Good Neighbors

<em>Good Neighbors</em>

“Is it a party? Are we invited?” Larry Wilde asked.

They weren’t invited. Gertie Wilde knew this, but she didn’t want to admit it. So she watched the crowd out her window, counted all the people there.

The Wildes had moved to 116 Maple Street about a year before. A fixer-upper, they’d bought the place for cheap. Over the year they’d lived there, they’d meant to renovate. To re-shingle the roof and put in new gutters, tear up the deep pile carpet and nail down bamboo. At the very least, they’d planned to seed grass across the patchwork lawn. But stuff happens. Or doesn’t happen.

The inside of 116 Maple Street was haphazard, too. As a kid, you might have visited this sort of home on a playdate, and intuited the mess as happy, but also chaotic. You had a great time when you slept over. You never worried about the stuff you had to bother with at home: making your bed, hanging your wet towel, carrying your dishes to the sink. Still, you wanted to go home pretty soon after, because even with the laughter, all that mess started to make you nervous. You got the feeling that the management was in over its head.

The of Maple Street typically dressed in business casual. They drove practical cars to practical jobs. They were always in a rush, even if it was just to the grocery store or church. They didn’t seem to worry as much about their mortgages. If their parents were sick, or their marriages weren’t happy, they didn’t mention it. They channeled those unsettled feelings, like everything else, into their kids.

They talked about extracurriculars and sports; which teachers at the local, blue-ribbon public school were brilliant miracle workers, and which ones lacked training via the social-emotional connection. They were obsessed with college. Harvard, in particular.

The Wildes were different. With their finances out of sorts, Gertie and Arlo didn’t have the bandwidth to obsess over their kids, and even if they’d had the time and mental space, no one had ever taught them about creative learning and emotional intelligence, healthy discipline and consistent boundaries. They wouldn’t have known where to begin.

The kids, Julia and Larry, made fart sounds in public, and also farted in public. Julia was fast. Their first month on the block, she stole her dad’s cigarettes and taught the neighborhood kids how to French exhale. Larry was quirky. He didn’t make eye contact and had a flat affect and when he thought the other kids weren’t looking, he stuck his hands down his pants.

The Wildes knew that they’d been breaking tacit rules ever since arriving on Maple Street. But they didn’t know which rules. For instance, Arlo was a former rocker who smoked late-night Parliaments off his front porch. He didn’t know that in the suburbs, you only smoke in your back yard, especially if you have tattoos and no childhood friends to vouch for you. Otherwise, you look angry, puffing all alone and on display. You vibe violent.

Then there was Gertie. Before she met Arlo at the Atlantic City Civic Center, where he’d played lead rhythm for the traveling band, she’d won thirty-two regional beauty pageants. Like a living Barbie Doll, she still conducted herself with that same pageant training: phony smiles, over-bright eyes, stock answers to questions that begged for honesty. The neighbors who’d tried to befriend her had mostly given up, under the misapprehension that there wasn’t anybody home under all that blonde. Worse, nobody’d ever told Gertie that mom cleavage isn’t cool. She didn’t know that when she wore her halter-tops, chain-necklaces dangling between her breasts, she might as well have been heaving a great billboard to the other wives that read: INSECURE FLOOZY WHO WANTS TO STEAL YOUR HUSBAND AND MAKE YOUR KIDS ASHAMED YOU’RE NOT A 5’10”, BLONDE VIKING WITH PERFECT SKIN."


Reprinted courtesy of Atria Books.

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