Archive for neighborhood

Boris and Alexandra

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 10/12/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: WEED

The taxi pulled over in front of the house in the hazy light of late afternoon.  Weeds crowded the planters. Alexandra pulled her suitcase out of the trunk, the taxi driver didn’t even get out to help her.  What had happened to her yard? Her house-sitter, Don, was supposed to pay the gardener. She lugged her bag up the front stairs, let herself in the front door, usually the best part of any business trip.The house was silent. That closed-in smell—all the plants were dead.  “Hello? Don?” And where was the cat? “Boris?” No familiar gray tabby, no meow. Where was the damn cat?  Where was Don? Had he taken the cat to the vet? She ran to the cat box by the back door. Clean.

There, on the dusty dining room table, a note on yellow foolscap.  Sorry Alex sweetie, had to leave. Last minute job in Martinique, I couldn’t find anybody to cover, but can’t miss this opportunity. Boris’ll be okay, I left plenty food for him out on the patio. SORRYsorrysorry. D.

How long had been gone, a week? Two? He didn’t date the note but by the look of those weeds… She hadn’t hired a fucking housesitter so he could leave a week’s worth of food for her cat and piss off to Martinique! She run outside. “Boris!  Boris!” Trying for the top of her range, super-soprano. “Here kitty! Kitty… Boris!”  The hillside was full of weeds, the steps clotted with leaves. There was Boris’s bowl, out on the back terrace, and a cereal bowl beside it.  Both empty.

“Borya!  Kotik!”  She climbed up to the very top of the yard in her heels, looked up the slope, across the chain link. “Here kitty kitty kitty…”

He was gone. Damn Don to everlasting actor hell.  Coyotes walked boldly down the center of the street up here, she saw them all the time, on towards twilight. People regularly found the dens full of dog and cat collars.  Sobs caught her by the throat. Don was on some white beach in Martinique and her cat was dead.  She lowered herself into a patio chair. It was hard to breathe.   A lizard ran out from the rocks, rustled in the fallen leaves.

It had been a crappy trip too, an endless series of trade shows, Florida, Atlanta, Austin, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, St. Louis.  All she wanted was to get home, pour herself a glass of wine and see her cat.  She started to cry. Borya. She’d found him as a kitten by the dumpsters outside her dorm at Cal. She’d had him through both of her marriages.  Fucking Don.  She hoped he drowned. She hoped he was eaten by a great white shark. Actors, they were always available, but anything free that came up, they were gone like greased shit. “Borya!”

She was weeping now, great racking sobs.  She never should have gone on this trip. She never should have taken this fucking job, come to this horrible city, she should have stayed at Cal, she could have had a nice job in Slavic languages, she’d be a professor by now.  “Borya!”

Weeds everywhere.  She grabbed a handful and yanked them from the roots, threw them into the bushes.  Why didn’t she have any friends who would feed her cat? She worked too hard, she traveled too much.  She didn’t have anyone.  There was just Susie, the marketing girl at the McLelland Group. Her mother, in Florida. Representative Flores who kept calling to make sure she’d vote in November.  “Borya!” she screamed.

“Hey!” A disembodied voice called out to her from the south side of the massive bougainvillea growing over the wood fence.  “Looking for your cat?”

“Yes!” she called back. “Yes, the gray one! A big gray tabby. “Have you seen him?  I was away, my housesitter left.”

The voice called back. “We’ve been feeding him. He seemed pretty hungry.” One of her neighbors, The Kids, there was a whole house of them. Early twenties, dyed hair, noisy parties.

But they were feeding Borya!  He was alive. “Oh, thank God. Thank God!” She swiped at the tears staining her face. “When did you see him?”

“Come around to the front, okay? It’s weird talking to a bush.”

She ran down, slipping on the dead leaves, past the empty cat bowls through her empty house and out, down to the house next door, up their front steps. She had never climbed their steps, had never met any of these kids. Had only gritted her teeth at the cigarette butts The Kids threw out on the driveway from the front balcony, the drumming in the garage.

A boy about twenty-one years old waited on the front porch. He wore a plaid shirt, a full beard. He smelled like pot.  “I’m Sam.” She shook his hand. Sam.  They had names. Up to now, she had only thought how noisy they were.  “Come on in.”

A plaid couch. An enormous TV. Electric guitars.  Magazines, plates and the bong on the table. “Want a beer?”

She was going to refuse, but really, she could use a beer.  She followed him into a dirty kitchen, he found two cans in a magnet-laden old fridge.  Pabst Blue Ribbon. She imagined it was supposed to be was ironic.    “About Boris…”

The boy grinned, hopeend his can of beer with a noisy spurt.   “We call him Maxicat. ‘Cause he’s so big. ” He drank, wiped his moustache on his hand..

They sat in the living room on the plaid couch.   “He comes around all the time.  He likes Friday, that’s Devin’s cat.  She’s his girlfriend.” A shiny black cat with white feet and chest and white whiskers lay cleaning herself on the armchair across from them. Boris’s girlfriend.  She had never seen another cat in the yard. But then again, she was gone most of the time.  She wiped her tears, sipped her metallic-tasting Pabst. Her cat had a girlfriend. He had another name, and a girlfriend.  She suddenly felt very out of place, in her suit, her nude nylons, her high heels, she seemed so uptight–even to herself. Her cat had a girlfriend, and she had what? A rolling suitcase, a houseful of dead plants and half a million frequent flier miles.  She started to cry again.  “Sorry, sorry, I’ve just had him forever.”

“No worries, he’s your cat, man. He’s a great guy.” Sam. All this time, she had never said so much as hello to any of them. He really was a very nice boy.

That’s when she heard the clattering in the kitchen. A girl with blue streaks in her dark hair, ironic hornrimmed glasses.  “That’s Devin. This is Alexandra, she’s Maxicat’s mom.”

“Hey,” the girl said. “We’re just going to have dinner. Tacos, want to stay?”

Suddenly, she realized she was imposing.  Coming at dinnertime.  She stood, straightening her skirt.  “I should be going.”

“No, stay,” Sam protested. “Maxicat’ll show up at dinnertime,  he always does.”

“You’re very kind,” she said, imagining what they thought of her in her suit, her nylons.  Don’t impose on people, her mother used to say. She always pictured people secretly rolling their eyes and wishing she would leave.  “I just got back, I should unpack.” She wrote down her number and handed it to the boy, asked him to call her when the cat reappeared.

She returned to her own quiet, empty house. Dust all over the glass table.  The wilted orchids. The unopened mail heaped on the kitchen counter. More in the mailbox. Junk mail. Bills. Hot and cold running crap. Even Borya had a girlfriend. and she had ATT, Sprint, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. She picked up the phone, listened to the beep of the voicemail tone, entered the codes. Susie from McLelland Group.  Cal Builders. Someone from her alumni association. Peace Action.   Lexus, time for the 30,000 mile service. Her mother launching into a longwinded message about her neighbors at the condo complex putting their trash in her cans.

Alexandra hung up before it was done. So much wine in that wine rack. She pulled out a Cab, Chateauneuf 2001, a better wine than The Kids had probably ever seen in their lives, and marched it next door, knocking lightly on the wood underneath the ugly bubbled glass.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: CAPE

Whatever Happened to Halloween?

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , on 11/01/2012 by Janet Fitch

Another Halloween Eve– great candy in the bowl with the green hand that screams and laughs witchily, my artist daughter’s spooky decorations adorning the garage, the stairs lined with glowing luminaria… Yet, once again, the door remained silent, without the knock and giggle of a single trick or treater.  This on a street with a cooperative nursery school four houses down, and a five year old right across from me.  Every house is decorated, but what has happened to the kids?  I  know there are at least fifteen on this long block.

How disingenuous of me.

I know what happened to the kids.

I know.

We live in the hills of the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, an otherwise very neighborhoodly area, where we all go to protests and public hearings, nursery school fundraisers and memorial walks. When the neighbors across the street got married, my neighbors next door allowed their caterers to set up gas stoves and staging in their garage. That kind of a place.

But on Halloween?  All these people take their kids down to the flat neighborhood down by the lake, where their little ghouls and goblins can easily walk from house to house, gathering the goods from strangers.

Or they even might take them over to swanky (and flat) Hancock Park,  where half the city hurries from mansion to mansion shlepping grocery bags and pillowcases for their loot. I have cousins who live in one of those old places–they say they get over a thousand kids before they run out of candy.

Not neighbor kids. Just kids who would rather collect the booty from people in mansions than walk around their own neighborhoods.

Oh, let me try to be fair.  Perhaps its easier walking, easier to slake massive juvenile greed for glucose in all its wondrous forms. (Silverlake variety) Or  perhaps their neighborhoods are truly grimy and depressing, and as this is a night of fantasy, trick or treating the mansions is their one day to legitimately knock on those stately doors and see how the 1% lives. (Hancock Park variety).

It’s also true that the neighborhoods that get the heaviest Halloween traffic tend to really do it up for the holiday–like my cousins, bowing to the inevitable, make lemonade out of it, creating haunted houses and the like.  One year, the last of my kid’s trick or treating years, even she had to try Hancock Park, just to see what it was like.  A mob scene, she reported.

The thing is, throughout my daughter’s younger life, whether she was a princess or a kitty cat or Pippi Longstocking or a Crash Test Dummy, The Statue of Liberty or Cruella DeVille or Morticia or A ‘Fifties Girl Back from the Dead, I was the old fashioned, trick-or-treat-your-own-neighborhood mom.  Even if it meant climbing stairs, climbing hills.  Even if it meant not completely filling a dumptruck with candy.

Because I remembered very well what it meant to circulate in your OWN neighborhood on that all-important night.  It meant knocking on the door of that gray house and discovering that a very nice old lady lived there.  Or the old man in the blue house who gave out full sized chocolate bars.  The people who loved to see your costumes  and wanted to show everybody what you were wearing, and laved you in compliments.  It made the neighborhood real to me.

Bulging bags of candy cannot make up for what kids are losing by trick or treating outside their own neighborhoods.  The essence of neighborhood is what they’re losing.  What we all lose.  Without that one night, I don’t meet the kids on the block, and they don’t meet me.  It’s how anonymity is born.  And the less safe the neighborhood, the more important it is that kids know who lives there, and there, and there.  To be a part of a neighborhood, rather than a stranger at a stranger’s door.

When my kid was younger, it was a tough sell with my fellow parents, to have the little witches and warlocks go a-knocking in this neighborhood.  I’d often bribe them with a party first, and then take them out as a group. But once the kids could choose for themselves, it was usually just one or two of my daughter’s best friends who would trick or treat with her up here–incidentally reaping the bounty of all those houses at which they were often the sole visitors.

But moreso, she learned who lived in all these houses–“the Pixie Stick people”, the super-decorators, the nice grandparently people in the black gingerbread house, the owners of that little dog, or that orange cat–oh, that’s where it lives.  It makes a neighborhood, and she is of this neighborhood now.  Not just growing up somewhere, anywhere, but here, in a known world.

I know I’m bucking the tide against a more and more impersonal world to ask you all to think twice before you drive kids out of your neighborhood on Halloween.  We live in a world where it’s all too easy in general to focus on stuff instead of stopping for a moment to consider the implications.  But when the Halloween booty’s gone, the neighborhood relationships we nurture live on, deepening our children’s experience of safety and connection to their world.