It began as a minor border dispute and quickly escalated to a state of total war.
“I don’t like the way he looks at me or my hedgerow,” Bob Phillips told his wife on the day the Joneses moved in next door. “That type of disdainful expression from somebody who doesn’t even belong in our neighborhood is way out of line. I planted that hedgerow (or at least hired the guys who planted it) and made my home in this town long before he even heard the words ‘Seacrest Housing Development.’ And if he thinks he’s just going to snap up the next-door property with a pile of cash that he got from, well, somewhere, and move in with all his snobbish opinions about other people’s shrubbery, well–he’s got another think coming.”
While Bob stared out the bedroom window at the Jones’s front yard, Bob’s wife plucked her eyebrows in the vanity mirror with an unsettling swirl of eyeballs, as if she were suffering a stroke.
Then she put her tweezers down on the table with a succinct little snap, turned to Bob and said:
“First, Bob, tone it down; I just woke up and that’s a lot of needless hostility coming from your side of the room. Second, don’t expect me to join your latest feud with the neighbors. Our family has endured enough pointless confrontations over the years, such as your endless feud with the old neighbors, and your endless feud with the neighbors before that. Not to mention your often-overlapping feuds with the mailman, the meter reader, the Girl Scout cookie girls, and the PTA. If you can’t control your temper, Bob, then I’m putting you on formal warning: if you get confrontational with the new neighbors, I’ll pack up the kids and go straight back to my mother’s. I’m sure she doesn’t want to see me any more than I want to see her, but the choice would be a no-brainer, Bob. Don’t test me.”
The Jones’s front yard was occupied by dozens of large battered cardboard boxes, a matching chrome washer-dryer, and a mahogany-colored, widely grinning baby grand piano, swaddled in corrugated blue shipping blankets. Amidst these mediocre possessions, Mrs. Jones stood serving tall icy glasses of lemonade to burly T-shirted college moving-boys on a silver tray. Her hair was permed like the hair of a sitcom mom in a sixties-era television show. Her bright toothsome smile was framed by cherry red lipstick. Even worse: she was wearing a pink chiffon apron, as if wearing a pink chiffon apron in the front yard was a perfectly normal thing to do.
And wouldn’t it be perfectly normal, Bob thought. If we weren’t talking about the goddamn Joneses.
Since he couldn’t count on his wife for support, Bob brought his concerns to the monthly Neighborhood Watch Committee meeting–the first meeting that Bob had attended in nearly three years.
“We’ve got problems in River City,” Bob explained when the Chairman called for New Business. “And I’m talking about these goddamned Joneses. They don’t look right, they don’t smell right, and nobody has any idea what they do for a living. And since when did we let just anybody move into our neighborhood? Shouldn’t we first give them a proper interview and make sure they share our general beliefs and worldview? For example, socialized medicine. I’d like to know how they feel about socialized medicine. They haven’t actually said they support socialized medicine, but they haven’t said they don’t support it, either. What sort of straddling-the-fence-type behavior is that? I also have it on good authority that they shop at Von’s when, as you know, most of us shop at Ralph’s. Last but not least, they exhibit a woeful lack of organizational skills. Whenever they leave the house, they get maybe halfway to the car and bang, they’re heading back to the house for their car keys, their purse, or whatever. Seriously, it’s like a goddamn merry-go-round on that front porch of theirs. I don’t want to sound like I’m jumping the gun, but we’ve got to do something about these goddamn Joneses, or we will live to rue the consequences. Seriously, we’ll do a lot of ruing. So, look, let’s brainstorm and see what sort of ideas we come up with. For instance, off the top of my head, maybe we could deny them some sort of permit. Or Phil, you’re a cop. Maybe they’re violating some laws or something. Hell, they’ve got a teenage boy. Maybe he’s smoking pot or having sex with underage girls. What the hell else would he be doing if he wasn’t smoking pot and having sex with underage girls? Can anybody tell me that?”
As Bob heard himself rattle on into the unfamiliar faces of his fellow Neighborhood Watch members, he felt the rage draining from his face and chest. The other Neighborhood Watch members weren’t even looking at him; instead, they were gazing absently at the Committee Chair, Phil Hatland, who was wearing a blue denim shirt that was identical to his wife’s blue denim shirt.
After Bob stopped talking, Phil wiped his foggy glasses with a paper napkin and said:
“Well, Bob. Thanks for all those great brainstorming ideas, and we’ll definitely take them under advisement. But perhaps this isn’t an issue for the Neighborhood Watch committee because, well, we’re supposed to be figuring ways to guard against people from outside our community. And as you know better than anybody, Bob, the Joneses are already here.”
On Friday, Bob was so upset about the Joneses that he called in sick from work, fixed himself a tall icy pitcher of Bloody Marys, and sat by the front window, observing their oak-paneled front door through the Venetian blinds with his son’s binoculars and taking notes in a blue leather-bound appointments ledger.
10:15 am. Mr. Jones, with briefcase, kisses Mrs. Jones goodbye at door and departs. (To where? And why so mysteriously?)
10:22 am. Mrs. Jones, in blue gingham dress, carries plastic containers to recycle bin. (Note to self: who wears a blue gingham dress to the recycle bin? And why so soon after her husband’s departure?)
10:24. I kid you not–Mrs. Jones is carrying another load of cardboard containers to the recycle bin. (What’s so goddamn important about the recycle bin?)
10:50 am. Fed Ex man. Muscular! Mrs. Jones sure smiles a lot! I wonder what Mr. Jones would think about this!
12:30 pm. I’m finishing my soup and guess what? Mrs. Jones is hauling more stuff to the recycle bin! Sacre bleu!
But like most of the projects that Bob committed to in the bird-bright morning, his ambition petered out by lunch, at which point he drank two beers with his microwaved burrito and fell asleep in a green nylon lawn chair dragged in from the patio. When he woke several hours later, his daughter Shelly was coming through the front door, swinging her backpack onto the dining room table with a clatter of cute animal badges.
“Shit, Dad,” Shelly said. “You look like Boo Radley behind these blinds, I swear. Now make yourself useful and fix me a snack. I’m meeting Marilyn at the mall in twenty minutes and I’m already late.”
At work, he found it impossible to focus on routine deadlines and responsibilities. When he should have been calling sales reps and compiling stock reports, he trolled the Joneses’ Facebook pages or posted nasty comments on their status updates under assumed identities, such as Salty Rockets or Crispy Parsnips. “What sort of sick fuck would go to a water park in January?” he might ask. Or: “I’ve seen better-looking kids at the Natural History Museum.” When superiors expressed concern about the unanswered correspondence piling up on his desk, he emitted contemptuous little clucks of disapproval. “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” he told them. Or: “Sorry, I didn’t realize I was living in Nazi Germany.” Eventually, Bob’s superiors stopped talking to him. Which, of course, was perfectly fine with Bob.
After receiving two official reprimands, he was called into Human Resources by a middle-aged woman with poorly combed, curly red hair named Stephanie Porter.
“You aren’t keeping up, hon,” she told him, in a tone that suggested she knew more about him than he knew about her. “And you’re definitely not carrying your share of the load. You’ve fallen behind on your weekly Budget Reports, your weekly Accounts Audit, and the Weekly Employee Newsletter, and those are like the only responsibilities you’ve got. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw a Weekly Employee Newsletter around here, and it’s starting to affect morale. ‘Who’s Employee of the Week?’ people keep asking me. Or: ‘Where’s my complimentary Starbucks voucher code?’ Seriously, Bob. You seem to think this Weekly Employee Newsletter writes itself, but that’s not true. Most of our employees are underpaid losers forced to work in tiny, open-sided work cubicles with nothing but dead plants and photos of their ugly kids to keep them company. They often don’t have anything to look forward to except that stupid Newsletter.”
The funny part was that Bob had completely forgotten about the Weekly Employee Newsletter and couldn’t remember the last time he had interviewed fellow employees about their preferences for office décor and vending machine options. What’s going on? he asked himself. I used to do important things around here and now I can’t even remember what those important things were. For the first time since being hired at Effective Font Strategies, Inc., Bob felt that he owed somebody (perhaps even Stephanie Porter) an explanation.
“I’m sorry, Steph,” he said slowly, looking into the bottom of his Styrofoam cup at a swirl of discolored coffee-bubbles. “I’ve turned into a really selfish person–and not just around the office. For example, I never make love to my wife anymore or drive my daughter to the mall. And I almost never watch the six o’clock news to keep up with current world events. In fact, all I do is sit at my goddamn front window worrying about the Joneses and wondering how they can be in such good moods all the time when, you know. They’re the goddamn Joneses. Oh hell, Steph. There I go again. I finally take responsibility for the mess I’ve made of my life and then go right back to talking about them.”
When Bob finished, he grew aware of a dark, mossy silence developing on Stephanie’s side of the desk. Meanwhile, Stephanie was gazing at a point of space just over Bob’s right shoulder.
When she finally spoke, it sounded like a voice from Bob’s past–perhaps even Bob’s voice. He couldn’t be sure.
“You wouldn’t be talking about Todd Jones, would you, Bob? And his equally disturbing wife, Melissa? And what about their son, Todd Junior, who smirks at everything you say, like he’s the coolest person in the room and you’re not? I thought I’d never see those terrible people ever again and now, just when I least expected it, they’re back!”
The next morning, after the Joneses departed for school and work, Bob and Stephanie jimmied open the rear kitchen window, climbed across the corrugated aluminum draining shelf, and moved swiftly through every room. They searched under the cushions of the brown-leather sofa and loveseat, behind the anonymous wide-screen TV, and through the IKEA-style bookshelves filled with broken-spined paperback books about how to name the baby, how to save money for the baby, and how to teach the baby about having babies–all the books Bob still fondly remembered from watching his wife read them.
“We aren’t looking for this crap,” Stephanie said, slamming down last year’s Van Gogh Day Calendar on the master bedroom’s vanity table. “We’re not looking for souvenirs. We’re looking for that special, unique item that makes them the Joneses. You know the type of item I’m talking about, Bob. And don’t dare look at me as if you don’t.”
Bob had never met a woman as angry and determined as Stephanie. It made her inordinately attractive for an overweight woman with poorly combed hair and crackly knees.
Then, like an Olympic swimming duo who had been practicing together for years, they tore apart the bed linen, overturned laundry hampers, and rummaged through dense bloated Bankers Boxes packed with loose slippery photos, diaries, account ledgers, and high school Yearbooks. They opened all the drawers and cabinets, crawled under the beds, and climbed into attics and crawl spaces. And just when they were about to give up, they found it: located in a small kitchen pantry behind shelves of canned spaghetti, water-stained boxes of gravy cubes, and half-empty bags of birdseed.
“What is it?” Stephanie asked breathlessly, helping Bob down from the creaky stepladder.
He held it aloft in both hands as if presenting a bowl of holy water to a priest at high mass.
“It looks… smelly,” Stephanie said excitedly. “It looks… disgusting. What sort of civilized human being would keep something like that hidden away on the top shelf of a pantry? It’s not natural. It’s probably not even American. In fact, it confirms what I’ve thought about those horrible Joneses all along.”
Bob took a deep breath that filled him with a sense of superiority.
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, laying the yellow, twisted object on the kitchen chopping board, “that it’s either a mummified mouse or a shriveled sponge.”
Either way, it exemplified everything that Bob ever despised about those horrible Joneses.
Bob sliced it down the middle with a chopping knife and wrapped the separate pieces in two sheets of aluminum foil. Then he and Stephanie climbed back out the kitchen window and departed in opposite directions like a pair of train robbers after a raid on the Southern Express. Returning home through his back-yard gate, Bob slipped his portion into a shoebox of old tax receipts in the garage. Then he ordered two celebratory Veggie Supremes from Round Table and two two-liter bottles of soda. He downloaded a superhero movie on Playstation and made love to his wife for the first time in months.
“What’s gotten into you, Bob?” his wife asked afterward. “You’re not yourself and I don’t like it. Why don’t you go do whatever it is you usually do, such as sit alone in the dark and peer through our blinds at the Joneses? But whatever you do, please stop squeezing my ass. I’ve to get up early for work.”
The next morning, he fixed everybody eggs for breakfast, put on his best suit and tie, and arrived at the office before anybody else, clearing away several fast-food wrappers from his workstation. Then, when Stephanie walked past on her way to HR, he ignored her as steadfastly as she ignored him. He called several sales contacts in Reseda (one of whom thought he had died) worked straight through lunch and continued working until everybody left in the evening–including Stephanie, who didn’t even glance over her shoulder as she went click-clicking down the hall in her crooked black high heels.
By eight p.m., the only light still burning in the office emanated from the screen of Bob’s desktop, which displayed the just-completed Weekly Employee Newsletter in all its lime-green-and-purple glory.
The headline read:
Employee of the month: Bob Phillips!
Vice head of Sales
Defender of Home and Sovereignty!
Cherisher of Truth!
Protector of the Sacred!
Holy Scourge of the Joneses! No Kidding! Really! I am!
Then, after adding a series of random emoticons that didn’t represent any emotions recognizable to Bob, he shut off his computer, went home on the bus, and fell asleep on a cot in the garage with his aluminum-wrapped trophy clutched tightly to his chest–the only essential secret that the Joneses would never again possess about themselves.
About the Author
Novelist, short story writer and critic, and former Professor of American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. Works include The History of Luminous Motion, Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog, and The People Who Watched Her Pass By. Stories and reviews have appeared in Triquarterly, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Baffler, and numerous “best of” anthologies. He lives in California and London.
He has stories and essays forthcoming in The Weird Fiction Review, The New Statesman, The Best From Potato Soup Journal, Delmarva Review, The Baffler, The Moth, Albedo One, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Flash Fiction Magazine.