People Like Our Neighbor

(artwork by Sarah Tell)

Alice says to me, Alice goes, “Our neighbor cornered me again.” She fiddles with the zipper on her sweater. “This time it was in the laundry room.”

And we both know whom she means. There are about 15 other occupants in this building, but when we say, “our neighbor,” it is tacit that we’re referring to this one guy. He’s a real yapper. A conspiracy-theory true believer. And he doesn’t take nonverbal cues for exiting a conversation.

Alice, she goes, “I kept trying to squirm my way out of there, and he kept taking his mask off.”

I make a sound like, “Arumph,” and do a whistling thing with my mouth. “He’s not right in his mind.”

“I’ll say,” Alice says.

I’ve been showering with potted plants. They sit and sulk by the drain as I lather and rinse and repeat. The water’s good for them. The steam, I think, somehow invigorating to their leaves and stems. If I sing to them, well, they probably do not mind. I try not to leak soap into the pots. I am considerate of the space others occupy. I do not want to indent the world’s objects with the harsh cruelties of my life.

There’s Alice. She’s in what we’ve been referring to as our Drawing Room. Alice. She’s stretched out on the floor — couchant as they used to say about cats, I guess. Belly down. Up on her elbows. Alice, she’s intently staring at the hardwood, more precisely at a square space where I believe some flattened paper might go if she put it there, if she were in the mood to see something on it, to make something of it. But, Alice, for now, well, she’s just pondering the space where things could go if she made up her mind to put them there.

I call out to her: “I’m not in the mood for sulking.”

Alice, she swishes and shifts and stretches out her calcaneal tendon by bending her feet towards her shins as she holds her legs up behind her.

I try something else out: “It’s fall weather somewhere, I’m sure. But here all we get is stripes of spotty sun and a little dry wind to make your nose bleed.”

I stand there and check her out, trying to get some small sense of what or who it is that she’s harping on.

“I can hear the tiniest of things.” Alice cracks her neck, adjusts her legs, and straightens out. “Lips rubbing together. Just the sound of your swallows is enough to make me gag sometimes. I’m sorry. It’s something I’m officially struggling with.” Then she blurts out, without waiting for a response, “I’m not crazy. I’m just entertaining myself with multifaceted delusional conundrums. You know. You know? The almost-narcotic bliss of being alone in the crowd. A face to never meet another. Or, then, if it’s to be maladjusted, well, then…”

I meet her about a third of the way. The hardwood is delightful with calm, slender streaks of sun. I’m seeing scorched maple and burnt oak in the rafters of my head’s corniest rooms.

“Let’s get in a tiff about money, please?”

Alice, she fixates on the way I’m moving: not quite a moseying gait but more than a lackadaisical lurch. “Coming over here?”

“I need a mallet to smash all this jittering. We got a mallet anywhere?”

“You don’t keep a mallet just anywhere.”

“I can’t argue with that.”

“Won’t.”

Our neighbor is a strict conspiracist. And a voluble one. He follows his own flow of logic, and really rams it through. He believes unreliable sources. He thinks Bill Gates is out to get him. He rolls up his sleeves and puts something out there to me one day: “Whatever is lost is gained, and vice versa. Time is always running out.” I shrug and grin and grunt my way by.

When perseverance runs higher, during the day’s first course, that’s when I take my strolls. I go out abashedly into the honed marzipan of the world. I see the row of tall palms in the distance. The embossed diamonds on the garage doors of houses. The old redwood mansions, the shotgun stucco jobs, the Spanish style bungalows, and behind decrepit chain-link fences the litter-strewn vacant lots of hard rock and weeds and cracked-to-rubble concrete steps going nowhere. The blind-stamped fonts on the peeling plaster of derailed railroad flats in failed housing complexes: Ginger’s Pass, Lofty Pines, The Bare Arms. I pass small armies of front-lawn and driveway picnickers grilling meats and gabbing on beach chairs. The streets are potholed and cratered, the tar-ripe chunks jutting out at odd angles, and soft spots rise to where you can almost sink into the street there if you stick around too long. Downtown’s rotund building shapes hover in the background like some stolid squad of squat and ominous robots recharging before making their rounds again. I sweat up the hills and mosey down them with the same sturdy strut. Unmotivated and relentless, I scour the parks and plazas and boulevards for scraps of hope, trying in vain to make up my own in the untapped resources of my delinquent skull.

I get back home.

Alice is at the kitchen sink with her rubberized lab apron on. Soap bubbles abound. She’s not in the business of getting a drop anywhere.

I swing my way on in to kiss her, light as ever, on the neck, as she’s scrubbing a coffee cup in the sink. We fold and dash against each other, pressing here, lifting there, settling down lightly into our curves. We are in this together; this is an unassailable truth neither of us can sway from, but only to.

“I saw you in my dreams a few nights ago. You were wearing a blood-orange marble dress with lemon tacking and a high vellum collar. Softness was all over stuff. We creaked along the boards, you know. We messed around.”

“I’m so glad you’re the way that you are.”

I hold her. Arms from under her pits and wrapped up around her. She leans into me and nothing else can matter, ever, except us, for a moment, huddled and held so close like that. The drumbeats of our hearts have never been closer.

Us? We are the whispers that you can never add up, the ones that stay up later than you’d like, but less than you’d wish if you could. We long in incremental ways towards a hunger that never quite whets any appetite. But who’s to say we’re struggling? We are not as wrong in the messy compulsiveness of it all as you might imagine. Just as terrible as you’d never guess.

Our neighbor, he doesn’t wear his mask properly — that is, when he’s even wearing one. Which is not as often as he should be. Which should be, we feel, all the time.

Alice is rinsing artichokes in the sink. “Asymptomatic spread. That’s what makes this thing such a beast.” She is hustling. She’s a born hustler. “It doesn’t matter what you think about it. The virus doesn’t care. It doesn’t have a brain. It can’t get great notions. It’s just genetic material. It does one thing. It infects.”

I cradle her back and listen to her neck.

“People can’t outwit it with magical thinking. I know. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.”

“Seriously. The thing gets in you through your nose and mouth. Keep the viral load down. Wear a fucking mask. How hard is it?”

“I know. It’s the simple things, the easy ones, that are somehow that hardest to convince people to do.”

“The most effective prophylactics go unheeded, and then everyone’s surprised when the hospitals fill up.”

“And ounce of prevention…”

“People like our neighbor. They want to believe debunked conspiracies instead of the relentless veracity in the chattering fall of fomites. Nobody listens to boring old facts.”

“People like us. We do.”

“We do?”

I move cautiously to a corner and lean against the wall. “Our neighbor. We’ve got to watch out for that guy. Keep him at a safe distance at all times. Don’t let him crowd you, babe.”

Alice heaves into a listless fury: “Will do, captain.

“Let’s just keep silent for the rest of the day, if we can.”

“And then?”

I give her a metaphorical poke from distance’s safety. “Well. Let’s wake up early and worry about things.”

“Well, then.”

We keep busy with the sustaining sustenance of chores. There will always be more wolf spiders to kill, more dust to dust, more magazines to get rid of, more soap scum to scrub, more groceries to sanitize, more thoughts to churn into words.

We are meeker, still, than we ever were before. On our haunches, down, and performing scales on a dangerously tuned saxophone. All breakers shot. A muscling towards forgiveness. Recouped logic that operates from its own scarcity.

We tell each other nicer things all the time.

“I’m not going to blow all of my savings on fancy marshmallows.”

“My stomach’s rustling.”

“There is some serious real estate between what our neighbor believes and reality.”

Our neighbor, he really gets our proverbial goat. Maybe if he played the harmonium or something, at least, well, that’d be something. But it’s the shapes of distant buildings that make me chew my cereal without a crunch or a grind. Believe me, when it comes to dealing with difficult true-believers-of-false-claims, I can make off with more retaliatory gushing than most. But most? We are the few. We are the daunted. We are the hoarders of suffering and malingered doubts. Us? We can fashion moonbeams out of unilateral superimposed images. “Make off with the cake, dear,” I’d say to the friendliest of foes. “We’ve got earlier nominations to run through and attack.” But really, there are no pleases left in the contemporaneous armor of goodbyes around here.

Me?

I just want to relax and focus on doing something decent with myself. Simplify upkeep. Put the pedal down on more afternoons while I’m at it. Alice bounds from one task to the next, filling time, making up her mind in sudden spasms of attention at what to attend to next. Nobody here is foundering. We lift each other up and hold on to the things we get to keep; that’s all we’ve got left to do.

You see, it’s just that I’ve had a lot of things taken from me, and I don’t want to lose any more. Keep my darlings tucked in, safe, unspoiled by the same wear that’s made them into what I care for so damn deeply. Storage capacity is nearing untenable levels, again. I wiggle through insecurity’s closing vise so I don’t tank the whole deal.

Our neighbor, he is up against it. He will no longer be on speaking terms with us. Alice wishes him good mornings and better afternoons when she comes upon him in the halls or outside the garage. There are esoteric and lithe formalities in the jingle of her mailbox keys that will always go unnoticed as she tells him, “The day’s breaking, finally, for the way we get our bidding done, huh?” while shuffling out the ads and bills. Our neighbor, he balks and halts and stupors on, hobbling on back home. We all should have our lessons placed clearly below our invasive instincts. We should all be so sobered by luck’s unwavering quiver. But, until then, there’s dancing to be done. And picture frames to paint and adorn the walls with. And if the booing chorus of our ways give in anything, or away, while I hold the damper pedal and play my life on the flats, there will be shouting through the days to get us through, to piece-by-piece stick around, here, and of course, we are not with it at all, not of it, and it is us, of us, too, and never, not at all, also. There. There I am.

So.

It’s one of those days when even your eyebrows hurt. Not enough sleep to even have a dream to remember it by. I look out over the rooftop next door from our window, and I see the places where the rain gathers and never leaves. The pools of muck. The indented places that hold murky water and soggy leaves. The forgotten places that do nothing but stay. Everything becomes obsolete at some point. We’re all used parts with no replacements available. Or maybe that’s just our neighbor talking for me.

Maybe I am not so civilized or as sophisticated as I should be. But I try.

I will, tolerant and inept as ever, mail in my gin-spiked heart like a shredded ballot back to any sender. Forgive the extinguished petals of these blanket flowers. My head is paper birch in the mycorrhizal network of this treacherous and lonely region. I am nearly not as strange as unusual anymore, and the weekends here, they never last for very long.

Guess my weight a thousand times. Tell me the way my face should face. Concealed in the moody parameters of doubt and similarity of intent, I get casted to the masses with all the cue chalk of feigned closeness. I will only do the things that I am suited for to do well. I will make my own difference. And I do not really care so much what anybody else thinks.

“I left this napkin on the kitchen table to remind you that even though I love you beyond all measure, I still like you too.”

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