First it was the delivery trucks, then it was the smell. We liked the new neighborhood but the brick house across the road was unbelievable The realtor had said that the suburb was going to be quiet, mostly elderly couples, which was fine with us after moving from the city.
I was used to noise, having lived under the elevated train in Chicago all through college. But our first night in the house the curtains and the windows suddenly lit up like O'Hare airport at around 2 AM. I sat straight up in bed. It was like there was a spotlight on me. I thought maybe Jesus had come back, it was that bright.
Being a small town, a lot of the houses in the country had huge yards. This one was had a huge driveway, a giant wooden fence, and then a backyard that you couldn't really see from the front at all. During the day it looked abandoned. I never saw people there. But there was a terrible odor, like a sewage system overflowing, that you couldn't escape if you got anywhere close.
At night when I ran to the window and pulled back the curtain it was three enormous trucks, pulling out of that driveway, shining their bright bulbs right into my bedroom window. Even over the fence and at that distance the lights were incredible. I watched in amazement. The engines idled for a little while, there was some scurrying, then all three of them, big semis, pulled away at the same time and down our street like a convoy.
I thought maybe I was dreaming. But the next night there it was again. Our first floor bedroom as bright as daylight, and more trucks, this time at 2 am and then again at 4. And it happened every night from then after. Sometimes there were floodlamps set up like one of the downtown parking lots from the city, shining down on something. It looked like the tents from the movie E.T.
We bought blackout curtains that didn't do a thing. We used earplugs and noise machines. Still whatever was going on across the street was insistent on awakening us. There was something being unloaded, put back, reloaded, moved around. But you couldn't see any of it from the street.
“It's drugs. Has to be,” my wife said. “He's bringing in meth shipments in semis in the middle of the night.”
“People make meth in garages,” I said. “They don't haul it around in semis. And if you wanted to be subtle, how could you be less conspicuous than eighteen wheelers driving in and out of the neighborhood all night long? And why on Earth would you do that in Anna?”
“A town like Anna is exactly where you'd go if you were a meth dealer looking to make shipments,” my wife said. She loved murder and drug true – life dramas on Netflix and she was forever espousing theories about serial killers and unsolved crimes. “I'd bring my drugs to Anna in the middle of the night where nobody would ever know.”
“But clearly we know,” I said. “There's nothing secret about what's going on over there.”
“Then go ask,” she said.
“Just go over there and ask the meth dealer?” I said. “That doesn't sound good. I've seen Breaking Bad. I don't want to get wrapped up in it.”
“Maybe it's a sex trafficking ring,” my wife said, bored of my cowardice.
I was in a men's softball group. The pitcher lived not on my street but several houses down the street. There was a gravel plant inbetween where he lived and where I lived but he was the closest neighbor I really knew. I didn't want to seem nosy but I knew he had lived in town for a long time. So he had to have noticed the trucks. How could anybody miss them?
But when I mentioned it, he said he'd never noticed before. I couldn't believe it. You could hear the trucks for miles. It was like trying to sleep through a hurricane.
“I guess I did notice a little bit of noise,” he said. “But I've worn a CPAP for years and I've always been kind of a heavy sleeper,” he said. “And my wife snores a lot. Never thought much about it.”
“He knows,” my wife said. “Everybody around here does. They just don't want to talk about it or tell us.”
My wife got the idea that we were cut out of the secret from her card group. The funny thing was to them it was like a secret that they didn't want to discuss. She asked about it to the point where it almost became a joke, where they knew she would ask but they wouldn't tell her. She was the crazy girl from the city who asked a lot of questions.
“There goes that June again!” they would say after she made a comment about the trucks and the lights.
It came to a head one night after we'd lived in Anna for about 6 months. My wife came home with a bag full of camouflage, the little plastic hats you see in gift shops with fake grass on them, walkie talkies.
“We're going over,” she said.”Commando style.”
“To meet with the meth dealers?” I said.
“To stalk them out. Find out what's in that truck.” She had a Polaroid camera. I hadn't seen a Polaroid camera in years. “You want to take pictures?” I asked.
“Yeah, but not on my phone,” she said. “Hackers can trace all those. We're going old school analog.” There was a smile on her face that I hadn't seen in a while, like a little kid at Halloween. Truth be told, we had moved south to Anna after hitting a tough patch in our marriage. We had tried to have kids, then decided not to, then I had gotten a job opportunity with the department of forestry at a local college, but none of that had made her happy. All of the sudden we were commandos.
We went full on guerrilla style at night, practicing for our raid. It was fun being tin-foil hat people for awhile. Life had a little bit of adventure to it. I had a map of the routes the trucks took, the average time they arrived, how long they stayed. We tried to plot out what nights there were flood lamps up in the yard so we could avoid them. We rehearsed camouflage runs, escape routes, discussed camera angles. There was talk of pepper spray but I shot that down. Weapons seemed a little too far. Finally we decided that I would man the outside highway while she stayed in the bushes in the house down the street. I could signal her on the walkie-talkie when the trucks came and she could get into position. It was very intense preparation. If there were actual drug dealers living across the street from us, we had no hope, because we didn't have a clue about watching anyone or spying on anything. We made T shirts that said “Beale Team Six,” Beale being of course our last name.
But the evening came, we planned our routes, we dressed in camouflage, took pictures of ourselves and posted them to our blog. We high fived and went our separate ways, me in a completely unhideable white Chevy Surbaban to the designated highway spot, she to the bushes where on my signal she would army crawl into position. If there were two more awkward, less noticeable people that had ever spied on someone or something, I had never heard of them.
As I sat in my SUV, not sure if it was safe to turn on the motor for heat or if I could listen to music, I actually had the fleeting thought that we might be in actual danger. I had never shot a gun. I had definitely never had a gun fired at me. I was once pulled over for tailgating, being a very poor driver. I lost a library book in college and had to pay a fine. Nothing dangerous had ever remotely happened to me.
I watched and watched for the trucks until 3:00. The trucks always came at 2:00 AM. My wife and I had agreed on strict radio silence except in emergencies. What emergency could possibly occur, we had no idea, but that sounded like something good to say so we went with that.
And at 3 Am, that night, she broke our rule.
“Beale one, this is Savage Eagle,” she said.
“Come in, Savage Eagle,” I said.
“Please report to the landing site.”
“Please repeat, over?” It made me feel so dang cool to talk on a walkie-talkie.
“Just get up here, dingbat. You need to see this.”
I drove to the house with the lights off, which was difficult in the camouflage pants and jacket. Mobility had not been a consideration, which in retrospect would have been important in real danger. It felt like trying to drive to a Halloween party already in costume when your pants don't fit and you're wearing vampire makeup that's getting in your eyes. And with the headlights off I nearly hit my wife because she was standing in the road, not in her assigned hiding space like we had practiced. She was completely breaking our well-practiced protocol.
“You're completely exposed!” I said.
She just laughed. “They're not coming back,” she said, and reached into the cabin of the Chevy and flipped the brights on.
The trucks ha d apparently come and gone, probably by the other road that we had left unwatched. That bit of surveillance had escaped our terrible plan. What was left was circus regalia all over the ground and in the yard of the big house. It looked like Barnum & Bailey had exploded all over the highway. There was a big top tent, all unfolded all over the ground, and signs and tickets and sawdust. The circus had come to town and left in an enormous hurry.
I found out later what had happened by calling the better business bureau and the police. It turns out that PETA had come down hard on the old school circuses for animal cruelty. They'd sued the circus people for using live animals and treating them bad in their shows. There were still circuses around, small ones, and they were trying to sell animals to illegal dealers and illegal zoos. But they had to operate without the police knowing, and so they were taking the animals and hiding them in tractor trailers in places like our little nowhereseville town. The police guy actually had me to talk to the FBI a few days later because all of this was very much under investigation. They were still trying to catch the perps. But for awhile, so the agent said, we had actually had three jaguars, a lynx, six lions and possibly an elephant living across the street from us hiding in semi trucks. Maybe a penguin, but he wasn't sure.
We didn't know any of that that night though. My wife and I did discover a huge box of snacks, candied apples, peanuts, cracker jacks, just laying there in boxes outside this abandoned house where the trucks had dumped it all and made their getaway. We were kids in a candy store. The sun was kind of starting to come up by that point. We were able to put up one of the little tents, sit on a lawnchair and eat cracker jacks like total gluttons while we read brochures and leafed through posters about the bearded lady and the world's smallest pony and a clown act that was happening somewhere. I brought the grill over from our house while we waited for the police. My wife did cartwheels while I pretended to be a lion tamer and I tried to string up what I think was a trapeze. Who says exciting things don't happen sometimes in small towns? We had been neighbors with a jaguar and never even known it.