Thy Neighbor

Autumn Hayes (2nd place. Fiction. Spring 2012 Writing Contest)
I’m flying. The colors are swirling, the windows are dancing, and I’m flying through space and time and Morty’s kitchen…
…and then my husband walks in with more boxes.
It was his idea to help with the packing. We’d known Morty in more than his passing; he and Keith had swapped insults and folktales (mostly insults) across the street while checking the mailbox many, many times. We’d even been over to share a meal once or twice, Keith scoffing good-naturedly afterward at his Jewish entrees and blues hors d’oeuvres. “That man over there thinks he’s white,” he’d said, “or black; anything but what he is.” But he’d said it with a laugh, to show no harm done, no offense taken, no foul.
We weren’t exactly devastated when he passed away, then; he’d smoked for years, and he coughed as if to expel black bugs. So when the lung cancer took him, we were saddened, but understood; missing him, but not bereft. We sent our condolences across the street to his relatives when they came for the funeral, and so on. I had even taken pains to bring what was, to my knowledge, a kosher Bundt cake to them while they were sitting Shiva. Then time had slipped by without us knowing it, like she always does, and before we knew it, there was a disheveled young man with sandy brown hair, Birkenstocks, scrub-green jeans, two t-shirts, and an ancient brown motorcycle jacket on standing in the middle of Oak Lane, over Morty’s mailbox, scratching his head in bewilderment.
He was lost. The mail was nearly spilling out the mailbox, all addressed to this man, this father he’d lost and known, who no longer existed in the most painful way. He looked up the street to his right, searching, maybe searching for someone to make this right for him somehow. He looked again before him and then to his left, down, down the street to where it curved and went away; then he turned back to his work with resignation. I saw him sigh. He had angular, ordinary shoulders, and they shrugged beneath the jacket, as if he was content to stand in the street and stare forever, if need be.
So my husband saw him—or saw me staring out the window and came to see what I was seeing—and, as usual, had the solution. “That boy looks a mess,” he decided. “He needs some help over there, or he’ll be standing there in the street ‘til Doomsday.”
And so Keith endeavored to introduce himself to Mort’s son, his twenty-something-astrophysicist son who had a Ph.D. and (surprise!) a pair of real shoes in his bag. They hit it off fairly well, in that Mort’s son Adam was in shock, young, and polite, and my husband Keith was overwhelmingly friendly, astute, and sincere. We sat at the coffee table in Mort’s living room, the same one where earlier we’d sipped chamomile and listened to the music of wood folk, people so country neither my husband nor I could understand them or their howling, acoustic woes. Mort’s son Adam sat with his hands between his knees, blankly staring at some swirl in the table’s wood that maybe reminded him of times long past. It was a nice Saturday evening; dusk had barely begun, and the birds had come out from hiding. I remembered that once Mort showed me his bird feeders in the back, all kinds for all species. They had surrounded us, lithe, red-breasted creatures, flying through the air like the visible spectrum. It was really amazing; I’d told him so. He’d winked at me and squeezed my steadying hand, as I squeezed back on its leathery oldness.
“So, to what do we owe the honor?” my husband Keith asked warmly, with genuine interest in the answer.
Mort’s son Adam looked down at his fingers. They were average-sized fingers, though flat, as if squashed by machinery (maybe those telescopes) and the nails bitten down below the quick line. Little mounds of pink flesh as red-rimmed as his eyes humped up from beneath his fingertips. I thought of cake baking. “Mom’s selling the house,” he said dolefully, “and there’s so many things…a whole house of his things… you know…” He trailed off.

The good thing about my husband is that he understands; when people don’t finish sentences, he understands why, and he never makes anyone finish them. “Oh, sure,” he said loudly (but not too loudly). “And everyone leans on you, right? Baby boy of the family, you do it, huh?” He ribbed Mort’s son Adam lightly, and the young man smiled a crack in return. We had never really known Morty’s ex-wife. They had divorced long before Morty moved here, and he had been living here long before us. We saw the children come in and out at Christmas (Hanukkah, though, I suppose), and occasionally a woman with them, but we never pried. She always seemed impeccably dressed in some black-and-white piped pantsuit, pumps, pearls, a floppy black hat. At our get-togethers, Mort had spoken lightly but never disparagingly of the woman, so I forgot her; he’d praised his children, but not overly so.
“I’m not the baby,” Mort’s son said quietly, reflecting, “My younger brother, Alex, couldn’t come. He’s got a wife and kids and a job and things…” After a pause, he looked up, pained. “I guess I was just…available.” He put his head down and seemed to contemplate his availability, and the sense of failure on his shoulders was palpable. I don’t know why he—a rocket scientist—would compare himself to a banker and find himself lacking, but he didn’t seem to want to tell us, so we didn’t push him.
Instead, my husband sensed his time to exit, to leave this man alone with his thoughts. “Well,” he said, stretching, “we know you’ll be having a rough time. There’s a lot here to pack here, we know. But it’s late, so why don’t you call it a night? It’s been a long drive.” Here Adam nodded. “Get some rest, and get a fresh start in the morning. We’ll be by to help any time.”
As usual, Keith’s prescription did the trick. Adam seemed relieved by the idea; the blood crept back into his face and his eyes sparkled. He jumped up and walked with us as far as the door, shaking our hands on the way. “Thanks, really, I mean it, Keith, Shanda… Pop mentioned you… I remember him bringing you up…”
My husband took me by the hand and we walked down the cobblestone walkway that led from Mort’s door to his front yard. In the darkening sky, we could have been walking the canals in Venice; the great oaks on either side of us dipped their boughs to block the wind, protecting us. We walked quickly but calmly, his thumb caressing my forefinger; I knew he couldn’t resist the temptation to crack wise, as usual.
“I wonder what he said to his son,” my husband whispered at the end of Mort’s driveway, “about the ‘Negroes’ who lived across the street.”
The next day was Sunday, which is to say today; today is the next day, Sunday. I woke up and the whippoorwills were in the trees, and the breeze billowing my curtains suggested rain—soft, warm rain in fat drops like lavender, but rain all the same. I wore linen. Downstairs and I ate breakfast alone (Keith had already eaten and was reading the paper), then back upstairs to ponder my day and all that lay ahead in its infinite possibility.
I had a book in my lap and was watching the curtains blow and the little green waves of lawn they created. It seemed today colors popped more, like the greens were more green and the whites more white (and not thanks to my laundering skills). The novel in my hand was a paperback romance; I’d stolen it from my mother’s house last Christmas, desperate for reading materials. The cover had a blandly scandalous portrait of a blonde in a man’s arms, and the inside was a scandalously bland imitation of an office romance I once had. Unable to visualize the molten passion of the moment between Charlotte and Chuck, I daydreamed. I visualized how the pages would look if the cover featured the voluptuous busts of tempted churchwomen instead, and found that equally boring. I contemplated folding the basket full of sheets that sat at the foot of the bed. I looked at the ceiling and tried to find patterns in the plaster, something I hadn’t done since the age of sixteen. I looked out the window and imagined children playing in that greenness, that well-kept, verdant lawn we’d been preening. The ghosts of them flitted like leaves turning in autumn; I saw their eager brown limbs chase rabbits, Easter eggs, across the lush green carpet and disappear. There would be a swing set just there, and the girls would be swinging… and the boys would be kicking over the trash at Morty’s, most likely.
I stared at Morty’s curbside, at the silver cans and plastic bags waiting proudly, and I couldn’t shake from my head the image of little brown boys in his garbage, kicking apart his bags of leaves despite my guidance. I’d tell them not to. I’d warn them not to; so would Keith. And, the first chance they got, they would dive into those oak leaves anyway, flitting between the piles like hummingbirds, spreading seed and weed and destruction with childish abandon. They couldn’t help it. I tried to imagine how I’d react, how I would punish the miscreants, but all I could see was that I knew I would be smiling, that I would forgive them, and the girls, too, if they kicked leaves. Hell, I might join them.
So I put on some flip-flops (he would feel alone if I wore shoes), and a matching linen top over my tank one, and tanked on across the street to Morty’s. I knocked on the door once, twice, seven times, before Adam came to answer it. He was sweaty and dusty at the same time, like caked foundation; he’d obviously been digging through some long-forgotten horde.
“I’m Shanda,” I said, extending my hand and thumbing over my shoulder, “from across the street? You need a hand?”
He smiled and said, “I remember you,” wiped his hand on his cobweb-caked t-shirt, and shook mine solidly, firmly. “Come on in,” he added, “but watch out… I’m not yet organized…” His speech stumbled, as he did, over randomly piled boxes on the floor and changed course.
“What part were you working on?” I asked, daintily dodging packing crates.
Here he stopped and turned around, grinning. “The kitchen!” he said, in the tone and gestures of a mad-scientist’s Eureka, “and then the records and CDs.” The smile on his face was childishly devilish. I felt some of his giddiness shimmer off on me, and I offered to pack up the dishes. “I’m a pro at that,” I assured him, while in my head I thought, And that’s nothing personal. I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, Morty’s secrets.
While I began tearing newspaper to stuff in the boxes, Adam shambled into the living room. Sounds of disarray ensued. For about half an hour we packed in a kind of country-night silence, only punctuated by the rustle of more newsprint or the shuffling of more cardboard, the slap of things being stacked up. It was a nice silence though, just like listening to soft crickets; I admired the print on the wallpaper in Mort’s old kitchen and the pattern of his china, which I’d never noticed. I wondered if this was his wedding china, and I wondered if this clock was a wedding present, and I wondered how long both had been just here from where’d I’d removed them. It was a cozy room, not as big as our
kitchen, and I wondered if Mort had ever regretted buying this house with such small compartments.
I touched his china, ran my fingers along the edges of the plates, along the chips in them, and wondered if Mort had regrets about any of it. It seemed so loved and so well-worn. It seemed a shame to just junk it. Just as I was going to ask Adam what he was going to do with all this treasure, I heard a crackle and a pop and then strumming. A man wailed a song I only understood in my belly; involuntarily, my foot started to tap underneath me. “What’s that?” I called, pleasantly humming along, picking up the melody bit by bit.
“Clapton,” Adam answered, leaning his head into the kitchen to grin. “Pop loved him.”
“And you?” I said, still packing.
“Oh, yeah.” He made a face as if to doubt was folly. “You’ve heard him?”
I shrugged. “I do a little listening.” After a pause, I don’t know why, I continued. “My folks used to play a lot of different stuff. White musicians, I mean—” Here, I blushed. Well, I would have.
He nodded. “I know what you mean. Pop liked B.B.”
“Yes, her.” He smiled, somewhat shyly. “Any Beatles?”
Now I made a face. “More like Floyd; Creedence Clearwater. Jim Croce, for sure; Johnny Cash.”
“In addition to…?”
“Everybody before they sold out; you know, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Maze. You name it, we had it. Just no Beatles.”
Mort’s son Adam held his sheepish grin in check and nodded in appreciation. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. The stereo cut him off, really, chords whining up, snapping down, then rounding. Something inside him rumbled. I leaned forward to hear it.
“Hey, hey…hey, hey, baby, hey.”
He was leaning on the refrigerator, eyes closed, strumming the handle, tapping his ratty brown Oxfords beneath his green jeans. The veins in his eyelids stood out, and danced to the music, pumping full and draining empty of blood to the beat. Slowly, bit by bit, the music took over; it was as if he was coming out of a coma and the song was real life, flooding into him vitality piece by piece. First, it was the eyelid veins; then, the eyelashes followed. Soon, his jaw started to work in circles, as all pretense of himself fell from his cheekbones; then his feet started to tap and he started to dance.
Now, when I say dance, I don’t mean sway around. I don’t mean herky-jerk, as if he were having spasms across the linoleum. Mort’s son Adam was dancing. He cut and moved and twisted his derriere to the music; he swept a figure eight backwards with his feet, did the James Brown, pulled an invisible partner so close it was seductive. He was getting down; he couldn’t help it, it had him. He didn’t even seem to care that I was watching, open-mouthed on his father’s floor, amidst the boxes. All he seemed to care about was the music.
I watched for maybe a minute or so, frozen, before I had to move my muscles, rattling newspaper in the process. Adam opened his eyes slowly and cast them to heaven, saying “Thank you, God, for the music,” with his pupils, mouthing, “Hey, hey, baby, hey” from his soul. He held out the hand that had just been twirling the make-believe partner, the one that had been secretly brushing her invisible hips like a kiss, and helped me up, but barely seemed to notice I was there. I don’t know why, but I seized him by the shirt sleeve, kicked off my flip-flops (those things are impossible to dance in) and made him twirl me around in a circle. His eyes, army and amber, spiked a moment with surprise then, and he stumbled a step before I caught him. “You didn’t think I would dance?” I asked.
“Of course not!” He paused. “I barely even know you.”
I gave him a stone face and stepped a crazy pattern around his feet then, intoxicated by the simple sound of the music. “That’s right,” I commented. “You wouldn’t know I love bluegrass.”
His face was listening intently, his body responding on instinct to the music; I felt the need to go on, so I did. “You don’t know,” I continued, stepping around his back, “that I grew up in eastern Kentucky near the coal mines.”
An eyebrow muscle registered surprise as he turned to follow my lead, and a slightly sardonic smile played on his lips. “And I bet you grew up country line-dancing,” he quipped, “with coal miners’ sons from Appalachia.”
Now it was my turn to be sarcastic. “Of course!” I mimicked. “The same way you grew up listening to Afrikaa Bambataa.”
He grimaced a comfortable grimace and did a square-dance skip. “I bet you didn’t know my Pop used to dance to this.” I tried to imagine Mort dancing, alone in this kitchen, with his beat-up brown loafers, matching pants, and suspenders. It made my heart wave with a ripple of something; I can’t tell you what feeling went through it, but it had something to do with that image. Mort dancing, here in this kitchen forever, like the little boys of my daydream, under this light bulb.
“No,” I admitted softly.
“And I used to dance with him.” He says it quietly; I almost don’t hear him.
When I look up, I expect to see him falling away into mourning, forgetting the moment in pursuit of the past. Instead, his face is thoughtful, bent at an angle of strength, pursuing without pain the music. “Was he a good dancer?” I ask.
“The best, to me on the weekends. But in reality, he was no Fred Astaire.”
I picture little Adam, disheveled even then, at seven years old, standing on Morty’s shoes as they move solidly, plunkingly, across this floor. I age-regress Morty to the appropriate level of youthfulness, the opposite of what they do for missing children. And it is pleasant; the room feels warm.
We dance for a moment in thoughtful silence, comfortable, easing, flowing with each other like time. After a moment I decide—don’t know why—I feel at ease, comfortable enough to keep talking.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Sure, Miss Appalachia.”
I step on his foot. “You won’t tell I said?”
He raises his right hand in the Boy Scout sign of honor, and I doubt he’s been a Boy Scout ever. “I promise.”
“It’s funny to me… my husband can’t dance!”
“No!” Adam laughs a genuine laugh, from the belly but quiet, and dips me.
“It’s true,” I insist. “We never do this. We used to try, but—good Lord, he’s spastic!”
I duck my head as I giggle at the memory, the thought of Keith dancing in our living room. As I do so, my head touches his shoulder. “He moved like a dinosaur doing the robot,” I add, “sheepishly smiling the whole time. He was a good sport about it, but he’s got no rhythm.”
We settle into a cha-cha. “Well, you dance pretty good,” Adam comments; I accept the compliment and return it.
“So do you,” I say, mischief probably in my eyes. “So do you… for a white boy.”
“For a white boy?” He affects mock outrage. “For a white boy? I’ll show you what a white boy can do.”
Up he steps and executes my crazy combination; the one I’d thought had been blindingly impressive at first. The more he laughs the more I encourage it, breaking dusty line-dancing moves out of hiding. “Grab yer partner, do-si-so,” he crows like a square-dance announcer from a Bugs-Bunny cartoon, overly dramatic in his grip on my waist, the stiffness of his arm as he leads. We do two-handed twirls like the whisks of egg beaters, Morty’s wallpaper flying by me in a blur of colors. We’re laughing and dancing, and, I think, for just a second, across the world, we might have experienced that one moment in time where everyone’s put down their guns and picked up their children…
…and in walks my husband with more boxes and tape, smiling brightly, wearing his Hawaiian-print shirt. Slowly, but decisively, he puts down his load, places his hands in his khaki pockets, and says, “Well, hello.”
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