I love old movies. I really do. Especially Westerns. Remember the scene at the end of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”? Director Sergio Leone paints the perfect canvas – Lee Van Cleef, Clint and Eli Wallach all not saying anything to each other, all stationed over a treasure with a close-up of their eyes in complete silence. All sizing each other up; no trust there. Classic cinema indeed. Well, that’s how I felt in my meeting with Mike Jones. Let me explain…
My wife entered the house with an air of exasperation. “Honey!” she shouted more than actually uttered, her carrying some of the overloaded bags of groceries from the Publix Grocery Store chain.
“What’s that?” I responded, eyes still glued to Tiger Woods on our 24“ plasma TV.
“The Joneses are weird.”
“The new neighbors. Haven’t you seen the moving vans?”
Of course I had. I had the seen the vans from the moment I started mowing the lawn and heard their noisy engines and smelt the nasty cigarettes the movers were smoking earlier this morning.
“Have you actually spoken to them?” Bess queried.
“Nah,” I replied, dipping a nacho chip into guacamole as I studied Tiger taking his calculated 10th shot on the green. “I haven’t had the pleasure.”
She wiped her sweaty brow reflective of the 80o temperature outside our home in Tampa, Florida. “Well, maybe you should. They are kind of…I dunno..creepy.”
I waved her with a lackadaisical hand. “Everybody is creepy nowadays. Who gives a shit?” I stuffed some guac in my pie-hole.
She came into the family room, hands on her hips, mad, but not really mad if you can dig that.
“No, not everyone is weird,” she hammered home.
At this point I was more concerned about the peanut butter & chocolate Chapman’s ice cream creating a brown pool on the tiled floor of our hallway. Our younger daughter Haley has a peanut allergy and we always have to be super-careful.
Getting up from my chair (which took some effort given my 225 lb girth), I said, “Okay, first let’s deal with the groceries, then we’ll deal with the goddamn Joneses”.
“Language, Stephen, language,” my wife scorned me, even though I had heard her use the Lord’s name in vein even when grocery stores didn’t price match.
As I did my share of putting the seemingly endless supply of foods away into the pantry, freezer, refrigerator and counter, I finally said, “So, what’s so weird about the Joneses?”
She sighed while placing a bag of Cheetos on the counter.
“Well, while the movers are doing their thing I see her…we’re looking right at each other and she doesn’t say a word to me. Just smiles. So, after a few uncomfortable moments of silence, I’m like, “Hi, I’m your neighbor” and still smiling she’s like, “Glad to meet you, neighbor” so I’m like, “I’m Bess”, and she’s like “I’m Jessica”.”
I stared at her for a moment. I loved her shortly cropped red-previously-sandy-brown hair. I loved her workout-three-times-a-week figure and I loved her not-too-big-but-not-too-smallish nose. I guess you could say I loved the woman, period.
Casually I said, “Do you always preface what people say with the word “like”?”
She frowned that cutsie frown I have grown to love over the years. “Oh, so now you are an English professor?”
No, truth be told I was a Best Buy manager in WestShore Mall, but that was another story altogether.
“No,” I started, “But give them the benefit of the doubt. I mean they are new to the neighborhood. Probably shy, don’t know anybody. Just because she doesn’t instigate conversation doesn’t mean that she is weird, per se.”
She put a rising crust pizza into the freezer as she said, “Yeah, yeah I get it..but there is more. I mean she is pretty…so pretty..almost perfect.”
My eyebrows rose at this revelation. The last time we had something perfect around here is when Jethro, our mongrel shat in its own dumpster.
“We’re gonna barbeque tonight?” I said, tiring of Tiger’s contemplative looks on the green and instead reaching for Duma Key, the Stephen King novel I was currently enamored with. “Taylor said she wanted salmon on the wooden plank.”
Taylor was our eldest, currently at University of West Florida, coming in for dinner with the old folks. “Okay, I will walk around and check on what the Joneses are up to? Cool?”
My wife Bess came up to me, placed her arms around my rotund neck and placed a kiss on my cheek. “I knew you would understand,” she whispered with a hint of seduction in her tone. I most definitely understood.
That evening my daughter Taylor was home with her current beau named Chad or Chet.. (his name could have been Crap for all I cared) and I was sweating over the barbeque flipping over salmon fillets onto the cedar planks that were emanating forth their lovely aroma as the hot licks from our barbeque caressed their bottom.
I knowingly looked over at Bess and said, “I’m gonna go see what’s keeping up with the Joneses.”
Bess smiled genuinely warmly and said, “If all goes well, invite them for dessert. I would love to get to know them better.”
I sauntered over next door around the manicured hedged lines of my property and made my way over to 22 South Shamrock Street. The home of the Joneses.
I cleared my throat and reluctantly made my way to the backyard given that there was not exactly a welcoming committee in the front of the property.
I could smell something barbecued for sure, but it smelled sort of wrong somehow..like it was plastic or toxic. It’s hard to explain, but no frozen steak or meat I had ever bought smelled like that stuff, I can assure you.
I reluctantly opened up the wooden barrier door and sheepishly entered my neighbor’s back yard. Sure enough, there was the husband, larger than life smile plastered on his face tendering to whatever mystery meat was cooking aplenty on his gas-powered barbeque.
I didn’t want to startle him in mid cooking session so I just sort of approached the edge of the barbeque.
He turned around and looked at me, smile not wavering in the least. He wore a white apron and casually flipped some sort of meat without actually regarding it. His hair was perfect, like almost one piece of chocolate, similar to Davey in those Davey and Goliath religious Claymation cartoons from the seventies.
He stared at me and I stared at him. We didn’t say anything. Van Cleef and Eastwood. Meat cooking. Heat beating on our brows. Sweat forming down our sides.
I broke the ice, or heat as it were. “I’m Steve. Your neighbor, Number 24.”
His mouth opened after what seemed like an eternity. “Oh Hi, hello..nice to meet you,” and extended an arm.
I accepted his handshake, limp as it was.
“So,” I started.. then I smelled something burning. I peered over and noticed that his hotdogs had become sticks of ash.
“I kinda think those puppies are done.”
He looked at me with miscomprehension for a moment and the quickly said, “Oh yes, of course..you’re right!” and transferred them to a blue plastic plate courtesy of your nearest Dollar Tree.
Man, Bess was right. They were weird.
“That’s okay,” he chuckled, “We like them close to raw.”
“They’re far from raw,” I commented. “Pretty well charred.”
He shrugged and looked about nervously. “Well charred …..raw, all the same difference.” Not a hair went out of place.
“You have kids?”
“None actually,” he replied, deadpan, still smiling.
I coughed into my fist. “So..um.. what’s your name again?”
He smiled warmly. “Mike. Mike Jones.”
“Mike…what do you do for a living?”
His wife came out through a sliding door to their patio wearing a pretty flowered summer dress, hair perfectly coiffed and nails perfectly pink and manicured. Bess was right, she was pretty. Like model pretty. She had an hourglass figure and three hundred watt smile to boot. She handed a plate of corn on the cob over to her hubbie.
I nodded at her. She didn’t say a word.
Mike began putting the corn on the already overheated barbeque as he said, “Me and Jessica work for We R Toyz.”
I was interested. “Oh yeah, that new toy place in the mall?”
“The very same,” he replied.
I scratched my head. “I’m sure the kids will love it. Great addition to the mall. I work there too. Small world. What do you do there?”
“Marketing,” he replied, ignoring eye contact.
As he tended to the newly burning corn, I felt that my brief stay was somehow overwelcomed. “Okay,” I said, “Um..if you guys want to come by for dessert, we’d love to have you. Kinda having a barbecue of our own.”
His perm-a-smile never wavered. “Thanks but we like to retire early,” he said.
I stood there like an idiot and nodded and made my way back over to my neck of the woods, not bothering to formally say goodbye.
When I got back to my home I was inundated with questions about the Joneses, from Bess, from Taylor, less from Chet, Chad, Chomp, whatever the hell the flavor the week was, but I was not saying anything until I knew the facts. Right now, they seemed to be a perfectly ordinary suburban couple with some weird demeanor. Like “Leave It To Beaver” on acid.
“Listen, just leave them alone,” I lectured. “Everybody has their own..style I guess and just because their style doesn’t mesh with ours doesn’t mean we have to be judgmental. I’m sure they are very nice people.”
“People said Ted Bundy was nice,” uttered Chet/Chad/whatever. I gave him a stony glaze and said nothing.
We finished our barbeque and then enjoyed the previously frozen Cheesecake Factory lemon cheesecake and never mentioned the Joneses again..for the night.
The next morning, Sunday, my other neighbor, Harvey was up and about weed whacking before most human beings were alive. Rumor has it that he had this old Great Dane that was so old it had its his own seeing eye dog, but that’s a whole separate story.
With crust still in my eyes and in my AC/DC pajama bottoms, I made my way over to the Joneses to see what the weirdos were up to this fine morn.
I must say I was a bit surprised.
Mike Jones was stretched out on a recliner chair wearing a loud red Hawaiian shirt and blue bathing trunks (no pool, mind you) with his bare feet sticking out in front of him. He had a wide grin on his face as he looked up at the blazing sun, chocolate hair showing no signs of melting.
His wife Jessica was also outside, fully dressed at 8:00 a.m. and was placing clothes on a line with wooden pegs, some of which were stuck in her smiling mouth. The clothes almost looked like a solid piece, as if the starch had rendered them made of iron.
Mike looked over at me and didn’t say a word. He smiled, bright as ever and just looked at me with unblinking eyes. I knew in my heart of hearts he wasn’t going to say anything until I did first. So I said:
“Hey Mike, how was your first night?”
He sat upright from the recliner, smile not wavering in the least and said, “Oh fine neighbor..just fine.”
I waved at Jessica. She looked at me and kept on smiling. Did not wave back.
“Anything I can help you with?”
He rested back on the recliner. “Oh no, everything is just perfect,” was his response.
Yeah. Too perfect, I thought.
Then I saw the thing.
Quite simple, black ink right there smack dab in the middle on the sole of his left foot that read “Made in Taiwan”.
I couldn’t help but chuckle which caused Mike to channel his attention from the sun to my unshaven face.
He said nothing.
“Sorry,” I said nervously, “Just thought of something funny last night is all.”
He continued his permanent smile and gave me a mock salute.
I wished him well and made my way back to my humble abode.
The next day, Monday morning, I was in full swing at Best Buy and getting geared up for our full day of retail. Nonetheless, my mind kept straying from work and went to thinking about the Joneses, almost obsessing over them.
Lunch time came and I decided to saunter to the other end of the mall and see if I could catch my neighbor in action at We R Toyz, or was that a bullshit cover story for their alternate life as serial killers?
I walked up and down the aisles, admiring the typical stuff – Lego “Pirates of the Caribbean” sets, Barbie and Ken dream houses, bicycles galore and more video games any kid could imagine. Then I saw this worker bee driving a motorized forklift carrying a skid with a ton of day-glo green boxes on them. Huge ones.
Perking my interest, I took at a gander at the new product line.
There in each box with clear plastic covers were my neighbors…at least 20 of them …life size, staring off into space and motionless as any other action figure would be.
After shaking the cobwebs from my shocked brain, I read the label:
HERE IT IS KIDS
FINALLY! A life sized doll just like your own neighbors! Jessica and Mike Jones will mow the lawn, cook dinner and babysit! Ask them anything and they will respond. 32 A batteries not included.
I tapped the worker on the shoulder as he laboriously lifted each box onto a display rack.
“Hey buddy, how much are these?”
Wiping his brow he said, “$ 350 each. Selling like hotcakes. We can’t keep enough in stock. Some families even buy ‘em to be like nannies and stuff. Crazy.”
Crazy just doesn’t even cut it, I thought.
When I was driving home that night, I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm in check. I guess the dolls didn’t like being cooped up in an abandoned store after hours, so why shouldn’t they have a life too, right? That explained their weirdness, their reluctance to engage in conversation, the plastic hair, food and clothes..everything.
As soon as I opened the door, Bess said, “The Joneses are gone.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
“Yup, the movers came back today and they are gonzoes! What did you say to them yesterday exactly?”
I grinned widely. Not gone honey… sold.
© Copyright 2016 Steve Balsky. All rights reserved.