He couldn’t recall exactly when having a nice lawn had started to matter to him.
He and Mary used to joke about it when they’d moved out from the city, how the neighbors would talk about grass treatments and how tall to mow the blades, how they all had the same houses with the portico and the dormer windows and the multi-crested roofs and the two-car garage with the same foreign SUV out front, how they dressed in identical fleece pullovers with logos displayed across the chest and named their children after presidents – Madison, Lincoln, Kennedy – and had boring conversations about unimportant things. They had fantasized about planting a garden in front of the house. An actual garden, with green beans and tomatoes and squash and that sort of thing, partly because they wanted to, but mostly because they wanted to mark themselves as different, as non-conformists, as people who didn’t care about lawn care.
But somewhere along the line things had changed. He’d told himself he just wanted a nice spot to enjoy a sunny day. He’d put up a hammock, but when he would lie down in it, all he could see was the scraggly bald patch covered haphazardly in clover and crabgrass.
So he’d planted some seed. He’d started watering, installed a sprinkler system and hired a company to come once a month and spray some sort of awful hydroxide-smelling stuff that turned the uniform one and three-quarters length blades of grass a perfect forest green and required that small yellow signs on little metal posts be displayed to warn anyone who might be tempted to allow his or her dog to roam freely or permit Spot or Alfie or Rusty to do his or her business on his perfect grass that doing so could result in severe illness or even the death of the offender's beloved pooch.
Mary had teased him about it, about how he was becoming so suburban, until it stopped being a joke and started being a serious criticism.
Alan stood in the fading evening light exuding pride as he surveyed the green expanse. A murder of crows perched on the power lines, watching him and cawing back and forth. Otherwise, the neighborhood was quiet, SUVs and minivans parked in driveways of darkened homes.
His eyes traced the borders of his yard, inspecting for any unevenness. Along the side of the property line, a row of short hedges stood next to the fence. One of the hedges, he noticed, had gotten slightly taller than its neighbors, giving the row an unsightly lack of uniformity. Alan clicked his tongue disapprovingly. He opened his garage door and took the electric trimmers from the wall. He could level it out, get the hedge back in line before he went inside for dinner.
He cut the three or four taller sprouts and then stood back to admire his work. Then he peered through the slats in the fence at what used to be the Johnsons’ house. Alan angled his body so that he could see the neighboring yard and shook his head.
Dinner was already on the table when he walked through the door. The tofu stir fry that Mary made all the time now and that he’d told her before was not something he enjoyed eating. He sat and stared at the still-steaming bowl of soft, off-white cubes, soggy, crinkle-cut carrots and limp green beans over plain whole grain brown rice.
“Have you seen the new neighbors’ yard recently?” Mary rolled her eyes at the question. Alan shoveled a spoonful of his dinner into his mouth. “It could use some flavor,” he deadpanned once he had swallowed.
“It’s good for you, dear,” Mary said flatly. “You know what your doctor said.”
“They’ve really let it go to seed – their yard,” he said, returning the conversation to where it had begun. I just wish they would…”
“… try to take care of it a little bit better. The rest of us are really making an effort to keep up the neighborhood.”
“I’m just worried about our property values is all.”
Mary stuck her fork in her rice. “Alan, not again. We had this conversation two nights ago. Can we find something else to talk about?”
“You know I’m trying to keep an open mind about them, Mary. Is it so wrong that I'm…” He paused, searching for the right word, before finishing his thought. “… concerned?"
“Open mind?" She put her head back and laughed harder than Alan thought was called for. "Please. You haven’t liked them since day one. You never gave them a chance."
“For heaven’s sake, Mary. Do I have to state the obvious here? They’re vampires!” His voice was starting to escalate. “Or am I not allowed to say anything? Am I just supposed to bite my tongue and keep quiet?”
“Yes, Alan, that's exactly what you are supposed to do. Because there’s nothing wrong with being a vampire, that’s why. They’ve been so pleasant to you. They're trying. And what do you do? You judge them because they don’t care enough about their stupid lawn? I swear, sometimes I think I don’t even know who you are any—”
He pushed his bowl aside and stood up from the table. Then he walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door and pointedly removed the package of bacon, setting it on the counter, making a show of finding the cast iron pan and turning on the stovetop. He stood over the stove with his back to Mary.
“Mary, you know I vote for the liberals every damn year. I do it even though they keep raising my taxes. Because I’m a tolerant person," he said through gritted teeth. He put four strips of bacon into the pan and stood there watching the translucent fat that ran along the edges pop and sizzle. The house filled with the potent aroma of frying meat.
He turned back towards Mary, who was watching him with silent irritation, her lips pursed as she chewed her rice. “But vampires?” He asked incredulously. “I bet the guy’s opposed to chemical fertilizers. Bad for the environment or something. Who the hell knows? He probably doesn’t even own a weed whacker!” He spoke as if he expected this last bit to upset Mary, as if the lack of weed whacker would be the thing that finally convinced her that some sort of corrective action was required.
Mary put down her fork, its tines scraping against the outside of her bowl as she did, emitting a high pitch screech of metal on porcelain. “They’re nice people, Alan. And you’ve been so—”
“Ah ha,” Alan interrupted. “Bill, from down the street,” he said, pointing in the general direction of Bill’s house. “Bill says they’re not even people! He says they’re undead. Some of them have been walking around since the middle ages, for God’s sake.” He was getting exercised. “So no, Mary, they’re not nice people. Bill says when they moved into Oakton – you know where Oakton is, we went there that one time for my office Christmas party – anyway, they moved into Oakton and there went the neighborhood. I mean that. Everyone just disappeared. It’s a ghost town now. I bet you can’t give a house away in Oakton now.” He paused to catch his breath. “And they throw all night parties. That’s when they’re awake, you know. They’re nocturnal! Just imagine what that will mean for our parking situation.”
“Oh, Alan. You really believe those old wives’ tales? Frankly, some of that stuff is just really ugly stereotypes. You should know bet—”
“And they drink blood! Oh, right. How could I forget about that little bit?” He did a sarcastic stage laugh, tilting his head to the ceiling and clutching at his belly.
“Oh, for the love of…” Mary said as she rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. She picked up her fork again and this time purposefully ran it along the edge of the bowl before spearing a carrot and bringing it forcefully to her mouth.
Alan made a gesture, two fingers on the side of his neck. “Bill says—”
“Bill is a moron, Alan! Remember when we first moved here, you told me he may have been the dumbest person you’d ever met? You said that!”
“Yeah, well, maybe I did say that, but I like Bill. And I’m allowed to change my mind.”
“I wonder where Bill is. I haven’t seen him in a few days. He’s usually out there every night on his riding mow—"
“I invited them over for dinner tomorrow night,” Mary said. “Our new neighbors.” She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him.
“They’ll be here at six o’clock. They’re bringing salad and a bottle of wine.”
“The bacon’s burning.”
Alan turned back to the stove, where thick smoke was wafting toward the ceiling. “Damn it all,” he said as he tried to salvage what he could with the spatula, splashing a few drops of bacon grease across his shirt.
“And I want you to be nice, Alan. I want you to try. Please. His name is Alexandru. He goes by Alex, I think. Alex and Claudia. She’s really lovely. I had her over for tea a few days ago. Just a really lovely woman. Claudia says they’re having a hard time making friends." Mary glared at him. “I feel badly for them.”
Alan put a blackened strip of what used to be bacon into his mouth and tried not to make a face. “So I guess it falls to us, then, to welcome the vampires, introduce them around.”
“Yes. It does.”
“Well don’t expect me to start inviting him to the guys’ poker nights. Bill won’t be happy at all if I show up with a vampire. You know how Bill feels about–”
“Bill is an idiot, like we agreed.”
“I don’t think I agreed–”
“You agreed, Alan.”
Alan muttered something unintelligible under his breath. Out of spite he picked up another piece of the bacon, this one even more burnt than the first. Mary put a heaping spoonful of tofu into her mouth. They each chewed their respective foods, pretending to be enjoying them.
“I forgot to tell you,” Mary said. “Claudia tells me that Alex really admires our lawn.”
Alan swallowed, suppressing a grimace. “Oh, yeah?” he asked, the cynicism suddenly gone from his voice.
“She asked me how you get it so green. They said they’re looking to fix up their own yard."
“I told her I have no idea, but that you’d be more than happy to tell Alex all about it.”
“Six o’clock, you said?”
Mary nodded. “Uh huh. Alex is apparently excited to get some pointers from you on getting straight edges.”
“I would never have guessed—"
“There’s a lot you don’t know about vampires, apparently.”
“Maybe I’ll grill a couple of steaks. Bill says vampires like rare meat.”
“That’s not going to work. They are deathly afraid of knives. Claudia told me just a horrible story about a mob of people trying to stab them right through their hearts with pieces of wood. Can you imagine? Poor things." She shook her head. "Apparently, they still can't be around any sort of sharp object. And no raw garlic. Severe allergies.” She turned her attention back to the few remaining bites of stir fry, poked the tofu a bit with her fork. “Anyway, Claudia says they keep a liquid diet. Part of some health regimen, she said. They seem quite up on that sort of thing.”
“She said the nicest thing to me, Claudia did. That I have a beautiful neck. She asked whether I'd ever considered modeling. Perfect veins, she said.” Mary spoke wistfully as she stroked the side of her neck gently. “Nobody has ever complimented my veins before. It was quite flattering, I must say.”
Alan was no longer paying attention. He’d wandered over to the window that looked out over his front yard.
“Vampires like lawn care,” he said quietly to himself, a sense of wonder in his voice. “Imagine that!”