Neighborhood Watch (conclusion)
“We’re raising kids. I get up every day and go to work. Jer, I mean.”
She’d been going to work, saying this, his wife darting and grabbing, that shiny, shiny thing she did to her hair making it swing and hold together like liquid. He felt a little clinical…
This wasn’t sexy.
It was vaguely alien.
“She’s thirty-five, right? Still.” That, from his mother, new.
Once, when he’d been about twenty-six, and Kate had been about twenty-six, she’d been some larger size. Whatever sizes were. She was looking for a floor model… or, with a dip of the head, an okay I admit it smile…a washer-dryer set would be ideal, discounted.
“A warranty would be great. That’s why I don’t want anything from the classifieds. I’ve got tons of towels.”
“I don’t sell towels…” For that second, that she preempted his upselling her, had seemed plausible.
“No, my business. I mean. I have a hair salon.”
“I like your name,” she’d said, when they rang up the sale.
“Ask her out, Jer.”
It wasn’t conscience speaking…it was Jeff McElroy. They wouldn’t, otherwise, have gone to Red Lobster.
Hibbler’s birthday was coming up. He would be forty-six. Kate, if getting younger, was getting also scary-skinny, a thing for a year now noticeable. She’d just borrowed money to open her third salon; she was truthful in this, that she worked all the time. She was becoming drawn, not worn, but in eyeliner and purple shadow, matte beige complexion, contoured cheek hollows, face-framing highlights…if he understood so much.
“Set an example. Or get therapy. I don’t have to make that call for you, do I?”
When he’d asked her, once, “So how… Did you go to school?”
“Well, yeah, you have to. To get a license. But, I have a degree, actually. I was an education major. I just decided.”
She could decide, having that temperament—to chuck it all, buttonhole a helper, score her discounts, her financing…
Hibbler couldn’t, and had never known until this slide, until Petersen, Todwillow, what he might like to do. He’d graduated from high school knowing Zack would go to college. He’d leant, a little, towards police work…but he was Jeremiah Fatso. He’d always had a plan to do more, get it together (without meaning much by saying it) when he could shed some weight.
So what about setting an example?
There were two messages here. Take care of your family, bust your ass, do any work you can scrounge…which, technically, his family was okay. The money existed, it was hers.
Or dream it, believe it, make it happen…
And with kids, wasn’t that what you had to say?
Kate would pretend both were equal, both could be true at once. Not, though, pretend…kill the topic: “Oh, please!”
It was that way, when they got into it, and Hibbler had his choice. Start the yelling, or shrug. “Sorry.”
He’d reached Todwillow’s tree stumps. Todwillow had cut it all down, mowed it flat, the two corner crescents of evergreens, the two maples. He’d bought sod, hired it rolled in. He ran sprinklers, wrinkling noses. Cathlyn, jogging, arced out around his wet sidewalk.
“It goes into the storm drains,” she’d called out to Hibbler, since she couldn’t not say it, and couldn’t say it to Todwillow.
A little oval of metal stuck in near the curb advertised the Green Kings, who kept his yard bright and fake. Hibbler could fancy the stumps trophies, conquered carcasses, rude gestures at the Witticombes, at Cathlyn, probably at Giarma Yoharie.
He walked up the drive, about twenty feet…this particular house made with the garage prominent, the front door niche platformed behind a railing. Todwillow’s American flag flapped, hiding and unhiding visitors, who shuffled past a window, its off-white drape linings, to ring the bell.
He wasn’t ready for this. He left the concrete and went onto Todwillow’s grass.
Tristanne had emailed her news.
She was getting married, in Grand Rapids, the guy a clinic administrator. Friends would be very welcome…she and Bob understood the cost of travel made sharing their day impractical…they were prepared to help, with the hotel at least.
“They’re divorced?” He was a little incredulous. He saw Mat a few times a week. Nothing.
“Not yet. October. Didn’t I read that to you? Well…”
There’d been something in this well. For Kate to be wrong was almost for Kate to let down the barricade. Almost a move to be friends. “No, I don’t know when the divorce is going through. But before October.”
“I don’t see how they can set a date already. It takes a long time… Legal stuff.”
“Why should there be legal stuff? Mat isn’t contesting.”
“They don’t have kids,” Kate had added.
By this, he knew that she knew more. Mat isn’t contesting…
Mat says so…not to you, Jer.
He could, he’d have to get the address off his wife’s computer, accept this invitation. “Listen, Tristanne, the hotel would be great, also if you can pay part of the airfare…”
It was a little funny…
Fairly sure Todwillow was watching, and laughing, as he feinted about, pretending to inspect the empty back yard, Hibbler tamped the smile. Tristanne would be awfully sorry.
He could picture her (he couldn’t picture Bob): “Oh! I can’t stand him!”
But Grand Rapids was a place to look for work. They’d have to introduce Hibbler to their guests, so he’d have a foot in. He would not contest either, though he didn’t think he could survive without Kate.
“You coming in, Jer?”
The voice was Todwillow’s, with that weird quality of nextness, while when Hibbler turned, the back door sat just open, unlatched. Just a little. Todwillow would have stuck his head out and yelled, the noise would have come to Hibbler’s ears from the right direction, with the expected volume, not like something on the radio that popped from the air where the frame of his glasses sat.
He went in. The back bedroom was a kind of command center, ell-configured tables, a bunch of screens, a bunch of binders. Todwillow had what he called a stack, in a closet he’d set up specially air-conditioned.
“You can be alone if you want,” Todwillow said. “I’ve got a place to be. Just…” He clicked in his cheek, and mimed turning the lock button.
Hibbler found himself dry-throated, mute.
Todwillow laughed and left.
You didn’t want the camera feed on any machine of your own. Kids are smart these days. Stuff gets stolen. Todwillow’s private server was the only safe choice. He wasn’t gonna push, he’d told Hibbler, telling these other things, “…but you are the only one who knows your password. I don’t know it.”
As to that, Hibbler had no confidence. Todwillow knew everything. Realistically, he could get the password. You had to trust him, take him for what he claimed to be. You had a daughter who cut classes, whole days of school, threatened to just drop out, said she didn’t go anyplace, just drove around, who cares? Rolled her eyes, wrapped her arms tight and looked oppressed, when he asked (not wanting to, Todwillow’s thing) if she brought boys to her room when he and Kate were at work.
It was set, the view, soft-focused, colors faded, he would not see the things that made the phrase pop into his head. But it was possible to sharpen up, if Savannah sat long hunched over her desk, or another person entered…
The other person was Rae. Rae listened, dismissed something, shot a sidelong look that riveted Hibbler…but she hadn’t looked at him, directly through the lens. Not really.
Rae shook her head, slid to her feet, stooped and picked up a thing, Savannah’s phone, handed it to her.
He took the focus off.
Savannah seemed to have rolled over and buried her face. She cried a lot.
Kate would say, teenagers.
It was this, of course.
It was Giarma he pictured confessing to…because she was young…it was what he thought, of his motives. Being more of a contemporary, she would remember what kids got up to. She would be cooler about it all, because…people her age were used to the gadgetry.
She wouldn’t say, “You let Todwillow put a camera in your daughter’s room! When was it ever, Jeremiah, you didn’t know what that was about?”
Well, it was more his mother’s voice he heard.
And the phrase: monster father.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)