Stephanie was rather quiet, by nature, as am I. We had few acquaintances, not much of a social life except for each other, and we weren't looking to expand our tiny circle of friends. We tried to be neighborly with our neighbors, of course, but our notion of a "good neighbor" was simply someone who'd leave us alone, wouldn't make much noise, and wouldn't otherwise make him- or herself a nuisance.
By that standard, in the three cities where we lived our apartment buildings were mostly filled with good neighbors, but there have been exceptions. In San Francisco, we had an upstairs neighbor who seemed to host a party three or four nights every week, loud and late. In Kansas City, we had a neighbor down the hall who wouldn't stop pestering us about when we were going to have children. (Spoiler alert: Never.) And in Madison, we had the Nosy Neighbor.
He is, I would guesstimate, in his mid-60s — he has thinning, grey hair, and a craggy face that's seen better days. He's always in good spirits, always wants to chat in the hallway, or on the street. So what's annoying about that? Let me repeat: He's always in good spirits, always wants to chat in the hallway, or on the street.
There are times when it's ordinary and human to chat with the other humans. But every time you see other humans is not the appropriate time to chat. More emphatically, there are limits to the topics of said chatting. From the day we moved in to this apartment building, Nosy Neighbor was omnipresent in the hallway, in the mail lobby, and on the sidewalk, and he always wanted to ask questions.
He never introduced himself or asked our names, like normal people might do. He never started a conversation with an ordinary line like, "Nice day today, eh?" or "How are you doing?" No, he always began with inquiries we considered intrusive, like, "Where are you going?" Or, "What are you two doing today?"
He pedals his bicycle everywhere he goes, so it was not uncommon for Nosy Neighbor to appear out of nowhere when Steph and I were walking, shopping, or running errands. Always he had questions. Even a mile from home, he might emerge from the shadows in any corner and start peppering us with inquiries — asked in a friendly tone of voice, but still it made us uncomfortable.
When Steph and I were new to the building and we were trying to get along with this neighbor, I answered his questions a few times. I don't remember what he asked about, but I remember regretting that I had answered. You don't want to encourage this guy to talk more, to ask more questions. He had a real knack for making us uncomfortable. Maybe "knack" isn't the right word. It's more like, he had the intent of making us uncomfortable.
Once, when we came in to the lobby of our apartment building, he was on the stairway to the second floor, and he simply watched us. Didn't say anything. We wouldn't have known he was there, but I accidentally dropped something, turned around to pick it up, and noticed him standing on the steps above us, watching us. It was as if he was conducting surveillance — and he was, in essence. From chatting with a few of our normal neighbors, we ascertained that Nosy Neighbor is a retired cop.
He spends his summers in Madison, and winters in Florida — so we could go months without seeing him, and then, just as we were hoping he'd moved away or died, he'd ride past us on his bicycle, and wave, and brake, and start asking questions we didn't want to answer. We decided that he had never been a detective — he was too clumsy and overbearing with his questions — but that as a cop, he'd always wanted to be a detective. So now, in his retirement, he was "detecting."
When he asked questions, our rule was to continue walking and evade answering, because you didn't want to loiter with Nosy Neighbor — he'd never let you leave. Once, when he asked where we were going, I said, "Shopping." When we returned an hour or an hour and a half later, he said, "So it takes you seventy-four minutes to go shopping." And then he wanted to know where we'd shopped, and he commented on the groceries in our bags.
Is this creepy yet? We thought so. And as creepy as he was when Steph and I were together, he was creepier when Steph was alone. She told me two stories of her solo interactions with Nosy Neighbor.
Once, when she was returning from an errand somewhere, she stopped in the front vestibule to check the mailbox, and he came up behind her, soundlessly, as she was sorting the bills from the junk mail. He tapped her shoulder and asked, "Did you get anything interesting?" and Steph was scared spitless, as she hadn't seen or heard him, hadn't known he was tiptoeing up behind her. She jumped, and then she said something like, "Please don’t sneak up on me like that. You startled me." He apologized, sounded sincere, and then asked again whether she'd gotten anything interesting in the mail.
The event that brought it to an end came one afternoon, when Steph walked to the local mega-chain drug store to buy some sundries. It's about four blocks from our apartment, an easy distance in the days when Steph could walk. On her way back, three blocks from home and carrying a Walgreens bag, she saw Nosy Neighbor peddling down the street on his bike, but he didn't wave, stop, and chat like he usually did. Instead he turned a corner out of Stephanie's sight, and she was relieved. Half a block later, though, she saw him again, leaning against his parked bike, watching her from a distance. There was nothing else he could've been looking at; she was the only person on the sidewalk. She turned the corner and continued walking toward our apartment, and he came up from behind her, and screeched his bicycle to a halt on a driveway, directly in front of her.
"You went to Walgreens, eh? Do you always walk to Walgreens?"
"No. Sometimes I roller-skate." She sidestepped his bicycle and crossed the street. Stephanie was always willing to take her share of crap from people, but when she'd reached her limit, you'd better back away — and Nosy Neighbor didn't back away. Half a block from home, he pedaled across the street, and again blocked her with his bicycle.
"I'm just trying to be friendly," he said.
"Friendly, eh? What's your name?"
He answered, and Steph later told me his name, but I've since forgotten it.
"Well, thank you for telling me your name," she said. "It'll make for a more thorough police report."
"Police report? What have I done to report?"
"You've been stalking me for blocks. Actually, you've been stalking me for years. I am telling you now, once and only once, to leave me alone."
True to her word, Steph went straight to the phone when she got home, and called the police. A cop came to our apartment, and asked Stephanie a lot of questions, and asked me a few. Nothing came of it, as no real crime had occurred, but she wanted Nosy Neighbor's name on the official record.
He waved at me in the hallway a few days later, and he was as chatty and nosy as ever. Despite having spoken with Stephanie and I, together, many times, this wanna-be detective hadn't pieced together the evidence that we were a couple. He asked me some none-of-his-business question, and I answered, "I'm the husband of the woman you've been stalking. If you want to enjoy your retirement, you will leave her alone. And leave me alone as well."
But that was just icing on a cake Stephanie had baked. Mission accomplished, thanks to her. She filed the police report at least six or seven years before she died, and over all that time we saw Nosy Neighbor frequently, every summer. I'm sure he was watching us as we came and went, probably taking notes and compiling a dossier. He must have wondered why Stephanie went from walking easily to walking slowly to getting around in a wheelchair. For all I know, he tailed us to a doctor's appointment to find out. But he never asked us. He never again spoke a word to either of us, in all the years after Steph called the cops.
I saw him today, which is why I'm telling the story. It's one of the sure signs of spring — birds chirp, the weather warms, and Nosy Neighbor returns from Florida. I was taking out the recycling, and he was between the back door and the dumpster, asking questions of another neighbor. In the old days he would've said something to me — something unsettling, something weird — as I walked by with my trash can. But today, like every day since Steph called the cops, he didn't have anything to say to her, or me.