I’m not exactly sure when I developed the obsession with the man on the porch across the street, but it was sometime after the incident with the bicycle. Admittedly, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands due to the fact that my boss considered my job to be redundant, and decided to downsize. My wife wants me to embrace the empty hours as a period of self-growth, and I am trying. I wake up early to go for a run by the river. I spend the afternoons drinking coffee, searching the internet for job opportunities, staring at my resume wondering how to improve my appeal to prospective employers.
The bicycle, a bad idea as it turned out, had been stored in my garage for ages. With all this time to kill while Sheila worked, I thought cycling might be a pleasant distraction. I dragged it out from behind a stack of rubber totes and parked it on the driveway. Like a kid on summer vacation I soaped it up, hosed it down, polished it until it shone. Hoisted my leg over the seat and took it for a test drive. Rode around the block, enjoying the feel of the breeze on my face, gaining enough confidence to sit up straight and let go of the handle bars. When I curved around the corner, expecting to glide smoothly into my driveway, the front tire hit a rock, the back tire flew up, and I pitched forward in a heap. I landed hard, legs on the road, arms splayed on the lawn. I quickly stood up and scanned the area to make sure there were no witnesses, and that was when I saw him.
He sat in a plastic garden chair, one long, denim clad leg elegantly crossed over the other. The pointed toe of his black boot dangled, a lit cigarette wafted smoky fumes from between the index and middle finger of his hand. His combed back hair was dark, sideburns extending down over the side of his gaunt cheekbones. He wore mirrored aviators and one of those thin plaid shirts with the pearl snaps, like a country and western lounge singer straight from Vegas.
Our houses are corner lots, facing each other like two opponents. Mine, a low bungalow built in the sixties, is fairly well maintained. The one across the street resembles a misshapen farm house, sort of rambling with its wooden siding and mismatched windows. In recent years it’s become increasingly dilapidated, neglected by various renters. The street numbers sprawled in red spray paint over the mailbox, which hung crookedly by one screw. The overgrown gardens mingled into the unmowed lawn. The place had been vacant for a few months, so when I noticed the man on the porch, curiosity overtook me.
The porch was not much of a porch really, more a small concrete pad on the left side of the house with an iron railing and two steps down to the sidewalk. And yet, when he appeared there, it was as though the whole place took on a different personality, an aura of assuredness. Embarrassed because of my fall and also because of my baggy track pants and too small t-shirt, I grabbed the bike, hauled it back into the garage, and disappeared inside to peer out the front window through the blinds.
The morning after the bicycle episode, I skulked around inside the house, reluctant to show my face to the man on the porch. I stood, coffee in one hand, the sheer fabric of the curtains clutched in the other, watching. He was there again, but now there was also a girl. A woman, maybe. Both of them sitting on those plastic chairs, him smoking, her scrolling through her phone. She wore a summer dress, her hair was long and shining black. From my perspective she could have been anywhere from eighteen to thirty. And for that matter, the man himself seemed similarly ageless. He might be forty, or even fifty. My mind pored over the implications of these ages. Was the beautiful girl his daughter? His wife? His sister? It was, I told myself, none of my business.
Sheila and I went away that weekend, and returned Sunday evening to the sight of a new fence complete with privacy lattice along the side yard of our neighbors’ property. Someone had scrubbed off the spray paint and placed a quaint number plate beside the straightened mailbox. Potted plants stood on either side of the step. “Wow, what an improvement,” Sheila said, “I knew that house had potential. Have you seen the new people yet?”
I blushed, inexplicably. “I have.”
“The other day,” Sheila continued, “I was talking to Mrs. Romano about that skunk that’s been prowling around our street, the one that sprayed her dog. She told me she met the girl, said her name is Rosanna.”
Mrs. Romano was a retired school teacher and always aware of everything that occurred on our street. “Oh really?” I asked, trying to sound casual, like I had never given these people a second thought. ” And the guy?”
“I think she said his name is Eli.”
“Eli” I repeated, trying out the sound of it, to see if the name suited the man in my mind. “Anyway”, I said, “I can’t figure them out.”
Sheila arched an eyebrow. “What’s to figure out?”
“I mean, I don’t know what their relationship to each other is.”
She huffed. “I don’t think you need to worry about it. You should be more concerned about finding work, or at least getting rid of that skunk.”
The days bled into each other and still I couldn’t get a job. Only so much time could be spent drafting cover letters, and invariably my mind would wander to the mystery of the house across the street. A shiny, expensive looking red pick-up truck had appeared in the driveway. How could Eli afford something like that? The front door, freshly painted, glistened while he sat and smoked the afternoons away. Where did he get the money for all these repairs, and who was doing them? Not once had I seen him coming or going, in or out of the house, or leaving the property. I certainly hadn’t seen him doing any work. The repairs all seemed to happen when I wasn’t looking, like magic. The woman, Rosanna, sat perpetually, serenely swiping through her phone. Toddlers tore across the front yard, seemingly more of them each day. Once I even saw a baby, bouncing in a jolly jumper in the doorway. To whom did these children belong? Eli didn’t discipline them, and Rosanna barely lifted her face up from that screen.
There is an old carriage lane behind those houses across the street that runs from our part of town straight down to the coal docks. I took to walking there late in the evenings after dinner on nights that Sheila went to yoga class. The lane, sort of gravelly and overgrown with wild flowers, provides a back entry to those yards. Many places have wooden gates, a few have installed new wrought iron ones. From that vantage point, when I reached Eli’s house, I could catch a glimpse through the bushes into his back yard. His new fence remained unfinished, the back edge of his property still lined with old chain link, the gate broken and leaning inward. This gave me a clear sightline to casually observe, to glean information about my new friend, as Sheila referred to him.
“Your friend Eli fixed those broken shutters on the second story”, she might say, or “looks like Rosanna likes lilacs, your friend put in a lovely new bush.” This teasing irked me, but I ignored her. I didn’t want her to know how fixated I had become, how unanswered questions woke me in the middle of the night. I mean, how did Eli make a living? And when? I never saw him lift a finger. How old was he, really? Was he retired? Independently wealthy? Were those his little kids scampering around the property, or his grandkids? Were they some kind of cult? I pictured him stretched out on a sagging mattress, all pale skin and thin limbs, Rosanna’s cheek resting on his chest. They share a cigarette, he blows smoke rings and she laughs, slides on top of him, long raven hair spilling over her breasts. I mean, what did this guy have that made him so special?
Tonight is Thursday, which means Sheila goes for drinks with her yoga friends. A perfect opportunity for one of my carriage lane reconnaissance missions. I stroll in the twilight, past familiar backyards, wave to Mrs. Romano who is lounging on a patio recliner reading a magazine. I approach the back of Eli’s property, slowing my step. The scent of marijuana wafts towards me on a cool breeze, Eli must be smoking weed in his back yard. I peer through the branches of a large bush and sure enough, he is there. Standing on the discolored patio blocks, inhaling deeply on a fat joint, aviators pushed up onto the top of his head, plaid shirt unbuttoned. He is lit up in profile by rays of moonlight, as though about to perform a soliloquy. The yard is deep, and there’s a potting shed between us; I don’t think he can see me. He turns, stubs out the joint with his boot, heads into the screened-in back room of the house. A light in the upstairs window comes on, and Rosanna is illuminated, brushing her hair. Overcome, I step through the broken gate, insert myself through leaves and branches, burrowing further until I’m actually standing behind the potting shed. Peeking around the corner, staring at Rosanna as she moves through the upstairs room.
The screen door slams and boot heels click on the patio blocks. I freeze, the realization that I am trespassing on private property causing my heart to accelerate until it pounds in my chest. I hear the brisk cracking sound of a can opening, and Eli sips on a cold one while I press myself flat against the back of his shed. I inch myself back, closer to the bushes, wedge my way into the patch of darkness between two tall Catalpa trees. A low whistling sounds across the lawn, and a shadow extends itself, lengthening, coming in my direction. Oh god I think, what am I doing? I watch as Eli slips past the shed and turns to face it, his back to me. I distinctly hear the sound of a zipper, and then a light trickling as he takes a piss. I am mortified. If I stay very still he won’t notice me, won’t catch me, won’t beat the shit out of me. Eli, I imagine, is skilled in the art of the fist fight. He would pull back one slender arm, slow and graceful, then clock me. I would spin out, dazed, while he took another sip of his beer and smiled rakishly.
Instead, he continues to whistle as he hitches up his pants, then opens the door of the shed and steps inside. I see this as an opportunity to escape, but just as I’m about to retreat to the carriage lane, I hear the snapping of twigs very near to me, and there, ambling out from under the leaves of an elephant ear hosta , is Mrs. Romano’s notorious skunk. It’s a big one, very round, with only a thin white stripe. When it’s about a foot away from the toe of my sneaker, I am on the brink of making a dash back to safety, but then Eli strides out of the shed with a bag of garbage. He grabs the metal lid of the bin and tosses the bag inside, thud.
The thudding sound coupled with the clank of the lid being put back in place agitates the skunk. It lets out a low growl and begins to stomp its feet, the tail straightens and points upward. I stand, rooted to the ground with the trees surrounding me. Eli leans forward slowly, cautiously takes a few steps in our direction. “Shoo” he warns, “go on now, get lost.” This is the first time I’ve heard his voice, soft and low, alluring, in spite of everything. He clicks his tongue and takes one more step. “There’s nothing here for you,” he calls gently into the shadows. I’m not sure who he’s talking to, me or the skunk, but I turn tail and run as the pungent odor of skunk spray fills the carriage lane behind me, and permeates my skin.
Sara Dobbie is a fiction writer living in Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Re-Side, The Spadina Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Crab Fat Magazine and Read More. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.
Image via Pixabay