Up to No Good
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.
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