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Neighbor Boy
by Patricia Russo

    Listen, you gotta be careful.  Ask Con what happened to Neighbor Boy and could be she’ll just freeze you with those icicle eyes and spin away; better bet, she’ll rip you a new one, and that ain’t one of them whatdyacallems, metaphors.  Con’s barely five feet tall, but you really don’t want her pounding down on you.  Seriously.
    Owen, though, that’s different.  Got no problem talking about Neighbor Boy.  He’ll take you to the old lot and reel out a fifteen, twenty minute yarn on what went down there, if you let him.  Naturally, gotta give him a few bucks.  Few bucks more to make him shut up and just let you watch.
    I’ve seen Con and Owen throwing big argy-bargys out back behind the Medusa’s Head, Con belting the kid in the face, Owen trying to head-butt her and missing.  They were both with Neighbor Boy when he picked up the plaster baby.  Owen and Con have got different memories about what happened next.
    They also got different ideas about how this shit all began.  Most people know Owen’s version, since Con’s kept her mouth about 90% shut.  Owen says that’s because she feels guilty; she was the first of everybody to notice the weirdo guy in the abandoned lot.  It was her who pointed him out to the rest of us.  Owen reckons Con’s all pissed and prickly because she figures what happened was her fault.
    Yeah, well.  I told Owen half a semester of soc at the community college don’t qualify him to analyze jack shit.
    I go to the lot to watch sometimes.  It’s on the corner of Butler and Riding, a hundred square feet of overgrown weeds, crammed to the top of the rusty chain-link fence that’s supposed to keep scum like me out with thrown-away bottles and tires and baby strollers and heaps of trash people’ve just tossed in there, and maybe a couple tons of dogshit.
    Neighbor Boy stands, cradling the plaster baby, his back to the traffic, facing into the jungle of weeds and garbage.  His legs are planted firmly, a little less than shoulder-width apart; his back is straight; his clothes have been rained and snowed and spat and pissed and pigeon-shat on; his hair is a black bush shot through with way too much gray for a kid.  His arms never tremble, never shake.  His grip never falters.
    He never puts the baby down.
    Most of the time, Neighbor Boy keeps his eyes closed.
    Con comes to feed him sometimes.  Sticks a straw in his mouth, strokes his throat till he starts swallowing.  Milkshakes.  Juice.  I’ve seen Owen feeding him a couple of times, too, and some other people from the neighborhood stop by to tend to him now and then.   Once the old woman who used to live next door but two to Neighbor Boy’s auntie came and washed his hair, green plastic bucket full of suds and baby shampoo clutched in her red, red, swollen-knuckled hands.
    Hard to know how much Neighbor Boy notices.
    Like I said, he keeps his eyes mostly shut.
    Larry.  That’s his real name.  Lawrence, for real real, I guess.
    He holds the plaster image of a baby, hugging the statue to his chest, steadfast.  Like that tin soldier standing at his post.  Unshakable, immobile.   Determined.
    Sometimes people who didn’t know took him for a statue himself.  Some kinda urban art shit, I guess.  I never thought that was funny.
    I keep going to look at him.  I was supposed to be hanging  with Owen and Con and Neighbor Boy that night, and I blew it off because my other friend Nick’s parents let him back into the house on a trial basis, and Nick said he could sneak me in for a shower and some other stuff, so I did that instead of going with Con and Owen and Larry to check out the weirdo guy in the lot on Riding and Butler.
    If I’d been there that night, I might’ve grabbed that statue of a plaster baby wrapped in a plaster blanket and sucking its plaster fucking thumb before Larry did, and then I’d be where he is today.
    I really might have.
    So once upon a time there was a whacko weirdo who hung out in a vacant lot on Riding and Butler.
    He was tall and lank-haired and hollow-cheeked and scarily thin.  AIDS thin, antibiotic resistant TB thin.  Past skinny, man, you know?  Fucking cadaverous.
 He paced the length and breadth of that abandoned lot, cradling something no one could quite make out, with a look of beatific gratitude on his wasted face.
    Con and Neighbor Boy argued over it.
    “He’s just another nutjob.”
    “Have you looked into his eyes, Connie?”  Neighbor Boy’s voice was as low and slow and serious as a voice could get.
    “Don’t call me that.”
    “One more time and I’ll break your fucking teeth.”
    “Sorry.”   Neighbor Boy took a long gulp of his chocolate milk.  “But there’s something in his eyes…”
    Larry was right.  There was something in the eyes of the guy who patrolled the vacant lot, hugging nobody-knew-what to his chest.
    Shit.  I’ve been a loser all my life, high school dropout, mom and pop fighting over who wouldn’t have to get custody of me, no car, no job,  no one in the world who gives a real rat’s ass about me.  All that jazz.  And shitdamnfuck, do I know purpose when I see it.
    So did Neighbor Boy.
    And Con.
    And Owen.
    This guy, he was freaking peculiar, yeah?  Carrying a plaster baby tucked under his arm, talking to himself in a mumbly voice.  You know.  Just like any one of those thousands of guys who get kicked out of the wards and never go fill their prescriptions.
    Neighbor Boy thought the plaster baby was some sort of miracle.  But it was clear, like fucking obvious, that the guy had simply snatched it from the memorial store across from Flower Hill Mausoleum.  There were at least five more just like it displayed in the big front window.
    Asshole.  I never knew his name, the skinny guy.   The weirdo asshole.
    But Neighbor Boy’s name is Larry.  I remember that, even if no one else does.
    So I wasn’t there that night.  But this is what happened.
    Owen kept bugging Con and Neighbor Boy to go have another gawk at the freak in the vacant lot, and Neighbor Boy was okay with the idea either way, so in the end it was up to Con.
    That’s why she cries every time she thinks I can’t see her.
    That’s why she hides in the darkest corners of the worst fucking dives in town and downs house whiskies one after the other.
    Cause she said, Yeah, sure, let’s go stare at the nutjob, watch him like a freaking monkey in a cage, maybe we’ll chuck a couple of rocks at him if we feel like it, why not?
    See, she thinks if she’d said, Nah, let go get a pizza, or No, I’ve got a few bucks, let’s head down to Riverside and score some shit, none of it would ever’ve happened.
    Meanwhile, I was showering at Nick’s place, and starting to do other stuff, because he swore his parents were going to be gone for at least a couple more hours.
    It was me who first figured out it was a plaster baby the guy was carrying around.
    Fucking stupid loser me thought it was a real baby at first, before I realized it was one of those horrible things parents put on top of a dead kid’s grave.  I didn’t think people did that much anymore, but like I said, there are at least five more in the window of that store across from Flower Hill.
    I watched him now and then, the skeletally skinny guy walking around with a fake baby swaddled up in pages of disintegrating newspaper clutched under his arm.
    Same way I watch Neighbor Boy now.
    Shit, it’s something to do.
    So.  Con and Owen and Larry go to the lot, yeah?  And there’s the fucking whacko weirdo pacing up and down, holding the plaster baby, with that look of purpose in his eyes.
    Purpose.  The expression on a surgeon’s face as he backs into the operating room, gloved hands held up high.  The way a president looks, signing a big deal treaty.  The look a killer gets when he pulls the trigger.
    Skeletal guy paced back and forth, stupid old-fashioned fake baby under his arm, and he looked exactly like that.
    This is what Owen says:
    Neighbor Boy walked right up to the guy, touched him gently on the elbow, and asked, in a downy-soft voice, “Why?”
    And the whacko weirdo stopped dead in his tracks, gazed into Neighbor Boy’s eyes, and whispered, “Because if I put it down, the baby will scream.”
    Con’s story, the only time she told it to me, agrees with Owen’s up to this point.
    But then, Owen says, the weirdo whacko guy went on, “And the least whimper or moan from the throat of this gelid infant will cause the very earth beneath our feet to shudder and quake and rend itself in two.”
    Con says that’s bullshit, that the weird skeletal guy never said anything like that, and she was standing right there so she should know.  She is adamant about that, so well, okay.
    Only thing, I can’t figure Owen making shit like ‘gelid infant’ up.  I can’t figure Owen knowing what shit like ‘gelid infant’ means.
    Con was laughing at the skeletal guy, and Owen has confessed that he was maybe about to chuck half a brick at the guy’s head just to see him jump, when the nutjob leaned over and breathed a few words into Neighbor Boy’s ear.  “I am so very tired.”
    And Neighbor Boy held out his arms.
    Instantly, Owen says.
    After a few seconds, says Con.
    And the stick-thin, sick-skinny whacko man sucks in a deep, deep breath, like he was trying to breathe in all the air in the world; he inhales like he’s never going to stop, and he rocks left and right and damn near buckles at the knees, and he drops the plaster baby into Neighbor Boy’s arms.
    Neighbor Boy catches it, clutches it, hugs it hard to his chest.
    And such a look spreads over his face….
    This is where Con broke off and started crying.  Then smashing things.
    Owen sort of gets quiet here.  He says he can’t really describe the expression on Neighbor Boy’s face.
    That’s okay.  I’ve been to the lot.  I’ve seen it.
    Nobody ever saw the cadaverous guy again.  Owen says he sank down on his hands and knees and stayed like that for a couple of minutes, then jumped up and took off running like a son of a bitch.
    Some folk think Con killed him.  Not right then and there.  Later.  That she sought him out, hunted him down, and ripped his liver out through his asshole.
 I don’t know.  Couldn’t say, either way.  Maybe yes, maybe no….I don’t really give a fuck.
    Neighbor Boy has been standing in the lot on Butler and Riding for months now, cradling a chipped, cracked, weatherbeaten, and swear-to-god goddamn ugly plaster statue of a dead baby.
    Con has gone and knocked it out of his arms at least four times that I know of.
    Course the statue never cried.
    Course there was no earthquake or anything like that.
    And of course Neighbor Boy just grabbed the stupid thing up again and hugged it to himself even tighter than before.
    Neighbor Boy is practically a freaking tourist attraction now.   Owen covers his rent nearly every month with the tips he gets for tourguiding and spieling.  Owen lives in a rathole, but still.
    I’m nerving myself up to ask the question.  I’m getting closer, I think.  I have walked up to Neighbor Boy when no one else was around, and I have looked into his eyes.
    Once I stroked his cheek.  Ran my finger down the cleft in his chin.  Once only, only once.
    I think Neighbor Boy recognizes me.  I believe he knows who I am.
    Are you tired, I want to ask him.  Because if he’s tired, I’d hold the baby for a while.
    “Please let me hold the baby,” I want to say.
    I can’t.  I’m so scared he’ll just squeeze his lips tight and turn away, clutching the statue in a death grip.  If he says no, I think I’ll die.
    If Owen knew what I wanted, he’d laugh himself sick.
    If Con knew, she’d stomp sixteen shades of shit out of me, then spit in my face.
    I want what Neighbor Boy has.  I want it so bad I could die.  Want it so bad I mightcould kill for it.
    Like, what if I stuck a shiv in Neighbor Boy’s back and grabbed the plaster baby as his body sagged and his arms dropped, and what if I just let him lie in the lot until he bled to death… then the baby would be mine.
    Mine to hold.
    Mine to protect, to comfort.
    My job to make sure it never screamed, never so much as whimpered, never destroyed the world.
    I should ask him first.  I think so, really.  Cause he does look tired.
    Problem is, not tired enough.
    He loves it, the fucking bastard.  He fucking loves it.  Neighbor Boy can’t get enough of that plaster piece of shit.
    I’ve walked up to him.  Stood face to face, stared deep in his eyes.  I think he knows what I want.
    He might even give it to me.  If I asked him right.
    I’m just so scared.  I want it so bad, and I’m so scared…
    And the knifehilt fits so perfectly in my hand.
    And the blade is so beautiful in the silver moonlight.
    Neighbor Boy’s back is turned to me.  He hasn’t moved in hours.
    I want that baby.  I want to hold it, protect it.  Protect the world.  To save us all, every last miserable bastard and bitch of us, and to make the baby happy.
    Even though none of this shit’s true, I still want it.
    I need it.
    I need something.
    The plaster baby will do.  Sorry, Neighbor Boy, I think, as I rise out of the weeds.  Owen won’t care, Con might just blow the top of my head off, but I can’t hold it back any more.  I want it too much.  I need it too much.  Purpose.  Reason.  Love.
    I go to him, blade held down against the side of my leg.  “Neighbor Boy,” I whisper in his ear.
    His eyes flick toward me – a motion so fast it’s almost imperceptible.
    “Larry,” I murmur.
    His eyes flicker again.
    Maybe his grip on the plaster statue tightens.
    Maybe it doesn’t.
    Maybe Neighbor Boy glares at me with hatred as intense and blazing as the hottest flames in hell.
    And maybe he doesn’t.
    The knifehilt is slick and unnaturally cold in my hand.   I clear my throat, I cough, I suck in as much air as I can, and, trembling like a newborn chick caught in a freak blizzard, I ask him the question.