Jane Armstrong ~ Notes from Annabelle Next Door (age four)

Scream as loud­ly as you can at ran­dom times, day or night, with­out shame or apol­o­gy.

Sing the music in your head with­out regard to melody or rhythm. Performing out­side announces your pres­ence and asserts your iden­ti­ty.

Shout “Hi, neigh­bor!” to every­one you see. Stranger Danger is for cow­ards.

Eat your Popsicle while fac­ing the sun, eyes closed. Celebrate the ephemer­al.

Denude your neigh­bor’s gar­den of all fresh­ly blos­som­ing flow­ers. Present these flow­ers to your neigh­bor as gifts “from my gar­den.” Smile inno­cent­ly when your neigh­bor says, “I just saw you pull them from my gar­den.” Forgive the accu­sa­tion. Your neigh­bor’s knowl­edge of prop­er­ty rights is lim­it­ed and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed.

Do not be deterred when your neigh­bor yells, “Get out of my yard!” Know that “Get out of my yard!” is cor­rect­ly inter­pret­ed as a chal­lenge. Strengthen your resolve to show your child­less neigh­bor all you have to offer.

Stare into your neighbor’s win­dow. Observe the spec­i­men behind the glass for extend­ed peri­ods of time; close­ly exam­ine her activ­i­ties. Ignore the spec­i­men if she calls you a “lit­tle creep­er.” She is inca­pable of under­stand­ing your infi­nite need for knowl­edge.

Discard any item that no longer pleas­es you. Trust that the beach ball from your inflat­able splash pool, the tray of dried-up water­col­or paint, and the Hello Kitty sneak­er you left in your neigh­bor’s yard will mag­i­cal­ly reap­pear on your side of the fence.

After your cats have estab­lished res­i­dence in your neigh­bor’s back­yard and after your cats have caught with one quick swipe of their dead­ly paws the hum­ming­birds your neigh­bor worked to attract and after your cats invad­ed your neigh­bor’s green­house and used the con­tain­ers of her care­ful­ly tend­ed let­tuces for their lit­ter­box, it’s per­fect­ly rea­son­able for you to pick the recent­ly installed lock on your neigh­bor’s back­yard gate to retrieve the cats. Your cats may appear to favor the neighbor’s peace­ful gar­den over your all-encom­pass­ing love, but, real­ly, they’re just play­ing on a new field, and ded­i­ca­tion to play is the high­est virtue.

Show no care or atten­tion to your long red hair or how its tawny col­or com­ple­ments your amber eyes. Sure, you could be con­sid­ered a lumi­nous­ly beau­ti­ful child, but dirt and snarls and tan­gles are hon­est.

When, at age four, you see the motor­cy­cle in your neigh­bor’s open garage, and when, at age four, you ask your neigh­bor to spell out “motor­cy­cle” for you to tran­scribe into new­ly learned char­ac­ters, and when, at age four, you ask real­ly, real­ly nice­ly, your neigh­bor will per­mit you to write the word in big, swirly, shaky pur­ple chalk let­ters on her dri­ve­way. Assume that your neigh­bor will be secret­ly proud of your graf­fi­ti and will be filled with inex­plic­a­ble sad­ness when the rain wash­es it away.

When your so-called friends tell you you’re stu­pid, and when your so-called friends tease you about your hair and call you “red bird,” and when there’s no one else to con­fide in oth­er than your neigh­bor who yells at you, be brave and tell her that your so-called friends hurt your feel­ings. Maybe she’ll say that you can’t pos­si­bly be stu­pid because you know, at age four, how to write “motor­cy­cle.” Maybe she’ll tell you that red birds are the most beau­ti­ful birds and the next time some­one calls you “red bird,” you should thank that per­son for telling you how beau­ti­ful you are.

Remain igno­rant of your neigh­bor’s fear as you run alone up and down the street in your night­gown at dusk, clutch­ing your plush tiger, so strange­ly sim­i­lar to a toy your neigh­bor loved to the stuff­ing when she was lit­tle. Pay no heed to your neigh­bor’s fear that her front yard, vis­i­ble from a busy cross street, could be the one from which a bad per­son snatch­es you. Assure your­self that your neigh­bor is para­noid, irra­tional­ly pro­tec­tive of a child she bare­ly knows. Take com­fort in the fact that your neigh­bor nev­er had chil­dren of her own to smoth­er.

Delight in the image of your neigh­bor’s smile as she dis­cov­ers the two care­ful­ly cho­sen pink rocks you placed in her mail­box.

Never hes­i­tate to pick up that big stick at the base of your neigh­bor’s oak tree and bang it again and again for a sol­id hour against every avail­able hard sur­face in her front yard. Wait for the rhythm. It will find you. She will hear it.

~

Jane Armstrong was a National Endowment for the Arts lit­er­ary fel­low in cre­ative non­fic­tion in 2018. Her sto­ries and essays have appeared in The North American Review, Mississippi Review, New World Writing, River Teeth, NewsweekBrevity and Airplane Reading, among oth­ers. Her com­men­taries have aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She is a win­ner, with painter Christopher Kane Taylor, of the 2016 Viola Award for Excellence in Storytelling from the Flagstaff Arts Council for their col­lab­o­ra­tive exhib­it, Aphasia: Neurological Disorder in Text and Image. Her essay, “Aphasia,” was award­ed the Torch Prize in Creative Nonfiction for 2018. She is a past recip­i­ent of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and she lives in Normandy, France.