Years ago, after a storm of the century, Glen shoveled a path from the front door of his townhouse to the driveway. Three tosses yielded barely a spade-length gained, with raps in between to knock off clinging pads of snow. He rested a lot to catch his breath and look around, amazed. Unaccustomed to out of doors, the intimidating open spaces seemed to reduce him; add to that the oddity of so much snow and his nerves quivered with suppressed excitement. The snow was so thick that it swallowed sound; it would turn a scream into a whimper.
By the time he extended his path to the bottom of the rather short driveway, his clothes steamed. He stood panting in the road, sizing up the enormity of the job still at hand. On one side of his car the snow rose as high as the door handles; on the other it had drifted as high as the roof. He decided to attack the bottom of the driveway first, a bulwark of packed slush thrown up by plows, densely heavy and slick as wet soap, tricky to keep from slithering off the shovel. He staggered at the end of every slow, grunting toss.
His neighbor shoveling across the street, wearing a floppy fur cap with ear flaps, waved in his direction. Glen had returned many waves not meant for him and looked around to make sure, and by the time he waved back the man wasn’t looking.
He plunged back into his work, so engrossed that a man in the road, walking towards him, appeared with a startling suddenness as though thrown up from a hole in the earth. The man’s heavy boots scuffed down the middle of the street. A snow shovel across his shoulders and behind his neck formed a crossbeam on which his arms rested, his hands dangling. Glen straightened up, panting and sniffling and wiping his nose with a damp cuff. The man came to a stop right next to him; he looked back in the direction he’d just come and at the neighbor across the street. The two men were so alike in size and build that they could have exchanged clothes.
Glen never started conversations, but he was lightheaded—almost giddy—from a quickened heartbeat and the odd quiver in his nerves.
“Too many cigarettes,” he said, panting.
The man dug into the bulwark. Glen protested but the man wouldn’t hear it. It was the neighborly thing to do, he was happy to help, etc.
Glen jumped to keep up. The shovel loads seemed to lighten, and he worked quickly without as many rests. They cleared away the bulwark in no time. The man pulled out a phone.
Nothing. Just helping a neighbor dig out. It won’t take long.
“Which is yours?” Glen said, meaning which townhouse.
“I’m from the other side,” the man said.
He went back to digging and again shrugged away Glen’s protests. It was nothing; the hardest part was over; with the two of them digging they’d have his car out in no time.
Glen fretted. The man seemed friendly enough, but maybe it was an act. Maybe he wanted money. Then again, if it wasn’t an act, he might be insulted by an offer. Glen was afraid of insulting the man who was working so hard to help him, though maybe it wasn’t so much work at all. The man did not get winded. He talked straight through about downed trees, cars stranded on the interstate, power outages—the usual big snowfall talk. What Glen thought a huge job seemed incidental for the man. The man pulled out his phone.
We’re at the car now. More than half done.
“Next time, you should put it in the garage when a storm comes.”
Glen blushed. The night before, he’d had that very thought when the snow began to fall, but was so engrossed in a crime drama marathon that he didn’t think it again until about eight inches were already piled up, so he didn’t bother. His inexcusable laziness created so much more work for the both of them; it shamed him.
They cleaned off the car, and the man insisted on clearing the driveway all the way to the garage door, “to make it even.”
As they finished up the neighbor across the street in the floppy cap hadn’t even dug halfway through his own driveway.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Glen said.
He’d settled on the sentence after thoughtful revision.
“It’s nothing,” the man said, blowing into his hands. “A beer would hit the spot,” he added.
Glen had that. It was a relief to give the man something he wanted. He went to get a couple of bottles, but the man did not wait in the driveway. He followed Glen to the door, still blowing into his hands. Glen had to let him in. After all he’d done.
His first houseguest.
Most of Riverview Estates’ residents fell into the perfect age range—for Glen—of twenty five to thirty five. He’d researched it. He maintained his three bedroom unit in spotless readiness for dinner parties. Now in his fourth year there, hope for having any parties had drained away, but it became a time-killing habit to dust, mop and scrub every week, and he’d kept it up. His greatest satisfaction was to survey his work after a day of cleaning.
The man waited in the cream and wood toned living room. Glen found him fingering a Christmas card open for display on the faux-fireplace mantle. There were two cards, one from his parents in Florida and the other from Riverview Estates’ management.
“A smoke would hit the spot, too,” the man said, taking a bottle.
Glen did not peg him for a smoker; smokers were never so fit. He was desperate for a cigarette after all the hard work but was afraid of being rude. Pocketing the cigarettes and lighter lying on the table, he led the man through the kitchen to the back deck, to an outpost along the rail he’d cleared first thing that morning. Black watery prints they left behind on carpet and tile didn’t bother him at all.
It was good to drink and smoke outside with someone else—better than communing with himself out there—and for a change he wished his neighbors would see. Beer wasn’t his thing, and what they were drinking, which he kept for just this contingency, tasted stale, but the man said it was alright. They smoked and drank. The man worried the filter with his lips, emitting quick little steam-train puffs; he assumed a far gaze.
“You can see the river,” the man said.
Most of Riverview Estates did not have a view of the river, but from Glen’s deck they could just make out, through snow-laced trees, a gray blade of water like unpolished steel.
“Can’t see it when the leaves are out,” Glen said.
“Hm,” the man said. He flipped open a hand. “My name’s Connor.”
“Glen,” he said.
They may have been alike in size and build, but Connor’s grip revealed that, for him, muscles had not gone soft.
Glen made small talk about Riverview Estates (what he knew they had in common)—homeowner fees, management, the community pool he never swam in. His voice gained a higher pitch.
“It’s a nice place,” Connor said.
He pulled out his phone.
No means no. Don’t worry. The game’s just starting. . .I said watch the game, it’s just starting.
“Do you like football?”
Glen lied and said he did. Of course he would put on the game while they finished their beers. They hung their coats on hooks next to the slider and went back to the living room. Glen’s television was an enormous state of the art model. He set out coasters.
His guest could hardly contain his passion for football within the confines of his chair. He crouched forward, flung out his arms, shouted. Glen wished that his own knowledge of the game was more than passing. Maybe, if he learned more—
“This girl I know has season tickets,” he said. “You don’t expect that from a female. She’s nice, has a nice house. Not bad looking. Bit of a bitch, though.”
Connor didn’t say anything.
“She’s probably high maintenance, you know how that is.”
“Hm,” Connor said.
From a low camera angle cheerleaders kicked up their legs.
“They must be cold,” Glen said.
Connor asked if he’d seen last week’s game.
“Oh, I don’t get to see every game. Always something to do.”
Connor complimented him on his television.
“That? It’s alright but I’m thinking about getting a bigger one. For sports. When I get it you can have this one.”
“I don’t see Johnson,” Connor said. “Where’s Johnson?”
Glen wasn’t sure, but he thought that Johnson was out of the league, some kind of scandal big enough for the regular news.
“Really? When did that happen?”
Again Glen wasn’t sure, but it had to be about a year or two.
It was embarrassing. Connor’s rabid fan act was exposed, but Glen didn’t hold it against him. The reverse. He lived the same sort of failure his whole life. Seeing another man suffer his own weakness was something he could pity without guilt.
“So what do you do, Connor?”
“I’m an engineer. I consult on projects all over.”
“The country, the world.”
Connor waved a hand.
“I know this guy who spent a year in Greece,” Glen said. “He said he had a great time.”
Connor said Greece was all right and went on to talk about his latest project at an oil refinery in Sri Lanka. It was awful how much money they made from oil, and yet children still had to pick through garbage dumps for food. Like seagulls. He said all of Africa was messed up like that.
“You mean Sri Lanka,” Glen said.
Glen didn’t say anything.
“In these poor countries,” Connor went on, “women throw themselves at Americans. You can get any one you want for a whole day for something like five bucks.”
“I know what you mean.”
Glen got two more beers from the kitchen. He listened to the ring of Connor’s voice off the walls of his home, a new tone he hadn’t suspected them capable of. It sounded good; he was proud of his walls. Connor did go on, though, about his globe-trekking. He’d been to Egypt, South America, the Arctic Circle—all of it an adventure. Foreigners behaved so oddly in their countries. Brazilians ate spiders; the Finns spayed ugly women. And so on.
“They wouldn’t spay her,” Glen said, meaning a fashion plate reporter on the television. She lifted her teacup chin to look at a hulk she was interviewing.
Connor laughed. He hurt his ribs from laughing; he couldn’t breathe from laughing. He pulled out his phone, snorting.
No (snort) Alright (snort) I love you (snort).
Glen said, “I’ve been meaning to travel but it’s hard to find the time. Europe would be great but not the whole tourist thing. I think you should live someplace a while to really get to know the people. Maybe a month.”
“That’s one way to do it, sure,” Connor said.
“Do you spend much time in the states?” Glen said, the worldly expression coming out of his mouth flat.
“About half the year.”
“You’ve got a very interesting job. I’m a financial advisor.”
(The season ticket holder and the Greece lover were clients.)
Glen’s phone rang. “My turn,” he said, lifting the receiver. It must have been just the right witticism, at just the right moment, for it sent Connor into terrible spasms of hilarity perhaps made more violent by having to be smothered to let Glen speak.
It was his parents calling from Florida.
Nothing. I’m okay. I’ve been busy, is all. No, nothing new. No plans. No one. I already dug out. Sure, the biggest this year. Uh-uh. Okay. I won’t forget. Bye.
This to his mother. He had the same conversation with his father before hanging up.
Connor had stopped laughing. “I should get going,” he said. “You’ve probably got things to do.”
“Not me. I never have anything to do on a Sunday. Why don’t you stay till halftime? Look—we’re both empty. Let’s grab a couple more and go have a smoke.”
“All right,” Connor said, and followed Glen into the kitchen.
He waited for Glen to straighten up from retrieving two more bottles from the fridge, then reached around and clamped a hand over his face, and, using a carving knife he’d drawn from the butcher’s block on the counter, cut clean through his windpipe and deep into the thin cords of muscle in his neck, at a diagonal, yanking hard at the end. Glen did not let go the bottles right away; when he did they clanked without breaking on the tile. He followed them, hitting the floor face down. For a few seconds he struggled to get out from under Connor’s pressing foot, then he stopped moving. His face rested on the sill of the open refrigerator, his head tilted back at an impossible angle.
Connor tossed the knife into the sink, dragged Glen back by the ankles and closed the refrigerator door. With some difficulty he dug Glen’s wallet and keys from his pant pockets and put them in the sink as well. Then he stripped, deposited his viscid clothes in the pull-out trash bin, and tied up its plastic bag and set it on a section of floor unstained by blood. He went upstairs and showered.
Glen’s clothes were a perfect fit. He searched the house starting with the master bedroom, but it was a waste of time. Tucked into drawers and closets he found useless tokens of Glen’s life, such as it was—childhood photos, an unopened box of condoms, a yellowing business card with “Missy” and a phone number in a female hand, promotional literature for a Caribbean cruise, train directions to Madison Square Garden (two years old), a studio portrait of a Pomeranian. One of the bedrooms was an obviously unused guest room and the other an office. He took a laptop from the office.
Back in the kitchen he carefully wiped flecks of blood from the wallet, rinsed off the keys, and pocketed them. He rinsed the knife and slid it back into the block. His phone hummed in the pocket of Glen’s pants and he quickly rinsed his hands before answering it.
I got us a car. Ten minutes. We can hit Boston by eight.
He’d been walking around barefoot as a precaution and, as anticipated, had picked up some blood from the kitchen floor. He washed the soles of his feet in the tub before pulling on socks and a pair of Glen’s shoes (also a perfect fit). Glen’s coat was much better than his own, so he took it. At the front door he paused.
“Why not?” he said.
He went back into the kitchen, careful to step around blood, and retrieved the trash bag.
Glen’s car was a beautifully maintained mid-range sedan, its lone extravagance a moon roof. He unlocked it on his way to the dumpster across the street. There he ran into the floppy-capped neighbor and chatted him up about the storm—cars stuck on the interstate, power outages and the like.
“I’m Bill,” the neighbor said.
They shook. It turned out neighbor Bill was a bank manager and a huge football fan. “Second half’s just starting,” he said. “Why don’t you and your friend come over?”
He couldn’t; he had a client to meet, indicating his laptop. Yes—work on a Sunday! Next week, for sure, they’d watch the game. He’d bring the beer.
James Alexander's fiction has appeared online in previous incarnations of Unlikely Stories, as well as in BULL, Gadfly, Sleet, Pif and elsewhere, and in print in New Pop Lit.