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 and taking it into the house. In a little while a late-model red car pulled into the driveway from which four people emerged, a man and a lanky boy from the front and a woman and a girl from the back. The man had a big stomach and a balding head and was shorter than the lanky boy. The girl looked a lot like the woman, only fatter and younger—obviously mother and daughter.
“Looks like they’ve got a daughter about my age,” Arlene said, adjusting the binoculars to get a clearer image. “She’s fat, and is she ever ugly! She looks like she would have her driver’s license, though. I’ll bet she even has her own car.”
“Not if she’s ugly,” Cotton 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.”
“Yes, but they don’t have anyplace to go in them because they don’t have any friends or any social life.”
“Huh, a lot you know!”
“You’d better quit spying on the neighbors. It’s against the law.”
“Anything you do in your own house is not against the law because nobody can see you doing it,” Arlene said. “You ought to see this old couch they’ve got. It looks like it’s about a hundred years old. If it was my couch, I’d set it out in the yard and douse it with kerosene and strike a match to it.”
“Maybe it’s their spare couch. Maybe they have a better couch still on the truck.”
“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.”
“They’re going to see you spying on them and they’re going to know right away how crazy you are.”
“Oh, look at this!” Arlene said. “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 to dinner if they have 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 wet on. 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?”
“If they knew you were spying on them, they’d probably either call the police or turn around and head back to wherever they came from.”
“Now, what do you suppose that thing is? It looks like a big square washing machine.”
“It’s probably a mind-your-own-business.”
“I think it’s some kind of a cabinet to store dishes in.”
“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!”
“Why would I want to see an ugly fat girl pulling at her crack?” Cotton 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 took the binoculars from her and squinted into them.
“She’s ugly all right,” he said. “Her hair looks like something’s nest.”
“What did I tell you? Wait until she turns around and you get a look at her face.”
“She just turned around and she’s saying something to one of the men moving the furniture. 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 to me. They’re both ugly.”
“Well, the mother is about fifty years old and has on a lot 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. That would just about kill her.”
“I don’t have any magazines in my room.”
“Don’t you know by now that there isn’t anything that goes on in this house that I don’t know about?”
“I think you should mind your own business and stop snooping around!”
“So you will admit that you have magazines hidden in your room?”
“I won’t admit anything.”
“Just the suggestion of those magazines in the house would probably be enough to finish Mother off, with her weak heart and all.”
“Could we please talk about something else, or not talk at all?”
“Then you’ll go with me?”
“I’ll go because I think you’re a sick person and you need help. Not because I have any magazines in my room.”
Arlene put on Grandma’s old blue velvet hat trimmed with black feathers and pulled the veil down to the end of her nose and got her baton out from under the bed. Cotton put on his steampunk goggles and his oversized Trader Horn pith helmet. Then the two of them 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 Arlene and Cotton appeared. The moving men had just come out of the house to get something else from the van and were looking down at the ground.
“They look busy,” Cotton said. “Maybe we’d better wait and go over later when they’re finished moving.”
“I know how to get them to notice me,” Arlene said. She began marching up and down in front of the house like a soldier on sentry duty with the baton as her gun. The men’s trousers she wore flapped crazily about her legs.
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 Arlene was twirling frenetically, Cotton began doing experimental cartwheels on the grass. His pith helmet fell off every time, so he began doing the cartwheels faster and faster to keep the helmet on his head. 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 move boxes and barrel-like cartons into the house.
“Am I going to set off an explosion over here to get them to notice me?” Arlene asked. She threw the baton into the shrubberies and began walking on her hands. She walked up and down the sidewalk on her hands and then she climbed up and down the stairs to the front porch, maintaining all the while her remarkable balance.
Cotton left off doing cartwheels and began walking on his hands too, but he wasn’t as accomplished a hand-walker as Arlene was. When he tried going up the porch stairs, his arms felt weak and he fell on his head.
“You’ll never be able to do that,” Arlene said. “There are some things that I’m just naturally better at than you.”
“I could do it with more practice,” he said. “I haven’t spent as much time doing it as you have, that’s all. I have more important things to do.”
They collided while hand-walking and cracked their heads together and both fell over. Arlene, growing tired of hand-walking, went to the basement and got Grandpa’s old wheelchair and brought it out into the yard. (Grandpa didn’t need it anymore because he was dead.) She and Cotton took turns riding the wheelchair down the sloping side yard toward the street, stopping just short of the sidewalk. The chair didn’t move very fast on the grass, so Arlene sat in the chair and Cotton got behind and pushed. He pushed a little too hard and the chair went a little too fast and didn’t stop at the sidewalk but kept on going where it should have stopped and jumped the curb and went out into the street, out of Arlene’s control.
Up the hill, half a block away, Milton Sills the midget was working on his old Cadillac in his driveway. The Cadillac didn’t have an engine and Milton wasn’t able to drive because he was less than three feet tall, but that didn’t keep him from working on it. He had the front wheels sloping upward toward the wall of his garage, and somehow the Cadillac began rolling while he was underneath it and he wasn’t able to stop it. The Cadillac rolled down the street backward at about fifteen miles an hour. All Milton could do was stand at the top of the hill and watch in amazement and hope it didn’t run over somebody and kill them.
Arlene saw that she was headed toward the slow-moving Cadillac coming down the hill, but she was unable to stop the wheelchair. She tried dragging her feet but that only slowed her down enough to make it a certainty that she and the Cadillac would collide. She screamed and closed her eyes and threw her arms up over her head.
The wheelchair grazed off the rear fender of the Cadillac and turned over. The Cadillac continued down the hill until it came to a stop in the front yard of Mrs. Gottschalk, who came out her front door and began squawking like a chicken when she saw what had happened.
The wheelchair was turned over on its side and Arlene was half in and half out of it. She had hit her head on the pavement and could feel the warm blood flowing down the side of her head onto her neck. She turned to see if the people across the street had seen what happened and would come to her aid, but they were all apparently inside the house and didn’t know she had almost just been killed for their benefit. She tried to get up but she had a terrible pain in her side and couldn’t move until somebody came and helped her.
She had a slight concussion and two broken ribs. The doctor made her spend the night in the hospital to make sure she wasn’t going to have any complications or internal bleeding. She liked the bandage they wrapped around her head. She believed it gave her a certain distinction and she hoped she would still be wearing it when she returned to school.
As for the new neighbors across the street, Arlene made the discovery, as everyone must, that all things are not as they appear. The tall boy in the plaid shorts turned out to be a mannish woman, a friend of the fat woman that she thought was the mother but who turned out instead to be the daughter of the bald man with the big stomach. The fat girl who Arlene thought was about her own age was the woman’s younger sister. He name was Veda Ann. She was only fourteen but looked older.
The disappointing revelation about Veda Ann was that she would never have her driver’s license, not even when she was old enough. She didn’t even go to regular school. Every morning the retarded school bus came and picked her up and took her to the special needs school. No matter how old she lived to be, she would never advance past the level of fourth or fifth grade. She could pretend to be like everybody else all she wanted and might even be able to convince most people that she was normal, but since she couldn’t even drive a car Arlene doubted if she would ever be able to have a sensible conversation with her about anything that mattered.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp