“The Mistake Hoarder,” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Aug 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

She’s the neighbor from hell. Hammers bang, boards pop, saws buzz like electric migraines. She is adding on, which probably means she’s invited another ex to move in. Another mistake, another room.

I trudge out to my backyard. “Stop it!” My terrier Sissy barks, agreeing with me.

“Come on over!” Maggie waves from the fence. Today she’s wearing a turban and floral muumuu.

I used to see blue sky from my yard. Now, it’s all crazy house because I live next to THE Ms. Maggie. Maybe you saw her on Oprah. She lives with ex-husbands, old bosses, aging college roommates, and an ill-chosen goat. She wrote those books totally opposite of Spark Joy and Letting Go. You know, Never Miss a Mistake and Living with Your Past.

I walk over. “When’s it enough?”

“I know,” she laughs. “But I bought the extra lots and –”

“You bought off the zoning committee, you mean.” I frown.

“Oh honey-child. You sure you don’t want to come over for tea?”

“No thank you.”

See, my house is neat and tidy. I ditch clothes that fit fifteen pounds ago, burn old love letters, and chunk books. Boom, bang. That’s how it’s done! I don’t even keep containers or organizers. Boxes are like full mouths, stuffed with words you don’t want to hear. After my divorce, things were either at the curb or UPS. Done. Finished. Signed and sealed.

Why can’t she be the same? My god, her house looks like a Lego stack-house. Each new addition a different flamboyant color. Cars slow down to look. People take pictures. This is what I get for not having a HOA.

We used to have a good relationship. She’d come over and ask for rose cuttings. We’d talk. She was only living with one ex-husband then. But I knew Maggie was eccentric, sure. She got upset when I started ripping my plants out each spring to start over fresh.

Sissy finishes squatting and scratches at the grass.

“Look,” I point. “That’s how it’s done. You cover shit up and move on. You don’t build it a room and ask it to move in.”

“Oh honey.” Her hand is warm on my shoulder. It’s funny, I’ve been alone for so long after my divorce, the touch startles me. It moves me through the fence gate.

And then, god help me, I’m in her crazy house. It’s Escheresque. No, it’s like that Winchester house, where the lady never stopped building because she was afraid of ghosts.

“Some people collect cats or doo-dads,” Maggie waves her hand. “I collect my mistakes.”

There are people watching TV, cooking lunch, walking through the various rooms. She points to a balding, pot-bellied fellow. “Spring Break in Mexico. Chlamydia. Oof!”

We pass an elderly woman on oxygen.

“My stepmother. Boy, we had some fights!”

We pass a laundry room with two jumbo washers. “We’ve all got a lot of dirty laundry,” she cackles.

Upstairs, a second story door opens to a long fall. “For a future mistake.”

I lurch along a narrow hallway. A balcony overlooks a bathtub. Windows face windows.

Stairs ascend, descend, ascend again. She opens an empty bedroom.

“For an old frenemy. He’s in Madrid, but he’s a got a room waiting if he wants. I pushed him to convert,” she admits. “I was in my religious phase. Oh, I was a self-righteous twat!”

Something scrabbles overhead in the attic. A cymbal crashes. “Did I tell you I was in a band?” she asks.

“You have a band up there?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Just the percussionists.” She sucks in her breath and tsks. “Jazz.”

Her hallway sports framed parking tickets, court summons, certificates for defunct stocks, old ballet box receipts, and even a tooth in a shadow-box.

“I forgot to floss,” she says.

I trip over empty water bottles and Maggie steadies me. “I stocked up for Y2K and the end the world. Boy, what a mistake! Oh, hi Ben.” She waves at a man shaving at a sink and he gives her a peace sign. She winks at me as we move past him. “Taking the high road is sharing a bathroom.”

A small, yellow-eyed goat dings past us in the hallway, a bell tinkling around its neck.

“I thought it’d make a good pet,” Maggie explains. “But it’s got anxiety and epilepsy. So now I have to keep it.”

My head feels like it’s sliding off. “No kids? I mean, aside from the goat?”

Maggie laughs again. “Oh honey-child, if I’d had kids, I’d never stop adding on! Everything’s a potential mistake there!”

In her kitchen, I see mail and tax papers neatly stacked. She’s getting donations from #Better-You-Than-Me!

“Why would anyone–”

“Move in? Why not? Free rent. Notoriety. Shoot, absolution is the best party!”

We end up in a crowded courtyard.

“So here we are!” Maggie says with a sense of finality. “Oh, these are employees and former bosses that I cheated.”

Everyone waves congenially.

“Why don’t you just have a yearbook of old hairstyles and bad fashion choices,” I say. “Like the rest of us?”

She looks at me with pity. Pity!

“Oh honey,” she says. “I liked our old talks, when I’d come over for cuttings. Remember all the roses your husband always gave you?”

My throat catches and I stomp off for home. How dare she? But I stop at the fence gate, hesitating. When we will stop? What’s the missing piece in her crazy menagerie? The final piece? There has to be something.

I turn around and raise my finger. “How about your neighbors, huh? You’ve ruined any goodwill. Ruined the views. Ruined the peace and quiet. How’s THAT for a mistake? Where would you put THAT?”

I cross my arms, triumphant.

But Maggie only smiles.

“Oh sweet-girl, I thought you’d never ask.”

She opens a garden gate by the courtyard and there’s a beautiful pagoda. Lush and green with rose bushes.

“I built it just for you, from all your old flowers. You can come over whenever you like.”

She sits me down on a wooden bench. I’m stunned. Defeated. I can’t win.

I’ll sell my house. I’ll move away.

But the flowers smell as sweet as my new marriage did, and the petals are pillow-talk soft. I burst into tears. It’s a heavenly relief. Having those memories so close, so immediate . . . it’s the most neighborly thing in the world.


Joy Kennedy-O’Neill teaches English at a small college on the Texas Gulf Coast. Her works have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, the Cimarron Review, among other places. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com. “The Mistake Hoarder” was first published in Eureka Literary Magazine (ELM).

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