By J. M Grenier
The neighbors have gotten really strange since the Pandemic started. Not that they weren’t already, but lockdown seems to have everyone on edge.
Take Rodney, for example. Retired firefighter. Sits on the common-area patio drinking most of the time, in all kinds of weather. He’ll throw you a friendly hello every once in a while, but mostly he keeps to himself.
Tonight, I find him in the lot behind our apartment building, on his knees, in front of a red Miata. The Miata belongs to Vera, the building snoop. Rod doesn’t like Vera, so he’s not out here fixing her car as some sort of neighborly good deed.
I zip my leather jacket up against the rapidly cooling night. I light a cigarette and watch Rod. He has his back to me and he’s humming. The front hood is closed and he’s not under the chassis.
So, what’s he doing, I wonder?
I take a long drag that is equal parts pleasure and guilt. I’m not supposed to be smoking. Mom, on her deathbed, made me promise to quit. And I did, for two years. I started again six months ago during all this. I’m not proud about it, but of course, none of us could have seen this coming.
I take a quick glance up to our third-floor apartment window. I don’t want the kids to know.. At this angle I can’t see anyone looking out, so no one can see me either. I’m safe.
I take another hit, then I toss the butt to the pavement and step on it. Too late, I remember the last time I did this, the dog smelled it on my Converse and went whimpering to my wife, Heather. That got me busted.
Man’s best friend, indeed.
Disgusted with myself, I step over to get a look at what Rod is doing. As I get closer, I can see that he’s unscrewing the license plate. He’s got the first side off and the plate is hanging like a crooked pennant while he works on the second.
Well, I’ll be damned, I think, Rod is the Pandemic Vandal.
It started last Halloween with the building decorations.
The Superintendent likes to make a big deal out of the holidays, as if this is going to make the place actually worth living in. This past year he went all out. In addition to the usual pumpkin string-lights over the first floor windows, he trims the big tree in the front with tiny plastic skeletons. Then he hangs one of those witch-fliesinto-a-wall decorations between the first and second floor units. To continue the “upgrade” we now have inflatable ghouls, goblins, and vampires. They dance in wild gyrations propelled by lit-up blowers that roar long into the night.
The centerpiece – and the worst for me personally – is the hooded Grim Reaper mannequin. Seven feet tall, it rotates on a metal base while calling out random, B-movie dialog through a 200 watt amplifier that would make Spinal Tap proud.
“You can run but you can never hide!”
“I know where you live!”
“Scream if you wish, but you’ll never escape your end!”
The super has all this set up on a timer so that the show runs seven days a week, from dusk to dawn. People drive by at all hours, taking pictures and videos on their iPhones and posting to Instagram, TikTok or whatever.
Why not, right? He doesn’t live here.
Usually, I’m an easy-going guy. But one night just before Halloween, after working a fourteen-hour shift, I’ve finally had enough. I go outside around midnight and search along the octopus lines of electric cable until I find the master switch. I pull it and the plastic undead fall into darkness and silence.
Six pairs of windows light up behind me: my neighbors on the front side of the building have all been kept awake, too. I get a standing ovation that night. Not wanting the notoriety, I nod, duck my head, and sneak back inside as quickly as possible.
Well, the vandalism starts a few nights later, on Halloween. Someone cuts the guide wires on one of the blow-up ghosts and it tacks sideways, knocking into the Reaper, which falls over with a crash. It keeps going, slowly revolving and thrashing on the ground. And now it’s yelling with a damaged voice box that makes it sound like a ghostly chipmunk.
Considering the holiday, it’s probably some neighborhood kids, but the cops get involved anyway. A masked officer knocks on my door the next night.
“Are you Anthony Lanza?”
“Yeah, but I go by Tony. What’s up officer?”
“Do you know anything about the damaged decorations?”
“The Dementor? Yeah, I saw that.”
“What’s a Dementor?”
“That’s what we call the thing that fell down. Didn’t you see Harry Potter?”
“I don’t have kids.”
“Lucky you,” I say.
He looks at his notebook.
“Says here – one damaged Grim Reaper.”
His face, what I can see of it over his mask, shows that he has the same sense of humor as the Reaper, maybe less. I decide to play it straight with him.
“I’m sorry officer, I don’t know anything about the damaged decoration.”
“Neighbors said you turned it off.”
“Turned the sound off one-night last week, sure. It was obnoxious and I have to go to work early.”
He nods. This he seems to understand.
“How did you know how to turn it off?”
“I work in IT,” I say. “At Westerly Municipal College.”
He nods again as if this explains everything. Not for the first time, I am happy I work in a field that everyone needs, but no one really comprehends.
“OK. That’s all for now. Call the precinct if you see or hear anything else.”
“I will, officer. Good night.”
A few nights later The Patch reports that some teenagers had probably gotten out of hand and knocked down the Dementor. By Thanksgiving the incident is forgotten as people try to work out who-will-not-be-visiting-whom this year. At Christmas, the super decides on a much smaller display.
A trio of plastic snowmen grace the edge of the patio near the street and a few lines of old-fashioned multi-colored bulbs hang across the top of the building. No blowers, no shouting animatronics, and no strangeness. Which is just fine with me.
Except one morning, the snowmen are all found scattered all over the patio. The consensus is that the wind blew them down. Nothing else is said, though everyone knows the truth.
There had been no wind.
All of this leads me back to Rodney and his activities in the back lot tonight. You see, the infection of vandalism that started at our apartment spread over the city, in the form of missing license plates. At first, they are found on various sidewalks or back lawns near to where they are taken. It becomes a thing, to be one of the few who rescues one and returns it to the town hall for redistribution. I find one a few blocks down the street when I walk the dog.
But then a plate is found on top of a mailbox in front of the library and another in a planter in the rotary off Second Avenue – both across the city from where they are snatched. A few more find their way astray: one ends up inserted through the front door mail slot of Jenny’s Bakery, another is electrical-tapped to the window of The Brew Room coffeehouse and one is left sitting on an old stool on the loading dock at Lowe Towne General Hospital.
Last of all, and this takes the cake, a vanity plate is spotted hanging suspended from a streetlight in the middle of the intersection of Brown Street and River Road. It says, “LOOK UP.” Appropriate, but how anyone hung it in such a high-traffic location without being seen is a matter of great speculation for weeks.
Like I said, people are on edge. With so many out of work, stuck at home and unable to go out and see their friends and loved ones, something like this was bound to happen. The Pandemic Vandal (or Artist, as some have begun calling this person) has taken on an almost mythical, Robin Hood-like standing in the community.
Personally, now that I know who it is, I’m at even more of a loss as to how it all happened. Rod is not in the best shape. He retired only because he was injured in a house fire. He had lifted an unconscious man twice his size and blew out his knee. That’s why he spends most of his time drinking on the patio I guess: he’s trying to numb the pain in his leg and in his soul, haunted by the ghosts of his glory days.
I finish my second cigarette and flick it away. I’m not sure what the right thing to do is in this case, but I do know that Rod doesn’t need to be yelled at, fined, or jailed for acting like a punk at his age.
He needs a little compassion. A bit of humanity. At least, that’s what Mom would have said.
So, I step a little closer and clear my throat. It startles him, which was not my intent. He jumps up. The move is kind of like a badly-done pirouette. His screwdriver, seeing its chance to escape, goes rattling on the pavement and hides under the car. Then he is sitting on his backside, resting against the bumper. He looks up at me and laughs.
“Oh, it’s you Tony,” he says. “You had me scared a second. I thought it was Vera.”
“She doesn’t usually come out. It would have more likely been the super.”
“I’d rather it was him. Less scary.”
“You’d be fine. She likes you.”
“That’s why she’s scary.”
“Sit down,” he says, “have a drink with me.” He produces a hip flask from somewhere inside his thick Patriots hoodie.
“You’re not worried about Covid?”
“No, you had it in January, and this rotgut will kill it anyway.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works. The alcohol part,” I say.
I sit next to Rod, my back also against the bumper. He takes a long pull from the flask then tries to hand it to me. I wave him off and light up another cigarette instead.
“Those things will kill you,” he says.
“Look who’s talking,” I say, indicating his flask.
He takes another swig. We sit like that in companionable silence for a while, but I have to know, so I ask:
“Why the plates?”
“Why not? Things are so screwed up right now, I thought people need something to do. Something to laugh at. Something they can control, or at least feel like they do.”
“Something that breaks the law?’ I ask.
He shrugs again.
“Too many of those these days,” he says.
The lights go on in Vera’s apartment. She’s back from her doctor’s appointment or hosting Zoom Bingo or wherever it is she does these days.
“We better move on,” I say. We both know she’ll be peering out here with those binoculars any minute now.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s time for us all to move on, don’t you think?”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I say nothing. I feel him; we all hope it will be over soon.
He retrieves his screwdriver from where it rolled under the car. I stand and offer him a hand up. He grudgingly takes the help, then we begin to walk toward the apartment. As we get to the door, I notice a license-plate shaped bulge in his hoodie that wasn’t there before. I decide to ignore it. It will probably end up hanging off a spinning mannequin next fall.
“So, how did you get that plate up on the lights, anyway?”
“Don’t ask,” he says.
I pull the pack of cigarettes from my jacket pocket. I look at it a moment, feeling the dead weight of the half-smoked contraband. Then I crush it and toss the whole mess into the garbage can beside the stairway. Rod is right: it’s time to move on with whatever it is we can control.