Simple wooden things, painted white, with the usual assortment of bouquets and wreaths—the crosses stared up at me through my kitchen window. Two of them down there. My students’ names—Sam Perry, Colleen Fitzgerald—painted right on them. They’d died at the bottom of the hill, where Lee Chapel turns into the trees. Kids liked to gun it along that stretch of road until they reached the last hill, the steepest. For just a moment, their tires would leave the pavement. Usually they landed safely.
I looked away whenever I drove by the crosses to avoid seeing the names, to avoid remembering their bored faces in the back row of the classroom. “Pits,” they used to call me. Because, sure, I have a bit of a sweat problem. I try to wear dark shirts, but it doesn’t make much of a difference. So I admit that’s just something about me. They were only teasing. Kids do that sort of thing.
Maybe they’d have gone to prom together. Maybe they’d have gone to the same college, majored in History or Art. Maybe they’d have married, and someday, over the dinner table, perhaps, talked about their old Public Speaking teacher from West Springfield High, and maybe they’d have remembered how I’d really had a lasting effect on their lives. Maybe they’d have sent me an e-mail or something. Just to say hi, or thanks.
I wanted to help people. I didn’t have kids. I was unmarried, no girlfriend at the time. I’d dated a few women—one, Jana, had a sort of deep voice and worked to preserve Revolutionary War textiles, which for some reason broke my heart—but it never really worked out. I’m not exactly a dreamy guy. I’m too skinny, too pale. There’s the aforementioned excess of perspiration. I’ve got a receding hairline, have since college. But it doesn’t bother me, much. Being alone.
A few weeks after Sam and Colleen died, I washed dishes and worried about those crosses. My neighbor, George, mowed his lawn across the street. A quiet guy. I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but he didn’t exactly go caroling with the neighbors. Kept to himself, mostly. But I didn’t have a lot of close friends, and the crash really got to me. I could hardly think straight. I imagined how exciting it must have been to fly over that hill, windows lowered, hair whipping in the breeze, radio blasting some Journey song. And how horrifying, the plunge into the trees. I wanted to talk to someone about it. My dishes were washed and dried, stacked neatly in the cabinets overhead. The windows clean and streak-free.
I waved at George from my front lawn. He saw me, but looked away and pushed the mower like he thought I’d waved to someone else. I’d seen him outside often enough—replacing windows, cleaning leaves from gutters, watering the azaleas—but though we’d been neighbors for years, we hadn’t had many real conversations.
I crossed my yard to the street that separated our properties. George’s thick glasses were fogged up. He was overweight, and he sweated through the stained tank top he wore. I thought, hey, I know how that is. There’s something we have in common. At last he cut the mower off.
“Hiya George,” I said. “Thought I might run something by you.”
George scratched his cheek, pink and sandy with stubble. He leaned heavily on the mower. “Okay,” he said.
“I hope this doesn’t seem strange,” I said. “That accident, down at the bottom of the hill. Those kids that died. I can’t stop thinking about it, to be honest.”
George’s eyes were brown smudges behind his glasses. They blinked, vaguely. “You related to them or something?” he said.
“Well, no,” I said. “They were students of mine.”
“A shame,” George said. “One of life’s little kicks in the ass.” He wiped his glasses on his filthy shirt. They fogged up again the moment he put them back on. “But I guess when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I kicked at the gravel along the road. A small rock skipped onto the pavement. “It seems like his could’ve been prevented.”
“Maybe the next round of kids’ll think twice about driving like maniacs,” George said.
“I sort of get the feeling this won’t be enough, though,” I said. “Another car flew over this hill just last night. Didn’t you hear it?”
I noticed George’s wife, Stacy, looking out the bay window behind him. I waved to her—friendly, neighborly. George turned, and Stacy let the curtain fall across the window. For a moment we stood there. Cicadas buzzed in the trees, so harsh and constant the sound faded into the background, became a sort of quiet in itself. The breeze carried a hint of barbeque smoke. A car passed between me and George.
“That’s their fault,” George said at last. He crouched and pulled up some weeds. “They don’t learn, they deal with the consequences. It’s part of growing up.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?” I said. I examined my own lawn, which I paid a loud German named Heinrich to mow for me. Twice a month, he drove out from Front Royal with his clattering trailer of landscaping equipment. I could afford it; I did all right for myself. I’d been teaching for a while—in the union, job security, all that. “I mean, they’re teenagers. Their brains aren’t fully formed until they’re twenty-five. Didn’t you do some dumb stuff when you were younger?”
“No,” George said. He tossed the weeds in my direction, to the edge of his yard. It seemed he looked me straight in the eye. I couldn’t be sure with those glasses.
“I still think we should do something to put a stop to this,” I said.
“Like what? A sign or something? Don’t drive like an asshole unless you’re looking to die?”
My face stung. I bit the inside of my cheek. “I thought maybe a speed hump,” I said. “Right near the top of this hill. That way people would have to slow down, couldn’t go so fast over the top.”
“That’d be right at the end of my driveway,” George said. “I’d hit it every time I backed out.”
“I’m sure that monster of yours could take it,” I said, smiling toward his pickup. It was a big, rusted truck, with stickers in the window—Terrorist Hunting License, National Rifle Association, Virginia is for Lovers. George didn’t smile back. “Anyway, it would only be a little hump. That’s all.”
“I don’t think so,” George said. He bent to restart his mower. “There’ll be no speed hump at the end of my driveway. Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said. “But I’m going to do whatever—”
The mower chugged, roared to life. George leaned into the handle, pumped his legs, and wheeled the mower away from me, carving another perfect stripe across his lawn.
A Google search did the trick. It turned out that Fairfax County had this Residential Traffic Administration Program. All you needed was a letter, signed by ten residents, to put in a request for a Traffic Calming Device. I wrote about the situation on West Springfield letterhead so it would have some authority. Within a day I had my first nine signatures. Just like that. The neighbors I spoke with treated me like a sort of hero, said it was about time someone took a stand. So I was off to a good start.
What I’m saying is, I didn’t need George’s signature. There were plenty of other homes further down Lee Chapel, and I was sure someone else would sign. But it irritated me that George didn’t get it. Don’t ask me to explain why. Maybe it’s a teacher thing, like when you have that one student who doesn’t see why showing up late is a big deal, who asks stupid questions for a laugh, who thinks you can’t see him texting in the back row. Even though you hate that student—sure, I hate that student, and who wouldn’t?—he’s the one you want to break through to. Like that scene in Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams tells Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault.” And Matt’s this sort of tough guy math prodigy, right? Not the type who shows emotion. But Robin keeps saying that, “It’s not your fault,” over and over. “It’s not your fault.” Matt breaks down. They hug. Matt cries into Robin’s shoulder. And the violin starts up, and the piano? That’s the sort of teacher I want to be.
So I wasn’t one to just give up. I wanted George to understand. I thought maybe seeing all those other names on the letter would change his mind. Maybe he’d think, yeah, you know what? I have been a little stubborn. Maybe he’d think it was a good thing, all the neighbors coming together like that to try to save some kids’ lives. I needed to know I’d accomplished that much.
The next Sunday I knocked on his door. Up close, the house looked a little older than I’d thought it was. The paint was fresh, but the clapboard was cracked, warped. My house had been built in the 1980s, I knew, but George’s must have been around way before that. Probably even before they paved the roads, when Lee Chapel was nothing but a two track running to the Occoquan River. I wondered who’d originally owned the house. For a second I admired George for keeping the old place in such good shape.
Stacy answered. She stood there, the door open just enough for her face to peek through. I’d always felt she was a beautiful woman. At least that’s how I remembered her, from the times we’d spent together. The summer I moved in, maybe six years before, George used to fish a lot. Always heading out to the river in his yellow waders and Gilligan hat. He received disability payments, something to do with his hip, and didn’t really work. Once, when he was out on the river, Stacy rang my doorbell. At the time I’d only briefly talked to her, so it was a bit of a surprise. She asked me if I wanted to go sit in the street and get to know each other. As neighbors. She said if you sat in the street, right between our two houses, far enough away from the porch lights, you could see the stars pretty well.
So we did. We dragged lawn chairs out there, and Stacy brought a pitcher of pink lemonade spiked with vodka. What was the harm? We sat and talked. That’s it. That’s all we did, mostly. Two neighbors talking things out—work, life, love, those sorts of things. She told me about her ovarian cancer, how she couldn’t have kids as a result. I still hoped to have children at the time, so I said as much. Just chatting, basically. We did this all summer long. Two lonely people: empty nights, cool drinks, cicadas humming.
Okay. Once. Our hands dropped over the arms of the lawn chairs at the same time. My fingers brushed her wrist. It was so normal—we leaned in, our lips met. Pink lemonade, vodka, saliva. Just once.
But I guess George found out—about the sitting in the street, only—and he gave her hell about it. I never understood jealous guys like that. If we were up to something, wouldn’t we have chosen some place a little more discreet than the middle of the road? I mean, even if we’d wanted to, which we mostly didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to get away with anything serious out there. But I guess that didn’t matter to George. So we cut it out.
Over the past few years, I’d just seen Stacy from my front stoop. Now, in her doorway, I was surprised at the change. She looked a little like the house—her black hair run through with gray, her skin mottled and loose around her cheekbones. Still attractive, don’t get me wrong. She just looked like it took some work to keep it up.
“Kevin,” she said, and smiled a little. Her voice was dry, quiet. She might have been napping.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, holding the clipboard with the letter up to my chest, like it would explain my presence. I wondered if she wore a bathrobe or something, the way she kept the door cracked. “Is George home?”
“He’s out,” Stacy said. “On the river.”
“Yeah? Because I saw his truck in the drive—”
“He took my car. The truck won’t start again.” She shook her head like the truck was a puppy that’d whizzed on the carpet. “I keep telling him to trade it in, but he won’t. He hangs onto things.”
“Oh.” I looked at the clipboard, at the nine names in neat cursive beneath my typed letter. Something occurred to me. “Stacy, would your name happen to be on the papers for this house?”
“Why don’t you come in, Kevin,” she said. “Let’s not just stand here on the stoop.” She pushed the door open and walked away inside, like there wasn’t any argument. She didn’t have on a bathrobe, after all, but a pair of sweatpants and a fleece pullover. I felt overdressed in my khaki shorts and polo.
Stacy drew the curtains aside and we sat in the living room. For all George’s good ol’ boy posturing, the home had a calm, feminine feel—pale green walls, antique birdcages, potted plants. I thought, if I had a wife, she’d decorate our house this way. This got me a little down. Stacy must have seen this in my face, because she stood.
“Want a drink?” she said. “It’s Sunday afternoon. Let’s have a drink.”
I checked my watch. It was barely 11:00am, but I thought, what the heck.
Let me say, though, that I wasn’t much of a drinker. Not anymore, anyway. Those few nights with Stacy and her spiked lemonade. Yes, when I was younger, when I was full of youth, the youth and energy of being young, you know, testosterone, whatever. But those were behind me. Besides, I didn’t really have anyone to go out and drink with.
I listened to Stacy move around the kitchen. Glasses rang out, an ice tray flexed and cracked. There I was on a Sunday morning, sitting on a couch in a well-decorated home, with a woman making me a drink—maybe an Old Fashioned, or a martini—down the hall. For a second, I might have pretended it was my house, my wife. Just a quick little daydream. This is the life you ended up with, I thought. This is how things turned out.
Stacy reappeared, carrying the drinks on a tray like Suzanne Pleshette might on The Bob Newhart Show. She set the tray on the coffee table and I took my glass, which was filled to the brim with honey-colored liquid over ice.
“What’d you fix up?” I said.
“Bourbon,” Stacy said.
We drank. The ice rattled in our glasses. My hand trembled—I drank too quickly. A bit of bourbon trickled down my chin and dripped on my shorts. I wiped at my mouth with my forearm. When we’d both lowered our drinks, a weird quiet came over us. I almost forgot why I was there. The clipboard balanced across my knees, and I looked down at it. All those cursive names. I swear to you, in that moment, I couldn’t read them. They looked like a sort of code, like some ancient language that predicted everything that’d ever happened and everything that ever would. But I was this close to deciphering it.
“So,” Stacy said. She crunched ice between her teeth and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I noticed her long fingers, her chewed nails. She pulled her sleeves down over her hands. “You were asking me something?”
I’m not sure how exactly to describe what happened next. It’s not the sort of thing you remember clearly—or maybe it’s the sort of thing you remember so clearly it seems unreal. I stood up, I suppose, and Stacy did too. My hands cupped her hips, my lips pressed against her throat. And then, together, we fell to the carpet, pulling each other apart.
Stacy signed my letter, and I submitted the proposal. The next step required a presentation at the County Council meeting the first Monday of July. I did my homework. Prepared notes, rehearsed my speech in the mirror, drew up a diagram detailing the proposed location of the speed hump and its intended effects on traffic speed. The meeting didn’t worry me in the least. I spoke in front of people often, lectured about boring stuff in a way that aroused interest, stirred hearts. I teared up a little as I practiced. I thought about reading the presentation to my students as an example for their end-of-semester Persuasive Argument Finals.
The County Council met in the Fairfax Town Hall, right on University Drive in Old Town. An old building, white columns, fanlight window over the front door. I thought, good, wholesome, this is the vibe I’m going for. We had a full house, all the folding chairs occupied. An impressive display of support. Humbling, really. I felt glad the citizens cared so much, and why shouldn’t they? We’d come to talk about real issues, issues that affected their lives. People should pay attention.
George and Stacy sat in the back. George in a sport coat and jeans, a briefcase at his feet, Stacy in a loose turquoise dress and a bunch of bracelets. I tried not to, but I stole glances at them from time to time as I read my statement into the microphone. They looked nice, like a normal, happy couple. Stacy wrapped her hands around George’s arm, and at one point rested her head against his shoulder. I searched her face for some acknowledgment, some secret smile, but she offered nothing. She listened, attentive, maybe a little bored. Good, I thought. That’s behind us. That’s in the past.
My speech opened with a bang: that spring, two high school students died just a hundred yards from my front door. My slideshow included photographs of the mangled Honda, wedged between two trees, with ambulances and police cars glowing in the night beyond. Mrs. Fitzgerald, Colleen’s mother, cried out. Her husband patted her shoulder.
I presented evidence—I’d joined Facebook and Twitter, gathered some local teenagers’ boastful posts from recent days—to prove the deaths had done nothing to stop daredevil kids from taking chances on that stretch of road. I didn’t rock or sway at the podium. I used my most effective speaking techniques: rhetorical questions, catchy anaphora, three-second pauses after major points. Community theater flyers and soccer sign-up sheets rustled when the oscillating fans turned toward the bulletin boards. The audience sat upright and silent. A few people sobbed into their hands. I felt the rush of breaking that barrier, reaching people, communicating in a meaningful way.
“Many of you have children,” I said. “I’m sure some of them just learned to drive, or will within the next few years. Sooner or later, they’ll hear about the thrill of speeding along Lee Chapel, of getting some air over that last hill. Do you want them risking their lives? This won’t save Sam and Colleen, but it could save your children. It could save all our children.”
The audience applauded. Everyone in the room, except George and Stacy. I felt pretty good about myself. Like I could get things done. After the lengthy applause, one of the council members leaned into her microphone and asked if anyone had an argument against the speed hump. For a moment, no one answered. Then George raised his hand. He stood and cleared his throat. I gripped the podium.
“I’ve got an argument,” George said. “I’ve done some research on the matter, and it seems I own that portion of Lee Chapel Road.” He took a folded piece of paper from his briefcase. “This map outlines the divisions of property in my corner of the county. Turns out my land extends all the way across the road. If I’m not mistaken, that means you can’t build that speed hump without my permission.”
Murmurs. A general feeling of, darn, he’s right. George smiled and leaned back a bit, one hand on his hip, like he’d really got me there. I waited it out, waited for the council members to put their hands over their microphones, whisper to each other, reference the thick book of county law on the card table before them.
When the discussion died down, I tapped my microphone. “Thank you, George,” I said. I looked right at him. The hall was quiet again. Mine. “I appreciate your concerns. Really. And you’re right that we’d need permission to build on your property. Usually.” I withdrew a folded paper of my own, the one I’d kept beneath my presentation notes, just in case, and held it up. “But Ordinance 82-2-24 states the county can overrule the need for permission if it’s an issue of public safety. Which, as I’ve demonstrated tonight, this speed hump is.”
The tide turned back my way. Nods of assent, another miniature round of applause. It was as if George hadn’t spoken at all. He stood there, eyes huge behind his thick lenses, while the council members shuffled papers and spoke to each other about the business ahead—a vote on a new clubhouse for the Franklin Hollow pool, a family’s wooden fence that had been built two inches above regulation height. The longer George stayed on his feet, the more the sport coat looked odd on him. Big in the shoulders, too long, worn at the elbows. He might have purchased it at Goodwill, might have thought that’s how people were supposed to dress at a County Council meeting. The briefcase at his feet wasn’t a briefcase at all, I noticed, but an old, cracked leather suitcase. I saw through the disguise. I saw the heavy, sweating man who pushed a mower across the street.
At first it looked like George might say something else. His Adam’s apple shifted in his throat. I thought, come on, George. Sit down. I almost felt bad for him, after he’d done all that work, after he’d found a potential fault in my plan, after he’d looked so proud of himself. But the council members started in on the pool clubhouse vote. George put the map in his coat pocket and sat down.
After the meeting, I embraced the Fitzgeralds, accepted their thanks for taking a stand. They told me I was Colleen’s favorite teacher. State Senator Peterson interrupted, wiped a tear from his cheek, promised me his full support. He held Mrs. Fitzgerald’s hands in his and said how sorry he was.
Stacy approached. George had already gone out to the car. She shook my hand like the others, a bland, friendly smile on her face. Nothing there to suggest she knew how my bare chest felt against hers, how the living room carpet left impressions and burns on our pale skin.
“Again,” she said. “Soon.”
The county did its part. It turned out State Senator Peterson was up for reelection, and with the public in such favor of the speed hump, expediting the process was a smart political move. They even added it to his list of accomplishments in his TV ads.
Within three weeks of the County Council meeting, a truck from the Department of Transportation arrived. I watched from my lawn as a man in an orange reflective vest laid cables across the street. The cables connected to a little box with a computer inside that measured traffic flow, average speeds, acceleration. Driving habits on our little stretch of road.
“Impressive,” I said to the DOT guy, “how quickly you came out here.”
“Order comes in, we go out,” the DOT guy said. “Just doing what the boss tells me.” He was a stocky guy, square jaw, unshaved. Flannel shirt under his vest, even in the heat. The sort of guy you’d expect to lay cables across a street. A real idyllic, blue-collar type.
“It’s great though,” I said. “I mean, the sooner we get this speed hump installed, the better, right?”
“I guess,” the DOT guy said. He straightened one of the cables with the toe of his boot.
“You know, I’m the one who proposed the whole thing.” I crossed my arms, casual like, to show it was no big deal.
“No, I didn’t know.”
“I just got sick of it. Kids risking their lives like that. Dying. I’m a teacher.”
“Well,” the DOT guy said.
That’s when George barreled out onto his lawn. He wore his boxer shorts—red, with candy canes and wreaths, despite the season—and white tube socks. I guess I’d been waiting for him to show up the whole time. I didn’t think Stacy would tell him about us, or that she’d act weird enough to show something was up. I trusted her. We’d promised to keep our mouths shut, to keep the incident hush-hush. Incidents, that is. A few times over the past weeks, we’d found some time alone. I wasn’t proud. You think I’m the sort of guy who prides himself on sleeping with another man’s wife? They were moments of passion, a series of accidents. I’d even gone to church for the first time in years and confessed to a priest, face to face, no screen between us. I can own up to things. I can admit when I’m wrong. He’d absolved me; I’d said a few rosaries, and that was that. Clean slate. But sure, I wanted to know if George knew.
And of course: the speed hump. This is happening, I wanted to show him. Not a lot you can do about it now.
“The shit is this?” George said. Bare chested, his breasts like flaps on shirt pockets. He was probably only ten years older than me, but man. He looked like he’d just about quit on himself.
“Department of Transportation, sir,” the DOT guy said. “Just putting down some cables to monitor traffic. You won’t even notice they’re there.”
“Pick them up,” George said, his socks already stained from the grass. I noticed his lawn hadn’t been mowed in a few weeks. “Or I’ll take my hedge trimmer to them.”
“Um,” the DOT guy said. He looked back and forth between me and George. “Is there a problem?”
“No problem,” I said. I stepped toward George—not confrontational, but reassuring, soothing. It’s not your fault. “George, is this really worth it? Standing out here in your underwear for everyone to see?”
“It’s my property,” George said, “and I can stand on it however I fucking please.”
“Hey, mister,” the DOT guy said. “No need to freak out.”
“That’s what he does,” I said. Maybe I should have taken the high road. Maybe I should have tried to calm George down myself. But I felt this sort of—moral superiority, I guess you’d call it. It’s satisfying, knowing you’re right and someone else is wrong. Frustrating, yes, when that person just won’t give up, but empowering. My chest swelled and my arteries throbbed. My shoulders felt somehow bigger. This is what the President must feel like, I thought. Or the Pope. “He has nothing else going for him, so he acts like a lunatic over little things. Isn’t that right, George?”
George stalled and sputtered, like his old truck, like his lawnmower, like the last breaths of two high school kids, their lungs crushed between steel and tree limbs.
“Or am I wrong?” I said. “Do you have a happy marriage? Rewarding work? Do you contribute to society in any way at all? Tell me if I’m wrong.”
He moved his lips, made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a moan. I’d expected, hoped, that my comment would rile him up. I’d hoped he would charge me, right in front of the DOT guy, his fingers spread toward my throat.
Instead, he walked away. He crossed the yard and went around his house. A moment later he returned, pushing his lawn mower. He bent and pulled at the recoil starter. The mower coughed, struggled. He pulled again, and again—the mower chugged and spit, but wouldn’t start. He knelt and yanked at the starter until the grip came off in his hand and the cord vanished into the body of the mower. Then he just sat there, looking at the grip in his palm like he didn’t understand its purpose. This old fat guy in his underwear and socks.
Cicadas buzzed, tireless, numb. From beyond the trees came shouts of children at the pool. Down the street, a family loaded the trunk of an SUV with boogie boards, luggage, a dog kennel. A cloud drifted across the sun. I smelled fresh mulch, hot asphalt, gasoline.
“Excuse me,” George said at last. He went inside, leaving the mower on the lawn.
“Holy mother,” the DOT guy said. It sounded like he’d been holding his breath.
I stood there in the street and pressed my foot down on the cables. I wondered if the little box would register that as a passing car.