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How Your New Neighbors Arrive by Jeffrey Gibbs | Word Riot
Short Stories

July 29, 2017      

How Your New Neighbors Arrive by Jeffrey Gibbs

The old neighbors had been hiding in the basement since last month after the unmarked white Tauruses started roaming the streets with their surveillance devices. Family by family, night after night, we watched people arrive at three in the morning, the hour the door was unlocked. The women led the children by the hand down the stairs into the subterranean darkness where they hoped they’d be safe and secret. The men carried weapons just in case—hand guns, kitchen knives, broken broom handles. We’d wondered if we should go, too. Each night at three, we had asked ourselves this from under our blanket, not brave enough to voice the question aloud. We listened to the panicked whispers and descending footsteps, thinking “maybe, maybe,” until one day the door was sealed and not opened again.

We felt their presence whenever we walked by the house, their eyes seeping through the earth and pavement diagonally from their windowless hiding place to the sunlight of the street. Their voices stayed muffled. We didn’t dare ask them to speak up or say we could hear the moans from their wounded in the night.

The anchorwoman spoke against them, told us they didn’t belong anymore and so we turned up the radio, blasted whatever came forth, and felt justified that we hadn’t gone down into the dark. A few days later, the tank appeared and blew them apart. We saw their bodies come out of the air conditioner ducts in flames, like insects emerging from a burning log. We were told we didn’t see them. The tanks pointed at our building and a soldier in the top said we saw not him but paramedics rushing into the building to save a group of people shot in a terrorist raid. We closed the curtains. They said we had witnessed a suicide bomber attack the ambulances and the soldiers arrive to defend their lives and ours.

And we were content. The story made sense.

We went to the ice cream shop down the road and had them put chocolate sprinkles around the sides of a mound of pistachio, but not on the top, and then we sat on the rocks below the sea wall and held hands. You told me about the book you had read, about how it said our true selves were at the mercy of our inner dialogues, that the voices in our heads had been installed by our parents and we had to silence them one by one to live authentically. Yours constantly told you that you weren’t good enough. Mine told me I wasn’t worth being loved.

We ignored the screams behind us and the sudden empty spaces. We had no choice, wanted no choice.

I told you about the woman at work who was obsessed with guinea pigs, who had brought a sick one to work and talked to it while she typed, asking it constantly about food, when it wanted to eat, what it wanted to eat, if it liked this pellet or that pellet better, if it wanted mommy to hold it while she fed it. She had named it Zarathustra.

For a full day the basement is a pit next to our building. I stand out on the balcony with my cough and a cup of linden tea and peer carefully over the edge. The rubble is a pile of white plaster and insulation ringing the sides of a mound of red brick pieces. I see from the edge a light blue blouse covered with dust under a rock. A coat hanger. A tiny severed hand next to a mop bucket cracked down the side. Something wet, like a liver. There’s hair sticking out from between some bricks.

The Party women spread through the neighborhood like splitting atoms. Power gathering. They descend the hill and then fly apart at the side streets, two to each. They wear headscarves and precisely tailored business suits and Party pins. They are impregnable. They carry large books like ledgers and cradle them so that they flatten their breasts. When they knock on our door, they’ve already opened to the page with our names on it. They both smile at the same time and hold their fingers on the same page, scanning over the same information. My family name, my place of birth, my religion, my work address, my mother’s home address, the amount of times I’ve visited the bars in the past month, a list of phone calls. They ask me if everything is okay, if I need anything, a bag of groceries, medicine, some information, and the one on the right assures me the tanks are outside on the streets again, that their turrets are turning towards the enemy, that we will be forever be secure from the hidden traitors. Do I know where they are? asks the one on the left and then they both wait, smiling with their mouths only.

We hear explosions in the night, but we don’t wake. We are told not to wake, and so I hold my eyes closed in sleep and wonder whether my wife is doing the same, whether I should tell the women with the ledgers if she’s not, and the next morning when I go outside to smoke I see that the rubble next door is gone and in its place is a crane, and Kurds in construction uniforms. One of them sings a folk song as he pushes a wheel barrow full of cement toward a square pit in the earth. I think I see a boy’s face—maybe five or six, open mouthed and bloody—pushing up out of the foundation before the singing worker dumps his load over it and begins to mix. Then it’s a flat slab of gray wet stone, like a screen before the film starts or after it’s finished.

My wife calls me at work. We chat at lunch and she tells me she is stopping by the gym before coming home and that I should order pizza. The website is on my computer and all the passwords saved. I hang up and walk to the coffee shop for a latte because I have the afternoon free. The stray dogs lie supine on the sidewalk but not one stirs as I walk by. A policeman watches me from a storefront of dried goods, standing next to the figs. A white Taurus is parked on the curb.

When I get home, there is a new building next door. A tall glass and marble structure with vertical lights on the front facade that slowly fade from red into green and then blue before going back to red. The name of the place is “Golden Oasis”. The women with the ledgers stand all together at the gate in a perfect line, welcoming the new residents. They write and write. I watch a middle-aged man in a business suit tramp up the steps, he has a brief case in one hand and a swath of black hair jelled up with the precision of a sculpture. It changes color in the lights—green to blue to red and back. One of the women hands him what looks like a foot. He nods at her and slips it in his pocket.

The tanks are back at the end of the street. One points its gun at me, the other at the front door where the man went through. I see my wife appear around the side of its left treads. She carries a bag of groceries in her left hand and is texting someone with her right. The shadow of the tank seems to swallow her. A charming young man pops out of the turret and says something to her. She laughs. She has to. He is handsome, his life precious.

The new building has a row of windows that face our apartment. They stay lit all night long, shining into our living room as we eat pizza and watch the movie we missed from last year’s film festival—a Sri Lankan film. We keep our room dark except for the flickering glow of the laptop screen. The light from the rooms across the way is white and never falters. There’s no sign of any living thing, but we can both feel someone watching us like we watch this movie. I look but try to not look like I’m looking. I peek up over the lid of the computer without moving my head. Then I swivel toward the left as if just glancing up at our front door, but let my eyes skim over the row of windows.

We are not allowed to close our curtains now. We don’t have to be told. So many things go without saying.

For hours until we go to sleep, we see nothing in those rooms except the two gigantic pictures facing us from either side of the entrance to the hallway. One is of a nuclear family, the smiling father and mother, the precise children. The other is of the Leader looking resolute before the red of the flag. The long empty hall is like an open throat. At the end is a perfect doorframe of absolute blackness. Whatever watches us will walk toward us from there, arms out.


About the author:

Jeffrey Gibbs is originally from Florida, but has been living in Turkey for the past 9 years. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and has had short stories, essays, reviews and poems published in The Boston Review, The Istanbul Review, The Heat City Review, The Noo Journal, Blood Lotus, 3am, and Diagram. He also keeps a well-known blog on his experiences in Turkey at www.istanbulgibbs.blogspot.com.

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