Friday, May 6, 2011

The People Next Door

What was that?  I ran to the window.  Pulled the curtain back and peeked out.  A truck backed into the driveway next door.  Two guys got out and headed for the porch.  I glanced in the mirror over the mantle.  Presentable.  I smiled.  Pretty, actually.  I zipped my hoodie and walked outside.
            I craned my neck around a rhododendron bush.  “Hey!  What are you all doing?”
            The men held a crowbar under the door knob.  The bigger of the two glanced over.
            “Changing the locks.  Bank owns this house now.”
            I nibbled my lip.
            What if it becomes a student rental?  What if college renters play Beer Pong until the wee hours of the night?  What if they take all the on-street parking?              
            I put my hand over my heart.  Felt it go vroom. 
A week later I spied a woman with a clipboard in the yard next door.  I ran out in my pajamas.  Pressed myself against the chain link fence.
            “What’s up?”
            “Bank appraisal,” she said, eyes on her paper.  She was all business, sealed up tight as a Ziplock bag. 
            I stood on tiptoe.  Tried to read her notes.  “Shame the house never sold.  Four bedrooms, fenced in back yard.  What’s not to like?”
            “Oh, but it did,” she said, as she fished a tape measure out of her tote bag.  “Bank sold it last week.”
            “To who?  A couple?  A family?”
            She shrugged and turned to leave.  “I think a family’s moving in,” she said over her shoulder.
            I smiled at the thought of a family next door.  I’d make them cookies.  Maybe give them directions to the closest Walmart. 
            I put my hand up to my chest.  To see if my heart was beating faster.
When I came home from the grocery store one day, there was a man next door.  He had power tools and a blue pickup truck.  Maybe he’s the new owner.  Gonna fix up the house before his cute family moves in. 
            I saw my neighbor, Michelle, head toward him, so I lingered in my back seat.  Fussed with my grocery bags. 
             As I walked up our front steps, I caught the tail end of their conversation.  Michelle seemed to know the guy, called him by name.
            “So it’s a rental now?” she said.
            I dropped my bags on the porch, went inside, and called Phil.
            “There’s a guy with a pick up and power tools next door,” I said to my husband.  “I thought he was the new owner, but he’s a landlord.  It’s a rental now, Phil!  What are we gonna do?”
            “Dana, breathe.  Maybe he’ll rent it to a nice family.”
            “But what if he doesn’t?  What if he rents it to party animals who play Beer Pong and cuss in front of the kids?”
            Phil sighed.  “Why don’t you say a prayer, Dana?  You’re good at that.”

A week later a different truck was parked next door.   It was white and bigger than the landlord’s.  
            Wonder if it belongs to a sub-contractor or the new renters? 
            Days went by and the big, white truck remained.   Funny thing was, no people seemed to go with it.  Eventually though, I heard something.  A bark.  And then some yips.
            There was a dog in the backyard, and it sure was cute.  It came up to the fence and sniffed my hand whenever I put our dogs out.  I guessed it was a she the day she sashayed over, wearing a dress--black with neon lightning bolts.  Anyone who puts a dog in a dress can’t be half bad. 
            Then I saw him—a man, thin and dark.  Make that swarthy.  I’ve never met someone I’d describe as swarthy, but in his case, the word seemed to fit.  And he smoked. 
            Oh great!  There goes the neighborhood air quality. 
            “Howdy, ma’am,” he said, as he smiled and walked toward me.  He dropped his cigarette and stepped on it.  He extended one hand and fanned smoke with the other.
            I rolled my fingers in the air.  “Morning.  You settled in yet?”
            “Where’d you all come from?” 
            “Down Texas way.”
            I whistled.  “Wow!  You sure are far from home.  Bet you don’t like this cold.”
            “No, ma’am.  I can’t say we do.”
            I felt my eyebrows go up.  “We?” 
            “Yes’m.  I have a wife and four kids.” 
            All of a sudden the little black dog raced out of the garage toward us.  “And you’ve met our dog, Foxy.”
            I bent and scratched Foxy’s ears. “You all have four kids?  We have three—17, 14, and 10.”
            “Yes, ma’am.  We’re gonna homeschool ‘em ‘til we figure out if we’re staying or not.  I need to find work.”
            Did he say homeschool? Homeschooling could mean they’re Christians, and that could mean they’re nice folks.
            I looked back at my house. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I best get inside.  I’m Dana by the way.  And you are?”
            “Name’s Ricky, ma’am.” He pinched the bill of his hat.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I think there’s something fishy with the new neighbors,” I said to Phil.
            He didn’t look up from the newspaper.  “And you say that because?”
            “He said he has a wife and four kids, but I’ve never seen ‘em.  Do you think he lied?”
            “It’s winter, Dana.  Maybe they’re inside ‘cause it’s cold outside.”
            I shrugged.  “Maybe.”

I had my own theory.  Ricky had said they were from Texas.  Texas is right across the border from Mexico.  And Ricky, he was swarthy.   The way I figured it, they were probably illegal aliens.  That could be why they homeschooled their kids.  So they wouldn’t have to present social security numbers and that kind of thing.  It all made perfect sense.
            I told my friend Cathy about the people next door.  She laughed.  “You should make them muffins or cookies.  Welcome them to the neighborhood.”
            “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I said.  “I never see anyone but Ricky.  Well, I might’ve seen one of the kids last week.  He had saggy britches on and his underwear stuck out.  You know, like the kids wear when they’re in a gang.” 
            Cathy snorted.  “Oh, Dana, make the people some muffins.  It’ll soften their hearts and yours.”

My illegal alien theory grew some teeth at the grocery store one day.  I walked in, and there was Ricky and his wife, in line at the cash register. 
            So that’s what she looks like.   Kinda pretty.  Needs to get her roots done though.  
She should get a combination of Polished Penny and Burnt Gold.  Like me.   
            I raised my hand to wave, but they both turned away.  Their movement seemed synchronized, like they planned it or something. 
            They don’t want me to see them.  Wonder why?  They definitely have something to hide.

I parked in front of the house one afternoon and glared at Ricky’s yard as I unloaded groceries. 
            Mr. Ellsworth, our neighbor across the street, saw me check out the knee-high grass.
            “Pretty bad, isn’t it?” he said.  “I might call the city. It trashes up the neighborhood.  Don’t make a lick of sense, especially with an able-bodied, teenager in the house.  He should cut the grass if you ask me!” 
            I smiled.  “I’ve got supper for you, Mr. E. I’ll bring it over later.”
            “Thanks, Dana,” he said.  “I look forward to it.”

Mr. Ellsworth’s wife wasn’t long for this world.  When I took him spaghetti that night he told me the nursing home doctor said it was time for hospice.
            “She wants to come home real bad,” he said.  His shoulders sagged.
            I reached out and touched his shirt sleeve.  “I’m sorry, Mr. E.”
            “She’s slipping away, Dana.  Lost five pounds just this week.  She’s nothing but skin and bones.”
            I squirmed.  “I gotta go now.  Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
A few days later the deep grass at Ricky’s was gone and so was Mrs. Ellsworth.  Phil and I went to the funeral home.  We didn’t like death, but we liked Mr. Ellsworth.
            I gave him a hug.  “I’m sorry you lost your sweetheart, Mr. E.”
            He shrugged.  “It was coming.  Didn’t I tell you?”
            I nodded.  “That’s how it was when my daddy died.  He had dementia.  We knew he wouldn’t last forever, but that didn’t make it any easier.”
            Mr. Ellsworth glanced at the coffin in front of the room.  “I’ll miss my little gal.”
            I squeezed his hand.  “You were the best husband ever.  The way you came home every two hours to check on her?  That was so sweet.  I hope Phil’s like that with me.”
            “He will be.  Phil’s a good man.  You’re good people.”
            Phil stood in front of the Memory Lane photo collage of Mrs. Ellsworth.  I caught his eye, and he came over to pay his respects.  They did the man thing—shook hands, briefly made eye contact, nodded. 
            “You ready to go?” Phil said. 
            I tucked my arm through his and steered us toward the door.  I glanced back at Mr. Ellsworth to say bye one more time, but his eyes were on his shoes.

Later that week I saw Ricky on Mr. Ellsworth’s porch.  They sat in rocking chairs.  Mr. Ellsworth smiled at something Ricky said.
            I called Phil.  “Ricky’s over at Mr. Ellsworth’s house.”
            “Doing what?”
            “Nothing.  Just talking.”
            “That’s nice,” Phil said. 
A few weeks later, I saw a Rent-a-Center truck next door.  I phoned Phil.
            “The Rent-a-Center guys are at Ricky’s house,” I said.  “They’re taking stuff away.”
            “Maybe they’re redecorating.”
            “Maybe they can’t afford to pay for their stuff.”
            “Is this the only reason you called?” Phil said.  “I’ve got a truck to unload.”  Click.

It took summer a long time to come that year.  We had frost into May.  Ricky came over one day and watched me trim the ivy along our front steps.
            “How old’s your house, ma’am?”
            I smiled back at our big old brick home.  “It’ll be a hundred next year.”
            I watched his eyes take in all three stories.  “Wow.  Sure is pretty.”
            I tossed my long hair behind me.  “Why thank you, Ricky.  You need something?”
            “Actually,” he said, “I was wondering when the weather might warm?”
            “Ordinarily, it would’ve been warm by now.  You miss Texas?”
            He reached out and stroked a daylily bud.  “I don’t know.  It’s real pretty ‘round here.  I like all the green.”
            We were silent for a minute, then Ricky turned to go.
            “Have a nice day, ma’am.”
            “You can call me, Dana, you know.”

One day I heard Ricky’s wife and kids in the backyard.  I couldn’t see them because of the thick hedge of forsythia between us.  At least I knew the kids existed.  Up until then I’d only seen Ricky’s baggy-pants son. 
            As the weather warmed, Ricky and his wife took to sitting in the truck’s cab.  I wasn’t quite sure what they did out there.  Did they want privacy--away from the kids?  Did they go there to argue?  Maybe they did something else in there.  The cab of the truck was awful smoky.

Most years, we have about three pretty days after school lets out before it’s too hot to venture far from air conditioning.  Not that year.  Temperatures hovered in the low 80s with hardly any humidity.  One day though, it got up into the 90s.
            I parked my Honda and glanced over at Ricky’s place.  Now that it was warm, when he wasn’t in the truck cab with his wife, he was usually on his cell phone in the driveway, yacking up a storm in Espanol.  Not that day.  That day he was washing his truck.  He sprayed the hose with one hand and waved with the other.
            I hitched up my T.J. Maxx bags.  “Is it Texas hot yet, Ricky?”
            He smiled at me.  His white teeth accentuated his tan. 
            “No, ma’am.  Not even close.”

One Saturday Ricky hit the sauce before noon.  I saw him get a suitcase of Milwaukee’s Best out of his truck.  Throughout the day, guys stopped by to help drink it.  I think they were in the garage.  I could hear them, but I couldn’t see anybody from behind the living room curtains. 
            The party was still on when I got ready for bed that night.  I could hear the music over the hum of our white noise machine.  I looked at the clock.  Almost midnight.
            “This isn’t good,” I told Phil when we got in bed.  “You should call your friend, Terry.  See if he’ll send a cruiser by.  There’s bound to be some drunk driving with all those empty beer cans in the driveway.”
            Phil sighed. 
            I rolled to face him.  “What if this is just the beginning?  What if they do this every weekend, or a couple times a week?”
            “Dana . . .”   Something in Phil’s growl made me hush.

One evening Phil worked late.  I peeked out the living room window and dialed his number.
            “Guess where Ricky is?”
            “Do I really want to know?”
            “Actually, it’s kind of nice,” I said.  “He’s jumpstarting Mr. Ellsworth’s car.”
            “Thanks for the update, Dana.”  Click.

Summer was almost over.  School would start in a week.  I walked out on the porch to get my mail.  I spotted Michelle in front of her house, cell phone to her ear.  When she saw me, she snapped it shut and put it away.  Cupped her hands around her mouth.
            “Have you seen Ricky?” she said.  “He has your little guy.”
            I sucked in air.  “He what?”
            Michelle pointed behind me.  I looked back.  Ricky and my son were walking up the street, hand in hand.  I ran toward them.
            Tyler, where have you been?”
            Ricky looked down at him.  “I think he just wanted some ice cream, ma’am.  He was at the Kwik-Mart.”
            My heartbeat pounded in my ears.  I knelt in front of Tyler so I could get in his face. 
            “I can’t believe you did this,” I said.  “What if a stranger took you?  What if you got hit by a car?”
            Ricky touched my shoulder gently.  “It’s all right, ma’am.  He’s safe now.”
            He patted Tyler’s back.  “Aren’t you, son?”
            Tyler nodded and grinned.  “I’m fine, Mom.  Ricky bought me a Drumstick.  And a Hot Wheels car.”  He opened his fist to show the shiny blue P.T. Cruiser.
            My nose burned.  I rubbed my throat to get the lump out.  I looked back at the house, then at Ricky.
            “I made some muffins today,” I said.  “I baked ‘em to take to church tonight, but maybe you all would like them instead.”
            Ricky’s mouth pulled to one side.  Almost a smile.  “I’d like that.  Dana.”



Wow. Loved this. Why do we jump to conclusions? Why are we (me) so judgmental? Before we even know the whole situation. Is it because we are fiction writers and we have to give everyone a story. A more unsavory one than the real one???

I don't know but I have a story for everyone I've ever met and rarely do any of the pieces fit.
Thanks for writing this one.
Blessings. B


Isn't the photo of the woman who lived across the street from Darren and Samantha on Bewitched who was always spying on them and seeing lots of unexplainable things happening - people disappearing and re appearing. I loved that show!

writingdianet said...

Hey Barb!
You're welcome. Glad you liked it.
It IS the nibby lady from Bewitched. Wasn't her name Mrs. Kravitz? I thought this picture was perfect for this post.


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