Merely Players

Rhonda’s neighbor, Oswald, never wears a shirt. Mowing the lawn; walking the dog; collecting the mail—all sans shirt. She spotted him at the park last week, sitting on a log by the pond, feeding the ducks, with his hairy belly on display.

“Mum, just leave him be,” Rhonda’s daughter Rose says as she swirls hot water in the teapot then dumps it in the sink. “It’s none of your business how he dresses…or doesn’t. Shall I be Mother?” She pours tea into two cups and serves one to Rhonda. Rhonda plops a nice, neat white sugar cube into hers.

“It’s my business when I have to look at him all the time,” she says. It’s never occurred to her to avert her eyes. “All the world’s a stage,” a well-dressed man once said, and that means everyone on that stage is fair game.

Rhonda and Rose sit in silence for a minute as they drink their tea.

“He seems lonely,” says Rose, placing her cup on Rhonda’s just-polished coffee table.

Rhonda pushes a coaster across to her, a frown resting between her wire-thin eyebrows. 

“That’s no reason to go around half-naked. What would his wife say? May she rest in peace.”

Rose shakes her head. “You could do something neighborly for him,” she says.

Rhonda watches out the kitchen window as Oswald sits, shirtless, on one of his patio chairs, nursing a bottle of beer. Rhonda’s hosting her book group tonight and she’d really prefer he go inside to drink his beer before they arrive. She’s already taken her rubbish out to the bins in the back, watered her hostas, moved some things around in the shed, and oiled the latch on the garden gate, all while sighing loudly and looking meaningfully in Oswald’s direction. But he hasn’t got the message yet. He’s still kicked back in his chair, naked belly soaking up the last rays of the sun, condensation dripping from his beer bottle into his navel. It’s all quite deplorable. Rhonda wrings her hands and looks at the clock. She makes a decision.

“But it’s your turn to host,” Betty complains loudly into Rhonda’s ear. Rhonda holds the phone a few more inches away.

“I’ll host next month,” she says. “There’s been a…” she glances out the window, just as Oswald leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. The pubic forests deep within his armpits glisten in the otherwise lovely evening light. Rhonda wrinkles her nose, “… a bit of a development,” she finishes.

“You cancelled book group because Oswald wasn’t wearing a shirt?” Rose has come over earlier than usual. Rhonda managed to resist going for the power-walk her daughter had tried to insist on and instead they’re drinking coffee beneath the rose trellis in the back garden. Oswald clearly isn’t out and about yet.

“I didn’t cancel, I requested to forego my hosting duties. No-one else wanted to host, so it was cancelled. It’s not my fault no-one keeps their house to a host-able standard between times.” Rhonda sniffs and sips her coffee.

Rose shakes her head. “You should reach out to him, be neighborly.”

“You said that already.”

“What would Dad say?”

“What does your father have to do with this?”

“He never had an issue with Oswald.”

“I don’t have an issue with Oswald. I have an issue with Oswald’s shirtlessness.”

“Dad liked to go shirtless in the summer,” Rose points out.

Rhonda’s throat suddenly feels too tight to answer her daughter, so she watches two mourning doves squabble over the mealworms she put in the bird feeder.

As day settles into evening Rhonda goes through the boxes in her spare room, sorting through her husband’s shirts. She packed them away months ago, right after his funeral, but hasn’t gotten around to taking them to the charity shop yet. 

The muffins she put in the oven earlier are almost done and the aroma drifts up the stairs. Rhonda wipes tears from her cheek and decides she must clean the oven, the fumes are getting to her.

“Do something neighborly,” Rose had suggested. Well, the neighbor needs shirts and Rhonda has plenty to give. She puts a pile of them by the backdoor, planning on taking them next door once the muffins are done. Eric, her late husband, wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t need the shirts anymore, after all. What would he think about their half-naked neighbor? He’d probably side with Rose. “Leave him alone,” he’d say. 

Rhonda takes the muffins from the oven. They smell delicious but, as always, she’s made too many. She’ll have one later with her supper and one in the morning with her tea. Oh, how Rhonda misses Eric and his large appetite.

Oswald appears in his backyard, like a player from stage left. He snips errant, straggly branches from the hedges that border their gardens. Rhonda wrinkles her nose at his furry shoulders; the white, curly hair on his chest; the love handles spilling over the waistband of his shorts; the tattoo on his upper arm that may have been a cat or a dragon once upon a time. What must he have been like as a young man? The years creep up and then fly by and all the things you do and all the things you say are nothing but directions in the play of life. As that bearded bard once said, we’re all “merely players.” She chuckles, then pops a few muffins on a plate and heads out to the garden, ignoring the pile of shirts. Muffins are more neighborly, she thinks. She’ll work on getting him to dress respectfully another time. Before the next book group, perhaps.

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