When we moved out of my mother’s house in Brighton MA nearly 25 years ago to the tony suburb of Newton (I’m joking about the tony part; I live across the street from a landscaper and his chorus of leaf blowers), our new next door neighbors Hank and Jeanette, a retired childless couple, seemed like nice folks. Hank introduced himself with a smile, laughing “some folks call me ‘Hank the crank.’” Didn’t seem like much of a crank to me.
But with an introduction like that, it shouldn’t have surprised me when the other shoe dropped. It’s difficult to say exactly what triggered the turnaround. It appeared to be some combination of educational resentment (he began calling me “college boy”), the number of cars passing through my hands, and my working on them in the driveway, as the ’73 3.0CSi occupied the precious but decrepit space inside my rusty leaning corrugated metal single car garage. Perhaps Hank was concerned my activity was lowering his property value. Or perhaps I’d transgressed an unwritten law about parking opposite his house. His land yacht of a Lincoln Town Car did appear to need the extra clearance and turning space when he’d back it out of his driveway.
Things got bad. He appeared to watch the registration and inspection stickers on my cars, and would call the police on me if, during my first spring drive in the 3.0CSi, either of the stickers had expired over the winter. When I prepared to replace the garage, the animosity erupted into all-out warfare, at least on his end. I wanted to build a nice, new, larger structure where the old one was, but since the old one was one foot from the property line, I had to apply for a variance. As a lifelong Newton resident who knew a lot of people, Hank seemed to be the invisible hand behind a rubber stamp denial. “No one needs a garage, and no one needs one of the size you’re proposing,” solemnly intoned the head of the committee who rejected my application. Clearly not a car guy, I thought. The same could be said of Hank. What could someone with a Town Car–the poster child for floaty suspension and same-day steering–know about my passions?
As it happened, the variance denial was a gift. It forced Maire Anne and I to rethink the plans, and we wound up building a larger garage that didn’t need variance approval. When my friend and contractor Alex showed up with the building permit and a backhoe and started to dig, Hank was apoplectic. When Alex accidentally knocked down a section of his fence, Hank came out of his house, red-faced and screaming, threatening to call the police. Alex thought Hank was going to have a heart attack, burst an aneurism, or both. After that, I don’t think Maire Anne or I spoke to either Hank or Jeannette for ten years.
But time softens us all. Hank and Jeannette are now elderly. About five years ago I began using my snowblower to clear their sidewalk in the winter. The first time I did it, Hank opened up his front door and yelled “Robby!” I thought, what, he’s going to chew me out for this? Then he said “It’s been hard for me to deal with the snow since I’ve been sick. Thank you so much!” I kept doing it. The relationship thawed. At the end of each winter, they’ve given me a card and a small gift.
Last spring, they called me over and showed off the new Honda Accord they’d just bought. They seemed to want my approval. “Very nice… Honda builds a great product,” I said. Then I noticed their driveway was empty. “Did you trade in the Lincoln?” I asked. “No, it’s in the garage,” Hank said (they still had the same one-car corrugated metal structure I’d torn down). “But, we were thinking… maybe it’s time we built a two-car garage to hold it and the Honda. Do you think your contractor friend might be interested in doing the work? What was his name... Alex? He seemed very nice.” I almost choked on the irony.
Late last fall, I noticed I hadn’t seen Hank around in a few weeks. I asked Jeanette what was up. “Oh,” she said, “you didn’t know about the accident?” She then told me the following story. Hank had become quite frail, with signs of advancing dementia. He wanted to go for a Sunday drive in the Lincoln, but Jeanette thought that wasn’t the best idea. They compromised and had her brother drive. But as they were pulling out onto Rt 95, they were sideswiped by a tractor-trailer. The car got spun completely around, then was hit on the other side. The car’s occupants were banged up but okay. The Lincoln, however, was totaled. As Hank’s cognitive skills continue to degrade, Jeannette explained, he keeps asking about the Lincoln, not accepting that it’s gone, wanting to see it and drive it again.
“He loved that car,” Jeanette offered. “It only had 20,000 miles on it. People were constantly offering to buy it from him.”
As she was explaining, it all came into focus. He’d probably bought Lincoln the year we’d bought the house. He always garaged it. He had vanity plates on it with his initials and his birth date. The guy I was at war with for all these years was, in his own way, a car guy. How could I have possibly missed this?
I can only hope that, in dementia’s meandering path, Hank he finds a nice new garage, and in it, his beloved Lincoln, and enjoys one more Sunday drive on a perfect fall day.
(Copyright Roundel Magazine, 2015)