I’ve got the number on Lou. I can tell you his routine, his habits, how and when he laughs and who he spends his time with (no one) and why he leaves the house, and the hours he keeps; we’ve been neighbors for five years. The man sails out the door three times a day, at nine, one, and five o’clock, and returns with three cans of Steel Reserve, a pack of Camel Turkish Silvers, and sometimes a few groceries too. One percent milk, Wonder bread, Starkist tuna, Powerade if the temperature broke a hundred—gas station fare. Otherwise, he’s not up to much. He does his yard work or tinkers with his Pontiac Bonneville—he was a mechanic back in Nebraska—or when he’s feeling semi-sociable, he’ll sit on his front porch with a Michael Crichton novel, not so much reading as gazing. But always out the door and back three times a day like clockwork.
I’m not the type of woman to spy on my neighbors, but you learn things when you’ve lived in one place for a time, especially down a lonely lane like ours that offers more weed-snared lots than homes. These details seep into you like the smoggy Phoenix air that shrouds the McDowell mountains in a chartreuse fug. Lou is single with no kids as far as we know, though last year he picked up a pretty little Staffordshire terrier, fawn and white, called Betty Rocker. He lives catty-corner to me before the street turns. It’d be impossible for a good neighbor to miss the fact that he didn’t leave his house at all last Wednesday. And while he’s a stand-up guy, he’s got a touch of the oblivion about him. He needs someone to look out for him—someone in the know.
On Monday I was still awake at midnight. That’s not unusual for me—I’ve been an insomniac since my husband Nathan died in ’94. Our son takes after me in that respect; Elliot used to wake up whenever I did when he was a toddler. Even in high school he’d wander into the living room at the witching hour and scrunch up on the left of our beige sectional, and I’d curl in a ball with an afghan against the other arm. Together we’d gape at Nick at Nite reruns. My kid is twenty-six now and for all, I know sleeping like a corpse, though he can’t be bothered to call his mom.
But that night, I’d popped two Benadryl and was blearier-eyed than usual but not much sleepier for it. I’d passed forty-nine without the need for bifocals, but when I hit fifty the doc gave me two gifts: progressive lenses and a Bietti’s Crystalline Dystrophy diagnosis, which really only means I’ve developed terrible night vision and my periphery is shrinking. Thanks, chromosome four.
I heard a hollering voice over the murmur of the low television volume. It came from Lou’s place. I felt like someone had slipped ice down my collar without my knowing; the voice, a man’s, was agonized, bellowing and pleading. I couldn’t pick out words, but I recognized the ache from my son’s cries when he was a baby. Some cries you could ignore, could roll over and go back to sleep, but others were a desperate howl that yanked you right up. Now I stirred from the couch and fumbled for my progressives—the cheapest pair I could buy because eyes be damned, I’m saving for a backyard pool—but they weren’t in their usual spot on the end table.
Hand to my forehead, I cracked the front door. The sidewalk in front of Lou’s was a smear in the puddle of flickering streetlight overhead. A stumbling figure circled his maroon Bonneville and yanked each door handle in turn. I knew it couldn’t be Lou because even when Lou was just headed to Circle K, he’d glide toward his car like a hawk on a thermal, never a care to weigh him down. The guy by his car lurched from one end to the other. I squinted, working to make some sense of the muddle of movement. He might have been gripping the roof as he went. He growled a sound stream I couldn’t parse.
I turned to Chad Tooley’s house right across from me, the hooligan around Elliot’s age whose redheaded lady friend had fled in the dead of night six months ago. Chad had been acting erratically since then—maybe he was burglarizing Lou’s car? I turned back to the Bonneville when the man walloped the trunk. The thwack rang like metal on metal, but the sound was deadened in the mid-summer humidity.
I shot to the end table on Elliot’s side of the sofa where I kept my cell and yelped when my foot sank into my lenses, fallen to the ground, but by the wrong table. Gnashing my teeth, I limped back to the front door with my thumb poised over the emergency call key. By the time I reached the threshold, the man had vanished.
I grabbed a plastic broom from the hall closet and counted to three hundred before creeping from the house barefoot and over to Lou’s. Cars whooshed over the freeway a few miles south. I widened my eyes as much as I could and swiveled my head to the right and left. Everything was blots, smudges, and shadow. With my nose inches from the car, I surveyed for any dents or broken glass. No damage. Pausing, I peered into Lou’s rear passenger window. Despite the muted blur, my eyes made of most colors, an electric blue shone in the streetlight. Gradually, I made out a layer of fifty or more half-empty Powerade bottles sprouting from the floor of the backseat. By the color, they might have been Mountain Berry Blast. I glanced over the surrounding expanses of asphalt, at Lou and Chad’s shuttered houses, before stealing back to my own. There wasn’t a blessed soul out there with me.
Lou was a snowflake in our desert neighborhood because he kept his front yard raked and weed-free, his trees trimmed, and groups of blue, gray, and pink stones fastidiously arranged into simulations of dry riverbeds. I usually waited until I was seconds away from getting a citation from the city before calling in a landscaping company. I’ve seen his backyard when I’ve peeked over his fence, too; he keeps his veggies and his herbs in cordoned sections. The Powerade bottles were something new. An invasive neon blue species threatened to overtake him, starting from the floor of his Bonneville.
* * *
The next day, in the breathless mid-morning bake of a desert July, I set up my work laptop on a card table on the front porch. I’m a paralegal for Wellnock Bleeker Injury Attorneys and do most of my work from home since I can’t drive. I kept one eye fixed on Lou’s place and the other on Chad Tooley’s. The glint of sunlight from the windshields of the two cars that passed was an assault. What would be a soothing breeze in any other state pressed like an iron against my cheek. Doug O’Neill, a guy in his mid-seventies who lives around the block, pedaled by on his Schwinn cruiser with his little golf bag slung over one shoulder. Back when I was driving, I’d go around to a few of the golf courses in the area. I have yet to find the one he plays. The sitting and the waiting grew tiresome, but it was meaningful work; for the first time since I’d known him, Lou missed his nine o’clock and one p.m. runs. He managed to keep the fiver, though.
It was 5:12 when he hoisted himself out of the Bonneville and bent to tug the plastic Circle K bags from the passenger seat. My pink plastic flip-flops sucked into molten strips of tar as I trotted down my driveway to meet him. I’m sure he grinned as I approached, but it was hard to tell when I wasn’t straight up close. I hid my mouth behind my hand—I’ve always envied his teeth, bright and full in his mouth. We both smoked, but he was a Fourth of July barbeque compared to me, so it didn’t seem fair that mine were stained despite the monthly whitening strips I used. Overall, he looked terrible. The plaque-yellow skin of his neck strained against small cords of muscle running to his collarbone. His eyes were streaked with blood vessels, and he looked like he was using all his willpower to hold them open beneath a hanging bough of dusty brown bangs.
“Hey there, Rhonda,” he said, his voice as stuffy as the air around us. I caught a slushiness to his words, like pails set next to each other on a rocking boat, water from one slopping into the other. Heythur,onda.
I joined him on the sidewalk. “Where’ve you been all day, Lou?” The heat bore on us from all angles; down from the cloudless, stark blue sky that scorched the eyes and up from the cement which retained heat for decades. He turned toward his front door like he’d look to sanctuary. He shifted from foot to foot.
A chuckle burbled up before he responded. Half the time I chatted with Lou his words were lost in feckless laughter. “I’ve been here and there.” He grasped the back of his neck and chuckled again, but with less mirth. “Mostly here, I guess.”
I drew a half-smoked pack of Carlton 120s—my mother’s cigarette—from the back pocket of my house jean shorts. I tipped the pack toward him. Lou hesitated, then shook his head and grabbed his own pack from the bags he’d laid on the scorched sidewalk. I glimpsed a brick red label among his purchases. When I narrowed my eyes, a sketch of Saint Basil’s Cathedral materialized: Popov vodka. Less than ten bucks for a fifth.
We lit up as a trail of sweat streaked along my cheek. “Now don’t get too worried, but I saw someone trying to get into the Pontiac last night,” I said, studying his face for signs of a hunted soul. I kept my voice calm, soothing but wanted him to know I was vigilant. I cleared my throat and touched his elbow. “You got someone messing with you, neighbor?”
Lou coughed—a wet, phlegmy thing. He stepped backward and his foot caught against one of the bag handles. He waved his arms to steady himself. I glared at Chad Tooley’s house. I cocked my head in the direction of his place and raised an eyebrow at Lou. “Because if you do, we can take care of it.” I wasn’t sure what I meant by that, but I liked the sound of it. I believed myself. An image rose in my mind of Elliot by my side as we marched to Chad’s door. Maybe Elliot would be wielding a baseball bat. I’d have my broom. Lou stared. “I—what? No, everything’s fine.” Smoke trickled from between his lips. “Whoever it was must’ve cleared off.”
The wind leaked out of me. It’s not that my feelings were hurt or some sissy thing like that. But when a problem arises on your block, it’s best to stamp it out right away. The picture of me and Elliot as a menacing pair to be reckoned with, taking care of business, grew fuzzy at the edges. “Look, I’m a lobster in a pot,” I said. “Let’s go inside. I’d love to see Betty. I bet she’s humongous now.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “Or you could come to mine for some iced tea.” I held my breath, forcing myself not to say please, not to sound so pathetic. I realized I didn’t have any iced tea, but I’d find a way if he’d just come over.
Lou flicked the cherry from his cigarette and bent to stub the end carefully on the sidewalk. He straightened and tucked it back into the pack. “No, thanks. I have some things to do.” He waved his hand around vaguely. “Maybe some other time.” He smiled, heaved his bags from the ground, and shuffled to the front door. I thought he looked twice his age.
I watched his house all night. I wasn’t that tired. No figure appeared, and Lou never emerged.
The next day his door didn’t crack once. The Bonneville sat immobile as streams of wavering air shimmered above the hood. I drifted past his back fence a few times, sick to my stomach in my progressive lenses as I squinted through the wooden slats, but there was no Lou and no Betty.
At six in the evening, keeping post at the living room window, panic crept over me and jolted my nodding head upright. Lou was in trouble—something terrible had happened to him in that closed-up house—and he surely needed help. I could feel it. But who could I call? I slid through the contacts on my phone, my nose centimeters from the screen, and realized that in all our years living near each other, I’d never met any of his friends or family. I strode across the street and rapped as loudly as I could on the front door. I tapped the front window, its blinds so tightly closed I couldn’t see a thing through them.
After a steadying inhale, I arced around the house. I pressed a loose wooden slat of Lou’s back fence to the side and shimmied through with no worse than a slivered splinter on the too-fleshy part of my upper arm.
My palms were slick as I approached Lou’s sliding door in the backyard. I kneeled and noted the smudges where Betty’s nose had pushed against the glass. I tried the handle, and it slid easily against a gentle pressure until—and here I leaped back—it shrieked when it hit an unoiled section of track. I held my breath as I crossed the threshold.
The old wooden kitchen table was empty. Musty air closed around me as I passed through the stale space. Little gray clumps of dog fur hunkered against the tile in the kitchen corners, and dust layered the stovetop. The microwave door hung open, and a collection of food grime surrounded the central plate. My voice fell flat as I called. The dog’s food and water bowls were empty.
Sweat slicked the backs of my thighs and my underarms. I would’ve killed for a smoke though my breath came to me shallowly. I stopped at the entryway between the kitchen and the living room. Tiny strips of sunlight struggled to penetrate the front window blinds. Plastic bottles of Popov and upturned Steel Reserve cans littered the coffee table. I bent to the side for a better view. Lou lay unmoving on the ground with one arm crunched beneath his torso. Betty lay beside him. Her eyebrows shifted as I entered and her tail flickered at my approach. She was panting, but it seemed like she was cemented to the floor. I tugged my cellphone from my pocket.
* * *
Four days later, with the news muted in the background, I paced the soft white carpet of my own living room. I held my cellphone to my ear and an unlit cigarette. The hospital social worker’s name was Trista, and she’d asked me what I knew about Lou.
“It’s hard to tell if he understands the questions we’re asking. At one point he told us he had a mother, but unfortunately, we’ve since learned that she’s deceased. Does he have any family you know of?” Trista asked.
“If you need anyone to make medical decisions for him, I’m your girl,” I said. “I’ve known him four years, and I’m confident I could vouch for his wants.” I straightened. “I have a career in law.”
“It’s very generous of you, Ms. Sweltlaster. As you might remember, he’s declined your involvement, though I’m sure he’d be very grateful for everything you’ve done for him.”
I lowered my cigarette hand. Something shriveled in my gut. Heat rushed to my cheeks as I squeezed out a laugh. Boy, I couldn’t even give away a helping hand. “Before I let you go ma’am,” Trista added, “you mentioned that Lou has a dog? Could someone go and check on it?”
I placed the cigarette on the table. I struggled to shake a buzzing in my ears. I thought of the endlessly ringing line whenever I called Elliot. “I think she ran off when the paramedics picked him up,” I said. “I haven’t seen her since.”
She sighed and thanked me. She told me she’d be in touch if they needed anything further.
After she’d disconnected, I took time regulating my breathing. I flipped through my contacts to Elliot and my thumb hovered over his name. I shook my head and threw the phone to his side of the couch and lifted the cigarette from the coffee table. As I strode to the back porch preparing to clear my head by picturing my new pool, I passed little Betty. She scuffled across the tile by the door with a new rawhide until it reached the carpet. She stretched, the chew safely ensconced between her front paws, and her tail thumped as I walked by.
Gretchen Hays works as a full time as a Speech-Language Pathologist in a level one trauma hospital in Mesa, Arizona.