Osborn Gravic tugged on his muddy boots, straining to reach over his stomach to bend just enough to yank the tongues that forever curled inside his boot. He paused, catching his breath and puffing, slowly, deliberately. Peering through windows that spanned the back of his modern day cabin, built by himself, for himself, he narrowed his eyes to see if the brats still played in the forest. There, splotches of red and white zigzagging like frisbees through the fog draped trees.
He used both hands to lever himself off the roughhewn bench he’d fashioned from an old pine. When he’d built the house over ten years before, he’d been muscular, in good shape, determined to pry loose his previous life’s connections – a wife he loathed, a loser son – and carve out a new way of living. He’d accomplished his goal, but a slipped vertebrae the past two years lessened his physical capabilities and the late onset of asthma labored his breathing. He sat more. Ate more. Coughed more.
Looked outside more, guarding his property.
The woods ran outside the reach of his back yard, a half oval of wintering clover and jenny creeper that covered his half-acre lawn. Outlining the yard, carefully laid branches and fallen twigs spread their twisted arms and rose two feet, demarcating his land from the woods and houses beyond. In the spring and early summer, deer fed on corn cobs hanging from shepherd’s hooks, and birthed in a copse of small trees and wildflowers abutting his pond. Now, they roamed through the densely forested neighborhood and nibbled whatever they could find.
His back creaked as he bent down at the sliding door. Fingers like overstuffed sausages, he maneuvered the dowel from the sill track at the bottom of the door. The door squealed, rebelled, and finally pulled open. Osborn thumped down water-drenched steps, almost empty of snow. Grabbing a used, rusted hatchet from the wood pile, he turned to where the boys played. Just after noon, and the sun barely peeked through the ashen gray of the sky and drifting fog. Two more weeks until Spring, but the cold and sleeping earth seemed more like the dead of winter. He sloshed across the mud and snow toward the back arc of his land. The high notes of little boy voices broke the quiet.
A white rubber ball flew past him to his left, landing into a muddy depression in Osborn’s yard. Osborn turned his head as a boy wearing a red cap over dark curls groped the branches and twigs of Osborn’s yard and slowly steadied himself as he climbed over the makeshift boundary. In snow boots and jacket, he rushed into the yard, looked quickly toward the cabin and ran to the ball.
“Hey, you there! How many times have I told you to stay outta my yard!” Osborn jutted his jaw, and his beard concealed the top of his red checkered flannel collar.
Red Cap froze in place. In the forest, another boy jumped up and down, his blue gloves frantically beckoning Red Cap to hurry out of the man’s property.
“Don’t come into my yard – ever! I don’t care if you lost your little dog or your cat or your ball. Hear me? You want I should call the police again, you little brats?” He waved the hatchet in his hand.
Blue Gloves screeched. “Joey, run! Hurry.” He danced up and down and began sobbing, moving forward with outstretched arms to pull Red Cap through the wooden barrier.
Red Cap ran, slipped, dropped the ball and got up running, where he climbed, caught himself in the bramble, and scrambled over and away from the old man’s property.
Heart beating, anger providing an extra boost of energy, Osborn paused to take in air slowly, noisily. Hatchet in hand, ball in sight, he’d teach those boys a lesson. And their mom, who had yelled at him one day for yelling at her and her boys when they played too loud in the woods. He breathed deeply, slowly, glancing up at a flock of crows screeching in the trees. He turned toward his house, his yard, his space. He lifted one muddy boot and stamped it in the mushy earth, a giant in his own mind. The other boot lifted and stamped down onto a clump of wet leaves, where it slid up and landed Osborn on his right hip, hard. His right elbow smacked the ground. It too, slid out from under him and he smacked the back of his head, the sound like a branch snapping off his maple tree.
The world was upside down. He blinked his eyes. He shut them to calm down. Then he opened them. The sky was the color of skim milk. Those fucking kids had caused his fall. He’d let the police know that when he made a special trip to the police station to report them. Maybe he’d threaten to sue.
He couldn’t get up. Clenching his hands in and out like when he used an electric drill too long, he brought the blood and feel back to his fingers. He wiggled them. He lifted his elbow, tried to lift his arm. His shoulder ached and his elbow felt fat, a watery cushion under his jacket. His left wrist hurt. He didn’t know from what.
Lifting up his head, he saw the tips of his boots over the swell of his belly. He moved his right foot, but the right leg refused to give. Pain shot through his thigh and into his groin. He’d have to force himself up to walk to the house. Puffing like a bear, he twisted to his side and tried to hoist his torso up, as if doing a sit-up. He fell back to earth, his hurt elbow hitting the ground. He clenched his teeth.
His beaked nose almost touched the paper, his round, sky blue eyes concentrating like a bird of prey on the legalese of the document before him. Another $250 for a court appearance, another cry of innocence against Osborn’s accusation that he pilfered firewood from Osborn Gravic’s neatly layered stack alongside the border between Osborn’s land and his own.
Greg O’ Shannon threw the summons on his dining room table, where it joined a roux of unpaid bills, magazines and newspapers that cluttered the top. The noise startled Alastair, who fluttered his yellow canary feathers and flapped around the cage, spewing seeds and water through the metal bars. Greg grabbed a soft, small feather that fell through the bars along with food dust. He stared at the feather, seeing Osborn’s smug face, his petulant, lying lips. The charges would be dropped because a) Greg’s own cameras would show no bad deeds for the time in question, and b) he, Greg, had done no wrong, just like all the other complaints his neighbor brought against him. But Greg despaired, none the less: time and effort for another court appearance in front of an uncaring judge, delayed court appearances that hung like a jury over his head, and court fees, just like the other minor, no-one-would- notice-but-someone-out-to-get-you complaint-driven property infractions, which further diminished his meagre retiree allowance.
Greg had figured the summons would be about Osborn screaming at him for his icy sidewalk, a sidewalk which dipped in one corner before straightening out, pooling melted snow and either glazing it over or freezing it. The city owned the ten concrete pavers outside his home, but Greg O’Shannon, like all his neighbors in Cantwell, bore the burden of keeping his sidewalk clear of weather-related impediments. Like a slap out of nowhere, this summons referred to his pin oak at the rear of his yard, and the branches that meandered over the air space of Osborn’s yard, dropping a leaf or two, or perhaps a twig, upon the sanctity of Osborn’s domain. Osborn claimed it was a danger, citing how the tree swayed in heavy winds. If the Cantwell City Services didn’t support Greg’s assertion that the tree, with its drunken tilt, would most likely crash onto Greg’s garage, not Gravic’s, he’d have to hire a tree cutting service. He’d be in debt for a couple thousand.
Greg’s muscles tensed. He stretched his arms in front, to the sides, above his balding head like he’d been taught in his Silver Sneakers class. His back cracked, and he slowly lowered his thin arms, where his fingers wavered above his toes. In deference to his year-old hip, he wiggled his butt to loosen the muscles and slowly squeezed his gluts, 1,2,3,4 up to 10. Inhaling and exhaling, he summoned his inner self to ease the tension Osborn’s complaint effected on his nervous system. Greg mused that in the scheme of things, under the vastness of the Milky Way and the awe-inspiring reaches of the universe, his neighbor was a petty, minor despot unworthy of his, Greg’s, increased blood pressure and distemper. He, Greg, had a life filled with books, research, and family within the area. He, Greg, had worked hard as a scientist and realized realities beyond the little corner of his world. He, Greg, lived a life richer than the evil accumulation of mutated cells and thwarted thought that defined Osborn Gravic.
In the kitchen, Greg poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. His heart no longer thumped like cops pounding at his door. He sat down in the recliner in his library and opened the New York Times. Australia’s wild fires, historic snow in the Northwestern states,the barrenness of sea urchin fields off the coasts of Carmel and Monterrey, political integrity being swatted away as if an annoying fly – these matters mattered more to him than a malcontent neighbor getting his kicks from slurping the joy out of others.
The warmth and quiet of the library acted as a soporific under the gray sky outside his window. He nodded off. He dreamed of the day two years before: Osborn walking in his back yard, yelling across his stockpile of wood that maybe Greg’s ‘cow’ of a wife could lose some weight by weeding her dandelions, the seeds of which blew into his yard and blighted his ‘well-cared for lawn’. If Greg’s sore and stretched hip hadn’t throttled his determination to smash Osborn’s face, Osborn could very well have added an assault charge to all the accusations he’d made against Greg. Instead, he gave the finger to Osborn, and limped to the back of his house where his wife was laying mulch. She’d looked over her shoulder and smiled, her hearing half of what it had been five years before. Greg looked at her beautiful smile, dimpled cheeks, and the chubby, baby-borne shape of her body. It was his, and he loved it.
She died of ovarian cancer 6 months later.
Greg’s reading glasses fell with the paper from his lap onto the hardwood floor, and he woke up. Muted voices came through his window. Yelling. Probably the kids who lived across the woods. Groggy, Greg walked over to his mud room and took his Carhartts off the peg rail. He pulled the coveralls on, their heavy, lined fabric making him feel ready for any snow, mud, or crap Osborn might sling his way. Wool hat pulled close to his chin and muffler slung around his shoulders, he tugged on his boots. He opened his door and stepped down the concrete steps into his backyard.
Letitia Marigold flung her American Spirit on the ground and stomped from behind a corner of the white painted gazebo in her backyard, past the headless nude woman whose hands reached alluringly to the sky, and around the stern, full torso of a curly-haired Apollo cradling his twin, Artemis. Her knee-high black leather boots with stiletto heels made it almost impossible for her to move fast, but she’d returned from lunch with a friend and needed her smoke. Each stomp of her heel gathered more mud, hitchhiking its way onto her shoe until it felt like a clinging, petulant child. Dirty snow sprayed up her boots and dotted the thighs and butt of her leggings. Her long, persimmon colored hair lay loosely tied in a rubber band, rebel locks falling along her nape.
“Who is he screaming at now?” She hissed the words as she continued toward the forest, around her outdoor kiln. The two Jamison kids were scurrying from Gravic’s makeshift border, Joey running as if his worst nightmare (Gravic was anyone’s worst nightmare, she snorted) was inches behind him and little Stuey down in the brush, scrabbling to get up as his blue mittens clawed the soil and he sobbed. Letitia reached him, hefted him up, and groaned as he turned his snot-gooey face into her crotch, trying to bury himself in the protection of her wool coat. Ugh. She placed her hand on his back and rubbed.
“It’s okay, Stuey. It’s okay. Whatever happened, that man can’t hurt you.” Letitia tousled his hair. She reluctantly pulled herself away from Stuey. His little forehead furrowed with worry, and his cheeks looked red, wiped clean. Letitia moaned.
“Follow your brother, sweetie. Go home and tell your mom what happened. Don’t run, okay?”
Stuey nodded. Mud looked like swipes from a large paw across his back. She watched him hurry on shaky legs through the detritus of downed twigs, leaves and blackened soil in his way. The boys lived beyond Letitia’s house. She saw his brother’s red hat peeking out from a fort the boys had fashioned the previous summer near their home, his hand frantically beckoning Stuey to move faster. Letitia turned her angry face toward Osborn as he stood in his yard, his back to her. His grizzled white hair bunched like a scarf around the fat of his shoulders.
Letitia was up for bear. If her realtor knew anything a year ago about this cruel, angry man when she sold the artist the gray stone house Letitia adored for its outside space (perfect for her kiln) and large front yard (perfect for presenting her sculptures on columns for free advertising) Letitia should sue her for falsely presenting the community and her neighborhood as peaceful and friendly. Three times Letitia had responded to Osborn’s complaint-driven demands to the city that her statues were pornographic; three times she’d paid legal fees to have the judge determine they resided within decency standards. One time Osborn had screamed from the safety of his yard, “What new trash are you working on today?” She’d given him the finger and almost mooned him, but worried the mean old bear might like it.
Her heels caught in the mud and she almost tipped over. The bastard, she mumbled under her breath. Her chest pounded, blood pushing against her veins like the rap-rap-rap of the woodpecker sounding somewhere nearby. She glanced toward his yard. A deer munched on something where Osborn had been. The distance from where he’d stood to his house was too far for him to have made it inside already.
Letitia paused. In the drifting, lessening fog she searched for where he might be waiting for her. He’d done it before, when she’d marched over to his yard demanding he explain his complaint that she dumped waste into the forest. What she poured into a patch of brush was clay water from her pottery wheel, which dissolved and harmed nothing. Osborn had waited silently by the stump of a tree, where he scared her by presenting himself just as she passed. She’d screamed, become angry, and the yelling that ensued caused a neighbor to call the police.
Letitia stepped slowly forward, the guck on her boots sucking up more guck and weighing her down. Above her, crows lifted from the wet branches and took off, as if the very air smelled of trouble.
Osborn heard crunching. To his right, a doe sniffed the ground and found bits of leaves to chew. She raised her head, her deep brown eyes staring into his, her ears perked up. Then she thumped the ground with a hoof, thumped again, and turned her head away as she continued to munch. He followed her movement as she stepped in front of him, watching her over the tips of his boots as he lay on the ground, his head trying to lift his upper body into a sitting position. His back ached too much and the effort constricted his chest. Osborn huffed, puffed, and let his head fall back to the freezing, wet ground. The cold air chafed his cheeks
Cold water seeping through his pants and around his wrists made him shiver. He remembered a fall he’d taken in a canoe years before. He’d gone with a buddy to the Clarion River in Pennsylvania, during hunting season in the Allegheny mountains. It was October, the leaves coloring the hillsides with sun drenched reds, oranges and yellows. Days were warm, but nights were getting cold in the mountains. Osborn hadn’t shot a deer in two days. In the afternoon of his second day, he decided to grab a few beers and canoe out on the river, clear his head and get away from the stinking breath and constant jibbering of his friend. The lady at the canoe stop had warned him the river waters were cold – easy to get hypothermia. He’d listened with polite indifference and took off, warm in his checkered flannel and eager for a cold beer alone. He paid for a 4-mile trip.
The sun beat upon the floating water, and the river reflected the burning hues of the trees.
He drank one beer, then another. Now and then he rowed around shallow areas, avoiding rocks, but for most of his trip the current nudged him downstream as he soaked in the warmth of the bright autumn day, drank his beer and thought. Maybe it was the beer, maybe the sunlight that lulled and made sleepy his eyes. When he hit the boulder, his canoe rocked and Osborn flew from the prow into a cold river. By the time he made it back into the canoe and continued on, his body shivered and his clenched muscles refused to loosen up. Every breeze felt like icy wind. His mind muddled, and he could barely concentrate. A woman had screamed from the bank, beckoning him ashore. She’d helped him into her car and thrown a cover on him, yakking the whole way to his cabin about how people confused warm air with warm water. He’d shivered and almost thrown up.
Remembering the icy cold of the Clarion and the seeping freeze of his butt and legs now forced Osborn to try again to raise himself. He was in his own back yard, a one-minute, maybe two-minute walk to his back door, and close enough so one of his neighbors so someone should see him down. He raised himself once, twice, several times before the effort started him coughing, vibrating his hip so it hurt more. Even his elbow screamed from the movement.
For god’s sake, someone had to be somewhere in those godforsaken woods outside his boundary.
“Help.” He had no other choice. His neighbors were idiots, but they’d see he needed help. Above him, the ashen white of earlier clouds shifted away as a line of dark grey sky tiptoed in. A shiver ran down his back, and he sorely wanted to sit-up, drag himself with his one arm if he had to. His situation didn’t make sense.
“Well, look at you, old man.” Letitia’s green eyes stared, a scowl on her face. Osborn raised his head, and saw her beyond the twig and branch boundary, her persimmon hair framing her head like a hat.
“I can’t get up.” He licked his lips and lay his head back down. She had an almost straight on view of his body from his toes upward to his crotch and torso. His legs lay apart. He scraped his good leg along the ground to close the V created by his splayed legs. He winced with pain and stopped.
Osborn shut his eyes. He steeled his jaw. Inside, along with the pain, he felt an urgent need to pee. No, no, he couldn’t. Squeezing his groin muscles, he hoped to stem the tide of urine trickling down his butt, but an arrow of pain shot through his abdomen and up along his hip. He prayed the wet ground had soaked enough through his pants to disguise the humiliation of his wetting himself.
Silence. The cold seeped through him and he opened his eyes. He didn’t know if his pain was worse that the icy cold of the ground.
“What happened here?” A voice whispered, like a hunter approaching a dead animal.
“I found him like this.” Letitia’s scornful voice was followed by a quick intake of breath.
A whisp of tobacco smoke caught the corner of Osborn’s eye and he smelled cigarette. The bitch was smoking, as he, Osborn, lay like wounded game on the ground. Rage joined all his other feelings, and he wanted to roar, lash out, tear the orange hair right out of her head.
Laughter. Someone laughed. Not a gut-wrenching laugh, more like a snicker. Damn. It sounded like O’Shannon. Osborn imagined the smug, better-than-thou look of wonder on his neighbor’s face. He’d seen the look before, along with the let’s-be-tolerant-of-the-ignoramus pursing mouth of O’Shannon’s dead wife.
Osborn trembled. His meaty fingers were stiff with cold and his balls felt like frozen peas.
“Looks like he slipped.” O’Shannon leaned over Osborn’s makeshift fence as he spoke. The dark green pompom on the man’s hat hung by a loose thread and bobbed forward.
“Do I look like I’m dead? I can’t move, idiot! Get me help!” Osborne croaked. He tried to lift his head, which educed new waves of pain throughout his body. If he could only move, even a little at a time, he’d eventually make his way over the soaking ground. With his one arm he could pull himself onto the steps, dragging his legs, and hopefully use his arm to reach the handle of his back door. Inside, he could call 911 – level accusations of cruelty against his neighbors.
A burst of constricted, guttural coughing cut short any thought of revenge. He moaned from the pain. In the distance, a police siren drifted away in the disappearing fog.
“I heard the ruckus from inside. Sounded like the little guys who often play in the woods.” O’Shannon spoke calmly.
“Yeah, well, Stuey and Joey were scared because this asshole was threatening them.” She flung her burning cigarette across Osborn’s prone body, where it landed near the kids’ abandoned ball. “Those two were running like the devil was chasing them, screaming at the top of their lungs.” Letitia took a deep breath. “I’ll have to clean my boots for sure.”
“Well, the kids are prob’ly home and warm. Safer there than in Osborn’s yard.” O’Shannon raised his voice, “Isn’t that right, old man?”
“Help me up!” Osborn’s plea led to more coughing, each cough akin to an arrow thrusting into his side. His eyes teared and he swiped at them with his one hand. When he reopened them, he saw O’Shannon just feet way and on his property.
His neighbor stared at him, and then moved out of Osborn’s eyesight, toward the man’s back. He waited for O’Shannon to place his arms under his own and drag him to his house. O’Shannon stepped back into Osborn’s view, holding the kids’ white ball. He tossed it up, caught it, and tossed it again.
“They will be happy to get it back.” Letitia murmured. Her tone switched. “I think that front they talked about on the news is coming in. Temperature’s really dropping.”
Greg looked around. “You’d think we’d be getting warmer days at this time of year. You just can’t predict anymore.”
“By the way, my name is Letitia, but you can call me Lettie.”
“And my name is Greg. O’Shannon. I live right there.” He pointed to his house.
“I know. I’ve seen you. Nice to formally meet you.”
Osborn seethed with rage and pain. He lay like a wounded animal, vulnerable, his package between their casual conversation. He needed to get inside soon. His mouth was dry, his teeth clinked, and his muscles feltlike rocks. His mind pictured blocks of ice from old freezer days.
“I can’t move. Help -heellp.” His shivering pushed the past away, and he panicked at the long, hard stare of his present situation.
“Well?” She lowered her voice.
It’s about time, Osborn shouted inside his head. He struggled to regulate his breath.
“We have a nice forest here. Mostly nice neighbors.” O’Shannon’s voice almost disappeared with the screeching of a blue jay that darted overhead.
“My hip. Please.” He spoke as loud as his shivering mouth would allow and once again closed his eyes. He just couldn’t do it; couldn’t wait any longer for these creatures to help him.
“I get to thinkin…maybe I have more important things to do than wait for the next summons, the next charge to kick me in the face?” O’Shannon spoke evenly.
“I hear you. I know.” Letitia offered Greg a cigarette.
Osborn heard again the intake of breath.
“My wife and I were going to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary two years ago. Tickets bought, a litany of activities planned.” Greg sighed loudly. “This man took us to court and we ended up having a new drain placed along our driveway. Costly, but okay. A week before we left for our vacation, my wife tripped trying to move rocks too near Osborn’s property, which he’d complained about. Broke her leg – full cast. This bastard never knew it – but he is the reason we never made our anniversary trip.” Greg paused. “She died last year.”
Osborn watched Lettie shake her head in sympathy.
After a few seconds of silence, she asked, “What should we do with him?”
“I nneedd heellppp.” He tried to move, to writhe his way forward, using his one good elbow for leverage. Slippery mud gave way; he thumped back down.
“You know, Eliza Bearden – that house over there?” Greg spoke softly and nodded his head to the left of Osborn’s house, behind the woods. “She has that white picket fence?”
“Haven’t met her. I’ve seen her, but we never talked.” Lettie took a puff and sent the smoke into Osborn’s airspace.
“She has that beagle, that spends so much time barking in the summer. Ollie, Oliver. She lives by herself, in her early seventies, maybe? Ollie used to run back here- barking at the birds and rabbits. Never at people.” Greg paused.
Osborn listened, but the words seemed to float upward in the trees, shifting and swaying before disappearing.
“Help…help meforgaawwdddsssake.” Osborn squeaked before a bout of shard-like coughs rose from his throat.
“Eliza had to put up that fence to keep Ollie contained. It’s better this way, I must admit. We don’t hear the dog’s bark as much, and he doesn’t trample into other people’s gardens, like he did before. But we all tolerated it. Except him.” Greg turned toward Osborn, who stared up at the sky. Low, guttural sounds rose and fell with his chest. “He took her to court, and Eliza was so worried about going to court again she got the fence built. She took two years to pay it off.”
Osborn’s eyes opened, shut, and opened again. His lower muscles didn’t respond and shivering pulsed like an electric charge through his bones, fat, organs. He was having a harder time getting his thoughts to coalesce, his senses to keep him oriented. Osborn wriggled, tried to curl inward. She’d given him a blanket, and he remembered his bottom warming up in her car. She wasn’t yakking, wasn’t chiding him for falling into the cold, moving water. They must be near the cabin.
He wasn’t ashore. The ice-cold river surrounded him, nudging him and the canoe adrift. A darkness filled with cold ran through his body. He heard the distant murmuring of voices and wondered how far he was from safety. The space in front of his face grew dark and the cloudy gray of the water seemed to narrow. Maybe another canoe was nearby; maybe she was grabbing the stern to pull him ashore. Surely, she had a blanket.
He closed his eyes, too cold to pray.
Pamela Cottam is an emerging writer who completed her MFA in fiction this past spring. She received 2 writing scholarships and an honorary mention at Chautauqua Institute’s Summer literary award. She tutored English students at CSU for 3 years.