What everyone said
My next-door neighbour on the left moved out one day. I didn’t know when and I didn’t see him leave. He just left. Vanished. He was a quiet, stooped fellow with a long beard like an orthodox priest and thick glasses. I spoke to him only once in six years. He helped me jump-start my car. I asked him for help and he said sure. That was it. That’s all he said. When I thanked him, he just nodded. He left everything. His rusty Land Cruiser and an old Ford Falcon were left at the back. He left his ride-on lawn mower and his bicycle too.
Last Tuesday I saw my new neighbour for the first time. I saw him from the side and couldn’t really see his face. I watched from the front window. I stood in the middle of the room so I couldn’t be seen from the outside. He had glasses and they looked thick. He wore a green top and faded jeans. Someone with a van dropped him and a dog at the front gate and he fumbled with the lock for a while. The driver of the van helped him carry some bags inside the house. I lost them as they walked onto the porch. I went to the bedroom on the side of my house and again stood in the middle of the room.
On the porch the two men spoke for a bit. My new neighbour nodded a few times and the two men shook hands. The neighbour extended his left hand and the driver took it like he was taking him to a dance. It was then I noticed his right arm and saw he didn’t have a hand. His arm ended where his wrist began.
The driver patted the dog and left. My neighbour walked inside and I didn’t hear or see him until Sunday morning. I saw the dog run around the yard, unleashed and uncollared, a burly dog with a strong chest and narrow eyes. But I saw no neighbour.
Same day later, Ronald, my neighbour from across the street, approached me while I was looking at the weeds that conquered my garden beds and spilled over the side and continued their conquest of the lawn. The grass was above my ankles. I glanced at the other front yards along the street and my grass was the tallest. I wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t happy I had to do some work. If you asked me what I hated the most, it would be lawn mowing. I liked the green lawn, the flowers and the rest, but was never really in the mood to put in hard yakka to maintain the garden. I had no heart to pour concrete all around the house like some neighbours did. They made bloody car parks out of their lawns. At least I wasn’t that lazy.
‘The bad brother’s back,’ Ronald said. He nodded at the new neighbour’s house. ‘Ten years in prison and he’s back. The bearded one moved back with the mother.’
My mind quickly connected the dots. The bearded brother was only a house sitter.
I said, ‘Prison?’
‘That’s what everyone’s saying.’ Ronald’s eyes dropped in a scheming way.
‘What was he in for?’
‘Don’t know for sure,’ Ronald mumbled, ‘something nasty, I bet. You don’t get a decade in the can for nothing. You don’t lose your hand for nothing.’ He winked and moved his thumb and forefinger across his lips in zipping motion. He touched his hat and went back to his house.
On Sunday morning I walked out into the front yard steeling myself for the grass-cutting business that waited for me. That’s when I saw my new neighbour. I lifted my head and acknowledged him. He lifted his good arm and made a short wave. His dog stared at me. I felt his eyes measure me up and down. I could tell what the dog was thinking. He was thinking he could take me on. He was thinking he’d be done with me in a flash.
I approached the fence and said good day and my neighbour said good day. He lifted his both arms in the air, looked up and said, ‘Beautiful day.’ He had one of those profound expressions on his face, like he was enjoying every second of his life to the fullest, or he knew something the rest of us didn’t. He annoyed me. He came closer and pushed his glasses up his nose with his crippled hand.
The dog followed him. When near me the dog’s ears rolled backward and nearly touched each other. His face stretched and his eyes narrowed to two slits. His mouth turned into a grin. His fangs protruded over his curled lips and a low growl came out of his throat.
My neighbour gave me his name, Tom, and I gave him mine.
‘Good-looking dog,’ I said. The dog lifted his muzzle toward me and sniffed the air.
‘His name’s Stubby,’ Tom said.
‘Hello Stubby,’ I said as cheerfully as I could muster. Stubby licked his lips and stopped growling. His eyes brightened a bit and he thumped his tail on the ground.
‘Say, you can borrow my ride-on, if you like,’ Tom offered, ‘but you’re going to have to put some petrol in if you do. Maybe a spark plug, too.’
‘Not many people keep a ride-on lawn mower in the suburbs.’
‘True, true. I used to do things quickly, had no patience.’ Tom lifted his mangled hand in the air. ‘No good rushing things.’
I gawked at his hand. It appeared it has been clean cut and the skin tied up on top, like a ribbon.
‘Is that a pit-bull?’ I pointed at the dog whose eyes were fastened on me. I knew he wasn’t a pit-bull but asked anyway.
‘American Staffy.’ Tom petted Stubby. ‘Best dog. Loves people.’
I raised my eyebrows. Loves people between his jaws, I thought.
‘Here.’ Tom fished something out of his jacket pocket. He handed me some dog biscuits.
‘Come around, introduce yourself properly.’
I reluctantly walked over and met Tom and Stubby in their front yard.
‘Go down on his level, make a fist and let him sniff it.’
I obeyed, slightly fascinated. I never had a dog in my life. I wanted one as a kid.
‘Now give him a biscuit.’
I did. I gave Stubby a biscuit and he snatched it from my palm. I felt his raspy tongue on my skin.
‘Good dog,’ I heard myself say. The corners of my mouth extended into a smile.
‘You two are friends now,’ Tom said. My hand was petting Stubby’s neck and I looked in amazement.
My lawnmower is a very good one. I spent a packet on it. It’s a mulcher too, although I never used it like that. I finished the lawn mowing and I started pruning the rose bushes, bottlebrush and lemon and apricot trees I had in the back. At the end there was a pile of branches waist high. I decided to mulch all of it, use it on my garden beds later.
I looked over to Tom’s backyard and saw Stubby sitting on top of the Land Rover observing me. He was on his haunches, alert and unmoving. His stare gave me a fright but I continued. You can’t let a dog know you’re scared, everyone said. They can sense it, they said.
Just before I started mulching, Stubby started barking like mad. I fired up the mower and the noise drowned his barks. I chucked in the first branches and the mower starting making grinding noises. The machine shook a little and then it shook some more and it sounded like it was going to halt. I grabbed the handles with the intention of giving it a good shake. I lifted it a fraction.
I felt a stab on top of my thigh. Blood spurted out and I fell down on my knees. The mulcher stopped grinding and it worked nicely now. No funny noises came from it.
It was deafening around me but through it all I could hear booming barks. I saw Stubby jumping over the fence and running for me. The bastard smelled the blood, was the last thing I thought of before losing it.
My mother talked to Tom in a hushed voice. Stubby was on the floor, next to the bed, his head protruding out of a duffel bag. His eyes were unflickering. He barked once when he saw my eyes open fully.
A blood bag hung above my head and a line went from it to the vein on my hand. I was in the hospital. The wood chip got lodged right into my femoral vein, my mother explained. I lost heaps of blood.
‘It was Stubby who got Tom,’ my mother said. ‘We smuggled him in,’ she whispered.
I looked at the dog and he had that grin on his face again. I gave him my hand and he slobbered.