By Greg Clark, April 29, 1944
“A ha,” cried Jimmie Frise, “new neighbors.”
He pointed up street, where a massive van was just backing before a vacant house.
“That house,” I commented, “hasn’t been vacant very long. I wonder what they’ll be like?”
“Probably,” said Jim, “they’ll have a large and vicious dog that will take six months to decide who he can lick along this block.”
“Probably they’ll have about six sniffly kids,” I said, “all prone to whooping cough and mumps. We’ve been pretty lucky in this block for some years. I guess this is the end.”
“On the other hand,” said Jim, “it might be a rich widow. Or maybe an elderly childless couple.”
“At that,” I submitted, “it might be some fellow we’d grow very fond of around here. Maybe the kind of man who would raise choice roses and always want to be giving rose bushes to his neighbors.”
“By Jove,” said Jim, “he might be the kind of fellow who keeps a lawn roller and one of those lawn-edging machines with a wheel on it.”
“I’d rather be optimistic about them, whoever they are,” I agreed. “Because a neighborhood needs new neighbors every now and then. A neighborhood kind of gets tired of itself, doesn’t it?”
“Sometimes the most sensational things,” mused Jim, “happen as the result of a stranger moving into a community. The most incredible things. Lovers may change. Death may move in with that new neighbor.”
“Brrr, Jim,” I said.
“In this new family,” declaimed Jim, “may be a beautiful young girl who may be your future daughter-in-law. By such chances as this are romances born to our midst. On the other hand, who knows but this stranger may be a man of destiny, a man of ideas, who, as the months go by and he gets to know us all, may alter the lives of every one of us. Give us new and powerful ideas. Take us into partnership in some fabulous gold mine. It is just that way that fortune comes to us.”
“Jim,” I said, “let’s stroll up street and see what kind of furniture they’ve got. Get an idea of what they amount to.”
“Maybe this stranger,” said Jim, “is a villain. Maybe at this moment, while only the moving van stands there before a vacant door, maybe already tragedy and disaster have come to this street. Maybe he will be a robber of widows and orphans. Maybe he will run off with somebody’s wife.”
“Let’s go and take a casual look at their furniture,” I suggested anxiously. “If I don’t like the look of their stuff I’ll take darn good care not to let this bird chum up to me.”
Jim got slowly to his feet, so heavy were his ideas.
“The moving in of a new neighbor,” said Jim, “is a momentous occasion. Is it any wonder, on moving day, that all the curtains of the world are stirring as curious ladies stand within studying each item of the new arrival’s belongings?
“It’s no idle curiosity,” I said, restraining Jim with my hand, so that he would stroll more slowly.
New Neighbors’ Furniture
“I think it is the right of everybody,” declared Jim, “to express some interest in new neighbors. Not only in self-defence. But in order to offer a friendly and neighborly hand, if need be.”
The van men were already, with that modem speed and efficiency moving men have developed, laying articles off the huge van. They spread burlap out on the lawn, and as Jim and I slowly approached they set down an entire dining-room suite. It was of oak, massive and simple in design. It was decidedly impressive.
“I see no scuffs and footmarks on the legs of the chairs,” I said in a low voice to Jim; “from which I deduce that there are no young children in this family.”
As we walked past the van we glanced in.
“Mmm,” said Jim, “very nice, very nice.”
“Jim,” I said eagerly, “I think I am going to like our new neighbors. Did you notice the quality of that walnut bed? It was genuine colonial or I’m a Dutchman.”
We strolled up to the corner, paused a moment, and then started to stroll slowly back.
“Take it slow,” I warned. “There is no harm in two gentlemen walking up and down their own street.”
“See what’s coming,” hissed Jim. “A gun cabinet, isn’t it?”
It was a gun cabinet. In hand-rubbed walnut, a tall, commodious cabinet with plate glass front and racks covered with red baize inside to support guns.
“Jim, I’m going to call on this new neighbor,” I cried, “very soon and get a sketch of that gun cabinet. That’s what I’ve wanted for years.”
“Look” said Jim, as we drew nearer, “a real old walnut cupboard. Say, these new folks have taste.”
The moving men were delicately lifting the huge old-fashioned cupboard, tall and massive, plain as a pail, charming as only old things can be. Jim and I halted to admire it.
“Easy, boys,” grunted the boss moving man. “This is one of the pieces the dame was so excited about.”
They eased it to the pavement.
“I never saw a more beautiful walnut cupboard,” said Jim. “Not a curlicue, not an ornament or a scroll on it. Every line of it is beautiful. Boy, I wonder where that came from?”
The moving men hoisted it.
Jim and I continued, after a quick glance around at the articles on the lawn, to stroll past, while the men. grunted and stumbled with short paces towards the house with the huge cupboard.
“Whoever they are,” said Jim, “they’re somebody.”
Down street a little way we turned about and strolled back. The men had the beautiful cupboard to the front door and were clustered at the door, darting anxiously this way and that, the way moving men do when they are stuck. Loud voices shouted brief orders. The figures moved briskly, taking fresh holds of the huge cupboard.
“Let’s give them a hand,” I suggested. So Jim and I hurried up the walk and stood to.
“Here, boys,” said Jim. “A couple of neighbors to the rescue.”
“Lift from the bottom,” called a breathless voice, “while I lower her over.”
We seized hold and lifted tenderly. It was lovely to lay hands on that satiny old wood. Its deep patina, its gloss, modest but like a layer of richness over the glorious old brown wood, was a balm to the eyes as we leaned down close to it, almost pressing our cheeks against it.
“Eeeeaaaasy,” said the voice. And in a moment, with four heavy steps forward, we had the lovely cupboard in the front hall of the vacant house.
“Thanks, gents,” said the boss, amiably. “I’m much obliged to you.”
“Just a neighborly act,” I said.
“Call us if you need us again,” assured Jim.
But we both had time to take a quick look around the empty house, noting the fine mantel and fireplace, the elegant though restrained decoration of the living-room.
Thus Jim and I walked pleasantly, back and forth in the bright afternoon, while the huge van continued to pour forth its treasures. There were walnut bookcases and decidedly custom-built bedroom suites. There was a perfectly magnificent chesterfield, with two matching easy chairs, upholstered in wine red. There were cases and cases of books and pictures, all carefully covered with burlap.
“I’d like to get a squint,” I said, “at those books. You can tell more of a man by the books he keeps than by anything else.”
“Unless it’s his pictures,” said Jim. “I’d like to see his pictures.”
At this moment the boss of the moving men came to the door of the house.
“Gents,” he called, “if you don’t mind?”
We hurried up the walk eagerly.
“That big chesterfield,” said the boss. “The dame wanted it up in the sunroom at the back of the first floor up. I wonder …”
“Certainly, certainly,” we assured heartily.
They had the chesterfield half-way up the stairs to the turn, and there they were stuck.
“I don’t see how it will go up,” said the boss, anxiously. “She said she measured it and it would go up easy. I wish that dame was here.”
“Patience does it,” said Jim. “It’s astonishing the things you can bend around a stairway.”
We all took hold and we wiggled it this way and that, lifted, turned, twisted, shoved.
“That dame,” sighed the boss moving man, heavily. “You might say all women are bad when it comes to moving. But this one is the worst I ever saw. And where is she?”
“You’d think people with stuff like this,” I said, as we all rested to have a cigarette on the stairway, “would be on hand to see it arrive.”
“Why,” cried the boss, angrily, “she said she would be here ahead of us. She drove away in her car ahead of us. Women like her give me a pain in the neck.”
“Maybe she had a flat tire,” I suggested.
“I wish she had,” said the boss. “For one thing, she spent about a month arranging this move. She’s been down to the warehouse at least six times in the past two weeks. She looked me and my boys over, as if we was candidates for the church or something. Our moral character. And did you ever, boys, hear anybody like her when we was loading this stuff?”
“Never, boss,” chorused his three helpers.
“And now, when we’re stuck, where is she?” demanded the boss.
Keeping Their Tempers
“It’ll go up,” I assured them.
And we took a new grip on the chesterfield and hoisted. And turned over. And turned up on end. And turned upside down. And grunted and sweated and kept our tempers nicely, the way moving men do.
And at last Jim, on a particularly strong shove, had the left rear leg of the chesterfield come off in his hand.
“My, my,” we all said. And then the chesterfield went up as slick as a whistle. When we got it back in the big sunroom Jim said:
“I’ll fix this leg on some way, boys, while you are getting the stuff in.”
“Okay,” said the boss; “I don’t mind if you’re here when she arrives. She may take it from a neighbor when she wouldn’t from us.”
We worked on the chesterfield as the boys slowly and patiently carried up beds and springs and dressers and chests of drawers. Chests of drawers that would make your mouth water. Walnut and colonial, with the genuine look.
And while Jim struggled with the leg of the chesterfield I started arranging bookcases and tables that the men laid down in the big sunroom.
I unrolled a rug. I set the writing table along by the window. From one of the crates of books I took a few armfuls and placed them artistically in the shelves of the bookcase. The former tenant of the house had left picture nails in the walls and, more because they were unsightly than that I wanted to see the pictures, I undid one of the boxes and took out some pictures.
“Jim,” I cried, “look at this water color. Isn’t that a beauty?”
Jim got up off the floor and came and helped me hang pictures.
“We may not have these pictures in the right place,” said Jim, “but it is a neighborly thing to do to get them up somewhere anyway. They give such a homey look, don’t you think?”
Jim hung the pictures and I unloaded the book boxes and stacked the books in the bookcases. There were books on law and sets of novels, the works of Parkman; there were a large number of quite old editions of the poets, Longfellow and Wordsworth, and so forth.
“The new neighbor,” I said to Jim, “has a pretty nice taste in books. I think he is a lawyer.”
“A lawyer,” said Jim, busy with a large etching, “will be a nice addition to this street.”
I set vases in the window sills and spread an Indian rug over the writing desk.
“There,” said Jim, standing back. “How’s that?”
“Lovely, Jim,” I cried. “This is surely the must curious thing. A true, old-fashioned housewarming. Think of having neighbors that would come in and arrange your house for you.
“While we’re at it,” I said, “we might as well fix up another room. We may not get it the way she wants it, but it will be a great help to have the stuff laid out.”
So we went and did the bedroom next. This woman was certainly a good manager. With chalk she had marked every piece of furniture, every picture, every single item, large and small, with the position of the room it was to go in. This made it easy for Jim and me. We set up the bed. This is always an awful task. Sometimes it takes half an hour just to assemble the side boards to the ends with those dizzy bolts that don’t fit and everything.
We untied the mattress and laid on the springs, hung pictures, opened a case full of ornaments, doilies, objects of art, which left to Jimmie’s instinct to place artistically around on the dresser and tables.
The boss and his boys were still patiently climbing and descending, bearing their burdens. They looked in at us and smiled.
“A blame nice neighborly idea,” agreed the boss.
We had finished the master bedroom and were just in the act of surveying the other bedroom across the hall when we heard a harsh female voice screaming down at the front door. We listened.
“You fools,” said the voice, and meant it, “I’ve been hunting all over the city for you. What are you doing here? This isn’t the house! This isn’t the street! It’s only an hour until dark. Get that stuff back into the van!”
“Jim,” I whispered, “the back stairs.”
Jim led. Tip-toe.
As we went down the back stairs we heard a kind of war party coming up the front stairs. And the lady was still screaming.
“You stupid fools,” she yelled. “Why didn’t you look at the paper I gave you? Why didn’t I lead you by the noses first and show you the place? Would I live in a joint like this? You crazy, you, you, you.”
By which time Jim and I were going out the back door; and at that instant we heard a terrible shriek which sent us at a fast jack rabbit canter out the side drive and across the street.
So we went and sat in Jim’s parlor window, behind the curtains.
“How do you suppose the key those moving men had would fit the wrong house?” I trembled.
“When cock-eyed things like this happen,” groaned Jim, “the key always fits. Or maybe the boys had a skeleton key. They usually have.”
So we sat, long into the dusk, watching the boys carry out the stuff and pack it back into the van.
And the lady, whenever she appeared the door, looked both busy and angry.
And when dark fell the van rolled away.
“Mmmm, mmm,” said Jim. “No neighbors yet.”
Editor’s Notes: “I’m a Dutchman” is old slang, expressed after hearing something that is obviously not true.
Baize is a type of woollen felt, commonly used on billiard tables.
When Greg mentions he has books by Parkman, he probably means Francis Parkman.