My neighborhood isn’t as pretty as the sinuous, color-coordinated, HOA-governed neighborhoods. Our streets are pot-holed, sidewalks abruptly end without apology, and some front yards have become gravel parking lots for boats and RVs. The overall color scheme looks like a dog ate and vomited a box of crayons. I chose to live here because I learned the hard way that HOA boards attract people who love to tar and feather you for leaving shoes on your front mat or painting your window trim the wrong shade of white. They also dictate how many and what sized dogs you can have. The only person who decides how much dog I can handle is me.
Sometimes, we feral suburbanites wish we had more control over each other. For example, a woman got angry when, in her estimation, a neighbor didn’t mow enough. She’d seen a rat in her front yard–in broad daylight—and was sure his pop-up prairie was to blame. She drove around, campaigning to anyone outside, seeking a drive-by quorum for a board that doesn’t exist.
When she sidled up to me, I pointed at a hole beside my driveway, “We had a rat burrow right here when we moved in. Every time we fill the hole, they pop up somewhere else. Anybody with fruit trees knows rats are always with us.”
She said, “Pfft!” and gestured as if she were throwing invisible garbage on my lawn. She drove off to find somebody less complacent about rats.
When I was a kid and we bought a new home in New Jersey, the neighbors introduced themselves with pies and a tuna noodle casseroles. When school was out, the street was full of children. Sure, some of the boys got molested by Mr. Green. Yes, Jenny climbed a tree in the empty lot and broke her arm. But you know what? We looked out for each other. Once, when I was a sixteen-year-old latchkey kid walking home from school, a hired hand at a neighbor’s house asked me for glass of water. I brought him right into my kitchen. Meanwhile, unknown to me, my neighbor stood at her kitchen window holding her phone and her breath, watching to make sure I was safe.
My husband and I bought this house six years ago, and no one rang our doorbell with a fresh-baked pie and a smile. We’ve had to nickname our neighbors: “Prom King,” “Duct Tape,” “The Russian.” Half the houses have children, I think. We see them get into and out of SUVs. Before the pandemic, whenever we walked our dogs, we passed a dead end where adults sometimes sat in front of open garages in folding chairs, drinking beer and laughing while the kids play in the street. There’s a house around the corner with a fire pit, and evenings when we passed the privacy fence, we heard the banter of a small gathering. When I let my dogs out before bed, the scent of their fire made me yearn for a life I’ve never led, a gathering around a fire and a tribe.
So you could say the pandemic didn’t change much in my neighborhood. I’ve seen an increase in the number of cars sitting in driveways all day, maybe an uptick in air traffic of roseate spoonbills. And, for the first time, my street got its own party house.
Friday March 13th, President Trump announced a national state of emergency. The same day, my dog training club called an emergency board meeting, and we, like clubs and businesses all around the country, decided that although we’d miss it and lose money, the only way to protect our members was to close. We sat in a circle, knee-to-knee, and I joked we should be six feet apart. Now I can’t remember why that was funny.
That was the last time I gathered with a group of friends.
The day after Trump uttered those “two very big words,” the Prom King, his wife, and two teenagers threw their first party. The sun was still shining when van after van disgorged parents and teens, who marched through his garage and into the house and yard, where they splashed, laughed, and shouted. As the sun dipped, a live band struck up. The revelry and kersplashing lasted long into the night. I walked my dogs right before bed, delighted to be in the vicinity of actual music and joy. Gatherings, I’d heard, should be limited to ten, but probably the Prom King planned this party weeks before. I already knew people who were sick and scared, one of them my own daughter. They’d either had trouble getting tested or didn’t even try. At this point, though, people weren’t dying on our coast. I was happy for the revelers; I wished I’d been invited.
The next week, France went on national lockdown, Hawaii imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine, and Prom King threw another party.
The following week, Britain locked down, the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, and the United States finally found a new way to lead the world—in confirmed coronavirus cases. By then I had friends and family who’d lost their jobs, closed their businesses, or gotten furloughed. We were all sending Zoom into a boom and learning to buy groceries without killing ourselves.
Four days after Florida’s governor issued a stay-at-home order and two days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson went into intensive care, Prom King threw his fourth party. The entire US education system had abandoned the burrows of hallways and classrooms and popped up online, but behind Prom King’s fence, teenagers cannonballed into the pool. Happy chatter brightened our otherwise eerily silent world. As my husband and I set out with our dogs, I shouted to a fellow dog walker across the street, “Hey, why aren’t you throwing a big damn party?”
“I’m just obeying orders over here,” he said with a shrug.
“I wasn’t invited,” I said. “Guess I’m not essential.”
He’d considered reporting them to the authorities, but, “You and I have to live with the guy.”
I’d seen the movie Under the Tree. I knew what he meant.
From blocks away, every few minutes, we heard a collective whoop from Prom King’s place. I missed my friends and my daughter. I missed the dog club. When we passed the fire pit house, I realized I hadn’t smelled wood smoke for weeks. News poured in from New York, Louisiana, Detroit, South Korea, Spain, India, East Africa, the heroism of medical professionals and police officers and delivery people and grocery store employees, all risking their lives so the rest of humanity could scurry down into their dens to wait. When we got to the shuttered downtown, my husband and I picked up our pace. The main street stood as still and silent as the set of a zombie apocalypse. The blather of outdoor wining and dining drifted, instead, from our street.
When I got home, I phoned the widow who lives next to the Prom King to ask what she thought.
“Parties?” she said. “I have triple-paned windows. I don’t hear a thing, which is good, because neighbors tell me that couple scream at each other something awful. Anyway, seems like they shouldn’t be having people over right now.”
We considered calling the cops. In the end, none of us wanted to rat him out. I cooked dinner, my husband and I ate, we watched TV, and every now and then, the mysterious whoop floated through the night sky. As we walked the dogs, we heard them whooping blocks away, all the way past the house of the rat-hater. Even though it was a fine Saturday night, the houses where grown-ups chatted in their driveways while their children played stood closed up tight, just like every dwelling everywhere in this spooky new world, which was actually an old world, simply new to generations of us spoiled rotten by science and public health innovations, such as, for example, vaccines.
The next morning when I picked up my cell phone, I found texts from a friend who lives around the block. “Is this your neighbor?” She’d sent a daylight photo of the party house surrounded by SUVs. “I called the cops,” she wrote. “Did they come?”
I hadn’t noticed cops, but I had noticed the revelers wrapped up kind of early. I called her.
“My backyard adjoins theirs,” she said. “Every Saturday night I’ve had my grandson here, and I just can’t stand that language.”
“Language?” I said. “I can’t hear what they’re saying.”
“They shout, ‘Fuck the coronavirus!’ and then everyone goes, ‘Woooo!’”
I said a couple neighbors and I considered calling the cops but chickened out.
“If you see something, say something,” she said. “I’m too old to be scared. I’d say it to his face. He’s endangering people’s lives. If it weren’t for people like him, this whole thing would blow over in two weeks.”
I said, “Maybe he thinks it’s all hype.”
“Maybe he’s afraid it isn’t.”
The next day, Sunday at the Coronavirus-Fuckers’ house, not a creature was stirring, not even a rat. But that evening, when we walked our dogs, the sheriff rolled by, real slow, his windows rolled down, listening.
We nodded to each other.
“Just checking,” he said, giving me the peace-out sign. “Stay safe.”