Appearances

I always thought of them as being plastic, like full-sized versions of Barbie and Ken. They had that sheen, that glossiness about them. The blonde coiffed hair, the tanned-to-orange-perfection skin. They were tall and athletic, fashionably preppy. She wore sundresses and wedges, he wore chinos and loafers. I suspect, if she allowed it, he would wear one of those horribly tacky gold chains that some men think are so macho. Instead, he settled for a watch with a brown leather band; she had pearl necklaces with matching earrings.

Sometimes I wonder if they would have been better suited to a place like Connecticut, or a yacht moored off some chic European coast. As it was, they came to our small Midwestern town, new money in a no-money neighborhood. They were like J.Crew models setting up shop in “Field and Stream.” Cashmere among camo.

They bought the Hammerstein’s old place. A brick split level that had seen yellow, green and blue siding over the years, it was a comfortable house, a settled house, a house that said family. Pansies tucked into ceramic planters smiled cheerfully at passers-by, the lawn was lush and green. The tree out front was a refuge for neighborhood children barefoot and burned from the summer sun.

But then they moved in, shifting and pushing and manipulating that small plot of land. At first, I think the land pushed back. But they were meaner and tougher and smarter.

They removed that wonderful oak tree. It was like witnessing death, the scraping of dirt onto that rumbling machine, the groaning and creaking of roots as they were violently pulled up from their home. The horrific crash as it landed in the street, leaves shuddering as if uttering their last breath.

Then they leveled the house, destroying it completely before rebuilding a McMansion in its place. Because a five-bedroom colonial blends so well with modest houses from the ‘70s. I imagine they weren’t concerned with fitting in, or how their destruction would affect the neighbors. I don’t like to think it was selfishness on their part, bringing in their money and big-city ideas to a place that so valued family – and retro décor.  Maybe it was ignorance. And ambition.

They once told me that the house, the yard – the whole neighborhood, really – needed a facelift.

“Honestly, honey, you have no idea what kind of mediocrity there is in a place like this,” she said.

“Mediocrity? I don’t understand.”

“It’s just a lack of pride, of confidence in how things look, sweetie. What you look like on the outside says everything about who you are on the inside. It’s an investment in yourself and the future, and it all takes you one step further towards a more luxurious life. By the way, is there any shopping center nearby other than that pitiful strip mall on Grand? I would love to spruce up this place with some nice wicker furniture.”

Their renovations took over a year. A year of squealing drills, of heavy trucks that beeped and beeped and beeped as they backed up, of discarded paper cups and cigarette butts from workers. I don’t think I slept much that year. Collateral damage.

But when it was over, when the air settled, when they had won and the land had accepted defeat, they stood out on their new porch, arms around each other, smiling their pearly whites. For them, it was victory.

And they lived there, at 601 Harmon Street, for two years. Now the house stands alone, beautiful, but empty. A shell. Just like them.

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Mama Junebug

Her name was Nancy Smith, but she liked to be called “Mama Junebug.” She had pink hair, light and frothy like cotton candy; when she went to market, she tied a plastic bag over it for protection, looping the handles together and stretching it tight across her deeply-lined forehead. Her hands were weighed down with rings – emerald, amethyst, sapphire – pushed over swollen, arthritic knuckles, but she said pain was beauty.

I watched her through the kitchen window, the one in front of the sink. As bubbles trickled down my arms, as dinner plates stood at attention in the dishwasher, I saw Mama Junebug start down the street. Back hunched, feet snug in tan orthopedic sandals, Mama Junebug shuffled her way from the verdant green of her lawn – a trophy in our neighborhood, courtesy of local teenage boys looking to make a summer buck – towards the Piggly Wiggly looming in the distance. Glancing up, moving her head slowly, Mama Junebug lifted a hand in my direction.

I don’t know how she saw me, her eyes were blue and cloudy, and she was going blind in the left one. Perhaps she felt her audience and graciously acknowledged me, her movements regal.

Then she turned back, gripped her cart with the rusty basket and squeaky wheel, and continued on her way. The queen of Freemont Avenue.