When we first viewed the house, our realtor Mike told us that the neighborhood was “in transition.” It was the end of 2002 and we were sick of our one-bedroom, second-floor apartment with the treacherous steps and the murderously hot summers without air conditioning. By this point we had been abusing the “no pets” clauses for at least six months and our cats spent their days in the bathroom like stowaways on an irregular-shaped yacht. So we were more than ready to move.
What Mike meant was that homes were being snapped up by young couples – DINKS, the lot of us – and that the neighborhood was undergoing a renaissance. He had grown up in this neighborhood himself; he showed us in our floor plan which bedroom had been his, which had been his brother’s. I’m a sucker for this sort of nostalgia. After stalking the house like jealous lovers, driving by at all times of day and night to make sure she was still there, safe and alone, we made the offer. We packed up the cats, a few dozen boxes of books, and moved in. We met the neighbors on all sides, joined the neighborhood watch, and started to make our dull little box of a home into something we loved.
It wasn’t until Baxter came along that I really got to know the neighborhood, though. The most loved beagle on earth insists on two walks a day – nose to the ground, tail in the air, leg lifted frequently. I can credit Baxter with giving me more of an interest in our neighborhood – without these walks I might not notice people moving in or out, or know which cars belong where. I wouldn’t notice the wheelchair ramp being built, or the tacky Christmas decorations lingering nearly to Easter. I wouldn’t know every dog within a twelve block radius, or even be known myself.
“Hi, Baxter!” say the sisters whose names I don’t remember.
“It’s Baxter and his mom!” says the woman walking her black lab. I only know her as Kiya’s mom.
“I see you walking by here all the time,” observes the man whose lower jaw extends much farther than his upper.
“I love that little beagle,” says the homeless man in the park, his voice emerging from beneath layers of fabric.
“Are you taking your dog for a walk?” asks Crazy Lady with the bandaged leg. Just once I’d like to reply, “Nope, not today,” while our six legs hustle past. But I can’t, and it’s more than pity for the infected leg. It’s a matter of being… neighborly.
Maybe this is why I bristled when a friend said, apropos of nothing, that I lived in a bad neighborhood. Well, maybe not nothing – there was the stolen car two years ago and the break-in last June. It is true that our neighborhood was hit hard by the mortgage crisis; some of the homes snapped up at such a steal are now on the market again. But this morning, walking Baxter before the streetlights were off, I had this thought: We’re just “in transition” again. Right now we’re slumping in the other direction, maybe, but it’s a slow slump, and that feels okay for now. It could turn around at any time.
I’m thinking this as I pass Michael, my day-trading/weekend-garage-saling neighbor. He’s wearing shorts and slippers; the fat cigar in his mouth is keeping him warm. He calls out, “’Morning! This is going to be a great day, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” I say, voicing optimism that I rarely let myself believe in. “It’s great already.”
I’ve applied for a government job. No specifics… for two reasons. First, everyone who knows has tried to talk me out of it. (That’s right -- I’m talking about you, Patricia.) And second, getting excited about something is a sure way to jinx myself. Instead, I’ll be vague and let you imagine me interrogating terrorists.
There were some good reasons to apply for this job, though. It’s something I’m qualified to do, something I think I can do, and something I might actually like. It’s part-time (meaning I can write), pays well, and it isn’t substitute teaching. I’m not saying the students I meet are charmless, just that the experience itself isn’t always charming. Good for now, but not my long term goal, let’s say.
So. My testing date is set for November, a month away. “You’ll need that time to get your materials together,” the woman on the phone tells me. I scoffed inwardly, hearing this. I’m pretty quick, fairly organized – what could possibly take me a month? Well. That was before I opened the “personal history statement” and realized I would have to divulge every job I’ve ever held (two at a time, pretty much, since I was sixteen), the address of ever place I’ve ever lived, and the names of everyone who has ever had the (mis) fortune to live with me. My husband, parents, sisters, colleagues, friends… apparently, I have to list the names, occupations and addresses of anyone who has ever rubbed elbows with me. (If that’s you, and chances are good it is, I’m sorry. But will you please say something nice about me?) Look, I expected the drug screening, the fingerprinting. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the scrutiny of my driving record (39 in a 25, I confess), my sordid medical history, our marriage license, and now a thorough credit check. I have student loans; does this make me susceptible to blackmail?
And then, I had to admit to something that has been a joke amongst my friends and family for the last three years: Yes, I have had a negative employee evaluation. I was written up for not rebuking a student who said “crap” in my creative writing class, with the evaluator sitting in a desk in the corner of the room. Do you see why I didn’t take this seriously? At the time, I responded in typical Paula fashion; I wrote a letter that was attached to the evaluation, which sits now in a dusty file cabinet and may never be seen again by anyone. But still, I hesitated over the question. Lie, and hope that the background check doesn’t really include a close reading of my personnel file? Tell the truth, and be disqualified from the job for something that was, and still is, ridiculous? Eventually I wrote it down, though I have faint hope that the government will see the humor or the humanity of the situation.
The truth is, I’ve lived a stable, uncomplicated and fairly responsible life. And yet, it’s kind of uncomfortable to be under the microscope. The process of self-examination makes me feel guilty where no guilt is due. I even, irrationally, feel guilty that I don’t have more to confess. If only it was a phone interview or an email interview, I might be safe. Put me under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights, and I’m not quite sure what I’ll say. But I’m ready to come clean.
I live with Modesto’s (Self-Proclaimed) Foremost Expert on Serial Killers. This is no indictment of character; after all, I’m a close runner up for the title. We speak an odd lexicon of Bundy-Gacy-Bianchi-Damher; when we merged our book collections a decade ago, I noticed that we each had a copy of the (horribly written but endlessly fascinating) Helter Skelter. One of our first dates in San Francisco, following a guide book, took us past Manson’s former digs off Golden Gate Park. Not that we admire serial killers, mind you - but collecting the data is a sort of hobby. Some people save stamps, others collect Holstein figurines...
This obsession is fueled mainly by television. If I have a spare minute, it’s not hard to locate something on A&E – a cold case file, a biography. I grew up on Unsolved Mysteries; I watch with the absorption of someone who has never personally been touched by this sort of tragedy. I watch – sometimes from between my fingers – and think.
This dark obsession has proved useful, as I’ve recently become a slow motion serial killer myself. First it was a squirrel, then a cat, a deer, a toddler, and now, in my latest story, a teenage girl. I feel a sense of responsibility for them – I’ve created them, and they’re entitled to die with some dignity. It took pages – agonized pages – for the deer to die, and afterwards I spent a half-day in bed, mourning it. Another time I asked a friend for his reaction to my story, and he could only respond, “I can’t believe you killed a cat.” I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is in me that tends to this dark side, although perhaps it’s fueled by my home environment.
Take this conversation tonight, with a friend who is planning to build a chicken coop. While she spoke I was thinking of the advantages of raising chickens – hardboiled, over easy, scrambled, benedict – but I could see Will’s mind leaning in another direction.
“Save one of the chickens for me,” he said.
“So you can raise it?” she asked.
“No, I’m just curious. Do they really run around after you cut their heads off?”
“Sure they do. I’ll call you over if you want to see it.”
Will blanched. “Well, um, I don’t actually want to kill it or anything.” He thought a moment, visions of Manson and the Zodiac Killer dancing through his head. And then he added, smiling in my direction, “Paula would have to do it.”
Stop, rewind.It’s the news I never wanted to hear – something happened to one of my students.
This something was a gunshot wound to the chest, and the voice on the other end of the phone was telling me, “We’ve set up a crisis center on campus and we need you to cover for one of the teachers.”
“What?” I asked, my mind reeling. And then stupidly, because this should have been obvious at this point, “Who is this?”
“It’s Mary. Can you come in?”
I hesitated. No. I like to keep my tragedies at a distance. But then, “Of course.” No matter that it was ten-forty-five and I was freshly out of the shower, hair a wet tangle, and that getting there in fifteen minutes meant slipping into yesterday’s clothes. I was covering for another teacher, because that’s what I am these days – a substitute teacher. I put in a few days a week doing whatever is needed of me and then I leave it behind and focus on my writing.
I hadn’t asked who the student was and while I was passing cars on the freeway, every worst-case scenario went through my head. A seventeen-year-old boy. It could be any of my former students…
As it turned out, that student was Dillon. As it turned out, the shot was self-inflicted.
Play: Dillon, the happy-go-lucky kid in my second period sophomore Honors class. Not the best student, not the most dedicated – he often sat back with an amused smile and sort of observed everyone else doing their work – but the kind of person you just liked having around. And there were moments of brilliance – he could argue a point with the best of them; give him an opportunity to draw and whatever he produced was something that stayed on your wall for a year or more. Signed, proudly, Dillon.
He liked to write on my chalkboard: “Dillon is Mrs. D’s favorite!”
After sophomore year, he pestered me constantly, “Will you teach junior English? Will you teach senior English?”
Our paths didn’t cross in the classroom again until this year, when as a substitute I ran into him all over the place. “Mrs. D!” he’d yell, seeing me come up the sidewalk.
Little encounters, a few seconds out of the day.
The kind of thing you take for granted.
I’ll probably never know what was going through his mind, how he got to the point where this was the best option.
I wish I could tell him: it gets better, no matter what it is. You’ll be an adult soon. You can make choices for yourself. You have the whole world in front of you.
Paula Treick DeBoard