Volume 34, Number 2

Gossip and Lies

David Larsen

Simply put: Norman Schmidt was a son of a bitch. There was no other way of saying it. The fuss-budget harangued children as they rode past his small clapboard house on their bicycles and skateboards. He cussed at the trash collectors when they made “too much of a racket” early in the morning—called them “dumb-ass Mexicans.” Some suspected that he shot dogs and cats that strayed onto his property with an air rifle. No one with any sense, not even the Methodist minister and his comely wife who lived three doors down from the crank, wanted to have anything to do with the ex-security guard, but crossing him was another matter, something few dared.

It wasn’t just that the sixty-one-year-old was a jerk. He was an audacious jerk, in his displays of disdain for anyone other than himself, in his fanaticism, in his fussiness. He’d stepped well beyond the pale when he called the police to complain about Gwendolyn Cantwell, the eighty-seven-year-old widow who lived next door. Her offense: playing her television too loud. The retired second-grade teacher was hard of hearing and liked to open her windows during the summer months. A fateful combination when you lived next door to the likes of Norman Schmidt. Gwendolyn followed Days of Our Lives as faithfully as a Wisconsinite follows the Packers. Apparently, Norman didn’t. Neither the soap opera, nor the football team. His TV remained locked on Fox News, or so Dolores Gallegos, the woman who cleaned his house and laundered his clothes and bedding every Tuesday, told others in the neighborhood, the nicer, more generous people she worked for when she wasn’t indentured to the loathsome crab.

Norman did have his defenders, not many, but a few, like-minded others who shared his opinions on what was best for the neighborhood and the country. “As long as he minds his own business and doesn’t get caught prowling the neighborhood after dark or shoots somebody,” one neighbor, an elderly lawyer, said with a shrug. “He’s just a weirdo,” said another resident, “strange but harmless.” And they had a point—up to a point. He wasn’t a pervert—as far as anyone could tell—and he hadn’t killed anyone. Norman scrupulously maintained his property, quite possibly better than anyone else on the block and, other than being cantankerous and peculiar, was an asset, especially when it came to keeping property values high, which helped to keep the neighborhood “safe” and the “riff-raff” out.

Of course, a few of the neighbors found ways of getting Norman’s goat whenever they got the opportunity or felt the need. Children egged his house, sometimes decorated the three cedar trees in his front yard with toilet paper. John Peet, a single bank clerk with a disjointed love life everyone followed with amusement, though he should have known better (he was in his mid-forties at the time), threw his Airedale’s droppings onto Norman’s front lawn, not often, but whenever the mood hit him. Usually around election time.

Norman, without thinking things through, accused Gwendolyn Cantwell of the deed. Poor Gwendolyn, baffled by his accusation, fretted for weeks and even considered moving in with one of her two children out west. She had but one pet, a parakeet named Sneaky, hardly capable of producing the mounds of poop the ornery creep was forced to scoop up from his fussily-manicured lawn.

Jennifer Spencer and her husband, Ronald, both associate professors or instructors or whatever at Trinity University, in history and something, a nice young couple everyone was proud to have on the block, lived across the street and two houses up from Norman Schmidt. The couple let it be known that the strange neighbor had shown up at their Unitarian church one Sunday morning, sporting an NRA t-shirt and western boots, just to get the left-leaning congregation all in a tither. He wasn’t a member. He never returned. He’d made his point—whatever it was. He’d succeeded in “owning the libs” as he liked to say.

Two years after the election, “the stolen election,” a Trump-Pence sign still stood defiantly in Norman’s yard, like a sentry standing his ground. People shook their head when he pompously drove his black Chevy pickup up and down Grissom Street, a “Come and Take It” sticker on his bumper, and an American flag flapping from a mount in the truck’s bed. “It is odd”, some said, “but what’s the harm? Just ignore him.”

John Peet, when he wasn’t tossing dog poop onto his neighbor’s yard or entertaining a woman he’d met the night before, had bothered to do a little research on Norman Schmidt. John had suspicions that he might have seen the man’s sneer on the face of one of the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6th. Alongside the shaman with the buffalo horns and a goon with a Gadsden flag. That was the impetus that got the bank clerk started in his efforts to uncover his neighbor’s “traitorous” shenanigans. After watching replays of the attack over and over on CNN, John had to admit that most of the kooks wore the same obnoxious smirk, like the SS wore the same tattoo on the underside of their left arms. John remained suspicious, but could find no evidence that confirmed his suspicions about the nutcase’s activities or whereabouts on that particular day.

But what John did uncover was an explanation for the sixty-one-year-old’s early retirement from the Safety-First Security Company. Not exactly a high-paying occupation, security cop. It wasn’t what most would consider lucrative enough to allow for retirement before reaching the eligibility age for Social Security. Norman Schmidt, according to an article John had discovered on the internet, had sued the security company for wrongful dismissal… and won. A hefty sum, over half a million. A woman had made an accusation that Norman “came onto me” and “made suggestive and lewd comments” when he worked as a security guard at the apartment complex where she resided. The company immediately fired Norman. Later, the woman withdrew the charges, Norman filed suit, and, voilà, he was set for life. John smelled a rat, but the trail was cold; this had happened ten years earlier. The woman seemed to have disappeared, and Norman Schmidt was well-fixed. Soon after, he purchased his house on Grissom Street.

It was a Saturday afternoon when John, Norman’s covert nemesis, watched a ballgame on television, the Pirates and the Cardinals. His latest girlfriend, Cindy, had left two hours earlier after an early-morning tryst that left both of them satisfied, yet somehow unsettled. Each had their doubts when it came to the other’s fidelity. The doorbell, followed by three loud knocks, brought him out of his post-coital reflections.

“Why the hell were all of those cars parked in front of my house yesterday?” Norman asked, before John’s eyes could adjust to the afternoon glare. The bald, overweight man was silhouetted and framed by the doorjambs. “I called the police, but they didn’t even bother to show up.”

John blinked several times. Eventually, he sputtered, “After Mrs. Cantwell’s funeral everyone came to her house for food and to be with her son and daughter.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “One flew in from California and the other, the daughter, from Salt Lake.”

“The old woman died?” said Norman. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Because you’re an asshole. Instead, “We just assumed that everyone knew. It was in the newspaper. The obituary was.”

The man’s BB eyes glared at John. “I don’t read the newspapers. They’re just full of gossip and lies.”

“It was also online. On Facebook. I don’t know… a lot of places.”

Norman craned his neck to look around John, into the house. To see who might or might not be there. In search of socialists? John thought to himself. The coot eyed Samson, John’s Airedale with skepticism. Samson sat calmly behind his owner.

“Someone should have told me,” Norman snarled. “That’s what neighbors do. You know?”

The man was in a short-sleeved shirt, camouflage, as if he’d been hunting or had just returned from a training session with a militia. John wanted to get a glimpse of his underarm. Why in the world did the grouch come to my door? We hardly know each other. John leaned against the doorframe, to block the idiot’s probe into his living room, still in disarray from his episode with Cindy.

“I’m sorry. Someone should have let you know,” said John.

The man grinned, not pleasantly—that telltale sneer. “Where should I send flowers?”

“The funeral was yesterday,” said John. The fool’s an even bigger dope than I suspected. He continued. “In lieu of flowers her son and daughter wanted people to make a donation to one of Mrs. Cantwell’s favorite charities.” Geez, I hate this. I sound like an early-morning announcer on PBS. In lieu of flowers?

“Like what?” Norman shuffled clumsily on the front step.

“Uh, one was the Humane Society.” John’s mind was blank. He thought that was right. But was it? It might have been the Humanist Society.

“I don’t much like animals,” said Norman. “What else?”

John took a deep breath. What was the other charity? I wasn’t about to make a donation. I didn’t pay all that much attention. I went to the damned funeral. Isn’t that enough? For a woman I spoke to fewer than a half dozen times?

Finally, it came to him. “The other was the Rescue Mission. For homeless people.”

Norman crinkled his nose. “Nothing but a bunch of do-gooders and freeloaders. Rewarding laziness. Wanting something for nothing. What else?”

“I think that was it, Mr. Schmidt.”

The bitter man looked at John’s mailbox with a grimace of disapproval and swiped the back of his hand across his thin lips. To John he resembled a rodent trapped in a corner, not sure which way to go, but more than willing to take on all comers.

“I’ll just send flowers,” said Norman.

“To who? No one needs flowers.” John took a deep breath. More calmly, he said, “Why don’t you make a donation to one of your charities? Do it in her name.”

The man stared blankly at John. After a long moment, he said, “The only donations I make are political. I guess I could give something to one of them.”

John sighed. “I don’t know what you have in mind, but I’m not sure that that would be appropriate. What if Mrs. Cantwell was a Democrat? I’ve noticed the signs in your yard.” And the bumper sticker, and the flag, and the weapons.

John could almost hear the sprockets clanking inside the man’s head, rusty from disuse. “Maybe the National Rifle Association. Or something nonpartisan like an antiabortion group.” Norman seemed pleased with what he’d come up with.

John hesitated. He looked down at his bare feet and yawned. “Not everyone would see those as nonpartisan. I certainly wouldn’t.”

Norman glared at the forty-six-year-old. He hmphed, crossed his thick arms across his chest and appeared to be in deep thought.

John knew that he was in no position to be a wise-ass, yet he’d always been one. Norman had him by four inches and sixty pounds. Not to mention the arsenal of weapons the oaf carried out to his truck every Saturday morning. Off to the shooting range. Or a meeting of some paramilitary group. The United Front for God, Guns and Babies or Concerned Citizens for Anarchy.

He looked up into Norman’s beady eyes and said, “You could make a donation to the Mother Jones Foundation. Or take out a subscription to Mother Jones, for one of Mrs. Cantwell’s children.”

Norman nodded slowly, then shook his over-sized head. “I don’t think Mrs. Cantwell was Catholic. And I don’t much like the idea of giving money to the Catholic church.” He again shook his head. “But what that nun did in India… or wherever… was admirable.” He took a deep breath. “Maybe I’d better stick to flowers.”

My God. You don’t even know a labor agitator from a saintly nun. John smiled and shrugged. He tilted his head, then said with a chuckle, “Her daughter’s staying in the house for a week or two. She might like getting flowers.” Maybe it’ll be the start of something. A romance.

Norman shifted his weight. “I’ve got a friend that’s got a flower shop. I met him at a MAGA rally. I’ll give him a call. He’ll know what’s best to send.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said John. A florist at a MAGA rally? The guy was lucky to get out of there alive.

Norman sneered. “You know what the best thing about all of this is?”

John shook his head.

“That old biddy won’t be throwing dog shit onto my lawn anymore. She had a mean streak in her that most people never got to see.”

John watched the man clamber down his front steps, holding tightly to the handrail, then lumber across his lawn and down the street. Somehow, he felt that he’d dodged a bullet. Perhaps literally.