E
Jan/Feb 2003 fiction

The Renters

by J.C. Frampton


 

The truck tires rested on his curb. Two feet from his flower bed. And the fellow had thrown a still-lighted cigarette into the purple petunias he had planted only two weeks ago. It was the burly guy with the cowboy boots, the scraggly red-brown beard and the carnival-prize derby hat. A fitting companion to the oversized, sticker-bedizened orange pickup truck he drove, its bed crowded with spare parts and assorted roustabout gear. As in previous visits to the new couple next door, this man had run two wheels of the rig right up over the curb in front of the Willoughby house, Emmet Willoughby watching him do it from his living-room window. The fellow had just left it there at a slant, oil beginning to puddle in the street under the crankcase. It was, it occurred to Emmet, a work of folk art better suited for a country museum or a monster truck rally than a quiet suburban street.

Now Emmet picked up the Marlboro butt with disdain and deposited it into the plastic supermarket bag he carried for the task, making a mental note to wash his hands when he returned inside. He looked at the rusted, hard-used truck, with its grimy sheepskin seat covers, the vulgar stickers adorning the rear: gun-lover bravado hoping to intimidate, those of the "Eat More Beaver" ilk vapidly straining for humor. It was a one-vehicle blight on a block where people had well-cared-for, late-model sedans, minivans and SUVs. While Emmet realized it was an image-solidifying vehicle, no less than an executive's Benz, it was as out of place here as might be a hot-dog stand. But this no-longer-young dude with the rakish cardboard derby had some continuing relationship with the renters next door, Bill Brackett and his wife, to whom Emmet had barely spoken since they moved in. The Bracketts' home was now the only evident rental property in the six or so blocks of well-tended thirty-year-old tract homes he thought of as their neighborhood. This Bluto-like fellow usually stayed only a short while and then left. He was one of several socket-wrench types who visited, often at odd hours. There were the roughnecks but also the house-broken young fellows and couples in late-model sporty vehicles. The Bracketts were popular, no question.

Emmet got down slowly on his knees on the sidewalk on his foam-rubber pad and began turning the earth in his bordering flower bed, removing the dandelions, oxalis and tufts of grass that came up in a matter of days, no matter how often he worked it. It was the kind of summer morning he loved, gently warm and sunny, with only a slight dry breeze from the east. The cooing of the mourning doves was a bit obtrusive but, then, they were nature, after all. He noticed a pile of dog droppings on the lawn behind his flower bed and stood and picked it up, wrapping his hand first in the plastic bag. The Bracketts' dog, always running loose, apparently instructed to seek relief only on other people's lawns. Especially the Willoughbys'. Emmet took the plastic bag to his trash barrel in the side yard where it was again deposited with relief. As he returned to the flowerbed he saw Bill Brackett and the derby hat talking in the Brackett driveway. Bill was laughing strenuously, as he frequently did with his visitors.

"Those bastards squat to piss, goddam retread Eighties garbage," he heard Bill say.

"Tried metal, tried punk, be doing Britney covers before long," the derby said.

Emmet carefully knelt, easing his bad leg gingerly, and returned to his gardening. "Friggin' transmission," he heard the derby say. "My last GMC! Sooner drive a pussy truck."

Then he gratefully heard him preparing to leave.

"Don't make it too long, Bronc, y'hear," Bill said.

"Would if I could," Bronc threw back, starting Bill into another fit of laughter. Emmet could already hear the heavy-heeled boots coming down the driveway and onto the sidewalk toward the truck.

"How ya doin', pardner?" Bronc said to him.

Emmet looked up and smiled. "Gotta keep up with these weeds."

"I'll bet," Bronc said. He stopped and looked down at Emmet and his work.

"Friggin' gardens. My ol' lady's got a goddam lilac bush she loves. You'd think it was a jumpin' kid or somethin', way she pisses and moans over it."

"Women love growing things," Emmet said, wiping his sleeve over his wet forehead.

"Whaddya gonna do, right? Goddam broads."

"S'pose so... That's a hard-working truck you got there."

"Had it everywhere. Oil fields, workin' the canal pumps down in Imperial County, haulin' stumps outta Kings Canyon. Transmission's shot and I don't know jackshit about 'em, wanna know the truth. Wouldn't part with it ya put a knife at my throat."

"I feel that way about my old manual typewriter."

"Take care, ol' fella."

Bronc got into his truck and fiddled for a while. Old fellow? Emmet smiled. He thought he could do a round or two with the guy if he had to. Fifteen years ago, back when he was going to the gym regularly, could have whipped his butt, before his In'chon leg finally gave out.

The derby apparently had trouble shifting after he'd started the truck. From the cab came a savage curse. He slammed his fist on the dash, turned off the engine, jumped out and lifted the hood violently. Emmet slowly rose and picked up his things. He noticed Bronc watching him over his engine.

"Well, that ought to about do it," Emmet said.

Bronc didn't respond.

Inside the house, Wanda was watching Bronc from behind the front window curtains.

"Who is that character anyway?" she asked Emmet.

"One of Bill Brackett's friends, I guess," he said.

"Trashy looking fellow."

"Well, one of our neighbors' friends. I guess we have to put up with it."

"Seems like they have an awful lot of friends of all sorts and types. I knew it was coming when the Greens put the house up for rent. You can always pick out the rental house on a block from the weeds and empty oil cans. But in this part of town you'd expect more. I'm really getting a little tired of it. This is a nice neighborhood, after all."

"Gotta live and let live," Emmet said. "We need rough-hewn fellows like that for a lot of jobs out there in the world."

"I s'pose. Looks like that character has parked his truck with one wheel up on our curb."

"Really? Well, with that big rig he probably just wasn't aware he was doing it."

"Is he going to use our street for his personal garage or something? He's got tools and all out now. Why does he have to park in front of our house and not the Bracketts' if he's visiting them?"

"Well, Sweetheart, it is the city street. We don't own it."

"Still..."

Bronc ended up working the entire day on his truck in front of the Willoughbys' house. Bill Brackett came out occasionally and looked on, bringing Bronc a couple of beers and offering advice and a new tool from time to time. Two other friends of the Bracketts dropped by in the afternoon, one parking his decrepit vintage Plymouth behind the GMC truck in front of Emmet's house, and joined in spirited conferences over Bronc's engine. Tools and parts were strewn over Emmet's sidewalk—leaving grease, he knew—and, for a while, the two other fellows sprawled in the middle of the adjoining lawns, one on the Bracketts' side and one on Emmet's, drinking beer and laughing. Both wore dirty Levi's and one had no shirt.

"Thank God Marjorie and the kids aren't coming over today. I'd be mortified," Wanda said about mid-afternoon. Bronc had just turned on the radio in his truck and a mixture of metal and rap poured out, prompting Emmet quietly to close the front windows, despite the heat. Emmet tried to play down the situation. If they were friends of neighbors, a little tolerance was called for. They really weren't causing any trouble. Just two guys sitting on the lawn on a hot summer day.

"Haven't they got anything better to do?" Wanda said more than once. She rubbed her forearms and elbows that way she did so much since learning she had osteoporosis. He hadn't seen her open a book all day, a rarity for her.

About four o'clock Emmet heard the hood of Bronc's truck slam shut. Blessed relief—perhaps. From the window he could see Bronc was actually picking up his tools and putting them back into the tool chest in the truck bed. Bronc, the two new guys, Bill and Lorene Brackett gathered around the front of the truck and talked. Emmet saw the guy without the shirt speak to Lorene and she went inside and came back with a small package and handed it to him. He gave her a peck on the cheek and pulled out his wallet and handed her a bill. A much-dented bright-red hatchback (a Datsun?) drove up and parked behind the Plymouth, partially stretching out across Emmet's driveway.

"S'pose we want to go to the store, is what I'd like to know," Wanda said. "Do you think we could even get out of the driveway?"

Emmet looked carefully. "I think there's room. If not, I'd just ask that couple to move their car." All things pass, he reminded himself.

Stepping out of the hatchback were two adults and two children that reminded Emmet of families pictured during the Great Depression. Only the father was wearing shoes. The car was (intentionally?) made ludicrous by a recent homemade paint job over some amateur body work and what were apparently red plastic devil's horns just above the windshield. The adults were warmly received and joined in the conference in front of Bronc's truck. The two children, a boy and a girl, began playing tag, first around the two trees in front of the Bracketts' house and then in Emmet and Wanda's front yard, running through his flowerbed, even among the rose bushes.

Bronc raised the hood again to show the new couple what his problem had been. Then he went into the cab to change the station he was listening to. Lorene Brackett and the other woman walked up the driveway to their house for a while and the men huddled over the engine compartment. All of them were smoking and grinding out their butts in the street and on the sidewalk.

"Will you get a load of those slobs," Wanda said. "And I can't stand that wretched music, Emmet," Wanda said.

"Why don't we go out on the back patio and have some iced tea? You can bring your book," Emmet said.

"I doubt seriously I can enjoy iced tea with all those people standing out there in front of my house, their children tearing up my yard," Wanda said. "I'm sorry, Emmet. I'm turning into a damn fuddy-duddy."

"No, hon'. I think this is what those NPR commentators with the funny names call a cultural clash. I guess we've both got to give a little."

"Sorry. I'm not ready to give an inch toward installing Appalachia on my block."

"Sweetheart, maybe if we tried to get to know these..."

"Go ahead. Count me out. I'm going to try to nap. Dinner may be a little late." Emmet gave her a kiss and picked up his Newsweek again.

Lorene and the woman returned to the curb. The woman was holding a can of beer and, in her other hand, one of the little plastic packages, which she made no effort to conceal.

"Why doesn't that woman do something about her children?" Wanda had been drawn again to the front window on her way to the stairs. "They're going to ruin those rose bushes and the agapanthus with all that running around and tussling."

As if on cue the woman yelled something to her children and the family returned to the comedy hatchback and sped off squealingly.

The gathering continued to disperse. Bronc reclosed the hood, got his truck started and shifted, to the cheers of the onlookers, and jerkily drove away. The Plymouth driver went into the bushes beside the Bracketts' house and urinated, easily visible to Wanda from the front window. Then he waved to Bill and Lorene and drove off. The other fellow, the shirtless one, stood for a few minutes, joining Bill in hearty laughter and backslapping. For a moment they all stared toward the window. Wanda hurriedly moved away. From across the room Emmet saw Bill Brackett shake his head and laugh. They turned their backs to the Willoughbys.

Then all three hugged and the last fellow got into his car and drove off. The Bracketts spoke for a minute and Bill ground a cigarette underfoot, although it was probably on his part of the sidewalk, Emmet rationalized.

Later, as evening began to fall and a light fog was moving in from the ocean four miles westward, Emmet put down the magazine and walked out to enjoy his front lawn. The thin streaky clouds had the sunset flamingo tints he loved. A newly arrived family of ravens was screeching from the top limbs of the giant pine in the Leonards' yard, keeping their eyes peeled, no doubt, for that hawk that daily foraged the canyon out back. He swept the cigarette butts from his sidewalk and gutter into a dustpan and picked up the two in the flowerbed. He inspected the roses but found no damage. He went into the garage, took his small rake from the neat yard-tool rack and returned to the flowers, carefully raking away the numerous deep footprints. He noticed one purple petunia blossom that had fallen, gritted his teeth, picked it up and placed it into his plastic bag.

 

"Emmet? Do you think if you spoke to the Bracketts they might show more concern about the late hours and the noise and all?"

"I doubt it."

"Well, it's worth a try."

"People of that sort take an anarchist view of rules and standards, unless they're of their own making. And knowing they annoy others can often be a satisfaction."

"Well, they're human beings after all."

"So was Genghis Khan."

"Let's just hope he's not one of their friends."

Later that day they were grocery shopping when Wanda brought it up again.

"Maybe instead of being nice and gentlemanly like you ordinarily are, Emmet, you should take a tough stance," she said, rejecting one faintly bruised tomato and choosing another. "Let them know you intend to take action if they don't clean up their act."

"You think that will scare them?"

"Well... there is the possibility. I don't see any value in being wholly defeatist about it."

"Do you think their friends—the guy with the orange pickup—will be scared?"

"Emmet, I know it's possible to bring up rational objections but I also think where the peace and tranquillity of our home are concerned it's worth taking a risk or two. We are supposed to be enjoying our retirement years, aren't we? It can't get much worse than it is now."

"I wonder about that."

As they headed home down their winding, green-lawned street they reacted suddenly and with revulsion as they turned the bend revealing the front of their home. Cars filled the Bracketts' driveway, the three-car curb length in front of both houses was occupied and another vehicle was double-parked and having a tire changed, making the passage into their driveway difficult for Emmet. Rock was blaring at concert level. A clutch of people in front of the Bracketts' garage were interacting animatedly. Several waved and smiled as the Willoughbys drove into their garage. The Bracketts' Rottweiler, however, stood on their lawn and barked ferociously.

"No point getting involved in that charming group," Emmet said. "But I'll speak to Brackett tomorrow." He felt his stomach churn but knew Wanda was doing worse; her face was bloodless and her hands were shaking.

Emmet rang the Bracketts' doorbell just after breakfast. No answer. The house was quiet. He saw an empty bottle of Southern Comfort lying amidst a clutter of newspapers, some with oil stains, near the front door. He rang again. He knocked on the door. No response. He walked back along the driveway and decided to putter in the yard and try again. He was dismayed to notice a threadbare sofa and an overturned refrigerator, easily visible from the street, sitting in the side yard away from the Willoughbys' home.

After fifteen minutes nervously fiddling amidst his side-yard bank of John F. Kennedy and Dolly Parton roses he checked the clock in the Camry sedan in his garage. It was a little after ten, certainly not too early to knock on someone's front door.

Emmet tried the bell again. A second time. A window rose upstairs and a male voice shouted down, "What the hell is it?"

"This is Emmet Willoughby next door, Mr. Brackett. There's something I'd like to discuss with you."

"Won't it keep? Jesus Christ, you woke me up, man."

"I'm terribly sorry. I'll come back later."

"Make it a lot later."

"Fine."

Emmet entered his house.

"What did he say?" Wanda asked eagerly.

"I woke him up. He asked me to come back later."

"He was polite, I hope."

"Oh, yes."

"Did you let him know you were angry?"

"You bet."

"But he wouldn't speak with you, eh? I guess you've already got him scared, Emmet."

"Too soon to tell."

"And be sure to ask him if they'll take a little better care of their yard. They've only been here a few months and it's already beginning to look disreputable, doggone grass a foot high and taking to seed. Especially since our two lawns join together, except for the sprinkler heads in the middle. You get a really trashy-looking yard and it spoils the whole block."

"I'll mention that."

After lunch, Emmet rang the Bracketts' doorbell again. Several times. No answer. He hadn't noticed them leaving and he was surprised. He began to knock on the door but thought better of it.

"Well?" Wanda asked.

"Apparently not at home."

"Fled the coop, that's what they did. Probably don't want to face up to their neighbors' viewpoint."

About three that afternoon he noticed Bill Brackett in his driveway duct-taping a broken window in their ancient Ford Galaxy. Except for his gold nostril ring, he looked like a garage mechanic in his grease-flecked jumpsuit, a cigarette bobbing in his mouth. Emmet hurriedly put on his yard hat and sauntered across the lawn.

"Howdy, Bill," he saluted good-naturedly.

"Well, what is it now?" Brackett looked at Emmet with pique and went on taping.

"Beautiful day," Emmet ventured. "Supposed to cloud up a little toward evening."

"Is that what you banged on my front door to tell me?"

"Well, not exactly. Thing is, Bill, well, these late hours and all. I mean, you can figure for yourself. Car work. Loud music. Doesn't seem appropriate for this neighborhood."

Brackett didn't speak. The Rottweiler had come up beside him and was growling at Emmet.

"Wife and I were wondering if you and the missus could try to quiet things down a little. Say by a reasonable hour, maybe ten or ten-thirty or so. And I can see a man having to do some car work now and then. But would it be asking too much if you could, well, keep it on your own property. Looks a little unsightly to see fellows bent over an engine in the middle of the street, parts scattered everywhere. Put yourself in your neighbors' place. And we'd also appreciate it if you wouldn't mind picking up after your dog when it goes on our lawn. Somebody's gotta pick it up."

Brackett was finishing up, smoothing the ugly tape job on the front passenger window.

He looked at Emmet again. "Is that it?" he said.

"That's about it."

"Swell. See you later."

"I remember when those Galaxies first came out. A good old car."

Brackett picked up his roll of tape and walked into the garage without looking at Emmet.

Wanda was waiting for Emmet. "Well, what did he say?"

"He's going to try to do something about it."

"About what?"

"Everything."

"Well, good for you, Emmet. Congratulations. You specifically mentioned the dog?"

"Absolutely. Now that's enough—no, that's enough about Brackett. I'm gonna take a shower."

 

"They're selling drugs. Sure as shootin'." Rollie, Emmet's neighbor on the other side, had also started paying rapt attention to the Brackett escapades.

"Drugs? You think so?"

"I've seen 'em going out to cars and handing out the little baggies. And taking money in return. And you've seen Bill, himself. He's wired half the time. Wired or dead on his ass. He lets those bastards use all his tools as a little customer bonus."

A repugnant queasiness was rising in Emmet's stomach at the thought of actual criminality next-door to his home. "What are we going to do about it?" he asked.

"Ain't much you can do. It's everywhere. Cops hardly pay attention to the small-timers."

"Damn, this is a nice neighborhood. There are children on this block, young teen-agers. Your daughter is, what, thirteen."

"Fourteen."

"Well..."

"I don't want to mess with those characters. You've seen that guy in the derby hat with that ratty orange truck. An ex-con, be my guess. Bet he's got a rod in there."

"Well, he's a roughneck, all right. I spoke to him once, briefly; he was trying to be pleasant. I don't want to condemn those people just because of their lifestyle choices. If we think they're criminals, that's a different matter. Then we obviously have to turn to the law."

"I try not to look. Screw with people of that caliber you're asking for trouble. They're here one month and then off and on the road."

"You gotta feel a little sorry for rootless characters like that," Emmet said, remembering how he'd been footloose and uncertain after leaving the service, before he returned to college.

"They're the ones creating the problem. Not us. You know, I got up to take a leak at three a.m. this morning and there were people out in the Bracketts' driveway. Talking and smoking and they had rock going. Three a.m.!"

"I know. I was watching them, too."

"That little guy with the rotten teeth who drives that cancerous Plymouth. He slept in it all night and didn't drive away till about seven this morning. I saw him taking a whiz in the gutter before he left."

"Well, right there are a couple misdemeanors, I guess."

"Next we'll be seeing cars broken into, mark my words. Druggies need things to fence. And dammit, the Greens kept that house and yard impeccable and already it's the worst-looking on the whole block. Runs down everybody's property values. Maybe you ought to do something, Emmet—I mean, if you're so inclined."

"I wanna make sure I'm not playing the suburban elitist thing."

Rollie rested his almost-bald head on his fist atop the rake handle and laughed softly. "Jeez, Em," he said, looking the older man in the eyes. "I think you still got a Sixties conscience. Wow, I admire that. I do. Think I lost mine in seventy-six when I got my first management job at the plant."

"To me it's just basic fairness, Rol. Human rights, well, they come ahead of property rights."

"You sound like an editorial. How about our human rights?" There was a hint of a whine in his voice and suddenly Emmet saw a mealy-mouthed schoolboy talking, standing in front of his $600,000 home with virtually a junior-Olympic pool in back.

"Hey, you're the one who wants to look the other way."

"We all gotta decide the level of risk we..."

"Like building a stock portfolio, huh, Rollie?" Emmet felt his heart rate climbing and knew he better break off the conversation.

"Whatever you do, try to keep it anonymous, pal. Some things just aren't worth it. Not where your family and your home are involved. I'm glad I got a gun in the house."

"Me too."

"Just in case."

 

"Emmet, it's that guy with the orange pickup again."

It was about ten in the evening and they were getting ready for bed. The big-tired rig bumped over the curb at about fifteen miles an hour, screeched its brakes and came to rest, two tires on the curb. A twangy Western number was playing, with a bass thump that was palpable. The driver stepped out of the truck but left his driver's door open and the music blaring. Tonight he wore a Smoky the Bear hat, with what looked like a hawk feather flourishing from the band and cascades of clotted red hair over his neck. Emmet could hear him banging on the Bracketts' front door. In a matter of minutes three other vehicles had driven up, including the satellite Plymouth.

"How long are we going to put up with this?" Wanda asked, running a hand over her eyes in desperation.

"We don't know that they're breaking any laws."

"That's not what Rollie thinks, apparently."

"From a libertarian standpoint, I'm not even sure I support the criminalization of drugs."

"My God, Emmet, this is no time for political hair-splitting. When Marjorie came by with Justin last week and he started to go out front to play, do you know what she said? She said, 'I don't want him playing out there with those scuzzy people in the driveway next door.' I'd never heard that word before. 'Those men look like a bunch of cutthroats,' she said. I think I have to agree. Emmet, those people frighten me."

"Aren't you over-reacting, Wanda? Those guys are rough edges, no question. But they're mostly just standing around and yakking and goofing off. I talked with Rollie, I talked with Patrucci, I talked with the Leonards, even that old hermit Wilzbach on the other side of them. None of them likes it but they don't want to do anything. At least not now."

Overcoming a growing sense of sordidness, Emmet turned off the lights and joined Wanda at their second-story bedroom window.

"This is somewhat like watching roaches copulate," he said.

"Unfortunately without the cannibalism of the males."

In a few minutes Brandon Shields, a high-school senior who lived down the block, came walking up into the Bracketts' driveway and began talking with the seven or eight people standing there in the dim light from a street lamp two doors further down.

"Lord, now the Shields kid is getting involved with those people," Wanda said.

Emmet heard Bill Brackett's high-pitched laugh.

Several of the men walked to the Plymouth parked in front of the Willoughbys' and hoisted the hood with long-experienced authority. Bill Brackett hurried over with a trouble light, attached to an extension cord, and all the men leaned soberly over the engine compartment to consider the problem. Music continued to blast from Bronc's truck. The Rottweiler was wandering around the group, gyrating its stubby tail. It sat in the street, scratched an ear with vengence, trotted over to the recently planted azalea at the corner of the Willoughbys' driveway, lifted its leg for a split second and then, with both hind paws alternating furiously, kicked a good shovelful of newly manured soil onto the sidewalk. Wanda stiffened. With perfect timing, the Plymouth's owner had stuck his foot into the cab and was contrapuntally revving up the engine.

"Emmet, I can't stand this much longer," Wanda said.

 

The next morning Wanda was conspicuously silent at breakfast. Watching her brisk, competent movements at the stove he was surprised at how gray her hair had become over the past year since she stopped tinting, at a certain gauntness under the high cheekbones he had early been smitten by. She is wrinkled, he thought with a shock. My girl is wrinkled. His urge to embrace her was powerful but he knew she was deep in thought, wrestling with this sudden stark disruption in their lives. He needed to take charge and soon. He was an easy-going man by nature, but not one to accept adversity fatalistically, a viewpoint forced upon him in sixteen months of combat in Korea. A decision was made and one took prompt, deliberate steps toward the goal, means subordinate to the end. Yet was action justified here? And then what would be the first step?

"Maybe we should get dressed fast and hurry down and take a walk along the beach," he said.

Wanda served his eggs and sausage and then sat before her unvarying bowl of Cheerios dusted with raisins.

"It's a beautiful day, girl."

His eggs were overcooked, confirmation of her distress.

"Maybe we should look for another house," she said.

"Sugar. Has it gotten that bad?"

"I think so, when you can't look out the front window without becoming ill. Moving seems like the path of least resistance. I say we start looking at some of the new tracts, a smaller home, maybe one of these new active-seniors communities."

"Wanda, we've been here twenty-one years. Great friends, going back to Little League. It's a lovely house and you've got it so well-decorated, with the new linen curtains and that wonderful Monet print you got from the Metropolitan, so beautifully framed."

"Curtains and pictures are movable, Emmet."

"Gardens aren't. Anyway, we decided last year we were going to stick it out here, least as long as our money holds out. It's terrific having Kenny and Marj just a couple miles away. You remember what a headache finding a house, selling a house, and moving can be. And there's never any certainty you're going to like the new place as much as the last. Plus you have to figure in the cost of selling and buying—in the tens of thousands in our case."

"Well, I can't stay here and watch those druggies congregating in front of my house, lounging on my lawn, working on their cars at all hours, blaring their barbaric music, letting their kids and dogs run through my flowerbeds. And have you noticed the Bracketts' side yard? There's a toilet, a refrigerator, a row of theater seats, curtain rods and Lord knows what else. They may also have a junk business."

She had given up smoking over twenty years ago but her right hand reached searchingly into the pocket of her chenille robe. Realizing Emmet had noticed, she yanked back her hand and made a white-knuckled fist. Her mouth was pursed nearly lipless.

"It's already been several months since they moved in, sweetheart," Emmet said. "That sort doesn't stay put long. They probably have a one-year lease. If they're drug dealers, sooner or later the cops are going to catch up with them. Maybe it would help if we get those dual-pane windows you like."

"Emmet, I think you ought to be more upset."

"You think I'm happy about this?"

"There must be something that decent, law-abiding people can do when a bunch of thugs take over their block. And as far as our trip to Idaho this fall, let's forget about it. You think I'm going to go on a trip and leave my house to the mercies of that rabble?"

"If you say so, Sugar. There's plenty to do in this town, anyway." He had already come to the same conclusion.

"Emmet, even after three aspirins, my heart was racing last night bad as the first time you came by Personnel and admired my scarf. Trouble is, I'm thirty-some years older now."

He rose and put his cheek next to hers, his eyes shut tight, breathing in the scent of her hair, always as tantalizing to him as fresh-baked bread. "I hear you," he said.

Emmet walked to the front window. The street was blessedly vacant in radiant sunshine. Alarmist language was not Wanda's style. And he was worried about health. Her delicate frame was seeming more and more fragile. He had lately noticed the stairs were beginning to wind her.

 

They did not speak about the matter any further that day, even when the family in the horned red hatchback arrived and had a picnic, partly on their lawn and partly on the Bracketts', while the father and Bill raised the front end with a garage jack of Bill's and changed the oil. Emmet noticed that only about a foot of the car's front was stretching across the Willoughbys' portion of the curb. The vehicle was parked facing in the wrong direction but, Emmet reasoned, lots of people did that. Lorene Brackett was barefoot and was wearing what they had decided was her every-other-day pair of flowered stretch pants, as well as one of her undersized pastel tanktops with no bra. She seemed to be on wonderful terms with the woman from the hatchback and once they got into a frantic back-and-forth chasing on the front lawn giddily tossing beer at each other. That night Wanda didn't read in bed as usual but had the light out and was turned away from his side of the bed when he finished brushing his teeth.

"Sugar," he said. "Are we blowing this way out of proportion? I ask myself..."

"I think I want to move," she said. "Now I'm going to sleep."

 

Emmet was awakened in the middle of the night when he turned and realized Wanda was up. He saw her standing at the front bedroom window in the dark and heard the music from outside, especially the heavy thump of the drums. It was three-seventeen. He walked to the window. The whole street was brightly illuminated by a pair of large halogen lamps and a small crowd of youngish ill-assorted men crowded around the front of the orange pickup, its rear end in the Bracketts' driveway and the front in the street. Someone was revving the engine fiercely and repeatedly. Their bedroom reverberated with the clamor. There were wrenches and disassembled parts scattered in the street and on the sidewalk. A young man and a woman, detached from the rest, were having a tight tete-a-tete, the man's hands resting on the woman's shoulders, where the Willoughbys' driveway entered the street. A vehicle was parked wholly in front of the Willoughbys' driveway, both front doors open and the headlights on. The music was as loud as if it were playing in the room. Several men held cans of beer and Bronc, topped tonight by a grimy railroader's cap, was drinking from a brown paper bag. Happening on Wisteria Avenue in the middle of the night, the scene was surreal, like a set staged by a demonic movie director. Through it all rose the sound of Bill Brackett's laugh, high, forced, proprietary.

Wanda was watching silently, rubbing her hands together feverishly.

Emmet went to the phone.

"Police Department," a woman's voice answered.

He gave her his name and address and, in response to her questions, described the scene.

"All our northern units are busy right now," the woman said. "Does this happen often?"

"Constantly."

"You might come by the station during office hours and file a report," she said. "We've had a murder-suicide and a convenience-store holdup already tonight. It's Saturday night, after all. We'll see if we can get a unit there in the next hour or so."

"Thanks," Emmet said and hung up.

"They might get a unit by in the next hour or so."

Wanda said nothing. Her gray hair was eerily backlighted from the street, her form frail and forlorn in the worn peach chenille she refused to discard. Wanda was the third woman in his life he had loved, but no other as deeply, as totally. He had been comfortable in bachelorhood before they had met, when he was already in his late thirties. Theirs was a marriage that had clicked, over thirty years. She could have days when she only wanted to look out across the canyon in the rear toward some unarticulated distant image, an immaterial personal world into which he was denied access. But their marriage, their love and their friendship, their parenthood of a boy and a girl, now parents themselves, was to him the best thing in his life by far. They never had to argue about decisions or seek compromise because whatever Wanda wanted he wanted. Her smiles were the difference between a good day and a bad one, a good week and a bad one. And it was a very rare day when Wanda never smiled. He was trying to think if she'd smiled once yesterday. As he moved to rejoin her at the window he felt the ache from the hip to the knee of his right leg, result of a bad landing in a rescue-mission jump from a chopper at In'chon in September 1950. Suddenly he felt ancient. Ancient and useless with this out-of-the-blue crisis in their lives. And no MacArthur to point the way.

Someone was changing the station on the radio in the street below and it blared differently at each stop on the dial. A Mexican station with merry salsa, a preacher, a rapper, which was held for a moment or two and then switched to more heavy metal. The tete-a-tete couple had moved to a car parked across the street and were in the early stages of what looked like semi-public intercourse. Emmet saw the Shields kid in the crowd around the opened truck hood, drinking from Bronc's brown bag. In the bright light in the street Emmet could see the children asleep in the back of the red hatchback in front of his house. An unrestrained red Doberman was stretching out its rear legs in the middle of his lawn. The police never showed up.

 

"You'll have to help us," the cop at the desk said. "We can't just go in there and make arrests. We need evidence, solid evidence. You home a lot of the time?"

"I'm retired."

"Good. What you can do, and it won't take a lot of time and effort, is keep a log of the comings and goings. Write down the make and license numbers of the vehicles. Make a brief description of the visitors. The date and the time. Whether or not you see anything changing hands. That's the kind of thing we need, Mr. Willoughby."

"Okay," Emmet said. "Oh, I'd like to keep this anonymous, if I could."

"Sure," the officer said. "That's the way we do it. Of course, if it comes to a trial..."

"Of course."

 

Emmet and Wanda began compiling their log. A sense of purpose and resolve was increasingly tinted with optimism. Wanda was even getting to the point of making jokes about their situation, calling herself Harriet the Spy. It was only a matter of time and they'd get enough "solid evidence" to force the police to move. They used Emmet's old pair of Army binoculars to check license numbers. When plates were out of view they would walk up the block, right past the Bracketts and their visitors on some occasions, and casually return in order to see the plate. Wanda said she didn't realize how stimulating adrenaline could be. They described occupants as to height, estimated age, hair color, clothing, accessories. They noted three separate occasions when they had seen a package handed to a visitor and what appeared to be money being transferred. They discovered an average of 6.5 cars were visiting the Bracketts every day, and this was only during the waking hours when they kept the log. They estimated they missed perhaps an equal number between ten at night and six in the morning, their usual sleeping hours, although more and more they found themselves purposefully awake at night, professionally observing the hullabaloo in the street below.

After a month Emmet took the log to the police station. He asked for the officer he had originally spoken to but found he had been transferred to patrol division and was no longer available. After carefully explaining what his instructions had been, Emmet left the log with the officer at the desk, who seemed more interested in an interrupted conversation that continued off and on with a female colleague at the next desk.

"We'll look into this, Mr.—what is it?" the officer said.

"Willoughby."

"You have no idea how much of this is happening these days. We gotta have solid evidence before we can get a warrant."

"You have the solid evidence there," Emmet said.

"We'll have to decide that," the officer said. "Do we have your phone number, Mr. Wallaby?"

"It's at the top of the log. Right next to my name."

 

Another month went by with no changes. Discouragement began to set in again, especially with Wanda, whose silent periods were returning on especially grueling days. Indeed, it seemed as though the Bracketts were getting more popular by the day; car numbers increased as well as the number of occupants. Occasionally a carload of what looked like college kids would pull up at mid-day and one or two of the males would walk up the driveway and bang at the front door, leaving shortly afterward in a hurry. There would be an infrequent white-collar or high-tech sort in a late-model foreign car. The Willoughbys had continued the log for another week after the visit to the station but then gave up in frustration when they never saw a police car. Wanda was talking again of looking for another house. Finally on an ominously gray day in November a police car drove up and a man and a woman officer walked up to the Bracketts' house. Wanda could hear the police radio crackling, projecting its comforting aura of watchfulness, jurisdiction, unswerving purpose.

"Emmet, Emmet," Wanda called to him in the garage. "The cops are at the Bracketts' house. Of course, there aren't any customers there now."

They went to their opened bedroom window. They could just make out Lorene Brackett's voice at the front door. Soon they heard Bill's voice and then the laugh, now the ingratiating version. Then the four walked into the driveway, the woman cop taking notes. Lorene was wearing a pink tanktop, her rattlesnake tattoo visible on one shoulder, and adjusting a hair clasp with appropriate contortions. Bill wore his almost comically stained jumpsuit, unzipped in front to reveal a pale white chest. His arms were waving expressively and he was beaming happily, apparently even cracking jokes. They heard him say something about "my old lady's cousin in the sheriff's department."

The cops left, smiling back at the Bracketts and waving. They both glanced at the Willoughby house as they got into their cars. They knew Emmet was the complainer.

An hour later the doorbell rang. Emmet answered it and saw Bill Brackett standing there. The Rottweiler was on the lawn, stifling an inclination to bark.

"You the one complained?" Brackett blurted, his hands on his hips.

"About what?" Emmet asked.

"You oughta know."

"The complaint I had quite a while back I let you know about and you paid no attention."

"Well, all I can say is I'm a law-'biding citizen and jist 'cause I got a lotta friends is no call for anybody to be turnin' me in to the cops. And working on cars ain't no crime or did you think it was. So if it ain't you, why don't you tell whoever it is to mind their own effing business. I got a brother-in-law works the Sheriff's Department and, believe me, I know how to protect my rights. Is that clear?"

"We all have our rights in this country, Mr. Brackett," Emmet said, uncomfortably aware Wanda was watching him from the living room. "My wife and I believe in minding our own business but we also believe in peace and quiet."

Brackett narrowed his nostrils, making his gold ring stand out and jiggle. He gave Emmet a hard glare, one of the most hate-filled looks Emmet had ever seen outside of the movies. He breathed in deeply and spoke with studied menace, "I got some friends think a lot about me. That about minding your own business—I hope it's true, ol' fella. I hope so." He turned abruptly and walked to his house, one foot stepping into the pansy bed in front of the house.

"Well, of all the colossal nerve!" Wanda said. "That lousy, vicious bum."

"Well, he's on his guard." Emmet's voice deepened and he moved to the coffee bar to mask his trembles and slow his breathing. His heart was pounding.

"That may help things. And he doesn't know who did the complaining."

"Well, I say who cares what he knows. He's ruining what used to be a wonderful neighborhood and it's time..."

"Look, Sugar. The cops are on to him now, and he knows it. Things ought to get better now." Emmet came close to hold her but she pushed away. He was stunned by the look of cold desolation in her eyes.

 

That night the crowd began arriving at about eight. Some brought food and drinks with them. The street in front of the Willoughbys' soon resembled the parking lot at a stadium before a big game. Even Rollie called on the phone to express his dismay and said Patrucci told him he was starting to feel like calling the cops. There was a group of four or five sitting on the Willoughbys' lawn rather obviously smoking marijuana and passing it back and forth. It sounded like Jamaican music playing in the Bracketts' driveway but a deplorable '60s Volkswagen van parked in front of the Willoughbys', about a foot into their driveway, was apparently the source of competing country-western music. By ten p.m. there were two vehicles being worked on, including the Volks van, and Lorene and the red hatchback woman were dancing together in the street, each holding a can of beer and a cigarette.

Emmet heard the doorbell. Shuddering, he went down the stairway. It was Bronc, wearing a battered hardhat and a broad gap-toothed grin.

"Howdy. Name's Bronc." He was a little drunk and his Bilstein Shocks T-shirt was soaked with sweat. "We wanted to invite you to come on out and enjoy the party—seeing as how you so generizly allow us to park in front of your house and all."

"Nah. I'm not in a party mood," Emmet said.

"Ahh, come on, pardner. Just have one brew with us. You'll enjoy it."

Bronc actually had taken Emmet by the forearm and was pulling him along across the stoop and down the front walk.

"A brew for the ol' man," Bronc called. The little rat-faced guy who drove the Plymouth rushed over with a can of generic beer. Brackett and several other guys gathered around Emmet.

"Ol' Mr. Willoughby here ain't all bad, fellows," Brackett said. His breath was atrocious and his eyes sparkled wide and vacant. "He's one of those people who keep up the propiddy values for the resta us." And the laugh cackled forth. Emmet felt rage rising like a reflux of suppressed black hatred.

"Ol' Willoughby's good at keepin' it up, eh Willoughby," the Plymouth guy chimed in. "Maybe he can show one of the girls how he keeps things up" and he gave Brackett an elbow, keeping his eyes on Emmet.

"No shit, really, Willoughby," Bronc was saying. "It's really nice how you let us—no, shut up, fellows, I'm serious—it's bitchin' how you let us work on our cars and all and don't get ticked off or nothin'. Me, I'd be seriously pissed some guys I didn't know started parkin' in front of my house and workin' on their cars at all hours. 'Course I don't have no..."

"Willoughby's okay! Ol' guy's a goddam prince," others were saying amidst their laughter.

Emmet pulled from Bronc's grip. He threw down the can of beer.

"That's enough of this crap," he said, wheeling away.

"Well, for the luva..." Bronc said. "That's good beer!"

"Let the ol' bastard go," he heard Brackett say. "He'd rather watch through the windows than join the party."

"Go suck your thumb," somebody yelled. "You and the old bitch."

Emmet quick-stepped into the house and up to the master bedroom. He went to his bedstand, unlocked the drawer, removed a .32 Smith and Wesson revolver and checked the cylinder. He knew how to use it. Wanda spun from the window and watched him in terror. "God no, Emmet, don't use that!" she screamed. "Emmet, please come back."

He bounded back down the stairs to the front door and yanked it open. Two cop cars had stopped in the middle of the street. Four officers were quickly getting out, one holding a straining German shepherd by a short leash. They were ready for action. Now a third police car was pulling up, its red and yellow party hat spinning, its radio barking. Emmet put the revolver quickly into his pants pocket. He was panting heavily in a joyful descent from a titanic surge of adrenaline.

"What the livin' hell's going on here?" the cop in front said. "Ever'body stay right where y'are and don't try nothin' you'll be sorry for." Emmet could see one cop had a gun out already. Another began frisking Brackett against the hood of the orange pickup. It was the same cop who had come by the house that day. "Somebody turn that goddam music off," another officer shouted. Now he saw two officers putting handcuffs on Bronc, whose hat had fallen off, revealing a glistening bald scalp.

Emmet stood at the opened door and breathed in relief like cool blue ozone after a storm. Something had finally happened. Finally. Lucky bastard, he thought with a sudden exhalation. I was going to kill somebody... haven't since I was a dumb-kid grunt... Lord, the mental torment... half a century ago. Five seconds from murder! Who's the rough edge? My God. Why? He went slowly up the stairs and replaced the weapon. His pulse was slowing.

"Close call," he said softly. "Too old, too coddled for prison."

He knew it would take him and Wanda time to work this out. She had suffered more through this squalid episode than he had. It had easily been the biggest strain since they had gotten married, that year he had been promoted to senior contracts administrator at the aircraft plant, with the fat raise, and she had been shifted to Human Resources (they called it "Personnel" then). She was the best-looking gal in the whole Convair plant and he knew them all, the lookers anyway. And the wittiest, too. It would take time to get her back to normal but he was going to get started right away.

"Soon as the cops get this melee cleared up, I'm going to go out and get us a quart of ice cream, late as it is," he called as he looked for her. "And then we'll start talking about that trip to Idaho. Guess what, old Bronc is as bald as a toilet ball." Where was she?

He entered their dressing area and froze. Wanda, ashen and trembling, sat like a dropped rag doll on the throw rug, her eyes open wide. The contents of an aspirin bottle were spilled about her. "Emmet, chest pains," she gasped, her voice thick and gravelly.

"Wanda!" Emmet cried, kneeling beside her, embracing her, his face in her hair. He thought of the cops out front. No—need an ambulance. "Nine-eleven. Lemme call nine-eleven. Don't move, baby..."

He rushed to the phone, a vision of a terrible, desolate future before him, everything on earth that mattered gone.

 

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