All lawns on Mentone Avenue are mowed on Wednesdays. Monday at promptly 2pm is garbage day, trash is to be outside no earlier nor later. All doors are repainted on Tuesdays, Wednesday is for the lawns, Thursday is for outdoor recreation and the community meeting. Friday, we change the lightbulbs and trim the hedges, Saturday is mail day and Sunday we wash the cars.
This morning I rolled over and my arms met a warm but unoccupied pillow. The muffled buzzing of lawnmowers droned like a beehive. Rubbing my eyes, I made my way toward the window and saw Rich outside walking diagonally across the lawn, the same way Bill was across the street and Laura to Bill’s right. Rich lifted one hand from the mower, making sure to keep it straight before he looked away. He then glanced to our neighbor Tara, who trekked diagonally across her lawn, her jaw contorting with anger. He shouted a greeting, but it was drowned out by the lawnmowers’ simultaneous hums. Even the pitter-pattering of each engine was the same.
I made coffee for Rich and I and he drank about half of it, then headed off to work at precisely 8:32am along with every other working member of our humble community. Coffee cups were placed gently on tables at the first second of the minute, lapels were straightened at the second, lips pecked at the fifth, cars unlocked at the fifteenth, engines puttered at the twenty-fifth, and by the time the clock struck 8:33, not a single car was left on Mentone.
I venture outside and take in the lingering sweet smell of gas from the lawnmowers fuming from open garage doors. The birds reemerge from hiding, filling the empty air with morning songs and flapping onto telephone lines in synchronicity as if they have community guidelines of their own. As they land, the telephone lines sway and graze each other, giving off the faintest hollow sound of colliding rubber. A distant dog barks, but not one from Mentone: no pets allowed.
Bill Henderson waves from across the street. “Mornin’ Mrs. Vickers!”
I nod and smile. One hand is tucked into my armpit, I wave with the other, then use it as a visor to block out the rising sun. “Good morning, Mr. Henderson.”
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful indeed,” I say.
“I saw Christie the other day. How old is she now?”
“Four,” I tell him. “Well, four next month.”
He shakes his head and his hands find his hips. “She’s growin’ up so fast. I remember when she was just –” He trails off, dedicating all his focus to showing me just how tall she was without tweaking his elderly back.
“They grow up so fast,” I say.
“Sure do. Say, how’s Rich been –” He pauses again, but this time his face goes pale. His eyes bulge and his lips press together until they’re white and his Adam’s Apple lurches.
I squint and lean forward, cupping my hand a little more. He’s staring at something on my side of the street, but it isn’t me. I trace his gaze. The telephone pole? It’s only a guess. “Bill?” I call out as sweetly as my leaping heart can manage. “Everything alright?”
He nods, but his expression is stagnant.
“Dear, you’re white as a sheet. Bill?”
He still says nothing. Bill reaches for the door jamb to catch himself as he nearly falls backwards, then turns and stumbles back into his house.
I squint, look all around. The working spouses are all gone, it’s not Thursday, so the children are locked away. But then I see her, strutting down Mentone Avenue, the only resident who lives without a hint of fear. And when I go to wave, I feel a tightness in my elbow that reaches for my heart. “President Sanders, good morning!”
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look my way. Instead she approaches that telephone pole with a vengeance as if it forgot to paint its door on Tuesday. She rips something off of it. I gasp: no postings allowed on the telephone poles. She looks it over as if its content matters, then crumbles it into a single fist. Her head jolts up and she catches me in her most pompous gaze. “Ms. Vickers,” she says as a matter of fact. She walks towards me and my legs plant to the floor in shock. Her elbow cocks and she shows me the balled paper.
“Any idea who put this up?” she interrupts.
“Um…no.” I can’t believe how guilty I sound. “W-what is it?”
“No idea?” Sanders scans my face, inching closer until our noses nearly touch. “Hm,” she finally says, almost convinced. “That pole is right in front of your property, Ms. Vickers, is it not?”
“And it is your duty to report any wrongdoings in our community, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I gulp.
“Right. Then what is this?” She thrusts the paper into my chest where it thuds and crinkles on impact. I instinctively grab it, then unravel the mess between apprehensive glances at her.
I look the paper over. It’s true, I’ve never seen it before, but guilt strangles me nonetheless. “It’s a um…a poster. A missing person sign for…Ingrid Cornelius. Is that why her house just went up for sale? Is she dead?”
“I don’t give a damn if she is,” Sanders snaps. “I want to know what that paper’s doing sullying our community, don’t you?”
“I – um…”
“What seems to be the problem here?” a familiar voice interjects. We both follow it to Tara Yates. Tara stands squarely with her arms crossed, her nose crinkled, and her light red hair draped over one shoulder.
“Ms. Yates,” the President addresses her. “We’re on the hunt for a criminal. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this poster, would you?”
Tara gives a single nod. “Yeah. Actually, I do.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“I saw someone stick ‘em up. Dead of the night.”
“Who was it?”
“It was dark,” Tara says.
“An accomplice,” Suzie says, jaunting toward an unfazed Tara Yates. “You know that’s just as bad a crime. Almost worse.”
“It was dark,” Tara annunciates. “Couldn’t see a thing. But it wasn’t Bella, I can tell you that.”
“If it was too dark to see, how do you know?”
“She’s too short. It was a very tall person, probably a man.”
“A man?” Suzie repeats, taking a pondering glance at the Henderson house.
And as the menacing silence hangs, the clumsy clattering of a child ring out from the Yates house. Pots and pans hitting the ground, yells and screeching shoes. “Mommy! Mommy!”
“Not now, Billy,” Tara cautions.
“Mommy, you have to see this! Look what I drew!”
“Not now, Nicky, back inside.”
Suzie shoots the women a disdainful smile. “No, it’s perfectly alright, Nicholas. Show mommy what you drew. In fact, why don’t you show us all what you drew?”
He turns the paper around, and exclaims. “Look – it’s the Hoah!”
My heart stops. Even Tara’s usually calm composure goes wide-eyed and grit-toothed as she throws a hand over the picture. But in the brief moment it is visible, I see a jumbled mess of heavy-handed wax scribbles, outlining a hunched black and brown creature with red lines like crimson raindrops dripping from its long sharp teeth. Tufts of hair poke out like weeds in a garden on its spiny but menacing figure and its eyes gleam in a light yellow.
“The Hoah?” the President scoffs. “Why, I haven’t the first clue what that is.”
“Yes you do!” Nicky says. “Mommy told me it’s a big, big monster that lives under the –”
Tara hushes Nicky and then scolds him and points to the door. Nicky’s shoulders drop and he looks to his picture, then scurries inside. Tara gives Suzie a glare.
Tara eyes the President up and down. “Yeah. Imagination.”
“Don’t forget – community meeting down at the rec center tomorrow night,” Suzie says. “Don’t be late.” She crumples the paper again in her fist, and just before she leaves she faces Tara again. “Oh, and Mrs. Yates.”
The President pulls an empty sandwich bag from her jacket pocket. “I found this in your driveway this morning.”
“It isn’t ours. Someone must have thrown it out the car window.”
Suzie smiles. “Don’t let it happen again.”
I sit outside on the front porch with a book in one hand and a steaming coffee in the other. The cars pull out and the young children flock to their yards, laughing and screeching with joy. Thursdays are for outdoor recreation.
Nicky is kicking a soccer ball around the yard. He juggles it a few times and then flails his legs as it jumps out of his control. He looks towards my yard to see my little Christie letting a ladybug crawl over the joints of her fingers. I smile for a moment, but it fades. I remember that missing poster – the way people have been talking about it over the last couple days. From the sounds of it, President Sanders had launched a full-on investigation. She’d interrogated most of Mentone without a single bit of evidence overturned and is now convinced that we are all conspiring. But if everyone is conspiring, I sure wasn’t let in on it. And as the clock ticks and the hours pass, the tension grows and the beast grows hungry. Imagination, I think. Tell that to Ingrid Cornelius. Everyone knows what happens when something falls short of community guidelines.
Tara leans at her waist on the fence between us. “Maybe it’s the gardener,” she says.
“Gardener? We all do our own work.”
She laughs, seeming blasé about the situation. “I dunno, but it’s always the gardener, isn’t it? The gardener, the butler, the maid…the husband. You don’t think Jonathan would have done it, would you?”
“Are we talking about the sign or the disappearance?”
Mrs. Yates laughs again. “Funny isn’t it?”
“How it doesn’t matter which we’re talking about?” She looks to Nicky and shakes her head. “Bill thinks it’s because their kid tried to put up a basketball hoop in the driveway last week. Walter says he heard them fighting after quiet hours, Laura and Percy think her car was parked in the wrong driveway without a permit because she was fucking Steve while Jonathan was at work. Would support the ‘husband did it’ thing. But you know what I think?”
“What?” I say.
“I think it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day – what caused it, who put the sign up. They all end up in the same place. We all do eventually.”
Nicky abandons the soccer ball, leaps in front of his mother with fingers curled and bared teeth and exclaims, “Rawr!”
Tara rubs his hair. “That’s right, Nicky: Rawr.”
I suck my lips, taste my lip gloss. My stomach churns. I raise the book to cover my face and hide.
Clamoring and gossiping and groans and tightened backs – I’ve never seen a meeting so tense. “What’s this all about, honey? I’m beat. Just want to get Christie to bed,” Rich says.
“I – it’s serious, Rich. Don’t you remember what I told you about the other day?”
“Someone took the trash out on the wrong day?”
“No,” I huff. “The thing about Ingrid. The poster?”
“Oh that. It wasn’t you, right?”
“Then what are you worried about?” he brushes it off.
“What am I worried about?” I raise my voice. “Rich, how could you be so –”
The floorboards creak and the room goes silent. Not a single man nor woman in the room is breathing. An echoing, deep groan rings out from beneath those recently-replaced floorboards of the rec room and the hanging lights swing. Not to mention the smell – I know we all taste it in our mouths, that weight of decay. But nobody mentions it. Nobody dares to.
Heels click down the center isle of the room and that awful roaring stops. She’s right on time: the woman without fear. “Good evening, all, members of the Mentone Avenue H-O-A.”
“Good evening, President Sanders,” we collectively groan.
“We call this meeting to order on this lovely Thursday April 20th at exactly 7:00pm,” she chirps, scans the room. “All association members present and accounted for.”
Laura Nichols, the secretary, pounds away at her keyboard in the corner.
“Now,” Suzie pauses. She looks over each and every one of us, waiting for someone to show even a hint of guilt, the smallest of cracks. She huffs. “We need to address…the matter at hand.” She paces around the front of the room like the drill sergeant she never was. “As I’m sure all of you are aware, we’ve had a disturbance in the community over the last couple days.” The president’s heels click beside a briefcase she brought along. She frees its clasps and the top flies open. She look at us all once more. I see Rich checking his watch out of the corner of my eye, as if he doesn’t care. As if he doesn’t know what comes next.
Suzie then grabs the top of the briefcase and shakes it, letting crumpled bits of paper fly loose. They fall and wisp and flop into one another to simultaneous gulps and ceasing hearts. We all sit up straight, fix our collars, bat our foreheads. Without another word she clicks to the back of the Rec room and bolts the door. “We have standards to uphold on Mentone Avenue. You didn’t elect me to be your H-O-A president to let this type of debauchery run rampant. No. That is why we are going to work together tonight until we find the culprit of these most heinous crimes.” She throws a hand over her heart in passion, the same passion that once fooled us all. But once is all it takes.
The President breathes out, then starts with her secretary. “Stop your typing,” she hisses. “Let’s start with alibis, shall we? Where, Mrs. Laura Nichols, were you on Tuesday night?”
Laura clears her throat, eyes bolting every which way. “Well…it was mine and Percy’s anniversary that evening. We went to La Mont Royale downtown to celebrate. Then we grabbed drinks next door.”
“Do you have receipts?”
“Of course.” Laura pulls the receipts from her jacket, folded nicely together as abiding by community guidelines.
“Brava,” Suzie whispers. She then turns to her next target and as she does, the floor creaks again. The room shakes like an earthquake and a waft of that foul stench assaults our nostrils. “Mr. Steven Henson. The widowed, lonely man. You know, I’ve been hearing something of a rumor about you lately.”
“Is that so?” he croaks.
“Yes. But that’s not my chief concern. Just make sure you report guests and register their license plate numbers with our office if they’re staying the night.”
“Of course, Miss…I mean, President Sanders.”
“Good on you,” she grins until Steve nervously reciprocates. “But this rumor I’m hearing puts you as a prime suspect in this particular case. Where, Mr. Steven Henson, were you on Tuesday night?”
“I was out of town,” he says. “Visiting my brother upstate for the last couple days.” “Is that so?”
“The one up in Cooperstown?”
“What is the current mileage on your vehicle?”
Suzie nods, calculating the number, her suspicion growing.
“I took the bus,” he blurts.
“Ah, perfect. And you have the receipt for that bus ticket?”
“Yes,” he says, pulling out his folded receipt the way Laura had.
Onto the next target: me. With a squeak, the President begins. “Mrs. Bella Vickers.”
“Yes, madam President.”
“Where were you on Tuesday night?”
“I uh…I put Christie to bed, read her a book, and then read my own book.”
“Bernstein Bears for her. But for me, Normal People by –”
“What happened in the section you read?”
I think for a moment. That whole evening flashes back to me: cooking dinner, Rich coming home, going over our budget and realizing another year without a vacation would slip by, putting Christie to bed, and – “I…don’t remember.”
“This is ridiculous,” Rich moans. I kick his leg.
“Yes, Mr. Vickers. Ridiculous is your wife’s alibi. You’re reading a book and you don’t know what’s happening?”
“No, I –”
“At any point in the story?”
The growls boom from the basement again. I stand and flail my hands desperately. My voice cracks and I feel a lump climbing my throat. “Ma’am, please, don’t do this. It wasn’t me. I was very tired and – it was such a long day and my mother is ill and I haven’t had a minute to read in ages and I just fell right asleep before I could get through a couple of –”
“Ladies and gentlemen…” the President declares, wrapping an iron grip around my wrist. “We’ve found our culprit. This meeting is adjourned.”
“No, please. Please, Ms. President, it wasn’t me.”
“Can your husband vouch for you?”
“He went out to the bar with his friends to play billiards and –”
She cackles. “So is that a no?”
“Oh come on, Suzie,” Rich protests, “She didn’t do anything. Look at her, she’s innocent as a dove. We never even knew Ingrid! Don’t you think that’s a pretty big hole in your batshit story?”
“I think we’ve all heard enough, Mr. Vickers, unless you would like to join her and leave little Christie an orphan. This meeting is adjourned.”
“Alright, stop,” Tara Yates yells. Her arms were crossed as they always were. She blew her red bangs out of her face to reveal her dreary aging green eyes. “It was me. I posted those signs.”
The room falls silent.
“Or maybe it wasn’t me, but it sure as hell wasn’t Bella and I can’t take this shit anymore. Week after week it’s the same thing. The same threats.” She stands, faces Suzie straight on.
The president releases my reddened arm and I grab at it in pain. “Don’t do this, Tara,” I heave.
“This is an H-O-A, you bitch,” Tara barks. “The Hoah is hungry this, the Hoah needs to feed that. You know what? I think it’s all bullshit. You can’t keep this up forever. You can’t keep feeding people to your little hell pet every time someone pulls their trash out three seconds too early or trims their hedges half an inch too short or God forbid, lets their children play outside when it isn’t Thursday. This isn’t the Soviet Union, Suzie. It’s a fucking H-O-A.”
Suzie listens to none of this, not a word of Tara’s protest. She inches closer to Tara, wraps her wiry but strong fingers around Tara’s wrist, pushes her shining red lips into Tara’s ear and whispers, “The Hoah must feed.” She draws back and addresses the room. “This meeting is now officially adjourned.”
I dip my roller into the blood-red pan and push it up and down over last week’s green layer. On Tuesdays, we repaint the doors. But to my right I hear the echoing of a mallet smacking into a sign that wedges half an inch at a time into the dirt. FOR SALE, it says. And within an hour a bright young couple is touring the house, exiting with smiles. I want to warn them, but I can’t. There is no day for forewarnings on Mentone Avenue.