by Tim O'Brien
Aaron Neeler, owner of Neeler Publishing, had already been to five garage sales that afternoon, none of which had his desired goal—a small-screen TV.
As the other-made millionaire drove his Lexus through the monotony of subdivision non-architecture and strategically placed saplings, any sense of class superiority was quickly dashed by personal reminders of his nepotistic good fortune.
Aaron and his wife Lily lived four miles north in a large antebellum manse epicenter the cordoned matrix of avian-named avenues. Of the home's 7,000 square feet, over fifty yards were relegated to TV screen: a 60-inch high definition LCD in the family room, a 55-inch high-def-ready flat screen in the den and a 37-inch plasma in the master bedroom. The last thing Aaron Neeler needed was any more space dedicated to the projection of programming in which he already had very little interest. The TV he sought was intended simply to be a source of white noise/white sight—aural and visual grout to fill the diversionary lulls of silence that hindered Aaron's nightly reading. Any old, used, small-screen black-and-white would suffice. But deep down Aaron knew the TV fulfilled much more than such a simple utilitarian purpose. His recent commitment to such ascetic consumerism was, at its core, a passive-aggressive show of thriftiness intended to serve as an example of fiscal responsibility to his wife. Lily Neeler, having lived all her life content amidst humble working class surroundings, found herself, upon her husband's recent inheritance of the family's eponymous publishing firm, comfortably conformed to the uppermost of upper crusts. As if to prove herself fitted to her new socioeconomic status, Lily's monthly monetary output had begun to equal the national debt of many a small nation.
Aaron drove on, his eyes periodically glancing down at the local newspaper spread across the gray leather passenger seat. The paper was opened to the classified section. The addresses of garage sales were meticulously coded—decent neighborhoods in blue highlighter, not-so-nice neighborhoods in yellow. All of the blue addresses had black Xs scratched through them. Each X created a small rip indicative, perhaps, of intense dismay. Or desperation.
Aaron noted in the splayed classified section beside him the most proximate of yellowed addresses: 3656 N. Wright. He gritted, shifted and headed on.
Yellow. It was this part of the city where trashcans attained merely a suggestive presence. Where wooden planks replaced windows—a welcome opacity. Scattered about were impaired vehicles held together by rust. Outdated sedans with rags for gas caps and garbage bag windshields. Children of various ages gathered on curbs and concrete steps, unaware that even the slightest movement would count for what most kids call "playing." Heading past a row of boarded-up breaded fish eateries and "Open at 8am" liquor stores, Aaron spotted Wright Street. He made a sharp left into a neighborhood of mocking poverty. Aaron continued on, knowing that his turning back now would only affirm that he was as biased, as myopic, as equally snobbish as the snobbish neighbors whose shallow provinciality he so feverishly mocked.
Aaron plodded along, checking addresses; negatives to the left, positives to the right. Three blocks later he spotted 3656 N. Wright, a rickety Levittown-type prefab ranch-style covered with a visual cacophony of latex. Each color, a temporal indicator like rings of a tree. 50s eggshell white. Light blue from the 60s. 70s avocado. 80s beige. On the tattered front porch sat a large elderly black woman in a floral boubou. Aaron parked and climbed from his gray leather sanctuary. He approached the woman as she drank from a brown-bagged bottle. Aaron noticed that the woman's left eye was covered in a tarp of sticky-looking clouded goo. Her "malocchio" as occultists call it. The "evil eye." She wore a necklace adorned with small bones and, as amulet, a velvet red grigri bag. At the woman's bloated, bare feet sat a teenage boy in a mesh University of South Carolina Gamecocks jersey and oversized denim shorts. He suckled from an equally oversized can of Icehouse Beer. Aaron tentatively addressed the woman. "I saw in the paper that you were having a garage sale."
"Yeah, us, we'z always writin' stuff fer the paper." The woman wreaked sarcasm and Mad Dog.
"Here…it says..." Aaron extended the ad only to be halted by the woman's outstretched hand-like slab of callused flesh.
"Hell, we ain't even gotz a gerage." This lack of garage, thought Aaron, was his out. His escape. His rationale for ceasing any further conversation with the menacing Cyclops. But before Aaron could guiltlessly adjourn, the woman—as if putting Aaron to task—offered, "As longs ya here, we'z got all kindza stuff lyin' out back. Yerz fer the takin'. Check it out if'n you wantz."
"That's okay. It's just... I was..."
"You waz what?! Speak up boy!" Her harshness and largeness forced from Aaron an obligatory response.
"I was looking for a TV," he said. He figured such would bring a swift finality to their proceedings. After all, Aaron was pretty sure that, even if the woman did have a television, it would be the one thing with which she'd never part. He remembered years ago, driving from luxury resort to luxury resort across the otherwise impoverished Yucatan - endless shanties adorned with satellite dishes. The glow of prime-time programming their only source of light. Television. A two-dimensional portal. The sole escape of the forlorn.
"Darius, show da fellah da ol' black-n-white," said the woman to the lanky young man at her feet. Darius dramatically hung his head in blatant subjection. The blatancy of his subjection was rivaled only by the obtrusiveness of the cryptic tattoo covering his neck's nape. Some hieroglyphic Wickian symbolism, thought Aaron.
"Now!" demanded the woman. Darius guzzled down the oversized beer, tossed aside the can to nowhere in particular and, hands pressed on thighs, unfolded himself before Aaron. The tattooed neck, the lanky black torso; it was as if the young man were a cobra being summoned from a snake charmer's wicker creel. Darius straightened his body and tilted his head; an indication, Aaron assumed, to follow tilt-ward. Aaron tucked his car keys deep into his khaki pockets and followed Darius in a sort of somber death march. Each step stirred in Aaron the, until now, unacceptable option, "Why not just buy a new TV?!" But then what? Would that make him as shallow as Lily? Was he becoming party to the nepotistic nuevo-riche of whom he despised? How could he possibly be so superficial as to think this woman's television was any less worthy of serving such a menial service as a nightly diversion? As they reached the back yard, Darius refolded his towering frame and crab-walked underneath the sagging, splintered back porch.
There, amidst doggie chew toys, a battered coffee urn, a stained couch cushion, a broken birdbath, an old car battery, some fishing poles, a weathered Big Wheel and a bound stack of obscurely titled magazines, sat an old small-screen television. Clinging to each rabbit ear's terminus was a wad of aluminum foil.
"I'll take it," said Aaron, fearing the ramifications of stating otherwise. Darius plopped the set into Aaron's el-bracketed arms.
Aaron carried the TV to the front porch and sat it at the woman's feet. He reached for his wallet and pulled from it a crisp twenty.
"You don't even want to try it out?" asked the woman.
"I'm sure it's fine," said Aaron, persistently extending the twenty.
"Consider it a donation," she said, nodding at the little set. The woman grinned. It was a knowing grin. A smirk that sparked in her good eye signs of suspect benevolence. The other eye had seemingly become even more consumed by the mucilaginous glaze.
Aaron returned to his car, placed the TV atop the classifieds in the passenger seat and quickly converted the Lexus into a black blur. As the surroundings lessened in signs of poverty, Aaron finally, after an afternoon of death-defying shows of egalitarianism, relaxed.
Aaron pulled into his horseshoe-shaped driveway and lulled his car to park. As he sat contemplatively absorbed in the comforting smell of new leather, he gave a honk of acknowledgement to their gardener Jorge who busily toiled in the yard. Aaron aimed the remote at his three-car-garage. The door opened to reveal that Lily, and Lily's Volvo, were gone. Aaron parked the Lexus and with blatant humility hoisted the sad little television from the passenger seat and carried it up the front stoop, past the Ionic pillars, under the brick archway, into the Neeler residence.
Once inside, past the majestically pristine foyer, Lily's designer kitchen shone a magnificent cleanser-commercial-clean —the result not of zealous upkeep but of devout non-use. On the marble counter beside the virginal Viking brand oven sat a note from Lily stating in schoolgirl cursive that she had gone to the mall and that Aaron was to call Sean. Aaron rested the 12-inch on the counter and dialed his brother.
"I'm not in right now, please leave a message." The beep on Sean's machine was followed by a shrill crescendo, the length of which represented the awaiting queue of wanton lady friends. It wasn't that Sean was especially attractive. It was that Sean believed he was especially attractive and attached himself to women who derived their opinions from those whose opinions were stronger. "It's Aaron, returning your call." Aaron hung up the phone, scooped up the tiny TV and headed to his bedroom.
Aaron's and Lily's was a spacious five-bedroom home; bedrooms consisting of the master bedroom, the bedroom their only child Emma claimed during respites from college, and three spare bedrooms—one of which Aaron made his own. Ever since her second nose job, Lily's snoring had taken on the timber of someone vacuuming gravel. Aaron preferred an evening of solid slumber to the societal expectations re: marital sleeping arrangements.
The couple still had sex, but after, Aaron would retreat to his bedroom—a good book replacing the traditional post-coital cigarette.
Aaron's bedroom was a boudoir from a Laura Ashley catalog. The only signs of Aaron-ness were the random stacks of books. The books and now, as Aaron placed the metallic box atop the antique dresser, the TV. Aaron plugged in the TV and then, pessimistic of any tubal output, pulled the TV's power knob. The picture on the little b/w's screen shimmied then —moments of static having given way—gradually coagulated pixels into a picture of a golfer mid-putt.
Aaron hated golf—not that he had any intention of watching what was on. Audio/visual grout was his sole demand. He lay back and grabbed a book from the nearest stack of literature.
The afternoon passed as most Saturday afternoons: Aaron reading, Lily shopping, Jorge hoeing. Aaron spent the remainder of the day in his room, one nap per chapter read.
"I'm home!" announced Lily with a vocal strain indicative of the vast amount of purchases she had in tow. Moments later, Lily appeared at Aaron's bedroom draping an authentic mink stole across her faux body. "Don't you love it?!" she asked, hypothetically. Then, spotting Aaron's recent purchase, Lily lashed out, "What the hell is that?"
"I wanted a TV for the room," said Aaron and, with his opportunity availed, added with a strong hint of admonishment, "Not everything we buy has to be top-name status-affirming shit. " His implied "for example"—a nod toward the stole. Lily placed the stole on a Victorian style chair, gingerly enough to keep it from ruin but with a tossing motion implying argumentativeness.
"Come on Aar - what are you trying to prove?!"
Aaron continued. "I got this TV for free. And it works just fine."
"It looks pathetic. Is that what you want, 'pathetic'?"
"It fits perfectly. Another antique."
"There's a difference between 'old' and 'antique'."
"What's so bad with 'old'? Why do you keep fighting 'old'?"
"'Fight old'? How do I 'fight old'?"
Aaron's silence accentuated the obvious.
Lily continued. "Nobody likes getting older. What's good about getting older?"
Aaron recalled the black woman. "With age comes wisdom."
"That's so déclassé'."
"Saying déclassé' is déclassé'."
With community-theater histrionics, Lily gasped a southern belle's "well I" and stormed from the room, reappearing briefly to retrieve her stole.
Aaron's thoughts had now become firmly affixed to the impoverished woman with the goopy eye and incomparable girth. Her life of squalor. Her lack of superficiality. Even if she, that sage atop her sacred front porch, could afford things like plastic surgery, Aaron was quite sure it would never interest her. Aaron could sense from the woman an intrinsic wisdom. That enigmatic eye—not for sight, but insight. It was as if she had known that Aaron was going to show up at her doorstep. At that moment. For that TV. As if the classified ad were written specifically for Aaron.
Aaron headed back to his car and from the front seat removed the classifieds to reconfirm the woman's ad.
3656 N. Wright.
Aaron left the paper in his car, returned to his Laura Ashley brand haven, flipped on the TV and lay on his back to read.
Minutes, hours later, Aaron's eyes were diverted from his book to an ominous projection of light upon his bedroom ceiling. He lowered the book to notice that the little black and white, having relinquished all hopes of maintaining reception, now created above him a meringue of incandescence. Aaron put aside his book, climbed out of bed and turned off the television. He tried to sleep only to be burdened by the lingering echoes of his and Lily's most recent argument. Aaron headed to the master bedroom for a conjugal session of reconciliation, only to be greeted by a thunderous snoring. Aaron rerouted himself to the family room, where he plopped into the el-shaped hazel-colored sectional and grabbed the remote to the 60-inch LCD with not only high-def but also surround sound and picture-within-picture, a feature for which Aaron had yet to find any use.
As Aaron flipped through channels of big-screen faces and big-screen merchandise, he felt a bit of hypocritical hedonism. A gluttonous desire for excessive luxury. Aaron turned off the television to wallow in the silence of introspection.
Aaron heard above a shattering nocturnal snort awaken Lily from her rhythmic slumberous snore. "Honey!" she summoned. "Could you tuck me in?"
"Tuck me in." Argot for reconciliatory sex.
Lily lay sprawled in a sea foam green camisole, her collagen lips puffed full with pre-coital anticipation. Aaron noted the feminine slopes of her inner thighs, dark pubic hair peeking from the hem. Her nipples pushed against silk as she writhed on her back, not so much out of seduction as from stretching to stay awake. Ersatz pucker hiding yawn. Aaron loved the sea foam green camisole. It revealed just enough unscathed sensuality: only those areas of flesh that had not yet been scarred by cosmetic surgery.
Aaron slid off his khakis and underwear. He unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the floor. The socks he kept on. Lily hoisted the bottom of her camisole over her stretch-marked hips to allow Aaron easy access. A cool breeze from the window tickled Aaron's back as he thrust against Lily's protruding pelvis until, minutes later, she came. Aaron rolled onto his back. Lily rested her head on his chest, kissing tufts of hair, not quite making contact with flesh. Soon they were both asleep, the cool breeze drying the spot on the sheet between Lily's legs.
Aaron, awoken by a rapid riff of Lily snore, slid stealthily from the bed. Naked except for socks, he skulked down the stairway and into his boudoir, slid into a pair of black cotton shorts and a striped rugby shirt and approached the small TV. He looked at his reflection in the television's dormant screen. His face was a mien of guilt.
The countenance of one whom had, so very recently, cheated on one's truly beloved. Aaron turned on the TV to rid the screen of his reflection and fell soundly asleep to the scrambled semblance of overnight news.
"Aaron. It's your brother!" yelled out Lily.
Morning had, without Aaron's knowing, come and gone. It was nearly noon. Aaron snapped his tongue from the nocturnal sludge of his mouth's roof and shook himself free of his floral pattern cocoon. He sat up and grabbed the rotary phone that sat beside him under the Tiffany lamp on the quaint 18th century Pembroke table.
"I've got it!" he said. Lily hung up with a slam intended, Aaron figured, to reaffirm her disdain for Sean.
"What's up?" asked Aaron.
"We've got a 1:30 tee-time. Come be our fourth," answered his brother.
"And you thought that overnight I've gained some new affinity for the game?"
"I thought you liked golf."
"Not since ever."
"So then, what are you going to do all day? It's gorgeous out."
"Read. Maybe a little work."
"Try to get outside. It's a beautiful day."
"Drive 'em straight"—Aaron's insincere attempt at golf-speak. Aaron dropped the receiver upon its cradle and draped himself in his duvet as he perched at the end of the bed. He noticed that the TV he had left on all night presently projected simply a field of video snow. Aaron leaned forward and began turning the dial, each channel offering the same orgy of black and white dots. Aaron, now fervently committed to prove (to himself, to his wife, to the TV perhaps?) the humble TV's abilities, began directing the rabbit ears in every direction, creating various angles of degrees, all the while attracting momentary glimpses of reception.
Suddenly, a picture formed. Aaron noticed that, during his frantic adjustments, the wads of foil had shaken loose of the antennae and fallen to the floor—as if they were less for reception than obtrusion. Aaron carefully moved the thin metal rods like scalpels and he a surgeon mid-appendectomy. With each bit of movement the picture on the screen became reciprocally clearer. Full reception once received, Aaron cautiously laid the antennae prone, aimed westerly, atop the television. Its being Sunday morning, he figured the program was most likely of a Christian ceremonial nature. Or some partisan banter. Perhaps even live coverage of a European-time-zone golf tournament. All perfect for what he desired—background pabulum. Aaron readied himself for reading when he noticed on the screen something quite captivating. Something intensely mundane: the view of a balding man's pate as he watched a fishing program from his gray leather recliner. Aaron figured that he had probably stumbled upon an old Hitchockian film at its moment of pre-fright idleness. Or perhaps, he thought, it was one of those arcane contemporary art flicks that he found himself recently embracing. One where nothing obvious happens but, through subtle allegorical imagery, addresses matters of life-affirming reality. Aaron was captivated by the director's intense use of minimalism. "How brilliant," thought Aaron, "to abject the viewer to a sort of TV-viewing food chain—watching someone watching something almost as banal as watching the person who is watching said banality." Yet there he sat, for the first time since his elementary school era After School Specials, actually watching television. Ten minutes later, the program's star, having so far revealed not even the slightest of animation became, in a sudden flurry of life, overcome by incessant coughing. Aaron, having noticed that there was no audio as evidence to the protagonist's phlegm-induced fit, increased the volume. And yet…silence. Aaron figured the speakers in the archaic television had failed. Aaron turned the channel knob one click. A thunderous explosion of audio static accompanied by a visual garble of black and white dots filled the air. As he continued turning the knob, every channel broadcast the same tumult. Equally loud. Equally annoying. Aaron turned the volume knob to 0 and, in the discriminating silence, searched out that one glimpse of reception, that captivating program he would heretofore call "Balding Man Watching Other Man Fishing." Aaron searched up and down both UHF and VHF bands. Channel after channel, Aaron received an endless blizzard of broadcast snow. Out of now monomaniacal fixation, Aaron took the dial for a final lap. Static, static, static, static, static, static, static, static, static, static, picture, static, static... abruptly Aaron reversed the dial two clicks to the setting where he had a momentary glimpse of reception. Again, the screen showed the same shot of the same balding man reclining in the same recliner watching the same fishing program. Aaron checked the dial's position and noticed that this was Channel One, a channel Aaron thought had always been relegated exclusively to radio frequencies. Aaron turned up the volume to again discover a complete absence of accompanying audio. He settled back upon his bed's foot to watch the program, feeling the drama in the lack thereof. Just him watching TV of some other him watching TV. Ten more minutes of deliberate art film quiescence passed when a second character entered—screen left. It was a middle-aged woman, hair in curlers, wearing only a bra and baggy flesh-tone panties. Her body, while not terribly unattractive, was flawed enough to seem out of place so exposed on television. The actress looked particularly familiar to Aaron. Maybe she was from one of his wife's daytime programs. Or a spokeswoman for some excessively advertised cooking oil. The woman let her panties drop to her ankles. Definitely a premium channel, thought Aaron. She lowered her head to the man's waist while simultaneously using her feet to flick away her panties. After minutes of apparent fellatio, the woman straddled the man reclined in the recliner. With mechanical movements the woman removed the giant plastic curlers. Her unbridled wet hair she swung atop her head like a kiddy-ride helicopter's propeller as she mechanically thrust up and down upon the lethargic helipad of a man. Her acting, Aaron felt, was in dire need of improvement.
The man in the recliner sat unaffected, occasionally peering around the woman's naked torso to watch the big-screened fishing program. The woman raised her bowed head, struggling as if burdened by a yoke of servitude. She gave a whorish peer toward camera, her face alit by the glow off the man's gleaming pate. Aaron recognized that the woman was their neighbor, Gina Harrington. The scene climaxed with Gina Harrington's character getting tossed mid-thrust onto the ground and the man abruptly standing to adjust his pants. As the man stormed off camera, Aaron recognized him as Gina Harrington's real-life husband Martin Harrington. The setting: the Harrington's living room.
"Aaron!" It was Lily beckoning from the master bedroom. Aaron lunged to turn off the television.
"Make us some coffee!" said Lily—the "us" a manipulation of unity. Aaron hated coffee.
Aaron brewed from the single-cup machine a single cup of coffee perfected to Lily's specific tastes and carried it upstairs to where his wife vainly sat at her vanity.
"What are you doing today?" Lily asked in obligatory conversation as she dabbed rouge to her persistent crow's feet.
Aaron shared his day's mundane itinerary. Read. Work. A little TV. Of her plans he asked nothing, fully aware of what they consisted.
"Why don't you take Gina shopping with you?" he said, nonchalantly aiming a hitchhiker's thumb toward the Harrington home.
"Gina Harrington? Why?"
"We never see our neighbors. The Harringtons. Any of them. We should get to know them better."
"I thought you couldn't stand the people around here."
Aaron ignored her warranted skepticism and continued. "Maybe we could have a block party. The guys can grill. Some volleyball. Croquet. That kind of stuff."
"I'll think about it..." she said, so insincerely she had most likely forgotten what it was she had offered to think about once the words had left her mouth. Lily headed, with Aaron in tow, downstairs.
"I'll be back around five," said Lily as she sat the coffee cup, three-quarters full, atop the counter and headed out the door.
Aaron raced back to his room and turned on the TV, the dial still on Channel One. On the screen was Martin Harrington, slouched in his recliner, holding in one hand an ice-filled tumbler and in the other a bottle of dark liquid.
Strangling the bottle's neck, Martin Harrington filled tumbler after tumbler of the bottle's contents. One-quarter of a bottle, approximately a quarter of an hour later, Gina Harrington's character reentered the scene. Channel One being absent audio, it was impossible to tell exactly what verbal trigger sent the bottle flying across the room and smashing against the brick mantle. The two characters began a verbal duel that lasted well over ten minutes. Aaron could faintly hear the dialogue from out his window. Something about "that Goddamned something or other" and spending so much time with someone named "Bitchslutwhore." Martin Harrington downed the tumbler's contents and stormed off screen. Moments later, Aaron heard the squeal of tires from, he assumed, the Harringtons' Mercedes E500. Aaron continued watching the TV as Gina Harrington sat sidesaddle on the recliner's arm, wallowing into her palms. "Tough luck," thought Aaron, as removed as if commenting on some golfer's failed birdie putt.
From the foot of his cozy bed, Aaron continued watching the dejected Gina. To turn off the TV now would only be a blatant act of callousness. Besides, he had nothing else to do but watch Gina wallow. Then, almost as immediate as her onslaught of tears was Gina Harrington's regaining of composure. Gina wiped her face and nose with her wrist, spat the accumulated reservoir of phlegm on the leather barcalounger and walked off, beaming with a mustered pride. All in all, it was one of the finest bits of television programming Aaron had ever witnessed. As he went to turn off the little black and white, the question echoed in his mind, now more sincerely, more wantonly perhaps, "How well do we know our neighbors"? Aaron glanced down the street to the Edmonds' home. Parked in front of the Edmonds' sprawling split-level was a testosterone fueled hotrod, presumably belonging to one of Amber Edmond's many suitors. Amber was the Edmonds' 15-year-old daughter, a spry Naomi Watts clone with a coquettish mien and come-hither everything. Hoping for a glimpse of some pubescent tryst and titillation, Aaron persistently adjusted the antennae Edmonds-ward. Yet the more he moved the metal rods, the more intense became the TV's audio and video static. The Edmonds home being four doors down and across the street, Aaron thought perhaps it was out of range for the antennae to pick up any signal. Aaron aimed the antennae to a more proximate target: the Bishop home directly across the street. The Bishops were an older couple; mid-sixties. They spent their winter months in Sarasota and, when home, hardly ever showed their faces. Theirs was an opulent three-story brick colonial. How the Bishops made their fortune, Aaron wasn't sure. Perhaps his newfound periscope into reality could tap into the origins of their hidden riches. Aaron aimed the antennae at the Bishops—once again to receive nothing but static. Aaron carried the television as far as its cord would allow and sat the TV on the ground beneath the window. He took the antennae from their stand and, making sure their wires were still connected to the TV, began maniacally aiming the metal rods in various directions out the window, looking like a desperate conductor leading a resistant orchestra. Still, nothing but static. The defeated Aaron turned off the TV, returned it to the dresser top and lay down in his bed.
Soon, the doorbell rang. Aaron wondered if maybe one of the neighbors had spotted his clumsy dance of reconnaissance through the window and had come as a matter of reproach. "It's your brother!" yelled Sean. A relieved Aaron opened the door to find Sean clad in standardized golf regimentals.
"You got any beer?"
Aaron led Sean to the kitchen. The one bottle of Amstel Light in the refrigerator, Aaron handed to Sean.
The brothers adjourned to the expansive cherry wood deck where Sean eased himself into one of the designer-brand burnished metal deck chairs.
"How was golf?" asked Aaron on conversational autopilot.
"Not bad. Had a few nice approaches...."
Aaron interrupted—"How well do you know your neighbors?"
"My neighbors? Depends. As well as I need to." Sean lived in a condominium complex on the trendy west side. His, the paragon of bachelor pad. Leather furniture. Exposed brick walls. High-end entertainment equipment. Basically Martin Harrington's place, condensed. Sans spouse.
"Why do you ask?" asked Sean.
"I've been thinking we should have a block party. Lily and me. To get to know the neighbors better."
"These fuddy freakin' duddies? Oh yeah…that should be a real blow-out."
The cynicism was shortly followed by a slammed front door.
"I'm home!" The lack of strain in Lily's voice indicated a sparse purchase day. She joined the brothers on the porch, tossing her purse into the open deck chair like a dejected hockey player tossing his helmet upon being sent to the penalty box. She grabbed Sean's beer and took a swig. "Couldn't find a goddamn thing."
"What were you looking for?" asked Aaron, rhetorically.
"Hear you guys are having a block party." Sean's words caused the downed beer to retract to Lily's nose.
Aaron intervened. "I was just telling Sean it might be good to get to know our neighbors better."
"Since when do you give a shit what's going on around here?" Lily's anger visceral. From the pit of her stapled stomach. "I'm getting another beer."
"We're all out," said Aaron.
"I'll go buy us some more," offered Sean, sensing not only his own increasingly unquenched thirst but the couple's suddenly needed alone-time. Sean headed off around the house.
"Still with this block party?!" asked Lily upon Sean's departure.
"I just thought"—responded Aaron—" what the hell do we know about these people? Any of them?"
"What the hell do you want to know?"
"We take for granted that everyone around here, we just assume everything is so status quo."
"Uh huh," said the assumptive Lily.
"There are people, all kinds of people that seem more in touch with what it means to live than we could even remotely imagine."
"If they knew more, they'd be living our life."
Aaron penetrated Lily with a look of contempt and pity and promptly headed off the porch.
"Where do you think you're going?!" demanded Lily.
Aaron raced to the master bathroom and began splashing cupped handful after cupped handful of cold water into his face. He turned off the faucet and let the water drip from his fingertips. Out the window Aaron could see his wife alone on the sprawling cherry wood deck that overlooked a field of Jorge's perfectly manicured flora. She was staring intensely at nothing in particular.
Aaron imagined a small, unkempt yard and 6x6 asphalt porch where a young editor grilled generic brand hot dogs on a discount smokey joe while his 5-year-old Emma played "Red Light, Green Light" with her mother—a humble woman with a discount hairdo in curlers atop an imperfect face of intense beauty and sexuality. It was a mental tableau of long-lost tranquility and bliss.
Aaron's return to the back porch was like the snap of a hypnotist's fingers awakening Lily from her anesthetized state. "I'm gonna order some Chinese," said the reinvigorated Lily. "Peking duck, sweet and sour pork, some spring rolls. What else should we get?" Without waiting for a response Lily pulled out her cell phone and hit speed dial.
As Lily placed her phone-in order, Sean returned carrying a brown paper bag. From it he grabbed a twelve-pack of Tecate. He placed a Tecate each in front of Lily and himself. In front of his brother Aaron he placed a can of Michelob —Aaron's brand of choice.
The three filled the evening with pilsner-induced philosophical prattle regarding matters of history, economics and the arts—if one were to count fifth-grade reminiscences, the going rate of parking and prime time television as history, economics and the arts. Aaron's topic of choice—literature—was conveniently dismissed as unacceptable work-talk by two people without even the slightest proclivity toward reading.
Conversation having given way to fatigue and a sudden absence of beer, Sean hugged Lily and Aaron and headed on his way. Upon Sean's departure, Lily and Aaron entered their home and retreated to their respective bedrooms.
Aaron turned on the black and white TV and tuned it to Channel One. Aaron aimed the antennae at the Harrington house. Once again, Aaron's TV was picking up reception from inside his neighbor's home. On the Harrington sofa slept Gina, three of her four limbs protruding from an old afghan. The afghan was sparse enough to allow Aaron glimpses of Gina's naked torso underneath. There was no sign of Martin Harrington. It was just he and Gina. Aaron and his neighbor. Together alone. Aaron slept his most rewarding sleep in years.
When Aaron awoke, it was nearly noon. He rubbed the morning sludge from both his eyes and peered intently at his square peephole, expecting once again to see the Harrington living room. Instead, on the screen he saw a hazy ethereal amorphous mass of luminous emission being grasped at by a set of yearning hands; one hand desperately reaching out away from the screen and, as if beaten, retrieving. Then the other hand. On and on the hands reached out in aspiration. Like he was looking through the eyes of a fetus at the moment of birth. Or, even more, a recently deceased trying to attain his ascension to the heavens. Aaron noticed that while he had slept, the antennas had fallen off the TV and now pointed to a high school graduation picture of Emma. Aaron raced to his phone and dialed.
"Hello." It was Emma's college dorm mate Jody.
Aaron's words raced. "Jody, it's Mr. Neeler. Is my daughter there? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine. Why?"
"Can I talk to her?"
"Right now? She's at practice."
Aaron let the accumulated mass of anxiety seep from his mouth.
"Can I give her a message?" offered Jody.
"No. Thanks. Just tell her I called. That I love her. That's all."
He hung up and collapsed on his bed, secure in the knowledge that those limbs reaching out toward infinite obscurity were nothing more than his daughter Emma's arms perfecting the freestyle at her daily swim practice. The camera's angle that of the viewpoint of his daughter's - the photo's subject's - soul.
Aaron recalled the book he recently approved for publication. Neeler Publishing's latest non-fiction offering— "Voodooism—the Mystic Catholicism" was to be one of the first books published under Aaron's reign. It was to be his defining book. He read it thoroughly, back and forth, with the vigor and veracity he usually exhibited when reading classic literature. He could recall much of the book's content—mentions of gris gris, babou, and malocchio. One chapter that he was most drawn to was about grottoes of photographs built by voodooists who believe pictures to be vessels of souls to whom one is immediately fettered. Parents. Spouses. Offspring. Even siblings.
Aaron often fancied what it would be like to lead his brother's libidinous bachelor lifestyle. His opportunity now availed, Aaron removed from the desk drawer a twenty-year-old photo of Sean as Aaron's tuxedoed best man. Aaron propped the photo against the antique desk lamp and directed the antennae to the photo. He then tuned the TV to Channel One. As the picture on the screen formulated, Aaron figured he'd most likely witness a view down a picturesque Country Club fairway or, better yet, the top of a bobbing dyed blonde head. The picture revealed a shot of his brother watching TV. On his brother's TV played the erotic gyrations of young Hispanics on a Telemundo show called "Sabado Gigante." Atop his bared belly sat a box of Kleenex. Aaron's envy quickly converted to sympathy as he returned Sean's photo to its place amongst the melee of pens and staples in his desk's drawer.
His libido now stirred, it was all Aaron could do to get his mind off of his brother's display of onanism.
He aimed the antennae back at the Harringtons. As the screen's pixels coagulated into a fully formed picture, Aaron saw the rumpled backside of a naked Martin Harrington, his hirsute buttocks thrusting unemotionally. Leaning over the leather barcalounger's headrest in front of Martin was Gina, submissively rocking in tandem with Martin's motion. Martin's left hand rest upon Gina's protruding hip as his right hand clutched a tumbler of dark liquid. Together the Harringtons copulated while in front of them their big-screen TV projected an almost mimetic wilderness program.
The sight, while sexually invigorating, repulsed Aaron. Or perhaps he was overwhelmed by envy. Or, most likely, it was that very envy that Aaron found repulsive. He turned off the television and flopped back upon his bed. On the night table sat Aaron's favorite photo of Lily, years ago, before any surgery. Back when Aaron was just a small-time editor grilling generic hotdogs over a discount smokey joe while his wife, in curlers, played red-light green-light with Emma, their beloved five-year-old.
Aaron grabbed Lily's photo and held it to the end of the TV's antennae. What he expected to see was his wife's view down a mall corridor. Or her image reflected in a dressing room mirror as she tried on the latest in expensive haute couture. What he saw instead was his wife's point-of-view of hyenas mating. Or rather, hyenas mating as programming material on Martin Harrington's big-screen TV, with Martin Harrington's brick mantle as backdrop. In and out went her point-of-view - in, then out, faster and faster, the picture, increasingly shaky and occasionally glazed.
Aaron ran to his car, the animalistic grunting of Martin Harrington and Lily faintly audible from the Harrington home. Aaron grabbed the sheet of blued and yellowed classifieds, searching out the specific ad, repeating out loud "3656 North Wright." "3656 North Wright." "3656 North Wright." There it was. The woman's yellowed address.
GARAGE SALE 3656 N. Wright-
wood dining room set, bed, TV, full
stereo system, CHG Treadmill,
set of silverware, pots and pans.
3656 N. Wrightwood. A lowly hyphen. Something a young editor would never overlook. A young editor who cooked generic hot dogs over a discount smoky joe.
"Aaron, I'm home!"
Lily's countenance matches that which Aaron has always attributed to her having yet another frustrating day of nonpurchase.
"Aaron!" yells Lily as she heads to her husband's bedroom. Lily, expecting to find Aaron slumbering upon the floral duvet, enters the room to witness the aberration that is her husband's absence. Atop the antique dresser sits the small black and white TV, antennae lying westerly upon it. A picture fills the TV's screen, absent audio. Lily stares at the screen to witness a nice suburban living room complete with brick fireplace. A quite familiar room. She notices a woman bent over in a familiar leather recliner, scalp toward camera, forehead buried in forearms. Behind her a naked man, head bowed, beads of sweat covering the tufts of hair that sprinkle his chest. The man's hands clutch the woman's hoisted hips, pulling them toward his thrusting pelvis. "Garbage," says Lily. As she reaches for the power knob the man's head fixes itself forward. A grin spreads across his face. Lily collapses upon the foot of the bed. There, live...on Channel One, is her husband Aaron. Getting to know their neighbor better.
Tim O’Brien lives in Park Ridge, Illinois, with his wife and two sons. He is the published author of four children’s books and a humor/novelty book. Tim’s screenplays have been finalists in various screenwriting competitions and his film "Fall Into Me" is now in postproduction. He is also a 15-year advertising veteran, with the wounds to prove it. This is Tim’s first published short story, one he has written for a collection of shorts entitled "Tyvek Town."
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