He is dying.
The man in the house at the end of the block.
It’s a horrible house to die in. Brown fake brick that looks like the gummed sheets we used to paste on our toy cardboard houses. Rickety, clangy front door. Chipped cement stoop. Huge ugly tree in the front yard, that blocks the sun and kills the grass. Extensions of its half-buried trunk splay out of the dirt like sleeping crocodiles. Large curls of dog dung lie between them.
He is dying, and I don’t even know his name. We don’t know names, on our street. It’s largely a street of transients, students and professors from the college just up the block. They smile at you—or don’t—as they hump along under their huge backpacks. Usually they’re frowning at their phones. Their real world, our real world, is centered in the school. Classes, papers, research. Where we ponder The Human Condition.
So we don’t know what goes on in the houses down the block.
Except that I’m sure this man is dying.
Because: When I first moved here, he was a tall, smoothly muscled guy, with thick white hair caught into a ponytail. He came out with his dogs—mongrels all, clearly rescues, and ugly. He had a quick light stride, the balls of his feet taking the mottled pavement like a dancer. He wore ripped jeans and plaid work shirts, sleeves rolled to the elbows, and below the cuff firm brown hairless forearms. The dogs were big and strong. He kept them easily under control. Spoke to them gently. Typical old hippie who didn’t seem to notice that time had moved.
Now he’s bent like a cicada shell. Uses a cane. Clatters his slow way out the door and down the short sidewalk to the reptilian tree where the current ugly dog, who’s pulling him so hard with the leash that he looks as if he’d fall down, lifts a leg high and squirts against the trunk. The luxuriant white hair is thinned and flattened against the back of his head, the ends of it in ragged points down his neck, as if he’s been lying on it. He speaks to the dog in a high thinned voice. He wears a bathrobe as thinned and flattened as his hair and his voice, and age-softened pajamas. His ankles are bony and pale above his slippers. Shakespeare got it right. The lean and slippered pantaloon. Only it’s not just the sixth age. It’s sickness.
I walk my own (small, cute, white, energetic, spoiled) dog down the street by his house early in the morning. A light always burns in the window on the left of the rickety front door, just behind the tree. Does he sit up all night, his head against a worn chair back, moving it side to side, easing misery, flattening the thin white hair?
One day I saw him crossing the street to his van. He carried a box—tool box, medicine holder?—against his side. Bent against the clattering cane he took a step with one leg, dragged the other leg up to meet it. One leg step, other leg drag. Step, drag. Step, drag. The street is narrow, but his way was long.
So what do I do about this dying man just down the street from me? This man whose name I don’t know, to whom I’ve never even spoken? Once he let his dogs shit in my yard and I spoke to them, not to him. They never came near my house again.
Love your neighbor, my tradition tells me. Who is my neighbor? the lawyer asked, and got gob-smacked with the story of the Good Samaritan. Somebody whose name you don’t know. Who wouldn’t even like you.
Today I thought: I’ll buy a plant, a nice colorful potted plant, and write out a card: All good wishes to you from your neighbor. And put in on his stoop one morning.
But then I thought: he’d probably trip over it, coming out with his dog. Or the dog might eat it and be sick in the house and he’d have to clean it up.
So I didn’t.
I’m just watching us die.
The man at the end of the block.
Ann Boaden lives along the Mississippi River where it twists briefly east and west between Illinois and Iowa. She became acquainted with Chicago while earning master’s and doctoral degrees from The University of Chicago. She returned to teach literature and creative writing at her undergraduate college, Augustana, in Rock Island, Illinois. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including South Dakota Review, Big Muddy, The Penwood Review, The Windhover, Sediments, Pietisten, Christmas on the Great Plains, SIMUL, Ginosko, Buffalo Carp, and Time of Singing, among others. She’s written or co-authored three YA novels, The Mystery of the Singing Mermaid (Weekly Reader), The Nine Days of Wonder (East Hall Press), and Fritiof’s Story (Augustana Historical Society Press).
This is Leslie Lindsay‘s second photo in ACM.