The odd neighbors of a first-time homeowner

Well, for the first time, hello everyone! My name, as you can probably tell already, is Robert Jackson Bennett, and I’m currently about to be a first time author. It’ll be official in January 2010 when Mr. Shivers comes out from Orbit, which is about four months away. That’s all self-promotion stuff, however, and I have a blog already started for whatever tooting is necessary for my own horn. To be honest, I’ve never written in any official kind of capacity on the internet, so I’m not sure what to say. Easily the most curious thing that’s going on with me at the moment, though, is what’s happening next door.

 You see, in addition to being a first-time author, I’m also a first time homeowner as of last month. I’ve moved into a pretty quaint little neighborhood, one that was developed before the suburbs really started taking root. It’s fun and odd in its own little way, and I get a real Bradburyish sense when I go walking with my wife in the afternoon. Recently the rains have made the evenings cool and the trees have begun to leaf out again. It’s extraordinarily pleasant.

This brings me to my next door neighbor. I’ve never had a real neighbor before, assuming that the old man who lived next door to my old apartment and drank rum all day in his boxers doesn’t count. (And I don’t think he does.)  So initially I wasn’t sure how to approach any of mine. But the neighbor to my direct left, however, immediately made me curious – on the second week after our move, his lawn played host to four old washing machines and clothes dryers. They just sat there on the grass, and though I never saw anyone working on them I soon found them dismantled in the morning, one by one, but not in a haphazard way. All the parts were bundled and separated. It was a strange sight, seeing all that tubing and those couplets piled neatly on his porch.

Well, by the end of the third week I thought he was violating some sort of neighborhood rule, but more to the point I was just curious to see what he was doing. So last Tuesday my wife and I bought a nice bottle of wine and paid a visit to introduce ourselves, and maybe to clear things up as to what our neighbor was doing with all that equipment.

His wife answered the door, and we were immediately bowled over with her friendliness. She introduced herself as Bridget, and she was all Midwestern cheer and nearly shook my hand off. She scooped us inside and shouted to her husband, whose name I gathered was Dan. Their house, I’m not ashamed to say, was much nicer than ours. We had the walls repainted and tiled the floors and all, but they have the most magnificent kitchen I’ve ever seen. Not only did they have some impressive granite countertops, but their sinks and dishwashers were so complicated you could practically land a space shuttle with them. I said so, and Bridget smiled and said, “That’d be Dan.  None of these are manufactured, you see. He made them. Or improved upon them. He’s always tinkering.”

I said that was pretty remarkable. She rolled her eyes slightly and said I was only seeing the successes. The failures were more numerous, but that never gave Dan any pause.

It was then that Dan himself entered the room. Dan is a tall, ropy sort of gent, skinny and sporting a thick black beard along with an ever-present ballcap. He keeps his eyes downcast pretty much all the time and tends to speak down along his right arm. Everything about him practically screams “engineer.” Don’t mistake me for being mean, here – Dan and Bridget are absolutely lovely people, and anything I say is out of fondness. I don’t get the impression that they’re exactly internetty people, but if they are and they read this blog, hello! Please let me know if you’d prefer I didn’t write about you here.

I told Dan how impressed I was that he’d fixed up this entire kitchen, especially as I had trouble just changing a lightbulb, and he nodded a little sheepishly. He didn’t seem used to compliments, really. We all had a bit of wine then and Dan told me he was also a devoted homebrewer, so we had a glass of his porter, which was very agreeable. We shared our stories and he seemed pleased that I was a burgeoning writer, and we discussed our favorite SFF. When I asked where he’d gone to school Bridget said, “Everywhere! He’s gone everywhere, haven’t you?” and tugged us into his office to see his degrees, mostly because she’d finally convinced him to let her hang them all up, and she felt she’d done a heck of a job.

The number of degrees was indeed impressive. I saw he’d gotten his BA at the University of Texas, and he’d then attended MIT as well as The Queen’s College, Oxford, and then he’d gotten his Ph.D. at Miskatonic, which I’d never heard of but is apparently in Massachusetts and according to Bridget is very well thought of. Throughout all this Dan seemed somewhat mortified. My wife and Bridget are much more the talking sort, and Dan and I sort of faded out, but from what I gathered Dan has a few patents to his name that are paying very well for them.  I asked Dan what they were, and even though he explained them I can’t say I understood a damn thing about them. However, he said he was working on something that would make all his previous stuff look downright silly, and I asked if that had to do with the washing machines out front. He blushed and apologized at length for them, but said yes, that was what that was, and they’d be gone soon once he made progress. I asked what company he was developing for, and he told me no one at all. He was doing it all himself. He’d done the corporate game before and was sick of it, so he’d set up shop right here in his backyard and started out on his own.

Well, I’d never realized I was living next to an engineer’s workshop, so I asked to see it. He blushed a little again, but then decided to show it to me. I think he was a little proud, to be honest. He led me out back and I saw at the end of his yard he had a large shed, one anyone would be envious of. He opened the door and we entered. Inside it was very neat and tidy, with all of his tools and his various parts hung up or neatly packed away and clearly labeled. There were many safes along the wall, and there were dozens of keys hung up over the door. There were also many sacks of apples next to the door. I asked if he was a particular fan of apples. “Not really,” he said.

An old fridge sat in the corner, thrumming softly, and next to it was a card table with what I assumed to be his current work in progress sitting on it. Piles of blueprints and schematics lay next to it on the floor.

I asked if that was it, and he said it was.

It was not exactly what I would call “assembled.” Its many components were laid out in a circle, each connected by thick bundles of cables, and half of it was in a large glass box which had some equipment hooked up to it, presumably to make it a vacuum. I won’t even begin to say I understood what each component was, but it all ended in a sort of messy connection to a very old Macintosh, like the ones with the septic green screens I saw in libraries when I was a kid. It did not look like anything out of science fiction, more like something you’d find coupled up in the server room at your office. And in the neon lights of his shed it seemed particularly unglamorous. Just another bulky piece of naked equipment, separated out on a card table. The centerpiece of the device, though, was a large steel and rubber box with a little shutter. The shutter was open, and the box was empty. I reached into the box to feel around, and as I did Dan tensed up a bit. Aware that I was violating some sort of rule, I withdrew.

I asked him what it did.

“It’s for packaging,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “like for Fedex or UPS?”

He thought about that for a long while. “No,” he said. “Not really like that at all.”

Then we went back inside and had another glass of porter, and after shaking hands and promising to do it again we returned home. My wife commented that she was happy to have such nice and interesting neighbors, and I agreed. She asked me what he’d showed me in the shed, and I said I had no idea.

There was one thing that was strange, though – in the morning I’d found my watch had stopped. Not only had it stopped, but it had been somewhat magnetized. All my keys were stuck to it. I suppose it had been on the hand I’d used when I reached into the box on Dan’s odd contraption. My wife was upset, as the watch had been a gift to me from one of her uncles, but honestly it was a pretty unsightly thing and I only wore it to be polite.

On the whole, I rather think I like Dan.