The Good Neighbor By Maud Muller
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Detroit's Cass Corridor in the sixties was a neighborhood unlike any other. Wayne State University students lived side by side with the area’s impoverished permanent residents as the Viet Nam War raged and racial tension threatened to tear the city apart. The Good Neighbor is a story about how friendship really does know no bounds.
“Can you loan me a dollar, Frankie?”
The man’s voice worked its way into Ellen’s dream, but it was a bad fit and she woke sensing something was wrong. The bottom sheet had come loose and she tugged at it angrily to prevent her face from coming in contact with the worn gray and white striped mattress.
“Can you loan me a dollar, Frankie?”
Realizing the voice had somehow followed her from the dream; she sat up and looked around in the semi-darkness. When she saw the outline of man standing at the foot of the bed she screamed.
Frank had been sleeping so soundly it took several seconds for his girlfriend's scream to bring him to full consciousness. His eyes followed Ellen’s terrified stare to the intruder, his muscles tightening instinctively in response to the perceived threat.
“Please, Frankie, I need that dollar real bad.”
At the sound of the familiar voice, the tension in Frank’s body subsided. “Jesus Christ, Alex, you scared the shit out of us." He switched on the lamp and checked the time on the small plastic alarm clock sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. “It’s after , how'd you get in here?”
“You forgot to lock the door again,” he said shaking his head in disapproval. A week’s worth of facial hair—more than stubble but less than a beard—covered the lower portion of the skeletally thin face and the blue eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. Brown trousers and a faded black tee shirt hung loosely from the emaciated body—as if determined to have as little contact with it as possible. The left arm ended abruptly a few inches above the spot where the elbow used to be. “I knocked but you didn’t answer so I came in to make sure you and Ellen was okay.”
“Get him out of here,” Ellen hissed, her terror rapidly transformed into a mixture of relief and irritation when she too realized the intruder was the man who lived upstairs.
“You better go wait in the other room, Alex. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Frank, Ellen and Alex lived in a dilapidated three-story building at 445 West Forrest Avenue in a crime-ridden section of Detroit known as the Cass Corridor. What was once a neighborhood filled with working class families changed rapidly when the white residents fled the inner city for the safety of the suburbs—and the real estate speculators swooped down like vultures on the homes they’d left behind. As the years passed, the houses were torn down, boarded up or carved into apartments rented by the week. The area’s present population consisted of impoverished permanent residents like Alex—most of them barely getting by on welfare or social security—and college students like Frank and Ellen.
Frank, like most draft-eligible males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, understood a student deferment was all that stood between him and the possibility of dying young in a rice paddy in Viet Nam. So after graduating from high school, he attended a community college for a couple of years and then enrolled at WayneStateUniversity. He lived alone in one of the building's studio apartments for almost a year and then he met Ellen. One day, Mr. Zaiger, the building’s manager, came to collect the rent and found the old woman in the apartment next door lying dead among stacks of old newspapers, magazines, shoes, clothes, toys and countless other treasures she’d rescued from people’s trash. Frank offered to clean up the mess if Zaiger would rent him the larger two-room apartment for five dollars more a week. Ellen moved in a month later.
Frank pulled on his jeans and walked shirtless and barefoot into the other room where Alex was waiting. He removed a crumbled dollar bill from the pocket of the jeans and held it out, but instead of reaching for it, the old man backed away.
“Thanks, Frankie, but I’m not feeling so good. Will you go and get me a bottle of wine?”
“No problem, Buddy, I’ll go get dressed.”
“Is he gone?” Ellen whispered hopefully.
Frank shook his head and reached for the gray hooded sweatshirt hanging on the back of the bedroom door, then slipped his bare feet into a pair of loafers. “No, I’m going to Yano’s market to get him a bottle of wine.”
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me alone with him,” she said, getting up and reaching for her pink terrycloth robe. She tied the belt securely around her waist and sat back down on the bed.
“He’s not going to hurt you. All he wants is a drink.” Frank slid his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans and leaned over to kiss her lightly on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He returned with the brown paper bag containing the Thunderbird ten minutes later and handed it to Alex. Holding it against his side with what remained of his left arm, the old man tried unsuccessfully to unscrew the twist-off cap. “Open it!” he demanded handing it back to Frank—the craving in his gut now so intense it was almost more than he could bear.
After removing the cap, Frank watched Alex raise the bottle to his lips. He drank greedily—his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down wildly with each swallow.
“Do you want some?” Alex asked, holding out the bottle as if to prove he really was willing to share.
“No thanks,” Frank said handing him the cap.
He screwed it on carefully checking to make sure it wasn’t too tight. “I’ll pay you back when my check comes the first of the month.”
“Yeah, I know you will.” Frank walked over and opened the apartment door.
Alex stepped out into the hallway. “You should try to remember to lock the door,” he said looking back over his shoulder. “This ain’t a very good neighborhood.”
It's well-written, literate, and has great potential. I think that, as a dramatic story, it could use just a bit more drama, perhaps a greater exploration of the characters' states of mind - a little psychological suspense. Just a thought.