It was a summer Saturday afternoon full of potential and promise. The sun was out. There was no chance of rain. And next door, the Nicholsons were cussing and hollering.
It started as a barely discernible murmur in the early morning with an occasional yelled retort and the slamming of a door. But after lunch, they sent their two boys out of the house, latching the screen door behind them, and we knew it was going to be a proper row.
I came out to work on the lawn, keeping mostly to the front yard for a good vantage point. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, on the other side, came out to sit on their porch and waved when I looked up from trimming the shrubbery. The widowed Mrs. Keene was working on her garden, tending to her dahlias and marigolds across the street. The Nicholson boys were running around their yard, catching roly-polies.
By mid afternoon, the murmuring at the Nicholson place had become an intermittent rumble that rose to an occasional crescendo accented with assorted bangs and crashes. During a lull, poor ol’ Nicholson came out, looking somewhat haggard and beat. Clutching a PBR, he sat down on the stoop, looked over at me, and smiled sheepishly; he then gestured toward the house and shook his head. He sat out there for a half-hour or so with his boys throwing roly-polies at him as they ran about the yard.
Having emptied his PBR, he crumpled the can in his right hand. He stood up off the stoop and opened the screen door, but then ducked suddenly as a guitar sailed over his head. It arced in a grand trajectory and landed on the other side of the walk. It bounced twice, popping two strings. Nicholson sat back down at the stoop as if to contemplate this new development.
Shortly thereafter, the screen door opened again ejecting a recliner, which rolled down the steps end over end and landed next to Nicholson on its back. Nicholson, recognizing an incremental change in fortune, came off the stoop, righted the chair and sat down.
“There now, Jonesy,” he called over to the porch next door, You wouldn’t happen to have a cold beer for your neighbor, would you? Seein’ as I’m fresh out at the moment. Maybe the sports section, too?”
Jones slowly rose from his porch chair, disappeared briefl into his house, then returned and tossed Nicholson the paper and a fresh PBR. Nicholson, to his credit, caught the paper, but fumbled the catch on the beer. The can popped open as it bounced off the stoop. Beer sprayed all over Nicholson, as he chased the rolling can down the walk. Then he stumbled and dropped the paper, which landed in a puddle of foam. The Nicholson boys dropped their roly-polies and chased their old man. Widow Keene looked up from her dahlias and marigolds and frowned.
Nicholson righted himself, fetched the can, and wiped the spilled beer from his face and arms. Retrieving the soggy paper, he sat back down in the recliner. He was carefully studying the baseball scores when the screen door opened again and Mrs. Nicholson came out on the stoop holding the television set with both arms extended above her head.
“Now, now Beatrice, love,” Nicholson said, glancing up from the paper over his glasses, “how will you watch your soaps?”
Mrs. Nicholson scowled, but she turned and took the TV back into the house. Nicholson himself seemed to take this as a sign of transition. He bottomed up the PBR and walked back in. He usually napped in the afternoon. It was calm for the next hour or so. Without the distractions, I finished the shrubs in short order. Widow Keene, who retires early, finished up her flowers and went back inside. The Nicholson boys were still outside stirring up ant hills with sticks.
After dinner, I had just finished edging the walk when Nicholson came out carrying a knapsack and making his way toward their old Ford Galaxy.
“I guess this is it Jonesy,” he called over to his neighbors, “I’m going to stay with my brother and sister-in-law down in Valdosta.”
He was putting the knapsack in the trunk when the screen door flew open again and Mrs. Nicholson tossed out a battered suitcase. She achieved a higher arc with the suitcase than she did earlier with the guitar. On the third bounce, it exploded open, disgorging its contents onto the lawn. Nicholson set about gathering his scattered T-shirts and shorts, pajamas and socks. The boys, chasing lightning bugs, jumped over his long-johns.
Mrs. Nicholson came running down the walk with her keys in her hand. “Hell, no! You ain’t goin’ to no Valdosta. Not in my Ford Galaxy, you ain’t. That was my Daddy’s car. You can hitchhike. You can take the bus. You can walk to Valdosta, for all I care. But you ain’t taking the car.”
She jumped into the car, slammed and locked the door, and started her up. She revved the engine a couple of times then threw it into reverse. She accelerated down the driveway and poor ol’ Nicholson had to jump out of the way to miss being hit. She kept going: out the drive, into the street, then across the street into old widow Keene’s yard, beyond widow Keene’s dahlias and marigolds through the front wall of her house.
Geez, there was one hell of a crashing sound, and when I went out into the street to gander a better look, I could only see the front half of the car sticking out. Mrs. Nicholson lookedstunned, her hands still on the steering wheel, wide-eyed with her mouth agape. She reminded me of a caught bass.
Widow Keene had been in the bath when she heard the roar of the approaching engine and the crash before feeling the house tremble. Dressed in a floral bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a towel like a turban, she ran from the bathroom screaming “Earthquake! Earthquake!” The back end of a Ford Galaxy sat where her bureau should have been.
The law came and took reports. Mrs. Nicholson said the gas pedal stuck, although it had apparently disengaged upon impact. It took the tow truck nearly an hour to winch the car out. They duct-taped plastic garbage bags over the hole in widow Keene’s house.
The Nicholson boys were sitting on the stoop, with jars of lightning bugs.
“Where was mama going?” the younger one asked his brother.
“She was going to widow Keene’s drive-in.”
“Widder Keene don’t have no drive-in.”
“She does now.”