Prompt: The Man Next Door Who Mutters to Himself
Warning: Long Story
The man next door always sat out on his front porch in an old wicker rocking chair. As he rocked, he muttered. Muttering what? No one really knew. From morning to night, from sun to moon, he was out on that rocker, muttering. Sometimes he would shake his head, other times he would run his hand through his wispy hay colored hair, and quite a few times he would grip his faded jeans until his knuckles were white, then slowly let them go to only clench them once more. Then one day, he wasn’t out on the porch in his chair… One day his door front door was open.
I had just moved in next door. My father got a job in town at a bank, or maybe he took the job because my mother walked out on us. Either way, we moved to the small town and bought the quaint, gambrel roofed house next to nearly dilapidated, gabled one of the man who mutters. That was the first time I saw him out on his porch, while my father unloaded the moving truck.
I stood out on the sidewalk and peered over the blue paint peeling fence surrounding his unkempt front yard. It was unusually quiet there, and his rocking made the shoddy floorboards creak and squeak in rhythm with his arched feet. And there was the muttering. The constant whispering. I tried my best to hear what he was saying but the closer I got to the fence, the more I craned my neck over the top of the fence, the more I felt like the world was weighing upon me, like the air itself became heavier and heavier the nearer I was to him.
If it wasn’t for my father shouting for my help with moving a dresser, I surely would’ve caught a few gibbering words. I have no doubt about that. But, life doesn’t always work out that way, does it?
It was a few days later, after my father got a routine down with work and home, home and work, and I was enrolled in the local junior high school, that I tried again to hear what the muttering man was saying. I had just gotten off the school bus that drops me off two blocks from my house, and my father wasn’t due to be home for an hour or two.
I quickly threw my bag onto the porch and pushed through the brambles that separated his yard and our’s. That was a spot I learned the day after we moved. I could be closer to the porch, although on the side. The thin, clawing branches scratched me quite a bit, but it was worth it being closer. Though, there was still the fence to quarrel with.
I leaned over the top of the it, stretching my neck, putting my ear out like a fish bobber in the lake in the hopes to catch something big. And… I did, not really big, but something nonetheless.
As the man shook his head, he muttered, “… Susan… Gone… God… Courage… Join…” Then he stopped and dug his fingernails into the rockers armrests. He scratched at the weathered wood as he bit his lower lip. “Join… Her… Brave… Weak…” he cursed, “Too… For This… I… Join… Susan…”
If it wasn’t for my father’s car door slamming shut and jolting me from the daze I was in I surely would’ve fell over into the man’s yard. With a jump, I leapt from the bush and ran to the front porch, grabbing my bag, and went inside. By the time my father came in through the backdoor, his collar undone and holding his hat in one hand, the other holding a briefcase, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my history book open, drinking a cup of cold chocolate milk.
It was days before I had the chance again to listen to the muttering man. My father seemed to believe I was lonely, with all my friends left back in the old town, so he spent most of his free time with me, playing cards and board games, watching TV, taking me around downtown for ice cream and the library. I appreciated and loved him doing those things, but in the back of my mind, all I could think of was the muttering man.
So, finally, on a Friday, my father called home when I got inside that he was going to be late that night. There were TV dinners in the freezer, and he told me not to go out when the street lamps came on. I agreed with my fingers crossed and after I told him I loved him, I hung up the phone and sprinted outside, leapt down the porch stairs, and went straight into the brambles.
The man’s chair was empty and his front door stood open. It took me a few minutes to understand what I was seeing. The muttering man had been more constant in my life up to that point than anything else. It was like two plus two equaled four. It was a fact of life, it was rational, it was meant to be that way from the start. The man and his chair and his muttering.
For a moment I wondered where he was or maybe I was peeping into a different yard but then another moment I thought maybe he had been hurt. He had to have gone inside. Of course, he had. He’d have to go to the bathroom, have to eat, have to brush his teeth and comb his hair, right? And wasn’t it the duty of his neighbors to make sure he was safe and sound? I told myself this as I climbed over the fence, landed in his knee-high grass, and crept up the creaking porch steps and crossed the warped floorboards into his dimly lit home.
The walls were as warped as the floorboards were, and they seemed to curl and loom over me as I slowly moved towards what was the kitchen. The smell of spoiled milk and rotting oranges stung my nose, and my stomach churned. There were moldy dishes towering in the sink, on the countertops. The cupboards near the ceiling were open, empty save for rat poop and spiderwebs. An indescribable heap was on the kitchen table that could’ve been clothes or garbage, and glass and debris were on the floor.
“Mister?” I called into the mess. “Mister, are you all right?”
I stood still, waiting, waiting, then there was a noise… A muttering, maybe coming from the right. I stepped lightly over the trash and shattered glass and found a door open to stairs made from wooden planks that went down into darkness, into the cellar.
“Mister?” I called again, and again, there was that noise. A few moments I debated with myself. He sounded hurt, but how hurt? I might’ve went inside to help but now I was going into darkness, into darkness so thick I didn’t think I could see my own hand in front of my face. “Are you all right, Mister?” I said into the dark and was given a reply, another noise. I breathed in deep and sighed heavily, shook my head and clenched my hands.
One step at a time, one creak underneath my shoes at a time, I cautiously went down into the darkness. Cold soon replaced warmth. The smell of damp mildew replaced rotting fruit and old milk. Gooseflesh stood on out on my forearms, and the hair on the back of my neck did the same. When I felt solid cement under me, I smiled, as though I had just walked a tightrope and made it to the other side. I did it. I survived. The noise came from to the right and I shuffled carefully towards it and stopped, my eyes wide.
A yellow lightbulb was on, dangling from the ceiling, casting everything in a sickly glow. There was a well in his cellar. An old cobblestone one with moss growing up its sides. The lip of the stones were wet looking. The muttering man lay on his side, his hand flat on the stone, his mouth open and gaping, his eyes filled with tears. His chest was shallow as he moaned. After the fear left my legs, I ran to him and did my best to get him to sit up, his back against the well. He winced and muttered, still reaching for the lip of the well. He finally sat up, breathing heavy.
“Mister, mister, what happened? Why are you down here and not out on your porch?” I asked finally, as though him not being in his chair was important.
“Well… Well… God… Susan…” he said, trying to pull himself around, trying to pull himself up into the well. I gripped the waist of his jeans and pulled him back down, shouting, “No! Stop! You’ll fall and get hurt!”
“Susan… Susan… Together… More…” he muttered, pointing with a gnarled hand, reaching towards the top of the well.
“Fine, fine,” I said, like I was shooing him like my mother use to do to me when I asked for something. I stood on tiptoes and looked over the wet stones down into the well… At the bottom was dirt and bones… But, not any bones, like the ones you’d see at a museum, but ones poking out from dirt, ones covered in a faded pink gown. There were small tufts of gray hair strewn about near the head.
Everything clicked then, everything made sense then, even though I wasn’t even sixteen years old. I looked back to the old man, then the bones way down in the well… The muttering man had been married… The muttering man had a wife who had fallen down the well… When or how, I never found out, nor was it really important. The only thing that mattered was that she down there and he was up here, and all he ever wanted to do is be with her… But he had waited and waited to build the courage to do so, but he had waited too long, grown too weak, too old, and now that he got himself up to do it, he couldn’t… His muscles too frail, his joints too filled with dust, his lungs withered like flowers without water and sunlight…
After finding the muttering man and the well, everything was a blur. Like a child thinking of everything but nothing, like a child who’s only answer was to reach out for someone older, for an adult to help make sense and help with what was happening, I raced home and called my father. I called him and shouted that he had to come home, that he had to call the police, that the muttering man’s wife was in the well and the muttering man was down there all alone and he wanted to kill himself! My father barely understood what I was saying but he said he’d come home as quickly as he could. I slammed down the phone and raced back down into the man’s cellar to wait… to find him gone.
I sprinted to the well and looked down and saw the muttering man down there… His arms were bent wild and wrong, his legs, too. The lips that muttered all those words all those days and nights were open, revealing missing teeth and a white-pink tongue. And although I started balling, although my knees became too weak to use and I crumpled onto the floor, deep down, somewhere in my sadness, I was happy for him, happy that he was now with the one he loved, happy that he wouldn’t have to spend his days out on the porch rocking back and forth and muttering about her anymore…
Read my previous prompt, “Mort, Mistress of the Violet Mist.”
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