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A Good Neighbor

Stealing mail is a federal crime.

By Rosie Ford Published 2 months ago 8 min read
A Good Neighbor
Photo by Brandable Box on Unsplash

Something evil overcame Larry on Thursday.

It went like this: Larry, an Eagle Scout, a churchgoer, a part-time trombonist, systems analyst and news-watcher, was also a watcher of the neighborhood. Elbows pressed against the silver star in the center of the steering wheel, hands at something like 12:00 and 12:30, he passed through the Cottonwood Cove gate at a crawl (the gate kept out all the unsavory characters who might try skateboarding, or listening to loud music that wasn’t jazz, or doing drugs, or otherwise ruining the neighborhood). In front of the McMaynerberry house, the grass was an inch too long. Giraffe topiaries at the Bernards’ place had overgrown ears and tails. The Prescotts were patronizing a lemonade stand surely established without a vendor permit, as the proprietors were children. And, worst of all, the brown paper box meant for the Northrops was still an eyesore on the kitchen island. He’d hoped it would do away with itself. Just disappear when he came home. But the package didn’t have legs and nobody else in the house was using theirs, so there it stayed, ugly, beckoning, a curiosity with no return address or shipping information. Larry wanted it open. The problem was putting it back together.

Northrop was odd. He never wanted to talk about golf or the weather or the stock market, and his car wasn’t German. He mowed the lawn himself. Grew a garden. Wore jeans. Drank beer from a can. Called his wife Elise when Larry asked about “the old ball and chain.” They were sitting on their back patio when Larry got home, Northrop and the old ball and chain, kissing like they were still in love or something. Through the parted blinds of the kitchen’s bay window, Larry had a view of their unscarred lawn, the cherry blossom trees shedding petals like living snowflakes, and the pergola! Oh, the pergola! Hand-built! Every line unwavering, the lacquer like it had been applied in a sheet by machines, not human hands.

Larry hated that pergola.

Today they got the Northrops’ mail again. While Larry held the envelopes up to the window, his daughter filed through the front door in her cheerleading uniform, followed by his son with the cello, leaving their backpacks wherever they landed. One door slammed, then two more. And Larry couldn’t make out a damn word.

“Hi, Honey,” said Larry’s old ball and chain from somewhere over his shoulder, returning the backpacks to their hooks. “How was work?”

“How was day-drinking?” he asked. The sound of trickling liquid, rising in pitch. A glass bottle colliding with their quartz countertops. Retreating footsteps. Another door slamming shut. And the house went still.

“Colleen!” Larry yelled, shattering the silence. “Colleen, I need you!”

No response. He paid that damn maid too much. By the time she made it up the stairs, Larry had already filled the kettle himself and was working on lighting the stove. While Colleen lit it the rest of the way, Larry went to get the glue sticks and letter opener from his study. Toothless babies, held by their equally happy mother, smiled at him from the corners of his stout desk. He drew the blinds. Laid the picture frames down. Answered work emails in darkness until the kettle screamed for his attention.

When the first envelope was damp from the steam, Larry eased the blade under the flap. His early attempts had torn the letters beyond excuse, but now (with Colleen’s help), they rarely suffered damage that couldn’t be blamed on the irresponsible postman who always delivered to the wrong address. Two birthday cards today—one for Uncle Carter and another for Dad—and a credit card statement. Larry gasped. Northrop did golf! He had a membership to the public club! Muttering about dirty golf carts and diseased grass, he painted over Carter with liquid paper and wrote Larry in its place. Happy birthday, Uncle Larry. Maybe his whole family had forgotten his birthday, but at least someone named Regina had remembered.

Carter Northrop was born two days after Larry in the same year. Larry always had a get-together with Will Prescott and Hank Bernard, and Northrop always had a party. “This is nice, just the three of us, don’t you think? Parties are too much work,” Larry said every year before the toast, trying to convince himself. The truth: Larry knew nothing about planning parties for fifty people, nor did he even like fifty people, and no one was going to do it for him when the Northrops had a live band and $30,000 goodie bags two days later. Who gave things away on their birthday?

Today was Thursday. The day between him and Northrop, the day the package had been on his counter for nearly two, the day something evil overcame Larry. With the cards upright on his desk and the credit card statement resealed with a glue stick, Larry went over to the next house. He could have asked Colleen—probably should have asked Colleen—to go in his place, because his nose wrinkled like the envelope when Carter opened the door.

“I got your mail again,” he said, holding out the statement.

“Oh.” Northrop ran his thumb over the warped paper. He was unbelievable. Belonged on the cover of a magazine with that salt-and-pepper-hair, that jawline, those muscles, that project car in the open garage. “Sorry. That mailman really needs to pay attention.”

“Sure does.”

“Looks like water damage too,” Mr. Northrop observed, then shrugged. “You haven’t gotten anything wrapped in brown paper, have you?”

“No,” said Larry through his teeth. “Were you expecting something?”

“Oh, he must have sent it late. Couldn’t get it anywhere else—had to ask a family member. I know you’ll bring it over if it turns up.” Northrop smiled. Stupid white teeth. Larry withered in the glow. “Are you and Felicia coming to the party tomorrow?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Larry kept his lips together when he smiled.

When he came home, he called Will and Hank over and took the box into the basement. He would dissect it here, on the green velvet billiards table in what Felicia called “the man cave.” Will was texting. Hank was shaking and smelling the parcel. Larry was setting another box and some brown butcher paper aside for evidential erasure.

“Could be drugs,” said Hank. “Smells like drugs.”

“You can’t send drugs in the mail,” said Will.

“And exactly how do you know that?” asked Hank, setting the parcel down. “Personal experience?”

“Not everyone is as boring as you, Hank.”

“You realize this is a federal crime too,” said Larry, donning rubber gloves.

“It is?!”

“Case in point.” Will put his hands on his hips. “If it is drugs, I’ll take care of them. Just don’t tell Martha.”

“If it’s drugs, we’ll be even because I’m the one opening somebody’s mail.” Larry took a photo of the handwriting on the front with his phone, then pulled the butcher paper off and took a boxcutter to the tape. And whatever the contents were, they’d been packed so tightly even turning the box upside down wouldn’t dislodge them. He pulled out the tissue paper clump by clump until it appeared, the most beautiful thing he’d seen in a long while, the reason he’d given in to darkness: a gramophone. A pearl-white soundbox and a polished brass horn. How lucky Mr. Northrop would have been to receive such a gift from a family member.

“What is that?” Hank asked, quite literally breathing down Larry’s neck.

“A gramophone,” Larry sniffled. How lucky.

“Are you—are you crying?” Will took a step back, then another, and then another, until he was going upstairs. Hank left too. And before he had a chance to bring up the lemonade stand and topiaries. As his tears settled on the butcher paper, Larry sighed.

He couldn’t keep it. Couldn’t keep what was obviously a family heirloom, so something evil almost overcame Larry. Not quite. He was, after all, an Eagle Scout.

Repacking the box and matching the handwriting as best he could, Larry set the gift aside. Watched television with his tipsy wife, who kept asking if he’d forgiven her until she got tired and went to sleep on his shoulder. Gave his son advice about girls. Helped his daughter with her history homework. Drove alone until the sun came up.

Larry returned the misdirected package at the Northrops’ party. Felicia showed up later, dressed in red and wearing red lipstick and wanting to dance. For a few minutes, while the band played something with a salsa beat, everyone loved them, wanted to be them. Her hair blazed in the candlelight, her smoky eyes smoldered, her hips swayed like flame in time with his. They couldn’t dance as long as they could when they’d first met, but they still looked great, really truly amazing, according to Mr. Northrop. And though Carter was so saccharine Larry worried his pancreas would stop producing insulin just from standing next to the man, he couldn’t hate him. Not anymore.

They were one of the last couples to leave the party, when most of the candles had died, the lawn was littered in fancy plastic glasses, and the band was packing up their instruments. Brown paper box in hand, Carter and Elise met them at the iron gate in the rose garden.

“Thanks for coming. You guys were great. Life of the party!” Northrop laughed. Felicia laughed because she was drunk. Larry laughed because he felt left out. Elise didn’t partake.

“Thanks for having us. You throw the best parties.”

“Oh, that’s nice of you. I know it’s kind of awkward timing with your birthday right before mine, but this is actually for you. I was going to wrap it before I got so caught up with everything.” Laughing again, Northrop placed the box in Larry’s waiting hands. “I remembered you saying something about it last year. You play the trombone, right?”

“I do. Thank you.” Larry smiled, this time with teeth, hastily adding, “For whatever this is.”

“I hope you like it.” Carter kissed Elise on the cheek and went to send off the rest of the guests, leaving the three of them alone.

“If you steal our mail again,” she half shouted, half whispered, “I’ll call the police.” And with that, she was gone.

Larry snorted and took Felicia’s hand, the box pressed against his hip. Maybe it was the alcohol, but he had a skip in his step as they left the Northrops’ perfect yard, headed for home. Halfway between the houses, Felicia hissed, “You’ve been stealing their mail?”

He kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry about it.”

Short Story

About the Creator

Rosie Ford

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