His grin shows off his molars, and he grips you with a handshake that could hold up a bridge. He announces his name like he’s its proud parent, and then holds your gaze in a vice so that when you mumble your own name back to him, it sounds like ‘Uncle’. When you turn a moment later to greet his lady companion, it feels as though you’ve just forfeited an undeclared staring contest.
Though her smile is a match for his, it is already falling as she accepts your outstretched hand. She lets her palm rest in yours with a delicacy that suggests that she’s sorry for any pressure against your skin. By the time you’ve relieved the hand of its duty, her lips have settled into less a smile than a détente between goodwill and fear. She keeps her gaze as steady as his, but you can sense her detachment from the conversation in the narrowing of her eyelids.
He’s quick to command your attention away from her, bellowing his delight at how much friendlier you and the rest of his new neighbors are than the “– ahem – folks” back in Bennington, or (with a roll of his eyes) Glover. But when, a second later, he waves a hand back at her to promise you an invitation to one of “her” housewarming parties, her eyes are still on your face. She can’t quite disguise the air of appraisal, the gauging of your reaction as he goes into detail about her special spaghetti sauce. Those eyes dart over to him at his mention of a bottle of red wine, and when they dart back at you, she has given up trying to cover up the calculation going on behind them.
You cannot know the complex calculus she’s performing. Every crease of your cheek, every wrinkle of your forehead, even the depth of your crow’s feet when you offer a polite laugh at one of his stock one-liners, gives a value to another variable in an equation a mile long. She imagines she’s got the formula worked out fairly precisely after all these years. That split-second you hesitate when he makes the strange comment referring to your wife (whom they have yet to meet, as she’s still at work): that pause tells her how chilly things will turn after the housewarming debacle, when after two bottles he will set about loudly flirting with your wife’s chest (or worse, if she fails to hold him to two, and he treats you to a replay of the Great Glover Groping Incident). The chuckle you finally decide on as your response to his comment gives her hope that you’ll at least pretend to still like him, if he can keep his hands to himself.
Her stare softens, her smile makes a brief return, when she considers your age. Since you look about thirty-five (his age, although his looks have passed the other side of forty), there’s a chance you’ll be able to tolerate his love for Offspring and Green Day. True, you’ll never equal the old deaf man next door in Rutland, but look: you’re in a faded T-shirt and ripped jeans. That has to be some kind of sign. She’d bet money right now that you’ll hold off on calling the cops until at least eleven on weeknights – and judging from the way you’ve quieted down, and the meek smile you’ve put up as a shield against his barrage of getting-to-know-you blather, she can see you waiting up to a month before you can bring yourself to call them at all. She considers the possibility of a return to the routine they fell into last year in Middlebury, in which he’d start in early and collapse on the couch before midnight. Her smile sags when she considers the opposite scenario, a repeat of the last month in Bennington, when he stopped sleeping at all.
Up until Middlebury, she’d always been able to laugh off his professed ambitions for their lawn. Her ordeal with the landlord there permanently sucked the humor from such talk.”
He’s on a roll now, waving his arms toward their yard and roaring his landscaping plans at you. The smile dies off her face as she catches the words “John Deere” escaping his lips. Up until Middlebury, she’d always been able to laugh off his professed ambitions for their lawn. Her ordeal with the landlord there, after he actually managed to wangle a tractor and dig a ten-foot-long ditch before the uppers wore off, permanently sucked the humor from such talk.
It’s been a good five minutes since you got your name out, and maybe three since you’ve opened your mouth to even try to interject. And somehow his tirade of self-welcoming hasn’t dimmed your smile. She glances at him, back at you, and another blank is filled. She sees that hopeful gleam in his eyes: he’s pegged you as a friend, someone patient, tolerant, someone who won’t turn him away in a crisis. There’s a filing job going on in the back of his mind: your name is being dropped into a folder labeled with a dollar sign. He could easily be mistaken – one overlong night of Green Day, or one week too many of a half-dug mess next to your immaculate lawn, and you might pop, and yell your way out of that folder. But really, she’d prefer that, prefer the subsequent averting of your eyes in your driveways, the evasive action you’ll take if you spot each other at Shaw’s Supermarket – she’d snap that up over the alternative.
And now, as he makes his summation, his face ripening like a tomato as he exclaims how grateful he is that Fate put him – finally! – among such good neighbors, she starts studying your linoleum floor. For another minute he works himself up into thankful apoplexy, even giving your shoulder a bruise-inducing clap to seal your friendship, and her eyes bore down into her shoes. You’d still catch the strobe-like flashing of her brain behind them if you ducked in close to her face. But she’s given up compiling new data. Some input won’t come from you, after all.
There’s the question of how long his job search will drag on, and the logical follow-on of how long his eventual employer will tolerate his lateness, his disheveled appearance, his attitude. She has an idea already, from a previous meeting with their new landlord, of how many months they’ll pull off as deadbeats before the old guy wises up, gives up playing nice and sends them packing. Her head pitches forward now until her chin almost touches her collarbone, and you’d probably be asking her what’s wrong if his rising voice weren’t hogging your attention for his Big Finish. But nothing’s wrong, really; this bowed stance, not unlike if she were ducking her head to slot her neck into the guillotine, it’s just a tic of hers, a habit. Whenever a conversation outlives her interest, she winds up distracting herself with her shoes. And you’ll get used to seeing her in this posture, as the tensions his disturbances cause make for more and more unpleasant discussions.
It’s not as though she needs to look up from it, either. He’ll be more than happy to handle the confrontations, fight the battles for them both. To his credit, he’ll also be the one scanning the horizon for the next town, the next opportunity, planning their escape route when the fragile life they build here starts to crumble. His straight-ahead gaze won’t falter, except to turn behind him and spit his venom at this place when the time comes to hitch up their trailer and leave. That perfect situation, the one that’s eluded them all this time – he can see it, just over that horizon. And on he’ll drive toward it, cheerily describing it to her, dropping his grin only long enough for a sneer at the rear-view mirror. On he’ll spout, nodding at his own rightness, ever confident, ever hopeful, never stopping to notice that her eyes never rise above the dash.
Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories such as ‘Sex Education’, ‘The Squeegee Man’ and ‘Black Dress’ and other works have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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