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Making Danville Great Again

They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Philip Gulley's neighbor Brian is both.

A few years after my wife and I moved to Danville, our elderly neighbor sold her house to a young couple, Brian and Jennifer, who were expecting their first child. Occupied with moving, getting their old house ready to sell, fixing up their new one, and preparing for a baby, they neglected to bring me a plate of warm cookies welcoming me to their new neighborhood. I kept dropping hints about how much I liked cookies, but their minds were apparently elsewhere, and I resigned myself to having self-centered neighbors.

When their daughter was born, my wife and I walked next door to inspect the child. While my wife was chatting with Jennifer and admiring their baby, I sampled the food their friends and family had brought, then poked around the house, looking in closets, rearranging furniture, and inspecting their medicine cabinets for illegal drugs. After all, I had two kids myself, and one can never be too cautious.

While looking around, I found Brian out in the garage watching football. My wife is mostly normal, except for a few peculiarities, one of which is her contempt for television, so we don’t have one. And here, not a hundred yards from our house, was a perfectly good TV, hooked up to cable, in an unlocked garage. It turned out Brian liked the occasional cigarette, so he had been banished to the garage by his wife. Like her, I detest cigarettes and told Brian that if he expected me to watch TV in his garage, he’d have to knock off the smokes. “For crying out loud,” I told him, “stop thinking only of yourself.”

Despite these challenges, Brian and I have become friends, though I’m not sure “friends” is quite the right word. When my mother-in-law Ruby died, I gave Brian her always-garaged 1979 Ford Granada with only 40,000 miles on the clock. He promised he’d keep it forever, and said I could drive it whenever I wished. “It’ll be like Ruby’s still here,” he told me. A month later, he sold it for $3,000 and I haven’t seen it since. What kind of friend would do that?

A year later, I was cleaning out my garage and didn’t have room for my edger, which had set me back $300 and was practically new. I wheeled it over to Brian’s house and gave it to him. As I was leaving, one of Brian’s friends came to visit, and Brian sold him the edger for $100, not having owned it for 10 minutes. Would a friend do that?

Then Brian, who had never shown the slightest interest in religion, began watching Joel Osteen and comparing our career trajectories. “Maybe if you smiled more, you’d have a big church like Joel,” he told me.

“Maybe if I had better neighbors, I’d smile more,” I said.

To be fair, Brian visited our Quaker meeting shortly afterwards to attend our annual fish fry, where he asked the cashier for a discount since he knew the pastor. Before leaving, he placed a note on the pulpit asking the congregation to take up an offering for him.

That same week, we were eating lunch at the Clayton Cafe and Brian mentioned it was his birthday. “Jennifer’s working tonight, so I don’t think we’ll be celebrating it,” he said. I’m saddened when someone’s birthday slips by unacknowledged, so I plucked Brian’s check from the table and paid for his lunch. That night, I mentioned to my wife that it was Brian’s birthday, and that I’d bought his meal. “His birthday was three months ago,” she told me. Brian is single-handedly redefining what it means to be a friend.

A few months later, he sold my 14-year-old son a golf club, paid for with money my son had earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow. Later that day, the first time my son used it, the club head snapped off. When my son phoned Brian to tell him what had happened, Brian answered the phone, saying, “Brian’s Golf Sales. Home of the one-hour guarantee. How may I help you?” Which can only mean he knew the club was ready to break, but had nevertheless sold it to a 14 year-old kid. What kind of friend would do that?

Over the years, I’ve mentioned Brian and his exploits on my Facebook page. Now, whenever I go somewhere to speak, someone raises their hand and wants to know more about him. Even after I tell them I prefer not to talk about him, they persist. “You’re blessed to have such a wonderful neighbor,” they tell me. He has become Facebook friends with several of my Facebook friends and has turned them against me, claiming I’m a pinko liberal, which is true, but whose business is that besides mine?

To make matters worse, Brian voted for Donald Trump in the last election and intends to do so again. I’m mystified by this, since he also voted for Barack Obama twice. We spent the first eight years of our friendship making fun of George W. Bush, admired Barack Obama’s leadership for two terms, then I cast my ballot for Hillary, he voted for The Donald, and each day he sends me text messages extolling Trump’s “accomplishments.” Despite these annoyances, Brian is still my friend, which can only mean my need for acceptance is a little pathetic.

Even the occasional rose he extends to me carries the hidden thorn. One February, while plowing my driveway, he heaped the snow high and purposely made the passage in my driveway so narrow that my car became wedged between two snow banks, like a cork in a bottle. I couldn’t open the doors, and had to phone my wife to come open the rear hatch so I could crawl out. Then my son had to pull me out with his truck. The very next week, I bought Brian’s lunch after he told me it was his anniversary, though I later found out he was married in October.

For all his misdeeds, I still like Brian, and am grateful he’s my neighbor. Into every life a little rain must fall, and Brian is my deluge. It could be worse. I once lived next door to a Southern Baptist who kept trying to save me. Compared to that, Brian’s eccentricities are harmless, even quaint.

Did I mention his wife is kind and helpful, and their two kids are thoughtful and polite—thanks to their mother, no doubt. The little baby who became our neighbor all those years ago will be heading off to college soon. She’s bright, witty, and loves children. Like any good neighbor, I’ve taken the liberty of planning her life and have advised her to become a schoolteacher. “Look at your father,” I tell her. “Just think how one good teacher could have helped him.”

“It would have taken more than one,” she said.

As I said, she’s very bright. 

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