Stoop by X.C. Atkins

Freddie stood behind his dirty screen door, staring out onto the street. Bunch of quiet. Everybody’s inside, Freddie thought. Where they oughta be, unless they had a pool. It was summer time. Way too hot. All it did was make people crazy. But really, he knew the real reason why the street was empty. These were the new days.

     He shook the cubes of ice in his Crown and Seven, his long black fingers curling around the glass like spider legs. He toed open the screen door, all matted with dirt and pollen, and stepped out onto his stoop. 

     He was in the shadow of his shotgun but even so the humidity wrapped around him thick. With a lot of grunting, clutching on the rail, he slowly lowered his butt down to take a seat. 

     “Ooh,” he said. 

     The stairs, once a vibrant green, were dusty and faded and chipping bad. He looked right, next door to him. That house had been boarded up for years now. Vines grew all over it and the boards that were nailed to the windows bore faded spray paint. On the roof, flowers bloomed. Somebody might mistake them for being pretty, but he knew they were weed flowers, so he didn’t like them.

     Sometimes, he had a hard time remembering who used to live there. At last he would recall. Danny Wheeler and his family. He hadn’t any inkling as to where they’d ended up. He wished one day they would just reappear, car pulling a trailer, all kinds of stuff pressed up on the windows. He wondered if he’d recognize Danny’s kids. If they would recognize him.  I don’t look so much different, Freddie thought to himself. He took a grip of his belly fat. He took another sip from his drink.

     He heard a door push open a few doors down and across the street.  One of the houses getting all the repair in the past months. Heavy renovation. Brand new paint. Bars on the windows. Freddie would bet a shot of Old Granddad the floors were glossier than a motherfucker. All that repair, and he hadn’t recognized a single soul.  Coming out of the door, a pale man with straw hair holding a briefcase. His head leaned down on his shoulder and a cell phone was lodged between. Freddie could just barely hear him talking. The man locked the door behind him, then the screen door, before stepping down onto the sidewalk. He walked up the block, towards Freddie. As he passed Freddie, he smiled and held up a hand. Freddie stared at the man hard and returned no motion. The man got into a shiny car and started it and drove away. 

     Freddie lingered on his stoop about a half an hour longer. The only other person to pass was a young boy on a bike, shirtless, onyx skin glistening in the sun. It was a very nice bicycle the boy rode. Freddie didn’t waste any wondering about stuff like that anymore. He got back up with some grunting and went back into his house to make himself another Crown and Seven. Maybe play a record or two.

*

A white and black taxi cab cruised down the wrecked street of the neighborhood at a leisurely pace. A dumb glossy beetle bumping along. When it stopped, a young woman stepped out. Blond hair, the ends pink. She wore a backpack, and pulled a rolling suitcase behind her. The cab left. She looked up and down the block, smiling. Down the block, she saw an older black man sitting on a stoop holding a glass. He was staring back at her. He stood up slowly, holding onto a rail, and returned to his house. Now she was completely alone. She stepped up the stoop, took some more looks up and down the block, and picked out a key from the soil of a hanging flower pot. The door was a bright purple. The window shutters were yellow. She almost laughed. She unlocked the door to the house and stepped inside. The air conditioning was running and the lights were off but she could see from the light coming through the blinds that there was a note on the table, just as she’d been informed. She closed the door behind her, locking it.

*

That first afternoon in town, the young woman discovered a coffee shop just a few blocks away from the house she was staying in. It didn’t take her long to fall into conversation with people. She’d always been easy to talk to. Her parents loved to tell stories of her walking up to complete strangers in airports and striking up conversations. It had carried on into her adult life, though of course she’d had to become more cautious. 

     She was gathering information about the neighborhood. Off of a recommendation, she checked out Frenchman Street later that evening. It was a weekday but there were enough people out to warrant walking in the streets. Food and music filled the air. Open guitar cases with dollar bills and coins. People sipping from to go cups and makeshift tables for street poets and their typewriters. She stepped into a bar to listen in on a band. She applauded with everyone when they finished a set. A bearded fellow came by with an empty coffee can afterwards and a smile on his face. She added a couple of dollars to it. He gave her a small bow. 

     New Orleans is so charming, she texted a friend back home.

     She didn’t stay out too late, still tired from the flight, but the next morning she returned to the coffee shop. The place had some real characters. One of them: a young cute guy from Omaha she’d talked to the previous day. He had a habit of breaking into song whenever he deemed appropriate. It embarrassed her terribly at first, but hardly anyone seemed to turn a head when it kept happening, so she assumed they were all already quite used to his antics. After the third song, he invited her to watch him play later that night. He made her laugh and she was winging the trip anyway, so yeah, sure, she told him. She’d come by. 

     She was on the phone texting her mother how much fun she was having as she turned onto her temporary block. As she did, she saw the older black man she’d seen the first day, pulling a large ladder off his truck. He seemed to be struggling. She rushed up to help him with the opposite end. His eyes met hers with suspicion initially, but once he settled on her intent, the look relented. He wiped his brow and muttered, “Appreciate ya.”

     He unlocked a wonky door and they hobbled through a narrow alleyway on the side of his shotgun, into the backyard. They set the ladder up against a tiny Tim Burton shed. In the yard, near the back entrance, there was a life size statue of an angel. The eyes had no pupils. Freddie wiped his brow again and put his hand to his hip, exhaling, staring at the ground. The young woman chewed her bottom lip, standing there.

     “Care for an ice tea or a beer?” he asked her.

     It was hardly past noon. 

     “Sure. I’ll take a beer,” she said.

     They sat on the stoop, drinking a couple of High Lifes. “I’m Freddie,” he said.

     “Andrea. Nice to meet you, Freddie.”

     She shook the hand he held out. She could feel the bones in his hand. “Likewise.”

     “I’m visiting,” she told him.

     “Oh, I figured as much.”

     “You lived here long, Freddie?”

     “All my life.”

     They drank their beer, looking out on the street. A car passed by, bobbing along. Their beer bottles sweat onto their laps. 

     “Do you do carpentry, Freddie?”

     “Yeah. Stuff like that.”

     “My dad’s kind of a handy man.”

     “Oh yeah?” Freddie said.

     "Yeah. The last house we lived in, where my parents retired, it was this big house that had all these things wrong with it. My dad called it a fixer upper. I was just a kid, so of course I thought it was a pile of junk. It was just an old house. But being retired, my dad had all this time to actually fix it up. He liked the work and in the end did a great job. Everyone on the block could see the difference. So instead of hiring other people, they asked him. Can you do this, can you do that. I guess he got kind of famous. On the block anyway. I bet you’re kind of famous around here, huh?”

     “Naw. I just know people,” Freddie said, tipping his beer back.

     They sat there some moments longer, drinking their beers. Andrea finished and thanked Freddie for it.

     “I’ll be your neighbor for the rest of the week. That house right there. Doing the Air BnB thing.”

     “Is that what they calling all that?” Freddy asked.

     “The houses you can rent. From owners. Yeah.”

     “From owners. Huh.”

     “A lot cheaper than hotels and you get to be in the cool neighborhoods. It’s pretty great.” She stood up. “So I’ll see you around, right, Freddie?”

     “Guess so,” he said. 

     She waved as she walked back to her house. Freddie nodded.

*

     Freddie was watching that boy riding his bicycle again. He wondered where the other kids were. He didn’t wonder long. He remembered himself as a kid, playing in the streets. Playing stickball. Playing til the sun came down. His uncle barbequing. Mom and aunt and sisters on the stoop, talking and talking. Music up loud, no one seemed to mind, it was just how it was, as natural as cicadas. His older brother had just bought a new car. He’d wash it every Sunday. Gave Freddie a beating that one time he hit it playing stickball, right in front of everyone. But Freddie knew he’d deserved it. He knew he’d hit the car on purpose. He loved his older brother.

     At least once a day that week, Andrea would catch Freddie sitting on that stoop, staring off. She’d approach him gingerly and he’d blink, lost in some child-like reverie, and then he’d nod to her and she’d sit down and maybe he’d say something about what he was looking at but mostly he did not.

     “It’s my last night,” Andrea told him. “Going to a big show on St. Claude. The music here has really been so great. We just don’t have it like this at home.”

     “It’s special here. In New Orleans. Always has been.”

     “Man. To have grown up here. I bet that was really something. All the things you’ve seen come along,” Andrea said.

     He sat there a long time after she left. It was that time of year. The sun was taking longer to come down.

     Freddie was really tying one on that night. He was playing his records loud. He knew he didn’t have to care about anybody complaining. Not as long as they didn’t Bnb ole Danny’s place. He took a swig of his plastic cap whiskey and chased it with a freshly popped can of beer. He stomped his feet, stumbled through his house, pacing, looking at the framed pictures on his wall like he hadn’t seen them in years. He felt like everyone was right on the verge of being with him again. He waited for someone to knock on his screen door. He picked up his cordless phone, looking at the numbers, seeingfamiliar faces rippling in the pool of his mind, just to trickle away. The phone fell from his hand, clattering across his empty dinner table.

     He’d fallen asleep with his head in his hand at the dinner table. He’d become some kind of master at being a statue. Just waiting for the pigeons. He could hear someone outside. The candle he’d lit earlier was out but the door was still ajar, just the screen door shut. He stood up, shaky, bracing himself on the chair, scuttling up to the door. From the dark, he peered out into the street from behind the screen. 

     Down the block he could just make her out. Blondie. Andrea. The street was very dark, but who else could it be. Her hair almost seemed to glow. Freddie nearly smiled.

     Then he heard someone else. 

     “Give me your money, bitch.”

     Freddie could tell the man was young. Maybe wasn’t even a man yet. But he couldn’t see anything besides Andrea. Could only see her turn around and put her hands up. He saw the man step from the shadows, his arm held up, pointing something at her. Freddie didn’t need to guess what. She handed over her purse. He lowered the hand holding the gun, and struck her with the other hand. Freddie could hear the impact. Hear her gasp. The dark figure dashed back into the night. Freddie could hear her sobbing. She’d fallen unto her knees. When she finally stood, she turned around. She was looking towards his direction. Like she could see in the dark. He closed his door as softly as he could, and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. He just then noticed the record still spinning on the turntable, the needle long since lifted.

 

 

About the Author: X.C. Atkins writes, works, and lives in New Orleans. He has a B.A. in English from Virginia Commonwealth University. His work can be found in Annalemma, Richmond Noir, Whole Beast Rag, as well as other publications. He’s presently working on a graphic novel about spirit animals living in a post-apocalyptic world that dream of their human counterparts.