Brad and I stand in my living room and face the front door. My nine-month-old daughter is napping in the nursery. I’m holding a baseball bat. Brad holds a chainsaw.
“We’re not overreacting,” I ask. “Right?”
Brad is several inches taller than me, a good fifty pounds heavier, and has a punching bag in his backyard. He has started a tree-cutting and stump-removal business, and I rarely see him without either a chainsaw, an ax, or a lawnmower. Sometimes a dump truck drops off twenty-foot tree logs that take over his front yard.
“If they’re looking for you,” I said, “why would they come here?”
“I’m just saying we could probably sit down.”
“You can if you want.”
I’m a pianist. Brad and I like the same football team, and we both watch the Walking Dead. Otherwise we don’t have much in common.
“So,” I begin, still standing. “The Steelers, huh.”
“Le’Veon Bell is a beast.”
Our longest interaction was the day he and his wife moved in next door. We also talked when I borrowed a drill from him to hang a picture and returned it an hour later. I didn’t know how to stop the water one time when my boiler sprung a leak, and he helped me out. We also usually say “Hi” when we see each other. It hasn’t been much, but I’ve still come to think of him as one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. His house has Steelers curtains in the front windows, visible from the road. When I went over to borrow his drill, I saw framed Walking Dead posters hanging inside.
It looks like we’re having a conversation today.
“In the event of the zombie apocalypse,” I say, gesturing towards his chainsaw, and recalling his ax and saws, “I feel pretty good about being your neighbor.”
“I got you covered.”
A black Escalade drives by. There are only twelve houses on this calm street. Other than a pair of retired nuns in the house on the other side of Brad’s and a mild-mannered chubby gay guy a little further down, the neighborhood is filled with middle-aged divorced women. I rarely hear anything other than the slamming of car doors and Brad’s chainsaw. An Escalade stands out. This is the second time I’ve seen it drive by today. I can’t tell if Brad noticed.
Brad is a stay-at-home dad like me. His baby daughter was born a few days after they moved in, so she must be four months old. I guess that’s another thing we have in common. I’ll have to remember that if we’re struggling for a topic later.
“Joann working?” he asks.
“She’s usually home by four. There’s plenty of time to do whatever we’re doing.” I shrug. “Where’s your little girl?”
“Grandparents,” he says. “With Kate. Back next week.”
The dumped-off pile of wood on his front lawn is an eyesore, but it will all be gone in a few days. Usually he’s limited to working on it weekends or evenings after Kate can take over baby duty. Brad is dedicated. He’ll work nonstop during that hour and a half till it gets too dark to see.
Because I rarely see him without one, I was only a little alarmed earlier when I opened the door to Brad and a chainsaw. An hour later, he still hasn’t put it down. He’d been out on a job. Even with all the ropes and pulleys, though, Brad had lost control of a thick two-hundred pound branch that crashed into the house through a window and hit his employer’s wife. She was alive, but bloody, and pissed. Once she pieced together what had happened, she started screaming at Brad and threatened much worse than a lawsuit. Brad is convinced that her husband is a major player in organized crime. That was the most I’d ever heard him talk, which is why part of me thinks it’s true. It can’t be true, though. We live in southern Virginia. There’s crime, yes, but it’s not organized.
“You doing anything today?” he asks.
“I have rehearsal tonight,” I say, nodding towards my piano.
“I’m the music director at Christ Episcopal. We have choir practice Wednesday nights. I direct the choir.”
“Not really,” I say. “But these little churches aren’t very particular, especially since I play piano too and they get to pay one person to do two jobs.”
The church is my main gig. I also teach piano lessons Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It doesn’t add up to full-time but the rest of the time I’m a father. I have the urge to hammer or drill something, to prove my manhood in front of Brad. Instead, I hear my baby girl waking up and I need to get a bottle ready.
I’m surprised she slept this long, though I had hoped the game Brad and I were playing would be over by the time she woke up. There’s a bag of breast milk on the kitchen counter that I took out of the freezer earlier to thaw. I pour it into a bottle and swish it around. Back in the living room, for the first time since coming over, Brad has put his chainsaw down by his feet. He has also helped himself to my daughter and is lightly rocking her in his huge arms.
Silently, he takes the bottle from my hand and gently places the rubber nipple in the sleepy little girl’s mouth.
“It’s like looking into the future,” he says of my daughter, roughly five months older than his. “God, I love babies. Don’t you?”
In the backyard my little girl crawls around on the freshly cut grass. It is mid-afternoon and we’re way overdue for lunch. I have fired up the grill for a couple of burgers. Brad has brought his chainsaw out with him, as I have brought my baseball bat. Brad has already admired my Steelers grill spatula. It occurs to me that the metal edges of the spatula might do more damage than the blunt barrel of my baseball bat, though the spatula is shorter.
Brad has cut down the lower branches of his sweet gum tree, but when the wind blows, the sweet gum balls from the remaining branches still drop into my backyard. The bulk fall over the winter, but I find them all year round. They are the size of golf balls, spiky and a nuisance. I pick up a gum ball from the ground and show Brad.
“When are you going to finish cutting down that tree?” I ask, though I know he has every right to leave it up.
“They land in your yard?” Brad says. “I’ll get on that.” He looks up at the tree, as if he hasn’t thought about it in a while. “Maybe this weekend.”
Brad stays close to the house, so it’s on me to periodically glance around the side to see if anyone’s there. I hadn’t realized Brad is such a softie for babies. It’s killing him to keep from running out into the yard to lift the baby up in the air and blow on her tummy. His eyes are glued to her, except when he sees me drift off to the side, for a look at the street.
“A black Escalade keeps driving by,” I say. “I’ve seen it four or five times already.”
“That’s them,” Brad says.
I only see Brad’s baby girl when he carries her, buckled up in her car seat, from the house to his truck. She rides in the front seat with him. I thought there were restrictions for children riding in the front seat before a certain age or under a certain height. I guess it doesn’t apply if your truck doesn’t have a backseat.
I glance at the coals in the grill. They’re just about ready. I grab a stick to spread them around a bit, and then I throw on the burgers. They sizzle.
“There’s the Escalade again,” I say, walking back and forth.
If what Brad believes is true, I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Brad’s truck is out front so it appears that he’s home. He and I have never been close, and under normal circumstances there would be no reason for him to be over here. He’s never been before, anyway.
“And again,” I say as the Escalade circles back. “They’re getting more frequent.”
The Escalade stops. My heart skips a beat and I jump backwards before cautiously peering around the corner. The sun glares from its windows and from this angle I can’t see inside.
“It’s just sitting there,” I loudly whisper to Brad.
His instinct is to protect the baby. He scoops her up with one hand and, with the chainsaw in the other, bolts back into the house. I grab my baseball bat and follow them, though suddenly my shoes feel like lead.
Brad has my front door open a crack and is peeping through it. I notice his chainsaw has been set down on the coffee table, but my baby girl is still on his right arm.
“They’re idling,” he says.
“Maybe they want you to come out,” I say, now desperate to get this over.
He glances at me and is mildly alarmed by the look on my face. “Stay calm. What would you normally be doing?”
I force a shrug. I look at the baby in his arms. I look around the house. “Probably playing piano.”
Brad and the baby are in sight as I sit down at the piano and play the opening arpeggios of Mozart’sFantasy in D minor. I assign this piece to my better high school students. I make it to the first cadenza and I start to feel better. I rip through the cadenza and hit the final high note harder than usual. I pause for dramatic effect.
“They’re getting out,” Brad says.
I feel sick.
“There’s two of them. I can’t tell if anyone else is in the car. It’s turned off anyway. You can keep playing.”
“I don’t feel up to it.”
“I can’t get a good look at them. Can you go out there?”
“Are you crazy?”
He looks back again. I have repossessed my baseball bat and I’m holding it up, standing like I’m waiting for the pitcher to get set and deliver.
“Pretend to get the mail,” he says. “Get a look inside the car. Maybe size them up.”
I shuffle towards the door.
“Leave this,” he says, taking the bat from me with the hand not holding a baby. “You don’t need it. Just get the mail.”
I brush past him and the baby and stand on the porch for a second, looking away from his house and the goons. I step down and lose my footing, but I regain my balance before falling to the ground. I open the mailbox. Inside are several envelopes. I close the mailbox. I look at the Escalade. I have a good angle and can see clearly through the back window. Unless someone is lying down, there’s no one else. I look over at Brad’s house. The two men are standing on his door stoop, and they are looking at me.
“Hello,” I say. “You friends of Brad?”
One of them is the classic henchman: big, ripped, bald, and silent. The other guy is smaller than me. The little guy says, “That’s his truck, right?”
I look at Brad’s truck, parked on the street, in front of the Escalade, as if Brad wanted them to see it. I nod. “But they have another car, too.”
“You haven’t seen him?”
I’ve done my duty and I head back inside. I sit down at the piano and pick the Mozart up where I left off. The second cadenza doesn’t go as well, and this time I pause to breathe deep and calm my nerves.
“There’s no one else in the car,” I say.
I play some more of the Fantasy, but stop before it modulates to the major key. I’m not feeling major.
“They’re inside,” Brad says.
“Call the police!” I say. “That’s breaking and entering.”
“I’m going over.”
I don’t argue. He takes one step outside before remembering to swap my baby for his chainsaw. Then he leaves and I watch him walk across my lawn and through piles of logs, kindling, and sawdust. I’m relieved that he’s gone, and ashamed for feeling that way. I listen closely but don’t hear anything. The street is quiet. No one is slamming a car door. Brad isn’t using his chainsaw. It’s unsettling. I don’t know how much time has passed when I hear my daughter whimpering.
Baby in hand, my turn to protect her, I walk through the house to the backyard. I use my Steelers grill spatula to jam the burnt remains of the burgers through the cracks and into the coals. I’m not hungry anymore anyway.
“It’s taken care of,” Brad says as he reappears from around the corner of the house. He doesn’t have his chainsaw. “Glad the wife is out of town.” He looks at the charred meat patties, now in flames. “Forgot about those.” He walks over to us and touches the baby’s cheek, but I refuse to let go.
My eyes drift around the corner of my house and see the Escalade parked on the street.
“It’s still there,” I say.
“Have to move the car,” he says. “But that’s all right.”
I notice specks of red on his shirt and face. “Where are they?”
He contemplates a response. “There’s still work to be done. Always is. But you’re all set. Sorry about the burgers.”
He turns around and heads home.
“I’ll take care of that tree for you,” he calls back.
The baby in my arms pushes against my chest, ready to get down. I want to cradle her tight, but she is deceptively strong. Her gaze drifts towards Brad’s house. She whines; I’m tired. I lower her to the ground and she takes off on all fours around the grassy backyard. She is aimed towards another sweet gum ball. I race to remove it from her path before she stabs herself with its spikes. I fling the gum ball into Brad’s backyard. It hurts a little.