Living Among Strangers

 schmitt

Read More: A brief interview with Richard Schmitt

Dump trucks rattle up where the asphalt ends. Men in boots go afoot into the woods carrying tripods and tool boxes. They shove wooden stakes into the sand and tie ribbons around trees. Yellow steel-jawed contraptions mouth longleaf pines and tear them roots-and-all from the earth. Palmetto bushes are bulldozed into piles and burned. Frightened displaced critters, snakes and rodents, their burrows crushed, their lives upended, scoot down tire-tread ruts into this upscale neighborhood south of Sarasota. Kids ravage the building site, finding tiger skulls, elephant tusks, bear claws. They run through the streets screaming “Dinosaur bones!”

“No,” I tell them. “No prehistoric land carnivores lived in Florida. I know, children, I was a school teacher.” They take a step back. “Seawater,” I say, “sharks and crustaceans lived here before us.”

Dewy mornings I don my Nikes and powerwalk the wide looping streets quiet before the sun clears the trees and starts the Spanish-tile rooftops steaming. I stride unstained sidewalks, skip over crisp-edged curbstones. Fat SUVs roll by, men in suits, moms seeing kids off to school. “Morning” everyone says. “Good morning Mrs. Beamons!” I wave and say it back as if I know these people. As if I care.

Some of us in the neighborhood are retired or semi-retired. This is not one of those golf-cart villages of infirm northerners. My children want me in a place like that, my daughters in concert like musketeers, or stooges. They say: We want you happy Mom, cared for, with likeminded people. “Like minded.” What does that even mean? I have no intention of going anywhere. I do not play shuffleboard or bridge. I am not elderly. I am recently widowed. Twenty-five years I taught school up north so I know a thing or two.

I walk to the gatehouse and turn back. The gateman says “Morning Mrs. Beamon.” I can’t tell if he leaves the s off on purpose, like a rude student, or if he’s just an ignoramus. I suspect the latter. A pudgy man wearing polo shirt and beige shorts, he waves us in and out. He’s a gateman without a gate, not even one of those up-and-down bars to raise and lower with some authority—he has none. He has a walkie-talkie with no one on the receiving end, he has a phone, anything suspicious he calls the police. That’s his non-function. There has never been anything suspicious. Until now.

Now the construction comes to an end, the men in boots abandon the woods, park their contraptions and leave. Police tape off the site. An unmarked car shows up, detectives wearing rubber gloves. The coroner arrives, then a university specialist, a news team.

I’m not nosy. I do not meddle, snoop, or pry. I own a stately sedan with a tag that reads: MYOB. But I watch the news. I follow world events. I know where the bombs regularly go off. And naturally I monitor the action if it occurs in my own neighborhood. Twenty-five years in middle school you acquire an instinct for intrigue, an ear for chronicle, you acclimatize inquisitiveness. I move in on the news truck. The reporter, newsperson they say now, a big-blonde-designer-suit-painted-face fresh out of UF journalism school stares at the camera. I don’t want to be called Granny and be told to shove off, step aside, go home, so I wait until they’re done then sidle up to the cameraman as he loads his stuff. “Big story?”

“Big is right,” he says. “Big dead body.” […]


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Richard Schmitt has published fiction and nonfiction in Arts & Letters, The Best American Essays, Blackbird, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, The North American Review, Puerto del Sol, Shenandoah and other places. Schmitt is the author of The Aerialist, a novel (Harcourt 2001). 

Read More: A brief interview with Richard Schmitt