A Community of Practice to Improve Your Creative Writing

The Neighborhood Commandant © by Liz Dolan (Word Count 3340)

In Short Story on December 11, 2011 at 4:51 pm

If anyone on her street forgot to take in their empty trash cans during the summer within a half hour after collection, Gertrude made a point of reminding them. “This isn’t Tobacco Road,” she’d say.  When tourists trotted past her house with their fancy city dogs, she’d hand them a plastic bag-just in case they  forgot to bring one. If a neighbor dumped a useful item like a swivel chair on wheels, Gert would sniff it out and push it through the streets with her two tiny mutts perched on the seat before anyone else could get to it.

          On a late March day, as she cut through her neighbor Jim’s yard, her head pivoting in that odd way she had as if she were sniffing out trouble, her two mutts yiping at her feet, she noticed his screen door was ajar. She slammed it shut. The next afternoon a shaggy-haired young man in baggy jeans and a black tee appeared from behind Jim’s house.

“Hey,” she yelled across the yard.

“Hey,” he yelled back barely turning his bloated face towards her. “How’re you? Cute dogs you have there, Ma’am.”

“Yeah,” she said, “barking plenty, too. Always do when something’s up.” She jerked their chain so the dogs sidled up beside her; then she pushed back her brunette hair with her hand as if she were annoyed.

“You think something’s up?” he asked, wiping his hands on the legs of his pants as he approached her.

“What are you doing in my neighbor’s yard?”

“Checking a leak under the house.”

         “Who you work for?” They stood facing each other at the edge of Jim’s property. A few crocus had already sprouted in his garden.

“Blue Ocean Plumbing.”

“Where’s your truck?” Gert asked.

“Next block,” he said, nodding his head in that direction. He pulled out a pack of smokes and offered her one.

“I’m installing an outdoor shower on Fisher and my boss told me to check the leak here.”

“And how did your boss find out about the leak? My neighbor hasn’t been here for most of the winter.”

“Sure do ask a lot of questions,” he said, offering her a light. Gert waved the light away.She stuck the smoke in the pocket of her camp shirt.

“Ain’t cha gonna smoke it?”

“Nope, quit a long time ago except for when someone offers me one. A filthy habit. I’ll save it for when I can sit down and really enjoy it.” He smiled and lit his own.

“A neighbor called the owner and said she noticed water on the driveway a few times. Since there’s been no rain, it ain’t rocket science. Then the owner called us.”

“I haven’t seen any water and I cut through his property everyday. I think I’ll be calling your boss and Jim to check your story.”

       “No harm, no foul,” he said. “Whatever rings your chimes.” Gertie jerked the dogs’s chains once again and they pranced beside her back to her yard. She opened the white gate of their fenced-off section and released them. Then she went into her house, filled up a glass with water and gulped it down.  Dog weary, she diced some green peppers and onions and tossed them into the jerk chicken simmering on the stove. She was pleased with herself for starting the meal earlier in the day. Had she left it to start now, she would have ended up eating a bologna sandwich. Healthy eating was a priority for her since a tumor had been removed from her stomach a year ago. With every urge to eat fries and burgers, she conjured an image of her neighbor Lucy, dead ten years, hairless, writhing in pain from a malignant tumor swelling in her stomach.

Although Gert still missed her, one of the few neighbors who lived year round in their beach community, they weren’t close. Gert wasn’t close to anybody, but they’d chit chat on lonely winter days when the winds off the ocean whipped through their street like a whetted knife. Being close meant people would get into your business and Gert couldn’t have that. Next they’d be sipping coffee in her kitchen and asking questions about where she grew up and such. Gert preferred to live in the present. And the present wasn’t half bad. Last year she had her house on the market for over a million bucks, property she bought for thirty thousand in 1975.The house wasn’t much to look at and whoever bought it would probably tear it down to build two houses, not that she was sentimental about it. Sentiment always got her into trouble. Who would believe that old Gert would be worth a million bucks? Of course she had not sold it because the no account agent kept calling with offers below her asking price. “Hell,” she’d say. “Don’t be calling me til you get my price…I get my price; you get yours.”

       The next evening, twilight trickled into the window of her bedroom where she called out answers as Jeopardy flickered on the screen: What is Turkestan? Who is Cheney? What is bipartisan? She’d been watching that show every night at since before Alex Trebeq was host. Such a gentleman he was, Gert thought, and she bet he knew all the answers to the questions, too. When it came to men friends, Gert counted Alex as her one and only. When she opened the top window to let in some air, she noticed the screen door to Jim’s house was open again. I’ll have to tell him to get that fixed, she thought. A good storm will rip that door off its hinges. Since the sky began to darken, she feared a storm was brewing. Though she hated to miss a question, she left Alex  and strolled over to Jim’s yard. She walked up the three steps to his side door and noticed the inside door was open, too.

Since she had been home most of the day except for a quick trip to Food Lion, she was sure Jim hadn’t driven down from D.C. She hadn’t seen his car which he usually abandoned in his driveway for his bike. She knocked hard on the door. She pushed the door open a space and called, “Jim.” She stepped inside and called Jim again. “Are you here, Jim?”

Afraid he might be sleeping, she walked a few more steps and discovered the young man in the black tee stretched out on the sofa.

She was so startled she stepped back. “Behold the plumber hard at work,” she bellowed.” What the hell are you doing here?”

He stirred as he rolled his head towards her and said, “Hi…. I’m resting between jobs. What does it look like I am doing?” He stood up and stretched his arms above his head, then outward from his shoulders as if he were pushing against invisible walls. “Nuthin’ like a short snooze and a good stretch,” he said, as casually as if it were his own couch he was sleeping on. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“What am I doing here?” Gert said. “Huh. I thought you were the plumber.”

“Did you call my boss?” He walked over to the sink and washed his hands.

        “No, I did not and now I am sorry I didn’t.”

“Why’s that?” He looked around for something to dry his hands and pulled a few sheets from the paper towel dispenser.

”Cause I would’ve set the police on you.” She inched backwards closer to the door.

“No need for police,” he said “Not doing no harm, needed a place to sleep is all.” He tossed the balled up paper towel into the trash.

“I have a feeling that you’ve been here awhile,” she said.

“Ain’t gonna lie to ya. I needed a place to sleep for a few nights before I pushed on.” He swivelled his neck from left to right.

“’Round here we call it breaking and entering. And I’ve been reading in the paper recently about burglaries up on Queen Street.”

“Don’t go getting your knickers in a twist,” he said. “I’ll be leaving soon.”

“Soon ain’t soon enough,” she said, heading for the phone on Jim’s wall. “I’m calling the police.”

“Alright, alright.” He grabbed his shirt from the back of the couch and pulled it over his head.

“Travel light, don’t you? Don’t forget your jacket.” Gertie nodded towards the jacket hanging from the doorknob.

“Only way to go.” His droopy eyelids made him look as though he were still half asleep. She watched him as he pushed open the screen door and ambled across the yard; the wind picked up and blew the left-over maple leaves across the lawn. Gert secured the inside lock, pulled the door behind her and slammed the screen door shut. He walked east towards Silver Lake.

     “If that don’t beat all,” Gert said to herself, as he disappeared into the descending twilight.

When she returned home, she called the police. “I want a man down here tonight, not tomorrow, tonight,” she insisted. The cops knew Gert on a first name basis because she called them every time summer revelers had a late night party or someone parked too close to her driveway. When the officer who looked like a bull dog arrived, Gert gave him a detailed description of the suspect. “He smoked Luckies,” she said. “Not a lotta people smoke Luckies anymore; underline that on your pad there. I’m calling my neighbor, Jim; you call him, too, so’s he won’t think I’m hallucinating or something.”

“Yes ma’am,” the bulldog replied.

“Don’t be yes ma’aming me, go find him. He’s probably two blocks from here sleeping in somebody else’s house.” Ha, thought Gert to herself after the bulldog left, he’s about old enough to sniff out a red wagon.

The fine weather put a fire under her heels and Gert spent a few days cleaning out drawers, pulling old books from shelves and unworn clothes out of closets which she boxed up and dropped off at The Twice Blessed Thrift Shop. She liked to get things done. She took overdue books to the library and a film for which the clerk tried to charge her a late charge of three dollars. “Three dollars? Not in this life time,” said Gert. “If it weren’t for my taxes you wouldn’t have a job.” The silent patrons turned their heads to see what the commotion was. Finally the sheepish clerk gave in and walked away from her. With that three bucks, Gert said to herself, I’m driving up to Tomato Sunshine to buy some petunias.

          When she returned home, the dogs nipped at her toes. How she enjoyed their company and although she wished they loved her for herself, she knew they would have loved anyone who gave them a biscuit. As she flopped on the couch, they  jumped into her lap, one knocking the other off and then both repeating the whole process again. She scratched their backs and they yelped with joy. As she thumbed through the Coast Press, she ran her fingers through their coarse hair. She must have dozed off only to be awakened by their barking. It was late and she hadn’t even eaten. She turned off the left over chicken simmering on the stove. A bit overcooked, she thought, as she tasted a spoonful. She plated it up and set it on the counter so she could search in the fridge for the elusive Parmesan cheese.

Since she needed to get out of her clothes, she walked down the hall, past the Russian icons of Mary, to her bedroom and began disrobing until she sensed movement in the room. When she switched on the reading lamp next to the bed, she saw him lying with his arms folded under his head on the far side of the bed by the window.

“Jesus,” she gasped, so taken aback she swayed. He grinned at her, the way her first and only husband grinned at her when he was whiskey-sopped and hungry for sex.

“Why, Gertrude,” he said, “You looked surprised.”

“How do you know my name?”

“It’s on a sticker in this book from your night table.” He held up Ann Tyler’s Back When We Were Young and flipped it open. “Gertrude Meganhardt,” he said. “Is that a name. Or is that a name?”

“Get out of here now or I’ll start screaming,” she said.

“There’s hardly a soul within ear shot, you know that, Gert.” He untied his shoe laces and kicked his sneakers off one by one onto the floor.

“Then why did you break into the house next door to me if I’m the only one on the block?”

         “Because that door opened on my first try as others didn’t. I don’t like to damage property if I can help it.”

“Decent of you,” Gert said, and for the first time she felt fear.

And as though he sensed it, he said, “Don’t you fear none, I ain’t gonna hurt you. Besides, he said you’re too old for what I need. You could, however, continue undressing.”

Trying to regain her equilibrium, Gertie replied, “I could, however, do no such thing.”

“I can tell, Gertrude Meganhardt, that you are a woman who has always done things her own way. Like me.” He sat up in the bed, fluffed up the pillows behind him and crossed his ankles. “I admire that in a woman…Now do what I tell you and start undressing.” He pulled a long knife from the back of his pants.

“For God’s sake I’m old enough to be your mother. How did you get in here?”

“True, he said, but you are a stately woman so this could be interesting. You ought not leave the bedroom window open when there’s a villain loose in the neighborhood.”

Gert could have kicked herself for her carelessness. “I am not undressing in front of no stranger, Mister.”

“I imagine most men are strangers to you. And have been for a long, long time….And as I am a God- fearin’ man, I repeat, I ain’t gonna hurt you. Just do what I say.  Why don’t you tell me about yourself .Then you and I won’t be strangers. You’ll feel more comfortable.”

Gert thought about the times she had heard similar words from her father as he whipped her with a cane and from her husband when he was too drunk to see. Anger began to temper her fear. She decided to start talking.

“Where you from, Gertrude Meganhardt?” He stood by the window.

        “Elkins,  West Virgina, mountain country. I went to a bible-thumping church every Sunday. They taught me so much about evil I‘ve never trusted anyone in my whole life, least of all liars and thieves.”

“How come you have all them pictures of Mary hangin’ on your walls?”

“I love Mary. I go to a church a few blocks from here where they have a peaceful morning mass even though I don’t belong there. Only church where I ever saw a woman revered. Bought those icons in Russia.”

“Grew up Methodist,” he said, “a somber lot. Ain’t been in a church in 20 years.”

“Well you cant be much more than 35; you must’ve quit young.”

“Yes, I did but that don’t mean I don’t believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” He pulled out his pack of Luckies and offered her one again.

“No,” she said, pointing to her night table where a single cigarette lay next to her radio. “I still have the one you gave me. I decided to save it for a special occasion. Then how come you don’t obey His commandments?”

“You must have had at least one, not that you’re the type men hunger for.”

“He was a no good, lazy good for nothing lout and I left him after ten months of his drinking and drugging while I hustled waiting tables everyday, my ankles watermelon-swollen as he lay on the couch swigging beers I paid for.”

“And that’s how you landed at the ocean, I’m guessin’; everyone comes here for healing.”

        Gert recalled the night years ago when her husband stumbled into the kitchen in a fury over a broken tail light, accusing her of causing it. Standing by the stove frying bacon to crispness, she took deep breaths inhaling its aroma as she ignored him. To assure her attention he came up behind her and stomped his lit cigarette into her neck above the edge of her blouse. That was the final straw for her; she knew when she threw the frying pan and its sizzling grease into his face, she would have to leave quickly and never come back. And hope he would never find her either. “That’s the only true thing you’ve said since I met you,” she said to the intruder.

“Got any kids?”

“No. My luck I’d had girls who would’ve hooked up with bums like you and my husband.” As she spoke Gert began to understand what she had to do.

“Family?”

“None-no sisters brothers, no nothing. All gone to a better place.”

When she thought about a better place, she thought she herself was not ready to go there. She hoped she’d have twenty or thirty more years of ocean sunsets, sea gulls, and white winter quilts on the shore. As she edged over to the bed, she began to unbutton her blouse very slowly like she saw those floozy women do on The Young and Restless.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m not used to taking orders from no one. I have to get my nightie from under my pillow.” She said nightie because she knew it would please him. He stretched and took a deep breath. She reached her hand under her mattress and pulled out the small pistol she had slept with for thirty years, a habit she had started when she feared her husband would find her and push in the door to her bedroom in the middle of a dark night like he was some kind of God damn king. She pointed it at the young whelp who now lay on her bed like he owned it. His eyes opened as large as communion wafers and he slowly stood up next to the far side of the bed.

“I could say to you that I am sorry for what I am about to do,” she said, “but I am not sorry, not one damn little bit.”

“Please” he said raising his hands in surrender. “I’m outta here.” The cabbage-flowered curtains behind him rustled in the breeze.

“Well you’ve been outta here twice before, haven’t you. Third time I might not be so lucky.”

“You won’t shoot a praying man, I know that. Our Father,” he said and Gert thought twice when she heard those words- “Who art in heaven,”- maybe, she thought, I should forgive him, forgive my father, forgive my no-account ex.

“Hallowed be thy name.”

“When have you hallowed anything?” she asked.

“Thy kingdom come.”

“Yes,” she said, “it will come but you, boy, won’t be in it.”

“Thy will be done.” He fell on his knees.

“This is His will,” she said calmly.

“On earth as it is in heaven.”

“Yes, I am saving the Lord and a lot of other people a lot of trouble.”

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

“For the first time in your God forsaken life, you are  getting the bread you deserve.”

“And forgive us our….” At those words she feared she would lose her resolve because she knew we all needed forgiveness. She shot him, aiming directly for his heart, an organ that was probably dead already. As he crumpled, she beseeched God for forgiveness and picked up the cigarette the creep had given her and thought what a pleasure it was going to be to sit and take long drags of smoke into her lungs. She closed the open window.

About Liz: Liz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, which is seeking a publisher, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize.Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won a $6,000 established artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, 2009. She recently won $250 for prose from The Nassau Review. Her nine grandkids live one block away from her. They pepper her life.

Thank you for reading.

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