A few months ago, I was having family lunch at Celebration. My parents and my sister and I were chatting about whatever families chat about. I brought up a dream I’d had. I know that dreams often do not translate and you end up trying to explain that you were yourself in the dream, but you were someone else, and that you were having mac and cheese with Elvis and nothing really made any sense, but this dream was different. It was worth mentioning. It was about our neighbor.
We moved to Greenway Parks in 1975. We found a gem of a house designed by the acclaimed architect Howard Meyer. Midcentury modern, all glass in the back, towering trees that give the feeling of living in a tree house. We expanded the house over the years, first under the design expertise of Howard Meyer, and then, after his death, one of his understudies did the second remodel. Clean lines, dark wood, red brick, and glass.
Greenway Parks was and is a wonderful neighborhood, filled with historic homes, happy children scampering about, wide lawns, and well-maintained greenways. It was an idyllic setting for my childhood. But for almost 40 years, we had the worst neighbor you can imagine, so bad that we once had him arrested.
It was an unspoken rule since the 1970s that we did not say his first name. Using his first name felt too familiar, too neighborly. We used only his last name: Radley.
Having a dream about Radley, then, was definitely something worth sharing with my family. Especially this particular one. In it, Radley said, “Please tell your mother that I am sorry.” When I told this to my mom and sister, they just looked at me. There was a pause. And then they said that they’d both had that exact dream on the same night. I said, “Radley is dead.” Everyone stopped eating. I was sure of it.
That day, after lunch, I noticed an unmarked white van in front of his house. It could have been a flower delivery van or a friend with unfortunate taste in vehicles. I ran a few extra errands that day so that I could do drive-bys. I did not feel him there. At one point, I even peered around the bushes to see if the van was still there. It was. I called the coroner’s office.
Someone there confirmed what I already knew. He was dead. He had died the night we’d all had the dream. It was over.
I had not thought of Radley in years. I’m 40 years old now, and I lived half of those years in Los Angeles. After years of practice, we had all learned to ignore the darkness that lived next to us.
Now that he’s dead, I can tell the story. And I have come to find out that my parents had to deal with far more harassment from Radley than I ever was aware of as a child. I am thankful that they shielded me from some of the details. I reviewed public documents and, as an adult, began to see the whole picture. Death threats, multiple divorces, and more threats.
Our neighbor was a tall man with circles under his eyes, dark hair, and an odd, lurching gait. He lived alone, in what some think was a Dilbeck house. There were many comings and goings at his house. Picture the Unabomber without the long beard and cabin in the woods. He was charming enough at first, but something always felt a little strange. He invited me in for candy at one point, and I did not die, so I figured all was okay. He was well employed at a large corporation based in Dallas, he mowed his lawn, and he kept things tidy.
His switch in behavior seemed to be triggered by minor things. Either our dog barked too much or my brother mowed an inch over the property line Radley had delineated in his mind. He was relentless in calling animal control or the city. One day my mom was out in the front yard with my toddler sister while Radley was “gardening.” My mom waved at him, and Radley flew into a tirade. He dropped multiple F-bombs, all in front of my sister, not to mention my dear mom. Later, he scribbled a note apologizing for cursing in front of my sister.
It escalated. He shot at our dogs with a pellet gun with us watching through our living room windows. He threatened the lives of my father, brother, and mother, and he showed he could make good on those threats with a flash of a handgun. All over nothing. Our other neighbors signed affidavits stating that our dog was not a nuisance and that, in fact, they liked her and the sense of security she gave them.
One day, my mom attempted to have a rational conversation with Radley about our dog. She is a peacemaker and approached him with that intent. They were both in the front yard, near the property line, and he snapped. He came at her with a rake. It cut her arms and her leg. He threatened to kill her. The police were dispatched, but he hid in his house and wouldn’t answer the door. Without a warrant, there was nothing the police could do.
My mom survived, of course, but she was terrified. We all were. My father hired a private detective to get a better understanding of the man he was raising his three children next to.
Radley’s history of abuse and threats unfolded. Almost all his ex-wives had restraining orders against him, and all divorce documents stated he had threatened their lives.
His behavior became increasingly bizarre. I was babysitting my sister one snowy night when there was a deafening noise at the door. It sounded like someone was knocking on the door with a rake or broom handle. Prior to that, I had heard Radley banging on a metal trash can for no reason. I called the police. Before they arrived, I went outside and tracked the footprints in the snow. They led from his house to our front window—where my sister and I could be seen watching Flashdance—and then they went to the front door and back to his house.
When the police arrived, they knocked on his door again. No answer, again. In the police report, they confirmed the damage to our large, red front door and the tracks from and back to his side door. This was no childhood prank. For some reason, I became unafraid of him and more interested in catching him in the act.
On one of his nocturnal shooting sprees with his pellet gun, Radley shot one of our dogs. He also shot through our windows. My father was in the line of fire and witnessed all of it. Radley was arrested—finally. He answered the door and admitted to his prowling and shooting.
There were so many other ways he found to disturb us: calling and hanging up at all hours of the night. Dumping his rusted-out water heater right on our shared property line (we decided to look at it as urban art). When the city forced him to remove it, he replaced it with a clothesline on which he hung his dirty boxers. At night, he sometimes climbed the fence and swam in our pool. He used a diving mask and flippers, which he stored under a pile of leaves on the side of our house.
I was with a Hockaday friend one night, and we were backing out of our driveway to go see a movie (as far as my parents knew). Suddenly, in my rearview mirror, there Radley was, blocking my exit. I had had it. I got out of the car. “Don’t you have better things to do?” I said, not breaking eye contact. “Go read a book. Get a life.” He seemed ashamed and trudged back to his house. It was probably an unwise move on my part, but I couldn’t take it anymore. There was no retribution after I stood up to him.
Over the years, he reared his ugly head from time to time, but his terrorism and cruelty waned. We grew thick and tall evergreen bushes to block him from view and eventually added onto the house so that all windows faced everywhere but west, where his house stood. By the time he died, we had physically and mentally blocked him out.
After Radley was gone, we had the pleasure of going to his “estate” sale. It was like a scene from The Silence of the Lambs. I expected to find a stone well with a girl and her dog at the bottom, screaming for her life. Instead, it was a bunch of creepy junk laid bare on the driveway. Rusted pots and pans, soiled clothing, dirty everything. A stench that still resides in my nostrils if I really think about it. It was all stuff that should have just been put in the trash, yet people picked through it.
I, on the other hand, could not get out of there fast enough. I wanted to take a Crying Game shower.
It was almost over. Some of his friends came and went. The real estate agent admitted to me that she regretted taking the listing and that clearly some unusual activities had gone on in the house. Another real estate agent took on the listing, and, finally, it sold. Hallelujah! And the cherry on top: the new owners bulldozed it.
I felt like running up and down the street with sparklers in both hands, screaming, “Free at last! We are free at last!” But I didn’t. My family and I had some wine and watched Dancing With the Stars, safe in the knowledge that our neighbor was now a vacant lot.
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