All at once, they were everywhere. You could see them on all the lawns—flaccid during the day, and then fully erect at night. They’d been blown. Propped up for the neighbors’ viewing pleasure. Except I’m the only one who seems to be taking them in, displeasurably. The only weirdo in suburbia who would dream of walking after dusk, or at all. Sort of like Ray Bradbury, who once got stopped by a police office for taking a stroll at night and asked, essentially, why he wasn’t at home staring at the parlor walls like everyone else.
I suppose that’s still the question people have, more than ever, when they see someone walking around among suburban sprawl. What with all the media at one’s fingertips to keep a human droned out for long periods of time. But I was not so easily gripped by the screens the way the majority was in this milieu. I was, in fact, making a conscious effort not to let my brain rot, though I might have been better off allowing it to do just that. The way I was going, it felt as though I was destined, like Bradbury’s Leonard Mead in The Pedestrian, to end up being placed in the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies. Looking around, however, the only regressive tendencies I saw were in everybody else.
The inflatables, naturally, were viewed as some form of “progress” in the realm of Christmas décor. I wasn’t sure how, as it was obvious that this sort of “decoration” (in this case, a polite euphemism for eyesore if ever there was one) could only wreak more havoc upon the environment. Not just because of the material it was made out of being patently non-biodegradable, but also because of the energy consumption it took to keep that shit lit and blown up all night long. And solely for “the sake of the kids.” Their “joy.” I knew better, of course. That it was really the parents deriving all the joy out of it. It was the suburban adult equivalent of dick-swinging. And, as we all know, the smaller the dick, the more bombastic the display at trying to prove otherwise.
I found myself the proverbial example of being rife for the Sesame Street lyric, “Which one of these is not like the others?” among this ilk. Had only ended up here because my aging aunt had asked me to stay with her for a while after her hip replacement surgery. I, being the relative within the closest geographical proximity, couldn’t say no. Not without being a huge asshole, anyway. And since that was already the perception of me that my family had, I wanted to challenge it in some way. Surprise and defy. I didn’t realize the cost of that would be spending the Christmas season amid a sea of eerie inflatables that looked rife for appearing in a horror movie. Indeed, there really aren’t enough Christmas-based horror movies.
Worse still, my aunt provided little in the way of stimulating company. Evidently, living in this climate for so long had turned her into a vegetable. Not only did she not even own a single book (hence, the lack of shelves in her house), she would sit in front of the TV quite literally all day under the guise of “convalescing.” But I got the sense that she was probably doing that even before her surgery. I tried as best as I could to draw her out, to get something like a brain cell invigorated long enough for her to say something, anything that was meaningful. Or at least not totally banal to the point of me actually wishing I hadn’t got her started at all. It didn’t take me long to learn that she could talk for many minutes on end about absolutely nothing, and that’s when I stopped bothering and started walking…a lot.
Right as the darkness fell was my preferred hour, for it meant that all the family types and assorted youths had already gotten out their last jollies before heading inside to relish the parlor walls. To inject themselves, in essence, with a form of socially acceptable methadone for enduring capitalism. I, clearly, had yet to fully understand how to endure it. After all, I was dodging a “real” job by taking up the “caretaker” mantle for my aunt, despite really only being there to make sure she didn’t wind up with no one around to call the ambulance if she took some kind of nasty spill and couldn’t manage to contact help herself. I was a glorified phone dialer. Plus, I think she saw me as a more sophisticated houseplant. There to bring life to the place, but not say too much.
Ruminating on this as I ambled past yet another house that looked exactly the same as all the others on the block—save for the distinction in what kind of inflatables were being displayed—I was struck by the total desolation and despair of a neighborhood that was meant to be considered one of the “best.” “Safe,” “manicured,” etc. But what got lost in that kind of sanitized translation of existence was any sign of true life. This was an environment, instead, barely on life support. Staring at a smiling Santa on a lawn next to another that had a Star Wars inflatables motif, I could only laugh at the ridiculousness. This was what people still perceived as the height of human “success.” Being able to buy a mound of useless shit and showcase it for others to “bow to” as a result of how impressed they were expected to be. Well, I wasn’t impressed, so much as disgusted. If this was the apex of what being a “good capitalist” meant, please count me the fuck out Mr. Smith. No, I’ll call him Adam. He doesn’t deserve the respect of “Mr. Smith.”
Continuing on my route, I started to have a mild panic attack over how much longer I would be here. More frightening still, where would I really go when Aunt Patrice didn’t need me anymore? Maybe she would always need me—and that, too, could be worse than ending up as another homeless on the streets of San Francisco. Where things could get quite competitive. Even maintaining one’s own shopping cart without somebody else trying to bloody you over it was cutthroat.
An illuminated Will Ferrell dressed as Buddy the Elf stopped me in my tracks. When I looked it up later, I unearthed that it could be purchased for a “mere” fifty dollars, and was made out of copper, polyester and iron. How nutritious for the environment indeed. I felt surrounded, claustrophobic. All of these polyester and other “assorted materials” inflatables making me feel as though they might overpower and then suffocate me. Maybe literal suffocation was the only way for those who would not participate in the metaphorical suffocation they subjected themselves to each day just by being here. And in that moment, I swear to God or whoever, I saw one of the blow-up snowmen sneer at me, as though to assure, “You’ll never get out of here.” Or maybe it was more like, “We accept her, one of us!” I didn’t linger to find out if I was hallucinating or not.
Running through the darkness, cut ever so faintly by the glow of people’s Christmas lights, it dawned on me that the inflatables were a mirror of the population itself. Profligate and filled with nothing but air. All you had to do was make a small puncture to blow the whole house down, so to speak. And my “encounter” that night was all it took to blow down mine. Or rather, my temporary one…which I decided was no longer even that. I was done. I told Aunt Patrice I would be leaving by the weekend. She didn’t seem all that disappointed or surprised, and it made me wonder why I had been so concerned about “abandoning” her when she could clearly take me or leave me. The fucking ingrate. Did she not understand all I had sacrificed to lower myself to the same vegetable level as this town for the past month? Not see that even free room and board wasn’t really worth the tradeoff? No. In her eyes, she was doing me a favor. I was the one who needed to “come around” and realize what a “gift” she was bestowing upon me by being infirm.
Fuck that, I muttered as I closed the door to her house for the last time, locked it and put the key underneath the decorative frog in the corner. Just another thing that wasn’t real in this place. I had to get back to where it was real. Before I forgot entirely what that word even meant. The only way out of the simulation was to call a car that would take me to a train station that would then take me to my next destination. Staring out the back window, I caught one last glimpse of the neighborhood’s lawns. Filled now only with deflatables.