Wren took a deep breath and looked around the cavernous, creaky, wooden porch one last time. He eyed the peeling grey paint on the walls of the old house dubiously before raising his hand to knock on the thick wooden door. The knock sounded rather soft and ineffective. Wren decided to count to ten before knocking again. He shifted the envelope he held from one hand to the other and tapped his grimy white converses on the slanted, splintering porch.
Across the street behind Wren, Mr. Clack and Mrs. Smith were arguing again. Mr. Clack leaned over the flower bed dividing their pristine lawns, wagging a finger in Mrs. Smith’s face. She swatted away his finger like it was a troublesome gnat. Their voices rose and fell, sliding sluggishly through the thick, humid air.
Just as Wren raised his fist to knock again, someone inside the house pulled open the door. Wren stuffed his free hand back into the pocket of his jeans and looked up to see a woman peering down at him through small oval glasses. She seemed ancient to him, with long, deep lines from her nose to her chin.
“Can I help you?” she asked briskly. A hint of something foreign hung on her otherwise American accent. She leaned out of the gloomy, cold house into the blazing hot summer sun.
Wren glanced down at the envelope and tried to read the name of the person to whom it was addressed. “Is Mr. T. Forth . . . Foth . . . Fotharcha here?” he attempted.
“Mr. Fothracha is not available,” replied the woman sternly. “He’s upstairs, ill. But I can take that for him.”
She reached for the envelope, her wrinkled thumb barely brushing the return address of General Electric. However, Wren clutched the envelope more tightly.
“My mom said to give it to Mr. Foth – Fothracha,” he persisted.
Across the road, Mr. Clack and Mrs. Smith’s argument seemed to be getting more heated. Mr. Clack wiped a bead of sweat off his wide brow, smearing dirt from his gardening glove across his forehead. Neither neighbour seemed to notice, though. Mrs. Smith adjusted the brim of her straw sun hat firmly, trapping an escaping strand of slate-grey hair. As Mr. Clack began to gesticulate wildly, Mrs. Smith dropped her hose on the ground, cool, clear water spilling onto the bright green grass.
“It’s all right, Cliona,” said a deep, chocolate voice from inside the dilapidated 3-storey house. “Let our guest come in.”
The old woman reluctantly let go of the envelope and stepped back into the dark house, leaving the door ajar. Wren followed her in cautiously, blinking against the sudden absence of light. When the sunspots cleared from his eyes, he saw a slender man descending the towering, wainscoted staircase. Wren guessed that this was the ill Mr. Fothracha, for the man was wearing a long, white terrycloth housecoat over pale blue pajamas. The man was an adult to Wren, of indeterminate age between twenty and forty. This calculation was made based solely on the lack of grey hair in the man’s long, light brown mane, which cascaded past his shoulders. In addition, the man had a small beard of the same colour. Suddenly, Wren’s father’s dismissal of Mr. Fothracha as an “eccentric” made complete sense.
“Would you like some tea?” invited Mr. Fothracha in his deep English accent. He reached the floor, where he was still so tall he towered over Wren.
Wren could only nod, flustered, and follow his neighbor into the next room, a sitting room with several cozy armchairs, one of which contained a snoozing, three-legged tabby cat. The room also had a latticed bay window looking out over the street, where Mr. Clack and Mrs. Smith were still arguing.
Mr. Clack thumped a foot down on the ground, as if this would prove his point. He crushed one of the pansies in the flower bed but didn’t seem to care. Mrs. Smith furiously waved her hands at him, shooing him away from the flower bed like he was a troublesome cat. Mr. Clack yelled, “I refuse to budge one inch! This is my own property!”
A large grandfather clock ticked ponderously in the back corner of the bookshelf-lined sitting room. Mr. Fothracha sat down in a leather armchair that reminded Wren of his uncle, who was a judge.
“Have a seat,” invited Mr. Fothracha, gesturing to the worn, floral armchair next to the one containing the crippled feline. Wren awkwardly sat down, straightening his plaid, short-sleeved, button-up shirt self-consciously.
“What’s your name?” asked Mr. Fothracha kindly.
“I’m Lawrence Wayne, I live two doors down. My mom sent me over here to give you this,” explained Wren quickly, handing Mr. Fothracha the letter. “It ended up in our mail by accident.”
The long-haired man carefully peeled open the envelope and removed the letter. He skimmed it before tossing it carelessly onto the coffee table. Wren tried to peek at it unobtrusively, but he only read one sentence (“If you do not pay your bills soon, your electricity will be cut”) before Mr. Fothracha spoke again.
“It’s nothing important,” dismissed Mr. Fothracha. “But thank you for bringing it here, all the same.”
Wren fidgeted in his chair and stared at the sleeping cat.
“Let me get you some of that tea I promised, anyway,” said Mr. Fothracha, getting up from his chair.
Wren shook his head. “Sorry, I have to go. I have a baseball game today.”
“Why do you play baseball?” asked Mr. Fothracha.
Wren shrugged. “It’s fun, I guess. It’s fun when you win, anyway.”
Outside, Mr. Clack and Mrs. Smith were now clearly audible to most of the street.
“I demand that you stop your flower garden from overlapping on my property!” blustered Mr. Clack, puffing out his already considerable chest authoritatively.
“It’s not on your property!” shrieked Mrs. Smith. “I’ve expanded it right to the borderline, as surveyed by my late husband in ’28, when we bought this house! We held on to this property through the depression and the war! I’m not going to let you trim off sections whenever you please!”
“I’ve had it resurveyed, just last year!” exclaimed Mr. Clack triumphantly, playing his final trump. “When you were visiting your son, the one with halitosis! The boundary line” – he drew an imaginary line with his finger down the middle of the flower bed – “is here!”
Mr. Clack stepped into the middle of Mrs. Smith’s carefully designed plant collection.
“GET OFF MY PANSIES!” screeched Mrs. Smith.
“GET THESE DAMN PANSIES OFF MY PROPERTY!” retorted Mr. Clack, by this point sounding rather like a foghorn.
Inside Mr. Fothracha’s front parlour, the thick old glass of the latticed bay window muffled the shouts of the fighting neighbours.
“Is winning really your objective?” asked Mr. Fothracha. Wren couldn’t quite tell what emotion hovered over the Englishman’s speech – was it sadness? disappointment? the leadup to one of the lectures Wren already got too many of from his mother?
Wren nodded. “Why else would I play, Mr. Forth – Fothracha?”
Mr. Fothracha smiled. “Just call me Tyto. It’s easier to pronounce.” He frowned for a second, apparently mulling something over, before asking, “Do you enjoy the feeling you get when you successfully hit the baseball? The shock that flies through your body as you drop the bat and begin to run?”
Wren shrugged. “Not really. It’s not like I want to be a professional about it or anything. It’s just that everyone else in my class is on the baseball team – that’s where you make friends.”
“What do you want to be a professional of?” inquired Tyto.
“A journalist,” replied Wren immediately. “I want to travel around and write newspaper articles.”
“Why don’t you use that time you would be playing baseball in to practice your writing, then?” suggested Tyto. “Recording the goings-on of the world gives you the thrill it gives some other boys when they hit a baseball. Also, if you’re writing, you’re not trying to win.”
Wren shrugged. “I never thought about it that way. What’s wrong with winning?”
“Every win necessitates a corresponding loss,” replied Tyto.
Outside, Mr. Clack and Mrs. Smith’s debate was reaching a climax.
“IF YOU DON’T GET OFF MY LAWN YOU’LL REGRET IT!” yelled Mrs. Smith at the top of her lungs.
“MAKE ME!” screamed Mr. Clack.
Mrs. Smith bent down with surprising agility and grabbed the hose. In one motion, she brought it up to squirt straight into Mr. Clack’s wide red face. The man staggered backward and fell down onto his own spread of identical green blades of grass.
“Serves you right,” sniffed Mrs. Smith, watching with distain as Mr. Clack tore off his dirty gardening gloves and wiped the water out of his eyes.
“You haven’t heard the last from me!” retorted Mr. Clack as he stormed back into his house, slamming the screen door behind him. Mrs. Smith bent down to tidy the flower bed Mr. Clack had marred, while the neighbourhood breathed a collective sigh of relief at having silence returned to the street.
“I have to go to the game now, though,” said Wren hastily, standing up from his armchair. “Otherwise my team will be furious with me.”
“Very well,” replied Tyto with a small smile. “Oh, and one last thing before you go: remember that if you do the right thing, you will make the right friends.”
“Okay,” answered Wren. He tried not to walk too quickly as he exited the sitting room and the dark hallway, stepping out into a wave of humid air.