– american pie

American Pie
by Susan Pogorzelski

My neighbor to our right plants flowers. My neighbor to our left…I still don’t know what he does.

I often see him on his front porch, leaning against the pillar with a glass of something in his hand. He doesn’t look much older than Julie McCarson’s brother, beneath the mop of hair and bearded stubble, and Julie’s brother is already in college, but he doesn’t have a job as far as I can tell, either, and Mom has never mentioned it.

The day after the carnival, with a couple of pies left over, Mom insisted that I bring him one. That same afternoon I climbed the wooden steps, balancing the pie pan in my hand, and rang the doorbell. He came to the door holding a newspaper and a glass, wearing the same brown pants and sneakers that I usually see him in.

He looked at me through the screen, then down at my hands.

“Hang on a sec,” he said, then disappeared back into the house. I heard a clanging, a drawer sliding shut, then footsteps as he reappeared holding two forks.

He sat down at the vinyl card table set up on the porch. He motioned to the other folding chair, and I put the pie in the center of the table and took the other fork from him. The newspaper he had set down was folded, but part of the headline was visible. Something about Vietnam. We had talked about it in school, but that had been last year, and it didn’t make sense why he wouldn’t just throw it away. I shifted in my seat to get a better look at the date, but the year was folded along a crease.

“How are your parents? I don’t see them around too much anymore.” He stuck his fork into the flakey top layer and scooped up some of the filling. I looked at my fork hesitantly and wondered if I should run back to my house and get plates, but he scraped up another piece of apple, the jellylike filling sliding off the sides of his fork, and I followed his lead from the opposite end.

“Busy,” I answered as I took a bite. “What are you drinking?”

“Rye Whiskey.” He set the glass down carefully, thoughtfully. “Whiskey and Rye and apple pie…our American anthem.” His tone had a song in it, and as he grinned and winked, I smiled back, liking the sound of that.

He chewed in silence as I picked at the crust with the tip of the fork, chipping off flakes before piercing through a soft apple slice beneath.

“How’s school?”

“It’s summer.”

He looked around, down the street at the kids playing in their driveways and to the adults washing their cars, nodding to himself as he chewed slowly. “Huh. So it is.”

I folded my arms on the table and followed his gaze, glancing his way every so often. I tried to remember my Mom talking about him, a story about his parents leaving him the house and plans to marry a girl, but it felt like it was so long ago and suddenly it seemed like that was another person, and I couldn’t be sure.

He turned to me, his eyes narrowed quizzically before shifting down to scoop up another forkful of the apple pie. He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, but they were darker than I expected — like deep sea dark, like in that marine movie we were forced to watch last year. I wondered if they were always that dark or if they changed when he was happy. I tried to remember if I had ever seen him laugh, but I only remembered him sitting here on the porch, newspaper and glass on the table, just watching the road.

“Why do you keep that newspaper?”

He turned his head, but didn’t look down.

“As a reminder.”

I paused and glanced at the newspaper, then at the glass.

I knew a drunk once. Dad had picked me up from school because I had missed the bus, and on the way home we saw Mr. Harrison from a few blocks away, leaning against a tree in his bathrobe and slippers, cradling a bottle under his arm. He had that same funny smell that lingered on Dad after he had a glass of wine at dinner, but Mr. Harrison stunk up the car as we drove him back to his house. After we dropped him off, windows rolled down, Dad told me that he was sick. But I knew better.

Just like I knew that my neighbor wasn’t like Mr. Harrison.

“Is that why you have that?”

He didn’t answer me, but instead wrapped his hand around the glass and stared at it. His blue eyes flicked over to meet mine, and maybe it was the sun, but they seemed lighter, warmer. A smirk crossed his lips and I sat up, ready to fire back at whatever smart-aleck comment he was about to make, but he only held it out to me.

“Want some?”

I shook my head, but leaned forward curiously and peered into the glass. I wrinkled my nose and looked up at him sharply.

“It’s apple juice!”

And for the first time, I saw him laugh, his chuckle deep, sincere, not what I had expected.

“Yeah,” he said, leaning back in his chair, glass in hand. “Just apple juice.”

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