I'm not a poet, but when I was about twenty, I wrote a poem titled Peephole Person. It was about a man who spent his days watching his neighbors through the peephole. He was interested in their lives but never took the initiative to meet them. Looking back on the dozens of short stories I have written since, I could see that writing that poem was the catalyst for the obsession I had developed to write characters who were painfully introverted. However, discovering what drove me to write the poem in the first place was more difficult.
When I lived in my townhouse apartment, I had a neighbor; he was a walrus of a man with pasty skin, a bulging gut, fat, awkward limbs, and white, Wilford-Brimley-like mustache tusks. I lived beside him for years but only talked to him a half dozen times, and always briefly. He rarely left the house. He had an old beat-up pickup truck, an old car that he never seemed to drive, and nothing planted in the allotted plot of mulch in front of his apartment except a gigantic, sprawling, and unmaintained boxwood plant.
The longest interaction I ever had with him happened one day when he brought home a loveseat. When I got home, he was huffing and puffing outside, struggling to get it out of the back of his truck and through his front door. He asked for a hand and I obliged.
We hefted the couch though the door, straight into the living room, and I saw that he lived in the same apartment I did. The furnishings were sparse, but what was underneath was all the same—the same closet under the stairs hiding the water heater, the same carpeting installed before I was born, and the same kitchen with dark, dated kitchen cabinets and curled linoleum flooring. It was uncanny.
When I got back to my apartment, I couldn't help but picturing his. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that maybe I wasn't as pasty or quite as heavy or awkward, but my whiskers, though not quite as white, were still like little buds of walrus tusks. And I thought, maybe not entirely consciously, about how if my wife were not in this apartment, or if I had to go on disability, or if any one of a number of things had happened differently, I could be this man who was my neighbor.
I can't say this made me get to know him and I started writing an homage to Tuesdays with Morrie, but I think it definitely made me face the part of me that knew that, under different circumstances, I was not unlikely to find myself in the shoes of a person who stayed at home, watching an outdated rabbit-eared television with no one in my life to help me move a loveseat off the back of my pickup truck.
I think that is why writers write what we write. I think we like to imagine that we write about our ideals, our hope and dreams, or the things we love, but more often than not we find ourselves writing about what we question or what we fear, because, when it comes right down to it, those are the things that readers like you, like me, and like my neighbor with a pickup truck full of loveseat can most easily relate to and learn from.
Will Mayer has been previously published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, The Germ, The Stoneslide Corrective, 4’33”, Lamplight, The Cynic, and Central Virginia Bridal Guide.