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Starting Point

Sounds of neighborhood grump echo through the years


He was the neighborhood grump. I knew it. My sisters knew it. So did his two daughters -- curly-haired, bug-eyed Sandy, and her little sister, Debbie, who was my 8-year-old friend and the best double dutch jumper this side of Packard Avenue.

It was impossible not to know about the grump, especially in the summer. On an evening in mid-August, with the temperatures and humidity still floating in the 90s, every house in our little tract had thrown open its windows, unlocked its doors. A fishy breeze from nearby Lake Michigan ruffled a pleat or two of the flowered drapes in the living room, lifted the top page of that week’s TV Guide, resting on the coffee table near the plastic birds-of-paradise.

But instead of relief, the breeze mostly brought sounds -- the Mouseketeers’ theme song from other living rooms, the whistle of a neighbor’s pressure cooker, the flush of a toilet, the ringing of a phone. And voices. Moms calling kids inside to wash up for supper, little brothers crying over skinned knees.

I knew what time every family on our street ate supper -- shortly after 5, after the dads came home, swinging their lunch boxes, booming their “hellos.”

Next door, Sandy and Debbie’s family always ate later. They and their mom had to wait for their dad, Art, to drive home from his office job in downtown Milwaukee.

Tall and angular, with a pointed nose and a forehead that inched toward forever, Mr. Zeller didn’t boom his “hellos,” he yelled his “God dammit’s.” He was at it again tonight.

“What is he so mad about this time?” I whispered to my mother as we stood together by the kitchen sink finishing up the dishes. Mr. Zeller didn’t carry on like this everyday, but often enough.

“Maybe Debbie left her bike in the driveway again. Or he can’t find his slippers. Who knows?” my mother sighed. “I swear, I don’t know how Bernice puts up with that man.”

Bernice, soft and vulnerable as the tomatoes she so carefully tended in their backyard garden, never yelled back at her husband. Art’s arguments were always soliloquies.

At our house, no one yelled. My dad had been known on occasion to harrumph his displeasure, and my mom might shake her finger at me and my sisters from time to time and mutter ominously, “If you ever pull a stunt like that again ... ” But yelling? Even when the windows were closed? Never.

Debbie and I never talked about her dad’s outbursts. They were just part of the neighborhood -- like the smell from the local meat packing plant, like the cracks in the sidewalk. Without the power to change him, it was just easier -- and, maybe, kinder -- not to talk about this yelling.

Mr. Zeller’s voice -- with all its bite and bitterness -- washed over me. I held my breath and a dishtowel, and watched the bubbles popping on my mom’s side of the sink. I felt scared. Scared that the world wasn’t as safe a place as I wanted to think it was. Scared of the power parents wield over each other and over us kids.

Later that evening I heard Mr. Zeller again -- at the organ in his living room. He had recently started to play, using a program that taught music by means of color-coded keys. Talent and time weren’t necessary, just the ability to distinguish green from red, blue from yellow.

Earlier his gravelly voice had ripped through the settling-in sounds of a summer evening; now the sad, sweet notes of “Pagan Love Song” waltzed into our lung-open lives. That the same person was capable in the same evening of producing such awful words and such a pretty song confused me.

I was even more confused the next morning. Looking out the front window still in my pajamas, I saw the grill of Art’s great green Pontiac swing into the street. Slowly, the car began to pull away. As usual, Mr. Zeller was in the driver’s seat. His left hand squeezed the steering wheel, and he turned his face toward his house, focused his eyes on the front window. From where I stood, I couldn’t see his daughters, but Sandy and Debbie must have been there, because with his right hand he was blowing tender little baby kisses in their direction.

Who was the real Mr. Zeller? I wondered. The man whose voice exploded with words he should have had his mouth washed out with soap for saying? Or the father who closed his eyes and swayed, ever so gently, to the whole notes of a love song, and who, next morning, blew fluttery kisses to his two little girls? How did these two characters coexist in his 6-foot frame? It didn’t make sense. Not then.

Not now either, really. But I do realize it’s possible. With 40 years and thousands of miles between me and those summer days, I know that life has more shades of gray than even the biggest box of crayons, and that families often manage to forgive what old neighbors can’t forget.

Mr. Zeller went on to walk his daughters down the aisle at their weddings, to bounce his grandchildren on his bony knees and to holler and swear every so often as well.

Now on tranquil San Diego nights when the windows are open and the shadows long, I hear the settling-in sounds of the evening and think about the Mr. Zellers of this world. And I see the one I used to fear through the prism of life’s hard-to-swallow realities -- a complex human being of infinite possibilities and singular failings, trying each morning to blow the slate clean with the breath of his tiny kisses.

Sue Diaz writes from San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999