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Suburban Sprawl

by Gayla Chaney

Standing on my front porch this morning, I listened to the ceaseless hum from traffic on the expressway loop that circles the city where I live. A new entrance ramp has been added just four blocks from my driveway. It was built to alleviate congestion on the overburdened interstate that cuts the east side off from the west side. According to the Chamber of Commerce brochure, it makes downtown more accessible and our city more cosmopolitan.

From an aerial view, like the one shown inside the brochure, one can see our vibrant city at night all lit up like a bejeweled Vegas showgirl. What’s not so visible are the on and off ramps at rush hour, the strip malls blighting the landscape, under- and over-passes, fast lanes, slow lanes, and the continual construction that seems to go on and on, heralding progress via expansion.

Progress? I contemplate the word, probing my own definitions: A chicken in every pot. A healthy economy. Low interest rates. A bull market. Ennui. Global warming. Terrorists. Overpopulation and a humming freeway coming closer and closer to my front door. What’s next, I ask myself. And it’s that kind of question that keeps me up at night, even if I haven’t overdosed on caffeine.

When insomnia strikes, which is occurring more often, I find myself beside my bedroom window staring up at the stars while Kyle snores softly in our bed. He is oblivious to the whir swarming outside our home, metamorphosing our once comfortable city into a megalo-metroplex whose continual seepage past city limit signs threatens to homogenize the entire continental United States. It feels so dehumanizing to me with all the diverse regions of our country converging into one large conglomerate that could never possibly feel like a hometown.

At 3:50 a.m. gazing up at the stars, I wonder if this could possibly be some deliberate scheme. Kyle claims that I am addicted to conspiracy theories, so I have given up discussing them with him. But I could be persuaded that some nefarious fraternity exists, dedicated to fragmenting mankind by crowding us together where we compete for space and time among an ever-growing mass of strangers. Natural camaraderie destroyed by neurotic competition? Pretty clever tactic, one would have to acknowledge.

But who are these culprits, the masterminds behind such a malevolent plan? Insomnia frequently allows me to mull this question over in my mind. I contemplate the possible suspects. Greedy bastards or nonhuman beings? I was raised on the greedy bastards scenario replayed repeatedly in the newspapers, on the television, and in the novels that I chose to read. I guess I’ve grown bored with greedy bastards. I feel more inclined to consider the nonhuman beings idea. Aliens.

Perhaps there actually are imposters posing as real people, invading our world as we race through our hectic days, ignorant to what is happening around us. I picture Kyle’s disbelief at such a thought, yet an alien influence is easier for me to accept than the idea that humans are insatiable. I find comfort in believing we are not doing this to ourselves.

I am convinced, almost, that UFOs are real. Intelligent beings from somewhere other than Earth could exist. Why not? And they might be closer than we think. Anything is possible, especially to an insomniac.

Sometimes, when I know I’m not going back to bed, I slip down the hall and turn on the computer, searching for websites dedicated to the idea that Earth has been visited, even invaded by unearthly beings, and that the government is somehow involved, which could explain the rapid growth in our cities and the onslaught of concrete paving up every open space available.

Many of the websites offer benign assumptions and theories; others, the ones I prefer, present a more hostile view. They assert that aliens have visited Earth, abducted humans, and are monitoring people on a regular basis through probes and implants, for purposes still undetermined.

It sounds crazy, I know. But the idea of a round earth sounded crazy once, too. People need to keep an open mind. Could dozens of websites be wrong? Could thousands of people who testify to the nightmarish experience of abduction be joking?

According to ufologists, probes and implants are being inserted up nostrils, in ear canals, gouged under the skin in the back of abductees’ heads. Perhaps I have an implant in my head... or Kyle has one in his, and we don’t know it because we have blocked out the experience. Based on what I have read, we wouldn’t be the first.

If I told Kyle, he would hope I was kidding. He would laugh and ridicule any evidence I could present from UFO groups I have located on the Internet. Kyle is a man of medicine, and he is certain his profession has cornered the market on all implants. Even if an implant could be located with x-rays, Kyle and associates could explain it away. Their explanations would be logical, plausible, and flecked with technical terms such as “congenital abnormality,” or “benign tumor,” “lesion,” or “cyst.” They could dismiss all other possible causes, such as aliens, with such confident superiority that their expertise would never be questioned.

Kyle wasn’t always like that. Back when we first married, we lived in a small, rented house with burglar bars covering all the windows. It was in the southeast section of a city where everyone wanted to live on the northwest side. Kyle mowed our lawn with a secondhand lawnmower we picked up at a garage sale, and I clipped coupons from ladies’ magazines for fifteen cents off margarine, paper towels, and laundry soap. Kyle was in his residency program and the rented house was only a place to make love every night. Lovers with a license. That’s what being married meant to us back then.

Today, we have a yardman and piles of unread ladies’ magazines, fat with unclipped coupons already expired. I claim I subscribe to these magazines for the recipes, though I cook less and less, repeating meals that I have been making for sixteen years with a few alterations, such as reducing the sodium, decreasing the cheese, substituting low fat whenever possible.

We bought our present home eleven years ago in what was then a secluded area of town. The deed came with restrictions guaranteeing no one would ever park a car on their front lawn. Our property was located in what was gracefully described as “an exclusive, new addition,” synonymous with suburb, but to our ears sounding less provincial. Except for neighborhood children playing in backyards and occasional barking dogs, our community was a tranquil retreat created for people just like us. Today, we are classified within the suburban sprawl category, a term I find not only unflattering, but outright offensive.

Suburban sprawl has not actually been linked to a space alien invasion on any of the websites I have read. I may be the first person to suspect a connection. It could be a diversionary tactic employed by the aliens to keep us rushed and irritated, leaving us too preoccupied or exhausted to notice whatever else they are doing. Kyle would say that I was exhibiting paranoid delusions, and he would probably hide the computer. So, I don’t share my Internet information with him.

Instead, I carry printed reams of ufology material across the street to my neighbor, Darla Lindgren. She is younger than I, a newcomer to the neighborhood, a childless newlywed, angular and flexible, a yoga-devotee, regularly twisting her body into contorted positions that are totally unnatural. She holds meditation classes in the evenings and sells aromatherapy candles, which I purchase from time to time, because that’s what neighbors do for one another.

However, Darla’s long suit, the reason I turn to her with my suspicions about aliens on earth, lies not in her mystical interests, but in the fact that she doesn’t appear overly critical. She maintains the belief that anything is possible and because of that, Darla has become my confidante. Though her inclinations lean toward opening her chakras, she hasn’t raised an eyebrow when I’ve mentioned space aliens being responsible for a growing sense of estrangement in our communities. Thus, I frequently visit with her in the mornings after I take the kids to school.

Darla lives in a house that was our builder’s home back when our neighborhood was still a “new addition.” It has all the little extras that made it the flagship home of Willow Bend Estates. Our builder and his wife moved away just about the time the “new” was beginning to fade and the trim on all the houses needed fresh paint. They relocated a little west of where the expressway is now. Within three years, the builder died of a heart attack, not long before the term “suburban sprawl” was defined for the American public on CNN.

Occasionally, when I’m at Darla’s, I think of this builder whose success so impressed both Kyle and me at the time when we were looking for our dream home in this beautiful new addition. The builder’s name was Ed Ressinger. With his red face and no-nonsense manner, he didn’t give a damn if we bought one of his houses or not because folks were lining up to move into the area. Whenever I think of him, I recall dark sunglasses hiding his eyes as he walked us through the partially framed structure that would be our future home. His stiff, stanched hair made us think our home would be solid and well built.

When the sale was complete and all the papers signed, Kyle shook the builder’s hand, a hand thick with sausage fingers, rich with success, flashing a diamond-studded pinkie ring. It was a done deal and Ed Ressinger was off, waving his gleaming hand from his Cadillac window. The day I read in the paper that he had died, I pictured Ed dead, his eyes shut, his body stiff as his hair, puffy hands folded nicely across his chest, those sausage fingers laced together, but without his glittering ring. Diamonds may be forever, but the truth is, they don’t go to Heaven.

Darla never met the builder. She and her husband Brad moved in less than a year ago, becoming the third family to occupy the flagship home of Willow Bend Estates. Their yard is somewhat neglected, and the formal dining area has a pool table where the builder’s wife had her dark walnut Drexel Heritage dining room furniture that I once envied. Darla’s decor could best be described as eclectic, which is a kinder term than I imagine the builder’s wife would choose were she viewing her former dining room today.

Their pool table is covered with books and papers and magazines, probably waiting for their coupons to be clipped. I’ve never actually seen Darla or Brad play pool, but then I never saw the builder or his wife eat dinner at their dining room table.

Of course, it’s possible that the builder dined every night in his formal dining room on the beautiful bone china plates his wife displayed in her china cabinet, listening to Mozart’s Prague Symphony as he savored a meal rich with sauces. But it seems to me now more likely that his sausage fingers were wrapped around some fried chicken thighs, moist from grease, as he sat on the sofa in his den, a Stoneware plate on the coffee table, an opened can of beer beside him with the TV blaring in the background.

One night I mentioned to Kyle how different our neighborhood seemed than when we first bought our home. “It’s all semantics,” I said. “I once thought ‘suburbs’ sounded bad, but it’s infinitely better than ‘suburban sprawl’ don’t you think?”

Kyle pondered these labels for a moment before dismissing them with a shrug. “You’re watching too much television,” he said. I knew this was true, but it annoyed me when he felt it necessary to point out the fact.

“I think we should move,” I added, partly because I meant it and partly to force Kyle to deal with a subject I had brought up and not one he so cleverly interjected.

“I thought we remodeled so we wouldn’t have to move.” Kyle reminded me. He likes to remind me of what I have done in the past that contradicts whatever I am planning for the future.

“That was last year.” I watched my husband’s face register my remark. “This year, I think we should move.”

“This year? This year we seriously fund the kids’ college funds. That’s the plan for this year, and for the next five. We need to focus and prioritize.” Kyle concluded the conversation, having assessed the situation before offering his remedy. My husband is a product of thorough, medical training. He diagnoses and then prescribes.

I have some new information on alien-human hybrids that I am planning to share with Darla tomorrow. She hasn’t responded much to the idea of possible alien aircraft sightings in our area, probably because she and Brad are still in that “lovers with a license” stage of life. Willow Bend Estates for them is just a place to be together at the end of the day. When they look across the street at Kyle and me, do they see something similar to sausage fingers and diamond-studded pinkie rings? That thought frightens me.

We are not just neighbors, we are friends, I think. But as I contemplate the meaning of friendship, it occurs to me that Darla and I are not quite there yet. “Amiable acquaintances” is a more accurate description.

Defining the dimensions of our friendship makes me feel uncomfortable. I attempt to describe Darla’s personality in my head and suddenly realize I really don’t have much to say. For all I know, Darla could be an alien sent to monitor my research. Surely not, I reason, but then again, she is supernaturally flexible. This possibility strikes me with a new wariness.

I recall Darla sitting in the lotus position atop her pool table surrounded by clutter, part of which is the ufology material I have brought her. “Anything is possible,” I hear Darla saying in response to my questioning her on the possibility of spacecrafts landing in Willow Bend Estates. Somehow, when I replay her words in my mind, they seem less benign, deliberately vague, ambiguous. Darla’s comments, I realize, merely echoed back my own theories.

Is she placating me with agreement? She could be completely human, totally bored with my comments, patronizing me because I am her neighbor. Maybe Darla thinks more like Kyle, but is too polite to rebut my theories. She might fall into the greedy bastards club, knowing that I will continue to buy her candles if she listens to my discussions on alien invasions. Anything is possible.

I decide to watch Darla’s face tomorrow carefully. I don’t want to be considered a lunatic even by someone sitting cross-legged in her dining room on a pool table piled high with miscellaneous clutter, sipping herbal tea while preparing to open a chakra.

If I notice something disturbing on Darla’s face, a subtle smirk, the faintest staged yawn to throw me off or an odd stare when she thinks I’m not looking, anything at all that causes me uncertainty, I’ll forgo the alien discussion altogether. I’ll bypass nasal probes and omit all talk of implants.

I’ll shift the conversation toward road rage and traffic noise, positive and negative ions, possible future terrorist attacks, and free-floating anxiety. All the while I’ll edge toward the front door, never giving her my back, never making direct eye contact in order to avoid any hypnotic suggestions, should she be an alien capable of that kind of chicanery.

I’ll keep chattering like mad while slyly reaching for the doorknob, twisting it softly as I ramble on about the subtle evils blanketed under the innocuous name of suburban sprawl. I’ll smile, maybe even giggle a bit as though nothing in the world matters.

And then abruptly, I’ll claim I have a cake baking in the oven. I will fling open Darla’s front door and dash across the street into my own house, swiftly turning the deadbolt behind me. Of course, aliens may be able to walk through walls and materialize from nothing. But if Darla dared do that, she would surely blow her cover.

Copyright © 2007 by Gayla Chaney

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