After our neighbor's wife died, he began giving us things. Random things like two cans of Reddi-wip whipped cream, a box of Oscar Mayer pre-cooked bacon, and a green pepper. One day, as I sat on my patio reading, he came outside with two small paper bags in his hand.
"Can you do me a favor? Take these," he said, holding the bags out, "and if you don't want them, throw them away."
He said this each time he gave something to either me or my partner, Lindsay. When he was gone, I peeked into the first bag. There was an open bottle of Vermont Maple Syrup and a potato that had started to sprout tentacles despite being wrapped in factory-made plastic packaging with baking instructions on the label. The other contained a large yellow onion and a half-full can of aerosol Aquanet unscented hairspray, good for "14-hour hold."
The hairspray was the first nonperishable item that Mike had given to me, and I knew with certainty that it had belonged to his wife. I'd never met Mike's wife. I'd seen her only on the rare occasions that she emerged from the front door with her head covered by a scarf.
The hairspray reminded me of my grandmother, who had passed away years before. She had gone to the beauty parlor once a week to get her hair set until she was too ill. After that, my mother had taken on the role of beautician, tenderly washing her hair and rolling it into hot curling pins once a week, brushing it out and spraying the curls stiff.
After perusing the contents of the bag, I went inside and placed them on the counter, next to our fruit bowl full of browning bananas.
Three weeks earlier Lindsay and I had seen an ambulance outside Mike's house. A few days later he knocked on the side door. Our two dogs erupted into a fit of barking. I braced myself when I saw him standing there, knowing why he had come.
"Hi, Mike," I said as I pressed my body through a narrow opening. I stood uncomfortably on our cramped side porch, with one hand on the doorknob, wondering whether it was rude of me not to invite him inside.
"She's gone, Dani," he said just before bursting into loud sobs. His hand rose to cover his face. We had never shared any kind of physical contact, but I didn't hesitate to reach out and touch his shoulder; it seemed the most humane of all my available options. He responded by leaning in toward my body, which resulted in an awkward hug-like posture between the two of us for which I was not quite prepared. I stood frozen, rubbing his shoulder for a bit while wondering again whether I should invite him inside, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
Mike and I had a polite but superficial relationship. We exchanged hellos and engaged in brief conversations. I shoveled his walk when it snowed, helped with his grocery bags and brought his trash can in from the curb. He was my neighbor, a word that literally means "near dweller," but as my hand moved mechanically back and forth on his shoulder, I was all too aware that we were connected by nothing more than a thin line of circumstance. I wondered what my responsibilities were toward this man, this stranger, my neighbor.
Later in the evening I noticed that the brown bags were no longer on the counter. I walked to the trash can and stepped on the foot pedal. There, amidst the coffee grinds and wet paper towels, was the gold can of Aquanet with all of its promised holding power. I imagined Mike alone inside his house, going through his wife's things, sorting them into piles; I imagined him standing above his own wastebasket, holding that can of hairspray, unable to let it go. A bit further down in the trash, the bottle of syrup lay half-covered by scraps of food.
For an instant I was filled with an impulse to retrieve the contents, to rinse them off in the sink, to restore them. As I stood staring, I knew that the reason that Mike kept giving us these things was not because he thought we would use them but because he couldn't bear to see them the way that I saw them in that moment, butting up against the things that no longer had a use in our lives. The truth was that those items belonged in the trash; if knowing this struck a note of sorrow in me, I could only imagine what it did to Mike. Maybe this was it, I thought. Maybe my job was to absorb this small sadness for the man that I barely knew. It wasn't enough, but it was something. I removed my foot from the pedal and the black lid fell down, clicking shut.
This piece first appeared on Baltimore Fishbowl.