|Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos|
This morning, in the dark, my neck sore from sleeping in my son’s bed, I stand at my front window with a cup of coffee, wait for the paper, and look out on the neighborhood. From up the street the Jensen couple walks with their two teenage sons. They’re dressed in dark colors and avoid walking under the streetlamps. Across the street, two houses over, they tromp across the dead grass at the Martin place and, with their heads nervously on the lookout, sneak through the side gate.
As block captain of the Neighborhood Watch—a job I’ve done quite well, except for the Martin place—I’m not sure whether the Jensen family, out this early, doing what they’re doing, should bother me. Any other house, I would be on the line to the police right now. The difference is that the bank repossessed the place a few months ago, and the Martins have been gone longer than that. A realty sign, driven into the grass that has withered to straw—a clear violation of city ordinances—has attracted no buyers. Weeds grow up from the drive and the windows are spotted from rain. I call the city often to report these violations, which the realty company won’t fix. Tickets are piled on the doorstep, from the city representative who frequently cites the house. All that money poured into the city, and they can’t take care of this eyesore more quickly.
The windows at the Martin place light up and darken as the Jensens search inside with their flashlights. Who’s to say whether this is wrong? Those abandoned items within, after all, are not listed on the deed. Even if they were, nobody can sell the place, let alone what’s inside. The county tried, on account of back taxes—a man in a suit set up a podium on the front lawn to orchestrate an auction, but nobody showed up.
The flashlights in the house all go out at once. The front door opens, and out comes the family, hefting a couch. The two boys at the ends and the parents on either side, they walk the piece of furniture to the lawn, where they stop while Mrs. Jensen checks that the front door is locked. With all signs of theft and intrusion removed, the family lugs their find home. As block captain, I have no intention of doing anything about this. Worse things have occurred at that house than a couch walking out the front door.
Not long after the Jensens disappear from my view, out in the street, a Camry slows, lowers its window, then speeds off as a newspaper skids up my drive. I go out in my bathrobe. My cup of coffee in one hand and the paper under my arm, I study my lawn. Up near the door, stuck into the grass on wire legs, is a metal plate printed with a dark, shady character cut diagonally with a red line—the Neighborhood Watch symbol. I head the watch for the section of Bloomer Street between Hyacinth and Mulberry. Twenty-three addresses are under my watch, including the Martin house.
These houses are as upscale as possible for tract homes. With the exception of mine and a few others, they are all—the Jensens’, the Garveys’, the Martins’, all the rest—two stories. Unspoken courtesy pulses at the heart of the block. Lawns are routinely cut, oil stains promptly cleaned from driveways, house eaves and fences regularly painted, weeds plucked before the roots grab hold. This could be the perfect place to live; but the Martin house spoils the flawlessness.
Turning off of Hyacinth, in my direction, Mr. Hutton jogs, without a shirt, in his shorts and jogging shoes. He has something of a Saint Bernard face, with hanging cheeks and melancholy eyes. His skin sags, but the muscles are toned. He hails me and walks up the drive; he is one of the few who talks to me about things other than the neighborhood. We shake hands. His is moist from his jog. His flat chest and stomach have beads of perspiration that catch a glint of the sun, now rising. Retired, he has time to talk and seems interested in everything.
He asks about my family. The story is one everyone on the block knows by now, the way gossip travels around here. Of all the neighbors, he was the only one present. He was across the street from my house, back from his jog, as I chased after my wife, our two kids, and their things, packed in a car that hasn’t returned for two months. Since he was present, he deserves an update, or, well, at least a partially honest update. Marlene, my wife, is still at her sister’s in Missouri with our children and has decided to extend what I call her vacation two more weeks. Mr. Hutton nods.
If he were anyone else, I wouldn’t take solace in his sympathy. But he has more troubles than I do, and understands about extended vacations. His son, Jeremy, the reason for this street’s Neighborhood Watch program, is in the state penitentiary. Jeremy had stolen from neighbors and sold drugs to local kids. When the police raided the Huttons’, they laid the couple and their son on the lawn in handcuffs while the house was searched. The police brought out tattoo guns; dark, compactly filled trash bags; small pots growing with marijuana; and what appeared to be a chemistry set, while Mrs. Hutton bawled and her husband kicked at Jeremy.
Mr. Hutton updates me on his son. Because of prison overcrowding, he might be released on early parole. Despite the past, Mr. Hutton seems pleased with the news. Others on the street will not be. For the most part, Jeremy did nothing but loiter on his front lawn, shirtless, and flaunt his tattoos. He has two full sleeves of them. On his left pectoral is a skull with one eyeball dangling from the socket by a cord of veins. Another, on his stomach, is of these demonic hands that appear to be ripping him open from the inside out. With his shirt on, the tattoos creep above his collar, like vines from a dark place.
After our family updates, we shake hands, and Mr. Hutton jogs past the Martin place to his house, on the corner of Mulberry and Bloomer, just inside my jurisdiction. With one last sweeping gaze of the street, I head inside. I read the paper until eight, when I call my wife long-distance. I get the answering machine, hang up, and call again. By nine o’clock, it’s obvious they’re not home or not interested in talking.
I’m lucky in that I’m on a permanent vacation. A couple of years ago, I joined in a lottery pool at work. One of the tickets hit all six numbers and the bonus. After we split the winnings six ways, I walked away with $5 million. I immediately quit my job with food services at the hospital and moved into this neighborhood. Marlene and I had often driven through it to admire the homes, knowing full well, no matter how we scrimped and saved, that we would have to settle for something less. So when the check came in, we knew the very house we would buy. We’d seen the for sale sign the first time we’d driven past. It was smaller than the rest, but still appeared to belong. The first time we toured the house, Marlene fell in love. She inhaled through her nose and said, “I even like the smell.” With the house paid in full, and our names on the deed, what I’m left to worry about now is my family. Who’d have guessed? My family, and also the neighborhood.