When Jodi and I were out in our back yard picking all the juicy blackberries there was to pick, we saw a man moving a bunch of stuff into the house next door. He saw us, waved, and said he was our new neighbor, and his name was Mr. Jordan. When we told Mama, she said his house wasn’t a house but a little cottage and about ten years ago, before I was born, an old bachelor handyman lived there. Most days, he kept to himself and then he wasn’t even seen outside doing his usual chores. People started to wonder if he had gone away or what. It was days before his dead body was found. After all his inside and outside junk was hauled away in three trucks, a skinny red-haired woman named Miss Allen bought the house.
Mama said Miss Allen was the one who got it painted stark white with bright green and yellow trim. She said it was painted for Florida and not for respectable Mercer, Pennsylvania and, “It stood out like a sore thumb.” The day Miss Allen moved away, Mama said, “Good riddance. I never liked her and her loud drinking parties that went on past midnight.”
Mr. Jordan had dark hair, a dark mustache, and movie-star looks, except he limped when he walked and used a black cane with a silver handle. His front yard was twice as long as ours. Near his front sidewalk grew the two tallest oak trees in our neighborhood, even in town, even in all of Pennsylvania. Mama said I exaggerated because I’ve never even seen much of Pennsylvania and not even all of Mercer. She said if there was ever a storm coming through, those trees could get blown over on our house and kill us all. When Jodi said a storm with thunder and lightning and tons of rain was coming our way, I hid under my bed and soon fell asleep. I woke up when I heard Mama yelling she couldn’t find me and feared I got lost in the storm and swept away.
When I crawled out, she said I gave her two heart attacks and I’d better stop doing that or else.
Mr. Jordan’s yard had a creek down the middle, and he had to cross a bridge to get to his house sitting close to his back fence. Mama said if the creek ever flooded, he’d have problems getting in and out. He might even get stuck for days unless he crawled over his back fence and into his neighbor’s yard, unless they might mind him doing that. Plus, he might not even be able crawl over that bad leg of his. He could end up falling on his face and hurting his leg worse; and someone would have to come rescue him. If he knocked himself out, he could lay there all day, and even die from splitting his head apart.
The creek ran through our yard too, but it was in the back behind our house, past our lawn swings and two apple trees. Once when Jodi and I were playing in our creek trying to catch water skeeters, we looked up the creek and into his yard and there he was all dressed up in a suit and tie like it was Sunday and carrying a box as he walked over his bridge and disappeared into his house that was still white with green and yellow trim. Mama believed a respectable man shouldn’t like living in a house painted like a greeting card and he should’ve had it repainted.
“He got something in that box,” I said; “Whaddya think it is?”
“Let’s be spies. If we hide and don’t move, he won’t see us when he comes back out,” Jodi whispered in my ear. We snuck up the creek to where his yard started, where the blackberries grew. I stood as still as I could, except when I got an itch that needed a scratch. We waited and waited but didn’t see anything that spies see; but it was fun hiding and it made me want to be a spy when I grew up.
Next Saturday, Jodi and I were playing on the sidewalk out front, and Mr. Jordan walked by in a tan suit. He wore red tennis shoes and a green sock and a bright yellow one. He smiled and said we were the prettiest girls in all of Mercer. I thought his shoes and socks were funny and I giggled. Then Jodi did. Then he did. It felt like one of our tea parties in our playhouse. He said we had the sweetest giggle he’d heard in two years, and he hears lots of giggles at his job.
A few days later, our dog chased a squirrel into Mr. Jordan’s yard, and we ran in to get her. Mr. Jordan was sitting outside at his picnic table reading. He said he’d be very mighty honored if we stayed for a little visit. I thought it was special, like something only a grown-up could do—to very mighty honor someone, like it was giving a blue-ribbon award. There were peanut butter cookies on the table, and he offered us some. Other stuff was spread out on the table. There were birthday cards and pictures, one in a frame, and a box filled to the top with stuff. Mr. Jordan talked about his job teaching third graders. Jodi mostly talked and answered his questions about how old we were and what we liked to play. I feared he might ask me a question and I wouldn’t know the answer.
Jodi asked if he liked teaching, and he said it was the best job he ever had. She asked who the little girl was in the picture sitting on the table. He said, “My beautiful daughter . . . but she died in a car accident just about two years ago. Her favorite cookies were peanut butter.”
“Did you bake these?” Jodi asked.
“No, I bought them.” He got quiet. His eyes saddened as he looked at her picture. I thought he was gonna cry. I never saw a grown-up cry and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even have a Kleenex to give him.
“Is she in heaven?” Jodi asked.
“She is. If she were here, you’d like her. Her name was Hannah.”
“Where’s her mama?”
“She died too. I miss them every day.”
I didn’t say a word except “Yes, please,” when asked if I wanted another cookie.
Mama said we shouldn’t visit a man by ourselves and not to go over there again even if our dog runs over there, even if he’s nice, even if his daughter died ‘cause maybe it was his fault. “You need to think about being safe, being safe. Safe, safe, safe,” she said. I liked the way she said safe, safe, safe, so I kept saying it as I walked outside.
It made me fear Mr. Jordan, that he was gonna do something bad. Soon I imagined that ghosts prowled his yard at night because Jodi once said ghosts come out at night. They come up from the creek but aren’t dripping wet. She said they can be up to their heads in water and not get wet. It can be real hot like in summer, but they don’t feel hot. They can trip and fall and not get hurt. I didn’t believe her, but Jodi said it was true. She kept saying it. Once I woke up in the middle of the night and sat by the window looking out, fearing and hoping I’d see a ghost and hoping it didn’t see me.
I wondered if Mr. Jordan liked having ghosts around. Did he give them cookies? Peanut butter cookies? What if they can come into our house at night. Jodi said they can walk through walls. When I thought I saw something moving outside, I hid behind the curtains. I feared there were two of them and I wondered if they were big like the oak trees, or just little things, or if they looked like Mr. Jordan. Would they fly? Would they walk? Could they touch me? Would I feel it? I decided they wouldn’t see me if I didn’t move. Soon I took a peek around the curtains but didn’t see anything. I did it again, quicker. And again, even quicker while moving my lips, while thinking, ghost, ghost, ghost.
Jodi woke up and saw me going back and forth. She said, “Lynette, what are you doing? Go back to bed, you, nutball.”
Under my blanket, I whispered Jodi’s a nutball, nutball, nutball.
G. M. Monks’s work has appeared in Militant Grammarian, L’Esprit Literary Review, The Hunger, Birdland Journal, RavensPerch, Kansas City Voices, and elsewhere. Awards include finalist in Ben Nyberg Fiction Contest, and finalist in the Breakwater Review Fiction Contest. Two of her stories were nominated for Best American Short Stories 2023.