His knock has alway sounded more like a scratch. And my apartment is configured such that rarely am I within earshot of the door. So I expect there have been many more times I didn't hear him at my door than I did. But this is only conjecture. He hasn't said, nor have I inquired. I think his expectation of others is such that surely he is surprised each time my door opens and I show my face behind the chain.
He doesn't talk much. I think he either doesn't like the act of speaking, of forming words. or the mental activity of gathering them. Maybe the process is too taxing to be worth the trouble. And when finally he does speak, it comes in a sort of rushed whisper. Leaving a large portion of his words lost in the space around us.
He'll come most often to borrow perishables: a couple of eggs for breakfast or afternoon baking; cream for his morning coffee, or milk for his evening tea; a stick of butter for pie or Hollandaise; a couple of mushrooms for an omelette; a missing herb or two for the bouquet garni. Now and then a staple will run out and on these occasions he'll bring his measuring cup or utensil to take exactly what he needs: 1/2 c of sugar, 2 tbsp flour, 1/4 tsp allspice, etc.. These times we don't speak at all -- a shared embarrassment. When I see him at the door with cups and spoons in hands I simply open the door and let him at the kitchen. He knows the pantry well enough. After he's left I'll find a dollar or two or a couple of quarters on the counter.
The borrowed perishables he'll return, and with a hefty interest. Three eggs will return a dozen. Four ounces of milk yields a gallon. And the quality is always first rate. Free range and organic and local, whenever possible. Occasionally he'll add a surprise: a piece of fresh white fish, filleted and iced; a couple of center cut pork chops; half a goddamn prime rib roast. He is a generous and thoroughly particular shopper. He just hates to go out, is my theory. Hates it more than talking.
One night last week I dreamt that we were cooking together. In my kitchen, it seemed. The equipment and arrangement felt familiar enough but the lighting was too bright. Much too bright actually, like an interrogation room. He was working on the consomme, which might have been for aspic, but more than likely not. I prefer hot soup and I was in charge of the meal. He seemed fidgety, uncertain, hesitant, not unlike the stickman, but, of course, now from up close. It was getting under my skin. Then I noticed that he was sweating, heavily, but the kitchen wasn't hot. I remembered the lighting and thought, Well, maybe I've a hand in his sweating, but before I could give much thought to the lighting problem and his sweating, I could feel the perspiration from his face and scalp somehow running down my arms and onto my fingers, causing the french knife I was chopping vegetables with to slip and slice across my knuckles. The red quickly flowed, but then just as quickly coagulated, and this mass grew and grew like an inflating balloon, like a pulsing red deformity. Meanwhile he's pulling the consomme from the stove, carrying it to the sink to strain. It was obviously too soon to pull the pot. Christ almighty, the raft hadn't risen yet.
"Goddamn it, no! Put that pot back on the stove and leave it be."
He didn't say a word, or look at me. He did return the pot to the stove. I could feel the anger in me welling, at a rate, in retrospect, similar to the growth on my hand. I was inflating.
"Go set the table or something," I said, without looking up from the cutting board. A nasty kitchen insult. The sort of thing the chef only says to a cook once he's decided to sack the fool at day's end. Even then, it's considered a really mean thing to say. But it felt good to say, and immediately the wound began to dissipate. As did my anger. Although the anger was replaced by a feeling of wrong, a heavy and full wrong. The type of wrong I suppose one feels after killing someone. Unequivocal. The type of wrong that when it comes in a dream it reaches deep and shakes so much that it wakes you up. Perspiring and with heart beating rapidly. Needing air to steady. Jesus Christ, almost gasping. Feeling emotional. Feeling unsettled and exposed. Feeling vulnerable to the point of fright. To the edge of panic. Breathe breathe breathe, it was only a dream.
I have thought since waking from that dream that my neighbor won't come again. A feeling that I've cosmically driven him away. Warned him as to how toxic I'm capable of being. Shown him what a mean fucker I really am. And I wonder why I couldn't have dreamt about all of the time I've spent writing out my shopping lists, carefully listing all the foods and brands the neighbor uses, sometimes stopping at three grocery stores while out. Silly me. Of course that isn't dream material. Nor is a man sitting in a back room, sometimes reading sometimes dozing, but always these days surrounded by the cheap faint static from a baby monitor -- the thin pale breathing, this man calls it -- waiting for the device to report scratching at the front door. Praying to hear the beggar's familiar scratching.