Neighborsby Thomas Berger
Suburban regular-guy Earl Keese confronts the yawning pit of chaos in the persons of Harry and Ramona, a younger couple who have just moved into the only other house on their dead-end street. Literally overnight, Earl's carefully controlled world is turned upside down. Ramona is alternately seductive and treacherous, Harry by turns cajoling and threatening, and their… See more details below
Suburban regular-guy Earl Keese confronts the yawning pit of chaos in the persons of Harry and Ramona, a younger couple who have just moved into the only other house on their dead-end street. Literally overnight, Earl's carefully controlled world is turned upside down. Ramona is alternately seductive and treacherous, Harry by turns cajoling and threatening, and their behavior, to Earl's way of thinking, increasingly dangerous and bizarre. Trouble is, no one, from his boozy wife Enid, to his beloved daughter Elaine, to the circle of supposed friends to whom he appeals for help, will see things Earl's way.
The New York Times Book Review
"A flawlessly crafted morality play constructed out of the most subtle minutiae of perception and expressionæas if Henry James had written Waiting for Godot."
"Neighbors offers a version of reality skewed just enough to give paranoia a good name."
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
"It would have been nice," said Earl Keese to himself as much as to the wife who sat across the coffee table from him, "to have invited them over for a drink."
"We can certainly do that tomorrow," said Enid. "Nothing is really lost."
"But of course tomorrow won’t be the day they moved in, will it?" Keese reflectively sipped his transparent wine. "I find that if something is done when it should be done, it is not forgotten. Still, I suppose it’s no tragedy. We could probably get away with giving them no formal welcome whatever. It’s scarcely a true obligation."
"You mean, like giving food to a starving person?"
"Exactly," said Keese. He rose and headed for the kitchen. While passing through the dining room, which was papered in a pale-gold figure, he bent slightly so that he could see, under the long valance and over the window-mounted greenhouse, into the yard next door. Despite what he believed he saw he did not break his stride. In the kitchen he looked again: it was a large white dog, in fact a wolfhound, not a naked human being on all fours.
Were Keese to accept the literal witness of his eyes, his life would have been of quite another character, perhaps catastrophic, for outlandish illusions were, if not habitual with him, then at least none too rare for that sort of thing. Perhaps a half-dozen times a year he thought he saw such phenomena as George Washington urinating against the wheel of a parked car (actually an old lady bent over a cane), a nun run amok in the middle of an intersection (policeman directing traffic), a rat of record proportions (an abandoned football), or a brazen pervert blowing him a kiss from the rear window of a bus (side of a sleeping workingman’s face, propped on hand).
This strange malady or gift had come upon Keese with adolescence. Never had he been duped by it. Indeed, the only inconvenience it had brought him had been by reason of the unusual skepticism it had engendered. On occasion reality did take a bizarre turn: there were persons who kept pet pythons, which escaped and were subsequently discovered sleeping peacefully at a drive-in movie three miles from home. If Keese saw such a phenomenon he assumed it was the usual illusion. He had doubted his eyes when seeing a nude fat man ascend the front steps of a public building. But his man had been real, and a rearview photo of him appeared in the next morning’s newspaper. (He had eluded the police, and his motive remained obscure.)
Keese admitted to himself that, very rarely, some outlandish vision of his might be to some degree or even wholly authentic; but since he had no standard of measurement he must, in self-preservation, consistently reject the evidence of his eyes. In this basic way he was at odds with the rest of humanity as to one of its incontestable truths: seeing is believing.
He now opened the refrigerator and found the bottle of wine, which lay horizontal. As he had feared, it was leaking at the cork, and a little pool had formed on the lid of the crisper below. While wrinkling his nose at this he heard a tapping at the glass of the back door. Pleased to be so distracted, he straightened himself and went in response. While on this route he expected to view the caller through the large clear pane of the door-glass, from which furthermore the curtains had been temporarily removed for laundering. But he saw no one until he reached an opened the door, and then he espied the wolfhound, some eight feet off and loping. He supposed that the animal could have done the tapping: no other candidate was, at any rate, in evidence.
He took the bottle of wine to the living room.
"They must have a dog," he said to Enid.
"That could be bad news," his wife replied, placing her stemmed glass judiciously on the coffee table. For a number of years now Keese had observed his wife only by means of what she did: that is to say, he saw the actor only through the action. She was invisible to him when motionless.
"Well, let’s hope not," said he, making a wry toss of the chin and elbowing an imaginary companion.
Enid stood up. "I imagine that some dinner wouldn’t be amiss."
"At this juncture," said Keese, completing the old family-phrase, the origins of which had been mislaid: some movie or play of twenty years before.
Normally a tall woman, Enid looked markedly larger than usual, but dwindled to her usual size as she left the room. Keese realized that the sofa, where he sat now, was subtly lower than the chair he generally uses at this time of day. Not only did he see reality from a somewhat less favorable situation, but the thickness of his middle body knew an unpleasant pressure from his belt buckle. Being alone in the room, he had no reason to suppress a tendency towards extravagance, and making a hideous expression, he positively hurled himself erect.
He was heading for his habitual chair, in which, by contrast to its thick upholstery, he felt thinner, when the doorbell, a dull gong, sounded. Keese was now sufficiently old (viz., forty-nine) to hear as ominous all summonses for which he had not been furnished with advanced warning, and he was especially dubious about any that came in those few hours which constituted dinnertime for persons of his sort.
He went apprehensively to the door, opened it partially, and exposed to the caller a diagonal view of the entrance hall of his home as well as about four-fifths of himself, keeping a forearm and calf concealed and readied for leverage if needed.
For a very brief instant, looking headwards as he was, he could not identify the person by sex, for he saw a turban and under it a face which though not that of an East Indian was colored almost olive. It wore no make-up, and while the skin was flawless the features were not so delicate as to require a feminine designation.
But then Keese saw the two remarkable cones that projected themselves from her thorax. Though beneath the glistening, hard-finished blouse of oysterish synthetic they connoted more of rocketry than mammalia, once he had identified her sex he was no longer in doubt as to his own style.
"Hello," said he, showing a pleasant face, "and what may I do for you?"
"Anything you like," said the person on his doorstep. In age she had apparently just crossed Keese’s arbitrary line between girl and young woman. He had not been prepared for her literalization of his greeting, which was a piece of standard usage and not a cliché to be derided. Nevertheless, with his bias towards a creature of her sex and years, he decided that he was himself at fault and he listened smilingly to the punch line which completed her opening speech: "The problem is what you want in return."
Having made her jest, she glowered momentarily and then produced the sort of laugh which seen on silent film would suggest by its physical violence that the original had been deafening, but in point of fact very little sound was heard. Her teeth were huge.
Keese fell back a centimeter in mock horror, with an appropriate flash of palms. "Miss, I assure you my intentions are honorable." He liked nothing better than such banter.
But the young woman seemed suddenly to show anxiety. Staring fearfully at him, she said: "I’m Ramona." Her next statement was almost a question. "I moved in next door?"
Abruptly disenchanted, Keese knew an urge to reply: "How should I know? Why aren’t you certain?" But of course he did not; he was never sardonic with ladies newly met. "Welcome to the neighborhood," he said instead. "We were just talking about inviting you over for a drinkand decided against it only because we thought you’d probably be exhausted today. But come in, come in."
He did a little uncertain dance at this point, from threshold to top step and back. The problem was to hold the screen door open for her entrance and yet allow her sufficient space in which to move. Keese was no sylph. There was a further complication in that Ramona seemed oblivious to his effort: the simple thing would have been for her to catch the screed door against her outer wrist once he had thrown it open; thus he could have retreated into the hallway as she entered.
But she took no hand in her own entrance, and stretching to widen the route of ingress, he was forced to lower his elevation by one step. She raked him with her breasts as they passed: despite appearances, those cones were yielding and real, and it was quite the most exhilarating encounter with an unknown woman that Keese had had in time out of memory.
In the living room she waited as if for an invitation to sit down, but having received it she whirled without warning, went swiftly to the piano, seized the photograph there, and said "Whoozis? Your girl?"
Keese had been drifting in spirit, but he stiffened now. The word was ambiguous, surely, and it could have been appropriate here had the subject of the portrait been younger. "If you mean ‘daughter’," said he, "then, yes, that’s mine."
Ramona put both hands on her hips. She wore steel-gray slacks beneath the metallic-looking blouse. Her turban was streaked lilac.
"No, I meant was she your chick." Again the quick glower, followed by the almost silent howl of laughter. Had it not been for the touch of her resilient breasts Keese might have found her irony repulsive. The portrait was an accurate depiction of his twenty-one-year-old daughter, who was thought even by strangers to be remarkably pretty. It was indeed unprecedented that anyone, male or female, had looked at her picture without making this observation aloud. But Ramona, perhaps empowered by envy, was sufficiently bold to remain silent. Keese’s daughter had golden hair and fair skin and eyes of blue. No greater contrast could be provided than Ramona, though for that matter his "girl" bore little resemblance to his wife and none to him.
"Who plays?" Ramona asked now, having strode away from the piano, but obviously putting it in reference. She had a low-slung, long-lobed behind, though some of that effect was due to the high-waisted trousers. She wore spike-heeled sandals which exposed red-painted toes.
"I do," he lied, suddenly desperate to appear talented. Easy enough to pretend some infirmity of hand if she asked for a performance. But, as he had hoped, she did not make such a request.
"Who’s ‘we’?" she asked. "You and your girl?"
"My wife and I. And by the way, my name is Earl Keese." He took himself near her, should she wish to shake hands, but she made no use for the opportunity. Instead she stared so keenly below his waist that he feared his fly was open, and he turned away and looked discreetly down. The zipper was snugly closed.
Relieved, but also annoyed with himself, he took the initiative. "So you’ve moved in, have you? Nice house. The Walkers took awfully good care of the place, I believe."
Ramona asked harshly, with the implication of a demand: "Is your wife here now?"
"In the kitchen. I’ll go get her. She certainly wants to meet you." He had already put one foot in the direction which would be appropriate to his proposal when he saw that Ramona was shaking her head.
"No," said she, "I don’t want to meet her." She seized his wineglass, which he had refilled before answering the door, and drank from it. Keese felt humiliated, and he was also indignant that she had not, since ringing the bell, given him a second’s peace in which to meet the requirements of hospitality. She was rude to him in his own home, the sort of thing that was unprecedented except with one’s relatives. It would now have been pointless to get her a glass of her own, which would only coarsely demonstrate that she had swiped his wine. Therefore he took or himself the empty goblet that had previously served Enid. But while he was reaching for the bottle Ramona drained in one prolonged swallow the contents of her glass, and as he was about to serve himself nonetheless, she forcefully extended her hollow vessel.
He filled it.
"I hope we can be friends," said Ramona when she had received her wine.
"I’m sure we can," said Keese. "We were certainly always on friendly terms with the Walkers, though we didn’t really know them intimately. They were a good deal older."
"I didn’t mean that polite social kind of shit," Ramona said. This extraordinary speech resulted not in encouraging Keese but rather in
frightening him. But as luck would have it his means of resisting fright was to simulate boldnessalone at night on a darkened city
street he would invariably, teeth tightly occluded, steer himself towards any threatening shadow that offered itself, on the principle
that all malefactors abhor the initiative of others. "O.K.," he said heartily, "you’re on. We’re friends. We’ll start
there and work backwards. I don’t even know your last name and whether you have a husband. I’ve seen your dog but nothing else. You were all
moved in by the time I came home."
"Dog?" asked Ramona. Having got her refill she had put the glass down and not touched it since. There had been only an inch of wine left in the bottle for Keese: he decided to forgo it.
"Wolfhound?" he asked. "I assumed it was yours. I thought I knew all the dogs in the neighborhood."
"Why don’t you sit down?" She grimaced. "You make me nervous, standing awkwardly there like that, holding that bottle." Keese was too startled to resist. His favorite chair was nearby. He went to it and complied with her order.
As if she had not displayed sufficient effrontery even yet, she said: "Now, doesn’t that feel better?" He winced visibly. Not being as insensitive as she seemed, Ramona added: "That’s what I mean about being friends: you talk turkey with your friend. If he doesn’t like it he can always throw you out."
Keese had a faint suspicion that he might get onto her style eventually. Meanwhile he was mollified by this exposition of her rationale. He waved his hands. "Thanks, I’m quite comfortable now." He could not resist settling in, lifting one haunch and then the other, though he was aware that it marked him as being hopelessly middle-aged. As if reading his thoughts Ramona said sweetly: "You’re not so old, but you are too fat."
Had she finally gone too far? Apparently not, if Keese could ponder on the question. At any rate, he felt no impulse whatever to protest. Accepting the insult took much less of a toll than would have the display of an ire which furthermore he did not feel. After all, what she had said was no more nor less than the truth, and he was proud of his courage to face facts. Nevertheless, he pulled his abdomen in while addressing the table at his elbow: "I have a feeling that you seldom resist an urge to say whatever’s on your mind.""Maybe I’m just testing you," said Ramona. "Anyway, I’m nobody of importance. I can say what I want because it doesn’t matter. Who cares anyway?" She stood up. "Is your wife making dinner?" Keese had no time to deplore her self-deprecation, had he been so inclined. "Afraid so," he answered, rising with a foolish feeling of guilt. "Look, do you have anything to eat over there? The stores hereabouts shut their doors at five sharp, and the one restaurant in town is closed for renovation at the moment. It just occurs to me that you may not have eaten dinner. Would you like to eat with us? And is there more of your family?"
Ramona took his hand in hers. "Earlis that your name, Earl? You just trot out first and ask your wife if it’s O.K." Her fingers were almost as long as his but not of course so broad; and though her toes were painted her fingernails were not.
He had pride to defend. "I buy the food," said he. "I think I might have some say as to who eats it."She raised her free arm and pointed. "Now go! Don’t argue like a bad boy, Earl, or you’ll be sorry." It was preposterous to be manhandled like this in one’s own living room, and by a girl! But with mixed glee and shame he realized that he was arousedat least physically.
He was pleased that the kitchen lay at the farthest extremity of the house. While he was still in the dining room he heard the outside door open and close, but when he stepped into the kitchen Enid was at the refrigerator, across the room from the door, and furthermore holding a burden in both hands: some plastic box she had just taken from the freezer.
"Huh," she said, "does the sight of frozen succotash elate you so?" "Do we have enough for a guest or two?" asked Keese, allowing for the possibility that Ramona had a mateof whom, strangely, he was not jealous.
Enid drew back in what seemed excessive dismay. "As it turns out, we have virtually no food at all." She marched to the stove, carrying the plastic container before her as if it were a crown on a velvet pillow. "You can’t mean it!"
Enid stared boldly at him. "I was wrong."
Keese felt the onset of an awesome despair. But this soon proved to be needless, for the answer could not have been more simple. He punished one of his hands with the other and said: "We’ll go out for dinner. Yes!"
"No," said Enid, turning in curiosity. She had not even yet put down the container of succotash. "The Coachman’s closed for renovation." "Sometimes," said Keese, ebullient now, "our life is too circumscribed. We are not alone in the vastness of the tundra. We are but four miles from a prize-winning eatery, nationally renowned: La Nourriture, hey?"
Enid performed a reverse whistle. "Can you be serious?" Now she lowered the plastic box at last. "Are you in some kind of trouble?" "What a bizarre question," said Keese. "Would I want to celebrate trouble with a meal costing say twenty dollars a plate?" "At the minimum," said Enid. "But you might sooner do that than feed upon a success: I’ve known you for a long time, my friend."
Ordinarily he did not mind her applying to him the results of, apparently, an analysis of someone else; indeed, he was often flattered to hear some trait or taste of which he had ever been innocent (e.g., "you know that hot temper of yours"; "like you, my father doted on stuffed breast of veal"). But her current misjudgment of him seemed to carry a negative implication, and he was made impatient by it. Nourriture you will go now and get dressed."
suppose you won’t believe this, but I really don’t want to go out." he wore a knitted shirt with an open collar. He recognized the surge of blood as an anticipation of dining alone with Ramona.
woman, better-looking, actually, than when she had been younger, so that it was routine for people to believe she had once been a beauty who was now faded. Naturally, no one made this observation directly to Keese, but he sensed it, and thought it was unfortunate that she did not get her due. She had marvelous breasts, and he was still charmed by her freckles in a certain light. She wasbut he caught himself here: he was being grateful to the point of hysteria.
without having any real sense of what she meant, and he went, almost at the jog, back to the living room and rounded the turn from the hallway and saidNothing whatever. The room was empty. Ramona had departedif indeed she had ever been there. Had his old trick-of-the-eye now moved towards the command of all his faculties?
gave onto the narrowest portion of his own yard and, beyond, the widest segment of the lawn of the house next door. He saw nothing animate for a moment, and then the ubiquitous wolfhound came into view again. The dog seemed to be grazing, like a herbivore. Ramona was nowhere in evidence. Crazy little bitch! She had ruined his Friday evening, perhaps even the whole weekend.
the remainder of the white wine. He possessed nothing more in the way of an alcoholic beverage, and there was only frozen succotash for dinner. His watch assured him that the village market had closed an hour ago and that the liquor store would lock up in half a minute. stranger briskly entered the room. A tall, muscular man with a head of blond curls, he had apparently, without invitation, let himself into Keese’s house!
Who could have predicted that in a time of true stress Harry would act responsibly?
"Earl," he said in a judicial sort of voice, "you’ll get your opportunity for self-defense. I’m aware that such accusations are flung about wholesale these days. Still, it’s a serious charge. In wartime the old Army used to execute those convicted of the crime."
Keese felt very grateful to Harry for this reassurance. For that matter he agreed with him that the crime was despicable. He had brooded about Elaine’s being a victim, and he had sworn he would kill the perpetrator if he could find him. He had never worried about Enid in that regard: she didn’t seem the type who could easily be brutalized, and it was a fact that fiends, like water, sought the line of least resistance.
But of course Ramona was clearly demented. If Harry was at all reasonable, and he seemed so now, he must understand that his wife needed special care. No doubt he would be obliged by the requirements of familial loyalty to pretend to take her accusation seriously, but was it being sentimental to believe that he would soon dispose of it, clear Keese of all charges, and leave with a certain sheepishness? Keese had not liked Harry until this moment, no doubt because he had not understood him.
Harry peered sharply at him. "I tell you for your own good, Earl, that you’d better wipe that smirk off your face: it will hurt your case, make you look like a cynic."
Keese had been sure he wasn’t smiling, let alone wearing a derisive expression. "Sorry," he said. "Must be the strain I’m under. It isn’t pleasant to be accused of such a thing under one’s roof, in front of one’s wife. And there’s as good a defense as any: what a place and time to pick, if I were thinking of rape!"
Harry put his finger out. "I doubt that you were thinking of it, Earl. You’re not the premeditative type. You’re the sort of fellow who would be overcome suddenly by a feeling of lust I can see that. But whether you’d try to put your yearnings into action is what we’re trying to determine here. Now I might say that Ramona, in my experience, is not a reckless person. In fact, call this prejudiced if you will, but she’s the most level-headed woman I’ve ever known."
This could of course still be a necessary buttering-up, but Keese’s feet had begun to grow ominously cold in his comfortable old house-shoes. His only hope was that Harry would be well versed in Ramona’s hysterical transports. If he truly believed her to be of equable temperament and capable of good judgment, then Keese was under a threat. If it was her word against his, and if those words were considered of equal weight, his chances to get justice were poor for the obvious reason: why would an altogether sane woman accuse an absolutely guiltless man of sexual assault?
"With all respect," Keese nevertheless said to Ramona, "just why do you maintain that I tried to, that I attempted. . ." He was having the most damnable difficulty in mouthing the word: no doubt suppressed rage was the cause of this impediment.
Harry slapped the tabletop with both hands and stood up, moving the chair back with his legs. He spoke in a voice that was sad, not angry.
"Enid, I think you can see why we have to leave. This is not the time for a sermon, so just to let me thank you for your hospitality. It could have made a great friendship, but then how many things go right in life?"
Keese got up too. "I thought I was going to get the opportunity to defend myself!"
"Don’t you raise your voice at me, Earl," Harry said threateningly. "It’s all I can do to hold myself in as it is."
"Goddammit!" Keese was getting louder: it was his house. "I said I thought I was supposed to be able to defend myself."
"You already said that. But I have decided against taking you to court. That kind of thing makes for permanent bad blood, and we nay be neighbors for the rest of our lives."
Keese shuddered. He believed he might be on the point of seizing the enormous chef’s knife from the wall rack nearby and carving out Harry’s guts.
Instead he put his head back as far as it would go and shouted at the ceiling: "Get out of my house, you sons of bitches!" When he brought his eyes back down Harry was at the back door and Ramona was at her husband’s heels.
Crying more abuse, Keese hastened them on their way, literally chased them over the threshold and into the night. He returned to the kitchen, gasping. High blood pressure was routine for him in the best of times.
Only now did Enid stop eating. "That was quite a performance," she said. "I can’t remember seeing you like that before."
"I have been known to lose my temper," Keese said, "but not usually in front of other people. But this was too much. Those two are a real menace. The thought of them living next door is unbearable. I say this seriously, Enid: we may have to move. Did you ever see anything like them?"
"You were the strange one," said she. "They seemed to bring out the worst in you."
This stung him. "Listen here: you supported them, you agreed with them, everything you said and did was on their side and not mine."
"Earl, I was being hospitable. Did you not just now hear Harry thank me? I can’t forsake my manners simply because you get yourself into some squabble."
He went to the sink to throw cold water on his face. But first he said: "Squabble? They accused me of rape. Me, for God’s sake, Earl Keese." It did not seem absurd to him to identify himself formally. "Even yet I can’t believe it." He opened the tap and took the splash of cool water on his hands. "And why didn’t you defend me? You were here all the while. How could I have raped anybody?" He threw water into his eyes. "Court. He was apparently thinking of having me arrested and tried! No matter that they wouldn’t be able to prove it. My name could never be cleared. Sex charges are always believed. You can destroy anybody by that means, if you are ruthless enough to lie with a straight face."
Enid rose and took her plate to the sink. "Hadn’t you better do something about the car?"
God, he had forgotten about that altogether and the matter of their car as well.
The kitchen telephone hung on the wall. In the directory he looked up the number of the local garage. He had inserted his finger into the first of the appropriate orifices in the dial when the back door burst open and Harry & Ramona entered, howling and hooting like savages at a blood-ritual. Finally he was able to identify their commotion as being good-humored, at least in intention. The abominable noise was their laughter.
"I think we had you going, Earl," cried Harry.
"I’m sure we did," said Ramona. "Now admit it!"
"You did," said Enid, "you really did. I can certify that. He admitted losing all control."
Keese was furious with that one word. "I did not say ‘all’!"
But it was Enid’s way never to admit correction. She smiled all the wider. "Never," she said, "have I seen him more devastated."
Keese produced a stage-laugh. "O.K., have your fun at my expense. I’m not ashamed of reacting strongly to that accusation."
"You made a complete ass of yourself," said Harry. "Don’t try to retrieve anything from that hopeless performance, Earl."
"I’ve already admitted being taken in," Keese said. "What more do you want? I’m simply saying that I don’t really regret it. Better to err on the positive side than on the negative."
"Just a minute." Harry apparently wished to pursue some moral but was stopped by Ramona.
"Now don’t get dreary, Harry. The joke worked. That’s what matters, not why it worked." She giggled, desperately.
"The thing about your car was my idea," said Harry, claiming his former seat at the table, and Ramona took her own. "Obviously it was pretty lame. I’m not very good at these hoaxes." He pointed. "She’s the genius."
"Yes," said Keese, sitting down. "But I must make a genuine confession, I’m afraid: by accident I really did send your car down into the hollow and no doubt into the creek, though it’s too dark to see out there now."
"I’m disappointed in you, Earl. You’re just trying to top my story," said Harry. Interested in the proceedings, Enid had come towards the table on his side. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Harry put his arm around her waist. This action brought her hip against his shoulder. Bone-to-bone contact could hardly be objected to, but Keese was unsettled by the insouciance of well, really all three of them, for Enid seemed perfectly comfortable and Ramona was smiling lazily at the pair. Actually they made an appropriate-looking couple, large as they both were: a brother and an older sister from some big-boned family.
Keese felt as though he were defending his right to damage Harry’s property, whereas at the outset all he had wanted to do was come clean. "I’m not joking," he said. "What you told me you did to my car, in your hoax, I actually did to your car a bit earlier."
"How about it, Enid," said Harry, pulling her robust middle body against him and inclining his large blond head against her left breast. "Do you think this little hubby of yours is capable of that sort of thing?"
Enid smiled down upon his curls. ‘Don’t let him dupe you, Harry."
"There you are," said Harry. Abruptly he let Enid go and refilled his glass from the wine jug. "Well, we’ve provided the dinner and the first act of the entertainment, Earl. Isn’t it time you did something?"
Keese had not forgotten that he had given Harry thirty-two dollars, which seemed adequate compensation for these services. The destruction of the car was quite another thing: he must, before any more foolishness occurred, get Harry to accept the fact.
He rose, saying: "I’m going to prove it to you." In a cabinet over the refrigerator he found an electric lantern. "Come on, we’ll take a look." Impatiently he punched the lantern’s switch. The bean was invisible from his end in the lighted kitchen, but Ramona winced and looked away as it he had got her in the eyes with that one precise focus which would be effective.
Harry got up, groaning. "I never knew you’d take it this far, but I’ll call your bluff!" He saluted the table. "To the ladies, God bless ’em." Then he slapped Keese on the rump and sauntered to the door.
It occurred to Keese that Harry might be drunk. Or had he been thrown into such high spirits merely by the rape-hoax? There were such persons, whose taste in comedy required someone’s embarrassment. For them a joke was not a thing-in-itself but must have a butt to complete it.
With his light he led Harry through the side yard and to the brink of the hollow, at a point where the descent was not so steep as that which the car had gone down in its headlong rush. In fact, there was an old path there, probably made by bygone boys, and the current lads came there now and again after fording the creek from the other bank, which was at the edge of the village proper, only a hundred yards from Keese’s house to a bird, but a mile and a half by car. Keese did not forbid the use of this shortcut, because it was not often used, but neither did he see such youthful trespassers with pleasure, for years ago he had one night caught three boys watching fourteen-year-old Elaine take off her first brassiere behind her unshaded bedroom window.
Keese pointed his lantern beam into the hollow. Before the light got far it was absorbed by the darkness, as water by dry sand. He turned it towards his face and saw the light was jaundiced: the battery was petering out as he watched. He struck it sharply, either to stimulate or punish it, and he was all but blinded by the sudden radiance. He dropped the lantern.
"Sorry!" It tumbled down the path. "Damn!" He pursued it, but soon he no longer had a guide: the light went out. Suddenly he was impelled from behind. In his involuntary haste he hooked his foot in an arch of root which fate had cunningly thrown across the path to impede fat men who desperately went after dropped lanterns: the remainder of this arrangement comprised clusters of sharp stones at just the places where such a man, falling, would deploy his hand to catch himself.
He had been pushed. That Harry should do such a thing in a dark night and upon a descending dirt path seemed criminal: there was nothing funny about it. He found the lantern and pressed the switch. The light came on, perhaps even a bit stronger than before its tumble. He turned and played the light on Harry, but was careful to keep it from the man’s eyes: pretty decent in view of what had happened.
"That was a rotten thing to do," he said. "I could have been killed in the dark."
"Better be more careful from now on," brazenly said Harry. The bush of hair which clogged the vee of his knitted shirt was offensive to Keese.
"Push me again," said Keese, "and you’ll be sorry."
"You know what I mean."
"Search me!" Harry almost wailed. He was truly shameless. "I’ll show you, then, Keese said, and bulky as he was he found enough room on the beaten part of the path to stand aside. He then gestured, with sweeping hand, for Harry to precede him and gave him plenty of light. When Harry gullibly obeyed, Keese struck him in the small of the back. The larger man lost control of his stride and went hurtling down the path. Suddenly, horribly, he vanished from view, as if a precipice had opened before him and he had gone helplessly over its edge. A brief and terrible cry was heard, which faded away below Keese’s feet, and then the utter silence of vegetable nature on a windless night.
As if destroying Harry’s car had not been enough, he had now killed the man! It was new in Keese’s experience (of almost fifty years) for things to get so completely out-of-hand. His instinct was to turn and escape, hasten to the city, buy a ticket to some remote part of the world, and hide out there forever, living by the proceeds of some depraved trade in flesh or drugs. He hoped to diminish his horror by conceiving such a fantasy of romantic farce. What he did in practice, however, was to trudge carefully down the path, which did become progressively more steep, but when he reached the point at which Harry had apparently fallen he saw no precipice whatever. In fact, just here the hill gave way to level bottom land. He was all the way down, as surely was the unhurt Harry, who however could not be seen.
"Harry! Better stay close to the light," Keese cried. He was pleased to have done nothing to betray his initial belief that he had killed his neighbor.
He heard no response to this advice. He took a few paces, sank into a soft surface, and felt his shoes fill with water: after the recent rains this place was a marsh. He played his light about. Harry’s automobile could not have gone far then, surely not as far as the creek, rolling in this resistant medium. It was probably embedded to the axles somewhere close by: some job for even a wrecker to pull it out of this glue. Keese’s shoes made great sucking sounds as he plodded about. He was already soaked. He might as well do what he had come for but that had been to prove to Harry that his car was down here, and where was Harry?
That question was answered by a savage blow to Keese’s nape, the rabbit punch of legend but rarely of actual experience, at least not when it was delivered with force, as now. For an instant Keese felt as though he had been beheaded, and then he fell prone in the swamp. His nose and mouth were in slime: the blow had surely paralyzed him; he would drown miserably.
He found, when he tried to get up, that the prognosis was inaccurate. He was not paralyzed, but someone’s large foot was planted in the middle of his back. Owing to this impediment he could not rise. He could, by lifting his chin, raise his nostrils high enough above the mire to breathe, but it was painful, owing to his sore back-of-neck. He now greatly regretted not having killed Harry. It was clear that Harry was not beyond killing him. Obviously the man was mad, to take this sort of reprisal. He must appeal to him with some materialistic argument.
"Don’t you want to look for your car?" he asked, with great difficulty.
In answer Harry leaned down, put his hand against the back of Keese’s head, and pushed his face into the slime. But when Keese was once again certain he was a goner Harry took away both hand and foot, and next, surprising as always, he helped Keese get up.
The lantern was in the mire, but Harry seemed to have adequate night vision. To Keese he was a tall murky image, and Keese hated him so much in that indistinct form that he could not imagine seeing him in the light without assaulting him murderously. But having felt the ruthless strength of his foot and his hand, he feared him as well, and he determined to attack him only when Harry was off guard.
Meanwhile Keese had a facade of muck. Luckily he was wearing old corduroys and a sports shirt. Popping the clothes in the washer and himself in the shower would be simple enough, and neither had sustained permanent damage from the abuse. He tried to make the best of the situation, because he feared what he might do if he were forced to see the worst before he had the proper opportunity to pay Harry back.
"I found my car," Harry said now. "It’s about thirty feet to the right, and sunk halfway up the hubcaps."
It could have been far worse.
Harry added: "You really did a job on me."
But Keese was not displeased to hear this, because it made some sense of Harry’s most recent assault on him: revenge for wrecking the car. Not even being pressed face down in the swamp was the equivalent in damage. Could he expect more vengeance until Harry considered the debt to be paid in full?
"It was certainly an accident," said he, "but what matters is only the result, I know that."
"No," said Harry, "the motive is all that ever matters, Earl. Anything material can be replaced." Without warning he became sententious: "By golly, if we can’t get along on this planet as it sails through cold space, then we deserve to lose it."
Keese was not sure whether he should be taken in by this sentiment, which could be rank charlatanism. "I guess that’s what we came for then," he said, with reference to the car. "We’d better go on back up and call the wrecker." He looked about for the lantern, but it had now either gone out or sunk so deeply into the mire that its beam could not be detected. They could anyway see well enough to get home.
He stepped aside when they reached the bottom of the path, hoping Harry would go on ahead, but Harry stopped too.
"Go on, Earl," said he. "I don’t want to be tormented from behind."
Which was exactly Keese’s own fear! Well, perhaps having said that, Harry would himself refrain from offending. But this, of course, proved too much to expect, and at the steepest stretch of the ascent, when Keese was virtually on all fours, Harry (who had apparently no difficulty climbing) equipped himself with a slender stick and punished Keese’s buttocks with it. This did serve to quicken Keese’s climb, and when the butt of the stick came in for a dead-center goose in the final six feet, he scrambled up to the yard with dispatch. And turned there, thinking he would be admirably positioned to give Harry a savage shoe in the crotch as he came into range, but he discarded this plan after projecting Harry’s subsequent fall: Keese most certainly did not want to descend to that swamp again.
Therefore he allowed Harry to emerge without damage. He was thanked by Harry’s saying, when he reached his side: "I think I’d better sue you, Earl."
"I think I’ll have to."
Keese said: "I don’t believe we have to bring the law into this, do we? I admit I was at fault, and my insurance company will simply pay off."
"But what kind of insurance would cover this?" asked Harry. "Certainly not the policy on your car: you were on foot. And hardly your homeowner’s policy: you found the car in front of my house, and you willfully pushed it down the road past yours: your own property wasn’t involved at all."
Keese felt his blood turn against him, pounding in his ears and refusing to heat his limbs. "Look, Harry, can’t we make some kind of arrangement here?"
What he had to explain was a bit ticklish, and before he could begin, Harry spoke. "What sum did you have in mind? The car was in perfect shape."
Keese laughed politely. "What I actually meant was well, could we let your insurance cover it? Here’s what I mean: say it was stolen and the thieves drove down the hill, lost control, and it went into the swamp?"
"Fair enough," said Harry, "but then you’d have to identify yourself as the thief, wouldn’t you? And would you really want to do that?"
"No, no. The idea would be that the car thieves, young kids, ran away before they could be identified."
Keese’s eyes had now become sufficiently adjusted to the darkness so that he could see Harry’s change of expression: a grimace of puzzlement.
"You didn’t mention those kids before. If they did it, then why did you take the blame? To make the neighborhood seem more respectable? But can’t you see that I’d find out anyway soon enough?"
Keese said: "No, please, Harry, wait a minute. The kids were hypothetical. I was the culprit. But I don’t relish admitting that to the authorities."
Harry’s eyebrows rose. "You want me to lie, is that is? Also it would go on my insurance record, wouldn’t it? You become none too popular with a company when you claim money from it, you know. The idea is for them to take money from you, not pay it back. They’ll raise my premiums. And why should I do all of this? To protect you? And why should I protect you? Are you my dear friend?" He was working himself up. "Are you even a good neighbor? What have you done for me? You wrecked my car and ate my food and drank my wine. You made a pass at my wife. You’ve been sarcastic with me ever since I introduced myself, insulting, arrogant, and disagreeable."
Keese could not believe he heard this. Of the many accusations, grand and petty, all detestably false, he chose the most outrageous: "Your wife! Did you and she not admit that the rape charge was a hoax of your own invention?"
"You cheap crook," said Harry. "God almighty, what a man to move next door to: it’s sort of a nightmare."
He was doing no more than echoing Keese’s own sentiments. It was startling to Keese to hear that he himself inspired the same feeling in someone else, someone who had offended him from the first: he had returned the favor with Harry? But what, aside from the car, had he done that was so awful?
Keese had all of his life behaved justly: he could easily envision himself as the Hon. Earl Keese, in black robes and on some bench beneath the blindfolded goddess. The image came in handy at such a time as this.
"Let’s both calm down, Harry, we are neighbors and I hope we can be friends. I beg your forgiveness for all the things I’ve done that have offended you. Foremost among them is of course ruining your car. I don’t admit to any of the others, I haven’t meant to be sarcastic, however it’s seemed, believe me. And maybe it’s a bit crude to mention it, but you did take thirty-two dollars from me for the food and drink, if you remember. The thing about your wife is absolutely untrue, and I don’t mind saying that it is an infamous charge to make even in jest."
Harry spread his legs and put his hands on his hips. "Do you deny entering the bedroom when she was lying on the bed, naked under a towel?"
"But it was my own bedroom," cried Keese, "and I didn’t know she was there. She helped herself to a shower without my knowledge, simply went upstairs in our house without asking anybody!"
"You’re cool, I’ll say that," Harry stated. "O.K., you’ve got your story, she’s got hers."
"Oh. Shit," Keese shouted, forsaking all hope of being judicious, "what’s the use of trying to be rational with you? The both of you should be put in a cage!"
"Now you’re showing your true colors," said Harry in a jeering tone. "The truth is that you think you’re better than us. You don’t think we belong in this neighborhood. Admit it."
The accusation took Keese totally by surprise. He had no sense of what Harry’s implication could be, and he told him so.
"Come on." Harry sneered knowingly. "What a hypocrite you are. I hate that trait more than outright bigotry."
"I’m not going to let you get away with this, Harry," Keese said. "First, I’m not a bigot of any sort, but moreover I haven’t any idea of what, if I were one, there would be about you that’s objectionable."
"For your information," Harry said defiantly, "Ramona’s not one of them. So you can stop worrying."
Keese emitted a laughing sigh. "God, how wrong can a man be!"
"At least you have the decency to admit it," said Harry.
"Not me," Keese cried. "You. It never occurred to me to consider what she was or not. I had absolutely no reason to think of the subject, in fact."
"Relax, Earl. Your worst fears haven’t been confirmed."
They were still outdoors in the night, everything as before, Harry’s car in the swamp, Keese covered with muck, his shoes oozing.
He made a weary effort. "Harry," he said, "I don’t care what Ramona’s extraction is, I assure you."
Harry persisted. "As long as she’s your kind, eh?" But when Keese walked away in disgust Harry followed him with what was apparently intended as placation. "Look, I don’t blame you. I’m not criticizing. It makes perfect sense to me."
Keese made no response. Which turned out to be the right way to deal with Harry, but by this point Keese would have preferred to have nothing further to do with him which might have been possible had he not done that stupid thing with the car! It was essential that he never again contemplate taking revenge on Harry: this was a fervent promise to himself.
"Hell," said Harry to his back, "I didn’t think you were prejudiced, Earl. I realized you were just being sarcastic as usual, and that always gets my back up."
Keese could remember not one instance in which he had been sarcastic, and it annoyed him to be so characterized again, but he had himself under firm government now, as he squished across the lawn, and he made no reply.
"You’re right about that thirty-two dollars," Harry said, pleading. "You don’t owe me anything for the spaghetti and wine."
Good of him to admit that, but obviously he wasn’t so desperate now that he would return it! Oh, he was a beauty, that Harry. Keese had now reached the back door. But he shouldn’t go as he was, dripping with filth, into the kitchen. He continued, therefore, to the outside door to the basement, went down the concrete steps, and let himself in. It was with the greatest relief that he saw he had shaken off Harry, who had presumably entered the kitchen.
Keese felt somewhat better, having everything he needed down there. There was a metal stall shower in a corner, and a full outfit of work clothes pants, shirts, and shabby sneakers hanging from a nail, the sneakers by their tied laces. This ensemble was flecked with green paint, but signifying honest labor as it did, was not shameful. When the light was on he saw that what had soaked him was principally water and not the slime he had assumed it to be: here and there were strands of brown weed.
He stripped and took a successful shower (the downstairs facility could not always be counted on: the proper mix of hot and cold was often difficult to compound). He took the final burst of water into his face and then stepped blindly from the doorless enclosure onto the square of carpeting on the concrete floor outside. He seized the towel from the hook on the outer surface of the stall and, having dried his head first, stretched its terry-cloth length across his back.
"Is that what naturally happens to a man?"
It was Ramona, whom he had not heard arrive, owing to the sound of the shower. She was looking at his body, and her upper lip was rising towards her nostrils.
Meet the Author
Thomas Berger is the author of twenty-three novels. His previous novels include Best Friends, Meeting Evil, and The Feud, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His Little Big Man is known throughout the world.
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