Johnny America


Up to No Good


Illustration of bowling pins and a dog.

The man fell to his knees on the car­pet­ed floor in his bed­room. For what seemed like the umpteenth time in less than two months he’d turned his an­kle and twist­ed his back, the same an­kle and spine he’d in­jured four nights ago in the very same room. And all be­cause he was up to no good, as his moth­er used to chide him, sev­en­ty years ago.

Sam, a man of pre­dictable, se­date habits, had re­cent­ly be­come fix­at­ed on his neigh­bor. Every night, once Mil­dred, Sam’s wife of fifty-five years, dozed off in front of the TV, Sam sneaked in­to their bed­room, turned out the lights, opened the blinds, just enough, climbed up on­to a rick­ety wood­en chair that al­lowed him to peer over the red­wood fence be­tween his house and the house next door and wait­ed to spy on the new res­i­dent, a young school­teacher, thin, painful­ly plain-look­ing, rather stu­dious in her thick-framed glass­es, a woman who, for some rea­son, un­dressed with her cur­tains open. In­tense­ly cu­ri­ous, if not gain­ful­ly aroused (he was get­ting along in years), Sam piv­ot­ed from his perch when the woman turned abrupt­ly and stared at her un­shield­ed win­dow. Sam tum­bled like a strick­en sen­try. The show was over and he was a ca­su­al­ty… not ex­act­ly of lust, but of a long­ing for some­thing he felt he had missed out on. And he might be in more trou­ble than he could imagine.

Once again, he’d suc­ceed­ed in tweak­ing every nerve in his al­ready-tor­tur­ous back, and, on top of that, he’d man­aged to thump his nog­gin against the head­board of the bed, the stan­dard-sized, creaky old four-poster he had shared with Mil­dred for more than fifty years. He was lucky not to have im­paled him­self. Was be­ing a peep­ing Tom worth it, a racked-up hip, a jived-up back that felt like some­one had thrown a switch al­low­ing the elec­tric­i­ty to jolt through it like a surge through a con­demned man whose stay of ex­e­cu­tion had got­ten lost in the mail? Ap­par­ent­ly, it was worth it. He’d been at this, dili­gent­ly, night af­ter night, for near­ly two months.

Sam’s bed­room win­dow, ad­ja­cent to his neighbor’s gauze-cur­tained win­dow with the flim­sy ma­te­r­i­al pulled back— invit­ing­ly, thought Sam — of­fered the ide­al van­tage to en­joy her am­a­teur bur­lesque show, ex­pos­ing her­self, not com­plete­ly, but sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly, good enough for cu­ri­ous Sam, though prob­a­bly not ad­e­quate for a true, hard­core voyeur. Sam was a man still in­ter­est­ed in such mat­ters, pruri­ent and tit­il­lat­ing. Most men would want more, but Sam, a re­tired ac­coun­tant, a dea­con at the Dis­ci­ples Church, a Shriner, wasn’t one to ask for more than what was of­fered; he was a man of mild ex­pec­ta­tions; he set­tled for what was offered.

His wife would sure­ly ask him in the morn­ing, on their mile-and-a-half walk through the bu­col­ic sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood of hand­some­ly-groomed homes, well-man­i­cured lawns, all main­tained by their neigh­bors of more-than-mod­est means, why he limped. Hadn’t his leg re­cov­ered from his mys­te­ri­ous mishap of on­ly a few days ear­li­er? Again, Sam would blame the dog, Max. Would Mil­dred be­lieve, that on more than a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions in less than a few months, her hus­band was so clum­sy that he tripped over the schnau­zer when he took the dog out to re­lieve him­self be­fore she and Sam turned in for the night af­ter Jim­my Kimmel’s mono­logue? He could on­ly hope so.

Sam nev­er claimed to be the most cre­ative guy in the world when it came to ly­ing to his wife, or any­one else for that mat­ter. He’d nev­er been a good liar. The dog was the best he could come up with. Luck­i­ly, Mil­dred, gullible and won­der­ful­ly naïve, wouldn’t press for more than he of­fered; she trust­ed her sev­en­ty-eight-year-old hus­band. And the dog could be a re­al nuisance.

“The woman next door wants to come over and talk with us,” said Mil­dred as she poured her hus­band his first cup of morn­ing cof­fee. “She sound­ed rather se­vere on the phone.” Each morn­ing, be­fore their walk, Mil­dred but­tered Sam’s two pieces of wheat toast and pulled the box of his fa­vorite ce­re­al from the cup­board above the stove. His break­fast was al­ways the same, a bowl of Chee­rios with a sliced ba­nana, two pieces of toast and cof­fee, black. “I told her to come around ten, that we’d be back from our walk by then. Her name’s Su­san or Sharon. I think that’s what she told me.” She hummed, as she al­ways did when she put­tered around the kitchen, or if she was ner­vous. And when wasn’t Mil­dred ner­vous? If Mil­dred wasn’t prat­tling on and on about one thing or an­oth­er, an an­noy­ing habit, she was hum­ming. She was of the jit­tery sort by na­ture. “I’ll of­fer her cof­fee, but I won’t bake any­thing. She sound­ed a bit of­fi­cious on the phone. I think she’s like the rest of them these days. She prefers tex­ting.” Mil­dred sighed. “But as you know, I don’t text. I won’t do it. If they have some­thing to say, they can call me or just show up at the door, for cry­ing out loud. Who do they think we are, the Jetsons?”

Re­turned from his brisk walk with Mil­dred and, of course, Max, Sam sat anx­ious­ly at the din­ing room ta­ble. He pre­tend­ed to read the morn­ing pa­per while he tapped his foot like Gene Kru­pa, his right foot, the kick-drum foot; the left foot ached some­thing aw­ful, along with his an­kle. Luck­i­ly, Mil­dred hadn’t com­ment­ed on his hob­ble. The neigh­bor was in the kitchen lis­ten­ing to Mil­dred chat­ter away about the change in the trash col­lec­tion days. In a mat­ter of min­utes, they’d both bring their cof­fee in­to the din­ing room. Sam pre­pared him­self for the worst; he was about to face the mu­sic and there was noth­ing he could do about it.

For the first few min­utes the con­ver­sa­tion was light: how cool the nights were, but the days were warm for this late in au­tumn. Yes, the weath­er was ex­cep­tion­al­ly pleasant.

Then: “I hate to be a com­plain­er,” said the neigh­bor, Su­san or Sharon, “but there’s some­thing oc­cur­ring every evening that just has to stop.” The thin-faced, young woman glared at Sam. Across the ta­ble from him, ful­ly clothed, she was more at­trac­tive than she was un­dressed late at night.

Sam ceased tap­ping his fin­gers. The jig was up. He’d soon find him­self on the sex of­fend­ers list or even in the slam­mer. Sex of­fend­ers don’t do well in prison. He’d read that some­where. He’d be shunned at church, per­haps al­so at Pier­point Bowl­ing Lanes where he went every Tues­day for the Se­niors League. His team, The Hip­sters (a name Sam de­test­ed) would scratch him from the ros­ter. Even a bowl­ing al­ley was no place for a deviant.

“Tell us what it is,” said Mil­dred, earnest­ly. She tend­ed to fret. Over every­thing. Even her gro­cery list and smar­ty-pants con­tes­tants on Jeop­ardy. “We’ll do what­ev­er we can to make things right. If we can. Won’t we Sam?”

Sam nod­ded. Even if they had to move out of the neigh­bor­hood, they’d make things right. But would Mil­dred move with him? Or would she turn her back on her ban­ished hus­band? And could they af­ford a di­vorce on their fixed in­comes, her schoolteacher’s re­tire­ment, and his mod­est funds?

“Well, Mrs. Smith,” the young woman said slow­ly. “I think your hus­band al­ready knows ex­act­ly what I’m re­fer­ring to.” She paused. She looked di­rect­ly in­to Sam’s eyes. “Do you want to tell your wife what’s been go­ing on, or should I?”

Sam shook his head. He bit at his trem­bling low­er lip.

“What have you done?” asked Mildred.

Sam looked down at his hands, locked in­to a knot in his lap. He cleared his throat but couldn’t ut­ter so much as a sound. Tongue tied, as his moth­er used to say. Cat got your tongue?

Fi­nal­ly, the woman spoke. “It’s dis­gust­ing, Mrs. Smith.” She sighed. “I hate to even bring it up, but it’s got to stop.” Her eyes shift­ed from Mil­dred to Sam, then back to poor Mil­dred. “Every night, late at night, around eleven o’clock, your hus­band takes your dog out to do his busi­ness.” She huffed. “And the dog seems in­tent on lift­ing his leg on the pyra­can­thas that line against the side of my house.” She gri­maced. “He’ll kill them if he keeps do­ing it. And you,” she said di­rect­ly to Sam, “don’t seem to care. You just let him pee wher­ev­er he pleases.”

Mil­dred gri­maced and the neigh­bor fold­ed her arms across her chest, the small­ish breasts Sam had caught glimpses of over the past eight weeks.

His wife took a deep breath. Fi­nal­ly, she asked, “Why don’t you take Max in­to the back yard at night? Or down the street to the park?”

Sam shrugged. His se­nior-cit­i­zen brain wasn’t pro­cess­ing as ef­fi­cient­ly as it should. “Max prefers the front yard… and the side of the house,” he said with a timid grin. “From now on, I’ll let Max go out in­to the back yard.”

Both women stared blankly at him, the on­ly two women he’d ever seen un­dressed, oth­er than a few in the more mod­ern movies he and Mil­dred had seen together.

“Sam,” said Mil­dred. “You might at least apologize.”

“I am sor­ry.” Sam gulped. “I guess I’ve just been lazy.”

“No harm done,” said the young woman brusque­ly. “I just thought we need­ed to get this settled.”


Mil­dred, nev­er one to tol­er­ate awk­ward breaks in any con­ver­sa­tion, said, “Let me run in­to the kitchen and heat up some cin­na­mon rolls. They’re the kind you get on the re­frig­er­at­ed shelves at Kroger’s. You know, the kind you bang against the counter to get the tube to ex­plode. That’s how you get them to open. You hit the pack­age. The tube pops, and out comes the dough.”

“That would be nice,” said the neighbor.

“It’ll just take me ten min­utes.” Mil­dred gave Sam an all-too-fa­mil­iar look of dis­gust and left the two strangers alone at the ma­hogany table.

Sam tapped his fin­gers light­ly on the table­top and looked out the win­dow. Out to­ward the woman’s shin­gled house. Her trim need­ed paint. He could feel the schoolteacher’s eyes bor­ing a hole in­to the side of his head. Each breath she took seemed in­sis­tent. Out of the cor­ner of his eye he could see her, not quite as plain­ly as he could feel her pres­ence, but she was there: the grand in­quisi­tor of the sub­urbs. He knew, all too well, that he wasn’t off the hook. He was dan­gling help­less­ly and she was en­joy­ing every mo­ment of his anguish.

In the kitchen Mil­dred hummed a hymn Sam thought he rec­og­nized but didn’t much care for. She slammed the door on the oven, too loud­ly, as she al­ways did; not an­gri­ly; she was sim­ply worked up and fretting.

Sam burned the roof of his mouth on the thick frost­ing on his cin­na­mon roll. On­ly a hint of the flames of hell, he thought. His wife and the neigh­bor dis­cussed the prob­lems with schools to­day, in par­tic­u­lar, how an in­cor­ri­gi­ble child is best handled. 

Filed under Fiction on January 19th, 2024

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