...it's been 36 years since elvis died...that's how i keep track of my age...
...i've been working on this essay for a little while...i think it's still too raw for publication...but i thought if i shared it with my readers you'd let me know what's missing, redundant, and/or just plain out of place...
I squinted through the peep hole only to find the back of the head of a bleached-blonde woman standing on my front porch. While I was tempted to ignore her knock, the fact I’d been spying on her approach shamed me into opening my front door a crack. There stood my pseudo-neighbor from the farmhouse across the road from our newly-constructed subdivision. Her torso was wrapped in a plastic body brace similar to the one my mother had worn after her back surgery, when she couldn’t get up from bed. But this neighbor managed to make it half a mile to my doorstep. She clutched a handful of mail to her chest and whispered, “Do you have any jumper cables?”
If I hadn’t been accosted by this woman nearly a dozen times since moving in to my suburban neighborhood, I might have been floored by the shock of her. As it was, I found myself glancing out the windows before I left the house. On this day, I’d been sitting in the living room reading a book when I noticed her. Five look-alike houses greet anyone who enters, but for some reason this woman is attracted to my door like a mosquito to a blue light. “No, we don’t have jumper cables,” I said, and shut the door in her face.
After living in a very small town for five years, where every move we made was chronicled by blue-haired ladies, my husband and I landed new jobs in a larger city and wanted to disappear. We chose a home from among a row of similarly built houses, the neighborhood tucked into what used to be Georgia longleaf pine groves and cotton fields. Across the entrance to the neighborhood was a narrow gravel drive, grown over with vines. Once in a while trucks disappeared through the tiny space. Our mailman parked his truck in the opening and ate lunch. Our cats meandered there searching for field mice and chipmunks. Marcia’s sad farmhouse was situated in the middle of this useless land, with its three outbuildings and sagging porch.
We met Marcia the first night we moved into our cookie-cutter home. My in-laws, a staunch Southern Baptist couple named Bill and Donna, were helping Adam and I unpack when our doorbell rang. What stood on the other side of my front door was a woman with teased, bleach-blond hair, dark roots, tanned skin that sagged around her knees, and mascara running into the network of wrinkles all over her face. She swayed slightly. Then I noticed the plastic hip brace and crutch. She’d just had surgery, she was saying as I surveyed her. “My husband didn’t push me down the stairs,” she said.
I stood silent, trying to comprehend what this woman wanted from me. My husband, Adam, joined me at the door while my in-laws stood gape-mouthed in the middle of the living room, wads of packing paper in their hands.
“I need to get to the store,” Marcia was saying.
Adam invited her in, thinking we might have whatever she needed in the fridge.
“My husband is out of beer and if he comes home and there’s no beer he’ll kill me. He didn’t push me down the stairs. I had surgery,” she said again. Her brace was tatty and yellowed and if she’d had surgery at some point in her life, this was the left-over splint hidden away for future use. I had no doubt that if we didn’t, at that moment, take Marcia to the liquor store a quarter mile away she would end up buried in her field by morning. I recognized domestic abuse easily because it was a part of my childhood— I learned at an early age to fear my own father after he nearly choked me to death; my mother’s second husband’s favorite pastime was to belittle women; my uncle favored screaming as a mode of communication and when he lost his temper he threw dogs across rooms; our neighbor across the street begged cigarettes after her emphysema-riddled husband passed out in his recliner; one timid teacher I had in middle school used makeup to conceal bruises on her wrists. Had my circumstances been just a fraction of an inch different, I could’ve been the one in a back brace, terrified of my own husband. But the women in my family were strong-willed, so much so that they eventually chased off the men in their lives. So I learned to evade boisterous men, cavaliers, the types who would come up to me at a bar and put their arms easily around my shoulders or a hand at the small of my back and ask me what I was drinking. These were the men who would later smack women around in the parking lot, push them into backseats. The next morning they were the men who came apologizing, promising nothing like that would ever happen again.
My proximity to domestic violence was not something I’d taken into consideration when searching for a home. But Marcia was evidence I’d moved not far from my own personal history. She prattled on and on about how she’d once had a dog that her husband killed, that she couldn’t drive to the store herself, and lived in the old farmhouse, pointing in the direction of the ramshackle home—its shingles missing, windows broken, a hot tub in the front yard. An eyesore our real estate agent assured us would be demolished.
My mother-in-law slung her purse over her shoulder. She would take our neighbor to the store. “You all stay here,” Donna said. “I’ve got my phone if you need me.”
Then they were gone. The three of us stood in the living room and my father-in-law said, “I didn’t want to take her. A woman like that. Who knows what kind of trouble she could get me in.” He called my mother-in-law four times in the five minutes they were gone and hugged her nearly to death upon her return. Then he told us, “If she ever comes back here, you call the police. You don’t need to be messing around with those sort of folks.”
Two of my colleagues, Bob Funk and his wife Suzanne, had worked with me for a little over two years before they both took new positions in Tampa, Florida. They were anxious to leave Georgia. “This place is so backward,” Suzanne said of Georgia. “If you don’t live in Atlanta you might as well tell people you live in Arkansas.”
But their house hunt wasn’t going well. Bob insisted he’d be happy with something in an established neighborhood. “Something from ’98 through ’02 would be good,” he told me. “That’s right after Hurricane Andrew and the retrofitting scare. Before that you could blow the places down with a whistle.” I got daily updates about the search each day. Bob’s office was next to mine and whenever I got up to stretch my legs or he went for a cup of coffee we compared his properties to Suzanne’s choices, homes whose newness I could smell through the computer screen.
“You’ve just got to tell her to be more realistic,” I said. “The one with the dirt yard and fire escape seems pretty good.”
“But Suzanne wants to live like the damned African Queen,” he said. Never mind Suzanne is Jamaican and he’s the whitest man since Barbie’s Ken, Bob was comfortable cajoling her and she’d give as good as she got once she heard this line.
I would’ve never classified Suzanne’s desire to live in a gated community as royal. “I don’t want to hear speakers booming from cars,” she’d told me. “Or teenagers out in the yard at all hours of the night. Men playing basketball in the street when they should be working. Some place that I can leave my house and go for a run and not get mugged. Or not worry about my house being robbed while I’m gone. I want people like us, other professionals.”
I didn’t know many of the neighbors, but those I did know were nothing like me. Most of them were laborers of some sort—either they toiled at the military base nearby or worked two different jobs to cover their bills. I imagined many of them spend their days off with cousins, drinking beer and watching Texas Hold ‘Em on television. They were the type of people who wore uniforms and nametags. They rose early, and on their days off preferred to lounge, clean the inside of their houses, do laundry, prop their feet. A few yards were plagued by foot-tall grass, some flowerbeds grew more weeds than blooms, a scant garage door was dented. Talking to Bob and Suzanne made me worry that perhaps Adam and I had made the wrong choice when it came to buying a house. Our community was open, had no set covenants, no gatehouse, tennis courts, or park. Had my hasty decision to disappear into the burbs caused me to miss out on the perks enjoyed by the 11 million Americans who’d chosen to live in gated communities?
The only thing Bob and Suzanne could agree upon was their mutual classism. Bob told me, “I’m easy to please. I told the realtor—and I think I offended her—I just don’t want to live in a working-class ghetto. You know, where the yards are unkempt and the cars come without engines.” He chuckled.
I tried hard not to think of my own neighborhood, or of Marcia’s house. “Just because a community’s gated,” I said, “doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with maintenance and upkeep gripes. Some people will just pay a fine and let it go.” I’d seen such places. My sister and her husband bought in a gated community in Bakersfield, California; a week after they moved in, their neighbors did too, leaving their empty boxes to decompose in the front yard.
“But you have the expectation of pride,” Bob said. “Why would someone pay that much money for a house and not keep it up? Or pay someone to keep it for them?”
I was tempted to tell Bob about my childhood experiences, living with my grandmother who moved me from house to house before somehow ending up in an enormous, newly-built home. It was nearly 3000 square feet, with five bedrooms and a den, a gourmet kitchen, and a perfectly landscaped yard. We worked outside each afternoon—pulling weeds with forks—to keep the house looking magazine-worthy. Once inside, no one would’ve ever guessed two people lived there, that’s how completely clean we kept it. And we had no money to eat. I’d often go to bed with nothing but toast and sugar in my belly. A treat was a half of a head of lettuce topped with mayo and garlic salt. I was allowed no extra-curricular activities, no friends, because we had no money for socializing, it all went on the house. I worked at a flea market to help pay the water bill that kept the huge lawn green. Though it never crossed my mind once to steal food or money from my neighbors, I could have easily. No one locked their doors, assuming because the neighborhood was tucked away in an affluent part of town they could trust the people around them.
Adam once encountered Marcia while he washed our car in the driveway. She said, “Have you got any cigarettes?”
“I don’t smoke,” he said.
“What the hell do you mean? Doesn’t everyone smoke?”
Her back brace was gone but her hair was still disheveled. She walked with a limp and her knee was bandaged. Her arms were bruised. “You got a beer?” she said.
“No. I don’t drink.”
She made a noise that seemed to say What kind of a man are you?
Adam held the soapy rag in his hand and for a second I thought he would wash her down, perhaps try to make her presentable. Then he dropped it into the bucket and came into the house. “Can you believe that?” he said.
I shook my head. “I bet she thought your mom would come out and take her to the store again.”
Marcia stood disoriented in our driveway for a couple of minutes. When she realized Adam wasn’t coming back outside, she stumbled down the street, her scrawny legs sprouting like twigs from her cutoff jeans.
A few weeks later, I was in the yard planting roses when a stray dog happened upon me. He was gray with curly hair like a poodle, but larger than a miniature. He seemed happy and well-fed and I begged Adam to let us keep him. “He’s not a stray,” he said. “He’s someone’s dog that got out. Watch and see where he goes.”
I gave the dog some water then set about watching him. Just as I was finishing in the garden, he walked out of the neighborhood and down the street toward Marcia’s house. “She must’ve gotten another dog for her husband to murder,” I told Adam. “Thanks a lot. We could’ve saved its life.”
That night I related the story of the doomed dog to my next door neighbor. “Was the dog a boy and really cute?” the woman said.
“Yeah. So sweet. I can’t believe he lives in that house.”
The neighbor shook her head. “That’s Brooke’s dog.” She pointed down the street to a house nearly identical to my own. “That dog’s been gone for three months. He dug a hole out of their yard and they thought he got hit by a car.”
Brooke visited my house later that evening and brought a picture of the dog I’d seen that day. I told her, “I saw him go down the street to the farmhouse.”
“Ugh. That woman is nuts. I wondered if she had him all along but you just can’t go around accusing people.”
She and her husband visited the farmhouse and initially couldn’t get Marcia to give them the dog. She claimed she’d had to take him to the vet for worms and they owed her three hundred dollars. It wasn’t until Brooke began dialing the police from her cell phone that Marcia allowed the dog to jump willfully into his owner’s arms.
“Suzanne’s damned near Jamaican royalty,” Bob told me as we scrolled through his email, clicking on pictures of houses Suzanne sent him to examine. “She grew up with maids and butlers. Then her parents split when she was twelve and she moved to the states. I think she’s just trying to get a little bit of that back.”
“But those gated communities scream ‘You’re not welcome!’” I said.
“That’s exactly what she wants.”
Suzanne would fit in nicely with the residents of Balboa Island, California, an exclusive community separated by an inlet of water from Newport Beach. Each of its narrow streets is named for a precious gem. Residents use a special gate pass to drive over the short bridge to the island. Most of the homes that face the water are cottages with glass walls set a scant arm’s length apart, but occasionally one mansion takes up an entire block. The cost of living there, aside from the money, is a complete lack of privacy, as boat tours of the harbor and coastline allows gawking tourists to take pictures of the pristine homes.
I know the area well because I went to college in Irvine, a city that neighbors Balboa. I also spent my last year in school living in a beach house in Newport with four other friends. I worked two jobs to scrape together my part of the rent and drove to campus each day along PCH, passing the gates and guardhouses of the extremely wealthy. People like Marcia, like me, go unnoticed on Balboa; the wealthy don’t have time to monitor their own streets. Much of life outside the island and its nearby shopping centers—places with marble floors and free champagne—is spent ignoring the rest of the world. In Orange County the Marcias of the world are dealt with by someone else, someone who wears a nametag and probably goes home to a small cookie-cutter home exactly like the one I’ve chosen in Georgia. I lived there just long enough to continually be reminded of the poverty I’d left behind, the way that those homes could conceal ridicule and abuse. And while this might have caused in me some resentment, there was something to be said about the upfront honesty the gates and guardhouses represented. Their blatant classism was scrawled across the stone arches, weaved into the wrought iron gates.
Eventually, Bob and Suzanne found a home they liked, and moved to Florida. Though I knew their place was nothing like those on Balboa Island—I’d seen the photos—I couldn’t help but picture the two of them isolated, so far away from the rest of us. A few years later, when Adam and I went to Florida for a week, we met up with them for lunch at a local restaurant. They were happy in their new place and had no juicy neighborhood stories. Bob described living in his gated community in this way: “If we forget to roll the garbage can back in on garbage day, someone does it for us. If the sidewalk outside our place gets dingy, a neighbor usually lets me know it’s time for a blasting.” He shrugged his shoulders when he said this, as if to mean no big deal.
My flippant disregard for Marcia’s life ate away at me for several years until I resolved to get to the bottom of her situation. If she needed shelter, an escape, I was determined to somehow help and get over the prejudices held by most everyone in our neighborhood. After all, who was I, a child-witness to abuse, to judge and criticize? If anyone was going to help this woman, it should’ve been me. I began to take walks on a route that forced me to stride by her house. Each time I told myself I’d go to the door and knock. But I couldn’t do it. A year passed before I realized I hadn’t seen her poking around the neighborhood, and I suddenly felt alarmed. Something had happened to Marcia, I was sure, and it was partly my fault.
A shadow of my own past, she was the looming possibility that my life could’ve been hers: cut-offs and neck brace, wobbling down the street, telling people that my husband hadn’t beaten me, that the bruises on my face were from running into the doorframe. But I was still so scared of my own past that I kept her at arm’s length. The only way I could live with myself each time I passed the farmhouse was by rationalizing her way of life. The women in my family had gotten away from abusers, or run away, and eventually wrote men off all together. Marcia was surely capable of doing the same. She was clear-headed enough to kidnapped a neighbor’s dog for company, for companionship, to use as a shield against her husband’s abuses, so she must have been clever enough to eventually escape. I kidded myself into believing she took the dog because she could, because she thought she could scam someone out of money or a trip to the liquor store. She was a lying alcoholic, I told myself, a thief, no one important.
Although I walked by it nearly every day, I’d never seen a moving van come to retrieve her possessions. When I walked past the house I slowed down, craning to look through the bare windows. The yard was riddled with pots and pans, plastic containers, dead potted flowers, cardboard boxes overflowing with clothes. Everything was arranged in rows like there may have been a yard sale. I scanned each piece of detritus in the yard, searching for Marcia’s back brace. But I found no evidence that she’d even lived there. She’d disappeared, leaving me with my false sense of security.