Image by Max Olijnyk
I first spoke to my neighbour Roberto a week or so after we moved in. I saw him standing out on his porch surveying his immaculate front lawn, so I said hello and asked how he was going. He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether to talk to me or not, then swivelled his hand from side to side. “Fifty-fifty,” he said, “I’m still alive.” We exchanged a smile and I said something weak like, ”That’s the main thing!” As if I’d passed a test, he walked over to the fence and looked around before leaning in conspiratorially.
“A man come here yesterday. He say, what you think of him?”
“What you think of who? Me?” I asked. Roberto nodded.
“I say to him, he’s alright, nice wife, good job, very quiet.”
I thanked him for the wildly inaccurate, yet glowing reference.
“He say to me, ‘I think he no good.’”
I laughed, figuring he was telling a joke. But Roberto was deadly serious.
“You know what I say to him?” he said, his face darkening. I told him I didn’t know.
“I say, piss off! You bloody bastard.” He stretched out the words: blaardy baaastard, and shook his fist in the air.
That was quite a way to kick off a friendship. Roberto’s story revealed a deep neighbourly allegiance to me, one I had earned simply through living next door and conducting myself in a way that he deemed suitable. Even if he was making the whole thing up, I felt like I knew where he was coming from. I’ve wanted to tell hundreds of people to piss off over the years. The bloody bastards.
The next time I saw Roberto he was in the front yard again, watching his scraggly dog sniff around. Coincidentally, I was taking our dog Tess for a walk. “How much for this one?” he asked, pointing at Tess.
I told him I bought her from the pound for three hundred dollars. He was not impressed.
“This one, I get for free,” he said.
“This one, blue heeler. Australian working dog.” I lent over the fence to pat the dog, which was the furthest thing from a blue heeler I had ever seen. She was an indeterminate blur of matted white fur (some sort of terrier?) that had been barking non-stop since we had moved in. She snapped at me savagely. “Nina NO!” yelled Roberto, holding up his hand menacingly. Nina cowered.
I’ve had plenty of interesting conversations with Roberto since then. He’s told me all about his old job at Ansett (“The boss, he like me! The others, they say Roberto, why is boss your friend? I say, fuck off!”) and his three heart bypass operations. He told me he would go back to Italy for a holiday, if he didn’t have to visit his wife every day in the nursing home. He told me he’d love to swim in the Mediterranean again. He says the water here makes him sick.
“Doctor say, Roberto! This ocean full of piss!”
Playing along, I said maybe I shouldn’t go swimming in Australia, either, since my dad is from the Ukraine.
“No, for you is ok,” said Roberto. He’s always one step ahead of me.
One morning last month when I was checking the mailbox, a car pulled up next door and Roberto got out wearing a dressing gown and looking crumpled. I ran inside, so as not to let him know I saw him like that. For a few weeks his family visited every day, and I didn’t see Roberto at all.
Yesterday when I was bringing in the bins, I saw him sitting in the backyard with Nina, who had been given an ultra-short haircut and painted bright pink. I asked Roberto how he was going. He swivelled his hand from side to side and said “Fifty-fifty.” I nodded and asked why Nina was painted bright pink. “She has the flies,” he explained, mimicking little mites buzzing around his ears. “First time I ever seen it. Fuckin’ things.” He held up a can of fly spray and told me how he has to sit out the back and watch Nina unless a fly lands on her. “She itches,” he said. I wondered aloud whether the fly spray might in fact exacerbate matters, but he just shook his head. “Doctor tell me, it’s the flies.”
Max is a writer, photographer, and friend to small pink dogs everywhere.
Follow Max on Twitter: @maxolijnyk