May 19, 2024


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Good Neighbors

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

Aran looked up from watering the petunias to see a stranger with a pistol. The man stood halfway down the creek bed, where the poplars parted to reveal the lake beyond. His silhouette, with hunched shoulders and the pistol pointed down, reminded Aran of tiny green soldiers that, as a kid, he had melted with a lighter. How odd that a hunter should wander into a residential neighborhood. He always had a secret fear that some vet prone to flashbacks would mistake him for Vietnamese or North Korean—an unfortunate incident that leaves a neighborhood in shock, as an anchor might report on the evening news. He stepped into the curve of a tree’s hollowed trunk and wondered if the dripping hose in his hand would serve as adequate defense. If he ran, maybe he could make it as far as the koi pond, but what then? Would Caitlin find him there in the afternoon—his legs sticking out of water by then hued like a full-bodied Syrah and the neighbor’s coifed poodle sniffling his toes?

He then heard a gun’s report, followed by a long sharp squeal.

“You can come out now, mister,” the man shouted. The man tucked the pistol under his armpit and began walking up the banks. “No worries. I won’t let this dang thing stink up this fine place of yours.”

This fine place. The man waved his hand towards Aran’s house as if he were showing off his own.

Aran and Caitlin moved to the lake two years ago, after Caitlin finished her radiology fellowship and he became director at a digital imaging research center. Theirs was the cedar-planked contemporary on a triangular lot that adjoined the Fosters and the Stevensons—all part of the circle of backyards that cinched the whole the lake and the nature reserve around it.

Aran gained the nerve to ask the man what the hell he was doing out here armed with a pistol. The man squinted, raising his gray cap to wipe off sweat.

“No bullets. Pow—and out goes a bolt that recoils right back.”

His name was Jim, and he had been called in a few days back. The neighborhood association decided that they had had enough of feral hogs—they who encroached on seasonal vegetable gardens and bullied toy dogs.

“I really don’t like having to use this, but you release these guys ten miles out, and they’d be back before supper.”

Jim motioned with his chin to the gray mass twitching on the ground, one of its forelegs tapping noisily against the steel cage. Aran couldn’t help but stare at the hog’s face: eyes open, mouth frozen in a half-gape. It looked as if it had been awed.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

“If you don’t mind, I’ll pick it up on my way back.”

It turned out that Caitlin already knew about the hog extermination. It seemed almost everyone else knew about it, and Aran would have heard about it, too, had he at least read the neighborhood association flyer. Ingrid from the blue Dutch Colonial said so as they waited in line for BBQ in the Stevenson’s yard. Tom Stevenson had run his 100th marathon and, according to the invitation letter from Milly, it’d also be so lovely to the end of the season with one more weekend BBQ and the company of their wonderful neighbors. They plopped heaps of coleslaw on cardboard plates under talk of poisons and supersonic deterrents.

“This one time, one of them figured out how to get inside my screened patio and nearly killed the cat. And then the vet bill nearly killed me,” said Debbie Foster. She had on some kind of silky turquoise peasant blouse with ruffled sleeves that made her look like a reality-TV Californian. Aran nodded and glanced down at her baby blue sandals. At parties like these he noticed that everyone seemed to have the perfect shoes for the occasion.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

“I saw three of them gang up on a garbage bin with a twenty-pound cinder block on the lid. Pushed it over and ate their fill,” said Ian Foster. “You’d think they must have all gone to some kind of hog university and gotten their PhD in scavenging to learn that. If we don’t watch our backs, we’ll soon be living on Planet of the Hogs.”

Much of this had already been discussed on the neighborhood bulletin board. Over the summer, frantic emails reported the invasion as it happened. One young hog broke in through an open garage door and roamed the halls while the humans locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. Parents forwarded health department webpages on swine brucellosis, which recently hospitalized one hapless teenager a few counties down.

“Do they have wild hogs in Bangkok?” Ian asked, tipping his glass towards Aran.

“I can’t say for sure. I’ve never seen one in the city.”

“They’d probably all get turned to satay anyway, right?”

“Stop being silly,” said Debbie. “Two business trips to Asia and he thinks he’s a man of the world.”

“Well, Aran here does eat just about everything,” said Caitlin. “Every time we visit his parents over there, he orders the strangest things, guts and all, so I’d have to watch him eat it.”

“Watch your pets,” said Aran, and everyone laughed.

He learned long ago to just go with it. He could have explained that he had never once tasted any of the species his neighbors considered as important as their own flesh and blood, but what would he gain? What Caitlin had said about him getting a kick from ordering strange foods was true. He enjoyed the opportune chances to remind her that he grew up eating stewed chicken intestine and various pork entrails at sidewalk food stalls, as far as things could get from summer clambakes on the Cape and nachos at the ski lodge.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

Right now was not one of those times. He was enjoying a wonderful backyard grilling session. He was in good standing with his neighbors, all of whom treated him cordially and without any truly intended malice. The weather this afternoon called for no less than the most perfect skies over Northern Virginia, and a subtle breeze perfumed the air with rosemary from the grill smoke. Whenever someone wandered outside from the TV room and updated the Redskins’ score, cheers erupted and cocktail glasses clinked. Even the Foster’s teenage son Dale, pale-faced and prone to wearing hooded black cloaks, seemed to be having a grand time playing fetch with the Stevensons’ Labrador.

A blonde girl wearing a plastic tiara, one of the Dieterle’s twin eight-year-olds, ran up to Caitlin and pulled her by the hand into a croquet game. As he listened to the Fosters debate airline mileage strategies, every now and then he glanced over to his wife. He liked the picture of the girl and Caitlin—bare legged in that new checkered sundress—leaning on their mallets underneath the shade of the large oak, the kind that made him think of Hollywood movie scenes set in resplendent backyards. He devoured many, many American movies before he won a private foundation’s scholarship to come to the States for his graduate studies. He felt then what he could call yearning, but now, looking on the entirety of this backyard and everything and everyone in it—no director could have done a better job—a different feeling overtook him. He felt assured that he was finally in the right place at the right time. If he listened carefully he could maybe hear, beneath the laughter of toddlers wearing folded paper hats chasing each other around the yard and the afternoon chorale of thrushes in the trees overhead, the quiet rise of property values and life trajectories.

Caitlin walked back after the game was over.

“She’s so adorable,” she said, taking hold of his hand and tugging him closer. “Let’s at least get a dog.”

He squeezed her hand back and tried to think of what to say.

“Here it comes!” someone yelled. He felt thankful for the commotion, as the whole crowd turned to watch Milly push a cart through the patio door. He cheered along with everyone else at the sight of a frosted cake decorated to look like a gold medal.

In the middle of the night he woke up thirsty. Caitlin lay next to him, asleep. They had come back late from the BBQ, and Caitlin confessed that she may have had too much pinot gris. The room was quiet save for the ticking wall clock. It was only at times like these, when everything was still, that he’d noticed its sound. He got up and walked out to the hall, leaving the lights off. By now he didn’t even need to count steps or feel for walls. He could anticipate each minute gap along the entire length of the walnut wood flooring he and Caitlin had chosen when they remodeled.

In the kitchen he opened the refrigerator and reached into the sliver of light. He drank two glasses of milk, back to back. It wasn’t just thirst that had overtaken him, but also hunger, even though he had eaten platefuls of corn salad and grilled mahi mahi. When he was a kid in Bangkok, his grandmother told him about hungry ghosts who wandered nighttime streets in search for what could fill them, and when he asked her what would make them full, she said that nothing would. He went through a period where he was afraid of looking at sidewalk trash piles at night, fearing he’d see shadowy herds huddled there, feeding, but the first time he actually saw someone eating out of the garbage, it turned out to be a barefoot old man picking already gnawed duck bones from a styrofoam box.

He emptied the tupperware of leftover pork loins. The meat had turned pale gray, and the corn kernels next to them looked squashed and clumpy, but no matter, these would do tonight. His original intentions were for them to be tomorrow’s lunch. He would, as usual, walk down from his office and warm his lunch up in the cafeteria’s microwave after giving a polite wave to the corner table of Chinese and South Asian post-docs with whom he used to eat. He ate at his desk most days now, greasing his laptop keyboard as he made stops at entertainment blogs and checked American football scores, so he would get the jokes at meetings.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

As he pinched a medallion of pork, he heard a shrill cry loud enough to just be heard through his window screens. For a moment he worried if one of his neighbors’ children might be outside at three in the morning. He thought it could be a loon out in the lake. It wasn’t too late in the year for them to have flown further south. Then he heard the cry again and knew it was no loon. He put down his plate and grabbed a flashlight. He unlatched his patio door and stepped out to the dark.

It wasn’t long after he and Caitlin had moved here that they earned their reputation of being good neighbors. When the Dieterles needed a babysitter, and all the teenage girls in the neighborhood were too preoccupied with standardized test preparations, Caitlin volunteered. Aran let himself be conscripted to letting the maids in when the Fosters went on their two-week Galapagos excursion last summer. He and Caitlin took care to bring acceptable wine and fresh flowers to weekend dinners, after having RSVPed well in advance and making sure to arrive at the appointed hour. He let her take the lead with the neighborly chit chats, making sure to provide a tease or supporting anecdote on cue.

Even though her parents were mid-level county workers, and she, like Aran, depended on scholarships and loans to finish her degrees, Caitlin carried herself with ease here. Not that everyone in the neighborhood came from money, but for most of their neighbors not having it was now either a time-sweetened memory of early struggle or something so distant they could no longer remember.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

Two shining eyes pierced the dark. When the hog saw him, it froze and made no more noise. The closest that he had been to a wild animal in years was last winter when a deer darted in front of his car—just far enough for him to slow down—and then disappeared into the woods. This hog stood no more than ten feet away from him, looking as if it had just been woken up from a nap and was in the middle of deciding how to go about its night. Compared to the hog Jim had killed, this one was maybe half the size. He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl hog, or how old it was. The resigned look on its face reminded him of Mrs. Wallace’s long-haired tabby, the one that sat at the windowsill for a living and ate fresh tuna on its birthday.

“Hello there,” Aran said, keeping his distance and wondering if the hog had decided whether or not to go out with human blood on its tusks.

The hog didn’t move.

“Look, I’m sorry about what’s happened to you.”

The hog kept its eyes on him. Aran noticed the yellow-gold cake frosting slathered across the side of its face. He crouched down, eye to eye with the animal, and lifted the drop door wide enough for the hog to rush through.

He wouldn’t tell Caitlin about what he’d done. He came back to bed and found her sleeping on her side as before. He envied her ability to sleep in just the allotted amounts, through disturbances of all kinds, something she learned to do during her residency years. Sleep came quickly to him. He submerged into a rest so dark and soundless that he wondered who and where he was the moment he woke.

“We promised to walk Bucky,” said Caitlin, already dressed.

Before Milly Stevenson left with her husband to visit folks in Hilton Head, she’d come by with the keys and the usual two-page typed instructions for the proper care of a five-year-old Labrador. Along with a plotted satellite photo of her usual dog-walking routes through the neighborhood, Milly listed three veterinarians in ranked order of preference should an emergency arise. To Bucky’s credit, he did do everything he could to win Milly’s affections. Attentive and well-behaved, the dog lay at Milly’s feet when she had guests over and approached other humans only after Milly gave vocal permission for a courtesy round of fur-tussling and high-pitched praise. When Caitlin and Aran opened the door, Bucky, tongue-wagging and alert, had already positioned himself next to the leash hanging from the coat rack.

They walked along the mile-long trail that led to the crescent-shaped beach past the clubhouse. It was late enough in the morning for some swimmers and sunbathers to have arrived. As Bucky poked and sniffed among the beach chairs, they followed a few steps behind to make sure he didn’t swallow anything strange. Milly had twice underlined the instruction to do this in her note.

“How long were you up last night?” Caitlin asked.

“Not very long,” he said. “You know, had a snack, checked email. Did I wake you?”

“I got up to go to the bathroom. Didn’t see you around.”

“Oh, I went out and got some fresh air, too. It helps me sleep better.”

The sun had already started to warm up the morning, and a faint mist floated along the water’s edge. The air smelled of distant smoke. Now and then, bird cries sounded and then the woods fell silent altogether. A few hours from now more families with young children would arrive with sand shovels and giant foam tubes. Although he could recognize many of the faces, some he even knew by name, he often wondered who these men and women were before they became fathers and mothers. Had any of them lived on temple grounds with monks and abbots, because their provincial parents had sent them to the city and couldn’t afford to house them anywhere else? Did they ever have to sit on the floor for however long it took for the monks to finish morning meals, so they could eat whatever was left?

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

“I’m a very lucky guy,” he said to Caitlin, and pulled her in for a kiss.

“Stop it. You’re being silly,” she said, laughing.

They left the beach and made their way back up the trail. Bucky walked ahead, pulling them forward by the leash. Along the path, zebras, giraffes, and other exotic animals painted by schoolchildren looked on from wooden boards nailed to tree trunks. Pine needles rustled underfoot as they headed for the bank of the creek, on the other side of which the Wallace’s yard began, and then a little further out, theirs.

Bucky stopped, ears raised. Two howling barks followed.

At the far edge of creek, about fifty yards away and closer to the lake, Jim stood with the bolt gun tucked under his armpit.

He waved in their direction. Aran showed a grin and waved back.

“Looks like you’ve made a friend,” said Caitlin.

Caitlin gave Bucky at tug, and they continued up the trail. Aran looked back towards the lake. He could see Jim eyeing them. Next to Jim’s feet, three dead hogs piled like pillows.


He made sure Caitlin was asleep. He rolled closed the patio door with a careful, steady hand. At times, he felt like he was about to break into his own house, skulking with ginger steps to the side door of the garage, where he had left supplies out. Cicadas greeted him at the edge of the woods. Their song washed over him like a wave and then carried him into the woods when they retreated into silence. He didn’t turn on the flashlight until he was deeper on the trail and needed to mind the outcrop of rocks by the creek bed.

The third time out, he almost got bitten. By the seventh time, he had figured out a new method using a broom handle. He’d stand a few feet away at the side of the cage trap and nudge up the trap door. Sometimes the hog stayed still and let him work in peace. Other times, he had to stretch his arm over the cage for a better angle, and underneath an elbow, he could feel the quaking of an animal enraged. The pungency of shat out indignation attacked his nose.

“Get out of here,” he said to a hog as it scampered away.

“Have a nice night,” he whispered to another.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

In the span of a month, he learned to guess where the cage traps might be found—in small patches of dirt at the side of the creek, along the trail that led up to the yards. He noticed that where Jim had used a larger corral trap, two or three hogs often got caught in the same cage. There were places by the creek where he could stand and shine his light around to see a half a dozen unmoving eyes.

He wondered about the look on Jim’s face on finding the empty traps. Would he have the nerve to claim ignorance, should Jim come around and ask, and would he have the wit to furnish some jokey response, some line like, “Smart beasts, aren’t they?”

Two weeks after he began freeing the hogs, he saw Jim at the supermarket standing in the checkout line with three kids no older than ten still in pajamas, the grocery cart next to him a small tower of jumbo-sized cereal boxes. Aran retreated into the ethnic foods aisle and lingered there, as if he suddenly had to inspect all the various choices in sesame oil. A minute later, he gazed through the store window to the parking lot, where Jim stood loading up a rust-streaked white truck as his kids scampered in the cab door. On its side, a jubilant cartoon squirrel raised high a catcher’s net with one paw. Printed in bold red letters: Hanley’s Animal Control Solutions. Satisfaction Guaranteed.

They were at the beach. It was cooler now, and they had the whole of it to themselves. Caitlin had the day off before going on a 36-hour shift. They took their shoes off and walked barefoot in the sand. She had on the raggy blue sweater that he helped her pick out one Easter weekend sale long ago, back when they shopped for winter clothes discounted when the weather warmed up. Weren’t those the days? Aren’t all the framed pictures of them from those years? Caitlin looked older now, but in a good way. Milly Stevenson once asked him, “Don’t you think your wife looks like Katherine Hepburn, not the Lion in Winter Hepburn, but, say, Philadelphia Story Hepburn?” He agreed, but in his mind, he didn’t think so at all. She was one of the first American women who didn’t remind him of anyone in the movies. He didn’t remember any close-up shots of any actress taking notes for the USMLE with her hand bent to the wrist in the funniest way and hers brows furrowed into deep valleys of concentration. No screen star took her lunch break to check on him when he came down with whooping cough because he had never been vaccinated, growing up.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

“Debbie Foster wants me to go shopping with her,” she said.

“Do you need new clothes?”

“No, but maybe it’d be good to go. I haven’t bought anything in ages, not since we were saving for, you know, the remodeling.”

“I guess it really has been a while.”

He thought of Caitlin coming back wearing the kind of outfits that Debbie wears—radiant things that looked like they could charge the Edwards’ solar panels.

“What are you thinking?” asked Caitlin. “You’re making that face.”

“No, I’m just thinking that you should go with Debbie and buy whatever you’d like.”

They stopped at the row of beach chairs and sat down. Caitlin had been getting more involved with the neighborhood association and could now point out the work being done to the clubhouse roof.

“Oh, and Debbie also said that they might stop paying for the hog guy.”

“The who?”

“The guy who’s supposed to be getting rid of the hogs. Whatever he’s doing, it’s not working.”

He thought of Jim’s truck pulling out of the supermarket parking lot, its back window a shaken globe of groceries, kids, and cage traps.

“Well, I think he’s probably doing the best job he can.”

The air was wet and chilly, so Aran put on a sweatshirt before stepping outside. Some trees had already begun to shed leaves. Tonight, fewer cicadas sang out as he walked across the yard. The sound of his feet against crinkly leaves, he feared, could be heard for miles.

His eyes began to adjust to the dimness, repainting the visible world in bluish shades. At this hour, most of his neighbor’s houses had gone dark, but at a few, a lone bright rectangle glowed. Sometimes he could see the shadow of a head or body moving within. Was this how he looked to whoever walked past his house late nights, when he couldn’t sleep? Was he little more than a shifty shape inside a box?

He spotted the first hog in a clearing just south of the Fosters’ property. Had it tried to charge him, it might’ve been big enough to launch the cage off the ground. When it saw him approach, it growled, snout quivering as if it were trying to smell his hand.

“Easy there,” he whispered and slid the broom handle across the cage. One quick snap, and the door flew up. The hog took off towards the high grass, and then stopped to look back and snort.

The next one he found down by the creek. It was nearly the same size as the previous hog, but this one didn’t put up a fight. It stood there looking at him with sweet, tired eyes as he maneuvered the broom handle, like it had waited all along to be saved. What made one animal fight and another stay down? He thought of classmates at the old temple school who never left the life they knew. They passed the time in pool halls and got in knife fights with kids from rival schools, while he stayed in and studied and spent his few free hours and little money at the movie theaters, heeding his teachers who told him his smarts made him different from the others. What he could become, his friends could never be. What kind of an animal were they and which one was he, after all?

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

He was done and walking somewhere near the lake when a bright light blinded him.

“Who’s that?” a voice shouted.

From behind the arm shielding his eyes, Aran saw Jim about twenty feet away at the other end of a flashlight, a dull object gripped in hand. It could be a stick or the captive bolt gun or something worse for him that Jim might have also carried.

Aran started running.

He made it back up to the trail path and paused to look back to see where Jim was. A shadowy hand reached out from the gully to grab his leg, and he tumbled to the ground. Then he felt a man’s weight on his back and an arm rounding his neck.

“Why are you doing this?” Jim yelled.

“I’m sorry!”

Some fire surged inside him. He rolled sideways and knocked Jim’s arm loose. With all the power he could muster in a second and a quick thrust of his foot, he shoved Jim back down the bank.

Aran got up and kept going. Hundreds of lightless yards lay ahead.

What was the price that saboteurs pay? Would they be remembered only for what they had disturbed or destroyed? He did not fear disgrace or shame, because he had known them well. To be welcomed, to be loved: there was a price for that, too.

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

Something hit his right back shoulder, and he felt a sharp pain. That part of his sweatshirt had torn open, and he couldn’t tell if the slick down his back was sweat or blood. He had just been struck by a thrown rock, a tree branch, or piercing metal. He wouldn’t slow down to find out.

The trail seemed longer than he remembered, and he couldn’t be sure if he was heading in the right or wrong direction. Leaves swirled out in front of his strides. All he could hear were his heavy breaths and his feet making song of gravel, and he kept up his pace by keeping those sounds steady. He moved out of instinct, the same way he had been running—for thousands of miles, for all his decades. He had taken in the horror felt when an older teen’s guts coiled on to the sidewalk after a stupid, needless brawl, and he had carried himself away from the games those kids played with the whole remainder of their lives, so they could impress on other boys that they weren’t ones to flinch or back away or surrender. No, he wasn’t like them; he had come this far; he always found the necessary escape.

Loons cried out from somewhere on the lake, like they tended to do at sunrise and sunset both. Soon, others would wake to their splendid world, first Milly walking Bucky before daybreak and then Kevin Dieterle backing out the driveway, his windows down and NPR blaring. When the neighborhood stirred, the morning having grown fuller, joggers would start their route around the lake and parents in work clothes would walk their kids to the corner bus stop. He would have his share of this place, for however much longer.

Two eyes shined at him just beyond the trail. He wouldn’t stop now.

His feet carried him forward to where he needed to be. Somewhere up there was his home, and there his wife slept.

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