Everyone had known everything about everyone else for so long that, at first, Peter’s emailed proposal for a neighborhood blog—The Enormous St. Blog, he wanted to call it, after a community in-joke dating to a period so remote that no one remembered the joke’s origins or exact meaning—seemed, to most people, a bit redundant. (“Honey,” said his wife, Marissa, almost immediately, “What do we need that for?”) Everyone had Facebook or, at worst, MySpace pages, which they all updated several times a day—I’m bored, My stomach hurts, I’m having an affair—and everyone sent text-messages back and forth or emailed everyone else until their fingertips were calloused. But the homeowner’s association president liked the idea, and someone else offered to host the site for free, and then no one else wanted to appear behindhand in terms of her or his willingness to share, exhibit, clarify, rebut, take exception, flirt and complain, live and die online. Nor did anyone really mind if, from now on, the community was to have one more venue with which to witness the ongoing multimedia event of each others’ lives. So one day there it was, in cyberspace: The Enormous St. Blog.
Posting was initially slow, for all the obvious reasons. There were problems with comment spam and commercial come-ons, with political arguments that went on and on without, in a way, ever really beginning. Sheila wanted to post a series of articles about the Healing Benefits of Massage—this had nothing to do, she insisted, with the fact that she ran a massage-therapy business—and the youngest of the three Haynes boys posted so many links to the trailers of upcoming action films that he constantly threatened to overrun the site’s limited bandwidth. After about a week the number of daily hits was in decline, and the site was in danger of becoming yet another Internet ghost ship, a scrap of history that had fluttered away from the larger history of the neighborhood’s various attempts to pay attention to itself.
Then, in mid-March, someone—no one was sure who—left a post entitled Nothing.
Underneath this heading there was a single period, hyperlinked:
When you clicked the period, you got an error message.
People were confused at first, then annoyed. And then they began to think it was funny, this door to nowhere, planted there simply to confound them. The posting was forwarded around, chuckled over. Parents asked their children, So what happened at school today, and the children said, Nothing, and the parents would stare for a moment, then smile, and the children would smile, and everyone would burst out laughing. Nothing, the parent would say. That’s a good one.
One night Peter left a Post-It note for his wife on the refrigerator:
Hey babe: —
When Marissa got home from work Peter was already in bed, half-asleep. She poked him awake. “Smartass,” she said, pushing the covers aside.
He grinned. “Put the covers back. I’m cold.”
Marissa pulled the covers down further, then further.
“Hey,” Peter said, and then Marissa began pulling her shirt up, revealing her belly, her ribs, finally even the breasts that he hadn’t seen in three months.
Nobody posted to the blog for a few days. Then someone else—or the same person, using another assumed name—wrote the following:
What I Did Today…
Wouldn’t you like to know.
This time there were no hyperlinks, fake or otherwise.
Now the flood came. Every day brought two posts, then three posts; then a dozen:
Things I am not Doing
1. Flossing my teeth.
2. Feeding my dog.
3. Parenting my children.
4. Telling the truth.
Thank God It’s Friday
The only time I’ve ever come close to killing myself was when, sixteen, I hitchhiked through Paris. I have never been to Paris, of course, and neither have most of you.
Who I Am
I am no one you know.
Then the postings became pointed, epigrammatic:
Sad? Bored? Want to Make More Money?
Death©: It’s inevitable.
Weight loss in three easy steps: “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than to nurse unacted desires.”—William Blake
The first shall be last and the last first.
And the Nothing posts, as well, continued to appear, always with a single period, always with a dead link.
By now people were checking the blog dozens of times a day. Neighbors had started sitting together at the same computer to read it, or bringing their laptops to each others’ houses to read it. The frisson of each post increased tenfold when you could watch, on another person’s face, your own secret reactions unfold: the momentary sense of effrontery; of shame; and then, as you watched those same feelings spooling through the eyes of your neighbors, a sense of relief, and of a solidarity in mysteriousness that made words unnecessary.
There was another reason, of course, for the neighborhood’s habit of gathering in little bedroom clots to watch the effect of each new posting on others. Everybody wanted to catch the culprit, or culprits, to have his or her identity generally known, to have a face, a body that they could be hugged, pilloried, thanked or interrogated. By keeping track of who was in each of these little groupings—AKA, who was known to be away from a keyboard when a new post appeared—perhaps the neighborhood could at least reduce the number of possible suspects.
Over the course of the spring, as the number of unaccounted-for neighborhood dwellers dwindled away to zero, people began to spin theories: that the poster or posters came from outside the neighborhood; that one or more people were lying about their own or others’ whereabouts, that there was some small conspiracy to obscure responsibility; that the whole neighborhood, indeed, willingly lied to itself, inflating the number of eliminated suspects, because the guessing game itself was more fun than knowledge could ever be. And most people agreed that there was joy in not knowing. What a pleasure it was to look at your own child—your son in his dingy baseball cap, your daughter baggily and prematurely inviting to men in her expensive sweats—and think that she or he were a secret genius, the hoaxer of an entire neighborhood; or to wonder if the shy wife, who had seemed a liability at parties, was, by that same token, the only woman on the block self-possessed enough to have sheltered these plans, in the recesses of her heart, for months.
With this new dimension invisibly added to her character, this vast backyard of soul superadded to the tiny self visible from the street, that wife might become altogether lovely; it might be impossible not to treat her with a dignity and deference never imaginable before, impossible not to be tortured by the thought of possessing her sexually all for the sake of that floating speck of self that would remain forever blessedly unpossessed. And what a relief, to imagine that the shallow husband whose only previous accomplishments had been a) eighty thousand a year and b) a comprehensive knowledge of the films of Michael Bay might be, after so many stultifying months or years, possessed—just possibly—of that secret storehouse of personality that had always seemed as if it must exist, behind that accountant’s smile, if only because it seemed that otherwise there would be too little of him even to anchor his body to the ground.
At night, Peter and Marissa lay for hours half-jokingly accusing each other of being the mad, mysterious poster. They gave each other reasons: the blog was Peter’s idea in the first place and his face was so mild and slightly chubby as to provide perfect shelter for subversive thoughts; but then, take into account Marissa’s mysteriously long hours at Junior Chamber Orchestra meetings—“You guys do, like, what, three concerts a year?” Peter said. Sometimes, feigning tiredness to their two children, they went to bed early, so they could play this game a little longer. They smoked clove cigarettes in the early-summer air with the window open, though Marissa would pretend she didn’t want to. “Smoking makes you taste bad,” she’d say; “That didn’t used to be a factor,” Peter would reply, pinching her.
“Give me that.” She took the cigarette from his mouth, breathed at it, ground it out on the windowsill. “OK, you’re cut off now. I’m not quite ready for single motherhood.”
“I bet you can’t hit that guy,” he said. He pointed to the sidewalk. “That guy
She threw the cigarette butt.
The man passing outside looked to his left and right and then up, at their second-storey bedroom. “Oh shit,” Marissa said, giggling, ducking back inside the room and then, a moment later, leaning out. “Sorry,” she called out.
“Leave it. It’s … nothing,” Peter said, and Marissa laughed so hard that she almost bonked her head against the sill.
Over time, the number of daily postings fell off. No one was especially disappointed. People found that they enjoyed being with their new friends, especially the new friends in their households and beds.
Finally, on November 17—exactly two-thirds of a year after that first Nothing post—another Nothing post appeared, complete with another dead link. Peoples’ feelings were somewhat mixed: relief mingled with a certain disappointment, a sense of having stepped backwards. A day later a new series of posts began to materialize, one word popping up at the rate of one a day, and when, after five days, they were all put together, they made a sentence:
Thursday Dec 19.
An anonymous comment added this suggestion: “Follow the Nothings.”
Then, every Thursday for several weeks, someone posted another Nothing and another dead link, a different dead link each time, though the difference in each case amounted to only a few letters. Someone finally thought to cull together the varying letters from each dead link. Working in this way, they ended up with a very clear sentence followed by what seemed the beginning of an URL:
To end the mystery click here: www.san
And there the matter stood until Thursday, December 19. On this day, the Nothing appeared again, with a final dead link, and text underneath. By this time anticipation had mounted to the point where nobody really wanted to find the answer, and after a long series of discussions, many fueled by the kinds of good microbrews that never used to get wasted on guests, the neighborhood chose Peter to click the last dead link, to complete the mystery of the last Nothing. And so, on that afternoon, the entire neighborhood had gathered around one of two computers, which were in neighboring houses. Though the weather was cold, the living-room windows of the houses where these two computers were contained had been opened, so that people could shout back and forth to each other. Peter was supposed to be at his home a half-mile away, solving the puzzle, then posting it for all to see. People forced themselves to stay away from the keyboard, to not solve the mystery themselves. Gradually it began to be wondered what was taking Peter so long. Thirty minutes passed, then forty-five. People drank all the beer in both houses; the impromptu snack plates were reduced to crumbs.
Around five o’clock Peter himself appeared, on the far left side of the bay window of the house on the left, walking down the middle of the empty street, alone.
His wife sprinted, but some teenage kid caught up to him first. Without looking up, Peter handed the boy a slip of paper.
“It’s a website,” he said, addressing the teenage boy. He walked a few more steps. His voice was low and husky. Then, looking for the first time at the crowd that had gathered before him, he spoke up, pronouncing each letter very slowly, as if it were a foreign language. “Double-u, double-u, double-u. Dot. Sandover Solutions, dot, com.” He spat and walked on.
Hundreds of tiny conversations broke out at once. “What does that mean?” someone yelled. Already people were beginning to leave. Someone could be heard swearing at her children.
After a quarter-hour the crowd had dwindled, with people leaving to see the website for themselves—“Sandover. You’ll get their attention every time. Marketing for the 21st Century.” In the distance, smashed glass could be heard.
But by the next day, people were joking about the whole incident. From a marketing standpoint, you couldn’t really object. After all, the Enormous St. neighborhood, with its high concentration of small business owners and freelance consultants, was clearly the right target for such aggressively thorough attentions. A few surreptitious calls were made; a few orders were even placed.
In early February, the Thompsons moved north, selling their house at a loss in order to do so. In March the Henderson girl, who had been diagnosed depressive two summers ago, killed herself. Some kids (eleven-year-old Connor Haynes among them) spent Field Day setting fire to a golf cart in the middle of the main road. “We haven’t seen that kind of activity here before,” the judge remarked at their arraignment. Sheila got drunk at the annual Memorial Day party and grabbed a country-club waiter’s shirtfront in full view of her husband, licking the boy’s face—a seventeen-year-old boy, if that—and then his chest. “What, you think he cares?” she said, gesturing toward her husband. “Him?” The husband’s face did actually seem fairly impassive, though for the next month Sheila turned up everywhere, even on dark days, wearing sunglasses.
And one night, after sex, which had lately grown enervated and strained, Peter turned his still-sweating face to the unreadable face of his wife and said, in a voice full of false bonhomie, “That isn’t exactly what I’m paying you for.”
She stared at him.
“Peter,” she said, “that’s disgusting.”
He lifted his palms. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to be funny about it.”
She stood. “How is that funny?”
“It isn’t. I’m sorry. Come back to bed. You know I’ve been on edge lately.”
She returned and lay without touching him.
“Hell,” he said, sitting up suddenly, “isn’t that what it does boil down to? Sex for security? Isn’t that the American way?”
For another long moment Peter was half-convinced that he had not actually spoken, that this was only his nightmare of a fight. Marissa looked as if she would cry. “Honey,” he began—
“I think,” she finally said, in a low, composed voice, “it’s fair to say that I bring my own income to the table, like anyone else.”
A month later, she left, though Peter, afterward, told people, “We left each other years ago. Who knows. We just hadn’t told ourselves yet. Maybe we needed someone to put it in black and white for us.”
Read more about Phil Christman here.
Read more about Ricarda Klinkow here.