Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Unfriendly Neighbor

 My unfriendly neighbor is standing outside again. Today, he dons a wife-beater that reveals his bulky, tattooed arms, which are currently folded across his chest. His lips are slightly pursed as he squints in my direction, and he is surrounded by small stacks of cardboard boxes.
He just moved here.
From prison.
            He was required to tell us that he had been an inmate for the past ten years; however, he was not required to tell us why. That scares some of the other neighbors, but not me. He might be able to smell fear.
            He moves his arms so that they are draped over his fence. There’s a particularly gnarly-looking tattoo on his arm of a shark devouring what looks like seaweed, although I could be very wrong. My eyesight is terrible—in fact, I had to cheat on the DMV test because I’m practically blind in one eye, but honestly, they should have a waiting area or something when they administer the test, because I could hear every letter the kid in front of me read. All I had to do was memorize them. I’m a perfectly safe driver, though—except I have to squint to read street signs, kind of how my unfriendly neighbor is squinting at me now, and then I realize I’ve totally been staring this whole time.
            My first instinct is to freeze. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to make eye contact with him. Will he get aggressive? Then I remember I’m inside the house.
            He starts to cross the street.
            But what if his crime was breaking and entering? Although, I feel like the whole philosophy behind that is to do it when nobody’s home. He did get sent to jail, though, so maybe he’s just not very good at it. Wait. Breaking and entering isn’t punishable for ten years. Unless it was breaking and entering to commit murder. No, that’s probably good for more than ten years. Involuntary manslaughter? Battery? Assault? Probably battery.
            Knock, knock.
            Oh, shit. He’s here.
            I consider not answering, but that would be incredibly rude, since he saw me staring at him. I determine that I most certainly am not rude and open the door impulsively. I hope I don’t die.
            He looks angry, but I think that’s just his face.
            “Hello,” I say when he offers no greeting. I’ve already chosen the considerate route, and there’s no sense in changing now.
            He responds by removing the cigarette from his mouth and stubbing it out on my butterfly welcome mat. I think he likes me.
            He begins to study my face in a way that would probably freak out most of my neighbors. I fix my eyes on the tattoo of the shark, only to see it’s eating a scuba diver instead of seaweed. There’s a name on the scuba suit that says “Tony.” I don’t know who Tony is, but I have a feeling I won’t ever be meeting him. Despite all that, I don’t feel scared of my unfriendly neighbor. Except I think I want to run away right now.
            “I talked to your dad today,” he says finally.
            I nod like it’s completely normal business for my father to fraternize with ex-convicts.
            “He said to keep an eye on you,” he continues.
            I flinch. I should’ve known.
Dad’s been fighting me on my own personal security guard for ages. He’s never really had much success—he’s pretty picky. The Sandersons are too deaf. The Walkers are too blind. Bitchy Mindy is too bitchy. The Lincolns aren’t home enough, and the Smiths he just plain doesn’t trust. He gets nervous when it comes to me.
“You’re my daughter, Lissy. I need to protect you.”
That’s how it always started.
“You were never this hard on Susie,” I would grumble.
“You’re my baby.”
He was not thrilled when I moved out. He would stop by once a week for dinner, which I never really minded. But then I caught him interviewing the neighbors.
I held out for three months. Then, at my father’s constant insistence, I finally got a roommate. It was my boyfriend, Garret.
Dad was even less pleased.
We broke up about two weeks ago, though, so I guess Dad’s back to interviewing the neighbors. The only difference this time is he found the one who isn’t afraid of him.
            “So when do you start?” I mutter.
            “I’ll be watching the place,” he says as he walks away. I’m not sure if that was supposed to reassure me or scare me.
*          *          *
            “Dad.” My voice cuts across the line before he gets a chance to say “hello.”
            “Susie?” he asks, even though he knows it’s me.
            “Your other daughter,” I snap.
            “Lissy!” he says with an extreme amount of false joy.
            I don’t reply. He knows what he did.
            “Lissy?” he asks more timidly.
            I keep waiting.
            “Lissy,” he acquiesces. “You know how I feel about you living on your own.”
            “He just moved in!” I say shrilly. I quickly adjust my voice to a more appropriate volume. He could be anywhere. “How do you know you can trust him?”
            “We talked for a little bit,” Dad says. “He’s a great guy. Perfect for the job. Doesn’t like to go out a lot. Tough. Intimidating.”
            “Maybe because he’s a convict!” I explode. Damn, I’ve really got to work on my indoor voice.
            “I know,” Dad says, as though everybody knows my neighbor is a convict. Which they probably do now, as loud as I’ve been talking.
            “So he’s the guy you trust,” I say.
            “Lissy, you’re vulnerable.”
By “vulnerable” he means “single.”
“Dad, I lived by myself for three months before Garret moved in. Nothing happened. This neighborhood is fine, I promise.”
“You don’t have Garret to protect you anymore,” Dad points out.
“I don’t need Garret to protect me! I don’t need anyone to protect me!”
Dad sighs. “I know you’re strong, Lissy, but you look like a seventeen-year-old,” he admits.
“Gee, thanks.”
“You don’t look strong,” he tries again.
My eyes narrow. I know my dad too well for this. “There’s something else.”
“No,” he answers.
“I wasn’t asking.”
He pauses for a second. “You need someone to protect you from Garret.”
“He might be one of those obsessive ex-boyfriends, sweetheart. I mean, how well did you really know him?”
“Dad.” I stop to muster the strength it takes to say these words. “He dumped me. Usually the one who does the dumping doesn’t stalk the other person.”
Judging from his silence, Dad is thinking this concept over.
“I told Will about Garret,” he says suddenly.
“Your neighbor,” he says. “I told him about Garret. I told him to protect you from him.”
“Garret’s not coming back, so I doubt the two will ever meet each other.”
“Unless he tracks Garret down.”
“Did you tell him to?” I demand.
Dad is silent again. He’s not going to talk.
            “How did you know he was an ex-convict?” I ask, changing the subject instead.
            “He told me,” Dad replies.
            “He told you?”
            “He’s required to by law.” Oh, right.
            “I don’t understand why you decided on him. The Smiths wouldn’t have minded.”
            “They’re awfully shifty,” Dad says.
            “They’re pro-gun,” I remind him.
            “This guy knows the criminal mind,” he counters.
            “Do you know what he did?”
            “Sure, I do.”
            “He told you?” I say again, feeling a little hurt. He didn’t tell me, and I thought we were making excellent progress friendship-wise.
            “He wanted to make sure it was okay with me before he started watching you. See, he’s trustworthy. And he thinks like a criminal.”
            “What kind of criminal?” I pursue.
            “I can’t tell you,” Dad replies mysteriously.
            “Does he think like a thief?”
            “I can’t tell you.”
            “Does he think like a rapist?”
            “I can’t tell you.”
            “Does he think like a murderer?”
            “I have to go.”
*          *          *
            I drum my fingers on the table, just to make some noise, while I wait for her to say something.
            JoJo takes a couple bites of her sandwich and then sets it down. I know the only reason she’s eating is to stop herself from talking. And I know she wants to say something. She’s just afraid to, because we’re in public. I had to choose a public location, though; otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to control herself.
            This is weird. JoJo and I are never quiet for this long. In fact, JoJo and I are never quiet at all. I don’t like it.
            Impatiently, I grab the final bites of her sandwich and stuff them in my mouth. Now she has to talk.
            “You mean he just told you he’s been to jail?” she says at last.
            I exhale. I thought she was going to explode. “He’s required to, federally.”
            “Lissy, he’s a convict. He’s got no regard for the law! No regard for human life! He does what he wants, when he wants. He doesn’t have to answer to anybody! He’s—”
            “JoJo, calm down.”
            “How big did you say his arms were?”
            “They’re about as thick as your Chihuahua.”
            She opens her mouth.
            “The fat one,” I reply before she can ask.
            “Ooh,” she coos with a mischievous smile. “Mama likes a badass.”
            “He’s like forty.”
            “Oh that’s not cute, that’s just creepy.”
            “Anyway, Dad asked him to keep an eye on me.”
            “Is he getting paid?”
            “I don’t know, but Dad sent him after Garret.”
            “Right on!” JoJo says. “I want in on that action. Can you send him after anyone else? Like Bitchy Mindy?”
            I just stare at her.
            “What? You know that’s why I never come over.”
            “Bitchy Mindy’s scared of him. I never see her around anymore.”
            “So can I come over later?”
*          *          *
            My unfriendly neighbor is standing outside again. He’s in his front yard this time, making no effort to conceal the fact that he’s scrutinizing JoJo as she parks her car next to mine. And when JoJo gets out of her car and notices him, she makes no effort to conceal the fact that she’s scrutinizing his arms.
            “You live here, Homes?” he demands, making his way up the driveway.
            Sensing a confrontation, I run outside. JoJo can get pretty sassy if there’s no one to hold her back.
            “She’s staying with me for a while,” I tell him.
            “What’s your name?” he says, ignoring me.
            “Why do you need to know?” she shoots back.
            “JoJo,” I answer quickly. “Her name is JoJo.”
            “You want to repeat that?” he says dangerously.
            “JoJo!” I shout over her response. “It’s short for Josephine, but she doesn’t like the ‘sephine’ part.”
            My unfriendly neighbor yields a bit. “Can I see an ID?”
            “Excuse me?”
            “Yes, you can,” I say through my teeth, glaring at JoJo.
            She relents and shows him her license.
            He thoroughly inspects it, then hands it back.
            “You’ve known her a long time?” he asks me.
            “Yes,” I say.
            “I’m sorry,” he says and heads back to his house.
            “Buttlicker,” she mutters at his retreating back.
            “You’ve got to find more mature insults,” I tell her.
            We head inside my house, and immediately my cat, Pizzicato, runs away. I throw an accusatory glance at JoJo.
            “What?” she mutters quietly. JoJo’s voice is never quiet. That’s how I know when she’s hiding something.
            “You brought them, didn’t you?”
            She mumbles something incoherently.
            “JoJo,” I say pointedly. “I can’t hear you.”
            “Fine,” she snaps. “I brought the dogs. But I can’t just leave them at home, can I?”
            I run my fingers through my hair. We’ve been over this. “They terrorize my cat. And she’s been through enough lately, don’t you think?
            JoJo stares at me, making her eyes as big as possible. This is her “innocent” face. She almost looks like one of her Chihuahuas—Francis, the ugly one. Immediately, I feel bad for thinking that.
            “At least keep them outside,” I grumble.
            “Thanks, Lis!” she says, and goes outside to fetch her Chihuahuas.
            She comes back, hauling the fatso under one arm and the gremlin under the other. They are yapping incessantly, trying to break JoJo’s hold, so they can track Pitz down. They won’t find her, though. She’s hiding in the bathtub, which is unfamiliar territory to those animals.
            “Say hi to Auntie Lissy, Charles,” she coos to the tubby one. “You too, Francis,” she adds to the ugly one. I roll my eyes and go to shut the bathroom door, just in case.
            “You may release the hounds,” I say.
            She obliges. “How’s Pitz doing?” JoJo asks, much to my surprise.
            “She’s doing better. I don’t have to empty the litter box every day now.”
            “How are you doing?” she asks a bit softer.
            I knew this was coming. “I took all the pictures down last week. There’s nothing left of him anymore.”
            “Good,” she murmurs. “Can we burn them?”
            I laugh. “I threw them in Pitz’s litter box. I think she had the worst end of the deal.”
            “I can’t believe he dumped you and then fed your cat yogurt. Even I know that gives her the shits. What a turdbucket.”
            I raise my eyebrows.
            “Dickhead,” she amends.
            I shrug. “He knew he wouldn’t be around for the aftermath. From me or the cat.”
            “He was scared of you,” she replies.
            “Let’s face it, Lis. You’re a hundred times scarier than any piece of cat poop. Especially when you’re mad. You could probably even scare your unfriendly neighbor.”
            “You know why Dad wants him to watch me.”
            “Because you’re living by yourself, and if you don’t have a roommate, then you at least need a bodyguard,” she recites dutifully, as if she’s heard Dad’s lecture as many times as I have.
            “Not anymore!” JoJo says happily, putting her arm around me. “Because I’m moving in! Now you can fill your walls with pictures of me instead. They’ll be much prettier. And good for your feng shui.”
            “He won’t like it,” I tease, nodding my head over towards my unfriendly neighbor’s house.
            She shrugs. “He can suck it.”
            “It doesn’t mean he’s going to stop watching either. Dad wants another man to be around, now that Garret isn’t living here.”
            “Anyone who tries to come after you will have to deal with this vicious monster,” she says, picking up Francis, who looks at me with twitching, bulbous eyes.
            “That face would scare anything off, I’m sure.”
            I scoff.
*          *          *
            “Oh, God,” JoJo says.
            “It’s not that gross,” I say, opening the trash can for her. I told JoJo that she has to help with chores if she’s going to stay with me. Her least favorite is the litter box.
            “Not that,” she says. “That.”
            She points down the street with her chin. Bitchy Mindy is approaching, and she’s five feet and closing.
            “I thought you said that cow doesn’t come out because she’s scared of your neighbor, Homeland Security,” she hisses under her breath.
            Bitchy Mindy is two feet and closing, so I don’t say anything. She hears everything. She has, like, echolocation or something.
            “Heifer,” JoJo offers, mistaking my silence. “But that’s as mature as it gets.”
            “Talking about your mom again?” Bitchy Mindy says by way of greeting.
            “I haven’t seen you around here lately,” I respond loudly, drowning out JoJo’s rebuttal.
            “I haven’t seen Garret around here lately,” she shoots back. “Did he finally meet your father?”
            I don’t reply.
            “I saw him downtown the other day, holding hands with a rather pretty—”
            “Moo!” JoJo suddenly blurts out.
            Both Bitchy Mindy and I look at her in startled confusion.
            “Sorry,” she says, without sounding it. “Just slipped out.”
            “Is everything alright between you two?” she continues.
            “Yes,” I answer. “Except that we broke up.”
            “That must not have felt good,” she says, inspecting her fingernails.
            I frown. “No, it felt great, actually.”
            “Did your father have an issue with him?” she asks, ignoring my comment.
            “Oh wait, I forgot,” she interrupts. “Your father has a problem with everybody!”
            “He doesn’t have a problem with me.” JoJo shrugs.
            Bitchy Mindy glances up the driveway, where JoJo’s car is parked next to mine. “Already moved in, I see,” she comments. “I’m sure you two will be very happy together.”
            I glare at Bitchy Mindy, tempted to dump the pan of cat litter on her head, when JoJo nudges me hard in the ribs.
            “Well, hello,” she says in a voice much too happy to be considered natural.
            I follow her glance, past Bitchy Mindy, to see my unfriendly neighbor approaching.
            “You live here, Homes?” he asks her.
            “Homes?” Bitchy Mindy sneers. “This is what happens. You let one ethnic person in the neighborhood, and then more are bound to follow.” She looks me accusingly.
            He ignores her and turns to me instead. “Bitchy Mindy?”
            Mindy gasps and puts her hands on her hips. “I beg your pardon?”
            “Yes, she is Bitchy Mindy,” says JoJo, looking her right in the eyes. “But she also goes by ‘cow’ and ‘heifer’.”
            My unfriendly neighbor looks at Bitchy Mindy for a long time, nods at me and JoJo, and then heads back across the street.
            “Wait,” JoJo calls. “You forgot to get rid of her!”
            I quickly snatch JoJo by the arm and start hauling her up the driveway, leaving Bitchy Mindy on the sidewalk.
            “Nice talking to you,” I say over my shoulder.
            “Moo!” JoJo snorts.
*          *          *
            My unfriendly neighbor is standing outside again. He has a piece of paper in one hand and a cardboard box in the other. He looks surlier than usual.
            “That’s how he always looks,” JoJo disagrees.
He walks up my driveway and stands there for a bit, crinkling the paper in his fist, looking a bit awkward.
JoJo and I are sunbathing in the front yard, which is something we normally do in the backyard, because Bitchy Mindy will make snide remarks if she can see us, and then we feel compelled to go inside and eat ice cream. But she hasn’t been around the past few days. All the curtains are drawn, but her car is still there. I guess as long as she can’t see us, we’re safe. The sun is better in the front yard anyway.
“Hey, can you do me a favor?” JoJo asks my unfriendly neighbor.
He stares at her.
“Great,” she responds, picking Charles up. “Will you flex for a sec? I just want to see something.”
She holds the corpulent Chihuahua up by his arms, attempting to compare the two.
His gaze shifts from JoJo to me.
I get the message. “JoJo, go inside,” I tell her.
            Reluctantly, she obeys.
            “There’s been a car that’s been driving by. I’ve seen it more than once,” he says when JoJo is inside the house.
            I frown. “How do you know it’s driving by my house and not the Walkers’?”
            “It stops at your house.”
            I feel my stomach crawling through my throat. “Who is it? Do you know?”
            He unfolds the paper in his hand. It’s a picture of Garret’s car.
            My stomach slides back down to where it belongs, but curiosity replaces it. “Why would Garret drive by my house? He took what he wanted when he left, and JoJo burned everything else.”
            “He’s been dropping these by.” He opens the box to reveal photos of our relationship together. On top is a note that says, “How’s your cat?”
            I take the box from his hand and swallow my feelings. “I’m surprised he’s still alive,” I mutter.
            My unfriendly neighbor says nothing and looks away. I feel a twinge of guilt.
“JoJo and I would like to formally invite you to a bonfire that will be taking place this evening,” I offer.
            “That’s not enough for a good fire,” he says, eyeing the box.
            “Then maybe we’ll put it off until he’s brought everything back,” I mutter bitterly.
            My unfriendly neighbor studies my face again, his expression unreadable.
            “I’ll be by around eight tonight. I’ll bring flammable things.”
*          *          *
            “‘Dear Buttnugget Garret’,” JoJo begins. “‘Remember when I was the best thing that ever happened to you? I have gotten a tattoo of a shark devouring you in a scuba suit, and I have made the tattoo artist draw you extremely fat. I think your teeth are ugly, but I never wanted to tell you because you’re so self-conscious of them, so I told everyone else instead. Now everyone knows about your weird teeth, and they are laughing at you. You’ll be pleased to know the cat got diarrhea from all the yogurt you so childishly fed her, but she went all over your ugly pictures, so nothing important was damaged. Personally, I think they look better this way. Have a good life. Lissy. P.S. My neighbor has your picture. He also has a gun’.”
            I clap as she finishes reading, and she takes a bow.
            “Seriously, Lissy, I think you should actually mail this one.”
            My unfriendly neighbor shakes his head. “You don’t want him to know about me. That makes my job less fun,” he says, handing me another piece of paper from the stack he brought. “And I use knives.”
            We both turn to look at him.
 “I’m joking,” he says gruffly. “I prefer guns. Throw that into the fire with the rest of that garbage.”
            I cheer as JoJo rips her angry letter to Garret into pieces and drops each one into the flames.
            “It looks like our fire is getting low,” he says, poking it with a stick. “Better make this letter a long one.”
            I think for a moment.
            “Dear Bitchy Mindy…”
*          *          *
            “Please, Lissy!” JoJo begs.
            “Absolutely not,” I reply.
            “He’s sick! You’re just going to let him die?”
            She thrusts Charles in my face, trying to round up some pity.
            “If you would’ve kept him outside, like I told you to, he wouldn’t have gotten into Pitz’s food. Again.”
            “I’ll buy you another bag! Just please let me borrow your car so I can take him to the vet.”
            “Why can’t you wait until your car is back from the shop?” I snap.
            “Because the mechanic said it won’t be ready until tomorrow. Please, Lis!”
            I try to give her my best glare, but she already knows I’ll give in. So, I relent. “I expect my car in perfect condition when you return it to me. Perfect.”
            “Thanks, Lis!” she says, as she snatches the keys from me and scrambles out the door.
            “Perfect!” I call after her. But she’s already gone.
            I sigh, plop down on my tacky orange couch, and try not to think about all of the other times I’ve let JoJo borrow my things. Pizzicato crawls up next to me and curls up in my lap. She has almost fallen asleep, when a car pulls into the driveway.
            It doesn’t sound like my car.
            Pitz hisses and runs away, which means it can only be one of two people: JoJo or Garret.
            I peer through the window in that discreet way my unfriendly neighbor taught me. There it is, in the same spot it was parked for the last three years.
            In a panic I quickly dive behind the couch and wait. I want to be completely sure he’s gone, because I don’t trust myself to bawl quietly at the sight of his ’81 Honda, with the peeling green paint and the raggedy interior of the backseat that has a huge rip in it from that first time we—oh, God—it was after we went out to dinner at that fancy Italian place and he forgot to take my heels off and they tore his upholstery because I moved too suddenly when he—
            I hear a door open and slam, but it’s not Garret’s.
            I shoot up from my hiding place, because I have a queasy feeling I know who it is.
            My unfriendly neighbor is standing outside.
            Now he’s striding across the street.
            He has a gun.
            He throws Garret’s car door open.
            He points the gun inside.
            “You live here, Homes?”

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