A Monster or a Nice Guy?

The girl opens the door to the basement and shines her flashlight down the stairs. Everyone watching knows she shouldn’t take those steps, but, of course, she does. Depending on your reason for watching, you either cover your eyes or lean forward and wait.

If the movie magic works, you believe she’d go down into the dark and you’d care what happens to her. But you’ve got to believe in the spell or you’ll do nothing more than get a snack or change the channel.

A 17-year-old boy lived next door to me when I was 15–next door being on the other side of an overgrown lot. We didn’t go to the same school and were not friends. He wore Izods and penny loafers. I wore earrings that hung to my shoulders and scarves. One evening I sat on our front porch to watch the sunset and read a book.

His hello startled me. I knew girls who would think him cute, but I was into Howard Jones, not Journey. I frowned, remembered to be polite, and smiled.

“I saw you were all by yourself and I thought you’d want company,” he said.

And I was alone. My father wouldn’t be home for four more hours. Our other neighbor wasn’t home either, and there were no adults in shouting distance. He sat next me on the bench. “Whatcha reading? You read a lot don’t you? I always see you with a book.”

I wasn’t aware he saw me at all, but here he was being friendly and who was I not to speak when spoken to? I realized I was supposed to be flattered that he had decided to trudge over a weed-filled lot talk to me, and I, raised to be polite and gracious til the end, obliged.

“Is your dad home?” he asked.

“No,” I said. Then I thought downright terrible thoughts about this clean-cut boy trying to be nice. “But he could be home any minute.” Then I scolded myself. He liked pretty girls and I was flattering myself.

“It’s hot out here,” he said. “How about if we go inside.”

I felt like the girl standing at the basement door, and I imagined a voice shout from an invisible audience. “Don’t do it!”

But I was no pretty actress in a movie and surely I was overreacting and being rude. He was, after all, just a neighbor. “Um, no. I like it our here.” My pulse hurried a bit. I was saying no, and I wasn’t used to it. What if he told his parents and they told my dad, and my dad would ask me, “Why were you rude to the neighbors?”

He smiled. “Come on. We can find something to do. Something fun.”

Well, I wasn’t pretty and I had a dirty mind, and surely there was nothing wrong with being inside. We could watch TV–there wasn’t much else to do. “No,” I said. “I’m happy out here.”

“But I’ve never been in your house before and we’re neighbors. You’ve been in mine.”

As a Libra I believed I was fair through and through. “Not today. Okay?”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Sure,” I said. “But I’m not allowed to let boys in the house.” This was a lie. Now I was rude and a liar.

“He won’t know.”

“Look, why can’t we just be out here?”

“You’re not very friendly are you?” he said, and then he left. I watched him cross the field, and I felt I’d been rude, but I also felt unsettled and unsure about what had happened. Why would a simple request needle my skin? I waited until he reached his own door, before I went inside.

In fiction, we must feel the tension. Will she go? We know that she shouldn’t, or probably shouldn’t, and we wonder if he is what he says he is? And in a story, he usually isn’t. Whose judgment do we trust?

In fiction, we get to find out. In real life, we often don’t. I don’t know if my neighbor was trying to be friendly–I only know he never came over again.

9 thoughts on “A Monster or a Nice Guy?

  1. You’ve touched on what I consider a defining issue of contemporaty fiction, particularly the short story. Ambiguity. In one way, it reaches all the way back to Frank Harris’ transformative story, “The Lady or the Tiger.” That’s the formulaic way of ambiguity. The more pervasive way is the way of contemporary life. A part of me wants to attribute an highly selfish agenda to the guy in your story. On the other hand, the person I was rooting for in your narrative was the you, and so I was more concerned for her jumble of feelings at the end. A splendid objective correlative for life in the 21st century.

  2. This reminds me of the Laura Dern/Treat Williams movie, Smooth Talk, based on the Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Am I Going? Where I Been?” Have you seen it? It’s wonderful. In your story here you’ve created a similar kind of scary-sexy tension.

  3. Interesting that you would see yourself as rude, when I found the boy’s request to go inside rude. Attempting to invite oneself into another person’s area always strikes me as both presumptuous and rude. Of course, as kids, we were probably completely lost in regards to social skills. Still, he comes across as rude and self-centered in your story. I was dreading the eventual “yes” from you and was relieved to see that you didn’t relent.

    Had he really been a nice person, he would have graciously and kindly accepted no for an answer. His unwillingness to accept no makes him a bad person in my book.

  4. Liz, I haven’t seen that movie, but I’ll look for it.

    Rook, my mother would’ve put that boy in his place for asking to come inside like that. My father would’ve told me to be nice. This difference may explain the divorce. Anyway, I thought he was rude too, but being agreeable was too drummed in my head. To this day I’m surprised I said no.

  5. esby

    He was a bad guy. There is no doubt in my adult mind that this teenage boy was after one thing – and then was mean when he didn’t get it (I hope he learned some better ways to capture a female’s attention since then) – but my adolescent mind would have wondered about his intentions then and would have been stuck in that befuddlement for years. You captured that feeling perfectly.

  6. esby (SBW), I happened to talk to this guys parents a few years ago. They asked me if I remembered there son. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do.” They proceeded to tell me how proud they are of him these days–married and working as a minister (or missionary–some church thing) in Panama and how they’ve always been SO proud of what a nice young man he was and grown man he is.

    I suppose he could’ve changed, and maybe he really is nice now, but all I could remember was how he made me feel that day. Rightly or wrongly, he’ll always be that guy to me.

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