The Front House

Cord Jefferson

Richard Risemberg, Dead Lawn and Satellite Dish, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Garrett started noticing spots on the lawn a couple of months after the new tenants moved in. Just one at first, where the driveway met the sidewalk perpendicularly. And then a couple more a few feet away. Yellow-brown depressions, like cigarette burns on a big green sofa.

Too much fertilizer can singe pockmarks like that into a lawn, but Garrett knew that these spots were not made by fertilizer, the application of which, even in inappropriate quantities, would have suggested an attempt at vigilance and care. The new tenants did not care, which was made clear almost as soon as they moved in. Receipts and wrappers blew over from the Starbucks across the street and collected in the grass for two or three days before someone cleaned them up. Once, Garrett saw a condom wrapper linger for nearly a week, until finally he put on an old winter glove and disposed of it himself.

Technically, the lawn wasn’t Garrett’s responsibility. He lived behind the main house, in a low brick duplex with a “½” in the address. He shared a wall with Adam, a gay man about his age who puttered around quietly and ran a small graphic design operation from his living room. Garrett and Adam didn’t get much outdoor space to themselves—each half of the duplex had only a six-by-two-foot patio bedded with river pebbles that crunched underfoot—and so Garrett liked to think that the greenery in front of the main house belonged to all of them. The lawn, the towering avocado tree that bore tiny but edible fruit in the spring, and the neon magenta bougainvillea that shaded the front house’s small side patio.

Garrett had moved into the duplex twelve years before the new tenants showed up. It seemed to him back then to be a reasonably priced, not too sad home for a single man in his forties. Only two families had lived in the front house during those dozen years. The first, the Brannons, had brought homemade cupcakes to welcome him to the neighborhood. He watched their daughter, Alice, grow from a guileless child into a strange teenager who talked primarily about Wicca. After Alice went to college, the Brannons moved to Phoenix and the Rodriguez family moved in. Glenna Rodriguez was an OB-GYN, single, with two sons and a niece she’d adopted as a daughter.

Garrett and Glenna had an amiable rapport that Garrett had quietly hoped would lead to something romantic, or at least sexual, but it never did. The closest they got was late one Fourth of July, when Garrett, his fears dulled by margaritas, put his arm around Glenna’s waist as they watched the fireworks over Dodger Stadium. He turned his head slowly to gauge her reaction to his touch, only to find that she had no reaction at all. She stared straight ahead, her thin lips curled into a tight smile as her face went from being bathed in darkness to colorful light to darkness again, over and over. After thirty seconds or so, Garrett realized that Glenna having no reaction was, in fact, a reaction, and he took his arm away. They never discussed the brief flirtation, and Glenna bought a home in Alhambra at the end of the summer. She never said good-bye to Garrett. She didn’t even come over to take back the salad spinner she’d loaned him. Eventually, Garrett started to consider the spinner a monument to his rejection, and he threw it in the trash.

After the Rodriguezes moved out, the front house stayed vacant while handymen repainted the walls and executed minor renovations. Garrett used this period to sneak into the home one afternoon, the back door having been left open to air out the paint fumes. The place was sprawling compared to Garrett’s half of the duplex, and its emptiness only exaggerated the size. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a long galley kitchen with Spanish tile, and a living room with a wood-burning fireplace and eighteen-foot ceilings. When Garrett stepped into the living room, the hardwood floor groaned under his body weight, sending him into an abyss of self-loathing about how he’d let himself go. He recalled with regret the lunch he’d thrown together that day: a footlong sandwich from Subway, where he worked as a store manager; a bowl of broccoli cheddar soup, also from Subway; and a packet of peanut M&M’s he’d found in his freezer that morning. He imagined all the components mixing in his stomach—mayonnaise cascading into melted cheese cascading into chocolate—and he shook his head with shame.

It was then that Garrett noticed the late afternoon sunshine pouring into the living room. He’d always been disappointed that his home never caught the light at its California finest—when the horizon glowed pink and orange as the sun lowered into the Pacific—but he’d assumed the dimness was a peculiarity of the whole block. Now he saw that, in fact, the reason his and Adam’s duplex didn’t get much light was because the front house was obstructing the sun. Here in the living room a soft, amber light beamed through the arched windows, which looked out on to the emerald lawn.

Garrett felt a twinge of pleasure at his new neighbors’ misfortune, and he left the window to return to jerking off.

Garrett lifted his hand and watched it become dappled with shadows from the leaves of the avocado tree. He looked down at his body, his polo shirt and jeans bathed in the mellow rays, his doughy belly growing warm in the refracted light, and he felt so angry so quickly that it confused him. Before he left, he hacked and spit a big gob of phlegm onto the fireplace mantle.

Days later, Garrett had just started masturbating to a brothel scene in Game of Thrones when he was interrupted by the sound of a box truck beeping outside. He tucked himself away and moved into his living room, where he peeked through the curtains and saw a tall, slender black man guiding the truck’s Latino driver into a parking spot in front of the main house. Garrett assumed at first that the black man was a mover. But once the truck had been parked the man began telling the actual movers where to set boxes and watching anxiously as pieces of heavy wooden furniture were conveyed down the truck ramp. He was being, Garrett thought, remarkably fastidious.

An expensive electric car pulled into the front house’s parking spot, and a white woman with shoulder-length blond hair got out carrying two plastic cups of iced coffee. She handed one cup to the black man and kissed him on the lips in a single motion. Garrett found the kiss to be overly long, like they were trying to prove something. Once separated, the couple chatted for a moment before the black man set down his coffee, opened the car’s trunk, and peered inside. Garrett couldn’t see from his vantage point what the black man was looking at, but whatever it was pained him. The white woman came to look before pulling a disappointed face of her own. The black man reached into the trunk and carefully removed an old tube amplifier for a hi-fi stereo system, and now Garrett could see—two of the amp’s vacuum tubes had shattered, littering the top of the device with bits of glass. The black man tipped the amp forward and let the broken shards fall to the ground, tinkling as they landed.

Garrett felt a twinge of pleasure at his new neighbors’ misfortune, and he left the window to return to jerking off. After several minutes, he had an unsatisfying orgasm and fell asleep. He woke an hour later to find that he was going to be late for work. He threw on his uniform—this month they were all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “SPICY” to help push a new chicken sandwich—and raced to his car. He pulled out past his new neighbors without saying hello and sped away.

Garrett had moved to los angeles
from Michigan in his twenties after dropping out of college and frittering away a few years working the floor at his father’s furniture shop. He’d felt unmotivated in school, distracted by the idea that a more exciting life awaited him elsewhere. When he was a teenager, everyone had told Garrett how handsome he was, how he should move to California to be a model or a movie star. He’d always liked the compliments, but he never mistook them for actual advice, because the people telling him these things were just local nobodies—girls in his classes or men trying to sell him penny loafers at the department store. Garrett was smart enough to know that they had no idea what they were talking about when it came to Hollywood. But then he met Buzz Baldwin.

Garrett noticed Buzz before he’d even said a word. He was having lunch at a burger place on his break from the furniture store when a man walked in wearing a silk neckerchief around the large, floppy collar of his shirt. His pants were tight around his hips and rear, and his boots had heels almost as high as a woman’s, a style Garrett had only ever seen in magazines and on TV. He would later realize that the feeling he got in his stomach seeing Buzz that day was not so dissimilar to the feeling he got watching the moon landing: a sense of hope and wonderment about what you could do if you had the strength to explore the unknown.

From the corner of his eye, Garrett saw Buzz collect his food and come sit at the booth across from him. He felt his heart leap when Buzz stole a glance in his direction, a glance he then shyly returned.

“Anyone ever tell you that you look like Alain Delon, kid?” said Buzz, his mouth half full of French fries.

Garrett was flattered but also embarrassed that he didn’t understand the reference. “Uh, no,” he said. “Allen who?”

Buzz laughed.

“Oh, kid, we’re going to have to get you out of this hamlet, aren’t we?”

His business card read, “Buzz Baldwin, Producer and Manager to the Stars.” The address was on a street called Cahuenga. Buzz said he was passing through Kalamazoo on the way to a shoot in New York. He said he was always looking for fresh talent.

“I know this sounds a little silly, but some people have told me I could be an actor,” said Garrett.

“You can,” said Buzz. The stone in his pinky ring caught the light for a moment.

“You really think?” said Garrett.

Buzz laughed. “My god, this ‘aw-shucks’ thing isn’t an act, is it?”

Garrett blushed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just never met anybody like you before.”

Buzz came over to Garrett’s booth and patted his hand.

“I’m just joshing with you, kid,” said Buzz. “And yes. I’ve helped people a lot worse-looking than you break in.”

They made an appointment for Garrett to come by Buzz’s hotel room later that day.

the suite smelled
like stale cigarette smoke. On the coffee table were a bottle of Korbel in an ice bucket and a Polaroid camera. They sipped the wine from styrofoam cups as Buzz took photos of Garrett straight on and in profile. He then asked Garrett to take off his shirt.

“You have a nice physique,” said Buzz. “We can get you into some sports pictures pretty easily.”

Garrett took a big gulp of wine and thought about how much he liked that word—pictures. It sounded grand to him, much grander than movies.

To his surprise, he was calm in front of the camera, which made him feel like he could be a comfortable and natural actor. But when Buzz asked him to remove his pants, his body tensed and got hot. Buzz put down the camera and raised his hands like a bank robber who had been caught.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “Nothing raunchy, kid. Keep your boxers on. It’s just that some of these casting directors want to see the whole package.”

Garrett hesitated. “Is it all right if I just do it with my shirt off?” “Of course,” said Buzz. “Actually, I think we’ve got plenty already. You can get dressed.”

There came to be an inverse correlation between his age and the quality of the place that would hire him.

Garrett put his shirt on and they sat to drink the rest of the wine. Buzz said Garrett should meet him in L.A. as soon as he returned from New York at the end of the month. They’d start auditions immediately. Garrett could sleep on Buzz’s couch until he’d saved enough for his own place.

“You ever been on a plane?” asked Buzz. Garrett shook his head.

“Well get ready, kid, because there’s going to be a lot of flights in your future.”

Before he went home, Garrett took a peek at one of the Polaroids of himself. He did look nice—tanned and youthful and proud.

Garrett’s elation kept him awake for almost the entire three-day bus ride from Detroit to Los Angeles. But when he arrived at the address Buzz had given him, a dry cleaner stood where Buzz’s office was supposed to be. A Chinese man running the shop told Garrett that he didn’t know anyone named Baldwin. When Garrett called the phone number on the card, he got a post office in Santa Monica. The post office clerk, too, had never heard of Buzz.

“I’d remember a name like that,” she said. It sounded like she was smiling.

Garrett couldn’t go home after this humiliation. He told everybody back in Michigan that he was indeed staying on Buzz’s couch and auditioning for roles. In reality, he found a cheap motel where he could pay by the week, and he hitchhiked around town trying to cobble together an acting career on his own. He couldn’t afford headshots, so he took some pictures at a photo booth and xeroxed them. He wrote his name, his height, and his phone number atop each copy and dropped them off at agencies every day for weeks. Only one person called, to see if he’d be willing to do pornography.

When his savings dwindled, he took work as a bartender. The job made him feel like a failure at first, but he soon realized that he liked bartending. The money was good. And because he was handsome and constantly surrounded by women who had been drinking, he had a lot of sex. Plus, working at night would leave his days open to audition when he got an agent. The next thing he knew, thirty years had gone by. The bars he worked in had closed, one by one. And there came to be an inverse correlation between his age and the quality of the place that would hire him.

His last bartending gig was at a dive called the Rum Runner, a windowless hole off Hollywood Boulevard that catered mostly to down-and-out locals and tourists who had overextended themselves on their lodging and were looking for a cheap place to get very drunk. Day shifts at the Rum Runner also brought in a few people who made money dressing as movie characters and taking photos with tourists outside the Chinese Theatre. One of Garrett’s best customers was a short man from Guatemala who would come in every day, set his Yoda mask on the bar, and quietly take down three pints of Guinness for lunch.

A month after Garrett’s third year of employment there, the Rum Runner was bought by a hospitality group that intended to turn it into a wine bar. The new owners said they’d consider keeping him on, but he’d need to know a fair amount about natural and biodynamic wines. Garrett was only a few pages into a study booklet on growing methods when he reached a passage about how one must bury a cow horn filled with manure in the vineyard in order to make wine deemed “biodynamic.” He closed the booklet right there.

He got the job at Subway the next week. The franchisee, Mr. Darbinyan, said openly in the interview that he liked that Garrett was old and white—“trustworthy qualities.” Garrett accepted the position with the proviso that he would never have to prepare the sandwiches himself, a term to which Mr. Darbinyan had agreed.

“You’ll run operations only,” said Mr. Darbinyan. “It’s an office job.”

That turned out to be largely true. He’d had to make a sandwich here and there when things were incredibly busy. And a couple times he’d taken on the unenviable task of planting rodenticide around the dumpsters out back to keep the rats at bay. But on most days, Garrett was responsible for maintaining the supply of ingredients, bookkeeping, scheduling hours, and training new employees—duties that allowed him to spend a lot of time playing solitaire or reading guitar magazines in a small office in the back of the store. His staff was courteous and hardworking, and in three years he’d only had to fire one person, a teenager named Carly-Grace who’d given her boyfriend a hand job in the walk-in refrigerator.

“I’m disappointed in you, Carly-Grace,” he’d said as he terminated her.

“Not as disappointed as I am in myself,” she said.

He promised that if her mom called, he’d say that she was fired for habitual tardiness.

In all, Garrett had to admit that it wasn’t a bad job. It was just profoundly different from what he’d once imagined the world would offer him. Something felt missing, and he couldn’t tell whether he’d given it away or if it was taken from him.

when he finally got to work
on the day the new tenants were moving in, things were chaotic. The soda machine was broken and the tomatoes hadn’t been delivered. Garrett sent an employee to the supermarket to buy tomatoes with petty cash, leaving him short-staffed for the breakfast rush. He put it off for as long as possible, but after ten minutes he had to step in and help prepare food.

He was in the middle of putting together a footlong Veggie Delite when he noticed two teenage boys wander in. There was something odd about them; they were jittery and euphoric. Garrett thought that if it turned out they had guns, he knew how to quickly reach the rear exit.

It was like he was constantly trying to convert his life from Fahrenheit to Celsius... always showing up on hot, sunny days in a parka and snow boots.

When the boys reached the front of the line, one began recording Garrett with his phone.

“How may I help you?” said Garrett.

“I want an eight-inch on white,” said the boy not filming. He was tall and muscular, with shaggy blond hair that hung over his eyes. “We don’t have eight-inches, sir,” said Garrett. “We have six-inch or footlong.”

“I want eight-inch,” said the boy, louder this time.

“We don’t have eight-inches,” said Garrett, again. He was trying not to sound nervous. “I can make you a six-inch or a footlong. Or we also have wraps.”

“Give me an eight-inch or I’ll give my eight-inch to your mom, bitch!” said the boy. He had grown very loud; everyone in the shop was staring. His friend was struggling to not laugh, so much that the phone in his hand shuddered.

“I’m going to have to ask you both to please leave,” said Garrett. “And please stop filming me.”

“Eat a dick! We’ll film what we want!” said the one recording. The blond one picked up a bag of potato chips, tore it open, and dumped the contents on the ground before stomping on them. “Give me an eight-inch or I’m gonna fuck you up!”

As the boy tore open another bag of chips, Garrett moved out from behind the counter. He hadn’t meant to hurt the young man—he really only intended to usher him toward the exit—but his body surged forward with an unanticipated violence. The next thing he knew, the blond one was on his back, blood dampening his fair hair.

“He slipped on the potato chips,” Garrett said to nobody in particular. It was the first thing that came to mind as he looked toward the other customers, two of whom had their hands over their mouths in horror.

“Call an ambulance! Somebody call a fucking ambulance!” said the boy’s friend in panic, though he was still filming.

The police told Garrett that they weren’t going to arrest him, as the boys had been trespassing and threatening him. But they warned that there could still be a lawsuit. Mr. Darbinyan listened to all of this with his hands on his hips, nodding along as the police spoke. After the cops had gone, Mr. Darbinyan told Garrett he had no choice but to fire him.

“You’ve been a model employee,” said Mr. Darbinyan. “But if they sue, it will look better if I’ve already let you go.”

Garrett said he understood and shook Mr. Darbinyan’s hand. He turned in his Subway visor and name tag, but Mr. Darbinyan let him keep his “SPICY” shirt; he didn’t have anything else to wear. As he headed out the door, one of the employees handed him a footlong tuna sandwich, Garrett’s favorite, wrapped up neatly in a plastic bag. She had tears in her eyes.

On the drive home, Garrett thought about what he would do to earn money. Many of the ways people now made a living were mystifying to him. For instance, when the police questioned the boy who’d been filming that morning, the boy told them that he and his friend had been in the shop to shoot a video for work.

“What kind of work is that?” said the cop.

“We make content,” said the boy. “We do content.”

The boys had apparently earned hundreds of thousands of dollars by making internet videos under the moniker “The Prank Zaddies.” “They go to places and act like idiots and then put it on the computer to try and be famous,” is how one of the cops had later put it to Garrett.

Garrett thought that if he’d been born forty years later, he might have been that kid in the sandwich shop throwing food on the floor. No auditions, no agents, no shyster middlemen. Just behave like a lunatic on camera, upload that lunacy to the internet, and become a star that way.

“What a world,” Garrett found himself saying as he came to a stop at a red light. He wasn’t sure when it had all gotten away from him, but it had. He felt unprepared for how different everything was from when he was young, and how rapidly it was still changing all the time. It was like he was constantly trying to convert his life from Fahrenheit to Celsius. He knew Celsius was a measurement of temperature, and he knew what the concept of temperature was, but he didn’t have the conversion formula, so he was always showing up on hot, sunny days in a parka and snow boots.

When he got home, it was just after noon and the moving truck was gone. Garrett pulled into his carport. He cut the engine and looked into his rearview and suddenly a black man was there, waiting for him. Garrett felt scared for a moment, but then he remembered.

He stepped out of the car and waved.

“Howdy, neighbor,” said the black man. “I’m Ricky.” “Garrett,” he said. They shook hands.

“you must really like subway,
huh?” said Ricky, pointing at Garrett’s sandwich and shirt.

“I work there,” said Garrett. He realized immediately that he was lying, but he didn’t want to get into what had happened that morning.

“Oh, really?,” said Ricky, a new, brighter tone in his voice. “Well, we love that place. I mean, me and my girlfriend, Maureen.”

Garrett was tired and didn’t try to say anything else. It rubbed him the wrong way that Ricky hadn’t inferred he worked at Subway from the sandwich and the shirt, as if he couldn’t imagine someone who lived nearby doing something so menial.

“Well, I just wanted to come over and say hello. It’s very nice to meet you,” Ricky said.

“You too,” said Garrett. And the men retreated into their separate homes.

Thereafter, Garrett’s interactions with Ricky and Maureen were frequent but superficial. When they ran into each other taking out their trash or running errands, Ricky and Maureen would ask perfunctory questions like “How’s it going?” and “You doing all right?” Garrett would respond vaguely but positively, keeping up the charade that he still worked at Subway. He was able to gather that Ricky was an independent film producer, while Maureen worked at a nonprofit dedicated to environmental issues. Ricky was thirty-eight; she was maybe a decade younger. They’d met in New York and moved to Los Angeles because Ricky’s career was ascending in a real way—his most recent film had won the Platform Prize at Toronto. It would serve him better, they decided, to be closer to the center of entertainment.

Garrett was returning from an interview at a temp agency one afternoon when a small dog darted out into the driveway, in front of his car. He slammed on the brakes as Maureen leaped out the back door saying, “Oh my god,” over and over.

Garrett put the car in park and threw open his door to find a small black puppy, alive and oblivious, sitting on his haunches and nibbling at his own right paw.

Garrett had read articles about how America’s young people were having much less sex... He wondered if it was because they all seemingly wanted to appear ugly.

“You need to take better care of that thing,” he said. “I could have killed him.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Maureen. She had scooped the animal into her arms and was nervously stroking its head. “He just ran off. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

Garrett pulled into his carport. When he got out, Maureen was already in her house. He could see her through a window, holding the dog’s face up to hers, letting it lick her on the cheeks and lips, its tail wagging furiously.

shortly after the dog’s arrival
was when Garrett started noticing the brown spots on the lawn. He knew right away that they were pee burns, grass killed by the salts and excess nitrogen in dog urine. Ornette—named by Ricky and Maureen after their favorite jazz musician—had an area he sprinted to every time they brought him out. That was the first spot to fade, from bright green to a bleached wheat. But several other places started to burn in quick succession.

Garrett assumed Ornette had a hyperactive bladder until he’d come out earlier than usual one Saturday morning to find Ricky and Maureen mingling with several other people, most of them neighbors he recognized from the street. All of them had dogs, who were now playing on the front house’s lawn. Garrett walked past the group on his way to buy a coffee across the street.

“Got a kennel club going here?” said Garrett.

Ricky and Maureen laughed politely, but nobody else in the group did. Garrett noticed that they were all wearing bucket hats and Teva sandals and other kinds of intentionally unflattering clothing. He had read articles about how America’s young people were having much less sex than previous generations, and eyeing the group amassed before him, he wondered if it was because they all seemingly wanted to appear ugly.

“Just bringing the dog park to us,” said Ricky. “Maureen makes these homemade treats that all the neighborhood dogs go kind of nuts for.”

“Oh my god,” said a redheaded woman. She was in baggy jeans and a boxy bowling shirt with flames on it. “My dog is, like, obsessed with them. Every time we walk past your house, she, like, pulls the leash so hard toward it.”

Everyone in the group laughed at this, which Garrett noticed because he didn’t think it was any funnier than what he’d said about the kennel club. Maureen held up a bowl of the treats, small green biscuits in the shapes of hearts and stars.

“I add a lot of parsley and mint,” she said. “That’s why they’re green.”

“Sounds healthier than my breakfast,” said Garrett. “Maybe I’ll stop by for one later.” A couple of people in the crowd smiled this time.

Garrett excused himself and went off to get his coffee. The grass’s deterioration was even more obvious from the Starbucks parking lot, which sloped upward, giving Garrett an elevated view of the lawn’s pockmarks. From there, the brown blots looked like sand traps on a golf course seen from an airplane.

Prior to Ricky and Maureen’s arrival, there had been two signs at either end of the lawn warning people against letting their dogs onto the grass. The signs had since been removed, for obvious reasons, and Garrett believed it to be a mistake. A healthy lawn had been a symbol of self-respect for Garrett for as long as he could remember. When he was a child, his father would mow the grass in a jacket and tie on Saturday mornings. Even when Garrett was old enough to handle the mower himself, lawn care was the one chore his father never delegated. Their neighborhood awarded an annual trophy for the best-kept yard, a trophy Garrett’s father repeatedly lost to Danny Eichelberger, a finicky widower who put his grief into gardening after his wife killed herself on her fiftieth birthday. Garrett’s father would tell Garrett that it didn’t matter who won, that the real prize was the dignity of maintaining one’s home, the dedication to neatness, one’s work ethic made manifest. He remembered how angry his father became when the Anderson family moved in a few houses down and allowed their yard to become choked with milkweed and dandelion. One day, he drove past the Andersons’ house with his dad and saw Mr. Anderson trudging through the overgrown tangle to check the mailbox. “Might as well be living next to niggers,” said Garrett’s father.

Making his way back to the duplex, Garrett thought he might leave it alone, but at the last moment, he turned to the group.

“You know what?” said Garrett. He spoke casually, as if something had just occurred to him. “A great way to prevent those pee spots on the grass is just to spray it down with water after the dogs go.”

The group paused its conversation.

“Oh, okay, cool,” said Ricky, looking quickly at the grass before looking back at Garrett. “We actually don’t have a hose.”

“I’ve got an extra one I’ve been meaning to drop by,” said Garrett. He quietly chastised himself for offering the hose that way, belying the notion that this conversation had been spontaneous. “It’s just, the lawn used to be really nice. It could be like that again with a little work.”

“Okay, thank you,” said Ricky. “We might take you up on that.” Garrett hurried to his house, shut the door, and looked out the peephole. The group was now speaking in hushed tones as one woman glanced back at his home with a smirk on her face. Ricky was shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, laughing a little.

Garrett was convinced that he would never speak to Ricky or Maureen again. And so he was shocked when later that day, Maureen appeared on his doorstep to invite him to dinner.

“We were hoping we could get to know you a little better,” she said.

Garrett instantly felt guilty for his full morning’s worth of hateful thoughts about Ricky and Maureen and the rest of the neighbors.

“I’d like that,” said Garrett. “Thanks for the invitation.”

Several hours later, he approached Ricky and Maureen’s front door. It would have been easier to go to the back, which was about ten feet from the duplex, but it was important to Garrett that he enter the house properly.

Ricky answered in a bright yellow apron that looked beautiful next to his dark skin. “Hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place,” he said.

Garrett smiled and handed Ricky a bottle of red zinfandel he’d bought that afternoon. Ricky thanked him for the wine and then asked Garrett if he’d like him to open it. “Do whatever you’d like,” said Garrett. “It’s a gift.”

“If it’s all the same to you,” said Ricky, “At this time of year, I’m more into lighter stuff: pet nats, skin contact, that sort of thing.”

“Of course,” said Garrett. He thought back to that wine bar’s study booklet and wished he’d read more of it.

“Try this,” said Ricky. “It’s from a really small producer in the Loire.”

He handed Garrett a thin-stemmed wine glass half-full of a liquid that looked like cloudy urine.

Garrett took a sip and tried to mimic the look of satisfaction on Ricky’s face.

“Kind of funky, right?” said Ricky. “It’s got that barnyardy thing going on.”

“Yeah,” said Garrett, and for the first time he understood what Ricky was talking about. The wine did smell and taste like some sort of farm animal’s pen, but now Garrett was confused as to why that was a good thing.

Maureen emerged into the kitchen, looking elegant and relaxed. Garrett guessed that she and Ricky had probably had sex just before he arrived. He briefly thought about what color her nipples were.

Maureen hugged Garrett and touched one of her cheeks to his with a kissing sound, like a European.

Garrett leaned back a little and looked under the dining room table.

“Where’s Ornette?” he said.

“Oh, we’ve got to keep him locked up in the guest bedroom when company’s here,” said Maureen. “He gets excited and won’t stop jumping.”

Garrett could hear the dog now, scratching on the guest room door and emitting short, high-pitched barks every few seconds.

“He’ll calm down eventually,” said Ricky. “You guys go chill while I finish dinner.”

Maureen put on a Steely Dan album and settled into the left side of a long blue sofa. Garrett sat on the right. The tubes on the amplifier, now repaired, glowed orange. Maureen asked about work, and Garrett finally admitted that he wasn’t at Subway anymore, though he said he’d left of his own accord after deciding he’d like to do something more challenging.

“Good for you,” she said. “Older people sometimes give up on growth, I think. My dad’s about your age and he’s so set in his ways it gives my mother fits. He’s retired and now all he wants to do is golf and go to the Cape. Golf, Cape, golf, Cape—back and forth.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” said Garrett.

“No, it’s fine,” said Maureen. “But, like, my mom tried to get him to go to Provence for a few months last summer—for some variety—and he was like, ‘No.’ Just, like, right away.”

Garrett forced a laugh and shook his head. He was relieved when Ricky popped into the room to announce that the food was ready.

The bird didn’t die right away—he’d hit it low where the tail met the body—and its black eyes darted around as it flailed in the dirt.

Dinner was halibut, marinated in an al pastor sauce and then grilled, a recipe Ricky said he had adapted from his favorite seafood restaurant in Mexico City. There was a pile of corn tortillas, lime crema, guacamole, and pico de gallo served on the side. Everyone made their own tacos how they liked them. Maureen said she wasn’t having any pico because her nutritionist recommended avoiding nightshades. “I’ve been trying to reduce my inflammation,” she said. “Even vegetables are bad for you now?” said Garrett, reaching for a tortilla. Both Ricky and Maureen laughed.

Ricky opened a bottle of chilled red wine that, when poured, looked like cherry Kool-Aid.

“This is a great Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo,” said Ricky. “I had it in Tuscany last year and had to, like, immediately order a whole case.” Garrett sipped the wine. It was incredibly good, mild and refreshing, much different from the stuff he’d brought, which is what he drank at home. He shriveled a little at the thought of Ricky and Maureen tasting the zinfandel in his absence. He imagined they’d have a laugh at his ignorance. How could someone who’d been on earth so much longer than them have such little knowledge of fine things?

“Do you like the wine?” said Ricky.

“Yeah,” said Garrett, trying for a hint of indifference. “It’s okay.” “We can open a different bottle if you’d like,” Ricky said quickly. “No, no,” Garrett said. “This is fine, really.”

The wine went down fast with the food, and soon Ricky was opening another bottle. The talk started to flow in a way it hadn’t before. They discussed their college experiences and local restaurants—Ricky and Maureen agreed that burrata had become overused. Eventually the conversation meandered to the neighborhood, how it had changed over the years to become the de facto headquarters for every young actor and comedian in the city. Slightly drunk, Garrett let it slip that he’d once tried to be an actor himself. “I can believe that,” said Maureen. “You’re a handsome guy.”

Garrett thought again about the color of her nipples.

“Were you ever in anything?” said Ricky.

Garrett shook his head and pushed his plate away. “A couple commercials, but nothing more than that,” he said.

Ricky set down his utensils and looked at Garrett like a mechanic might look at the engine of a used car.

“You know what?” he said finally. “I might actually have a part for you.”

Maureen looked more shocked than Garrett. “Are you serious?” said Garrett.

“Yeah,” said Ricky. “I’m doing this family drama and the director really wants unknowns and non-professionals. It’s not a big part—”

“That’s fine,” said Garrett, interrupting. “I’ll do whatever.”

“You think you could put yourself on tape sometime this week?” said Ricky.

“Of course,” said Garrett, sputtering out a dopey laugh. He had the woozy feeling that overcame him in times of hope and opportunity. His testicles tingled and his legs felt light, like they might drift away from his body. He drank more wine to calm down.

For dessert they had churros from a Mexican market in the neighborhood. Maureen warmed them in the oven and they ate them with vanilla ice cream. Ricky poured some glasses of bourbon. Garrett intended to drink his whiskey slowly, as he was starting to feel quite drunk, but after a few minutes he looked down and half the glass was gone.

The conversation lulled and Garrett knew it was time to leave. “Can I help you clean up?” asked Garrett.

“No, we’ve got it,” said Ricky.

“Good, because I didn’t want to help anyway,” said Garrett, and they all laughed. Garrett yawned as he stood up from the table.

“Thanks again for having me,” he said. “Everything was delicious.”

Ricky and Maureen stood and walked with him toward the front door.

“Come back any time,” said Maureen.

“I may come over tomorrow, actually,” said Garrett as he opened the front door. “I’ll drop off that hose for the dog pee.”

Ricky and Maureen glanced at one another. Ricky looked down and scratched the back of his closely shorn head.

“We were actually going to try and talk to you about this,” said Ricky. “I don’t think we need the hose.”

“It’s really easy,” said Garrett. “You just spray it after they’ve done their business.”

“Well, I mean, the problem is that a lot of dogs pee on the lawn all day,” said Ricky. “We can’t be spraying it each and every time that happens, you know?”

“I’d be happy to help,” said Garrett. “I’ve got some free time on my hands.”

“Oh, no, we can’t ask you to do that,” said Ricky. “It’s not a big deal, really,” said Garrett.

“We kind of don’t even want a lawn, Garrett,” Maureen said. Her tone was sharp. The way she said Garrett’s name made it sound like a slur.

“What do you mean?” said Garrett.

“We’re just sort of happy to see it go,” said Maureen. “L.A. is a desert and we’re in a drought. We shouldn’t be wasting water on some stupid patch of grass.”

“Babe,” said Ricky. He reached out and stroked her back for a moment.

“So you’re just going to let it die?” said Garrett.

“We’re not going to let it die,” said Ricky. “We’re thinking of replacing it with drought-resistant stuff.”

“Like what?” said Garrett.

“I don’t know,” said Ricky. “Succulents or something.”

“The leasing company’s going to split the cost with us,” said Maureen.

Garrett’s face grew warm as Ricky and Maureen talked. Here he’d been trying to maintain the lawn all this time, while behind his back everyone had been plotting to destroy it. His embarrassment transmuted into anger. He pushed closed the front door and saw in Ricky and Maureen’s eyes that they took that to be threatening. “Why would you do this without consulting me?” said Garrett. “Because this is our house,” said Ricky. “We don’t have to consult you.”

“We’ve seen you out there cleaning up litter and stuff,” said Maureen. “It’s nice, but it’s a little weird.”

“It’s not weird,” said Garrett. “It’s my yard, too.” Ricky frowned, confused.

“No, it’s not, dude,” he said.

All three of them stood silent for a few moments. There was only the sound of Ornette scratching at the door and barking again.

“I think it’s time for you to go,” said Maureen. “It’s late.” “Can we talk about this some more?” said Garrett.

Ricky shook his head. “Maureen’s right. We’ve all had a little too much to drink tonight. Let’s sleep it off.”

Ricky opened the front door. With his free hand, he gestured for Garrett to exit. Instead, Garrett bolted back toward the kitchen, where he grabbed the bottle of wine he’d brought before storming out the back door.

In his duplex that night, he drank that bottle and half of another before vomiting purple muck all over his bathroom floor, where he then slept.

Garrett avoided seeing his neighbors after that. He had his groceries delivered and the temp office got him a data-entry position he could do from home. When he left his house, it was only after he’d surreptitiously peered out his windows to make sure Ricky and Maureen were both gone.

Ricky never ended up contacting him about auditioning for the movie, which was actually fine by Garrett. He’d gone to Ricky’s IMDb page and watched a couple of his most recent productions. They were quirky dramedies starring young people Garrett had never heard of. One was about abortion and the other one was about racism in the workplace. In both, the villains were older white men. Garrett didn’t understand most of the jokes and references, and when the movies were over he had the thought that films like these weren’t only not made for him but were actually made to spite him.

the day it all went down
began with a beautiful morning, the kind of gently warm and clear day that L.A. residents soon learn to take for granted. Ricky, Maureen, and the neighbors were only thirty minutes into their weekly dog party when Garrett heard the laughter turn to screams. He wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly. The rodenticide box said it would take three to five days to kill rats that consumed one pellet. But then again, he’d used two whole boxes, dozens of pellets—green, a shade almost exactly like Maureen’s biscuits—crushed, mixed with a little flour and water, and then baked into heart and star shapes. Ricky and Maureen liked to leave the bowl out on the porch at all hours so dog owners could help themselves. It was easy.

Garrett walked out in his bathrobe to bear witness. The grass and driveway were dotted with dog vomit here and there. The redheaded neighbor Garrett noticed before had frantically called 911 and was being told that the police don’t handle veterinary emergencies. Most of the others, Ricky and Maureen included, were trying to revive their pets, shaking their limp bodies or holding the animals to their ears to try and detect heartbeats.

Ricky’s face bore the strangest expression in the group. He looked more disoriented than afraid, bewildered that something like this could be happening to him. It reminded Garrett of the time he’d shot a dove out of midair with a friend’s BB gun back in Michigan. They were twelve and camping in the mountains. The bird didn’t die right away—he’d hit it low where the tail met the body—and its black eyes darted around as it flailed in the dirt. It was the first time Garrett could remember feeling powerful, full of the knowledge that he could bring something beautiful and free back to earth.

Cord Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and TV producer originally from Tucson, Arizona. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his directorial debut, American Fiction, based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. He has written for The Good Place, Succession, Master of None, and Watchmen, for which he won an Emmy. His journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, and Bookforum. He lives in Los Angeles.
Originally published:
March 1, 2022


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