My New Neighbor

by Ted Chiles

Originally published in The Lynx Eye

I open the door door for the dog and follow him into the backyard. The desert sun is intense in its welcome. I squint and look across the grass over the brick wall that separates the greenbelt from my backyard to an identical house on the other side, both sharing one of three floor plans repeated down each street throughout the development - each row of houses reflecting the other.
           

To my right is another wall, beyond it a house. To my left is the third wall and beyond it the mountains. They are impressive. Not green like the old beaten mountains of home. Dry, ravaged by the sun and the wind, they are the color and texture of someone who lived outdoors before sunscreen. Between the mountain and me is a faint outline. It is the seed of another row of houses. Each day they will move closer and eventually crash into this tiny oasis of green within my walls. Blocking the mountains and putting a neighbor at eye level with my bedroom.

I walk back in to find my sunglasses.

The dog looks up and wags his tail in a lazy loop.

I search for my sunglasses and find them in the car and walk back outside.
Across the greenbelt I see our neighbor. He is also wearing sunglasses. He waves. I wave back and light a cigarette. The wife won’t let me smoke in the house. The heat should cut down on my consumption at home, but you can smoke almost anywhere in this town.

I walk back into the house to get more coffee. The dog follows me in.
I walk back out for another cigarette. The dog doesn’t. The neighbor is gone. I sit and lower my head to light the cigarette and then look up. The neighbor is sitting on his patio in the shade of his house. He waves again. I wave back.
A puff of smoke rises from him.

Why does he need sunglasses?

After the wife leaves for work I take the dog to the dog park. It is already seventy-eight degrees and the wind is kicking up. The dogs greet each other in their own way but we the chauffeurs keep our distance. First names only. We discuss the dogs’ history but not our own. I am younger than most. The older ones leave openings at the ends of their sentences. But I simply talk about the dogs, theirs and mine.

It is eighty-nine by the time I get home. The dog is hot. His coat is more suited for our old climate. He heads for his water dish and I exit for a smoke. The sun asserts itself. I sit in the shade of the umbrella and scan the greenbelt. Across the wall, my neighbor sits on his patio. Smoking. Wearing sunglasses.
Where did he come from? He wasn’t there when I came out, was he?
He raises his cigarette like a wine glass as a puff of smoke disperses into the wind.

That night I tell the wife about the neighbor. She shakes her head. Starts to lecture me about why we need to be here. Her promotion. The money. I let it drop. We head to bed to repair the harm.

I can’t sleep. The dog is snoring at the foot of the bed. The wife has rolled away. In the blackness of an unfamiliar room in a land without water, I am alone, surrounded by all that I love. Her sleeping pills are in the bathroom but she would miss them.

I head to the vodka. Pour three fingers over ice and walk outside. I light a cigarette and look into the sky. As I lower my head I scan the house across the green belt. Is my neighbor’s sliding glass door open? My kitchen light overwhelms the stars. I put the cigarette in the ashtray and go inside to turn it off. Wait for my vision to adjust and slowly step to the doorway. I think his door is open. I pick up my cigarette and see the glow of another across the belt.

Why is he doing this?

The dog’s tail hits a chair as he comes towards me. I almost faint.

I start smoking in the garage. The mornings are bearable but the wind picks up in the afternoon and blows everything about. I try smoking with the door closed but the concrete slowly cooks me.

I can take it but the dog misses the yard. I try to let him out and stay in the house. But he turns and stares at me, wagging his tail, hesitant to enjoy the grass without me. I join him and then my neighbor walks out. He waves. I just nod my head.

The dog and I are losing our hair. He is just lightening his load. Adapting. I tell the wife that I am being sympathetic. She thinks I have adjustment issues.
I think it’s the neighbor. My echo. Why doesn’t the dog have an echo? Why doesn’t the wife have an echo? I must be louder.

I stay up all night watching across the greenbelt. Just before dawn I dress in black and smear lipstick across my face to break the features. I go out the front door and walk around the side. Drop and crawl towards the wall. The grass is still damp from the sprinklers. I start to rise. To see over the wall but I stop. I know he is over there. Waiting. Watching. Even my altered skin will not be enough. He can hear me. Even when I don’t breathe.

I crawl back and have a cigarette in the garage.

I don’t go out back for two days. The dog sits, looks at the door, and then looks at me. I take him for a ride or to the dog park. I walk him in malls. You can do that here. The heat is bad enough to kill a dog left in a car for five minutes.

The next day I oversleep. The wife wakes me with a kiss, leaves a cup of coffee on the table and tells me the dog is in the backyard. I want to ask her to bring him in but I don’t. Why, she might ask. I can’t tell her. She won’t believe me. She will start measuring the vodka.

I hope she left the door open.

She didn’t. I call the dog but he doesn’t come. I walk out. He is enjoying the grass and chewing a bone. I light a cigarette. I keep my head down. I don’t want to look.

I lift my head. Nothing. I sip my coffee and wait.

For two hours, I sit and smoke, and pretend to read. He doesn’t come.
After the trip to the dog park, I drive down the parallel street to see if the house is empty. A car sits in the garage. No signs on the lawn.

Later when the sun is in front of the house I take my drink outside. A man is walking the greenbelt, but it is not my neighbor.

Where did he go?

Each morning, I sit and read the paper, smoke and drink coffee before the sun drives me inside. The houses are moving in on my walls like war engines. Nothing resonates from across the belt. The blinds are drawn. It is deathly quiet.

I should have said hello.

 


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