I’d been in my first home for two months—the first house I’d purchased, anyway—when I learned about the woman across the street. My next-door neighbor Ann, an energetic retiree always trimming Bonsai in her sidewalk garden—don’t worry, she’s Japanese and has the right to do so—asked me if I’d heard the gunfire in the night. I’d heard nothing. Or if I had noticed anything, I’d assumed it was city noise, a car backfiring, kids playing with fireworks. But no, before I’d woken up this morning, the street had been filled with ambulances and cop cars, people in housecoats. Since I’d missed it, Ann’s spiderweb brow furrowed, and I wasn’t quite sure why. My bedroom’s at the back of the house, and I take a hardy dose of amitriptyline every night. I felt a little judged, as though Ann thought I’d slept through the commotion only because I didn’t care. Or maybe she just wanted more details. A woman’s husband had killed himself, and I was the newbie who could say nothing more interesting than, “Who?”

I’d noticed the woman’s Jetta when I’d first toured the house. Her bumper stickers had played a small role in convincing me to move to this neighborhood. Not Today Satan. Think Education Is Expensive? Try Ignorance. Maybe it’s silly these everyday slogans reassured me, but as a slight, single, forty-eight-year-old gay man whose entire family is dead—hence the inheritance, hence the house—I’m always on the lookout for threats and allies. After moving here, while I was out walking my pointer mutts, James and Ivory, I’d often clocked her car and the countless progressive yard signs that dot this lush Southeast Portland neighborhood. I now lived in a welcoming city, I’d told myself. This was my home. I’d be okay.

I’ve experienced a lot of death in my life. All of my grandparents. My parents. An uncle I adored. My mentor in undergrad. My mentor in grad school. A dozen friends to AIDS back in the day. To my absolute shock, an ex-boyfriend had died of a heroin overdose a decade after we’d broken up. My ex-fiancé, seven years after we’d called it off, essentially drank herself to death. And then, finally, my stepmom, who’d given me eighty-five percent of her estate. All of this is to say, I know most people don’t know how to respond to grief. People you thought were good friends can just disappear. People say clumsy things or show up a month after you really needed them. Hell, I sympathize. I still don’t know what to do either. Especially in this case, I was confounded. This woman didn’t know me at all. We hadn’t so much as waved to each other. I had to ask Ann if she had kids, and she said she didn’t. Her name was Stace, Ann thought. Short for Stacy.

Because I’m originally from Louisiana, my first thought was to leave a casserole on Stace’s porch. But it was summer, and the food might’ve gone bad by the time she’d figured out some weirdo had left perishables on her doormat and run off without knocking. I didn’t want any awkwardness. Like so many people, I told myself I didn’t want to intrude, but the truth was I was afraid—afraid she might start crying, and then I would cry because I’m a big crybaby, and what a way to meet your neighbor. Or maybe she’d hate casseroles or be allergic to something. Again, I did not know this woman, and it wasn’t my place to do anything. At least that’s what I told myself.

Two weeks later, just by chance, I was mowing my lawn, and the woman came out of her house. She was dressed in a navy business suit and had a big purse and thermos. She looked like she was going to work, and it broke my heart all over again to think we live in a country where people are allowed no more than a few weeks to grieve before they have to get back to it. This was the first time I’d seen her after the suicide. Her mauve curtains had been drawn for the entire two weeks, and her ryegrass lawn had bloated with weeds and daffodils. After a moment’s hesitation, I shut off my mower.

“Pardon me,” I said, walking toward her, still in the street.

She opened her car door and looked at me through bug-eyed sunglasses.

“Hi,” I said and stopped on the sidewalk. “You’re Stace, right? I’m Daniel. I live across the street. Would you—would you mind if I mowed your lawn?”

My nervousness, once blurted, sounded almost like exasperation, as though I were angry with her for trashing up the neighborhood. I tried to correct this with a smile, but I’m not sure I knew how to calibrate my face.

She said, “Uh, why?”

“I just,” I said. “I like mowing grass.”

This was a goddamn lie. A lie so bald, it nearly would’ve been a lie for everyone on planet Earth.

Stace ripped a laugh but caught herself, held it together. “That would be nice,” she said, looking down, her voice cracking.

“Sweet,” I said, trying to sound casual but instead sounding like the straightest of bros, which—believe it or not—was not a posture I thought would help this situation. I considered telling her right then and there I was gay—just a harmless gay—but I didn’t trust myself to stick that landing either. Maybe a little nellier than I actually am, I said, “I’ll hop to it in a jiff. You have a good day now.” I turned, and a passing car stopped me in my tracks. I waved to Stace, and then returned to my lawnmower, limbs buzzing.

 The front yard, though resistant to my efforts, was quick work. When I unlatched the wood gate, however, I saw that Stace’s property had hidden value. The backyard was easily five times the size of the front, and there was no elaborate deck or gazebo to mitigate the task. I cursed my impulsivity, and then I cursed myself for wanting my good deed to be easy. No, that’s not true. I cursed myself for being a faggot—a lazy sissy afraid of sweat. I know this is problematic, but it was what I thought. In one corner, two hammocks were angled, nearly side by side, between three oaks. One hammock green. The other blue.

My ex-fiancé didn’t drink herself to death because I’m queer. I just want to get that out of the way. I identified openly as bisexual back then and had lots of satisfying straight sex. We loved each other, Gina and I. We had six great years and two and a half terrible ones. The only reason we broke up was because of her drinking. I thought she was resigned to being a miserable alcoholic for the rest of her life, a life that would stumble into her golden years. I had no idea she would die of cirrhosis at the age of thirty-six. Still, I might’ve been the last positive influence she had, and I’d abandoned her. I know this is problematic, too—even paternalistic—but it’s what I was thinking about that summer day as I struggled to push through clumps of bittercress and groundsel. I didn’t have a weed wacker—that was one of the many yard tools I had yet to buy—but I mowed the stone path that led to an iron table with four chairs as best as I could. I silenced the mower and checked to see if I’d missed anything.

A mass of English ivy was choking the base of the oak tree that served as the common anchor to the two hammocks. An aggressive weed, it would eventually kill the tree, could even send it crashing into the house. Something needed to be done before long, and I couldn’t imagine a suicide widow who’d already let her lawn go would enjoy such a back-breaking task. I was already wearing gloves. Once I’d committed myself, it was satisfying to rip the roots out of the soil, the vines plucking like tendons. Underneath, the ivy’s stouter roots were already bordering on being an inch thick, so I had to get a handsaw to deal with those. I enjoyed the work for the first hour. Three hours later, covered in an itchy grime, not so much. I filled Stace’s sixty-gallon compost bin—and my own—and my garbage can, too. It’s amazing how much accumulation was pressed, just below the surface.

When I’d finished, I latched the gate, safe and secure, and managed to get home before Stace returned. I didn’t want her to feel obliged to thank me. I’d always hated the secondary tolls of grief, the extreme gratitude you have to show everyone who bothers to call or even text, the apologies you feel compelled to make if you slip up and cry. I know—again problematic, but am I supposed to apologize for that as well?

I’d just dried off from a shower and put on pajama bottoms and a Dolly Parton t-shirt when I heard an urgent knock on my door that caused the Pointer Sisters to bark. I answered, thinking it was Ann, coming to gossip, but it was Stace, still wearing her navy suit. Her lips had disappeared into a hard thin line.

“I told you you could mow my lawn,” she said, rocking, her stance staggered. “I didn’t say anything about the ivy in my backyard—I loved that ivy.”

I choked out something about it being a weed.

“I don’t give a shit. I loved that ivy. That was our ivy.”

I took a breath. “It was killing your tree.”

Stace’s hands shot up as though I’d pulled a gun. She stomped down my porch and walked across the street. When she slammed her front door, I noticed Ann was sitting in one of her plastic lawn chairs with a gray cat in her lap. She didn’t wave, and neither did I.

 Have you ever done something that suddenly seems so inconsiderate, so idiotic you can’t explain your rationale to friends without sounding like an asshole?

“It’s hard to blame her for loving ivy,” my friend Jerome said. “Ivy’s gorgeous.”

“It’s a weed,” I said.

“True enough, but a weed I’d choose to believe was harmless, too.”

“We can’t lull ourselves into believing poison’s good for us.”

“Are we still talking about ivy?”

Jerome and I were sitting in Laurelhurst Park, eating scoops of vegan ice cream from disposable cups. Nearby, a dozen or so people were doing yoga, not spiritual yoga, but the competitive kind where flexible twenty-somethings see who can hold crow pose the longest. Jerome seemed distracted by a buxom guy our age in warrior two. I told him not to stare, and he said, “I’m not staring. I’m just making the clinical observation, for scientific purposes, that this boy is caked up. I mean, dayyum.”

“Is that spelled with one y or two?”

“This motherfucker might warrant three.”

Jerome had a point.

“Is it me,” I said, “or are men’s asses getting bigger?”

“Oh, it’s a fact. Bodies are different now. Forty is the new thirty. Fifty is the new thirty-eight. Gender. It’s a whole new world.”

“So what you’re saying is we can evolve and express ourselves in healthier ways. As long as we can find the tools, the language, what have you.”

“See, now I think we’re talking about you fucking up your neighbor’s yard again,” Jerome said and ate some butter pecan.

“How do I apologize?”

“Shit, I don’t know.”

 In the end, I left brownies on Stace’s porch. Despite my master’s in psychology, despite all the therapy and self-help books and queer-affirming weekends on psilocybin, I was still a boy from Louisiana. I put a note with the brownies to let her know they were gluten free and vegan. I also let her know that what I did to her yard failed to respect full transparency and consent, and that I was deeply, deeply sorry. I did not ask her to forgive me. I did not sign off with a treacly Your neighbor, Daniel. I didn’t even leave my phone number, though I thought of doing all of these things. I warned her the brownies contained walnuts. I’d decided no gesture is without risk, and who likes a textureless brownie?

A month later, I got a savory croissant at Sweetpea and took the dogs to the Washington High School dog park. TikTok tells me off-leash parks are dangerous, but James and Ivory would probably go insane if they couldn’t let it rip once a day. They’re runners and expect me to throw tennis balls until I collapse. I’d recently purchased one of those plastic launchers that help you save your rotator cuff, and I was trying to get the hang of it when I saw Stace. She had a little white floof with her, a squat poodle type. Since the park isn’t in walking distance from our neighborhood, I was surprised to see her. Most Portlanders, I’ve noticed, don’t tend to stray far from home base. I considered whether or not I should wave. If I didn’t wave, that would put the onus on her if she was willing to acknowledge my presence. If I waved and she ignored me—well, I could deal with that. I waved. And she waved back.

“Who is this little cutie?” I said.

Stace was wearing jeans and an ancient Siouxsie & the Banshees t-shirt. It had once been black, but was now gray. The vinyl transfer of Siouxsie’s dramatic closeup was pocked with a thousand washings.

“This is my new little pal, Bubby,” she said. “This is our first time at a dog park.”

“Oh, wow. Big day!” I said to Bubby. “Are you excited?” My dogs came back with the ball and didn’t even look at Bubby. James does this cute thing where he looks at the ball and looks at me and looks at the ball and looks at me, and if I don’t throw it fast enough, he bounces his head, as if that will jump start me. I waited until we got at least two head bounces before I launched the ball.

“They look so happy,” Stace said.

My first thought was to say, They would run until they died. Instead, I said, “They’re good boys. What about you, Bubby? You like fetch?”

“He basically lives for snuggles,” Stace said. “I just want him to be, you know, well socialized.”

“What kind of dog is he?”

“A Bichon Frise.”

“Fancy,” I said, extending a pinky.

“No, apparently, they’re incredibly common, and somehow nobody’s ever heard of them.”

“Sorry,” I said. “In Louisiana we only had two breeds: indoor and outdoor.”

“No, I’m sorry, I—I’ve just answered that question a lot lately. I’d never heard of them either.”

“People probably have an easier time pronouncing pug and schweenie. Well, schweenie’s just fun to say.”

By now Bubby and a Weimaraner were sniffing each other’s butts.

“So is it safe here?” Stace asked.

“Are you on TikTok, too?”

“Yes!” Stace said. “I almost didn’t bring him today.”

“Fucking TikTok.”

“Fucking goddamn TikTok. I love it, but . . .”

“But you kind of hate it, too.”

“I hate it because I love it.”

“It’s brutal. It knows you.”

Stace shivered. “I need to take a digital holiday.”

“Me, too,” I said and pulled out my phone and began scrolling through Instagram.

Stace laughed. “Thanks for the brownies.”

I put my phone away. “You bet.”

 Stace and I didn’t become best friends or anything. We wave to each other if we happen to be outside at the same time. I invited her to a dinner party once, but she declined gracefully, thanking me several times before she got into her car.

In the fall, I bumped into her at a small farmer’s market in Northeast. She was with another woman, and I was with a guy I’d been dating for maybe six weeks. She asked me where we’d gotten some pepperazzis, and I pointed to a tent behind a young woman playing cello. Her friend and mine hit it off immediately, swooning about how much they loved stuffed pepperazzis. They touched each other’s forearms and laughed. Stace and I more or less watched their exchange, safe in our raincoats, and said goodbye. Nothing much.

Still, we’re neighbors.


Andrew Watson


Andrew has an MFA from Pacific University, teaches writing at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and has served as a fiction editor for Copper Nickel. His fiction has appeared on the Low Orbit podcast. 


  1. most enjoyable

  2. Really good story. I like your details. The reality of your descriptions were excellent and I laughed a bunch of times. Good job.

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