Grateful little licks

the neighbor across the street

Ten o'clock pm and Dale, the neighbor across the street, is calling us. He has never called us before. I gave him our phone number when he brought us a rubbermaid bucket of beef stew. It seemed like the neighborly thing to do- exchange phone numbers on index cards, in case of emergency. I didn't imagine he'd really use it.
Drying dishes, I answered, "Hello?"
"This is she-"
"Its Dale, from across the street."
I hope all our window shades are closed.
"Oh hi there." I've answered the wall phone in the kitchen instead of the cordless, so I'm chained there till the call is finished.
"Listen, do you eat bread? Loaf bread?"
"Um. Yes."
"Because I need to ask a favor. I need you to save the plastic bags for me. I've been working in the yard, pulling up poison ivy- you may have seen me down by the mailbox where there's all that poison ivy. In fact, I was pulling it up the other night and there's yellow jackets in the ground right there. They live in the ground. And I got lit up by about 16 or 17 of those yellow jackets."
I should've already returned his plastic bowl by now and thanked him for the beef stew but the truth is, I had Jason ladle it into the toilet. I couldn't even trash it myself, so great is my anxiety towards this guy.
"Man." I'm supposed to say much more here, but I dare not encourage him.
"And I can use those plastic bags on my arms when I work in the yard."
"Oh, I see."
"Also the Clayton Neighbor, the newspaper sacks. I can use those too."
"Well, we love recycling."
"So if you can collect those plastic bags for me I'd sure appreciate it."
"No problem, Dale. You take care now."
And that was it. Battling poison ivy and yellow jackets with Colonial bread sacks on his arms.
See, the first day he came over to introduce himself and exchange phone numbers he seemed decent enough.
"I'm the fellow who watches out for everybody," he had said. "So if you see anything suspicious, just call my number, anytime."
Tiny, humpbacked, with a stiff trucker hat swallowing his head- he looked a teenage cancer patient as he explained that he was retired, had worked for the federal government, lost his wife two years ago, and happily, had recently remarried.
"My wife's not around much though. She's a fashion designer and a model and she travels a lot for work." When he got to this point, he was already searching his back pocket for his wallet.
"This is her," he said, whipping out a headshot of a young pouting blonde. "She's in St. Louis this weekend working on a Budweiser commercial."
She was incredible. "Well, I look forward to meeting her," I gasped. Seriously.
I thanked him again and again for his hospitality, for the stew and surveillance. He warned that there was mushrooms in it, "because we like mushrooms over here."
What a bitch I am. Automatically assuming that his wife is a mail-order Russian bride, or that "model" means "stripper" from Blazing Saddles. But could Dale be a sugar daddy? With his tiny house in Forest Park and his rusty Caprice? What could she possibly see in this lonely, child-sized old soldier? I'm such a shit for doubting him, so closed-minded. I slid the steaming bucket of stew into the fridge, knowing that there's no way I'd be able to eat it.
Weeks have passed and I'm convinced that Dale lives alone, that he clipped that photo from a magazine and uses the pronoun "we" out of habit. That he watches the neighborhood from his living room windows. Either way, it breaks my heart. At twilight, I pull down my window shades.


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