The minute Valerie walks in the house she notices the box.
“What’s in the box, Tony?”
“I don’t know. UPS brought it over here because the neighbor wasn’t home.”
“The one across the street.”
“It’s a box of wine! I told you she was no good.” Valerie bends over to examine the box more closely. Then she notices the smaller box. “You accepted two boxes? And what’s this? Drs. Foster and Smith. As if the wine wasn’t enough medication for her, she’s also ordering drugs over the Internet. What kind of a mother orders a big box of wine and drugs over the Internet?”
“Val, maybe she’s sick.”
“So, why haven’t you brought this box over there?”
“She isn’t home. That’s why they left it with me.”
“This thing must weigh fifty pounds. When I asked you to haul that old TV out to the shed, you said it was too heavy. Now you’re going to carry that heavy box of booze across the street for all the neighbors to see?”
“I’d look rather stupid driving it across the street.”
“I hope you slip and all her wine breaks. That’d serve her right. You know, I read in the paper it’s illegal to have more than one gallon of alcohol in your house if you live in a dry town. You might get arrested carrying it over there. Maybe I should call the cops. Who knows what kind of drug she’s buying illegally?”
“There are all kinds of weird laws in the books that people are breaking every day. I’m sure no one wants to bother with a woman who orders a case of wine. I doubt she’s using it in a meth lab.”
“She’s probably making some kind of meth for people who like the taste of wine. She teaches at the university. They think they’re so much better than the rest of us.”
“Why don’t you like her?”
“What’s there to like? She never walked over here to meet us after she moved in.”
“She always waves. Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to walk over and meet the new neighbors? Anyway, she’s been here three years. I wouldn’t call her a new neighbor.”
“Quit siding with the other woman.”
“What’dya bring our new next door neighbors?”
“I never see that lady outside. I can’t even tell if she lives alone or if that woman whose truck has been in the carport night and day lives there too. Who’s the father of that baby? I never see a man around. I bet they’re dykes.”
“Val, she may need a renter to pay for the house.”
“You’re always on the side of the women, except for this woman. The one you married and are supposed to support.”
“She just pulled up in her driveway. I’m getting these boxes out of here so you can calm down.”
“Calm down! Maybe I should do it the way she does. I’ll drink wine and take drugs.”
“That may help,” Tony mutters, lifting the box. He realizes it’s heavier than he remembered it being when he carried it into the house. When UPS came to the door, he was excited for a moment, thinking it may be something for him. He pauses a minute, waiting for the neighbor to get inside the house so she won’t see him limping over with the heavy box.
“I heard you. If you think drugs and booze may help, why don’t we open this box of wine, and keep it for ourselves?”
“Really? You’d drink wine?”
“And take the drugs. You’re bored with me. I’ve seen you watch her mowing the lawn. What kind of woman lets saggy old breasts flop around beneath a tight tank top, covered in sweat? She makes me sick.”
“Val, why are you so angry with that neighbor?”
She doesn’t have a husband either. She has that daughter but no man ever shows up. I’ve never seen that car leave the house on a Sunday morning. She doesn’t even know my name. I always see you staring at her when she walks past the house.”
“I do not!”
“I’ve never seen you use that leaf blower I got you for your birthday. If you’re going to be staring at the neighbor women all day, why don’t you at least clean the driveway?”
“What kind of person uses a noisy leaf blower?”
“That’s the kind of gratitude I get from you.”
“I told you to go ahead and return it.”
“I haven’t returned the food processor you bought me.”
“You use it all the time. You asked for it.”
“Still, I haven’t returned it. You’re not supposed to return someone’s gift. You’re supposed to use it.”
She barely takes a breath before she starts on the neighbors again. “And what about that other woman across the street? The one with that tanning casket glowing in her front window. What kind of woman keeps a tanning casket in her front room? That entire room lights up blue while her daughters and she crawl into that cancer machine. What kind of mother lets her daughters use a tanning casket? This is Arkansas. We get plenty of sunshine. If that mother and her girls went outside and cleaned up the lawn, they’d get a little sun. And who’s that man that’s been staying there all the time? At least she’s not a lesbian. How did we get so many lesbians on this street? Remember when it was just families, real families, the kind with married parents who dragged their kids to church every Sunday, every Sunday, no matter what? Look at how our neighborhood has deteriorated. And you know I’m right about those neighbors down the street who got evicted. That mother was making meth. Just like that woman across the street. I’d see big boxes delivered that had Medical Supplies printed on the box. If that ain’t a red flag, I don’t know what is. And look how many drug overdoses it took before she got evicted. I don’t think her kids ever took a bath.”
“Maybe I should open this wine, Val?”
“Tony! What is wrong with you? That’d be stealing. This is not a drinking house.”
“But you said…”
“Don’t be putting words in my mouth! I ain’t said nothing since I came home. Can’t get a word in edgewise with you talking about Floppy Tits across the street. What kind of wife wants to listen to her husband talk like that about another woman?”
“I’m bringing the boxes over.”
“Get that evil out of here. The sooner the better.”
Tony hefts the box and has to ask Valerie to open to door.
“I hope you get a hernia. You deserve it for delivering drugs in the broad daylight. I hope Ruth doesn’t see you. She’ll think you’re having an affair with Sagging Tits and be on the phone to everyone saying you’re bringing her gifts right under my nose! You got no shame!”
The neighbor woman sees Tony approaching her door and walks outside to greet him.
“Excuse me, this came today. UPS didn’t think it was safe to leave it by your door.” He laughs awkwardly.
“Oh, I doubt anyone would take it. Thanks for keeping it for me. And the dog needs his medicine. Now, that’s the box I’d hate to lose.”
Tony follows her into the house knowing Val is watching.
“Hey, would you like a bottle? My name’s Gina.”
“Tony.” They can’t shake hands since he’s carrying the box, wishing she’d tell him where to put it. “No need to open that box. I didn’t even notice what was in there.” He sees Valerie peeking behind the curtain.
“Well, thanks for bringing it over. I appreciate it. Wait a second. I want to give you a bottle. I haven’t even met your wife. Rarely see you folks outside. I should have walked over long ago.”
She pulls a bottle out and hands it to Tony. “Enjoy! And, thanks again for brining it over.”
“No problem,” he says feebly, knowing Valerie will have plenty more to say. “Thanks for the wine.”
He hasn’t held a bottle of wine in years. He thinks of hiding it beneath his sweatshirt but figures Val has already seen it. He wonders what’d it be like to be married to a braless woman who mows the lawn and orders cases of wine. Or a woman who owns a tanning casket. Or a woman who lives with her baby and another woman. He knows what it’s like to live with Valerie.
Before he opens the door, he can hear her ranting. “What took you so long? I saw you looking at her sagging nipples when she opened the box. And why did you take home a bottle of poison?”
“She offered us the bottle of wine. The drugs were for her dog.”
“She gave you the bottle of wine, not me! And you believed her about the dog! That’s why you need me. Someone has to set you straight. Look at all those women without a husband. She’s trying to get her hands on you. I don’t need a husband, but you need a wife. Remember that. I’m here to set you straight.”
“Right. I knew there was a reason, Val.”
Tony opens the kitchen drawer.
“What are you looking for in the drawer, Tony?”
“Can’t believe we still have one,” Tony says admiring the old corkscrew.
“You’re going to open that wine in the broad daylight?”
Tony ignores her and goes to the storage room, takes the leaf blower out of the box, then heads to the bathroom, the one place he can be left alone. Just once, he’d like to know what it feels like to skip church and to be with a woman who doesn’t buy him a leaf blower for a birthday gift because he “has everything else.” There’s so much he doesn’t have, so much more he wants.
He turns the leaf blower on and sets it outside the bathroom door, then fills the tub while he opens the wine. Val’s voice grows more distant. It’s too much to hope for, yet he hopes she’ll turn off the leaf blower and leave him to peace and quiet. He drinks from the bottle. Then slips beneath the water where he can’t hear anything. He takes another sip, then feels the water tickle his head as he submerges once again.
For once he feels his age and doesn’t feel old. He knows he can’t be more than a few years older than Gina. He knows he has as much vitality as she does.
“I’ve got life left to me,” he says, giving himself a little toast before the next drink.
He blows bubbles as he sinks below to his haven.
Diane Payne teaches creative writing at University of Arkansas-Monticello, where she's also faculty advisor for The Foliate Oak (http://www.foliateoak.uamont.edu), which is currently accepting submissions. She is also the author of two novels, Burning Tulips and New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary magazines. More info can be found at: