I'll be frank about the bad part: I'm not always the best employee, or always the best person to be around. I can broadly agree, I did not love my last job at the restaurant. Also, I'm pretty sure there were at least three or four good candidates to get fired ahead of me. There are still some persons in the employ of Southern Exposure: A Farm-to-Table Bistro who have stolen from the establishment, and astoundingly are known to have done so by the owner, who is a pale, cowardly fellow, always mumbling about why his managers are keeping him in debt (but never firing them either). So to the Tuesday crew who did me in, the surly small-timing of the brunch cooks, and that two-legged endlessly-gobbling sphincter of an owner: you can all do one in hell.
On the way in last Tuesday, I was walking through the tall grass of the empty lot, and I stepped on something huddled in the rough. I half-realized as I was stepping the ground was uneven, but couldn't keep my foot light enough not to crush the newborn squirrel that I found beneath the nonslip restaurant clogs I had on. Jenny told me later newborn squirrels often get pushed out of the nest when they're young, and has since insisted several times that I didn't kill the little thing. Still, not a great commute to work. And a night that begins that way goes the way it goes.
I threw the squirrel-squashing clogs in the dumpster when I left out the back door.
Having a sudden and newfound space for thought and analysis in my life, I have begun cataloguing the circus. The contents of my house and life: (one) live-in girlfriend of six years, Jenny; (one) Dachshund mix, Justice; (one) overweight grey tabby mix, Freddie; a fine automobile (one) 1989 Saab 900, which still starts every time; (one) set of bocce balls which we throw from the porch on Sundays every now and again when Jenny’s off work; plenty (approximately 24 bottles) of cold drinking-beers; and some (one-half bottle) Armagnac that smells like dried flowers. The rest could burn down tomorrow, I wouldn’t care.
We don’t own the house, and that makes me nervous the more things feel like they should settle down and take root. Our rent is probably too low, and that makes staying here the right answer. But it still makes me feel like a tourist here, or some kind of undercover anthropologist, bedding in to try and get the scoop out of the neighbors, except I don’t know what my mission is beyond the first steps. Dutifully, I’ve catalogued them, and done my best to figure them out. The contents of the neighborhood seem scattered on the surface, but I have come to believe in the past two years we have lived here that there is an underlying order to things. We have a magnificent Southern front porch, and I spend a good deal of time observing from it the orchestral qualities of the movements of the street that in unsuspecting moments reveal themselves, sudden and full of accidental perfection, and unmistakable intention.
There’s the bungalow across the street, which is neatly trimmed with flower boxes, and inhabited by an equally fussy and charming lady, Mary, who plows a lonely furrow in her war against the immorality of the street. Her neighbors left are renters and hell-raisers. Her neighbors to the right keep the house completely closed off and manufacture drugs of the new modern sort, and there are several long-term occupants who come and go in various states. They do yard work on Sundays to make sure no one from Code Enforcement has complaint. Cars come and go, and a few nondescript no-minders mosey in, and mosey on, and mostly things are quiet. I'll say this, as a heads-up, though: there is one lady who has had several crises out in the street, so if she yells at you, just know she's having a bad day, and her life's work has been a mighty effort, and her day-to-day now involves powerful and perhaps little-understood substances. Mary comes across the street sometimes, to talk to us about the state of the neighborhood cats, and perhaps to glare at her neighbors from new angles—maybe try to catch a peep between curtains to see the evidence of some powerful narcotics empire, but I think I am satisfied that these are no kingpins.
The house on our right (Mary’s left) was foreclosed the other day. It's got the giant padlock on the front door now. A very quiet, wispy lady with long hair lived there, and I don't know what the story is. She seemed to have been gone long before the padlock. I like to imagine if I got a letter telling me it'd all gone belly-up in my life that I'd slip away in the night like that. Neat, quiet, with the traffic from the neighborhood and the birds chirping and the backyard neighbor’s chickens milling about, and everyone would just say, "Used to there was a fella who lived there. Don't know what come of him, though," and my new life would feel as open and as settled as the echoes I would leave. As such things go, I reckon it'd be the best way to dip. But still. That padlock seems a bit heavy, like it's pulling at the whole door frame, and the house's foundation. I get that something’s got to happen with an unpaid house, but I wouldn't ever personally buy a house straight from foreclosure, because no matter what you tell yourself, it’s a nasty business.
When Jenny has back-to-back-to-back shifts in the hospital, I end up with a lot of time sitting on the front porch. You could hardly have a more pleasant porch to sit and think when the weather is nice. I think sometimes about how it would be with a big ceiling fan above, though. The mosquitoes come worse each summer. But it's a damn reasonable porch when the sun lets go in the evening. We usually get a bit of breeze mumbling down the hill towards the village.
I was out the other night, sat in the big rocking chair my roommate Brad had left behind when he moved out, and that night was the first good and hot one of the new season. I had my jeans and my boots still on, and even with the buttons undid on my shirt, I still could feel the heat coming together and rising up inside my body, starting in my feet like one of those animated diagrams of oil drilling in the science museum. My mouth was dry, and my beer bottle was empty and sticky. It was already deep into night where I’d just sat down for a minute to watch the sun cut flat across the neighbor’s trees, and without knowing, I'd let myself slip through the sunset drinking beers with all manner of notions trickling through my head until it was night, and none of the lights were on. I felt like I would need to eat something and get a Gatorade in me before I came unstuck.
I walked the uneven sidewalk panels down to Frank’s Key West Allnite Store, which is the neighborhood’s divebar equivalent to a normal 7-11. Frank is probably dead, but he loved Key West, whoever he was, and the shop is covered in fake palm leaves like he’s waiting for Jesus on the donkey. But it’s the only joint in the neighborhood open past ten, so it often takes on a strange energy—especially when the season changes.
When I turned the corner to the parking lot, I found I had to go around where three squad cars had cornered a couple of teens against a brick wall, with the blue lights dancing across the laundromat and the brick wall on either side of the Allnite store. I was going in the door when it touched off. One of the officers was using that needling voice that the hall principals in my high school had always used, asking with a little grease in his voice why if they hadn’t been doing anything that they had ducked back down the alley and hustled to the store. And it looked like one of the kids gave him a sassy shrug, and there was a loud rustle and the exchange of fuck you’s, and I watched one of the cops grab a kid by the ankles and tip him all the way upside down like a saltshaker, and the kid’s phone and his keys and his wallet scattered out. Another cop gave me a look like, move along, son, so I did and I let the door fall away behind me as I went in. The girl at the counter was looking at me like I’d started all that, but it was cool and bright inside, and the blue lights felt less urgent under the even fluorescence of the overhead lights, tempered by the fake palm trees. I began to feel suddenly very hungry. While I was in line, a different one of the cops came in and bought a few waters from the coldbox next to me, and gave me one of those, Citizen, nods.
When I was walking out, the kids were tucked neatly into the back of a car, and the cops were gathered around another car, with the doors open and the engine running, and they scribbled away at their reports. A big SUV tried to squeeze into one of the open parking spots, and a red-faced fellow got out and moseyed by me to put his cigarette out before going into the store.
I took the long-way loop around the block so I wouldn’t have to tread the same path twice on the way back to the house. The night felt more and more humid, and nearby someone had been smoking some great hunk of pig that hung around everywhere. It could have been before ten, or it could have pushed past midnight. I didn’t know how to read where the stars were for clues, and I still didn’t feel like going back home when the time to turn came. So I took another block in stride, with the odd car-blown breeze passing by me like some mercy from the heat.
At the top of the hill, I reached the point of return—a church on the outcropping with a giant red sign that reads JESUS SAVES, and everyone who lives along the river can see. At the top of the hill, with the dark river below, and some of the airport lights showing in the distance, I sat down on the safety railing by the side of the road and caught a little breeze. From here, I could see through a few trees toward the hospital, where Jenny would be until the sun was coming up, and when she came home, she would draw the blackout curtains tight and cuddle up next to me with her big quilt, because we slept underneath the window unit, which blows cold and steady, and, with its rumbling hum, blocks out the noises from the block, and makes our little room feel like it moves along in its own time.
The walk back felt clean and direct after sitting in the river breeze. It felt like I had begun to absorb some of the Gatorade, and my mind felt clear. Shapes in the dark felt sharp, and friendly. I could see into the houses where people were still up. At the edge of our block, from the alleyway, I could see lights still on in the new neighbors’ house behind us—whose names I forgot within minutes of their saying hello—and from somewhere deep behind the closed curtains and walls, I heard a TV going. It must have been blasting, but from outside, all I could hear was the theme song from The Simpsons.
I climbed up to the porch and sat again for a moment in the rocking chair. Freddie sidled up to me, and then hopped onto my lap, shoving his brittle-boned head into my hands again and again. He curled up after a few minutes and didn't leave my lap until I realized he was leaping up, and dashing down the porch where Jenny's car had pulled into the driveway. The horn beeped once when she locked it, and there she was, her rain jacket draped over her arm, lunch bag, purse, and her bag with her work clothes, and when she saw me in the chair, the early sun not yet shining down on where I sat, she didn't give the scolding look, or ask me why I had been sleeping on our front porch. She smiled, and I said, "I'm so glad you're home, my love."