There Goes The Neighborhood:
I had been living there for about four years when I started noticing what I thought was the same behavior that I would see on the streets of Cleveland. I was disappointed, to say the least. I had picked up extra graveyards at my job as a hospital security guard and saved every cent until I could move my two girls to a small, single family twenty-five minutes north of the city. After we had lost their mother to asthma and their cousin to a police shooting, it felt like we had finally entered a time of peace in our lives. It was an indescribable feeling to be able to watch my daughters play from morning until night in a yard of their own without the same fear of stepping into the crossfire that I held as a kid. But, I’ve come to understand this feeling of safety as nothing more than that – a feeling, a bubble we build up around ourselves. Little did I know at the time, nothing that I witnessed growing up on Fulton Avenue would compare to the complete madness that I was about to descend into.
It began when our car was in the shop yet again. We needed a new ride badly, but money was too tight. Luckily, there was a bus stop about fifteen minutes down the road by foot that ran a line that ended a few blocks from the hospital. It was tough to deal with after working doubles, and I had to depend on my mother to get the girls from school, but as always, we made do. I headed out one afternoon and noticed a moving truck at the house across from mine. At first I was excited. It had sat empty for a while, along with the house next door once the Salvador family had been foreclosed on. The girls often complained of not having any buddies to play with, which always hit me in the heart since my neighborhood friends were my world when I was their age. But my hope was killed when I saw a seedy older man, maybe in his late 50s, early 60s, poked out from the edge of the van. He seemed much more thrilled to see me.
With his megaphone mouth, he introduced himself as Vince and explained that he had just moved from another suburb on the East side. Not wanting to seem unwelcoming, I engaged him in just polite conversation, but I was also quick to shake his hand and continue on my way. When you’re from a place where strangers are always quick to make a hustle, you become pretty skilled at picking up on the vibes that reveal true intention. It was clear to me that Vince had his nice guy act down; I could feel it in the grip of his hands. But there was something behind his eyes that screamed slime. I felt a wave of frustration and disappointment when I thought about how I was going to have to keep a close on the girls when they were outside. I tried my best to push it aside and focus on making my bus.
Within a couple of short weeks, it felt like Vince had transformed the dynamic of the neighborhood. I used to be the only real pedestrian that would pass through, but now suddenly Vince seemed to have tons of visitors coming and going by foot. I would try to exchange a polite nod or hello as I passed them, but there was never any kind of effort to reciprocate. I also couldn’t help but notice that they were all men, all fairly nondescript in hoodies and baseball caps, and maybe a bit younger than their host. By day, they would stand around in the front yard, which Vince had completely paved over with cheap asphalt…which would have made sense if all of his friends actually had cars? By night, the house would be silent, but there would be an endless glow coming from the top right window. At first I thought it was from a TV, but it seemed way too bright to be coming from even the biggest model on the market.
Every time I would pass by during one of the daytime parking lot hang outs, Vince would call out to me, robotically re-introducing himself. “Hi, I’m Vince, the new guy.” I thought that they all had to be high out of their skull, and I was pissed the hell off about it. One day when I was out front pulling some weeds, I noticed a cardboard sign tethered to the post of his mailbox. I immediately rolled my eyes. What on earth was it going to be this time? I couldn’t see what it said from where I was at, but I had to know what it said. Luckily, the crew was nowhere to be found, so I saw the opportunity to go over and investigate. It was written in complete serial killer scratch, but I eventually made out meeting cancelled for tonight. My first reaction was to wonder why in the day of group texting would there be a need to get in touch with people via yard sign. Did none of these junkies have phones? Then my confusion turned to anger. Was Vince trying to turn this place into a halfway house? I mean, I don’t want to sound like a complete jerk. I know there’s a need for those kinds of places. But when you’re a dad, your first choice isn’t to be living across from one.
It was to the point where I wouldn’t let the girls out anymore unless I was specifically by their sides. They were sad that their regular playtime routine was being interrupted, which only made me grow more resentful of the situation. I made a point of looking out the windows every so often. At first I felt like a paranoid old man, like I was turning into my granddaddy, but now I know that my vigilance needed to be ten times what it was. I had just started boiling some water one Friday evening when I figured it was time for a dusk security sweep. But when I got to the front living room window, what I saw made me want to throw my fist through the glass. I saw a familiar man leaving the back of Vince’s house. He lived down the street, but I had never learned his name. In fact, I tried to stay clear of him. The elderly lady who lived by the bus stop who knew everything about everyone had filled my ear about how his teenage kids would go around slashing tires before they eventually grew up and moved away. I couldn’t help but wonder if this guy played some kind of hand in luring Vince into the neighborhood, because, most curiously of all, he was carrying a brief case like the two had been transacting business. The prospects of a drug house made the half way look like nothing.
After dinner, I sent the girls to my mother’s house so I could plot my next move. The thought of moving from our home was daunting, both emotionally and financially, but I knew I didn’t want to give up on my dedication to wanting to give the girls a safer place than I had. This mental conflict plagued me well into the next morning, and after many restless hours, I knew it was time to take another peek outside. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a little girl riding a bike with the training wheels on in a circle around the asphalt yard while Vince and his cronies stood around, watching. I knew beyond a reasonable doubt that she wasn’t any of their daughters. I’m no expert on genetics, but if you have bright red hair, chances are your daddy does, too. Hell, my girls are my twins, right down to the gold flecks in our eyes. I called my mother and instructed her to keep the babies for the weekend.
That night, I still wasn’t able to settle on what to do. I knew it was going to have to take a couple glasses of Marker’s Mark to get me to sleep that night. I turned in early, but sat straight up at 2:00 am. Something, or rather, someone, had tripped my motion-activated security light I had installed after we first moved in, and I heard rustling around the Salvadors’ old place. Now this….really? Since the family had to leave, certain people around the community treated the property as open season. I had one neighbor even take it upon himself to remove the grill and trampoline that were left behind and drag them into his own backyard. The thought of sealing from some foreclosed on immigrants always made me sick. I got out of bed and looked out my side bedroom window, fully ready to see a crew coming to retrieve the abandoned hot tub. But, to my horror, I instead saw a familiar glow coming from the basement – the same glow that would permeate from Vince’s top floor.
I sat down on the edge of my bed and began lacing up my Tims. Whether it be looters, Vince, or the devil himself, I was ready to face it head on. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified, but sometimes you get to the point where your anger trumps every other emotion. I grabbed my pocket knife out of my drawer and bust out into the night. I approached the Salvador house from the back, carefully stepping through the overgrown weeds. Having been looking for broken windows, I was surprised to see the sliding close door sitting open, casually. That’s when I noticed another cardboard sign, this time latched to the dead light bulb next to the door frame. I enabled the flashlight on my phone. Meeting here, it read. I shuttered, but headed in with the lightest step I could manage.
The house was vacant aside from a single portrait of the Virgin that had been left on the living room wall. With my knife draw, I scanned for any signs of a basement door. It didn’t take long for me to spot it, as the blueish glow seeped through the cracks. As I got closer, I could hear the faint sound of a familiar voice. It was that awful, charismatic mouth I had been hearing on and off for the past month now. I thank God it was loud enough to drown out the sound of the turning door knob. The light that instantly hit me was overwhelming, but I managed to take finesse my way down each step, crouching behind a half wall that secluded the stairs from the rest of the basement. When it was clear I had gotten to the bottom, I worked up the courage to extend my eyes over the top. What I saw, I will never be able to un-see; it was the red-haired girl in a white lace gown, standing hand in hand with one of the minions while the rest gathered around. Vince was presiding over the couple while the mystery light flooded from around his shoulders. It appeared I was a wedding crasher. Out of shear disbelief, I dropped my knife, and it hit the floor with a clang that shattered the room’s concentration.
Every pair of eyes turned towards me, and slowly but deliberately, the crowd began to descend in my direction. I stood fully up and run as fast as I could. I never thought having to chase escapees from the psych ward at the hospital would pay off, but luckily it did. Out I went through the sliding doors. I could hear the foot steps behind me, but chose not to take a glance back. Instead, I reached for my keys and booked into my car. Through some lucky fate, I had picked up from its third visit to the shop that month that morning. I jammed the key into the ignition and it stalled and stalled like in the movies, but finally, the engine started with a rev, and I sped to the police station. The story I breathily regaled the officers with awoke a sense of urgency that I hadn’t witnessed since I left Cleveland.
But when we all returned to the Salvadors’ old place, the glow was gone, and so were Vince and company. After everything I had seen, I knew I couldn’t continue life there as usual. I stayed with my mother for a while until the police were able to hook me up with an attorney that helped me negotiate a new mortgage pro bono. My girls, their grandma, and myself uprooted to San Diego, where I’m happy to say, things have been quiet. I hope this serves as cautionary story to all the parents out there. I don’t want to think where we would all be now if I hadn’t followed my instincts. Even if you think you’ve escaped the pain of the here and now, there could always still be an underworld looming, waiting to take everything in its path.