|Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos|
This morning, in the dark, my neck sore from sleeping in my son’s bed, I stand at my front window with a cup of coffee, wait for the paper, and look out on the neighborhood. From up the street the Jensen couple walks with their two teenage sons. They’re dressed in dark colors and avoid walking under the streetlamps. Across the street, two houses over, they tromp across the dead grass at the Martin place and, with their heads nervously on the lookout, sneak through the side gate.
As block captain of the Neighborhood Watch—a job I’ve done quite well, except for the Martin place—I’m not sure whether the Jensen family, out this early, doing what they’re doing, should bother me. Any other house, I would be on the line to the police right now. The difference is that the bank repossessed the place a few months ago, and the Martins have been gone longer than that. A realty sign, driven into the grass that has withered to straw—a clear violation of city ordinances—has attracted no buyers. Weeds grow up from the drive and the windows are spotted from rain. I call the city often to report these violations, which the realty company won’t fix. Tickets are piled on the doorstep, from the city representative who frequently cites the house. All that money poured into the city, and they can’t take care of this eyesore more quickly.
The windows at the Martin place light up and darken as the Jensens search inside with their flashlights. Who’s to say whether this is wrong? Those abandoned items within, after all, are not listed on the deed. Even if they were, nobody can sell the place, let alone what’s inside. The county tried, on account of back taxes—a man in a suit set up a podium on the front lawn to orchestrate an auction, but nobody showed up.
The flashlights in the house all go out at once. The front door opens, and out comes the family, hefting a couch. The two boys at the ends and the parents on either side, they walk the piece of furniture to the lawn, where they stop while Mrs. Jensen checks that the front door is locked. With all signs of theft and intrusion removed, the family lugs their find home. As block captain, I have no intention of doing anything about this. Worse things have occurred at that house than a couch walking out the front door.
Not long after the Jensens disappear from my view, out in the street, a Camry slows, lowers its window, then speeds off as a newspaper skids up my drive. I go out in my bathrobe. My cup of coffee in one hand and the paper under my arm, I study my lawn. Up near the door, stuck into the grass on wire legs, is a metal plate printed with a dark, shady character cut diagonally with a red line—the Neighborhood Watch symbol. I head the watch for the section of Bloomer Street between Hyacinth and Mulberry. Twenty-three addresses are under my watch, including the Martin house.
These houses are as upscale as possible for tract homes. With the exception of mine and a few others, they are all—the Jensens’, the Garveys’, the Martins’, all the rest—two stories. Unspoken courtesy pulses at the heart of the block. Lawns are routinely cut, oil stains promptly cleaned from driveways, house eaves and fences regularly painted, weeds plucked before the roots grab hold. This could be the perfect place to live; but the Martin house spoils the flawlessness.
Turning off of Hyacinth, in my direction, Mr. Hutton jogs, without a shirt, in his shorts and jogging shoes. He has something of a Saint Bernard face, with hanging cheeks and melancholy eyes. His skin sags, but the muscles are toned. He hails me and walks up the drive; he is one of the few who talks to me about things other than the neighborhood. We shake hands. His is moist from his jog. His flat chest and stomach have beads of perspiration that catch a glint of the sun, now rising. Retired, he has time to talk and seems interested in everything.
He asks about my family. The story is one everyone on the block knows by now, the way gossip travels around here. Of all the neighbors, he was the only one present. He was across the street from my house, back from his jog, as I chased after my wife, our two kids, and their things, packed in a car that hasn’t returned for two months. Since he was present, he deserves an update, or, well, at least a partially honest update. Marlene, my wife, is still at her sister’s in Missouri with our children and has decided to extend what I call her vacation two more weeks. Mr. Hutton nods.
If he were anyone else, I wouldn’t take solace in his sympathy. But he has more troubles than I do, and understands about extended vacations. His son, Jeremy, the reason for this street’s Neighborhood Watch program, is in the state penitentiary. Jeremy had stolen from neighbors and sold drugs to local kids. When the police raided the Huttons’, they laid the couple and their son on the lawn in handcuffs while the house was searched. The police brought out tattoo guns; dark, compactly filled trash bags; small pots growing with marijuana; and what appeared to be a chemistry set, while Mrs. Hutton bawled and her husband kicked at Jeremy.
Mr. Hutton updates me on his son. Because of prison overcrowding, he might be released on early parole. Despite the past, Mr. Hutton seems pleased with the news. Others on the street will not be. For the most part, Jeremy did nothing but loiter on his front lawn, shirtless, and flaunt his tattoos. He has two full sleeves of them. On his left pectoral is a skull with one eyeball dangling from the socket by a cord of veins. Another, on his stomach, is of these demonic hands that appear to be ripping him open from the inside out. With his shirt on, the tattoos creep above his collar, like vines from a dark place.
After our family updates, we shake hands, and Mr. Hutton jogs past the Martin place to his house, on the corner of Mulberry and Bloomer, just inside my jurisdiction. With one last sweeping gaze of the street, I head inside. I read the paper until eight, when I call my wife long-distance. I get the answering machine, hang up, and call again. By nine o’clock, it’s obvious they’re not home or not interested in talking.
I’m lucky in that I’m on a permanent vacation. A couple of years ago, I joined in a lottery pool at work. One of the tickets hit all six numbers and the bonus. After we split the winnings six ways, I walked away with $5 million. I immediately quit my job with food services at the hospital and moved into this neighborhood. Marlene and I had often driven through it to admire the homes, knowing full well, no matter how we scrimped and saved, that we would have to settle for something less. So when the check came in, we knew the very house we would buy. We’d seen the for sale sign the first time we’d driven past. It was smaller than the rest, but still appeared to belong. The first time we toured the house, Marlene fell in love. She inhaled through her nose and said, “I even like the smell.” With the house paid in full, and our names on the deed, what I’m left to worry about now is my family. Who’d have guessed? My family, and also the neighborhood.
In the afternoon, I try Marlene a few more times before I head out to the garage, with the door open so that I can keep an eye on the street. I have set up a nice little workshop, with workbenches and a toolbox that holds enough tools to repair any problem that might come my way. With nothing to fix, I set to organizing and reorganizing everything, while I sip on a beer. I run a hard line out to the garage in case my cell phone loses its signal and Marlene calls while I’m out here. Any moment she could have a change of heart and want me back. Oh, to hear her breathy, loving voice claim love for me instead of Bob Martin.
In the daylight, I can easily see the missing front window at the Martin house. John Garvey and Steve Robinson spent an afternoon removing it. When Robinson’s boy hit a line drive through Garvey’s window, the two men agreed that, instead of getting the insurance company involved, they would replace it. Honestly, I get a kick out of that missing window.
Across the street, two houses over from the Martin house, Mrs. Stuben’s Cub Scouts begin showing up at her door. Each boy wears the blue uniform with the yellow neckerchief that hangs down the back in a triangle. Mrs. Stuben, the den mother, in her yellow uniform shirt, corrals the boys into a circle on the front lawn. The boys jump around and tackle each other while their den mother, this plump woman, refers to the scout handbook.
Still, for the most part, the boys are well behaved. I have had a couple of run-ins with one of them. The one who arrives late with the disheveled uniform and his hair parted cleanly down the middle—he’s a closet pyro. Once, I caught him on the side of my house with a silver Zippo and a mound of grass. When I told the den mother about him, she scoffed and said I take my block-captain responsibilities too seriously.
Today’s den meeting reminds me to speak with her about last week’s activity. The boys sat outside her house and made kites from tissue paper and twigs. I have nothing against a good kite-flying, but the group in the backyard flew their kites dangerously close to power lines. I’m obliged to talk with her about the event. As part of the oath I took, and as is stated in the captain’s manual, I must watch out not only for anything suspicious, but also for the safety and well-being of the block families. Plus, if one of those boys had gotten zapped and carted away on my watch, they would have raked me over the coals at a captain meeting.
No need to embarrass her now. I’ll wait until they leave, meander over, strike up a conversation about her success with the boys, who all look spiffy and smart in their uniforms, use those words—spiffy and smart—then bring up the well-being of the neighborhood and the book of regulations I’m to enforce. This as a lead-in to the kite issue. All, obviously, with politeness. Once she notes and comments on my job’s difficulty, I know I’ll be able to bring up kites, power lines, and electrocution. What will she be able to do, other than agree, and shake hands, with the understanding that I respect her a little more for what she does as she, for her part, respects the effort I put into the community?
After the boys leave, the den mother crosses the street to the foot of my drive. I assume she wants to apologize for her negligence with the kites. Out of hospitality, I leave my beer on the workbench and walk out to meet her.
“We cleaning out the garage again?” she asks.
“Doing my best,” I say.
“Sorry to interrupt. But we need to talk about the roadblocks for my scouts. For the pinewood-car races. Remember?”
“How big are these cars again?” I ask, imagining hulking soapbox racers grinding down the street. Which leads me to wonder, bearing in mind the heedlessness of these boys, if this den mother wants blood on her hands.
She holds her index fingers a little more than six inches apart. “Only that long. We’ll set up the track at the back of my driveway. The cars will shoot down and across the street, curb to curb. If you could just arrange the roadblocks.”
I tell her to wait while I go for the folder with the neighborhood regulations. It’s a compendium of local city procedures and the national Neighborhood Watch guidelines, which the city put together and often updates. I open it to the spot on cordoning off a block, and the description of paperwork. The first step is a proposal at a block-captain meeting, where it must be approved, then event notifications must be sent out, and, if nobody objects, the police mandate a two-week request before the barricades are erected.
“We don’t have that much time,” the den mother says. She drops her shoulders. “We need to have our pack derby before the regional derby. Can’t the process be sped up? The cause is a good one.”
I shake my head. “Rules, you know.” I fake a sigh and hold up the regulation folder.
She glares. “This doesn’t have to be so political. The Parkers over on Galapagos threw a street party and had no trouble with their block captain. He called the police station and had barricades put up the next day.”
“I know who you mean,” I say. “And I don’t appreciate the comparison. Their block captain allowed the Johnsons to have tiki torches on the front lawn for their luau, without a permit from the fire department. The whole neighborhood could have gone up in flames. And when Mr. Johnson set up a bowling alley in the street, that ball ricocheted all over the place.”
Without another word, and without giving me a chance to bring up the kites, she turns and crosses to her house.
The Neighborhood Watch representative she mentioned is Chip Gossett, a tall guy with perfect teeth who believes his job as block captain is an easy one. When we first moved here, my family and Chip’s spent a lot of time together. Then for some reason, no reason actually, we began to do more with the Martins. Chip doesn’t take a thing seriously, and he thinks his family is the greatest thing on Earth. He has five kids and he likes to introduce his wife as the hottest woman he’s ever met. He shows up to captain meetings halfway through, with excuses that he had to drop off this kid or pick up the hottest woman he’s ever met from the tanning salon.
The conversation with the den mother over, I go inside to check the answering machine.
On the weekend, I accept an invitation to the Donovan house for a barbecue. They live at the other end of the street, across from the Huttons, next door to the Garveys. In the living room, they have a table set up with desserts, a giant punch bowl, and condiments for the hamburgers and hot dogs. In the backyard, I stand away and upwind from the smoke that billows from Carl Donovan’s enormous barbecue. Everyone from the block except the Huttons is here. With all of these wives and children running around, I miss my own like hell. If they were here now, my kids would be over there with the others, playing croquet. My wife would be coming out about now with another one of these wonderful daiquiris Mrs. Donovan mixes. The rum in them is quality stuff. Marlene, when I came home beat from my food-services job, would fix me a drink with cheap liquor. I’d trade a hundred of these daiquiris for a moment in my tattered armchair, back at our old apartment, and Marlene coming in with a tumbler of that cheap stuff.
Mr. Donovan goes on about his new cooking accessories with the guys helping him man the grill. He’s the sort to invite everyone over so he can brag about his new satellite dish or his array of spatulas and tongs. The conversation is full of excitement. Word has gotten out that Mr. Hutton’s son might get paroled. Mr. Garvey gets the most upset about it. Jeremy once jimmied open the bread truck he parks in front of his home, and stole the radio. The radio was one of the items the police brought out when they raided the Huttons’. Mr. Garvey was the first to sign a petition for a Neighborhood Watch. (That was when Marlene volunteered me for block captain. When I asked why, she said that I needed something to do, that I used to be hardworking, but now I didn’t do anything, and she found that troublesome.) The door on Mr. Garvey’s bread truck has never been repaired, and he keeps it latched with a bungee cord. On the side of the truck is a picture of a young boy, shirtless, with smooth, unblemished skin, flexing his slim biceps. Mr. Hutton once said the truck, parked across the street from his house, haunts his wife. He’s never explained what that means. I assume that the truck reminds her of Jeremy’s crimes.
Mr. Garvey goes on, swinging his arms, and says, “We’ll get a petition to kick him out of the neighborhood, him and his tattoos.” I can see why the captain manual advises against trivial conversation or gossiping about neighbors. Mr. Garvey looks like an idiot. He is an idiot, and wouldn’t be so adamant or outspoken if Mr. Hutton were here. If this petition did get started, where would I be, but in the middle, trying to keep the peace. What keeps me out of the conversation, nursing this daiquiri, is less the gossip than the topic. They’re talking about homecomings. Right now, I don’t want to hear people ask about my family returning.
So I’m happy to see the Donovans’ little girl tug on her father’s shirt and ask to show him her new trick. The circle of men watch. She almost knocks over the stainless-steel barbecue in her attempts at a cartwheel. Carl points his tongs at her and tells her to go inside. She does, her head hung, as he complains about unruly children.
A few minutes later Mrs. Donovan comes out and yells that their daughter has knocked over the table with the punch bowl and stained the carpet.
That night, as has become my ritual, I try to sleep in my bed. But I can’t, and end up in my son’s room. The phone rings. I think Marlene is calling; she’s coming home. No. The Bertrands are calling about someone prowling around at the Martins’, with flashlights. I go over, and the front door is wide open. Inside, the Donovans and the Garveys are pulling up the tacked-down carpet. The four of them are a little tipsy as they explain that the carpet is the same color as the ruined one. It’s also the same carpet Marlene had wanted when we bought our house, but that I had said was too expensive. As I help roll up the carpet, the two couples laugh hysterically. I’m sad, all this laughing, with the wives tripping over their husbands in the dark. When their flashlights shine on me, the laughing dies; we get serious and carry the carpet away.
The cardboard envelope arrives by express mail and requires a signature. I don’t want to, but I sign for it. The letterhead is from an attorney’s office in St. Louis, someone Marlene’s sister must have suggested. I don’t have to look at the documents to know what they are, but out of curiosity, because I’ve never seen divorce papers, I look them over. I have to initial a couple of places and sign others, all marked with pink tabs. Paper-clipped to the front of the packet is a small note, in Marlene’s looping cursive, that says she’ll send out my boys once I sign.
The papers are part of her plan to leave me and shack up with Bob Martin. She told me these intentions the morning she left. She wound up this fist of confession and hit me. I had once been the only man she loved. We used to drive all over the place with our sons in the backseat, looking at houses we could never afford, watching movies at the run-down drive-in, taking the boys to the park when we barely had money for gas. We did things, and we were active. But, she informed me, life had become stagnant. I’d gotten obsessed with this Neighborhood Watch, something she had volunteered me for to get me out of the house. Now I went on these hour-long patrols of the block and spent the rest of my time in the garage, when before, I’d spent all my free time with my family. Then she really laid it on me. She and Bob Martin had been sleeping together every chance they could find. I had no clue, and didn’t want to believe it. With Bob, Marlene said, life was exciting. I tried to tell her: Excitement? No job. House in foreclosure. Where was he going? If she was looking for excitement, she was looking in the wrong place, with Bob Martin. She, Marlene, was only an escape from his problems. As soon as he got his life in order, he would drop her as fast as he’d picked her up. Marlene wasn’t convinced. The two of them had their plan. As soon as she could get out of this miserable house, she would run to her sister’s in St. Louis and wait for Bob, who would dump his family in a small apartment, then find a place for him, Marlene, and my sons. I would know the plan had come together when the divorce papers showed up. With that, she stormed out of the house, and I chased after.
No matter how dark I make the house tonight, the papers on the kitchen table seem to glow. This night, like all of my nights, like all of my mornings, I watch the dark street from my front window. In the row of lit-up homes, the Martin house is, as always, dark. I call Marlene’s sister and leave messages so that Marlene will know how I feel about her papers and her St. Louis lawyer and Bob Martin. What irks me is the thought of Bob, Marlene, and Marlene’s sister, around the machine, laughing.
Once again, I try to sleep in my bed, but I’m kept awake. That dark house is across the street. That missing window is black. That house is empty and fills me with sadness. No matter how I lie, how I turn, what the time, what the day, it is there, out my bedroom window. Even with the shades drawn, after tossing and turning, I give up every night and take a blanket to my son’s room at the back of the house. His bed is short. I have to curl up to sleep.
This week’s captain meeting at Joe Melendez’s house goes as usual. We eat tepid lasagna and discuss any troubles lurking in our neighborhoods. Chip Gossett shows up late, then flashes his perfect teeth and tries to make a joke of everything to compensate for his tardiness. When I hand out additions to the captain’s folder, he makes the offhand comment, “Great, my family’s low on toilet paper.” We end with everyone watching reruns of Seinfeld. I hate the show. It’s not that funny. While everyone watches, I take this as my cue to head home and call my wife.
Outside, Chip strides up to talk with me. “You move pretty fast there,” he says.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“What’s going on with the Stuben lady and her scouts?”
“I don’t know yet. When I tried to give her the paperwork, she marched off.”
“Mr. Regulation,” Chip says. “She was over at my house, crying that you wouldn’t get the roadblocks. You know,” he points to the folder in my hands, “that’s more a guideline than a step-by-step how-to manual.”
“If that’s how you see it, that’s how you see it.” I quicken my pace. This is none of his business.
Unfortunately, Chip keeps up. He stutter-steps beside me as I make a sudden turn across the street to keep my distance from the Martin house.
“Where you going?” Chip asks.
“Home,” I say. “Why don’t you do the same?”
“You don’t have to be so hard on people,” Chip says.
I stop in the middle of the street, with my house in view. I’m cold, and I’m tired of Chip. “This is what I get for doing my job the right way. Everyone against me.”
“Nobody’s against you,” he says. “You’re just more committed than some of us. Truth be told, I didn’t come to talk about this. Me and the missus wondered if you would come by for dinner. We haven’t had you over for a long time. You must be lonely since the family skedaddled.”
“They didn’t skedaddle. They’re on vacation. We have money you know. We can afford to do things like that.”
“Right,” he says, as we arrive at my drive. “Didn’t mean to assume anything. How about I call and plan a night to eat—or, if you like, stop by anytime.”
“We’ll see,” I say.
Inside, the machine has a message. Marlene. She knows when I have my captain meetings. One of these days I’m going to reschedule so that I’ll catch her. The message is short. Stop calling her sister; she and Bob now have a place of their own. She won’t give the number to the new place until those papers come back signed. In the background are my children and what sounds like Bob Martin. They all mumble, except for my son. I hear something like “Put the laundry in the shake it up.” But that can’t be it. Again and again I play the message back. I resent that man’s voice there, with my children. After 50 more times, the message sounds like nothing more than “Put the long thing in the bake it up.” These machines don’t pick up a thing. In the decades since the first ones, the size of shoe boxes, the sound hasn’t improved. Each time I play back the message, what comes across clearly are my wife’s final words: “Please sign them.” Still, it’s good to hear her voice.
The next afternoon, out in my garage, Mr. Garvey comes up my drive with his hands in his pockets and a confounded look on his face.
He says, “I went to go check on the Martin house. It’s—well, you have to see it.”
We go over to investigate. I haven’t been to the house in the daylight since the last dinner my family had with the Martins. That was right before everything went downhill for their family, with Bob losing his job. I remember a comment my wife made as we left that evening: “Isn’t Bob wonderful?” I didn’t know how to take those words at the time, but now I understand they represented Marlene’s first inkling of love for him. In hindsight, that was when she stopped bothering herself with keeping us together.
In the daylight, the house seems larger without the furniture. Mr. Garvey is right: the house has to be seen to be believed. We walk through the rooms. All of the carpeting is gone now. The wiring to every socket is yanked out. Fault lines run up and across the drywall. On the inside doors, where knobs had been, now only cut-out circles remain. The fixtures from the sinks and tubs have vanished, along with the stove. Every imaginable thing that can be pried up is gone. The entire place is gutted. The vandals have hurled bricks into the walls; one sticks out like a meteor in the earth.
The larger items and some of the smaller ones, I noted, had gone when the Martins left the house. I was already aware of most of the damage, but had never tallied it or envisioned the aftermath. The comparison is obvious, but I make it anyway: my negligence, in both the crumbling of this house and the crumbling of my marriage. How I ignored the signs. Marlene rolled from me in bed and turned to our window with the view of the Martin house. I skipped dinner and circled the block, to Marlene’s disappointment. I allowed Bob Martin to escort my family to a school function, then made no arguments when they came home late from ice cream afterward. Marlene stopped bringing me lunch in the garage. The slipping-away came slowly, until her leaving and the disrepair.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, I find more ruin. In the connected bathroom, the mirror is smashed. The floor is wet from the toilet being uplifted and tossed into the bathtub. With the wiring pulled out and the light switches gone in the bedroom, repairs will cost more than the house is worth. Here, in this bedroom, is probably where it usually happened. Marlene put her hands against these walls and panted as Bob leaned against her backside. I derive some satisfaction in seeing that this room and its bathroom are in the worst shape. Out the window is the street, my entire route. They must have kept one eye on each other and the other on me, as I obliviously circled the block.
Mr. Garvey comes into the room. He takes one look at me and says, “Whoa, whoa, are you okay?”
To Chip Gossett’s credit, he tried to warn me. Once, after a block-captain meeting, he took me aside and hinted that I should keep an eye on the Martin place, and especially on Bob. At the time I thought this warning came from a resentment Chip felt toward the Martins, since we did more with them than with his family. When I told him to mind his own business, he put his hands up in surrender.
About that time, the schedule I had drawn up for family patrols had gone to hell. Families began to fill in for others and swap assigned nights. When I called the Donovans about their duties, they told me the Hansons had filled in while they took in a movie. When I called the Hansons, Mr. Hanson coughed into the phone and said the Allens had filled in for him. The Allens had completely forgotten and tried to tell me that missing once would do no harm. Eventually, I began to patrol every night of the schedule.
I returned one night and the kids were alone watching TV. I asked for their mother and they shrugged. She came in a half hour after me and said she had been over at the Martins’ to visit the family. Chip’s words came back to me. The Martins hadn’t been able to patrol that night because Sharon, Bob’s wife, said they had a function at church. I asked why she hadn’t brought our children, and her eyes got big and she said nothing.
Not long after, I woke one morning to see Marlene stuffing a trash bag with her clothes. She stopped and told me about her and Bob Martin. Then she took the bag to the garage, where the car was idling with the kids inside. I chased after her up the street. But she was in the car, I was in my underwear, and Mr. Hutton was in his shorts and running shoes.
The morning after Mr. Garvey and I went through the Martin house, I move from my son’s bed to the bed I once shared with my wife and stare out at the Martin house. What bothers me is not the thought of Bob Martin kissing my wife’s neck, or the thought of Bob putting my kids on his shoulders somewhere in Missouri, or that the Martin place has gone to hell under my watch, or that Chip Gossett was right about my wife. What bothers me, and repeatedly plays over in my mind, is the morning my wife left. As she drove off, Mr. Hutton stood across the street, his jowls and cheeks hung with age, his hands on his hips. I had to envy him; his problems had been locked up easily, while mine had just begun.
I go out for the paper. Up the street, where Bloomer intersects Hyacinth, Chip Gossett is up on a flatbed truck with a couple of police officers. They bring down A-frame bases and set up two barricades. As I approach them, Chip offers a box of doughnuts to the officers. I ask what this is about.
Chip hands me a jelly doughnut wrapped in a tissue. “It’s for the Pinewood Derby this afternoon,” he says.
“This afternoon?” I ask.
“This afternoon,” he says.
The two officers finish setting up the barricades without paying attention to our conversation. They’re older, and make every movement seem like some great effort.
“I never put in the paperwork,” I say.
Chip opens the pink box to me. Glaze has stained the top of the lid. “Want another one?”
I slap the box shut. “How, if she didn’t go through the correct channels, is this happening?”
Chip looks back at the officers, who are lifting the slats back into place around the flatbed, and winks. “I cut some red tape,” he tells me. “Let the kids have a good time. It’s for the kids. Think of your own kids.”
“My kids are none of your business.”
With the barricades up and the truck bed gated in, Chip jumps in the cab and sits between the two officers. They drive down to the other end of the street, where Bloomer meets Mulberry, and block off through traffic. From this end of the street, I watch them. Unknowingly, I’ve squeezed half the jelly from my doughnut. I should throw it in the direction of Chip’s house. But I know he would kid me that we don’t have the arms of our youth.
From the direction of the police flatbed, the Huttons drive by in their Cutlass. Mr. Hutton pulls up and rolls down his window, sticks his head out to give me a cheery smile, and asks if I can move this barricade.
I lean in and ask, “You’re not falling behind on your jogging, are you?”
He senses my humor and shakes his head. “Never. I’ll make up for it tomorrow. We’re on our way to visit Jeremy.”
They’re both dressed for the occasion. Mr. Hutton has on his suit, and his wife her church clothes and a shade of lipstick too bright for her complexion. I balance the doughnut and paper in one hand and drag out the barricades so that the Huttons have just enough room. In the middle of going through, Mr. Hutton stops to ask what this is all for. I tell him about the derby.
“Why weren’t we notified?” he asks. “Aren’t we supposed to be notified of these things?”
“Yes,” I say. “Thing is, I asked someone else to get word out and he screwed up. You have to do something yourself if you want it done right.”
“Will we be able to get back through?”
He explains that today is Jeremy’s parole hearing. Mrs. Hutton is all smiles and big eyes. If all goes well, their son could be coming home soon. Mr. Hutton reminds me, “That’s if he gets paroled.” He turns to his wife, “That’s if he gets paroled.” Mrs. Hutton holds up her crossed fingers. I wave them farewell and pull the barricade into place.
Chip walks back up the street toward me, and I haven’t taken a bite of this doughnut with its hardened glaze that’s begun to crack. I attempt to make my way back to my house before he can chat me up about his hunky-dory life. In the driveway, I hold up the doughnut to say thanks. He waves and begins to step into the street as if he wants us to stand out here in the early morning, two middle-aged men looking out on the infancy of their golden years, and talk about what a great day this will be. As he crosses, I hold up my thumb and pinky and tell him I have to phone my wife.
Usually, I would make that call, listen to her sister’s machine, and sob for my wife or children to pick up. Instead, I go to my son’s room. I set the newspaper, still bundled in its plastic, on the desk along with the doughnut and its gob of jelly hanging on the side. I curl up on the bed and stare at the doughnut, the way the light glistens off the filling, until I fall asleep.
The sound of laughter comes to me in a dream. My sons. I have my arm around my wife, and we are pleased with our two boys. We have traveled back in time to when I worked food services, and the big treat was ice cream from the drugstore. When I go to squeeze Marlene closer, I wake. That laugh is from children outside, not my sons, thousands of miles away. I’ve slept the whole morning and into the mid-afternoon. The best sleep I’ve had in a long time. I could jog the block with Mr. Hutton tomorrow. Again, laughter comes from the backyard, but nobody is there. Out the front door, in the street, families are gathered for the Cub Scout derby.
I make my way across my lawn to the curb. The danger of cars has been taken care of with the barricades, and children have free range of the block. So many boys in their uniforms filled with badges. I zigzag around circles of people with plates of food to the den mother’s lawn. Here, I find two tables of hot dogs, hamburgers, cake, and pie. Mrs. Stuben’s husband is up on a ladder in the driveway, assembling the wooden track. It, like the cars, is smaller than I imagined. One long, inclined straightaway: the two-foot-wide track starts at maybe nine or 10 feet high and quickly descends along the drive and across the street, almost to the opposite curb, where the track runs low to the ground. There in the street, at the lowest stretch of the track, a couple of boys take running leaps over it. The den mother’s husband raises his arms and announces that the track is ready for test runs.
My sons would enjoy this. They should be enjoying this. Marlene would have a nice time too; but—I realize—not with me. That’s the reason to sign those divorce papers and allow Marlene the life she wants. But can I? I don’t know.
If I’m breaking down on signing those papers, then perhaps I can slacken a bit on enforcing these captain regulations. All the amusement and joy around me says that the way Chip went about setting up the barricades was a good idea. When the closet pyro cuts in front of me, that hair perfectly parted down the middle, and heads up toward the Martin place, I give him a pleasant smile and hope he has a good time. He’s probably learned his lesson with fire. What kid doesn’t have some small curiosity that soon extinguishes itself?
When the practice runs begin, I’m eating a hamburger and pie. I stand on the den mother’s lawn and watch the cars. Scouts simultaneously release five cars from the top of the high track. Kept in place by a thin strip of wood under their bellies, the cars pick up impressive speed as their plastic wheels hum. At the end of the track, almost on the other side of the street, the cars knock into a block of wood, softened by a pad of foam. Each practice run produces the hum, then the cluck of wood, softened by the foam.
Mr. Hutton comes up beside me in his suit, with the tie loosened.
“I didn’t see you drive through,” I say. “When did you get back?”
He appears solemn. “We just returned. Parked the car outside the roadblocks. Didn’t want to drive through and ruin everyone’s good time.”
We watch the cars coast from their high release down to the street, where they disappear into the children leaning over the track. Mr. Hutton has a ponderous look and seems to be only half interested in the races.
“It’s too bad life can’t be like that,” he says.
“Like what?” I ask.
“That we zoom as fast as we like into a soft pillow. That no matter how fast we sped, we were guided by a little strip of wood that kept us on track. But it’s more a thing of no brakes, no steering, see where you stop, or what stops you.”
The official races have begun, and the children in the street cheer with more fervor as the cars come down the stretch of track.
“These are good parents,” Mr. Hutton says. “I should have put my son in something like this.”
“I’m sure,” I say, “that you were as fine a parent as any one of these.”
“No. No, I wasn’t.”
“How’s Mrs. Hutton holding up?”
“Never well. She gets down every time he’s denied parole. It’s heartbreaking.”
I bring Mr. Hutton a hot dog with mustard.
He eats half of it out of what I think is kindness, because he holds onto that other half for a while. “You know,” he says, “we don’t eat these in my house. I don’t remember the last time I had one. They’re good, aren’t they? This is the best thing I’ve had in a long time.” He holds the hot dog as if he’s cherishing the moment and this is something he won’t have, perhaps, ever again.
One of the last heats starts up. The boys set their cars at the top of the ramp and the children at the low straightaway look up in anticipation. In the cheering and laughing and rowdy conversation, I hear a great boom! Then another. We all look around for its source. One of the girls on her knees at the straightaway points toward the Martin place, where smoke billows from the windowless front. A woman, with the same parted hairstyle as the closet pyro, cries out; her son is inside. The mothers hold back their children. Chip Gossett, Mr. Garvey, Mr. Donovan, a crowd of men, turn to the sound and, in a moment, run with great strides toward the house. Leading them, as if he has trained for this a long time, is Mr. Hutton, who tosses aside his hot dog as he runs past me, where I stand.
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