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Divide by Two – Short Story Essay

They have set down a line of adobe blocks, three blocks wide and two blocksdeep, across the lawn between their cottage and ours, Belle said.“Yes, I know,” I said. I walked into the window and stood there, looking over attheir cottage. The piano music from the cottage came strong and clear. “I was here thismorning when he brought those blocks home.” I peeled my shirt; it was soggy withsweat. “He carried the blocks in the baggage compartment of their car. It took him allthree trips. He had three boys with him to help.” I shook my shirt in the cooling air andwalked in my room. “And I know where he got those blocks, too. There is aconstruction going on right now at engineering school. They have a pile of adobe blocksthere as high as the Cheops. You can’t miss it. You see it from the busline everytime.”

In my room, the strains of piano music didn’t reach sustainedly.Belle had followed me into my room. “They have marked off boundaries,” shesaid. “They have defined limits.”I folded my shirt about the back of the armchair. “So they have,” I said. “So theyhave.” My undershirt was wet, too. I yanked it off.“It is all as if they have put up a fence,” Belle said.“Fences make good neighbors,” I said. I whipped the apple-green towel off the T- bar and rubbed myself briskly.“It might as well be the great wall of China,” Belle said.“Well, no, not really,” I said. “It is not as bad as that.” I returned the towel to thecrossbar. I looked around for a dry undershirt but did not find any.

I went to the bedroom where my clothes-closet was. Belle followed me. There was no light in thecloset. The bulb hadn’t been changed since it went bad shortly after we moved into thecottage. I fumbled in the dark feeling with my fingers. In the darkness in the closet thestrains of the piano came steadily, strong and clear.“She is no Turk but she keeps playing the Turkish March,” Belle said.I knew where my undershirts would be and it didn’t take me long to find themwith my hands. I pulled one out and was putting it on while I walked back to the sala.“It is unkind, inconsiderate, not neighborly, not nice,” Belle said.

I stopped beneath the light in the narrow passage from the bedroom to the sala between the book-closets and the bathroom, one arm through one armhole, half out of thesando shirt the neck of which I held open with my hands. I looked at Belle. “Comeagain, Belle?” I asked.Belle said again the denunciatory words.I got my head through the armhole, got into the shirt. I walked on to the sala. Ididn’t know how tired I was until I fell back on the lounging chair.Belle picked up the foot stool, brought it near my chair and sat down. “The leastthing they could have done was to tell us first about it.”I felt very tired and shut my eyes and didn’t say anything.“Don’t you think they owed it to us?” Belle asked. “Out of regards for our feelings shouldn’t they have asked us how we feel about the fence?”

The piano music threaded through the words like leitmotif. “How is that again,Belle?” I asked.“They have no regard for us,” Belle said. “They don’t care what we think. Theydon’t mind what we feel. As far as they are concerned, we are not human.”The piano came jubilantly threading through the words.“Is that right, Belle?” I asked.“Don’t you think they should at least have gone to us and said: Look here, you!We are putting up this boundary, see? You keep to your side of these markers and wewill keep to ours, understand?”

Belle asked.“Do you really think that?” I asked.“Yes, I do,” Belle said. “Distinctly, don’t you?”“I don’t know.” I said. “I haven’t thought about it.”“Well, then,” Belle said, “think about it. You can start thinking about it now.”I wondered why now the words kept ringing clear to me. Then I felt and sensedthat the piano had been stilled. Suddenly the night was silent, suddenly the air was still.I rose from the lounging chair. I walked to the globe-traveler near the wall outlet, plugged the cord in and snapped the lid open. Belle followed me. I was playing therange disk for music when Belled leaned forward and snapped the lid shut.

“What’s the matter, Belle? I asked.“There’s nothing the matter.” Belle said.“Well, then get off,” I said. “Get off them and get off me.”Belle was silent for a moment. Then: “It is she,” she said.“What about her?” I asked.“I don’t think she likes me,” Belle said.“She doesn’t like anyone,” I said. “What makes you think so?”“I have given her things.” Belle said. “They don’t seem to make an impression onher. I gave her cheese on her last birthday. She didn’t even thank me.”“Why do you have to go around giving people things for?” I asked. “Maybe shedoesn’t like cheese. Maybe the cheese wasn’t such a good idea.”“She doesn’t like me.” Belle said.

“And she doesn’t like anyone to like me…when he gave me flowers from her garden, I don’t think she liked that.”“Who would?” I asked. “Maybe the flowers weren’t such a good idea either.”“He was only being friendly as I was,” Belle said.“Oh, yes,” I said.“He was only being neighborly as I believe in being,” Belle said.“Sure, sure,” I said.“But she doesn’t like to be and I don’t think she believes in being,” Belle said.“And I don’t think she wants him to be either.”“Oh, well, Belle,” I said. “I don’t really know them. It is you they really know.”“Oh, you do, too,” Belle said. “You ride with them too sometimes.”“I did that only once,” I said. “I rode with them on the front seat. She tapped himon the thigh when she got off at Pavilion 2. That was the last time.”“Did that bother you?” Belle asked.

“Not that in itself,” I said. “Only the demonstrativeness: as if to show that she ishis and he is hers.”“What about the demonstrativeness of puttering about her garden in very shortshorts?” Belle asked.“When you visited the area for the first time to see the cottages, was he looking atthe cottages too-and the third time?” I asked.“He was going to look at the cottages himself,” Belle said. “He was only beingfriendly.”“And the second time you looked at the cottages, he was looking at the cottagestoo-and the third time?” I asked.“That was for our going to be neighbors,” Belle said.“There are forty cottages in this area,” I said. “Why did we have to pick up thisone right next to theirs?”“It was as much your choice as it was mine,” Belle said.“So it was,” I said. “So it can’t be helped.”“No, it can’t,” Belle said.“All right, then. Get off. Get off them and get off me,” I said.

“But you must do something,” Belle said.“What about?” I asked.“They didn’t set the adobe markers right,” Belle said. “They have been laidnearer our cottage than theirs. Their half of the lawn is bigger than ours.”“Is that right?” I asked. I walked to the window. It wasn’t too dark to see theadobe markers gleaming in the ghostly light. I saw the flowers, too-the roses, the zinnias,the dahlias, the African daisies-swaying like specters in the night. Walking back to mychair, I looked up at the clock. It was getting on a quarter to nine. The clock began tochime just as I got to the lounging chair. I sat down and put my feet up on the stool.“Their half of the lawn is bigger than ours,” Belle said.“Maybe they need all the lawn they can get so she can plant them all to flowers,” Isaid.

“They haven’t divided the lawn fairly,” Belle said.“You mean the halves are not equal? The halves are not halves? I asked.“What’s the matter with you?” Belle said.“What’s the matter with him?” I asked. “Isn’t he a doctor of mathematics or something? A fine doctor of mathematics he’s turned out to be if he can’t even divide bytwo!”“What’s eating you?” Belle asked.“Maybe he should have brought a survey team with him and used a transit, a plumbline, and a pole,” I said. “Maybe he could divide by two then. Maybe he couldeven divide by ten.”“Don’t tell me,” Belle said, “Tell him. Tell them.”“For crying out loud.” I said.“Go ahead,” Belle said. “Go over. Tell them off. Tell them where to get off.”“Get off, Belle,” I said. “Get off them.”“If you won’t, I shall,” Belle said.“Get off me,” I said.“If you don’t, I shall,” Belle said. “I shall right now.”

She started for the door.“For crying out loud, Belle,” I said. “I don’t know them well enough to speak tothem. I shall write them a note.”“All right,” Belle said.The portable typewriter was in the case under my bed. I set it up at the head of the dining table. When I pulled my hands away from lifting the case, they were coveredwith dust. I removed the lid but didn’t take the machine off its base. The inside cornersof the lid were spun with cobwebs. There were webs between the machine and the ridgeof the base. I couldn’t find any white paper anywhere so I decided to use one sheet fromthe legal size pad of rules yellow paper.I didn’t date the note. I made it short and to the point. It was fascinating to watchthe keys falling forward and then back leaving the black marks on the yellow sheet. As Ityped I heard the opening bars of Marriage of Figaro from the high fidelity radio- phonograph next door.

(“Mathematics and Mozart,” I said. “Mozart and Mathematics.”)I typed on my name but didn’t sign it. When I saw that I had not quite filled half the sheet, I folded it once and tore it in half. I fed the clean half back to the machine andhanded the other half to Belle. “There you are.” I said. “Short and sweet: I hope helikes it.”Belle read the note. After she finished, she didn’t say a word. “Is it all right?” Iasked.“Yes,” Belle said. “Then send it off,” I said.“All right,” Belle said. She called Nata and had the note delivered at once.I didn’t get to hear Mozart to the end of the night. About halfway through theopera (that would be after Face I of the long playing record), the player was snapped off.Then I saw him leave their cottage.I sat up erect in my chair and watched him head bob up and down as he walkedout to Finchshafen road.

When he turned up the road and I knew where he was going, Istood up. I walked up to the screen door and watched him walk up the concrete walk tothe porch steps. He stopped at the foot of the stairs. I looked down through thewirescreen at his upturned face.“Yes?” I asked.“Can I see you for a minute?” he asked.“Me?” I asked.“Yes, you,” he said.“Won’t you come up?” I asked.“No,” he said. “I’d much rather talk to you on the street.”“All right,” I said. “If that’s the way you feel about it.”I joined him at the foot of the porch steps. We walked down the cement walk together. As we went past the shelter of the cottage, a blast of the cold night air struck my face. I felt my left cheek twitching.“Yes?” I asked. “What’s on your mind?”

We walked down Finchshafen road. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Ilooked at him. I had never spoken to him before. He considered a long time, longenough for me to be able to look back at the house to see if Belle was at the windowwatching.When he spoke, his first words were: “Have you and Belle been fighting?” Itwas not only words, it was also the way he said them: my left cheek was twitching so badly it was almost spastic. He had spoken so softly and in such a low-pitched voice I barely heard him. It was as if he didn’t wish either his house or my house to hear; as if we were conspirators both and we were plotting a conspiracy together.“Fighting?” I asked. “What about? What for? What are you talking about?” Isought his face for the guilt that could only be the mirror of the guilt in my own.

We stood in Finchshafen road halway between out cottages; we were waiting tocatch the guilt upon our faces which nonetheless we were mortally afraid to see? I stoodon the upper slope of the road towards our house and he stood on the lower slope in thedirection of his.“Your note wasn’t very friendly,” he said. “It wasn’t very neighborly.”“Why should it be?” I added. “It wasn’t meant to be.”“Oh, so,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be.”“You bet your life it wasn’t,” I said.“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it,” he said.“How else did you expect me to feel?” I asked.“In that case then,” he said. “You can appeal to authority and I shall not move theadobe blocks an inch.”“For Christ sake,” I said. “Who is talking about authority? Who is talking aboutadobe blocks?”“Don’t raise your voice,” he said.“Why shouldn’t I raise my voice?” I asked.“Don’t shout at me,” he said.“I shall shout at you if you please,” I said.

It was a cool clear lovely night. The sky was clear and cool and full of stars. Thesky and the stars seemed very far away but the air was clear and you could see all theway up to the sky and the stars and it seemed a long, long way. There was a very palemoon and a very cool wind was sweeping the pale moon and the white clouds before itall the way across the sky.Across and up and down Finchshafen road in the cottages, people were comingout of their porches to listen and to watch. I looked back at out house to see if Belle wasthere standing behind the window wirescreen and I looked at their house too.“A plague on both our houses,” I said.Belle wasn’t on our porch when I looked; I didn’t hear her go down the porchsteps, down the concrete walk, out to and down Finchshafen road.“I shouldn’t even be talking to you; this is pestilence,” I said.I didn’t feel Belle around until I heard her voice rising shrill and clear and abovethe snarl of our voices.

She was standing beside me and before him and shouting in hisface.“For Christ sake, Belle,” I said. “Let go. This is man’s work.”She couldn’t hear me.Her voice rose clear and passionate, piercing and shrill in the inviolate night. I pulled at her arm to make her turn to me. I thrust my face savagely before her.“For Christ sake, Belle,” I said. “Get off. This is my fight and the adversary ismine.”Belle couldn’t see me for the fury that possessed her purely.I sought her face but couldn’t look there long. Even as I turned away I had afleeting glimpse of my declared adversary’s face: the shock there was not more than theshock of mine.“For Christ sake, Belle, let go. This is man’s work. I have met the enemy and heis mine. Let go, get off. This is my fight, not yours. The enemy is mine,” I said as I pulled her and dragged her bodily away.


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