Gargantuan machines came and dug out a humongous hole, piling up mountains of dirt around its perimeter. It looked like a perfect place to play, but the young lad was given strict instructions to stay the hell away from that big hole and those mounds of earth lest he be swallowed up in an unfortunate accidental manner. Soon other machines came, and with them an army of men with hammers, nails, and great planks of wood. And as the days wore on, a house – a big one, with two stories – began to take shape.
How long it took to build that house, who can say? Little Stevie certainly cannot, for it is some 55-odd years later, and his memories of those days are necessarily befogged, seen as if through a scrim of cheesecloth. But whether it was a process measured in weeks or months matters not at all. All that does matter is that it was, eventually, complete, whereupon a family moved in… and I met The Girl Next Door.
She was a dark-haired beauty, and despite her having three years on me, I was smitten. As smitten as a four-year-old could be, I suppose.
TGND, as it happens, was the youngest of four, all sisters, the eldest of whom was a full eighteen years her senior. Shortly after the family moved in, said eldest sister got married, and in true Italian family tradition, ended up living just three doors up the street in a house that her father and husband built.
We would spend lazy summer afternoons watching the butterflies flutter around the towering buddleja bush in our back yard, doing whatever little kids do. Of course, being that we were so different in age, TGND and I traveled in different circles, and as the years went by we would see less and less of each other… except on those occasions when she was called upon to baby-sit for me and my brother Dan.
Eventually, we relocated. It was all of three blocks to the southwest, but it meant that The Girl Next Door was no longer Next Door, alas. By that time, she was a newly-minted high-school graduate anyway; she would not be spending much time in the neighborhood any longer. And three years later, I moved away – first to university, then to Houston (AKA Sweat City), eventually landing in the Atlanta ’burbs – and I saw no more of TGND.
* * *
Last Monday, on the way to visit my Dad at the hospital – he had suffered a stroke on Christmas morning – I took a brief detour and stopped in at the local library.
After waiting for a suitable opportunity, I walked over to the desk where sat one of the librarians and leaned over toward her, in the manner of someone who was about to ask a question but was not quite sure what it was he wanted to ask. She looked at me, puzzled at first, and then the light of recognition dawned. “I can’t believe it.”
Of course it was The Girl Next Door. It might have taken her longer to figure out who I was, had it not been for Dan having stopped by the previous week to deliver the news about our Dad. Still, not bad – given that she had not laid eyes on me in something like forty-five years.
Remarkably, she hadn’t changed all that much… and her bright-eyed smile and little-girl voice hadn’t changed at all.
We spent the better part of an hour swapping stories, learning about each other’s families, and reminiscing about the Old Neighborhood. TGND was appalled to hear that Alec Baldwin had bought the old Bookmobile… she used to babysit him and had nought good to say about him, his obnoxious brood of brothers (except for Billy), his lecherous, Fred Flintstone-like father, or his house, which had a back yard filled with debris, unmowed grass, and raw sewage. She recalled the old butterfly-chasing days (“You used to stick ’em in that jar and kill ’em”) and her admiration for my mother, who (unlike all of the other suburban mommies in our neighborhood) showed her independence by playing golf three times a week.
The time flew past: All too soon, it was time to go and catch Dad as his lunch time began. And so we said our goodbyes.
As we move our playing pieces across the gameboard of Life, there are people who become part of our daily existence – family, friends, business colleagues, and the like – and there are others who, in the grand scheme of things, form the backdrop against which that existence plays out. Perhaps The Girl Next Door falls more into that second category, as do most of the people of my early days. Yet, in a small way, she will always be part of me, for she made an indelible impression fifty-five years ago, when I was of an impressionable age.
And how could I ever forget her, anyway? Fate would never allow it: She shares her given name with the real love of my life – Donna, the Missus.