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ISSUE:  Winter 1991

Mrs. Webster says that she remembers when only large Southern families who belonged there lived on Chatham, Dunmore, and North Streets. In 1900, it was a new subdivision, carved out of the last farm left within the city limits of Norfolk, Virginia. The streets were all named for members of the House of Lords. The front lawns were all alike, and everyone kept servants who were under-paid.

In old photographs it still looks like raw and naked farmland with spindly trees defining the new roads. Now the trees almost meet over the streets. The huge solid houses have aged into brick and stone monuments to a past when everyone was “well-off” and life was supposed to be more stable. I don’t believe it was, because a residue of the times remains and can be read like books about Southern sterotypes, when relatives lived together and got on each other’s nerves, old women developed strange habits, men committed suicide when they lost their money or their minds, and plain people were no kin. The whole district is now on the Historic Register, and nobody can put up a fence or a garage without the approval of a committee appointed by the city council. This makes Mrs. Webster absolutely furious.

Inside, under 12-foot ceilings, behind 14-inch-thick walls, you can read the changes in the neighborhood by the colors. In the houses that the young parents have bought, there are dark green or red or lemon yellow rooms with bright white woodwork and ceilings. The walls are splashed with modern paintings. The parents play catch with their children in the front yards. In the early evening the games spill out into the street, and there is the sound of Mrs. Webster’s window being slammed shut, mingled with the bird-calls of children in the twilight. Mrs. Webster is 84, and she rules a kingdom that no longer exists, except in echoes and hints.

Her house, like the houses of the few old people who are left, still has cream ceilings and woodwork that have turned the color of dust. The living room and the dining room are the same dull cream and green gone sad, history in a color scheme. Cream and green were the colors of harmony in the early twenties when, as soon as their parents died, the then-young reacted to the dark damask walls of the older generation and brought Ricketts and Shannon into fashion 30 years after they had revolutionized the dark interiors of London and painted Oscar Wilde’s house in Tite Street. Now, in England, cream and green are Ministry of Works, Scheme E, used for prison walls. On Chatham, Dunmore, and North Streets, it is the faded symbol of polite revolt a long time ago. The wall sconces have bulbs shaped like candles and opaque parchment shades that clamp onto them like angry jaws.

Outside the houses that have not changed hands the shrubs are thick with flat, oily leaves, and the holly is mean and prickly to keep children away. The heavy planting has long since become a thieves’ shelter, but the old don’t recognize this. Mrs. Webster talks about a time when there were no robberies. She says nobody would have dared.

Mrs. Webster, whose father was an Episcopal clergyman and whose mother was a Carver, still lives in the house she was born in on Dunmore Street. She says she was the first child born there, with her voice a little hushed, as if she were as historic as Virginia Dare.

She remembers every change, every marriage, every scandal. There were never very many on Dunmore Street, but she makes of them what she can. She once led the German, which was the ball where every girl, she says “gel,” in the three streets came out at the Yacht Club. Then she adds, “Well, almost every gel.” There is a yellowed picture of her when she was 17 in a white beaded dress. She is holding flowers and crinkling her eyes and smiling. The frame is silver, and it sits on a Duncan Phyfe table that belongs in the family. It is a charming picture. She still smiles like that, crinkling her eyes. She says she was told once by a beau that her smile was devastating. Then she adds, “It’s a crying shame the boys don’t pay compliments any more. The gels don’t know what they miss.”

You can see her on sunny days in spring, her behind tilted up in the air, worrying her cerise azaleas, which are like small trees. She wears a man’s shirt left over from Mr. Webster, and gardening gloves, and one of those wrap-around denim skirts she sends away for to the same mail-order house she has always used. On late afternoons in summer, when a breeze has finally risen from the surface of the ornamental water that nearly surrounds the oasis of the three streets, she wears a sweet, frilly blouse and a flowered skirt, and makes her eyes crinkle when you meet her on her daily walk.

The lawns of the young are spaced with softly colored flowering shrubs and spring bulbs. Their houses all have burglar alarms. Everyone keeps dogs, and it is by the breeds that they choose that you know them and their politics. The cream-and-green conservatives expel onto front porches fat, aging spaniels and little barking terriers in defiance of the leash law that did not exist when they were young. Mrs. Webster’s dog is a insane mongrel bitch she says is part terrier, called Bounce.

“Our dogs,” she says, as if there have always been a pack of hounds, instead of one inevitable dog that has looked like its predecessor for years, “are always called Bounce.”

In the liberal houses there are large pure-bred poodles, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, and English setters. In two of the houses there are more ominous German shepherds and Dobermans that their owners refuse to put on leashes, as if they needed their animal power to control the streets.

One man, Mr. Tripp, has both. He patrols with them in the early afternoon as if he expected an invasion of Dunmore Street. He hollers, “Hyuh, Beau,” and “Hyuh, Stu,” in the voice of the upwardly mobile South. He is 73, and he once worked for the CIA. He is still mysterious about this. Mrs. Webster pretends he doesn’t exist. So does Bounce, the only dog that doesn’t bark to get into the house when it hears him coming.

There is one house on Dunmore Street where there are no dogs, but the house is alive with them, day in, day out. Mrs. MacArthur lives there. Mrs. Webster says that she and her husband, “a jumped-up rear admiral, the war, you know,” bought the house in 1950. She says Mrs. MacArthur was 40 then if she was a day, but she still tried to look like June Allyson. “Her husband,” she says, “was simply years older,” and then adds, “I don’t know what they expected.”

“They were from New Jersey,” she almost whispers this, and then, “She wore slacks with high-heeled shoes.”

Admiral MacArthur retired a few years later. They had a daughter who grew up on Dunmore Street. “But of course,” Mrs. Webster says, “They never really took part.” That remark, translated, means that their daughter did not come out at the German, and that the MacArthurs, like Mr. Tripp, were treated as if they did not exist. “After all,” Mrs. Webster says, “there were always so many Navy people.”

“When the daughter married for the first time—but always into the Navy, I’ll say that for her,” Mrs. Webster tells the story, doing her devastating crinkle, “They asked everybody in the neighborhood to the wedding. It was quite embarrassing. We discussed it. We honestly didn’t know what to do about it. I suppose they do that kind of thing in New Jersey. They had the reception at home. Can you imagine? I mean, not even the Navy mess or whatever they call it.

“The morning of the wedding I was out teaching Bounce to stay out of the street. She was only two then and just the dearest little thing. The van from the bakery stopped in front of the MacArthurs’ house and Bounce saw the delivery man. He was carrying a huge wedding cake in a box. Bounce ran across the road and bit him in the leg. I felt terrible about that part, he had to have those shots, but of course the insurance paid. But then, Bounce was so funny I couldn’t help laughing. When the box flew open and the wedding cake dropped right into the middle of the road, she ate the groom before I could grab her. After that I really thought I ought to go to the wedding and take a little present by the house but of course I didn’t stay. Mrs. MacArthur was very cool to me even after I apologized profusely.”

Now Mrs. MacArthur’s daughter lives with her third husband in California. When the admiral was still alive, they sent her son by her first husband back to live on Dunmore Street because they were at the end of their rope. The admiral died eight years ago. Mrs. Webster thought she ought to go to the funeral at All Saints, although, she did point out, they were never very active there. She was the only person who wore white gloves and carried her own 1928 Prayer Book. All through the new service, she flipped the pages, annoyed. Afterward she said she just didn’t know. “Until the day he died, he never let her write a check or drive a car. He waited on her hand and foot. She didn’t even wear black.”

Now only Mrs. MacArthur and her grandson live in the house on Dunmore Street, still marooned there among strangers. He is 23 and unemployed. He is building a boat in the driveway which he plans to sail across the Atlantic the other way. At night the arc welder he uses lights the trees with a weird white glare.

They imitate the Southerners they think surround them, as victims imitate their oppressors for camouflage. Their shrubs are oily and prickly, their walls are cream and green, and at night their shades are drawn tight, not against the new paranoid fear of rapist, but the old one of neighbors and, most of all, their dogs.

Outside of the arc welder, Mrs. MacArthur’s major concession to modern life is the telephone. She has one in nearly every room. At the briefest bark from any dog in the neighborhood, the telephone inside the owner’s house rings. When it is answered, there is one of those silences, fraught not with heavy breathing but with electric fury.

When it all began, the neighbors thought that it was burglars checking to see if they were at home, so every month or so a new dog was added until Mrs. MacArthur succeeded in surrounding herself with a canine siege. The dogs seem to know something. They pull at their leashes until they get to her shrubs. Their owners have let them turn the leaves brown.

All of the neighbors know what she is doing, and since they are easy-going people they leave her alone, except for the brown bushes. But her ears have become so acute that even a bark inside the house brings the inevitable telephone call, as regular as clock-work, as well-timed as a television commercial. Once, in fact, a commercial for dog food triggered five calls in rapid succession to neighbors watching a M.A.S.H. rerun.

Children bark now as they walk past her house on their way home from school. Mrs. MacArthur’s calls follow them all over the neighborhood. Five years ago she bought a pale yellow cat and had it neutered. It has grown huge. It sits on her doorstep in the sun and attracts dog barks. Methodically she lets it out and then goes and sits by the telephone, waiting. In the daytime you can see her through the organdy curtains.

Her hair is a bird’s nest. She wears tennis shoes without stockings and a wrap-around denim skirt like Mrs. Webster’s winter and summer, day and night. She speaks to nobody. If she were poor and in a large city, she would be accosting people in the street, shouting obscenities. On Dunmore Street the phones ring. Around her the neighbors are amused, and as cruel as only indifference can be. They are tolerant, which means nobody knows what to do about her or cares.


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