When Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors he wasn’t lying. Of course he wasn’t the first to say that. Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang said the same thing when he started building his chunk of the Great Wall and the practice continued right up to 1961 when Walter Ulbricht put up the barbed wire fence, which ameliorated into a wall and created two neighborly Berlins.
I know all about fences. My brother built one to keep his neighbor’s dogs from shitting in his yard and we built ours to keep Vova from gaping through our window like a lobotomized imbecile. Dogs have no excuse – they’re dogs. Vova’s excuse was that he was drunk, which is no excuse at all even if it’s the only one you got.
Closer to 70 than 60, Vova is a wiry old jackal with an evil potency and a constitution full of vodka, piss and vinegar. An ulcer in human form. He had a viscous German Shepard he kept tied in the sun, just short of his water dish in the shade. The dog died of a heart condition just before we moved in.
Our relationship began when we were obliged to meet him and get his OK to buy his half-brother Viktor’s portion of the house four years ago.
“Oh a Pole and American. Great. I thought my brother might sell his half to some Kurds or Megrelians and we’d get all their relatives living here too,” Vova spat.
The last words of Olga, Viktor’s wife were “I don’t know how you’re going to live with that man next door.”
That was a fine time to tell us.
I soon discovered Vova was not the kind of guy you ask “how are you?” because he’d tell you and you didn’t want to know. The world’s against him because he’s against the world – and visa-versa. One of those, “life was better during communism” kind of guys, only during communism he was bitching too. He was born to bitch and because he knows best, he was also born to give advice:
“You’ve got to dig a drainage ditch behind your house… It’s easy…”
“You should fix that retaining wall before it falls on my garage… It’s easy…”
These were things we were aware of and planned to do when the time was right, but Vova wouldn’t let up and his advice turned to nagging which turned to bitching.
“Your fucking retaining wall is going to fall on my grandchildren! When are you going to fix it?!”
We eventually got around to building the retaining wall. Kind of Mexitecture, practical, competent and ugly. It wasn’t good enough for Vova, he made that crazy sign, like the work was done by lunatics, which in a sense it was, but that’s another story. He let me know that this wall we built has no drainage system and the seepage will destroy his garage, which has been decomposing for decades. So if his garage rotted tomorrow, it would be my fault. Everything is somebody else’s fault.
When I put up a new roof above our bathroom, he suddenly had some roof work of his own to do, but of course he just wanted to inspect what I was doing. A pest. One day he just materialized in our dining room to see what kind of work we had done.
We finally got around to digging the drainage ditch behind our house, not because of Vova’s nagging, but to control the mold. The work started with picks and shovels but we found that sort of labor would put us in the poor house in no time, so we rented a jackhammer.
Needless to say, the jackhammer is one of the most annoying tools in the world. Racketing behind our wall, I had to live with it and my only console was that it was driving Vova crazy too. But that had repercussions of its own.
I had a stomach virus one day which had an ill effect on my demeanor. The jackhammer rattled my nerves when it was on and more so when it was off, because it meant the boys weren’t working. That hammer cost 20 bucks a day. Then came Vova, sucking on a cigarette, beckoning me to come to his house. He escorted me by the arm to point out three cracked tiles and a half-dollar sized spot of peeling plaster on the ceiling. My jackhammer, he claimed, was the cause of it all. But the hammering was being done far from his bathroom. I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s an old house. We have lots of cracks in our bathroom.”
Then he screamed. “Your work is destroying my house!”
“Not my problem,” I said and walked away. And then something snapped. He said something I said something and the volume increased. Our shouts drowned out the jackhammer. I cussed him out in three-and-a-half languages. The workers ran out to see if I had killed him, which I would have done, but I didn’t have a gun.
For about a year he wouldn’t talk to me, which was grand. I’d say good morning and he’d growl. Communication was done between the women, which was a drag for Justyna as Vova’s wife is a hysterical maniac, driven mad by decades of living with Vova. One day she came out to give us the gas bill with a big shiner around her eye.
“I…uh.. fell,” she said shamefully.
“Yeah, I know exactly where you fell,” I thought.
From time to time, Vova would show me the water seeping through the wall of his garage and I’d agree that “yes, it looks wet,” and walk away unperturbed. But when we woke up in the morning to appreciate our Tbilisi view and saw Vova peering through the chain-link fence staring back at us, we called a carpenter friend to help us make a Great Wall of Vera. As long as Vova was out of sight, he was out of mind.
In the meantime, Vova had put his house on the market so that he could return to Russia and live off the fat of the land with a Russian pension. After more than a year of praying for the day he would leave, I am now looking out the window, peeking between the slats of our fence and watching new neighbors move in. Nice people. They even mentioned that after they are all moved in, we might not even need the fence anymore. I smiled but said nothing.