Some things in this neighborhood change way too often. Take, for example, the rapidity with which my favorite neighbors move out. On the other hand, some things don’t change often enough, e.g. The Borrowers. This month, I learned (much to my chagrin) that Ashley, recent victim of “neighborly borrowing”, is making plans to get out of Dodge. For some reason, it unnerves her that Borrower Girl can still be seen wandering the neighborhood from time-to-time, asking to borrow people’s phones. (This is not an exaggeration; she asked to borrow my phone for the third time two weeks ago).
I’d beg Ashley to stay, but when I try to think of a good reason why she should, all I come up with is: You don’t wanna move, moving sucks… I’ll give you some herbs out of my garden…? Totally lame.
And then there’s the fact that even better reasons to move just keep on coming. Take this afternoon, for example. I pull up in front of my townhouse after running errands; my foot is barely off the clutch, when I notice a scrawny-looking man approaching the car. He’s skirting the bumper in this pathetic sort of way as I eye him in the rearview mirror. He’s got Borrower written all over him, though I can’t be sure if he’s related, or just a satellite of the family.
I think to myself: Only two kinds of men would come creeping up behind a person’s vehicle as they pull into their parking spot, arms full of grocery bags: a rapist/robber, or a complete moron. Which one is this idiot? I push the door open with my foot, staring him down as he rounds the bumper and stops about a yard or so away from me. It seems sensible to just go ahead and load all my shopping bags onto my shoulders as I get out of the car. After all, I do not want to look away from him, and I have the strange feeling that an armload of crap might come in handy. It certainly makes a nice barrier between us, as I stand to face him, my eyebrows raised like the golden arches. He speaks.
“Hey, could you do me a favor?” Fat chance, I think, but say nothing. “Could you look at the back a my head?” He stoops a little and shuffles a millimeter towards me; the look on my face clearly stipulates that coming significantly closer may result in frostbite.
“Look at your HEAD?” I say, “What?” doing some fast cogitation behind what I hope is a blank expression. Was this one of those good-Samaritan-gone-bad ploys, where the soon-to-be-victim is lured into a compromising situation by agreeing to check her neighbor’s hair for lice or something?
I size him up quickly. He looks like he hasn’t eaten all week. His size-small tee-shirt hangs from his shoulders, and his cargo shorts reveal a pair of chicken legs, each ending in a tatty sneaker. His hair is cut in a half-inch buzz, making lice unlikely. I’m at least an inch taller than him. Frankly, he looks like a weakling. Weaklings are dangerous, though, and so while I wasn’t ready to run from the guy, I wasn’t going to get within arm’s reach, either.
He’s stooping over now, turning slightly away from me, as he tries to answer my confusion. “My head,” he persists. “Can you see if the staples in my head are ruptured? I need someone to check ‘cause I can’t see.”
“I was in a car accident and had my head stapled. But then, I got jumped by four guys an’ they stomped on my head, an’ I think they ruptured my staples. Can you see for me?”
“Jumped you! Here?” His was the same, slow drawl of Borrower Girl, the kind of speech cadence that makes you think of Budweiser-by-the case, and marijuana pipes made out of soda cans.
“Yeah, just as I was comin’ home.” He turns to point at the Borrowers’ apartment. I notice that the glass of the front window has been shattered. “I was in a car accident today, and I jus’ got home from the emergency room, and then four guys jumped me and started hitting me.”
“Did you know these people??”
He looks embarrassed. “Yeah, I know ‘em.”
This answers two main points for me: First, that whoever came into my neighborhood and beat one of my neighbors was not their for shits and giggles; they were there because my neighbors are scumbag magnets. Second, that no robber/rapist could concoct quite such a brilliantly stupid story. For some reason, this is a relief to me. I sigh, and shuffle closer, trying to get the top of his noggin in view.
“Put your head down more,” I command. He complies, and there they are: a bloody row of staples. It looks just like he’s been the victim of a drive-by organ harvesting, except I seriously doubt there was anything in his head worth stealing.
“Can you see ‘em? Are they ruptured?” He is whining now.
“Oh yeah, I can see them,” I say, and the truth is, I am starting to feel a little guilty for my behavior. I am leaning towards him as far as my neck will reach so that I won’t have to step one foot closer than three feet, as if he were foul, dirty, or contaminated. Yet, here he is, injured and bleeding, his left cheekbone sprouting what is clearly a nice fat, fresh bruise, and this is the best I can do?
So I give him a pitying look, and step to his side to get a decent view of the damage. I notice that the staples are still in place, though the skin has parted somewhat, and has certainly been bleeding afresh, though not anymore.
“I think they’re okay,” I tell him. “The staples aren’t ruptured, but there’s some blood drying around there and you’d better clean the area.” It occurs to me as I say this that he may not have anything to clean it with, so I ask him.
“I s’pose I could go get some alcohol swabs or something?” he says, looking pathetic, like a whipped dog yearning for pat on the head – well, maybe he’d settle for a swab. I’m not ready to commit to this, however, and my grocery-buffer strategy gives me the perfect excuse to edge away, close my car door, and retreat to my porch, calling instructions to him as I go. He ambles away up the drive, shoulders hunched.
Once I got inside my door, I think my head cleared a great deal. The act of flipping home the deadbolt also helped. My sense of security was restored, and I began to feel much more charitable. So, I divested myself of shopping bags, paused at the sofa to press a fat kiss onto Pippin’s quivering belly, and leapt upstairs for the bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of sterile cotton pads. I was certain that, given the Borrowers’ history, this guy did not have anything decent with which to clean his wound.
Pippin and I rushed back down the front steps and up the hill toward the Borrowers’ place. I wondered about that broken window – should I just holler inside, or go knock on the door? I decided to knock, but was still unwilling to wait on the porch. The confines were too close. Instead, I stood at the bottom of the steps and waited. No one answered. So, I went to the broken window, after all, and called inside. “Hey!” I said, “you want something to clean your head with?”
“I’m over here!” The answer came from some distance behind me. I turned to see him slumping back down the hill towards the house. He had been walking up the driveway, as if to leave the neighborhood. I didn’t bother to ask where on earth he’d been off to. To buy swabs?
“I’ve got some alcohol here,” I told him briskly, “go sit down in that chair over there.” Conveniently, one of the Borrowers (probably him, perhaps as he broke into the house through that window) had left a metal chair out front. He thanked me as he moved toward the chair.
Then, he said something completely unsettling: “I’m gonna to take my shirt off, that okay?” The hell it is, I thought. Why in the name of all cracked-out morons would he want to do that? He had no other injury, and no dripping blood to worry about. And if he’d already been on the ground getting the shit kicked out of him, I doubt he needed to worry about a little blood getting on his shirt, anyway. As far as I was concerned, this was some kind of a half-cocked come-on that needed immediate quashing.
I shot him a disgusted look. “You don’t need to take off your shirt,” I said sternly. He dropped the idea and plopped himself down in the chair.
“Now, bend down so I can get this cleared up.” I was starting to sound like the school nurse at a juvenile delinquent academy.
“It’s gonna hurt, idn’ it?” More whining.
“Yup. It’s alcohol; it’ll sting pretty bad.”
“Better than an infection.”
I soaked a cotton pad and started dabbing his head. He sucked in a slow breath between his teeth. I did not really feel sorry for him. That business with the shirt killed all sense of pity.
Being doctored, however, seemed to spur him into a further explanation of his current embarrassing state.
“Yeah, pretty nice bein’ in a car accident and then gettin’ beat up in the same day.”
“Why’d they jump you? You said you knew those guys? Did you call the police?”
“Yeah, I’m pressin’ charges. I tole the police who they were. They’re friends a my stepdad’s.” This fact made him a heretofore-unknown member of the Borrower family. The previous son whom I had met – the one who let the family dog shit in my yard – had been Borrower Dad’s own son. This kid, it appeared, was the Borrower Mom’s kid, which made him Borrower Girl’s brother. Not the best of recommendations – bleeding skull aside.
He went on. “I guess they thought I’d had some trouble with my stepdad – which it’s not true at all. I didn’ have no trouble wi’ him. And they come up here and try to keep me from getting’ inta’ my own house.”
“Why didn’t they want you to go in the house?”
“I don’ know. But I tried to come home, and they pulled up an jumped me. one of ‘em punched me in tha face, an’ the other ‘un started to stomp me in the back of the head when I fell down. Takes some kinda man to go jump on a person four ta one. Now, I know how’ta defend myself, but…”
He trailed off, so I took pity on him. “Well, it’s kind of hard to defend yourself when you’re one against four.”
I straightened up. “Well,” I said, briskly, “I’ve cleaned it up as much as I can. You got some ointment to put on it in case of infection?” I hated to ask, afraid of yet another ministration, but he said he had, so I nodded and started moving off, calling Pippin. She had been wandering around the Borrowers’ porch, sniffing at the rubbish strewn about the place.
I was eager to get clear of the whole scene. Borrower-Boy, not so much. He clearly wanted to keep my attention, hoping to start a conversation by asking me a variety of questions. Somehow, my feet kept moving toward my side of the building as I answered him. Eventually, I was yelling back over my shoulder, “Yup! Stay out of trouble, now!”
Back inside, I scrubbed and double-scrubbed my hands in the kitchen sink. Lice were the least of my worries; I had just been dabbing blood off the open wound of a complete stranger. The sort of stranger who counts as a regular part of his week getting the piss beat out of him by his stepfather’s own friends – under the pretense of settling a family squabble. How could I blame Ashley for wanting to pack her bags? True, I have no desire to pack my bags, but I would definitely like nothing more than to see back of The Borrowers, carpetbags in hand as they hitchhike into the sunset.