We aren’t supposed to go near the pit on burning days, but it’s never hard to figure out. Last week, for example. David Finster wasn’t at the bi-monthly beautification meeting to petition, yet again, for replacing grass with decomposed granite in public spaces, Christina Hotchkiss didn’t show up at the neighborhood potluck after promising to bring the “world’s best salad,” and Melanie Birch started coming out of her house alone in the morning, no longer needing to carpool with her husband. For a few hours, as always, residents smiled more ingratiatingly at one another, then things subsided to normal.
“Still that end table?” I call to Arnie Kirkland.
I’m on my rounds, my club car idling at the foot of his drive while he sweatily hunkers over the workbench in the garage. He straightens up—a sinewy, broad-shouldered man of sixty, a trophy of thick gray hair on his head, his face largely camouflaged by the bedraggled beard of an outdoorsman.
“A built-in for a closet!”
He steps over to shake my hand, and I breathe in the scent of sawdust. The sun flames in a cloudless sky, pummeling us with radiation. He squints toward the guardhouse and front gate.
“First you chalk it up to gentrification,” he sighs. “Next, the failings of a necessary bureaucracy. You scoff at increasingly routine outrages, eventually they stop seeming so outrageous, and all the while you abide until you discover, too late, that you don’t really have a choice.”
I thin my lips in the vague suggestion of a smile—noncommittal but, I hope, not unfriendly; I’m Goodwill Ambassador for a reason. “Choice,” I echo with a mulling nod. “If you don’t mind, send me a picture of that built-in when you’re done? Nicole and I could use some ideas. Maybe I’ll see you at tonight’s Wellness Workshop.”
I watch him in my rearview, standing at the end of his drive, gazing at an invisible horizon. Complaints—indirect or blatantly nostalgic for how life used to be—indicate a lack of adaptability.
“Check it out,” Jordy of the Neighborhood Watch says at the rec center. He spills a Rolex, scuffed brown leather wallet, assortment of rings, couple of bracelets and necklace onto my desk. “Not as good a haul as last week, but it should bring in enough to cover a kegger.”
“What do you want for the Rolex?” Greg, also of the Neighborhood Watch, asks.
I continue eating my cheese sandwich as if I’m alone, since to Jordy and Greg I’m mostly just a background that throws their superiority into relief. Jordy used to be an MMA fighter. When drunk, he blathers on about how he’s broken nearly every bone in his body and dares people to try and knock him down by hitting him in the head with fist, knee, elbow, foot, chair—anything except a baseball bat or length of pipe. Greg, a former SEAL who likes to brag about his war crimes, once knocked him out with a kick to the temple, so theirs is a relationship based on mutual respect.
“What do I want?” Jordy says. “How about a balling from your girlfriend?”
“It’s not real, dipshit. The gold paint’s flecking off.”
“Then Liz can just tickle my balls.”
“I’ll show you who can tickle your balls!”
They wrestle to the floor, and the bag of hair Jordy had been holding falls onto my desk. Chestnut in color, long, wavy: Christina Hotchkiss’ hair. Deciding to finish my sandwich while out on my afternoon rounds, I maneuver past the roiling testosterone of Jordy and Greg and take the hair to be logged into Recyclable Assets. I’ve never asked why only women’s hair is used.
Nicole says I’m like the pope of the neighborhood, motoring up and down streets in my little car, smiling and waving, stopping for the occasional chat with fellow residents and stakeholders. Unlike the pope, though, I have no need for bulletproof glass. Also unlike the pope, I assume, I always end my afternoon rounds with a slow drive past Renee Todd’s house, which I try not to make obvious.
Often, I get no more than a passing glimpse of her through an open window, but I’m lucky today; she’s raking the sand in the karesansui garden that serves as her front yard—her bare feet a tease, ditto for the purple leggings with floral designs that snake up her well-formed thighs, and her flat midriff and its adorable belly button peeking out beneath the yellow sport top.
“What do you think of the new design?” she asks.
I make a show of appraising the grooves of sand made by her rake, the coruscations around the mini monolithic rocks and lone boulder, the wide swathes of sand absent of pattern. “Great use of blank space.”
Her large silver hoop earrings swing as she looks at her garden and then—her tongue darting briefly to the corner of her open smiling mouth—at me. She puts down her rake and lights a stick of sage. Like a fairy casting spells with her wand, she twirls and jetés up and down her front walk. “Dancing with her day” she calls it, and ever since the Neighborhood Watch forever escorted her lanky, hipless-as-a-pollarded-tree fiancé from his yoga studio, she’s been doing it a lot, as if hoping to coax optimism into a bulwark. Or no, as if she’s trying to expand every moment into an all-encompassing present. Which I get. I know how it feels to abruptly be without a loved one. To go on living productively, you have to abandon all thoughts of those lost.
“We’re putting the Hotchkiss and Finster houses up for sale tomorrow,” Nicole says when, the smell of sage lingering in my nostrils, I return home.
My wife of almost twenty years: intelligent, hard-working, a woman who, with every passing month, seems to have less tolerance for anything she deems frivolous or inessential. I watch her typing on her laptop at the kitchen island, and like someone who repeats a word until it becomes unrecognizable, its meaning lost in the coagulation of foreign-sounding syllables, I try to render her unfamiliar, to experience her presence as the new lover I once was.
“If they don’t get multiple offers…” she says.
We’re in an excellent school district, within a twenty-minute commute by public transit to a major metropolis with plenty of decent paying jobs. Residents are largely free to come and go—to a movie, to dinner at a restaurant, to their workplaces as media planners, dentists, lawyers, mechanics, computer programmers, corporate librarians, structural engineers. In other neighborhoods, generally less well-kept and without these advantages, one’s future is equally uncertain, if not more so; the quality of life is better here.
I step up behind Nicole and ease my arms around her, cupping the little pouch of belly that used to be so flat but which now fits perfectly in my hand.
“What’re you doing?” she asks, her fingers stilled on her laptop’s keyboard.
“Practicing a random act of physical affection.”
I anticipated a tenseness, a stiffening of muscles, not this limp resignation to whatever I might insist on.
“Work to do,” I whisper, kissing her ear.
Before I’m out of the kitchen, she’s typing again as if nothing almost happened.
At the desk in what used to be our daughter Melissa’s room, I fill out my daily report. Any irregularities? The cursor flashes, waiting in its blank field, and I picture Arnie staring off into unseen distances. Even if he were stupid, which he isn’t, he’d have to know that complaining has consequences; he’s on the Governing Council. So why complain at all is definitely a question. But a more troublesome one: Why complain to me? Maybe he wants me to report him? It wouldn’t be unheard of. People sometimes get exhausted and sabotage their existence.
Just not usually people on the Governing Council.
What if his regretful musing was a ploy to draw me out, a test to get me to voice any complaints I might have? If I report him, he knows I’m a solid citizen. If I don’t, I’m complicit and so subject to the consequences.
I study the wall—repainted two years ago and yet all I see is where Melissa’s corkboard used to be, cluttered with pictures of her favorite rappers (I knew none) and drawings of avatars she intended to use for various online doings.
I decide to play it as if I’m dumb, typing that I don’t know if it rises to an irregularity but that Mr. Arnie Kirkland of 1412 Airedale Lane, etc.
The Community Wellness Workshop. Bullhorn in hand, Jordy rides up and down the street on the flatbed of a truck driven by Greg. It’s 9:30 p.m. and residents are in a line facing him at the western edge of the Quad, the neighborhood’s picturesquely landscaped twelve-acre park. Roll call was an hour and a half ago, but you never know how long Jordy’s going to make everyone stand there.
I idle my club car on one of the Quad’s winding paths, at the top of a knoll, where I have a good view of both Nicole and Renee. My wife is hiding it well, but I know she’s impatient to be elsewhere; she has houses to finish staging. And Renee? She looks like she’s just emerged from a cozy cuddling session—baggy gray sweatpants, red sweatshirt with sleeves reaching almost to her fingertips, her long black hair tied in a loose ponytail, exposing her deliciously pronounced jawline and delicate neck. How can someone in such shapeless clothes look so beautiful?
“Nice night,” Arnie says, startling me as he steps from the nearby dark.
I never know when members of the Governing Council are watching. I assume always but still.
“Unusually mild,” I agree.
Jordy moves up and down the street in the flatbed, up and down, up and down.
“How long have you been Goodwill Ambassador?” Arnie asks, though he knows the answer.
“It’ll be eleven years in August.”
He nods, pulling at his beard. “So you’re not somebody who gets lazy once they’ve been doing a specific job for a time.”
He says this in the tone of one concluding a debate, then drifts back into the dark, and I know I did the right thing with the day’s report.
“A visually appealing community!” Jordy suddenly shouts into his bullhorn.
“Increases property values, attracts businesses, and improves the neighborhood’s image!” residents respond in unison.
“Healthy communities!” Jordy shouts.
“Are built on the relationships we nurture!” residents respond in unison, Mark and Lorina Williams calling out with particular gusto.
There’s always an adjustment for new residents, of contending with the half-life of habits established in outlying zip codes, where Governing Councils have different standards and different methods of maintaining them, and for a while it didn’t look good for the Williamses. Anything could still happen obviously, but Lorina has become an impressively active member in the garden club, she regularly volunteers with Girl Scout troops and the church’s youth services, and Mike is a Key Opinion Leader, writing weekly editorials for The Ledger, our free newspaper.
“Enhance neighborhood pride and identity!” Jordy shouts into his bullhorn.
“Adopt a median, plant a tree, repair a sidewalk!” residents respond in unison.
Jordy hops off the flatbed and paces in front of everyone. He stops to glare at Ben Presswell, Senior Manager at the facility that makes floor mats and custom indoor/outdoor cushions from Recyclable Assets. Ben stares straight ahead as if there’s no such thing as the Neighborhood Watch, and Jordy moves on to glare at Donald Kranz, a retired UPS driver who’s always turning me on to craft IPAs from Vermont but evidently isn’t as adept as Ben at vacant, doll-eyed expressions. Jordy climbs back onto the flatbed and announces, as he does at the end of every workshop, that free shade trees and wood chips are available to help keep our neighborhood a beautiful place to live.
As most residents stroll homeward, Renee lingers, turning her face to the stars and closing her eyes. And Nicole? She doesn’t stroll. She hurries off down the block, every stride a testament to her competence and determination in all things practical. I used to find her hyper-efficient pragmatism impressive, but nowadays I long for her lapses, her moments of doubt and forgetfulness, when her mind blinks and leaves her vulnerable and she most needs me.
“There’s leftover chicken I can heat up for a late dinner?” I say, driving over to her.
“You should eat without me. I’m not sure when I’ll be done.”
I coast to a stop and she marches on to the Hotchkiss house. Did this retreat into ourselves start with the loss of Melissa? It’s easy to assume, but I’m not so sure. Personalities are fragile. It doesn’t take a tragedy to break them.
I make a U-turn and accelerate toward Renee, who, a little too symbolically, is now walking in the exact opposite direction of my wife. I keep a mental list of subjects ready for this kind of opportunity: sound baths, Reiki, the Japanese aesthetic principle yokaku-no-bi that’s vital to the look of karesansui gardens. Sound baths or yokaku-no-bi, I think, not fifteen yards from Renee when Arnie emerges from the Quad’s dark and she stops to talk with him, her face tilted slightly down, her expression shy (eyes not resting on his) but not displeased (tongue poking from the corner of her coy mouth). I can’t turn around without it seeming odd, so I drive past them.
“Headed to the garden depot to get a sack of wood chips,” I explain, not failing to voice the pleasantries expected of a friendly neighbor.
We haven’t tried for another child. Not just because we’re older. More than a few times, before we were finally pregnant with Melissa, I came home to find Nicole wallowing in bed, uncommunicative; in our bathroom, a bloody cloud floating near the bottom of the toilet bowl, wispy tendrils rising up and swaying in an invisible current. The first time, she told me not to flush it, and I didn’t. I used the guest bathroom for the next several days, but then I thought enough and flushed it. After a week of angry silence, Nicole deigned to talk to me again, but it was all about insufficient progesterone, cervical stenosis, uterine cysts, endometriosis, abnormal pituitary gland secretions—possible causes for why she might not be able to carry a fetus to term. We went on to try artificial insemination, in vitro, everything except hiring a surrogate. Every now and then, though, you get what you want only after you give up on it, and Nicole created a nursery whose plush surfaces and pastels might have accounted for why Melissa’s princess phase lasted until her tumultuous teens—right up to the day she didn’t come home from gymnastics practice. Once we emotionally understood that she’d never be coming home, Nicole and I didn’t have the strength to again give up on what we wanted in hopes of getting it. We talked about adopting. Until we didn’t.
If Jordy, with the sarcasm that only Neighborhood Watchmen can get away with, says your attendance at his kegger would show commendable community spirit, you’d be short-sighted not to go, no matter how uncomfortable you might feel. Which I assume explains why Ben Presswell and Donald Kranz are here, looking like people worried that they’ve left a faucet gushing somewhere as they chug “brewskis” from red plastic cups and laugh too loudly at Jordy’s jokey insults about their penises. Why were they singled out at the Wellness Workshop? Did Donald not properly sort his trash? Did Ben forget to clean up after his dog? Has a member of the Governing Council developed a hatred of them over the course of the summer’s cocktail parties? Was it an erratic exercise of power for power’s sake on Jordy’s part? The Governing Council tolerates Neighborhood Watchmen sporadically going rogue, deeming a bit of random culling somehow beneficial to the public good. Anyway, no point speculating. But if I were in David and Ben’s position, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t, a look of worried distraction stuck on my face.
I wander around the rec center gym, encouraging residents’ plans to improve the curb appeal of their homes, congratulating them on their children’s academic and athletic achievements. I make my way to the bleachers, where Liz, Greg’s girlfriend, is cheering him on as he hazes the newest Neighborhood Watch recruits.
“How’s he doing?” I ask.
“Seven points and he’ll have the high score.”
“Don’t move and don’t make a sound,” Greg warns the recruits.
Randomly arrayed, they lie flat on their backs within the free throw area at one end of the basketball court. Greg tosses a medicine ball high into the air. Thwump! It lands on a shoulder.
“Woo-hoo! Three points, babe!” Liz calls.
A recruit who looks to be about twelve years old retrieves the medicine ball for Greg, which he throws again, and—thwump!—it lands on a face, blood draining from a newly crooked nose.
“Yes!” Liz pumps her arm, high-fives me.
I lift my cup in a toast to Greg but he doesn’t notice, and I continue on because that’s what a Goodwill Ambassador does.
“Hey,” Jordy says to me, lording over the keg and surrounded by wannabe recruits, “I’m taking a poll. What resident would you most like to fuck?”
“You would,” he snorts, then punches a wannabe in the chest. “What about you?”
The wannabe might not know this is a trick question, part of Jordy’s vetting process because he has no tolerance for anything LGBTQAI+.
“That Renee chick,” the guy says. “No doubt.”
The other wannabes nod.
“Nuh uh,” Jordy says. “Pick another. Arnie K—and you best understand who he is—he’s been tapping that since before she was technically single. Try again.”
Whatever the wannabe says next, I don’t hear it, a great falling away where my heart used to beat. I have no idea how much time passes before Jordy’s voice reaches me as if from a distance:
“Which of you pussies thinks she can knock me down?”
I drink three more beers, mingling, etc., before I figure I can safely leave the party. I drive by Renee’s house. All is dark and yet…I sense movement behind the closed blinds, in the spaces between the windows. No! My prodigal heart, returned to me, pounds like a prisoner kicking at the bars of his cell. No! No! No! No! I drive to Arnie’s. The lights are on, the windows open to the night, and I see him puttering from room to room, alone. Still, the prisoner in my chest attacks his cell bars; Jordy is almost never wrong about neighborhood hookups.
The Hotchkiss and Finster houses sell within a couple of days—over asking, cash, with no contingencies. Nicole tells me this in our den, while we’re watching NCIS an hour before bed. I thin my lips in what I hope is a smile, not always clear where the Goodwill Ambassador in me ends.
“Congratulations,” I say, “though it’s unsurprising, I think, for Coldwell Banker’s number one realtor in sales volume three years running.”
She puts a hand on mine, timid, as if acknowledging that our love is a wound we should be careful not to reinjure before it’s fully healed.
“I’ve got a little work to finish up,” I say.
In Melissa’s old room, I fill out my daily report. I’ve been thinking of what to write since I last saw them together—Arnie moving the boulder in Renee’s karesansui garden, Renee standing back to happily appraise her new pattern of coruscations, snaking furrows, and open spaces; Arnie lifting her off the ground as they kissed. The irregularity has to be serious, unignorable, the sort of thing that no one would dare attempt to justify by arguing extenuating circumstances. I narrow five possibilities down to four, then two, then one. I send in the report and stare at Melissa’s nonexistent corkboard on the wall until I can again take my pulse for granted.
The pit is half a mile from the nearest house. Occasionally the wind is unfavorable, but this doesn’t account for the stench now, at 3:00 a.m. before burning day.
I ease out of bed, careful not to wake Nicole, and slip a pair of jeans on over my PJs. By the back door, I push my feet into my Timberlands. I follow the stench to the alley behind the rec center, where I see their bodies stacked like wood—Ben Presswell and Donald Kranz bruised, spackled with dried blood, their lips blue-red and swollen, their eyes wide in what I read to be disbelief. Underneath them: another body. Shorn of hair. Purple leggings. Red sweatshirt. She looks as if she’s simply asleep.
I raise my face to the stars, close my eyes, and deeply breathe in the night air.
Jordy and his crew must be partying somewhere. Bodies are supposed to be kept in the refrigerator until it’s time for the pit.
Pope-like, I motor up and down streets, tired from a mostly sleepless night but smiling and waving as ever, stopping for the occasional chat with fellow residents and stakeholders.
“Still those built-ins?” I call to Arnie, idling my club car at the foot of his drive.
Sweatily hunkered over the workbench in his garage, he straightens up, his gray hair an enviably bushy tousle, his beard a grizzly wonderment. He looks at me a few seconds before answering.
He steps over to shake my hand, and I get a whiff of sawdust. The sun flames in a cloudless sky, pummeling us with radiation.
“We could do with some rain,” he says, squinting over the houses at the end of the block, beyond which, in a dry bowl of earth cleared of last week’s char and ash and bone, bodies are burning.
“At least it’s been a little humid,” I say.
Tomorrow, while Nicole readies the Presswell, Kranz, and Todd houses for sale, I’ll again cruise up and down these streets, smiling and waving; Arnie will again be at work in his garage; and like everyone—Neighborhood Watch excepted—we’ll go on pretending that civility and politeness are our only depredations.
“Maybe I’ll see you at tonight’s Wellness Workshop,” I say, and leave him gazing toward an invisible horizon.
Eric Laster worked for years as a ghostwriter (fiction, New York Times best sellers) before re-launching under his own name with a novel for whimsical folk, Welfy Q. Deederhoth: Meat Purveyor, World Savior. Other publications include The Adventures of Erasmus Twiddle (for kids) and the novel Static. His short fiction has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Epiphany, Beloit Fiction Journal, Ascent, and elsewhere. When not writing, Eric records punk rock and presses it to vinyl. Latest release: The Lasters, Kind of Blew.
Featured Artwork: Air Water 35mm Daniel Saucedo is an artist hailing from the Central Valley. They work within the art realm of photography and screenprinting. They bring forward images that might be considered mundane or forgettable and force them into a new light. They place them into a setting that makes folks take a second look, perhaps finding some sort of feeling or emotion through them. They aim to present these as bodies of work; to give people a chance to view such obscure items as art as opposed to something completely forgettable.