Manfred’s Backbone

by: Michael Shields

The story of a small man, fortunate enough to have a true better half…..

Every evening Manfred would sit on his porch to breathe in the waning moments of the day.  He would pack and smoke his pipe – only a few tokes due to that “damn doctor’s orders”– and take in the neighborhoods comings and goings, few as they were.  Sometimes he would finish off the remaining sections of the daily paper that he had yet to get to, but mostly he would leisurely rock in his chair lost in irreverent thought.

That is, until the ruckus began.

The ruckus started with a few men in ties and khaki pants who wore white hard hats stenciled with a company name that Manfred couldn’t make out from his porch, no matter how hard he squinted his eyes.  They brought with them rolled parchments, which they laid out on the front hood of their black pickup truck.  Then they would point, and make notes on their parchment.  And then point some more, make some more notes and so on.  Manfred called these men “the prospectors”, and he took them as a sign of imminent trouble.

Manfred wasn’t home when the genuine ruckus rolled in; when the bulldozers and dump trucks and backhoes began to have their way with the empty lot across from his home.  Manfred was at the store buying the normal necessities of life when these “monstrosities” began to sculpt and mold the land his eyes rested upon while he smoked his evening pipe.  Upon returning home that day he let them have it from his porch with fists held high.  He told them exactly what he thought of every last one of them, mincing not a word.  But not one amongst the group reacted to his disapproval.  They went on with their work as if he wasn’t even there, cussing pure venom at them with a face red as a brick.

The ruckus continued for months.  After the bulldozers and backhoes left the hammers came.  The hammers, with their unwavering pounding, forced Manfred to stay inside for his evening pipe, which certainly wasn’t okay with the Misses, “but what would you have me do”, Manfred asked, “sit out there with that INFERNAL racket?”

Time went by, as it does, and the old empty lot, with its tight-lipped nature and untouched beauty, finally became a house; a two-story colonial with a front porch that mirrored Manfred’s own.  It would be no time at all before the house became someone’s home, Manfred figured, “handsome looking fella” that it was.  “Someone is going to snatch that up right quick” he would tell his wife.  “A fine build indeed.”

Then “The Mexicans” moved in.  They weren’t Mexicans at all but rather a family of five, Ecuadorian in decent.  But Manfred would refer to them often, and in public if that is where the town’s latest addition came up in discussion, as “The Mexicans”.  In private he would call them a few other choice words that were geographically inaccurate, morally reprehensible, and humorous only to him.  The day “The Mexicans” moved in was not a day you would choose to ask Manfred a favor, even small in nature, or talk to him at all really.  Manfred was blistery that day, beside himself with anger.  He pouted about the house, muttering to the high-heavens about the “downfall of the neighborhood” and this “reprehensible malfeasance.”  Manfred loved to use a big word now and again.

As if the ruckus itself wasn’t bad enough now Manfred had “to deal” with these “damn immigrants” “taking over the neighborhood.”  For weeks Manfred couldn’t quite think straight, and of course he was forced to forgo his most treasured of daily rituals, his lazy evenings on the porch as his view was now “contaminated.” These were dark days indeed for Manfred.

Then it happened.  Manfred figured it had to be coming, as neighbors, no matter creed or place of origin, would always be neighbors and eventually attempt to be, well neighborly.

Manfred wouldn’t even have answered the door if not from the urging of his wife. Her persuasive and gentle nature compelled Manfred toward tasks he wouldn’t venture upon with his own free will alone.  She had that way about her, that sweet way that Manfred just could not say no to, no matter what “loathsome affairs” she requested of him.  Whenever Manfred became untangled, it was she who made him taut again.  Manfred loved very little in life, but his love for his “old lady” was unflappable.

“Just get the door Manfred.  I am positive they don’t bite.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.  From what I hear they are capable of anything.”

Reluctantly Manfred responded to the doorbell’s beckon and slowly opened his front door, being sure to leave the security chain fastened, allowing only a 5-inch gap for viewing and talking through.  Manfred was not a man to take chances, even in seemingly low risk situations such as this.  Awaiting him upon his front porch was a welcoming smile, and an unassuming short woman holding an overly large tray blanketed in tin foil. To Manfred “they” “all looked the same”, and were “not to be trusted” even when bearing gifts, especially when bearing gifts in fact.

“Can I help you? asked Manfred, knowing perfectly well the circumstances of this encounter.

“I am sorry to bother you.  I live next door and…..”

“I know where you live.  Now what do you want?”  Manfred rudely asked.  It was imperative he let the visitor know who was in charge, who the head of this household was, who wore the pants around here!

Undeterred, Manfred’s most recent of neighbors went on.

“Yes, I just wanted to introduce myself to you.  I am Cindy and, as you know, my family and I moved in across the street a couple of weeks ago.”

“OK.”

Cindy took a moment to collect her self, realizing fast she was facing an uphill battle, with a strong wind blowing her way.

“I’m sure you are busy so I won’t keep you, but I wanted to give you this.”

Cindy lifted the tray in her hand as close to the door as possible attempting to entice Manfred with her bounty.  This act of generosity was met with those five inches of open door reducing themselves quickly to zero, as the door slammed shut immediately.  But, a slight jingle became audible from within as Manfred’s thick fingers freed the security chain from its hook, and soon enough the door swung wide open, revealing Manfred’s overweight body which filled the entirety of the doorway.  Manfred wanted a closer look.

“Now what sort of exotic creation do we have here?”

Now, Manfred’s tone was as condescending as one would expect, but underlying his patronizing query was a heavy dose of authentic curiosity, as Manfred was a man who hadn’t skipped a meal in many moons. Three square meals a day was his policy – one he never strayed from.

“Well, it’s not really exotic at all.  Unless you consider Italian-American exotic that is.  It’s lasagna.  In fact, it’s your wife’s recipe.  She taught it to me the other day when I stopped by to say hello.  She told me the way to your heart was through your stomach so I didn’t want to take any chances.  I hope I did her some justice.  And I hope you like it.”

Cindy dumped the tray of lasagna in Manfred’s hands and left him standing silent and dumbfounded at his front door.  The moment he was finally able to move he slowly turned around and faced his wife who was standing in the hallway with a glowing smile he knew all too well.  Manfred attempted to speak but was unable to find the words, something he usually located with ease.  Manfred’s wife gave him a playful, and reassuring wink.

“It’s going to be delicious.  Cindy is a fine student.  I have no doubt she nailed the recipe. Now, bring that over here and let me warm it for you.”

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