I’m a tolerant man, but now this whole peasant thing has gotten out of hand. Like this afternoon. I’m sitting on my balcony, reading the newspaper. It’s my after-work ritual. I turn one of the Adirondack chairs to face west, sip a whiskey, and watch the sun go down. Our balcony looks south over the creek valley and the sunlight touches the tips of the fir trees before disappearing behind the hills. Seems like today was the first really warm and sunny day this year. Had my feet up on a planter box. Chester—that’s our Chesapeake Bay retriever—lies next to me snoring with his belly in the sun. Lois was working in the kitchen with the TV on. About halfway through an article on suburban sprawl and local politics, a weirder racket than usual rattles up behind me from next door.
I should explain about my neighbors. They are an entire clan of peasants from some Southeast Asian backwater—Cambodia, Laos, I can’t tell—and they are fresh off the boat.
The racket got Chester up barking. I peer over the railing and see two small pig carcasses swinging from my neighbor’s deck supports by a rope tied to their hind legs, twitching and dripping blood from their slit throats into a pan on the ground below. The episode put me off pork completely. Damn peasants—butchering pigs in their backyard. They don’t belong in a gated community. We have by-laws about this sort of thing, and if we don’t we ought to.
Besides, how do they afford it? All the houses here have no less than five bedrooms, three baths, and a three-car garage. Each lot is at least half an acre. The lowest price I’ve seen around here is $373,000. The only work I know they do is landscaping. They keep a fleet of beater trucks parked in front of their house, and mine sometimes, crammed with branches and grass clippings and dirt clods. Not another pickup in the entire community. Not many sport-utility vehicles either, except Tom down the block has one of those big Lexus things. Mostly BMWs here, Mercedes, the occasional Cadillac or Jaguar. I’m out walking Chester and a truck drives by—I know it’s the peasants.
Maybe they afford it because there’s so many of them. I mean, they practically moved over the entire village. Every morning about a dozen of them spill out the garage, jabbering away and banging metal garbage cans together before revving up those death-trap trucks and zooming off. Drives Chester nuts, too. I don’t need an alarm clock anymore. I’ve got the peasants. Off they go, don’t come home till after I do and that’s usually pretty late, around seven or so. They spend an hour or so banging more things and jabbering even louder, and then they have all the lights on in the house for half the night. Between all of them they have about 17 kids, I swear, and they’re all out swarming over the yard until 10:30, 11:00 o’clock nearly every night.
And those that aren’t mowing lawns are farming—that’s right, farming—in their backyard. They’ve terraced their entire hillside, contrary to our landscaping covenants, and planted miniature plum trees and all sorts of vegetables I’ve never seen. Lois says they’re growing kohlrabi and bak choy and Japanese eggplants. They let the little kids chase their pigs and chickens, which are also against the covenants, up and down the terraces making enough noise to wake the dead. And I’d always thought these people respected their ancestors.
I call Lois out to the deck.
“I’m cooking,” she says. “What is it?”
“Look.” I point to the pigs swinging from the deck.
“Humm—killing the fatted calf. So to speak.”
That’s it. The sum total of her reaction. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She looks over the railing again. “Maybe they’re having guests.”
“Doesn’t it bug you?”
“Should it?” she asks.
“Should it? Raising the little squealers is bad enough, but killing them—it’s dirty, against health codes, against the covenants.”
“If you’d stop spying—”
“I’m not spying. Didn’t you hear that God-awful squealing?”
Lois just shrugs her shoulders and goes back inside.
Spying, my ass. In fact, sometimes I swear they’re spying on me. Like today at the office, I’m finishing a market analysis report for a client and something catches my eye. I look out my window to see a short brown guy pushing a lawnmower. His face barely clears the windowsill. Another is dusting the grass clippings off the sidewalk by swinging a burlap sack back and forth. I have to admit, that’s pretty clever. No expense, no maintenance, and thank Heavens no racket from a leaf blower. Just some guy walking around, waving a sack in front of him like he’s blessing the ground or something. Maybe there’s a way to market some sort of recycled-fiber cloth for dusting off sidewalks like that. Just hose it off and drape it over your fence when it gets dirty. But the point is, I look out my office window and see these guys and they look just like my neighbors. They’re all over the place, and they all look alike.
Wait—maybe that sounds a little racist or something. That’s not me. I’m as equal opportunity as the next guy. I have an M.B.A.—I know that immigrants are a big part of our country. But immigrants live in big cities, Eastern cities, clustered together, like Chinatown. They have their own restaurants and newspapers and cleaners, speak their own language, celebrate their own holidays. It’s supposed to take a couple generations before they move to the suburbs and outscore the other kids on math tests.
I try to be neighborly, really—I wave if I see them when I’m driving up—but this is no big Eastern city. We’re out here in the hills at the edge of your average western town, past the trailer parks near the river, off the state route where the Farm Co-op and Lee’s Wholesale Computers share one of those pre-fab metal warehouses. Not the sort of place immigrants belong. Fit in, is all I’m asking. If they’re going to be Americans, they have to fit in, play by the same rules everyone else does.
That thing about health codes gives me an idea. I tote the cordless phone and phone book out to the deck, look up the county public health department, and give them a ring. Of course, it’s after five on Friday and the maze of options doesn’t mention any emergency numbers. What can I do? I’m sure photographing the evidence would violate some liberal’s idea of privacy, but what about mine? I shouldn’t have to live next to a slaughterhouse.
Soon the smell of grilling drifts over to our house. I peer over the rail again. The men next door are sitting around a cheap wooden picnic table drinking beer. Those little pigs are spinning on the barbecue rotisserie.
I call Tom, the one with the big new Lexus. He’s on the board for the homeowners’ association. I tell him about my neighbor’s commercial business and the noise and the pigs and everything they’ve been doing that breaks the covenants.
“I know,” he says.
“So?” I ask. “What are you going to do? If the association lets this sort of thing continue, they’ll never sell the rest of the lots.”
He says, “We’re not in a position to enforce the covenants right now.”
What the hell does that mean?
“Look,” he tells me, “until the entire development sells out, there’s not enough dues to take any legal action and without that sort of backing, the board doesn’t want to start anything.”
No spine. “What about the development corporation?” I ask.
“They put in some money, sure,” he says, “but they don’t want any negative publicity hurting sales. All we can do is wait and make sure things don’t get completely out of hand.”
I feel like I’m explaining this to a child. “Christ, Tom, butchering pigs. That’s not out of hand? I’ll collect the extra money. Hell, I’ll pay it myself. They’re killing my property value. This house is the biggest thing in my portfolio.”
“Legal action could hurt your investment, too,” he tells me. Had I tried talking with them directly?
“I don’t speak Laotian or Korean or whatever.”
Tom tells me to calm down. “They’re quite friendly,” he says. “In fact, the board has already contracted with them to complete the two parks.”
“Shit.” I hung up, just like that. That last sentence gave me a headache.
I walk down my driveway and up theirs. It’s been probably three months since I last talked with any of the peasants. About the middle of February, around the time we started getting some serious snow, I saw a crowd of them huddled in their driveway one Saturday as Lois and I left for a movie on her birthday. About eight of them, all men as far as I could tell, circled around a snowblower. One was explaining to the others, I guess, because he was waving his arms like snow shooting out the chute. For the next six weeks, until the thaw finally rolled around, I saw them everywhere sending up clouds of snow. A dull roar bounced off all the houses. One of them even knocked on my door and offered to clear my driveway. I’ve got my own snowblower, thank you very much. He seemed to speak usable English, though. There’s probably no hope of having him answer the door.
I approach their front door and one of them is standing on the steps smoking and drinking. With three or four or five generations—who knows?—sharing the same house, there’s always someone smoking.
When he sees me, he smiles and drains some imported rice beer from a can I don’t recognize.
“About those pigs,” I say.
He obviously doesn’t understand. Just smiles. I wrinkle up my nose, make a snorty sound or two, then jerk my finger across my throat like a knife.
His smile sags. He takes a step back and points to the door.
I pass him and ring the bell. Almost immediately the door opens and this God-awful music blasts out. It’s so bad it’s a parody of itself, this limp, nasal wailing. It does nothing for my headache. A young woman holding a baby on her hip stands in the doorway. “I’m your neighbor,” I say loud and clear. “About the pigs.”
Then this smell hits me, a cross between shit and vinegar—two things I’m sure they have a lot of. They’re probably putting up some concoction from the old country. My head throbs.
She doesn’t seem to understand either. I point to my house and repeat my pig-killing act, but no luck. At least the baby thinks I’m amusing. The woman smiles briefly, nods, and holds up her hand. Copper bangles clink down her forearm. For some reason I notice her fingernails, long and tapered like the silhouette of a temple. I guess she wants me to wait on the front step. Between the noise and the smell, I have no intention of going in the house.
She says something to the guy who’s still standing behind me, smoking his cigarette and watching. He chatters back and she disappears inside. I wish she’d closed the door in my face.
I can see down their entryway and something doesn’t look right. At first I can’t figure it out. It’s not the plastic runner covering the carpeted stair steps. The lighting looks harsh, too bright. All the lights are on, as usual. It’s the walls, I realize—there’s nothing on them: no pictures, no mirrors, no coat hooks. By tilting my head, I can see into their dining room and, sure enough, bare walls there too with a big, gaudy chandelier blazing away.
After an awkward minute, another peasant appears in the doorway. I think he’s the one who asked me about snow blowing. He’s got a few acne scars like the other guy, but I’m not sure.
“May we help?” he asks. Yep, it’s him.
“Pigs,” I say.
“You want some? They not done yet.”
“No, no. You can’t kill them here.” He doesn’t seem to understand. “It’s against the rules.”
He looks puzzled.
“Cov-e-nants, yes.” He nods. “Keep up house value. We buy here because of cov-e-nants.”
Christ. “Covenants say no killing pigs.”
“You’re shitting me,” he says, evidently trying out some new idiom he’s picked up on the job.
I point to the ground. “No killing pigs here.”
“No killing pigs here,” he echoes.
Now we’re making progress. “No pigs here, ever.”
“No pigs here?”
“No pigs.” I try to sound firm.
He pauses a moment. “No pigs,” he repeats, then smiles. He holds out his hand. “Thank you.”
We shake and I smile. Maybe this won’t be so bad. I turn and walk toward the driveway. The door closes behind me. Vinegar and wailing hang in the air and the first guy’s just standing there smoking. Walking past all their trucks with grass clippings rotting in the back, my head still hurts. I get the feeling that I’ve just been brushed off.
I take two ibuprofen with dinner. In a twist of irony, Lois has grilled pork chops for us. She’s balanced our plates and wine glasses on the arms of the Adirondack chairs. Miles Davis plays through the outdoor speakers I wired to the stereo when we moved in. The sun’s almost down, but the sky has this pink glow fading to green and then darkness. These afternoons are why we were the third couple to buy in.
I try to pretend the pork chops are T-bones, but it doesn’t work. The new potatoes are all I can get down. “I moved out here for a little peace and quiet,” I grumble, “and wind up next to a village of pig-killing peasants.”
“Don’t be such a stuffed shirt,” she says to me.
The painkillers haven’t kicked in yet and I can feel jaw muscles clenching. I don’t want to start a fight; besides, she said it with a smile. “They add character,” she claims. The women wear yellows and oranges and blues that she could never get away with. “Their plants look better than everyone else’s. Did you know they’re doing our parks?” she asks.
“Tom just told me.”
“I’ve thought about having them help with our yard.”
“I do my share.”
She spears a chunk of pork chop. “I never said you didn’t.”
“Then why do you need help? With the kids gone, you’ve got all day to yourself. Surely you can fit in some weeding.”
“You really are a stuffed shirt.” No smile this time. She begins reciting a whole list of yard renovation projects: moving rhododendrons, enlarging flower beds, terracing the entire back yard. Terracing, for God’s sake. She’s got a whole terraforming plan for a yard that was installed less than four years ago. I’d like to know where she thinks the money will come from for all this, but decide that money is not a good subject while I have a headache.
During her lecture on planting fruit trees, I sip my wine and mull over the peasant problem. I need some opportunity—an opening. Every now and then Chester gets outside our fence. He likes sneaking next door and rolling in their mounds of decomposing grass. The poor dope comes home with a big grin and a wagging tail. The next morning, he doesn’t know what he’s done wrong as Lois packs him off to the groomer.
Maybe I should be a little less diligent about keeping him in our yard.
“What if Chester just happens to chase down a pig or two?” I say, somewhat rhetorically, swishing my wine around in the glass. “Would our neighbors complain to the association?”
Lois says, “They might. Or they might catch him and roast him.”
She may be joking. Then again, she wanted two cats. “Let them try,” I tell her.