Chapter One: Your Call Is Important
Here’s what I know, I tell myself each morning as I walk: There’s a little boy four doors down chained to a doghouse in his backyard. There’s a little boy chained up behind a house in my neighborhood. I let the sentences repeat in my mind as I take each step, the way children repeat rhymes as they jump to the next square in hopscotch. As if it will propel me forward. As if saying it does anything for anyone at all.
I start my walk to campus down a hill of broken sidewalk, a reminder that it’s earthquake territory. I count the houses as a kind of mantra—one, two, three, then four—as if it will bring luck, which sometimes it does. Sometimes, I don’t see him. I have to wonder, though, What do people in houses two and three think? What kind of comforting rhymes do they tell themselves?
House four: a sickly light green, shades always drawn, the dog run along the side leading no doubt to a back yard filled with overgrown weeds, mangled tree limbs, swirls of silt leading upward but not in an optimistic kind of way. Sometimes I make out his little legs, ending in a pair of imitation Keds tennis shoes.
There’s a little boy chained to a doghouse in my neighborhood. And I’ve done nothing about it, I whisper to the stop sign at the corner.
I’m the kind of person who’s done nothing about it, I say silently to the crossing guard, who’s too busy to notice me anyway.
But I’m pretty nearsighted. I once mistook this very stop sign for that very crossing guard, when some kids had put an orange jacket over it at Halloween. With my vision, he (she, it), the figment on the dog chain, could well be a German shepherd. A smallish one.
A German shepherd in imitation Keds. A German shepherd playing with imitation Keds. The pictures do not soothe me.
Plus, there’s this weather. San Diego’s annoying smoggy mornings, with afternoons that can heat up beyond expectation. The dryness—it causes hallucinations, fantasies. Drought and destruction and cracked-up sidewalks. Face it, it’s a desert, a mirage in itself.
That’s right, Patty (I say this to myself a lot, along with Wake up, Patty, It’s good for you, Patty, and Just don’t think about it, Patty). That’s right, Patty: there’s (maybe) a little boy chained to a dog run on the side of a house. In this heat. A little boy imagining mirages, dreaming fantasies, trying to escape his leash in imitation Keds.
No wonder I’m always so sweaty by the time I reach school.
I’m sitting in my teaching cubicle—not an office, just a couple of closely placed partition walls, a desk, and a highly valued window—watching unexpected rain fill up the library pit. It’s not really a library pit, of course, but a construction ditch for what will be known as the new Library Center. No one’s announced when it’ll be finished, just as they haven’t announced why it’s called the Library Center instead of just the Library. The rain isn’t that hearty, but it’s increasing its presence, although I’m not sure how weather can change so quickly and whether or not it means we’ve done something indefensible to the environment. There’s a sudden coolness in the air that wasn’t there four hours ago, something not entirely unwelcome but still a little alarming. The rain taps against my window like a shy student who wants my attention but is afraid I’ll notice how really badly he or she is doing in my class. This rain (and any rain is unexpected here), though I’m happy to see it, has begun to muddy most of the campus within my view. If it doesn’t let up in a few hours, the streets will be flooded and traffic accidents will be in the double digits. You’ll be able to hear the sirens from all directions. Plus, it’s slowly, hypnotically, putting me to sleep.
I’ve fallen asleep before, after teaching my back-to-back freshman English courses. Most of the graduate teachers come into our shared area all springy and wired, babbling of peer editing groups and issues debated—abortion, euthanasia, racial integration. The issues never change; they’re in no way seasonal. As for me, well, I tend to go straight for my cubicle, look out the window at the pit, checking to make sure no progress has been made, and fall into dreamy sleep. I have probably failed to find my proper calling, and not for the first time. More than once, students have had to wake me to ask questions, but often they just leave little notes on my desk: “Came by to see you!” “Hope you feel better!” “Need help with essay when you’re well!” I find it touching that they figure I’m sick. Although sometimes I do have a headache, sleeping is just my natural reaction to teaching.
I am not very good at this.
But today I’m not just tired from classes; I’ve gotten a memo that adds to the drowsiness, although you’d think it would get my heart pounding. It announces that the Samsons, both English teachers, both about sixty, with his and hers short gray haircuts (the kind of cut that’s so short it looks prickly, like one of those things you wipe snowy boots on) have taken early retirement. The Samsons, my sometime advisors (I never ask for much advice), my all-the-time landlords, have no doubt been forced out, as I can’t imagine they’d ever voluntarily leave. They love it here, decorating the place each Christmas with sprigs of fir, each Easter leaving little chocolate eggs for all their students. In the autumn they go out to the mountains and bring in fallen leaves, then scatter them through the halls for us to crunch through. They even clean up afterward.
I hold up my memo until the words start to blur. A voice wakes me.
“So much for Grandpa and Grandma,” says a fellow graduate student, a dark, curly-haired guy several years my junior (they all are). I think his name is really Mark, but for some reason he’s always referred to as Anti. He’s part of the group known around here as neuropostmodernists—their name for themselves, but many of us consider it a euphemism.
“I’m very fond of them,” I say. “They’ve always been nice to me,” which is true. They’ve hinted at wanting to sell me the house when I get a real teaching position—which, they’ve hinted, they want to make sure I get right here. It’s the most natural, familial gesture anyone’s made to me in years.
“You’re just buying into the sappiness of the status quo,” the AntiMark says.
“You’re just young and don’t know anything,” I think but don’t say. Age is relative, of course, and I am old to be a graduate student, but I can’t take seriously a twenty-two-year-old guy with neuropostmodernistic tendencies—whatever they may be, and I do have a feeling something sexual is involved—and sneakers that cost over a hundred dollars, although I’m estimating.
“I run toward sap,” I say, turning away. The rain picks up outside, rattling the windows. I wonder if the neuropostmodernists have thought up some progressive, advanced way to get home in this rain without an umbrella, but I doubt it.
I walk home quickly, a San Diego Union Tribune over my head—I picked it since it’s a little thicker than USA Today, which of course is also in color and might run onto my clothes. I pass by house number four without looking up, afraid of what I’ll see, or what I might think I see. I do slow down, though, and listen (my hearing is far better than my eyesight anyhow). But all I hear is rain, drops hitting the ground, the deeper sound of drops hitting that doghouse. My grandmother used to say that not knowing is worse than knowing, and she may be right, unless what you find out is that there’s a muddy boy in a splintering dog house waiting for something else you can’t imagine. I try to picture my grandmother’s face, what she might say to this, but for some reason she won’t look up.
Patty, you may need another nap.
But no, today something different is planned for me. I get home and change my wet clothes, then get in my car and head for the local Hilton hotel. I’ve never done this before, and I can’t be sure why I agreed to do it now.
You may already be a winner, Patty, I tell myself, driving carefully so that (a) I don’t hit anyone and (b) the windshield wipers don’t put me to sleep. I’m headed for a perfect rainy-day activity, I tell myself, although I’d be embarrassed to tell anyone else.
The invitation came in a phone call, the kind you get at dinnertime, the kind you know better than to answer, but when you live alone, you don’t always have your best long-term interests at heart. Besides, I told myself, it’s bad to eat dinner in front of the TV. Much better to eat while talking on the phone, which means you can talk to strangers with your mouth full, breaking two parental prohibitions at once. I surreptitiously took bites of chicken as the guy talked, telling me that I’d filled out an entry form to win a new Camaro, reminding me (of course) that I hadn’t won the new Camaro but was a prizewinner nonetheless. Something electronic. Something electronic and new and free, if only I’d come to my choice of breakfast or late-afternoon lunch and listen to a presentation on a new planned community. Or a planned new community. I swallowed at this point and missed the real word order, but it doesn’t really matter. As any underemployed graduate student knows, the phrase lunch is included has a certain appeal.
The hall is warm and cozy at this Hilton, something I didn’t expect. It’s the kind of room that’s usually freezing with air-conditioning, but somehow they’ve one-upped the weather, and this place is toasty without being too warm. I settle into an overly cushioned blue chair—there must be hundreds of them—and discover that it rocks slightly. It’s the kind of soft I must have always been looking for in a chair, without even realizing it, and I understand now how Goldilocks must have felt.
I’m almost too comfortable to get up for the buffet, but the sweet smells of Danish, warmed turkey, mashed potatoes, and steaming chicken soup lure me. There’s something to admire in a place that serves you chicken soup. Maybe they know more about me than I think. It’s not even Campbell’s, but something someone has chopped and stewed personally. The meal embraces me and those around me as we each eat in our slightly rocking seats, which have been pulled up to tables covered in deep blue cloth. The napkins are orange—real fabric, not paper. I realize that this moment is everything I’ve always wanted from Thanksgiving, since it’s lacking only in family bickering and that disappointing cranberry sauce you slice out of a can. Whatever has led me here, I’m thankful.
I snap out of it just a little as the lights dim for the presentation. Somehow, I expected an old-fashioned slide show, someone clicking away at a rickety projector, the occasional slide turned upside-down. But welcome to the information age, Patty, where everything you need is digital. (Unless you’re a graduate teacher. We can’t afford CDs or videotape; we’re still using mimeograph machines. But don’t think about that now, Patty.) No distracting clicking here, just the sounds of Windham-Hill-like music behind a soothing woman’s voice, the kind of voice that anticipates your every need, offering you a second Danish before you’d finished the first. The kind of voice you want to accept things from. Yes, thank you so much. I do want a second pastry, a warm cinnamon roll. I hadn’t even realized how important one could be.
And I want to live in Santa Vallejo, I tell the voice, of course I do. The presentation completes the picture lunch has enticed us with: now not only does the room contain all the scents of home, it fills our eyes with visions of needs fulfilled, needs met by the new community of Santa Vallejo. Parents hug little children and send them to play on the shiniest of swing sets. Grandparents cook up a stew in the kitchen of a house that could be yours (Patty), although it has clearly been cleaned by someone a little more attentive. In the kitchen’s background I could swear I see the same pastries we’ve just consumed. Freshly baked. Smelling of cinnamon. Seconds and thirds. Back in the town center, low, tiled office buildings blend into the community. “Community,” the woman’s voice repeats at us, “community,” although I’m not really registering the words as much as waiting for Grandma to reappear, waiting to see what lies beyond the next playground and the next, one tree-lined street after another, the houses with spaces between them large enough for another house. Teachers lead bands of children dressed in clean primary-colored clothing, some holding balloons. Malls greet you and fit into the architecture (of the community). Cleanliness. Godliness. All the comforts of home. Not too big, not too small. This place is just right.
After the show I find I’ve been asleep in my chair, and the room has quieted. Others are asleep too, but not in an insulting way, not out of boredom. We’ve been rocked to sleep by the grannies of our dreams, by those with the power to say yes, yes, you may. As I rise a person hands me a brochure, entitled Santa Vallejo—the Promise of Community, and a little black-and-white traveling TV. When she hands me the TV I feel as if I’ve been given an assignment, but then I remember that I was supposed to win a prize. For a brief moment I’m unsure which I value more, the TV or the brochure with its promise. It’s a nice brochure, four-color, thick, serious. With my arms full, I feel fulfilled, as if I’ve gone home for a visit to a loving family (not mine) and they’ve loaded me up with homemade packages to take home. And promises they intend to keep.
The feeling lasts all the way home. I take my treasures into the house and find a note stuck under my door. It’s from the Samsons, my somewhat adoptive family, writing me a note, sharing their thoughts with me. I feel truly full, sated. I want to hug everything that is mine. Oh, the power of the written word! Savor it, Patty.
You’ve probably heard that we’ve accepted the Golden Handshake and are retiring. Well, life does hold its surprises. We’ve loved teaching and are so glad it has brought so many people into our lives, and we include you among our most treasured students. We’re so sorry to say that we’re going to need the house back. We’ll need to consolidate our finances for our retirement, and we plan to move back into our small house that you’ve been so kind to care for. We’ve loved having you as a tenant and, we hope, as our friend. We wish you luck in every endeavor. Won’t you please be out by the fifteenth?
Love, Elizabeth and George Samson
December fifteenth. Two days after the end of the semester. One week from yesterday. I think about all these numbers and passages of time as I go into the living room—with its nice old-fashioned moldings and working fireplace—and put all the wood I’ve collected into the fireplace. It’s not really cold enough for this, but I don’t care. I light the fireplace and watch the flames overcome the logs. On top of the fire, I place their letter. Warm as the room gets, I can’t completely regain the feeling from this afternoon. But I still feel a little something hopeful. I can still picture the grandparents from the video, their arms open, offering sweets and something deeper. They really look nothing like the Samsons.
In the morning I stop at door number three. The dream house, the color of strawberry Häagen-Dazs, as clean and tidy and welcoming outside as the cottage Hansel and Gretel must have approached. The door mat has bluebirds on it.
I knock softly, even though it’s 8:45 and the neighborhood is up and hopping. I can hear the crossing guard down at the main intersection. She sings. It’s Do Re Mi today, and it makes me glad I don’t live nearer to the intersection. No one answers at the pink door, so I knock a little more forcefully, although I can’t get the picture of Julie Andrews spinning around on a mountaintop out of my head. I know it’s not even the right scene for the song. Finally, through a small square window centered high on the pink door, I see the top of a woman’s head, an older woman. Many of my neighbors, I’ve been told, have lived in the area for years, lifetimes, which would explain the gray head top I see before me. Doe, a deer, a female deer—
“Yes,” the gray top says through the door.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Patty Grant; I live in the Samsons’ house two doors down.” I point in that direction, then circle my hands around over my head as if describing my house as a large mushroom.
“I’m your neighbor.” I wait. Nothing much happens. Me, a name, I call myself. “I was wondering if I could talk to you about the child next door?”
“Could you open the door, just maybe a crack?”
“No, dear, we don’t do that.”
Oh. “Well, have you noticed the child? Does it seem mistreated to you?” I lower my voice slightly at the word “mistreated.” I’m not sure if the whisper makes it through the door. Far, a long, long way to run.
“I’m sorry, dear, we really prefer not to buy anything door-to-door.”
“I’m not selling anything.” I raise my voice and stand on my tiptoes so I can see better into her small window. I can only make out to about her eyebrows. I’ve seen the woman before, of course, gardening. But she’s never waved or greeted me. I don’t know her name. “The child next door.” I put my hand above my head and point in the doghouse’s direction. “Have you seen one?”
She shakes her head. “Sorry, dear. I can’t say that I have.” And she’s gone. Which will bring us back to Do.
All’s quiet at house number four, but from the street I can see the chain that leads to the doghouse. Swaying. I cannot bring myself to knock at number four’s door, partly because I can’t imagine what I’d say. “Excuse me, is your child chained to the dog house?” What if they answer Yes? What if they answer No?
Them: Yes, that’s our [boy/girl] by the doghouse.
Me: Shall I come by after school and take him [her] for a walk? (No, of course I wouldn’t say that.)
Next option. Them: No, there’s no child by our doghouse.
Me: Oh. (The door slams.)
Last option. Them: He’s just playing. You know how children are. Or don’t you have children? (Slightly accusatory voice here.)
Me: Playing with a leash on him?
Them: Safety first.
Me: What about the splintering wood, the rain?
Them: Children enjoy being outdoors. It’s better for them than television. (The door slams.)
None of the scenarios I can imagine makes any sense. I realize that this may not be my fault. But wouldn’t a good neighbor find out more? Someone living in Santa Vallejo, say, in the midst of that closely knit community with its red-and-blue swing sets—wouldn’t a neighbor there be bound by some sort of community pledge to take matters into her own hands?
What if they don’t open their door, Patty?
What if they do?
When in doubt, consult a text. Like the good graduate student I am, I head for the bookshelf in the TA offices as soon as I reach campus. Actually, consulting the research librarian might be the better thing to do. I approach her in my mind. “Hello, one of my neighbors has his or her child tied to a doghouse. Can you recommend a book or books to consult on this subject?” Instead, I grab the phone books. Yellow or White? Is this a case for 911? Is it an out-and-out emergency? Is it a time-crucial matter? How can I explain that I’m calling only after noticing this for weeks, maybe longer—time flies on the semester system?
The White Pages. A to Z. I try the Easy Reference List at the beginning of the government pages. And it really is easy. The C’s, Child Abuse Reporting, the county social services department. I flip the pages for the toll-free number (the department will be pleased that there’s no charge, since I’m using the school phone, even though it barely reaches my desk). I dial the 800 number and wait for the recorded message. The voice asks me to consider which button I want to push for which service. “Please press one to report a probable case of child abuse in your area.” That sounds like me. I press one, feeling a little guilty that I didn’t listen to all the options.
“Please hold,” the voice says. On comes some music that I used to work out to at aerobics, back when aerobics seemed necessary and wise. All she wants to do is dance, the music says, dance, dance. I’m not sure it’s appropriate music, but it does have a strong bass.
Every few seconds I hear a click that sounds like someone coming on the line. I prepare to tell my story (should I mention the rain? the heat? the shoe?), but it’s just another operator voice telling me that I should (please) stay on the line and that my call is important. Your call is important, Patty. Finally, as the song plays for the second time—I’m not sure why they’ve recorded only the one song—I get transferred back to the main menu. I’m a little alarmed at this. If I want to report a probable case of child abuse, press one. If I want inquire about adoptive services, press two. If I want information on an existing case, press three. To speak to a representative, press the star key. I press the star key.
“Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please try again.”
But I do try again, because my call is important.
I press two this time, just because I haven’t tried it before. I get the same song. I find it annoying that all she wants to do is dance. I put the phone down on my desk, where I can still hear the music, and try to read a student’s paper about the similarities and differences between lesbianism and Judaism. The bass pounds. Toward the end of the song (it worries me that I can now tell when the song is going to end), I pick up the phone again. With the last beat, the recording hangs up on me. If a recording can do that.
I try a few more times, trying to keep track of which buttons I’ve pushed and which I haven’t. The student paper has completely misrepresented Judaism, but all the words are spelled correctly.
Finally I dial 911. A real voice answers, surprising me, as I’m waiting for a recording to tell me which numbers to press.
“What is your emergency?”
“Yes, I’d like to report a possible case of child abuse in my neighborhood.” I’ve written the sentence down by now so I can just read it.
“You need to call child social services at 800-455—”
“Yes, I’ve tried, but their recording seems to be broken and won’t transfer me to anyone.”
“They might be busy. You have to be patient.”
“I think the recording’s broken, though.”
“Then you can call the local office directly.” She gives me the number.
Progress. I thank the real voice.
“Use 911 only for emergencies,” it says, then hangs up, confirming my fear that a little boy in a doghouse is not considered an emergency, and leaving me to figure out just how brave I might be.
I’m a native Californian, born in Hollywood, in a building that later became the Scientology Headquarters. I believe that in California, we’re often trying to improve our situation, find a better life, a better family, a better community. Californians never stop trying. There’s this idea in the air that (1) there’s a better situation for you here, and (2) you can actually find it. But don’t forget to read the fine print: *Your Actual Life May Vary.
Patty Grant tells us her story, starting as a failed graduate student who suddenly leaves behind everything she knows and everyone she’s connected to (maybe not for the first time) for a place that promises something better: a sense of community. If you live in California (and no doubt elsewhere), you’ve seen what Patty’s after: those new residential areas that pop up looking prettier, greener, healthier, yet are more often than not built on land that’s a former landfill or former oil areas or gas stations.
In exploring what it’s like to search for a new place to live and a new family to live with (yes, I’ve done this too), something better, something golden, what I’ve found is someplace often as troubled as where I started, just in a surprising way.
But wait, this is a comedy. A funny, dark look at child-stealing. Patty will get to that. Patty will confront the issues that interest me most about California (and the country). She will encounter big box stores, strange amusement parks that ask you to suspend belief and all of your senses, land that wasn’t meant to be built on, and land that ought not to be built on because even in new, sunny California, there’s history that needs to be remembered. An unfortunate history of locking up immigrants, confining outcasts to nearly unlivable spaces. *Your Actual Life May Vary explores all this—in a funny-tragic way.
Linda Lenhoff lives in the East Bay area of California. Her first two novels were Life à la Mode and Latte Lessons, published by Kensington Books in 2003 and 2005. The first draft of Life à la Mode served as her thesis for an MFA in Creative Writing. Linda is looking for a forever home with an indie publisher for her third novel, *Your Actual Life May Vary. Chapter 1, “Your Call Is Important,” is printed here. She also writes for San Francisco Magazine. See more at http://lindalenhoff.wordpress.com.