I spied out our living room picture window—true to my Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on Bewitched, nature—to check whether the town’s water meter man in a pickup was still parked outside. He had been sitting there in his truck, motor idling, for 20 minutes. But he was gone. Instead, just beyond the yellow marigolds and hanging basket of dark blue lobelia on our front lawn, I saw a fireman. He pointed to my left, toward our driveway at the side of the house. I took a look. Nothing but our cars. He gestured again, only this time his hand made a curved line. Around what? I opened the front door.
“I need to talk to you, but at your back door,” he said. “Are you expecting a package?” We weren’t. “There’s a small box on your lawn. Have you noticed it?” I hadn’t. “Ma’am, you have to leave your house. The box has ‘tick, tick, bomb inside’ written on it and procedures dictate that you have to evacuate.” The meter reader had spotted the package and called the fire department. I ran into the house, told my husband in a string of nouns—bomb, package, tick, kaboom, lawn, exit—and shoved my cat, Tasha, into her carrier.
When I got outside, the fireman said, “I don’t mean to pry, but I have to ask this: You got any enemies, anyone mad at you?” “Uh, no,” I said, wondering whether to tell him my husband is a professor. He’s occasionally been the target of a student’s meltdown—usually in the form of a nasty e-mail or tears, although years ago an ex-con, who had done time for murder in San Quentin and who was in my husband’s course, spat at him—because of a low grade. But what teacher hasn’t pissed off a student?
The fireman suggested that my husband and I go somewhere, say, the town center, because this mishegoss—my word, not his—would last a few hours. The bomb squad, he said, needs to x-ray the package, but would take awhile to arrive. (Stopping on the way for triple espressos, just the thing for steady hands, I thought.) Three hundred feet on either side of our house had to be kept clear. Our neighbors to the left, right and front of us had to evacuate, too. That’s procedure, he said.
The use of jargon irritates me. Several weeks ago, a security company technician explained the rudiments of our home burglary alarm—it’s not just an alarm, it’s a system—only I couldn’t figure out what he meant when he said we were in an “alarm condition.” He explained several times using still more jargon, which confused me further. On top of that, he spoke in a loud voice, which I attributed to the fact that he was probably hard of hearing from setting off so many house alarms as part of his presentation. He had done so for my benefit—several times—and the high-pitched screech was unbearable. I had to ask him to stop. Finally, after what had become a “who’s on first” ordeal, things cleared up. An alarm condition means the alarm is set. He then pointed out the buttons on the keypad for trespassing situations, medical emergency situations, fire situations and hostage situations.
Standing in the middle of the road in my newly acquired evacuee status talking to the fireman, I thought, we’re paying $25 a month for a security system with no button for bomb situations.
I stifled a snicker. My husband and I headed back to our house—cat carrier with our yowling Siamese in hand— to get into our cars. The moment our backs were turned toward the fireman, we started giggling, the kind of giggling you do when you’re not supposed to. The kind of giggling 6 year olds do until they start coughing and can barely suck in air. “Do you think the person wrote, “gub” like the Woody Allen character did in ‘Take the Money and Run’?” His character hands a bank teller a note that’s supposed to read, “I have a gun?” The teller rereads the note and passes it around to her fellow tellers, who say to each other, “Gub? What’s a gub?” My husband and I looked at each other and said “gub” and cracked up. Then he mentioned Wile E. Coyote. We were giddy and out of control.
Try as we might, we couldn’t take a bomb scare seriously—or maybe we just weren’t trying. The box was one of those videotape-size red, white and blue priority mail cartons that you get from the post office for free. If it were indeed a bomb, I figured the most damage it might cause was killing a few weeds in our front lawn. Too bad. What we really needed was a great big blast—KABOOM!—one that could wipe out huge swaths of crabgrass, chickweed, dandelions, clover and more. That encyclopedic list of weeds on a weed killer spray bottle? That’s our lawn. The few blades of grass here and there are barely a testament to Darwinian theory.
My husband expressed disbelief that this small package could hold an explosive capable of doing much damage. But then I reminded him of the airline shoe bomber, whose sneaker contained enough explosives to blow out the side of a plane. I did not want to think about that too much because then I’d have to consider the possibility that someone was really out to harm us.
We went to the Starbucks in town. I bet they’ve never considered their stores as safe houses for potential victims of terror. It’s not as if their marketing VP would say one day, “There’s an untapped demographic out there. Let’s target our next campaign to evacuees.” Some other marketing genius could then dream up with names for a whole new line of drinks: the iced latte detonator, the cappuccino bang and a caffeine-free drink called Bomb Squad. The idea would never make it to a focus group.
The August day had been humid and now the late afternoon clouds, swollen with moisture, couldn’t hold back any longer. A blinding rain poured from the sky. Anyone outside for less than a minute would be drenched. In our rush, we hadn’t taken our anoraks.
“Someone you know could have done such a prank,” I said, between sips of hot chocolate. I was cold from the combination of damp shorts and T-shirt and an air conditioner that was working far too well.
“Why someone I know?” my husband said.
“You know more looney people than I do. Or maybe an ex-girlfriend found out that you got married last week. How about this: For five years, you lied to me and hid the fact that you’re in the eyewitness protection program. Your name is something else, you’ve had plastic surgery, you were in the mob,” I said. “Happens all the time. I’ve seen it on television.”
The image of him being in the mob couldn’t be more absurd. My husband still ties his shoelaces making rabbit ears. He can barely wield a knife without injuring himself. He wears tweed, not Italian silk, jackets. We laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks. Whenever we used words such as explosive, bomb or detonator, we’d whisper. Anyone eavesdropping would guess we were nut cases.
We were new to the neighborhood. Just five months before, we had moved into the house—a modest cape on a quiet street where people have lived in their houses for decades. On either side of us live retirees, one of whom spends his afternoons seated in a lawn chair in his front yard, listening to the radio. In short time, without meaning to, we became the kind of neighbors who cause trouble.
Until a few months ago, I had never lived in a house. I grew up on New York’s Lower East Side on the 14th floor of an apartment building adjacent to a highway that bordered the East River. As a grownup, I’ve owned condos—a townhouse and an apartment in a three-family house. Our new house wasn’t a fixer-upper, although we did obsess a tiny bit about whether the inspector missed anything—a crumbling foundation, faulty electrical wiring, a leaky roof. Why worry about little things when you can torture yourself with worst case scenarios. Between the time our bid was accepted and we closed on the house, we rented two screwball comedies: “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” and “The Money Pit,” movies about home ownership disasters. We were indulging ourselves in schadenfreude, albeit directed at characters that don’t exist.
We didn’t meet our neighbors on moving day, but we made our presence known the next morning. Standing on my front lawn, I smelled gas. Workers installing a sump pump in the basement could smell it too. The phone man wrinkled his nose. I called the gas company. A woman with an electronic gas sniffer arrived. She checked the kitchen. The stove was emitting the appropriate level of gas odor. She went to the basement. No, the workers hadn’t hit a gas line with their welding tools or jackhammer. I waited for her outside. I did not want to be in a house that might blow up, landing me on the evening news.
The mechanical bloodhound led her to the front yard next door. After a half hour, she’d pinpointed the source. They had a gas leak coming from an outside line. She made a few phone calls. A backhoe, a gas company truck and a cop—er, police detail—appeared at noon. They set up orange cones, began drilling through the street in front of our house and, when the winter sun disappeared at 5 pm, turned on huge work lights. Like Hollywood spotlights, they pointed the yellow beams towards our house. A foot of snow on the ground intensified the glow, making the night seem brighter. All we needed was a marquee on our roof flashing “Jackhammers keeping you awake? Here’s who to blame.” My fiance arrived home from work and said, “What did you do?”
At midnight, the racket stopped; the street became dark. The utility workers were done.
A week passed. I was shoveling snow—falling heavily, as if we needed more in March on top of the foot or so still on the ground—from our walkway. We had just returned from the hospital, my fiancé in a cast because of wrist surgery that day to wire together errant bones, one of them called a lunate (as in lunacy), that were drifting apart. He was in bed upstairs in a post-surgery painkiller-induced haze. A neighbor, a retiree, crossed the street and introduced himself. He’d already met my fiancé a few days before.
“You know, you shouldn’t have to do that,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “We’ve had enough snow this year already. This is redundant.”
Then he mentioned my fiancé. I told my new acquaintance that my fiancé had had wrist surgery, and we’ve just returned from the hospital. The neighbor, a retiree who works as a school crossing guard, said nothing else and crossed the street back to his house. Then, I realized what he had meant. I was doing a man’s job, and my man was, by my neighbor’s standards, failing to be a man. Great, I told my fiancé. “Our neighbors think you’re a girly man who lets me—barely 100 pounds—toil in the snow, while you’re upstairs drooling on painkillers.” Days later, my fiancé, now lucid and wearing a cast, was outside, when that same neighbor came by. The neighbor asked about his wrist and then apologized for his blooper.
Spring arrived in the rest of the United States. We entered the monsoon season. Eleven weeks of rain. Our weed-filled lawn grew a foot. The right house warming present for us would have been a lawn ornament, as in a white Chevy truck blotted with rust spots up on concrete blocks. Until two years ago, I owned such a car, but it was still drivable. Included in many ads for the same model and year cars were the initials “TBR,” for “typical Blazer rot. Even if the rains stopped, my fiance could not mow the lawn. His forearm and palm were still wrapped in a cast. I have never used a lawnmower and, given my klutziness, thought it better that I didn’t try.
Our yellow dandelions turned into white puffs. We were spreading bad seed to our neighbors’ meticulous deep-green lawns, where every blade measures two inches, and maple trees are encircled perfectly in reddish-brown mulch.
We could almost hear the tut-tut of our neighbors when we walked down our road into town. Each time we made it from our car into the house without encountering anyone, we felt as jubilant as a runner crossing a finish line. But then one day, I got caught as I was leaving the house. A neighbor across the fence said: “If you’d like the name of a lawn care service, I know of one.” Subtle, I thought. I had called several, actually. But they weren’t interested in one-time jobs.
Which reduced my fiancé to running after a landscaping crew truck turning down a nearby street one Saturday morning. “They’re going to do it!” he said when he got back.” He was jubilant.
Like a good therapist, this crew relieved us of our shame, and weeds. We could walk into town, say hi or wave—why, even both—to neighbors we passed along the way. When my fiancé finally could mow the lawn, he fired up the mower and pushed the loud growling machine to the front yard. Over its engine, I swear that I could hear the neighborhood breathe a collective sigh of relief. We were not going to be a habitual eyesore.
About a month or so later—and three weeks before the bomb—having demonstrated that we were indeed responsible homeowners, we got bold. We were getting married in our backyard in 14 days. My fiance tucked notes in the doors of the houses on our block, warning neighbors of the onslaught of about 30 cars, caterers, a big white tent, an evening filled with the voices of 50 guests and maybe a jazz guitarist. Your Saturday might be disturbed, but only somewhat, we assured. No deejay, we promised. No dance floor either. We were planning a quiet, civilized affair. We had signed our names but omitted our house number. Not everyone knew who we were, and we didn’t want to make it easy for someone to complain to us before the wedding.
On the big day, we, the blissful couple talked for hours with friends who had traveled many miles and had no idea whether our wedding disturbed a soul. Since no cop—I mean, police officer—had come to our door citing noise ordinances, we figured we’d done good. First thing Sunday morning, I brought wedding cake next door and scored some good neighbor points.
But now, we had a suspicious package—a Homeland Security, code orange special—on our lawn. Sitting in Starbucks, we watched several big, charcoal-grey SUVs with blackened windows and flashing headlights speed by and turn down our steet.
An hour had passed and we were curious. We drove towards our house and talked about what we’d do if this were more than a prank by teenagers on summer vacation who’d run out of things to do on the fifth rainy day in a row. My husband asked if our taking a look would arouse suspicion, like the arsonist who joins onlookers as the flames he set swallow a building. I imagined our neighbors telling TV reporters: “This was a good neighborhood until they showed up.”
Some 15 vehicles—the SUVs we had seen earlier, a few police cruisers, an engine-ladder truck, other fire trucks and several EMS vans—clogged our block. It was 6 pm and neighbors getting home from work couldn’t. Some of the trucks were used as roadblocks. We returned to the town center and shopped for long sleeve shirts, feeling like two criminals on the run looking for disguises. It was as if every salesclerk could tell that we were a potential threat to national security or that someone out there was after me or my husband or both of us. So we chit-chatted with the clerk about the weather while she was ringing up our purchases. I glanced at my husband, with a look that said “Whatever you do, don’t mention the bomb.” We left wearing our new clothes and dashed through the rain to our car—the cat still yowling about her incarceration. We checked our street once more. Yellow crime scene tape had been put up across the width of the street.
A small person wearing a bulky olive-colored spacesuit-like outfit that covered his entire body, except for the clear shield over the eyes, was prone on our lawn. “This is good,” I said. “We can tell our friends we saw little green men today.” In the damp, warm weather, the suit probably felt like a portable steam room. A lot of uniforms and a lot of onlookers were standing around. We went to dinner.
At 8 pm, a little more than five hours after our evacuation, we went home. This time, the street was empty, cars were in driveways, living rooms flickered in blue light from TV sets. There was no sign that anything had happened, although bits of cardboard were strewn across our lawn. Our bomb scare made the 10 and 11 o’clock news. That’s how we found that there was no bomb. A voice-over gave some details while videotape gave us our first up-close look. The little green alien, lying prostrate on our lawn, soaked the box with a blast of water from their equipment before opening the package. Just in case. We also made both the police and fire logs in our local paper. From its clipped, spare prose, we learned that eight houses had been evacuated and that detectives were investigating “the incident.” The FBI, police, or any other agent-investigator type in dark sunglasses did not contactus.
The next morning, a guy who lives a few houses down the block drove up when I turned into our driveway. “You the one who was getting married last week?” he said in a deep, almost gruff voice, as he leaned out the driver’s side window. I nodded, a bit startled because I thought he was going to ask me about the bomb.
“You didn’t have to leave the note. You coulda had an entire brass band and we wouldn’t have minded. It was your day. Congratulations.” He grinned.
Before I could ask him his name, he pulled away in his pickup.