I can’t remember their names, but I live vicariously through their picture-perfect lives.

They live catty-corner to me over in the East Maryville neighborhood I call home, in a house on the other side of my back fence that’s somewhere in the Jackson Hills neighborhood. My backyard kisses theirs down along the fence row behind my chicken run, stopping a few yards short of a no-man’s-land of overgrowth and windblown detritus that serves as the right-of-way for overhead power lines. We would always nod and wave whenever we saw one another working outside, but it wasn’t until I was burying my old dog one hot spring day a couple of years ago that we spoke for the first time.

They’re both retired, and as I struggled to break up the hardpan and chew through the buried roots of an old hackberry tree in order to make a proper-sized grave, they were prepping their immaculate yard for spring. It makes me smile to see how carefully they cultivate their property from the sharp horizontal paths he makes on the riding mower, wearing ear protection and a dust mask, to the modest-sized garden that never seems to sprout weeds.

By contrast, I can never seem to level the deck of my old riding mower, and when I make sharp turns mowing the yard, it chews gouges out of the turf. Not that I’m vying for any beautification awards, anyway; the grass is lush and thick in spots but gives way to crabgrass and clover in others, so that in the grip of winter, the rains turn the ground to mush and the dogs trample ruts that never seem to heal. And while I fancy myself a farmer, the garden plot I’ve created over the years is gargantuan, far bigger than one man can hope to tend by himself. My only hope is that I can pry the little ones off of TV and video games in order to get an hour or so of work out of them to help pull weeds or kill pests or gather produce.

We spoke only briefly the day I buried my dog; casual introductions, as it were, with the usual litany of questions: “Where d’you work?” “How long have you lived here?” “Whatcha growing in the garden this year?” His wife offered me a cold bottle of water, for which I was grateful, and they both expressed condolences that the old dog lying lifeless beneath the tree had to be put down. It was a small kindness, but that afternoon, with the sun already turning the air humid and a job to which I was running late and an old friend to whom I had to bid farewell, it meant the world, and I haven’t forgotten it.

These days, we wave to one another across the way, and when the weather is halfway decent, I’ll see them on their morning walks along East Broadway in front of the Food Lion shopping center. In the evenings, they’ll sit together in a swing near the back of their property, looking out over the life that they’ve built together as the night sounds fill the air: the call of birds on their way to the roost, the whirring of bats beneath the sodium lights, the distant roar of a crowd from the Eagleton ball fields as a well-placed base hit sends runners around the bags.

I don’t know what they talk about, and I’m not even sure if they hold hands, but the connection they share comes from a place of longevity and solace. I’m sure I’ve romanticized their relationship in my mind, because I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors, but they are an inspiration in the way that they live and love. Their modest home won’t grace magazine covers or full-page newspaper spreads, but it’s tranquil in a way that speaks of shared duty, shared responsibility and a sense of integrity that reminds me of something an old friend once told me:

If you find yourself feeling down, do something to look better. Shine your shoes. Put on a decent shirt. Spruce up your outsides, just a little bit, and your insides will slowly follow. I can’t say with certainty that their insides match their outsides, but I suspect they do, and that gives me hope.

On these early spring nights when the nip of winter still lingers, I look out at my yard and my garden and my animals … I see the scattered detritus of children’s toys and chicken feathers and dandelions pushing up from the earth … I hear the cacophony of barking dogs and laughing children … and their tranquility gives me a greater appreciation for my own. It may be years before my wife and I are able to sit peacefully beneath the canopy of a swing and look out at this glorious life we’ve built together, but we’re getting there, and the neighbors I don’t know but love anyway give me hope for that future and an appreciation for the now.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

Award-winning freelance columnist and entertainment writer Steve Wildsmith is the former WeekEnd editor at The Daily Times.

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