Neighbors and Strangers

We hated the dog across the street, almost from the moment we moved in.

He was a mutt, about the size and color of an Irish Setter, but his hair was shorter and more coarse. He was a sneaky, mangy flea-bag that would charge at bike riders and pedestrians as they worked their way up the hill on Bell Avenue, but he’d hide and wait in the thick grass or under the porch behind the rotting lattice beside the leaning, creaking stairs of the old white farmhouse across the street until it was too late. People would jump and cry out, and had to wait for one of the snotty-nosed, milk-mustached kids to come out and wrangle the dog in; or for the fat, waddling old man to groan and limp his way out of the house, adjusting his ball cap eight or ten times and sweeping back hair that wasn’t there anymore, shifting his weight from one hip to the other for his locomotion. We didn’t know the dog’s name, or the kids’ names for that matter, but we saw them laughing and half-heartedly apologizing to the people the dog scared as they led him away by the collar. We didn’t know them, but my father seemed to. He just never bothered to fill us in. My brother and I called that hated dog “Bruno.” To this day, I can’t remember why.

Being a stranger to your neighbors is something that our neighbors weren’t used to. The kids across the street were dirt-smudged, bare-footed and bare-chested urchins with drink-stained upper lips and matted hair. Their eyes gleamed with impish evil and their words were strange to us, impossible to comprehend and decipher. It was like living in another country.

In the winter, the snow came. A thin, white layer covered the ground one morning when we got up, and we were amazed. The cold — the coldest temperatures we’d ever experienced up to that point in our lives — stayed around to help keep the snow on the ground. But the temperatures were near the freezing point during the day and in the mid-twenties at night, so the snow would partially thaw then freeze again, forming what I called snow-cone slush.

I was in the yard that Saturday, bundled up like an Eskimo. From across the street, the boy closest to our age beaned me clean on the cheek with a snowball whipped across Bell Avenue at me. When I looked, he was grinning and his imp eyes glinted, challenging me, daring me to whip one back at him. He was smaller than me, though not much (I wasn’t a big kid for my age, and had been sickly growing up, so I never “filled out” completely), and he stood frozen in his follow-through stance after he threw the snow-cone mixture of ice and powder at me.

The yards seemed to crawl up to the blacktop of Bell Avenue as though in worship, their mighty, ancient trees majestically spreading over the lawns and drainage ditches and driveways like queens spreading their arms and robes over their fawning subjects. Seeds and leaves cascaded over dense lawns, used to thriving for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of years with minimal sunlight and moisture — only what spilled through the canopy of the massive trees. I stood in my yard, which rolled away from the street to my front porch, and could not see the boy’s knees. He was standing on the opposite side of the street and the rise of the road between us hid the ground from view.

I chose to ignore him and went back to whatever it was I was doing in the snow. He pulled the hood of his tattered, worn blue jacket off his head and tore the gloves from his sticky, lint-covered fingers and bent down over his feet. I couldn’t see anything but the hump of his back rising over the road as he fussed over something for a few moments, then stood up with another slushy snowball in his hand. I tried to hide my irritation behind my thick glasses and long hair, but set my jaw as I willed him not to throw it, don’t throw it, don’t you dare throw it you little …

He threw it.

This time, I was looking. I saw the shining white blob of frozen moisture arc over the street and took a single step back, watching it land in an explosion of sharp, needle-like shards of broken ice and glass-like frozen chunks. Georgia isn’t a snowy place in general being in the deep south. What does fall is usually wet and heavy, and there isn’t a lot of it. It was unusual that they got nearly 5 inches that winter, and my brother and I, who had seen snow perhaps two or three times in our lives, were ecstatic about it. We played in it, tried to build a snow man in it, took the keel off my mother’s water ski and slid about in it. But we didn’t throw snowballs. We’d never known how to make one.

I looked down on that splash of broken glass and mush and heard that dirty devil-boy cackle. I thought of that dog, chasing us and others up the street then hiding, the way they laughed at the people the dog harassed, and I thought about their dirty faces and clothes and feet, and the evil, impish glint in their eyes.

I knew, because our yard was steeper and lower than theirs, when I bent down he couldn’t see me at all. I took my time, fishing beneath the pressed, compacted inches of snow remaining in our yard, feeling in the wet, brown and dormant grass beneath. When I found what I wanted, I placed it gently in my palm and packed the snow around it carefully, making sure none of it showed. I made the ball snow-cone sized, just like he did, and when I stood up, there was no way to tell there was a rock in the middle of that slush ball.

He grinned at me and squared his feet to the blacktop, his crooked smile broadening on his dirty lips. I smiled wryly back, and then I threw the snowball, not knowing if I’d even built it so it would hold together in flight.

I was older than he was, and I could put a LOT more speed on the throw than him. Mine didn’t arc lazily over the street and plop into his hood or onto his shoulder. Nope — mine whizzed across the street like a fast ball, on a line and dead on target. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was better than I thought, and I was just starting to get the hormones going that would rage throughout my teen years. All of them were in that wet, hard, icy throw with a heart of stone.

It hit him square in the forehead before he could move out of the way. He probably only caught a glimpse of the projectile before it cracked loudly off the crown of his head. I was actually aiming for his face, dead-center in the nose was my goal, but I was happy with the hit. There was a sickening knock like someone rapping bare knuckles on a solid-core wooden door, and the weight of the snowball knocked him head over heels. I saw the holes in the bottom of his hand-me-down galoshes while he went head first backwards into the snow, but lost sight of him completely under the rise of the road.

I was already making my way back into the house when I heard the wail rise into the sharp, chilly air like a siren. I stepped up the pace and vanished with a bit of an adrenaline rush pushing up my spine, making sure I didn’t hear the bang of the farmhouse door opening before MY door was closed … and locked.

I stayed away from the windows and indoors the rest of the day, and only realized when my mother brought it to my attention that I was whistling a happy tune.


3 thoughts on “Neighbors and Strangers

  1. Dane, I love this! I think you have a great deal of sadist just waiting to jump out. I fall for this every single time. I get so excited and I’m reading and reading and whack no ending. Boy that pisses me off! What happened to the boy across the street?

    No ending? You don’t like the way they end? 😉 I’m not being sadistic, it’s just that I don’t always remember how these particular stories end. In this particular case, I don’t know if I even SAW the kid again … until the rose bush incident. You’ll find that one in here somewhere too. 😉 I’m glad you liked it though, and thank you for taking the time to read my work. 🙂

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