Not looking for trouble, I avoided an encounter with my former friend, who shall remain nameless because naming him would seem too much like contact. Taking walks helped clear my head, but seeing Nameless (NL) on one of my favorite sidewalks threatened to limit that advantage for me. I began to think of the sidewalk where I saw him (and narrowly escaped being seen by him) and the sidewalks connected to it as off limits. As a further precaution, I did not step foot on sidewalks parallel to those connected sidewalks or to cross the streets between those sidewalks, though making those restrictions provoked me to wonder where else NL might turn up and whether it was realistic to think I could predict his whereabouts. Would I be better off not walking in areas familiar to me or anywhere in town? I considered driving to surrounding towns to take walks, but it angered me to think of letting him chase me that far, though staying in town did not leave me at ease. Only a few weeks before, I’d entered a popular café and seen NL sitting at a table with a former boss of mine. When our eyes met he stopped speaking. My former boss slowly turned his head and stared. I turned and left, embarrassed to be openly taking flight from them, and I imagined NL speaking the disparaging nickname he uses to refer to me. I tried without success to stop my thoughts, the nickname following me down the sidewalk and around the corner and another corner to a different place, where I could eat lunch and pretend to be at peace. I sat there for a moment and then stood and headed home to make myself a sandwich.
I continued to go for walks, driving short distances and trying routes in different neighborhoods, enjoying the NL-free environment. Of course I couldn’t be sure at the grocery store or other public places that he wouldn’t unexpectedly appear, but as time passed his image seemed more distant.
About a month after catching sight of NL on the sidewalk I entered the library to browse for something to read. Standing in the same spot at the new-book shelf where I’d pictured myself standing, I saw NL, head down, finger moving down a page, as if looking for a particular word or phrase. Could he have heard my footsteps on the carpet? He looked over his shoulder. He turned, his mouth opening, a sneer coming on as he huffed out some air. Was he thinking of shouting the nickname at me? I’d stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t going a step closer, yet the idea of fleeing disgusted me. Would he come toward me and sniff at my face? Why didn’t he ignore me? I went to the periodicals area and flipped through a magazine, but I couldn’t stay within eyeshot of him.
I was out the door and on the sidewalk before I knew it, angered by my sense of vulnerability, glancing at each car nearing me from behind. I could return to the library later or the following day or I could go back and plant my feet next to his at the new-book shelf if that’s where he still stood. Why confront him? Why agitate myself further? Could I imagine him saying anything I wanted to hear? I kept walking, the image of his eyes on me lingering, sinking in, his sneer rising as he thought of the nickname.
Louise and I were at a restaurant with Duke and Emily, in the process of catching up. We’d taken a trip to California since we’d seen them, and before that Duke had taken a trip to England with a choir group. Emily had decided not to make the trip with him. Louise was telling them about a 37-acre garden we’d visited in Santa Barbara, recommending they go there. Duke took the opportunity to segue into his adventure at Kew Gardens with his friend and fellow choir member, Becky, who, he told us, was a horticulturist.
“Is this the story of your lost phone?” I asked.
Duke stared at me, anger rising. “You’ve heard it?”
I said we’d played canasta with John and Phyllis just before our trip. Phyllis asked if we’d heard you lost your iPhone at Kew Gardens. We said no, we hadn’t spoken to you since you got back. John then filled us in.
“I can’t remember all the details,” I admitted.
“I can’t believe he told my story.”
“Try to calm down,” Emily said. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard this story?” she asked us.
Our server appeared, but Duke waved him off.
He then stretched his hands out in front of him and began. He and Becky had been walking for almost two hours in Kew Gardens, which is 300 acres, he said. It was a fifteen-minute walk to their next area of interest, so they sat on a bench to rest. When they were ready they got going, nothing troubling them, and halfway into their walk Becky’s phone rang. She saw it was their friend John. She answered and John said he’d gotten a call from four American college students who’d found an iPhone on a bench in Kew Gardens. Though the phone was locked they knew they could ask Siri to make a call. They agreed on the name John because it was a common name. It also happened to be the name of Duke’s best friend. John took in the information and worked out a plan. He knew Duke was in England with Becky, so he called her. She put her phone on speaker so Duke could hear. John texted Becky the phone number of one of the students. She called, and they set up a meeting to return Duke’s phone.
“It’s amazing you got the thing back,” Louise said. “So many things had to go right.”
Duke had pulled out the phone, muttering as his finger tapped its screen.
“Please stop,” Emily said.
“I texted John,” he said. “I told him I found out he stole my story. He knows how much I like to tell stories.”
“How is the story yours?” I asked.
“It’s about my phone. That story is mine.”
“It’s not as if you can’t tell it,” Louise said.
Duke stifled a curse as he looked at the phone.
“John says he thinks it’s his story.”
“He’s teasing you,” I said. “He doesn’t think it belongs to him.”
“How do you know what he thinks?”
“It’s a story of several people helping you get your phone back. You’re the guy who left it on a bench. Maybe I agree with him.”
“Watch yourself,” Duke warned me.
Emily shook her head.
The server interrupted us. Louise and I leaned back. Duke and Emily did not.
The subject changed but not for Duke, who kept mouthing words to himself.
Later, we wondered if Emily was still hearing it and what would make him stop.
My next-door neighbors keep their garage door open for hours at a time, sometimes all day. The empty space left by their car exposes their freezer and a wide assortment of tools. I learned at an early age not to leave the garage door open, because it would tempt people inclined to steal to walk straight in and help themselves. My neighbors don’t consider that they could be attracting thieves who would prey not just on them but anyone who’s left their garage door up for a few minutes. I don’t know them well and can’t imagine what they could be thinking. I wonder how many other people within eyeshot are annoyed by this habit.
Returning from a trip to the dentist, I can’t get my mind off the open door, and in the alley as I approach, sure enough, the empty space gapes at me. Fed up, I pull my car into their garage next to their other car, addressing them in my head. I turn off the engine, trying to decide through the cloud of my agitation if they can possibly fail to comprehend my message. I get out, trembling, some internal whisper urging me to get back in the car and drive it into my garage. I look around the alley, see no one watching, and I go through my back gate, into the house, and wait to hear from them. Am I wrong? I ask myself. Is it wrong if I put an end to the problem?
Three hours go by before I see their car parked in front of their house. Yet, I hear nothing from them. I venture out the back door with my car key and see their garage door is down. What are they implying? I return to my house, pace, phone in hand. I don’t call them. I wait. Night falls. I watch TV in bed, the image of my car in their garage preoccupying me and later interfering with my sleep.
Morning, still no word. Their car is no longer parked in front. When I check, their garage door is closed. I need the car so I call them. I get a recording and leave a message. An hour passes and I send a text. Eventually a text buzzes my phone. They’re out of town for a long weekend, they say. I ask them about my car. I’m the one who left it in their garage, they answer, and they can’t be held responsible for that or for making themselves available whenever I want their garage door raised. Am I happy it’s closed? they ask me. I don’t like their attitude. I send a text accusing them of holding my car hostage. Use a ride-hailing service until we get back, they reply. They also thank me for not taking any meat from their freezer.
Are they really out of town or just getting even? That night, a couple of lights are on inside their house. Are the lights meant to mislead burglars? Are they now suddenly concerned about becoming theft victims?
In the morning I see their newspaper on the sidewalk when I go out to pick up mine. After I eat my cereal the paper is not there. I walk out my back gate for a look at their garage door. Their car is parked in my driveway, parallel to my garage door. I curse them. I rush inside and send a text. As you know, I tell them, you’re at home. May I have my car back now?
Soon, their car is parked in front of their house. I receive a text. One issue they have with my car’s intrusion, they write, is that I’ll blame them if something goes wrong with it, such as a coolant leak, for example. They lied about being out of town. Would they damage my car and then deny it? Do they want to make me fear them? Another text follows, this one telling me their garage door is open. I get myself out there and raise my garage door. In their garage, I walk all the way around my car, checking the body and tires. I get down on all fours and stick my head under it, looking for leaks. Nothing seems amiss. I start the car, park it in my garage, and lower the door.
Two hours later, I notice their car is not parked in front. I go out to the alley. Their garage door is still open, the space empty, just as I left it.
Glen Pourciau’s third story collection, Getaway, was published by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, The Paris Review, Post Road, Witness, and others.