I grew up about 20 miles west of Nashville, where at least one kid in my high school class got laid because he could drive a tractor before anyone else had a learner’s permit.
It was more boonies than ‘burb back then, but these days, with Nicole Kidman and Taylor Swift sightings upping the property values of the city, my hometown is now officially a place where the urbanites have sprawled.
It is officially a suburb. Starbucks coming soon.
Part of my own ‘burb experience there was floating with my sister from house to house, wherever she was babysitting. She babysat the cool kids around my own age, the kids whose parents had money enough to buy name-brand sodas. These kids were out of my league socially, but my sister—seven years my senior and the strikingly attractive object of my classmates’ affection—gained me access into their lives in a way no one else could.
One day she babysat some regulars—a brother and sister down the street—and the siblings’ female cousin, who lived two doors down, asked the girl over to do their nails or something. Reluctantly, but not wanting to leave me out, this cousin invited me too, and there I was, sitting in a maroon-carpeted living room with two of the coolest girls in school. I was momentarily hip. We hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when the doorbell rang. The cousin’s neatly coifed mother reapplied her lipstick and straightened her skirt before opening the door to what turned out to be an Oreck vacuum cleaning salesman. She was bored; she let him in; she flirted.
He demonstrated every brush, every setting, and she seemed amazed by them all, each more than the last. The hunk of metal glided across the carpet, its headlights illuminating dust the carpet coughed up. The collapsed bag filled with air and deflated when the salesman stopped periodically to show us what the vacuum had picked up. Every use produced horrors: dirt that no one could have ever known existed beneath the springy fibers, maroon lint caked with dead human skin cells, cat hair from a sofa that appeared to be cat-hair-free, dust mites on the drapes.
Now, this house was way cleaner than mine, and this did nothing to help my obsessive-compulsive disorder. The salesman had done his job: I had been convinced that the lady with the maroon carpet needed this vacuum, the house where my sister stayed with her remaining male charge needed this vacuum, and, by God, we needed this vacuum more than anyone. “How much?” asked the woman, and when he said the price was over a thousand, she repeated with a harsher tone, “HOW much?” before shooing him out the door while he scrambled to get all his gear together and explained that the vacuum would last forever.
It was this experience that made me swoon over “Domestic Ties” by David Atkinson. The vacuum—described brilliantly by Atkinson—is its own character, almost upstaging Charlotte, an unforgettable homemaker whose nature (and surely, her upbringing) is to make anyone at home. The state prison takes advantage of this, and Charlotte has to revisit her personal convictions, waking Charlotte’s inner-hostage. This is speculative fiction at its best: taking the idea of home, adding a huge what-if, and prodding us to play along until we forget there’s anything absurd about the premise.
“Baby Agave” is, I’m pleased to say, Rachel Howell’s first publication. (You saw it here first, folks.) The story is a lovely and heartbreaking illustration of the predictability that sometimes follows a couple’s ascent (descent?) to the suburbs, where lawns require attention, neighbors are forced into conversation, sprouting babies is the natural next step, and grown men are named Caleb. Howell is so delicate with the subject matter that it’s also hard to believe how gutsy she is with it too.
James Valvis shows where it’s really at. Suburbs or not, fenced yards and morning commuters and sensible cars and little houses made of ticky-tacky or not, there is freedom in arriving at happiness wherever it lives. I know, I know: even the speaker of “Pace” recognizes that the idea of happiness feels a little sappy, a little cliché. And he’s okay with that, because he’s experienced the alternative. There are people, families—really lovely ones—living on those quiet streets. The yards may look the same, but each home, each person, is keeping different time, walking with a distinct gait.
I kind of miss the safe, untroubled world of a place like that. One where housewives let vacuum cleaner salesmen in their living rooms without much thought.
Today, my little family lives in an “up-and-coming” historic neighborhood near downtown where property values are kind of low and crime is kind of high (compared to the ‘burbs, anyway). This is the part of Nashville where artists and gay power-couples live in renovated foursquares and tudors and bungalows, just down the street from public housing. Yes, we can walk to get a beer, but we might also come home with the bejeezus scared out of us by a cracked-out dude who thinks we stole his shoes. For years we thought this made us hip.
We’ve recently decided we’re moving before the youngster starts school. You know where. Where the lawns are manicured and homeowners’ associations are vigilant. Where we get to hear the real estate agent say “bonus room” and “island” and “garden tub.” Where crime is a rare occurrence that gets neighbors talking to each other. Where we will cut out our own privacy-fenced slice of life and repeatedly remind ourselves that we can live in a place, without being of it.
We can pretend to be hip anywhere.
Photo Source: Chicagoist