A quiet Christmas in the neighborhood – Tom Gaffney
Just the two of us. It was going to be a quiet morning, no guests, no relatives, and no kids.
There was no smoke when we left. Perhaps if I had been at home, if I had been the one to call it in.
Certainly, if I had not lost it, then I would not be looking at the kids from next door staring at me in the car.
Beth is standing there under her umbrella, looking at me, ashen. I cannot look back. Not yet.
We had not really planned on this quiet Christmas. Normally Beth’s sister comes with her family. It’s lovely. But that did not work out this year, even though we are in the new house. We had a lovely morning, quiet breakfast followed by a walk in the park. The rain is pouring down but the gray and the wet are like a relaxing blanket.
There was no hint of craziness when we left.
See, we have been in the house now for six months. It is so much better than our old place. Nicer house, good neighborhood, friends close by, close to the park. So much better except for the empty house across the street and George who is across the street and one house to the north. Not sure why he doesn’t like me. Very sensitive about his parking spot, but it’s not like he had to ask twice. I parked in front of his once. Once.
Then there he is, at the front door, yelling at me. Telling me he doesn’t like people like me. Whatever that means. He doesn’t even know me. Has barely acknowledged me or waved back on the street.
“People around here don’t take other folks parking spot,” he says.
The street was crowded that night, but not that crowded. I had not even thought about it. It isn’t like he owns the spot in front of his house. It isn’t like he came over to say hello when we moved in. We went over to say hi to him, but you could hardly say he was cordial. His mother was alright. At least she was polite.
It makes sense, I guess, that there are not latches on the inside of the rear doors of a police car. No way to unlock the door myself.
The cop indicated that I needed to calm down and then we would talk. No use in slinking down lower, every damn person on the block is looking in here at me.
As we walked home from the park we heard sirens. First came the fire, and then police. I had never noticed the difference until this morning.
All the action was at the house across the street from ours. Nobody lives there. There’s a “For Rent” sign up in the yard. You can tell nobody is working too hard on that though. It is dark. It does not look fully deserted but it is moving along in that process.
The place is kind of sketchy. The first time I saw someone there was over the summer. It looked like he was moving in. He had a van, kind of beat up, but so what? He pulled it around back. He was working there for three days or so, not long after we moved in. I went over and introduced myself one afternoon when he was cutting the grass. Offered the guy a beer and he took it. He didn’t offer much information, said he was working on cleaning the place up and that he would be back every so often until the place was rented. Fair enough I thought. We sat on the stoop and enjoyed our beers on a hot afternoon. I have not seen him since.
Well, that was the house on fire when we returned from the park. You could see flames inside and the firemen had obviously gone in, but then come back out. And there were a bunch of police. Talking to Jeff from down the street, he said that the firemen discovered a growing operation inside and that the fire seemed to be started by the fact that someone was stealing the electric: they had illegally hooked the house up to the grid.
So, we’re standing there watching the scene. “Merry Christmas” offered all around. It is quite the light show.
I see George talking to a cop. They walk up the street, and I can see George point at me and I hear him telling the cop that I know the guy who has been seen at the house. He says that we drink beer together out on the stoop.
My blood pressure begins to rise. I am so sick of this guy, this idiot who thinks he owns the neighborhood, that he owns his parking spot. And now this?
I go over and introduce myself to the cop, wish him and George a Happy Holiday.
George repeats to the cop that I am a friend of the owner of this criminal operation. The cop asks me if that is true.
I explain to the officer: yard work, summertime, a friendly offer of a beer. He seems to get it. But George, he keeps on it. My words get heated, and the next thing you know we are in each other’s face. And then George spits on me. Alright, he doesn’t spit on me, but his spit gets on me – you know what I mean. And I lose it. Push him real hard on the shoulders. George isn’t all that old, but he’s older than me. Down he goes, hits his head on a mailbox.
There you have it. Next thing I know I’m face down in the grass being handcuffed and the cop yelling at me to calm down. And Beth, and the neighbors, and the kids next door stand there and watch me lying in the grass getting wet.
For a moment I was relieved to be warm and dry in the car.