Ben Davis is walking through his neighbors’ house, taking it all in. He’s never before been inside. It’s bigger than it looks from the outside. Bigger than his own? Ben wonders, tries to spatially compare in his mind. Their floor plans are similar enough for Ben to feel comfortably familiar, like he has been here before, is a regular guest, dinner parties and Super Bowl Sunday, though different enough to invoke an occasional double take at the seemingly misplaced door or wall. He paces in front of the wall of bookshelves, skimming titles; stops and leans in to read faces on the wedding and vacation photos easeled on tabletop display. Ben and his wife, Alice, don’t have any photos of themselves on display and he stops, wonders for the first time why not. He pictures his childhood home, the hallway of framed photo collages of Ben and his brother, their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends—the Hall of Growing Up, he christened it to himself after moving out for college and remembering it fondly over the years. He keeps moving, Family Circusing a lap and a half around the ground floor to the back door. The floor-to-roof windows with swinging French patio doors, all looking out into the open woods of a backyard like might be seen in the architecture or design magazines Alice used to buy and that would definitely make her more jealous than awed.

Last summer, before the neighbors bought the place and moved in, Alice kept saying they should go over, walk through during one of the open houses. “Do our due diligence as good neighbors,” she’d said. “Curious neighbors, you mean,” Ben corrected. “Same thing.” But they hadn’t gotten to it, tomorrow turning into next week, turning into the house selling much quicker than Ben or Alice had expected (at that price!), turning into new neighbors. Alice ordered over a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift basket, daydreamed of backyard barbecues and drinks. “We’ll have neighborfriends!” she kept telling Ben, excited. Ben didn’t know why the optimism for these neighbors, in contrast to her pessimism for all their others, their complete lack of attempts at meeting anyone they lived near, but he smiled, let himself get caught up in the excitement.

Alice hadn’t been so encouraged about a change in their life in a while. He imagined her retrieving childhood fantasies of some kind of TV-show life—getting married, buying a house, moving into a community of a neighborhood, block parties with drinking and barbecues for the Fourth of July, Memorial Day. Reading the newspaper—or at least the sports and comics—before work in the morning, or leisurely with a cup of coffee on the weekends. A WASPy, New England kind of life where problems were hidden under a veneer of bourbon, country clubs, and boating. Never mind that they lived in the Midwest, that they’d never put any effort into meeting anyone else on the block. That they didn’t boat, had never stepped foot in a country club, didn’t own a grill to invite the neighbors to join them over to enjoy. Never mind that Ben knew these were more his childhood daydreams than Alice’s, that her excitement had sprung from Ben-didn’t-know-where, a sudden flow after—what he hadn’t realized while in the middle of but now saw clearly as—a kind of ebb in their marriage.

Ben leans forward, rests his head on his hands on the magazine-feature/jealousy-inducing back wall of glass and stares out into the backyard. Now a year later, they wave and share pleasantries when seeing one another checking their mail or putting out the garbage and recycling bins at the same time Monday evenings, or bringing them back in Tuesdays after work. They’re friendly enough, but not neighborfriends. They’ve never invited one another over for drinks and a board-game night, haven’t gone together to either the annual Art Walk or Taste of Downtown. Haven’t asked the other to housesit before leaving on vacation or exchanged house keys. Until this morning. This morning when, halfway through Ben’s bowl of cereal before work, Helen knocked on his door.

“Ben! It’s Ben, right? I’m sorry. Of course it is. I know that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to ask…”
Ben smiled, stood up a little straighter.

“…only a couple of days…he’s very sweet, I promise…”

“It’s no problem, Helen.” Ben said, careful to use her name. He couldn’t remember her husband’s name. Tom? Dave? Something average and bland, he thought, ignoring the relative blandness of his own name. He didn’t ask where TomDaveHerHusband was, why she had to ask him. Her slightly mussed hair, the way she hurriedly bit at her words, only heightened her attractiveness—her literal girl-next-door cuteness, he thought—made the smallest hint of what Ben read as a smile seem more flirtatious than it was likely intended.

The phone rings, surprising Ben and he feels for an instant a pang of guilt. He tries to remember what he’d been thinking, but it’s gone. Something Helen had said when giving him the extra key? The last thing Alice had told him? The phone rings a second time, or maybe a third, and Tiny comes running. He sits at Ben’s feet, looking up to make eye contact.

“You all done, little guy?” Tiny cocks his head, back and forth like he’s trying to make sense of what Ben is saying.

Ben looks at the folded piece of paper in his hand, though he’s read it and reread it, knows exactly what it says.

Morning, after work (?), night
•Fill bowl each morning
•Treats above refrig. — a couple a day?
•Call or text with any questions!

And then her phone number, the phone number for the vet, and the code for the garage (just in case?). Neither note nor Helen herself on his doorstep said anything about Tiny needing to go out midday, but Ben felt guilty, wanted to be the best neighborfriend he could. He’s late to return to work from his lunch break but he isn’t worried. He always arrives early, is among the last to leave; he kind of likes the idea of getting back late. No one will notice, anyway.

Ben locks the door, again stares out into the backyard. This side of the block backs up not to another house and backyard but to an overgrowth of trees and plants that makes it look more wild than it is. The view is dense and green enough to feel like they are out in the country, a forest for a backyard, who knows how close the nearest neighbor may be, though Ben knows it doesn’t actually go that far, the lot is about the same size as his own. He wonders how much of that is actually, technically their yard. He knows there is a fence out there somewhere; Helen had assured him Tiny couldn’t get out, but it is so hidden by overgrowth as to be as invisible as whatever is beyond the trees. He wishes his yard had this view, wonders if things may have gone differently if only his house was on this side of the street.

The phone rings again, again breaking Ben from a thought he’s already forgotten.

“It’s like you live out in your own little forest out there, isn’t it?” he asks Tiny. “Like you’re just out in the middle of nowhere.” Tiny again looks up at Ben, cocking his head like he’s really trying at understanding. “I guess I gotta get back to work, buddy. You wanna come? Little field trip to the office?” Ben crouches, scratches and pets Tiny a little too roughly. “No? Well, after work, then? Sound like a plan?”

*

After work, Ben parks in his own driveway but walks directly to the neighbors’. Helen didn’t say anything about bringing in the mail, but he passes the mailbox on his way, thinks it only makes sense to bring that in for them, too. Good neighbor manners, he thinks. It’s mostly junk mail and Ben starts to organize and transfer the bulk of it straight into the recycling bin out of habit, but stops. It isn’t his mail to separate. He sets it all down on the kitchen counter, bends to pet and rub Tiny’s head.

“How’s it going, little buddy? You bored here all day, all by yourself?” Tiny is looking at him, always tilting his head back and forth. “You ready to go out?” Tiny runs to the door, sits and waits for Ben to follow.

Ben closes the door behind Tiny, locking him out to be sure he’s outside long enough and doesn’t run right back in to follow Ben around. Ben walks to the front of the house, stares out at his neighborhood. His own house is kitty-corner, only a couple of houses down, and Ben is surprised how different it looks from this angle. How empty it looks from here.

The phone rings and this time is followed by a click, and then Helen’s husband’s voice—Tom, he’s now confirmed, by looking at the mail. Tom Dixon. You’ve reached the Dixons. We’re not here right now…and Ben realizes why the ringing phone had seemed so odd earlier. He and Alice don’t have a home line. He can’t think of any of their friends who have one. Only his parents, and they still live in the same house he grew up in, still have the same number Ben had to memorize in grade school. Maybe the same answering machine itself. Who bought a house anymore and got a home line? Was it a new machine or had the Dixons moved with it, gone through the trouble of packing and unpacking this extinct technology? The caller must have hung up without leaving a message—Ben didn’t hear a caller’s voice after Tom’s, and now the phone is already ringing again. Ben follows the sound. The machine picks up again, Tom’s voice echoing from a minute before, louder and clearer now that Ben is closer, up the stairs and only a closed door away. Ben opens the door and the caller hangs up, the synchronicity of it startling Ben. Like one caused the other, like he’d walked in on Tom himself and not his recorded voice.

He’s in the master bedroom. There are no decorations—no photos hung on the wall or in frames on the dresser, no other artwork, no decals like Alice bought and had Ben stick-apply to the walls of their own bedroom when they’d first moved into the neighborhood themselves. There’s only the dresser along the wall, with a vanity mirror and neatly organized jewelry atop, and a nightstand on each side of the bed. Neither has anything on it but books, but Ben can immediately distinguish his from hers from the selection, the way they are stacked. Without thinking, without being able to help himself, Ben goes to Helen’s side of the bed and opens the drawer. Little doorknob in hand, there is a sharp moment of déjà vu that gives Ben another second of pause, holding the drawer half-open. It is full of underwear and bras—is that what he was hoping to find? Expecting? Ben pulls one out, holds it up in front of himself. It is pink and cream polka-dotted, a little padded. He rubs the material between thumb and fingers, pinches to feel the texture of the padding, the give. He connects the clasps closed, unclasps, clasps again. He isn’t so much picturing it on Helen, more admiring the bra itself as object. Laying the bra on the bed, Ben again ruffles his hand through the drawer, through Helen’s underwear. He likes the feel of the material against his hand, like the bowls of rice or sand placed near the counter and meant for you to bury your hand into at the New Age stores Alice used to drag him to. Ben still isn’t sure what he’s looking for, or if he’s looking for anything at all, but then his hand hits something hard tucked against the side. Later, he’ll tell himself that, for a second, he thought it might be a dildo or some other kind of toy, but in fact he thinks nothing at all in the moment. He grabs and pulls it out before he has a chance to think what it might be. A pipe, and then he looks back down to where he’d just picked it up, and there’s also a prescription bottle of pills. What is it he keeps hearing everyone seems to be doing now? Adderall? Xanax? Something that starts with…a D? Ben opens the bottle and goes to shake a couple pills into his hand, like what they look like might tell him more about what they are than just reading the label. Instead, a few buds of marijuana tumble into his palm. He brings his hand to his nose, inhales. Never much of a smoker—he’s smoked with friends, when its around and being offered, but he’s never bought any himself and it’s been years since it’s been “around and offered”—but he’s always liked the smell. Liked it in the same way that, even before he’d all but forced himself into a morning coffee addiction, he’d loved the smell of fresh ground coffee. He’d loved when roommates or a girlfriend brewed a pot in the morning, filling the house with the scent. Finally, with his last girlfriend before Alice, he’d made himself drink a cup with her every morning, liking the ritual more than the drink itself, until finally acquiring the taste. Alice, of course, didn’t like coffee, neither taste nor smell, and so Ben got used to drinking alone, purchasing a cup at the gas station on the way to work or brewing it at the office.

The phone rings—again—startling Ben into remembering why he’d come into the bedroom in the first place. The machine clicks on, but then quickly back off again, the caller hanging up as soon as it picked up. Ben looks and see the machine for the first time, right there in front of him on Helen’s nightstand, only half-hidden by the stack of books but hidden enough for him to have previously overlooked it.

An almost-glowing, red 14. Fourteen messages. Ben stares at the machine, wondering how it works. Does it count every call, or only actual messages? Could he listen, undetected—would the count return to zero if he hits play or is there some kind of way to mark them “unlistened-to” like email? He can’t remember, isn’t sure.

The phone rings. Again. Is Ben supposed to pick it up at some point? Could there be some kind of emergency, something requiring fourteen messages, some reason he should listen to them? Three rings, then another hang-up before the machine can click on. The count stays at 14.

Ben looks down at his hands, remembers the pot he’d emptied into his left, the pipe he is still holding in his right. Then he remembers Tiny, still outside.

*

Ben and Tiny are downstairs, sitting on the couch in the basement. Ben’s flipping through channels, enjoying the process of flipping more than actually looking for anything. He doesn’t have a TV himself. Growing up, his family had one in every room, and in college he more often than not fell asleep to the comforting fuzzy light and turned-down-to-barely-audible sounds of Letterman, Conan, Jon Stewart. But Alice hadn’t grown up with one, and didn’t want one in the house, so he made the sacrifice—there were withdrawals at first but he adapted, grew used to the absence even. He barely even thinks about it anymore much less misses it.

Ben stops on baseball. The one thing he missed the most and longest was baseball. Even with the Internet he’s found himself following sports less every year without daily Sportscenters, without Baseball Tonight. Detroit is up 2–0, Verlander on the mound. The field looks so green, hypnotically green. The TV is not only bigger but so much more crisp than anything he ever owned. High-def, Ben thinks. Maybe even says aloud. He thinks about how he’d once tried to make a comparison between baseball fields and churches. He remembers playing catch in his backyard, playing third base in junior high, getting to play that one night game at the local rec center. How everything had looked and felt so different under the stadium lights. As different as watching this TV feels to the one he’d had in his boyhood bedroom.

Also, it should be noted: Ben is high. Gloriously high. The highest he’s been in a long time, maybe ever, and it feels great. The tension that he holds in his shoulders seems to have melted away, as has the slight tooth pain in his back molar that he’s been trying to ignore for weeks, maybe months. Time changes, starts passing faster and faster as you get older—Ben has acknowledged and been thinking about this a lot lately, but even still he seems to have completely lost track of it at some point in the last year. Days, weeks, months…they’ve all become interchangeable, each as easily lost overnight as the other. Has he not been to or watched a baseball game since last season? The season before?

He wants to go back outside to take another hit, but Tiny has crawled into his lap and Ben doesn’t want to disturb him. He likes the feeling of the dog curled up on him, sleeping so restfully. He’s missed that feeling of closeness, the comfort of being locked in place by another body. He thinks, what the hell, and lights the bowl from his seat on the couch, inhales too deep and coughs most of it back out. Ben tells himself to remember to open the windows, let the basement air out. Turn on the ceiling fan, maybe light a candle. He sets the pipe and lighter on the coffee table in front of the couch and adjusts Tiny enough to be able to lie down and stretch out but slowly and smoothly enough so Tiny stays curled up next to him and doesn’t jump down or move to the other leg of the L-couch. He struggles to keep his eyes open enough to watch Verlander strikes out the side.

*

Ben wakes to the phone ringing. It’s faint, coming from two floors above and through weed-blurred hearing, and Ben’s surprised it woke him at all. He half-remembers a dream—maybe some crying, something about a loud buzzing, an alarm. The phone must have been ringing for some time. Twice? Three times? More? There’s a small urge to go upstairs and answer it, or at least listen to see if the caller finally left a message. Maybe check the current count on the machine. But Ben’s too tired, too comfortable. He isn’t that curious.

The place is dark. The baseball game is over. On the TV is the kind of movie Ben used to watch on late-night basic cable when growing up. All expletives overdubbed and nudity edited around with commercials and jump cuts, but the kind of movie that obviously had plenty of both. There isn’t a clock anywhere in the basement and Ben thinks about flipping through the channels until finding one that will tell him, but it seems like too much work. Again, he isn’t that curious. If the game started at 7 or 7:30 and is over, as is any kind of post-game recap or highlights show; if it’s this dark outside; if this is the movie being played…it must be around midnight or one. Ben flips the TV off, drops the remote to the floor. There’s a throw blanket draped over the back of the couch that Ben grabs, spreads over himself. Under the blanket, Tiny readjusts, burrows in. Ben lets himself drift back to sleep, believing the Tigers won. Verlander pitched a complete game, probably. A one-hit shut out? Hell, a perfect game. Ben falls asleep remembering the one-hit, no-walk minor league game he and his best friend, Henry, saw when little. A perfect game broken up only by a line single up the middle in the eighth. He was too young to fully understand at the time how close he came to witnessing something perfect, that it would be the closest he’d ever come.

Aaron Burch

AARON BURCH is the author of Backswing (Queen's Ferry Press, July 2014) and the Founding Editor of HOBART: another literary journal. He lives in Ann Arbor.

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