Christian Holmes: Love Thy Neighbor
The following article first appeared in the May-June 2008 issue of SALT Magazine.
CHRISTIAN HOLMES: Love Thy Neighbor
By Shannon McDermott
It began on June 1st, but we had our first warning nearly two weeks before. That was the day the sign disappeared from our neighbor’s yard.
The house next door had stood vacant for as long as Shannon and I had lived in the neighborhood. A sign in the front yard proclaimed “For Rent/Sale”. In this hope the owners hired a lawn-care service, and the empty green house had the finest lawn on the block.
The owners themselves never came, and when they had lived in the green house (whenever that had been) no one knew them. No one knew where they had gone. Some said they had moved across town to a penthouse. Others said they had left the state and gone north to some place like Connecticut. Least popular—but still with a following—was the view that they were now uptown people living in a million-something house. What everyone believed was that they had money.
And then one day the “For Rent/Sale” sign was taken down. The most obvious conclusion was that the house had been rented or sold. More imaginative minds suggested that the mysterious owners were coming back (perhaps from overseas). And then, on June 1st, it began.
That morning we were eating breakfast, listening to the sounds of the movers next door, when something happened for the first time since we moved in: Someone knocked on the back door.
We looked at each other, then at the door. The knock repeated, and I got up, coffee cup still in hand, to answer it. I opened the door, a little clumsily, with my left hand—
And nearly dropped my cup. There in front of me stood my cousin Henry and his wife Abby.
“Uh...Henry,” I began, eloquently. “I didn’t know you were coming. Why didn’t you call me?”
He smiled. “We wanted to surprised you.”
“Well, you succeeded. What brings you here?”
Henry shared a significant look with Abby and then turned to me. “We have an announcement.”
I glanced at Abby, and was taken by an apprehension that there was another Holmes on his or her way into the world. “What?” I asked.
Henry held his silence until the drama reached its crescendo, and then he said, “We’re going to be your neighbors.”
I could only stare as my brain tried to process that. “You mean you bought the green house?”
Henry looked a little surprised by the idea. “Of course not. You should know, Christian, that I wouldn’t move away from England.”
That was true, very true. “Oh, well, then—”
“We rented it,” Henry said. “For the summer.”
“Well...” I grasped for an appropriate response. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Come on in.” I opened the door wide and led them into the kitchen, to the table where Shannon still sat feeding Joyce her baby cereal. She stood up, and the four of us had proper greetings all around. Then Henry turned his attention to Joyce, seated in her highchair with cereal on her mouth and Winnie the Pooh bib.
“So this is your firstborn, Christian,” he said, passing his hand over her blond curls. “She’s adorable. Doesn’t look a bit like you.”
“Fortunately enough for her,” I answered. “So why are you spending the summer in America?”
“Family. All of Abby’s family lives in America and I have relatives here also, so we thought we would spend the summer near them.”
“What about your work?”
“I still have work. My company assigned a few projects to me and I just signed a contract to write two books. But don’t worry. I will still have free time. What do you have in mind?”
I tried to discern the logic in this sequence of comments. I failed. “Have in mind?”
“To do. I don’t have to write or tinker with inventions all day.”
“I’m sorry, Henry, but the fun will have to wait. I have to—” An awful thought struck me. “Work today,” I finished, muttering as I checked my watch.
Awful thought confirmed. “I have to go about ten minutes ago. I’ll see you...”
“Sure. Tonight.” I was on my way out of the kitchen as I gave this promise, and within minutes I was on the road. I could think of nothing but work—until I was actually in my office. Then I thought about Henry, trying to figure out what I thought about him moving in next door. He was my favorite cousin and I had always enjoyed our visits, but I knew that he was a human whirlwind. A whirlwind is not something you want to be at close quarters with, and I had a feeling that the force of Henry would be exhausting after a while.
We spent that evening with Henry and Abby, and it was pleasant. They came for breakfast the next morning and for dinner that evening, and it was still fun. And then came Friday night.
Henry was waiting on my porch when I drove into the driveway. As I parked, he walked over and was talking as soon as I got out of the car. “You know, Christian, I’ve enjoyed spending the last two evenings with you at your home, but tonight I wanted a change of pace.”
That sounded like a night spent alone with my family. “Well, I understand that. What are you doing tonight?”
“I made reservations for dinner and, incredibly enough, I found a good show and managed to buy tickets for tonight.” Henry pulled out his wallet and began rifling through it.
“That sounds like a fun evening.”
“I was hoping you would think so.” Henry took the tickets out of his wallet—and there were four of them. He peeled two away and handed them to me. “Here are tickets for you and Shannon. I made the reservations so you would have time to change before we go. What do you think of all taking my car?”
I looked at the tickets. “Okay. I’ll...” Something occurred to me. “Henry, I’m already wearing a suit.”
“A working suit.”
“Henry, I don’t know what show or restaurant we’re going to, but if I show up at some place like Applebee’s wearing a dress suit...”
“But you’re not going to some place like Applebee’s. You’re going to some place with class.” He looked at his watch. “We should be going in fifteen minutes. Meet you in my driveway?”
He strode away.
I let myself into the house, stopping in the foyer to call out, “Shannon!”
“I’m up here,” she called back.
I headed up the stairs. “We’ve got fifteen minutes to get dressed up.”
She stood waiting for me at the head of the stairs, and she looked at me curiously. “Why?”
“We’re going to a show and dinner with Henry and Abby. He gave me tickets.”
“When did you and Henry decide all this?”
“Henry decided it. I learned about it just after I got home.”
We hurried through getting ready, and in about twenty minutes we were all on the road in Henry’s car. He drove out of our neighborhood, onto the main road—
And straight into oncoming traffic. I think all of us yelled at the same time. Not that Henry needed to be warned when there was a car bearing down on him at nearly forty miles an hour.
Thankfully, the road had a shoulder, and Henry had good reflexes. He pulled onto the side of the road to the angry blare of horns.
We all sat there a moment, letting our heart-rates come down. Henry spoke first, rather calmly:
“That is not safe.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say
that could answer that. Even sarcasm seemed weak.
“Your government should put up signs in front of a one-way street.”
“Henry, this isn’t a one-way street.” As I spoke, I leaned forward and thrust my finger towards the two-lane road, with traffic flowing in each direction.
Henry glanced over, and then gave a sort of low-key laugh.
It irritated me, probably because he had just brought me within yards of a head-on-head collision. “What’s funny?” I asked, and not as nicely as I should have.
“I forgot that in America people drive on the right side of the street. It’s such a novice mistake, and I’m such an experienced international traveler it really is amusing. I’ve been all through Europe, and I have been to Her Majesty’s colonies in two hemispheres...”
“What?” I asked.
Henry explained as he started the car. “America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia...”
He drove across the left lane and into the right, not stopping his soliloquy for a second, “And I have taken two trips to Asia, the first in Hong Kong and the second in Japan...”
By the time we got to the restaurant we—meaning Henry’s passengers—had mostly gotten over our near-death experience. The restaurant was one I had never been to. In fact, it occurred to me, as I looked around, that if not for Henry the closest I would have ever gotten to it was paging through a magazine at the doctor’s office. It was the sort of high-class restaurant where the chefs think of your food as artwork—which, while it improves how your meal looks, does not necessarily improve how it tastes.
I felt curious as I opened the menu, wondering if I would see items like escargot and caviar. I was sidetracked from the dishes, however, when I noticed the prices.
I glanced over at Shannon, who also had her menu open. She shared a look with me, and then we looked over at Henry. His easy casualness was no different here than anywhere else.
That night we had our first Henry discussion. I began it with the remark, “That was fun. It was nice of Henry to give us those tickets.”
“Yes, it was. Christian, do you have any idea how long this is going to last?”
“How long what is going to last?”
“Henry wanting to spend all of your free time with us.”
“Well, you know he is my cousin, and we’ve always gotten along, and we normally don’t see each other very often. So it’s natural of him to want to spend a lot of time together. Now, in normal people this would taper off in a few days. In Henry, on the other hand, it will probably last until he has other people to socialize with.” I waved my hand jaggedly. “There’s the truth of it. He doesn’t know anyone here except us, and he always liked me. Until further notice, we’re going to spend summer with Henry at our doorstep.”
“Shouldn’t we be able to find people for him to meet?”
“We should.” I thought a moment. “I have an idea. Remember when Watson invited me to join his chess club? I’m sure they’ll be happy to have Henry.”
“Is Henry interested in chess?”
“Not really, but he’s interested in people. And I’m sure he knows how to play chess, and he’s smart. He’ll do fine. In fact, he’ll talk his opponent into distraction out of sheer friendliness and probably win every game.”
“They meet on Saturdays, don’t they?”
“Do you think we could have tomorrow to just the family?”
“Sure. I’ll tell Henry we want to stay home alone tomorrow. It’s too late tonight, but I’ll get to it in the morning. When they come over for breakfast.”
I looked at my car with trepidation, and then at the bottle of motor oil in my hand. I debated the wisdom of changing the oil in my car personally versus simply taking the car in.
A cheerful voice broke into my thoughts, “Hallo, neighbor!”
I looked over at Henry, glad of the reprieve from making my decision. “Hi, Henry. I haven’t seen you all...morning. What’s up?”
“I’ve been working on my latest invention. I still am. Could you come over and give me a hand?”
I felt interested and a little flattered. “Sure.” I followed him into his house. He led me upstairs to what was obviously his workroom. As he went over to a long table against the wall, I remembered my conversation with Shannon the night before. I stepped closer and said, “I want to thank you for the tickets. We had a good time last night.”
Henry, bent over something on the table, responded, “Eh.” But it was a pleasant-sounding “eh”.
“We were planning to stay home tonight, though.” I paused awkwardly. “Uh, Henry, do you like chess?”
He made a noncommittal sound in his throat, then asked, “Why?”
“Because I have a friend who has a chess club that meets every Saturday. I was wondering if you would be interested in going.”
“I suppose I will. But first.” He bent down and took something from underneath the table. Then he turned to me, holding it out.
I eyed it warily. “Henry, what do I need a fire extinguisher for?”
“This is how you’re going to help me. You see, I’m working on a dryer that dries at three times the speed of current household dryers. So I’m testing various fabrics to see how much heat they can stand.”
“And where do I and this”—I hefted the extinguisher—“come in?”
“I need you standing at the ready in case the fabric spontaneously combusts. Last time I barely got it out before the wall caught on fire.”
“Uh, Henry...” My mind grasped for an exit line. “I have to, I mean I was...”
Changing the oil in my car? I stopped, thinking about that. And Henry carried on, while I stood ready with a fire extinguisher.
I made it home about two hours later. Shannon was in the living room with Joyce and she asked as I came in, “Where have you been?”
“Over at Henry’s. He was working on an invention, I was moonlighting as a fireman...” She gave me a quizzical look. “Never mind. I told Henry we wanted to have a day at home, and then I told him about the chess club. He’s going this afternoon.”
I paused, surveying my wife and daughter. “So we have our family day. I’ll worry about changing the oil some other day.” Some other century, if I could swing it.
I absentmindedly rocked the porch swing, keeping an eye on Joyce as she played in the grass. Shannon sat next to me reading. A breeze brushed past us; it was pleasant for a June afternoon.
I noticed cars approaching down the road. One slowed as it passed our house, and then swung smoothly into the green house’s driveway. Henry, when he did not drive into the wrong lane, was a good driver.
I turned my attention back to Joyce. Then Shannon nudged me and nodded towards Henry’s house. I looked over and was surprised to see Henry and Watson coming over. I rallied my friendliness to call out, “Hello! I see the chess club was a good idea.”
Henry smiled his bright smile. “Yes. I met some fine gentlemen. I thought you might want to make their acquaintance too.”
I looked at him, then Watson. “I already know Watson.”
“I know. But you don’t know the others.”
The other cars I had seen coming down the road had parked by and opposite our house, and men were getting out. I had a sudden presentiment—and dread—as to their destination. “Henry...”
“I was going to invite you over. Then I remembered that you wanted to be at home today. So we decided to come to you.”
I sized up the situation. A chess club—about nine members strong—at my doorstep, ready for a good time, just around dinner. “Excuse me. I need to go order pizza.”
The party Henry had begun at Watson’s house and brought over to mine lasted three hours more. Then people began to leave until, finally, only Henry and Abby were left in our living room. Henry was doing magic tricks for Joyce’s benefit, demonstrating that he liked children and did not know much about them.
There was silence as Henry made a British gold sovereign disappear and then—with some fancy hand movements—produced it out of thin air and brandished it dramatically. “Well,” he said, “I think we should be saying good night.”
It was like a signal from an orchestra leader. We all stood up, going into a swirl of polite remarks. And then, in just a few moments, our house was finally empty. I sat down on the couch, taking a moment to just enjoy that, but Shannon went immediately over to Joyce and probed her mouth with her finger. Not finding anything, she looked over Joyce’s walker and then, getting down on her knees, began searching the floor around it.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Looking for that coin Henry was using. I think he gave it to Joyce when he was done.”
My first thought was to wonder who would give a coin to a ten-month-old. And it was a stupid question, because it was the same person who would do magic tricks for a ten-month-old. Henry. I got down on my hands and knees also and began searching the carpet.
“I don’t know why he did it,” Shannon said.
“Did what? Give Joyce the coin?”
“That—and bring Watson’s chess club over. He didn’t give us any warning at all. And he brought them just around dinnertime. We had no time to prepare—and even if we did, you think we could choose our own guests.”
I sighed. “I know. He can be difficult. But the thing you have to understand about Henry is that he’s cuckoo and he doesn’t know it. He thinks everyone is like him. He doesn’t think twice about socializing every evening because he doesn’t mind socializing every evening. He thinks nothing of bringing unexpected guests over to our house because he wouldn’t mind if someone brought unexpected guests over to his house.”
“Well, we can’t spend our entire summer like this.”
“I know. We can’t spend even an entire week like this.” I paused, contemplating three months lived with Henry. Then I felt a sudden upsurge of—contrariness? Determination? “I’ll survive this if it kills me.”
I remembered what I was doing and realized... “Nothing. I’ve found nothing.”
“Me too. Where could it have gone?”
Slowly our gazes turned to Joyce, looking very innocent and very oblivious in her walker. Then we looked at each other. “If she starts throwing up,” I said, “we’ll take her to the emergency room. Worst case scenario, they pump her stomach. Whether she swallowed it or not, she’ll be okay.”
Later that night, she did start, and we did take her. And she was okay, but still...
It was around nine in the morning, and I sat on the porch swing. Both Shannon and Joyce were inside asleep, and I was feeling mellow, even thoughtful.
I was staring at the sky above the houses on the other side of the street, but something in the corner of my eye made me turn my head.
Henry stood there, an unusual look of gloom on his face.
“Hey,” I greeted him.
He muttered a return hello and came to sit across from me on the swing.
“I got some bad news this morning.”
“What is it?” I asked, growing worried.
“My in-laws are coming for dinner tonight.”
I almost laughed. “That’s why you’re so gloomy? Your in-laws? Henry, if anyone wouldn’t have trouble with in-laws, it’s you.”
“I don’t have trouble with them, Christian. They have trouble with me.”
After the last few days I found that easy to believe. “You mean they don’t like you?”
“They try to like me. I think they find it hard. And—it’s a little strange, Christian, but I think they think I’m a little...different, or hard to understand.”
I wanted to tell him that that wasn’t strange, that if the rest of the world was a PC he was a Mac. I resisted the urge.
“At any rate, I came to invite you and Shannon over for dinner.”
“I don’t know, Henry...”
“Please, Christian. It will make much easier if someone else is there.”
I looked over at him. Then I looked away again, shaking my head. “All right, we’ll come over. But only because you’re my cousin, and you need help.”
“I’ll take it.” Henry stood up. “See you at six.”
And so, at six that evening, we arrived at Henry’s house and were introduced to his in-laws—Abby’s parents and younger brother, Isaiah. We settled down in Henry’s living room, and almost immediately fell into awkward silence. Wanting to break it, I turned to Mr. Peterson and asked, “What do you do?”
“I own a construction company. I began by building houses twenty-eight years ago and built it up to that. What do you do?”
“I’m a detective.”
“And I,” Henry contributed, “write children’s books and invent things.”
“So you haven’t had much experience in my line of business,” Peterson remarked.
“No, sir, I have not.”
“Would you be interested in learning?”
Suddenly afraid of Henry’s answer, I said, “He doesn’t know enough about it to know that.”
Despite my timely intervention, Henry still answered the question. “I have a feeling not. If I got mortar on my suit I don’t think I would ever be able to get it out.”
There was nothing in Henry’s demeanor to indicate that this was a joke, and I could see the Petersons trying to take it in the best way. That was when I finally understood that this family meeting was a culture clash. “What sports do you follow, Mr. Peterson?”
“Football and baseball.”
“How about you, Henry?”
“Well, I never could develop an interest in football—”
“He means soccer,” I explained to the Petersons.
“But I do watch some rugby—”
“A kind of violent European sport,” I told them.
“And cricket and polo,” Henry finished.
Mr. Peterson again looked at me, as if for a translation, and the best I could manage was, “Balls, and sticks.”
Henry changed the topic. “I am going to have to bring in my car to be serviced soon. The oil needs changing, and I’m hopeless with cars. I can invent the gonkulator but I can’t change the oil in my car. I don’t even like to pump gas. I bring my car in to have the tank filled.” The reaction to this was such that even Henry felt compelled to clarify, “That was a joke. About filling the car.”
As the Petersons visibly struggled to overlook Henry’s faults, I decided to bring attention to his good points. “So, Henry, how’s that new invention of yours coming—the new dryer?”
“Very well. I have a working model.”
Terrific. “Could you give us a demonstration?”
Henry brightened at the suggestion. “Certainly.” He led us to the laundry room, which was crowded with a washer and two dryers. Henry opened the washer’s lid and pulled out some wet clothes. Loading them into the dryer, he turned the machine on. Then he turned to us and, with his back to the dryer, began to explain, “The concept behind this new dryer is to dramatically decrease the time it takes to dry clothes. Now, by increasing the heat of the dryer...”
At this point he lost his audience, which noticed that smoke was coming from the dryer. “Henry, it’s smoking,” I said.
Henry glanced over his shoulder, then turned around and turned off the dryer. He leaned down and picked up a fire extinguisher someone had left beside the dryer. Then he threw open the dryer door and let loose with the extinguisher.
For a minute we all watched him. When he—and the fire—was finished, Abby’s brother said, “Those were our clothes.”
“It’s highly unusual,” Henry replied, not looking at anyone. “Abby, why don’t you take our guests back to the living room and I’ll find out what went wrong.”
Abby did so, and I went along with them. Half-way to the living room I changed my mind and back-tracked. I found Henry alone in the laundry room, taking out his tools, and for nearly the first time in my life I felt sorry for him. “What are you doing in here?” I asked.
“I’m trying to find out what went wrong. It’s highly unusual. It should have taken longer for the clothes to burst into flames, if that’s what they were going to do.”
“I think you ought to be back with your guests. I know it hasn’t gone well so far. I know it was awkward and you didn’t understand each other and you set their clothes on fire...” I stopped there. It didn’t sound convincing, but I knew I was right. “Henry, you should try again.”
“Because they’re your family. I know family can drive you up the wall sometimes. I know that sometimes the most difficult people in your life are your relatives. But there’s something special about family, something you’ll never find anywhere else.”
“You’re stuck with them. Colleagues, friends, associates, neighbors—those relationships can end, usually just by moving away. But you can never move far enough to lose your family. You can’t change blood. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, your family will always be your family. You will always owe it to them to try again. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, and family is just neighbors you can’t move away from.”
“So...” Henry picked up my words. “Try again.”
I nodded. “With a little love, and a little understanding, and when necessary a frank family discussion.” I stood up. “You coming?”
He thought a moment, and then he set his tools aside and followed me out. We joined the others in the living room, and Henry looked around and asked, “Where is Abby?”
“In the kitchen, checking on dinner,” Mr. Peterson answered. “Smells like roast, Henry.”
Come to think of it, I did smell something. But... “Is it just me, or does that roast remind you of burnt wiring?”
“It’s not that bad, Christian,” Henry answered. “More like fire.”
For one moment we stood there. Then we ran out of the room.
I braked to a stop at the entrance of the laundry room. The dryer was on fire, and the flames were licking the wall and catching there too. I scanned the room, saw the fire extinguisher near me, and grabbed it. I aimed and pulled the release trigger.
And the foam shot two feet and sputtered out. I uselessly pulled down again. “Henry...”
“I keep a good supply in the workroom.”
I turned and ran again, noticing then that Isaiah and Peterson had joined us. As the four of us reached the foyer and headed up the stairs, Henry remarked, “And it’s a useful thing too.”
“I’ll say it is,” I muttered.
“Now I understand it,” Henry went on. “The clothes never did catch on fire. It was the dryer all along.”
It registered in my brain that we were talking about different things, and then we were at his workroom. Henry went to a closet and took out a fire extinguisher, and then he stopped. “I’ll join you in a minute,” he said. “I need to make sure Abby is all right.”
I remembered Shannon and Joyce. “Right. Women and child—my child—first. Be right back.”
We went down the stairs and then in different directions—Henry to the kitchen, me to the living room. I found it empty, and then, wondering—hoping—that they had gone outside, I went out the front door. I looked all around and saw no one. I puzzled for a moment, and then went back inside. I ran into Henry in the foyer and asked, “Have you seen Shannon?”
“Yes, just a moment ago. I went into the kitchen and found all the women there. They told me they had called the fire department just in case.”
“Oh.” Figured. “Well, they’re fine. Let’s go.” And, running yet again, we went back to the laundry room. Isaiah and Mr. Peterson were there, extinguishers in hand. The room was smoking, reeking, and drenched in white foam—but it was not on fire.
“Thank you,” Henry said, looking around.
Mr. Peterson shrugged. “The fire wasn’t very big yet. Once I tried to fix electrical wiring in a wall—and the whole wall caught on fire. Remember that, Isaiah?”
“I heard the screams.”
“But no one was hurt. The important thing, right?”
Shannon arrived then. She looked curiously into the laundry room, and then at us. “Dinner’s ready.”
The sun was setting as we sat on the porch, watching Henry and Mr. Peterson work on my car. After Peterson showed Henry how to change the oil in his car, I offered to allow him to try it out on my car. Call me opportunistic.
They stepped away and Henry lowered the hood. I stood up and walked over. Peterson wandered back towards the house, but Henry stood there trying to clean his hands with a rag. I leaned against the car and commented, “You know, Henry, it’s a shame about your house. That room is going to need a lot of fixing up.”
“It would be easy just to hire someone. But my father-in-law has offered to help me—he and Isaiah. I don’t know how to fix any of it, but they do and they’ll teach me as we work.”
Henry was not the sort of person to enjoy fixing houses—and, being rich, he didn’t need to know how. So it was nice of them to offer, and nice of him to accept. “There’s hope for you yet,” I told him.
Henry nodded his agreement.
“Will you have to explain the fire to your landlord?”
“Actually, we have decided to buy the house. We’ll still spend most of our time in England, but periodically we will come to America. Family and all that. You’ll have me as a neighbor often.”
“And I’m looking forward to it. But...” I looked at Henry, and then clapped his shoulder. “Henry, it’s time for one of those frank family discussions.”
Shannon McDermott is 20 years old. Besides writing the Christian Holmes series, she is an editor and research specialist for SALT Magazine. She has also just completed an excellent novel entitled “The Last Heir”. She is the oldest girl in a Christian homeschooling family of thirteen.
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