Skip to main content



Alternate Side

“Just look at that,” Charlie Nolan said, his arm extended like that of a maître d’ indicating a particularly good table.

“Oh, my God, stop,” said Nora Nolan, looking through the narrow opening of the parking lot, at the end of which she could just glimpse the front bumper of their car.

“It’s beautiful, Bun,” Charlie said. “Come on, you have to admit, it’s beautiful. Look. At. That.” That’s what Charlie did when he wanted to make sure you got his point, turned words into sentences, full stop.

Some. Sweet. Deal.

Big. Brass. Balls.

The first night they’d met, almost 25 years ago, in that crowded bar in the Village that was a vegan restaurant now: You. Are. Great.

Really. Really. Great.

Nora could not recall exactly when she’d first begun to think, if not to say: Just. So. Annoying.

In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.

A book about the city’s history, in the archives of a museum at which she had once interviewed for a job, had told Nora that a house in that space had been gutted in a fire, and the family that owned it had never bothered to rebuild. It had happened in the early 1930s, when the country, the city, and the west side of Manhattan had no money, which of course had happened again in the 1970s, and would doubtless happen again sometime in the future, because that was how the world worked.

At the moment, however, it seemed scarcely possible. A house on the next block had just sold for $10 million in a bidding war. The couple who sold it had bought it for $600,000 when their children were young. Nora knew this because she and her neighbors talked about real estate incessantly. Their children, their dogs, and housing prices: the holy trinity of conversation for New Yorkers of a certain sort. For the men, there were also golf courses and wine lists to be discussed; for the women, dermatologists. Remembering the playground conversations when her children were small, Nora realized that the name of the very best pediatrician had given way to the name of the very best plastic surgeon.

A single block in the middle of what seemed like the most populous island on earth—although it was not, a professor of geography had once told Nora, it was not even in the top ten—and it was like a small town. The people who owned houses on the block had watched one another’s children grow up, seen one another’s dogs go from puppy to infirmity to the crematorium at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. They knew who redecorated when, and who couldn’t afford to. They all used the same handyman.

“You live on that dead-end block?” someone had asked Nora at an art opening several years before. “One of my friends rented a place there for a year. He said it was like a cult.”

None of those who owned on the block cared about the renters. They came and they went, with their sofa beds and midcentury-modern knockoffs, their Ikea boxes at the curb. They were young, unmoored. They didn’t hang Christmas wreaths or plant window boxes.

The owners all did, and they stuck.

From time to time a real estate agent would troll the block, pushing his card through mail slots and scribbling notes about that odd empty parcel on the north side, to see who owned it and whether a new townhouse could be built there. For now it was a narrow, ill-kept parking lot, oddly shaped, like one of those geometry problems designed to foil students on the SATs: determine the area of this rhomboid. In the worst of the parking spaces, the one wedged into a cut-in behind the back of the neighboring house, Charlie Nolan’s Volvo wagon, in a color called Sherwood Green, now sat. It had been there only for five hours, by Nora’s reckoning, and already the windshield was pocked with the chalky white confetti of pigeon droppings.

That morning, just after sunrise, Charlie had flipped on the overhead light in their bedroom, his face lit up the way it was when he was part of a big deal, had underestimated his bonus, or paid less for a bottle of wine than he decided it was worth.

“I got a space!” he crowed.

Nora heaved herself up onto her elbows. “Have you lost your mind?” she said.

“Sorry sorry sorry,” Charlie said, turning the light off but not moving from the doorway. There was a marital rule of long standing: Nora was to be allowed to sleep as long as she liked on weekends unless there was an emergency. She thought of herself as a person who had few basic requirements, but sleep was one of them. The six months during which her children had wanted to be fed, or at least awake, in the middle of the night were among the most difficult months of her life. If she had not given birth to twins she might have had only one child, the sleep deprivation was so terrible.

Charlie knew this. He got up and went to work earlier than Nora, and the top of his dresser, the bathroom, his closet were all equipped with small flashlights by which he would dress, and dress again after he had taken the dog to the dog run, come home, and showered. Usually by the time he was in a suit and tie and eating his All-Bran, Nora was at the kitchen table in her nightgown, although it was her preference that they talk as little as possible in the morning.

Yet here was her husband, waking her on a Saturday, with the light full in her eyes.

“I got a space,” he said again, but less maniacally, as though he was setting his emotional temperature closer to hers.

And now she could see their car in the space, already moved from the enclosed garage two blocks away to the dogleg in the lot. Charlie was humming to himself. When they had first moved to the block, Charlie asked around among the other parkers to see if he could inherit to the space vacated by the people they were buying the house from. It was communicated in no uncertain terms, and in that osmotic way in which things became known on the block, that a space in the lot was a privilege, not a right, and Charlie somewhat truculently signed up for the indoor garage nearby, privately adding the failure to his list of Things That Were Not Going the Way They Should for Charlie Nolan, a list that in the last year Nora suspected had become a book, perhaps even an encyclopedia.

While Charlie often complained to Nora that the fee for the enclosed garage was only slightly less than the rent on their first apartment, there had never even been a question of parking on the street. Paying for parking relieved one of those petty aggravations that was like dripping water on the stone of self, until one day you discovered it had left a hole the size of a fist in your head. Nora knew that for Charlie, living in the city meant more drips, with harder water. He reminded her of it often enough. New York was not Charlie’s natural habitat.

Nora hoped that this morning’s triumph, small but seemingly monumental to her husband, would make up for that in some fashion. It had rankled for years, when Charlie passed the opening to the lot, and now he had finally scored a space. On the dining room table lay the typed notice, slipped through their mail slot, informing Charlie that the spot formerly allotted to the Dicksons was his if he wanted it; in the spot now was their Volvo. It was a car like their life, prosperous, understated, orderly—no food wrappers, no baby seats, no coins or crumbs on the floor. When the lease on the car was up it would barely need to be detailed before they got another just like it. Charlie always wondered aloud about other manufacturers, models, colors. Nora didn’t care. She was scarcely ever in the car.

A white plastic bag eddied around Nora’s bare ankles for a moment in a breathless summer breeze, touching her, tickling her, circling her painted pink toes. She kicked it aside and it moved down the block, rising and falling like a tiny ghost, disappearing between two parked cars. The street smelled like dank river low tide, melting tar, and, as always in warm weather, the vinegar tang of garbage. Nora had had to yank their dog away from a cardboard container of moo shu something, pulled from a hole in a bag by some other dog and upended near the dead end.

It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them ever admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.

Homer teased the air at the entrance to the lot with his muzzle and then sat. Their dog knew their block, their house, even their car, and he tolerated riding in it, wedging himself into the foot well alongside Oliver’s enormous sneakers. Rachel complained that Homer was not as affectionate with her as he was with her brother, which Nora thought was probably true. But ten minutes of Homer on Rachel’s insteps and she would be whining that her feet had fallen asleep and there was no reason their dog couldn’t ride in the way back like other dogs. Nora worried that her daughter had difficulty discerning the difference between what she really wanted and what other people made seem desirable. Now that Rachel was out of her teens and in college, Nora hoped she was outgrowing this, although in New York it made her merely typical.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charlie had said when Nora mentioned it to him. Which had become a bit of a theme in their house on every subject.

“Listening to you people,” said Jenny, the only one in their women’s lunch group who had never been married, “marriage sounds sort of like the den. It’s a good place to chill out, but it’s not the most important room in the house. Which makes me wonder why you’re all so anxious to have me have one.”

“I think the den IS the most important room in the house,” Suzanne, who was a decorator, replied.

“The kitchen is the most important room in the house,” Elena said.

“If you cook,” Suzanne replied.

“Who still cooks?” said Jean-Ann.

Jenny turned to Nora. “Did everyone miss the entire point of what I said?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Nora said.

“Absolutely,” Nora had said when Charlie asked if she wanted to walk down the block to the lot once he’d moved the car in, knowing that staying at the breakfast table to finish her bagel and read the newspapers was not conducive to a day of amity. But she balked at going any farther into the lot than that. “Come take a look,” Charlie said now, as though the lot contained infinite vistas, gardens, and statuary instead of just three brick walls, several other cars, a center drain, and two of those squat, black plastic boxes that were everywhere in the parks and backyards of New York City, sheltering blocks of flavored rat poison from passing dogs.

“I’m not going back there,” Nora said. “Charity says that’s where all the rats live.”

“So are the subway tracks, and you take the subway.”

She didn’t take it much. Nora liked to walk, and when she did take the train she made certain not to look down at the tracks. She’d tried to analyze the depth of her rat phobia, but she’d given it up as pointless. Why were squirrels fine, anodyne, and rats insupportable, provoking a chemical reaction so profound that her breathing didn’t return to normal for minutes at a time? Everyone had something; when they were growing up her sister had wakened her at least a dozen times because there was a spider in her room. Charlie hated snakes.

“Everybody hates snakes,” Rachel had said, dismissive even as a small child.

“I don’t,” Nora had replied.

And why had she chosen what seemed to be the rat capital of the world in which to make a life? She remembered her friend Becky from college, who was terrified of water—no need for deep analysis; her younger brother had nearly drowned on the Vineyard when they were children, pulled from the surf and given CPR by a lifeguard. Still, Becky had gotten a job managing a spa with an enormous saltwater pool. She’d insisted she didn’t mind, but as soon as she could she’d moved on to a sprawling country inn. There was a river at the bottom of the hill on which the inn sat, but she was never required to go near it. Nora understood that, unlike Becky’s phobia, most of these aversions were chemical and intuitive, the way some people immediately fell in love with New York, and other people said that they could never live there. (“I don’t get it,” Nora had said once to her sister, Christine, on the phone. “If I went to Greenwich and said, ‘I don’t understand how anyone can stand to live here,’ people would think I was rude.”)

Charlie walked to the back of the parking lot and out again, as though he were surveying his property. It wasn’t a long walk. “No rats,” he said.

“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there,” said Nora.

Halfway down the block one of the guys who worked for Ricky taking care of their houses was hosing down the sidewalk. Ricky’s guys tended to be small, dark, and stocky, former residents of some Central American country who were willing to do almost any kind of work to earn money. This one had just washed out all their garbage cans, but the effort was fruitless. The greasy sheen on both the pavement and in the cans would reassert itself, summer’s urban perspiration. It was one of the reasons people who could afford to do so fled New York, for Nantucket, the Hamptons, somewhere cleaner, greener. Somewhere more boring, Nora often thought to herself.

Two young people dressed for exercise approached them, both with that peeled-grape skin of youth that was hypnotic and hateful when its moment had passed you by. “The park’s that way, right?” said he, pointing toward the end of the block.

“That’s a dead end,” Charlie said. “This is a dead-end block. There’s a sign at the corner.”

“A sign?” said she.

“It’s a dead end block,” repeated Nora, for what felt like the thousandth time. They’d petitioned the city to put up two signs, one on each side of the street. dead end. It made no difference. “Go back, go left, go left again. You’ll hit the park.” This, too, was a sentence Nora had uttered many times.

“It’s a dead end,” said he to her. Nora stared at the girl’s face. Her eyebrows were like sparrow feathers dividing her high smooth brow in two. Nora sighed. She supposed she had looked like that once, and hadn’t appreciated it a bit. When she looked in the mirror nowadays, which she mainly did to see if she had anything in her teeth, the clean edges of her jaw seemed to have blurred, the corners of her mouth sliding south.

The young woman put her hand out toward Homer. Sitting on his haunches, he leaned forward and smelled it, then looked her in the eye. Homer had very pale blue eyes, the color of eucalyptus mints, which made him look demonic, although as he had aged he had become a calm and businesslike dog, too intelligent to waste time on aggression. Sherry and Jack Fisk, who lived halfway up the block, said that when someone reached toward their dog they could feel a faint buzzing through the leash, an interior growl that meant they should hold tight and step back. But the Fisks’ dog was an enormous Rottweiler who looked as though he should be patrolling the fence at a maximum-security prison. Brutus was, as Charlie once said, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Sherry Fisk complained that their house was far too big, but that there wasn’t a co-op in Manhattan that would have accepted her and Jack as residents with Brutus in tow.

“The minute that dog dies, I downsize,” she had said.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Jack said. “Maybe she’s moving, but if she is, she’s going alone.”

“I might,” Sherry said.

“Yeah, you do that,” Jack had said. Nora hated bickering, but with Sherry and Jack she scarcely even noticed it anymore. As long as Jack was not actually shouting, things were tenable. Nora always had knots in her shoulders after talking to Jack Fisk. It was as though her body sent messages that her mind didn’t recognize until afterward.

The basic layout of the Fisk house was almost exactly like the Nolans’, which was almost exactly like the Lessmans’ and the Fenstermachers’ and the Rizzolis’: a kitchen and dining room on the lower level, a double living room above, and two or three bedrooms on each of the floors above that, although some of the bedrooms had been turned into dens or offices. The Fisks had done a gut renovation, so their rooms were high and white and unornamented; the Nolans had some period detail, walls of oak wainscoting, ornamented mantelpieces.

“It is a big house for only two people,” Nora had said to Sherry. “When the twins are away there could be somebody on the top floor and I wouldn’t even know it.”

“If I lived with her in a two-bedroom apartment, I might kill her,” Jack Fisk said. Nora laughed nervously. Jack rarely laughed at all.

The Fisk house was bracketed by that of the Fenstermachers, who were perfect and hosted the holiday party every year, and a house that had been owned for ages by people who lived in London and rented it out. The renters never had enough stature on the block to gossip with their more durable neighbors, and Alma Fenstermacher never gossiped at all. But Nora suspected that while Charlie sometimes complained about TV noises rumbling through the common wall from the Rizzoli house next door, the occasional child screaming at a sibling or toy dog yipping at nothing, the Fisk neighbors heard more than that, and more often.

Nora looked at her husband. He was not even admiring the rear of the young woman as she turned and went back the way she had come, hand in hand with the young man. Charlie was too mesmerized by his good fortune, staring through the narrow opening at his car in its space, a faint smile on his face. With his thin, sandy hair, round blue eyes, and pink cheeks, he looked like a small boy. He was one of those people whose baby pictures looked more or less like his driver’s license photo. He even looked boyish when he was unhappy, his full lower lip protruding a bit when he talked of someone at work who was being unfairly elevated, one of the guys he had come up with who had just gotten a big promotion.

Alternate Side
by by Anna Quindlen

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0525509879
  • ISBN-13: 9780525509875