Time to move.Theodore Gordon is new to the neighborhood. He’s quiet and affable and even takes time to introduce himself to everyone. He shakes the hand of his elderly next door neighbor. He learns that that the thin woman’s husband is a traveling salesman. He overhears a mother scolding her teenage son for staying out too late with his girlfriend, whose family also happens to live on the same street. He meets the unattractive Baptist spinster and her elderly father. Then he goes back home and gets to work. Theodore is in distribution, but not distribution of manufactured goods. Theodore distributes suffering.
He’d found a small, furnished house on Sylmar Street. The Saturday morning he moved in, he went around the neighborhood introducing himself.
“Good morning,” he said to the old man pruning ivy next door. “My name is Theodore Gordon. I just moved in.”
At exactly two-fifteen A.M. Theodore slipped outside, pulled up one of Joseph Alston’s longest ivy plants and left it on his sidewalk.At first Theodore’s meddling is minor enough. A garden is defaced. An ad appears for someone’s car at a ludicrously low price. A lawn mower disappears from one yard and turns up in another. But his interferences start to grow more and more malicious. He secretly poisons a dog. He scrawls racial epithets on a front door. He drugs a woman and snaps sexually compromising photos. As he turns to forgery and arson and extortion, his neighbors begin to tear one another apart. Friendships collapse. The police are called in. People begin to die, some from natural causes, some murdered, some by their own hands.
In the morning, as he left the house, he saw Walter Morton, Jr., heading for the McCann house with a blanket, a towel and a portable radio. The old man was picking up his ivy.
“Was it pulled up?” asked Theodore.
Joseph Alston grunted.
“So that was it,” said Theodore.
“What?” the old man looked up.
“Last night,” said Theodore, “I heard some noise out here. I looked out and saw a couple of boys.”
“You seen their faces?” asked Alston, his face hardening.
Pale morning mist engulfed Sylmar Street. Theodore moved through it silently. Under the back porch of the Jeffersons’ house he set fire to a box of damp papers. As it began to smolder he walked across the yard and, with a single knife stroke, slashed apart the rubber pool. He heard it pulsing water on the grass as he left. In the alley he dropped a book of matches that read Putnam’s Wines and Liquors.Matheson likely didn’t intend to communicate a grand lesson with the short. Written in 1958, it’s a prime example of old-school horror pulp, a spare, lean story with an amoral ending that jolts like an electric current. But it’s quite easy to glean a moral if you’re so inclined. After all, loving your neighbor is hard to do. And not because of something innate in the suburbs, but because of the horror we carry in our own hearts.
A little after six that morning he woke to the howl of sirens and felt the small house tremble at the heavy trucks passing by. Turning on his side, he yawned, and mumbled, “Goody.”
You can read “The Distributor” in Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories By Richard Matheson.