by John Brantingham
Rudy Next Door
Two months after her husband has died of COVID, Jane wishes that she’d cheated on him with Rudy next door. When he’d hit on her, she’d cursed him and told him to stay out of her fucking life forever. She called him a pig. She told him to go off somewhere and die, and now she’s been alone in the house with only her loss.
With the windows on Rudy’s side of the house open, she can hear him in the evenings playing music. Sometimes on the weekends she hears a woman laughing. Every Sunday afternoon, the smell of barbequed chicken comes through the slits of their shared wooden fence, and she hears him come out back, open the lid of the grill and turn the chicken over. She thinks of him popping a beer and watching the game. She imagines herself snuggling against his shoulder and ignoring the game for her phone. Her cheek would be warm against his Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt.
When she Facetimes her son in Dallas, he is always there with his husband and their three kids, smashed together, everyone touching casually, the way people do when they’re together all of the time. For them, it is nothing. Sometimes the oldest girl pushes away from the family because all this affection is smothering for a teenager. Sometimes, her father pulls her back in and kisses her on the cheek.
Jane Next Door
Sunday afternoons, cooking barbeque chicken for one, Rudy understands that perhaps the worst decision of his life was on the afternoon when Jane’s husband Paul was in the bathroom, and he thought that Jane had given him the signal and he moved into her space and tried to nuzzle the back of her neck, the warmth of her neck making her perfume richer. Sunday afternoons, preparing for a week of work on Zoom, he thinks about how if he hadn’t done that he could make chicken for the three of them, and they could sit six feet apart and chat and have a moment that feels real, a moment of humanity and closeness. All he has now is when the girl delivers private documents from the office, and he makes his dumb jokes, and because she is so low in the firm she has to force a laugh. He knows that she is forcing those laughs, but still he makes his jokes. The sound of her voice is like water.
Some days, he will hear someone open a window, and he’ll look through the slats of their shared fence to glimpse them. It is always Jane, and he hasn’t even seen Paul in what feels like months. Rudy vows to himself that the moment he sees Paul, he will rush to him and apologize. He will beg forgiveness, and if he gets that, he will ask Paul to break the ice with Jane. He needs them in his life. The texture of their conversation with him would change everything in his life. Their voices would be better than the laughter of the girl from the office whose name he doesn’t even know.
John Brantingham was the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and his work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and in Writer’s Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has eleven books of poetry and fiction including Crossing the High Sierra and California Continuum: Volume One. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.