Characters in Search of a Story, Part II

Fred Phillips,
Beebe, Arkansas


I was in my bathroom Sunday morning, shaving, when I looked out the window to check the weather. The leaves on the crepe myrtle trees that mark the property line between my house and my neighbor had fallen. My next door neighbor’s teenage daughter slipped down the side yard. She wore bright fleece pajama bottoms and a white tank top. Barefooted, she picked her way carefully on the frosted ground strewn with pine needle litter. She made her way to the corner of her basement and waited. The basement window opened from the inside, and a skinny, heavily tattooed, shirtless boy leaned out, grabbed her arms, and helped her climb in. She balanced on the sill a moment, tugging at her pajama bottoms which had slipped down her hips, before disappearing inside. I was on the second floor, so I could see a few feet into the basement room. It looked more office than bedroom, but then the boy closed the window, which was made out of frosted privacy glass. I watched for another minute or two, but nothing else happened, so I went back to shaving.

I don’t know how old the girl is, or even her name. I would guess seventeen or eighteen, since she’s been driving for a while, and the level of drama feels like high school. I’ve never even spoken to her, except to call my dog back from her yard. One night she (I assume) had a party at her house. I stood on my front porch and watched the boys in their pickup trucks posturing—they rumbled up and down the street in big four-wheel drives with jacked up suspensions and glass-pack mufflers, revving their engines and cranking out a disturbing mix of country and rap. One car full of girls who must not have been invited, honked and squealed their tires and yelled out “rich bitches” as they drove off.

This is not what it sounds like. I’m not that guy you read about in the paper every so often, some creepy old man who everyone says was a quiet neighbor who lived in the same house for twenty years, drove to work every day, shoveled the old couple’s steps and sidewalk the two times it snowed each year, who kept his grass cut, his trash cans lined neatly beside the garage, and who waved every morning as he drove to work, only to discover that he’s had three sex slaves—kidnapped as teenage girls–chained in the basement for the past decade or so.

I’m not that guy. But I can’t control what I see when I look out my own window.

It’s not just the one time. No one would know it to look at me, but I’m a pretty decent amateur astrologist. I’ve got a telescope that looks like it could launch missiles, an Orion SkyQuest XX14i. You should see the photographs I can get off the thing. You’d think they came from the Hubble. It’s a monster to set up, so on dark nights, I’m out there in the yard for the duration. There’ve been a few nights, after midnight, when I’ve watched a big four wheel drive pickup rumble up the street, lights off, and pull up into the driveway of the house across the street. The engine always shuts down, and somebody walks down the driveway, crosses my yard into my neighbor’s yard, and climbs into that same basement window. I’ve never seen the pickup leave until close to daylight.

I like the nights when I’m out there alone with my telescope. I can see a lot of the town from up on my ridge, and after midnight everything quiets down, except for the sounds I like to hear. Owls call back and forth across the valley, and sometimes coyotes howl up and down the bottomland pastures that separates me from town. I can hear the railroad switching out cars down at the Champion plant, and eighteen wheelers running out on the interstate, and I imagine the drivers encapsulated in a cocoon of light and sound, far removed from my quiet little world.

I’ve been thinking about that girl this week, thinking about what sort of obligation I might have to my next door neighbor. His name is Randy, and he sells used cars and RVs in town. He’s lived there several years, but it’s not like we’re neighbors in any traditional sense. Not like when I was growing up, and I knew the name of every family on my block. There might have been secrets going on inside those houses, but at least it was easy to know which cars belonged in the driveway, and how many people lived in the house at a given time. For the life of me, I can’t really tell what’s going on in Randy’s house. I don’t know the names of his kids, the various girlfriends and exes that come and go, or even which kid belongs to which woman. The house will be dark for nights at a time, and then he’ll be unloading a four wheeler off a trailer and have half a dozen kids riding through his yard and up and down the streets. He’ll set up a tent and have kids camping out back there, six months later the tent will be collapsed under a winter ice storm, and a year later it’ll be a pile of moldy fabric killing a patch of the back yard.

We’ve waved at one another for years, Randy and me, but I couldn’t say that he even knows my name. But this daughter thing, her sneaking boys into her father’s house, bothers me. I would want to know, if it were my daughter

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