By Juliana Gray
This is a good neighborhood. Safe, clean. The houses are getting older, but people keep them up and we look out for each other. Last summer, when Glen Dieters next door let his grass grow long between mowings—shorter than the six inches declared a public nuisance by the village ordinance, but still unsightly—I didn’t say anything. When he finally did drag the mower out of his garage, it stalled trying to chew through the shag.
Then autumn came, and Dieters didn’t rake his leaves. Everyone else on the street filed out on a sunny weekend and got the job done—it was like something choreographed, every yard with parents working, kids screaming as they flung themselves into crunchy piles, songs of leaf blowers and scraping tines. Not Dieters. The row of lilacs that traced our property line marked a division as stark as in a child’s coloring book: smooth green lawn on my side, crumpled brown droppings on his. Dieters always drove from work straight into his attached garage, but I caught him one evening as he slipped out to get his mail. “Looks like you decided not to grow any grass next spring,” I called, leaning on my rake. (I was only pretending; the job was long done by then, leaves spread evenly across my garden for mulch.) Dieters tucked his magazines under his arm and muttered about being busy, he’d get to the leaves next weekend.
He didn’t, of course, and then the snow came. Dieters dug out two tracks for tires in his driveway, tossed a few handfuls of salt in front of his mailbox, but left his sidewalk untouched. There I was, like all the other neighbors, shoveling the snow plows’ filthy wake, chipping away the ice, keeping the walks clear day after day. Honest people use that walk, joggers and students and parents pushing strollers. But the path disappeared at Dieters’s property, his tacky, orange driveway reflectors jutting up like two defiant fingers. People had to step into the snow and walk in the road—not that there’s much traffic on our street, but still. There was Dieters’s dark house, with its sagging gutters and chipping paint, no name on the mailbox, no friendly wreath on the locked front door.
Then, during a February thaw, I found beneath the lilacs four rusty cans of Reddi Whip with the nozzles snapped off. Kids getting a cheap, nasty high, then tossing their trash. They never would have dared do something like this before. Not here. I pulled on my gardening gloves and collected the cans, sloshing with cream.
I made an anonymous call from the public library, and a few days later, just before dawn, I woke to blue lights splashed on my bedroom walls. Police cruisers and SUVs parked at crazy angles across Dieters’s drive and front yard, and as I watched, an ambulance lumbered through the lawn (tires slipping in the snowmelt and rotted leaves) and into the backyard. The basement door opened and the boy walked out, pale as milk and limping slightly, wrapped in a blanket and supported by two EMTs. I stood close to my window, my breath lightly misting the glass. As the sky turned pink, they helped him into the back of the ambulance. They put socks on his bare feet and gave him a cup of something, which he held carefully but did not drink. A woman EMT sat close to him and talked. The boy started crying, and she closed the door. Dieters, I assume, had already been cuffed and loaded into one of the SUVs, but I hadn’t woken up in time to see it.
And now the house will sit empty until it’s turned over to a realtor, who will fix it up and put it on the market. Someone, maybe a family, will move in and take care of it properly. There’s no reason our property values should suffer; the school district is one of the best in the area, and it’s not as if the house is haunted. No one actually died there. This is a good neighborhood. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you.