slices of quiche on three small Wedgwood china plates. Through lunch, he spoke to us. It took him nearly two hours to finish his own slice. The Professor had asked Barrington what he did for a living before he retired, and learned never to ask another question again. Better to appear rude than to suffer through another two hours.
I have a blessed abundance of memory loss when it comes to Barrington Ratcliff and those winter months. The Professor spent much of his days at the community college. Barrington seemed to always be opening his door whenever I unlocked ours to go out. He seemed to always be there. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I don't think so.
During the second week after our move-in, I stretched and primed a canvas, set up my easel in the alcove and began work on a new painting, but the scratching sound of a lilac-scented note shoved under our door interrupted my plans. Barrington seemed to slither sideways past me and my opened front door, like a garter snake in the grass, and slid over to my easel where he oohed and aahed over my unfinished work. In frustration, once I had extricated him from our place, I scraped off all the paint, but couldn't work for the remainder of that day. I took to keeping the music low and not responding to the rattle of his knuckles nor his notes nor his lists.
In the evenings, when the Professor returned, Barrington would often open his door and trap him in another monologue. The Professor and I took to avoiding each other's eyes, while I doodled and he sat in his leather chair, thumbing through magazines. Barrington's fiancé Dorothea Parker never showed up and he never introduced us to his niece and nephews. We breathed a sigh of relief, however, when he told us his niece was having him for Christmas. But, when he returned after New Year's Day, we went back to keeping the music low. The wind and snow pounded our windows, while the community college was on holiday break. We thought our siege would never end.
But, it finally did end. I don't know what brought it on, and I prefer not to know. It happened around the time the Pinkneys came to dinner after their return from sabbatical. The Professor said to me afterwards that Barrington had made a comment. All I know is: I opened my bedroom door one early March morning and heard the Professor's voice upraised in the hallway.
He seemed to be giving Barrington specific instructions. "Shut up." His instructions continued. "You shut up! Now!"
Barrington's usually low voice was lifted in indignation, so I could hear almost every word he uttered. "That real estate agency lady said you were refined people," he said. "But, I can see now she was wrong about you and your wife. Granny and my fiancé Dorothea Parker on North Lake Shore Drive would be -"
The Professor abandoned all reserve. He gave Barrington further instructions. His instructions began by telling Barrington that he could take his goddamn Granny and his goddamn fiancé Dorothea Parker on goddamn North Lake Shore Drive and he could -
I opened the front door and saw him standing there with his head held high, his shoulders pulled back and his eyes staring straight into Barrington Ratcliff's astonished face. Neighbors along the corridor and the Housing Project refugees could hear his instructions; the horses clippety clopping outside our windows could hear his instructions and pulled their quivering ears flat; even the luxury condominium owners on North Lake Shore Drive could hear his instructions.
The real estate lady's promise had come true. We were to have everything we dreamed of. We didn't see Barrington again. Movers came the following Saturday and we were at peace in our perfect place. The Professor, once more, took to cooking his specialty spaghetti with meatballs, while I worked on my newest canvas. Vivaldi's Four Seasons played in its fullness from our CD player and the Professor hummed along, while stirring his homemade tomato sauce.
The evening of Barrington's move-out, we once more heard the scratching sound of a lilac-scented note shoved under our door. "You will know," the note said, "that in all my life, I have never been treated in such a rude fashion. I have decided that Friendly Haven is no longer the place for me. Your new neighbors may not be as nice as I am, and my fiancé Dorothea Parker says -"
But, somehow, I didn't read the rest of his final note. I crumbled it up, walked to our kitchen trash can and threw it away, and I never had to hear nor see Dorothea Parker's name again.