by MARGARET F. CHEN
One Saturday afternoon, Mark and Annie Zhang decided to visit their tenants, Frank and Naomi Olivetti. They wanted to see for themselves the purportedly amazing landscaping work the Olivettis had completed over the past few months, as reported via one of their former neighbors, Mrs. Winifred Callahan. Mrs. Callahan had initially contacted Mark and Annie about a downed maple she had insisted, quite rightly, that the Zhangs remove from her yard after a windstorm knocked it down from the Olivetti/Zhang side. This the Zhangs accomplished with upstanding promptness, hiring the EZ Tree Company whose phone number and reputation (“expensive but good”) Mrs. Callahan had conveniently furnished, along with an unsolicited update on the Olivettis.
The Olivetti’s numerous yard projects were not a surprise to Annie, Mrs. Callahan was disappointed to discover, as Naomi had asked permission to start these months ago, and then followed up with a series of letters, informing the Zhangs of their progress. Stop by any time, Naomi had written in her small, neat cursive. We’d love to show you what we’ve done. Annie had assured her that they most certainly would. Rockville—even if it was on the Maryland side, and they were now on the Virginia side—was only twenty-five miles away.
But one thing after another had occurred that spring—Annie’s grandfather passing away, a friend’s wedding, work deadlines—and it had been impossible to get away. It was now late summer, and driving down the familiar, narrow road, dark as late evening due to the massive, old oaks hanging over the street curbs, Annie felt nauseated and her heart raced, as if it wanted to escape from her body. She said to Mark, “It’s so dark here. I don’t remember it being this dark, not at three in the afternoon.”
Mark, who soon after their marriage had begun to automatically disagree with his wife on almost everything, remarked mildly, “It’s always been like this. At least, in the summer.” Annie wanted, all of a sudden, more than anything, to turn around and go home. But they had come all this way already, had been stuck on the Beltway for a solid hour and a half earlier, and there was no way Mark—or Annie, for that matter—was going through that ordeal again.
So here they were, driving through their old neighborhood, past the same seedy strip malls, the favored Safeway, the well-known bend in the road, and the railroad tracks they had bumped over time and time again (and if they turned right instead of going straight, they could drive to the air-conditioned, glass-towered bookstore at White Flint Mall, where readers sat unconflicted, quiet, absorbed in their own worlds, not bothering one another…if only they could go there instead). But down their old street—Ruby Drive—they went. And up ahead, a gigantic white clapboard house, with a mismatched third-story red-brick addition, loomed over their own smaller rental. The unwieldy clapboard belonged to the Zumans. Although she tried to stop herself, Annie began to fix her gaze upon the large house, as if a magnetic force gravitated forth from its many black windows, pulling her very eyeballs, it seemed, right out of their sockets and towards the walls of staring, glassy recesses. She had expected some of the Zuman children to be running around, but there was not a person in the yard, near the house, or on the streets.
Mark and Annie’s rental—the first home they had ever purchased, and which they had lived in for less than a year—was like many of the other single-story, three-bedroom brick ranches on the street—compact, solid, with pale green shutters, a tiny carport, and a long, sloping driveway. Inside, the rooms were spacious, light-filled, with shiny hardwood floors. There was a full-sized, half-finished basement, and a new washer and dryer in the laundry room by the stairs. Outside, a small stone patio faced a broad, shaded backyard. The real estate agent had called it “cute”—a starter home—and Annie had dreamed of all the gardening projects she would start once they settled in. But then she had met the Zumans, and had found herself going out less and less into the yard. The Zuman’s overbuilt, decrepit Colonial, quite simply, gave her the creeps. A dilapidated chain-link fence, covered in weeds and leaning against muddy heaps of old bicycles, rusting lawn chairs, and plastic toys, inadequately separated the Zuman’s yard from the Zhang’s. Inside the house, Annie had mostly kept the shades lowered on the Zuman side. Once or twice she had defiantly opened them, but that had lasted only a few hours—maybe it had been her imagination, but there was the feeling, this crawling sensation, that beyond the mess of blackberry bushes, beyond the fence, behind those dark windows, someone—something—was staring out at her, spying.
Annie never thought she was one to be intimidated by a mere family from the burbs, even one with a lot of children and a borderline-hoarder yard. The yard, after all, had been in approximately the same unattractive condition when Annie and Mark first started looking at their own house next door, but Annie had chosen, in the excitement of possibly finding their “perfect” home, to ignore the weeds, the rusty fence, the junk peeking over the fence. While researching the neighborhood, she had learned that the schools weren’t that great. But she and Mark had no children yet, and were not planning to for some time. The realtor, when asked about the neighbors, had not known anything or pretended not to know, and the former owners, betraying only the slightest hesitation, commented briefly that the Zumans had “a lot of kids” but that Mrs. Callahan was “very nice.” As if on cue to dispel any doubts, Mrs. Zuman, plump, smiling, grandly adorned in a flowing, turquoise and burnt-orange house dress, trailing a pungent perfume of deep-fried foods, ambled over during one of the Zhang’s first visits—they had been pondering over the pros and cons of the carport—and welcomed them with a gap-toothed grin and a gentle—or one might alternatively say, tepid—handshake. This small gesture convinced Annie that the Zumans were perfectly nice, friendly people, a perfectly nice family.
But the Zumans were not just any family, Annie learned soon enough. They were a very large, extroverted, mixed-race family: exotic, street-wise, and a permanent and well-known fixture to the Ruby Drive neighborhood. Annie had always believed she had a particular affinity for mixed-race families, being from one herself (although she would never consider herself extroverted, exotic, or street-wise). Annie’s father was German and her mother Chinese. Mr. Zuman, Annie learned from Mrs. Zuman, was part Swedish and part Thai, and Mrs. Zuman herself was Pakistani. Branching out from this main line were seven kids, ranging in ages from nine to twenty-five, two maternal grandparents, and an adopted Rottweiler. After meeting Mrs. Zuman, Annie started seeing the messy yard in a different light—the untidiness became charming, and she felt sympathetically towards the overgrown house next door with its accompanying overgrown weeds, much as she would feel towards a large, slow child. In any case, wasn’t she, Annie, an inveterate collector of things as well? She hated throwing anything out, and had spent numerous hours, if not days or even months, sorting through piles of newspapers, old clothes, old papers, drawerfuls of knick-knacks, just so she wouldn’t miss anything of use. All of that organizing, she reminded herself, took time, and maybe the Zumans with their sprawling family and busy lives just didn’t have the time to sort through things.
The seven children, all of whom she would eventually meet, were, in ascending order, Cissy, Mickey, Sydney, Wendy, Thorvald, Jeremy, and Marie. Annie did not often see the older siblings around— Marie, Thorvald, and Jimmy were in their early twenties, Sydney and Wendy in their late teens—for they quite naturally had better things to do than hang around their nerdy, housebound next-door neighbor. Sometimes she would hear voices in the backyard or outside in the driveway, people coming and going, cars revving up, zooming away, sputtering back, doors slamming. She did not often see the older children, but she heard them, that was for sure.
On the other hand, nine-year-old Cissy and eleven-year-old Mickey made frequent appearances at the Zhang’s house, at least in the beginning. On the pair’s first visit, both had hung back, shy and uncertain, all of which Annie found understandable and endearing, having been a shy child herself. But she soon discovered that timidity was not their natural disposition. Cissy, a pretty girl, with long, dark-brown hair, large, pale-green eyes and dry, crayon-brown skin, a little on the plump side, immediately began fingering the Williams Sonoma tablecloth—the fidgety type, Annie decided—and wanted to know the price of the sofa, the television, Annie’s Depression-glass collection. Mickey, a smaller, jauntier boy-version of Cissy, asked about Mark’s marble chess set, and remarked that the African hunting spears hanging on the wall were “cool.” Annie, amused by their curiosity, chalked up the lack of restraint to naive over-enthusiasm. She doubted they would come back to visit again, as grown-up possessions—and grown-ups, in general—were probably pretty boring to kids like Cissy and Mickey. Or so Annie thought.
But back again they were the next day. Annie offered cookies and iced tea, while Mickey inspected the stereo system and tried out, to Annie’s embarrassment, several of her CDs. Neither he nor Cissy had heard of ABBA or the Beatles, Bach or Beethoven, but even as they made faces and giggled at the unusual music, Cissy declared that she liked “The Moonlight Sonata” and “Strawberry Fields.” Annie glowed with all the aura of good influence, envisioning herself as a surrogate mother-teacher, perhaps—she would instruct these ignorant children in music, in science, in literature, she would take them on outings to museums at the Smithsonian. Cissy then asked if they could stay and watch television. Annie said no, she had some work to do that afternoon. Mickey asked if he could borrow the spears, to which Annie also said no. She asked if they would like her to show them how to play chess on Mark’s marble set, and they said yes, but after struggling through an explanation of each of the pieces, they grew bored and began kicking at each other under the table.
“I have to work now,” Annie said finally, “maybe you can stop by another day?” The children sulkily departed.
In time, only Cissy continued showing up. “Hi,” she would say, “I was just coming by to visit.” Again, there was that shy or furtive air, some nervous hair-pulling, but after a cookie or two, she would quickly settle into her usual cross-legged position on the braided rug, and the “girls” would commence their conversation. Subjects varied randomly, but questions focused primarily upon practical matters.
“How much did you pay for that?” Or: “I bet you could get twenty dollars for that.” Once she asked how much the house cost (which Annie answered) and how much money Mark made (which Annie did not.) Sometimes, Annie would help Cissy with her math or spelling homework, since Cissy usually chose to come right after school.
“It’s always noisy at our house,” she complained. “I can’t concentrate. Can I come here? It’s so quiet.”
Annie sympathetically, readily agreed. But it was hard to get any work done while Cissy was there. She would either ask questions incessantly or stare at Annie with those large, pale green eyes.
Then there was the issue with the dog. The dog just made things phenomenally worse—for it was always barking, barking, barking. When Annie saw how he was treated, she understood why—he was kept chained in the backyard, night and day, next to the fence dividing their properties, bored to death. Unfortunately, he could see right through the back living room window into a large portion of the Zhang’s house. Many times she looked up from her laptop to see him straining against his leash, ready to start a barking marathon at the slightest provocation—and there were plenty of affronts to set him off—if she looked out the window too long, if she took out the trash, or tripped on the rug. All these mistakes incited him to a frenzied barking that could be heard at least three blocks away, and which sometimes lasted an entire afternoon. After a while he’d grow bored again and settle down, moping, next to his ramshackle dog house, a pile of boards so shabby that even he refused to inhabit it. The Zumans never seemed to take him inside unless he was making a particularly insane fuss. Sometimes Annie did see the kids unchain him for what she assumed was “exercise.” Teasing and shouting, the kids would chase and slap him around and around the yard, up and down the street, and all over the neighborhood. Usually he ended up chasing the screeching kids back to the house. After the Zhangs moved, Mrs. Callahan told them the dog had been seized by the police, and surrendered to the Montgomery County Humane Society after he was caught chasing some children visiting the neighborhood. There had also been rumors about the dog terrorizing an elderly woman out for a roll in her wheelchair one day. But then the Zumans just got another dog.
No doubt, the Zumans were a mystery, and Annie never did find out some very basic information about them, such as where Mr. Zuman worked, or why all the older kids were still at home and what they all did with their time. Annie recalled Cissy saying that one of her siblings—probably Marie, the eldest and most responsible-looking one—was studying to be a nurse and attended night classes at the community college. But then, there were the other kids. She couldn’t help noticing that although the Zumans didn’t seem to be exactly wealthy—if the state of their home and yard could be any real indication—the older siblings did dress fashionably and drive late-model cars. Cissy informed Annie that two of her brothers worked at a “club” and “made lots of money.” That, at least, explained all the vehicles pulling up into their driveway late at night, accompanied by loud male voices and goonish guffaws. When Annie peeked out the blinds, there would be Thorvald and Jimmy, the two eldest brothers, swaggering around with their leather-jacketed friends.
It also did not help Annie’s information-gathering mission that Cissy, the main go-between, was a chronic liar. She lied constantly. She lied for no reason. If Annie mentioned a story about an acquaintance of hers, Cissy always knew who the person was or someone else who knew the person. Annie made up someone once, just to test her, and sure enough, Cissy knew the pretend-person. Once Mickey prank-called Annie, and then he and Cissy both vigorously denied it, even though Annie’s Caller ID clearly showed that the call came from their house. Annie started finding fast-food wrappers and soda cans in the yard, near the Zuman’s fence. She’d storm over to the startled Mrs. Zuman, waving the garbage angrily, and Mrs. Zuman would always fake-apologize. When the prank calls started up again—this time peppered with all manner of choice words—Annie called the police. She felt a little queasy when the policewoman showed up and started questioning the Zumans, but it had to be done. This time the grandfather came over to apologize (for real, it appeared this time), and added without any relish that Mickey and Cissy were going to be “punished.” Cissy would say to Annie after each similar skirmish, “I cried after you said that,” but Annie didn’t believe her. Cissy wasn’t the crying type.
At times, Annie’s own behavior, she was embarrassed to admit, went over-the-top. Once she had spotted a small pyramid of dog excrement in the middle of their front lawn. Annie managed to work herself into a rage over this, for of course it belonged to that dog of theirs, purposefully placed there by the bratty kids; somehow Annie convinced Mark, after he came home from work that day (he usually missed out on all the excitement, being at the office during the troublesome afternoon hours) to go out and take pictures of the offending pile as “evidence.” He went out into the yard—in sync with Annie on this for once—armed with his old Minolta and shot twenty or so photos of the poop at various angles. Mrs. Zuman, when informed of what had happened, sent over Mickey and his school friend to clean up the mess in the end, which they did, giggling the entire time. When it was finally clear that Mark and Annie weren’t going to win the battle—and that the Zumans had no intention of ever leaving their ever-growing home (another addition was being planned, behind their garage), Annie decided it was time to leave. That was when they found Frank and Naomi through a classified ad which Annie had placed in the paper. She had reduced the rent, in order to be able to leave more quickly, and had received a torrent of responses. Naomi and Frank were among the first to call. When she and Mark moved out quietly one Monday, the only person who knew was Mrs. Callahan next door. But then Mrs. Callahan always knew everything.
It was now seven months since they had last handed the keys to the Olivettis, and Annie had heard not a word of complaint about the Zumans. Instead, Naomi described the new projects she and Frank were working on around the house, in beautifully hand-written letters enclosed with the rent checks. Annie had already concluded, when she had first met the Olivettis, that they would be able to deal with the Zumans much more successfully than she and Mark had—Naomi’s letters reinforced this view even more strongly. The Olivettis were both computer programmers, like Annie (Mark was an office manager for a computer company, which was at least not so distantly related), and she was excited when Naomi showed up at their first visit, carrying exactly the same kind of black leather Coach briefcase that Annie owned. It’s a sign, she thought to herself. She had, in addition, liked Naomi’s look—the dark jeans and white, collared shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, her mass of wavy, dark hair, bright eyes, and thin, friendly face. And she had liked Frank’s look (maybe even better than she liked Mark’s “look”)—handsome, Italian features, open and friendly expression, just like Naomi. They went well together. She couldn’t imagine these two disagreeing with each other on much. She liked that Naomi drove a sporty little red Miata, and that Frank rode a cool red and black Yamaha motorcycle. She, of course, liked how quickly they both wanted to take the house, how efficiently Naomi filled out the application, without leaving any blank spaces. Annie, somewhere in the back of her mind, knew that she and Mark were very, very lucky, especially as they had never been landlords before, and had never wanted to be landlords. The lowered rent had something to do with it, true, but wasn’t it terribly ironic, Annie mused to him after the Olivettis left, that Frank and Naomi were just like a more hip, more extroverted version of she and Mark? Of course, Mark snorted and didn’t agree.
Annie had read from Naomi’s letters that they had painted some of the rooms, expanded the patio, and planted shrubs. But she didn’t really know what to expect until she and Mark drove back to the house that Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t a surprise to see that the Zuman’s brand new white SUV, parked along the curb, already had a big dent in it, on the driver’s side. Their rental house didn’t look the same, however. Pansies and hostas lined the driveway, and the azaleas were trimmed. Rakes and brooms were lined up neatly against the side of the house There was even a brand new mailbox.
“Wow. Look at that,” Annie pointed to Mark. “They’ve only been here a short while and they’ve got a new mailbox put up already. I should’ve given them the one we bought.” Annie had also purchased a new mailbox while they lived at the house, but it had sat in the basement until they moved. She didn’t remember what happened to it after that.
Naomi greeted Annie and Mark at the doorway. She looked as neat and crisply efficient—today, wearing a blue Oxford shirt with jeans and straw sandals—as she had when Annie last remembered her.
“I’ll show you around,” Naomi said, already halfway down the hall. There were framed photos everywhere, expensive throw rugs, and a white-leather sectional with several large, brightly-colored pillows. The walls had been painted softer, finer hues—a pale mauve in one room, antique gold in another. The spare bedroom that had served as a sort of storage/junk room/office while Annie and Mark had been there was now transformed into a—spare bedroom. Annie wanted to cry when she saw it. It had always been so dark, uncomfortable, and crowded while she and Mark had lived there, but now, here was a little iron bed with quilts, a braided rug, an antique dresser, and a milk-glass reading lamp. The shades Annie had always kept shut because they faced the Zuman’s house were now thrown open, flooding the room with delightful, warm, leafy-green sunlight. It didn’t seem to matter anymore if the Zumans were looking in or not. Perhaps that was the most striking thing of all—all the curtains and shades in the entire house facing the Zuman’s side were wide open, and not just in the spare bedroom. This one difference had transformed the house, made it more agreeable-looking, open, and cheerful than Annie had ever seen. The ambiance while she and Mark had been there, she reflected now, seemed positively suspicious, dark, and distrustful.
“Can you believe this?” Annie whispered to Mark, as they walked through rooms that had once been theirs. Actually the rooms were still theirs—and yet, she felt as if they had never really belonged here, or the house hadn’t ever belonged to them. They hadn’t really known how to live in this house. Mark shrugged. He wasn’t impressed with the changes. Frank was outside on the patio, in jeans and a white T-shirt, drinking coffee and reading the paper. He smiled and stood up when he saw Annie.
“Did you do this by yourselves?” Mark asked, indicating the patio. It had been expanded to twice its former size.
Frank nodded. “The dirt came in handy for grading around the storm windows,” he explained, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Annie thought, Mark and I would have just dumped the dirt somewhere in the woods. If they would have even started a patio project in the first place. Which wasn’t likely.
Maybe because they stood there, so awkward and unbelieving, Frank offered gently, “Here. I’ll show you.” The Zhangs followed him to the side of the house which faced the Zumans. Annie had rarely spent time in this part of the yard. Now there was a little gravel path, bordered by new flowers and shrubs. And, indeed, the area around the storm windows, which had always been susceptible to puddling after storms, sloped away neatly with the new dirt.
If the inside of the house had been remarkable, the landscaping outside was stunning. Annie was flabbergasted with the amount of work that must have gone into it—and Frank and Naomi had lived there only a few months.
“Roses!” Annie exclaimed. She had heard how much work they took. The ones here in the new garden were huge, healthy, bursting with color. The rose beds themselves had been carefully weeded and raked. Besides roses there were blue hydrangeas, day lilies, baby irises, little beds of marigolds and pansies, several varieties of ferns and hostas, and other plants and flowers Annie did not recognize. New brick borders curved around the larger flower beds. The many formerly overgrown bushes and shrubs had all been neatly trimmed. A small, curved footbridge was placed far in the back, in a shady part of the yard near the woods, with stones set underneath and tiny solar lamps along the path. A set of clean, white wicker furniture was arranged on the patio, next to an expensive gas grill. There was a bird feeder next to the patio. The entire backyard had been transformed from an overgrown and neglected jungle (natural-looking, Annie had always said to herself) to a gardener’s paradise—what she, in fact, had always wanted to create.
“I can’t believe this,” Annie kept repeating, and then, when Naomi came outside to join them, she said, almost sadly,” we should give you guys the house!” Naomi laughed, a good-natured laugh, which caused Annie to feel even sadder. Mark and Frank hadn’t gotten far from the patio and were discussing something obviously related to the Zumans. They were both facing the other house and pointing to it occasionally. Annie wanted to hear. She had glanced over briefly a few times while looking around outside, and had felt there was something different about their yard, although she hadn’t identified what—she had been too busy taking in everything in their own yard. She could hear children’s voices from a far part of their yard she could not see. She could also see the Zumans’ new dog, which was out, too. It was just as ugly as the first one. But this one wasn’t barking at all. It wasn’t even looking at Annie, but in the direction of the children’s voices.
“I was just telling Mark about a burglary over at the Zumans,” Frank said. “They were even home when it happened.” Apparently someone had tried to climb through an unlocked basement window one night. Before they could make it all the way in, however, someone inside had heard the noise, and the burglar had run away.
“The funny thing is that Alexander didn’t even bark when it happened,” Naomi said, shrugging and smiling. “Didn’t even care.”
“Their new dog. He’s really very nice. Never barks.”
Annie looked over at Alexander, who was sitting quietly and wagging his tail. She and Mark had never even known the name of the first dog.
“So you haven’t had any problems with them?” Mark asked skeptically, crossing his arms over his chest. “The kids used to throw stuff into our yard.”
“I think they did throw some stuff at first. We just threw it back.”
As the four of them looked over, Annie realized what had given her the impression of change in the Zuman’s yard—a cheap, white plastic outdoors dining set, which had definitely not been there before, was arranged on the deck; the deck, which had once been buried under a small mountain of assorted junk was now swept clean. The chairs and bicycles that used to sit against the fence had been removed. The lawn was mown. There were pink flowers along the side of the house. All this had happened after she and Mark had left. After Naomi and Frank had moved in. The Zumans must like them, Annie thought, and in spite of herself, she felt jealous.
“They are a little different,” Naomi said, “But actually they’ve been pretty nice. We’ve met Cissy and Mickey. And they’ve done some landscaping recently.”
“Yes, I noticed,” said Annie slowly. ”Who was it, that did all that?”
“The oldest son.” Thorvald? Annie thought incredulously. The delinquent? The one who used to swagger around at midnight? “The really tall one,” Naomi went on, when Annie didn’t reply, “He lifts weights, I think.” Yes, that was Thorvald all right. Thorvald planting pink flowers. Annie just could not picture it. It was ludicrous. Or was it?
“It must be you two,” Annie said finally. “They never did anything like that while we were here. You two must be a good influence.” Her head was beginning to spin again, like it did when she and Mark had been driving up the street earlier, but this time, it was a different kind of sickness, a different kind of nausea. She was thinking that, maybe she hadn’t really seen the Zumans, all that clearly. Maybe they hadn’t known how to make their yard look better, maybe they had needed people like the Olivettis to show them. She, after all, had once wanted to plant a beautiful garden, too, in this very yard. What had happened?
As she mulled over the inexplicable flowers by the fence—which was still rusty and falling apart, but at least cleared of weeds and debris—she thought back to the time, although it had been a very brief one, when she and Mark had first moved in, when she hadn’t been bothered by the Zumans and their ratty yard. She might have even liked them a little, at one time, and they probably had liked her. Or at least Cissy had. Because why else would Cissy have kept coming over to visit? Had Annie ever thought of that?
Maybe Cissy had looked up to her. Maybe she had just wanted attention.
Maybe she really had cried
And in a moment—as it would again later, after the divorce—Annie’s world became not a little brighter, as one might think it should’ve, but a lot darker. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, Annie thought—depending upon how you looked at it—it was a beginning.
Margaret F. Chen’s fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Rose Red Review, The Bacopa Literary Journal, The Legendary, Midwestern Gothic, and other journals. She holds a Certificate in Fiction from UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program and currently lives in Minnesota.