“The Devil Next Door,” by Lorri McDole

Jun 12th, 2024 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

When I moved to Seattle from a small town two hours south, I loved looking out my window and seeing evidence of other people: blinking marquee lights, flickering TV screens, the line of cars crawling up and down Queen Anne Hill. The people whom, barring a catastrophe, I would never have to know. I inherited this worldview—that the best neighbors were strangers who stayed that way—from my mom.

Our first bad neighbor was Frank. An old Polish widower, he yelled child-rearing advice across our shared driveway, announcing to the town, as Mom saw it, that she was incompetent. The shit really hit the windmill the day my little brother channeled him at the dinner table: “Jesus Christ, woman! Who do you think you are, Queen of Cooks Hill?” Dad was lead usher at the Foursquare Gospel Church, where Mom played “When We All Get to Heaven” on the accordion. Blasphemy was not to be trafficked in.

Our next neighborhood, three miles away, was lorded over by Claudia, Esther, and Mavis. Claudia regularly brought us her leftovers as if they were better than Mom’s first-run meals, and at least once a week Esther pirouetted across our porch, smoking Virginia Slims “for obvious reasons.” If you are what you smoke, Mom’s own brand, which my siblings and I nicknamed Benson & Hedgehogs, did nothing to recommend her.

But it was Mavis who committed the unpardonable. One day she burst through our front door (invited, she said later, by a child’s scream) to find my sister flapping around the room like a loon, me sitting on a chair with a needle sticking out of my ear, and Mom spread-eagled on the floor in her muumuu. Word got around.

Although we moved often, we never left our tiny town, so the nuisance of neighbors was always our cross to bear.

Imagine my joy, then, when I escaped and lived anonymously all over Seattle. Nothing changed much even after I got married, because in the early days, my husband Greg willingly ran interference for me with the neighbors.

But when I got pregnant, my hormones, spouting fat-assed clichés about more parks and less crime, took us prisoner and moved us out to suburban hell, where we remain incarcerated today. Gradually, as our children grew and refused to stay the hermits I’d conceived them to be, I realized our cul-de-sac was no candy-coated Lake of Fire. Satan was alive and well and living all around us.

Like the UPS guy across the street. I would finally give in to taking my kids to play out front and here he’d come, dishing on everyone’s packages or telling me about the night scope he’d won at work. Living on the round as we did, I knew there was only one thing he could be scoping: us. And the seven-year-old boy who came to play one day during my daughter’s reading time. He sat holding one of her books in his lap, and when reading time was over he declared, “Next time, I’ll bring my favorite book, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe!” If he had to read at our house, it wasn’t going to be just any old trash.

But mostly, there was Len, who materialized one day to help us fix our lawn, our tree, our gutters, our life. How, his puzzled gaze entreated us, had we ever lived without him?

When Greg suggested that we take Len and his wife Deanne to a wine tasting, I thought he was joking. Everyone knew that real friends had to be imported, maybe even smuggled in. No way you could find them right next door.

“Well, they seem nice,” Greg said. “Len offered to help me dig a drainage ditch. And their 13-year-old daughter babysits!”

I was still in denial about having a lawn to care for and didn’t give a rat’s ass about drainage, but the babysitter? Sold! To the sucker with two little kids.

Then came the sucker punch: Len used to be a pastor.

Because I had done so much time in church as a child, I had the lock on religious lexicon. Pastors, as opposed to priests, were at least Protestant, possibly even Pentecostal (the denomination I’d been persecuted by), which meant they should have been diametrically opposed to even the tiny cup of wine served at Catholic Communion. Why would they even want to go wine tasting unless they were planning an intervention on the biggest wine-sipping sinner there ever was, me?

But then Len told us his Italian grandmother gave him grappa when he was a kid (with a licorice straw!), and when I asked if fortified wine was souped up with vitamins, Deanne snorted wine out her nose.

Overnight, we fell into an easy routine with Len and Deanne, who would leave their kids home on Saturday nights and come over to play cards after our kids were in bed. It had been a while since we’d enjoyed the regular company of other adults without children around, and we acted like grade-schoolers, becoming instant best friends. They discovered we’re messy housekeepers and indifferent cooks. We found out that when their kids were at Grandma’s, they skipped church to have sex. We shared stories both embarrassing and far-fetched: the time Greg knocked himself out with a telescoping umbrella; the one where Len held down a levitating man while another pastor performed an exorcism.

But things escalated quickly, as crushes often do, and we found ourselves trading poker at home for blackjack at the casino; friendly hugs for familiar slaps on my backside. Too late, we discovered when the party’s over, it’s still not over. How can it be, when your neighbor fancies himself Jesus and the sinners he mingled with, all rolled up into one? When it begins to dawn on you, through glances and innuendo and, finally, a drunken, deflected lunge, that someone who used to be a pastor is like someone who used to be a man? It took some doing.


Greg tried the man-to-man approach with Len but claimed I tongue-tied him with a long list of words he couldn’t use (names and actions of body parts, including euphemisms) and phrases he had to use (‘You may not be aware that on one or more Saturdays in the past, you accidentally…’), like we were trapped in a game of Hyper Taboo. I said I was trying to uphold the suburban civility code, but really I was just being practical. We had to live next door to the pecker, after all.

I’d like to say that both of us, both couples, eventually recognized the trajectory we were on and bowed out gracefully, but even couples fall out most times into camps: lover and beloved, hunter and prey. So we took the low road, seeing them once every few weeks on purpose and avoiding them like hell the rest of the time.

Six months into this siege, we got amazing news. The house Len and Deanne lived in, the only rental in the neighborhood, was up for sale. For old time’s sake, we rode the roller coaster with them. Would they or wouldn’t they be able to buy it? I swear I felt their pain at the idea of being kicked out of a house they coveted, but my almost-empathy quickly dissolved at Len’s hints that a key to our house and a fridge full of Coors Light would do a lot to salve his feelings. He wanted to be assured of living with us even if, officially, he had to live somewhere else.

The drama went on, and when it should have ended—after they heard that a better offer had been accepted on “their” house—it started up again when the couple across the street announced they were building a new house and selling their current one.

This near-salvation and then re-helling made things crystal clear to me: it was time to double down.

I lay awake one whole night thinking about Sara, the woman selling her house. I collected her mail when she was on vacation. I pulled her recycling bins back from the curb. She owed me, I figured, but how much? And how, exactly, would I call in my marker?

My spying finally paid off and it happened, a meeting with Sara at the mailbox when the cul-de-sac was otherwise empty.

“I hear you might sell your house to Len and Deanne,” I ventured.

“Yeah.” Yeah? This was the response upon which I was going, ever so subtly, to build my case?

“It’s a nice house,” I tried again, a particularly inane comment considering that except for superficial touches, it was just like ours.

“We think so,” Sara said, cocking her head.

It was obvious I wasn’t going to get a smooth in, so I began my spiel, hoping it didn’t sound rehearsed.

“Can you believe how much our houses have appreciated?”

“Oh my Lord, no.”

“I’m sure you could get—” Here I mentioned a figure I’d been calculating for days, one within reason but out of Len and Deanne’s reach.

“Well,” Sara hesitated. “I don’t want to gossip, but their offer was low. Of course, we only asked them because we know they’re your friends. We don’t even need to sell yet.”

Damned, by my own lack of discernment.

But then she uttered a simple, stunning word—“Still…”—and suddenly I felt like the star in a movie, playing it cool while playing for keeps.

“Still,” she began again. “If I thought there was some reason…”

I wanted to tell her that once Len owned a house in our neighborhood, he might think he owned other things, too; that actions that had been kept at bay might be let loose once the deed, literally, was done. But I felt complicit in my own torture. Why had we let him in? Why had we let him stay?

All of these things roiled around in my mind before jumbling themselves into a ball in my throat.

And then something happened that never happens in real life, at least not in our brimstone neighborhood. Sara placed her hand lightly on my arm, a simple gesture that dissolved the lump in my throat. I wanted to cry, to kiss her. Instead, as if rehearsed, we each turned back toward our respective houses, connected by the invisible thread of telepathy or just plain old-fashioned female instinct.


If my life really were a movie, I’d want a messier, less ethereal turning point. I’d want a scene, say, where the protagonist doesn’t go home to her own house but instead follows Sara into hers and spills everything—the innuendo, the reaching under the table, the escalating phone calls. A scene that employs just enough silence to imply that the other things that might happen already had.

But what kind of neighbor would do that?

Anyway, word spread that the house across the street had mysteriously been taken off the market; that the SOBs, as Len put it, were holding out for a better offer. Defeated, thrown down from the neighborhood they adored, Len and Deanne took to bad-mouthing the houses in our cul-de-sac and moved into a prettier house in a newer and lesser neighborhood.

Although their house is close enough for Len to bike through our neighborhood several times a week, the visits we can’t avoid are mercifully short, conducted on the sidewalk or street. With the long rainy season coming, I find it hard to believe that even he won’t feel asinine cruising our cul-de-sac in his maroon minivan.

But the best part? The house next door is still vacant, tied up in liens for four months and counting. Every day I come back from the mailbox, look up, and fall in love all over again. Its windows lit by automatic timers, it’s the perfect neighbor at last.


Lorri McDole’s writing has appeared in The Writer, Cleaver, The Brevity Blog, Sweet, The Offing, and Eclectica, among other places. Her stories have been selected for several anthologies, including Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her favorite place of publication is the Newport Way Library in Washington State, where her haiku, etched in the sidewalk, only shows up when it’s raining! Her favorite writing prize so far (besides money) is Amourettes, a CD by Les Chauds Lapins (The Hot Rabbits).

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