Getting To Know the Neighbor
by John Baker


The guy across the street sat in a plastic lawn chair, cradling a colorful squirt gun. His head lolled about like a balloon on a windy day. Every so often he awoke with a jerk and took a peek toward a spruce tree about fifteen feet from his chair.

"Hey, Anna," Calvin whispered. He jerked his head toward their new neighbor. Anna poked her head over the open trunk of the car.

"Let's go," she said.

"No. Not now." Calvin rubbed his palms together. He sucked a breath in through his clenched teeth until they whistled.

"It won't be like it was with the Robinsons--I won't let it," Anna said, pressing her hand into Calvin's lower back. She rested her cheek against his shoulder for a moment. Then she heaved a box into her arms.

"Hello!" she yelled to the neighbor. She ducked her head behind the box and ran toward the porch. Calvin whipped around toward her, but shadows, borne from the contrast between the bright sun and the dark porch, swallowed her. Over in the yard, Floyd, Calvin's Holstein-colored mutt, bounced into the air, slapping his chain against his doghouse.

Calvin turned back to see the neighbor staring directly at him, still cradling the squirt gun. The neighbor then looked at Floyd. Slowly a crooked smile crawled across his face.

There was no way, Calvin thought, that he could walk over to say "Hello," with the old guy staring at him the entire time, cradling the squirt gun. Maybe in a minute, he thought. He reached into the car and pulled at the leg of an end table like a child pulling at a dog's tail. He headed toward the house.

"Put it over there," Anna said. She stood up straight, sweat glistening on her skin, not the least bit fatigued. Calvin admired the tiny valley her backbone made, running from her waistband up under her halter-top. Her dark hair, shoulder length and highlighted, shone with sweat. Calvin did as she said, and set the end table down.

"It stinks in here, like mold." He walked to the window.

"It's ours, though," Anna brushed dirt from her forearms.

"You know, the Robinsons really liked you, too." Calvin leaned his forehead against the window.

"I think that old guy across the street likes you," he said.

"Stop it."

"Look at him," Calvin said, "he's eyeing that spruce tree like Elmer Fudd." Stooped over in his yard, their new neighbor slowly bobbed his head, like a boxer at half speed, and stared into the boughs of the tree. He raised a foot and tiptoed forward. And then again, and again. He shouldered his colorful gun. A sparkling jet of water sliced into the spruce boughs. He lowered his gun, looking satisfied. When Floyd again began jumping in the yard, the neighbor turned and smiled.


Calvin carried a bucket full of plaster chunks into the old garage and dumped them on the floor. Dollops of early evening sunlight, having pierced through the holes in the roof, shimmered on the cement floor. He licked his teeth and spit plaster dust onto the floor. He sat on the edge of the cracked, cast-iron bathtub he and Anna had wrestled out of the bathroom, and tried to smoke a cigarette. He heard Anna pounding away in the bathroom, crushed his cigarette out, and carried his bucket back toward the house.

"Hey buddy," he said, stopping to rub Floyd's head. His food dish was empty.

Inside the house, Calvin asked, "You want to take a break? I'm burning up here."

Anna sunk a knife into the gigantic box containing their new corner shower. She plunged her hands into the opening and withdrew the directions. Giving up on a verbal response, Calvin walked to the window, knelt down, and rested his arms on the sill.

"You know who he reminds me of?" Calvin asked. The old guy was dozing in his chair again. His squirt gun had slid from his hands, onto the ground at his feet. "Remember that janitor at the golf course? That creepy old dude who locked himself in the linen closet that one day?"

"That golf course never should have hired you," Anna said, giggling. She fumbled with the shower directions.

"We did have fun, though," Calvin said. He reached toward Anna and touched her thigh. She smiled down at him. Then Calvin turned and again gazed out the window.

"Well, his name is Bill. He's training cats," Anna said. Calvin turned and stood.

"And you know this . . ." he stirred the air with his hands.

"I was walking Floyd yesterday and I saw him . . . Bill. So I went and said 'Hello,'" Anna stepped into the bathroom, placing her hands on her hips.

"He's training cats, eh? And here I thought he was just wasting time, staring at a tree," Calvin said. He thought a moment. "That's really stupid, what he does all day." He laughed.

"You mean staring aimlessly at something?" Anna asked, walking back into the living room, smiling.


"He's been married to Eileen for 46 years. They have three kids and seven grandkids," Anna said, "including Kevin, who runs on the track team." Anna lowered her eyes and peered at Calvin. "He's quite good, Bill claims."

"Where the hell was I during this exchange?"

"You, my dear, were napping soundly in the bedroom," Anna said. Eyes still lowered, she grinned. "You must have been very worn out."

"Well, I'll bet Eileen is a nag, and that's why Bill would rather sit and fester out in the yard all day," Calvin said, pacing around the living room. As he passed the window, he looked out across the street. Bill was still dozing.

"I should run over there and grab that stupid gun of his," Calvin added.

"Ok. Anyway, there's a bird's nest in that spruce tree he's always staring at," Anna said, walking into the bathroom. "The cats try to eat the bird, so Bill blasts them with the squirt gun. That way the cats associate discomfort with the stream of water, and not Bill."

Calvin bit his lip and nodded.

"Why are you so obsessed with him, anyway?" Anna asked. Outside Floyd was jumping, his chain shaking like a tambourine. Calvin shrugged. He really did not know. Peeking through the descending twilight, he made out Bill's bony frame doubled over, picking up his gun and chair and shuffling along.

Calvin turned toward Anna. His shirt, clammy with sweat and plaster dust, stuck to his body. Anna's face hung with discomfort too, and she pulled her shirtfront away from her chest, fanning air onto her skin.

"So, what, are you in love with him now?" Calvin asked. Anna fanned herself harder.


"Floyd," Calvin called, carrying a container full of dog food. He heard the muffled sound of Floyd chewing. Then Floyd's chain jingled, and he sauntered out from behind his doghouse. An enormous ham bone poked out of his mouth, like a cigar. It was filthy with dirt and dog drool.

"Where'd you get that, buddy?" Calvin reached a hand out and a low growl boiled up from Floyd's chest. Calvin turned and saw the old guy--Bill--sitting not fifteen feet away, in his lawn chair he must have carried over from his own yard. The streetlight saturated his body with yellow light. He wore a hat, which Calvin had never seen him do before. Underneath the hat's bill, just below the cave of blackness it created, Bill's mouth showed. His lips drew a thin flat line across his face, but it grew into a smile as Calvin stood in his yard, staring. Calvin swore he could hear the liquidy popping sound Bill's lips made as they pulled back from his teeth. Bill raised his squirt gun in greeting.

"Hello," Calvin said. He extended a hand and stepped forward. But then he stopped and instead raised it about shoulder high. "I hear you're training cats."

Bill wrapped his fingers around the chair's arms and doubled over. His sharp elbows jutted back, like wings, and he pushed himself slowly upwards. He then arched back and groaned. The bones in Bill's back popped. His smile grew, and he wagged his squirt gun back and forth.

"Yep," he said.

"That's not a bad idea, really," Calvin said. "But that's a pretty far shot from here." He gestured toward the spruce tree across the street, in Bill's yard, and tried to laugh.

"That heat just won't quit, will it," Bill said.

"No, no. It's been . . . you'd think it'd cool off by now. And Anna and I don't even have a shower yet," Calvin said. Floyd continued gnawing on his ham bone, his chain still jingling. Calvin turned and looked down at Floyd, more to avoid Bill than anything. He watched his dog roll onto his back and squirm around in the cool grass. He gasped and jumped after Bill shot him. A dark circle, the size of a tea saucer, stained his shirt. Calvin looked down and watched as a trickle of water pushed down his chest.

"You got yourself a shower now, eh?" Bill's lips pulled back from his teeth as he laughed.


"OK. I'm going to test it out now," Anna said.

"The water might be dirty at first," Calvin yelled from the basement. He turned the main water valve. It squeaked open. Then he climbed the stairs into the kitchen and waited by the backdoor. Floyd sat quietly--no whimpering, no chain slapping against his doghouse, no gnawing and growling. Calvin left the yard light off and stepped outside. He walked toward the garage. Dandelions snapped against his shoes, and, as he stepped inside, he looked across the street. Nothing. No Bill. No squirt gun. He stood just inside the garage door, puffing on a cigarette. Maybe he's not home, Calvin thought. He studied the shadowy blotches of Bill's yard, dropped his cigarette on the garage floor, and walked across the street. He strode up to the spruce tree, plunged his hand into its prickly boughs, and, after some searching, grabbed the nest. He walked back across the street, threw the nest into his garage, and went inside the house.

Anna was sitting on the couch, drying her hair.

"Did you feed Floyd?" she asked. Calvin didn't answer. He stood by the window. Nothing. No lights or anything. Bill must be gone, he thought. The old psycho can sit and cradle his gun all he wants tomorrow, and all for nothing. Calvin lowered himself to one knee, and propped his elbows on the windowsill. He thought he might stay by the window until Bill came home.

Calvin started when Anna placed her hand on his shoulder.

"What did you do?" she asked. She knelt beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. Her hair tickled his neck.

"What did you do?" she repeated. Calvin put his arm around her waist. Her body was still wet from taking a shower. He tilted his head until it touched hers, then stood up. Anna remained kneeling by the window, watching him walk across the kitchen.

Outside, Calvin rescued the nest from the garage floor and turned it over in his hands. Its toughness surprised him. Such resiliency in a bundle of dead twigs. He carried it across the street, to the tree. Stooping down, he wiggled into the prickly spruce boughs and toward the trunk. Spruce pitch, like sap, glued itself to his body. He jammed the nest back into its place and crawled out from the boughs. The streetlamps cast a yellow pall across Bill's yard. Calvin brushed dirt from his pants.

"Anna won't appreciate you dirtying those pants like that," Bill said. Calvin peered toward the voice. He barely made out Bill's silhouette hovering near the back porch steps. He looked like an apparition.

"No--no, she probably won't," Calvin said, turning toward Bill. "She may get upset." He tried to laugh. Bill slowly stepped closer to Calvin. He had on a robe, black socks, and leather slippers. He cradled his gun in his arms.

"Eileen, she gets pretty upset with me some days. Of course she spends most days watching her television programs. My father had a television at one time, back when we--uh--we, we had to . . . my uncle Henry, maybe," Bill said, furrowing his brow and staring hard at the grass under his feet. Calvin, too, could only stare at the grass underfoot, silent for moments. Finally he spoke.

"So, the cats must come around at night, too?" he said, nodding toward the gun.

"The cats," Bill said. Calvin began wondering if Bill had heard him correctly. Then Bill said, "Florence sure likes when I visit him."

"Floyd?" Calvin asked. He didn't want to blatantly correct him.

"Floyd?" Bill asked. He stared at Calvin's face, expectantly. Then he tilted his head, as if thinking, and looked out into the darkness. "Anna sure loves you," he said. Calvin's eyebrows shot up.

"Yea--she's a great woman. Really nice."

"Eileen likes her television programs and the like. She phones her sister, Beverly, some. She lives in--uh," Bill stammered. "She's in--Texas? I think so." Bill shuffled into the yard, toward his lawn chair. His shadow stretched long and thin behind him. He sat down and sighed.

"Yes. She sure loves you," he said. Silence again engulfed the two, save for a chirping cricket here and there.

"So, how long have you and Eileen lived here?" Calvin asked, feeling stupid. Since Bill first spoke, he hadn't moved, except to turn and face Bill.

"Eileen? She and me, we--" he trailed off, letting his chin sink into his chest and his eyes again fall to the grass below. "Eileen?" Bill repeated. He looked toward the spruce tree and then toward Calvin. He shouldered his gun, swiveled at the waist, and squeezed the trigger. Water, sparkling under the streetlamps, arced across the yard and hissed against the asphalt street. Bill turned to Calvin and chuckled. Calvin could only smile nervously.

"Here you go," he said, rising from the lawn chair. He handed the gun to Calvin. Calvin took it, though he didn't want it. He was afraid that taking it might silently seal a friendship pact into which he did not want to enter. Bill shuffled toward the door and up the steps. His hand resting on the latch, he turned toward Calvin.

"She--she really--uh," he said, embarrassed. He turned the latch and walked inside.


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