There Goes the Neighborhood

“The worst thing,” Scott Rutherford started in like a foghorn set to ‘nag’, “THE worst thing is the lack of respect. For us. The community.” He warmed to his subject, turningto his captive audience of NA members. “we can’t let this slide just because they’re foreigners.”

To Scott’s credit, the word did not come out as it would had Jake’s father said it: two-syllable, dull: furriners. The implication oozed behind it just the same, though.

Jake raised his hand and spoke at the same time., “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t they from Kingsport?”

He was ignored.

A ruddy-complexioned fat man whose name always escaped Jake leaned forward and, with the weight of a criminal verdict, hissed, “They’re letting their lawn go to seed.”

“Really,” Jake said, “my god. The poor children.”

This earned him an appraising look from Scott, who Jake was fairly sure did not understand sarcasm as a concept.

The vote was 26-1 to send their neighbors the dreaded orange slip(“not a pink slip obviously and orange is such a happy color. More of a tangerine than safety orange.”) about yard transgressions, one of many unauthoritated slips Jake dubbed “the passive-aggressive rainbow.” God help their new neighbors should orange give way to fireball fuchsia.

Jake and his wife Hazel pulled into their #8 Neo-Dutch colonial, terra-cotta shingled, “bright heather” Olympic paint house that night, and Jake marveled at the sheer uselessness of it all. The “yard” of the house(something his grandfather would have scoffed at) barely superseded the house itself, more like green welcome mat. He was close enough to hear Glen and Phyllis Glenfidditch every time the whoopee train pulled into the station.

“…and it’s one thing not caring whether your neighbors hear,” he called to the bedroom, “but they leave the window open while they do it. And the lawn thing? Jeezus.”

Hazel’s mild reprove carried even from the king-sized posturepedic bed: “well, it’s what we signed up for. Extra security, extra-nice looking neighborhood. It’s all part of the bargain.”

Hazel had filled to the brim with mild platitudes around the time they moved into this place. He had a sneaking suspicion it was to cover the fact that she only moved them here to pacify her parents, still grandchildless.

Jake probed a thin patch on his scalp and wondered if this place wasn’t aging him prematurely.

“Security’s one thing,” he said, coming out of the bathroom and clicking the light off behind him, “but when a group of full-grown adults are ready to filet a man over the state of the grass in his yard—”

Hazel made her cross-eyed kitty face, her signal that she no longer cared for the discussion, and said, “ugh, give it a rest, already. My head hurts.”

My soul hurts, Jake almost said back and bit his tongue. Her moue developed into a smile and she patted the bed beside her.

“C’mon, loverboy,” she whispered breathily, “I hear there’s a big, bad, burglar on the loose and I need some comfort.”

That night, astride his wife of three years and trying to maintain an erection, Jake wondered if this place wasn’t making him dull, too.

Scott had been a volunteer fireman for twenty-five years, owned a landscaping firm that he’d founded with his bare hands, and had boxed in high school. If he gave any sign that the Sycamore Crescent Neighborhood Association was not the best use of his talents, Jake had never seen it.

He eyed the offending yard the next day from his Subaru, “on his way to work.” He left early on weekdays now, before Hazel got into reality TV mode.

The family that had moved in were reclusive, to say the least. No one had seen anyone but the (Father? Oldest brother? Gimp?) man who had signed the rent agreement since they’d moved in. Their stuff had arrived before them, unloaded by taciturn, hirsute men who had grunted at nosy questions.

For a second, he could see a stiff-necked, thin-lipped face peer from behind a cloth curtain near the front door. Jake lifted his hand. The curtain dropped.

Peculiar-looking bunch, if he was anything to go by. If he had ever stood up straight, he might be taller than even Scott, but the man curled over himself like a shrimp cocktail, peering up at everyone past the bridge of his nose.

The lawn looked crispy. Jake shook himself and left before things got ugly.

At dusk he returned. Scott was ostensibly watering his begonias when he walked past, though he was so otherwise occupied they might as well have had gills.

“There,” he nodded toward the yard, trembling with passion, “completely brown.”

“I dunno, Scott,” Jake kidded, “seems more like a festive ochre or even a mustard.”

A pained look passed over Scott’s still-handsome features. “No matter where it is on the chart, it means only one thing.”

“Yield to pedestrians?”

A puzzled look graced Scott’s brow. “No, Jacob. Death. Pretty soon they’ll pass the point of no return, have to re-sod the whole thing. Cost a pretty penny.” The look on his face clearly indicated that the crime of not listening to your neighbors on the omnipresent subject of lawn care carried with it a just penalty. Jake had to restrain himself from thwapping Scott upside the head with his ridiculous watering wand. The fact that he still seemed to consider Jake a confidant after reporting his unauthorized trash bins and incurring him a fee of $180 for contract breach showed that the shuttle had left radio contact long ago.

Suddenly Scott straightened upright, hose sinking in his fist. “My Gosh.” He said, and Jake withheld a snicker. “What is he—no.”

Jake looked up at what hideous infraction his neighbors were committing. The man had strode with lopsided gait to the curb and was now in the process of securing the ties of a safety-orange garbage bag that stood on the curb.

Something inside Scott broke. “No.” he whispered with deathly finality. He snapped into a businesslike stride, chin out like the prow of a ship.

“No,” he called before him, “I’m sorry—no! Yes you! Come back here, please!”

Jake watched Scott barge primly into the neighbor’s yard, walking up to where the man had paused in  a half-turn, regarding Scott out of dead wet eyes. A small but intense conversation was carried out, with much furious gesturing on Scott’s part, and dull regard from the other man. Jake noticed the mailbox now had a name. Gilman. Funny. He did look a bit fishy, now that he thought about it. Didn’t seem to be too big on blinking, either.

With the slow, gradual ease of a tai chi move, Gilman made his first contribution to the conversation with a sweeping gesture towards the still-open front door. Scott’s posture said he’d be delighted, thank you, and quick-marched towards the front door, buttocks firmly clenched together. Gilman followed with no apparent hurry.

Jake ate risotto with stir-fried asparagus that night and kept one eye out the window, but still he did not see Scott leave the Gilman’s. He hoped he wasn’t being too rough on the newcomers. It had been an adjustment for them, too, moving into what amounted to a silicon valley ant farm from their apartment lives. He had a sneaking suspicion Hazel hated as much as him, the gawkers, the nosers, everybody in everybody’s business, but in her world this was the natural progression for people their age. Grow up, get job, lose all personality, move to suburb.

“Fuck this,” he said to the mirror the next morning, as he did every morning now, “fuck it, fuck them, fuck him.” He lathered his reflection away.

That morning as he backed the SAAB from the driveway, he noticed Gilman out in his yard for the first time since the move. He was watering an oddly verdant patch on the lawn with a ridiculous-looking water wand. The lush growth was suspiciously human-shaped.

Jake had no idea how long he’d sat there until Gilman turned to look at him. Neither spoke. Then, slowly, Jake raised his hand and curled it into a thumbs-up. Gilman cocked his head to the side, gazing levelly at him, before raising his hand in a mirrored gesture. His thumbs were barbed by nail-thin claws.

Waving merrily, Jake drove to work.

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