Neighbors


Yesterday I was able to remember and replicate the exact location and position of Lisa. I used a rubber band to tie her hair up, and leaned her against a large stone that I found in the ditch and stuck in the sand. She was there that night, but until yesterday I hadn’t been able to remember what she was doing. Turns out, she wasn’t doing anything but being passed out drunk by this big rock. I remember saying something to Janet about her not being a good friend, and that’s how I also remembered why I said it. They were supposed to be looking out for each other at the beach that night, Lisa and Janet, but instead Lisa got rip-roarin drunk and Janet had her heart broken by me. I walked to the Ben Franklin and bought a spare Ken this morning so I could replace Paul’s head. Turns out squirrels like chewing on Malibu Ken heads. So far Lisa and Janet haven’t been decapitated and I’m guessing it’s the hair that keeps them safe.

I had taken the driveway several times in the past couple weeks and so today needed to go a different route. I walked just to the left of the gravel, keeping my eyes on the grass. It was tall and beginning to form seed clusters at the top. Ron Gast, next door, died last winter and he used to mow it for me. Old Ronny used to wear this plaid shirt and read dime store smut novels on his porch every morning the weather was okay. One day it had gotten cooler outside but I wouldn’t have noticed except that Ron brought me over a spare plaid button up to wear along with him. We got along well after that. I’d have to find someone else to do it this season. If I was right and they had taken notice of the pattern in my travel there would be trip wires hidden in the leaves, tied to trees that formed a barrier between my house and the house that used to be Ronny’s. The sheer volume of grass was making it more difficult than usual to exercise proper precaution, but I needed to get to the beach.

Last night was calm unlike the last week or so since I started trying to recreate the details of that evening. The sand in the six by four-foot frame I’d built had largely stayed in place. I wouldn’t have to refill today. I popped a new head on Paul and buried his feet in the sand as far as it took for him to stay standing. I still hadn’t gotten Paul quite right but that was because I didn’t really give a shit about Paul at that point. I’d gotten my card three days prior, and he was only seventeen. We’d planned to go on this trip to Virginia Beach before the selective service got hold of my name or else I probably wouldn’t have gone. Lisa’s dad had this VW bus and we all piled in alongside a week’s worth of booze and clean skivvies and headed for the coast. Janet sat on my lap at least half the way down and the other half she spent with her head out the window. Black hair which normally lay flat and stringy whipped frantically in the wind and now in my dreams. The good ones, on the nights I sleep long enough to keep my mouth shut on that beach and stare out at the wrinkled water and not have a hand in deciding that part of my fate.

A truck pulled into Ronny’s driveway even though Ron was dead and buried and possibly even growing mold at this point. Thank God I planted those trees a good twenty years ago, because the truck came from the direction behind those giants and I don’t think it saw me. I moved as quickly as possible into a squatting position directly behind the largest pine. The truck was carrying a leather couch and a plastic-wrapped mattress on its side that I could see. A door swung open and a large pair of boots hit the ground, followed by sneakers that appeared on the other side beneath the vehicle. The man wearing boots pulled a seat forward to reveal a small girl. I never had any kids so I wasn’t any good at guessing ages but she looked around five with curly red hair and shoes that lit up when the man plopped her on the ground. She immediately began running in circles around old Ronny’s yard. “Don’t you leave this yard!” the man yelled after her. He and the woman in sneakers lowered the back of the truck and began dragging the mattress out and into the house. Meanwhile, the little ginger trotted increasingly closer to my trees, her eyes examining the needles that carpeted the ground. She picked up a pinecone and threw it down after coating a hand in sap. My feet were pretty near numb by this point, but even six year olds could tell their parents they’d seen something.

“Allie get back here now!” the man said, walking back down the front porch steps and reaching for the woman’s hand. The hair on his forearm was dark, black, and I wondered if he wasn’t the little girl’s father.

“Look at all those Barbies, Mommy, I bet there’s a little girl I can play with,” the girl said, pointing in the direction of my mailbox.

“Come inside and look at the new house! Aren’t you excited about it sis?” the woman said, and the little girl ran inside, stumbling once on her way there.

The woman looked at the man, “Do you think that’s going to be more of a problem than the realtor let on?”

The man took the woman’s shoulder and turned away from my house, telling her to help him unload the rest of their shit, he wanted to stay that night. I wanted to go inside my own home but couldn’t risk being seen. The sun set and spring peepers had begun singing from my ditch by the time I made it inside.

The next day, and subsequent days that followed, I had to wait until the truck pulled out of the driveway to walk to the beach. On weekends, I couldn’t even leave the house though my mind raced with adjustments to be made. Through my side window I was able to keep an eye on the girl playing in her yard, in between attempts at napping. One Friday about three weeks after they came and several days without sleep of any sort, I decided to make another trip to the Ben Franklin for fabric paint. I had monitored their weekday routine long enough to know that they wouldn’t be back until five thirty, and couldn’t stand another weekend shut in without making progress. The store was about two miles down the road and it took me close to an hour to walk there and back, not including the time I spent in the store. I knew that if I left after the truck, I’d have more than enough time to make it home before my new neighbors. It was now or never. Malibu Barbie wore a blue bathing suit, and the one Janet had on that night was burgundy. It actually might have been just plain red, but the dimming light gave it a burgundy look, and that was what I remembered for sure. Jeff at the Ben Franklin would help me find the right color.

I swung the door open and kept my head tilted back to check the frame before entering. This fat cashier saw me coming and said, “Hi baby, Jeff ain’t here. I hope he told ya he left. His girlfriend had a new baby and he needed to make more money.” Jeff hadn’t told me. “It’s all right if you want to get whatever you need though.” I knew where the fabric paint was. It was in the aisle with the fabric. Even if I wasn’t sure, I could walk around and find it. I had been going to this store for years, and had done just about every suggested activity on every flyer located in bins around the store. I walked to the fabric aisle and looked over all of the colors in little tubes. A boy ran past me with a model helicopter. There were at least ten different variations of red. I felt the sweat bead on my forehead. I had to get out, but I needed that red for Janet’s suit. It would be so much closer to real if she were the right color. My hand shook as I reached for a tube I thought would work, knocking several yellows to the ground. A loud pop came from somewhere in the store and I ran to the front of the line with the paint, knocking over a cardboard stand full of king-sized Kit-Kat. It was a mine, I screamed at the fat lady. “No honey that was just a balloon. You’re all right.” I threw three dollars at her. The blue-faced old lady I’d just cut in front of gave me a wild look. I ran out of the store and knew I’d have to wait awhile before I could come back. Long enough for the fat lady to forget.

On the way home, I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t choose it, Army engineer was not my career of choice. Sure, it was my choice after I got my card, but that was because I didn’t know engineers were really fancily named mine and grenade detectors, ground clearance. I kept telling myself that I was gonna be okay and the ones that didn’t make it were already okay, because I was raised believing in heaven. A jeep full of kids slowed down and hollered in my direction, “Hey look, it’s Walking Tom!” before whizzing off, laughing. I was happy for them because they probably hadn’t made that decision yet, the only thing in life they really had any control over. They hadn’t lain on the beach in the middle of the night, looked at the girl they didn’t know then, but would know years later they certainly loved, and told her they had separate lives to live. They probably wouldn’t ever have to remember the moment they made it, or if they did, it would be to remember it fondly on their fiftieth anniversary because they would make the right one. They wouldn’t have to go to the Ben Franklin to buy paint from the fat lady and that was why I was happy for them. I was probably teaching them a valuable lesson. Don’t choose alone. I was glad they had taken notice.

When I got home I went straight to painting Janet. I had planned to spend more time in the store, which left me plenty of time to work before the truck got home. I forgot to buy paintbrushes in all the mess and couldn’t find any of my own. I would have to use my finger. The paint wasn’t difficult to work with, and as long as I put a little bit on my index at a time I was able to avoid smearing red on her skin. Only try as I might I couldn’t make her skin anything but plastic. There was nothing I could buy, no amount of remembering I could do to fix that. They were all plastic with nothing more lifelike than leg joints that were once used to help real people with prosthetic fingers. I finished Janet and threw her down on the beach, picking her up only after realizing that the sand would stick to my wet paint and ruin it. I decided to reposition her next to me on the sand, like we were that night. We were lying near the water, the tips of our toes just within reach of the retreating tide. She had told me she loved me before, and I believed her. I knew she wanted the picket fence, the two-point-four kids, the whole nine yards. I was scared shitless but told myself I wanted adventure, war. Uncle Sam called on me, I had to want it. It was my only option so I may as well embrace it, right? I’d be a hero. A hero who can’t even remember serving. Can’t remember serving except at night, at night when he doesn’t want to remember it. At night, alone, when he doesn’t even have anyone to share his hero stories with except the people on the beach. The people who knew him before he was a hero. He can’t tell them his stories, though, because he can’t bring himself to taint that last moment.

I sat by the beach until I saw the truck puttering down the lane. The grass was so high by this point I was uncertain of whether or not they’d see me if I didn’t move. I watched them like I’d done when they first came. Everyone piled out. The man and woman both wore suits and I figured they must work in the city. The little girl, donning pigtails, clutched a coloring page. I imagined she must go to preschool or something. She looked in my direction, and I tried to remember if I’d moved. I’d wanted to and hadn’t, but I knew she’d seen me anyway. I watched to see if she’d say something to the woman. She didn’t. She just followed the couple into the house, glancing once again over her shoulder at me. Tomorrow I would have to stay inside.

When I made it in the house I immediately regretted throwing Janet down. Even after I’d scraped the sand from her bathing suit, the paint job remained a disaster. It would have to be redone, and I couldn’t do it tomorrow. I thought instead I might be able to work on my tractor. It was an old blue Ford my parents gave to me when I came home. If Janet would’ve been with me I imagine we would’ve gotten candles and plates and stuff as housewarming presents, but I got a tractor I hadn’t used since Ronny started mowing for me the day it backfired and I lost it in the front yard. The trees were little at that point, and my neighbor saw me fly off the machine and breakdown in front of my new home. It was the first and only time I’d cried about it. Ever since that day it’s sat motionless in the connected garage. I imagine it’d probably still run. I mean, nothing was ever wrong with it. Something was only terribly wrong with me. Tomorrow, though, I’d check on the tractor before making a list of things I could do to the beach.

I was awake for every moment of the night. They had predicted storms, and storm it did. I sat in my chair and stared at the plywood back of a mirror I had hung backwards. I wanted something to take up the empty space by the table, but didn’t like the reflective surface of the mirror. I planned on painting the back to make it more appealing, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I was sure I’d have time in a few days. The dawn came, as it has a tendency to do, but with it came giggling from my lawn. I approached a front window and looked out, slowly emerging from my own nighttime fog, making sure my body was fully concealed to the right of the glass. The little ginger must’ve let herself out of the house to play early this morning. The couple must not be awake. Thank God I didn’t fall asleep, I could’ve killed her.

She picked Paul up and laughed at his again half-eaten head. She picked Janet up, while still clutching Paul in her other hand, and pretended they were kissing. I should’ve been the one kissing Janet, but it didn’t matter. I could almost see our little girl there, playing with her.  

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