The lock is unfamiliar and it takes time to open the door, so when the voice calls out Jones can’t ignore it and slip inside.
‘Hey, hey,’ the voice calls out again. It’s heavy and deep; thickly accented in a way that he can’t easily recognise but which is ubiquitous in that part of the world.
‘Hey, hey,’ the voice calls out and then: ‘Up here, man.’
Jones looks around and then up. The words were coming from the second story of the house next door. The house sits crooked in the soft earth, its paint peeling. Its lower windows, those facing the narrow street out front, are covered up with cardboard and tape. Jones has occasionally seen an old man enter the lower portion of the house but has never spotted anyone climbing the wooden stairs that run up the side of the building to the top floor.
He walks around the fence that divides the two properties, past the rubbish bins which stink in the heat of the day of rancid meat and decomposing plant life, into an overgrown lawn. He’s wary because he knows that these neighbours have dogs — they bark throughout the day as he tries to work — and he can only hope that they are tied up; he doesn’t want to be made a coward in front of someone he can’t see.
The last neighbour Jones had, when he had been living somewhere completely different, had been English and gay. He was an ex-journalist who had some good stories. Jones didn’t mind meeting him when he was taking out the rubbish or heading for a run. He was polite and self-effacing; he wouldn’t have called out from a hidden vantage point and would never have expected Jones to wander blindly onto his property.
The wooden stairs creak underfoot. On his right runs the frayed wire fence that separates this house his own one-story bungalow. Looking down he notices that he can see partly into his kitchen.
The landing at the top of the stairs is warped and cast in deep shadow. A huge oak— draped in Spanish moss and emitting a faintly musty smell — hangs low overhead. The dark wood of the floorboards groan under his weight. On his left a door is set half open, it’s mosquito screen hanging forward from its frame.
It takes Jones a while to see his neighbour. The man is sitting on the right on a white plastic chair, half crumpled and stained by the rain. His leg is stretched out, straight and uncomfortable looking, on a rough-hewn wooden slab. He looked unwell, thin, and partially focused; he doesn’t look up but instead stars directly ahead at Jones’s stomach. Jones wonders whether he has made a mistake, whether he should turn and head back down, finish getting the groceries inside and try to get some work done, but decides no, he’ll stay. He’s curious more than anything. His neighbour looks up; his eyes are red rimmed and it looks as though he might have been crying. Jones notices that his leg is wrapped up in a painter’s sheet, haphazardly bound in a what seemed like a symbolic gesture rather than an actual attempt at treatment, a sort of medical cargo cult; if it looks like first aid, maybe the healing will come.
‘Hey, hey man,’ the neighbour says, and then: ‘Can you do me a favour?
‘Can you get me some vodka?’
Jones doesn’t say anything. There isn’t anything he can think of.
And then: why not? He can get the man some vodka, if that was what he wants. Maybe he can’t drive. He nods.
‘Thanks man, I need this. I got hit by a car, man. I was on my bike and I got hit by a car, man.’
Jones looks at that outstretched leg again; it looked bad — painful and most probably broken.
‘Shouldn’t you see a doctor about that?’
‘I will man, I will. But I gotta see about the insurance, man. They said weeks. I just need some vodka. For the pain. Please, man.’
The neighbour winces as he speaks, his face is worn and there’s a grimace around his eyes that says that he is beyond caring. Jones takes the little piece of torn brown paper and the crumpled bills that his neighbour holds out and turns back to the stairs.
‘Just don’t tell Greg, okay?’ The neighbour says.
‘Sure,’ he says as he makes his way down to the garden. He doesn’t know who Greg is.
The rental car is parked on the street.
They’d had tried going without a car when they first arrived in Florida. They were used to walking and taking public transport and so they thought that they could manage. His wife, especially, had thought it would be good for them. They’d walked for a few days but the heat and the distances rendered them listless and angry. The city they saw was nothing but wide grey roads bordered by shopping complexes and abandoned buildings. There was no greenery just concrete: puddles, lakes, oceans of concrete. Everything was a light shade of grey that belied depth and banished shadow. Out on the sidewalks there were only the homeless; men and women walking slowly down the sidewalk or else gathered together in the little pools of shade cast by the few trees. Jones’s wife pointed out the beggars standing in the middle of the road. They stood between four lanes of traffic in the bright sunlight and the heat as they waited for the lights to turn red and for the cars to stop. When the lights did change they would step forward and shuffle between the cars, hands outstretched. Occasionally a hand would extend from the window of an SUV with a few coins or a bill. Then the light would change and they’d step back onto the thin strip and wait for the next line of cars. These men and women were always black. Or brown like his neighbour. Down on the water a few streets away stood the multi-million dollar mansions with yachts tethered to their docks.
Jones got a car. It was easier. Soon he found that the beggars and the homeless had faded away.
The liquor store is less than a mile away. There’s a comfortable parking lot out front, full of wide spaces. Jones feels a twinge of panic seeing the cop car parked outside the doors but keeps on walking. The air-conditioning is running strongly inside the building, cooling a room size of a football field. Against the walls stand row upon row of bottles on high racks. He walks slowly down the aisles, searching for the brand of vodka that is written down on the piece of torn brown paper he holds in his hand. An fat black woman sees him and points to a wall of plastic containers near the check-out. Each opaque cubbyhole is filled with the miniature bottles of liquor. He finds the bottles that match the paper and looked at the price: 99 cents. He can get three and bring back change. The woman at the counter avoids his eye as he pays.
‘Thanks man. Thanks man,’ the neighbour says, dropping the bottles in an open black backpack by his feet. When he looked up he seemed surprised to see Jones still standing there.
‘Hey, where you from?’ he asks.
‘Ah yeah man. Kangaroo! Kangaroo!’
Jones wondered whether he was going to be invited to share a drink but his neighbour doesn’t say anything, so he turns and walked back down the stairs. There’s beer left in the fridge and a comfortable couch to sit on. He doesn’t have the energy to move. He wonders whether he should tell his wife about their neighbour. She might decide that the man is an addict and that it was wrong to buy him alcohol. It’s probably true. He decides not to mention their neighbour, instead he could ask about her day. He’d ask her about her new friend, the one who had moved into the office next to hers and always plays her music too loud. This would be in the car, after he’d picked her up from work. He’d listen to her as they wait in traffic or for the moveable bridge to lower. Maybe some Springsteen would be playing. But then, still sitting deep in the couch, he remembers that the friend with the loud music has cancer. His wife just found out, she told him about it the night before. If he asks about her then they’d have to talk about the chemo treatments and about how fewer and fewer women were showing up for their treatments. Jones knows that those women have issues with their insurance too.
He decides he won’t ask about the work friend. Instead he would ask her about her work and her cases. Then he could sit and listen. She’d tell him about the black men she was trying to stop from being executed. She might even tell him about the schizophrenic boy who stabbed his neighbour. He’d be dead soon too, that boy. Just like the friend who plays her music too loud. Probably just like their neighbour too.
Maybe then they’ll be easier to ignore.
He decides not to say anything to his wife; they can ride home in silence. At least then he won’t have to think about any of it. He could wind up the windows so that they don’t have to hear the beggars at the lights.
But what if, as they turn the corner onto their street, they see the neighbour on crutches, limping his way down to the liquor store? What then?
Jones walks back to the kitchen. He looks up through the window and fence and can see the deeper shadow where his neighbour sits, immobile, on the wooden deck. In a cupboard above the stove he there is a half bottle of whisky. He takes it down and feels the heft of it in his hand; it’s a little greasy from cooking oil but still feels reassuring. He can already taste it in his mouth, sharp and slightly smokey.
He steps up onto the deck, once again listening to the strain of the wood beneath his feet. He raises the bottle but his neighbour says frozen in the same position, staring at nothing, his leg outstretched. Jones stands for a while and then turns and sits on the top of the stairs. There was a tap on his shoulder and sees the neighbour bent over close, his brown face strained, reaching over his extended leg with a crumpled plastic cup extended in his hand. Jones pours a measure into the cup and then turned back to the street.
Jones nods and takes a long drink.
After a while he thinks of something and, pulling his phone out of his pocket, sends a message to his wife. She’d have to take an Uber home.
A homeless man shuffles down the middle of the street. A worn sneaker makes scraping noises on the asphalt as he pulls a lame leg behind him. The noise stops as he draws up to the vacant lot across from the house where Jones and his neighbour sit. There is a tree there, its branches reaching over towards the road. The homeless man reaches up his hand over the wire fence and picks something, placing it in his mouth in a smooth and delicate movement. His face brakes into a slow smile as the juice of the berry runs from the corner of his lips.
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