Neighborhood Watch, by Seth Johnson
Thomas has a secret. A secret so powerful it sustains him through each hollow workday, sorting endless stacks of junk mail. Flyers for bargain Nissans and discounted cuts of USDA choice, bulk rate postage addressed to Current Resident, its lifespan begins with his hand and ends in the trashcan. Thomas’ secret soothes his aching back while feeding his imagination. During each shift he plays back the memories in his mind. These reruns offer an escape from management’s tirades, and occupy him while nibbling on a stale cheese sandwich during the required forty minute lunch break.
Since seeing the U-Haul, orange and grey abomination, parked in the Palmers’ driveway this morning, Thomas is trying (unsuccessfully) to come to grips with the fact that his secret is about to relocate halfway across the goddamn country. There had been clues that the Big Move was coming; he just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
It’s not that Thomas was ignorant of the fact that eventually, like all good things, the Palmers would come to an end. His parent’s marriage ended decades ago and nobody in their right mind would have called that atrocity a “good thing.” Plus there are plenty of other programs he is fond of: the family-friendly comedy of the Wilsons on Monday nights, raging temper Tuesdays with the Turners, not to mention the always entertaining Wednesday evenings with the newlywed Phillips. Thinking of last week’s show made him chuckle, poor Mitch (the young husband) pretending he loved the flavor of Jenny’s casserole, then spitting a mouthful into his napkin while she was distracted by the ringing phone.
Thomas’ trouble dealing with the demise of the Palmers is twofold. First of all, they are by far his favorite program. He is literally their number one fan. The complexities of their on-then-off again relationship consumes him. Thomas shed as many or more tears than they did last season when Melissa (don’t call her Missy) finally forgave Preston for whatever happened on his weekend work trip to Vegas. Forgiveness was not in Thomas’ mother’s vocabulary. Tell me who she is, his mother had demanded after finding the cocktail napkin with the feminine scrawl in his father’s work pants. Nobody, he replied. Then why don’t you go live with Little Miss Nobody and let her wash the shit stains out of your drawers? He called her bluff and moved out the next day.
In spite of the pair’s problems with each other, Thomas was truly touched by the solidarity they maintained in raising their two children. He had followed the story lines for six years, watching the kids grow from scabby-kneed rug rats into awkward adolescents. Hadn’t he cheered the night little Jimmy came home beaming with pride after making the basketball team, and chewed his nails to the flesh when Jill’s date for the middle school Christmas dance was late to pick her up?
This leads to the second, and greater of Thomas’ dual dilemmas. The moving van’s presence pretty much guarantees that tonight will be the last episode. And even if he tunes in for two hours (there are rules: regular shows last sixty minutes, he allows an extra hour for season finales), there is no way all the loose ends will be tied up. This will have to be the mother of all endings (M.A.S.H. multiplied by Seinfeld) to even come close to meeting his expectations. What a crappy time to move, with so much unresolved drama! Thomas is always amazed at how little they tell each other. Isn’t communication the key to a lasting union? But he has seen the mail; in fact he sorted it and sent it on its way. Those arrogant red envelopes with Final Notice stamped in bold across the center, Preston flirting dangerously with financial ruin. Another reason to respect Preston as a father. In spite of his cash flow problems, Jimmy and Jill never had to go without. This wasn’t the case for Thomas growing up. To put it in Jeopardy terms, if the answer is “The person that paid the cable bill after his father moved out,” then the correct question would be “Who is Nobody, Alex?” In fact, Thomas’ first order of business after landing the post office gig many years ago was to hook up the cable, pay channels and all.
But matters of money can’t compare with Melissa’s cancer scare, discreetly-labeled correspondence from the county hospital, and the way she sneaks off like a villain to examine her breast in the downstairs bathroom. Thomas had never really cared when one of his shows got cancelled, until now. He should have been prepared, for the last few months letters had been coming with return addresses from the same West Coast town. Obviously, a move was imminent. Thomas chalked up his miscalculation to denial.
A grunt from behind shatters Thomas’ reverie. He follows his supervisor’s gaze across the workspace, which is an uncharacteristic mess. Lost in thought, Thomas has aimlessly been tossing pro-choice propaganda pamphlets in with coupons for gratis Gerber products. Post office policy frowns on imprecise mail flipping.
Sorry Boss, says Thomas. Earlier that morning, he overheard Smith and Old Percy talking baseball at the water cooler. He turns their conversation into his excuse. My delivery is off, it’s just a dead arm, I’ll have my velocity back tomorrow. Thomas and his coworkers have nothing in common. All they talk about is sports. And tits. If you can’t talk about sports (or tits) then you are pretty much a nobody at the post office. If you are a nobody then you never get promoted past mail sorter. The supervisor suggests Thomas take the rest of the day, without pay of course.
Driving home well below the speed limit (no rush, it doesn’t get dark for hours) Thomas turns his mind backwards, to the beginning. The great paradox of Thomas’ secret is that although he is vigilant in protecting it, he longs for someone to share it with. He pictures himself leading the gossip at the water cooler, Smith and Old Percy asking questions to which Thomas supplies the answers. Palmer plot twists are so much more interesting than the Yankees lack of quality middle relief.
Everything became possible seven years ago when a junior runner wheeled a stack of real estate listings to Thomas’ station. He set one aside to read during his break (he was a PB and J man back then). Desperate to move out of his mother’s house, and with ample savings and a credit rating in the mid six hundreds, perfect opportunity nearly caused Thomas to choke on his Extra Crunchy. An older subdivision was being remarketed as the ideal atmosphere for first time homeowners seeking relief from the chaos and inflated prices of property in the city. Whispering Pines promised shade trees galore in a tranquil setting, just the thing for raising a family. The developers used the same technique when renaming all the streets: a synonym for quiet followed by a type of tree. But it was three words in particular that sealed the deal for Thomas. No Dogs Allowed.
He bought a tiny two-bedroom nestled deep in a forgotten corner (on Calm Birch), away from the well-traveled roads (with the better names) leading in and out of the community. Having distanced himself from his mother’s prying eyes, Thomas finally found the freedom to do what he loved most. Watch.
Peeping is a lost art, like calligraphy or the knuckleball. It’s not about anything crude (not anymore), even when watching Jeanette Thompson touch herself after the kids fall asleep, bored and alone in her spacious living room, unable to figure out the universal remote and suspicious of her husband’s late office nights. Technology killed the perverted peep just like the cassette tape. The internet provides the curious voyeur with every possible pornographic perspective, so there is no need to risk standing outside a window with a hand buried in one’s pants. Thomas didn’t slip into the shadows every night for some sort of sick sexual release. His addiction was to the reality, pure and uncensored. An added bonus: no commercials. Looking through the window he saw real families. Unlike his life, things actually happened. Things actually changed. These people: the Palmers, the Turners, the Phillips, weren’t nobodies. And when he watched, neither was he.
The first thing Thomas learned was that the marriage of truth and light is a myth. Deception flourishes like foliage in the daylight. Each window he peeked in late at night opened his eyes to the genuine nature of his neighbors. He was a pioneer of authenticity, in the darkness he discovered Mrs. Wilcox, head of the PTA, dragging deeply from what could only have been a crack pipe. The charismatic Joseph Turner, champion of single moms shopping at the QuikMart, who cared for the lawns of both elderly widows in the subdivision (at no charge), beat his wife Molly mercilessly for crimes as simple as spilled milk.
The darkness was dependable, stable and welcoming, which was more than he could say for any of his coworkers or acquaintances. He knew every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. Whispering Pines’ countless trees splashed shadows across the streets, drowning out the moonlight and offering friendly patterns of midnight to protect his pathway. The ancient street lamps posed no threat; the edges of their dull orange glow melted into impenetrable ink. He knew all the lamps’ inconsistencies and shortcomings, they reminded him of his colleagues at the post office and he named them accordingly. Standing absolutely still, snuggled comfortably in the arms of the Wilson’s camellias; he’d hear the pop, fizz and hum as the lamp on the corner struggled to life, an hour after the rest. Old Percy tied one on again, punching in late, he’s sure to get written up this time.
The memory-induced smile vanished as Thomas turned onto the Palmer’s street. 309 Sighing Willow, typical two-story with beige siding and an immaculately manicured lawn. Bored, Jimmy had ripped the numbers off the mailbox a couple years back. Thomas made sure each new postman assigned to the route knew the situation, and the Palmers never missed out on their mail. The headlights and dented grill of the U-Haul formed a mocking sneer, taunting Thomas with the threat of unanswered questions. Forcing himself not to stare as he passed, Thomas stole one quick glance into the back of the van. It was almost full.
The sudden sensation associated with his certainty of the impending conclusion, painfully premature, shattered his insides. It took all his faculties to maintain control of the worn pickup. The pit of his stomach seemed to be trying to swallow his organs, pulling him down and inward (the opposite of butterflies), like seeing flashing blue lights in the rearview after a night out drinking. Guilt, sorrow, loneliness, regret…each terrible emotion scrolled through him like a news ticker.
He met Melissa Palmer once, at the QuikMart. Many times he would see the stars of his shows at the store, but they never noticed him. Nobody notices an extra. He was just filler, somebody to take up space in the picture. He turned his buggy onto the breakfast cereal aisle, and there she was. Her basket was full, his nearly empty. These were happier times for the Palmers, Preston’s business ventures prosperous. Cancer meant little more than a useless horoscope, or something recycled in a primetime medical drama. Thomas grabbed a box of Apple Jacks, pretending to read the back, then tossing it in his cart. Melissa was further down the aisle trying to decide between Mueslix and Mini-Wheats (Quikmart arranged its cereal alphabetically). She selected both and wheeled in his direction. Lucky Charms. Kix, Honey Combs. Here she comes. Golden Grahams. Golden Puffs. Grape Nuts. Oh God. Fruit Loops. Frosted Flakes. He froze. The aroma of her perfume (more citrus than floral) tickled his nose and made him slightly dizzy. Corn Pops. Corn Flakes. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Thomas prayed that she would stroll right past him. He steeled himself for the close encounter with celebrity. She stopped, their baskets almost touching. Their baskets were almost touching! Melissa smiled and introduced herself. She said she recognized him; she said didn’t he live in Whispering Pines and she said I’m sorry but we haven’t met before and she must have asked his name. To avoid eye contact, he snatched a family-size box of Alpha-Bits. He couldn’t remember how he responded, but he must have done something right because she didn’t make a strange face or scurry off. It’s nice to meet you she said and I hope to see you around. As she rolled her buggy on towards the canned veggies, Thomas resisted the impulse to ask for an autograph. Slowly, his breath returned. The Alpha-Bits were ruined, however, his fingers having punctured the waxy cardboard. It all seemed like a lifetime ago. Maybe it was.
Thomas made it home on instinct alone. The Palmers would be gone tomorrow. He pulled in to his driveway and killed the engine. He needed to sob but couldn’t, all the sadness bottlenecked in his throat, choking him. In desperation he grabbed the mirror, pulling it down to identify the obstruction. His eyes met those in the reflection, and Thomas erupted. Hands balled into fists, pummeling face. The same way his father used to hit him. The same way he hit himself after his mother ran the old man off, and Thomas didn’t even have anybody left that cared enough to punch him. Thomas would come home after school to a house without a working television to drown out the silence. Once his father moved out, the TV in Thomas’ home was nothing more than an overpriced shelf. Maybe he had a black eye. Maybe he had a bloody lip. Who did this to you? His mother would ask. Nobody. Nobody hit me. That’s my final answer. Fingers in his mouth clawed their way down the gullet. He tried to reach inside and pull out the hurt, turning himself inside out, flipping the pillow to hide the stain. Melissa was leaving, and (more bad news) he was hitting himself again. Then the storm passed, leaving him battered but peaceful. Thomas stumbled out of the truck and into the house. He had a lot to do. This was going to be a big night.
A long, steaming hot shower eased his mind and body. Avoiding the bathroom mirror, Thomas toweled off and grabbed the jumpsuit from the laundry basket. It was navy blue and dark grey, embroidered with the logo for the local water board. Fred was stenciled in script over his heart. Sliding his belt through the loops, he attached a holstered flashlight. Two blue pens and a notepad went into the breast pocket. In the bottom dresser drawer buried beneath several pairs of jeans was a brown wig. Thomas was no novice, years of experience and several near misses had taught him the value of a disguise in case of discovery. That’s why he had the Rules, to minimize the risk. Only watch for one hour (exception: finales), each night a house in a different section of the subdivision. Use shrubberies and trees as cover. If spotted do not attempt to hide, use the flashlight and pretend to check a water meter. Act like you belong. Never take off running. Six years and he had never been caught (knock on wood). The Rules worked.
A handful of Hershey Kisses went into his pocket; just like anyone he enjoyed a snack while tuning in. The process complete, Thomas relaxed in his recliner, peering past the blank television screen and out the window, watching the sunset.
He let the darkness sink in before heading out. Night swelled, spilling over rooftops and filling the streets. There was no moon. The path familiar as postal code, he strolled in the shadows at an easy pace. It took less than twenty minutes to reach the Palmers’, meandering through backyards, avoiding sidewalks and security lights. His pulse picked up tempo as he approached his favorite window. From this spot Thomas could see the entirety of the family room, and a portion of the kitchen. He leaned against one of the Palmers’ pines and checked his watch. Show time at nine.
Most of the furniture was gone, only a small table and the television remained. That’s where Jimmy sat, chipping away diligently at arithmetic. Math was his worst subject, but he was a hard worker. Jill practiced pirouettes, having recently taken up ballet. Preston divided his time between watching cable news and trying to help Jimmy, who shrugged him off. The son’s pride, inherited from both parents, made Thomas smile. He longed to join them inside, to tussle Jimmy’s hair and tell him “good going son.” What he wouldn’t give to raise Jill in his arms and spin her in circles, setting her down dizzy and giggling. Melissa made brief appearances to dance alongside Jill before retreating to the kitchen. This was vintage Palmer behavior, acting like everything was kosher in the presence of the kids. Tomorrow, Jimmy would be headed to a new school in a new city, and his parents still made him work on his math.
Thomas stood outside the window still as a statue, soaking it all in. Ten o’clock was the children’s bedtime, and it was in this final hour with his finest family that offered his only hope for the closure that would keep from driving him crazy.
Melissa returned from the kitchen and spoke, Jimmy and Jill headed upstairs without protest. Preston followed them; they still liked to be tucked in even though they would both deny the fact under questioning. A bead of sweat glided from Thomas’ brow, along his cheek, falling from his chin. He remained motionless, although inside he squirmed with anticipation. Alone downstairs, Melissa pulled an envelope from her apron and sat, Jimmy’s warmth still clinging to the chair. This is it, Thomas realized. She is going to tell him. That must mean she has the cancer. If she didn’t, there would be no reason to say anything. Oh, poor (beautiful) Melissa, such a loving mother. Crackhead Wilcox should be the one with cancer, or better yet Joe Turner. They don’t deserve their health. Life is so unfair.
Movement on the stairs catches his eye. Preston was returning, slowly, almost reluctantly. He stopped, Thomas could see only his knees on down. He must be watching his wife. He has to see the envelope. It’s really going to happen. Is it? Please oh please. Thomas began to rock back and forth against the tree. Melissa’s head jerked suddenly. What did Preston say? She jumped up and fled into the kitchen where he lost sight of her. Preston entered the picture. He went to the table and reached underneath. A briefcase. Preston opened it and removed a handful of red letters. It’s the bills. The thrill of it all made Thomas swoon. There would be no more secrets after tonight. Would Melissa’s cancer bring them back together, like before? Could they afford the medical expenses? Or does this mean it’s Splitsville for the Palmers?
Melissa’s shadow precedes her from the kitchen. Preston faces the doorway, clinching the truth in his right hand. Her shadow stops, Preston’s mouth moving as they speak without seeing. Melissa enters the frame, her eyes swollen from wiping away tears. Preston sees that she’s been crying, his shoulders sink, and he slowly returns the letters to the briefcase. Melissa uses both hands to pull her hair behind her ears. Her letter is also gone. They stare at each other, galaxies apart. Melissa braves a smile and returns to the kitchen. Preston’s attention returns to the television. Thomas feels sick.
It can’t end like this. It just can’t. All these years of hiding and watching and loving, for nothing? All because they are too scared to tell each other the truth. Melissa deserves better than this. Furious, Thomas yanks off his wig and hurls it at the pine tree. He storms up the Palmers stoop and stares at their front door.
Thomas takes one deep breath, imagines himself ringing the bell, and stops just short of actually pressing the buzzer. He leans on the Palmers’ door, his breath fogs the brass knocker. He feels fear enter his peripherals, similar to those black dots that invade one’s field of vision if they jump up too quickly. Better not pass out here. Awareness of his momentary loss off control hits him like a stomach punch (as opposed to the bitch slaps his father was so fond of). Thomas breaks the no running rule all the way back to Calm Birch, and spends at least twenty minutes lying in bed staring at the ceiling before he remembers the wig.
Rather than return that night, Thomas decides to wait for daylight. It’s not like the hairpiece can be traced back to him anyway. With the sunrise, he calls in at the post office. He has sick days to spare. He decides to knock on the Palmers’ door, say hello to Melissa when she answers (she knows him, after all), and then do whatever it takes to get the two of them talking. If he has to spill the beans, so be it. Who cares if this is the demise of his secret? He won’t be a nobody anymore.
For the first time, Thomas uses the sidewalks during his walk to the Palmers. He passes Joe Turner mowing the old lady’s grass. Joe waves, and Thomas returns the gesture. Turning onto Sighing Willow, the first thing he notices is that the van is gone. He is momentarily discouraged, until he sees Melissa’s Volvo. This is even better. Instead of having to explain himself to Preston, he can simply tell Melissa what he knows. She can work out the rest. A new feeling washes over him. This must be what it feels like to be the good guy.
As he advances on the Palmers’ front yard, his trance is broken by an approaching cherry red Toyota sedan. The car beeps its horn, two short bursts, and pulls over close to Thomas. The window descends. Inside is a woman, a young lady rather, in her late twenties, very blond, and at least four months pregnant. Her diamond engagement ring sparkles in the sun. She chews a pink slab of gum, popping a bubble in between perfect teeth. Thomas smells strawberry.
“Hi, I’m Cindy,” she says. “Can you tell me where 309 is? We’re moving in this week…and so much to do!” She rubs her belly for emphasis.
Thomas points to the Palmers’ former dwelling. Cindy thanks him (and winks!), blowing a fresh bubble as the car bounces into reverse. He veers into the bushes, grabs his wig, and turns back. Maybe he will go into work today. After all, he has a half-day to make up. Thomas exits the sidewalk, following an oft-traveled yet well hidden route to his house, his mind thinking only of next Thursday night.
Between the grind of oil rigs and grading essays, Seth Johnson is trying to earn his PhD from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has no other publications, yet, but the rejection slips at least deliver a dollar menu degree of authentic (but optimistically malnutritious) sustenance.
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Tags: creepy, secrets, seth johnson, spying