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
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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.
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
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,
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
Shit, it’s something
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.
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
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
And Neighbor Boy held
out his arms.
Instantly, Owen says.
After a few seconds,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.