Oct/Nov 2004  •   Fiction

A New Neighborhood

by Mark Vender

As soon as I step off the bus, I feel it: the soft but definite pressure of a pair of eyes on me. As casually as I can, I pause on the curb, rub my neck and wince as if it were aching. I turn my head to the left, to the right, slowly, just like my chiropractor taught me. And as I do this, I check the area for suspicious characters. There are three people in the immediate vicinity, none of whom are obviously casing me.

Under the circumstances, it would be prudent to begin the 10-minute walk back to my apartment. But I'm hungry. In the fridge at home there are meager pickings: a fistful of green beans, three potatoes, one egg. On the other side of the intersection, the neon sign above the fried chicken shop is blinking, beckoning.

First I walk across to the bank on the corner and step up to the small glowing window that is the cash machine. I work quickly. My fingers hover above the keys, anticipating the screens. I feel as though I am impelling the computer to work faster. With smooth movements I receive my card, my cash and receipt and slide them into different sections of my wallet. It's not until I turn around that I notice the man standing behind me.

Late 20s with a shaved head, he stares dumbly at me. He's tall; even with the advantage of standing on the step in front of the cash machine I have to look up to meet his eyes.

He's wearing an unfashionable tracksuit and doesn't look like he has a lot of money to withdraw from the bank.

This is the bit where I should step down onto the sidewalk and walk away, but his face has already opened towards me, and I'm snagged, waiting for his words. The muscle at the top of my stomach is contracting, trying to tell me he's only going to ask for money or try to take it from me by force. But until I know for sure I am constrained by the basic human contract.

"Excuse me," he says. "Can you help me?"

My stomach continues pumping its advice to me, but instead I lean closer. "How?"

"I need to catch a bus home." He pulls his hand out of his pocket and shows me some coins in a dirty palm. "I need another pound to catch the bus. Can you help me?"

I stare down at his hand for a moment, looking at the coins and the bad tattoo of a cobra on his wrist. I start thinking about his story, but the very act of asking for money has brought a barrier down between us. When I look up again, the connection has broken, and I'm sure he sees this in my eyes, even as I say the words, "No. I'm sorry. No."

Walking off towards the fried-chicken shop, I hear him murmur behind me. "I know you've got it." Then ten feet later, this time in a shout loud enough to echo down the empty streets. "I know you've got it. Tight cunt!"

Inside the shop I sit down in a plastic bucket chair and wait for the boy behind the counter to refry a thigh and a drumstick for me. Through the window I can see the guy with the shaved head, still standing on the corner, keeping his hands in the pouch of his sweater to ward off the cold. Looking at him again, I notice he's not just tall but fat, in a way that makes me sure I could outrun him. I smile to myself and visualize the sprint, him flagging, sagging onto his haunches after a block and a half. Me with arms raised triumphantly, flashing through my front gate—the finish line.

He's just a run of the mill dodgy character. I'll keep one eye on him when I leave. He'll keep one eye on me and decide there are easier targets out tonight.

At the back of my mind, I know when the real hit comes, it's going to be a lot harder to anticipate. But make no mistake, the hit is coming. I've felt myself under surveillance, sensed the feet treading in my footsteps. I'm more aware than ever of my moments of vulnerability. Like now: my wallet is padded with bills from the cash machine and bulges more obviously against my thigh than it did when I stepped off the bus. It's late at night and I'm tired. There will be few better times for them to make a move.

I've had this feeling for the last three weeks, ever since I moved into this area to get away from some ugly incidents in my old neighborhood. The real estate agent showed me over to the apartment in my lunch hour. I gave it a cursory inspection and signed the papers. The price was right, and in the midday sun, the building gave off a dilapidated charm. I didn't realize how different it would look at night.

Still, I don't know why I feel so nervous today. The weather isn't helping, certainly, nipping my fingertips and nose, making me walk twice as briskly as usual until I feel that irritating prickle of sweat in cold weather.

Maybe it was talking at work today—Jo telling us how she got robbed coming home from the office. She saw the guy stumbling over to her from the other end of the street and assumed he was drunk. Didn't see the knife until he pressed it against her belly.

Without time to buy furniture or decorations, my apartment is still practically empty. The best thing about it is the view. From the foot of my bed I can see to the city's edge. Even since I moved in, it seems like new patches of light have appeared. I watch the city sprawling towards the horizon, the lights of the suburbs rolling over undulations in the landscape like a rug with too much dust swept under it.

I sleep under heavy blankets. I have rare dreams, slow and gooey as if they are taking place many leagues underwater or through a gauze of rum. I wake up feeling not rested but concussed. I work six days a week and sleep the seventh. This for me is normal.

The boy behind the counter calls me to collect my chicken. I take it and walk next door to the convenience store where I buy a beer, feeling very much like the last customer of the night. Back on the street, the guy on the corner has disappeared, and there's nothing left between me and my front door except five long blocks and an empty street.

For the first block I concentrate on my strides, measuring them against the separations in the pavement and trying to keep my feet in as straight a line as possible. It's a game that almost takes my mind off the conviction there is someone stalking me. There are no houses or apartments on this block, just a row of mechanics' workshops smelling of spray paint and metal dust.

At the end of the first block, I stop at the curb and open my ears to the street, trying to pick out unusual noises. There is the fading roar of a plane overhead and the sound of a generator engine rumbling. Closer, somewhere in the mess of cable and wire above the street, a bad capacitor hums and crackles.

With block two begins the glow of houses. I am admiring the patterns created by the cascading of dirty rainwater down an apartment block façade, when a man steps out from the corner ahead, and starts walking towards me.

I can see he has a slight limp, but I can't see his face in the darkness. We're only one streetlight apart by the time I'm close enough to make out his features. Gaunt, mid-40s, at least once-busted nose jutting out from under a grey beanie. His eyelids hang down low over his stare, which doesn't leave the pavement.

I look down at the ground too, but watch him all the way in my peripheral vision, shoulder tensed against the assault that never comes but perhaps could have if I hadn't taken that stance of grim vigilance; if he hadn't sensed I was there, ready to dodge his lunge for my pocket, flip him to the ground and kick his fucking brains out.

I listen to his footsteps, confirm their measured disappearance behind me. When they have faded into silence, I relax my shoulders and let out a clenched chestful of air. But the muscle at the top of my stomach refuses to let go. It wants me to know the threat is still there. The guy I just passed wasn't him.

At the corner of Brooke Street, I decide to stop at the hole in the wall newsagent and buy cigarettes. I am trying to give up, but this daily capitulation is becoming a habit of its own. The shopkeeper hands over a packet and a lighter (the third this week) and I hand over the cash and light up. I smoke smoothly, sucking each puff first into my mouth and then deep into my lungs. I feel my pulse accelerating to a still higher pitch. I am now more alert than ever, watching for motion on the street.

When the motion comes, it's an executive couple walking home, probably from the same bus stop as me. They are huddled together and keep up a hushed conversation against the night, as though they are violating curfew.

As they pass by, I drop what's left of my cigarette and start walking behind them, knowing I'll be safer walking in a group. But at the end of block three they step through the front gate of an apartment block and once again I am left alone. Or almost alone. Almost at home, almost alone. I cross Colville Street and start walking along block four.

In the wake of each streetlight, my shadow is thrown forwards onto the pavement as though I was walking away from a setting sun. Then halfway along block four, another silhouette appears alongside mine: the shadow of someone walking behind me.

He must have come out of Colville Street and matched his stride with mine to mask his footfalls. Despite the surprise, I walk calmly, the same way I did for the first block, giving no indication I can see him. In my pocket, my fist closes around the house keys. I shuffle one around so it protrudes between my index and middle fingers. When he comes, he'll find me ready.

I imagine the lunge he will make. In my mind I dip and spin away, then watch as he overbalances in front of me. I see him fall, see his gritted teeth, clenched knuckles and dirty knife. I listen as his forehead kisses the sidewalk. I imagine the scenario: him lying there unconscious, and I think about what I would do.

It would be easy enough to carry him on my shoulder the final block, through the front door of my building and into the elevator. Getting him inside the apartment would be simple. The packing tape is still lying on the lounge room floor after the move. Ten times each around his ankles, wrists and head would be enough to hold him until he comes to.

I'd like to ask him questions, but it would be difficult. He would have done his research, and would have me categorized as an office-worker, a paper pusher, a soft touch. He'd probably refuse to talk altogether. It would take a powerful gesture from me to convince him of the need for a conversation. But what?

The first thing that comes to mind is a hypothetical question someone once put to me: would you rather be deaf or blind? It's an exercise in choosing the least bad option, but one he probably won't be in the mood to appreciate. When I put the question to him, he'll just sit there with his trap shut.

He'll try to make me feel stupid with his silence. But that won't bother me, I'll just keep on talking. I'll describe the joys of listening: the perfect pop song, the sound of a woman when you are making love to her, rain on the roof of a building when you're inside, safe and sound and warm. Then I'll talk about vision: the blue of the sea on a calm day, special effects in a blockbuster movie, the colored crystals in a kaleidoscope. Then I'll repeat the original question: which would you rather be, deaf or blind?

It will almost be satisfying to watch him sneering at what he will consider a bunch of fancy words I'm using because I'm too scared to lay a finger on him. In fact, the longer I go on, the surer he'll be I'm just chicken shit, and that he was right not to talk all along.

Finally, I'll have to choose for him: take the knife he was going to stab me with, press the point of the blade against the tape covering his eye—the left, I think—until it pierces the surface and sinks into the soft pulp of his eyeball. Then just to be sure, give the knife a twist.

After that, he'll talk. With one eye left he will still have something to bargain with. I'll open the beer I bought earlier and ask the question I always wanted to ask a thief: tell me how you justify what you do, and why I shouldn't exact payment now for all the times you fucked someone over?

Later I'll feed him a few sleeping tablets, carry him back outside and dump him somewhere. If I'm lucky, he'll be so messed up he won't remember anything about me. And if I'm unlucky?

I'm at the corner of Lencois Street, a mere four doors away from my apartment block. But while I've been absorbed by my thoughts and the back-and-forth flick of the shadow on the pavement behind me, I've missed the most important trick of all.

At the front gate of my building stands the guy I saw at the cash machine earlier. Across the road, leaning against a construction skip, is the man with the grey beanie I passed on block two. And the footsteps are still sounding quietly and steadily behind me. I feel like a coin in a purse, gathered up like this, so neatly. They are closing in on me like a clasp snapping shut. They've got me, and acceptance of that fact loosens my pocketed fist.

I begin a mental inventory of my own wallet—the cash I'm about to lose, the credit cards and ID I'll have to replace. I slow to a halt and turn around to see the man bearing down on me from behind. He has a black patch covering his left eye and a smile twisting across his face.