Chapter 12: Heat
Darrell enjoyed the task—he couldn’t honestly call it a chore—of cleaning the deck around the pool. His hose nozzle had a number of different settings—flat, cone, spray, jet, shower, who knew what they were all for—and it was kind of fun to find the exactly right setting for each little part of the job. Leaves and maple keys, the spray; grass clippings, flat; birdshit, jet. The jet was particularly satisfying but it was just too small to do the whole deck.
He was using the cone to shoo a late-season junebug away from the pool when he heard a noise behind him. He couldn’t stop what he was doing, though; if the junebug fell into the pool he would have to get the skimmer out, and skimming the pool was his least favourite job in the backyard. It was probably just a neighbour or someone, coming through the gate.
When the bug was thoroughly soaked and writhing submissively on the grass, he let go of the hose trigger and turned. “Oh, hi, Keith,” he said. “Didn’t see you there.”
“Hey. Hope I’m not...”
“Nah. Just cleaning the deck.”
“I rang the bell, but I figured—”
“Sure, sure. Sherrie’s out. Glad you came back to look for me.”
“I heard the hose, so...”
Darrell chuckled. “Feel like I’m working for the pool, these days. S’posed to be the other way round, isn’t it?”
Keith gave him a wan smile but seemed distracted by some small, wispy clouds off in the distance.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Darrell said, and started coiling the hose up. Might as well leave it there, he decided.
“Haven’t seen you either,” Keith said.
Darrell looked up in surprise; Keith’s voice had a strained, pointed quality that he wasn’t expecting. Keith was looking away again, though. Strange.
“Well,” Darrell said, placing the half-coiled hose on the deck at the edge of the pool. “What say I grab us a coupla beers, then?”
He paused before he answered. “’Kay.”
“Have a seat. Be right out.”
Keith looked slightly more relaxed when Darrell got back. He lay in one of the chaises, his eyes closed. Darrell set the two bottles, already perspiring in the heat, on the little table and lay back in the other chaise, right next to Keith. That way, he figured, they could both stare off into the distance together.
“You need some sunscreen?” Darrell offered. Keith’s legs were pretty pasty, though the sun had been blazing or weeks.
“Apparently, a lot of people get really bad sunburns on their feet. People don’t think to protect them, and the skin’s real thin there.”
“Read it in Reader’s Digest.”
Darrell took a good, deep swig of beer. Christ, it had gotten hot.
“Doesn’t look like you got much sun so far this year, anyway,” Darrell went on. He was going to run out of things to say, soon, if Keith insisted on clamming up this way.
“I’m not much of a sun person.”
At once, Darrell figured it out. Keith wasn’t pissed off for some strange, obscure reason; he was just nervous. It made sense now. Just need to get him out of his shell a little.
“You and Lisa should come over more often,” he said, deliberately cheerful. “Nothing beats a late afternoon swim.”
“Could just throw some burgers on the grill and whatnot. No invitation required. Just come on over.”
There. He was warming up a little. No use dancing around all day; he’d just ask.
“So have you talked to Lisa about maybe making a tape together some time?”
Keith’s head snapped around to glare at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean—” Darrell started, then stopped to think about their last conversation. Keith had said he wanted to join in their circle, didn’t he? And he said he’d see if Lisa would agree—that’s where they had left the issue, definitely.
Well, people were strange about this kind of thing. Maybe he’d talked it over with Lisa and she’d turned the idea down flat, and now he was embarrassed about it. Or maybe she’d reacted really badly, and now Keith was pissed with him for suggesting it.
But Keith had come into his yard, was drinking his beer. It was his job to explain his problem, if he had one. No need to dance around like this.
“I mean,” Darrell continued, after a long swig of beer, “we were talking about you and Lisa making a tape together, and you said you’d bring it up with her.” Another steadying sip of beer. “That’s all I meant.”
He glanced over and was surprised to find Keith’s brow furrowed, his mouth scowling. What was wrong with this guy?
“I know,” Keith said. “I gave you a tape.”
“No, I remember, but when we last talked—”
Darrell though. After what?
“I left you a tape last Tuesday,” Keith went on. “I was coming over to see what you—” He scowled some more, even while he sipped his beer.
“I didn’t get any tape,” Darrell said.
“I left it on your back step,” Keith said, now frowning at something off in the sky. “Tuesday night. Late Tuesday night.”
Darrell looked over at the concrete step that sat below the sliding patio door. “There?”
“Are you sure?”
Keith dropped his beer to the deck and sat up. “Of course I’m fucking sure.”
“All right, all right—don’t get—”
“This is exactly what I knew would happen, Keith said. “See—Lisa even said—” He suddenly stopped. “Oh, Christ. What’m I gonna—oh, fuck...”
“Easy, easy,” Darrell said. “Just—don’t get—”
Keith leapt to his feet and began to pace. “She already asked me about it this morning. She’s all nervous now, of course. If I tell her—Jesus fucking Christ.” He turned to face Darrell head-on. “You’re sure it wasn’t there? Like, maybe—”
If it had been there, Darrell would have seen it. He got up first almost every morning, read the paper and made some coffee, usually finished the first pot of coffee before Sherrie even woke up. It was a habit that had become, like so many marital habits, a tradition. And in the summer, he would roll back the solar blanket, if the day was sunny, and take a quick swim. The weather all last week had been perfect.
But if Keith wasn’t completely insane—and the possibility was there, although Darrell was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now—he was probably right to be worried. Darrell didn’t want the whole situation to get out of hand, though.
“Show me where you put it,” he said. “We’ll have a look.”
“On the step,” Keith said angrily. “On the step. What’s so—”
Darrell got up and walked over to the patio door. There were a couple of clay planters, full of carnations or something on either side of the step; Darrell made a show of looking carefully behind them. Nothing there, of course.
“Did you put it in anything?” he asked. Keith had come over to look after all. “A bag or a box, or...”
“A white plastic bag,” Keith answered sharply.
“Well, I don’t...”
“I left it right there,” Keith said, stomping on the step with his sandal. “There’s no way—”
He turned and stepped towards Darrell, and suddenly they were almost toe-to-toe. Keith’s mouth worked but no sound came out.
“Look,” Darrell said, reaching out to put a calming hand on Keith’s shoulder.
“Don’t,” Keith said, turned around, and walked out of the yard, the gate clanging behind him.
Darrell caught up with him in the driveway. “Keith,” he called out, puffing a little with the exertion of overtaking him. “Wait. Don’t—overreact.”
Keith turned, his eyes blazing. “I never should have listened to you. This isn’t—what the fuck am I supposed to tell Lisa?”
If he wanted to keep things quiet, he should really keep his own voice down. “Just calm down for a sec,” Darrell said. “There’s gotta be a simple, straight—”
“I know where I put that tape. If you don’t have it, then I don’t know where it is. But you’re responsible.” Keith glared fiercely for a few seconds, then turned and stalked away.
Darrell let him go this time. He wiped his forehead with his hand; it was soaking with sweat. He rubbed his palm on his shorts to try it.
“What the hell,” he muttered to himself. Then he looked up and saw Stan, up on his porch, watching everything.
“Hey Darrell,” Stan said casually. “Busy day?”
“Hey,” Darrell replied. “Yeah. Got a sec?”
“C’mon up,” Stan said. “Have a beer.”
“So what’s up with the new kid on the block?” Stan asked, coming back out with a couple of cans. Darrell didn’t normally like the beer that Stan usually had, weak American piss, but he would have drunk almost anything to get rid of the dryness in his mouth.
“Just...” This didn’t have anything to do with Stan, Darrell decided. No need to go into details. “Just some stuff between him and his wife.”
“Huh.” Stan gazed away, not interested. They sipped their beers.
“Hey,” Darrell said after a while. “You haven’t seen anyone poking around in my backyard lately, have you? At night, or...”
“Actually,” Stan said slowly, “I have.”
“It was... let’s see. Tuesday, I suppose. Tuesday night.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would—”
“I haven’t run into you before today.”
“No, relax. It wasn’t such a big deal. I was sitting out here last Tuesday, around midnight, and I saw someone come out of your backyard. I looked around, made sure everything was okay, and left it alone.”
“Did you...” This was so bizarre, Darrell had trouble even formulating a question about it. “Did you see who it was?”
“Of course.” Stan pointed past Darrell’s house, the way Keith had just left. “Your new neighbour.”
That was actually kind of a relief. Darrell had started to wonder whether Keith had been drunk or lying, or what. So he had left a tape after all, it seemed.
“Did you see anything... I mean, was there...”
“The tape,” Stan said, with a big grin.
“What—yes. The tape. Keith’s tape. Did you see it? It was—”
“Oh, I saw it. Definitely.”
“So—it was there? On the back step?”
“It was there.”
These stupid answers of his. Why couldn’t this idiot just respond like a normal person? “So... it must’ve gone missing sometime and then and the morning.” Stan still had that big, distracting grin on his face. “What?”
“The tape’s not missing.”
It clicked at last. “You have it?”
“Yes. It’s safe.”
“Oh, that’s—” It was a relief, certainly, but...
“It’s really good, too. Marie loved it.”
“But—you took it? From my yard?”
The gall! Darrell could hardly sit still—he felt himself rise involuntarily from his chair, feeling a little satisfaction as the grin dropped from Stan’s face. “You had no right—”
“Relax, relax,” Stan said. “It’s not a big deal.”
“—from my yard—”
“Seriously,” Stan said, with a little more force, and Darrell stopped. “Just—just calm down,” Stan went on, spreading his hands as an appeal. “You gotta calm down.”
Darrell would have gladly wrung Stan’s neck, but he decided to wait and let Stan say his piece. He’d give him hell after that. “Tell me, then,” he said as calmly as he could. “What were you doing? Why did you take Keith’s tape?”
Stan sighed, apparently with relief, though something about it made Darrell think it wasn’t really sincere. “I was really doing it for you,” Stan began. “For your benefit.”
“Uh huh,” Darrell replied. He would wait till Stan finished his story before committing to an opinion.
“I haven’t been sleeping well these days—I’ve told you that before, haven’t I? No? You sure? Well, anyhow, with the house being so humid nowadays, even at night, I sometimes sit out on the porch and get some air.” He paused expectantly.
“Okay,” Darrell said.
“So on Tuesday—it was Tuesday, right? Yeah—so I was sitting there in the dark, and I heard someone open your gate and go in the backyard. So I figured I better check it out and make sure everything was okay. And then when I got up I saw him coming out.”
“Yeah, it was him.”
“So what did you say to him?”
:Nothing—I was still up on the porch, and he didn’t see me. So I figure, it’s probably nothing to worry about, but I’ll have a quick look around, just to be sure.”
“Look around for what?”
“I don’t know—I mean, why would your neighbour be poking around in your backyard in the middle of the night? What would you think was going on if you saw me in your yard?”
“I’d think,” Darrell said, trying not to sound too snarky, “that you were dropping off a tape.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Stan said quickly. “But as far as I knew, Keith and his wife weren’t involved.”
“You were the one who—”
“Yes, yes, I know. But no one told me he was actually participating.”
“He wanted to. What’s why he tried to give me the tape, so I could—”
“Hang on, hang on,” Stan interrupted. “He was the one who took my tape. We talked about this. If he wanted to be in, when were you all going to tell me?”
Darrell could see his point. “He wasn’t sure—you know how it is at first. No one’s ever seen you naked before, and suddenly you make a tape with your wife—it’s a little scary.”
“Sure, fine, we all went through that. I mean I never really cared, but Marie—anyway, that’s not the point. I saw the tape there, and I didn’t know he was even in. I thought you guys had some kind of thing going on the side. So I took it to see what you were all up to.”
The explanation was plausible—even somewhat reasonable—but that really wasn’t the point either. “That’s no reason to just waltz in, though, and take—you could’ve talked to him about it. Or me. In fact, you really should’ve come to me.”
“Okay.” Stan was smiling now. “I admit it. I should’ve talked to you. I was a little impulsive, taking that tape. I was going to give it back to you anyhow. It’s not like I was planning to keep it forever.
“Still, you should probably talk to Keith. Tell him what happened, tell him you’re sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?”
Now Stan was just being an asshole. “For taking his tape,” Darrell said impatiently.
“Hold on,” Stan said, suddenly sounding angry, much angrier than Darrell expected. “This is supposed to be all—what do you call it—a trust thing. We’re all depending on each other for protection, of—of our privacy. Isn’t that what all this is supposed to be about?”
“And here’s Keith, deciding whose tapes he’ll see, and who will and won’t see his.”
“He’s not doing that at all.”
“It doesn’t look like it to you. It does to me.”
“Somehow it was getting away from Darrell, this whole argument. “It was you who put the tape in his backyard,” he said. “You’re talking like he stole it.”
“He knew it wasn’t his, and wasn’t for him.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the same—”
Stan closed his eyes and shook his head vigorously. “No, no, no,” he said over Darrell’s objection. “It’s not even about that. You, me, and Zsolt agreed already. Either he’s in, or he’s out. And if he’s no it, then this has to stop.”
“What has to stop, exactly?”
“All of this,” Stan said, crossing his arms defiantly. “If it’s not going to run like it used to, with everyone free to view everyone else’s tapes, then forget it. I’m out.”
“Now, come on.” Stan was being so childish, Darrell might have gladly just let it rest; why put up with this? But he felt he should probably at least try to keep things together. For the sake of the neighbourhood, if nothing else. “You don’t have to be like that. I think if you and Keith just sat down, had a beer together, everything’d be fine. In fact, why don’t we do that? I’ll return Keith’s tape, just say Sherrie misplaced it, and next Saturday we can sit and shoot the shit by the pool.”
Stan looked away and shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Okay.” Darrell waited, but Stan just stood there, his arms still crossed. “So... do you want to get the tape, or...”
“I’ll drop it off,” Stan said sharply.
“Okay, sounds good.” Another thought hit him. “So, out of curiosity... how was the tape?”
Finally, Stan relaxed a little, letting his arms drop. “It was...” A smile, maybe a leer, formed on Stan’s lips. “It wasn’t bad for a first try.”
Second try, Darrell mentally corrected him, although he wouldn’t dare say anything to Stan about the first tape. He was just happy that peace seemed to be returning to the street.