by Lisa Alvarez
When her next-door neighbor Matthew finally peeled the enormous red white and blue "Q" decal from the back window of his white pickup after his presidential candidate's defeat in the November election, Linda imagined that he, unlike his candidate, was conceding. Matthew even removed the vintage "Lock Her Up" from the bumper along with the even older "Nope." His Chevy was now as blank as a Styrofoam cup. He lowered the candidate's flag that had flown on his driveway flagpole for four years, replacing it with the American flag Linda had first seen when she arrived in the Southern California rural canyon years earlier, like him, divorced, unlike him, not childless. The months-old beard that grizzled Matthew’s biscuit-like face she chocked up to late-stage pandemic grooming along with the out-of-character pony tail. Soon, she hoped, Matthew would return to his old self, a gruff but reliable neighbor who shaved, dependable in a crisis, whether it was a jump-start, fallen tree or wildfire evacuation.
Then Linda noted that his absence coincided with the January 6th siege.
Her daughter Willow was baking that day, an elaborate Rosca de Reyes, the Mexican Kings’ Day cake shaped like a crown, rolled and filled with dried fruit. The girl had risen at dawn to chop nuts and raisins, and candy orange peel, her long black hair, streaked with hot pink, pulled back in a bright braid. The pandemic had inspired Willow to dye her hair and bake a cake each week, activities that Linda encouraged. Keep them busy, her mother, a single parent to five girls, used to say. It was the one parenting tip Linda took from her childhood.
The rosca was a yeasted cake, requiring two rises and a lot of patience. It kept the teenager busy that day as they watched the livestream from the nation’s capitol together. What had begun as an ordinary Wednesday at home, attending respectively to asynchronous school and work duties while puttering around the house, Willow baking, Linda gardening, became something else entirely mid-morning when Willow’s AP Government teacher Mr. Sawaya sent the entire class an emergency extra credit text: “Tune into PBS now and write what you see. 100 points EC.” Hours later, as Wednesday, January 6th became Thursday, January 7th, Willow was still writing. Finally, in the wee hours, the Vice President declared Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. of Delaware the 46th president of the United States.
Willow sat curled up on the couch, wrapped in blankets, laptop balanced on her lap, tapping away, one long hank of her hair hanging from her mouth. This was a new habit, born of the pandemic, this hair twirling and sucking. Linda let it be.
Willow’s rosca had risen nicely, then turned golden in the oven, its crown of candied orange slices, cherries and figs gleaming beneath its sugary glaze. The cake had sustained them during the Capitol’s siege and evacuation, and the eventual midnight return of the electors. Linda was grateful for the thoughtful news anchors who could answer her daughter’s questions better than she could. No parent wants to give their child “I don’t know” as an answer to anything.
The uneaten half of the crumbly sweet crown would be more than enough for breakfast. Perhaps one of them would find the plastic stand-in for the Baby Jesus still hidden inside. Willow had used one of her many tiny Totoro figurines, tucking a cheerful forest creature deep into the dough.
On the television, weary reporters were signing off against a montage of photos and video feed of the day: the unstoppable stream of marchers, bodies swollen by tactical gear, their flags and signs turned into weapons, their weapons turned on Capitol police, their chants, their rage, the makeshift gallows with its orange noose, the assault on that white domed building.
“Who are these people, Mom?” Willow asked, closing her computer. “Where did they come from?” It was 1:00 AM, the room lit now only by the TV and its seemingly endless replay of the day’s remarkable events. Willow expertly wound the long slick strand of hair around her index finger, pink black, pink black like some kind of striped candy from childhood. What was it called? Good and Plenty?
Linda sighed. It was just the two of them, as it had been for some years now. She had to field all the questions, all the demands. She sometimes felt that ache of the single parent. She wondered about her own mother, the tough questions that she and her sisters may have asked her, not that Linda, her youngest, recalled asking her much of anything, so afraid she was of getting on her mother’s bad side. Five girls was just too much. Still, she remembered when Robert Kennedy was shot across town. Linda was too young to stay up that late but her mother and her oldest sister Carol had. Her mother wasn’t what you would call political, but she had liked the Kennedys, handsome Catholic family men. Maybe you’ll marry a Kennedy, she teased her daughters, there’s enough of them, there’s enough of you. Two of Carol’s friends had worked on the campaign and were at the Ambassador Ballroom that night. Carol was hoping to see them on TV wearing their jaunty white straw boater campaign hats, adorned with the red, white, and blue hat bands with images of the candidate and the slogan “Kennedy will win.” When Linda and her sisters left for school that morning the senator was still alive, but the next day, he was dead. Unlike her daughter, Linda never asked why. Of course, it was only a single shooter, at the end of a decade too many crazed lone gunmen, the second high-profile assassination within two months. January 6th, whatever it was, felt different, looked different. So many raging thousands, not just one.
“Good questions, Will,” Linda replied. “We’ll see what the news says tomorrow. But now it’s late.” Her daughter nodded. That was enough of an answer for now. Meanwhile, Linda was already thinking that she knew the identity of at least one of them.
Matthew had asked Willow to feed his chickens. Willow had been the one Matthew relied upon for years now whenever a trip --- Vegas, a 49ers game, a fishing trip, some family gathering --- took him away. It was a neighborly duty the girl especially enjoyed as it allowed her to unlock the big gate that separated their backyards and swing it wide open. Once upon a time, the story goes, their two lots had been owned by brothers who built identical modest houses for their modest identical lives: two stories, two bedrooms, big front porches, a bit of mid-century Midwestern in the Southern California foothills.
Matthew returned late afternoon on Thursday, pulling into his driveway at his usual high speed, sending gravel spraying and inspiring a chorus of complaints from the squirrels who fled to the nearby oak trees. Linda waved from the porch where she sat with that morning’s newspaper. She was still looking for a good answer to her daughter’s late-night question. She waved because, well, that’s what you did in the canyons. You waved. To everybody.
The Matthew who emerged from the truck was clean shaven, cheeks shiny, eyes bright. His old-school crew cut was back. He hauled his duffel out of the back and waved back by lifting his now bare chin. On the truck’s broad dashboard, Linda glimpsed what she thought was the distinctive parking receipt from the local airport named for the famous star of classic big screen Westerns, shaped like a cowboy hat.
That night, from her kitchen sink window, Linda peered into the little room in the back of the house where Matthew kept his computer. In recent months, since the arrival of the virus, Matthew had abandoned his usual front room big screen sports TV habit in favor of his computer, late into the evening, night after night. These days, Daylight Savings made the days short, the nights long. The computer monitor lit the whole room as if Matthew, and she too, standing there with her hands sunk in cooling dishwater, were peering into a blazing furnace.
You weren’t supposed to notice things about your neighbors. You weren’t supposed to snoop, to judge. Each to his own. Mind your own business. Good fences. But Linda couldn’t help connecting the dots, recalling those mimeographed handouts from her elementary school days, passed out by an underprepared substitute teacher or given to the school children when a rare Southern California storm rained out recess. She loved the mystery, the puzzle, of what the lines drawn between the numbers in order would create, then the reward of the picture or scene ready to color in. There were always clues, hints: a flash of a tail, the arc of a toothy grin, the slash of a spine. This one would become a galloping horse, this one a whale, that one an owl. Sometimes there were surprises. A creature you couldn’t at first imagine. Not a kitten but a dragon. Not a dancer but snake. This moment, peering from her window into his, felt like that. Your neighbor’s business was not yours until, of course, you became their business and they, yours.
A couple years back, her enterprising daughter had signed her up for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and NextDoor Neighbor when Linda’s notary public services needed the boost that social media could provide and their little family of two could use more money. Her social media profiles became even more essential during the pandemic’s lockdown. Under Willow’s guidance, Linda learned how to tend them, cheerful posts that brought in a steady business that made a difference, a welcome supplement to her part-time paralegal work and the monthly child support and alimony.
Tonight though, for the first time, Linda clicked on the “What’s Happening” tab on Twitter, then the item right below it: “Capitol Riot.” The tab had always been there, on the right, an invitation she never considered. For so long, nothing seemed to be happening or, at least, she couldn’t see it, at least not online Now it seemed lots was happening. Then she clicked on “You might like.” And after that: “Who to Follow.” She felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, taking a bite of a mushroom, sipping, then swigging, from the “Drink Me” bottle.
It didn’t take Linda long to find what she was looking for. A few clicks here. A few there. Willow had informed her that Twitter, and social media in general, was intuitive but until now her mother hadn’t thought so. But maybe you needed motivation in order to effectively engage with the intuitive design. Maybe you needed an attempted overthrow of your republic for inspiration.
With a few more clicks, Linda found answers delivered more quickly than television news or the daily regional newspaper flung each morning at her porch. These people, these busy people on Twitter, they were what’s happening. And, apparently, since the insurrection (as it was now called) they seldom slept. Citizen journalists, they called themselves, or open source investigators. Their Twitter handles charmed her: Belling the Cat. No Nazis for Me Thank You. Deep State Dog. Linda’s Twitter feed, once slow and meandering, populated by real estate listings, local business opportunities and inspirational memes, became a rush of riot images and video feed. Hours went by. Then days. Linda’s new friends –-- Did one have friends on Twitter, she wondered, or was that only on Facebook? –-- were eager to help her answer her daughter’s, perhaps everyone’s questions: Who were these people? Where did they come from?
The FBI’s online tip form was well organized and surprisingly simple to fill out. Intuitive, you might say. A matter of minutes. Of course, Linda relied on her own well-organized notes and observations, which made it easier. Dates of departure and return. That scruffy “before” beard and long hair. She had learned this was a recommended disguise tactic, not that many felt they would need to hide, victory being so certain. But just in case, a shave and haircut before returning home wouldn’t hurt. The scouring of the car. The disappearance of the flag. Then there was his online activity documenting, no, celebrating Matthew’ foray into the Capitol, along with what he called his “regiment.” The selfies, the videos. It was all there in red, white and blue.
As Linda dutifully reviewed the FBI electronic tip form, she remembered the crisp ATM twenty that Matthew always gave Willow for the chicken duty and those special Christmas cookies his mother sent every year. Butter cookies with a pecan pressed in the middle. Mrs. Graver always sent two tins, and Matthew walked one over, waiting until she and Willow were home instead of leaving it on the porch. A nice gesture. Linda remembered the cookies from her childhood because the recipe was from the butter package that featured what was then called an Indian maiden, kneeling by a blue lake, offering up the very butter package she appeared on. As a child she had liked this brand because of the young woman with her braids, the pretty landscape. Young Linda even imagined she might go there one day, see that lake, those trees. Printed inside the blank waxed interior were recipes you could cut out and save. Recently the newspaper reported that the Indian maiden was no more, freed from her obedient servitude, just like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. The waxy package’s vista was just the blue lake now, framed by pines reflected on its placid surface, the space where she’d knelt for decades, empty.
Christmas wasn’t that long ago. Their artificial tree still stood in the corner, twinkling. A few cookies waited to be eaten. The tin was on the kitchen table where she worked. A family of snowmen decorated its lid, each with stovepipe hats and long knitted scarves, branches for arms and carrots for noses. Willow saved the tins each year, repurposing them. This tin, an unusual rectangular shape, she already claimed as perfect for her paintbrushes. They had given Matthew their traditional gift: a calendar from the nearby bird sanctuary.
Her review session concluded, Linda clicked the box that declared she was not a robot. She popped open the tin and retrieved a cookie, thick and round, tasting like it always had of butter and sugar and vanilla. Perfect. She pressed send. It was done.
Two weeks later, just after the inaugural, the agents arrived, emerging from a small fleet of black Cadillac Escalades, their boxy black raid windbreakers with yellow block letters on the back. Official FBI coronavirus masks, K-95 no doubt. The Sedition Hunters on Twitter used the verb “swarmed” in their tweet. Linda missed the swarm but Willow was there, watching from the vantage point of her second story bedroom. Mom, she texted, something’s going down next door.
Linda didn’t get the text until later. That morning she waited at the mouth of the canyon, in the cul-de-sac where the local family-run assisted living facility was hosting yet another neighbor’s dying parent. Olive Grove Guest Home was run by two generations of nurses, assisted by various family members. The old folks home occupied a special place in the canyon, allowing residents to relocate their aging relatives or themselves as needed. For a notary like Linda, Olive Grove provided steady business.
When she’d got the morning’s call, she decided to walk down rather than drive, carrying her attaché case. It was a beautiful morning, a nice walk. The hills were begin to green up from the winter rains after the fall’s wildfires. The creek was running, low, but running. Two months until Spring but she thought she saw the first leaves of wild lilies beginning to unfurl along the road. Linda hadn’t wanted to continue to live in the house where her marriage had failed. That’s why they came out here, where the sidewalks ended and in the mornings you woke to roosters, and in the afternoons, horses’ hooves sometimes echoed. Living out here could take the edges off a person. The freeways that took them to school and work were still only 20 minutes away but the canyon felt like a new old world, a fresh start.
This time it was Karen Vogel’s father Ben, a proud man who had apparently intended to live forever and had therefor made no arrangements. Now, before the morphine drip, daughter Karen needed power of attorney. Ben was famous in the canyon. The American flag that he daily raised by his home on the main road featured a hand-painted sign attached to the pole’s base: A Pearl Harbor Survivor Lives Here. Vogel was also known for his birdhouses, handcrafted and personalized to resemble the homes of those who purchased them. The canyon was full of his winsome miniatures, each an echo of their owners’ homes. Proceeds went to the bird sanctuary. Linda had commissioned one when she and Willow settled in and then, wanting to be friendly, asked for one more because, after all, considering their twin homes, it would be easy for Mr. Vogel to make two. That was both her first new neighbor overture and her first misstep with Matthew though for the life of her she couldn’t understand what she had done wrong. “Thanks but no thanks,” Matthew had said from behind his screen door when she and Willow, still toddling, showed up with it. The late afternoon sun slanting through the screen pixelated him.
At first, Linda thought Matthew had misunderstood, had imagined she was asking for money. The birdhouses weren’t cheap. “It’s yours,” she said. “I had two made for the two houses, the two brothers.” She pointed to where she had installed hers, hung from a low hanging oak. “This one is our gift to you.”
She saw Matthew look at the two of them and wondered what he saw. Maybe he thought Linda was after something other than money, standing there with her daughter, her arms holding a tiny house. She was still all dressed up from work, a skirt suit, nylons, heels, the kind of clothes she seldom wore anymore but did back then. She flushed.
“Thanks but no thanks,” Matthew repeated. “Birds don’t need handouts and neither do I. And they make their own homes just fine.” He shut the door.
Linda and her daughter took the short walk back to their home. She told Willow that Matthew was, indeed, technically right. Birds did indeed made their own homes just fine. And, barring natural disasters, they found their own food as well. And so, just like that, the second birdhouse became a dollhouse for Willow.
One day not long after, Karen, Ben’s daughter, enlightened her while they waited on line at the post office.
The story involved a famous bit of canyon lore involving the two men’s flags and yet another decal Matthew removed from his white truck. New to the canyon, his truck’s rear window sported an USMC emblem, an eagle straddling a globe pierced by an anchor. Huge. Not subtle. It made an impression.
Karen rolled her eyes. “Vets,” she said, “gotta love them.” But, as it turned out, she explained, Matthew was no vet. “Anyone could buy those decals off the internet, you know,” Karen said, and that’s exactly what Matthew had done. A few chats with Matthew and Ben Vogel had smelled a rat. “Stolen valor, Pops had called it,” Karen recalled, describing how he called Matthew out during one of the volunteer firefighters’ Wednesday meetings. “I was there,” she said. “It was something else. Matthew never came back to the firehouse. So no, Matthew does not want one of Dad’s birdhouses. That’s the last thing he wants.”
Vogel was 95 and, until just a few days ago, had been living on his own, raising that flag each morning, filling his bird feeders with feed that attracted songbird species, studded with black sunflower seeds.
From his raised hospital bed, Ben feebly flirted with Linda as she set up the paperwork. “Hey good lookin’, watch ya got cookin’?” he quipped, with a faint Hank Williams twang, a squinty wink.
“My daughter is the one that cooks,” Linda said, smiling from behind her mask. “She bakes. Next time, I’ll bring you some cake.”
“I’d like that,” Ben said. “I like a good cake.” On the rolling table tray in front of him were arranged a plastic cup of water and a plastic plate with a melting popsicle, its wooden stick unmoored from the dissolving confection.
She watched as Ben Vogel signed his name for the last time. He didn’t need help. A modest signature with some grand flourishes. That "V" leapt. The "l" stood tall.
“Your dad still has it, doesn’t he?” she remarked to Karen as they walked into the living room to finish their business. She gave Karen the canyon discount plus the veteran discount which meant when they finished all Karen gave her was thanks and a handshake.
“The life force is strong,” Karen observed, “until it isn’t. Ninety-five!”
“Mom,” Willow called from the kitchen when she returned. She was mixing up another cake. Italian this time, with olive oil, instead of butter. Recipe cut out of the newspaper. Rosemary and almonds and orange zest. She had somehow dyed her hair again. When did the kid find the time? But time was all they had. The hot pink had been replaced with green, bright new green like those spear-shaped lily leaves poking up from the cold ground. The kitchen smelled like hot citrus and burnt sugar.
Willow had photos on her cell phone that told the story. Linda swiped through them. Matthew had offered no resistance. The agents knew what they were looking for. It was a very short story.
“What about his chickens?” Willow asked.
They both looked out the kitchen sink window to their neighbor’s house, the twin of theirs. The little room in the back where Matthew kept his computer was empty. They could see that now.
Matthew’s chickens were free range during the day, strutting their stuff in his fenced yard, spending their time pecking at attractive patches of grass and dirt, shimmying their fat feathery behinds down into the earth. But at the end of each day, they needed to be locked up for the night in their secure coop, safe from the foxes, bobcats and the occasional mountain lion on the prowl. Their eggs needed to be collected too. Water needed replenishing. Who knew when he’d be back? Of course, Matthew had left in a hurry, no time to ask for their assistance during this unplanned absence.
“You know what to do,” Linda said. “We should help him out. It’s what good neighbors do. Plus, we could use the eggs.”
Lisa Alvarez was born in Los Angeles and came to Orange County as a grad student, earning an MFA in fiction at UC Irvine. Her essays, stories and poems have appeared in Air/Light, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Huizache, [Pank], Santa Monica Review and elsewhere, including Santa Ana Literary Association’s Year in Poetry series and Breath of Fire’s COVID Monologues. Her work has been included in anthologies including Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America. She has herself edited three anthologies, including Orange County: A Literary Field Guide and most recently, Why to These Rocks: Fifty Years of Poetry from the Community of Writers, both published by Heyday Books. For nearly 30 years she has been a professor of English at Irvine Valley College, where she teaches writing and literature and co-directs the Puente program. During the summers she co-directs the writers workshops at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra.