The blue house with white trim had what most would consider the perfect front porch. The porch itself was atop a four-step walkup, set back about twenty feet from the sidewalk. When staring out into the neighborhood, the steps landed on the far-left side of the porch, and the porch extended to the right seventeen feet in length by eight feet in width. The sides of the porch were three-and-a-half feet high by two feet wide – ideal dimensions to sit and dangle legs freely, take naps without worry (or concentration required) in regards to rolling off and staying in place, and when seated in either the EZ chair, the rocker, the upright, the couch, or the hammock (the tried and true items occupying the wooden rectangle) one could see perfectly over the sides of the porch into and across the neighborhood.
The true genius of the porch, however, was that the lines of sight weren’t reciprocated – the neighborhood couldn’t see onto the porch from any distance further than the sidewalk twenty-feet away. James and Nikki had a near one-way mirror into Canal St., and they peered into the glass of the urban organism for hours on end.
When Nikki got home from work and parked her 1996, black, two-door Honda in the driveway and walked up the steps she found James laid out on the hammock with a book split-turned on his chest, watching the scene. She sat in the beige, worn-in EZ chair of corduroyed fabric, grabbed the wooden handle on the right side, and kicked back into a heavenly recline.
“What ya doing?” Nikki asked. She knew what he was doing, and James knew what she meant.
“I was reading… but now,” he said. He looked out over the grass and sidewalk into the yards and trees across the street.
“Yeah,” Nikki said. “You were reading. I see that, I mean what’s going on around here?” She motioned to the neighborhood in front of them.
“Hmm? Oh, I’ve been watching Benny’s place for like three hours.”
“Benny’s place?” Nikki said. “Nothing ever happens over there.”
“Not today, Nik. Not today.” He paused. “Action today, Nikki, lotta action.
“You want a beer, Action Jackson?”
Nikki reversed the wooden leaver and timed the violent kick from the release of her EZ chair so as to spring her to her feet – a skill that develops as the result of a long relationship with the same cranky, old chair, like the reflexive strike to the throat of a would-be assailant after years of training. She opened the screen door and disappeared from James’ peripheral. James gazed, still. A half-hearted sun bled through a weak bandage of clouds in the afternoon sky. What James had just described as a source of action was, at the moment, not.
“Pabst or High Life?” Nikki yelled. The neighborhood was used to hearing disembodied voices yelling out beer choices from the blue house with white trim.
The screen door kicked open and Nikki walked over to James. She handed him his beer and kissed him on the forehead.
“Hello, dah-ling,” she said. Nikki grinned and turned back to her EZ chair.
“Hello, and thank you, my dear, dear Nicole.”
Nikki pulled the wooden lever once again, and her feet felt light and blood pulsed in and out of her legs with ease, pausing certain vertical pressures.
“So, what’s happening over at Benny’s?”
“I’m not quite sure yet,” James said. He took a sip of his beer, and he turned his head toward Nikki.
“Oooh, dramatic effect,” Nikki said. “Me likey.”
“Shut up,” James said. “Listen, I’ve seen eleven people park in front of Benny’s house in the past, what time is it?”
“I’ve seen eleven people park in front of Benny’s house in the past two hours.”
“So what,” Nikki said, “he’s probably having a bridge party or something.”
“No, it’s not like that.” James swigged his beer and shook his head. “These people were all steaming mad when they got out of their cars, and I mean through the roof fucking pissed. All of ‘em.”
“And, and then they go into Benny’s house and after twenty minutes they come back out calm as a cool is calm can be, and they get into their cars and drive off.”
Nikki laughed, and she drank.
“This is the action?” Nikki asked. “A bunch of angry, geriatric drivers walking into Benny’s and leaving happy?”
“Yeah, as far as I can tell.”
“I’m failing to see what’s so intriguing, Dah-ling, it sounds so properly boorish to me,” Nikki said.
“My dear, I’m telling you, something’s amiss.”
And they grew silent. They drank from their beers and stared across the space with the greens and the greys and the browns and blacks into the other colors of the neighborhood. Time passed between them without a word.
James heard Nikki finish her beer, and without looking or mentioning or acknowledging, he rose from the hammock and walked inside and grabbed two more beers from the fridge and delivered Nikki a Pabst and kissed her on the forehead and said, “A cool beverage for my dedicated Southern belle,” and grinned as he turned toward the hammock, and Nikki said, “A gal should be so lucky to have a strong man, such as yourself, by her side.” And they grew silent again, and they allowed their minds to drift.
A late 90s, black Lincoln Townecar in mint condition and with a fresh coat of polish turned onto Canal St. with complete disregard for the stop sign on Dreymond St., about three blocks down Canal, as if in a high speed chase, with tires screaming and rubber marking – leaving streaks of dark on dirty grey – but instead accelerated down Canal right past the blue house with white trim. The two disembodied voices on the porch let out a simultaneous, “Holy shit.” Nikki’s mouth was wide open when the Lincoln slammed on its brakes and tried to pull into Benny’s driveway but careened over the curb and onto Benny’s lawn. The taillights went into park, and small clouds of dust and dirt rose from the street and sidewalk and grass into the air.
James and Nikki were silent. Another minute passed, and the only movements in the neighborhood were the two beers on the porch being raised to lips and liquid gulped down proper pathways.
The door of the Lincoln flew open and sprang back off its hinges so fast that it whipped back into the small, corduroyed-leg that had just poked out of the driver’s side onto the lawn. A high-pitched yell came from inside the Lincoln.
A man who must have been in his late 70s, based on his posture, frail looking body, and outfit stepped onto the lawn and exploded in hysterics.
“God damn, fucking, stupid, piece of shit fucking car door, hobo-sucking, commie red-devil son-of-a-bitch, bastard, unbelievable bastardized horse spawn of a greasy snake, God damn yellow-bellied John-Wayne hating fucking idiots who put these pieces of shit together, yeah, I’m talking to you, you piece of shit, you wide-turning, wide-turning boat. You boat. You giant Goddamn land boat!”
The old man took off his hat, threw it to the ground and began stomping and jumping on top of his golfer’s cap while screaming.
“Yahhhh, kiyyyyyyyyyyaaaa Unggggddddddddddddaaaaaa!”
The old man stopped jumping. He stopped yelling and grunting. Then he walked around the Lincoln and into Benny’s house, slamming the front door behind him. His hat lay in the front yard right next to the dusty Lincoln – its driver’s side door wide open.
James looked at Nikki, and she let out a snort and snarled out a laugh.
“Oh my fucking god!” Nikki said. “What the hell was that?”
“That, my dear, my love, was the action,” James said. He smiled and raised his glass in her direction.
“How right you were, dah-ling, indeed.” She tipped her glass towards him and then took a sip.
“I’m telling you, Nik, it’s been going on for hours, just like that.”
“Just like that?” Nikki said.
“Well, okay, no. Almost,” James said. “I mean he was, by far, the angriest.”
“Did you see when he jumped on his hat and started groaning? He was like ‘Unnnnnnnnngnggggggg!’” Nikki laughed at her impression of the man, which wasn’t accurate necessarily, but captured the essence of the moment rather well.
“Watch,” James said. “Because this is the part that’s going to throw you for a loop. In ten minutes or whatever, old hat stomper is going to walk right out of that house like nothing ever happened, get into his car and drive away.”
“I don’t believe it,” Nikki said. “No way.” She shook her head – emphasis in large sweeping motions.
“My dear, dearest Nicole, dost thou have no faith?”
“I just can’t imagine a scenario,” Nikki said, “short of that old man getting electro-shock therapy inside Benny’s house right now, I just cannot imagine anything…”
Nikki trailed off and paused for a moment before cranking the wooden lever to the EZ chair and springing into life and running into the house and grabbing two more beers and kicking the door open and kissing James on the forehead and saying, “A precious nectar for my dearest Zhivago,” and bouncing back to the EZ chair and cranking the wooden lever back, once again.
The two roommates stared at the world in front of them, taking in the scene from the comfort of their wooden island. Birds chirped, trees waved with the passing winds, small creatures darted from bush to bush, children yelled in the distance, and engines and breaks and tires turned and squealed and thumped further down Canal St., but their eyes stayed focused on the stage.
James grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes and a purple lighter that lay on the small wooden table next to the hammock. Before he lit his cigarette, James held the pack out at arms length pinched between his thumb and middle finger, his wrist dangling loosely, the way he imagined Jaoquin Phoenix had offered Russell Crowe to kiss his ring in the movie Gladiator. Nikki waved him off. “No thank you, sire,” she said.
James lit his cigarette and took a deep hit. He placed the pack and lighter back on the small table to his left, and he watched the smoke climb from his mouth like some sort of ethereal genie slowly escaping from its pulmonary prison. He reached over and tapped his cigarette against the ashtray.
The ashtray lay within the abnormal arms of a Jade plant. The plant was a gift from James, and the ashtray a gift from Nikki. It was only natural that both gifts quickly found their way outside, to the porch, and since the young Jade plant had looked like a small hand sprouting upwards from its potted earth at the time, James found it only right that he marry the ashtray to the Jade. An arm of the Jade grew and grabbed. Another turned and twisted, and after seven years the handmade ashtray was finally becoming a part of the plant.
“I can’t wait any longer,” Nikki said. “I have to know.”
“We have to go over there.”
“No, no,” James said, “We wait.”
“Fine,” she said, a bit miffed.
But after another few moments had passed and another cigarette had been smoked, the urge was too strong. The old man remained inside.
“I thought you said he’d be out by now?” Nikky said.
James looked at Nikki and began nodding. He spun his feet over the edge of the hammock and said, “Let’s go.” Nikki looked at James.
“Really?” She said.
“Yeah,” James said.
“Fuck,” she said, waving her hand in front of her face. “I just got all nervous.”
James started towards the steps.
“Come on, Miss Drew, and let’s go solve this thing,” he said.
Nikki popped the lever on the recliner, shot out of her seat, and followed behind. They went down the steps and out to the sidewalk. As the two roommates stepped onto Canal St., James turned his head and looked back at the blue house with white trim – their house. It seemed distant. The porch was almost invisible from the street. James felt the uneven pebbles of weathered asphalt crumble beneath his sneakers, and he grabbed Nikki’s hand. The asphalt smelled like burnt plastic. Nikki’s hand was soft and smooth.
They stepped onto Benny’s lawn, peering into the Lincoln’s windows as they passed. Nikki bent over and picked up the old man’s golf cap. She brushed off the cap. Dust and dirt flew into the air, and James turned his head to avoid the small approaching cloud, and when he did he looked at Benny’s house – the old man’s place looked brighter from this side of the street, alive.
“Just in case we need a peace offering,” Nikki said.
“A mighty fine idea, indeed, Doctor,” James said. “On an expedition of this magnitude, you’re truly in the dark as to whether or not the natives will be restless.”
“Perhaps we should return to base camp and procure some of the cold, malty beverages to offer as well,” Nikki said.
“Nonsense,” James said. “We mustn’t share the elixir of life with the savages.”
James and Nikki stepped onto Benny’s front porch, if you could call it that – it was a simple slab of concrete with two, thin columns that protruded upwards from the slab and supported a tiny black, shingled roof. Nikki looked at James, expecting him to make the first move. He closed his eyes while shaking his head. Nikki knocked on the door. Nothing. She knocked again. They heard the door’s top bolt turning, and they took a half step back. Benny opened the door.
“Hello,’ Benny said. “Oh hi there, you two. Hello.”
James shot a subtle eye at Nikki.
“Hi, Benny,” Nikki said.
“Lovely, lovely. More guests,” Benny said. “Please, please come in.”
“Ummmm, we were just wondering if the guy who drove that car,” Nikki said, pointing at the Lincoln, abandoned in haste and sitting twenty feet away, “Is okay.”
“What’s that?” Benny said.
“Is the man that drove that car okay?” James said.
“Madrigal?” Benny said.
“I think that’s Madrigal’s car,” Benny said. “He’s fine, but you’ll have to ask him yourself, he’s a bit decapitated… discapacitated… incapa…”
“Incapacitated?” Nikki said.
“Yup. That’s it,” Benny said. “Come on in.”
Benny turned and walked back into his home, leaving the door wide open. James whispered to Nikki as the she stepped past him, he entered, and then he shut the door behind him.
The hallway was painted a bright, fire engine red. There was a window on their left that allowed in a sharp beam of Western sunlight. The light hit the wall and set the red paint ablaze. The house smelled a bit dank, moldy even, like a wet Labrador that’d been resting in the bed of an old, rusty truck in the summer’s heat. James and Nikki followed the hallway to the left, towards the voices.
They entered Benny’s living room. The living room was sterile, composed – wooden floors, tasteful furniture, and colorful walls. Gathered around a large tree trunk of a coffee table, seated on the couches, were four elderly couples – four men and women. As they stepped further into the room, Nikki recognized the old man whose hat she held, whom Benny had called Madrigal. The elderly couples sat, in a docile state, holding on to thin rubber hoses that connected to a glass vase in the center of the coffee table. Beneath the vase was a flame. Benny sat cross-legged on the floor, opposite James and Nikki, and he was adjusting the flame’s intensity.
As the red liquid simmered, a bit of steam rose from the lip of the vase.
“These are my neighbors,” Benny said, without looking up. “Neighbors, these are my good friends.”
Nikki leaned forward, and then she gasped. She saw that the old folks weren’t holding the rubber hoses at all. The lines were connected to needles that drew blood from the wrists of the elderly and then drained into the vase.
Only the four men connected to the vase. The women tended to small plastic valves just down the line from the wrist of the men. They’d turn the valve open, allowing a slight stream of blood into the tube, and then they’d close the valve. They did this every so often as they saw fit. The blood ran its course and entered the carafe, where it joined the bubbling molasses and slowly turned to steam. The men looked exhausted, and if not for their wide toothless smiles, one would assume they were in pain.
The ladies who turned the valves spoke words of encouragement.
“That’s it,” They said.
“I’m here,” They said.
“You’re okay,” They said.
Benny ceased tending to the flame and looked up at James. He smiled, showing his spotted and stained teeth.
“So glad you are here,” Benny said. “Would you like to join?”
“Uh, I don’t know about that, Benny,” James said.
“Oh,” Benny said.
“I’m not even sure what, ha, exactly, you’re doing here,” James said, laughing.
“Why, we’re letting blood?” Benny said. “Can’t you see?”
Nikki watched as a few larger bubbles popped and sprayed crimson splash onto the walls of the vase. There, the droplets met their coagulated brethren and formed into gelatinous pustules. Their color darkened against the vase to from a deep rich red into a shade of black – like bloody asphalt under the light of the moon.
Nikki imagined herself tending to a valve.
“Yes,” James said. “I can see that much. But…”
“But what?” Benny said.
“Ahhh, why?” Benny said, looking at the faces of his elderly companions, as if their expressions were enough of an explanation for the young man.
“Uhhh,” James said. “Yeahhhh, so this is weird. Like, really weird. Strange even. I was expecting something strange, but this? Benny, this?” James clapped his hands together, “Man, Benny, you win this one.”
James looked at Nikki for agreement, but she wasn’t paying attention. Nikki was imagining how the plastic felt under her fingers as she opened a valve. She thought of touching the tube as a stream of blood passed within the rubber cylinder, warm. She smelled the vapors of the blood’s reduction, a noxious scent like liquid rust caked against her nostrils. She imagined James with a needle in his wrist.
“Nik, Nicole,” James said, grabbing her hand. “Time to go.”
“Okay,” Nikki said.
Before turning to leave, Nikki reached out and placed Madrigal’s hat back on his head. Madrigal turned towards Nikki, the skin on his face wrinkled and pocked, crows feet ran from his eyes like streams from a canyon’s river.
“One day,” the old man said.
“One day,” She said.
James tugged at her hand, and he led her out of Benny’s house. As they walked outside, Nikki felt them approaching the blue house with white trim as if they were floating. She didn’t feel the crunch of the asphalt beneath her feet, and she felt closer to the house, now, at the base of the porch. They walked up the stairs, and Nikki lay out on the hammock. James threw open the door and grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge. Upon his return, Nikki was smoking one of his cigarettes. James handed her a beer.
“What the fuck was that all about?” he said.
Nikki put her right arm behind her head. She took a deep, life affirming drag of the cigarette – tasting its smoke, replacing the scent of blood that had lingered in her mouth and nose – and then exhaled.
“You’ll figure it out,” Nikki said. “One day.”
And then she flicked the ash of her cigarette into the Jade.