Friday, July 02, 2004

Adios, Thibodeaux

A name has been changed to protect the guilty.

In 1979, soon after leaving the Army, I moved to the Beaumont, Texas area. I bought a little house at the end of a gravel street in a quiet neighborhood. Soon after I moved in, a fellow from across the street came over. “Howdy, neighbor,” he nearly shouted, “I’m Robert Thibodeaux, and it’s sure nice to meet you.” I shook hands with my neighbor, and he proceeded to tell me about his life.

Robert described himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool coonass.” (“Coonass” is a nickname that the Cajuns of south Louisiana often use to identify themselves. Many don't consider it a slur.) He’d grown up in south Louisiana, married his high school sweetheart, and fathered three children. Southeast Texas was as far from his birthplace as he’d ever been. Robert told me of his life, a life in which hunting, fishing, and family were the focus.

An hour later, with a silly little smile that never went away, Robert continued to tell me about his life.

Two hours later, Robert showed no signs that he might slow down.

Two hours and ten minutes later, I told Robert that I needed to go into town. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the reason I needed to go into town was to get away from him. I shook his hand once more, and left hurriedly, with a dull, tenacious headache in the making.

In the ensuing months, Robert never knocked on my door, but if he spotted me outside the house, I could usually count on at hearing at least an hour of stories about his life. He was a nice guy and a good man, but not the most dynamic fellow in the world. At twenty-three, I tended to socialize with people based on their entertainment value, and whether they were “good” didn’t carry nearly as much weight as whether they could make me laugh. I didn’t relate comfortably to people without a shot or two of Cuervo to thaw my shyness, and Robert didn’t drink. When I’d offer him a beer, he politely declined, saying that he had nothing against a beer or two now and then, but that his wife strongly disapproved.

A year and a half passed. I was out mowing the front lawn, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Robert start from his house, heading in my direction. I had to suppress an urge to cringe. If Robert stayed true to form, I’d be lucky to resume mowing before dark. As he drew close, he called out “Howdy neighbor,” over the din of the lawnmower. I managed to avoid rolling my eyes—I never wanted to hurt Robert’s feelings, after all—then shut down the lawnmower and said, “Hello, Robert.”

He looked concerned. Very concerned. “Say, my wife said she saw people looking at your house the other day. You selling?” “No,” I answered, “I’m renting the place out. I’m moving to Austin.” Robert looked stricken. I suspect at that moment he feared for my ruin: I’d move to Austin, listen to all of that hippy music, get heavily involved with drugs, and walk around naked in front of small children on the beaches of Lake Travis. He looked as if his favorite cousin was moving away, not some guy from California who'd made a hobby of avoiding him. For once, he didn’t seem in the mood to talk. He stuck out his hand, and said, “I’m going to miss you, Neighbor.” I chuckled. “Not so fast, Robert. I’ll be here for another month.” “Well, just the same, you take care living in that big city.” Poor Robert. In his eyes, I was leaving southeast Texas and moving to the City of Sodom.

A month later, Robert came over when he saw the U-Haul truck in my driveway. “Howdy Neighbor. I guess you weren’t joking about moving away, huh?” He asked me if I needed help. It occurred to me that I should really make one last sincere effort to be neighborly. “Hey,” I said, “I made some honest-to-goodness fresh-squeezed lemonade. You want some?” We sat on chairs on the front porch, where his wife could call for him if she wanted, and chatted for a half hour, awfully brief for Robert. He stood. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?” “Nah. Thanks a lot for asking, Robert, but a couple of friends are coming over to help me. You don’t want to be around them. They’re real heathens, and you’ll get in trouble with your wife for sure.” He laughed. I laughed. We shook hands, and he bid me farewell.

My, ahem, friends never showed up.

Shortly after midnight, I’d loaded the contents my bachelor household into the U-Haul, save for one item: the sofa. I decided to take a break, and walked out the front door, where I promptly slipped off the edge of the sidewalk leading from the porch, twisting my ankle.

I fell to the grass. I sat up. My ankle hurt like hell. A sprained ankle surely didn’t fit into the game plan—the renters were hoping to begin moving in the next day (actually later that day, since it was after midnight), and I really didn’t want to pay for another day’s rental on the U-Haul. I stood up. I could walk, but if loading that sofa had looked like a daunting task before, now it seemed nearly impossible. I hobbled back inside and stared at my adversary, the couch.

I think I jumped a foot off of the floor when I heard “Howdy, neighbor” behind me. There stood Robert at my open front door. “Hey Robert, it’s one in the morning. What are you doing up?” He answered, “I got up to use the bathroom, and saw that your lights were still on. Looks like your friends didn’t show up, huh?” “They’re probably still at the bar,” I answered. He chuckled. “The life of the single man, huh? That all that’s left?” he asked, pointing at the sofa. “That’s it,” I replied. Robert helped me move the sofa into the U-Haul. It was big and heavy, and loading it into the truck proved to be quite a task, even with Robert’s help.

We finished, and he noticed the cooler sitting in the carport. “Got any beer in there?” he inquired. Now, that surprised me. “Why Robert, wouldn’t that get you in trouble with your better half?” I asked. “Aw heck, it’s a special occasion, Neighbor. Besides, she won’t be mad at me that long.” I fished two beers out of the cooler. We sat on plastic chairs on my front lawn, drinking beer and talking in the warm late summer night. “How ‘bout another?” he asked. I replied, “You sure? I don’t want to be accused of corrupting you.” We both laughed. I got two more out of the cooler. After the second beer, Robert started with his hunting, fishing, and family stories. I realized, after a few minutes, that it was if I’d never heard his stories before. Something was so, well, different about his stories, sitting there on my front lawn in the night. Was it the way he was telling them, or the way I was hearing them?

I laughed my ass off. Robert was incredibly funny. How had I missed the richness of his stories, and the fact that he had the delivery and timing of a born comedian? Was it a Twilight Zone sort of thing?

He stood up from his chair. “Well, better get a little more sleep before it’s time to go to work,” he said. I stood as well. We shook hands, and Robert said, “Be careful in that big city, Hal. Watch who you trust.” It was the first time, as far as I remembered, that he called me by my name. “Thanks a whole lot for the help,” I said, “you’ve saved my life.” “Nah, just your ankle,” he chuckled. He again stuck out his hand. “Goodbye, Neighbor.” “Goodbye, Robert.”

He turned back toward his house. Suddenly, I felt the urge to call out, “Hey, you sure you don’t want another beer?” I envisioned more stories on the front lawn, sitting on plastic chairs in the warm late summer night. Talking. Laughing. Being neighbors. But I didn’t call after him. I watched as he walked back to his home, and his family.

I slept for two hours on the living room floor, and woke up well before dawn. I took a quick shower, dressed, and looked about the house one last time. I drove the U-Haul slowly down the street. I stopped the truck abeam Robert’s house.

“Adios, Thibodeaux,” I said aloud, softly.

I never saw Robert again.

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