Fiction · 12/09/2015

Neighborly

Upset? Of course I was upset. You loan a guy your snow shovel. Small favor, common courtesy, it’s January, he’s your neighbor, no big deal. But then the snowstorms come, three feet overnight, and his sidewalk stays un-shoveled, and you’re stuck with a regular dirt spade. And then, next day, it’s another two feet of snow, and your wife won’t let you go over there, to this guy Meyer’s house, because of whatever, your temper, she won’t have you making another scene. Even though all you want to do, really, is tickle wrestle with her and the twins, and have a properly shoveled driveway, you know, so you can go to work, make money, keep a roof over everyone’s head — not that you’re complaining, you fucking love your life. And before you know it your wife’s crying, all because of this jerk Meyer.

So what happens is you never confront him about the shovel. Instead you sip cocoa by the backdoor, watch the snow drifts mount, list all the ways your life is better than his. Like how you and Meyer are the same age, but you’ve already married Susan, your soul mate, and got two awesome kids, another on the way, not to mention your assistant manager position at A-Z Video, a job you’ve held on to despite the bankruptcy. And here’s Meyer at almost thirty, unmarried, living in that goofy modernist monstrosity, totally all alone. It’s kind of depressingly sad, to think about it, especially when you consider — not to be crass or mean or anything — the fact that Meyer has three arms.

He was born with the deformity — the handicap, of course — this arm that’s twice as long as a normal one, that grows straight out of his chest, branch-like. And you have to admire him, how it hasn’t slowed him down, despite the teasing in grade school, the popular girls (like Susan) who shunned him; it says something positive about Meyer’s character. He has found a way to leverage his condition into a positively Yelp-reviewed massage business, even offers pro-bono rubdowns to hospice patients, and though he might not be an ideal neighbor, he’s the kind of guy who will share some literature on massage therapy, about night courses, getting certified, because he heard Netflix has decimated the home video rental market, which it has. Which, even if you have no interest in being a masseur, is a nice gesture all the same.

So you look past how he practices his drums until one AM on school nights, and lets his rescue dog shit in your yard, and makes off-color jokes to your wife at the neighborhood block party, and forgets to return your snow shovel, and so on, and so forth.

What you can’t do is judge Meyer for this simple mistake, because who hasn’t forgotten something: a library book or DVD or anniversary? Have you honestly given him a chance to return the shovel, since he borrowed it? Honestly, maybe not; maybe it’s on you, the un-returned shovel; you may be more implicated than you know, due to some unconscious bias you have against Meyer or — god forbid — his handicap, a prejudice you’re not yet aware enough to cop to. And what you probably need to do is bring a six-pack over to his place, to finally give him the opportunity to return it, which is something you actually do, one day, after you’ve installed the kids in front of the Disney Channel, and spoken to Susan’s manager to confirm that she’s clocked in at the Applebees. You pay Meyer a visit.

And no surprise a gorgeous woman answers the door, in nothing but a XL flannel, because every week it’s a different girl with Meyer — the leggy one, the redhead, the cute, dimpled secretary from the unemployment office — you don’t know how he keeps track. Any given day you’ll be weeding Susan’s vegetable garden, look up to see one of them, twenty years old if she’s a day, sipping mimosas on his Tuscan deck. Or you’ll peer through the twins’ window and there he’ll be, no shame, playing some other girl Paul Simon songs on his guitar, cooking eggs any style. And now one of these poor girls is staring at you like you’re some sad beer-toting mailman, and Meyer’s coming through the foyer, only one arm waving, saying Nelson, my man, to what do I owe the pleasure?

You’ve seen the arm before, millions of times, but it’s still kind of nasty, hate to say, though Meyer does downplay it, and shakes your hand with one of his main ones. He introduces Clara, she apologizes for her lack of clothes, and you tell her just don’t tell my wife, already feeling like the old creep from next door. Sad, you follow them into the kitchen, past the dining room, solarium, screening room, letting Clara have the beer she requests, and then Meyer wants to know what he can do you for, a shovel never farther from a human mind. And obviously you can’t mention it, and clearly then you realize you’ve got no story, you’re simply there, existing in his catalogue kitchen, some dumb schmuck who just needed out of his over-heated house, nothing more, though you’re not admitting that to anybody, especially Meyer.

So you tell him, well, you’ve got this kink in your back, which isn’t totally untrue, you hurt yourself playing pick-up with the twins, and haven’t seen a doctor, because who can afford it nowadays, even with co-pay. And Meyer completely hears you, man. And suddenly he’s unfolding a black leather massage table, in the middle of the kitchen, and you’re taking off your shirt, and Clara is saying how her step-dad had similar a back thing, too. And then you’re flat on the message table, face in that face-shaped pad, listening to Meyer oil up his hands, your back throbbing like a puncture wound now that you’ve acknowledged it. Meyer asks where it hurts, so you tell him, and right then you feel it, a subtle pressure in your lower back, below the two hands already working your shoulders, negotiating with your muscles, and that coil of pain slowly comes un-spooled. It’s so nice you almost hate yourself for bullying him in grade school, almost, and for a moment you’re just a body relieved of its aches, this pure mindless thing, and before you drift off for good, you manage to find the words: neighbor, shovel’s all yours, I’ve got plenty, more than enough, keep it.

+

Carmen Petaccio received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He lives in Austin, Texas.