Hilary Sigismondi–a University of Baltimore student in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program–pays homage to her one-of-a-kind Baltimore neighbor, Liz. Read her first Baltimore Fishbowl entry here.
We couldn’t figure out where the rats were coming from. We were used to the mice—that was something you learned to live with when your house was almost 100 years old. But rats as big as house cats? Holy hell. We heard them rooting around in the kitchen while we sat on the couch in the living room watching TV. We heard squeaks and the rough sound of boxes moving in the pantry and the clinking of the plates and water glasses sitting in the dish drainer when rats trampled over them causing them to collide. One time I opened the door to the overhead cupboard above the microwave and a rat jumped out and flew right past me. He was so close I felt his fur against my arm.
I was dragging our official green Baltimore City trashcan across the front lawn to the curb late one night during the infestation and saw Liz, my neighbor, doing the same. I called out to her across the fence.
“Hey, Liz. Have you guys noticed the rats around here lately? We’re frickin’ infested; they’re practically taking over the kitchen!”
“Oh, yeah,” she said pulling the can off the curb down onto the street. “I’ve been feeding ’em. They’re hungry. Ya know rats hafta eat too!”
Liz has lived in the house next door to me for 27 years, and she will tell you without apology that she prefers animals to people. Liz, an earthy hermit in her 70s, is the only authentic “cat lady” I have ever known. I suppose you can call her the “rat lady” too. She is tall and skeletal, and hunches over a little when she walks. She wears faded, frayed flannel shirts with missing buttons year-round and cotton pants secured with safety pins. Her face is covered with a pale map of deep wrinkles, and a mouth with an overbite. She doesn’t smile often, but when she does, it’s wide and sincere. Her teeth are straight and tinted nicotine brown. A few are jagged, and many are missing, which you only notice when she laughs. Her short hair is white, stiff, and thick. She styles it herself, and I have to give it to her: she does a pretty good job. She’s proud of the fact that she doesn’t have to pay to get it cut and can’t understand why people made such a big deal out of not being able to go to the hairdresser during the pandemic. It’s stacked in the back with a center part and sleek sides that frame her face and fall to a point at her chin. Every week it looks a little different because she’s always tweaking it. Whenever I compliment her on her hair, she waves me off and mutters, “Oh Hilary, I don’t know what I’m doin’.”
I call Liz a hermit, although I don’t know if she would describe herself that way. She sleeps during the day and stays up all night. About 15 years ago, she drove a cab but hasn’t held a job since.
I tease her, “Liz, are you sure you aren’t really a millionaire pretending to be poor?”
She tells me to shut up.
She spends most of her time tending to her front and back yards. She is obsessed with her lawn and lovingly tends to her pond filled with salmon-sized goldfish. She does most of her own home repairs, refusing to pay when she can figure it out herself. Her house looks like a “fixer upper,” that hasn’t been fixed up yet. It appears to have once been painted a light green, but it’s hard to tell because so much of it has chipped off. Much of the wooden trim has rotted and the windows are cloudy. An old window unit air conditioner juts out from the second floor window above her front porch that is cluttered with half-full bags of soil and mulch, empty 10-gallon aquariums, rakes and brooms, bowls of dry and crusty cat food, a wooden dining room chair, boxes of nails, and a pile of two-by-fours.
She and her husband, Ken, a tall, skinny guy even paler than Liz, used to operate a small business out of their basement manufacturing miniature buildings for train gardens. Ken designed them and Liz molded and painted the little people that went inside–she tells me she loved those people. They closed the business and now “live off the government,” as Liz likes to say. Now, Ken spends all of his time inside the house surfing the internet which doesn’t seem to bother Liz in the least. I recently asked her about their marriage, and she laughed and said, “We’re stuck with each other. Who else would have either one of us?”
The first five years I lived in the house, my children’s father, the kids, and I were afraid of Liz.
“She’s got some crazy Scorpio energy going on, Hilary. I don’t trust her,” my astrologer husband announced. It wasn’t until after he moved out that Liz and I spoke. I was out in my side yard organizing the trash cans when she yelled over to me across the fence, startling me. My back was to her.
“You need to buy a bell for that cat.”
“His name is Sunshine,” I shot back without turning around. “Why?”
“He’s killing birds.”
“Hmm,” I responded. There was no way in hell I was buying a bell, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
I turned to look at her. She continued.
“I found two in my backyard.”
She was staring right at me.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll try and keep an eye on him.”
“He needs a bell.”
Instead of responding, I broke eye contact and muttered something about needing to get inside to the kids. Flustered, I hurried back into the house and shut the door behind me, feeling like I had just seen a ghost.
Little by little, we started talking more. For a while, she was smoking and hiding it from Ken. I got out of my car one evening and she was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house smoking a Maverick, the cheapest you can buy.
“I’ve gotta hide my smoking from Ken,” she told me.
“Doesn’t he smoke?” I asked, feeling honored and surprised she would share her secret with me and confused because I knew I had seen him sitting on his front steps smoking.
“Of course, he does, Hilary, but he doesn’t like it when I do. And, besides, I’m trying to get him to quit.”
“Hmm. Can I bum one?”
“No,” she said. “What are you, crazy? These things are expensive.”
She took another drag, and even though it was only half-smoked, snuffed it out on the cement and put it back in her pack to save for later.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve borrowed many tools from Liz and she’s been my go-to person for everything house related. The first time my hot water went out after a major storm, she walked me down to the root cellar and showed me that the hot water heater was flooded because the sump pump wasn’t plugged in.
“What’s a sump pump?” I asked her.
“Don’t you know anything, Hilary?”
When one winter morning I turned on the bathroom spigot and no water at all came out, she was the one I phoned in a panic.
“Liz, I don’t have any water! Should I call a plumber?”
“Your pipes are probably frozen, Hilary. That’s a problem. I hope they don’t burst on you. That’ll be a real mess and will cost a fortune.”
“What do I do, Liz? You’re scaring me!”
“Calm down, I’ll come over.”
When I received a letter in the mail from my homeowner’s insurance company stating they were going to cancel my policy if I didn’t put a railing on the front porch, Liz listened to me complain about not having the money to pay someone to build it and then said simply: “We’ll build it ourselves, Hilary. It’ll be a lot cheaper and better quality too.”
She and I built that railing and it still stands today. It took us all weekend and a dozen trips to Home Depot. She complained I was impatient and “half-ass.” I complained she was “anal” and too slow. We stood in the aisle of the Home Depot, yelling at each other for forgetting how many wooden slats we needed.
“Why didn’t you write it down, Liz?!”
“It’s your house, Hilary!”
“But, you’re the project manager!”
Liz has a chain saw. Whenever I need a tree trimmed, she handles it. For years she let me borrow her broken-down electric mower to cut my lawn and complained about it.
“I don’t know why you don’t just buy your own mower, Hilary.”
I shared with her my belief that communities should share more.
“Don’t you think the world would be a better place if people shared more and connected, Liz? Why does every house on the block need to have their own mower?”
“You know I hate people, and if you don’t clean my mower after using it, I’m not lending it to you anymore.”
If it wasn’t for Liz, I wouldn’t have my little dog, Wilbur. Ten years ago, my daughter convinced me to go to the pound and at least look at the dogs worried that, as an empty nester, I’d be lonely. I fell in love with one immediately, but didn’t bring him home. I said I needed to think it over; I was terrified. I had no idea of how to take care of a dog and honestly didn’t know if I had it in me. I decided to talk to Liz about it. At the time she had two dogs as well as half a dozen cats. Most importantly, I knew she would be brutally honest about whether she thought I could handle it. Sitting on my front porch, she gave it to me straight.
“Of course, you can handle it, Hilary. Whadda you talkin’ about? You raised two kids, didn’t you?!
“What? So you really think I should do it?”
“That dog needs you Hilary, of course you should do it.”
“I’m afraid, Liz.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, I’ll help you.”
That’s when things shifted between us. Liz and I walked our dogs together through our neighborhood and talked. At first, we talked about the neighbors, and she filled me in on all the neighborhood gossip. We judged the houses we walked by and stole random items from abandoned houses. We pretended to have our own TV show, “Looting with Liz and Hilary,” and as she dragged an old chair out from under a porch of a vacant single-family home, I did the voice over:
“Here in Hamilton, one can find the most delightful of treasures. Today, Liz has discovered this charming item. We know it needs a little TLC, but as looters, we know and embrace that, never forgetting the key factor–it’s free!”
We talked about the TV show, “Big Brother,” and she complained that the women on the show weren’t working as a team. She gushed about the boy band One Direction and how adorable she thought they were. We started talking about more serious topics like depression and death. I asked her if she would live forever if she could. I was shocked when she said yes.
“There’s so much to learn, Hilary!”
“But you hate people, Liz, why would you want to live forever?”
“First off, I don’t hate all people. I just hate the stupid ones who deserve to be hated! And besides, who says I’d have to talk to anyone?” she said, completely serious.
I, on the other hand, was certain I had no desire to live forever.
“I could be done tomorrow, Liz. Seriously.”
“What?! You with all your friends and boyfriends and ‘social activities’?” she said, putting air quotes around the term. You LOVE being alive! But, If you do end up killing yourself, just make sure Wilbur has somewhere to go?”
“But don’t do that,” she said, stopping for a second, looking right at me. “I don’t wanna have to deal with a new neighbor.”
Six months after I brought Wilbur home, I allowed Jim to move in. He was a young man I’d known for years through my son, Nick. He was a “couch surfer,” who was smart and alone. He spent several Thanksgivings with our family and even drove with us when we dropped Nick off at college. He and I always hit it off and shared a love of the game Scrabble. Apparently, his mother had a boyfriend who didn’t want him around, so he beat him up and kicked him out. Jim had no support, so I told him he could stay with me, for a few months or so if he worked on getting his GED. We talked for hours about his life. He told me his cousin had been shot and died in his arms. We discussed his dreams and the barriers to him achieving them. I told him I believed in him and would always be there for him. A month went by, and he made no progress. I warned him I was serious about him having to leave.
“I’m not playin’, Jim.” I warned him.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Hilary, I’m on it.”
He wasn’t on it, and I gave him a month notice that he needed to leave. I wasn’t mean about it, just clear. He agreed and said he understood.
During this time, I was very concerned about Wilbur. He would be standing, perfectly fine, and then just fall over. Literally. Just fall over. Sometimes he would be walking and then suddenly stop and fall over. My regular vet couldn’t find anything wrong, so I took him to a neurologist who couldn’t find anything either. I admitted to Jim I was really scared, and he told me not to worry.
“He’s a tough little dude, Ms. Hilary. He’ll be fine. You take such good care of him.”
The day came for Jim to go, and to my surprise, he wouldn’t leave. I honestly thought we would hug and say goodbye, but that’s not how it went. Instead, he stood in the living room and shouted at me–rage in his eyes–that I had never done a goddamn thing for him, and I was a bunch of bullshit, just like everyone else. He went on and on about what a heartless bitch I was and only agreed to leave after I told him I was gonna call my friend Bill, a Baltimore City cop. Jim had met Bill and knew he was no joke. As he walked out the door, he looked back at me and sneered.
“If I was you, I’d keep an eye out on that punk ass dog of yours.”
I was stunned. I closed and locked the front door behind him and ran upstairs to find Wilbur who was sleeping on my bed. I picked him up and he felt like a rag doll in my arms. Limp. I knew it, then. Jim had been hurting Wilbur, and I couldn’t believe it. I stood there crying and rocking Wilbur. I didn’t know what to do or who to call. I called Liz.
“I think Jim poisoned Wilbur,” I cried.
“I think Jim’s been poisoning Wilbur. That’s why he’s been falling over! I can’t believe it. How could he do that? Why did he do that? I can’t believe it!”
“I can’t understand a word you’re saying, I’m coming over.”
Liz came right over and found me holding Wilbur and crying. She took Wilbur from me.
“He’s fine Hilary. Look. He’s wide awake.”
“I think he’s been poisoning him, Liz. How could he do that? Poor Wilbur.”
“I told you, you’re too nice Hilary. See? This is why I hate people.”
Liz stroked Wilbur a bit and set him down on the floor. He ran off. I calmed down when I saw that Wilbur was ok.
“Thanks for coming over Liz. Does this mean you actually care about me?” I teased.
“I just wanted to make sure Wilbur was ok.”
Husbands, roommates, and boyfriends have come and gone over the years, but Liz’s presence has been a constant. She walks and feeds Wilbur for me when I am away and checks to see if I turned off the stove when I think I forgot. She hides my spare key in her mailbox and continues to lend my husband and me tools, as long as we promptly return them. She offers us advice on home improvement and warns us about getting ripped off. When my husband, Chris, first met Liz, he didn’t know what to think. Now, they consult with each other and share gardening tips. In fact, Liz gave him several free Hosta plants and ferns that are currently flourishing in our garden out back.
After the incident with Wilbur, it hit me: Liz isn’t only my neighbor, she’s my friend. When I shared that revelation with her, she laughed and said, “Ok, if you say so, Hilary. But don’t think this means I’m giving you free rides to the airport!”
Love this Hilary … so reminds me of all the “ charm” and eclectic characters of Baltimore ( and other areas too!) what a great neighbor and now friend …
Liz really is a piece of work and i am honored to know her.
I loved this story. Everyone should have a character in their neighborhood like Liz. Salt of the earth.
Thanks so much! She is really something.
This is a great story, Hilary! There aren’t enough Liz’s in the world.
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