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The Good Neighbors

Posted by Wild Musette editor on

The Good Neighbors

by Cynthia June Long

I should have known. I barely had to sweep the floors the entire time we lived in Boston. For two years, the wind blew our planked balcony clean. The plaster-walled apartment was remarkably dust-free. Spiders stayed outdoors. Sometimes it seemed that even the dishes washed themselves. At the time I thought Jim conscientious. Now I know better.

The first thing we did: we put the mattress, still lying flat on the living room floor, unmade, to good use. Afterwards, I unpacked the Waterford  picture frame, a gift from my college roommate Linda, and set it on top of the mantle. ‘Ellen and Jim, you live a charmed life,’ Linda had written in her gift enclosure note, still tucked behind the clasp. Our wedding photo surveyed the apartment, my brown curls escaping the veil, my honey eyes blinking back tears, Jim’s sly smile promising happiness.

I had one week in late August to write wedding thank-you notes, hang curtains, and buy textbooks before grad classes started. Jim immediately jumped into the music scene, coaxing me to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival with his new friends Labor Day weekend. “C’mon, Ellen,” he pleaded. “It’ll be fun.”

We had moved to Boston for school. I was studying Library Science at Simmons College while Jim was reaching for a Master’s in performance and composition at the Conservatory. I read and researched: management, reference sources, library ethics. Jim practiced classical and contemporary violin: Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, Philip Glass. Around midnight I would quit the arcane practice of cataloguing, slamming the books in frustration while Jim continued to practice after I went to bed. Sometimes, often, he played the Kronos Quartet too loud. A succession of downstairs residents rapped on their ceiling, knocks coming up through our floors. Even our lovemaking was rarely quiet but at least then they didn’t knock. On Saturday mornings we brunched at a café outside Back Bay Station and spent the rest of the day soaking up history: redcoats, Red Sox, the original tea party. I scheduled my life by the academic calendar.

On the surface, a librarian and a musician, we seemed so compatible. I sang a little and joined the choir at St. Bridget’s, although Jim preferred the musical program at Trinity Episcopal, Copley Square, or better still the concert hall. “If they’re singing in Latin, rear mezz is better than front row at the altar,” he used to sneer. Passably fluent in German with a smattering of Italian, I envisioned a career as a music librarian, adding catalog entries for conductor, soloists, and first violin.

Jim’s Boston premier was a Conservatory production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. The pit orchestra provided Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s play, performed by the theatre department. My favorite piece was the “March of the Elves,” the evocation of scampering fairy feet while silk-shrouded dancers jetéd upon stage. Jim brought home a ceramic fairy statue from the cast party, and I set it on the fireplace beside our photo frame.

We didn’t have time for Halloween our first year. Jim feverishly practiced Bach’s Chaconne. He said it was the most difficult violin solo ever. I had an indexing project due. I brought dinner and my notebooks to the Conservatory for Jim’s rehearsals until even I knew the entire suite by heart. We came home after midnight, and when I turned out the lights we saw them in the vacant lot across the street. “What is it?” I whispered as Jim wrapped his arms around me. Little wisps of golden light flickered across the ground in tiny counter-clockwise circles.

I wondered if it was arson, or carelessness, if we should call the police. Did teens prank Mischief Night in Boston? “Children’s glowsticks, is all,” Jim dismissed, nuzzling my ear, pulling me toward the bedroom.

We didn’t get to rest until the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas were a whirl of familiar obligations. Jim’s sister flaunted her pregnancy, my mother harped for grandchildren, and we sat through a twelve-hour traffic jam on I-95 with a broken radio and only a Silk Road Ensemble CD. I was glad to get back to our apartment and study Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules on the scarred kitchen table. Jim headed straight to the spare bedroom, his practice room, to immerse himself in compositions by Joshua Bell and Steve Reich.

Shortly after the spring semester began, Jim started driving into nearby Quincy to listen to a Celtic punk band. He bought a piezo pickup and amplifier and stayed out late. The creaking hinge on the oak front door always awoke me. “I thought you were studying performance,” I huffed one morning, waking over my cataloguing notes on the sofa, close to dawn. Pale light was starting to highlight our cheap window blinds.

“Modern performance, luv.” Jim affected an Irish lilt. He staggered through the doorway. “I bought us tickets for the Dropkick Murphys for Valentine’s Day.”

I never voiced my preference for chowder and mussels at Legal Sea Foods. We probably couldn’t afford an expensive dinner anyway. But couldn’t his professors have comped us into Symphony Hall? Instead we gobbled overcooked concession burgers. Jim crowd-surfed over my head.

Early on a chill St. Patrick’s Day morning, Jim’s violin was taken from the sidewalk. He turned his back for an instant while I blew him kisses off the balcony. I never saw a thing. We had heard that there were still a lot of tensions in the neighborhood about letting gays march in the parade. Jim probably looked odd with his shoulder-length locks and wiry goatee.

He found his violin before the cops arrived, across the street in the vacant lot, under an expansive oak tree. The miscreants had dropped and ran, unseen; the police report was filed as nuisance instead of theft. Jim always swore his violin played better after that.

Hours later, we scooted onto the roof for a craned glimpse of the parade’s end. I passed Jim a Sam Adams while a high school marching band strained the ‘Londonderry Air.’ “That stuff’s shite.” Jim pulled a four-pack of Guinness from a paper bag in his duffle.

Finally the semester ended. That summer was our honeymoon. Jim wasn’t taking any classes, and I had registered only for a week-long Literacy seminar. Weekends were busy. Jim played jaded Vivaldi at weddings, grumbling beforehand and locking himself in the spare room afterwards, practicing minimalist composers for hours.

Weekdays we got to see town. We glimpsed a humpback whale off the ferry to the Kennedy Library and ate oversized crab cakes at Faneuil Hall. The next week we shared the requisite snuggle in the Public Garden swan boats. A day trip to Salem, of course. One afternoon, Jim cooked clam linguine and corn-on-the-cob. We ate from paper plates on the balcony.

On the Fourth of July we picnicked along the Charles riverbank for the Pops’ 1812 Overture with fireworks. We were close enough to see the cannons fire. Afterwards, we trooped toward the nearest subway stop, detouring to avoid the crowds, and when we overshot the station, kept going. We walked home all the way from the Esplanade, feet aching and blisters forming the last few miles, singing “Charlie on the M.T.A.” —the verses we could remember— at the top of our lungs and giggling drunkenly. As we finally neared home, Jim ran through the corner lot and kicked at a ring of mushrooms.

I grabbed his arm as my stomach pitched but it was too late. I coughed out wine. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and looked down on stamped stems and smashed mushroom caps. I felt punched in the gut and unexpectedly sad, as if my own limbs were splintered, my own children struck down. I went straight to bed unspeaking. By morning we both felt much better.

A series of household items went missing that summer, all too small to report to the police, usually reappearing in unexpected places days or weeks later. Jim lost his keys repeatedly and ran perpetually late; he always blamed it on me. Once I found them in the flatware drawer, misfiled as though the attached penknife was also an eating utensil.

Table etiquette, 395; cutlery, 672; locksmithing, 683.32. I had started thinking in the Dewey Decimal System. Jim worried that I would reclassify our living room in my sleep. Maybe I was. He interrupted my bubble bath one night to complain that I had alphabetized his recordings. “Where’s A Night at the Opera?”

“Q for Queen,” I called back. Soon “Bohemian Rhapsody” filtered through the door on repeat. I added more hot water to the tub. Which is why he never believed me any time other items were misplaced.

Every week it was something else. “Where is my shirt?” Jim stood half-clothed in the hallway one Saturday morning, bow-tie and cummerbund in hand, bare feet poking out beneath tuxedo trousers. I pulled a dingy substitute from the laundry and sent him to his wedding gig. Later, we found the shirt hanging clean and pressed—no dry cleaner bag—from a peg in the dormant fireplace, beneath his tuxedoed wedding photograph.

We spent our anniversary at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a catered black-tie affair with Jim’s classmates playing chamber music in the courtyard. We even thought they followed us home to serenade through the rowhome windows, teasing us with minor-chord Celtic reels from the lot across the street. I closed the curtains to the music as Jim drew me into bed.

That fall, library books went missing, including a Melvil Dewey biography on loan from Harvard. Milk spoiled; phone lines went dead; flour grew buggy. The day after I coaxed a renewal from the esteemed university across the river, I found the book in the linen closet. Jim didn’t do laundry. I took a cab to Cambridge like a convict released on probation before the book could disappear again.

Jim moved my birth control pills. I’m certain of it. He cursed my carelessness and accused me of deliberately plotting. I kept my voice calm, pressed fingernails into my palms. “I keep them in the top left front drawer beneath the sink.” I even sorted through the trash. I started to wonder if the house was haunted by an arcane breed of domestic poltergeists.

I placed a call for a prescription refill and returned to my books. Archives management took all my time. Jim focused on composition and returned to late nights following the Irish punk scene. “For inspiration,” he said. The semester bypassed us like a high-speed train. We didn’t go home for the holidays. I made vegetarian stuffed squash for Thanksgiving, and we stayed in bed between Christmas and New Year’s.

In January, I started on-site observations at libraries. I missed my records retention assignment and my period. I held the white stick to Jim in the cramped bathroom, the blue line showing distinct as the cracked bath tile. “I’m going on tour next summer,” Jim reminded quietly, looking like a trapped bird pecking on glass.

My new maternal calendar calculated quickly. “You’ll be back.” My voice wavered.

“Let’s go out to eat,” he suggested and even knotted a tie.

I quickly agreed, and avoided the mercury-potential shellfish on the menu. I chose chicken, and gingerly sampled his clam chowder and calamari appetizers. I splurged on the chocolate mousse cake, and flushed away dinner first thing the following morning.

Jim went to the pub for St. Paddy’s by himself that year. I drank tea in the darkened kitchen, not bothering to look for the passwords I needed for my Commercial Databases assignment. My professor told me the hourly rate on some of the Dialog sites and I almost fainted. By now I knew that my passwords would reappear. I read a popular history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Jim was in Amsterdam for most of my third trimester. He left me five hundred dollars on the kitchen counter for groceries before leaving on his summer tour, or so he said. All I found was a pile of acorns and leaves. Later he called me from Edinburgh to say he was staying at the Fringe Festival for an extra week.

My mother offered her typical obvious commentary: “It’s not easy being married to a musician.”

“Did you read that in Bartlett’s?” I asked before hanging up the phone.

All I wanted was to gossip with the other mothers in the park, but my Philadelphia brazenness collided with their cultivated Yankee reserve. I was studying and eating take-out, heading to parts unknown in six credits’ time; they traded trusted recipes for tender home-cooked meals. I stopped going to the park and went to the Central Library instead to inquire into labor techniques, vaccination controversies, and job openings.

It was my final course, a two-credit summer survey on storytelling, when I finally learned —or re-learned—about the fairies. A children’s librarian stood before class and recited tales of travelers led astray and hearths cleaned overnight. Midwives were whisked underground to attend immortal births, and newborns were swapped for look-alike changelings.

I remembered the Girl Scouts. Too many years ago, before I ‘flew-up’ to full Girl Scout status, our troop leaders taught of the mythic Brownies who stealthily swept houses and practiced the feminine virtues of cleanliness and homemaking. This storyteller highlighted their lesser-known puckish spite, a penchant for pranking gifts and curses entangled in a tight Celtic knot, the faerie alchemy of gold reverting to dirt. I was daubed with the ointment that enables fairy midwives to see. My eyes opened anew: I recalled Jim’s shirt, the keys, even the violin, every misplaced and oddly recovered item.

A few weeks later, classmates threw a graduation shower with gifts of Dr. Seuss, a stuffed Tinkerbell, and board books. My storytelling professor gave a thick volume by William Butler Yeats, and I worked through this fairy anthology for two weeks as my Braxton-Hicks contractions strengthened and faded. The day I finished the book, Jim cabbed from the airport straight to the hospital.

After eighteen hours, we named her Rose. She gurgled on my chest with Jim’s eyes, my nose, and her grandmother’s bawl. Later, I cradled Tink while she slept in the hospital bassinet down the hall. Linda mailed a card with another Waterford photo frame, shaped like an alphabet block, and a promise to visit soon.

Jim started practicing at the Conservatory studios—or the bars. I wasn’t sure which and didn’t inquire. He said it was so Rose and I could sleep. I chose to believe him.

Sunlight filtered past the curtains the day I found her, still as a log, solid as stone, unblinking eyes staring at the ceiling. I watched the solar patterns on the pastel bedsheets for a long minute before I started to wail. Then I called my mother. My milk let down like tears across my breasts.

“Maybe it’s for the best,” I told Jim, and packed my bags. I left him the mattress, the flatware. The wedding photograph slipped from my fingers and shattered into shiny slivers across the tiled floor. Each shard glowed brighter than the diamond I shoved in the back of my sock drawer each night and stubbornly retrieved every morning. I didn’t sweep the mess.

The doctors called it SIDS, but now I know the old stories told the truth: mortal babies exchanged for stock dolls. Lithe-fingered fey ladies would hear her first croons, watch careful new footsteps, braid her fair hair. I wonder if her blue eyes have turned. Somewhere, in an otherworldly realm, my baby girl still lives.

The last I heard, Jim was trying to start a band. He toured music festivals and local pubs, staying after last call for the at-home parties after the concert. I returned to Boston for a seminar a few months later and saw him busking at Park Street Station with a full beard, hollow cheeks, and echoing eyes. He didn’t seem to recognize me, and I didn’t stop to say hello. I pulled the wedding band from my finger and tossed it into the open violin case.

I never saw him, or my daughter, again. I went on to get a Ph.D. in folklore, but my education only raised more questions. The Irish call the fairies the Good Neighbors, but I don’t know why. They never brought me anything but trouble.


headshotCynthia June Long is a librarian, occasional storyteller, and student of faerie folklore. Her fiction has been published in Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, her poetry at Miscellanea: The Transdimensional Library and her creative nonfiction at Transient magazine. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, PA in 2016 where her novel draft of The Stolen Child was awarded Thesis of The Year. She is writing an urban fantasy novel featuring faeries in America, and blogs about literature, spirituality, and Celtic culture.



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