Earlier this week, we announced the winners of our 2012 Short Story Contest. Today, we’re publishing the first of our four finalists. We’ll continue to publish stories every week for the next month.
Around the Cul-de-sac
Lamont had knocked on the door that Saturday morning while I was away on an errand. As Deanna recounted to me, he said, “I saw four farall hogs in your yard this morning. They’re rooting in your grass.” He meant feral, not farall, which was clear to me, but Dee was confused. Either way, feral or farall, she didn’t understand. She thought maybe we’d pissed off our neighbor somehow—not a hard thing to do nowadays—and felt it’d be better not to say too much. Whenever Lamont came around—too often, it seemed—he always acted like he had his hackles up. Which made Dee uncomfortable.
“What kind of hogs?” she’d asked him.
“Far-all hogs,” he barked back. She said he moved a plug of tobacco from one cheek to the other in his mouth, and that he needed to spit the whole time he was talking to her.
“We’re sorry, it won’t happen again,” she’d told him, and shut the door in his face, just like she did when the clingy Jehovah’s Witnesses came around. Through the peephole she watched him as he left; she said he spat an ugly brown glob in our yard.
I explained to her what he’d meant by feral hogs.
“You know, wild pigs. They were domestic, probably from those abandoned farms on the edge of town, but they’ve turned wild now.”
“What’re they doing in our yard?”
“Hungry and thirsty, I guess. With the drought as bad as it is, they wander around, foraging. Our yard’s as good as any for grub worms.”
“But why does Lamont care? He sounded angry.”
“Shit if I know. Lamont always sounds angry.”
A cleanroom technician by trade, Lamont was our neighbor, a black guy who lived on the cul-de-sac. Like a strict habit, he always wore straight leg denim jeans, Tony Lama boots and starched white Oxford shirts—without fail, every day—and the stiffness of his attire made him walk like he had a stick up his ass. He also chewed tobacco, which he spat in nasty gobs wherever he happened to be at the moment. And he was married to a white woman, which seemed to be an issue for him, but it wasn’t for me. I’m Anglo; Deanna’s Latina, brown sugar morena, and darker even than Lamont’s ginger-colored hue. So go figure: Melanin, melanin, let’s play who’s got the most melanin. I just get tired of it. Not being able to talk honestly without getting ripped a new asshole.
I decided not to follow up with Lamont. I didn’t feel like talking to Charlie Pride’s angry doppelganger.
Eleven-thirty Saturday night, I heard outside my kitchen window the unmistakable report of a single gun blast. Blammm. The sound reverberated off the two-story brick houses around the cul-de-sac.
Dee and I were already in bed. Although startled by the noise, she said nothing. Putting my clothes back on, I said, “I’m gonna see what that was.”
“Is that a good idea, you think?” Dee asked me.
“Good ideas are overrated.”
She should’ve slapped me for being a smartass right then, which might’ve stopped me, but I walked outside anyway, across the cul-de-sac’s circle in the direction of Lamont’s house, where I saw him standing in his driveway with his blonde wife, Angie. She was in a frilly powder blue negligee, but he looked like he’d tried to dress in a hurry, still shirtless and barefooted, and had on only a pair of ramrod straight jeans. Even half naked, he was uptight and stiff as a board.
They paid no attention to me, though, as they searched around their cars—for keys, I thought—and seeing no guns in play anywhere, I decided I didn’t care to witness events unfold further. No one was bleeding in the street, and so, neighborly cordialities with Lamont avoided, I went back inside. I didn’t call the police.
The next morning I woke up early, restless. I hadn’t dreamed about gunfire, but I might as well have, since the first thing I thought about was the previous night’s blast. In an Austin suburb. A suburb filled with high-tech workers, teachers and lawyers. They weren’t going to tolerate anyone squeezing off rounds at midnight. Somebody would do something about it and I didn’t have to worry. Which meant, of course, that I did have to worry. Because I might have to be the somebody.
At eight o’clock I decided it was late enough on a Sunday to mow the lawn without bothering anyone with the noise. I have a large lawn, and I wasn’t really looking forward to mowing it, but at least I’d started early, when I saw Lamont trudging like a soldier across the cul-de-sac in my direction. He was purposeful, that was my first impression, maybe even hypervigilant. We made eye contact and I stopped the mower.
“Too early for the noise?”
“Naw,” he said dismissively, as if I’d missed some salient point of discussion before we’d even talked. “You heard that last night?” he asked me. His right cheek protruded off his face, looked about the size of a grapefruit; it was even pink. Soon he’d have to spit.
“Man, that was something, wasn’t it? What was that anyway?” I asked, as naïvely as I could.
“What’d you come outside for?” he asked hotly in return, ignoring my question.
“Because I thought someone might be hurt, that’s why,” I said.
“Nobody hurt except a damn hog,” he said.
“So you fired the gun last night?” I asked.
He just looked at me.
“In a neighborhood? You’re firing off rounds?”
“Look, man, I know what I’m doing.”
Just as I thought, he had to spit. He spewed a brown stain on the sidewalk, right at my feet; he didn’t even try to aim for the grassy easement or the street two feet away.
“I know what you’re doing, too. You’re firing off a gun fifty yards from my kitchen window, and now you’re trying to intimidate me.”
“I just need some help on this, man. I don’t want you calling the police. Somebody’s got to take out these farall hogs.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. His piece said, he pivoted and walked back toward his house, so stiff in his roper jeans I thought he might break himself in half right there in the cul-de-sac.
“Hey, Lamont,” I hollered after him. “It’s fair-rel, not far-all. Maybe if you took that chaw out of your mouth, you could talk.”
That night at midnight, I heard blam… blam… blam. Three shots in slow succession. From the sound I thought maybe a 20-gauge shotgun. I thought I heard also, in between discharges, the hollow tink of spent shell casings hitting concrete.
Looking out the kitchen window, I saw Lamont, alone—no Angie in her frilly nighty—standing in his driveway, a shotgun in his right hand. In full Western kit now, he was handsome, like a darker George Strait with a well-groomed nap.
Near him in the street was a body, the pig he’d just nailed. He walked up to it, aimed the gun down at it, and discharged another shell. The body jumped, and then blood pooled up around it, spotlit within the yellow circle cast by a nearby street light.
“Where’re you going?” Deanna demanded.
“I’m going to talk to that crazy fucker.”
Now I was the soldier trudging up to Lamont. He saw me coming. There was no chaw in his cheek now.
“Look,” he said, preempting my objections, “I got a right to protect my property. Castle doctrine. Somebody—a hog or whoever—invades my home, I can shoot ‘em. That’s the law.”
The pig’s legs were flailing, still trying to run away from death.
“Are you going to shoot me, if I walk up in your driveway and talk to you?”
Lamont thought about that for a second.
“Not unless you give me cause,” he said.
Avoiding the expanding pool of blood, I stepped in Lamont’s direction, making sure to stay under the streetlamp. I was right next to the pig. He was lifeless now, but I could smell him, a gamey mixture of blood, feces, dirt and something else that I could only call wild.
“Lamont, you can’t be firing off a gun in this neighborhood—within the city limits. Come on. This isn’t Dallas or Houston; things are a different here.”
“Different?” he shot back at me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. If I was white, you wouldn’t say anything to me.”
“Lamont, that’s bullshit and you know it.”
“You better go,” he said. “I need to clean up this hog mess.”
I went back home to Deanna. Even though she wanted me to, I still didn’t call the cops.
The next day I called our realtor, Edie Thistle. She had found us the house seven years ago, and now she’d find us another place. We had no kids, so we’d sell and just get the hell out. I told Edie the situation. An ignorant redneck neighbor. Gunfire right outside our house. Intimidation. But I left out the part about the redneck being black.
“You know,” Edie said, “you’re going to take a loss if you sell in this market. I can’t work miracles, just so you know. You’ve already lost half your equity, so you might want to ride this out until prices bounce back. Have you called the police yet?”
Riding Edie’s wave of real property negativity, Deanna weighed in.
“Geoff, no; we’re not leaving and losing everything we’ve invested here. I’m not going to let some jerk scare me out of my home. I like it here, minus the stupid gunfire.”
Why, she asked, hadn’t someone (meaning me) called the police?
I said, “Dee, if he fires his gun again, we’ll call the police. Okay? Next time, we call the cops; I promise.”
Two weeks passed without gunfire. I was relieved because—although I would have—I didn’t want to call the police. Why I’d resisted calling them before I couldn’t explain—not out loud anyway—not even to Deanna. But to myself, I rationalized that doing so would’ve put me at the center of controversy with a black man, and I didn’t want that burden. Even if justified, my calling the police would’ve been viewed as white retribution of some weird, twisted variety, and I just refused to go there. Truth was, entirely apart from his race, I simply didn’t like Lamont; he was a selfish, unthinking, ignorant asshole. That he was black complicated the clarity and quality of my dislike for him. And that pissed me off. Yes, correct: not all black men are angry and hateful, I realized that. But since Lamont was angry and hateful, I wanted no association with him—including reporting his “stupid gunfire” to the police—because I felt forced to balance my reasoned dislike of him with the nuisance perception that I was a racial bigot.
But we had firmly decided we weren’t moving.
So, Saturday morning, Dee and I are making a grocery list when we hear a knock at the door. Nobody knocks on our door on Saturday mornings except Jehovah’s Witnesses, pushy salesmen trying to sell us home security systems, or intrusive turds like Lamont. It would be Lamont. I didn’t want to answer it.
“Geoff, you can’t avoid him forever. You’ll have to talk to him sometime.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But don’t expect me to be all ebullient because you’re right.”
“We don’t even know if it’s him. Come on, we’ll go to the door together.”
But it was Lamont. Instead of his sorry ass, I would’ve preferred a salesman peddling fear and doubt, or even a pair of chatty, apocalyptic JWs. I knew how to fend them off.
Lamont was smiling, though, not menacing like he had when he’d talked to Deanna two weekends before. Tucked under his arm was a brown paper bag. It looked heavy. His jaw was jammed full of snuff again, which contorted his face in ways that made me want to laugh when he tried to smile. He dug his hand into the bag.
“Here,” he said. “I had those hogs I killed processed for sausage. Got a good amount of meat off of ‘em, too. Fries up real good with eggs.”
He tried to smile again, with his cheek swollen up grotesquely. I wanted to laugh. Dee did, too, I could tell. But this was Lamont’s version of a peace offering. So we couldn’t laugh at him, could we?
Dee spoke up because she knew I wasn’t able to summon the words.
“Lamont, thank you, that’s so… thoughtful of you.”
Unusually chipper, Lamont said, “You’re so welcome.”
He handed her a package of frozen meat, a tube wrapped in white plastic and tied off at the ends with metal rings pinched shut to make an airtight seal. Blue lettering described the contents as Wild Game Pan Sausage. NOT FOR SALE. Net weight: 16 oz.
Lamont said, “I took it to the meat processor—you know, where hunters take their kill?—right after I shot ‘em. So the meat’s fresh. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s no question about that,” said Dee. “And I’m sure we’ll enjoy it very much. Right, Geoff?”
I was spellbound, plus I wasn’t expecting to have to speak. I wanted Dee to handle this.
“Oh, yeah, sure, sure,” I lied.
“Well,” he said, “I have to give the rest of this meat away, so I better be going.”
We stood in the doorway and watched him leave. He stepped off the front porch, took one longing look at our lawn, but didn’t spit there. He waited until he got to the street, where he spewed a volume equal to a salutary regurgitation.
We closed the door and, giddy with laughter, rushed over to the kitchen window, the same window from which I’d watched Lamont shoot the feral hog. Gimpy in his stiff denim jeans, he went from door to door around the cul-de-sac. At each house he visited, the door opened and he was welcomed. Twice he was invited inside. He gave each household a frozen tube of wild game pan sausage. From what I could see from my kitchen window, all my neighbors were pleased with his thoughtful gesture.
An independent writer and editor, Martin Barkley lives in Austin, Texas. “Around theCul-de-sac” marks his debut as a fiction writer. He has forthcoming stories scheduled to appear in Threepenny Review and Chamber Four.