The summer I was twelve, our neighbors, the Lunds, went on a cruise for two weeks while their college-aged son, Toby, stayed in their house. The Lunds were as friendly with us as anyone else on our hilltop cul de sac, waving at my parents when they pulled up in the driveway, chatting with my brother and sister and I when we trick-or-treated at their house. The most neighborly thing my parents did was to pass on the surplus of fruit that grew from the trees in our backyard. My father would throw some lemons in a brown lunch bag, hand it to me or my sister, Becca, or my brother, Josh, and say, take this to the Birch house, or the Lund’s house, or the Krone’s. And we would.
With his parents gone, Toby had a party that lasted a couple days with overnight guests and one giant, ox-like black lab who made giant dog turds on our lawn.
My father was a tolerant man. He tolerated basketball in the house, unbathed kids, moths laying eggs in the kitchen pantry. But he could not tolerate dog shit on the lawn that he alone weeded. A lawn that, without the use of pesticides or herbicides, had the soft, velvety texture of a plush carpet.
Dad scooped up the dog droppings with a trowel, put them in a brown paper lunch bag, handed it to my sister and told her to deliver it to the Lund boy.
I went with her. Toby opened the door. He seemed so large that it was hard to imagine him as someone’s boy.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Becca and I both said.
“You’re Becca and . . . Becca’s sister right?” Toby grinned wide and slow.
“Yeah,” Becca said. Of course she wasn’t going to tell him my name. My sister was fifteen and lately had been categorizing guys into two groups: succulent or gross. Toby was definitely succulent, and surely my sister could think of no reason for him to know my name.
“This is from my dad,” Becca said, and she smiled coyly.
My lips shook and made a pittering sound as I held in my laughter. I wanted Toby to open the bag right then so we could see his face. I wanted him to say something snarky and fantastic that we could deliver back to Dad—something that would keep the entertainment going. At the time, I could think of few things less funny than dog doo in a brown paper lunch bag.
“Okay. Thanks Becca and . . . whatever!” Toby laughed and shut the door.
It took us a while to realize that the Lunds, and all the other families on Azalea Way had stopped talking to everyone in our family. And so my father stopped passing on the lemons. I assumed they shunned us because Josh often left his Big Wheel in the street, or because my mother twice backed out of the driveway in high speed and ran over the Lund’s mailbox, or because someone had climbed the towering eucalyptus trees that bordered our yards, peeked down onto our redwood deck and witnessed my parents’ parties where marijuana was smoked in tight little cigarettes that were butted out in abalone shell ashtrays. Or maybe they were mad because we were the only people on Azalea Way who didn’t put up Christmas lights. Viewed from the bottom of the hill, our cul de sac could almost look like a Christmas tree in December, a tree without a glittery star on top where our dark, unlit house sat like a poor sport.
All of my friends’ mothers hung out together. They played tennis at the club down the street, alternated houses for coffee and showed up at school together doing whatever it is parents did at schools back then. My friend Corinne’s mother had a sharp tongue and probing eyes. One day, Corinne’s mom looked me up and down, glared at the rolled bottoms of my jeans and said, “Doesn’t your mother hem your pants?”
“No,” I said. A couple years earlier my mother had declared that she “quit” being a housewife and we three kids were to tend to the house and fend for ourselves. I never did figure out how to use the Singer sewing machine and Becca, who could whip together a sock puppet or Barbie clothes on the machine in a matter of minutes, was unwilling to hem my clothes for me. I was short, so all my pants were either rolled or jaggedly cut with a pair of scissors.
That same day, Corinne reported to me what her mother had recently heard at the neighborhood coffee.
“Do you know why everyone in the neighborhood hates your family?” Corinne asked. We were in her perfectly matching green and pink room. She had a bed skirt and a canopy, both of which seemed “fancy” to me.
“’Cause Josh leaves his toys outside?”
“No,” Corinne said. “Because last summer you and your sister delivered a bag of your poop to the Lunds and told them it was lemons.”
“No we didn’t!” I had forgotten about the party, the dog shit collected from my father’s then-perfect lawn (he later abandoned lawn care and our plush, green carpet turned into a thigh-high field of straw).
“Yes you did! Their son was there and he left a note on the counter that said, ‘The Blaus sent these lemons over for you.’ and when they came home from their trip they opened the bag and it was full of poop. My mother would never make up something so disgusting.”
“I gotta go home for dinner,” I said. Sometimes it seemed that in showing me everything in her life—the two Christmas trees with miniature villages tucked below each (one in the family room, one in the living room), the two whopping pink Easter baskets she got each spring because her mother couldn’t fit all the candy into one, the new school wardrobe that was so inexhaustible she didn’t have to wear a repeat until sometime in late November—Corrine was pointing out deficiencies in my house, my parents, my life. And just then, when Corrine made it clear that there were two kinds of people in this world, those who give their neighbors bags of poop and those who don’t, I couldn’t stand to be near her.
I ran out of Corinne’s house, past the house where the neighborhood perv hosed his bushes in his bathrobe, the flaps always flying open to reveal what my sister and I called his turkey gobbler; past the Richter house where Mr. Richter was surely sitting in his blue wing chair in the living room staring out at nothing; past the house where neighborhood children were only allowed into the rumpus room or the garage, as if we were stray dogs with fleas and weeping, over-licked sores; up the center of Azalea Way and past all the homes where no one would even look in my direction.
I wanted to cry, but there wasn’t time for that. Becca had just made tacos and she needed me to set the table, open a bottle of red wine for my parents, and fetch my brother who was perched on the platform that was fifteen-feet up one of the eucalyptus trees in the backyard.
By the time we all sat down to eat, a cry was still hovering somewhere on the edge of my throat.
“Remember last year when we delivered the dog poop to the Lunds,” I said, staring down at my taco.
“Can you believe a kid would let a dog that big just shit wherever it wanted?!” My father was still outraged by the crime.
“Well,” I said, “their son put the bag of poop on the counter and left a note for his parents that they were lemons from us. Corinne’s mom told Corinne and she told me. That’s why no one will talk to us.”
There was a moment of silence, and then we looked at one another and each of us, including Josh, who never even knew about the poop-in-the-bag-incident, started laughing. And laughing. And laughing.
My parents never apologized to the Lunds. They never said a word. My mother hated that neighborhood and was happy she didn’t have to do small talk and chit chat each time she walked to her car. And my father was so caught up in his head, often talking aloud to himself about whatever he was working on, that he probably just forgot we were being shunned. I am certain that none of the neighbors missed us when we moved.