The Neighbors Get a Minivan

van

A sleek black minivan was parked between our houses after work.  It did not leave as expected, rather, it returned day after day.  A paper tag protected by a sleeve of plastic was attached on the back, stating the expiration date at the end of June.  The minivan was here to stay. 

We saw the neighbors boarding their new cruiser and all of the bags and baskets that are apparently required to take a baby anywhere.  The baby was strapped to his daddy’s chest, supervising the undertaking and keeping an eye on his mother who stood nearby in obvious discomfort.  She appeared to be 12 months pregnant.

Hipsters are trying to extend the average gestational period.  Or so I have heard.  It could be fake news.  In any case, our neighbor just had a baby and then was instantly pregnant with another one in a phenomenon that will make their offspring “Irish twins” when the second one is born.  The timeline is unclear but it definitely seems that they have been continuously pregnant for the past two years.

The neighbors started out like us, very cool and modern, engaged in work and exercise, friends, and family. We resolved to share a pizza and a few cold adult beverages but never got around to scheduling a date because all of a sudden, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, they were pregnant and went underground. They emerged this Spring, eyes weak and blinking under the bright sun, pushing a stroller with a round faced ooling, drooling baby boy and with a belly popping out like a snake that just ate Mousezilla. 

We walked up to the new van and B said, “Looks like you are just missing the decals on the back.” 

He was referring to the ever-popular cookie cutter stickers of each family member and pet, usually something like two parents next to a half-sized sticker of toddler or two, with the outline of a dog wagging its tail in familial bliss. 

The couple smiled together in a wholesome unity, clear that they were of one mind, and the man said, “That’s a great idea. We’re just glad we have room for everyone now, even the dog.”

They will leave the neighborhood soon, there isn’t enough room as it is for the current occupants of their home, let alone when the babies start to stretch out and grow.  Already, they are planting petunias and Hosta’s, laying mulch, trimming trees and power washing their siding.  It’s just a matter of time before the FOR SALE sign goes into their front yard and they pack their lives into a U-Haul truck.  When they move, it will be with a family double in size than when they moved next door to us.

Meanwhile, we remain in place, at the same address with the same number of residents, exactly three cats and two humans, as when we came to town two years ago.  We will be just as childless but still happy, healthy, well-rested and living relatively uncomplicated, minivan free lives.  For now, anyways.

     

A Day in the Life

Notorious

Two men stood outside of the brick building, smoking cigarettes. The taller of the two kicked at a clump of weeds and inhaled at his Marlboro, while the other worked an orange, plastic lighter through his nicotine stained fingers.

“Did they install your A/C yet?” the taller man asked.

“Nah, they told me there was something going on with maintenance. You think we’ll have them by August?” the man said with a laugh and continued to practice with the lighter like an unlikely baton twirler before a high school football game.

“I put a fan in my window, but it’s just blowing the hot air around. It’s like the desert in there.”

Beads of perspiration popped out on the taller man’s forehead, he wiped it with the back of his hand.

“Whew, it’s hot,” he declared. “But its cooler out here than it is up there,” he gestured with his eyes in the direction of his apartment, too drained from the heat to lift his arm to point.

A woman emerged from the door of the house next to the apartment building. She wore a neon swimsuit top with white washed, cut-off jean shorts that were pulled up over her belly button. Perhaps most noticeable was the mean looking, black and purple bruise around her left eye.

“Hey boys,” she rasped to the men with a grimace that was as close to a smile as possible.

She fished out a lighter from her high-waisted pocket and uncurled her fingers from around a Pall Mall.

“How’s your old lady?” she asked the taller man.

Sensing a follow up question, the man answered with a reserved, “She’s ok,” and waited.

His companion interrupted the pause with a snort, “She’s been cooking again. I smelled the burned food all the way over in my place,” he chortled.

The woman lit her cigarette and took a deep drag with no small amount of pleasure.

Exhaling a dragon-like stream of smoke through her mouth and nose, she continued, “Does she smoke? You tell her to come over and visit anytime she gets sick of you. We can garden and smoke a little herb.”

A shadow darkened the doorway from which the woman had previously emerged and a man with strands of long gray hair appeared.

“Theresa,” he barked with a tone that threatened of another bruise, this time to her right eye.

The men outside stopped smoking and looked at each other; the reputation of this neighbor preceded him via the frequent bruises of his partner.

“That’s just my ol’ man, you know how he gets.”

Theresa took another long drag of her cigarette before dropping it onto the grass and walking away with a wave. Smoke curled from the end of the abandoned cigarette, briefly burning before it extinguished itself.

c

Burning Questions

fire

Before the fire, I wanted to be a real writer. I wanted to write stories and books, essays and poems. I wanted to move readers with my words into action and compassion. Now, I just want to free myself of the words and be done with them.

“I’m bleeding,” our neighbor screamed as he burst through the front door.

Bright, red blood was splattered over his face.  It dripped from his hand and arm, which he held away from his body at a strange angle. An old dog trotted out next to him, faithful and endlessly loyal to his panicking owner.

This would be the perfect way to start a short story if it was fiction, if real smoke didn’t follow him out of the house in rolling waves. His girlfriend emerged from the dark smoke in bare feet and flimsy pajamas. She ran across the street with a pet carrier and set it down on the sidewalk.

She gasped for a breath of fresh air and yelled, “Call 911. The house is on fire!”

Without waiting, she ran back to the house and a cat started to wail from inside of its tiny prison. A small white paw poked out from one of the holes of the carrier and disappeared back inside. The wailing continued and then suddenly stopped. I understood the cat’s pathetic cries, an innocent victim of its humans’ actions..

It was how I felt at being left with the chubby babysitter of my youth or forced onto the school bus, taking one big step after the other, away from safety and towards the unknown. I wailed back then, just like the mangy cat on our sidewalk.

The neighbors kept running into their smoke filled house in search of the rest of their pets. Logic was overridden in their mad hunt for the frightened cats that did not want to be found. Sirens pierced through the summer air, deafening our pleas to the couple to stay out of the house. Help was on the way, if only to drag the fools out of the burning house.

In the meantime, the old dog flopped onto the sidewalk next to its sorrowful feline companion, patiently waiting for its master to return, being blind and deaf has its occasional perks.

Fortunately, the fire was put out quickly and the bleeding was stopped at the hospital. The pets were eventually reclaimed and all of the nosy neighbors returned to their respective homes.

Unfortunately, the night of the fire, I read an essay by Joan Didion. It was unusual for me to read non-fiction and a surprise how much I enjoyed it until I got to the last paragraph which stopped me cold turkey, dead in my tracks, (insert your favorite cliché here).

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Words have never chilled my blood as quickly.  They spoke directly to my mind and heart and left me with questions that demanded to be addressed, especially in burning light of the neighbors’ home.

What am I doing on here?  When does story telling cross the line? Is there a way to write something decent and not sell anyone out?  Who have I already sold out and at what cost?  I am left wondering as a writer and a person, now what?

I clearly have some thinking to do.

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