Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
A moving van pulled up at the house across the street and three bear-like men got out and began unloading furniture. A late-model red car pulled into the driveway from which four people emerged: a lanky boy and a man from the front and a girl and a woman from the back. The man had a big stomach and a balding head and was slightly bent over. The girl looked like a younger version of the woman; they were obviously mother and daughter.
“Looks like a girl about my age,” Stephanie said. “She’s fat and is she ever ugly! I’ll bet she has her driver’s license, though, and probably her own car.”
“Not if she’s ugly,” Zane said from the sofa without looking up. He was reading a story in True Romance magazine about a woman with four husbands at the same time.
“Ugly people have cars.”
“If they’re ugly, they don’t need cars. They don’t have any place to go.”
“I know lots of ugly people with cars.”
“You’d better quit spying on the neighbors. They’re going to see you and know you’re insane.”
“You ought to see this old couch they’ve got. It looks like it’s about a hundred years old. If it was mine, I’d set it out in the yard and douse it with kerosene and strike a match to it.”
“Maybe they’re just waiting for the right moment to do that very thing.”
“And there’s a big glass thing that looks like a fish tank. I always wanted a fish tank.”
“Why don’t you go over there and ask them if they’ll give it to you?”
“If they can afford a fish tank, that must mean they have lots of money and if they have lots of money that girl must have her own car. I wonder what her name is. She sure is ugly. I’m sure she’d have an ugly-girl name like Agnes or Clarabelle.”
“If she saw you, she’d think you’re ugly, too.”
“Oh, look at this! They’ve got a big thing that looks like a sun lamp and a huge dining room table and one, two, three, four, five, six chairs that go with it. They must have a lot of people over for dinner if they need six dining room chairs.”
“Now here comes a dresser with a big round mirror and a bed and some mattresses and a chest of drawers and—wait a minute!—here’s another bed and some more mattresses. The mattresses look brand new. They haven’t been peed on yet. Now they’re bringing out a couple of big upholstered chairs and some more boxes and—oh, my gosh!—here’s another bed and another set of mattresses. How many beds do they have, anyway?”
“Your interest in their beds is disturbing.”
“Now, what do you suppose that thing is? It looks like a big square washing machine.”
“Why do you care what it is?”
“I have natural curiosity. I want to know what’s going on around me. Oh, wait a minute! The girl is standing on the sidewalk looking up at the roof with her hands on her hips. She just pulled her underpants out of her crack. That’s the kind of thing people do when they think nobody’s looking at them. Come and take a look!”
“I don’t care about seeing an ugly girl with crack problems,” Zane said, but he put the magazine aside and stood up from the sofa and went over to the window. “This better be good,” he said as he reached for the binoculars.
“She’s ugly all right,” he said. “Her hair looks like the nest of a scavenger bird.”
“What did I tell you? Wait until she turns around and you get a look at her face.”
“She’s turning around now and she’s saying something to one of the moving men. She’s telling him where to put some boxes. I can almost read her lips because her mouth is so big.”
“What are you talking about?” She snatched the binoculars back from him. “That’s not the girl, you goof! That’s the mother! Oh, wait a minute! Here’s the girl now, just coming out of the house.”
“Oh,” he said. “The mother and the daughter look just alike. They’re both ugly.”
“Well, the mother is about fifty years old and has on a ton of makeup and the girl is about my age. That’s how you tell them apart.”
“What do I care how to tell them apart? Maybe I just want to ignore them and mind my own business.”
“I think we should go over there and welcome them to the neighborhood. That’s what you’re supposed to do when somebody new moves in.”
“You won’t go with me?”
“I might just have to tell mother about the collection of questionable magazines hidden in your room.”
“I don’t have any magazines in my room.”
“Don’t you know there isn’t anything that goes on in this house that I don’t know about?”
“I think you should mind your own damn business and stop snooping around!”
“So you will admit that you have magazines hidden in your room?”
“I admit nothing.”
“Just the suggestion of those magazines in the house would probably kill mother. You know she’s not a well woman.”
“Could we please talk about something else, or not talk at all?”
“Then you’ll go with me?”
“I’ll go because you’re a sick person who needs help, not because I have any magazines in my room.”
Stephanie put on grandma’s widow’s hat with black feathers. The veil resembled a mosquito net that went down past her chin. She got her baton out of the closet and held it in the crook of her arm, ready to twirl. Zane put on his steampunk goggles and his Trader Horn pith helmet. Arm in arm, they went out to the front yard.
The woman and the girl were taking boxes out of the back of the red car and didn’t look up when Stephanie and Zane appeared. The moving men were moving something heavy out of the back of the van, keeping up a steady patter of invective.
“They look busy,” Zane said. “Maybe we’d better wait and go over later when they’re finished moving.”
“I know how to get them to notice me,” Stephanie said. She began marching up and down in front of the house like a soldier on sentry duty with the baton as her gun. She marched so strenuously she became winded.
When they still didn’t pay any attention to her, she went into her drum majorette routine. She had tried out for drum majorette two years earlier and, even though she had failed to be chosen, she still knew all the moves. She kicked her left leg as high as her head, and then her right leg. She threw the twirling baton six feet into the air and caught it with the tips of her fingers.
“I saw a woman doing this on TV with both ends of the baton flaming,” she said. “She was blindfolded, but she never burned her hands. I’d like to try that sometime.”
While Stephanie was twirling frenetically, Zane began doing experimental cartwheels on the grass. His pith helmet fell off every time, so he began doing them much faster. When he was able to do a cartwheel and not have the helmet fall off, he congratulated himself effusively.
The baton twirling and the cartwheels still garnered no attention from the people across the street, as they continued to be absorbed in the business of moving furniture, boxes and barrel-like cartons into the house.
“Am I going to set off an explosion to get them to notice me?” Stephanie said. She threw the baton down and began walking on her hands on the sidewalk and then up the steps of the porch and down again, all the time maintaining her superb balance.
Zane left off doing cartwheels and began walking on his hands too, but he wasn’t as accomplished a hand-walker as Stephanie. When he tried going up the steps to the porch, his arms weakened and he fell on his head.
“You’ll never be able to do that,” Stephanie said. “There are some things I’m just naturally better at than you.”
“I could do it with more practice,” he said.
“This isn’t working,” Stephanie said. “They haven’t looked over here a single time. I think I should sing a showtune.”
“Please don’t do that!”
“How about ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’?”
“No, I hate that song!”
“I know! I’m going to get grandpa’s wheelchair out of the basement.”
It was in a corner underneath some old clothes and a box of fur pieces and hats. Stephanie pushed everything out of the way and rolled the chair to the door and out into the yard.
They took turns riding the wheelchair down the slope of the yard toward the street, stopping just short of the sidewalk. The chair didn’t move very well on the grass, so Stephanie sat in the chair and Zane got behind and pushed.
On one run, he pushed a little too hard and the chair didn’t stop at the sidewalk but kept on going and jumped the curb and went out into the street, out of Stephanie’s control. She put her hands on the wheels to try to stop them but she was going too fast.
Up the hill, half a block away, Milton Sills the midget was working on his old Cadillac in front of his house. He was lying on his back and as he was coming out from underneath, he accidentally kicked the jack loose that was holding up the front end of the car. It began rolling backwards down the hill at about fifteen miles an hour.
Stephanie saw the Cadillac coming toward her but couldn’t stop the chair. She tried dragging her feet but there was nothing she could do; she was going too fast. She screamed and closed her eyes and threw her arms up over her head.
The wheelchair grazed off the rear bumper of the Cadillac and kept going. The Cadillac continued down the hill until it came to rest against a tree in the yard of an old woman who wore a white pageboy wig named Mrs. Nesbitt.
After the wheelchair turned over on its side, Stephanie was half in and half out of it. She had hit her head on the pavement and felt dizzy from it. She was bleeding and when she tried to stand her legs wouldn’t hold her. She was certain the people across the street would have seen what happened to her, but they had all gone inside and hadn’t seen a thing.
She had two broken ribs, a concussion and a fractured wrist. She spent five hours in the emergency room at the hospital waiting to get fixed up. She liked the cast on her wrist and the bandage they put on her head; it looked like she had been in a war. She hoped she would still be wearing them when school took up again.
When mother found out about the incident with the wheelchair, she called Stephanie a dangerous fool. She ought to be ashamed of herself (mother said) for dishonoring grandpa’s memory by using his wheelchair as a toy. She was confined to the house for the rest of the summer. It was a setback to her mad desire to get her driver’s license and drive wherever she wanted to go.
After a few days, the headaches lessened and she was able to come out of her room. She sat in the living room with the TV on, looking out the window at the house across the street. She hoped the fat girl would come out into the yard and she could go over and get acquainted with her, but she only caught a brief glimpse of her one time.
One day when mother went shopping, Stephanie went to visit her friend Claudia Beasley down the street. Claudia was two years older than Stephanie and a notorious gossip. If there was anything to known about new people in the neighborhood, Claudia would know it.
They shared a cigarette. Claudia had heard about Stephanie’s accident and wanted to hear all the details. Finally, Stephanie steered the conversation around to the fat girl and her family.
“Oh, them!” Claudia said. “They’re weird.”
“Why are they weird?”
“Have you seen that fat girl?”
“Her name is Veda Ann. She’s only fourteen.”
“I thought she was older.”
“Have you seen her up close? She looks like a middle-aged woman. That’s because she’s not right.”
“Not right how?”
“No, I don’t.”
“She won’t be going to our school.”
“You know that retarded bus that stops down at the corner?”
“That’s the bus she’ll be taking.”
“And that old man?”
“He’s her father. He won’t hardly let her get out of the house. He’s afraid somebody will try to kidnap her.”
“Why would anybody want to do that?”
“Well, you never know about people. There are men who like retarded girls.”
“Is that woman her mother?”
“No, that’s her older sister.”
“Who’s that skinny boy?”
Claudia laughed and reached for another cigarette. “That’s not a boy, silly! That’s a woman. She’s a special friend of the older sister. They’re…you know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“An old man, two lesbians and a retarded girl living together in the same house. That’s why they’re weird.”
“And to think I was almost killed trying to get them to notice me.”
As Stephanie was leaving, Claudia invited her to a dance at the armory, but Stephanie was sure mother wouldn’t let her go. There was no point in even asking.
When Stephanie got back home, mother had just returned from the store and was carrying in the groceries. Stephanie hurried into the house and went to her room and closed the door before mother saw her and had a chance to smell the cigarettes she had been smoking.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp