The Neighbor (Part 2)

Part 1: Read here.

I just spoke to the dispatcher. About the boards in her window.

For several moments, there is nothing at all — not even the irritating thrill of three dots appearing and disappearing. Lottie’s nothing if she’s not a drama hog, and we all know she won’t offer anything else until someone takes the bait.

…and?

Almost immediately, the dots appear . . . and as quickly, they disappear. Nothing. Just as we’re all uttering the first syllable of a curse under our breaths, Lottie pulls through. A gray mass of words appears in our Messages, a torrent of gossip she’s surely had typed and saved into her notes for the seven minutes since that call to the dispatcher ended.

Leon figures he saw the husband late last night, says he saw the truck roll in around one. Who works that late?! I clock out the minute that second hand hits five. Anyway, the neighbors called in a noise complaint around four this morning — heard some loud banging — and the sheriff drove by for a look. He said boards were going up, sure enough, but couldn’t tell who was doing the hammering. And since it’s on the inside, and there’s no current noise problems, there’s nothing he can do at the moment. I bet it’s that woman. She’s always been…different.

We absorb this noninformation: a disappointment. In the moments before the message came through, our breath hung suspended at the doorways of our mouths — lips parted softly, stagnant air drowsing in a relieving moment of inaction. I would say that nobody hopes for bad news, but that seems a bit idealistic for this day and age, doesn’t it? We, each of us, salivated over fantasies of doors being broken down by bomb squads and the woman being led from the cracked steps of the front porch, hands cuffed behind her back.

The wanting, the buzzing need for a dramatic denouement: I’m sure it’s a genetic mutation that’s occurred over lifetimes, since humankind reached a state of existence that didn’t demand constant vigilance against the dark of night.

***

The woman slumps against the living room wall, fingers curled around her phone. The screen betrays nothing, no one. Slivers of daylight pierce the drab room, highlighting floating particles of DNA and who-knows-what-else as they drift toward destinations unknown. She can smell the boards, their scent unnatural in the room manufactured by machinery rather than soil, and she hates them for that.

While she sits, the house sings its daily score: from the hallway, the methodic thrumming of the dryer; from the kitchen, a here-and-gone-again hum from the refrigerator; a startling groan from shifting joists every so often. It’s as though the woman is hearing this music for the first time — she sinks into the chorus, allowing her head to tilt back as she considers the rustling nature of silence. How can it be possible to occupy a still space and encounter ceaseless chatter?

When she was a teenager, the woman had an affair with a married man. He’d capitalized on her naïveté, snaking an arm around her shoulders seemingly haphazardly at first; later, with the confidence that accompanies ownership. Quick side-armed hugs goodbye lazily transitioned into embraces that lingered moments longer each time — she was never sure when it was okay to pull away — and then one day, he pointed at his cheek and said Can I have a little kiss? and then seven weeks had passed and she was holed up in the bathroom at the Kwik Stop in town with a box at her feet and cellophane littering the floor nearby and a room full of silence bearing down on her with the weight of ten thousand hands. She remembers, now, that the silence had had a vibrancy then, too: the fluorescent fixture whined at an unreasonably low pitch while the cellophane crinkled in a slow unfurling on the floor, independent of human contact.

Three weeks later, she’d experienced silence for the last time she could remember, in the front seat of her car while it idled in a parking lot she never thought she’d call a resting place. The engine prrrrrrr-ed in alternating levels of high- and low-volume as she retched into a McDonald’s cup — formerly host to sweet iced tea — and moaned into the emptiness around her.

Yes, the woman decided now: silence was alive, and just like her son, incapable of keeping still.

***

From the corner of Elm and Hyacinth, the house looks abandoned. The boarded-up windows are dark, and when the sun hits just right, it’s almost impossible to tell if the windows have been covered or if the house is merely vacant.

Almost.

The garden is a dead giveaway: a healthy growth of weeds dominate, with two or three marigold bushes sprinkled throughout and a miraculous patch of zinnias shouting “Look at me!” to passersby. If the house were abandoned, the zinnias would have wilted long ago, while dandelions and clover and other pests sprouted upright and starved the flowers of sunlight and moisture. The garden would look a bit like Jumanji, after the kids have opened Pandora’s box and they’ve floundered about helplessly for a day or two. An observant neighbor will notice the zinnias, tended — albeit, haphazardly — and know: someone lives there.

***

A phone rings in another room — her daughter’s, she thinks — and its chirpy proclamation is shrill and unwieldy in the heavy near-silence of the house. The woman quivers imperceptibly. The tune plays two, three, four times before cutting off abruptly mid-ring; the stillness returns, the call a brief (but jarring) ripple already fast dissolving.

To be continued.

The Mother

Brown strands of hair clung to the corners of her mouth before the wind blew them free, whipping her choppy locks into tangles that could pass for bedhead (if the person scrutinizing her hair had just crawled out of bed, and had yet to put in their contacts, she thought). The woman sighed. There is no such thing as “wind-tousled” hair when one lives on the plains of the Midwest; rather, there are fifty-mile-per-hour wind gusts that render combs useless and tease manes into something resembling the wildling ‘do of Disney Tarzan.

Why bother? She tucked a few errant strands back behind her left ear — not for the first or last time, to be sure — and pushed the screen door open. As the woman surveyed the horizon for the first time this evening, she kept a firm grip on the door. It had been opened against the unrelenting wind, but in Kansas, one could never be too careful. At any given moment, the breeze would shift its course, pulling the door from her grasp and slamming it back against the siding — bending the inadequately spring-loaded door closer and forever rendering it somewhat-less-useful.

The sky was bleached a milky white, as odd a color she’d ever seen it. There was no hint of blue, nor sign of the sinking sun (it was, after all, nearly eight) — only the faintest trace of umber mingled in with the white. Tomorrow, the forecast showed yet another wind advisory; it was likely the dust particles that were whipped into a froth today wouldn’t even settle overnight, and tomorrow’s sunrise would be obscured behind a haze of filth. It was impossible to accomplish anything significant with the wind battering you at every turn; even breathing seemed inadvisable on days like this.

The woman’s shoulders slumped as the screen door banged shut behind her. The house loomed behind her, its ghastly shingled siding an eyesore against what would otherwise be a relatively unblemished (albeit dry and sparse) horizon. From within the walls, she could just barely hear the whimpering cries — her son’s Bedtime Blues, as she’d mentally dubbed them. Every night, without fail: the crying. She wondered if he would ever outgrow it. Surely, the woman thought, surely someday he would fall asleep without the wounded cries of a child whose mother refused to rock him to sleep every night. Surely.

I could just go, she whispered to no one, not even herself (who’d know she was lying). She took a step, toes crunching blades of grass long-dead. The cries were fainter — was the baby still crying, or was this her imagination at work? Often, she didn’t know; especially in bed at night, when the pitch black seemed to play tricks on her ears. How was that possible? It was as though the darkness blanketed sounds, muffled everything except the whirring of her thoughts. Definitely fainter. Probably her imagination.

The woman took another step, and then fifteen more, stopping only at the cool bite of the barbed-wire fence. Now she could hear nothing of her life inside the barracks house, only the trilling of some bird that didn’t know it was bedtime and the distant thrum of tires on the highway.

She turned to her right, holding the top wire of the fence loosely in her fist — sometimes, the wire grazed the inside of her palm, other times it was as though she were grasping air — and closed her eyes. Methodically, probing the ground for holes and pinecones with her tentative steps, the woman made her way to the end of the line. Now the white of the sky had given way to a murky blue-brown, and a hazy blob of orange lingered where sky met earth. The woman definitely could not hear crying, not the child’s or her own. There was only the sound of daylight dying in the arms of Night. And the sound of her pulse, which had grown louder as she walked along the fence, as though the barbs that had torn open her flesh had also unleashed a voice: her heartsong.

Eyes open, she trotted to the car that sat miserably where she’d neglected it the last time she had left the house (six days ago), blanketed in chalky dust and roasting inside — hot air belched into her face when she jerked the handle, it rolled over her like a wave of ocean born in the bowels of an oven.

The baby was still inside. He would be sleeping now, the woman knew. His father would be home in a few hours; before midnight, most likely.

I could just go. There it was again! That lie.

With a grunt, the car came to life at the twist of the key.

He’ll be home in a couple of hours. Maybe even earlier, she reasoned. Sometimes he’s home earlier. The sun was no longer visible at all, the sky now nearly-indigo. The car’s air conditioner had sprung to life immediately, bathing the woman at first in a warm wash of air; but now, her arms were chilled, an odd sensation coupled with the slimy warmth of her thighs against the leather seats. She flicked the lights on, bumped the gearshift into drive. Slowly, slowly, the woman released pressure on the brake, allowing the vehicle to move forward of its own accord. It creeped maddeningly slowly toward the gravel road, but she could not depress the gas pedal. The instinct was there — press down — but somewhere the neurons that transmitted the message from brain to foot were misfiring, or not firing at all, the lazy little bastards.

They rolled onward, the woman and the car, neither in much of a hurry. She wondered if the baby still slept; sometimes, he woke up after an hour or two looking for his mother. They could spend all their waking hours together and he still needed the woman in his sleep, she mused. How magnificent, the needing! — she wasn’t sure that any other creature on the earth required so much from their mothers as infant humans. She knew for certain that calves could be weaned from their mothers within a handful of months, and of course by then, they were already foraging for the greenest shoots of grass and wandering farther from the herd every day. She crawled to a stop several yards before the road, the car idling tiredly at the woman’s indecision.

I could just go, she repeated. I could just go. But — the thought hung in the air before her, and her stomach lurched at the rest of the statement. The woman sighed — it felt like her first breath since she’d exited the house — and shifted the car into reverse. She didn’t quite run the handful of steps up the sidewalk and back to the door, but there was a renewed sense of urgency. Was that the baby, crying, or were her ears playing tricks on her again?

Her palm grasped the smooth metal of the door handle as headlights swept over the yard.

Everyone was home, now.