Excerpt

“Across the Street”

Lee Martin

June 20, 2018 
The following is from Lee Martin's collection, The Mutual UFO Network. This is Martin's first short story collection since his debut, The Least You Need to Know, in 1996. He is the author of several novels, including Late One Night, Quakertown, and The Bright Forever, which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

The idea was to let their adult son live on his own. After years of group homes and institutions and finally time spend in their care, his parents—he an inventor, and she a dour, nervous woman—purchased a two-story house on Bay Meadows Court and helped their son move into a subdivision just inside the outer belt with its constant noise of traffic. They lived in one of the city’s high-toned suburbs nearly ten miles to the east, a village of stone houses and stone walls and a fall festival on the green, a ritual they had to bypass this year because they were busy with the house that would now be their son’s. It was time, the father assured his wife, to let whatever was going to happen run its course.

“He’ll be aces,” the father said. “Not to worry. He’ll be tip-top.”

Said the mother, “I’m beyond worry. I mean it. I wash my hands.”

The son’s name was Jim, a solid name, a name one might expect a fifty-eight-year-old man to have, coming as he did from a generation of Jims and Eds and Bobs and Joes and Steves—good, solid names for good, solid men.

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But this Jim, as the neighbors would soon discover, was wobbly. He was, as the neighbors would finally say to each other, “peculiar.”

“An odd bird,” said Artie Manks. Artie owned a wholesale jewelry business, and his stubby fingers were heavy with rings—gold bands, some with onyx stones—and a Rolex of Everose gold nestled into a tuft of gray hairs on his left wrist. He drove a red MX-5 Miata with a retractable hardtop and was known to come speeding down the cul-de-sac in the evenings with a toot-toot of his horn to let his wife, Glory, know he was home.

Glory worked for a company that sold self-defense products to women. She organized home parties and convinced women to buy pepper sprays, steel batons, throwing stars, kubotans, door braces, and even complete home security systems. Whatever it takes, she told her clientele, to keep you safe. She’d perfected a delivery that made women feel simultaneously afraid and confident. She dressed in business suits, wore sensible shoes, kept her dyed black hair in an upsweep, wore a single strand of elegant pearls around her neck.

At home, though—ah, at home, she was a different gal: relaxed, carefree, on the lookout for the next laugh. She drank Knob Creek bourbon—in moderation, of course—even smoked a little weed from time to time. She was of a generation bred in a time of excess, and she’d never quite got with the program that said she should be a lady of restraint as she aged.

“Artie, you’re a card,” she was heard to say on more than one occasion. She’d tip back her head and laugh, and the light would make the rhinestones in the frames of her cat-eye glasses sparkle. “You’re a cut-up,” she’d say. “A scandal.” Then she’d swat him across the arm and give him a stern look of disapproval that everyone knew was anything but—was, in fact, unmitigated adoration. “Oh, Artie,” she’d say. “You kill me. You really do.”

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She organized home parties and convinced women to buy pepper sprays, steel batons, throwing stars, kubotans, door braces, and even complete home security systems. Whatever it takes, she told her clientele, to keep you safe.”

Glory and Artie lived directly across the street from Jim, and it was Glory, that autumn, who finally realized that each Monday, when the green trash Toters were lined up at the ends of driveways up and down the cul-de-sac, no such Toter ever made an appearance at the end of Jim’s.

“What do you imagine he does with his trash?” she asked her friend Tippy Duncan, who lived next door. Tippy was a stylist at a salon called Mop. She did Glory’s hair and was even kind enough to open the shop during off hours if Glory happened to need a cut or her dye job touched up before a home party. In exchange for her kindness, Glory sometimes gave her free samples of pepper spray, which Tippy accepted with some reluctance. “Golly, I wouldn’t know how to use it,” she said, “and besides, with Bart around, I always feel super safe.” She was the sort of gal who said things like “golly” and “super.” She wore cardigan sweaters and corduroy pants from L. L. Bean, and Glory had noticed she had a Jesus fish on the back of her Jeep. A mousy sort who needed more meat on her bones and more gravel in her gut. An easy mark—slight of frame, nearsighted because she refused to wear her glasses and contacts made her squeamish, slope-shouldered, always walking around with her head down. Just the kind of gal who needed to learn how to protect herself.

A sweet gal, though, with a sweet face and fair skin and lustrous brown hair worn in a pageboy cut. She was cute, Glory supposed. Cute and wholesome and appealing in that L.L. Bean sort of way.

Maybe that’s what Bart had fallen for, the placid predictability of a faithful and dependable girl.

Bart was a personal trainer at AussieFit, but his real love, Tippy said, was astronomy. Instead of putting people through their paces, he’d much rather be training his telescope on the heavens. “He’s a sensitive soul, Glory,” Tippy said. “People have no idea.” His special interest was optical astronomy, she said, the study of light, but by that point Glory had stopped listening.

*

“What about the trash?” she asked Tippy again. “It has to go somewhere, right? I tell you, that man is odd.”

“Maybe he’s just troubled,” Tippy said. “Maybe it’s like that.”

Then one Saturday afternoon in early November, Artie was outside using a leaf blower. He was humming a tune, “Fly Me to the Moon,” and he was a million miles away, taking smug pleasure in the perfect nature of his life—a flourishing business, a house he owned free and clear, a wife who was nuts over him. Not a care in the world. Then he felt the tap on his shoulder, and when he turned around he saw Jim mere inches away, his finger about to jab Artie in the center of his chest.

Jim wasn’t an imposing man. He was slender and tall with long arms and a narrow face shaded by the bill of a Titleist golf cap. He had a shaggy brown moustache and he wore glasses. A sidepiece had broken off the frames, and he’d fashioned a substitute out of duct tape. A man who looked a little on the down side, but certainly not a man that Artie would fear.

Still, Artie couldn’t help but take a few steps back and feel his heart come up into his throat.

“What the hell?” he said.

Jim ran his finger across his own throat and then pointed to the leaf blower. Artie understood that he wanted him to turn it off, which he did.

“My mother is trying to make a call.” Jim gestured with his thumb, and Artie, following the invisible line it made behind Jim’s ear, saw the mother sitting on the porch, a cell phone to one ear, her finger stuck into the other. “She’s trying to have a very important call,” Jim said, “and here you are making noise with your rather large instrument.”

Artie didn’t like Jim’s tone, which made him feel that he was a schoolboy in Dutch with a teacher or his father.

She had no way of understanding the connection between Jim’s disturbing behavior and the emptiness and dread that now came over her.”

“It’s a cell phone,” Artie said. “She can go anywhere. She can go in your house, for Christ’s sake. I’ve got nothing to do with any of that.”

Artie started the leaf blower again and even had the nerve to point it at Jim, revving the engine.

“You hadn’t ought to have done that, mister,” Jim shouted. “I’m your neighbor.”

“That’s what he said to me,” Artie told Glory when he finally put the leaf blower away and went into the house. “Who the fuck does he think he is?”

*

Over the next few weeks, a series of strange and unsettling incidents occurred. On more than one night, Glory was jarred from sleep by angry shouts coming from across the street. A last balm of Indian summer had settled over the cul-de-sac, and Glory and Artie slept with their windows open. Glory woke in the middle of the night to Jim shouting, “Fuck this shit. Goddamn the motherfucker.” At least that’s what she thought she heard, but the words were so strangled, so guttural, she couldn’t be sure. She got out of bed and went to the window, where she fingered back the curtain and looked out onto the front porch of the house across the street. Jim was pacing back and forth and throwing his arms about as if he were trying to punch someone. “Fuck it, cocksucker,” he said.

He windmilled his arms, throwing haymakers. Then he stopped. His shoulders sagged and he stumbled forward, bracing himself with a hand against one of the porch pillars. He said, in a much softer voice, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. You can count on me, sir.”

Glory was not a delicate woman. How could she be, when she had to recite horror stories of rape and mayhem, all in a direct, restrained manner in order to convince women to plunk down their cash for instruments of self-defense?? She was surprised, then, to find herself, as she watched Jim go back to his wild gyrations, beginning to cry a little, feeling this immense sadness swell up in her. She had no way of understanding the connection between Jim’s disturbing behavior and the emptiness and dread that now came over her. Here she was, far on the other side of girlhood, sailing through her middle years, comfortable and well-tended, but now, standing at the window watching Jim, she felt a despair she hadn’t even known was hers.

She wanted to tell Artie about it, but she knew she didn’t dare. She recalled the night of their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. He gave her a three-stone drop diamond pendant in eighteen-karat white gold, and for just an instant she felt that old quickening of her heart, and she said to him, “If only it could always be like this.” But Artie was a man who left emotions to his customers. He said to Glory, “Geez, just wear the necklace.”

Three nights running, Glory woke to Jim’s rants, but she never went back to the window. She stayed in bed and wrapped her feather pillow around her head to muffle the noise and prayed that soon he’d stop. When he finally did, the silence was just as bad—a sudden, long silence that made her terribly aware of her own breathing and her discontent.

The only time she said anything about what she’d heard and seen was one Wednesday evening when Tippy was doing her hair.

“He must be awfully troubled,” Glory said, “to carry on like that. I could feel it in my chest, how troubled he was. Poor man.”

Tippy was giving Glory a cut, and she stopped, her scissors’ blades open. Glory felt the chill of the steel on her right temple for just an instant. “Poor man?” Tippy said. “I don’t know, Glory. Let me tell you what happened last night.”

Her sister, Dinah, had stopped by after supper to show Tippy some photos of cakes she was considering for her wedding. It turned into a gab fest, and it was nearly eleven when Dinah got around to leaving. She’d just backed out of Tippy’s driveway and was about to drop her Land Rover into low and head out when she heard a noise at her window.

“It was Jim,” Tippy said to Glory.

“Jim?” said Glory. “Well, what in the world?”

He was pounding on the glass and shouting—at least Dinah thought he was trying to form words, but all that came out were grunts and yowls. Unlike Tippy, she was a formidable woman of height and girth who skated for the Ohio Roller Girls, and she was nonplussed by Jim’s display. She rolled down her window and told him to fuck off before driving away.

“I would have been scared to death,” Tippy said, “but not Dinah. Nothing ever bothers her.”

“My goodness,” said Glory, which was something she remembered her mother saying when she was so stunned she didn’t know what else to say. Glory, at least to her best memory, had never used that phrase, and the fact that she had told her how unsettled she was.

“Do you think he’s dangerous?” Tippy asked her.

“Oh, Tippy,” said Glory. “Of course he’s dangerous. Civilized people don’t do the things he’s doing. I’d give anything to know his story. Doesn’t it all just give you the shivers?”

__________________________________

From The Mutual UFO Network. Used with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2018 by Lee Martin.




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