The new neighbors moved in on a Thursday, and on the following Saturday, we brought over brownies.
They had bought the white house two houses down from us, the one on the corner of Rose and Pleasant Valley, a charming Craftsman from the mid-1930s, original hardwood floors, a finished basement, a renovated kitchen and half-bath with new fixtures and one of those Kohler sinks that look like you’re washing your hands in a pearlescent basin of water. Most of which I knew beforehand, because my wife’s a real estate agent and real estate agents can be gossipy. My wife’s friend Becky sold them the house, and she’s the one who told us they were neo-Nazis.
“But, salt of the earth, you know, not at all like you’d expect them to be,” she said, and, really, the house had been a rental now for almost four years, and we were happy for just about anybody to buy it.
We speculated on what they might be like, my wife and I. Would there be flags or salutes or anything of that nature? And so on. But in the end, she made the sensible point that they were going to be our neighbors, and no matter what anybody else might tell you, all neighbors like brownies.
Often people think the brownies are my wife’s doing, but I do most of the cooking and baking, and for a while whenever people would compliment her on the brownies, she’d press her hands to her tummy and say, “Oh, I just eat them,” and I would say, “Behind every brownie-making husband is a brownie-eating wife.” But then one day we stopped saying that. She said it made people uncomfortable, the idea of me baking, and I said, “What people?” and she said, “Me. But not just me. Me and other people.” Now she just takes the compliment and I smile and pat my belly to indicate just how good they’re going to taste, which was what happened when we gave the brownies to the new neighbors.
The husband, Tom, who we later found out worked in human resources for a software company, took one right off the plate, even as my wife was still holding them, before I’d even stepped inside the house.
He took a bite and moaned and said, “My goodness, these are great brownies,” and my wife said, “Thank you,” and I patted my belly and Tom’s wife, Stacy, smiled at me, and I decided at the last minute to throw in a wink as well.
“Brownies,” she said, as if she were letting out a deep breath taken on a clear, cool morning high up in some mountains or by a meadow. “That’s just so sweet, everyone here is just so sweet, aren’t they, Tom?” But Tom had his mouth full of a second brownie, which made us laugh, his surprised, sorry-not-sorry-these-brownies-are-delicious expression, his face stuffed with brownie.
Stacy said, “Let me make some coffee.”
What’s special about the brownies is they’re thin but not too thin. They bake on a cookie sheet instead of in one of those high-sided, glass Pyrex casserole dishes, and they land, in my humble opinion, in that perfect spot between cakey and fudgey. They’re salty, too. The original recipe just didn’t have that pop-in-your-mouth quality I wanted, but they were okay -- except one time I accidently added a full teaspoon of salt to the batter instead of just the half-teaspoon, and they had that pop all of a sudden, and now I double the salt every time. And I add whole chocolate chips, a handful of them to the batter right before putting them into the oven, and they become melty but don’t dissolve entirely and the bursts of the chocolate chips and the extra bit of salt make alchemy happen in your mouth.
Anyway, everybody loves these brownies.
My wife and I followed Tom and Stacy into their kitchen, which was sunny and spacious. For a while a Mexican family was renting the house and they seemed nice enough but we didn’t get to know them very well and they never invited us inside, which happens a lot with their kind, renters, so we were surprised how much larger the kitchen was, larger than expected. The entire house, in fact, much bigger than expected.
Stacy put water on to boil and spooned coffee into a French press and started in with my wife about the schools in the neighborhood, which my wife knows quite a lot about because she’s in real estate, not because we have kids. Because we don’t.
“How old is—,” my wife started to say, then she made her I-hope-I-don’t-embarrass-myself face and started again, “How old are your—?” and then she trailed off. But Stacy was sweet and laughed and said, “Two, our little girl, Christina? She’s 2.”
“She’s upstairs taking a nap,” Tom said.
“Oh, no,” I said. “We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have rung the doorbell.”
“Nah, no worries,” Tom said with a wave of his hand. “That girl will sleep through a hurricane.” He laughed. “A bomb could go off next door and she’d sleep right through it.”
We all smiled at how good a napper little Christina was and then Stacy grabbed four mugs and announced, “Coffee’s ready.”
“Ah, honey?” Tom said as he gingerly took two of the coffee mugs out of his wife’s hands, exaggerating how gently he was placing them back on the coffee mug rack. “I was thinking maybe me and this fella here might try that new IPA that’s just waiting there all alone in the fridge.”
Stacy swatted at her husband playfully. “I wish you’d told me that before I brewed an entire pot.” Tom gave her a sheepish look as my wife and I exchanged smiles, and then Stacy turned to my wife and, whispering but not whispering said, “Just leaves more for us. ” Shifting her eyes left and right and then smirking, she continued, “And, I’ve got Kahlua in the fridge and some vodka in the freezer.”
“Hey now,” Tom said. “Nobody said anything about coffee cocktails.”
“Too late,” Stacy said. “Get your stinky old beer, go on, get out of here.”
Tom already had the beer in hand, one of those half-liter bottles, along with two glasses, and he nodded to me and waggled his eyebrows and then nodded at the French door leading out back. “Come on, I’ll show you what we’ve done in the backyard.”
They’d hung two ropes from a tall, thick sycamore tree I had admired from the street. Sometimes, too, in the fall, when the leaves started to drop, I’d find a sycamore leaf or 20 among the dried fire maples and pin oak leaves that usually covered our lawn.
“That’s going to be the swinging tree,” he said, pointing at the long, thick, corded ropes hanging from a branch jutting out about a third of the way up the trunk. “Had to borrow a ladder just to get up there.”
I nodded and asked if he was going to just have rope swings or what. “It’s a point of contention, friend,” he said. “Stacy’s all about the plastic kind of safety swing they got for kids.” He shrugged. “I was hoping for something a little more old-fashioned.” He winked at me.
Before coming over to meet him, I’d tried to think of things to talk about with Tom. Nothing offensive, of course. I figured the recent rash of riots would make for good discussion, but I mentioned this to my wife, and she became upset. “What if he thinks you’re talking about the protests, not the riots? You want to offend our neighbors, is that what you want to do? The first time we meet them?” But surely he’d know that I know the difference between riots and protests, so I ignored her, except, standing in his backyard, I got cold feet, and I didn’t say anything, and we stood there quietly for a long couple of minutes.
A cool breeze blew through and offered a relief, even if it was small. The end of summer had come and gone but an unseasonable and almost unbearable heat hung on well into the end of October. I had my long-sleeve shirt buttoned at the cuffs and collar, as was the trend — my wife was quite conscious of clothing trends and wouldn’t let me leave the house without first passing inspection — and the heat felt trapped inside me like I was wearing some kind of hot air balloon fabric. I was sweating heavily, especially at my pits, and I had the urge to roll up my sleeves at least, unbutton the top collar button, too, but Tom, also dressed in the current long-sleeve style, hadn’t made any motion to unbutton or roll up his shirt, and I certainly couldn’t be the first to make that sort of move. At my own house, maybe, but certainly not as a guest at someone else’s house. Much less a neo-Nazi’s house. They were real smart about the way they dressed and how they looked.
The breeze blew through and I closed my eyes and I let my whole body shiver, and when I opened my eyes, Tom was close to me, his face leaned in next to my own face. He flashed a tight smile and then pulled away, before saying, “You want to help me out with something?” But before I could say yes, he handed me his empty glass and said, “Wait right here.” He walked around the side of the house coming back a second later with a couple of shovels.
He tried to hand me one of the shovels but I was already holding both glasses, so a bit of that who’s on first, what’s on second gag played out with the glasses and the shovels until finally he just threw both shovels in one hand, grabbed one of the glasses from me and pitched it blind over his shoulder. I watched it land in the grass, bounce once, and then land again, but it must’ve landed funny or on a rock, because that second landing cracked it into sharp, curved chunks. Tom didn't see it but heard it and I muttered, “That’s no Made in America glass, that’s for sure!” and Tom looked at me. I thought for a second I’d offended him by saying he bought un-American glassware, but then he said, “Yeah!” and laughed a little. He handed me a shovel, which was covered in a reddish dirt, dark red, redder than most dirt I’d seen, which made me wonder where it had come from, where he’d been digging with it last. His own shovel was new enough that the sticker was still stuck to the spade. “Or, would you rather this one?” he asked, tipping the newer shovel my way, but since I didn’t understand what we were going to do with the shovels, I shrugged and shook my head.
“I want a pool,” he said. He looked over his shoulder at the window that looked into the kitchen from the backyard and then he looked back at me. “I want us to have our own pool, you know.” He waved his hand at me, as if I’d said something. “Oh, you know the neighborhood pool, I’m sure. You’ve seen it. I want something that’s...” He chewed his bottom cheek. “Something ours, you know, something we don’t have to share.”
This I understood and I nodded, because who didn’t want their own pool?
You heard an altogether different story, of course, from people who had a swimming pool. Electric bills and water bills were too high. Paying someone to clean the filter or cleaning it yourself, not to mention the leaves and dirt and insects that collect on the surface, or line the bottom of the pool. Pool bottoms are always cracking, always in need of replastering.
There was a public pool nearby, but not many people from our neighborhood used it, maybe because it was kind of a far walk and with all your towels and sunscreen and the kids. It was too much trouble to walk there, maybe, and nobody wanted to drive. The Wards didn’t mind it, I guess, nor the Jacksons, who asked us to join them sometimes, but my wife and I don’t swim. She’s afraid of exposing herself to too much sun and I’ve got more of a belly than I’m comfortable with these days to go without a shirt in public.
“But before we have the pool crew come out here and dig up this backyard, I need to move the bodies I got buried here, relocate them out back around the shed?” I looked down at my feet and noticed for the first time how soft the ground was, and by the looks of it, the earth had been recently turned.
Tom stuck the point of his shovel into the dirt and looked at me, waiting for a response of some kind. “You mind helping me out?” he said.
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to laugh, or just go with it and start digging, maybe with exaggerated gusto, to show him just how funny I thought the joke was. Or maybe I was supposed to drop the shovel, offended, excuse myself, politely but firmly, and then take my wife back home.
Then Stacy, who must have seen the two of us with shovels in our hands, opened the French door and hollered out to Tom, “Get that shovel out of that poor man’s hands right this instant.”
“Ah hell, Stacy,” Tom shouted over his shoulder but still eyeing me. “I almost had him going and you had to go and ruin it.” Then Tom gave me a wide grin and dropped his shovel and slapped me hard but with friendly intent, I’m sure, on the shoulder before he took the shovel from me and dropped next to the other one.
Back inside, Stacy and my wife were waiting with a drink in each hand, and Stacy handed me one of the drinks, and my wife handed Tom another.
“You’re awful, Tom, just terrible,” Stacy said. “And to think, these people brought us brownies.”
“Which reminds me,” Tom said, tilting his head to the side. “You know how to make a good blondie?”
“Now, Tom,” Stacy said, and for a second it seemed like the warning tone of her voice wasn’t so playful anymore.
Tom shrugged and said, “I just wondered. Not many people make a good blondie. It’s kind of a lost art.”
My wife looked at me and I gave the slightest shake of my head and then she smiled and said, “No, nope, blondies were always too sweet for my husband, so.”
Tom looked at me and then back to Stacy and said, “He was about to start shoveling.” Then he turned to me. “You were, weren’t you? About to start shoveling, don’t lie, you were.” Then he grabbed me around my shoulders in the kind of hug that might lead to noogies but this time didn’t, and he said, “I like that about you.” Then he gave me, well, he didn’t give me noogies but he did ruffle my hair. “I like a man who’s ready to help another man dig, no matter what’s gotta be dug up. A new swimming pool. Some dead bodies.” He barked. “Whatever I need, right?”
On the way out, we passed what might have been a study, and inside was a desk covered with boxes, and even more boxes stacked on the floor, half opened, some trophies poking out of the top of them. “Oh and this,” Tom said, “this is going to be my man cave. I mean, look at those windows, not so much a cave, right? That was what we loved about the house, all these windows.” He picked up one of the trophies, a baseball trophy, and smiled and said, “The good old days, am I right?”
Stacy placed her hand on his shoulder. “He was drafted, you know.”
Tom, nodding, said, “Could’ve played for the New American League, but.” He shrugged. “Five hundred a week to live with a bunch of jocks, grinding through ballgames 26 weeks out of the year? Not to mention spring training?” He kissed Stacy’s cheek. “Just didn’t seem worth it.”
Then he mentioned starting a neighborhood league. But not just baseball, bowling, too, maybe kickball. But my attention was drawn to a stack of photos, which turned out to be postcards, old black and white ones.
Tom noticed what had caught my attention and said, “You know, almost 60 countries still allow you hang people? And — this’ll surprise you — New Hampshire and Washington state? They can hang inmates there, too. That’s a point of fact.”
“Tom’s a real student of history,” Stacy said, looking over my shoulder.
“Oh,” Tom said, waving his hand dismissively. “I’m just a dabbler.” He sighed. “Mostly all I have time for these days is the occasional rummage sale and trade show, but.”
“Tell them about the soap, Tom,” Stacy said.
Tom smiled. “Nah, well, sure, okay.” He took a deep breath. “I almost bought some soap last time I was at a show — some human soap, craziest thing.”
“Insane,” Stacy said, laughing.
“I mean, I had my wallet out and everything but then I thought about Christina, and her growing a little older, and what if she ran out of soap and came down looking for soap and found my human soap?”
Stacy shook her fist and made a face and said in a pretty good approximation of what I could have imagined was Tom’s angry voice, “Daddy paid $500 for that bar of soap, young lady.” And then the two of them laughed even harder, and we laughed with them.
“Kids,” Tom said, shaking his head and sighing.
“Maybe when she’s older,” Stacy said.
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, and we can tell her, you know. Explain it to her.”
They invited my wife and I to a barbecue they were planning for the next weekend, once they’d settled in, made the house more a home. “Fire up the old grill,” Tom said, smiling. And then we left, the two of them standing side-by-side in their front doorway, smiling at us as we walked back home.
“They were nice,” my wife said, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “We should bring something,” she added, looking back over her shoulder. “What about blondies? Do you think you can figure out how to make a good blondie? You should do that.”
I nodded and said, “Yeah. Yeah I should.”
Manuel Gonzales is the author of the collection, The Miniature Wife and other stories, and the novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack! He teaches creative writing at the University of Kentucky and the Queens University Latin American MFA programs. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and children.