Read a short story

A Month on Greene Street by Tom Hanks

"Bette’s mind processed the vision, the very first blemish in the fabric of her new life on Greene Street — the guy next door looking for a woman." Read on for a short story from Tom Hanks' Uncommon Type


A Month on Greene Street

The first of August is usually only so notable—the start of the eighth month in the middle of summer on what might or might not be the hottest day ever. But this year, yowza, a lot was going on that day.

Little Sharri Monk was sure to lose another tooth, a partial lunar eclipse was due around 9:15 p.m., and Bette Monk (mother of Sharri; her older sister, Dale; and her younger brother, Eddie) was moving them all into a three-bedroom house on Greene Street. The home so picturesque she knew she would live there the moment she saw the real estate listing. Bette had a vision — pop — of herself and the kids in the kitchen for a busy breakfast. She was manning the stove-top griddle, turning pancakes, the kids in school clothes finishing their homework and fighting over the last of the orange juice. Her mental image was so focused, so particular, there was no question the house on Greene Street — oh, that massive sycamore tree in the front yard — would be hers. Theirs.

Bette had visions — was there any other way to put it? Not every day and never with any spiritual glow, but she would sense a flash, she’d see a pop, like a photo of a vacation taken long ago that held complete memories of all that happened before and all that came after. When her husband, Bob Monk, had come home from work one day — pop — Bette saw a full-color snapshot of him holding hands with Lorraine Conner-Smythe in the restaurant attached to the Mission Bell Marriott Hotel. Lorraine did consulting work with Bob’s company, so the two of them had many chances to sniff each other out. In that nanosecond Bette knew her marriage with Bob had gone from just fine to over. Pop.

If Bette were to count all the times she had such visions — from when she was a little girl — and how those visions came to pass, she could have regaled a dinner party for a full evening with examples: the scholarship she would win four years after learning of its existence, the dorm room she would have in Iowa City, the man she would sleep with for the first time (not Bob Monk), the wedding dress she would wear at the altar (opposite Bob Monk), the view of the Chicago River she would enjoy once the job interview with the Sun-Times went her way, the phone call she saw coming the night her parents were hit by a drunk driver. She knew the sexes of her children the moment she saw the test results over the sink in her bathroom. The list went on and on and on. Not that she made a big deal out of any of the visions, claiming no special clairvoyance or an all-seeing mentalism. Bette thought most people had the same kind of visions, they just didn’t realize it. And not all of her visions came to pass. She once saw herself being a contestant on Jeopardy! but that never happened. Still, her accuracy ratio was awfully impressive.

Bob wanted to marry Lorraine as soon as their affair was discovered, so he paid for the privilege, assuring Bette’s financial security until the kids were off to college and the child support ceased. Buying the house on Greene Street required hoop jumping with the bank, glowing inspections, and a six-month escrow, but the deed was signed. The lawn, that sycamore, the front porch, all those bedrooms, and the minioffice attached to the garage made for a Promised Land, especially after the narrow, split-level condo in which she had first parked her money and where the four of them lived like kittens in a box, all on top of each other. Now they had a backyard, so deep and wide! With a pomegranate tree! Bette saw her kids — pop — in T-shirts covered in purple dribble spots come October!

Greene Street was isolated, with almost no traffic except the residents, making it safe for street play. On August 1 the kids begged the movers to unload their bikes and Eddie’s Big Wheel before anything else so they could cruise their new turf. The moving crew was a bunch of young Mexican guys who had kids of their own, so they were happy to oblige and to watch the children play, carefree, as they unpacked and carried a household’s worth of stuff.

Bette spent the morning testing her high school Spanish, sending boxes to the right rooms, and having furniture placed according to her intuition—the sofa facing the window, bookshelves bordering the fireplace. Around 11:00 a.m., Dale came running in with a pair of chubby boys, maybe ten years old, probably twins, both with the same bashful look and matching dimples.

“Mom! This is Keyshawn and Trennelle. They live two houses over.”

“Keyshawn. Trennelle,” Bette said. “Howdy do?”

“They said I could have lunch with them.”

Bette eyed the boys. “Is that true?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said either Keyshawn or Trennelle.

“Did you just call me ma’am?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You, Keyshawn, have good manners. Or are you Trennelle?”

The boys pointed to themselves, saying their names. Since they dressed differently, not like twins in some movie, Bette would always know who was who. Plus, Keyshawn had his hair in perfectly tied cornrows while Trennelle’s head was shaved nearly clean.

“What’s on the menu?” Bette asked.

“Today we have franks and beans, ma’am.”

“Who is making this lunch, exactly?”

“Our Gramma Alice,” Trennelle told her. “Our mother works at AmCoFederal Bank. Our father works for Coca-Cola, but we’re not allowed to drink Coca-Cola. Only on Sunday. Our Gramma Diane lives in Memphis. We don’t have granddads. Our mother will come to your house when she comes home and will bring you flowers from our garden to say ‘welcome wagon.’ Our father will come by, too, with some Coca-Cola, if it’s allowed, or Fanta, if you prefer. We didn’t ask Gramma Alice if there is going to be enough food for Eddie and Sharri, so they can’t come.”

“Mom! Yes? No?” Dale was just about to burst.

“Have something green with the franks and beans and I’m thinking yes.”

“Would apples be good with you, ma’am? For something green? We have green apples.”

“Apples would do the trick, Trennelle.”

The three kids lit out of the house, off the porch, down the steps, under the low-hanging limbs of the sycamore, and across the lawn. Bette followed just far enough to watch them rush through a front door four houses away. Then she hollered for Eddie and Sharri to park their bikes on the front lawn and come in for the sandwiches she would make as soon as she found the fixings.

———

The movers were done and gone by three, leaving Bette to the pleasure of unpacking her kitchen directly from box to drawer or shelf. She no longer had any of Bob’s gimmicky appliances, the one-use inventions he collected for his so-called culinary hobby. Bette never loved cooking, but since the split her no-nonsense meals had developed some frills. Her creamed spinach had actually gotten the kids to ask for spinach. Her ground-turkey burritos were stuffed with beans and cheese, but never fell apart when eaten by hand. The kids celebrated when Bette formalized Tuesdays as Turkeeto Night and looked forward to them every week. When the boxes were empty and the shelves looked like they made sense, Bette fired up the one appliance she truly prized, the espresso maker. Made in Germany, the stainless-steel behemoth had cost a thousand predivorce dollars, took up nearly a square yard of counter space, and sported as many gauges and valves as the submarine in Das Boot. She so loved the apparatus she often greeted it in the morning with “Hey, big boy.”

She sat down, finally, on the living room sofa with a massive mug of espresso and steamed 2 percent milk. The big window looked like a cinema screen showing a movie called I Live Here Now. A cavalcade of kids was entering and exiting the frame, a group that either lived on Greene Street or made the block their Our Gangish HQ. A towheaded girl was inspecting Sharri’s mouth like an advance agent for the tooth fairy giving an estimate of what to expect. A pack of boys set up a T-ball stand, each taking whacks with a plastic bat while others shagged the hits. Dale and another girl were dangling from the low limbs of the sycamore. Keyshawn and Trennelle must have had a sibling, a dimpled girl in braids, who was helping Ed ride her pink two-wheeler, running alongside of him as he coasted up onto the front lawn of the house across the street.

That lawn belonged to the Patel family — was that what the real estate agent said? Patel? An Indian name for sure. The Patels must have had a kid every eleven months, judging from the black hair and brown skin of five kids out there, each a perfect match of the brother or sister, just a head shorter. The older Patel girls had iPhones or Samsungs, which they checked every forty-five seconds. They took a lot of pictures of Eddie on the pink bike.

Bette tried to count all the kids, but like with a school of fish in an oversize aquarium, the roiling action made it impossible. Call it a dozen children out there, teeming, laughing, bolting to and fro in varying shades of flesh.

“I’ve moved into the UN,” she said to no one. That struck her as something to tell Maggie, her oldest friend and the woman who had coached her through every step of the shattering of her marriage — from that first pop to the reality of her desperate unhappiness, the separation-of-no-return, the search for a lawyer, and the three-plus years of Marriage Dissolution mumbo jumbo and nights of red, red wine. Her phone was in her purse, sitting in the middle of the living room floor. She was reaching for it when she saw Paul Legaris coming up her driveway.

He was an older fellow wearing baggy cargo shorts and a faded red T-shirt with a crinkled Detroit Red Wings logo. He wore glasses that were a tad too angular and hip for a man his age, which Bette figured was around eight years her senior. He had flip-flops on his feet; it was summer, after all, but since it was a weekday, Bette took the lack of shoes to mean that here was a guy between jobs. Though maybe he worked nights. Maybe he’d won the Powerball. Who knew?

Paul was carrying a bag containing a HoneyBaked ham— this was not one of Bette’s pops; the brand was advertised on the bag. Though the front door was wide open—it had been all day, what with movers and kids streaming in and out like subway patrons—he rang the doorbell without a follow-up of “Anyone home?”

“Howdy do?” Bette offered, stepping to the threshold.

“Paul Legaris. Your next-door neighbor,” he said.

“Bette Monk.”

“Though I come in no official capacity,” he said, holding out the ham bag, “welcome.”

Bette eyed the HoneyBaked. “You know, with a name like Monk . . .” She let that trail off. Paul looked confused, like an actor who had dropped a dialogue cue. “I could be a Jewish mother,” Bette said.” “A bag of pork would then be . . .”

Treif.” Paul knew his lines after all. “Forbidden.”

“But I’m not.”

“Okay then.”  Paul offered the sack and Bette took it. “When I moved in, someone on the block left one on my welcome mat and I lived off the thing for weeks.”

“Thanks. Can I offer a coffee in kind?” Bette did not really want to spend any more time with her neighbor, a single man (she had clocked his lack of a wedding band), who, by living right next door, was the only unanticipated and undesired reality of her new life on Greene Street. Still, she had to be polite.

“Nice of you,” he said, remaining on the porch, on the other side of the plane that was the open door. “But on moving day you must have a million chores on the punch list.”

Bette appreciated the decline. She did have a million things to do. She nodded toward the pack of kids out on Greene Street. “Any of those yours?”

“Mine live with their mother. You’ll see them come the right weekend.”

“Got it. Thanks for this.” She nodded at the ham in the bag in her hand. “Maybe some ham-bone soup, come Friday.”

“Enjoy,” Paul said, beginning his retreat from the porch. “Greene Street will be good to you. Has been for me. Oh . . .” He turned back, stepping once again into the doorway. “Are you doing anything tonight?”

Are you doing anything tonight?

Bette had heard those very words too many times in the last few years. Are you doing anything tonight? From men divorced, single, unattached, and lonely — guys who had kids who lived with ex-wives, who lived in apartments, who searched Internet dating sites for any kind of intellectual or romantic or sexual hookup. Guys who took one look at her and thought, I wonder if she is doing anything tonight.

Pop!

The vision: Paul is keeping an eye out his window, looking to see when Bette Monk, divorced, attractive (still) pulls into the driveway right next door. When she does he saunters over with an excuse to take up some of her time — a piece of her mail that accidentally came to his box, word of a lost dog in the neighborhood, concern for Eddie’s sprained ankle. He’ll linger too long, chat too idly with a look on his face hinting of neediness.

Bette’s mind processed the vision, the very first blemish in the fabric of her new life on Greene Street — the guy next door looking for a woman.

“I’m busy with the house,” she said. “Lots to do.” She drank some of her coffee.

“Nine or so I’m setting my telescope up,” Paul said. “There’s a partial lunar eclipse tonight that will max around a quarter after. Nice red shadow of the earth will cover about half the moon. It won’t last long, but you could have a look.”

“Ah,” Bette said, leaving it at that.

Paul flip-flopped off the porch and across the lawn, just as Sharri came bounding up with something small in her hand, a little pebble of pure white.

“Mom! Look!” Sharri squealed. There was some blood on her fingers. “My tooth!”

———

In the dying light of that first afternoon, the street quieted down as everyone broke for various family suppertimes. Bette fed the kids ham slices and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes that had made the move from the condo. Earlier, Darlene Pitts, the mother of Keyshawn and Trennelle, had brought a basket of flowers picked from her own garden along with a card asking Won’t you be my neighbor? As they were chatting the porch, her husband, Harlan, showed up with two big bottles of Sprite and Diet Sprite. Together they gave Bette the rundown on some of the neighbors.

“The Patels have first names that hurt my tongue,” Harlan joked. “I call them Mr. and Mrs. Patel.”

“Irrfan and Priyanka.” Darlene shot a look at her husband. “And would it hurt you to learn their kids’ names?”

“Actually, yes it would.”

These were Bette’s kind of folks.

Darlene rattled off the names. “Ananya, Pranav, Prisha, Anushka, and the youngest boy is Om.”

“Om, I got,” Harlan said.

The Smiths over there gave away apricots from their tree by the bushel. The Ornonas over there had the ski boat that never left their driveway. The Bakas family in the big blue and white house had huge parties every Greek Easter and if you didn’t show up the family would bring up your absence for the rest of the year. Vincent Crowell operated a ham radio at all hours. His was the house with a huge antenna on the roof.

“And Paul Legaris teaches science at Burham. The college. Has two older kids.” Harlan reported. “Heard his son is joining the Navy.”

“A teacher,” said Bette. “Thus the footware.”

“Come again?” Darlene asked.

“He gave us a ham in flip-flops. On his feet, not on the ham. I thought a man wearing flip-flops in the middle of a weekday was, you know . . .”

“Comfortable?” said Harlan.

“Unemployed.”

“No classes in session in August.” Harlan sighed. “I envy a man in flip-flops on a day like today.”

Pop! Bette saw Paul on campus, between classes, sitting on a bench on the quad, surrounded by coeds, pretty girls who had Legaris for Introduction to Biology, and he was always so free with his time. One of those coeds was sure to have a thing for older men in positions of authority, or so Paul Legaris hoped.


As August yawned deeply into its dog days, Bette avoided contact with her next-door neighbor, not wanting to hear Are you doing anything tonight? again

The warm summer evening beckoned the kids back out onto Greene Street as Bette cleaned the dishes, then headed upstairs to find linens and make the beds. From the window of the bedroom shared by Dale and Sharri, Bette saw Paul wheeling a large tube out of his garage — his aforementioned telescope — on a hand-made dolly, aided by some kids. By the time darkness fell completely, Bette had plugged in her Bluetooth speaker and paired it with her phone so Adele could provide a mournful score for the evening’s chore of lining closet shelves and untangling hangers. Bette was still organizing dresser drawers when she heard one of the kids slam the front door and stomp up the stairs.

“Mom?” Eddie yelled, coming into what was going to be his room. “Can I make a telescope?”

“I admire your spunk.”

“Professor Legaris made his own telescope and it’s amazing to look through.”

Professor Legaris, huh?”

“Yeah. The man who lives right next door. His garage is full of amazing stuff. He keeps a bunch of wires and tools in a big wooden thing called a chifforobe. He has three old TVs with knobs on the side of them and a sewing machine you have to pedal.” Eddie jumped onto his bed. “He let me look into the Cosmos, whatever that is, through his telescope.  I saw the moon and, like, a shadow of the sun was covering part of it.”

“I’m no professor, but I think it’s the shadow of the Earth.”

“It was funny. With just my eye, the moon looked like it was being sliced out of the sky, but through the telescope, you could still see the cut-up part, but it was red. Craters and everything. He made the telescope himself by hand.”

“How do you make a telescope?”

“You get a round piece of glass and grind on it for a long time, then make that part shiny, then put it on one end of a tube, like for carpets. Then you buy eyehole things.”

“Lenses?”

“Opticons, I think he called them. He teaches a class on how to make your own telescope. Can I?”

“If we can find a tube, like for carpets.”

The kids went to bed late that first night on Greene Street, but having spent so much energy running around they all conked out, pronto. Before she could forget, Bette put three dollars under Sharri’s pillow in exchange for that tooth, the fairy being rather flush with cash.

The day finally over, Bette opened a bottle of red, red wine and called Maggie, telling her about all the neighborhood kids, the Pittses and the Coke connection, and yes, her vision of Paul Legaris.

“What is with your luck with men?” Maggie asked.

“It’s not my luck,” Bette said. “It’s the men. They are all so sad. So obvious. So desperate for a woman to define them.”

“Desperate to fuck you,” Maggie deemed. “And there you are, right next door. If he comes over next time smelling of some Rat Packesque cologne? Bolt the door. He’s after you.”

“I hope he’s aiming for his students. Teaching assistants. Sorority girls.”

“Those could get him fired. The hot divorcée who moved in next door is legal game. He may have binoculars trained on your windows right now.”

“If he does he’ll see Eddie’s Star Wars curtains. My room is on the other side of the house.”

———

As August yawned deeply into its dog days, Bette avoided contact with her next-door neighbor, not wanting to hear Are you doing anything tonight? again. She drove home, scanning Greene Street for signs of Paul Legaris. Once he was on his front lawn and he waved as she pulled into the driveway, calling out, “How you doing?”

“Just super, thanks!” she said. She hustled inside like she was very busy with something when, in fact, she had nothing going on. Another time, there he was watching the neighbor kids kicking footballs in a game called Pig on the Fly, so she grabbed her idle phone and pretended to be on a call as she went into the house. Paul waved at her, but she just nodded back. During the evenings she feared the doorbell would ring and there he would be, freshly showered and smelling of Creed, asking if she wasn’t doing anything, would she be interested in dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory? She had once taken her dentist up on that very offer. He turned out to be such a narcissistic bore she changed her dental care provider. Around then she declared an Armistice in the Dating War, and now she was hell-bent on keeping her new life on Greene Street void of attachments and thus disaster free.

As it turned out, the kids saw more of Paul Legaris than he did. He was washing his car on a Friday evening (who washes a car on Friday evening?) when Bob picked them up for his weekend of custody. Bette showed her ex-husband around the lower floor of her new house as the kids packed their weekend bags, then she watched as they all piled into Bob’s car. Paul came over when Eddie wanted to introduce his dad to the guy who taught Cosmos at the college. The two men chatted longer than necessary, Bette decided. When Bob and the kids drove off, Paul went back to washing his car. Though she did not have a vision about the exchange, she wondered if the two men had compared notes on, well, her.

The  next  morning  Bette  slept  in,  wonderfully  late  on a Saturday morning without the kids. She came down the stairs of the quiet house barefoot, in a pair of yoga pants and a light cotton hoodie, carrying her iPad.

“Hey, big boy.” In bare feet she steamed up her morning elixir, taking it out to the backyard before the sun broke over the roof and the heat became too much. She took her iPad with her; it seemed like years since she had used the thing anyplace other than in bed. She sat in a plastic Adirondack chair under the backyard tree, scrolling through back issues of the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday magazine, then lingering too long on the Daily Mail website, when she heard klock klock klock klock klock.

A woodpecker was doing the woodpecker thing somewhere.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

She scanned the branches of the trees for a sign of the bird but found none. Klock klock klock klock klock.

“Persistent fives,” Bette said, counting the klocks.

She looked at the exterior of the house, happy she didn’t see the bird damaging the siding by digging for insects, then came again klock klock klock klock klock.

The sound was coming from over the fence, from Paul Legaris’s backyard. The tall fence—which even on Greene Street made for good neighbors—blocked any view of next door, save the higher tree branches. There were no signs of Mr. Peckerhead up in them, but the klock klock klock klock klock sounds kept coming, which made Bette curious. She wanted to see how big this woody-bird was, so she moved her chair to the fence and stood on it, hoping to see the bird in action.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

Paul Legaris kept his backyard neat and organized, with a vegetable garden with drip irrigation and beanpoles. An antique plow, rusted and in need of a horse, sat in the center of a patch of grass beside, incongruously, an array of solar panels. Toward the back of the yard, distant from the patio, was a massive brick BBQ and one of those freestanding, mail-order-catalog hammocks.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

Paul himself was sitting at a picnic table on a redwood deck under a sloping canopy, already dressed in his uniform of baggy shorts, polo shirt, and those flip-flops. His too-cool eyeglasses were set on the top of his head, and he was bent in concentration over a hunk of machinery that looked like it had been made in the 1800s.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

The machine was a typewriter,  though  it  looked  like no typewriter Bette had ever seen. The thing was ancient, something out of the Victorian era, a mechanical printing apparatus with hammers arcing onto paper rolled into the carriage. Paul hit a key five times—klock klock klock klock klock—added a touch of oil to the inner levers of the typewriter, and repeated.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

This was how Paul Legaris could ruin a peaceful morning on Greene Street, servicing a writing gimcrack straight out of Jules Verne.

Klock klock klock klock klock.

“Yowza,” Bette mumbled. She went back inside for another jolt of caffeine and stayed there, reading her iPad in the relative quiet at her kitchen table, still hearing the muffled klock-ing of her neighbor’s ironclad word processor.

That afternoon, when the sun was turning Greene Street into both the frying pan and the fire, Bette was on the phone with Maggie.

“So he’s got telescopes and typewriters laying around his house. I wonder what else,” Maggie wondered.

“Old toasters. Dial telephones. Washtubs with wringers. Who knows?”

“I checked some of the dating sites on the Web. Couldn’t find him.”

“CreepyNeighbor.com? SadSacks4U?” Bette was looking out the front window when an unfamiliar car pulled up across the street—one made in Korea the color of red nail polish. A young man, the driver, got out along with a girl a few years younger, no doubt his sister. As they walked across the street, angling toward Paul Legaris’s front door, Bette recognized the Legaris gait in the boy.

“Kid alert,” Bette told Maggie. “Guess who just showed up.”

“Who?” Maggie asked.

“Pretty sure it’s the offspring of Professor Lonesome next door. Son and daughter.”

“They showing tattoos or Birkenstocks?”

“Nah.” Bette eyed the kids for signs of youthful rebellion or oddity. “They look normal.”

“Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

The girl let out a squeal and ran toward the front door of the house. Paul Legaris was heading for her when they intersected on the lawn. She took him in a headlock and bulldogged him into the turf, laughing. The son joined the fracas, two kids dog-piling on the father they had clearly not seen in a while.

“I may have to call 911 soon. I think a separated shoulder is due,” Bette opined.

That night Bette, Maggie, and the Ordinand sisters met for dinner at a Mexican cafe made of cinder block and with paper shades over the lights, a place so authentic they were afraid to drink the water, but not the margaritas. The night filled with laughter and stories about former husbands, lousy ex-boyfriends, and men who lacked both common sense and sanity. The talk was fun and saucy, much of it about Paul Legaris, none of it flattering.

When her Lyft driver dropped her off at Greene Street, the sky had been dark for two hours and once again the telescope had been wheeled out onto Paul’s front yard. His car was not in the driveway; his kids were manning the search of the heavens. Bette was making straight for her door when the son’s voice reached across the driveway.

“Good evening” was all he said.

Bette gave a nod and made a sound like g’deve but didn’t slow.

“Wanna see the moons of Jupiter?” This was the girl asking. “Smack in the middle of the sky and cool as hell?”

“No, thank you,” Bette said.

“You’re missing one gorgeous show!” The girl had a voice like Dale’s, open and friendly, prone to enthusiasm over the smallest things.

“No eclipse tonight?” Bette was getting her front door keys from her purse.

“Those are infrequent. Jupiter is out all summer long,” the girl said. “I’m Nora Legaris.”

“Hi. Bette Monk.”

“Mother of Dale and Sharri and Eddie? Dad said your kids are a hoot.” The girl headed Bette’s way, stepping onto the driveway. “You bought the Schneiders’ house. They moved to Austin, the lucky punks. That’s my brother.” Nora pointed to the telescope. “Tell Ms. Monk your name!”

“Lawrence Altwell-Chance Delagordo Legaris the Seventh,” he said. “You can call me Chick.”

Bette looked confused, like a woman with three margaritas in her, which she was. “Chick?”

“Or Larry. Long story. You want to see what Galileo saw centuries ago? Changed the course of human history.”

To wave off such an invitation, to flee into her house, would have been rude, very un–Greene Street. Nora and Chick were charming kids. So Bette said, “Put that way, guess I better.”

Bette crossed the boundary of her house into Legaris territory, her first ever visit. Chick stepped back from the telescope, offering Bette access. “Behold Jupiter,” he said.

Bette put her eye up to the lens at the open end of the carpet tube.

“Try not to bump the telescope. It should be lined up right.”

Bette blinked. The glass of the lens brushed her eyelash. She couldn’t make any sense of what she was looking at. “I don’t see a thing.”

“Chick,” Nora sighed. “You can’t say ‘behold Jupiter’ and fail to have Jupiter beholdable.”

“Sorry, Ms. Monk. Let me see.” Chick looked through a much smaller telescope mounted on the huge carpet tube and made adjustments up and down and left and right. “Bang solid fat as a goose!”

“I sure hope you behold Jupiter now,” said Nora.

With her eye again so close to the lens her mascara could have marred it, Bette saw, at first, nothing, and then a brilliant pinhole of light. Jupiter. Not only Jupiter but four of its moons in a straight line, a single moon to its left, and three to its right, as clear as could be.

“Yowza!” Bette cried. “It’s as clear as can be! That’s Jupiter?”

“King of the planets and the Jovian moons,” Chick said. “How many can you see?”

“Four.”

“Just like Galileo,” Nora said. “He put two bits of glass in a brass pipe, pointed it at the brightest object in the Italian sky, and saw just what you are looking at. Slammed the door on the Ptolemaic theory of the universe. Got him in some hot water.”

Bette could not take her eye away. She had never looked deep into the Cosmos and seen another planet with her own eyes. Jupiter was gorgeous.

“Wait till you see Saturn,” Chick said. “Rings and moons and the whole shebang.”

“Show me!” Bette was suddenly hooked on celestial views.

“Can’t," Chick explained. “Saturn doesn’t rise until very early morning. If you want to set your alarm for quarter to five, I’ll meet you here and line it up for you.”

“Four forty-five a.m.? That will not happen.” Bette stepped away from the telescope and those Jovian moons. “Now, explain Chick to me.”

Nora laughed. “Abbott and Costello. The skinny one was Chick in one of their movies. We watched it about a thousand times and I started calling my brother by it. Chick stuck.”

“Better than La-La-La-Larry Le-Le-Legaris.”

“I get that,” Bette said. “I was Elizabeth, along with seven other girls in fourth grade.” She looked at Jupiter again through the telescope and once more marveled at the sight.

“Here comes the old man.” Nora saw the headlights of her father’s car coming down Greene Street. Bette thought to bolt for her front door, but to do so now would be such an obvious dis that she waved off her flight instinct.

“What are you punks doing on my lawn?” Paul said, getting out of his car. Another fellow, a redhead not much older than Chick, climbed out of the passenger seat. “Not you, Bette. These two scalawags.”

Nora turned to Bette. “Dad uses words like scalawags. Sorry you witnessed it.”

“This is Daniel,” Paul said, pointing to the redheaded fellow, who, Bette could not help but notice, was very, very thin, possibly malnourished. He was wearing clothes that were brand new and surely not of his own taste, he wore them so uncomfortably. The kids exchanged greetings and Bette said hello.

“You have the Big Guy in sight?” Paul looked at the gas giant in the sky. “Daniel, you ever see Jupiter before?”

“I have not.” With no other comment, Daniel stepped to the big tube and looked into its eyepiece. “Wow,” he said with no expression.

“Bette? You have a gander?” Paul asked.

“I did. Made me say yowza.” Bette looked at Nora. “Sorry you witnessed me saying yowza.”

Yowza is good,” said Nora. “A catchall superlative. Like big-time or super-duper.”

“Like swingin’,” said Chick. “Or bodacious,” said Paul.

“Or tits,” said Daniel. Again, no expression. No one knew what to say to that.

———

The Daniel fellow spent a few days at the Legaris place. Bette heard the two men talking in the mornings, their distant voices coming over the fence in the backyard. She saw them leaving together in the evenings around 7:00 p.m., and then one night the skinny redhead was gone. Greene Street became, once again, a place of bikes, balls, and kids playing with a decided headiness since the beginning of school was bearing down. The end of summer was suddenly in the air, palpable.

On the final evening of August, Bette took the kids for pizza at a place that was wall-to-wall arcade games. When they returned home, the block was a quiet heaven after all that noise. The Patel kids were playing with a garden hose on their lawn, so Eddie and Sharri joined them. Dale went into the house. Bette lingered out front in a cooling, lovely breeze that stirred the leaves of her sycamore. Some of the spare pizza made it from the take-home box and into her hand as she leaned against one of the lower limbs, nibbling away.

There was no sign of Paul Legaris. His car was not in his driveway, so she felt relaxed in the calm of Greene Street, though guilty over what was her fourth slice of pepperoni, olive, and onion. As she tossed the thin crescent of uneaten crust into the grass—some bird would soon find it—she thought she saw a very large insect crawling across Paul Legaris’s driveway.

She nearly let out an eek of terror — that could have been a huge spider — but then realized it was only a set of keys lying on the ground, right where Paul’s car would have been parked.

Bette, then, found herself in something of a dilemma — what was a neighbor to do? She should pick up the keys, hold on to them until Paul came home, then knock on his front door and return them. If indeed they were his keys, as was most probable, she would save him the angst of a fruitless search. Anyone would do that, but — pop — Paul would be so happy at getting his keys back he would insist on repaying Bette with a dinner he would cook himself. Say! How’s about I BBQ some ribs in the backyard with my own sauce recipe!

Bette did not want to go there. The simple solution would be for her to have Eddie return the keys. When Paul came home her son would scamper over and do the good deed and Bette would be inside her own house and that would be that.

She reached down and picked up the keys. There was a fob with the seal of Burham Community College, a couple of house keys and two industrial types with serial numbers stamped into them, a bike-lock key, and, the largest item on the ring, a plastic poker chip held in place by a hole drilled through its rim.

The chip was worn down, its serrated edges smoothed over. It had once been red but now was only flecked with faded spots. Still visible in the center was a big number 20. Paul must have won twenty bucks at one of the fake riverboat casinos at the state line. Or maybe the chip was all that remained of a two-thousand-dollar stake. She turned the chip over and saw NA on the other side. The letters were exotic and stylized, like a tattoo, sitting inside a square set on its corner like a baseball diamond. In the fading evening light, she saw some writing in the open areas of the chip, but it, too, was worn down and illegible save for a few letters—a g here, an oc, and what looked like vice but could have been roit or ribs or any four-letter word.

Across the street, the kids were playing Punch Ball against the Patel garage door. Bette took the keys inside to hold on to until she could assign Eddie the mission to return them.

Dale was on her laptop in the living room, watching YouTube videos of horse jumping.

“You busy?” Bette asked her. Dale did not answer. “Hey, kid-o-mine,” she said, snapping her fingers.

“What?” Dale did not look up from her computer. “Can you google something for me?”

“Google what?”

“This poker chip.” Bette held up the key chain.

“You want me to google ‘poker chips’?”

“This poker chip.”

“I don’t need Google to tell you. That is a poker chip.”

“Where is it from?”

“A poker chip factory.”

“I am going to bounce this off your head if you don’t google this.”

Dale sighed and looked at her mother and the key ring and the poker chip and rolled her eyes. “Okay! But can I just finish this?”

Bette showed Dale the detail of the chip — the faded red, the 20, the NA on the other side with the rubbed-out letters —  leaving the key chain behind to go wash her hands of pizza crumbs. She was loading the dishwasher when Dale hollered something from the living room.

“What?” Bette called back.

Dale came into the kitchen carrying her laptop. “It’s a thing for narcotics.”

“What is?” Bette was putting silverware into the top rack of the dishwasher.

“The poker chip,” Dale said, showing her mother a collection of images on her computer. “NA is for Narcotics Anonymous. Like AA, but for narcotics. I entered poker chips with NA and a site came up, then I searched for images and there you go.”

Bette was looking at the same design as was on the key ring. NA was in a baseball diamond, with the words Self, God, Society, Service in the open spaces.

“They give them out to celebrate ‘sobriety,’ ” Dale said.

“That means for not doing drugs. For thirty days on up.”

“But this one says twenty.” What was Paul Legaris doing with a poker chip from Narcotics Anonymous?

“I think that means twenty years,” Dale said. “Where did you find these keys?”

Bette hesitated. If Paul Legaris had anything to do with drugs or Narcotics Anonymous, she didn’t want Dale to know until she knew more herself.

“Found it someplace,” Bette said.

“I need to google anything else? Potato chips or the rules for poker?”

“No.” Bette went back to loading the dishwasher. When she was finished she called Maggie.

“Sure, Narcotics Anonymous,” Maggie told her. “AA for drunks. CA for cokeheads. They have an Anonymous for everything.”

“NA is for junkies?”

“Not narcoleptics.” Maggie was curious. “You sure they are his keys?”

“No. But they were in his driveway, so let’s assume — which will make an ass out of you and me...”

“Guys in twelve-step programs always sleep with someone else in the twelve-step program. Sarah Jallis had a niece who married a guy from her AA group, but I think they divorced later.”

“If Paul Legaris is in NA, has been in NA for twenty years, I wonder what for.”

“Well.” Maggie paused. “I’d guess narcotics had something to do with it.”

Eddie and Sharri came in an hour later, wet from the Patels’ garden hose. An hour after that, all three kids were bathed and in front of the PlayStation watching a movie in HD. Bette was in the kitchen on her iPad, looking up Narcotics Anonymous on website after website. She did not hear the knock on the front door.

“Professor Legaris is here.” Eddie had come into the kitchen. Bette looked at her son with no reaction. “He’s at the front door.”

And there he was, on the porch, just on the other side of the doorway, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with leather deck shoes on his feet. Bette closed the door slightly behind her to block the sound from the movie.

“Hi,” she said.

“Sorry to bother you. I wonder if I can use your backyard to access my backyard.”

“Why?”

“Because I am a knucklehead. Locked myself out of my house. I think my sliding door is unlocked. I’d go over my own fence but I’d land in my garbage cans.”

Bette looked at Paul, at the same face that had brought her a HoneyBaked ham a month before, at the same guy who washed his car on Friday and thought her kids were a hoot, the neighbor who made his own telescopes and fixed old typewriters. Pop! Paul Legaris is sitting in a circle of men and women, all on folding chairs. He is listening to Daniel, the skinny redhead, talking about his days scoring heroin. Paul nods his head, recognizing his own behavior of twenty years prior.

“Wait right here,” Bette says.

She returned seconds later with the key chain in her hand.

“My keys,” Paul murmured. “You swiped my keys? That’s a joke.”

“They were in your driveway. I thought it was a big bug, but nope.”

“My car remote must have fallen off without me noticing, one more event to which I am oblivious. I had no clue where I’d lost them, so thanks.”

“Credit Greene Street and its good neighbor policy,” Bette said. Now would have been the time for her to close the door on any more interaction with the guy who lived next door, the guy who wore flip-flops, the guy whom she had been avoiding since she had moved in. But she surprised herself with a question. “What happened to that Daniel fellow with the red hair and the lofty vocabulary?” she asked.

Paul had turned to go but stopped, facing Bette in the doorway. “Ah, Danny.” Paul paused. “He’s in Kentucky.”

“Kentucky? He from there?” Bette was now leaning in the doorway, casually, comfortably. She found herself relaxed with Paul in her doorway, something she had never felt, not since that first Are you doing anything tonight?

“He’s from Detroit. A spot opened up at a place in Kentucky, so he took it for ninety days, if all goes well. I hope there was no problem during his stay with me.”

“No. I did want to give the guy a sandwich to fatten him up.” “Yeah. Danny needs to eat better.” Paul stepped away again, leaving.

“You know,” Bette said. “In olden times redheads like him were considered demons. Because of the devil-colored hair.”

Paul laughed. “He’s got his demons, but no more than any of us.”

Bette looked down at the keys in Paul’s hand, at the poker chip that celebrated twenty years of sobriety, two decades narcotics-free. She did some math in her head. Chick Legaris was at least twenty-one years old, which would have made him a baby when his father hit his own rock bottom, when Paul began his journey from wherever that was to this night in August.

In that wink of an eye, Bette was even more assured she and the kids belonged here, on Greene Street.

“Thanks for saving me a ton of hassle,” Paul said, waving his keys.

De nada,” Bette said, watching him step away toward his house next door.

She was just turning back into her house when—pop—she saw herself in her kitchen, early in the morning, with dawn still hours away and kids all still asleep in their beds.

“Hello, big boy,” she is saying to her espresso machine, steaming her morning latte and, in another mug, a double cappuccino with just a frothing of foam.

Then she is carrying both wake ’em ups out her front door, down her porch steps, across her lawn, and under the low hanging limbs of her sycamore.

Paul Legaris has set up his telescope on his driveway. The instrument is pointing at the deep, dark blue of the eastern sky over Greene Street.

Saturn is just rising. Through the eyepiece, the ringed planet is a glory, bang solid fat as a goose and cool as hell.

More about the author

Uncommon Type

Tom Hanks

A collection of seventeen wonderful short stories showing that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is as talented a writer as he is an actor.

A hectic, funny sexual affair between two best friends. A World War II veteran dealing with his emotional and physical scars. A second-rate actor plunged into sudden stardom and a whirlwind press junket. A small-town newspaper columnist with old-fashioned views of the modern world. A woman adjusting to life in a new neighborhood after her divorce. Four friends going to the moon and back in a rocket ship constructed in the backyard. A teenage surfer stumbling into his father’s secret life.

These are just some of the people and situations that Tom Hanks explores in his first work of fiction, a collection of stories that dissects, with great affection, humour and insight, the human condition and all its foibles. The stories are linked by one thing: in each of them, a typewriter plays a part, sometimes minor, sometimes central. To many, typewriters represent a level of craftsmanship, beauty and individuality that is harder and harder to find in the modern world. In his stories, Mr Hanks gracefully reaches that typewriter-worthy level.

Known for his honesty and sensitivity as an actor, Mr Hanks brings both those characteristics to his writing. Alternatingly whimsical, moving and occasionally melancholy, Uncommon Type is a book that will delight as well as surprise his millions of fans. It also establishes him as a welcome and wonderful new voice in contemporary fiction, a voice that perceptively delves beneath the surface of friendships, families, love and normal, everyday behaviour.

Want more author news and reading inspiration?

Sign up to get exclusive articles, interviews, and sneak previews of new books, every month.

Related features