As the rear door clicked behind him, Carlos shook off an assault of cold night air. Early fall in New England: pleasant days but chilly nights. His wife sat in front of him on the edge of the cement stoop, feet planted on the second step, a green cardigan draped over her shoulders. Linda from the adjacent townhouse sat to the left of his wife wrapped in a dark blue blanket she’d carted over. Linda Snoop sat on a stoop minding her neighbor’s poop. Along came—Carlos blanked on his wife’s name, always hated when that happened, feared uttering the wrong name, that of an old girlfriend or a current fantasy. Ana, that’s it. Along came Ana who plopped down beside her. Hmm, but didn’t scare her away.
Beyond the two women lay a non-bucolic panorama. Short patches of lawn, a line of cars parked head in, and across the parking lot were two dumpsters, brown and green. Past the parking lot, hardwood trees and scrub pine, silhouettes in the current darkness, strewn with paper cups and plastic wrappers in daylight. Above the trees, a scattering of stars, those with enough radiance to break through the haze of the overhead street lamps.
Carlos shook off a second stab from the night air. “What are you doing?” he said.
Without turning, Linda from next door said, “Shh.”
Ana leaned back with an upturned face and whispered, “Listening to the fight.”
Now that Carlos knew, he realized he’d been hearing an altercation since he had stepped out, its venue two units to the right. The combatants were Gabe, a big guy older than Carlos, and his wife Joyce, who was younger than Carlos and had raven hair; a hot number. The wife and husband exchanged insults with fervor, soprano versus bass, but Carlos couldn’t discern the words that Ana and Linda leaned forward to pluck. Non-vocal sounds entered the fray—breaking dishes.
“Should we call the cops?”
“Shh,” said Linda.
Ana again leaned back with her upturned face. “Don’t be an ass. It’s just getting good.”
Another shiver. Carlos reversed his direction, opened the back door, and stepped into his kitchen of red linoleum, silver appliances, and a breakfast counter that jutted toward him from the opposite wall. Three stools ran the length of the counter, and one anchored the short side. Carlos leaned against the one on the short side with his left hand and adjusted his ears to the interior of the house: all quiet. He considered checking on the kids, but … best leave them alone. He’d tucked them in with the Berenstain Bears—Carlos eyeballed the digital clock on the counter—a while ago. He’d waited, checked, waited, and checked again before igniting a stogie of sinsemilla cannabis and taking two deep hits, his goal a mild buzz, not a blitz. So much for good intentions.
Twisting and placing the small of his back against the counter, left hand still on the stool, Carlos hoped his mother wouldn’t call. The kitchen lay in twilight, its lights off, the only illumination drifting in from a lamp on the living room end table and a 60-watt bulb in the overhead hallway fixture. He hated when his mother called and he was high. She’d say; Carlos, is everything okay? You don’t seem yourself. Is everything alright with you and Ana? Carlos, talk to me. Are you there?
What was happening outside? Must be cold—Linda Snoop-de-doop had a blanket wrapped around her. Oh, right, Gabe, and his hot wife, Joyce, were going at it again. What if it really got out of hand? What if he started whacking her? That angered Carlos, Gabe beating on Joyce, and Carlos imagined himself intervening.
As Ana and Linda screamed and dialed nine-one-one, Carlos strode across the intervening backyard, mounted Gabe and Joyce’s rear stoop, and pushed their door open without knocking. Joyce cowered in the far corner of the kitchen, while Gabe turned to confront Carlos. Gabe had him on height and muscle, but Carlos didn’t care, he raised his fists and danced in front of the heavyweight. Gabe advanced, left fist up and the right cocked. Carlos jabbed with his left, catching the cocky giant under the eye, feeling the blow to his elbow, knowing that if the punch hurt him, he’d done damage to his opponent. Gabe backed off a step with a stunned gaze, then bared his teeth and stepped forward only to meet another jab, this one to the nose. Fury engulfed Gabe’s face as he set himself for a charge. Carlos faded sideways, and then stepping forward, buried his right fist in Gabe’s midriff. Oomph, said Gabe as his knees buckled, but the murder in his eyes told Carlos that the fight was far from finished.
Carlos danced backward on his toes, scissoring his legs, fists up. He lunged forward, still scissoring his legs, and jammed his right knee on the breakfast counter end stool. Dropping his boxer’s stance, Carlos bent from the waist and grabbed the top of the stool with both hands. For a second, the high seat, tilted on two legs, held, but as the center of gravity shifted, it fell sideways, throwing Carlos butt down on the red linoleum.
The kitchen door flew open. Carlos, on the floor with splayed legs and a tumbled stool, observed the advancing knees of Ana’s khaki culottes. He raised his eyes to her face.
“Carlos, what the fuck are you doing?”
While Carlos pushed on the floor with his right hand in a futile effort to rise, Ana bent over, grabbed the stool, and set it back on its legs.
“Have you been smoking?”
As a prelude to the second attempt to rise, Carlos rolled sideways to his hands and knees.
“Jesus,” said Ana, “we don’t have to listen to Joyce and numb nuts. We’ve got it right here.”
Using the stool for leverage, almost upsetting it again, Carlos dragged himself to his feet.
“It’s a little embarrassing, you know,” said Ana. “Linda’s out there laughing her ass off.” Ana walked past Carlos into the hall, turned, and returned. “It’s a wonder you didn’t wake them up.”
Carlos wanted to provide an explanation but couldn’t gather his thoughts, much less piece them into a coherent discourse. As he struggled for an excuse, he noticed Ana had disappeared, that the outside door had closed and clicked. Carlos turned, banged again against the end stool, and grabbed the counter for support. He had to evacuate this dangerous place, this minefield. With slow, deliberate steps, stopping only to snag a 4-ounce bag of Fritos Original, Carlos changed his environs from kitchen to the living room. There he slumped onto the end of the sofa away from the lamp. On the positive side, the kids were still asleep, and his mother hadn’t called. And Ana would get over it. He pulled open the mustard and red bag in his hands, placed a chip on his tongue, savoring salt and corn, and drew it between his teeth. Crunch. Mmm.
His imagined bout with Gabe, Carlos now realized, was phony; and how unrealistic. He would never beat that giant in a fight. He might prance around him and get in a jab, but one blow from Gabe would crush him. Carlos saw himself on their kitchen floor, blood dribbling from his lower lip, Gabe above him with balled fists. And Joyce … and Joyce dropping to her knees, her right arm over his prone body, her left hand held in the air against Gabe. Get out, she yelled. Look what you’ve done, get out. And Gabe … and Gabe was yelling back, all right, bitch, I’m out of here.
The kitchen door opened and closed. Carlos heard a motor, the clashing of gears, the squealing of tires. Oh my God, said Joyce, holding Carlos with both arms, let me kiss that blood away. As their lips met, Carlos slipped a tentative right hand under the back of her blouse and touched the clips of her bra strap. It’s okay, she said with a slight separation of their lips, I want it as much as you.
“Carlos.” A loud whisper came from between the kitchen and the living room; Ana, outlined by the overhead light from the hallway. “What’s the deal? You coming to bed tonight?”
Carlos wasn’t sure which hurt more, the high pitch of his three-year-old daughter’s voice or its excessive volume. “Mine!” she screeched.
His son, two years older, retorted an octave lower but with equal volume. “It is not yours. It is a family bowl.”
“The pink bowl,” Carlos began to say, but a remonstration from the bathroom cut him off.
“Carlos, can’t you deal with them for ten minutes?”
A quarter of an hour later, Carlos walked out the back door, hastened down the walkway, and moved the car seat and booster seat from his ten-year-old Hyundai to Ana’s SUV. Her day for transport. Carlos settled behind the wheel of the Hyundai with a straight-on view of his rear stoop, and, as he turned the ignition key, saw Gabe stepping out onto his stoop. The motor started with an elongated chirping noise. Gotta have that looked at.
What’s this? Gabe, instead of heading straight to his own car, was walking diagonally across the narrow patches of rear lawn toward Carlos. For seconds, Carlos denied the reality of the behemoth’s advance. What could he want? Last night Carlos had imagined fisticuffs with Gabe, but they didn’t occur in real life. Last night, Carlos had imagined fucking Gabe’s wife, but—. He must have seen Ana and Linda sitting on the stoop snooping, that’s it. Maybe he even saw Carlos.
It struck Carlos that not only was Gabe older but of a different generation. Ten or fifteen additional years with deep creases to his face, horizontal on the forehead, vertical about the cheeks, and more bounce to his midriff. And of a different class, a street-wise blue-collar grunt, jeans and yellow work boots.
At the driver’s side of the Hyundai, Gabe twirled his finger like an old-time window crank. To himself, Carlos said, fuck me, then lowered the glass that separated him from Gabe. Gabe pointed a thick, hairy finger toward the front of the car and said, “Pop the hood.”
“What’s that?” said Carlos looking up.
“Pop the hood, buddy, and kill the motor.”
Carlos obeyed, pulling the hood release and turning the ignition key counter-clockwise. Gabe looked around from the raised hood and beckoned. Again Carlos obeyed, opening the driver’s door, stepping out, forward, and facing his neighbor over the exposed motor of the car.
Gabe flicked Carlos on the chest with the fingers of his right hand. “What the hell?” he said.
Carlos wet his lips.
Gabe pointed toward the motor compartment. “Jesus Christ, buddy, look at that fan belt.”
Carlos stared into the cavern formed by the raised hood. Gabe was pointing at a black, serpentine cincture to the front of the motor. “Not gonna last another hundred.”
Carlos lifted his eyes from the mystery compartment. “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to—.”
“Look,” said Gabe, “grab one today. We’ll throw it in tonight.”
Carlos said, “I couldn’t—”
“Won’t take twenty minutes. Target. Down the street.”
“Target. Go to the auto department.” The cavern disappeared as Gabe slammed the hood shut. “You’re Carlos, right? What’s that, Rican?”
Gabe pushed his finger into his own chest. “Fucking Greek.” He lifted his chin toward the back door to Carlos’s house. “Old lady and kids, eh?”
Gabe lifted his chin toward the back door of his own house. “None this time around. Just the old lady.” Gabe laughed. “That’s enough. What’s her name again, your old lady?”
“Nice looking. You ever wanna swap some night, let me know.”
What the holy fuck?
Gabe balled his right hand into a fist and punched Carlos on the left shoulder. “Just joking, buddy.” He laughed. “Should see your face. Tell me, you ever get into it with her?”
“We’re okay. Yeah, I mean, sure there’s an occasional argument.”
“Mine, Joyce, she can really push your buttons. Last night … I’m surprised the cops weren’t over. Or that nosy broad the other side of youse, what’s her name?”
“Yeah, what a piece of work.”
Carlos pointed through his windshield. “Look, I have to—”
“Yeah, me too.”
Carlos stepped toward the door of his car but found his chest blocked by Gabe’s right hand. Gabe released the hand but raised its forefinger.
“Don’t forget the belt.”
Robert Perron lives and writes in New York City and New Hampshire in the US. Past life includes high-tech and military service. He is the author of the novel The Blue House Raid, a story of the Korean DMZ, released this October by The Ardent Writer Press. His short stories have appeared in STORGY Magazine, TIMBER, Lowestoft Chronicle, and other literary journals. Please visit his website at https://robertperron.com.