TW: discussion of racist and xenophobic views
Disclaimer: My character's views and opinions DO NOT match my own.
Mark spat a stream of Skoal Straight as he shook his head. His narrowed blue eyes were fixed, hawklike, on the moving van unpacking across the street. The man wore a gaudy orange turban, and his wife wore a pale pink outfit that looked like pyjamas. He wondered what suspicious items his new neighbours likely had, based on their appearance. A Koran, no doubt. Maybe they were the type to make bombs. You never knew with those people.
Straightening the brim of his bright red hat, he muttered and grumbled to himself under his breath and stepped back into his house from the porch. To be doubly sure he'd be safe, he locked his door.
Back when he’d been a boy, you never felt the need to lock your front door. You knew your neighbours, and they knew you. What’s more, they all looked like you, none of this diversity crap. Who knew where the hell these people had come from. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt? He liked the familiarity of seeing his neighbours and knowing exactly where they came from. Janice on the corner came from Texas, and had bleach blonde hair. Paul, to his left? Idaho. Mark's own ancestry could be traced back to early British colonists. His grandpappy had farmed this land back when it was just a one horse town. He liked to say to people that his roots were old as America itself, and didn’t take kindly to Democrat snowflakes insisting that it was the Native's land. Bullcrap.
Trudging to his bedroom, he unlocked his gun case and brought out his Glock. Taking it apart, he cleaned it meticulously, then reassembled it. The gun was a comfortable weight in his hand. There really wasn’t anything like it. He remembered the day his dad had let him shoot at tin cans the first time, the rush of power and glee that had filled him. Screw that saying, “like a kid in a candy store”. It should be like a kid with a shotgun.
"Just imagine them cans are terrorists," his father instructed. They'd driven past the city to a secluded clearing, covered with red and yellow leaves to set up a makeshift shooting range. "It'll improve you aim."
The can of tomatoes became a suicide bomber. The creamed corn, a Nazi.
Mark had fired, locking his arms.
The can pinged, and his father had clapped him on the back, forcing Mark forward a step.
"That's it, son!"
Instead of fairy tales about Hansel and Gretel, or the Rumpelstiltskin, Mark had grown up listening to stories about how other countries couldn't be trusted. Russians? Communists. Germans? Fascists. The whole Middle East? Terrorists. Mexicans? Criminals. He'd drank it in, internalizing an ideology he only half understood as a child.
Time whittled these impressions into sharper, monstrous figures. Just watch the news. It all made sense. When his father's body had come back from Lebanon in a wooden box, it had been the proverbial nail in the coffin. America first. You couldn't trust anyone else.
Bringing his own son to the shooting range hadn't been nearly as successful as those outings with his father. Christopher had terrible aim, and emitted sharp hiccups of panic whenever the kickback knocked his shoulder. He never had gotten Chris to like shooting, and after a few trips he’d sullenly given up trying. Throwing around a baseball and fishing had also been abysmal failures. Every link, every connection he had with his father, and Chris couldn’t be bothered. Instead, the boy had liked reading. Star Wars. Dinosaurs, of all the ridiculous things.
When Ben had come along, he’d had a second chance at passing down his father's legacy to someone who would appreciate them. Mark had never stopped loving Chris, of course, but there was a distance in their relationship. They just never had all that much in common.
After loading his gun, he plopped down in a rocking chair on his porch, armed. With a clipboard. He was going to write down every suspicious thing those neighbours did, and then he’d have his proof. They’d either be evicted, arrested, or run out of the neighbourhood. Personally, he was crossing his fingers for an arrest. The idea of being a vigilante had always appealed to him.
He spent the next week glued to his porch, only leaving his post to eat, sleep, and watch Fox News.
There wasn’t much activity with the new neighbours. On Sunday, the woman had come home with groceries. He’d cursed, wishing he’d brought some binoculars. All he could make out was that she had a half dozen plastic bags, and she’d walked there and back. He noted the quiver in her arms as she’d fumbled for her keys, dropping them before scooping them up to unlock the door. Instantly on the alert, he flashed back to news stories of women carrying bombs in innocuous baskets, innocently overlooked until fateful detonations.
Mapping out the route to the nearest grocery store on a paper map, he saw the nearest grocery store was seven blocks away. Huh, he’d thought. It was probably just the distance making her arms tremble, not a guilty conscience. It didn’t look like she had the muscle to make that trip comfortably. He felt a small twinge of sympathy for her. That evaporated as quickly as it had come, and he wondered why the husband wasn’t helping her. Lazy.
The next day, he spied a little girl playing on their front lawn. Her sky blue clothes flashed in his peripherals as he pretended to read a Louis L’Amour book. High pitched giggles reached his ears, and he couldn’t help the slow, lopsided grin that crossed his face. He had many fond memories of Chris and Ben, when they'd been that small.
The mother came out, and the pair of them scrawled and scribbled on the sidewalk, covering it with chalk drawings.
On a whim later in the day when they’d gone inside, he walked by to see what they’d drawn. Flowers and happy faces and rainbows. It was remarkably normal. Just like something Janice’s girls might have drawn.
“Huh,” he mumbled, and continued on his way.
After a few weeks, he began to leave his clipboard behind on the kitchen table. He read the Louis L'Amour book, instead of using it as a prop. The only things on his list were:
- Not very neighbourly
- Suspicious clothing
- Always home. Why??
Soon, the clipboard began to be covered up with mail, grocery lists, and newspapers.
On Fridays', his sons always came to have dinner. It had been that way, ever since they’d moved out. Mark knew that part of it was pity: they came by because they knew how lonely he was since the divorce. He relished their visits anyway. Since Mira had left him, he’d learned how to cook. He’d resented it at first. But soon, he’d discovered he was damn good at cooking steaks, chili, pretty much any meat-and-potatoes style meal. In the year after she’d left him, he’d gained a good twenty pounds and came to the conclusion Mira had been a piss poor cook.
This Friday, he’d marinated a few steaks and prepped some corn and potatoes to roast alongside them. Humming under his breath, he fired up the barbecue and waited impatiently for his family to arrive.
At 6:05 pm, he checked his watch. They were late. He scratched the stubble on the side of his jaw. That wasn’t like them.
Ten minutes later, Chris’s Cruze pulled up into the drive and he walked out to meet them.
“About bloody time,” he called out to the car, only half joking, when he caught sight of the woman in the front seat and froze. He’d known Chris had started dating someone, but Chris had left out that she was black.
Chris went around the car and opened the passenger door, half turning to wave at Mark. “Sorry, Dad. Traffic. We tried to beat the rush.” Ben got out of the backseat, casually chatting with the woman about something as the trio walked.
Mark was at a complete loss for words. Pasting on a smile, he welcomed them in through the front door. He couldn’t seem to stop staring at Jessica. He’d had about a dozen conversations with Chris about her, and this had never come up. Not once. He knew that Chris called her Jess, that she was a paralegal, that she had a dog that shed a ridiculous amount of hair. But not this. He felt betrayed.
“Well,” Mark fumbled, retightening the strings of his apron. “I’d better check on the steaks.”
“I’ll help you out, Dad.” Chris gave Jessica’s arm a reassuring squeeze, and then he followed Mark outside.
Mark poked at the meat, eyes downcast and distant.
“I know what you’re thinking, but—“ Chris started.
“You don’t. Why did you lie to me?” Mark erupted, wheeling to look at his son. His voice was thick with betrayal. His own son didn’t trust him.
“Dad, you know you’re not exactly … It’s just that … ’ Chris stumbled over his words, aiming but not quite coming up with a sugarcoated synonym for what he really meant. That he thought his father was racist.
“Let’s just drop it, yeah.” It didn’t come out as a question.
“I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Carrying the meal back into the house on a couple of plates, Mark set things down on the dining table. It was still a mess of papers, spice jars, and a stray ammo box, and he apologized stiffly about the clutter.
Jessica and Ben set to work clearing things off, uncovering the clipboard in the process. Seeing it, Mark tried to grab it and put it facedown on the counter, but Ben was too quick, picking it up. “What’s this, Dad?”
Mark could feel his face going red. He wasn’t ashamed of it, but he didn’t want them poking through his things either.
“Not very neighbourly, suspicious clothing, bombers, always at home,” Ben read slowly, a puzzled expression on his face. “What the hell is this?”
“Some people moved in, across the street,” he said tersely. “None of your business, I’m just keeping a record of things.”
“A record of what,” Chris piped in, coming out of the kitchen with a handful of cutlery.
“Nothing, nothing,” Mark insisted.
“Dad’s spying on the neighbours,” Ben said. “Why’s that, Pops?”
“I just thought they looked suspicious.”
“So you’ve written,” Ben replied, tapping the clipboard.
He felt trapped, judged. “Well so what if I did,” he said hotly. “It’s my neighbourhood. I have to protect it from those people.”
“Those people?” Jessica echoed, bitterly. Her posture turned defensive: crossed arms, tensed muscles.
“No, I didn’t mean you,” Mark back-peddled, feeling like throwing his hands up in exasperation. Why couldn’t they just get it?
“I think we should leave,” Chris said.
“That’s not necessary. Stay, I want you to stay.”
“Nah, Dad. Maybe next week. I think we’d better go.” Jessica and Chris left, deaf to Mark’s protests. He shot a pleading look at Ben, but Ben only shrugged and gave him a half smile.
“Sorry, but they're my ride. I gotta go too.”
Mark listened to the front door click shut, standing alone in his dining room with enough food to feed a small army. He lashed out, a guttural scream rising in his throat, flipping the table. Steaks, glasses, and the last few bills that hadn't been cleared away fell to the floor, and he stood panting in the wreckage of his family night.
Three Friday’s passed, and his sons hadn't come by. They always had an excuse: Ben’s boss had asked him to work late, Chris had been asked by a neighbour to house sit, last minute tickets to a concert had been gifted to them. Mark knew they were lying. They just didn’t want to come round.
On the fourth Friday, he held out hope. Surely they’d forgiven him by now. It hadn’t been anything! For Christ’s sake, move on.
But when 6:30 rolled around, he knew they were standing him up again. Checking his phone, he saw a couple of texts, apologies for not being able to make it.
Sitting down heavily on his porch, he looked to see what the neighbours were up to. Their lights were on, the curtains partly drawn. He saw the little girl in the window, peering curiously at him. He held his hand up to her, a greeting, and chuckled at her wild waves back.
Screw it, he thought to himself, and went back in to set his table with four places. Then, he marched out of his home, across the street, until he was standing in front of his new neighbour’s front door. Steeling himself, he gave a few brisk raps with the back of his knuckles.
The little girl opened the door, her hair a dark brown cloud.
“Hello,” he said, “can you go get your parents?’
“Sure,” she said, blinking up at him. She hadn’t moved yet.
“Are they home?” he questioned, trying to be polite.
“Angela, who’s at the door?" he heard someone say from within the house. The father came into view. Today, his turban was a deep indigo.
“Hello, I’m your neighbour. From across the street.” He pointed, feeling ridiculous as he did so. Of course they would know that, he'd been out on the porch so often. “Would you like to come over and have dinner?”
“How kind. Yes, that sounds good.”
Mark smiled, a little awkwardly but broadly. The little girl, Angela, slipped her tiny hand in his as they walked across the street, skipping and singing to herself. Her smile was infectious, and during the meal whenever Mark felt stalled for topics, he would ask her a question. He got to know them, and they got know him. By the end of the evening, he felt a little embarrassed of his earlier suspicions and paranoia. The Amir’s hadn't lived up to them.
As the evening wound down, Mark desperately tried to keep the conversation going. It had been so long since he’d talked to someone in person, and he didn’t want them to leave. Eventually, they got to talking about his sons, and what had happened. He remained vague about the details, of course, but confided that he and his sons were having a disagreement over opinions.
“Just apologize. A genuine apology can fix any wound, no matter how deep,” Hakim said. His serene attitude and confidence bestowed an authority to his words.
“What if I didn’t do anything wrong?” Mark asked.
Hakim considered him for a long while, and smiled. “I don’t think you believe that. It’s hard, I know. Admitting you’re wrong. But sometimes, it’s necessary.”
Mark turned those words over in his mind, long after the Amir’s had left, thanking him profusely for dinner. Sitting alone in his armchair, he concluded it was the only option. His joints creaked as he got out of his La-Z-Boy, and he walked over to his landline.
Dialing his son’s number, he rehearsed what he was going to say, nervous as a kid asking out a girl to a junior high dance. Would Chris accept his apology? Or would he spend the rest of his life being some sad old curmudgeon, never getting to go to Chris’s wedding, or meet his future grandchildren? Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he desperately wanted some chew, but he was tethered by the phone cord and his Skoal was out of reach.
He waited for the beep, and began. “You were right. I’m sorry, Chris.” He continued on, telling Chris about meeting the Amir’s, apologizing for offending Jess. Halfway through, Chris picked up the phone. They talked for the next hour, mending fences and catching up on a month’s worth of news. By the time he hung up, Mark’s face ached from smiling so much. Chris had promised to come by tomorrow, and to bring Jess.
Plucking the MAGA hat off his head, he spun it around his pointer finger idly. After a good deal of consideration, he put it back in his closet, and brought out his dusty grandfather's John Deere hat instead. A change might be nice.