Scene of the Crime
The suburbs aren’t for everybody. For one thing there’s the problem of getting to work. Then there’s the lack of amenities like restaurants, museums, bars, libraries, or playgrounds. Of course some of these things can be found, but they suffer from the blandness of all things sub- or ex-urban. The library in Marlton, for example, only stocks best sellers. The playgrounds are new, but focused on child safety rather than on enjoyment. The roads are crammed from morning until night and the only decent place to eat is Rusty’s Steakhouse. We’re vegetarians.
On the other hand, the houses are big, the yards have grass, and the rents are a third of what we were paying in Philadelphia. So we moved.
The kids were happy to have their own room and a swing set. My wife enjoyed the sounds of birds in the morning. I had a long bus ride to work, but plenty of time to read best sellers. We planted a lilac that first summer, forsythia, wisteria and a few grape vines. The soil was black and rich, unlike the sparse sandy dirt of our tiny city yard. Things grew. There were lots of bugs, but the exterminator came twice a month.
“I love it here,” my wife said.
“We love the yard,” said my kids.
“The neighbors seem hostile,” I said.
The couple next door had filled their yard with the relics of American blue-collar life—there were two pop-up trailers, an above-ground swimming pool, a trampoline, rabbit hutches (they ate the bunnies, a fact that gave my daughters nightmares), a motorcycle, two junk cars, a woodpile, a metal shed whose roof had rusted through, a collapsed log playhouse, and three dogs whose barking soon negated our ability to listen to song sparrows and finches. Sid and Nancy were in their forties and not visibly employed. Sid was overweight and appeared in his backyard early each morning wearing a jogging suit of what appeared to be white silk. He tinkered with his engines in that way people have of starting them, revving them, shutting them off and then repeating the process. Nancy never left the house. But then no one left the house in our suburban neighborhood. Dogs were let out unattended; no one walked or jogged. Cars slid out of the driveway and eight hours later slid back in. Doors went up automatically, then they closed. Windshields were heavily tinted. Shades were drawn year round. Pumpkins, flags, and white lights made their appearance at the appropriate times, but we never saw anyone actually put them out. Everyone was hunkered down, waiting out the weather, or the administration, the recession, or whatever war was being fought. I walked up the street—there were no sidewalks—to the Route 70 to catch the bus. If I saw Sid I’d wave and shout ‘Have a great day’ but he never acknowledged my greeting. I noticed that his head was shaved and that it glowed in the morning light.
Yes, there were advantages. But living in the suburbs felt strange. I never had lived outside of the city before. We kept waking up in the middle of the night listening to the wind. I don’t recall ever having heard the wind during my years of living in city apartments. When my wife and children were gone I would wander through the house vaguely opening and shutting closet doors. We had a linen closet that I was using to store canned food. No one complained about my poor renditions of “Body and Soul” on the saxophone or the loud radio broadcasts of Phillies games. We could do as we pleased. And yet my wife and I admitted that we felt tense. I was worried about the children playing in the front yard. People drove too fast, as if on some vital errand. When my girls set up a lemonade stand in front of the house no one stopped, and on Halloween, despite our orange lights and carefully-carved pumpkins, no children came to the door—we ate the Three Musketeers ourselves. That night, always among my favorite of the year for its intimation of deep autumn, was empty and silent and strangely haunted.
“I still like it,” my wife said.
“We do too, sort of,” said the girls.
“There’s something not quite right about this,” I thought.
On Thanksgiving, Sid emptied his swimming pool, pumping thirty-five hundred gallons of chlorine-laced water directly into our back yard. When I saw the black hose snaking from his pool under the fence that divided our properties I was flabbergasted. Who would do such a thing? I trotted next door and rang the bell. No one answered. I went around back. Sid was in his shed, staining an Adirondack chair. The dogs came running, snarling at my legs.
“What’s up?” Sid said.
“Are you kidding me? You’re draining your pool into my yard. It’ll kill the grass. The plants.”
“Whattya mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look.” I grabbed his meaty arm.
“Keep your fucking hands off me. And get outta my yard.”
“All right. But I’m calling the cops.”
“Call ‘em. What the fuck. I drain my pool wherever I want.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Scram, you punk.”
“Punk? You’re calling me a punk? I’m forty years old. I have two kids. I’ve got a job, which is more than I can say for some people.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I don’t lounge around in a track suit all day. It means I work. You know, for a living.”
Sid took at swipe at me, a big roundhouse that missed by a mile. I’m no fighter so I beat it, mutts nipping at my heels.
I jogged home and dialed the non-emergency number. A woman answered. She asked me if it was an emergency.
“Yes and no.”
“It’s important, but no one is dying.”
“What happened? Car stolen? Break in? Mugging?”
“My neighbor is emptying his swimming pool into my backyard.”
“His pool. Thousand of gallons of water. They’re sluicing as we speak into my rosebushes. It’s a flood. I need an officer to come out here and restrain him.”
“Sorry, but we don’t have the manpower for that sort of thing. Just talk to your neighbor. Be reasonable about it.”
“Reasonable? It’s Sid that’s being unreasonable. He tried to hit me.”
“My neighbor. The guy who’s killing my grass.”
“He hit you?”
“No, he missed. But he would have.”
“It isn’t assault if you weren’t hurt.”
“That’s a weird distinction. If he’d shot me I couldn’t of called you.”
“What’s your name sir?”
I ignored this. My wife didn’t like me to give my name out over the phone.
“So you aren’t going to help me?”
“I’ll mention your problem to my boss. But I wouldn’t count on a patrol car. We’re a small force covering a lot of area. We’ve got break-ins, rapes, assaults where someone does get hurt, you name it.”
“I thought Marlton was safe. The sign says ‘A Safe Place to Raise a Family.’”
“What sign is that?”
“The one on Route 65. Right past Cherry Hill. Big, with trees and laughing children on a see-saw. Rapes? There’s actually raping going on?”
“Not often. But still. You can’t use manpower for lawn floods. I’ll check the statutes later, but I don’t think what your neighbor is doing is a crime.”
I hung up.
I bit my hand in frustration. Yelled at my kids to keep quiet. The water was splashing against our sliding glass door. It was dark brown and carried broken bits of our honeysuckle.
I ran to the garage and found my ax. We were going to cut our own Christmas tree that year. In keeping with the rustic nature of our suburban life.
I slogged through what was left of my backyard. Sid was pumping the accelerator on one of his ATV’s. I pulled the black drain pipe from his pool under our red cedar fence, pulled it like I would the head of some poisonous snake, and whacked at it with the ax. My wife opened the sliding door to yell at me. I ignored her. I hacked into the soft rubber, punching deep divots into the wet grass and covering myself in mud. When I cut though a torrent of water sprayed into my face. I pushed the hose back under the fence. Now half the water was pouring into Sid’s yard. I felt triumphant.
I went inside. My clothes were a ruin. I took a shower in scalding water. Opened a beer. A police car pulled into my driveway.
The cops, two cops, ambled past our picture window. They looked exactly the way I knew suburban cops would look. They were gigantic, “larger than life,” was the phrase that popped into my head as I went to the door. They wore those thick leather belts that contain fifty different apparatuses for maiming another human being—guns, knives, Mace, blackjacks, ten-pound flashlights, clubs, and two pairs of handcuffs to slap on the corpse.
“Could you step outside please?”
“Why don’t you come in? Can I get you a beer?”
They looked at one another.
“Step outside Mr. Clayton, and leave the bottle here.” One of behemoths gently but firmly took my Miller High Life bottle and set in on the table. I stepped outside.
“Do you have some identification?”
“Me? Of course, I mean, like what? Driver’s license?”
“Yes sir. A driver’s license. Most people don’t carry their birth certificate around with them.”
I chuckled at this. “No, I suppose not. But I just showered. It’s inside, in my wallet.”
“Okay. We’ll worry about that later. My partner needs to look in your garage. Does he have permission to do so?”
“Why does he have to look in there? It’s just a garage. Tools, golf clubs, maybe a car.”
“Mr. Clayton, are you going to cooperate with this investigation or are you not?”
“Investigation? What investigation? Maybe you should tell me what this is about. I thought you were here because I called the police earlier.”
“You called? When was that?”
“I think an hour ago. My neighbor is, was, in the process of destroying my backyard, so I called the non-emergency number.”
“No record of that. Can my partner go into your garage or not? We will get a warrant if we need one, but it would be easier if you cooperated.”
“Warrant? What did I do? I mean, you should be talking to Sid there. See him? He’s the fat guy in the track suit. There, over the fence.”
Sid was peering at us, smiling at me.
The cops didn’t look.
“Okay,” the one cop whose name tag said Delbert to the other. “Let’s go.”
They started toward their car, a long sleek black Taurus bristling with antennas and with a shotgun visibly clipped to the steel cage separating the front seat from the back.
“All right, all right. Go inside. Look to your heart’s content. But you won’t find anything in there.”
Mel went in and came out about ten seconds later with my ax.
“Here it is Del.” He was wearing clear plastic gloves on his hands, the kind doctors wear when they pinch your prostate.
“That’s my ax.”
“It’s your ax? So you admit this is your ax?”
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s mine. It came out of my garage. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal Mr. Clayton is assault with a deadly weapon.” Mel pulled out a piece of paper and read me my rights. Delbert put handcuffs on me. My girls were looking out the window, crying. My wife was standing behind them, shaking her head at me.
“This is a joke, right? I chopped my neighbor’s hose up so his filthy water wouldn’t ruin my yard. Who did I assault?”
“’Whom’,” said Delbert.
“Jesus H. Christ.” I couldn’t help myself though I knew blasphemy wouldn’t help.
“Watch your mouth, Mr. Clayton.”
“Whom did I assault, allegedly?”
“That’s for the court to decide Mr. Clayton. We have a complaint, we have a witness, and we have the weapon. So, no, this isn’t a joke.”
“Does that man look like he’s been hit with an ax?” I pointed toward Sid. He was leering at me, miming handcuffed wrists.
The cops looked over, finally. Sid waved. The cops smiled and waved back. “Hey Sid, how’s it hanging?” shouted Delbert.
“You know. No complaints. You got the guy?” Sid was giddy; he was rolling his big yellow eyes at us like a madman.
“Well, presumption of innocence and all, but we got the ax.”
“That’s a relief. It’s unsettling for Nancy you know, living next to these people.”
That’s when I lost it. “What are you talking about? You bum! Nancy, who the hell is Nancy? I’ve never seen any Nancy. Does she even know that we live here? A goddamn shut-in is what she is, and you’re a bum! The two of you are bums!” For some reason I felt compelled to repeat the word “bum.” It sounded right. It conveyed what I had long felt about Sid and everyone else in this godforsaken place—they were bums.
Mel pulled hard on my arm and told me to shut up. My wife was banging on the widow. I could hear my children wailing.
“You asshole. My wife’s an invalid.” Sid pronounced the word with the accent on the second syllable, which must have been a slip of the tongue. He bolted from his perch on the fence and trotted toward us. Three of us, soon to be four, and three more, in the shadows of the house: a tableau, etched against the fake blue siding of our rancher, which was, I decided, ugly and cheap looking, the vinyl windows, the dying grass. In the city the sky always looks the same—dull white, shading toward gray. Here you could actually look up and see that Marlton Glen and all of southern New Jersey was covered with greasy light, as if under a filthy rag. I was taking this in, ignoring the tug of the handcuffs, the banging and crying. I was in a fugue state—was that the word?—delirious, hallucinatory. My mind had torqued out, I had slipped out of gear and was whirling like an untethered flywheel, spinning but going nowhere. I noted without interest that people were coming out of their houses, gathering in the street. There was a crowd in front of my house—a dozen people, not one of whom I had ever seen before. Sid was still shouting, walking toward us. His voice bent in the air.
“An invalid! An invalid!’ He was chanting, waving his arms, stripping off his silken jacket.
I squared my shoulders.
“Hold on Sid. We got this under control. Stay back.” Delbert let go of my arm and put his hand on his nightstick. I knew the cop would hit me first.
Mel whined, “Clayton that was a rotten thing to say. My wife is housebound. An invalid. You better apologize!”
Too late for that. “You people are nuts. I’ve seen her walking around. Once anyway. And so what? My wife’s got asthma. My daughter’s allergic to peanuts. And you’re dumping your pool in my yard.” I almost wept just thinking about that water. My grass. I moved here to grow grass and now it was dead. Water was oozing around the side of the house, headed downhill toward the road and the small knot of neighbors, all of whom I now noticed were dressed in bathrobes and slippers, strange indoor creatures clustered right in the middle of Marlton Glen Way. A guy right in front yelled to Sid and gave him thumbs up.
The front door opened. My wife fell out onto the front porch. Sid kept coming. His face was red and his shaved head glistened with perspiration. Time stopped. Mel held out a hand to my wife and pulled her to her feet. Delbert tugged me toward the patrol car; the engine was still running, the radio was pulsing waves of static into the still air. Sid stopped yelling and was panting and slobbering like one of his Rottweilers. Delbert let go of me and put a meaty hand on Sid’s chest. He said something, but my ears were ringing—my heart was in overdrive. My wife appeared to be hugging Mel. The group in the middle of the street scurried toward us as a UPS truck came flying down the street.
My wife broke away from Mel and collapsed. The UPS truck stopped in front our house. The driver threw open the back door of the van and pulled out a big box. He trotted up to our front door, paying no attention to the cops or the crowd or Sid or me in handcuffs. He spoke to my wife, asking her to sign for the package. She shook her head no, so Mel signed. The driver opened the front door to put the box inside and the kids ran out, hysterical, and fell on their mother. The UPS guy smiled and ran back to his truck, threw it into gear and sped off, scattering the growing contingent of gawking neighbors.
“Bulbs” I said to Delbert.
“Those are bulbs for my yard. Tulips. Ten kinds. We thought it would look nice to have them in the front yard.”
“My wife and I got irises. Can’t get enough of them.” He said this as he was pushing me into the patrol car.
The kids stopped crying and watched me duck into the back seat, behind the mesh cage and the shotgun. One of the people in the street applauded, at least it sounded that way.
Then Sid said, “Wait a minute. Del, hold on.”
“What? Hold what?”
“I’m not pressing charges. I changed my mind. Let him go.” Sid was looking at my kids holding onto their mother.
“You can’t change your mind Sid. If he assaulted you we’re taking him in.”
“He didn’t. I mean, not exactly.”
Delbert sighed and said “What are you saying Sid? Did you call or not?”
“Yeah, yeah I called. He was chopping up my discharge hose. But he didn’t physically attack me.”
“Well Jesus H. Christ. That’s a hell of a thing Sid. Me and Mel come running over here, arrest this guy, and you’re saying all he did was chop your hose? What the hell.” Delbert looked at Mel who shrugged and picked my wife up again. The kids got quiet.
“Okay.” Delbert pulled me out of the car, none too gently. He took the handcuffs off of me and threw them on the front seat of the cruiser. Mel walked over to Sid and started to say something, but thought better of it. He climbed into the passenger side of the car and mumbled into the radio. After a minute Delbert got in and backed the car out of the driveway. On the street he made a gesture at the crowd and they started to break up, but not before one of them shot me the bird.
I rubbed my wrists, just the way they do on TV, and walked over to my wife. She didn’t look at me. The kids backed away.
Sid walked a few steps toward us. He held out his hand and looked at me. I didn’t move. He put his hand in his pocket and nodded his head, turned around and walked back around the cedar fence and into his yard. Five minutes later I heard his motorcycle revving. On, off, on off. By now the torrent of pool water had slowed to a trickle. Most of my top soil and all of my compost had washed into the street. I supposed our roses were washed away as well. I no longer cared. I put the ax in the garage and went into the house.
My wife and kids were sitting on the couch reading a book. Everyone appeared calm.
I looked at them, and they just kept reading. It was starting to rain, a sound I’ve always loved.
“We could get a puppy,” I said.
The girls smiled. My wife smiled. I got a beer and turned on the TV.
There was nothing on.