Steve Beeber (M.F.A., University of Massachusetts, Amherst) is currently working on a collection of short stories. His story "Faith Hill" appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue of the Habersham Review.
John and Susan had been in their new house for only a few hours when Susan started complaining about nausea, so John didn't think twice before attributing it to emotional instability. They had had to move there almost overnight, after all, John getting promoted and transferred to Atlanta so quickly he had felt almost like he was back on yet another army base with his parents, picking up and leaving—as his mother used to say—like an itinerant gypsy.
He didn't mind the move, though, or the fact that Susan would be freelancing at home until she could find another fulltime newspaper job. And yet, as the first few days in the new house passed, and he and Susan both began to settle in, John had to admit that it wasn't just his wife who was perhaps feeling a little ill at ease. This was the first house they had ever bought together, their first home, and while the real estate agent had indeed not lied when she'd said it was set in an older suburban neighborhood with big back yards and outdoor patios perfect for playing with the kids—"when, of course, you have kids"—she had failed to mention one thing.
And that was the neighbors.
It was at the end of the third day in the house that John first noticed them. He had come out on his patio and lain down in the sun to work on his tan when suddenly there they were, a mother and father of about forty and a small extremely obese little boy of around ten. Back and forth they went from their kitchen to the gas grill on their patio, arguing all the while about who was going to get up and get more meat, who was going to turn down the gas, who was going to flip the burgers. Back and forth and back and forth, and as they went, John became increasingly annoyed by their presence, shutting his eyes so tightly and drinking from his drink so deeply each time he heard them that he saw colors swirling up behind his eyelids and felt the gin burn cold as an ice cube in the back of his throat.
As the first week turned into the second and the second into the third, John soon learned that the battle he had noticed on that particular afternoon raged almost daily on the patio next door. First it would be the woman, shrill and demeaning, then the father, put upon and bleating and finally the child, alternately precocious and whining. It was horrible to John who had had a disciplined military upbringing so unlike the one he was being forced to bear witness to, so horrible in fact, that by the end of the fourth week he found he was barely able to go out on his patio at all. He couldn't stand listening to the neighbors and their constant bickering, he realized, couldn't stand most of all what he felt they were doing to the small boy. It wasn't fair to subject a child to those kinds of horrors and humiliations, John thought, wasn't fair to make him part of the bitterness and anger that arose from such emotional self-indulgence.
It bothered John so much, in fact, that one day at work he became almost ashamed of himself for the way he was acting. Who was he to hide in his house from a bunch of unruly cretins? he asked himself. He could go out on his patio in the afternoons if he wanted. He could go out there and lie down and get a little peace and quiet. All he needed to do was to face the neighbors in his mind, use a little psychology on himself so that they couldn't bother him again, lie out there as much as he wanted until they, like a childhood fear, got the idea that he was not going to be intimidated by their presence, was not going to be annoyed by their bickering, was not going to go away.
He walked outside upon arriving home that day of his decision, tired and edgy from work and ready to relax. On the patio it was bright and sunny still, though from the way the trees surrounding his backyard were throwing down their shadows, he knew his lounge chair would soon be swallowed up in blackness and it would be too dark for tanning. That was another thing the real estate agent had neglected to mention, John realized. The line of trees rising up around his backyard made it dark on the patio long before the sun actually went down everywhere else.
He lay down on his lounge chair and closed his eyes and felt the sun hit him in every pore. It was warm and relaxing lying out there like that, and as the heat spread its warm blanket over him and the light showed bloody red behind his lids, John felt his skin almost immediately begin to prickle and break out in a sweat. After about ten minutes the sweat started rolling down the sides of his cheeks and filling up in puddles on his chest, so he raised himself up on his elbows to shake it off and look down at his tan. For a full minute he sat there propped up like that, looking at the rose color of his new glow, admiring the way the hair on his chest was starting to become bleached by the sun and lighter. Then, he let his head fall back to the lounge chair with a carefree motion, only to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the sliding glass door to his right, and behind his reflection, the sight of Susan looking at him from the kitchen table and frowning.
Feeling foolish at having been caught admiring himself like that, John picked himself up off the lounge chair and went inside to ask Susan if she wanted to eat dinner. Since she had been feeling sick again, though, he let her go lie down in the bedroom and fixed himself a cheese sandwich which he took into the living room to eat in front of the TV. He had always liked watching TV while he ate alone, liked it ever since he was a teenager and would come home from shooting hoops around the base with his friends to sit there with some pretzels and orange juice and feel the calm thudding of post-workout relaxation in his chest. He had liked staring at the square of light in the sanctity of his mother's well kept living room then, sitting there as it grew dark and there was nothing but the TV and himself alone in the room—and now he liked that feeling even more, now that he could sit here for as long as he wanted to in front of his own TV in his own living room in his own very first privately owned home.
"Can you turn that down," Susan said suddenly pounding back into the room.
"I need to do some work," she said standing between him and the screen. "My article's due tomorrow in case you forgot."
She marched off to the kitchen without waiting for an answer and John turned down the television so that it was low enough for her to work in the next room and for him to hear her as she did so. Pretending to stare at the screen, he listened while Susan shuffled papers around on the kitchen table and blew out long blasts of cigarette smoke with such force that she sounded like she was sighing over and over again. Then, he listened as she coughed over her cigarettes and erased something with such anger that the table below her shook on its hinges and squeaked loudly like an old bed. He listened till she stopped, then, as he continued to listen for what she'd do next, he heard a sound outside and opened the window. It was dark out now, though no cooler, and the crickets seemed to be humming almost in the night, a thousand myriad voices, strange and unseen and a little frightening in the heat. John went back to the couch and lay down and listened to them, thinking this was the kind of thing Susan would probably be kind of impressed by if she saw it, him just lying there, relaxing, not doing anything productive other than listening to the insects in the yard outside and thinking. She would call him strange and interesting if she saw him lying there, say he seemed so cute and reminded her of her father when he did things like that. Next thing you know, she'd say, he'd be renting "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" every other week and drinking bourbon and water from a Coke bottle and complaining about the politics of the school board while he became progressively drunker.
"Did you hear that?" Susan said coming into the room.
She bent down near the screen, almost pressing her nose against it and John got up from the couch and knelt down beside her, following her lead. For a minute he didn't hear anything as he crouched there, other than the crickets and the rustling of a soft breeze outside and Susan's steady breathing. But then, as he shifted in his place and was just about to get up and go back to the couch, he heard what she meant.
It was the neighbors. They were at it again. And this time they sounded serious. "Would you listen to that?"
"God I hate them."
He closed his mouth and put his ear back to the screen as Susan was doing, and though his back began to ache and his legs to throb from crouching there, he didn't move again. He got the feeling that Susan wanted him to be at the window beside her, wanted him to take part in this foolishness and that she would have been deeply upset if he had gotten up from there to go back to the couch and lie down. She seemed rapt with attention as she crouched there, in fact, rapt and caught up so much in the thrill of the argument next door that, as John looked at her, he felt that her face seemed almost to radiate with the excitement.
What the neighbors were saying wasn't clear, though it was clear from the volume of it that they were screaming much louder than anytime John had noticed while lying out on the patio. He heard something about raindrops then cashmere then a whole sentence. "Oh no not again you don't, oh no not again!"
That was the woman screaming that time, John realized, screaming in a much higher pitch than any he had ever heard from her before an almost operatic pitch it was in fact, high and shrill and yet somehow deeply resonant.
John looked at Susan and saw a smile on her face that was almost like a gleam. When Susan saw him looking at her, the gleam became bolder and John felt a warm barely moving breeze float through the screen, and he thought of two small children crouching, sharing their first cigarette together and blowing the smoke out the window.
When the front door to the neighbor's house suddenly opened allowing a quick half syllable of a word to shriek out, then slammed shut again before letting it finish, John and Susan both literally leapt back from the window as if they had been burned. It wasn't until nearly a full minute later, recovered and standing up together side by side, that they saw through the window the small fat boy from next door, leaping up and down beneath the spotlight in his front yard and grabbing for the moths that were frantically flapping their wings against the bright glare there.
* * *
The next day when John woke up, he wasn't feeling himself at all. Usually he was at the peak of his energy in the morning, running six miles before work, eating his bowl of Total, feeling clean and ready after his shower for whatever necessities of business and commerce lay before him in the day. That morning, however, he awoke feeling rough and irritable, his heart pounding erratically when he opened his eyes and the hair on the back of his scalp seeming almost to crawl with aggravation. When he came into the living room to find Susan not only asleep on the couch, but surrounded by heaps of ashes that had evidently fallen from the tray she had left propped up on her belly throughout the night, he almost exploded.
"Well, did you finish," he said waking her with a start.
"Your article, did you finish?"
"Oh yeah, I did," she said stretching and yawning and sitting up on the couch. "Sorry about last night."
"Sorry? For what?"
"For being such a bitch. And screaming at you."
"You didn't scream at me."
"No? Well, I felt like it then."
John was about to ask Susan what she meant by that, but before he could she started laughing.
"You should have heard them after you went to sleep," she said.
"I hear enough of them as it is."
"But you never told me how bad they can get."
"No? Well, I guess I've got better things to do with my time."
"Oh, like what?" she said.
"I don't know. Like taking care of myself I guess. I don't really relish the idea of being a Peeping Tom, you know."
"Oh, well excuse me Mr. Holier Than Thou," Susan sneered then. "I didn't mean to disappoint you." And with that she turned back to her ashtray and lit another cigarette.
John felt a wave of anger pass through him and went out to the car without saying anything further and started the engine. Next door in the neighbor's yard there were no signs of the battle the night before or the fat boy's frantic leaping. There were only the orange draped windows and the two ranch style doors and the sky lights on top of the roof like something out of some fifties suburban daydream. John stared at it all, wondering what went on inside that house, what kind of horrors and arguments and scenes. Were they brandishing knives, he wondered, dressing up in rubber gloves, pulling the wings off flies? He sat there staring and wondering, unconscious of a crooked smile that was playing around his lips—then suddenly he thought he saw a hand flutter one of the drapes, so he put the car in reverse and drove away.
When he came home from work later that day, John was still angry with Susan and ready to avoid her for the rest of the evening by saying he had business to do that he'd brought home from the office. When he opened the door, however, he found Susan wasn't there and that her papers and computer and cigarettes were off the kitchen table. Evidently she had cleaned up after finishing her article and had gone down to the paper to have it read and approved. John felt the jangled nerves of the day settle down a little at seeing that. Maybe Susan had realized how rude she had been the last few weeks because of that article, he thought. Maybe she realized just because she wasn't working full-time like he was that that was no reason to take it out on him when he came home. He didn't expect her to act like an angel or anything, but a little common decency didn't seem like too much to ask for. She had always been mature enough to realize that before, after all.
He put on his bathing trunks, fixed himself a gin and tonic and headed out to the patio to rest for about an hour in the sun; but less than ten minutes after he had lain down, he heard the usual outbreak of hostilities start up again next door.
"It's not like I don't like hamburgers," the man shouted. "It's just that I get a little tired of having them every goddamn night."
"Yeah, well that's why I never cook for you," the woman shot back. "Every time I do you have something to say about it."
"But they're only hamburgers," the boy threw in then. "They're just burgers."
Despite the promise he'd made to himself only the day before, John went back inside with annoyance and lay down on the couch and closed his eyes. When he opened them a little later only to see Susan standing in front of him at the foot of the couch laughing, he realized he must have been sleeping.
"Oh, you're really missing it," she said full of glee.
"The neighbors. They're really going at it now."
John followed Susan out to the patio and crouched down behind a spot in the hedge separating the two yards where they could watch without being seen. The neighbors were all out on the patio together now, gathered around their grill and fighting in earnest. The man was picking up the hamburgers with one of those long forks used only for barbecuing and then throwing them down so that they hit the flat stone surface of the patio with an obscene wet splatting sound. And every time he did it, his wife was shrieking and stamping on them with the heel of her shoe, doing it over and over again and again. Meanwhile, all around them, the fat boy ran underfoot, picking up the burgers one by one and wiping them off with a desperate motion against his shirt.
"Stop that, stop that," the woman shrieked.
"But they're all dirty," the boy wailed. "They'll get ruined."
"Oh this is too much," Susan said smiling.
"That's right," John said and went inside.
Back on the couch, he closed his eyes once more and tried to block the neighbors out of his thoughts. As much as he tried, though, he couldn't stop hearing them or the smacking sound of the burgers or the shouts of the little boy. He lay on his back wondering if he should perhaps go over there and say something to them, try to break it up and at least let the boy get away from there and calm down. He could say he was just coming to borrow a cup of sugar maybe or to talk about putting up a new fence between the yards or really just about most anything. Of course, if he did that, they would know that he had heard them, and considering the fact they were pretty excited and still in the midst of a passionate argument, they might strike out at him, might become violent even. He wasn't scared of them, he just didn't want to get involved in a scene, didn't want to have to live next door to them after that and see them everyday. He could always call the police of course, he realized. And then again, he could always move.
He heard a door outside loudly slam and then Susan came walking in the room and sat down on the chair opposite him and looked out the window. She looked dazed and a little startled he thought, distracted and faraway.
"Do you like it here? I mean. Do you like this house?"
"Sure, I mean, what do you mean? It's fine."
"I don't know," John said. "It's just those neighbors."
"Well, I don't know. You've seen them. What do you think?"
"Oh, you're so picky. They're just neighbors. Let them do what they want."
"You think that's what they want?"
"I don't know," Susan said turning and looking back out the window again. "My parents used to fight a lot. A lot of people do. It's just a squabble."
John looked away from her then and turned on the TV, and as Susan went into the kitchen and started pouring water in a pot for coffee, he felt himself grow very heavy and dull. The water was rushing from the tap like cars on the freeway and his eyes were blinking slowly and blurring and before long he was back asleep like he had been earlier that afternoon. When he woke up again hours later only to see the spectral blue light of the TV casting its late night snow out over the room, he didn't know for a minute who or where he was and he had to concentrate on the TV for a long time before his thoughts cleared and he could remember.
After awhile, though, he began to feel more normal and got up from the couch to turn off the TV and head back to his bedroom and sleep. He flicked the switch on the TV, casting the room back into darkness and silence, and as he did so he suddenly heard a strange gurgling noise coming from somewhere nearby. At first he thought it was the neighbors, up well into the a.m., doing God knows what in their closed off house in the night. But as he stood there in the dark, listening intently, he realized the noise wasn't coming from the neighbor's, but from his own house. He headed down the hall in a trot only to see Susan bent double over the commode, a long line of milky yellowish spittle dangling thick and pendulous from between her lips.
"Jesus, what's wrong with you?"
"I'm sick, can't you see?"
"Well then you've got to go to a doctor."
"I'm going, I'm going. I just don't think I'm going to like what I hear."
John helped Susan up and wiped off her mouth and got into bed beside her and for a long time he lay there awake listening until he could be sure her breathing was easy, and she was asleep and resting amidst the crickets and their screaming.
When he woke up the next morning Susan was already gone and it was bright and cheerful outside and almost afternoon. Since it was Saturday and he didn't have to be at work, John figured he'd go out on the patio and sit out in the sun and go over some briefs from the office while he worked on his tan. For a moment he thought of the neighbors and wondered if they would be out there too, but then he remembered his promise of two days before and decided to go out regardless. So what if they were out there, he thought. He had paid for the privilege to be there as much as they. He had earned the right to a little peace and quiet in his own backyard.
He put on his swimming trunks, went out on the patio and peeked through the hedge only to find the neighbors out of sight and their carport empty. Content that he now had the patio to himself for a while, he spread a towel out over his lounge chair, lay down and began looking over his papers from the office. An hour and a half later he was pleased to find that he had not been interrupted once while lying there and that he had gotten a great deal of work done while also improving his tan. He went inside and grabbed some orange juice from the refrigerator and drank it from the carton, feeling pretty good about his life and his house and his situation. Then he went back outside and lay down with his eyes closed.
A few minutes later he heard a rustling like a small animal in the hedge behind him and turned around to see the small fat boy from next door, crouching down near his side of the hedge and looking at something between the leaves.
"Hi there," said the fat boy in a high pitched almost girlish voice without bothering to look up.
"What are you doing?" John asked trying to sound paternal.
"The ants," the boy said.
"The ants, I'm looking at the ants."
John walked over to where the boy was crouched and looked down beneath the pudgy finger he had pointed at the ground. Red and black, black and red were all scattering around over and on top of each other, all flailing antennae and nervous nosehair legs.
"Just takes a little jelly."
"Jelly," the boy said holding up a spoonful of what appeared to be strawberry jam. "You just dab a little of it down there between their two hills and then when they both come to it WHAM!"
His face was a pig's face, malicious and smiling and aglow with the spectacle. John didn't know whether to pity him for having his parents or to view the whole thing differently now, wondering if maybe it had always been the other way around.
"Well, take care," he said retreating towards his house.
"And be careful."
The rest of the weekend passed pretty much without event for John and Susan. They stayed inside, watched a couple of videos, went out to dinner Saturday night and got to bed at a reasonable hour. They didn't hear anything new from the neighbors and they didn't make a point of hearing since they had other things to do anyway. John made sure that was the case, in fact, made sure they spent most every minute of their time together that weekend and made up for the time they had been squabbling and fighting since moving to that new house.
By the time the weekend was over and Monday morning came around with its demands of work, John at least was rested and peaceful and back to his old self again. He was ready to get down to business, ready to get whatever had to be finished done and complete and out of the way for awhile.
As it happened, it was a good thing that he was ready because it was a busy day at work what with all of the papers that had accumulated on his desk while he was mad at Susan Friday not to mention the numerous memos and briefs that had accumulated around the FAX machine during the weekend. He was making good headway on it all though, feeling pretty good about how his day and his In and Out pile was going, so when his secretary buzzed him to say Susan was on the line, he thought he'd try to amuse her a little by playing a joke.
"John not here," he answered using a caveman's savage guttural voice. "He gone, move away. Say neighbors make him crazy."
"Stop John, I've got something serious to tell you."
When Susan said that, John suddenly remembered that she had planned to go to the doctor's that morning and find out what was wrong with her. He didn't know how he could have forgotten that and he didn't know how he could be joking with her now, but he had and he was and now here she was saying it was something serious. Oh God, maybe she has an ulcer, he thought, or maybe it's something worse; maybe she has cancer or a lymph disease or something horrible and unnameable no one hardly has ever heard of.
"You know, preggers, knocked up, baby laden. Well, what do you think of that Johny?"
He didn't know what to say. And he didn't know what to think either. He sat there trying to catch his breath, trying to fill his lungs, and as he did so, opening and closing his mouth like a fish, he saw beside him, at the window, a lone yellowjacket, buzzing and buzzing outside and trying to get through the glass.