Criminal Water

Issue 39 by Elizabeth Forsyth

Criminal Water

“Customers shall not use a hose that dispenses potable water to wash a motor vehicle...San Diego residents are encouraged to report water waste by calling the Water Waste hotline and leaving a voicemail...Photo and video submission of violations are encouraged.”

- City of San Diego Permanent Water Use Restrictions

Matt and his dad stand in front of their garage door facing the mud and almond dust caked truck.

“Let's bring it to a carwash.”

“We’re fine, Matt; everyone’s asleep. No one will hear us. We’ll just wash the truck and then we’re done ’til we have to move the almonds. Just like we planned.”

His dad walks over to the side of the garage to turn on the hose. Matt loses count of the squeaks from the rusty faucet and the curses from his dad. The adrenaline is leaving Matt now, an hour after their theft, and a weariness set in. His dad seems more cavalier since the almonds had been safely hidden in their shed. Each squeak makes Matt’s jaw clench with worry.

It’s Matt’s first time accompanying his dad on an almond raid and his dad is acting like this was some rite of passage sort of shit. His dad has been stealing almonds since Matt can remember – pick up some almonds, set up a cart, sell the candied almonds to unsuspecting customers at the Fall Fair. Matt’s Christmas presents always smelled like almonds and burnt sugar. He started working at his dad’s convenience store the weekends he lived with his dad, and his dad seemed to figure that “work” now extended to dragging Matt along to steal almonds.

A few spurts, and then the water comes out of the head of the hose where it lay coiled on the ground like a snake. Matt’s dad picks up some of the coils and walks back to Matt, handing him the head of the hose.

“Put your thumb on top, let’s get some pressure going.”

Matt starts spraying down the truck and bits of almonds and mud wash away. The water runs off and leaves a dark path down the driveway to the gutter. Matt hopes that the water stained onto the driveway evaporates before anyone sees it.

“I’m going to go check on the almonds. I’m a bit concerned about the dew.” His dad disappears around the side of the house. Matt hears his footsteps crunching along the gravel over the noise of the water, then the footsteps stop and the door of the shed opens and the top of a heavy-duty plastic bag is unrolled. Every sound his dad makes is amplified; even the most innocuous sounds are loud at four a.m.

He remembers the softness of the almonds when he had reached into the bag at the farm. They coated his hands and now the softness is stuck to him. He reaches out and touches the uneven surface of the truck.

A dog barks and his stream of water jerks. Matt looks up to scan the street. Nothing. He breathes out. The crash from his adrenaline high is hitting him hard.

Water’s getting on his shirt and shorts, and he starts to get really fucking cold. By the time the truck is clean he wants to be done and in bed and he can no longer feel the metal of the nozzle. A wave of something like homesickness comes over him. Homesick for a bed and a crime-free life, homesick for a different dad.

It’s probably nothing.

The dog barks again, and Matt looks up to see movement in a window across the street.

*

Nancy stands for a few minutes out of sight from the narrow window in the middle of her front door, catching her breath. That kid across the street almost saw her.

She only moved to her house six months ago and hasn’t yet met those neighbors. Their house is older and more tired than the rest of the houses on the street, the single-story stucco house in contrast to the sleek two-story modern homes that surround it. She privately hopes that having all the nicer houses surrounding them will shame the people into remodeling.

Nancy tells herself that, as a single woman, this is the neighborhood for her – a neighborhood of young professionals and their young kids, a good elementary school only three blocks away. A safe, guaranteed return on her investment. She imagines a nice, recently divorced architect tearing down that house across the street and rebuilding, moving in with his two quiet children, walking them to school in the morning, and she would meet up with him when she walks Winston, and they would live happily ever after and would rejoice together on the cleanliness and safety of the neighborhood.

In the meantime she has to deal with these water-wasting neighbors who were doing God-knows-what when the slam of truck doors woke her up twenty minutes earlier. She saw them move large trash bags and shudders to think about what could be in them. She hears the water still trickling and slips her phone out of her bathrobe pocket, locking Winston in her bedroom so he won’t bark this time. She peeks out of the window, positions her phone, and films.

*

Jorge closes the door to the shed. The almonds are still dry and snug in their bags, and Matt should be almost done washing off the truck. All that is left is to meet with Pedro tomorrow, and bring Pedro’s cart to the park this weekend, and bam! An extra two hundred bucks for him. Now that Matt is older he doesn’t even have to spend all the money on Christmas presents for him. Hell, he’s feeling generous – maybe he’ll give Matt all the money. He did good on his first time.

He is happy that Matt’s finally joining him and can see for himself that his dad isn’t doing anything wrong. For the past few years Matt had done nothing but give him attitude about taking the almonds, saying it was wrong, illegal, shameful, that he would get arrested; but now Matt can see firsthand that he is just picking up some discarded misshapen almonds that had been thrown out. No one gets hurt, no one loses any money. He’s just recycling. He smiles to himself. Matt would like that. Environmentally friendly almonds.

He crunches over the gravel he and Matt installed last year back to the driveway. Matt is standing with the hose letting the water trickle down into puddles in the driveway.

“Go turn off the water.” He takes the hose from Matt, walking around the truck to check if all the dirt is gone. He sprays a bit of water onto the passenger side front tire and nods at the rest of the car.

Matt hasn’t moved since Jorge took the hose off of him.

“I thought I saw someone,” says Matt. His gaze is fixed on the house opposite. Jorge thinks someone might have moved into the house a few months ago but doesn’t bother keeping track of all the comings and goings of the neighborhood. Too many families with young kids, too many trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Next year he’s thinking of just turning off all the lights and leaving out a bowl of candy, but he knows some kids would just be greedy and take it all.

“It’s probably that damn dog again,” says Jorge. He hopes; he’s never had anyone see him before. He walks to the faucet and turns off the water.

“No, Dad. I really think I saw someone.”

His dad finally looks across the street towards the window Matt’s pointing at. There is some movement, enough that his heart skips a beat and he wonders if his life is over at thirteen.

“Go in the house, Matt. Hang this first.”

Matt takes the hose from his dad and rolls it up and hangs it carelessly from its hook. He has a few steps left of gravel before he’s in the house, safe.

“I know what you’ve been doing!” The front door opposite them opens to a woman whispering aggressively at them. She darts across the street to them, holding her bathrobe closed across her chest. She is middle-aged, and Matt sees her sagging breasts move jelly-like under her bathrobe. Matt had seen her once or twice in tired business clothes before, had even ventured a faint wave once when he was feeling neighborly.

Fuck fuck fuck. Matt doesn’t say anything — he knows his dad would lose his shit if he swore. He moves closer to the side of the house and wonders if he can make it the last few steps and if it would be terrible to leave his dad on his own. He decides to stand with one hand on the wall, nonchalantly.

His dad, used to righteously enraged customers at his shop, holds out his hand and gives what Matt knew he considered to be his winning smile.

“Hi, I’m Jorge.”

The neighbor motions to the truck with her chin, ignoring his hand. “You’ve been washing your truck. That’s not allowed.”

“Sorry about that, it was really dirty. You know how it is.” His dad lowers his hand and shrugs his shoulders. He keeps the smile on his face. It looks strained.

“I took a video of you,” she says.

“Of us?” His dad looks incredulous.

“Yes.” There’s a pause as if she is waiting for their response to her proclamation. “You’ve been wasting water.”

“Well, the water’s already wasted. Have a good one.”

His dad starts walking towards him, towards the door, and Matt drops his hand and also moves towards the door. He gazes at the shed filled with almonds. He feels sweat trickle down his front, following the water trail.

*

“I’m going to turn this video in!” Nancy feels a sudden burst of confidence. He has some nerve to brush her off. It is three a.m. and she is right and they are wrong; it is as simple as that. This would stop them from running into their house and hiding the evidence.

Jorge and his kid stop and turn back to her. The kid’s hand is on the door handle.

“I really wish you wouldn’t,” says Jorge. His broad, tanned face is calm.

“You are wasting water.”

Jorge sticks his hands in his jeans pockets and exhales loudly, which really pisses her off. She is sure they were washing off some kind of evidence.

“It’s just this one time. We were off-roading.”

“It’s supposed to rain next week, couldn’t you have waited until then?”

“Oh, you want us to have a Mexican car wash?”

Nancy flushes red and tugs up her bathrobe lapel. “Well, it’s just not fair to the rest of us who are doing our part. Let’s not bring race into this.” She thinks briefly about the black bags. Probably drugs. She can’t remember if she got a video of the bags.

Jorge’s kid speaks up. He’s a sullen-looking boy with sloppy clothes and a buzzcut. His shorts and the bottom of his shirt are damp; it looks like he wet his pants. “We recycle and are generally good with water. We really didn’t think about washing the truck.”

“You’re damn right you didn’t think! You’ll get what you deserve.” Nancy turns towards her house and wonders if the I.T. team at work would help her upload her video. She is pretty sure there was a city website for turning in people like her neighbors.

She only makes it two steps before her phone is yanked out of her hand, hurting her fingers with the force of the pull. She gasps, losing hold of the lapels of her bathrobe that she had been holding together; an indecent amount of skin below her neck is exposed.

Jorge throws her phone to the ground. It doesn’t shatter or break apart but bounces on a corner before resting face down on the edge of the curb. My phone. She needs to call the police; her phone is on the ground. She looks up at Jorge before deciding that is a terrible idea. She runs back to her house, the street cold and hard beneath her feet, the air clammy against her neck.

Nancy locks the door behind her, looks out the narrow window. She sees Jorge pick up her phone and start after her and she turns away from the window before she is tempted to look outside again. Maybe they would follow her to the house and break the windows in and rape her. Is the back door locked? She bends in half, hiding under the windows as she makes her way to the kitchen where the landline is. She feels naked without her cell phone. Thank God she kept her landline.

The operator robotically answers: “911, what’s your emergency?”

Nancy risks a glance through the kitchen curtains. She can see Jorge walking up her driveway in and out of the stripped pattern of shadows on the driveway left by the house lights. He is short and fat and more menacing-looking than she could have ever feared for this neighborhood.

“I’d like to report my neighbors.”

*

“What are you doing?” Matt grabs Jorge’s arm and Jorge has never seen Matt so pissed off. He is almost never this physically close to his son and the four inches of height Matt has on him feels taller than ever. “I’m just going to take a look at what she got and talk to her.” Jorge jerks his arm back, rubs at the fingerprints Matt has bruised onto his arm.

“Just leave it there, Dad. Let’s go inside.”

“No. I’m going to be a good neighbor, unlike that bitch, and talk to her.”

“Dad.”

“Matt, I’ve told you ‘no.’ Stay out of this.”

He pushes his son towards their front door and hopes he won’t tell his mom about this. Jorge would never pick up almonds again; he’d never wash his truck again himself. What if Matt gets a record and can’t get into college all because of a bitch neighbor across the street? He stalks over to her house, turns the phone over in his hands and feels a few cracks on the screen. He knocks and hopes the fucking dog is asleep.

“Look, lady, I’m sorry. We cool? I’m just going to take your phone to fix the screen. Okay?” This will give him a few days to watch what was on the phone.

She doesn’t respond.

“Lady?”

Nothing.

“I’m going to leave now.”

Jorge stands for a few more minutes before walking back to his house. The cold dew is setting into him now.

Matt is already inside sitting at the kitchen table when Jorge comes in and sits down opposite him.

“It’ll be alright, it’s just a misunderstanding,” he tells Matt.

Matt stands and walks to his room, closes and locks his door. What if he gets a record?

Jorge sits at the kitchen table with the phone. The video application is already open. He presses “play” to see what she had recorded.

The video is pitch black and he can hear her stupid dog barking in the background. Ten minutes of black. It’s nothing.

Jorge puts his face in his hands. He can smell faint almond oil, can feel their silkiness, can almost taste their bitter aftertaste.

He hears the sirens, closer and closer.

About the Author

Elizabeth Forsyth

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My work has been featured in anthologies by the Museum of Walking, CityLit, Bay Area Library ePublishers, and San Diego Writers Ink, and was recently longlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize 2019. I am a graduate of the Novel Studio program at City, University of London, hold a Certificate in Literary Publishing from Emerson College, and am a Literary Arts Resident with the Shuffle Collective.