Across the Street
By Troy Seate
The Johnsons lived across the street while I was growing up. In their backyard was an old, defunct refrigerator. As it lay rusting, it reminded me of King Tut’s sarcophagus covered with marshmallow wrap.
Mr. Johnson was a bit creepy. I’d just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, so my mind was wired for the strange or unusual. Whenever he looked at me from across the street with that kind of hollow-eyed stare, I felt like someone was walking over my grave.
When not in the mood to read, I enjoyed sitting on the steps of our small front porch if the evening was warm enough. While my parents watched their favorite TV programs inside, I took pleasure in tuning my trusty transistor radio’s knob to a DJ who spun the Top 20 platters for all of us groovy teens out there in radio-land.
My eyes occasionally strayed to the Johnson house and the comatose, rusting behemoth in their yard. For a thirteen-year-old boy, wondering if anything was inside added more spice to a summer night than could a science-fiction novel or my radio.
One night, I watched Mr. Johnson walk from his house toward his icebox. I slunk back into the corner of my porch, hoping to become invisible, lest the night-stalking Johnson turn his demon gaze on an innocent youth just starting to learn about life.
He stopped in front of the fridge and began talking to it. The conversation between him and the appliance seemed eerily personal. He placed his hands on top of the door like he was standing over a …gulp…coffin. Goose bumps erupted on my arms.
The lid rose with a crypt-like squawk that cried out for oil. He looked at whatever was inside for a few moments then he looked up at the moon.
Gee whilakers, I thought. What could be inside? Do I really want to know?
Then the lid closed. Johnson wandered back inside his house.
My Mom and Dad sat in their respective chairs staring at the TV.
“Dad?” I called.
No response. They were lost in the world of Lawrence Welk and Myron Floran playing Lady of Spain on dueling accordions?
“Dad!” I said louder. “Weirdo Mr. Johnson was in his yard talking to the refrigerator.” I saw the top of my father’s head turn slightly.
“That’s nice,” he answered.
“Don’t you think it’s awfully weird? I mean, you know, having a conversation with a rusty old appliance?”
“They don’t bother us, Troy. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
That was my Dad’s favorite expression, but I thought the man across the street conducting services under a full moon was big stuff, at least for our little block. I shrugged my shoulders and went to my room just as The Lennon Sisters fired up into song.
My mind was in overdrive. My time had come to step outside my comfort zone, way outside. Time to face a moral dilemma—to trespass or not to trespass? I had to find out what was in that refrigerator.
My chance came on a night when my parents went out to play cards. Even before they cleared the street corner, I formulated my plan. What if I end up inside that darned refrigerator with whatever’s in there? My parents would come home and…no more Troy.
No guts, no glory.
I bided my time. I waited until the lights in the back part of the Johnson’s manse went dark. For better or worse, I started across the street toward no-man’s land, traversing the distance in a quick moving crouch, the way Army guys did in the movies. I stopped where a chain-link fence separated the Johnson’s yard from their neighbor, pleased that no spotlights had suddenly come on or that I hadn’t set off invisible air raid sirens. I heaved myself over the fence, landing safely on enemy soil.
No yapping dogs or loud televisions. No turning back now. The dead fridge and the mysteries within were a mere fifteen feet away.
I duck-walked toward the white whale, my tennis shoes swishing through overgrown grass. “Be quick,” I told myself. “Lift, look, leave.” I maneuvered into position. My hand crawled toward the silver handle. My fingers closed around the cool metal.
Another hand joined mine. It was not my other hand.
My mouth became an oval. My insides tightened up like a basket full of ribbon snakes. With my heart in my throat, I let go of the handle and turned. Mr. Johnson hovered over me. My eyes turned into saucers. I levitated from shear fright. The hulk stared while I gaped back. I was shaking in my rubber soles.
“What’s going on here?” his voice boomed.
I threw my back against the refrigerator and rolled over the door onto the other side, away from the man looking for an escape. But Mr. Johnson was trotting toward me in a pincer-like movement.
I screamed like a banshee and ran to the closest section of chain-link. I scrambled up and over just ahead of Johnson’s clutches. I ran like the wind to the safety of my side of the street.
I made a beeline for the bathroom to see if my hair had turned white.
Dare I tell my parents what I had done? When the time came, I clammed up, but would I ever find out what was inside that you-know-what?
My story ends where it began—with the refrigerator. A year later, the Johnsons moved. When the real estate company came to haul away the rusty hulk, I had my final chance at discovery. The monstrosity was turned on its side and dumped. Inside was a foot of soil laden with earthworms. I guess Mr. Johnson used them as bait, but still, I couldn’t forget that he talked to them. Maybe it wasn’t so weird since I had talked to my goldfish upon occasion.
As an adult, I took a course in forensics because I liked the idea that noticing little details and being nosy could have a purpose. I gained insights from the study of minutia without jumping fences. I’ve learned that small stuff can prove to be very big stuff indeed. And, by the way, my hairline may have receded, but at least my follicles haven’t as yet turned white.