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It was New Year’s Eve and I was going to knock on George Martin’s door for the sixth time, for the sixth year in a row. The house was exactly how I remembered it, an off-white Ranch with a carport set close to the street. Nothing ever changes at George’s house and even though I don’t know him I’m sure that’s the way he likes it.
[private]This whole thing started as a fluke, or at least that’s the way I like to remember it. Six years ago I was on my way to a party at Bob Paschen’s place, this coworker of mine from the IT department. Bob’s neighborhood was a damned mess, all the houses looked the same and the streets had similar names too. I mistook Ashwood Drive for Ashwood Terrace and next thing I know I’m holding a casserole in front of this fat old man in a bathrobe and pajamas. He gave me this look like I’d spooked him. His face was red and puffy and he had these long black hairs that went over his bald spot like an old brush. He had these fat little Vienna Sausage fingers that wiggled when he gripped the door, like he was going to slam it in my face at any second. I got the feeling people don’t knock on his door that often. His place looked cozy, at least from what I could gather over his shoulder. The TV was on and it smelled like he’d been cooking hamburgers. I knew I was at the wrong place but I figured I’d clarify the situation by asking if Bob lived there anyway.
“No,” he said. “No one lives here with that name.” He arched his eyebrows and drew the words out slow when he spoke, like he was answering a trick question.
I apologized and went about my way. Boy, he looked really spooked. That was the end of that. That was six years ago, like I said.
The second year was purely intentional. I was going to Bob’s place for another one of his parties when I passed the old man’s house. I figured it’d be a riot if I knocked on his door and asked for Bob again. It took him longer to come to the door this time but there he was in his bathrobe and pajamas, looking a bit older, which I guess is to be expected. I asked the old man if Bob Paschen lived there and of course he told that he didn’t. I apologized, just like last time, but right before he closed the door he gave me this funny look like he’d known me from somewhere but couldn’t place it. It was pure gold. When I was getting into my car I picked up an old newspaper in the driveway. I saw the subscription stub and that’s when I learned his name. George Martin.
By the third New Year’s there was no turning back. Bob had taken a job somewhere else and we’d lost touch, but my wife wanted a bottle of wine so I drove to the store on the other side of town so I could knock on George’s door. I parked a few blocks away from the house this time to be safe. When George answered the door he looked even older, fatter too, but he was still wearing the bathrobe and pajamas, which I’m convinced is all he wears at this point. I asked if Bob was there and he gave me this long look-over. He didn’t answer at first so I had to ask again before I got the traditional line I was waiting for. As I walked down the street I turned around and noticed that he was still watching me from the doorway. You should’ve seen the look on his face, I’m telling you.
I’m pretty sure he was waiting for me the fourth year. Actually, I got the feeling he was waiting all day, which was really funny to think about but I’ll admit it made me nervous as I got closer to the house. I parked a few blocks away and when I knocked on the door he answered almost immediately. He looked angry, his forehead was all scrunched up and his knuckles were gripped around the doorframe. I asked if Bob Paschen lived there and he didn’t say anything, he just looked at me with these eyes big as saucers. I expected him to yell at me, I’d always imagined he’d say something like “No Bob lives here, get it through your head already!” You’d think a guy would snap by this point, but George is either dumb as a board or patient as a turtle, which one I’m not sure. I didn’t want to push my luck so I left without an answer, and when I looked back I saw that he’d followed me onto the porch.
I waived at him for good measure but it didn’t seem to have much effect.
I’d taken a promotion last year and we’d moved away to Shreveport, but I’d talked my wife into going back home for a New Year’s party. At some point I told her I wanted to get some beer so I got away from the party and drove across town to George’s place. I’d snowed hard that evening and the roads were slick so it took me a bit longer than usual to get there. I parked and walked up to the door as quiet as I could. I knocked and waited for a minute but he didn’t answer, so I knocked again. I knew I was pushing my luck standing there on the porch, I was probably waking him up and I was sure he’d be mad but I was drunk and feeling bold. I heard something from the side of the house and next thing I know George is running out of the bushes with a gun. He chased me across the lawn, still wearing those pajamas by God, swinging his pistol at me like it was a club. I ran toward the street and George tried to follow me but he slipped on some ice in the driveway and fell over. I got in my car and got the hell out of there. When I drove past and I saw him lying in the driveway I laughed all the way back to the party.
My wife fussed when I told her I wanted to go back home for New Year’s again this year. She’d wanted to do something quiet like go to a restaurant, but her mood changed when she found out her girlfriends were all meeting at a bar downtown. After making the drive I found a hotel and watched TV for several hours before going over to George’s house. It was snowing again, real light and serene, almost picturesque for the occasion. As I walked up to the house I got to thinking that I wished I knew George better. I’d wanted to tell him how much my life had changed in the last six years, I’d wanted to tell him about my recent promotion and my wife and how we were thinking of having kids. I wanted to tell him how hard it was to keep showing up like this every year, about all the effort I put into this whole production. I don’t know what George does for the holidays, but just planning this trip seriously takes up a large chunk of my time. Maybe he’s raised a family and knows how stressful the holidays can be. Or maybe he’s never had anybody, who knows.
I knocked on the door and he answered a few seconds later. He was in his bathrobe and pajamas but I didn’t see a gun this time, thank God. I asked him if Bob Paschen lived there and this time he sank into the doorway and began to weep.
“Yes,” he said softly. “I’m Bob Paschen. Please take me … I’m ready. My name is Bob Paschen.”
It was hilarious.
George had really thrown me a curveball with this one. I guess the jig should have been up, I guess I should have explained everything, that this whole thing was just something to make the time pass, a sort of tradition I’d made for myself around the holidays. But I didn’t know how to begin explaining something like that so I just turned around and left him there in the doorway, blubbering all over his pajamas.
I don’t know if I’m going back to George’s house next year. My wife and I are thinking about having a kid, and there’s always the chance I could get transferred again. I really don’t have time to play these games anymore, and to be honest it’s not nearly as funny as it was five years ago. I’ll admit there’s an attachment though. Six years is a long time to invest in anything. Seeing George every year is like another holiday at this point. I think about him a lot, too. I mean, I actually feel like I know the guy. I’ve watched him age and I’ve seen him change over time. Granted, he doesn’t change that much but that’s what I like about him. Hell, I do like him. Admittedly, I don’t know George but I’ll bet he’s good people. Who knows, maybe I’ll check in with him next year just to see how he’s doing.[/private]
Jon Gingerich has been published in The New York Press, Tabard Inn and Keyhole. A collection of his short stories is forthcoming in the Spring. He lives in New York.