No one understands my world but the man in the garden who lives in a suitcase. I gave him permission to live in there last month. The next door neighbor complains constantly about, as she calls it, "this disgraceful state of affairs." I ignore her and visit him often. He's been quite a help, really, tending to the lawn and my roses.
"My suitcase is large enough for me to sleep quite comfortably," he said when first we met. "So, therefore, I shall have lots of energy to help out in the garden."
He says the thing that interests him most at the moment is Chinese writing. He wants to know whether a Chinese person with bad, or illegible, handwriting can be understood, or do his inexactitudes alter the meanings of his words.
"I've never thought about it," I told him, but last Sunday over tea he showed me examples and I became very interested. Then again, there's the question of whether there are any bad handwriters of Chinese at all, given the nature of the characters. We're both looking into that now.
The "disgraceful state of affairs" my neighbor referred to one morning was that my lodger slept late, so it was light when he woke. He climbed out of his suitcase and removed his dressing gown, but just as he was reaching for his clothes, my neighbor opened her backdoor to let her dog out. It was an unfortunate meeting. He apologized, I apologized, but she's still intent on getting the county council involved. If she succeeds, he may have to go. We are making the most of our time together based on this assumption.
He came to me at a time when I was very sad. Someone had killed my cats and he promised to look into it for me: "What with me living in the garden, love, it'll be perfect cover."
So far the only lead we have -- more like a sincere wish, really -- is that my complaining neighbor did it because she's a generally bad person, likes to cause difficulties with her neighbors, and doesn't like cats.
"Stands to reason, doesn't it, love? That's why she's trying to get the council on me, isn't it? She knows I'm going to expose her," my garden lodger said.
I had to agree.
Later that same day we discussed the history of fear. Were people years ago as frightened as we are now? Does having round-the-clock news coverage of all things horrible make us more afraid than me might have been 50, or 100, or even 150 years ago? We compared our fear of disease against "their" fear of disease and our fear of robbery and muggings against theirs as well; we knew that both of those crimes were prevalent in previous times. We weighed the fact of, and lack of, news coverage. Did a poor peasant in a rural village who had never heard of someone being paralyzed fear it? Or was fear of bodily harm instinctive? We decided that an in-depth answer required our visiting the library for research. But here my garden lodger came up against a roadblock. He was a person of no fixed address and couldn't be a patron of the library.
When my complaining neighbor left her house the next day my garden lodger moved in and claimed squatter's rights. She marched into my garden and stuck her face into my kitchen window, complaining bitterly. "Well, I never! This is a disgraceful state of affairs. I'm having the council out about this."
The council came, interviewed me, interviewed my garden lodger, took measurements, and even set up spotlights in the garden until nearly midnight and then went away again. One week later the complaining neighbor was notified to vacate the premises. My garden lodger had won his case: he had been living there longer than 12 minutes; his squatter's rights prevailed. So she moved in with me.
The arrangement is: when he and I go to the library, she has visiting rights to her old house.
It's a good arrangement all around -- but my new cat dislikes her.
Anne Godden Segard lives and writes in Chicago.