Why listen to some old dude color of skim milk? That’s Clarence speaking to his wife whose name as far as I can tell is Babe.
Just hear the man out Clarence says Babe. I’m not crazy about that mess next door either.
But Babe Clarence says he’s the perfect neighbor. He doesn’t care about noise when the grandkids come over. Doesn’t care about nuthin’.
Which is not strictly speaking true but there are limits to TV and eavesdropping on their loud family barbecues does break up my day.
Just talk to him Babe says. The him being Dick Surly.
That isn’t his name which is unknown to me just what that young couple down the block call him. They pass by with their dog laughing and talking oblivious as young people are wont to be. They stopped while their dog defecated in my yard and while the boy waited with a bag over his hand to pick up the dog’s production the girl said remember when the man next door yelled at us for leaving residue? His word. Archie hiked his leg is all she said. He didn’t even poop I mean he’s waving his arms and yelling about fucking residue. He didn’t have to be so surly.
Yeah the boy said tying up the bag what a dick.
Dick Surly she said and they laughed. I don’t think it was the last time they called him that either.
They call me The Hermit. Glancing up at my house smug in their right to classify to name to nail. Which is discouraging because it has long been my dream to be free of signifiers. I wonder why they have to call me anything at all. In this if nothing else Dick Surly and I are equals. Pass on entitled children pass on.
How did I hear all this hiding in my crumbling ranch house surrounded by weeds? I have my listening perches. My hidey-holes. Two inches of raised window will likely net you something when you listen all day. Mostly it’s the lawn services coming and going and the school bus and UPS with their brown box brigade.
But sometimes it’s human voices.
Dick Surly doesn’t like me or more to the point my yard. He disapproves of the summer weeds soft and swaying and stiff and spiky some tall as your thigh. He disapproves of the pine straw that falls in thick muffling blankets. And now it’s November and the trees are unburdening themselves shrugging off their clothes and standing naked before God and everybody. It seems to me that they—that none of it—requires my intervention but Dick Surly feels otherwise.
Thus he lobbies Clarence the other piece of bread in the sandwich that is our three houses.
He wants to parlay Clarence says to his wife.
Parlay? Parlay Clarence? This is not The Wire this is lawn care.
Nevertheless he says.
Why are you still here anyway Babe says. Didn’t I tell you go ahead and speak to the man?
Dick Surly is so tall that even hunched the way he is he looks about seven feet and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without some piece of equipment or apparatus or paraphernalia in his arms. For the last two months he’s had an orange backpack strapped to him and a long black tube snaked around his waist the kind of blower that “delivers power comfort durability and no-fuss ease of use” is what I read when I Googled professional leaf blower. Yes he’s the kind of man who must have a tool in his hand and a bandana around his bald head to sop up his by-god-hard-earned sweat.
Now he stands on the street in front of my house where Clarence has joined him.
How you know the man even in there? Clarence says.
He’s in there all right Dick Surly says. He brings his trash out doesn’t he?
You ever seen him do it? Huh?
No Dick Surly admits believe me I’ve tried but I looked in the can once and do you know there was nothing but smeared paper plates and a few empty cans of whatever? The man doesn’t even do dishes Clarence. He looks like he wants to spit.
I do bring out my trash what trash I have but I do it so late it’s early when Dick Surly’s zeal to catch me has condensed into sleep. Even Dick Surly needs sleep. As for me time means nothing the hours varying only by drops of white or black in the sky’s canvas what filters through my blinds.
All I’m saying is maybe it’s best to leave the man alone says Clarence.
Can they feel me listening? My eyes squeezed tight and all the blood rushing to my ears? Does my consciousness cast a shadow? Something moving at the periphery then gone gone gone no matter how stunningly fast they turn?
Eight years since I moved into this house and commenced watching it fall down around me. A slow process even slower than the leaves falling relentless as snow in another life. In the midst of that relentless leaf shower one rises straight up oh weightless weightless as if the film reversed itself but it’s a bird a small brown wren which I suppose is a kind of miracle in itself.
Oh what the hell Dick Surly says. If he plans on staying in there forever well then I’ll help the man along.
He fires up the engine and the wren a small a trembling thing flies off.
I plant myself at the door and watch through the peephole as he moves inexorably methodically wielding his leaf blower like a flame thrower an assault weapon something angry and hungry starting at the street then blowing an ever-climbing wall of leaves closer and closer to my door while Clarence stands on the street hands on his hips and shaking his head.
Something comes back to me—worlds of wanwood leafmeal—something learned in school some recitation it squeezes my heart where my hand has settled over my chest like the pledge of allegiance. I pledge allegiance to Dick Surly and the amber waves coming toward me and then he is on my porch where no one no one and now he is pounding my door in fury and with all his might the plaster shaking and all the time me thinking I don’t have to answer I don’t have to answer.
When I open the door it’s like opening it onto a furnace a wave an unspeakable roar as three feet of leaves crackling brown and dry as dust surge dance fall in and collapse on my slippers. I shudder and blink as the light streams around the big man and his machine.
There is a noise behind the noise and then the sound dies all at once. His eyebrows shoot up right before he drops the hose his empty hands dangling. He stumbles.
Y’all okay? Clarence calls from the street.
I pull myself up straight—I am not afraid after all!—and stare.
I– I only wanted– he says, sputtering like a goddamn fool.
A gun will make you do that. I see that now. It’s not even warm as I tuck it into the terry-cloth belt of my robe.
The last thing Dick Surly sees is my slippers as I shove the door shove it hard shove it closed against the heavy bank of leaves heart beating in my throat beating fast beating fast beating fast then slowing.
I don’t know what he expected to see. My disfigurement is not external.
Connie Corzilius has an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa, and her work has appeared in Big Muddy, Stonecoast Review, Calyx, Willow Review, Mississippi Review Online, and storyglossia, among others. She was awarded the 2018 Women’s National Book Association Fiction Prize for her story, “For Want of Other Worlds,” and she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award. A writer/editor for the bookselling and publishing trade for many years, she was born and raised in Granite City, Illinois and currently lives in Augusta, Georgia, where daily dog walks with her husband inspired this story.
Jennifer Kircher Herman is a writer and photographer. In her photography, she is drawn to statues, as they capture in stone the emotions of the human hands that carved them. She is widely published in literary journals, including North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Alaska Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, and The Nebraska Review, where her work also won the Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA from Emerson College, and has been selected to participate in numerous writing workshops including Bread Loaf, One Story, and Kasteel Well, where she won the fiction fellowship. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays on yearning, art, and the human condition.