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On the day my family moved into our home in Northern Virginia, we found a bottle of champagne with a card from the sellers affixed. They congratulated us on our purchase—a fixer-upper with a jungle of a backyard—and told us how much they had loved the neighborhood. “And be sure to make friends with Captain Bob.”

Captain Bob was hard to miss that day, sitting in a folding chair in his garage, eyeing us as we hauled our possessions inside. He ambled across our clover-covered front yard to introduce himself. He was short and stocky, with a head of wavy, white hair. His mouth seemed perpetually agape. He had a New York accent, and I told him that I had relatives on Long Island. “Lawn-guyland,” he corrected.

He asked whether I was aware of the natural spring beneath our house’s foundations—issuing in two backyard streams that joined a local creek, one of many contributing to the Potomac River watershed. I said that I was. He queried me on particulars regarding the maintenance of sump pumps, of which I was confessedly ignorant. He scowled and shook his head. “Well, don’t be an idiot and let the water back up, or you’ll have hell to pay.”

As a father of four working two jobs to afford said property, I wasn’t in the mood for retired neighbors with nothing better to do than lecture me about home maintenance and the nuances of one of the least attractive regional American accents. My wife, Claire, ever the gracious extrovert, urged me to “be nice.”

I bought a lawn mower that week at a consignment sale. As I began yanking the starter spring in the driveway, I noticed Captain Bob yelling at me and signaling from his garage: “What the hell are you doing that for?” I explained my intention to cut the grass. “No, you don’t need to do that. I’ll do that on my rider mower while you’re at work. You should be playing with your kids.”

Who did this guy think he was, barking orders about how I spent my time and managed my property? Moreover, I had planned to mow the lawn right then so that I could practice baseball with my son that afternoon. “How about I mow it today, and if the spirit moves you, you can mow it again later?” Bob shook his head and gave an exasperated wave of the hand.

Every day, when I arrived home from work, there was Bob sitting in his garage, as if he’d spent all day waiting to instruct me on the finer points of homeownership. He’d signal for me to walk over, or, if I pretended not to see him, he’d march across my lawn. Sometimes he would query me about my job and past employment. The neighbor on the other side, a quiet and reclusive retiree named Irv, was “definitely a spook,” Bob never tired of telling me.

My wife and kids had a much easier time with him. He was always praising Claire for her resourcefulness and competence in managing four children under the age of ten. He kept toys in the garage and didn’t mind if my kids covered his driveway in chalk or left scooters on his lawn. He cultivated a large vegetable garden with the best soil in the neighborhood, and everyone was welcome to use it.

I learned that he had four grown children, though one had died from alcoholism. There were photos of grandchildren, some out of college, on his refrigerator. Bob was a widower. His wife had died years before from breast cancer. “You work all that time, looking forward to spending your golden years together, and then something like that happens.” Theirs seemed to have been a happy marriage, and artifacts of her personality—including years-long cross-stitch projects—lingered in a house filled with 1970s decor.

Bob’s upbringing, I learned, had not been the typical Irish- and Italian-American story. His father had been a successful businessman with a private airplane who regularly flew the family to a vacation home in the Hamptons. An Italian grandfather, Bob speculated, had done profitable work for the mob. Bob had attended boarding schools, where he palled around with other wealthy kids. He had spent a summer in Central America with a childhood friend whose father held a senior position in the Costa Rican government.

After four years of college, Bob had served in Vietnam as a logistics officer in the U.S. Army—hence “Captain.” As the son of a Vietnam veteran interred at Arlington National Cemetery, I liked asking him questions about his service. That always elicited an eruption of profanity and fascinating stories marked by betrayal and disgust. Captain Bob had been exposed to Agent Orange. That, and decades of smoking, explained his breathing troubles.

After Vietnam, Bob landed in Northern Virginia to take a federal job. His family moved into the neighborhood—brand-new in the late 1970s—along with many other young, aspirational professionals. But all was not as it seemed: Many couples were swingers and ended up divorced. Chuck Colson lived a few streets over, and the headquarters of his Prison Fellowship ministry was at that time a few miles away. “I think there was something shady going on in there,” Bob mused.

Bob and his wife were married in the Catholic Church, and they raised their kids in it. After their children flew the nest, the couple stopped attending. When his wife’s illness was diagnosed as terminal, they had the pastor from the local parish come by. Bob told the priest that he hadn’t been to confession in more than fifteen years. Apparently the priest told him that was fine, citing some unnamed papal decree that said attendance at Mass wasn’t obligatory for the elderly.

Though his loyalty to the Church had been eroded—he submitted the usual complaints about sex abuse—Bob retained a semblance of faith. Just before her death, his wife asked Bob who was the other person in the room. It must have been an angel taking her home, he said to me. When Bob told us he was ready to relinquish various possessions, my wife suggested that he donate his wife’s cross-stitched nativity scenes to our parish. He happily agreed, and they hang in our parish hall today. When we had our fifth child, we invited Bob to the baptism. He demurred, but gave a thoughtful (and expensive!) gift.

He treated our children like family. Perceiving my older son’s interest in craftwork, he invited him to help build model ships. He also paid him to assist on grocery store runs. He attended my daughters’ ballet recitals, a bouquet of flowers always in hand. He often had new toys for the kids. I, in contrast, was treated like an enlisted man requiring a heavy hand from his superior officer. If that meant I was entitled to borrow his ladder and wood splitter, so be it.

Bob rolled his eyes at the “crazy” Trumpers but admitted that when he recently traveled to West Virginia, he had been impressed with the locals’ sense of community. “Not like here,” he remarked, complaining that newer members of our neighborhood kept to themselves. At first he found our decision to homeschool strange, but when my wife related to him what was taught in Fairfax County Public Schools, he was incredulous and upset. The fact that one in four high schoolers now identifies as LGBTQ mystified him. “Well, it’s your problem, not mine.”

One day, my wife got a call from someone at the grocery store. Bob had collapsed, and he needed help getting into his SUV. When he drove home a few minutes later, another neighbor and I carted him into the house. Within a few days, he was on oxygen and a seat had been installed on the banister so he wouldn’t need to climb the stairs.

More struggles at home convinced his children that it was time to move him into assisted living. My wife took the kids to visit Bob every few weeks, to bring drawings and play the piano for him. Bob was permanently in a wheelchair now, and his breathing was so strained he had difficulty speaking. As his health deteriorated, my wife urged Bob to let a priest visit him. For a while he declined, claiming he had plenty of time, but eventually he relented.

Not long after that, we got the call that Bob had died. Claire asked about a Catholic service, but his children decided against it, opting for the modern “celebration of life.” They claimed it was what Bob wanted; perhaps it was. When family members came to town after Bob’s death, I noticed progressive and LGBTQ paraphernalia on their vehicles. Whatever Catholic identity he had in his youth had all but vanished from his descendants. Nothing of him remains in our neighborhood. When his kids sold the house, the new owners tore up his garden.

Claire scheduled a Mass to be said for him at our parish. She and the children cried through it. I hope Bob drew up the courage to consider afresh the faith of his youth before his last breath. My children certainly hope so—almost a year since his death, they still pray for his soul every night.

Casey Chalk is a contributing editor at the New Oxford Review.

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