We have a neighbor at our house in Auburn whose name, as the title of this post suggests, is Bill. Bill lives in a tiny, tattered duplex to the right of our giant, 6 bedroom house. He is something close to 50 and has long, stringy hair that has yet to let the brown fully bleed out of the grey. We think someone lives in the top half of the duplex but aren’t really sure. I’ve lived in this house for two years and have never seen anyone up there. All we see is Bill. And Bill is enough.
In his front window sits a painted menu offering burgers and hot dogs for a few dollars each. Bill doesn’t actually sell food though, so I suppose it’s a bit misleading.
In the side window, an Auburn towel poses as a curtain and a giant tie-dye peace sign sits emphatically beside it. Bill yells a lot though, so I suppose that’s a bit misleading as well.
Most of the time Bill sits in a lawn chair at his door step reading and chain-smoking cigarettes. He has a cough as crass as his language and I imagine the smoking doesn’t help. But the burning point of a cigarette seems oddly poignant for his strange, little life and I can’t help but think that it fits. Like half of a semicolon or the first third of an ellipse, alluding to something else, something to follow.
Surrounding the staircase that leads to his nonexistent, top-half neighbor are tomato plants growing out of old paint buckets. Sometimes I see him water them, always with the posture of tender annoyance, or annoyed tenderness, depending on the day. And then, invariably, he returns to his chair and his book and the cigarette he left burning in the ash tray beneath.
I want desperately to know what he’s reading but haven’t been able to make out the title yet. The cover is a milky shade of sage and has gold lettering that reflects the sun just enough to make it impossible to nonchalantly read from afar. I’m fairly certain he’s been reading the same book for a woefully long time now. Although sometimes I like to think that he is brilliant and reads a different book every day but will only read books with milky sage covers. And that inside his creaky, dark apartment are shelves on top of shelves on top of crates on top of carpet holding hundreds of milky sage-covered books. That maybe he read and loved a milky sage-covered book when he was younger but lost it and can’t remember the title. And now his life is dedicated to nothing but reading every milky sage-covered book he sees until he finds it again. The tomatoes are just for sustenance. And the cigarettes are for curbing the sting of the loss until his search is complete.
That’s probably not true, though.
I imagine the cigarettes are for curbing something but I doubt it’s the loss of a great book.
Maybe I’ll ask him one day.
For now I will smile and say hello as I come and go and continue to make up stories about him in my ever-wandering imagination.
We don’t talk much. As I write this I can’t even remember what his voice sounds like. I imagine its deep and husky because he has the eyes for that sort of voice. Once he complimented my bike as I was leaving for work, following quickly with “be careful…there are some crazy people out there.” But even in that memory I can’t recall what he sounded like.
And that’s the most we’ve ever spoken.
I like to think one day I’ll grab a lawn chair from our front porch and join him. Coincidentally the book I am currently reading has a milky sage cover so I imagine we would get along.
If he is on the search for a book I would be willing to help him find it. The good ones can forever occupy corners of your soul if you let them. No one should have to lose that.
If not, maybe we’ll just read for a while. Or talk about tomatoes. Or how he ended up in a one room duplex with a faux menu in the window and an invisible neighbor upstairs.
But until then I’ll keep following the semicolon cigarette to ideas of who he might actually be. And if I never find out I’ll just write stories about him until one seems right. I imagine he deserves a good story. I would like to write that for him.
And maybe some day, if I get lucky, that story will turn into a book that will turn into a tiny part of some tiny soul somewhere.
I bet you could guess what color I’d choose for the cover.