Whatever time it is—morning, noon, or long into the night—our neighbor lady is always three sheets to the wind. Maybe four.
We’re out in the front yard trying to dig a hole in the rock-hard ground to plant our first rose bush. A week ago my wife and I moved from our over-priced, cramped—enough already with the hypodermic needles on the sidewalk—city apartment into an underpriced, large—god, is that a raccoon in our garbage can?—fifties rancher in a foggy coastal town. The rose bush is our attempt to beautify the place. Every day fog barrels in from the sea, damp sheets of the stuff that wrap around every leaf, limb, post, and give the neighborhood a gray, dingy look. It gives us a gray, dingy look too but we aren’t complaining. The crummy weather is what makes the houses in the area affordable. No one with any real money would want to live in this constant chill.
I hear a front door slam and look up to see the neighbor lady coming our way. She’s weaving a bit as she crosses the street, still in her nightgown, a coat thrown over her shoulders. The cigarette between her fingers trails smoke behind her like exhaust from a tailpipe. When she reaches our side of the street she grabs hold of our fence as if the sidewalk is the deck of a ship on a stormy sea, as if at any moment she might fall overboard.
Even from a few feet away I can smell the alcohol. She is off-gassing Jim Beam or maybe Wild Turkey. She offers no Good morning, no How’s it going? She just stands there for a moment, watching us dig.
Then she says, “I sure am glad a gay couple had the guts to move onto this block.”
It takes a second for that to hit, to register.
How did she know we’re gay? Sam and I could be two short-haired sisters who are very close, very, very close, and can’t stand to live apart. We could be very good girlfriends who decided to pool resources and buy a house together in a less than liberal neighborhood while we waited for Mr. Right to come along.
“Do you think that will be a problem?” Sam asks.
“Oh, no, honey,” says Three Sheets. “There’s a black family that lives three houses down.”
In my mother’s day there was something called the Welcome Wagon. Every neighborhood had ladies whose job it was to welcome a new family to the block. The ladies would be right there at your door—before the paint dried on the walls, before the boxes were unpacked— carrying a loaf of banana bread or zucchini, smiling sweetly while nosing for a glimpse through the door at what kind of housekeeper you were.
Sam’s reaction to our emissary from this neighborhood’s Welcome Wagon is to plant with even greater fervor: hydrangeas, lavender, more rose bushes. My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There’s:
The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house in a wife beater t-shirt
and pajama bottoms, a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.
The boy I catch in the act of writing ‘bitch’ on our fence with a green felt pen.
When I ask him what in the hell he thinks he’s doing, he says, “I’m just copying over the letters that were already there.”
The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pick up. When he’s sure he’s got our attention he pulls out his johnny jump up and pees in the street.
The family that launches bottle rockets towards our yard on July 4th, our grass—due to the ongoing drought—as dry as a bone and ready to catch any spark.
I am sure we’ve made a mistake moving here. I tell Sam I am frightened. The truth is I’m terrified. We don’t belong here. Our neighbors are making that clear. I wonder out loud if it isn’t too late to move back to the city.
“We’re stuck here now,” she says as she digs a new hole for another freaking rosebush. “I don’t know why the rose petals are rusting. Maybe I should spring for some Miracle Grow.”
Six months later a new kid moves into the house directly across from ours. Three Sheets gave us the history of this house, how the old lady who lives there was very, very busy in her youth and had seven sons by seven different men. All of the sons are adults now and rotate in and out of their mother’s house whenever one of them loses a job or comes back from rehab. The new kid is one uncle’s progeny and the old lady’s grandson. He looks to be about nineteen, short, stocky, with a build that indicates he works out at lot.
He doesn’t seem to have a job. As my desk window looks straight across at his bedroom window I begin to take note of his daily routine. Every afternoon he emerges from his house as if he’s just gotten up. He stands in his driveway wearing sweat pants and nothing else, his bare chest puffed up and out like a little rooster. Facing our house he reaches down in his pants and fiddles around, then spits, then fiddles some more. I’m sure he’s sending us some kind of message.
Things start to heat up. A gang of young toughs begins to congregate on his front lawn. Sometimes there’s a fistfight. Sometimes a neighborhood car gets keyed. Sometimes we hear gunshots in the night. From behind my blinds I notice a string of guys who begin dropping by the kid’s bedroom window at odd hours. He opens up, someone palms him something and, in return, he hands back a paper sack. I tell Sam that the neighborhood just got a new Drug Barn with a convenient walk up window.
One day he comes home with a pregnant pit bull. White, stocky build, set jaw, ears clipped and close to her head. In a funny way he and the dog look a little alike. And they both look ready to spring.
Before long the dog has puppies. Five tiny pit bull puppies. I overhear the kid tell one of his buddies that he’s planning to train them to fight.
Sam has always been more generous than I. Too generous. Before I can stop her she hauls our big plastic doghouse from storage—the one our dogs used when they were pups but have since outgrown. She drags it across the street and asks if the kid would like to borrow it. Sure, he says and takes it with him into his backyard. I know we’ll never see that doghouse again.
That night in bed I hear the puppies crying. Their small yips and whimpers, their sad song, fills the air. Even huddled together in that doghouse they must be so cold out there.
I pull the covers up higher but can’t get back to sleep. The puppies, in unison, start up a high-pitched howling. They’re keening in the night, wailing now. I turn to Sam, can tell by her shallow breathing she’s awake too.
“You know, the real reason he’s raising them is to sell,” I whisper. “Pit bulls to support his bully pulpit.” The kid is very charismatic. There’s no denying he’d developed quite a following. He’s a punk evangelist. He’s the Elmer Gantry of this hood.
“Why in the hell did you give it to him?”
“For protection,” she said.
After that he gives us a quick nod of the head whenever we come out to brush the mold off the roses.
Didn’t we see it coming? This is what people ask us, after the fact. Or is it after the facts, plural? Facts that pile up and up and up until you can no longer ignore them and there’s no broom big enough to brush them under the rug.
Here they are, fact after fact after fact, scattered on top of the rug, scattered all over the place:
After a few months he acquires a girlfriend. Acquires, as in gets, as in needs to have one, as in picks one up. The girlfriend either has a well-paying job or rich parents for she drives an expensive car. A new Mercedes, no less.
One afternoon, the car needs gas.
She and the kid drive to a nearby gas station. He is sitting shotgun. He doesn’t have a driver’s license but I also think he likes being ferried, likes having a girlfriend chauffeur. The gas station isn’t far from our house, is owned by a man from India. He and his son operate the station and are known to run an honest garage. Once they helped me fix a flat tire, no charge.
While the girlfriend’s car is filling up the kid must say he has to pee. He probably says I gotta take a piss but other than the girlfriend no one is there to record his actual words. What is recorded later is what a bystander sees.
The bystander is the father’s son.
The kid gets out of the car and walks over to the restroom. He tries the door handle, finds the door locked, then turns and walks over to a flowerbed. There he unzips and starts to pee.
The flowerbed is the kind you now find at a lot of gas stations. Along with the flags and bright, cheerful signs like, “Pay, Pump and Bolt,” the flowerbeds are meant to beautify, to dress up the place, to give the illusion that you’re pulling into a pretty little landscaped island. The planted meridians of daisies or daffodils or tulips are there to make you forget that what we’re dealing with here is crude, bubbling crude, the kind of Texas Tea that made Jed a millionaire on the Beverly Hillbillies. To make you forget that gas—regular, unleaded, supreme—is stored in large underground tanks and is flammable, very flammable. With one shaker the whole shebang will blow and take you and your nice downscale neighborhood along with it.
When the station owner sees the kid doing his business in the flowerbed he rushes over and says, “Please don’t do that there. I will get the key. I will open the restroom for you.” But the kid ignores him and keeps peeing. The owner’s son hears the commotion and runs over to help. He yells, “Stop or I’m going to call the police.”
There’s an altercation. The kid pushes the son. The son—taller, bigger, more muscular—retaliates and pushes back. Hard. That’s when the kid runs. As he’s running away he yells that he’ll be back. No one sees where the girlfriend drives off.
He said he’d be back. He’d given his word. That night, as the father and son are closing up, the kid is hiding inside the service station garage. No one knows how he got in there. When the father comes into the garage to lock up the kid takes out a gun, takes aim. With one shot he puts a bullet through the father’s head.
A tall white man wearing a rumpled dark suit and a serious demeanor comes to our front door. Big belly. Tired eyes, as if he’s seen it all. He says his name is McCool. Detective McCool. I’m about to say, “You’ve got to be kidding,” but can tell by the way he scowls when he flashes his badge that he isn’t.
We welcome him inside. He tells us what happened, what the authorities have pieced together about the murder, tells us how the arrest went down. The police came to the grandmother’s house and found the kid in bed, with the covers pulled up over his head. Shivering, I picture him shivering. God. How did he end up like this?
I say something about how I can’t believe someone so young could do something so heinous. McCool says the kid isn’t that young. Then he asks if we had any idea he was up to something. He wants to know if we think the act of shooting the station owner was premeditated.
“Listen,” Sam says. “He was just a kid, a neighborhood punk. How could we know he had it in him to do something like this?”
“What makes you think he was just a neighborhood punk?”
Later that night, in bed, in the quiet of the neighborhood—how quiet it is now, just the soft, muffled sound of the fog blowing in, the gang gone, the puppies gone—Sam turns to me and says, “Maybe I wanted to think he was just a neighborhood punk.”
He gets 25 to life and is sent to San Quentin. I look on the prison’s website to see where he is going to be living for the next 25 years. Up pops a photo of that famous hellhole on San Francisco Bay with its weird Knights of the Round Table castle façade. The grounds are beautifully landscaped to make you forget it’s a place that can blow at any moment. Off to one side of the front entrance is a rhododendron in full bloom. On the other side: three anemic-looking rose bushes.
The website has an article about a new prison program for model prisoners: the Prison Garden Project. The purpose is to create, “a non-segregated organic garden to soften the San Quentin prison yard.” If the kid is on his best behavior maybe he can get involved and when he gets out he can show us a thing or two.
The first holiday season after he is sent up Sam starts baking. Holiday bread. Pumpkin bread and zucchini bread and gingerbread, studded with dried fruits or chocolate chips or nuts. The loaves rise in their silver foil loaf pans, puff up like his chest puffed up when he was out there in his driveway. As the loaves sit out to cool she dusts each loaf with powdered sugar, crowning the tops with what looks like fresh snowfall to add a little extra sweetness. Then she wraps them up in foil and starts out on her rounds. To the boa constrictor house. To the bottle rocket house. To AC/DC’s house. Then across the street to the old lady’s house where an uncle or six still live.
When she gets back home she tells me what happened. She crossed the street and rang the bell. From inside one of the uncles yelled, “Who’s there?” “Your neighbor,” she replied. He opened the front door and she saw it was the uncle we call the Chauffeur. He has a part time gig driving a limo with a license plate that reads, “ SWINGRZ.” Three Sheets says the job is part of a court order to make him pay back alimony.
“I handed over the loaf and said ‘Happy Holidays.’ He just stood there. Then he ripped off the foil, tore off a piece of the bread and put it in his mouth. ‘Alright,’ is all he said. Then he shut the door.”
It becomes a holiday tradition. Year after year she bakes and bakes and bakes and delivers and delivers and delivers. I can’t cook, can’t bake so the onus is on her to carry on. One of our friends asks if there is a secret ingredient in her holiday bread. She says no, nothing special, then adds, “I call it murderer’s bread.”
The friend asks her what she thinks all those deliveries will yield. She says it isn’t about yield. Still, there’s no denying the loaves have had an effect.
Over the years, I’ve kept a tally.
Someone knocks on our front door. I look out of the peephole and see one of the neighbors from down the street, the guy who looks like a serial murderer; long grey beard, straggly hair. Dirty camo jacket. He stands there, his hands held high above his head in a “don’t shoot” position. When I open up he tells me he works maintenance at the local racetrack and has a whole truckload of horse manure in the back of his truck. Asks if we want some for our garden. “It’s good for the roses,” he says. He brings over a wheel barrel full of horseshit and dumps it in our driveway. The roses respond as if they’ve been waiting all their starved lives for just this miracle, grow full, bountiful.
One night a deep fog rolls in, heavier than usual. A woman knocks on the front door to tell us one of us have left the lights on in our car. Then she asks, “Did you hear about the recent robbery?” We have. Someone busted in the back window of the house four doors down and stole all the electronics. I say, thanks anyway, thanks for letting us know. She says, “Hey, you’d do the same for me.”
There’s a series of rapid, tiny knocks on the front door. Standing on the porch are two young kids, a boy and a girl. I recognize them as the offspring of the boy who once wrote on our fence with the green felt pen. The boy with good penmanship. They giggle and quickly hand me a sack with a ribbon tied to the handle. Inside, there’s a bottle of wine and a blank card with no note, just a signature. The Trunzo family.
It’s holiday time again. Somebody rings the doorbell. I open the door. AC/DC stands there holding what looks like store-bought baked goods covered in plastic. Something from Safeway. “Here,” he says and hands it over. Then he turns and walks away.
The other day we heard what happened to the kid from Three Sheets who said she heard it from one of the uncles. The kid killed someone else. In prison. I wonder if the prison guards saw that coming. They’ve transferred him and now he’s in a new maximum maximum security prison. State of the art incarceration. McCool is long gone but if he were still around I bet he’d say, “See? What’d I tell you?”
The only way the kid’s ever going to get out now is if someone bakes him a loaf of bread and puts a file inside.
Years go by. Some people never change. Some do.
I still don’t know how to bake. And the kid’s not a kid anymore.
Tonight I get out of my car with a load of groceries, two overfull bags. I barely make it inside the house and just as I drop the bags on the kitchen table I hear someone pounding on the front door. Dammit. Who is it now? Maybe it’s the Christian fundamentalists again, who’ve taken to blanketing the neighborhood. The last time they came around I made up a quick reply, announced, “We’re gay Buddhists,” before they could even start their spiel. I thought that would put an end of it, but no. One of the women stood her ground and asked if I knew whether or not I was going to heaven. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Lady. My ticket’s been booked.”
I look through the peephole. Instead of someone waving a pamphlet I see the Chauffeur standing there, fog swirling around his head in the gauzy porch light. He’s holding my wallet in his hand, holding it up high so I can see it through the tiny peephole. I open the door and he hands it over.
“I think you dropped this,” he says. “It was on the street, right outside your car door.”
When Sam gets home from work I tell her how I would have laid bets I’d never see that wallet again. How the uncle smiled a sheepish smile. How he had a sweet face. How maybe I’ve misjudged him. Him and everyone else on this block. AC/DC. The kid with the excellent penmanship. Three Sheets.
She gives me one of her generous smiles. The kind she hands out like candy.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” she says.