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Fiction

“The Joneses”

My dad was paying close attention when Mr. Rutherford four houses down came home with Boris, the gangliest of all Irish wolfhounds. Boris was a rescue dog. His backstory could, for all anybody knew, be Russian mafia, or maybe he had been part of fashion photography for a while. Mr. Rutherford walked Boris each morning at ten on the dot, which was when the widow Blakely could be counted on to be at her fancy mailbox, because she didn’t want to miss a single thing. Seeing the specter of Mr. Rutherford in his ratty robe walking this leggy supernatural creature on a foggy morning, of course she startled back, tripped on the raised brick border of her flower bed, and pirouetted desperately out onto her still-wet lawn, her coffee scalding her upper chest. To which Moira Davidson, self-assigned protector of any and all widows, took enough umbrage to that her husband Theodore showed up later that week not with a bigger dog—there is no dog in the world taller than Boris—but with a stocky Rottweiler with a head like a cinderblock and a particularly checkered past. The Davidsons and Mr. Rutherford, observing a sort of unarticulated detente, neither wanting to acknowledge this arms-race-with-dogs, walked opposite sides of the street, executing neat flip turns at the stop signs at either end, and taking the crosswalk to the other side. At first, Dr. K attempted to ward these two killers and their inevitable bombs from his impeccably manicured lawn with a spray bottle of what was supposed to be mountain lion urine. The scent was rank and, we thought, impenetrable. All the same, one dog or another found its way onto his lawn, left a steaming deposit. Taking this in stride, Dr. K shrugged, acquired an exotic pet license, and came home not with another spray bottle of mountain lion urine, but with the mountain lion itself. Next door to Dr. K were our young newlyweds, the Andersons, who turned out to have enough connections to, later that mountain-lion week, parade a matched pair of hyenas on thick chains up their driveway, and admit them into their home. My dad grumbled about this, possibly because this was no longer an escalation of size or ferocity, but number, which, he said, was leading either to chaos or the zoo, neither of which he was interested in being a part of. Our French import to the neighborhood, Claude Carbonneau, evidently felt the same way. What he led from the backseat of his American muscle car—on a dogcatcher’s pole, of course—was a scraggly rat terrier, foaming at the mouth with what we could all tell had to be rabies. His little dog wouldn’t win in a scrap with any of the other pets, but neither would those pets win, n’est-ce pas? This was a new and unexpected tactic—a wildcard no one could have anticipated, but that no one could ignore, either. The Crane twins from down at the corner took this as permission, as license for what, perhaps, they’d been secretly desiring since moving in: a black mamba. It was a standoff every morning, that long, tense fall: Mr. Rutherford with his lanky aristocrat, neither of them deigning to look either left or right, the Davidsons—though, usually, Moira—with their rippling mercenary on a leash, Dr. K patrolling with that tawny, slinky killer, its green eyes flashing menace, the Andersons hand in hand, a smiling, trotting hyena to either side, both of them slavering for Claude Carbonneau’s crazy-eyed, wiry-haired little nuclear deterrent, all of them giving the venomous Crane lawn a wide berth since they raised the cutting plane of their electric lawnmower. Which was when my dad finally waded into this fray, not with an animal, but as the animal: ten-ounce defrosted steaks zip-tied to his shins and a semi-automatic pistol in a modular holster at his belt on the right side, concealed carry permit in his shirt pocket, though he was concealing nothing. He was just out for an innocent walk, right? He would have no reason whatsoever to draw his new pistol so long as he wasn’t accosted or attacked, right? Which was when my mom came home from the pharmacist with pills to start crushing into his dinners, a few of which I saw her palm into her mouth herself, perhaps to make living in this neighborhood feel less intolerable, or at least not quite so persistently fraught. This standoff up and down the block lasted up until the mamba struck Boris on a foreleg and the terrier infected the hyenas, who in turn dispatched the mountain lion with surprisingly little effort, and were chasing the Rottweiler up the sidewalk when it seemed a legitimate threat to my father, and all fifteen rounds in his pistol, at which point everybody went back to fertilizing their lawns and repainting their shutters and bringing home newer and shinier cars, until the Andersons accidentally—they claimed—backed their luxury SUV through their garage door, which left such a fetchingly ugly wound that the Murchestons two doors down upped the ante with their completely flooded basement, garnering sympathy all around. Across the street later that week, the whole front of the Lumbrys’ home turned up sprayed with the most offensive graffiti. Even after sandblasting efforts, the profanity and slurs could still be either read or remembered; we could never quite tell. In short order, then, trees began catching Dutch elm disease at a frenetic pace, fences started to weather and sag, driveways showed signs of buckling, and, finally, a kitchen fire in our home (my mom’s famous tarts) spread to the roof, then to the houses on either side of us, and pretty soon the whole block was a roiling conflagration, a bonfire where every property was burning at equal levels, meaning the winners could only be the biggest losers—those escaping with the absolute fewest valuables, those the most bereft and emotionally shattered—but perhaps it was the black mamba, slithering away into the gutter, who actually won that particular go-round.

Stephen Graham Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of nearly thirty novels and collections, and there’s some novellas and comic books in there as well. Most recent are "My Heart is a Chainsaw" and "The Babysitter Lives." Up next are "Earthdivers" and "Don’t Fear the Reaper." Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.

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“[White Noise],” “Sonnet,” “The Myth of Space Travel”

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“Los Angeles, Summer 2020,” “Thank You”

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