Neighbors
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Benny was at the window again, watching the new family across the street crawling around the property like wild animals. Not literally crawling. Just... everywhere.

He looked on, annoyed, as an indeterminate number of children occupied themselves with balls, bats, jump ropes, skateboards, trikes and bikes, and even small cars. One was Pepto Bismol pink and branded after the ever-popular Barbie, and a red one was painted in a fire engine theme. Horrible.

What appalled Benny most, however, was the evident head of the household. Almost as soon as the moving truck left, he had launched multiple, unnecessary home improvement projects. He had ripped out shrubs and painted the bricks on the front of the house.

It had been a perfectly good house. Nothing wrong with it, whatsoever. Maynard had seen to that.

“Honey,” Jane said. “Come away from that window. It’s not a TV.”

“It’s much better.”

Jane was putting out things for their morning coffee break. It was their habit ever since Benny retired. She put some cream puffs on a plate, and he fancied one even though his doctor told him to cool it on the sugar.

He liked coffee breaks with Jane. It was their time to talk, after their morning activities. Benny's morning was typically spent tinkering with projects in his workshop. Jane usually went walking with the other retired ladies in their neighborhood after breakfast. They would circle round and round the neighborhood, strutting in colorful sweatsuits like exotic birds.

One of the ladies had the whitest hair Benny had ever seen, and she wore turquoise or blue, creating a startling contrast like the whitewashed architecture of a Greek island. Another dyed her hair jet black and wore jewel-tones — ruby red or jade green. She introduced herself as Jasmine, but Benny suspected that her real name was something like Eunice or Mabel and that she gussied herself up to meet men at the VA.

Now, Jane — she was different. Normal. She dressed the part of a sensible woman in later midlife. Sure, she colored her hair, but nothing alarming. Just a nice, understated auburn. And she wore prudent jogging clothes in pleasant, unalarming tones.

He picked up a cream puff. “How was your walk, my dear?” Jane typically waited for Benny to start the conversation. She was somewhat deferential, even after forty-one years of marriage, although in fact she was the strong one. The bright one. It was Jane who did taxes, balanced accounts, and handled hard news like a marine. He preferred not to think of their balance of power.

“It was wonderful. The birds were singing. And the gardens are just exploding in color. The Hansons' cat had kittens, and they were out playing on the lawn. They’re just so cute."

"Those people should have spayed the cat."

"Could we get one, Benny?”

"A cat?" Benny sat back. “Oh, I don’t know, Jane. They are a lot of responsibility. And they’ll shred your curtains without thinking anything of it.”

“I don’t care about the curtains.”

“Well, I’m not excited about a cat." He set down his cream puff. "It would probably outlive us.” He was thinking of Maynard.

Jane blinked. “That’s a terrible thing to say, Benny.”

“Well. I just don’t know.” He looked out the window. The neighbor children were playing with their contraptions and making an unconscionable amount of noise. Two lanky boys played basketball in the driveway for hours. Each time they bounced the ball, the sound ricocheted off Benny’s house.

There were some girls, too, all blonde and similar in height. He hadn’t sorted them out at all. Plus, an assortment of younger children, moving around so quickly they couldn't be counted. And finally, there was a baby. It was usually dressed in boy colors and a baseball cap, and Benny had come to think of him as a boy. The girls carried him around and then let him toddle about. And then they would plop him in a playpen and ride bikes or draw pictures right on the driveway with chalk.

At this moment, one of the basketball-playing boys and one of the bike-riding girls had collided and there was a ruckus. Benny could hear it all. “Would you look at that, Jane? The little monsters.”

“Shush, Benny. They’re kids.”

“I don’t remember our kids doing that. They were well-behaved. And there were only two. Not a marauding mob. Anyway, where are the parents? Those kids seem to have very little supervision at all.”

Jane cleared the plates, saying nothing more. He never knew what it meant when she did that, even after all these years, but he suspected it wasn’t good.

The next day was Saturday. Benny liked to keep routines, in spite of being retired. Saturday was chore day. He noticed that the man from across the street was working in the yard.

Benny intended to do yard work as well but decided to wait until the neighbor was done.

He hated that awkwardness of being near people and not making eye contact. What were you supposed to do? Shout out “hello”? That seemed so intrusive. Better to just keep your head down, focus on your tasks.

Today he decided to wait out the neighbor and work in the house until the guy went inside. There was plenty to do. He took care of a squeaky door with some WD-40 and then peeked out the window. All was quiet. They must have gone off somewhere with the mother in their exhaust-spewing Suburban.

He watched as the man, whatever his name was — Rick or Dick, maybe — hauled out a ladder. It was not a pretty sight. The man was walking with it straight up, awkwardly trying to guide it to the intended destination. Benny shook his head. Everyone knows you don’t carry a ladder that way. You’re likely to crash into something.

He looked on as the man comically stumbled across the driveway, moving this way and that like a drunkard, while the ladder tilted and nearly fell. Then he kind of walked it like a stiff doll — left foot, right foot — to the house.

Maynard would have rolled over in his grave. In fact, Benny imagined just that — Maynard tossing and turning down there as this idiot with no common sense took over his house.

“Watching the neighbor channel?”

Benny turned to see Jane holding a basket of laundry. “Matter of fact, yes," he said. "Our neighbor just fell off the turnip truck. It’s endlessly amusing.”

Jane sighed. “Honey, there are better things to do. It can’t be good for one’s blood pressure to get all worked up about the neighbors.”

“I’m not worked up. What makes you think I’m worked up?”

“You never lurked at the window watching Maynard working around the house.”

“Maynard was an intelligent man, Jane. He knew what he was doing. He could build anything. Fix anything. Heck. Remember how he built that extension on the house? And the time he added the pergola with the retractable shade? This clown, by contrast, is likely to hurt himself by just putting up a ladder. That’s my primary concern, here.”

“Stop spying and take this basket of laundry downstairs to the washer for me, Mr. Man.”

To keep the peace, he did as he was told.

Later, after a glass of milk and a cookie, he looked across the street. The house seemed quiet. He finally ventured out to give the lawn its weekly mowing. He pulled the lawn mower out of the shed, admiring the immaculate organization of his tools for a moment. Then he grabbed a rag and his fuel to prepare the machine.

“Hello there!”

Crap. Benny recognized the weird choirboy voice of Rick or Dick. He looked up.

“Hi neighbor," the man said. "Saw you out here and thought I would stop by. We met the day we moved in?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Please tell your wife we really enjoyed the cookies. The kids gobbled them all up. I only got one.” The man was holding a coffee cup, which he set on top of Benny’s mailbox. Benny noticed that the man had two welts on his face and one on his neck.

He touched the one on his cheek. “Say. You don’t know how to get rid of bees, do you? We have a hive in the tree right next to the house. I can hear them buzzing from the kitchen.”

Benny shook his head. “Can’t say as I’ve ever had that problem.” The man must have climbed up on the ladder, with zero protection and no actual plan, to deal with the bees, and inevitably had gotten stung. He felt dismayed for missing it.

“I was hoping to take care of that while my wife and kids are off to the zoo for the day. I poked at it to see if I could knock it down, but that didn't exactly go well. Should I use some kind of spray?”

“Oh Lord no. They’re pollinators. A nuisance, perhaps, but overall good, like butterflies and bats. They have a purpose.” Benny hoped he wasn’t glowering. Jane said he glowered at times. The thing was, Maynard would have known exactly what to do. He might have gone into the city office where they had all kinds of pamphlets about such things.

The neighbor looked back toward his house and the beehive. “Well, I’m going to have to figure something out. Of course, it’s just one of the million things one has to do. Homeownership, eh?” He seemed eager to find some common ground.

Scratching at one of his welts, Rick or Dick said, “Well, thanks for your time, um, Ben, wasn’t it?”

“Benny.” No one ever called him Ben.

Just then a red Subaru pulled into the driveway. It was Benny’s daughter Lacy, and her little girl, Rose. As Lacy stepped out from behind the wheel and reached into the back seat to unbuckle her daughter, the neighbor said, “Looks like you’ve got company, Benny. I’ll be going.”

“See ya,” Benny said. It occurred to him that he had just missed the chance to get the man’s name.

Rose came out of the car bouncing. She was wearing red-rubber ladybug boots with black polka dots and eyes on the toes. She bounced across the driveway. “Grampy!” She threw herself on Benny, where he was crouched near the lawn mower.

“Hello Sugar Plum,” he said.

Lacy put out a hand as if she needed to avert disaster. “Whoa, Rosie. You must be careful with your elders. Hi, Dad.”

He smiled. “Isn’t this a nice surprise!”

Perhaps he was partial, but he thought Rose was an exceptional child. She already spoke in full sentences at the age of three. And she had the most startling, dark brown eyes and beautiful chocolate brown hair, thanks to the genetics of her father who was Guatemalan.

When Lacy had first started dating Fernando, Benny had cautioned her. “Are you sure? Wouldn’t that add a layer of complication, being in a mixed-race marriage and all that?”

“Oh, for the love of God, Daddy,” Lacy had said. “Could you at least pretend you’re a little bit enlightened?” And that was the end of that. They were happy now. He could see that. And they had produced the most beautiful progeny he had ever seen. It also helped matters that Fernando could judge a good whiskey.

“Oh yes, chore day,” Lacy said. “I could set my clock by your habits.”

Benny silently agreed that habits and the clock were inextricably connected.

Rose, who was now leaning against Benny, said, “What’sat mean?”

Lacy laughed. “It means Grampy is just a teensy bit predictable. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it. I mean, unless you like change. And adventure. But anyway.”

Lacy’s brother Kevin had said the same thing before he left for a fishing trip in Alaska and never returned.

Benny turned to Rose. “What are the secrets of the day, my fair maiden?”

Rose closed one eye and looked at him sternly. “I can’t tell you. Then they wouldn’t be secrets.”

“You certainly have a point.”

Lacy peeled Rose off her grandfather, and they moved toward the house. “Let’s go see what Grammy is up to, sweet pea.”

That was when Benny saw Rick or Dick’s coffee mug on his mailbox, right where he had left it. This was a new predicament. It was probably the neighborly thing to do to take it back to him. But he imagined getting drawn back into conversation about the bee situation.

He decided to leave the mug. If someone came by and stole it, or some teenage brat smashed it on the street, or what have you, it wouldn’t be Benny’s fault. He hadn’t invited that fellow to come over to shoot the breeze. Anyway, if Rick or Dick was even one bit observant, he would notice he had left it behind. All he’d have to do was look out of his kitchen window, as any self-respecting homeowner would do from time to time, and he would see his prodigal coffee mug on the mailbox.

He finished tinkering with the lawn mower, started it up, and began his back-and-forth pattern across the lawn. Each time he went away from the mug he could think about other things, such as the upcoming bingo night at the VA. But each time he flipped directions and came back, there was the coffee mug, abandoned like a stray puppy. It was a rather nice mug in an unusual eggplant color. Which meant that if anything happened to it, there would probably be a partial set — perhaps seven mugs instead of eight. Benny couldn’t bear it.

When he finished edging the lawn, he marched the mug over to the house across the street. He rang the doorbell but didn’t hear a sound. It must have been broken. What was the neighbor going to do about that? He mentally apologized to Maynard and knocked hard on the door with his knuckles.

Rick or Dick opened the door, his face puffy and his hair a mess. He must have been sleeping. “Oh hey, Benny. Is that mine?” He took the mug with one hand and ran the other over his face. “That’s super. Thank you, man. You’re a champ. Seriously.”

It seemed like a lot of fanfare for a mug, but Benny was exceptionally glad to be rid of it. He turned to go.

Rick or Dick called after him. “Your lawn looks nice, Benny! It looks great from here.”

By now, Benny was walking back toward the house, so he just raised a hand in acknowledgment. He noticed that there were some dandelions just peeking up out of the neighbor’s lawn, which was something Maynard would never have tolerated.

At home, Jane, Lacy, and Rose were working on a puzzle together. He kissed each of them on the head. “I think I’ll work in the shop and let you ladies gossip.”

Benny’s workshop project was the repair of Maynard's old croquet set. He thought his grandchildren might like it someday. Maynard’s kids had cleared out his house when he died. They had an estate sale, then a yard sale. Finally, they hauled the last of the stuff to Goodwill when there was almost nothing left but junk. Benny never went over there until the last day when he knew all the things that would actually remind him of Maynard were gone.

Bruce, Maynard’s oldest son, and Laura, his only daughter, were there packing the last things into Bruce’s truck for donation. Benny shook Bruce’s hand and gave Laura a hug. Then he glanced around and saw the old croquet set. It was sitting in pieces on the lawn, and it looked destined for the trash can.

Laura sighed. “There’s not much left, Benny. But if there’s anything you want. Anything at all. You were pretty special to Dad.”

Benny rocked back and forth on his heels. He hadn’t wanted anything. He wanted Maynard not to be gone, was all. But he glanced over at the croquet set, which now sat alone at the edge of the lawn. “I might like that,” he said, twitching his head in its direction.

Laura and Bruce looked at the set with him and for a moment no one said anything. Some of the mallet handles were broken. Everything was chipped and the paint was all rubbed off. Also, it appeared that a dog or perhaps a rat had chewed on some of the mallets.

“That,” Bruce said, “is crap. You’re not going to want that, Benny. How about his humidor? I don’t know why this beauty didn’t sell. Look at it.” He held up the old humidor made from redwood burl that had held Cuban cigars. Benny remembered that it had sat on a side table near them on the nights they played cards, which was always out in Maynard’s heated garage. This was out of deference to Carol, Maynard’s wife, who had passed on some years before. Carol had never allowed any sort of smoking in the house. He thought of having a nice cigar with Maynard and the familiar aroma of the humidor.

“No thank you,” he said to Bruce. “I’ll take that croquet set. See if I can get it all fixed up. It will give me something to do.”

Laura put all the pieces in an old floral gift bag, which was another of the last remaining items. Then she handed it to him and said goodbye in a small voice. And Bruce mumbled something too. Benny had watched those kids grow up in that house. Now he wasn’t sure he would ever see them again. But he wasn’t the type to make a scene. He thanked them and walked away.

Now he worked on the project in his workshop whenever he felt like spending a little time with Maynard. He would shoot the shit a little, and pretend Maynard was there to answer. Friendship didn’t stop at death, in Benny’s book.

"We're going to get this all fixed up good as new, Maynard."

"See, Benny? I told you that lathe would come in handy."

"You were right, my friend. As usual! This is why I reluctantly listen to you."

He laughed and imagined Maynard laughing too.

Maynard’s funeral had been several weeks before the estate sale, on a Saturday in April, a dour time in Minnesota with dead grass and gray skies. On the day of the funeral, there was still gray slush on the roads from old snow. Leading up to that day, Benny had been thinking about how mad he was at Maynard for dying. Maynard hadn’t taken good care of himself. “You old coot,” he said as he dressed for the service. “I’m not going to say I told you so.”

How many times had he said Maynard should get his blood pressure checked? How many times did he tell him to lay off the red meat and maybe eat a salad? But Maynard was persnickety. That was a fact.

For the funeral service, Maynard’s family had asked Benny to say something, so he wrote some things down, and had to keep crossing off words like “stubborn” and swapping in “self-made man” and “heart of gold.” He wasn't used to the idea that Maynard was gone, his house sitting empty after twenty-five years, and the end of all those times shooting the breeze as if they had forever ahead of them.

He edited the draft of his speech, and then he typed it up nice and made the font large so he wouldn’t have to squint when he got up to speak.

When his time came in the program, he walked solemnly up to the pulpit. He had finally stopped feeling mad. Something else was going on entirely. He tried to brush it aside. He looked out at the people. His family sat together with Maynard’s family. Jane sat next to Bruce and Laura, who were both crying. Jane held Laura’s hand and he knew that would be comforting to her. She just had the right touch. Lacy and Fernando were there in the same pew, both looking nice. Lacy also had a tissue that she used to dab her eyes. And at that moment Benny realized Maynard had been like an uncle to her.

He adjusted his tie and looked down at the piece of paper in his hands, which swam with words. What had he written? What did it mean? “You old coot,” he thought. But his mind said these words softly. Finally, when he opened his mouth to speak, no words came. The people waited and watched him, without a stir. As he wondered how long he had been standing there, the minister came to his rescue and offered to read what he had written to the congregation. Benny nodded and handed him the paper. And the minister read. He read the words perfectly, with just the right inflection here, and emphasis there. And it was beautiful.

When the minister was done, he handed back the paper to Benny and he smiled, and Benny thought that maybe it had all gone as well as it could have.

The croquet set was coming along, now. He was basically replacing everything, but that was okay. He liked how it gave him focus, now that the funeral was over, and Maynard’s house had been cleaned out. Now that a new family had moved in. He turned on the lathe and began working the pattern into the wood. “I’m down to the last mallet handle, Maynard. Look at this. Is that a professional job, or what?”

“Bye Dad!” Lacy’s voice called down the stairs to his workshop. “I need to get Rose home for her nap.”

“Okay,” he called up. “Thanks for coming by!” But he didn’t go up. He was covered in sawdust and up to his gills in the project. He felt like Maynard was hanging out with him there, eyeing his work and maybe giving him a hard time. That’s how he was.

A little later, as the paint dried on the mallet handles, he went to see what was happening upstairs. Jane was putting something on for dinner. He looked across the street to see that the mother and the kids had returned in the Suburban. They had groceries, and Benny tried to fathom how she went to the store with all those kids and managed to get anything done. Rick or Dick was out in the yard trying to use a trimmer, but he clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He had a long cord and kept tripping on it. The kids were nearby, too, which was madness. You don’t use trimmers and weed whackers around people without eye protection.

“Look at that, Jane. The guy is going to put someone’s eye out with a flying pebble. Those things spit out rocks and pieces of earth." He turned away. “For once I can't watch.”

“He watched you working in the yard today, you know.”

“What? He did?”

Jane smiled. “Sure. This is probably the first home he has owned. He doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to do. So, he looks to see what you do.”

“What do I do, Jane? Nothing at all worth watching. That’s what.”

She shook her head. “Not true. You mowed the lawn, then you did all that edging. A little later, he made a trip to the hardware store to buy an edger.”

“Oh no. Really? I am not taking responsibility for anything he may do. He’s unqualified to be a homeowner!”

Jane quietly turned back to the stove. There it was again, that mysterious, silent behavior. He decided to try to soften a little. Perhaps he was, in fact, glowering.

After dinner, Jane went to the living room to watch an evening show and he returned to the window, which was open to let in the fresh evening air. The neighbor was done with trimming and evidently hadn’t maimed anyone, and the kids were all playing in the yard and driveway. It would be so wonderful when the fall came, and most of them were back in school.

The parents had gone inside. The children were moving about on bikes and scooters. One boy practiced shooting baskets, then twirling the basketball on a finger. The baby was in the playpen playing with a toy or a book.

As he watched, the kids drifted into the house one by one. First, the basketball player walked into the garage, bouncing the ball off the bend in his arm and catching it. Then he shot it into a bin in the corner and walked into the house through the garage door. A few of the girls skipped their way into the garage and went in, with some younger ones running along behind. The other boy who was practicing jumping off a ramp with his skateboard deposited the board in the garage and went in as well. Finally, one girl in braids and a pink dress who had been reading a book in a folding chair got up and walked into the house with her nose still in the book.

They had left the baby outside.

Benny thought of going to get Jane. “Look at that, Jane,” he’d say. “This is what I’m talking about. They have left the baby in the yard. They have too many kids to keep track of.”

But he didn’t do that. Someone should keep an eye on that baby. He thought of the things you read in the papers about abductions. Any second one of the baby’s family members would realize that no one had the baby. Someone would come out and coo over that child and lift him out of the playpen and make sure he was okay.

No one came. The baby must have realized that he had been left alone because he pulled himself up and stood with his hands on the edge of the playpen and looked around. Then he began to call and make loud baby sounds. “Muh? Gah!”

“Scream,” Benny said. “Go ahead. They might hear you if you scream.”

“Mama?”

The thing that happened next made Benny’s blood run cold. The beehive suddenly let loose from its hold on the tree and came crashing to earth, right near the playpen. When it hit the driveway, bees exploded out of it. The baby watched, fascinated, as they flew all around. But then he was stung. Even from here, Benny could see that multiple bees had landed on the baby’s face and neck, and he was moving his arms now and crying.

Benny quickly took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 911. “Ambulance,” he said. “Baby. Multiple bee stings.” He gave the address, yelled for Jane, and ran across the street, where he pounded on the front door of the house. The baby was wailing now, and Benny could hear a siren coming.

Jane walked across the street and joined Benny as Rick or Dick and his wife emerged from the house. They looked at each other as if to say, “I thought you had him!” Then the woman screamed. “Rodney!” She ran to the baby and lifted him out of the playpen as the ambulance pulled up and paramedics jumped out. The bees had settled and were now mostly interested in their fallen hive.

Rodney buried his face in his mother’s shoulder as she spoke to the EMTs. Benny tried to count welts on the baby's head and neck, though the little tyke was crying and writhing. He counted six that he could see. Wasn’t a lot of bee venom all at once dangerous, especially for a baby?

“Babies are rarely allergic to bees,” one of the EMTs said over the wails of the boy. “But he has gotten a lot of stings. He needs to be seen. Let’s get him to the medical center.”

The parents looked at each other. Rick or Dick said, “I’ll stay here with the other kids. You go.”

Then the mom and the baby were loaded into the ambulance with one of the paramedics, and they sped away.

“Aww,” one of the boys said. “He didn’t even turn on the siren. What’s the point of that?”

One of the girls was sniffling and whimpering. “Will he be okay?”

Rick or Dick let out a deep breath that he seemed to have been holding since he emerged from the house. “Yes. He will. Thanks to Benny, he’s in good hands.” He clapped Benny’s shoulder. “You saved the day, my friend. I owe you a beer.”

Benny felt unsteady. He looked at the bees. “It was nothing.”

“No, man. I mean, you acted fast and did the right thing. You must have been looking out the window at just the right moment.”

“Yes,” Benny said. “It was quite a coincidence.” He felt Jane’s eyes on him. “We’ll be going now.” He took Jane’s hand and they started to walk toward their house. But then he turned back. “Oh, hey. What was your name again?”

“It’s Rich. Short for Richard.”

Benny nodded. He might have remembered that.

Later, over a glass of port, he and Jane talked about the day and how the garden was coming in, and about Lacy and Rose. Everything except what happened at the neighbors’ house. “I’m almost done fixing up the croquet set,” Benny said.

Jane squinted at him, as if she suspected him of something, like avoidance. “I’m sure Maynard would be pleased.”

Benny didn’t answer. He looked out the window and across the street to Maynard’s place — only it wasn’t Maynard’s anymore. Things had gone quiet in the yard and lights had come on in the house. Night was falling, and an era was ending. Benny imagined giving Rich some pointers about home ownership. How to prune hedges, edge a lawn, carry a ladder. That sort of thing.

Magically, beyond the giant maple tree Maynard had planted so long ago, the moon rose golden and bright, illuminating the way forward.

About the Author

Jayna Locke

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Jayna Locke is a Minnesota writer with roots in the Northwest, who loves to infuse her stories with a sense of place. She earned her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in Portage Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Backwards Trajectory, Great Lakes Review, and two short story anthologies, and will be published in an upcoming issue of a Jackpine Talking Stick anthology. She is reachable through her website or on Twitter.