The Other Guy
The mail lady stopped me on the street, pointing to the house kitty-corner from mine. Had I seen those people? She couldn’t fit any more mail into the box. “Come to think of it,” I said, “I can’t remember the last time.”
I would say they were a professional couple, lean gray suits coming and going in a BMW. The man hardly mowed the lawn, but now it was way out of control. I hadn’t thought much about it until she planted it in my mind. Then I couldn’t stop thinking.
I had too much time to kill. I work at home — a couple hours on the laptop. I walk and carry small but powerful binoculars to observe birds and windows. My wife Janice is gone most days, selling her products.
I kept looking at the house, up on its little hill, blinds closed tight. One afternoon I strolled up the lawn, bending as if looking for a lost cat. I circled the house. My heart raced. There was nothing on the back patio but a planter, one covered with blue and white tile, holding a dead stalk. I went to the cellar door, put my shirt over my hand and tried the handle. As the door opened some moss peeled like a soft zipper. Rust flakes sprinkled my head when I closed it after me.
I stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I worked my nostrils. I could only imagine how a dead body smelled. There was just musty carpet. Light from a small casement window revealed a bar and pool table. I said, “Hey there.” The empty surfaces echoed my voice. I imagined the woman, the tall blonde, leaning over the pool table to take a shot. Her hair brushed the green felt. The man crept behind her and lifted her skirt. There was nothing else in the room but a big cushion on the floor in the corner. I sat on it a few minutes, sniffed it. Something clicked behind the wall, and I panicked and got out of there. I bordered the lawn on my way to the street, saying, “Here kitty,” though no one was around.
I’d jerked from that cushion so fast I pulled a muscle in my back. Another excuse for a pain pill. My cat was right there in the kitchen, giving me a look, which meant I had to feed her again if I didn’t want her to talk. A little tuna for her, pill for me, everybody’s happy.
Next thing I knew Janice was poking my eyelids with a stick. The lawn was covered with these blown-off branches, which I was supposed to pick up.
“What did you do today?”
“I strained my back, trying to start the mower.”
“You can’t mow until you pick up this stuff.” She jabbed me again.
“I’ll get Jack on it.”
“Jack has homework. You had all day.”
“I’m sorry. There’s always tomorrow.”
Half an hour later I was on my knees in the grass, my sack bulging with twigs. The cat walked around me, and Jack smiled and waved down from his bedroom window, studying his ass off I’m sure. I could hear a thumping bass beat from my daughter Joan’s room.
I looked up at the other house and thought maybe I could move in there part of the time and have a separate life, one of silence, with just the odd clicks and creaks of abandonment.
The next day I finished raking my lawn, got my mower going. My back was cured. I’d just started mowing when I saw the mail lady emptying that mailbox. I should have rushed over and asked her what she knew, but I just waved. I made two passes on my lawn and pushed the mower across the street. I had to set the deck high, and it was tough going. The banks were steep. I stopped to catch my breath. Some geezer drove by but didn’t look up.
I left the mower behind a bush and went home for the cigarettes I’d hidden in the basement. I’d given up smoking at home — Janice could detect it even hours later, even if I was outside. But I figured I’d take it up at the new place.
The lawn leveled near the house, so I was able to mow with the cigarette hanging from my lip, something I’d always wanted to do. I put the butts out in the planter on the patio, stuffed them deep into the dry dirt. I frowned at the clumps of grass on the lawn — I’d have to get my rake. I’d do that after lunch.
Again I entered through the basement, but this time climbed the stairs, opened the door at the top carefully, and peeked through. I held tight to the railing, dizzy from smoke and anxiety. If I fell backwards down the steps and cracked my head, who would ever find me? It was a horrible yet soothing thought. I remembered when I was a kid, how I liked to disappear around my house, hiding in dark closets, barely breathing. Sometimes during family gatherings I’d hide under beds or behind sofas until someone said, “Where’s Eddie?”
The hallway was dark. There was a bar of light in the kitchen from a broken blind. A faucet dripped. I opened the refrigerator and found nothing but a bottle of spring water, one of those expensive kinds from melted virgin snow. I gulped it without pausing. There were no notes on the fridge, not one magnet. I turned the faucet, but still it dripped.
In the living room I opened a blind. The room was full of nice furniture that looked unused. I checked all the drawers of the oak desk, found no bills or scribbled notes or appointment cards. Not one penny or lint ball or odd screw, the things which overflowed the drawers in my house. I searched my pockets and deposited a good sized fuzz-ball, a loose thread, three pennies, wing nut.
I took out my binoculars. The mockingbird hopped across the peak of my roof. He was always there. He stayed put, like I should have. I scanned my lawn, the one mowed strip. When something settled beneath my feet with a crack, I got out of there.
I put my smoky clothes in the washer, shared a can of tuna with the cat.
The phone rang. It was Janice, but I let it pick up: “I don’t feel like cooking, unless you do. Chinese okay?”
I had four hours before she got home. I tucked shirts and jeans under my arm, boxers in pockets. I grabbed the rake and headed back.
I went to the master bedroom this time, clicked a small lamp by the bed. The bed was made, and I peeled back the sheets and felt them. I told myself not to, but I didn’t listen, did it anyway, put my face into them and sniffed. Just laundry detergent. I checked the dresser drawers — all empty — and put my clothes in the top one. I looked under the bed and inside the closet, but the only one leaving a trace now was me. I sat in the closet for a bit, folded the door closed with a satisfying click of plastic wheel in track. In the upper reaches something fluttered — trapped moth or ladybug. My glowing watch face said half an hour had passed.
I raked the lumps of grass down the hill into one big lump, but that would surely call attention, so I got my wheelbarrow and after three trips had the grass in the furthest corner of my own lawn.
In the bathroom: a lone towel. I held it up. Long and plush, expensive. Letter E embroidered. Probably from some hotel. Or left here for me. I turned on the shower, listened to air tapping. I dropped my clothes in a wicker hamper that smelled of mothballs. There was no soap — I just stood under the hot water, hearing the walls expand.
I dried off and walked around naked, peeked out the windows, dressed in the new clothes from the dresser. I had no comb, so I flattened my hair with my palms, gave myself a whole new look: haunted gent from a century without shampoo.
Upstairs I found a child’s room. I’d never seen kids here, and I felt sad. The wood of the bed was worn, the quilt threadbare. An old chest held toys from another era, wooden and wind-up, simple with no electronics. An antique mirror with smoky surface flattered my image, smoothed skin. I heard the same fluttering of wings in this closet, but here it made me think of tiny fairies, of Tinker Bell. I shivered and closed the door.
The last bedroom was bare. I said, “Hello?”
I trained the binoculars on my house. The kids were home. There was Jack, ten years old, hanging out his window smoking a cigarette; and Joan, all of twelve, on her bed playing with herself, really going to town. I should have flipped, but now I was the other guy, casual observer.
“What happened with the lawn? Mower break?” Janice stood at our patio door, gazing in the direction of my grass mound.
“No. Just had some extra work for Lenahan. Couple abstracts.”
She turned abruptly and dished my Lo Mein.
“No MSG, right?”
“Of course,” she said.
She knew what MSG did to me: terrifying dreams and feelings of doom. She wasn’t eating, said she had a late lunch with a client. She watched me carefully. Sometimes I fantasized about her slipping me something.
I was hungry, wolfed it down, barely chewing. She watched my throat. She handed me water and I gulped that. When I finished I looked her in the eye and my face flushed.
“You don’t look good,” she said. “Relax on the couch and I’ll finish mowing.”
“No, I’m fine.” I rose too quickly and winced.
She was back in a minute. “I can’t find the mower.”
“That’s weird. It was right by the shed.”
She called up the stairs. “Jack, you seen the mower?”
“No!” in his hoarse, smoker’s voice.
“I’ll call Jordan,” she said.
Jordan was one of our two police officers, young and tall. She called him for any little thing — missing cat or tilted mail box. He came in minutes and I had to describe the mower, my voice wavering. I broke into a sweat. “Are you sure about the MSG?” I said, and we laughed.
I pretended to rest for five minutes. “I’m taking a walk,” I said. “Maybe I’ll see something.”
I went up and down the street. I scuttled sideways up the hill. I wrestled the mower down the cellar steps, wheeled it to the corner by the water heater and folded the handle. I perched on it to catch my breath, resting my head on a metal cabinet. Something brushed the inside surface. Blood pounded my head, vibrating the metal.
That night I made love to Janice like never before. She was speechless for ten minutes. “What was that all about?” She coiled around me and slept soundly, but I kept waking up, clinging and pushing away.
She was up before me, humming on the patio. I sat at the kitchen table and saw the planter was now on our porch, clean and shiny and filled with geraniums. We studied each other over coffee. “Last night was good,” she said, and I nodded.
The bed remembered my shape. I dreamt that Janice had a baby and it lived in the upstairs room. “We need new toys,” I said. “And furniture.” She shook her head. “Nothing can change, Eddie.”
When I went down for the mower the squawk of Jordan’s radio was outside. I squeezed into the metal cabinet. His boots clomped down the steps toward me. He said, “Huh,” and pulled the mower across the floor. He talked to someone, but not over the radio. “Guess where I found it? That house across the street. In the basement. Yup. Got a call someone was sneaking around. Okay babe.” I heard him struggle up the stairs.
I waited for a while, listening to my heart. The handle wouldn’t budge. I slammed it with my fist, threw my weight against the doors. Nothing. Well, Janice would certainly call Jordan later, when I didn’t come home. Maybe he’d come back here.
I checked my watch off and on. Six o’clock, eight, eleven. I slept standing up, startled awake by my grandmother’s voice: “Where’s Eddie.” Upstairs the baby cried. “Coming,” I said, and laughed. The fluttering thing was over my head, and I reached my arms up. “Tinker Bell?” I waved my fingers to find it, but once I touched the feathery thing it was gone. Still I kept my arms up, waiting.