“The Man Next Door” by Paul Christensen was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Antioch Review. Below, Christensen reads the first few pages of his story.
The Backstory of “The Man Next Door”
by Paul Christensen
“The Man Next Door” has its origins in the row-house culture I grew up in in Philadelphia in the 1950s, post-war neighborhoods that threw together British war widows, Polish immigrants, orthodox Jews, and returning soldiers starting families in these affordable brick houses. To fit in, everyone observed strict rules of conformity–same lawn furniture on the tiny patio, same Ford or Chevy, same clothes, radio programs. But every neighborhood had its eccentric, a recluse living behind drawn curtains, who couldn’t hide from the prying eyes of neighbors. He seldom went outside, but if he did, he was the news of the day–pulling a wagon to the market, washing his windows, standing in the sun in worn-out pants and shirt, a pair of bedroom slippers, shielding his eyes from the glare. Who knew what he did inside, or how he managed to provide for himself.
I knew of several of these strange figures in my early childhood, and when I read To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later, Boo Radley leapt out as the representative of all of them. Kinder, with a bigger heart than the loonies I knew, Boo turns out to be the moral hero of Maycomb, Alabama. Harry Crome is my version of the eccentric, mysterious loner, cast among strictly conforming busy-bodies and gossips in a suburban neighborhood. I gave him all the characteristics I wish those other loners had possessed – I might have learned from them. Crome does not give in to three-inch blades of grass; he’s not afraid of a black snake in his yard. He doesn’t paint and fix things up.
He is the bane of Bill Hughes, my protagonist in the story, who lives next door to Crome. Bill has never had an original thought in his life; he is the epitome of the shallow, conforming Everyman, who has never written a word he wasn’t ordered to. He lives an ordinary, muddled life with his sensitive wife Margo, who defends the man next door as part of some higher awareness that neither of them understands. It offends poor Bill, whose resentment verges on outright jealousy. But Margo happily befriends the neighbors and bakes a pie for their anniversary, an event that Bill ruefully observes from his kitchen window. It slowly dawns on him that Margo may be right about Crome, that he might indeed represent some utterly foreign thing in his life, a cultivated, successful man, an intellectual.
Bill and Margo represent the common clay from Willy Loman to Archie Bunker; their world is narrow, their lives modest and conventional. Only Margo realizes it and can put into words how they are “as common as pancakes and instant coffee.” Bill reminds me of an older friend I knew some years ago who told me he had never been surprised by anything in his life. He said it with some measure of pride. He had avoided all the slings and arrows of misfortune, apparently, by living within his budget, balancing his checkbook, wearing drip-dry suits in the summer. He was pretty much the opposite of me, and he knew it. He found me reckless, a man eager to plunge off a cliff without checking his parachute first.
By the time the story got to the midpoint, I realized, of course, I was describing the two sides of my own personality. I was obsessive like Crome, neglectful of duties and obligations, eager to submerge into another reality to know more, to live more widely. But I was also Bill Hughes at times, cautious not to plunge too far that I couldn’t find my way back. But I also think everyone has these two contradictory impulses in them.
When my two main characters are reconciled, and Bill is willing to serve Harry Crome in a humble way, you might say I put the two sides of my nature together and found a measure of harmony between them. Perhaps the two men are soul and body, like the lofty, overbearing officer and his humble orderly in D.H. Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” one of the most insightful short stories I have ever read.
Paul Christensen‘s story, “How Frank Died,” published in The Antioch Review in the Winter, 2013 issue, was listed as a distinguished mystery story in Best American Mystery Stories of 2013. He shovels snow in central Vermont much of the winter, and relaxes in southern France each summer. paul-christensen.com
© The Antioch Review 2015