By Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier
It’s four o’clock and I’m pretending to read Better Housekeeping at the bay window, in the sun, but really I’m keeping an eye on my kids playing with the neighbor kids out on the lawn. That oldest one Kenny, from around the corner, I don’t trust him. His eyes are always red and have these purple crescent shadows, like bruises, under ‘em. His mother, Francine, says it’s allergies, but the kid looks like he’ll grow up to be something shameful like a drug-dealer or a strip club manager or a comedian.
I wonder if we should let our grass die and put in succulents like all the neighbors are starting to do. You know when it’s about to happen—they put up these pretentious “When in Drought?” signs—with the even more pretentious tag line “We’re saving water everyday”—in the middle of their thirsty lawns. Bunch of goody-goodies. You know, all these succulents everywhere is just another trend, like all those carpeted bathrooms in the 80s. Plus, if we got rid of our grass where would the kids play? Not on those dicey wood chips in front of Kenny’s house, I tell you. Honestly, it’d be selfish to get rid of a nice lawn. So what if we have to pay a little more for the water? We’re fortunate to be fortunate, God blesses those who bless themselves, and yadda yadda yadda—Oh, and there he is. Right on schedule.
I know it’s him before I really look—he’s got that jumpy kind of walk, the kind that’s all toes, like he’s about to run, and that’s just one of the reasons I don’t trust the guy. My first impressions are never wrong. I’m an excellent judge of character—especially of people I don’t know. This guy, he’s got that weather-leathered skin and is always wearing this burgundy sweater with a hole in the right shoulder. Today he’s bare-headed and his comb-over is flapping like it’s saying “Hey” and I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than the usual scrap of blanket wrapped with a scarf topped with a straw hat (that looks as if it’s been stored under a mattress for half its life) that he usually wears, but both looks are something to see. You should see it. I wish I didn’t have to. We didn’t move to this part of town to pay these kinds of property taxes to put up with that kind of people.
He’s got this golf club of his, too, propped against one shoulder. He’ll stop at the end of the block in just a minute and take a few practice swings like it’s a driver, even though it’s a putter. He’ll swing it like he is somebody, or was somebody, who plays, or played, but I can tell he’s never been on a real course like Torrey Pines or Pebble Beach. Boomer’s Mini-Golf is more like it, if he can even afford that. Probably not.
I’ve told my kids to stay away from the man in the burgundy sweater, with the crazy hat, the one who carries the golf club. I tell them there are monsters out there—Real monsters you two!—who do and have done bad things to children. I don’t know if it’s true about burgundy-sweater-man, but I say it like I know it is, and my kids’ eyes get wide, and I am satisfied that they are sufficiently afraid. The kids’ game of tag pauses as he passes, raises a hand, and nods at them like they’re all acquaintances. I see Kenny say something to the man, something like “Hi” or “Hello” and that’s not surprising—Kenny’s not very bright. They all watch the man until he passes the edge of the driveway and then my youngest shouts “You’re it!” and they play on.
Last week, Janet said she saw burgundy-sweater-man walking up the hill with a plastic bag from the Co-Op Market down the street (that hippie-dippy place probably has special deals if you smell bad enough), and she said he went into “that one yellow house on the hill.” That’s when I knew all my suspicions about him were right. That ratty house with the front door below street level? With the gravel roof that used to be shingles? With the bubbled up paint, peeling like sunburned flesh? That sore-thumb of a house? Of course he lives there. It’s the inanimate version of the man himself. If the inside is anything like the outside then it is full of dust motes and mold and water stained walls and small animals that defecate wherever they want. Where else would someone like that live in a neighborhood like this? It doesn’t surprise me, in fact, I should have known. Oh that house.
And that smile. What’s he got to smile about? Walking along with that half-smirk on his face like he knows a thing worth knowing, like he doesn’t wear that same sweater every day, like he doesn’t live in that dilapidated eyesore, like he doesn’t see the kids turn to statues every time he walks by, like he owns more than one golf club for Pete’s sake.
I stand up to tell the kids to come in and clean up for dinner, and I gasp and jump back from the window.
I see myself looking back at me with a hand on my chest. I can feel my heart thumping hard against my hand and I don’t know if I should laugh or slap myself for being so silly. For a moment there I thought, well, in one of the windows, in the quick blink of a pane, I could’ve swore I saw something hideous, something—you know—monstrous moving there. I should get my eyes checked—can never be too careful.