The Good Neighbor is available in the collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.
Peter Hughes lathered the final corner panel on his ‘68 Camaro. Washing this car, his most prized possession, was his duty, which he did at least once a week. Besides his outdated house, with the peeling paint, warped window frames, and cracked and slanted sidewalks, the car was the only item of any importance that Peter had been able to keep in that painstakingly drawn-out divorce. He had asked for nothing else.
He swirled his sponge and wiped while soapsuds slid down his scrawny forearm, covering the small name that he’d had tattooed there a few years ago. Valerie, a name he intended to have removed by laser surgery whenever he could save up the money.
With the garden hose, he rinsed the foamy water and exposed the car’s shiny canary-yellow finish. Stepping back, he admired his baby as the last of the evening sun danced and paraded over the contours of its flawless body.
Perfection once again, he thought.
Soon after, his admiration for his car was interrupted when his neighbor, Guy Fickly, torqued the throttle on his new Harley-Davidson. From dual, chrome tail pipes black smoke bellowed, crossing the street and drifting toward Peter and his freshly washed car. The engine screamed and thundered throughout the usually quiet neighborhood.
Peter had enjoyed that rumbling engine for the first day or two. The sound had made his adrenaline rise, and he almost considered buying a bike for himself. He’d pictured cruising on the open road without a care in the world, enjoying the fresh country air and the freedom that he felt he sorely deserved.
But now, he scoffed every time he heard that blaring pain in the ass. He despised the noise more than he despised his cheating ex-wife. When Guy had bought the bike one week earlier, the roar of the engine could be heard at any time of the day or night. On most nights, Peter would lie in his bed and hopelessly clutch his pillow around his head trying to mute the chaos from across the street. Through his scarcely insulated walls, he heard wrenches clanking, Guy’s cussing, and the engine revving to its highest rpms.
Now, eyes puffed and dark from smoke and lack of sleep, Peter stood in his front yard, breathing in the black cloud, glaring in Guy’s direction. His first thought was to get his 12 gauge Remington from beneath his bed and put the mechanical monster out of its misery. He found much glory in this idea, but a more subtle approach would have to do for now. He dropped the sponge in the wash bucket and tossed the garden hose aside. He grabbed two Coors Lights from his ice chest, which sat on the cracked, slanted sidewalk, and took out across his yard and the road into Guy Fickly’s driveway.
Walking up, Peter noticed the countless cigarette butts discarded over the newly blacktopped driveway. A disgusting habit, he thought. When Guy saw Peter approaching, he cut the engine.
Guy was a shorter, stockier individual who had a rough-edged look. He had a buzzed haircut and scruffy beard and was probably a person you would want on your side if a barroom brawl broke out.
“How’s it goin’, neighbor?” said Guy.
“Going well,” said Peter, showing his cordial side even though he wanted to lash out. “Come to check out this new beast of yours.” He fought his way through the cloud of lingering black smoke.
“Yeah, always wanted one,” said Guy. “Thought, what the hell, I ain’t gettin’ any younger. So, I just went out and bought the son of a bitch.” Peter handed one of the beers to his neighbor. “Thanks, Pete.”
Peter nodded. He cracked open the tab and then took a drink while circling the machine to get a better look.
“Sure is a beauty. What year is it?” he said.
“Ninety-five,” said Guy. “She’ll get down the road screamin’ like a banshee. You wanna take ‘er for a spin?”
Peter thought on the matter, and was tempted, but instead said, “No, better not. Already had a few too many suds today.” He didn’t want to appear hypocritical, especially with what he was about to say.
“Yeah, better not then,” said Guy.
Peter swigged from his beer, cleared his throat, and said, “Hey, Guy, I hate to be the one to say this, but a lot of people are starting to complain about the noise you’re making with this thing.”
He had lied, but was sure the other neighbors had to find the noise as disturbing as he did. He assumed they were probably too intimidated by Guy’s burly swagger to bring up the issue directly. Although, he couldn’t blame them. Guy was a scary-looking sort whose bad side you probably didn’t want to be on.
Guy popped the top of his can, took a healthy drink, and squatted beside his motorcycle.
“Hell, Pete,” he said. “You know I don’t give a damn about what people think of me. Besides, I’m just tunin’ ‘er up. A man has to take care of his equipment. You know that better than anyone.” He set his beer on the driveway and grabbed a spark plug off an oily rag. He then grabbed the ratchet that was lying next to the bike’s front wheel.
Peter scratched his head. He wasn’t expecting Guy’s response to be so logical. He couldn’t rightfully argue with someone who was only trying to maintain his equipment.
“I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t take care of your bike, Guy. But you know how easily annoyed old man Baker becomes over everything.” With a nod of his head, Peter gestured to the house next door to Guy’s. “It’s probably just a matter of time before he starts complaining to Town Hall, or goes to some other extreme.”
Guy made the last turn of his ratchet, grabbed his beer, and stood.
“I’d like to see that old geezer try somethin’ stupid like that. Next time his damn cat comes over and confuses my flower bed for a litter box, I’ll send it home screamin’ with a pellet in its ass.”
Maybe mentioning old man Baker had been a bad idea. Peter didn’t want to start trouble. He was only trying to make life a little easier for himself. He took another drink from his beer.
“There’s something else,” he said.
“What’s that?” said Guy. “Ferguson runnin’ his mouth too?” He was clearly irritated, and now looking toward the house of his other neighbor, Clive Ferguson.
The thought of unintentionally starting a neighborhood civil war crossed Peter’s mind. “No-no, it’s not that,” he said almost in a panic. “It’s just…well…I’m having trouble sleeping at night with all that noise you’re making.”
Tensing, Peter waited for Guy’s response.
“Hell, Pete, why didn’t you say that in the first place? I don’t have a problem workin’ in the daytime.” Peter felt relieved by his answer, until Guy said, “Except it’s a hell of a lot cooler at night, you know.”
Damn it. He’s right again, thought Peter. The days had been blistering hot, and he couldn’t blame Guy for wanting to work in the cooler night air. He’d also remembered Guy’s mild stroke last summer. He thought a bit longer and took another pull from his beer.
“Well, you shouldn’t work in the heat, Guy. That could be dangerous.”
“Hell, I’m too ornery to die,” he said. “But I hear what you’re sayin’. I’ll try to cut the evenin’ a little shorter from now on.”
“That’d be great,” said Peter, surprised by Guy’s answer.
“But I’m only doin’ it for you. Not for that old bastard over there.” Guy pointed and emphasized with the end of his ratchet to old man Baker’s house. “Or Ferguson, either.”
“I sure do appreciate it, neighbor,” said Peter.
“Not a problem,” Guy replied. “Not a problem at all.”
That night, Peter stared happily at the mirror while he brushed his teeth. He felt relieved knowing he was on the brink of getting a restful night’s sleep. Tonight, there would be no engines blaring, no clanking wrenches, and no loud, thoughtless cursing.
He spat, wiped his mouth, and proceeded to the soft pillow top mattress and sat on the edge of his bed. He longed for vivid dreams and restful slumber. He knew he wouldn’t meet the morning with contempt and despair as before. Instead, he would rise vigorously and full of joy.
He kicked off his house slippers, slid comfortably under his cover, and reached to push the switch on his reading lamp. There would be no reading tonight. Peter was prepared to reach that golden state of blissful rest and relaxation.
He lay peacefully, hearing only the soothing sounds of the chirping crickets outside his open window. A breeze slipped through the window screen, cooling his face, and he formed a gratified smile. He sank deeper into the mattress’ thick cushion, expecting his mind to drift away at any moment. Not long now, he knew, and off to sleep he would go.
While nestled in his blankets, Peter’s mind drifted away. But soon after, a violent stagger of kick-drums and distorted guitar-riffs penetrated the walls, causing his heart to bounce and skip. He rose, panting, grabbing his chest.
“Goddamn it!” he blasted. He stretched his arm and fumbled for the switch on his reading lamp. He slung off his cover, stood, and marched to the other bedroom window, pulling apart the blinds, and stared with crazy eyes toward Guy’s lighted garage.
“What’s wrong with these fucking people?” he said.
Guy’s son, Austin, and his garage band were playing their music again. The teenage boy and his band had intruded on Peter’s sleep on more than one occasion. Peter had talked to Guy about the blaring noise, and he thought they had come to a reasonable understanding.
“No problem, Pete,” he remembered Guy saying. “I’ll take care of it. Won’t happen again.”
Enraged, Peter spied through his blinds. And through the small rectangular window of Guy’s garage, he could see Guy’s greying, buzzed head keeping to the beat of the music.
Peter jerked his hand away causing the vinyl slats to slap back to their original position. He couldn’t understand why Guy would let this happen again. Maybe this was spiteful turn play for his request to stop the roaring motorcycle engine. No matter. It was late and Peter would have to deal with this another time.
The next morning Peter arose with heavy stubble on his face and chose to bypass his usual shower and shave. He ambled to the kitchen to make coffee, and then to the corner of the living room where his desk and laptop awaited. He didn’t feel very productive, but the deadline for his advice column loomed.
The keys of his laptop clacked as his article began to take shape. If anything could distract his mind, his writing could. Whether trying to steer some helpless soul out of depression or advise would-be college students on the importance of an education, this job was rewarding to Peter.
He typed away until a sequence of stern knocks on the door pulled him from his writing muse. He opened the front door and discovered a smiling, bright-eyed Guy Fickly staring back.
“Mornin’, Pete,” he said, puffing a cigarette.
“Good morning, Guy,” Peter half grumbled. Unlike him, Guy appeared fresh and lively.
“Wonderin’ if I could still borrow those posthole diggers?” he asked. “Goin’ to start on that fence in the back yard.”
With jaw clenched, Peter held onto his diminishing composure.
“Yeah–sure,” he said. “Meet me around by the side door.”
“Okay,” said Guy.
In the hot, unventilated garage, Peter shuffled around bags of aluminum cans he’d been saving, bypassed a garden tiller, and scooted aside a few totes that were full of his ex-wife’s belongings. Not only was his intrusive neighbor annoying him, but he also felt an old, unsettling rage stirring deep inside. He had phoned Valerie multiple times telling her to come and get her totes, and the rest of her stuff. He became infuriated every time he had to move the damn things to get to something he needed. And this time was no exception.
Eight more of Valerie’s totes were stacked in the corner. Behind the stacks were the posthole diggers that Guy needed for his new fencing project. One by one, Peter lifted the heavy totes from the stack and placed them on the garage floor. He grabbed another, but his hand, now sweaty, slipped from the handle and the container’s sharp, plastic lid scraped down his arm and the corner struck him in the chin. He went down, toppling over the other totes and onto the bags of aluminum cans.
Jutting his jaw, he checked its hinging motion, and when nothing seemed dislocated or broken, he scrambled back to his feet, cussing. Peter grabbed the posthole diggers, and a few moments later, he met Guy at the side door.
“Here,” said Peter while beads of sweat ran down his brow and into his eyes. Again, he opened and closed his jaw.
“Thanks, Pete. I really appreciate it. I’ll bring ‘em back as soon as I’m done.”
“No hurry,” said Peter, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
“You really are a good neighbor,” said Guy. “There ain’t too many people like you left in the world.”
“No big deal, really,” said Peter, still blinking the sweat away.
“What’s the matter? Get somethin’ in your eye?” asked Guy.
“Just a little sweat.”
Peter wiped his eyes again. He remembered the loud music that kept him up most of the night and early into the morning.
“That’s quite the band your son has,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Guy. “I really think they have a lot of potential.”
Yeah, the potential to drive someone bat shit crazy, Peter thought.
“The drummer, he’s a little subpar, but learnin’ fast,” Guy continued. “They didn’t keep you up last night, did they? I tried sound-proofin’ the garage.”
Peter said, “It was pretty loud.”
“Damn, Pete. Sorry about that. It’s just…well…they don’t have anywhere else to practice. They’re only tryin’ to get better. They could be out vandalizin’ shit or stealing cars—or somethin’ worse.”
“True,” said Peter. “But maybe they could turn down the volume some.”
“Sure thing, neighbor. And thanks again.” Guy headed back across the street, slinging the posthole diggers up and onto his shoulder.
Inside, Peter grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and wiped his sweaty hands and face. He then settled in front of his laptop and tried to lose himself once again in the sheer joy of his craft. He stared at the screen, but couldn’t produce any words.
“You can do this,” he muttered. “Just concentrate.”
As his mind loosened and he forgot about his life’s frequent annoyances, the words flowed freely onto the screen. While Peter made the final changes to his article, a series of yells came from outside. He got up and pulled the curtain on the front window and saw Guy’s son, Austin, and a couple of his band mates riding skateboards up and down the road in front of his house.
In the middle of the street was a homemade ramp fashioned from a piece of ply board lying on a cement block. Each boy, one after the other, took the apparatus at full speed.
As he and his board landed perfectly on the street, Austin let out another ripping, celebratory scream and skated past Peter’s driveway where he then maneuvered a sharp U-turn to fall back in line behind the other boys.
Next, Peter watched another boy zoom down the road, picking up speed, going faster and faster. When his wheels hit the ramp at an awkward angle, the boy and the skateboard went air borne, flying in opposite directions. Peter watched the kid land awkwardly on his side on the street, and the skateboard torpedoed through the air in an arching motion.
When the board landed, it hit one of the elevated cracks on Peter’s slanted sidewalk where it toppled end over end until it smacked crudely against the passenger door of the mint ‘68 Camaro. Wasting little time, the boys gathered their skateboards and makeshift ramp and fled the scene.
Peter’s heart fluttered and his face paled. He came close to vomiting. He was past the point of no return. This on going aggravation, this stirring rage, he could no longer contain.
Maybe I really should go get my gun, just say fuck it, and blow these bastards away. He went to the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and thought the matter over.
He chugged his beer while trying to form these vile thoughts into more rational views. He tried desperately to see reason in all the torment he’d endured from his neighbor. Maybe Guy wasn’t a peripheral thinker. Maybe he was unable to see the harm that he was doing.
Another burst of loud knocks lured Peter away from his soothing contemplation of an all-out neighborhood massacre. Repulsed, Peter’s first thought was that one of the boys had come to confess the terrible catastrophe that they had committed. But instead, when he opened the door, he found a cheery Guy Fickly staring back, holding the spade end of the posthole diggers in one hand and the broken handle in the other.
“Afraid I had a little mishap, Pete,” he said.
Peter flared. His eyes pierced and danced. “Is that so?”
“Startin’ a little early, aren’t we?” said Guy, noticing the beer in Peter’s hand.
He took another gulp and shot back. “Sure, why not?”
Guy shrugged and said, “Well, I started diggin’ and got down about a foot or so and the damn end snapped right off. Sorry, Pete. I’ll pay you for the damage of course.”
Peter didn’t respond. His mind fogged over and he peered joyfully up to the beautiful morning sky. He smelled the wonderful aroma of freshly cut grass and heard the humming of old man Baker’s riding lawn mower from across the street.
“You okay, Pete?” asked Guy.
Stripped away was his sanity. The long, restless nights were showing their ill effects on this once spirited and charismatic man. His engaging witticisms were no more and his striking handsome features had vanished as well. Peter had reached the end of the line.
“Sure, Guy. I’m fine,” he said. “No need to pay me. I bought it at a yard sale for five dollars.”
“Well, here, let me give you your five bucks back,” said Guy, setting the handle down and reaching for his wallet in his back pocket.
“No, it’s all right. Really.”
Guy hesitated and said, “Pete?”
“Can I say somethin’?”
“I don’t mean to sound like an ass, but maybe you should lay off the booze and try gettin’ a little more sleep at night. You’re lookin’ a little run-down.”
Peter snapped from his foggy realm. And just when he appeared to take offense, he cracked a smile. The smile broadened and morphed into a subtle snicker, and then a roaring laugh. Peter held up his beer and pointed to it, confirming Guy’s take on his early morning drinking habits. But that wasn’t the reason for his uncontrollable outburst. That wasn’t the reason at all. It had come from the misguidance of an ignorant neighbor, unaware of the unspoken rules of how to be a good neighbor.
He laughed hysterically at a worried-looking Guy who stood on the front porch step holding the broken digging apparatus. Peter swung the door closed and lurched across his living room, set his beer on the end table, and sank onto the sofa. His laugh then changed to a deep, sorrowful cry, and tears streamed down his face. He fell over, burying his head into the sofa’s cushion and cried until falling into a deep, delightful sleep, a sleep that he’d longed for, a sleep that had until now eluded him. He slept all day and night and didn’t wake until the next morning, unbothered by man, woman, or neighbor.