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by Julian Grant
I’d not been
paying attention so when the guy with questionable dental hygiene called
out to me from his beat-to-hell LTD, I jumped. I hadn’t been expecting
the question - and I was a million miles away when he called out.
“Sorry, what was that?” I asked, my dog tugging at his leash, anxious to be on his way. The weather had just turned and both he and I had been stuck inside all winter. We’d both gotten heavier around the middle and I was already trying to figure out how many times I’d have to walk him and myself before we both dropped the spare tires.
So, when we were suddenly accosted by this guy driving a twenty-year-old ride better suited for my Dad with Florida plates, I was jolted back from doing the math on our mutual bellies to glancing about trying to figure out what this stranger was on about.
I live in Miller Beach, Indiana. It’s a bedroom community that’s seen much better days annexed onto Gary, Indiana which you’ve probably heard about. Miller is an aging hippie commune on one side with a bevy of entitled lake dwellers the otherside. My side of the tracks, you’ve got teachers, retired folks, most of the more affluent black folk that have called the area home for decades and new couples looking for cheap first homes. The other side I don’t bother much with. Our side’s Blue. Their side’s Red. Enough said.
“You deaf?” Florida Guy asked as he glared at me from his car window. He was smoking unfiltered Camels, I recognized the short stubby smokes from a million years ago and I didn’t even think they made them anymore. The sweet Turkish tobacco hit me in a flashback to my drinking days and I was suddenly thirsty - all these years later. Some smells are like that. Like the bitter tang of burnt meat or charbroiled BBQ coming from the heavy V8 inside his ride.
“You talking to me?” I asked looking about, figuring that maybe he was calling out to my neighbors a couple of doors down that did have two rust buckets stacked up by their side garage. Tree branches had been swept in front of both cars covering their flattened tires and well-worn exteriors. The guy who owned them, a Doctor I think, passed at least two years ago and they’d sat there ever since. Car corpses, really and not the only ones on the quarter-mile I live on. Every day, me and the dog would pass by an assortment of cracked and moribund cars, mostly older models that seemed unlikely to start again plus other forgotten vehicles. There were old pop-up trailers, a few boats, and even an RV that had turned green with mold you might spot if you were doing an inventory of my street.
Which apparently was what the guy was doing.
“Yeah, are those your fucking cars, I said?”
Some people swear as a matter of course. It’s part of their DNA, learned early at home usually and peppers their everyday speech without them even thinking about it. I don’t swear at all - figuring that at my age, it looks less than dignified to be cursing and using words that are best kept to one’s self. I don’t spit either. Which is what the guy did next, hocking a loogie out of his car onto the road as his impatience with me grew.
I glanced about, making sure that indeed the stranger spitting and swearing at me was actually speaking to me. My neighbor’s one usable car wasn’t in front of their place and there was nobody else around. Except for the dog, of course. His head was now looking back and forth from the man in the car to me. Swiveling on a stick - and I heard something I never hear from my dog.
A growl, low and throaty, just loud enough for me to hear.
I’ve learned to trust that growl.
“They’re my neighbors. Looks like they’re not home.”
Second, to spitting and swearing, there is only one other thing that sets me off.
Florida Guy sucked his teeth. Yellow tombstones, stained from the Camels, I assumed. A kiss of disappointment stretching his too-thin lips.
“You know when they’re gonna be home?”
“You got me,” I called back. “We don’t talk much.”
It’s true. We don’t. The Doctor’s kids packed up his stuff, moved out most of the furniture once he passed and left the two cars to rust and rot in the open. I saw her, his daughter I imagined, swing by every once in a while but the yard service people were the only constants there. I’d seen her maybe twice in the last month. I hadn’t been counting, to be honest.
“I’m a hunter. I’m looking for shit,” he barked as if this explained everything.
My dog, still low-motor grumbling, pulled on his lead. He definitely didn’t care for Florida Guy.
“Excuse me?” I said. “I don’t understand. You’re a hunter?”
It’s a special
kind of guy that insults you without knowing you. I’d not had too many
dealings with people from the South - and most of what I knew I had
gleaned from TV, books, and the movies. On one side, there was the
genteel sweet-talking ice tea-drinking charmer. The other was
diametrically opposed. The kind that makes Google News headlines. Try it
some time. Type in Florida Man and any date and you’ll see some crazy
factoid about bath-salt addicted, gun-toting loony tunes that make you
glad to live thousands of miles away.
“I buy ‘em cheap for cash and fix ‘em and then buy some more. My Dad taught me the business.”
He stuck his hand out of his car then, extending it in an offer of friendship. The once universal sign of ‘howdy neighbor’ and waved me forward.
The dog refused to move. I wasn’t too keen myself.
After the last year with lockdowns and masks and hand-sanitizing everything, I’d almost forgotten just how common shaking hands was - used to be - and I had taken a half-step forward in reciprocation when the dog actually barked.
Florida guy snapped a look at my dog, a sneer fleeting across his face, quick as a whisper, as he kept on waving me over.
“Don’t leave me hanging, bub.”
I left him hanging.
He pulled his arm back in, his eyes tightening at my rejection as he flicked the butt end of his Camel out onto the road, not caring about the littering or the live smoke he’d ditched.
I stepped on the butt end, tamping it out on the ground as he sniffed hard at my reaction. Not approving of me tamping out his butt end.
“I’m gonna be around in the ‘hood, picking up work, looking for scraps. You see anything good? Cars, mind?”
I shook my head slowly. The dog whined once, a thin mew that gave me a good reason to move on. The guy was giving me the creeps. His car was old, baked by the Florida sun with the clear coat peeling all over and smelled bad. Everything about the car said bad news. It had a lot of miles on it - and they didn’t all feel like good ones. He’d even jammed black tar paper over the back windows, blocking out the sun, I suppose creating an impenetrable void if you wanted to look back there. I didn’t,
“I’ll see you around sometime maybe? I’m gonna be your new neighbor, partner.”
I nodded at him, hoping that I’d never see him again. The dog pulled again and I took that opportunity to head on up the hill away from the car. As far as I was concerned, I never wanted to see him again. Once I knew where he was going to live, I made a mental note to keep well enough away.
Looking ahead, I kept my ears peeled letting the dog pull me upwards. The last thing I wanted to hear was him turning around wanting to engage with me some more. I’m not a rude man, like I said, by nature - but the idea of spending any more time with the car hunter from Florida just gave me the creeps.
I glanced back
once I was twenty or thirty feet away, just checking to see which way he
The LTD rolled off as I stood there looking down at it, turning right and accelerating hard off to the right.
I couldn’t be certain, but I think my new neighbor is a serial killer.
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