“Watch him,” Justin said softly, nodding his head toward the corner.
I glanced over, and saw the older man standing on the curb with a small, yappy dog. “I think he’s just lonely, he just stands out there, and I guess folks speak to him as they walk by.”
“Has he ever spoken to you?” Justin asked, lifting his end of the couch onto the bed of his truck.
“No, I’ve waved at him a couple times, said hey once or twice, but he never responded, maybe he’s hard of hearing or something.”
“I’m sure that’s what he wants you to think.” Justin came to my end of the couch and helped me push it into the bed. “But maybe what you think, and what is true, are two different things.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to see corner dude take a drag off his cigarette and look down at his groomed dog.
“I told you what I meant. Watch him, watch out for him, I don’t trust him.”
I laughed. “What’s not to trust? He’s just an old guy with a dog.”
“Is that all?” Justin asked, shrugging, and lifting the tailgate.
“Yeah, for today, but I may have more once I figure out what I’m doing in there.” I nodded at my house that I was attempting to redecorate.
He slammed the tailgate. “Let’s go in for a minute.”
“Okay,” I said, following him to the door. I was trying to figure out why the energy had changed, and why he was suddenly so tense. Justin was my handy man, my truck when I needed something carried away or brought home, and usually he was nothing but jokes and lightness, but suddenly he was tense and I felt it through my being. I walked inside and he shut the door behind me, looking through the open blinds at the older man standing on the corner.
“You know I live close to here, right? And it’s a handy short cut?” he asked, pacing through the living room and peeking out through the blinds.
“Yeah,” I said, my forehead wrinkling as it did when I was trying to solve a puzzle.
“He’s always on that corner, and he’s always looking at your house.”
I sighed. “Do you want a beer?” I moved toward the kitchen.
“Sure,” he said, following me, while checking each window as he passed.
I opened the fridge and handed him a beer, popping the top of my own. “I really appreciate the help.”
“No problem, my girl wanted a couch, so it’s very nice of you to just give it away.”
I smiled and leaned against the counter, taking a sip. “Glad it’s going to a good home, I inherited that from my mom.”
“Rita will take care of it.”
I nodded and watched him peer out the window behind me, looking toward the corner where the old man let his dog free to do the things dogs do.
“He’s really not old,” he said.
“What are you saying, Justin?”
“Does he look old to you?” he asked, taking my arm and leading me back into the living room where I had the perfect view to observe the man across the street.
I shook off his hand, giving him the look that often stopped people in their tracks, and he laughed. “Does he look old to you? Look at him. Guess his age.”
Previously, I believed the man to be in his late sixties or early seventies, but now looking at him, I no longer saw that. I stared, fifties? I shook my head. “Fifty-something?”
“Not so old now, right? Look, do you see a hearing aid? Glasses? And what’s with that hair? Does he dye it? Or has his hair not turned gray yet?”
I studied the man with the prissy dog, and saw that he had military grade boots. “Wow,” I muttered.
“He doesn’t look like a retired, elderly man, does he? What do you think he does for a living? Because I’m pretty sure he makes his living watching you.”
“What? That’s crazy, Justin,” I said, but couldn’t stop the shudder from working down my spine.
“Maybe, maybe not. He’s always home, how often to do you see his car gone? Never, or at least rarely, and he stands on the corner how many hours a day?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t paid much attention.”
“Well, he sure pays attention to you.”
“You’re freaking me out, Justin,” I said, staring out the window at the man standing on the corner.
“Do you still have that web cam?”
“Yeah, I never even used it, it’s still in the box.”
“Well, let’s set it up and we’ll watch him as he watches you.”
“This is crazy,” I said, stepping into a bedroom I used as a small office, and retrieving the box with the wireless webcam nestled inside.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m crazy. I’m pretty tired of hearing that since the only difference between you and me is that I pay attention to things and ask questions. Even Rita gave me a homemade tinfoil hat for my birthday, she thought it was funny, but it pissed me off. It’s not my fault that everyone just accepts the surface of things and no one wants to look underneath.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything,” I said, handing him the box.
“I know, Dixie, I know,” he said, taking the box and sighing. “Sorry for venting, but it does get frustrating. Think about it, you’ve lived here for a few years and six months ago this guy just starts standing on the corner across the street and watching your house and you never even gave it a thought?” He opened the box and shook his head. “That’s why they win.”
“Who? What? Who is they?”
“They are those who are not like us. Everyone seems to think that we are all alike and if that’s the case, why is it a handful do terrible things? Why do some murder and mutilate and most don’t? Why do some corporations have no problem polluting rivers and poisoning us? Most people would never even consider those things as an option, yet we know it happens. Why do politicians lie? Why do people conspire to hurt others? We could say it’s all about money and power, but I know that there are two kinds of people on this earth, us and them.” He opened the instruction manual and sat down in a chair with his beer.
“Us and them? Is that like the haves and the have nots, or are we talking about aliens or different species?”
“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, sunshine. Give me a minute to get this thing running and we’ll talk more.” He focused on the paperwork in his hands.
I paced, restlessly. Justin’s energy and angst was palpable. I met Justin at a flea market three years earlier when he had a woodworking booth, he made custom cabinets and basically anything one could want from wood. I bought a table and we exchanged numbers. He became a steady and trusted handyman, a drinking buddy on occasion, and a carpenter when I upgraded my kitchen and bathroom, but as I paced I understood I didn’t really know him. Us and them, I scoffed silently in my head, and wondered if he was doing drugs.
What do I know about him? I asked silently. I knew he lived with Rita, a psychiatric nurse at the local hospital. I knew he could fix most anything, even cars, which had come in handy a couple times. I knew he liked dark European beer, and was a hunter and gardener. I knew he was thirty-eight, had spent eight years in the military, and refused to have a bank account. I knew he liked Monty Python, James Taylor, Charlton Heston, and Ronald Reagan. I also knew he and Rita lived on the outskirts of town, on eight, completely fenced, acres, and had two dogs, four cats, and a couple dozen chickens.
“Got it,” he called.
I stepped into the living room and he handed me a slip of paper. “Go call up this address.”
I walked into the office and booted up the computer. I typed in the address he gave me and had a perfect view of the man on the corner smoking a cigarette with his recently brushed dog at his feet.
“Is it working?” Justin asked, stepping into the room. “Damn! Working great! It’d take a ton of batteries leaving that cam on all day and night, but luckily there was a AC cord, so I plugged it in and put in batteries, so you may want to buy some more batteries. But it’s working, this is freaking cool!”
“What am I supposed to be seeing here, Justin, I just see an old dude, with a foo-foo dog, standing on the corner and smoking.”
“Because that’s all you want to see, Dixie, that’s all you choose to see. But ask yourself why he spends hours a day, thirty yards from your front door, chain-smoking with that stupid little dog. I’ll tell you, okay? To save us both time and energy. You’re under surveillance.”
“Me? Under surveillance? Why would anyone want to watch me?”
“How do you make your living?”
“I work online, you know, I do a few things.”
“So you rarely leave the house, you certainly don’t go into an office everyday, don’t you know that in this climate that makes you suspect? Plus, you’re friends with me, and they don’t like me very much.” He laughed.
“Why don’t they like you, Justin?” I asked, getting up from the desk, but watching the feed as a car slowed in front of the corner dude.
“Because I’m a freak, I see through them. I know what’s going on in the world and when I try to tell people, the people who watch their TVs, and buy the products advertised, and rave about said products and shows,” he sighed. “When I try to tell those people, they think I’m crazy. See something, say something is the word of the day and you have to know I’m freaking people out by telling them other than what their television tells them. Think of that word for a moment, television, tell a vision … I don’t watch the damn thing, and would rather use the boob tube in target practice than spend a moment listening to that drivel.”
I sighed and turned to see another car slow in front of corner dude. Suddenly, for a moment, I didn’t think Justin was crazy. “Why do those cars keep slowing down in front of him, there’s no stop sign there.”
He chuckled. “Sunshine is waking up. Nice to meet you.” He held out his beer bottle in a toast.
I wanted to say ‘screw off’, and didn’t, but I also didn’t toast him. “So I’m being watched because you and I are friends?”
“No, sunshine, you’re being watched because they can see the future and they know that you will be a problem to their system one day, you and I meeting was just happenstance, an aberration they couldn’t control. Now that you’ve seen what you are seeing…” he shrugged and pointed at the monitor as another car slowed.
I studied the images performing on my PC. The car, a late nineties Ford, slowed as it approached the man on the corner. The man, with his foo-foo dog, dropped his smoke and held his hand up, two fingers down, and three up. “What the hell,” I asked, stepping closer to the screen as the gray sedan pulled away. “What did I just see?”
“The truth, sunshine. My Dixie-girl, you just saw a bit of how they operate.” Justin took a sip of beer, set it on the table he made, and that I had bought. The table that was the reason we had met just three years prior. “No more beer for me, I need to make it home, not that I’ve been drinking, but they have to have some semblance of a reason to mess with you.” He walked into the bathroom and gargled with some cheap mouthwash that I kept on the counter, but rarely used.
He stepped back in the room with a smile. “Now you can watch those who are watching you. Thanks for the couch, Rita’s gonna love it. And Dixie-girl, be safe.”
We gave our customary hug and he was gone. And I never saw him again.
I watched the damned webcam until the early hours of the morning, wondering how many cigarettes the corner dude could smoke. I saw the cars slow where there was no stop sign and tried to figure out why. Was there some magnetic spike that made their feet fall off the gas pedal? Was there something in the road that made them slow, something threatening, yet something I couldn’t see? I didn’t look out the window that night; I sat in my office, with work to be done, but studying the man on the corner.
I fell into bed around three in the morning, and was just falling into sleep when the phone rang. I must tell you that I don’t believe we are obligated to answer the phone when it rings, and we also don’t have to answer the door when someone knocks, and as I lay in bed, jolted from my sleep, I didn’t answer the phone. I answered it when I heard Rita crying over the answering machine.
“What the hell, Rita? What’s going on?” I asked, after stubbing my toe to reach the phone I kept in the living room.
“He’s dead!” She sobbed.
“Who’s dead?” I demanded.
“Justin! Justin’s freaking dead!”
My mind scattered, and then stumbled. “What? No!”
“He’s dead, Dixie! The ambulance just left,” she said with a catch in her voice, and blew her nose.
“What the hell happened, Rita?” I yelled.
“I don’t know, Dixie. I got home late, and we were cooking out on the grill. We were having a great night. I’d opened some wine and we were sitting beside the grill, not close to the fire or anything, and suddenly he said he was hot. I made a joke of it…” she sobbed and sniffed, “asking if he was going through the change. And then I saw this white band appear around his head. You know how tanned he is, he’s always outdoors, but this strange white band appeared across his brow, he stood up, took a couple breaths and fell. He was gone, no pulse, no heart, no breath, nothing, in just seconds. I had my cell in my pocket so I called nine-one-one as I was doing CPR, but he was gone. They say it was a heart-attack.”
“A heart attack? He’s in great shape, he’s only thirty-eight!” My mind flipped, and I fell to my knees. “He can’t be dead,” I whispered
“He’s dead,” Rita cried over the line. “He’s dead.”
We made arrangements to meet in the morning, and I promised to help notify his family and schedule the funeral. I hung up the phone, having to use the door jam to get to my feet, and heard noises outside as through in celebration. I didn’t look out the window, but stumbled back to the office and disengaged the screen saver, looking out onto the street.
Corner dude was on the corner, and I glanced at the clock, it was four in the morning. He stood there smoking, with the tiny, overly groomed dog, as a stream of older model sedans passed. A few honked their horns, but most just put their arms out of the window with various fingers up or down.
I watched for a couple hours, and as the sun began to rise above the horizon, I posted pictures of my house on various real estate sites and declared it was up for sale. I hadn’t planned on moving or selling my home, but I also hadn’t planned on my friend, my drinking buddy, and my carpenter, dying. I stood up slowly, and checked the doors, before climbing in the shower.
I had to say goodbye to my carpenter.