The Fiction

Our Many-Splendoured Humanity

From the Christmas, 2010, issue 

(No. 25)

Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

We’ve got Neil and Maxine over, and Neil and Maxine are not getting along, as per usual.

“That’s funny,” she says to him.

He frowns. “What’s funny? ”

“The label on that barbeque sauce.”

The label on the barbeque sauce Neil is putting on his burger says, “TOO BOLD FOR YOUR WIFE!” He looks at the label. “What’s funny about it? ”

“It says it’s too bold for me.”

He takes a bite of his burger, chews. “It is.”

Maxine holds the bottle upside down over her meat and squeezes out a thick, red line. She fixes the top of her bun in place and looks at me. “I bet this is Deb’s barbeque sauce, isn’t it, Deb? ”

“Oh, no.” I throw up my hands. “Don’t get me involved.”

Marv just sits there, watching Maxine about to blow her head off with his barbeque sauce, which I never touch. I’m not one for hot things—except maybe for Marv, when we’re both in the mood and the lighting is right, ha ha.

Maxine takes a bite, and we all watch her chew.

“You like that, Maxine? ” Neil asks in a loud voice. He flaps his funny tie at her, which is Neil’s trademark. This one’s shaped like a pickle, of all things.

Maxine starts to sweat, and I go to the kitchen and get her some water. “Gaaahhhh!” she says, and grabs the glass from me.

There’s a knock on our door, hard enough to jerk our welcome mat forward a bit.

Marv squints over. “Now, who could that be? ”

Neil and Maxine have a welcome mat outside their house that says, “FRIENDS WELCOME, RELATIVES BY APPOINTMENT.” Neil bought it because he said it cracked him up. One time Maxine’s mother came by and rang their bell. Neil was the only one home at the time, and he peeked out the window to see who it was. When he saw his mother-in-law outside, he waved at her and pointed to the mat, then he actually waited until she went away. Which kills me, because if Marv ever did that to my mother? Well, suffice it to say he would not be welcome after something like that.

Marv walks to our door and there’s another knock, even harder this time. “O.K., O.K.,” he says. It’s our new neighbour, who recently moved in down the hall from us. We haven’t really talked to him yet, but we’ve been meaning to introduce ourselves so here’s our opportunity!

“Hey, um,” he says, “I just moved in down the hall? ” Then he mumbles his name, so I don’t catch it.

“Nice to meet you,” says Marv. “I’m Marv.”

I walk over and stand next to him. “And I’m Deb. Welcome to the neighbourhood!” Marv extends his hand, and his soft arm does an eely dance with our new neighbour’s nicely muscled one before their palms connect in a sort of half-shake, half-slap. “What can we do for you, neighbour? ”

“Um, yeah. I was wondering if you guys have any DVDs I can borrow? ”

“DVDs, eh? ” says Marv. “I think that can be arranged. Come on in.”

Our new neighbour grins at us and strolls into our living room, and I am almost literally blinded by the whiteness of his teeth—he could be in a commercial, they’re so dazzlingly white, like stepping outside on a sunny winter day.

We all smile back, but I notice that Maxine’s smile is kind of lopsided, and I feel bad for not telling her about him earlier. But then I think I shouldn’t feel bad, because whenever I’ve seen him in the hall he’s always been very polite, and when he and some helpers were carrying expensive-looking stereo equipment into his apartment on the first of the month, they all seemed very friendly, and why should I always have to inform people, anyway?

The thing about Neil and Maxine, though, is that they’re not quite as liberal-minded as me and Marv. They’re our best friends and all, but you know how it goes when you and your friends have diverse opinions on certain issues—you have to agree to disagree. For instance, if a commercial for those poor starving African babies comes on and your friends roll their eyes and change the channel, you know that’s wrong, but you don’t necessarily say anything. You have to be content just knowing.

“You’re doing me a real favour here,” says our new neighbour. “I got my girl over with nothing to watch.”

“How about watching each other? ” says Neil.

“Right,” says Maxine, “like you ever watch me anymore.”

Neil scowls. “What’s that supposed to mean? ”

Our new neighbour starts going through Marv’s video shelf. “Huh,” he says, “you got that one. I heard that’s a good one.”

“What kinds of movies does your girl like? ” says Neil.

He raps his knuckles on his leg. “Damn, I should’ve asked her that.”

“Don’t feel bad,” says Maxine. “The most important thing is that you care.”

Neil holds up the end of his pickle tie so it points in a straight line. “What’s that one we watched last week, Marv? Give him that one, with the gangs.”

“I was thinking more a romance,” says our new neighbour.

Maxine rolls her eyes. “Oh my God, Neil, you are the biggest idiot!”

“What? ” he says. “I’m making conversation.”

Don’t get me wrong—we love Neil and Maxine. But when it comes to things like social justice and all that, there are questions that arise such as, What can the average person do? or, Can one person make a difference? Now, if you asked me and Marv those questions, we would say yes right away. But all I’m saying is, if you asked Neil and Maxine those same questions, you might get a different answer.

For instance, a few years ago for New Year’s Eve, Marv and I volunteered at a soup kitchen downtown, which is something Neil and Maxine have never done. I served the tables and Marv was in charge of potatoes, and we had a ball. I went in there not knowing what to expect, and I’ll admit I was slightly worried, safety-wise. But I’m telling you, every one of those homeless people I gave a plate to (with the exception of a certain rumpled gentleman who complained about portion size) was so well-mannered and so grateful that frankly I was overwhelmed by a love for our many-splendoured humanity. You can be sure that all of us went home that night feeling a little bit better about ourselves.

“I like your earrings,” our new neighbour says to Maxine.

“Thank you.” She blushes. “I made them myself.”

Maxine is heavily into Fimo, which is jewellery you bake. Lately she’s been doing desserts—her earrings tonight are two teensy blueberry pies.

“That’s pretty cool,” says our new neighbour. “I wish I was creative like that.”

“Oh, everybody has creativity inside them,” says Maxine, who, I’m relieved to see, is clearly warming up to him.

“Here.” Marv hands our new neighbour a video. “This is one of Deb’s.”

“Right on.” He looks around at our half-finished plates. “Oh, man—I’m interrupting your dinner. Sorry about that.”

“No problem at all,” says Marv, and I’m reminded yet again of the size of his heart. Which is very big.

Then Neil has to go and ruin everything by asking our new neighbour, “You ever tried this barbeque sauce? It’s really hot, I bet you’d like it.”

Maxine glares at him, and I want to hide somewhere, but thank goodness our new neighbour doesn’t take offense. All he says is, “Nope. But if it’s too hot for your wife, it’s way too hot for me.”

Maxine giggles and Neil is speechless, which is very out of character for Neil.

Marv and I wave goodbye to our new neighbour, who is now so much closer to being a friend than a stranger.

I have a bad day at work the next day because, as a reward for a project I did, my boss gives me another card. On the front is a photo of a snail on a skateboard.

The inside reads, “CONGRATULATIONS—YOU’RE ON THE FAST TRACK TO SUCCESS

“Now, how do you think they found a skateboard small enough for a snail? ” says my boss, Lee-Ann. “Imagine, somebody has the kind of job where they go out into the world and look for tiny little skateboards for snails, isn’t that something? ”

“They doctored the photo,” I tell her. “That’s what they do with photos now. The skateboard isn’t really that small.”

“You get it, right? ”

“What do you mean, do I get it? ” I say. “Is it a joke? ”

“Of course it’s a joke. Because snails are usually slow, but it’s on a skateboard so that means it’s going fast!” Lee-Ann throws her head back and laughs, showing her teeth. Lee-Ann’s teeth look like pylons around a bad accident.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be a joke,” I say. “A joke has a punchline. This has a photo and some words about the photo.”

“Oh, you!” says Lee-Ann.

I close the card and the two pieces of flimsy cardboard make a sound like this: “whap.”

“She’s always giving me cards with backhanded compliments on them,” I say to Marv over wine spritzers that night. Marv makes spritzers like nobody’s business.

“It’s getting to be too much, I’m telling you.”

He shrugs his round shoulders. “Maybe you’re reading too much into them.”

“No, Marv.” I sip my drink. “That is not the situation here at all.”

My Marv has the roundest shoulders of any man I’ve ever known. I tell him he’s got ice-cream sundaes under his sleeves, his shoulders are so nice and round—and he says I’m the cherry on top, aw.

Knock, knock.

Marv looks at our door. “Who could that be? ” He answers it and there’s our new neighbour from down the hall again, with our video.

“Hi,” he says to us. “I brought your DVD back.”

“Did your girlfriend like it? ” I ask him.

He nods, and grins. “She cried all over me.”

“Glad to hear it.” Marv takes the video and taps it on his leg in a thoughtful way.

“She sounds like a special lady.”

“She is special,” says our new neighbour. “She’s the best.”

“How’d you meet her? ” Marv asks, and I do a double take because Marv isn’t usually interested in this sort of thing.

Our new neighbour half-closes his eyes. “We were at the arcade.”

“Ah.” Marv nods. “The arcade.”

“Marv and I met on a blind date,” I tell our new neighbour. “Actually, I was supposed to go out with his friend Joe, but Joe was sick that night so he sent Marv instead—isn’t that a hoot? ”

“Do you have nice handwriting? ” he says to me.

“Pardon? ”

“Because I wrote her this poem.” Our new neighbour takes a few steps into our living room, and hands me a folded-up piece of paper and a card. On the front of the card are two champagne glasses, bending toward each other. “See that? ” he says. “It’s like they’re kissing.”

Marv leans in for a peek. “Huh, will you look at that.”

“They doctored this photo,” I say. “Glass can’t really bend that way.”

Our new neighbour shrugs. “I like how it looks.”

The card is blank inside. I unfold the paper, and scribbled all over it are rhyming words like, “unite” and “appetite,” “sunshine” and “super-fine,” and “mirage” and “camouflage.”

“That’s my poem. I was hoping you could maybe copy it down into the card? Because ladies have better handwriting than guys? So it looks nice.”

“Deb’s handwriting is the best,” says Marv. “Her grocery lists are as fancy as invitations from the queen.”

“Thanks, Marv,” I say, and I’m kind of blown away because I didn’t think he noticed things like that.

Our new neighbour beams at me. “You don’t mind? ”

“Of course not,” I say, and I close the card and it makes a sound like this: “whutt.”

The next day at work I copy out the poem because who are we as human beings if we can’t be neighbourly?

Then Lee-Ann sashays into my cubicle with a bag of St-Hubert, that French chicken with the rooster, and she has the sauce that comes with it and she’s drinking the sauce right out of the container. “My husband’s taking me out for our anniversary tonight,” she says. “Mmm, this is good chicken sauce.”

I cover up the card and the poem with one of my reports. “I prefer Swiss Chalet, myself.”

“We have a coupon for the restaurant we’re going to, but Ronnie said he might not even use it because it’s our anniversary and we should splurge.”

“That sounds decadent.”

“It is decadent! That is exactly what it is.” Lee-Ann smiles, and smacks her lips. “What are you and Marv doing tonight? ”

“Oh,” I say, “I don’t know. It’s not our anniversary or anything.”

“Ronnie says we should treat every day like it’s our anniversary. Because what if you die and you don’t get another one? ”

“I have to finish this project, Lee-Ann.”

“Oh! How’s it coming? ” She reaches into her bag and digs around and pulls out a wing.

I shrug. “I’m doing my best.”

“I know you are, Deb,” she says, and pats me on the arm with her greasy hand. “I know you are.”

“She’s very patronizing,” I tell Marv again over spritzers that night, after leftovers.

“She has a real tone she uses with me.”

“Maybe if you told her how you felt,” he says.

“Do you really think it’s that easy, Marv? ”

Knock, knock.

Marv looks at me. “Did you do the card for him? ”

“Yes, I did the card for him. Sheesh, you’re getting as pushy as he is.”

“Sh!” Marv’s eyes are wide.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” I say, and I get up and answer the door.

Lo and behold, there is our new neighbour. “Hi,” he says.

“Hello,” I say.

He crosses his arms, uncrosses them, then lets them dangle at his sides. “So did you get a chance to—”

“Yes, yes.” I hand him the card, with my neat poem in it—I threw away his messy piece of paper at work. “Here you go.”

He opens it, and his face lights up like a neon sign on a very dark street. “Oh, wow. She is totally gonna freak over this!”

“I put extra Xs and Os at the bottom,” I say, and I smile and try to catch Marv’s eye, but he’s looking at our new neighbour.

“Do you love her? ” Marv asks him.

“What? ” I say.

“I love her so much it hurts.”

Marv nods. “That’s what I thought.”

“Oh, man.” Our new neighbour glances around. “You’re drinking wine. Am I interrupting a romantic moment here? ”

“Well—,” I say.

“Nah,” says Marv. “They’re spritzers—you want one? ” He gets up and heads to the kitchen with our empty glasses.

“Yeah? Hey, that would be great!” Our new neighbour winks at me and steps inside. “You guys are too kind.”

“Aw,” I say.

“Here you go.” Marv walks over with three spritzers and hands one to our neighbour. “Pull up a couch, ha!”

And I have to laugh because every so often Marv can be a real riot, in his own way.

“Look at that, a lime and everything!” says our new neighbour, still standing.

“Don’t mention it.” Marv sits next to me on the loveseat, and we both smile and wait for our new neighbour to sit down.

“Well,” he says, “my girl’s waiting so I better get going.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Oh,” says Marv.

I look at Marv and he looks at me, and I say, “We didn’t realize—”

“Gotta keep her entertained, you know? ” Our new neighbour grins. “I was actually wondering if I could borrow another DVD for tonight.”

Marv puffs out his cheeks, but then in true Marv fashion says, “Well, sure. Why not? ”

“Great.” Our new neighbour goes back to Marv’s video shelf and grabs something.

Then he says—and this is the kicker—“Do you think you could make a spritzer for my girl too? ”

“For...” says Marv, and then, “Of course.” And he goes to the kitchen and makes a spritzer for this girl, who we haven’t even met.

“You guys are the best.” He tucks our video under one arm, next to my poem, and takes the second spritzer.

“Don’t mention it,” Marv says again.

“You’re gonna make a hero out of me, you know that? ” Our new neighbour gives me another wink, and then he’s gone.

Marv closes the door, and after a few seconds, he shakes his head and says, “Can you beat that, Deb? ”

“No, Marv,” I say. “No, you cannot.”

“What are these? ” Marv asks Maxine a few nights later, when we’ve got her and Neil over again.

“Cream horns,” she says. “We got them from the Greek bakery down the street.”

Neil waggles his eyebrows. “I’ll give you a cream horn.”

“Shut up, Neil,” says Maxine. “You want to try one, Marv—they melt in your mouth.

Those Greeks know pastry.” She fondles one of the miniature cupcakes swinging from her earlobes.

Marv peers inside the white box, at the pile of greasy cones with their pale filling. “I don’t know.”

“Come on, give it a go, Marv,” I say. “I’ll split one with you.”

“All right,” he says, and takes a bite.

Neil polishes off a whole horn by himself, picks his teeth with his finger, then points that same finger at Marv. “So you just gave him another spritzer, is that right? ”

Marv’s mouth is full, so I say, “What else was he supposed to do? ”

“He could’ve said no. This is your apartment, is it not? ”

“It’s your home,” says Maxine.

“He still hasn’t returned our glasses,” I say. “They’re part of a set.”

Marv swallows, frowning. “He should definitely bring those glasses back.”

I hand him a napkin to wipe some cream off his chin. “The thing is, if you give someone something and they don’t say thank you, that’s when I start feeling uncomfortable.”

“Who wouldn’t feel that way? ” says Neil.

“What you’re describing is a very normal reaction,” says Maxine.

“It’s taking advantage, is what it is.” Marv balls up the napkin. “Plain and simple.”

Then there’s a knock on our door, with a definite banging quality to it.

“What kind of person knocks on someone else’s door like that? ” says Maxine.

“Guess who,” I say.

“Should I answer it? ” Marv says to me.

I shrug. “He can probably hear us in here.”

Neil smoothes his tie, which is shaped like corn on the cob. “If it’s him, you should probably say no to whatever he’s asking.”

Maxine nods. “Otherwise he’ll keep coming back for more.”

Marv gets up, and I can tell he’s nervous because he forgets to put down his cream horn. He opens the door, and surprise, surprise—it’s the new neighbour from down the hall. With his arm around some girl. “Hi there,” says Marv.

“Hi,” says the girl. “Here’s your DVD back.”

“Great.” Marv takes it and nods at her with a stiff neck. “Thank you.”

“It was a good one.” She’s got the card in her other hand, pressed against her leg.

The new neighbour peers inside at us, smiling. “Sorry for interrupting the party, but I wanted to—”

Maxine coughs, and Neil clears his throat loudly, and I say, “Marv,” and Marv says, “No,” shaking his head fast. “I don’t think we have anything more for you here, I’m sorry.” He squares his round shoulders, and the rest of us all sit up a little straighter.

The new neighbour stops smiling, and he tightens his grip on the girl and says, “Sure. I wanted to introduce my girl to you guys, but whatever, that’s all right.”

The girl frowns and tightens her grip on the card, which they haven’t even thanked me for. “I thought you said they were nice,” she says.

“They were.” And he takes the card from her and flicks it onto the floor—how do you like that!—and the tip of it gets stuck under our welcome mat. Then the two of them turn and walk away.

Marv’s shoulders fall, and he stands at the open door with our video in one hand and his half-eaten dessert in the other, looking at the empty hallway. He bends to put down the video and pick up the card, which as it turns out doesn’t have champagne glasses on the cover—it’s got flowers all over it. He flips it open and it doesn’t make any sound at all.

“That’s telling him, Marv,” Neil says, and he pinches Maxine’s thigh and she squeals like a teenager.

“Hey, Marv,” I say, to snap him out of it. “Give me that goddamn cream horn.” Because he’s just standing there, doing nothing as per usual, and it’s killing me.

Jessica Westhead’s short story collection, And Also Sharks, was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She has contributed to the magazine since 2002. Last updated summer, 2016.
Previous in this issue
Next in this issue