“Two Men” by Andrew Porter
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Andrew Porter’s gem-like short-short story “Two Men” reveals how a particular event, embossed on memory, can take on a significance that transcends the sum of its remembered details.
by Andrew Porter
The evening of my forty-third birthday, we were all standing around the island in the middle of our kitchen, drinking wine, when I saw them out of the corner of my eye: these two figures moving along the periphery of our yard. It looked to be a father and son, both tall, one older, one quite a bit younger, maybe in his early teens. They were both wearing all white, almost like housepainter outfits. After a moment, they slipped around the back of our house toward the dog run and the toolshed. Everyone was already pretty drunk by then. It was our good friends Allen and Deb, my wife, Courtney, and my wife’s sister, Ellen, and we’d all been drinking since about two o’clock that afternoon when Deb and Allen arrived.
The plan had been to go out to dinner after a few drinks, but now the idea of hopping in our cars and driving across town seemed irresponsible at best, so we’d canceled the sitter and ordered a pizza and put all the children in our bedroom with a movie. We were going to stay in and keep drinking was the plan, but now there was this other situation—this situation with the two men—which I tried to explain to them, perhaps a little too quickly or clumsily, because everyone just put down their glasses and stared at me askance.
“What are you talking about?” Allen said. “Two men?”
“Yes,” I said. “Actually, a man and a boy.”
“Around the back of the house?”
“Just now?” Courtney squinted at me, as if trying to judge how much I’d had to drink.
“Yes,” I said. “And just wait. They’re going to have to come back. The fence is too high on the other side. The only way to get out is to cross the yard again.”
“How come none of us saw them before?” Courtney said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You were all talking. Maybe you were distracted.”
Courtney eyed me skeptically, but Allen was already motioning everyone to come over to the other side of the kitchen. He said we’d have a better vantage point from there.
So we all moved over to the window above the sink, which looked out directly onto our backyard, and waited. Our house is surrounded on all sides by a fence, but the door on the far side of the yard is never locked, so that’s how they must have gotten in.
“Why don’t we call the police?” Ellen suggested after a minute or so had passed in silence.
“No, let’s wait,” Allen said and poured himself and Deb another glass of wine. Down the hallway, I could hear the sounds of gunshots and tires screeching on the movie the kids were watching.
“You know, I heard there have been some break-ins in the neighborhood,” Deb said, taking the glass Allen had poured her. “Two on our street and another on Oakview.” Deb and Allen had lived three streets down from us for almost a decade, maybe longer. “It’s possibly the same guys.”
“Like I said, I think we should call the police,” Ellen said.
But for some reason no one replied to this, and nobody moved. We just stood there in the kitchen waiting, all of us a little intrigued by the situation, excited by the possibility of watching a burglary in progress, even if the burglary was happening to us. To be honest, if I had had anything of value back there in the shed, I might have cared more, but I didn’t. It was mostly just tools, which I rarely used, and a water purifier and maybe a few ceramic pots. I probably hadn’t been back there in close to six months.
Anyway, something happened after that. I don’t remember. I think Courtney got a phone call from her mother, and then the pizza arrived, and pretty soon everyone forgot about the two men in the backyard—or, I should say, the man and the boy. We opened up another bottle of wine and then some champagne with dinner and another bottle with the cake. We had all agreed by then that nobody would be driving home. Deb and Allen and their two sons would walk, Ellen would sleep on the couch in our family room, and Ellen’s daughter would sleep with our daughter in her room.
“The motto of the night is safety,” Allen said. “That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on tonight.” He was sitting on the kitchen counter as he said this, his eyes glazed over, his jeans stained with the red wine he’d spilled on them earlier. Deb, who was equally drunk, was sitting by herself at the breakfast bar, trying to find a song by some band from our youth, a song whose name she couldn’t remember but that she swore we’d all recognize the second we heard it.
In a year from now, Deb and Allen would be divorced, and in three years, Courtney and I would be too. But at that moment, I don’t think any of us could have imagined anything like that. And maybe that’s why I return to that night so much. Aside from it being my birthday, it was also one of the last times I can remember the four of us all hanging out together happily, without any tension or awkwardness.
After a while, Deb and Allen said their goodbyes—this was probably around two or three in the morning—and Ellen retired to the couch, and the kids went to sleep, and Courtney and I went back to the kitchen for one more drink.
I’d had way too much wine by then, but a part of me didn’t want the evening to end. On the other side of the kitchen, Courtney smiled at me warmly.
“A good birthday?” she said. It would in fact be the last party she ever threw for me.
“A good birthday,” I said. “Thank you.”
I raised my glass then, and Courtney raised hers, and then I walked over to the other side of the kitchen and took her hand, and we walked back to our room.
It had in fact been a great night, one of our best. But what I never told anyone about that night was how earlier I’d come into the kitchen—this was in the middle of dinner—and I’d seen them again, the man and the boy, moving quickly across the yard. The boy was carrying an armful of shovels and rakes, and the man was carrying a weed wacker and hedge trimmer. All things considered, they probably had about three hundred dollars worth of equipment with them, reason enough to call the police, yes, alert them, but for some reason I didn’t. And this is what I can’t explain, even now: how I just stood there and watched them, watched them as they took these things that I had worked for and paid for, these things that I had never taken much notice of before, these things that I hadn’t even realized I’d wanted until months later, long after they had disappeared, long after they were gone.
Andrew Porter is the author of three books, including the forthcoming short story collection The Disappeared (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022), the short story collection The Theory of Light and Matter (Vintage/Penguin Random House), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel, In Between Days (Alfred A. Knopf), which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Porter’s stories have appeared in The Pushcart Prize anthology, Ploughshares, One Story, Southern Review, Threepenny Review, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts, among others. Currently, he teaches fiction writing and directs the creative writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio.