A Death in the Neighborhood, an Essay by Susan Dickman

Susan Dickman | Essay

My neighbor, Renzo, lived next door to us on a street of old-growth trees, elms whose canopies met and touched in the middle of the street high above the modest Georgians, single-family homes on one side, two-flats on the other. Except for the sounds of children, whose numbers had bloomed twenty years before, faded, and were now beginning to climb again, or the occasional thud and thump of an errant car pulsing past on its way to a livelier neighborhood, the street was a quiet one-way, unburdened by the usual patterns of traffic.

Renzo was retired and lived alone. He worked part-time in a luggage store in a wealthy suburb north of Evanston and had attended college at the University of Michigan, where he hailed from and his heart resided, first generation in an Italian family with aunts who cooked huge family dinners and shared with him their marinara recipe. Michigan was where he returned for weekends in the summers and where cousins still lived in small towns scattered around Detroit and beyond. Chicagoans know Michigan well and migrate there in summers for white-sand beaches and quiet, forested rental cottages. There is a great deal to love about the region: u-pick blueberry patches, fruit-stands on every corner, gorgeous sunsets, and the dunes, huge hills of sand to climb and scout for fossils in before heading down to the lake whose waters are reminiscent of southern California, with its crashing waves and rip-tides.

Renzo would often disappear for days, then reappear, leaving Michigan peaches in a bowl on my doorstep, checking back to see that the squirrels hadn’t stolen them. He was in the habit of feeding squirrels from his steps and inviting them to his door, creating overly friendly rodents that combed the street waiting on other neighbors’ steps for months after he died. My son noted that in the years that we knew him, three generations of squirrels had come to Renzo’s door for peanuts.

Renzo had studied engineering at college, and aside from a few hours in the luggage store, he spent several more at the library, learning to use computers and marveling at the speed and capacity of the internet. When he wasn’t at work or the library, he was around town, down at the tennis courts near the lake watching a game or reading on a park bench. Sometimes I would spot him in among a crowd at the fire pits on July 4th or Labor Day, eating with the Vietnamese and Hispanic families whom he had no doubt charmed with his stories and who shared with him their barbecue. He seemed to make friends all over and was well liked on the block, even though he sometimes let his grass grow so high that another neighbor would send over a teenage son to cut it.

Renzo loved to talk and knew a little bit about everything. I often sat reading and watching my kids in the afternoon when Renzo arrived home in his blue Camaro with a license plate that read, “ITS MY Z86.” Slowly he would park, turn off the engine, and unfold his arthritic body from the driver’s seat, a newspaper tucked beneath one arm, and, seeing me on the steps, tell me something interesting he had just heard on the radio. He’d stand chatting, then disappear inside his house to emerge fifteen minutes later after having warmed up a can of tomato soup and eaten a sandwich. Then he would sit on his stoop or in one of my green plastic lawn chairs and resume talk about the day’s events, the news, or whatever was on his mind at the moment. He was interested in everything, and always seemed to have a number of projects going, such as woodworking. In the last year of his life he began carving the pits of fruit into intricate designs that he would string and distribute to the children on the block as necklaces. He had a special set of carving tools rolled up in a deerskin pouch, and often the neighborhood kids gathered around to watch him unsheathe them and work on the pits collected from mothers on the block. He liked to ruminate on the different qualities of woods he used for spoons he was crafting for young mothers he had met at libraries or parks. One afternoon, he presented me with a graceful olivewood knife.

The morning of September 11th, after the second plane had hit the second tower and the world had ceased to exist, I left my kids at the kitchen table—an extended breakfast with the children kept home because I couldn’t think about separating from them that morning—and stumbled outside into a bright blue day with sun-dappled light flooding on our quiet street. There I found Renzo standing outside his car, on his way to somewhere, the man who knew a bit about everything, fumbling for words as my eyes filled with tears.

Renzo had no children but had once been married; his ex-wife’s name was Emily, and the name took on near-mythic proportions when he said it, which was as often as he could fit it into conversation. I imagined a woman bookish and frail, mousy yet dressed prettily in florals. He never spoke about how long they had been together or why they had split-up—he never spoke a recriminating word against Emily—but his voice betrayed himself whenever he said her name. From his first mention of her, it was clear that she had lived with him on our street, in their house, but I had no idea how long ago that was.

Renzo kept the curtains drawn. He entered the house to eat and emerged to sit on the front steps, shutting the door behind him even in good weather. Sometimes I heard his telephone ring and he disappeared inside the house and returned a few minutes later with a story about an irritating task he had had to attend to or the latest from his sister, who lived in Phoenix. The sister, it seems, was trying to convince Renzo to move west. He hadn’t been out there in a few years—his blood pressure was high and his doctors had only recently convinced him to stop smoking and watch his salt intake—but he claimed to be considering the move once his health stabilized. He spoke glowingly of Arizona’s mountains and clear air and the year-round sun, which he hoped would dry up his perpetual cough. He spoke of the retirement community he was considering and of the visit he was planning to make out there as soon as he was able.

I was going through my own drama at the time, a separation from my husband. Renzo must have noticed how frequently I appeared alone with my children, my face drawn and unhappy, but he was socially inept—or gracious—enough to continue conversations he had begun and which I could barely partake of at times; we never spoke about the situation, though we greeted one another daily.

When my father suddenly died one first of July, Renzo left a politely written card on my steps and enquired later about how my mother was managing. A month and a half later, on the twenty-sixth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, my children and I returned from Saturday morning errands to find a pair of plain-clothed policemen at Renzo’s door. They approached and informed me that Renzo had died in his car of a massive heart attack. He was found outside at the local Steak ‘n Shake four blocks away, his car engine still running, his body slumped against the horn.

Within half an hour the policemen had busted open the front door and found the names and numbers of people to contact. The executor of Renzo’s estate, who lived in California, arrived the following day, tall and broad and well dressed, assuring me that Renzo had enjoyed a last, favorite meal before he died and probably never knew what hit him. And he informed me that there would be no funeral, that the body would be cremated. Emily would be arriving any day now from New York City.

The summer was beginning to wind down. By the second week of August in the Midwest, it’s as if a switch gets thrown. The quality and color of daylight changes, turning from white to gold-hued, almost cinematic. Cicadas begin winding up later in the day and wind-down earlier, until by the end of September, they are suddenly gone. Yellow jackets that emerged in July with a fury now move more slowly, nearly punch-drunk, and along with biting black flies, striped brown spiders appear in doorways to craft enormous webs. Crickets normally heard only late at night are audible in the grasses all day.

Emily arrived a few days after Renzo’s death, a slim woman in a sundress with a gracious smile and long flowing hair held back with a barrette. She was not nearly the shrinking violet in paisley I had imagined. She brought with her a friend named Mecca, or so the name sounded when she called to her in the street from the front door. Mecca in an ankle-length dress each day, red, black, purple and gold, or a simple powder blue. Black strappy sandals and thick black hair twisted and pulled into a knot at the top of her head and stabbed through with a lacquered chopstick. Mecca and a man in a sky-blue shirt and dress slacks, a slight wisp of a grey haired man holding a cigar. A man with a noble face, a distinguished look. Mecca and the man dropped by for a few hours each day, strolling in and out of the house as it emptied of Renzo’s possessions, or stood in the street, talking and smoking.

Emily, upon viewing the inside of the house, had hired a crew of red-shirted young laborers to do the clean-up job. Two city dumpsters arrived and began filling with ragged furniture and decrepit appliances, personal effects, miscellaneous boxes, trash bags packed with paper, bags of supermarket sacks, cans, bottles, and empty cereal boxes. Neighbors gathered and watched the house empty day after day. Renzo’s curtains and shades were pulled open for the first time in years, and the lights left on day and night, so the entire neighborhood was privy to the strips of old paint hanging from his bedroom ceiling and the water-stained living room walls. The sheer amount of garbage emerging from the house was astounding; bags of refuse continued to pile high, and a third dumpster was ordered. The young men and women hired to empty and clean worked for several days straight, taking breaks to eat Burger King lunches at the curbside, peeling off their blue gloves and smoking and talking quietly to each other in Spanish. They looked embarrassed to be stripping a dead man’s home of its many years of garbage for everyone to see, and when their breaks were over, grimly returned to the chaos of the house to continue the work. When most of the garbage had been cleared out, neighbors began entering the house to take tours, emerging stunned and giddy to report on grimy walls and the back entrance blocked by stacks of newspapers and boxes. You lived next door to him, they would say to me, and I knew what was coming next: didn’t you notice that he never took out his trash?

I never did see the inside of the house; I didn’t want to see how Renzo had lived. I knew him as a neighbor, an intellect, a man whom I suspected had not emotionally survived a divorce. He had provided me with book titles and Michigan peaches and conversation, was good to my children, and whittled necklaces for the kids on the block. I didn’t care to know anything more.

It took a full week for the cleaning crew to empty and scour the house. Days later it went on the market and sold quickly. The young couple who purchased it, a Yugoslavian who had been evacuated as a teen at the height of the war in the Balkans and who had worked in the Twin Towers on September 11th, along his Hungarian wife, who had arrived in the United States at the age of sixteen, had been married for only a few months. They arrived from New York with their unmanageable Doberman puppy and worked diligently to repair the house and make it habitable, grimacing with disgust as they told me horror stories over the backyard fence of the house’s many years of neglect. A year later, the house mainly restored, they, too, left, this time for sunny Scottsdale.

My children and I still think of the house as belonging to Renzo. The new neighbors, a young couple who had rented for years across the street, cut the lawn regularly and have planted flowers in the backyard. Their dogs frolic in the grass and they have friends over for barbecue and sit talking late into the night. Last year another neighbor died, a man who appeared everywhere in a track suit with his sick Dalmatian. Rosa, a long-standing resident of the block, was worried that he would die when his dog did, but the man went first. The ninety-one year old woman across the way, whose father built many of the houses on the block, still bowls regularly and attended the latest block party, where kids gleefully rode their bicycles up and down the street and the newly arrived Mexican family contributed fireworks, and even the neighbors who don’t get along competed side by side in the egg-toss.

“I miss Renzo,” my youngest child reported the night of the block party, and the other two chimed in with a list of others who have passed from their lives: their grandfather, a beloved cat, two tadpoles that never morphed into frogs, and their pet rat, Thistle. They might as well have added, and I miss you and Dad still being married, because Renzo’s death was just the beginning of their first extended season of loss.

Susan Dickman is a writer, visual artist, and teacher. A recipient of Illinois Arts Council awards, she publishes fiction, essay, and poetry and shows photographic and encaustic/cold wax artwork in the Chicago area.

Photo Credit: “a fun angle” by Flickr User Jo Naylor. Licensed via a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.