by Danielle Burhop
One. Here is where we begin, with a bite on a too-large chip of peppercorn, the heat searing his throat. That's the purpose of having it fresh, he says, grinding the spice first through metal teeth, then his own. The texture, the surprise. Not a sprinkle of equal-sized black confetti from a can. He does the peppering mostly over his eggs, for the cracking sound.
Two. Well now, he does like his pepper, but I'd start with his car. He loves that thing, washes it every weekend. And that house! And that even, golf-green lawn of his. He push mows the whole thing with a reel mower and mulches. Mulches, who does that?
Three. She knew this story well, knew its variations. She wasn't fooled. Of course it was about the girl.
The days are warm and long, the neighbors plump; the sprinklers nod back and forth, their streamlets darkening patches of sidewalk. This is the block he comes home to and looks out on from his porch, always with the day's paper and one brown beer bottle in hand. People walk by with happy dogs and pause to report on new driveway gravel and satisfying grilled meat dinners. He might sit there until the sun turns off and porch light on and the air smells chilled.
He's got an excellent beer cap castle. I know, it sounds like something a kid would make. It's back there, behind his porch bench, about three feet high now. He had to rebuild it once when some kids knocked it over. Thing must've taken him days!
She thought when he touched her he must think her a fish, that she needed special handling or she'd shake free. And his hands were often wet.
He puts on a button-down shirt and belts his pants every morning, though he hates it. The neighborhood ladies think he looks smart, say such a handsome bachelor! to each other from behind hands, and one-up each other with tidbits about his life — what one saw him buy at the grocery store — four pounds of steak, who's he cooking all that for? — and how another saw him stub his toe while mowing and ran to bring him a bag of ice — poor dear was limping around, who else will take care of him? And for them, he wears his smile like it's a new toy: joyful, tickled, like he can barely hold in the laugh behind it, his eyes glossed with a hint of happy tears.
The young girls sure do love him. I dunno if he's in his 30s or 40s, but he still gets them giggling. I mean the ones who are 8, 9, or 12, 13, maybe? Who are just learning to make the boys smile. They collapse in fits after talking to him, just fall all over each other if he even looks their way.
The first time she saw him, she didn't see him. She paused to watch a man walk up to the local water fountain and twist and twist at the handle, his head half-bowed. He never drank. She needed water herself and walked over to the fountain. No matter how she twiddled the knob around she could only get a sad trickle to issue forth from the metal lip. He was already twenty-two paces away.
His beer, his lawn, his eggs, his cracked black pepper — he likes his life. He likes his skinny three-storied house, with his bed on the second floor and large attic-like space on the third. He thinks it feels right to sleep on a separate floor, although he still falls asleep on the porch all the same. He sometimes has to catch an interloping squirrel up on the very top level. He likes to put his head out of the one small square window up there. He likes to watch from that window as a just-released, ticked-off squirrel chatters at him from the nearby oak.
I've seen him fall asleep on that porch, his hands usually up behind his head in a soldier's headrest. Stu from across the street keeps an eye on that. Stu'll flash his porch lights on and off and say, "Hey, Jonesy," into the night, and he'll shake himself awake and stumble inside. Everyone calls him Jonesy, I dunno what that's about, his real name is something serviceable like Mark.
She loved his old weekend T-shirt, with the cotton worn thin and holes dotting the underarm seams. She took to hand washing it, to prolong its life, and tried to sew it once, but the thread just puckered and pulled the weak fabric wherever it was she tried to mend.
He's in construction — a cement man, now. He started young, throwing cinder blocks and laughing loud when the jackhammers bit into the ground. His arm muscles are still long and ropy from all that work, but he rarely finds himself at the helm of a jackhammer these days, his ears plastic-cupped to reduce the sound to a dull thud-thud-thud. He's moved up in the ranks and is now tasked with coaxing out all of the cement from a mixer, with knowing the ins and outs of gypsum and clinker and gravel size. For two hours he yells at his men, stomps, rues the rapid dampening of his underarms and watches the wheelbarrowing and scurrying and shoveling and spreading of every thick gray heap. But when it comes time to finish the cement with a stiff broom, he's beers all around, and to hell with the uncleaned wheelbarrows, which will later have to have a cement crust scraped out.
I saw Jonesy lay a driveway for a neighbor once, he stirred up that bag of cement right quick and had it down in no time. Some folks of course had to come stomp in it, kids put their hands in it, even though he roped it off well. Came right back with some broom and cleaned it all up. There's one corner where someone marked something, looks like a signature. I think maybe he did that.
She liked it when they read to each other. She would hand him poetry or thick translations of Russian authors, anything where he'd have to work his mouth around the words. She liked to watch his mouth. He always gave her part of the newspaper - not always the sports pages - but something from that day, fresh, to read aloud. The last story she could remember reading to him was on swimming pool upkeep, with some pools breeding mosquitoes in sluggish, choked waters, while others were assigned an altered purpose: filled now with skateboarders, dog runs, full terraced gardens that drop off at the deep end.
The neighborhood ladies like to stage elaborate scenes for him — they stroll by with a friend or relative, always a single female. Upon passing his house, they all give the same little start, touch their throats and then paste on a clever grin. Oh, I didn't know you were home! they titter and then expedite an introduction. Hands are shaken, and pleasantries exchanged, and from afar it would look as if he likes nothing more than conversation with these ladies, all shoulders tipped back and eager smiles and hands fluttering to touch his shoulder, showing how pleased they are with a joke he's told. And they never seem sad that they do not get a phone number out of it or that their relationship will reduce to the same state as the ones before — a friendly wave, a passing hello — and a moment of wondering what else could ever really be said.
I hardly ever do see Jonesy with a girl — I mean sure, girls talk to him, and ladies — you can hear the laughter when one heads over, trying to get his attention. I guess there was one girl, once, when he first moved here. She wasn't from the neighborhood, anyway. I don't know that she was around that much. But it was awhile ago now, and it's hard to remember Jonesy with anyone on that porch but himself.
She knew they were probably at the end of things. She'd been thinking it for a few weeks. So when she saw the cement truck go by, her desire to follow it surprised her with its fear like a fist in her throat. She watched the truck churn, painted with the same logo as his ball cap. She drove behind it for a few blocks before it settled into a construction spot rife with holes. He was in the middle of the scene, pointing and clearly hollering, although she could not hear his voice over the ambient clatter of construction sounds. She even thought he saw her sitting in her car, although he never motioned for her to come over to him and never did mention her presence on his site that day.
He does go for road trips. He won't tell anyone in the neighborhood — so at first they panic but eventually become accustomed to the occasional absence of car in his driveway. They take it to mean he is off somewhere, perhaps on a job, or just fishing or camping. He looks to be that type. He'll come back unshaven, sometimes tan. He always stretches his legs out of the car door upon arrival, thoroughly, as if he's been hunched at the driver's wheel for days. And when he gets out, he will start to remove a residue of bottles and cans and other trash from the back seat and will have his car back to clean within the hour.
He scrubs that car inside and out. Polishes the seats, even. I'd say he sleeps back there on occasion. Well, I know he does, because I once saw his car over in Belleville, and those were his feet propped out the back window. I know those big chewed-up yellow boots he wears. Jonesy works hard, though, so I'm sure he gets plumb wore out and can sleep just about anywhere. I didn't want to disturb him — a man's got to have some peace, sometimes.
She found a whole peppercorn in her right shoe one morning, after he'd left for work. She thought it must have been from his breakfast and shook it out over the lawn on her way out of the door. She forgot to mention it to him, and then she found another in her shoe a week later. She refused to say anything about it; she wanted him to bring it up. She waited and waited for him to confess to these small pranks. One day, after a night that was slow and grumpy and still for them, she found another tiny black ball trapped in the liner of her left boot. She worried it to powder with her big toe. There was only one more peppercorn after that one. She left that one in her shoe all day, cradled safe in the arch of her foot.
Danielle Burhop, a poet and Evanston native, recently moved back to the Chicago area after spending a decade in Seattle. She is currently enrolled in the fiction track of the School of Continuing Studies' master of arts in creative writing. Burhop works in Northwestern's neurobiology department on the Evanston campus.