The Neighborhood

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IMG_6777There were still two weeks of school left in those early days of June but that wasn’t why Mike was in a crappy mood. The real problem was that each day was growing longer, the sun well above the horizon, the sky alight late into the evening. It was putting a crimp in Mike’s style. Winter had been easy but now he wasn’t protected by the cover of darkness until almost ten. With his curfew set at eleven, his window of opportunity narrowed to less than an hour. The truth was it was pretty difficult to rip-off enough houses in that one hour to cover all his needs: a small supply of pot for the weekend and perhaps concert tickets or Jordan shoes – the extras his parents refused to cover.

Mike worried about the dark all week. Each night while listening to music in his room or watching Tosh.0 on Comedy Central, he would steal a glance out the window and note the time of complete darkness. He swore as each day passed, the nighttime staying away longer and longer. By the time Friday arrived Mike was sure that the setting of the sun and his eleven p.m. curfew were exactly the same. It ticked him off that he had to worry like this. He was fifteen years old, for christssake, and would be driving in two months. An eleven p.m. curfew was for middle school kids.

Mike was in an especially pissy mood as he made his way down the stairs that Friday night. It was hard to stay quiet when you were angry but he wanted his parents to believe he was up in his room for the night. When he reached the foot of the stairs, he paused, listening. He could hear his parents in the family room. He knew they were on the green striped couch, snuggled close, watching some boring old movie from the eighties.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” he heard his Mom say under her breath and his Dad let out a gale of laughter. Mike glanced quickly at the TV as he passed the room, just long enough to see the man and woman on screen seated a table in a diner. He rolled his eyes – so stupid! – but kept moving. He rounded the corner to the kitchen, carefully opening and closing the door that led to their two-and-a-half garage. Mike slid between the two BMW’s and through the side door to the outside. He was free.

As he walked away from his house he thought back on the first time he stole money from a neighbor. It had come quite by accident. Mike was at a party at Denver Connor’s house (while his parents were out of town). He was upstairs at Denver’s desperately searching for an unoccupied bathroom because after waiting ten minutes outside the first floor bathroom, he was pretty sure that Hugh Kennedy and Jenna Colin-Keeper were doing it in there. Once upstairs Mike had run straight to the largest bedroom knowing there would be a master bath within. All the houses in the neighborhood had large master suites and private bathrooms with sunken tubs and double sinks. It was a sure thing. Mike had planned to be in and out quickly but as he was leaving the room he spotted a bundle of cash on the dresser. Mike had pawed through it and was shocked to count more than three hundred bucks in the pile – ones, fives, all different denominations. Enough variance that Mike figured there’s no way the owner would know exactly how much was there. If he swiped a few (four) 20’s, it wouldn’t even be missed.

When Mike got home that night and pulled the eighty bucks out of his sock, he was struck by how easy it had been. It was as though it had been a sign; a suggestion on how to get the cash he needed until he turned sixteen and got the job his Dad had procured for him at Running Fit. Mike thought about the houses in his neighborhood, of how many he’d been in already for one reason or another. He knew the ritzy homes were stuffed with stupid china and ugly paintings, but that wasn’t all. There always seemed to be a lot of cash around, too – “hidden” in cookie jars or sock drawers in these houses. He’d seen his friends take money from those places whenever their parents asked them to pay for the pizza at the door or gave their kids cash for a movie. And what’s more, not many of the houses in the neighborhood had burglar alarms, which seemed super stupid to him considering how much pricey stuff each held. But he had heard his parents talking about getting an alarm system last year and they had decided not to after listening to all the neighbors say it was just a waste of money. It was a gated community, after all, and the neighborhood deputy patrolled through the streets often enough to make everyone feel safe. What Mike knew that they didn’t was that Deputy Pete was a stone cold pothead – he was actually Mike’s source when he needed to score! Mike was sure that Deputy Pete was high and useless most nights that he drove around his neighborhood. His neighbors were such fools.

And so it was that on any given Friday night Mike knew he could find at least one house in the neighborhood with a second floor window unlocked. People always assumed there was no need to check on the second floor windows. After all, who could get up there? But it was easy for Mike to shimmy up the sides of his neighbors’ houses using their own trees or left-out step ladders or tall trashcans. His rock wall climbing at Planet Rock out on Jackson had finally paid off. Once Mike was on the first floor roof, he’d slip through a second floor window like a mouse under a door. He didn’t even realize how lucky he was that the neighborhood had been designed by a common builder who preferred this type of layout.

Mike had had a successful run since March but he thought tonight’s venture might be his last until fall when darkness descended earlier in the evening and provided him more cover. Tonight he was going to hit the Fitzgerald’s. He was in track at Westwood with Jordan Fitzgerald and Jordan had been bragging all week about his family’s trip to Carmel this weekend. Mike knew the Fitzgerald’s house would be empty. They always set a timer to switch the living room light on at 9:30, but Mike also knew that in the back of the house where Jordan’s bedroom was, it would be dark and accessible. Easy peasy.

The crickets were chirping like crazy, the twilight sending the insects into a frenzy of nighttime anticipation, as Mike crept down the block towards the Fitzgerald’s. He was early and wary of being spotted, so he kept away from the sidewalk and walked close to the oak trees that lined the lane like a very tall fence. It was nine-forty-five when he rounded the corner on Kennedy Lane and headed towards the Fitzgerald’s. One of the Lannigan’s dogs barked as he scooted by and Mike cursed the mutt under his breath. When he was a few houses away from his target, he spotted a man on a bike pedaling his way. It had to be stinky Neil Armer, he thought. Neil was a professor at the university and rode his bike everywhere, even in the winter. Grocery store, restaurants, work. Everywhere. And in the summer when the weather was hot and humid, you could smell Neil from a mile away.

There was a dead leaf or random piece of paper stuck in one of the spokes of the bike, and it made a clicking sound over and over again as he pedaled. Mike couldn’t believe Neil wouldn’t even stop to remove the noisemaker. What a loser. Even so, Mike didn’t want to chance stinky Neil Armer catching a glimpse of him casing the neighborhood, so at the next oak tree, he slipped behind it to wait.

The nubby bark poked into Mike’s back but he remained still until he heard Neil pass. He scooted around the tree, his t-shirt catching on the wood spines for a second, and watched Neil pedal away. Mike pulled out his phone. It was only 9:50 and he knew he had at least another ten minutes before he could make his move. His new position against the side of the tree was comfortable and since he was only two doors down from the Fitzgerald’s, it seemed like a perfect place to wait.

In his new position he could clearly see the fake German front of the Nicholson’s Tudor. The window at the southwest corner was brightly lit and the curtains drawn back. Mike could make out each piece of furniture in the room clear as day. He could even distinguish the watercolor paintings on the wall. Mike had come across this type of thing before. The setting sun in June was slow and mesmerizing and Mike thought it caused some folks to forget to draw their curtains. Watching his neighbors through those windows at night was like watching Reality TV or a performance on a stage although most ‘performers’ never knew they were being observed. Mike always laughed because it reminded him of when he’d come across people in cars picking their noses – as though because they were invisible in their vehicle and had some sort of privacy shield.

Mike glanced back at his phone and then darkened the screen. Nine fifty-five and the sky almost black. He was ready to get outta there. He stared into the lit room at the corner of the Nicholson’s house willing the time to hurry on. He was getting bored. Suddenly two people moved into the room, surprising Mike out of his stupor. A small woman dressed all in white, and a very tall man in a suit facing away from the woman. The woman jabbed the man in the back and he whirled quickly to face her. The man began to gesture dramatically, his arms flapping like a flag in the wind.

“This should be good,” Mike thought and settled against the mighty oak.

Mike didn’t know much about the Nicholsons. They had moved into the neighborhood only a couple months back and seemed to keep mostly to themselves. Their daughter, Cally, was a year behind Mike at West and a bit of a ghost. She seemed to float through the halls without notice. The few times Mike had taken even a moment to look at her he couldn’t even see her face. Her long hair hung forward over her eyes and her head was cast down. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard her voice.

Mike stared at the two adults in the window, obviously Cally’s parents. Her father was so tall he literally towered over the woman. Surely he was at least a foot taller than her. He looked massive. His jaw was large and square and it reminded Mike of a Marvel super hero. But it wasn’t a handsome face, really. No, Mike thought, there were too many flat planes and his skin was ruddy and splotched. At first Mike thought the man looked stupid but then he changed his mind. The man looked mean. Tall and mean. A bully. And he was no longer talking to the woman, he was yelling. His mouth grew wider and wider, the cords in his neck flexed and strained.

Mike swallowed. Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea, this spying on the neighbors. Before tonight most times it had been only boring. Once he saw two people kiss and the man grope at the woman’s breast. That was at least interesting. But this… it was… uncomfortable. And yet, he couldn’t quite look away. It was like a car crash unfolding in front of his eyes – the nasty escalation between these two adults that played out in the small window theater at 271 Kennedy Lane.

As Mr. Nicholson continued to yell, Mrs. Nicholson began to shake her head back and forth, her arms folded in front of her, standing her ground like a tiny mountain. She was an older version of her daughter except her hair was cut in a short bob and she had the middle age squishies around her belly.

A car turned the corner and Mike crouched lower to avoid the headlights. He watched as the car drove by – a late model Mustang, the exact car Mike would choose if he was sixteen and a millionaire. Mike stared after the Mustang for a few seconds, his mind full of sports cars and fast women, but when he saw a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned back to the Nicholson’s window.

Mrs. Nicholson was bent over clutching her stomach. For a moment Mike thought she was throwing up, but then Mr. Nicholson grabbed his wife at the nape of her neck, the perfectly streaked hair tugged back into a small bunch. With his bulldog hands he forced her head up and back. To Mike she no longer looked so defiant and immoveable. Now she looked tiny and afraid.

Her husband slapped her across her face.

“Shit!” Mike squawked and then covered his mouth. He looked around to see if anyone had heard him. A light on the second floor of the Nicholson’s house clicked off and Mike knew it had to be Cally, upstairs in her bedroom, trying to shut off her world to the nastiness inside her own house. Go to bed, don’t listen. Maybe she had earplugs?

Mike’s skin began to crawl. He was sure some night creature was inching its way up his arms, but there would have had to be dozens of them to make his entire arms feels so creepy. He rubbed his hands over the goosebumps and swallowed.

Mr. Nicholson was still slapping his wife, knocking her back on her feet, then punching her in the stomach. After one particularly vigorous slap, Mrs. Nicholson grabbed the curtain to steady herself. It was then that Mr. Nicholson realized the curtains were open to the world; that all the neighbors could be witnesses to his abuse. He moved quickly towards the window and as he clutched at the corner of the curtain, Mrs. Nicholson pivoted and fled. The curtains flew shut. Less than a minute later the garage door began to swing open. Mike moved further to the side of the tree but could still see the black Mercedes begin to back out of the garage. He was sure that Cally’s mother was driving the car but at the end of the driveway when he had a clear view of the front seat, he realized it was Mr. Nicholson in the car, fleeing from his own violence.

There was a small movement on the second floor. Mike watched as the curtains in Cally’s bedroom parted slightly and two shadowed bodies, close to identical female forms, peered out into the darkness. When the car motored away from the house, the two figures retreated from the window, safe, at least for the time being.

Mike sat back on his hands, his legs shaking. It was getting close to ten-thirty and his window to commit a burglary was growing ever short. But it didn’t matter anymore. He no longer had a taste for it. In fact, his tongue felt swollen and fat, the flavors in his mouth bitter and awful.

He had never seen anything like it before; well, maybe on HBO when he watched the shows his parents said he couldn’t. But witnessing such violence live was horrible, shocking. How often did this happen, he wondered. How many nights did Cally hide in her room?

His parents were so boring and normal and they irritated him every day – but they never hit each other. They never yelled. They seemed to even like each other. Suddenly Mike felt a swell of gratitude for his parents and a flourish of adolescent shame for never before realizing his dumb luck.

Mike struggled to his feet and peered around the oak tree. All was quiet. He stumbled at first – his feet were numb! – but then picked up the pace and headed back to his house. What must it be like to live in the Nicholson’s house, he wondered. How did Cally survive? He no longer wondered why she walked around school with her head down, her hair in her face, her voice silenced. He bet if she ever opened her mouth at school it would be to scream.

Mike plodded through his neighborhood, back to his own, boring house. He stared straight ahead. Never again would he chance a look into someone’s window, and he knew he wouldn’t rip-off another house after tonight. It seemed so lame and stupid. Pathetic. Instead on Monday he thought he might look for Cally between classes, maybe try to catch her eye, if that was possible, give her a smile, a head nod. Maybe he’d say ‘hey’. It wasn’t much, he knew, but at fifteen he didn’t know how to open the window any wider. He didn’t quite yet grasp the concept of saving a soul or throwing someone a lifeline. But he did know how to be neighborly.

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