• Broadkill Review

"Buying Local" by Dillon McLaughlin

In stereotypical nosy neighbor fashion, Mairead Murphy pulled one of the slats on her blinds down and peeked out the front window of her rowhome. She looked down her street at the kids standing on the front porch of the corner house. “Of all the gin joint corners on all the streets in this forsaken city, those dicks sell drugs on mine.”

Mairead's younger brother, Jack, was unimpressed with his sister's attempt at eloquence. He kept channel surfing, offering only a noncommittal, “Huh,” in response. The TV stuttered through its programming.

Mairead's older sister, Rachel, stuck her head through the kitchen doorway. “What'd she say?”

The three of them had met at Mairead's before heading to their parents’ house because Mairead had a convection oven. Rachel found it gave her a more even bake on her cakes and cookies, though it also heated casseroles more evenly, which is what she was bringing with her that night. Jack was there because he planned on drinking at his parents’ house and needed somewhere relatively close to his own house to leave his car and Mairead was his ride.

Jack didn't take his eyes from the television and spoke out of the corner of his mouth closer to the kitchen. “Gin. And joints. Something about gin and joints.”

Mairead clarified. “I said those four dicks are still hocking whatever narcotic is rampaging up the highway from Florida.”

Rachel kept shouting from the kitchen. “Graffiti dicks?”

“No, dicks as a disparaging term for people.”

“Who?”

“Those dicks.”

“Who's a dick?”

“Those kids up on the corner.”

“The ones selling drugs?”

“Who the hell else hangs out on street corners all day?”

She was suddenly at Mairead's shoulder, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “I don't know. Prostitutes? Oscar the Grouch?”

“These kids aren't spewing morals out of trash cans. And I haven't seen Big Bird for at least three weeks.”

The two of them stared out Mairead's front window. Fifty years before, the street was Rockwellian. Row homes of clean red brick sat a few feet back from the sidewalk. Most houses sported a sizable wooden porch, usually painted, with decorations changing depending on the closest holiday. Most windows, if they were the appropriate size, had shutters. Flower boxes were common.

On porches, people sat and sipped iced tea and evening cocktails and gossiped with neighbors. In the street, they washed and waxed massive Oldsmobile, Ford, and Chrysler boats or walked to corner stores for the random household odds and ends. As for children, conservative estimates put a hundred kids on the block and it was rare for a day to go by where they weren't all seen sprinting up and down the street from one childhood priority to the other.

The modern scene was surreally different. Roughly half the houses had survived the intervening years with porches and windows intact, though city statistics listed two-thirds were as “habitable”. The half that hadn’t was falling into disrepair, with rot in the wood and windows shattered, boarded up or missing altogether. Flower boxes fell to the ground to become mosquito breeding grounds. Doors hung askew and shrubs grew from the interior decay. A few of the worst houses were missing entire roofs and fire damage was apparent on a handful more. If plywood covered an opening, it was spray painted.

The rot spread to the attitude of the city's inhabitants. If they'd stayed in the city, they'd watched life crumble around them, keen to leave but unable to afford it. If they'd left, they saw their old homes gutted with corruption of structure, spirit, and law.

Jack's attention finally left the television. “You're the one who insisted on homeownership. You should've rented until you could buy in a better neighborhood.”

“I'm not going to throw money away on rent.”

“Renting's not so bad.”

Mairead turned to her brother. “How's it not so bad?”

Rachel's hand wiping adopted an element of absent-mindedness, something she was doing just because the towel was over her shoulder. “Maybe they're not selling drugs. Maybe they're just loitering. Everyone loiters. I've loitered.”

Jack sniffed. “I don't have to mow the lawn. Utilities are included. The neighborhood's better.”

Mairead scoffed. “You also can't paint.”

“How many colors do you need your apartment to be?”

Rachel gently moved her sister out of the window and looked down to the corner. “Oh, yeah, there they are. Clearly selling drugs. Like, really clearly. They just tossed a big bag of something through that customer's open car window from five feet away. Brazen.”

Mairead sniffed. “God, why are my eyes tearing up?”

Jack laughed. “Buyer's remorse?”

Rachel wiped her hands on the dishtowel again. “I was cutting onions.”

Mairead blinked hard and a fat teardrop squeezed out of the corner each eye. “Brazen's a good word for it. I've seen more drugs on that corner in five minutes than the three days I spent at Burning Man.” Jack scowled. “Friggin' hippies.”

“I've never had someone be so adamant I take shrooms. They went on and on about the psychological health benefits and the philosophical profundity and the natural connection with the ether. You know they tried to convince my friend shrooms would cure his alcoholism?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Successfully?”

“Which, the convincing or the curing?”

“One's dependent on the other, right?”

“True. So neither.”

“I'll grant them that most alcoholics substitute something else for drinking, but it's usually scratch-offs or cheese dips, not fucking shrooms.”

“I know shrooms are supposed to be good for anxiety.” Rachel was on her way back to the kitchen.

“How was the art?”

Mairead turned back to spying on the drug dealers. “Fine, I guess. Honestly, I kept staring at the orgies. I couldn't believe people would do that in the desert. You get sand everywhere, people are always watching.”

Rachel snorted in the dining room. “People like you?”

“Yeah, like me. But, look, staring's less about the sex than it is the spectacle. I bet that if you saw a man painted completely green, as in completely, with real deer's antlers stapled to his head giving it to a woman who looked like she crawled out of a desert gorge to stab Spanish conquistadors, you'd've stared too. It's a human jackalope boning a Native American curse.”

She was back in the kitchen. “I'd give myself five minutes of voyeurism.”

Jack stood up to look out the window. “Burning Man's an art gallery?”

Mairead nodded. “So they say.”

“What kind of art?”

“Modern.”

“So, bullshit.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“What the fuck were you doing at Burning Man, anyway?”

Mairead ignored the question and Jack didn't ask it again. They stared in silence for a while until Jack went back to the couch, saying, “The weirdest part about this neighborhood to me is that you have those beautiful brick and cobblestone pavings on a few of these streets, the lines for gas lamps still exist, and a couple of the houses are old enough to warrant those brass commemorative plaques, and you still get people like them hanging out on the corner.”

Mairead finally tore herself from the window. “I'm pretty sure this house is a hundred and twenty years old this year.”

“That's exactly what I'm saying. Civil War vets were the foremen on the construction and the neighborhood still went to shit. What other city could manage to fuck up its historic districts this bad?”

“Camden's screwed.”

“Camden being screwed is its history. Not ours.”

Mairead planted herself on the couch next to her brother. “Since when do you know so much about history?”

“I like those little books they keep publishing. Those ones with the historic titles, you know? Where the covers are all old sepia pictures.”

“Really? You like those?”

“Hell yeah. They get a bunch of local historians to research ridiculously specific topics, then they publish little books on them. They have ones on Seaford, the Riverfront, World War II. They did Claymont, but haven't done us yet, don't know why. Either way, I love it.”

“I know what I'm getting you for Christmas every year until we die.”

“Fine by me.”

From the kitchen came, “Help me pack all this food up to bring to Mom and Dad's.”

*

Bridget and Bruce Murphy listened patiently as Mairead laid out complaints, fresh and standard, about her neighborhood. The rotting porches, the lack of hope for the future, the surprising accuracy of lobbed bags of narcotics. It's a story they had experience with.

When Mairead finally finished her diatribe, Ryan, in his second year of college and by far the youngest thanks to Bridget's false brush with early menopause, worked his words around the dinner in his mouth. “I don't go to Mairead's corner when I want to buy drugs. The kids are too obvious about it and their prices are way too high.” He swallowed hard, took a large gulp of milk, and continued. “She's also too deep in the city. I'll get caught.”

Bridget nodded. “Thank you, Ryan. Very insightful.”

Bruce adopted a proud visage. “He's the son I go to when my stash is low low.”

Jack shook his head and looked like he was about to interject, but Ryan wasn't done. “No, when I want to score some primo smack, I'll head down to 5th. All the good stuff comes up 95, hits the Adams Street exit, and lands right in my hand. Then my good buddy Carlos is back on the highway and up to upgrade every life between here and Maine before the cops can even pull their pants on. Hell, I'm probably shooting up by the time they've buckled their utility belts.”

Rachel laughed. “Cops don't have utility belts.”

Ryan smirked. “Then what would you call their waist strap of gadgets, gizmos, and deadly weapons?”

“Overkill?”

A swift and piercing look from Bridget silenced all of them. “We are dangerously close to politics here. Ryan, go get dessert.”

“I still have half a plate of food.”

“And it's the third time you've piled it on, so as far as I'm concerned, you finished dinner two plates ago. The pie's in the oven.”

Ryan grumbled as he stood. “I'm away from the dining hall for a weekend and I can't even enjoy it.”

Fighting back a smile, Bridget threw a crumpled napkin at her son. “I've cooked for you every meal this weekend, you ungrateful jackass. Don't forget a knife. And that flat pie scooper.”

A wide grin cracked across Ryan's face as he entered the kitchen. “I'll see what I can find.”

Bridget turned back to her younger daughter. “Have you tried calling the police?”

“Yeah, they keep saying they'll send a unit, but it's lip service. No one comes. Not often enough to make a difference anyway.”

Bruce opened and closed a hand. “What the hell can they do? There's more mules than commuters on that goddamn interstate.”

Bridget laid a hand on her husband's. “We know, honey.”

“Of course you do. It's why we're in the goddamn suburbs now, right? You can only see so much shit change hands across the street from where your kids sleep before you start to think maybe this isn't the best environment for them to grow up in.”

Mairead looked forlorn. “I bought that house, though.”

Bruce's voice softened a bit. “I know you did, kid, and genuinely, I respect that. You hold onto it and maybe in thirty years it'll be worth something.”

“Jesus. I'll be 62.”

“They always said property was a long-term investment.”

“It's too long, Dad. It's way too long. Not that I wasn't planning on staying, but come on.”

Bruce's voice softened even more. “Kid, I told you that's why we left. We weren't even in a neighborhood as bad as yours and we could see the writing on the friggin' wall. Crime inching down along the avenues, coming closer and closer to our front door. I can only replace so many bikes before I start wondering where they're all going.”

Ryan interjected. “Yeah, and when you see a kid riding your old hog around, you tend to put two and two together.”

“This shit doesn't stop at bikes. It's what was immediate to us, or at least to you kids because your transportation kept disappearing, but it wasn't the only thing. For me, having a shooting two blocks away while I'm home on a sick day was pretty goddamn alarming-”

“Bruce.” Bridget looked quickly from her husband to her daughter. “Mairead, there are initiatives, petitions, and all kinds of other stuff sitting with the city council.”

Jack chimed in. “Even the defeatist attitude is slightly comforting.”

Bridget narrowed her eyes. “How?”

Jack shrugged. “Just that, look, it can't keep going this way, right? A city can't exist like this, so someone's got to do something about it soon.”

Bruce bristled. “And how do you do something about it when goddamn banks are using vacant properties as tax havens?”

Jack shrugged again. “Arson?”

Mairead slapped her brother on the arm. “I'm not burning my house down.”

Jack shook his head and spoke matter-of-factly. “Not yours, the empty ones. Home ownership is a matter of public record, right? Find out which ones the banks own and burn those. That'll light a fire under the bank's ass. Or at least the city's.”

Ryan yelled from the kitchen. “If you'll pardon the expression.”

Bridget leaned back in her chair to see what was taking her youngest so long. “What are you doing in there?”

Drawers opened and closed and utensils clanged together. “I can't find the pie spatula.”

“It's in the main drawer.” Bridget got up to help with the search.

Mairead wasn't done. “The empty ones are attached to the ones people are living in. It'd be like a fire in the 1800s. Everyone's house would go up because one person got careless. Wipe out the whole block in an afternoon.”

Jack held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, it was just a suggestion. Don't do it if you're not comfortable with it.”

Mairead choked on a sarcastic laugh. “No, Jack, I’d say I’m not all that comfortable with arson.”

Bruce shook his head and waved away the possibility. “They have special cops for those crimes anyway. They'd find you in a day and a half. It's not realistic. But I think I take your point. They let these things sit as shells, someone's going to burn one down whether it's on purpose or by accident. The people that are still there are careless enough that I'd believe either.”

Rachel cleared her throat. Everyone jumped at the sound of her voice. “What I think is a shame is that everyone who lives in the city gets punished while the people actually creating the problem get off scot-free, right? A bank forecloses on a home, which means they then own it. If Dad's right, and the property becomes a tax haven or write-off or whatever, then the owner, whoever they are, gets to rake in whatever kind of savings or tax benefits, you know? But at that point, you've changed the point of the property and the responsibilities owed to it.”

The other three at the table stared at her wide-eyed and listening.

She went on. “So what used to support families and neighborhoods becomes another address on a sheet of paper and what matters isn't the property itself, or the quality of it, rather. It’s whether or not you can list it on your sheet as something you own. A family needs the roof not to leak, the front door to lock, the toilet to flush, electricity, that kind of stuff. A bank needs it to fill in a line on a tax form, the rest of it be damned. You've divorced the practical function of the house, that is the fact that it shelters families and enables people to build real, meaningful lives, from the financial aspects of it, that is that you can claim it on your taxes and get certain breaks or kick-backs.”

She sipped from her water. “And, sorry, I don't want to get preachy here, but so far I've heard you guys ignoring what actually turns these houses into rotting husks. I can't speak for other cities, but for us, right here, it isn't the inaction of the people who actually live in the houses. You’re dragging those poor people over the coals, but a house with a bunch of squatters in it is still going to get some maintenance at some point. One of the tweakers knows his way around a hammer and nail and bam, you've got someone plugging up holes in the roof or putting the front door back in its frame, even if it is to keep the cops out.”

She paused to assess her audience. An eyebrow or two were raised, but the people attached to them were still with her. “The problem's with the inaction of the people who don't live in the houses and still claim to own them. So as shitty as it is to sell drugs on a street corner and drag your neighborhood down with you—because you're definitely doing that—what alternative exists? That's not a choice you made, it's a choice an absentee landlord made for you. And more than that, it's a choice that a bunch of absentee landlords made for you for thirty-five years straight. How the hell are you supposed to fight that?” She finished, avoiding eye contact with her family.

Jack clapped a bit of half sarcastic, half genuine applause. “Damn, Rachel, are you sure you're supposed to be a math teacher?”

“What else would I be doing?”

“Leading a neighborhood uprising for one thing.”

Mairead slumped in her chair, thinking about what and how she'd paid for her house. Fifty-six thousand dollars, $40,000 from a mortgage, the rest from savings from her job as a pediatric nurse.