Here is a story about meeting neighbors for the first time.
By Joe Engel
The rocks embedded in the top step of the porch to my duplex were getting uncomfortable on my ass, and I wanted to make something happen. It was Friday, and my divorce was finalized a few days before. But there was a thing about new freedom, where I found myself trying to pull dead weight from my pants. I saw about forty cars go by, watching drivers, their expressions like pictures immediately lost as they shuttled past. I was ready to go inside, there was a TV series I could watch, something set far from this century, when I saw my brother Tom’s in-law coming down the sidewalk, a case of beer balanced on the handlebars of his bike. “What a feat”, I thought. He never seemed that dextrous, but this was something.
“Derrick,” I said, and he stopped.
“John,” he said, “What’s up man?”
“I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Yeah, I’ve been here about a year.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yep,” I said. Two cars passed, both drivers turning to look at this man with a 30 pack balanced on his handle bars. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m going to Elise’s,” he said, like I knew who he was talking about.
“Who?” I asked.
“Right next door. Your neighbor. You don’t know her?”
I thought for a second. I may have waved at her a couple times.
“Is she tall and blonde?”
I hadn’t seen her around in a few months.
“Is that where you’re going with that beer?”
I was beginning to feel like I had found something to do. An old blue Chevelle passed. I felt it’s low rumble in my chest. I felt I had strength somewhere in the back of my head. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“I don’t. Let me go ask Elise.”
Derrick came out her front door and waved me over.
He went up the stairs of the duplex ahead of me. The hydraulics of the screen door hissed a little behind us as the door closed. I smelled cigarette smoke coming from above us, and the sound of barking. Derrick chugged the beer as we reached the second floor. Elise opened the door.
“Beer here.” Derrick said, and walked in to her apartment. I smiled and stepped in behind him.
“So here is my waving neighbor,” she said.
She was older than she looked from a distance. There was skin beginning to wrinkle beneath her eyes and lines ran down from the edges of her mouth. I thought she was younger when I watched her go from her house to her car, her outfits had a youthful style; skateboard shoes, straight cut jeans, new looking sweatshirts with big logos, and a youthful gait, an energy that always showed eagerness to go wherever she went.
But now I had almost forgotten her saunter and platinum blond hair and the fact that we never spoke except for “hellos” and a wave from no less than one house away.
She turned her head and drew on her cigarette, then blew the smoke towards the ceiling and held out a hand for me to shake, which I did. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, then turned around as Derrick set the beer on the coffee table.
“Elise, this is John, by the way.”
She spun around. “Is that your name? Not Johnny or Jonathan? Do want a beer John?”
“Wow, that’s polite.”
She went over to the coffee table and began tearing through the handle to the case. There was another bark. It came from the TV. A cop was frisking a bearded man while another cop was holding back a dog on a leash.
“Is that what it’s like Elise?” Derrick said with a jocular smile.
“Shut up, man,” she said.
“Can you grab me one?” She shook her head and pulled out three beers, tossed one to Derrick, then set one on the coffee table in front of a papasan chair.
I was still standing, taking glances around her apartment. It was maybe the cleanest place I had ever seen, except her ashtray.
“Take a seat John,” she said.
Derrick, who was seated on the far end of the couch now, one cushion between he and Elise, twisted off the cap to his beer. “You don’t have to pay me back for that beer Elise.”
“I hadn’t planned on it.”
I came around and flopped down, the way you have to with these chairs, just trust that the chair is behind you. I took the beer from it’s place on the table in front of me. It’s cold touch was ironically sobering, and helped me adjust to the surroundings. There was a poster of Johnny Cash on the wall above the TV. I was a fan. Here was something to talk about if need be. There was no music right now, just the TV.
“How does it feel to be out, Elise?” Derrick asked.
“You know it’s good.”
“When did you get home?”
“About four hours ago.” She took a drink of her beer. We both watched. It was like she was pouring life down her throat. She stopped and said, “It felt sooo good to take a shower, alone.” She gave me a look like her clothes came off in front of me. I felt a charge. She took another sip and I followed with a sip of my own.
Then she went on like before. “This is the second best beer I’ve ever had, you guys.”
She curled her toes into the rug. “The first best was two days after my son was born. That was nine months without a drink and this is three, only three.” Derrick laughed and she let out a low throaty chuckle. I noticed a picture on the wall behind her of a young man next to a supped up pick up truck. She lit a new cigarette and took a drag then curled her toes again. Her toenails were painted sky blue and caught the light.
“You like ‘em John?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, they’re nice.”
“I just painted them, after I got out of the shower.”
She smiled at me again, not so salaciously. I wasn’t embarrassed by the way she talked to me, a stranger, so freely.
“Was that before you smoked those twenty cigarettes in the ashtray?” Derrick chimed.
She leaned over and shoved him. “What the fuck man? What have you been doing these three months?”
He was short and thin. He had curly blonde hair when I met him almost twenty years ago. Now his head was bald and shaved. He was discharged from the army and seemed to always be looking for work. There were times at family gatherings when his language and his drinking kept people away.
“I dunno,” he said, “breathing.”
“C’mom, really, What’s up?”
“I got a job making bar food, working a grill, at ‘the Shanty’.”
“That’s cool, I remember that place.”
“Yeah, not really. I’d rather be painting houses.”
“That’s right. You do that.”
I was feeling relaxed listening to them talk. I took off my sandals and felt the carpet under my feet. Marshmallows came to mind. The carpet was cleaner than anything. It still had the tracks from a vacuum cleaner in its threads.
Elise quickly licked her lips and took a puff of her cigarette. She looked at me, “neighbor”, she said, “I’m glad you’re still here.”
“Living next door, you mean?” I needed clarity.
“Well, yeah.” She laughed again, low and rapid. “But here too.” She squinted at me. “That beer is either empty or warm. Have another one. What are you doing over there?”
I squinted back. “You mean next door…”
“I know what you’re doing over there. I mean in that chair all quiet without a beer.”
“I dunno. Just getting the lay of the land.”
“You’re smart aren’t you?” she smiled then, “I’m the lay of the land.”
I shook my head at both of these comments.
“Well, have a beer man, you know, when in Rome.”
She took out a beer, came over and took the empty bottle from my hand and replaced it with a new one, wrapping her hand around mine, looking at me. I looked back at her thin lips, her thick hair, and then at her green eyes, but not into them. I felt I shouldn’t let go, if I even could. She sat back on her spot on the couch, eyes still fixed on me for a moment. When I looked away she too broke her gaze.
I sat with them and watched their beer disappear; every ten minutes marked by another bottle popped open. Only once did Elise go to the bathroom, and only Elise. There was no change in them as the TV shows switched from drama to baseball, and the sun went down. Every few minutes, in the lapse of their banter, Elise would give me a look. Derrick had begun to notice this. Maybe that was his eventual difference, he couldn’t ignore the interplay in which she and I were engaged, how the ball was thrown back and forth.
Suddenly, he stood up, as if with something to announce, a pronouncement to make. “Do you remember when we met, Elise?”
She broke from our game. “No.”
“It was Robby’s 40th birthday.”
“Oh yeah, Robby, that’s right.”
“Do you remember? You couldn’t believe how short I was.”
A pitcher threw a ball on TV. It went wild and a runner went down to second.
“You asked me if I was a dwarf. I was so mad, part of me wanted to spit in your face. I was so mad.”
“Oh yeah, but I told you I was just kidding.”
“Yeah and you pulled me in for a hug. It was the first time I met you and I buried my face in your cleavage and shook my head all over the place like this…”
He shook his head and his lips flapped back and forth and he made a kind of motor boat sound. We all laughed and then we sat in quiet. One single bird chirped outside in the dark. The man on second was stranded there as the inning ended.
Elise leaned forward. “Do you want another beer John?”
I was turned on by the way she looked at me this time.
“Yeah, I’ll have another one.”
Derrick leaned his head back on the couch, then turned and looked at us. “There’s something going on between you two. Are you guys sure you don’t know each other?”
“I know him,” Elise said.
I tensed up.
“I knew it,” Derrick said.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Yeah, I do,” a little smile crawled onto her lips. She came over and sat on my lap, facing me, her legs wrapped around me. I was frozen, turned on but terrified. Our eyes were crashing into each others. I found a way to get the beer to my lips.
“How?” I said.
“I watch you every night as you go to your bedroom and get undressed.”
Derrick crashed our conversation, “Screw you two, you should just go screw.”
He went through her doorway, beer in hand, and stomped heavily down the steps. The screen door opened and closed.
“Derick,” she yelled. “Hold on,” she said, and put a finger on my nose, “I’ll be right back.” She went down the steps after him. I sat. I still didn’t know where she was for the last three months, prison was my guess.
I was stuck in my place looking through the window into the warm night. Through the blackness beyond this room, I saw a slight glare and could see the shut windows of my bedroom. She could have sat right here and watched. I thought of the fact that I always had my blinds open. That was how I grew up. That is what we did, out in the country when I was a kid. Besides, what woman would have the interest in watching a man undress, especially if I was undressing?
I heard glass break on the porch and jumped over to look out the window. Derrick was stomping away.
Elise came back up, back in, and dropped back into her spot on the couch. She sighed. “He broke a beer bottle on the porch. There is glass everywhere.”
I drank the rest of my own, feeling the fizz sting my tongue as I chugged. I burped quietly and held the bottle in my hand.
“Derrick says you know his sister.”
“Yeah, she’s my sister in law.”
“So you guys are family?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t.
“He’s pretty mad.”
I shrugged. “He always is.”
“I guess he wanted to get laid,” she said. I thought she would laugh, but she didn’t.
We both looked at the game on TV. It was the ninth inning. I decided to skip the tact. “What were you in prison for?”
She snapped her head at me. “I didn’t tell you that. Did Derrick? I hardly left the room.”
“You did go to the bathroom once but Derrick didn’t need tell me. I don’t know where else you would be for three months and not be able to shower alone.”
“Fuck, yeah I guess I did say that,” she looked up at the ceiling, “DUI.”
“Tough luck,” I said. Though I knew that one offense wouldn’t land you in prison, or even two in this state. I knew other people like this, who lost control.
“I can see my bedroom from here.”
She relit the look she had been giving me all night. “We should go over there.”
I just sat there and looked at the empty bottles that crowded her coffee table. I realized I could swat the ball back at her, that I could play this game. But it was real for me. “No,” I said. I could see a disaster if I slept with my neighbor, a neighbor who watched me go to bed from a seat in her living room. I don’t know what it would mean to her. “But I’m glad we met,” I said.
“That’s what you’re going to say to me?”
“It’s true. I’m glad I ran into Derrick and I’m glad that I met you.” I stood up. “Do you have recycling?”
“It’s in the kitchen.”
I finally walked across her apartment. The carpet was soft the whole way. I found the recycling and let my bottle fall in. She was there when I turned around. She grabbed my shoulder with one hand, pulled me forward. She kissed me. It bolted from my lips to my tongue to my crotch. We kissed for half a minute and then she pulled away.
She held out her other hand. “Here,” she said and handed me my sandals, “too bad you have to go. You’ll need these to get through Derrick’s heart, broken on the porch, without cutting your feet.”