Those People Behind Us

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It’s the summer of 2017 in Wellington Beach, California, a suburban coastal town increasingly divided by politics, protests, and escalating housing prices—divisions that change the lives of five neighbors as they search for home and community in a neighborhood where no one can agree who belongs.

Real estate agent Lisa Kensington juggles her job, her shopaholic husband, a mother-in-law who knows how to push her buttons, and teenagers with ideas of their own. Ray Gorman, a haunted Vietnam vet, cares for his aging mother. Keith Nelson, an ex-con, lives in his car, parked near his parents’ house. Sixteen-year-old Josh Kowalski works through the shock of his father’s abandonment by slamming on a drum set. Jeannette Larsen, an aerobics teacher numbed by horrific tragedy, turns away from her husband and toward reckless behavior. In the end, they all discover that despite their differences, they are more connected than any of them would have imagined.
First 10 Pages



Keith watches a skunk family march down the middle of Summertime Lane, their eyes glowing zombie red in the streetlight. It’s 5:20 a.m. and the battery on his cell phone is almost dead. He can smell himself, perspiration, pizza breath, and the gym socks and towel that never quite dried yesterday. No matter what, he’s got to do laundry today and get some sleep tonight. He had to move his car from the library parking lot earlier, when the police drove through, flashing blue lights at the parked cars and RVs, yelling into bullhorns that the lot was closed. Now he’s only two blocks away from the house he grew up in.

He imagines his parents, sound asleep, with no idea of all the wild things creeping around outside in the dark. Coyotes slinking down the sidewalk, sniffing the air for dog food and outdoor cats. Possums waddling toward sidewalk-splattered avocados. Tree rats chasing each other across electrical wires. Two raccoons traversing the cinderblock walls like gloved and masked thieves. One scrawny, grey striped cat hiding beneath the Gormans’ oleander bush.

Keith pees in an empty Gatorade bottle, opens the car door as silently as possible, and gets out. The blooms on the crepe myrtle trees up and down Summertime Lane catch the sun rising over Ensillado Mountain. He pours the urine out over the grass clippings in the Gormans’ green yard waste container, then puts the empty Gatorade bottle in their blue recycling bin. Stretching his arms overhead, Keith hears his neck pop. He wishes he had an Advil.

The crepe myrtle flowers are beautiful—watermelon red, rose pink, deep lavender, fuchsia, and white—with a silver bark that glows in the sunrise. A small breeze picks up and the blossoms wave back and forth as if they’re admiring each other. His dad would call him a pussy, but he loves these trees, the contrast of their crazy colors against the concrete sidewalks and driveways.

And then the Gormans’ sprinklers go on and an icy jet of water shoots straight up his leg. “Fuck,” he whispers as he jumps across the meridian, trying to avoid getting his feet wet too. He gets in the car, grabs the stinky towel from the backseat, and does what he can, but it looks like he’s pissed himself. There’s another pair of shorts in the trunk that also stink because he’s worked out in them twice this week, but it’s too hard to change in the car. He has a key to his parents’ house, but they’ll be up soon, making coffee, getting ready for work. He imagines his father’s granite slab of a face, his mother’s disapproving smirk. “Not so independent after all,” she’d probably say. He checks his cell phone again: 5:43. He starts the car.

He’s the first one through the door at the Seaview gym, holding his gym bag over his crotch so Cliff, the club manager at the front desk, can’t see the wet spot.

“Your membership expires in July,” Cliff says. “You want

to go ahead and take care of that now?”

“That’s two months away,” Keith says. “I’ll catch you next time.” He changes his shorts, stows his gym bag in a locker, then goes out to the workout floor and does his weight routine twice. After he runs on the treadmill for forty-five minutes, he heads back to the locker room where he shits, showers, and shaves.

His chin in the bathroom mirror is the same as his dad’s, square and solid. They used to have similar noses too, long with high bridges, but beer has pickled his dad’s nose into something red and bulbous. Keith takes a blue button-down off a dry cleaner hanger. He always wears blue because his grandmother says it complements his eyes. He looks tired. He never gets enough sleep. Most people guess he’s older than twenty-four.

The traffic on the freeway is heavy, but he still gets to the office early, takes his usual spot in the last row of the parking lot behind the bright blue trucks with “The Bug Guy” printed in bold yellow. He parks in the back because he doesn’t like the idea of people looking at his towel and gym clothes spread out in the backseat to dry. The Accord is otherwise spotless, washed weekly at the drive-through car wash, no trash on the floor, the rest of his belongings packed neatly out of sight in the trunk.

The phone on his desk is already ringing. “It’s a great

day at the Bug Guy,” he says as required in his job description. His father calls him a glorified receptionist because he answers the phone, schedules termite inspections, and listens to customers describe invasions of roaches, ants, and fleas and complain about inspectors being late. He’d make more money as an inspector, but he doesn’t like chemicals, crawling in attics, or dealing face-to-face with weird people, going into their weird houses, looking at their weird shit. He’s too big to crawl into attic spaces anyway. Five foot eleven and two hundred twenty-five pounds, according to the scale at the Seaview gym this morning.

He watches enough sports and news at the gym to make small talk with people at work. They seem to like him, but he keeps to himself because being too friendly would mean explaining his life in more detail. His coworkers have stopped inviting him to lunch and happy hour. “Keith’s a health nut,” they say. “Spends all his spare time at the gym.” Once he can afford a training space of his own, he plans to convert them into clients.

At 5:00 p.m., he clocks out and heads to his usual laun-

dromat with his duffel bag full of dirty clothes, but every single machine is taken. There’s no place to sit and wait either. This place is never busy. He calls his grandmother and asks if she needs anything, hoping he can use the machine in the laundry room by her place.

“Pick me up some coffee filters and a box of chardonnay,”

she tells him on the phone. “You can stay for dinner too.”

There’s a line for the visitor pass lane at the Golden

Years Retirement Community where Granny C lives.

Catherine Nelson is her real name, but Keith’s always called her Granny C, and she’s always called him Sonny. She’s the only one who isn’t disappointed in him. He watches the guards as he waits to be waved in. Uniforms and gates still make him nervous.

“So handsome,” Granny C says when she opens her front door. She’s wearing her usual pastels, lavender today. She has a woman who comes to her apartment every Friday to wash and style her hair, and she always keeps her glasses clean and the batteries in her hearing aids charged.

Keith leaves his duffel bag on her front porch and kisses the top of her head. After he puts the wine in her fridge, he helps her switch from her walker to a wheelchair.

“Set that duffel bag in my lap,” she says. “Let’s go do

some laundry.”

They roll out of her apartment and down the sidewalk. Keith likes Golden Years’ expansive lawns. They have an impressive collection of trees too—Southern Magnolias, Ginkgo Biloba, Mimosa, Jacaranda, and his favorite, Crepe Myrtles. “The hydrangeas are starting to bloom,” he says, and Granny C smiles. She had a huge garden in her old house in Coyote Heights and taught him the names of all the plants and trees.

There’s an out of order sign on the locked laundry

room door.

“Shoot,” Granny C says. “There’s another laundry room across the greenbelt. Let’s try that one.” On the way they stop in front of a corner apartment with a display of twenty-five pink plastic flamingos arranged around a stand of jasmine and ginger.

“Remember that time we went to Hawaii?” she asks.

He remembers jumping over waves in bright sunshine, his dad holding tight to his hand. They bought shaved ice on the way back to the condo, green hills in the distance. “Any flavor you want,” his dad had said. Keith’s favorite was called Tiger’s Blood: watermelon, strawberry, and coconut.

“That was a long time ago,” he says now.

The machines in the second laundry room are all in use.

“Sorry, Sonny,” Granny C says. “But you could probably

do laundry at your parents’ house.”

“Not a good idea.”

“Don’t be so stubborn.”

“It was my idea to leave.”

“I worry about you, sleeping in your car. There’s so

much crime.”

“That room in Garden City will be available soon.” He’s on a waiting list and the room is actually just a sectioned off part of an unheated garage, but he’ll have bathroom privileges and access to a washer and dryer.

“How about if I give you some money for a hotel in the

meantime?” she says.

“You know my mother won’t like that.”

Back in her apartment, Keith cuts the stuffed bell pep-

pers in the Meals on Wheels tray into two pieces and heats them in the microwave. When he pours her a glass of wine, Granny C hands him a check for two hundred dollars. His mother will be angry when she finds out, and she will find out because she reviews Granny C’s bank accounts religiously.

They eat in front of the television. Granny C pays for cable so she can watch James Garner in The Rockford Files. She admires how Garner never uses his gun unless he has to but isn’t afraid to get into a fistfight. Rockford’s fights are laughably fake, but Keith likes the show because she does. He wakes up when the credits roll. Granny C is snoring. He takes the check out of his pocket and admires her handwriting, then tears it in half and throws it in the garbage. On his way out he slips two twenties from her purse. He picks up his duffel bag of still-dirty clothes and goes back to his car.

Too bad he never got that blond woman’s phone number, the one who’d subbed a cardio fit class a few Sundays ago at the Seaview gym. She was exactly his type. Blond and fit. Her class was organized and complete. She looked smart too. He’d noticed her wedding band and flashy diamond ring but followed her out to her car anyway. Despite the hour and a half cardio class she smelled fresh, like orange blossoms. Usually following women out to their cars doesn’t go well for him, but he must have said something right because she mentioned a quiet place in the Gunner industrial complex where they could talk if he wanted to meet her there.

They parked next to a dumpster behind a closed auto paint shop and got in the backseat of her Chevy Suburban. The tinted windows were so dark, he could barely see her sitting next to him, untying her shoes. She pulled her leggings off and she wasn’t wearing any underwear. When she straddled him, he couldn’t believe it. It was over before he could really appreciate it—she came, he came, and then she climbed off him. She didn’t want to talk either, never even gave him the chance to ask for her name or her number. He hasn’t seen her at the Seaview gym since.

His best friend Wayne Connor’s house is another option, but Wayne’s wife Tina never seems glad to see him. When Keith asked if he could crash on their couch that first night out on his own, Wayne said they’d just remodeled.

Keith starts his car. He’ll go back to the laundromat. They’re open until midnight. Hopefully, the machines will be empty by now.



After Ray Murdoch gets up to pee the second time, he goes back to his bedroom and cracks open the window, hoping to see the LA Times delivery truck come down Mountain Brook. The air is cool and damp, the start of another May Gray morning. At least the stink of rotten eggs from the offshore oil rigs has finally lessened. There’s an open can of tuna on the patio table below. He’ll have to talk to his mother again. Leaving food out for the Gormans’ cat will only attract rats.

He’d had the craziest dream before his bladder woke him up. He was riding his bicycle across the country. The sun was on his back, there was blue sky above and Saguaro cactuses in the distance. Tucson, maybe? He was happy, which was how he knew it was a dream.

It might be too early for the newspaper. There are no

lights on in the Nelsons’ house behind him. They’re probably sound asleep like gainfully employed people should be, unlike jobless old farts like him with only a Social Security check to look forward to each month. Bouncing from auto repair shops to construction sites and falling on and off the wagon was never a pathway to a pension or a home of his own. Or a cross-country trip on a bicycle.

That was a good dream though. Much better than his usual nightmares about helicopters and medics in Vietnam.

He liked how free he’d felt, out on the open road on his own. That old three-speed he bought in a garage sale to pedal around the neighborhood would never survive a trip like that. Neither would he. He can barely ride five miles without having to stop and pee or rest.

He should try to bump up his mileage, maybe ride down to the beach today. Except he has to take his mother to the podiatrist at nine-thirty and to her retina doctor after, and then he needs to go grocery shopping.

Headlights come up Mountain Brook. Maybe he’ll actually get to read the paper with his breakfast this morning. Ray walks across the hall and opens the front bedroom shutters. This was his room when he was a kid. Now he has the master in the back and his mother sleeps down in the den because she can’t manage the stairs anymore. A car passes his street, Hillside West, and turns right on Summertime Lane. It’s the grey Honda the Nelson boy drives. That newspaper guy must have overslept again.

Ray glances up and down the street at his neighbors’ driveways. It looks like a luxury car lot. Two matching BMWs next door. A tricked-out Lincoln Navigator parked beside a brand-new minivan across the street. That new couple halfway down the block has a black Mercedes, gleaming under the streetlight. Ray has counted five Teslas, three Airstream trailers, four Jeeps, and a Hummer on his bike rides around the neighborhood. Vehicles worth more than he ever made in a year. His neighbors are all about the show. They probably make fun of him for living with his mother and driving a sixteen-year-old Camry, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even know most of their names.

Ray closes the shutters. There are two sets of neighbors he likes: Neil and Stephanie Gorman over on Summertime Lane and Martha Kowalski and her son Josh three houses down. Martha loves to cook and always has leftovers to share. He never cared much for Martha’s husband, Joe, who was some kind of pyromaniac, always fooling around with fireworks, but Joe seems to be out of the picture these days.

Ray knows the name of the gardener who takes care of most of the neighborhood lawns. Gregorio always stops by to admire his mother’s roses. The real estate agent, Lisa Kensington, he knows only because she leaves an annoying newsletter with her name printed in large bold caps on his porch every week. And then there are the Nelsons behind him. Their son Keith appears to be living in his car these days. He’s a full-grown man, much too large to be comfortable sleeping in a Honda.

Ray scratches his stomach under his T-shirt. He sup-

poses the general lack of neighborliness might also have something to do with the Hillary flag his mother insisted on buying as soon as she saw the Trump flag next door. The election is over, but the flags are still flying. Ray doesn’t remember any political signs when he was growing up. He never had any idea of how people voted or who they were for or against. Now everyone advertises exactly how they feel about everything when they’d all be better off not knowing. Ray remembers a line from a poem he had to memorize in grade school about good fences making good neighbors. He never really understood what it meant until now.

He doesn’t understand why the Nelsons don’t let Keith

sleep inside their house. Keith’s lucky to have a car, Ray supposes. More comfortable than sleeping on a bus bench or in a tent by the river like so many people are these days. Veterans, some of them, with a jones for drugs, alcohol, or both. He’s had a spin on those merry-go-rounds. Maybe Keith has too.

One thing Ray’s learned in his seventy-two years on the planet is he has no freaking idea what goes on in other people’s heads. He hears the toilet flush downstairs, which means his mother’s up. Might as well go start a pot of coffee.

The newspaper should be here soon.