J. G. Alderisio
Bill woke up Saturday morning knowing this was the day he could kill someone. And not just anyone, nothing that haphazard or unintentional. Bill knew who it would be, he saw the guy every day. If today he did away with someone, Bill knew it would be his neighbor Randall. Whiny, bespectacled, anal-retentive Randall.
Bill punched his pillow and wished he could go back to sleep. But the sun was up and shooting streams of golden light through the opened blinds, it was just after 8:00 and he heard his wife Joanie in the kitchen downstairs. The sweet smell of exotic, foreign-grown coffee floated into the room. A few years ago Joanie discovered sweet-tasting gourmet coffees and since she controlled everything that happened in the kitchen it meant Bill would be drinking nothing but sweet-tasting gourmet coffee.
He yawned and stretched then groaned as he rose from the bed. Looking out the window from their second-floor bedroom he noticed the deep blue hue to the October sky. The intensity of the sunshine predicted a warm day ahead, unusually warm for the second weekend in October. It was as if the seasons, having briefly sampled autumn and found it wanting, decided to go running back to summer. Bill looked at his backyard: a tiered flower bed, a bit of grass and then the woods, almost an acre of oak, birch and poplar trees in a tangle that ran all the way to the street below. It was the time of year he hated trees the most.
“The leaves,” he muttered as he pulled on his blue jeans. “Always the leaves.”
Joanie served breakfast on the deck which was the last place Bill wanted to eat it. But the day was warm and she wanted fresh air so out onto the outdoor table went the toast, the jelly, the oatmeal, the maple syrup, the coffee and The New York Times.
“We should clean out the closets in the spare bedroom today,” Joanie said as she read the newspaper.
Bill looked for some raisins to mix into his oatmeal. “I have to go to the hardware store. I need sandpaper and paint brushes.” He gave up on finding raisins and instead reached for the maple syrup. “Oh, and masking tape, or that blue tape people use when they paint, I can never remember the name for it. I thought I had a couple of rolls somewhere but I can’t find them now. Have you seen them?”
Joanie turned a page of the newspaper. “Just use Scotch tape. I’ve got tons of that.”
It was a debate they had whenever Bill wanted to paint. He could never find the tape he wanted while his wife always offered him the kind he wasn’t looking for. Tape is tape Joanie reasoned. If he needs it that badly he’ll use Scotch.
“I have the clear cellophane tape, it’s just as good,” Joanie began. Her mouth kept moving yet suddenly Bill couldn’t hear anything she said. Her words, all words in fact, disappeared in the shrill scream of a neighbor’s leaf blower.
“Christ almighty,” Bill yelled but only he knew he said it. All Joanie saw was his lips go tight across his face and the inevitable grimace. She hoped he’d let this pass but knew he wouldn’t. Bill’s chair flew backwards as if pulled by invisible strings and quicker than she thought possible he was down the steps and headed for the backyard.
The weight of something metal jangled in the pocket of Bill’s pants. He patted it absentmindedly and imagined pointing it at his neighbor. That would shock him, that idiot Randall. It’s what he deserves.
Goddamn leaf blowers. Look how Randall swings it back and forth like a broom, Bill thought. Or worse, a kind of golf club, albeit a midget one. And why is the asshole wearing an Oxford cloth shirt and khakis to do lawn work? Plus, he’s wearing headphones. So he hears nothing while the rest of us suffer. Self-centered jerk.
“Hey asshole,” Bill yelled and waved his arms as if performing semaphore.
In his peripheral vision Randall saw that crazy, white-haired neighbor of his storming toward him. Not this again. What was he complaining about this time? Randall tried to ignore him. Then the old guy pulled a digital camera out of his pocket and started photographing every swing of the machine, each leaf blown up and propelled forward, pushed onto land Randall knew he did not own.
“What the fuck,” Randall muttered as he killed the engine to the leaf blower and ripped the headphones off his ears. “What are you doing?”
“Evidence for the court case,” Bill said. “Something to show the judge when I sue your ass for littering on my property.”
Lawyers made Randall nervous. “They’re just leaves. They belong in the woods. And woods are all you have behind your house.”
“Bag them like everyone else does and let the town pick them up,” said Bill.
“Your woods are full of leaves. You’re not even going to notice mine.”
Bill started waving his arms again. “Why not take your kitchen garbage and throw it on my front lawn? Or take all the crap from your attic and dump it on my driveway? Why stop with leaves?”
Randall pointed to the woods Bill protected. “The broker who sold me my house said this was part of my property.”
Bill snorted. “Well they were wrong. I paid two grand to have a survey done.” He walked over to a wooden stake that had a strip of orange plastic dangling from the top. “This is my property line.” Bill gestured to a series of stakes running along the rim of his land. One side was a pile of dead leaves and downed sticks, the other a sea of impeccably-trimmed green grass.
“It’s not like I’m messing up the woods,” Randall huffed. “They’re already messed up. Who’s going to notice a few more leaves?”
Bill could almost feel his blood pressure rise. “Messy, huh.” He stomped over to where he was ankle-deep in leaves and twigs and started kicking them back onto Randall’s property. “How’s this for cleaning things up.” He kicked over and over, each swing of his leg greater in force and arc.
Randall thought the old guy would wind himself down, like a child’s toy once its spring becomes lax. But his neighbor’s face just got redder and redder as his intensity grew. “You’re making me do this,” said Randall as he started the machine in his hands and blew all the leaves back at Bill.
A great whirl of dirt, grass clippings and dead leaves blew up and around Bill, choking him. He spun around, turning his back to the jet-stream of debris then bent forward and tried to catch his breath. “I’m building a fence,” he said between coughs. “One of those ugly, chain-linked fences. Ten-feet high. It’ll ruin your view.” Bill spat out some gravel that had blown into his mouth then straightened up. He looked back at Randall and chuckled thinking of how hideous the fence would look. “Maybe I’ll even put razor wire on top of it,” he said as he walked back to his house.
“You don’t want to do that,” Randall yelled at his back.
Bill chuckled louder. “Yeah, I think I do.”
Joanie worried. She watched her husband storm off the deck and knew nothing good would come of it. Breakfast cooled then congealed and soon she lost her appetite and brought everything inside.
How had all this happened? For years nothing ever went wrong. That was the attraction to this neighborhood. No controversy, nothing to get upset about. Just a typical suburban enclave: three streets branching off a main road, each one parallel to one another and all of them cul-de-sacs. The top and bottom streets were the longest. Joanie and Bill lived on the top street. Their woods stretched for two acres and ran all the way to the bottom street.
The middle street was the problem. Originally it wasn’t even there, it was just a swath of gnarled fields some unpronounceable foreign holding company owned. A few years ago the holding company sold the land to a developer and suddenly a street appeared, a stunted one only half as long as the ones above and below it. When the developer built the street’s dead end, the property ran right up against Joanie and Bill’s woods. That’s the property Randall bought.
When she saw her husband, Joanie went back to the deck. “What happened?” she asked.
Bill shook his head. “Nothing. But something will.”
Hours later Joanie smelled paint fumes coming from the downstairs rooms. The noxious smell made her happy because it meant Bill had moved on to something other than Randall. She was fiddling with some loose loops in the carpet when she heard a car pull into the driveway, the engine releasing a rough, gurgling rumble as if it had emphysema.
“What a surprise,” said Joanie as she arrived at her son David’s car window.
“I thought I’d drop in, see what’s going on,” said David.
“Going on? What would be going on?” She distracted her son by showing him the clay pots of Fall flowers she placed along the walkway.
“How’s Dad?” David asked.
“Your father’s fine,” she said, forcing her voice to sound casual.
“He called me this morning.”
Joanie’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t say a word,” she warned. “Do not get that man excited. I don’t want to hear a word about leaf blowing.”
David grinned. “What do you mean?” Then he walked inside the house and yelled, “Hey Pop, where are you?”
Bill appeared, spattered in paint and joint compound, a paintbrush dangling from his fingers. “Well, well, well,” he said as if the two hadn’t spoken in weeks.
“So what’s the latest on the leaf blowing?” David asked.
Joanie gasped. “You promised!”
“Nope, never did” David said and turned to his father. “What’s your idiot neighbor up to?”
Bill rolled his eyes. “Middle of Fall in New England and the guy doesn’t have a leaf on his land. It’s unnatural.”
David nodded. “No leaves on his lawn because he’s pushing them all on onto yours. You have got to shut him down.”
“Oh good Lord.” Joanie jumped from her chair as if it were electrified. “Who wants lunch?”
The boys ignored her. “I’ve got something that’ll help,” said David as he walked out the front door.
“You called him?” Joanie asked Bill as if this was the worst thing he could do.
The man shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I?”
David reappeared carrying plastic, neon-colored squares. “These will keep him away,” he said and held up a stack of signs.
Joanie threw her arms into the air as if surrendering to an army of bandits. “I give up. I’m going to the grocery store.” Her eyes scanned the room for her car keys. “I’m making cookies for Brody and I’m out of chocolate chips.”
“Who’s Brody?” David asked.
A growl tumbled from his father’s mouth.
“Don’t start, Bill,” said Joanie before the growl even ended. “He’s just a little boy. He has nothing to do with what’s going on with you and his father.”
David almost dropped his signs. “Brody’s that idiot’s kid?”
“She’s baking for the enemy,” said Bill.
“Why’s the kid coming here?” David asked.
“Brody has friends on this block,” said Joanie. “They ride bikes together.” She found her keys and slipped them into her pocket. “He cuts across our land to get to this street rather than ride on the main road. There’s too much traffic on that road. We told him he could cut through.”
“You told him he could,” Bill corrected her.
“Brody stops by and I give him cookies. Sue me.” She grabbed her bag and headed for the door. “I’ll be back before you know it. Stick around and we’ll have lunch then.”
The signs had to be high enough to be seen but not so high that they were out of reach in case Bill wanted to rearrange them. David tied the plastic-coated warnings to a row of trees facing Randall’s house, adjusted each to the perfect height, then drove a spike-like nail through the sign and into the tree. A band of fluorescent yellow and orange warnings floated through Bill’s property: No Dumping, No Trespassing, Private Property, No Littering, Keep Out. There seemed no end to what one couldn’t do in these woods.
Bill stepped backwards to admire David’s work, walking almost to the end of the property line. He stopped when he heard someone clearing their throat.
“What the hell, old man?” asked Randall. “Those signs are hideous.”
Randall stepped closer to Bill, using his height advantage to intimidate him. “Take them down. Now.”
Bill moved away, caught his foot on a downed tree branch and stumbled for a few steps before regaining his footing. He wanted distance from Randall who ignored the property line and crossed onto Bill’s land.
“What’s going on, Pop?”
David emerged from a group of trees. Randall’s momentum slowed when he saw David then stopped altogether when he noticed David’s athletic build and the bruised, iron hammer dangling from his right hand.
David pointed the head of the hammer toward Randall. “I think you better mind your own business and get back on your land.”
“It’s a public eye sore you’re putting up,” Randall said as he retreated. “There are laws against that.”
“Yeah, go find a judge.” David turned and spat on the ground. He took a sign over to a tree that already had a sign and nailed a second to it.
“This isn’t over,” Randall huffed then stomped back to his house.
“That’s what every loser says,” David muttered then looked toward his father.
Bill surveyed their work, taking the time to admire each sign. “Perhaps that’s enough for now,” he said and smiled.
The two went back inside the house and David helped his father with chores. As a break from their work, Bill took David downstairs to show off the window trim he painted. It was just a first coat but Bill was enormously proud of it. Bill pointed to the newspaper around the frame protecting the wall from paint splatters and errant strokes. “The only drawback is the scotch tape. Your mother made me use it. I keep buying that blue masking tape but she won’t tell me where any of it is.” He ran his finger along a line of clear cellophane. “I don’t know how I’ll peel it off without taking all the wall paint with it.”
He shrugged and let his gaze drift out the window. He thought he saw a rustling in the woods, a figure slipping between the tree trunks like a shadow. “There’s someone back there,” he said and leaned closer to the window.
David looked where his father was looking. “No one’s there, Pop. You’re not even wearing your glasses. How could you see anyone?”
“It’s off limits.” Bill moved toward the back door.
David stayed by the window as if that could make his father return. “Pop, please,” David called as his father disappear.
Bill hurried toward the woods as if he were missing some kind of spectacle. He stopped when he reached the trees they worked on earlier that day. Now they looked different. No Dumping, No Trespassing and all the others signs were no longer there. Bill touched the nail on a tree trunk then ran his finger along the scrap of florescent plastic it still held, the remnant of an unheeded warning.
“Don’t worry, Pop. I have lots more signs.”
Bill spun around and saw his son behind him. He pointed to the trees. “Now he’s gone too far. This is my property.” Bill slapped the tree trunk with his open palm.
David put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Let’s go inside, Pop. I’ll nail them back up later.” He nudged his father toward the house. “They’ll all be back up before the day’s over.”
“I’m calling a lawyer,” Bill said as he paced back and forth across the living room. David tried to convince him to sit down and have something to drink.
“One of my fraternity brothers is a partner in a big law firm in the city. I’ll sue that trespassing asshole. Fuck the fence.”
His plans for revenge were interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” yelled Bill before he opened the front door. He scowled at the little boy who stood on the doorstep.
“What!” he snapped.
Brody shuffled his feet. No one at this house yelled at him before. “I’m Brody,” he said, sounding flustered. “She invited me…the lady…is she here?”
“No she’s not,” Bill snarled. “You’re the kid who cuts through my lawn, aren’t you?”
Brody nodded. “I got permission….”
“Not from me. That’s the end of it. Ride on the road like everybody else. I never want to see you on my property again. Understand?”
Brody stumbled from the doorstep like he’d been pushed.
“And tell your father to stay off my land!” Bill yelled at Brody’s back as the boy ran away.
Brody wheeled his bike off the old man’s driveway and wondered how he’d get home now that his shortcut was cut off. Maybe he could secretly cut through someone else’s property. He rode up the street looking for empty lawns, vacant driveways or other signs of homeowners who weren’t home. As he neared the end of the block he heard the sound of traffic. It started as a low hum then built into a roar as he rode closer to Route 33.
In a town filled with circuitous local roads, Route 33 was monotonously straight. That’s why it was so well travelled. One lane headed east, one west. No shoulder, no sidewalk. Now and again there was talk of widening the road. Yet every time the town supervisors held a hearing on the issue, local loudmouths showed up decrying the ruination of “our small-town feel”.
Brody approached Route 33 cautiously, as if it could bite. The rumbling of the heaviest vehicles sent vibrations through the asphalt and up the metal bike frame where they rattled his bones.
The handlebars wobbled as Brody slowed and dismounted. He let the bike frame lean against his body as he stood on the street and eyed the traffic flying by. The cars passed like blurs, flashing for just seconds before him then disappearing behind trees and the natural incline of the land.
Kids walked along Route 33 all the time Brody told himself. His feet inched toward the busy roadway as if approaching the edge of an especially high diving board. He looked to the right and saw his street sign standing 50 yards away. He didn’t even need to cross Route 33, just walk alongside it until he was home. He planned to walk on top of the asphalt curb that edged the roadway. Curb walking allowed Brody to hold his bike on his left side and walk it along the edge of the roadway. To the right of the curb was grassy land that sloped sharply upward and became the foundation for fences and cedar hedges put up by homeowners trying to block Route 33 from view.
Brody looked toward the oncoming traffic. Car, car, SUV, van, car, truck, motorcycle, it was like a vehicular parade passing by at 40 miles per hour.
Gingerly Brody pushed his bicycle onto Route 33. He placed his feet one after another on the center of the curb, walking along it like a timid gymnast walks across a balance beam. His feet worked themselves into a rhythm and before long Brody glanced at his street sign which looked twice as big now. He felt the whoosh of a truck roaring past him, felt the pull of the air as it almost sucked him along in the truck’s wake.
A U-haul van whizzed past him, then a pickup truck rattled by. They sounded like thunder in Brody’s ears, passing seemingly within inches of the boy. He felt like the trucks were aiming for him, trying to see who could skim by him without knocking him over.
The honk of a car horn surprised Brody and he lost his footing. His left foot slid down the side of the curb and stepped on something that cracked under his weight, a shard of glass perhaps or piece of plastic. Brody steadied himself with the help of his handlebars, returned his foot to the curb and pushed his bicycle forward.
From somewhere behind him came a rumbling. Something ominous, multi-wheeled and diesel-fueled chased him along Route 33. His feet picked up the pace, his stride extended as wide as he dared on the narrow curb. The rumbling behind him grew stronger. Brody felt it first in his feet then tried to ignore it as it moved up his legs. When he felt the rumbling in his chest Brody panicked. His footing became less sure across the curb, every bump his bike hit grew harder to control. He pushed himself to move faster as he imagined a steel monster bearing down on him, aiming to knock him over. Five yards, maybe even 4 were all he had left to reach his street.
Suddenly a car appeared at the end of his street and Brody prayed it would turn right onto Route 33. That would force whatever vehicle was behind him to slow down and make room for a new entry into the traffic flow. The car inched forward, stopped, then suddenly reversed itself as if scared off by what it saw.
Brody focused on the end of the curb until he heard the shrill blast of an air horn. The sound blew through him as if his body was porous. He teetered at the top of the curb, the toe of his right sneaker dragging along the surface then falling completely off the curb. Still, he kept going. With one foot on and one foot off the curb, Brody threw himself toward his street, nearly side-swiping the car that waited for a mammoth oil truck to fly by and disappear down Route 33.
* * *
The next morning Joanie and Bill were back on the deck having breakfast.
“Have you seen Brody?” Joanie asked her husband. “I told him I’d make him cookies. What little boy can ignore an offer of homemade cookies?”
Bill spooned oatmeal into his mouth so he wouldn’t have to answer.
“Oh well, maybe today he’ll show,” said Joanie.
There was only so long Bill could keep his mouth full so he decided to change the subject. “I think David might come by again today. There are still a few projects I need help with.”
Soon after breakfast Bill heard the scream of an engine from somewhere behind his house. Where was his camera? He wanted more video of Randall blowing leaves onto his property. As Bill slipped through the trees he saw Randall mowing his lawn, a lawn that was already at the perfect height or so Bill thought. He didn’t want to waste the walk so he stepped from the trees, raised the camera and took a video of Randall just to have it. When Randall saw Bill he made an obscene gesture with his right hand which Bill promptly recorded.
Bill noticed something else moving across Randall’s lawn. It’s that kid again. Brody held his bike and seemed headed for the forbidden shortcut.
“Caught you,” Bill muttered. He stared at Brody as if willing him to look his way. When Brody did, Bill saw the guilt on the boy’s face. Bill raised his hand and shook his index finger. He mouthed the words no, no, no.
That old man was such a pain thought Brody. Especially now because Brody was due at his friend’s house on the old man’s street and the shortcut was the fastest way there. So for the second time in less than 24 hours Brody headed for Route 33.
Today’s trip would be more complicated. He had to cross Route 33 because he wanted to walk with the traffic flow, not against it. Brody waited for a break in the traffic then scurried across the road and hopped onto the curb. Along this side of the road was a hill with a tangle of weeds and wild flowers, a cacophony of different heights due to the sharp rise of the land which made it difficult for the highway department to mow.
When the cars zoomed by him Brody heard a whoosh then felt a draft as the air around him was sucked away as if trying to steal his breath.
Brody looked up and saw someone walking on the other side of the road. It was Jackson, a boy a year older than Brody. Jackson was a football player and hung out with other football players in the neighborhood. He rarely said hello to Brody. Jackson curb walked east as Brody did the same headed west, only Jackson walked faster than Brody, as if he were late for something. He did a kind of stutter-step Brody figured he learned in football practice.
Right, left, right. Brody kept up his pace and tried to keep his balance. He glanced at the street sign, it was still annoyingly far away so he looked instead at the traffic, focusing on the cars speeding by in the opposite lane. He liked knowing what was coming Jackson’s way while Jackson himself did not. It was almost like seeing Jackson’s future.
In the distance he saw a car that looked like it had two torpedoes strapped to its roof. It lumbered east, a dark vehicle topped by a bright blue and bright yellow cylinder. As it neared, Brody saw a dark gray Highlander with a pair of kayaks on its roof. The Highlander was close enough now that he could see the kayaks shudder every time the wheels of the car struck a bump.
Suddenly Jackson’s bike hit something in the road, a hole or a rock; an object large and unexpected enough to dislodge the boy’s hold on the handlebars. Jackson’s bike travelled a wobbly few feet on its own then collapsed onto Route 33.
A child’s bike in the road created a panic in the street. Car tires squealed and veered out of the way. Gravel flew. The van passing Jackson just as he let go of the handlebars swerved enough to avoid the bike and glided cleanly by. A sedan braked, skidded left then corrected its trajectory and eked by. Then came the Highlander. The driver assumed the boy would follow the bike onto the road. So he panicked. The Highlander swerved out of the way, the driver spinning the wheel too far to the left and winding up in the oncoming traffic lane. The first car to hit it was a Jeep Cherokee, striking the errant Highlander as it cut across the double yellow line.
The two boys froze as they stood on their curbs and watched the adult world explode around them. Glass shattered, metal buckled and twisted in ways it was never meant to. They watched the Jeep become a battering ram. It slammed into the Highlander at almost full speed. The collapsing metal and crumbling frame snapped the brackets of the rack holding the kayaks as the momentum from the impact hurtled the two shells forward. Somehow Brody knew they were coming his way even before he saw the kayaks ripped from their brackets and rocket toward him. At first he wouldn’t let go of his handlebars. Brody held on to his bike like a shield, as if it could protect him. The scream of shearing metal filled his ears and if the noise was any indication, every car around him was crashing into something. Brody took a few steps forward then decided he’d never get far enough away. So he looked in the only direction available: up. He turned toward the embankment along the road. It was steep yet maybe being higher was better.
Brody scrambled up the hill but his feet got tangled in the gnarled weeds and the clumps of grass. He knew he wasn’t going very far. And the blue and yellow torpedoes kept getting closer and closer.
* * *
It was suspiciously quiet on the deck. Bill read The New York Times undisturbed which almost never happened. Where was the screaming leaf blower? The whine of a lawnmower cutting grass that didn’t need cutting? Bill wondered what Randall was up to but wouldn’t put down the sports pages to find out. He finished that section and the rest of the paper and still no noise louder than the chirping of birds. Randall had to be plotting something. Bill found his camera and went to investigate.
Dry leaves and withered twigs crunched beneath his footsteps even as he tried to step quietly. Bill heard the rustling of squirrels or chipmunks scattering, as if Bill was there to do them harm.
He slowed as he neared the edge of his land then stopped when he had a clear view of Randall’s property Where Bill expected a monolith of green he saw unexpected color: reds, yellows and an abundance of orange. He almost gasped to see the leaves littering Randall’s lawn. The trees seemed to be in perpetual motion with leaves plunging down to the ground in tight spirals or swinging in giant arcs and lazily looping their way toward the lawn.
Bill saw Randall sitting on a metal bench shaded by trees, one of those benches with intricate iron scrollwork, a seat more decorative than restive. Randall wore his usual oxford cloth shirt and khaki chinos, casual clothes that belied his rigid posture. Randall stared at something, Bill tried to see what was so fascinating yet all he saw was trees. The leaves continued to fall around him and Bill waited for Randall to rise from the bench and fire up the leaf blower. But Randall never did.
Bill watched the falling leaves a while longer, watched their gentle takeover of the unnaturally green lawn and watched Randall do nothing about it. Perhaps this was a changed Randall. Bill could hope. He took a picture of his neighbor and pocketed the camera. Then Bill slipped back through the trees to his house while he wondered what he would do with a potentially new Randall.
J. G. Alderisio needs to eat better and exercise more. When not staring at an iPad, J.G. has found time to create work that has appeared or is forthcoming in Please See Me Literary Journal, Hudson Valley Magazine and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.