The knock at my front door is as insistent as it is sudden.
I’m awoken by it. A sharp, authoritative rat-tat-tat. It’s the sort of knock that prefaces sob stories told with relish in women’s-only journals and chick lit novels.
The knock that comes one dark, stormy night the author’s loved one has tragically died.
Even though it’s not a stormy night but rather the middle of a sunny fall day, and I’m trying to nap—“Sleep at the same time as the baby, and you’ll never feel tired,” said the lying liars. I hop out of bed. Heart hammering away, I wrap my bathrobe around me. I’m half-dressed, because I can’t nap unless I trick my body into thinking it’s nighttime. After two sleepless nights with an infant, I need this nap, but the heavy-handed knock sounds again.
My husband is gone, having taken our eldest into town. They didn’t drive, though, I remind myself.
“I’m coming,” I hiss, not wanting to awaken the napping baby myself, but the hammering fist can’t hear. Or doesn’t care.
Maybe it’s the tree police—do small towns have tree policeman? They have dog wardens. After all, we ignored that arborist’s advice to slice and dice our front lawn’s beautiful 200-year-old maple. It’s the kind of ivy-covered, old tree Joyce Kilmer might have modeled his most famous poem on, a maple that “wears a nest of robins in her hair” and whose heavy, sheltering boughs seduced us, more than anything else, into giving small town life a go. Officer, that’s why we didn’t…
Clutching my robe’s lapels together, I put aside guilt and fear, wrenching the front door open without first pulling the curtain aside to see who’s standing on my porch.
I don’t know who’s more surprised. Me or the tiny, gray-haired lady with the severe pageboy haircut every woman of a certain age, including my next-door neighbor, seems to have adopted in New England this season.
“It doesn’t make me look like a dyke?” my neighbor asked when I complimented her new ‘do.
That marked the first time I’d heard that word aloud outside the context of a play or standup comedy.
“Oh … um … all the young things are cutting their hair off these days,” I stuttered as flippantly as I could, unconsciously echoing a gay friend as if in some kind of coded rebuke.
At first, I take this woman for my neighbor, also given to stopping by unannounced at inopportune midday moments, as if she can sense when the baby is napping, but this stranger is maybe ten years younger and even more steely-eyed. Surely, this woman isn’t also canvassing for my thoughts on hairdos? She has the look of a local librarian—severe, but harmless. Did I forget to return one of those seven-day-only books?
The woman gathers herself and barks without preamble, “I’m running for probate judge.” She thrusts out a flyer. Above a courthouse, our town’s courthouse I guess—“Does our town have a courthouse?” I almost ask—the same unsmiling face gazes up at me.
“If you … just … wait … I …” Behind me, in his stroller, I hear the baby stir. I freeze like I’m playing Red Rover—if he doesn’t see me move, I won’t lose. I try to smile, but the probate-judge-to-be eyes my get-up as if it’s her courtroom, and I’ve shown up dressed, or undressed, this way.
“No, that’s fine.” She exits porch left, having dismissed court. The baby wakes, screaming.
I toss the flyer, making a mental note never, ever to vote for her, but I don’t feel much animosity, either. I’ve learned that charm is a 50/50 proposition in a small town Connecticut, where every other person drives a Mercedes. Recently, in the same parking lot in the space of 24 hours, one local man knocked on my window to apologize for a poor parking job, while the next morning one of those interchangeable Connecticut bleached-blondes tried to run down me and my toddler. I had to hammer her passenger window to stop her from crushing us against a stone wall, while passersby stared open-mouthed.
“You should be on the sidewalk,” she screamed at me, making no apology before gunning away, as if no one in the history of the world had crossed a parking lot before.
There’s that indefinable eau d’entitlement in the air, still it came as a surprise to see lawns dotted with Trump signs. Here, Trump’s supporters must be more keyed into his message on tax cuts than disenfranchisement, although, from what I’ve overheard in nail salons and restaurants, that hasn’t stopped them from excoriating the immigrants who cook their food or sweep up their nail clippings. It’s not as if these small town, Mercedes-driving folks have the same economic concerns as those in small, rural towns where there are no jobs or dwindling opportunities. Here, you can opt to live in a relatively affordable manner while taking advantage of everything New York City has to offer, all without having to pay New York’s high taxes.
Here, one also runs into a lot of characters on a daily basis, but, unlike the depiction of small towns on television, most of the characters haven’t learned social skills: running in a limited circle of similar temperaments (and hairdos), they haven’t had to. There’s a reason Shirley Jackson’s New England neighbors inspired her grim story, “The Lottery.” There aren’t mounds of charm in the kind of practical character that doesn’t understand demanding a vote from a constituent is not enough to win that person’s heart and/or mind.
And yet this, folks, is election season in a picturesque small town, one the New York Times calls the epitome of “upscale Americana.”
I think of the woman again as I push the stroller into the village on another sunny day. Vote for So-and-So signs mar otherwise manicured lawns. Our own lawn is the aberration, lacking both signage and care. The maple sheds at intervals, and we’ve learned it’s better to wait until at least the second or third shedding before we bother to rake the leaves divested from four of her five still-living boughs.
I recognize the woman’s name on a blue sign, although all the signs, local and national both, are blue and, thus, blur together; Trump’s and Clinton’s are almost interchangeable unless you look closely. De Saussure or Chomsky would probably have a field day with the state of these lawns: “This object is only defined in contrast to that other object.”
As if bowing out of the more contentious contest, most of my neighbor’s signs feature plugs for local and state politics, names I don’t recognize. I still follow New York politics, although I’ve lived two years in this small New England village that, with a central gazebo and even a Luc’s, could stand-in as a set for the Stars Hollow of Gilmore Girls fame.
It isn’t that there are hundreds of Trump/Pence signs, but the ones standing outnumber the Clinton/Kaine signs by a wide margin. On the way to my daughter’s school one morning, I notice the Trump signs slowly overtaking the route as pernicious and profligate as kudzu. The next morning, though, beside a lawn heavily dotted with Republican signs, I note the first lonely Clinton/Kaine sign, perched uneasily on the slope beside them.
It’s a blue box with white lettering not a foot away from Trump’s almost identical blue box with its white lettering. The neighbor must have known the exact spot of the property line and made no bones of planting her—for some reason I imagine the pro-Clinton neighbor must be a woman—sign not a foot from the Trump placard. The signs hunker together, not dissimilar to Trump lurking behind Clinton at the second town hall debate.
The election is only a week or so away. It makes me wonder how relations between neighbors will be November 9th. Day to day life will continue, yet both will now know neither could exist farther apart on the ideological spectrum.
My own neighbors, an elderly poet and his shorn wife, had a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker. They probably wouldn’t mind if I planted a Clinton sign, but, as the mother of two small children, it frightens me to invite the dark energy of those mysterious Trump followers, whoever they may be. These shellacked box-like houses all once looked so ticky-tacky, so “all the same.” Now I’m forced to wonder what bottomless rage along with bottomless trust funds the little boxes must harbor.
As Amanda Knox put it in the excellent, new Netflix documentary about her case, “That’s everyone’s nightmare. Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.” Isn’t that the power of Jackson’s “The Lottery?” Isn’t the unsettling part how ordinary the villagers are?
The New Yorker received so much hate mail after they published Jackson’s story about ordinary villagers engaging in an extraordinary display of violence that they were forced to create a boiler plate response: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. It’s just a fable … She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”
Targets like Muslims.
Targets like immigrants.
Or targets like women. Like Jews. Like me. I’ll admit it: I’m afraid.
Maybe these Trump supporters have fears of their own they can’t shake. Maybe our system has failed them along the way, left them without tools to evaluate shtick from logic.
When I pass the houses with Trump signs, I try to understand, but all I see are the same mid-size SUVs; green, over-watered lawns despite the drought; ugly shrubberies; basketball hoops. My eyes seek out some telling sign, something to explain why they could possibly support a man like Trump—a burning cross or a racist jockey lawn ornament. There’s nothing telling that lurks behind those white picket fences, though maybe some of those fences loom higher than the average.
Facebook has outed some surprises. A smiling mother of three has posted a pro-Trump sexual assault piece, pointing out, as if there’s a statute of limitations for bad taste, that Trump made his remarks celebrating the pussy grab 11 whole years ago. Seeing the post, I recall, in my two conversations with this woman, how she once told me a story about her own new Philadelphia neighbors, lowering her voice when she said “black,” as if she was shielding her children’s ears from an epithet.
Maybe it’s only in my imagination and it isn’t fair to pronounce judgments without polling, but the Trump signs and the unsmiling portion of the population swirl together in my thoughts, inhabiting a grim world set apart—one that has no correspondence with the larger reality of sympathy and fellowship with one’s common, albeit dissimilarly coiffed, man. Or maybe there are a lot of Clinton supporters like me, but they have their own reasons for their silent support.
A knock on the door is enough to fill my head with macabre fantasies these days, bogeyman, and nightmares I have to consciously shake off.
Maybe these Trump supporters have fears of their own they can’t shake. Maybe our system has failed them along the way, too, left them without tools to evaluate shtick from logic. As one of my headmasters loved to spout oh so pompously at any given opportunity, “Education comes from the Latin, meaning a leading out of. That is what we aim to do at our school.” He spoke without irony even as the same speech sent the same students to sleep every time.
Have we perhaps failed the extremists who support Trump as much as I remember feeling I’d failed those students whose entitled, privileged attitudes I could not talk or reason or read them out of for longer than the space of a poem? Have we given them no way out of the darkness in their minds? No way out of their fears beside a con man as flimsy and transparent as Trump? What kind of an election season is this where one side fears the other, whether those fears are real or manufactured? Where neighbor is pitted against neighbor?
Most of all, what is going to happen on November 9th? Having seen what abnormal fears those normal shrubberies and lawns really camouflage, how will we ever forget the belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness we’ve glimpsed in each other’s hearts?