R.E. Hayes lives near St. Charles, Illinois. He is a labor lawyer and, in an earlier life, was a machine gunner in the Marines. He is currently working on his second novel and is seeking an agent. His work has appeared in Evening Street Review, Crab Orchard Review, OASIS Journal 2010 and the anthology Daring to Repair, Wising Up Press. This fall, "The Next Ed Bradley" is slated to appear in the anthology Law and Disorder, Main Street Rag Publishing Co. You can follow him on Twitter at @RobertEHayes.
Bev's disobliging shopping cart jerked to the left--barely avoided banging into another woman's cart stopped next to the zucchini, broccoli and lettuce.
"You're Mrs. Howard," the other woman said. "Welcome to the neighborhood. With the market the way it is I just know the Dolan's were relieved to sell their home, I've been inside it a couple of times, very nice updated kitchen. Welcome to Wilmont Street."
"Yes. Thank you. And you are?"
"Marie Packard, hon. Two houses down from you, going on 23 years now. Nice to have you on our block"--she dropped a pallid fleshy hand on Bev's forearm--"and listen, we just love that we're now integrated. Oh, excusez-moi. Nowadays I believe they're calling it diversity and, well, we've got all kinds on Wilmont, I'll say, mostly churchgoing people 'cepting maybe one or two and that degenerate sicko down the street . . . the Cork boy I'm talkin about, would you believe he and my son used to play together when they were little? Gives me the shivers just thinkin about it."
She exhaled and offered up a fluttery smile.
"Thank you," Bev said, deliberately lagging behind, put off by uninvited familiarity gushing from a fast-talking animated creature in white shorts and glossy pantyhose, reeking of tobacco, her frumpy head swiveling left and right like a mongoose, taking everything in.
Degenerate? Sicko? What is this dippy woman talking about?
Bev had driven to Atlas Supermarket for tonight's baked salmon dinner, four blocks over on College Avenue. She needed Russian dressing, potatoes and asparagus. Tomatoes if they were good. She had considered walking. Exercise is admirable but not if the neighbor's first impressions would be of me schlepping plastic grocery bags down the street to our new home.
"Where did you move here from?" Mrs. Packard asked, straightening her back, no longer using the shopping cart for a walker.
"Oh, yes. My son's in school down there"--she fastened a sodden fish eye on Bev as if expecting a reaction that showed regard for her terrific pedigree--"pre-med."
Bev intended to keep her distance, leery about neighbors latching on to her before she had a sense of who they were. She could be a bag lady with forty cats.
Diversity, integration, whatever. We didn't move here to hook up with people like that, she imagined Larry fuming. We're not downtrodden unfortunates up from the ghetto, needing liberals to lend us a hand. Hell, we want good schools, too. A second-class all-black education won't be Celia's fate. Sitting across the desk from a job interviewer, our daughter won't feel marginalized any more than the Obama girls. Most white kids in middle school haven't yet acquired appreciation for the arts, he'd said, but certain facts, shared knowledge, are arrows that all educated people carry in their quiver, he'd said. "I'll bet many of those kids have heard of the Mona Lisa. Some even know it's in The Louvre." When Larry wanted to make a point regarding Celia's education, and she was within earshot, he'd call it a "Mona Lisa moment."
Bev rolled her cart forward, intending to put the coffee and cracker aisle between her and Mrs. Packard trailing close behind.
"Of course you heard about Cork," Mrs. Packard said, pulling alongside. "Claude Cork, the one I was telling you."
"Cork? Is he in the wine business?"
"Wine business . . . no. Why'd jew ask that?" Her thick horsey face had morphed into a maze of confused lines, darts and depressions.
This lady is something else. Girl, keep moving.
Mrs. Packard lurched and then bumped her cart into Bev's, seemingly determined to dislodge her grip on clear-eyed complacency. "Sorry. I see you really don't know, do you?"
"What?" Bev asked good-naturedly, wheeling the cart around, planning her escape.
"You heard of Megan's Law?" Mrs. Packard said, head bobbing emphatically, as though taking the measure of the new neighbor and finding her baffling. "A bony fide registered sex offender is living right down the street from you, that's what." The tilt and lean of her frowzy head, the tremolo voice, all attested to her ruffled state of mind and, in goofy triumph, she grabbed a roll of generic paper towels as if claiming a carnival prize.
"Are you sure?"
"Did jew know David Letterman worked in this very store bagging groceries? Went to high school right up the street in Broadripple, imagine that?" She sniffed and her eyes narrowed. "His aunt owns the house and he stays there with her, they're trashy folks from Kentucky. That's right hon, a child molester and considering you have a little daughter, I thought you should know. By the way, that child has such beautiful skin."
"Dumb!" Bev almost blurted out. It's the skin Celia was born in.
"Packard, Marie Packard, hon."
Earlier this morning, Bev popped out of the shower wearing a wide contented smile singing righteously, like Gladys Knight minus The Pips. In this new home, new city, she had spotted the much ballyhooed Good Life rounding into focus. Larry had finished his M.A. in U.S. history and lined up a position teaching high school social studies. She was about to start a new IT job at the university, so close to home she could walk to her office in ten minutes. She pulled on jeans and a red and white striped top from J. Jill and smiled at the memory of Larry crowing, "Toot sweet!"
On the way home from the store, she decided to drive a few blocks out of her way past the stately brick and limestone houses on Meridian Street, set far back from the curb, some on double lots with eye-catching manicured lawns, massive sycamores and graceful tulip trees.
A tall blonde in a shiny purple and white warm-up suit was letting a little white dog on a leash parade her around a fire hydrant. In the other hand, she held a clear plastic baggie, reminding Bev that Celia had asked Santa for a puppy, already named Dexter. Larry said the houses here would go for about three million if they were on the North Shore in Chicago, along the lake. Here they started at half that, still much too rich for their wallets. But with perseverance, luck, and a VA loan, the Howards landed the dream house on Wilmont Street.
"We're building equity, planting our feet in the land," Larry liked to say, sounding like Scarlett O'Hara's daddy if he were big, black and proud. Grown-up talk in fifth-grader Celia's ears, but she and her mother cooed and chirped like gleeful songbirds when first they gazed upon the updated redbrick Dutch colonial, the crown moldings, the fireplace, leaded glass French doors, elegant aged oak floors, cherry-wood beams overhead.
Each summer before the big move to Indy, Mr. Habiz had shown up at the door of the pink ranch house, grinning behind stained store-bought teeth, towing his stout wife. Four years straight, like pesky dandelions, the Middle Eastern couple returned unannounced to inspect the property occupied by the Howard tenants, gesturing and speaking freely in their own discordant language, unmindful of Bev's dislike for strangers traipsing about in her home, opening doors, peering into kitchen and bathroom cabinets like they owned the place, which of course, they did.
Furtively, as if to elude border guards, they'd ease open the living room sliding glass doors and cross into the back yard. Ticked off at first and grudgingly accepting in the end, Bev had watched it play out each year the owner's wife making a beeline for the apple tree, black veil rustling in the breeze, picking and scooping apples like a frenzied migrant worker and hauling them off in the folds of her black chador. Bev could only look on helplessly, feeling Larry's jaw muscles tightening as if her own. She understood how aggravated the annual spectacle made him, how deeply he longed to be a responsible Hoosier homeowner. Instead, he was Shaka the Zulu warrior king standing his ground on land that another man controlled.
The first summer after the owners drove away Bev decided her family would eat from the tree. She picked apples, bruised and part wormy but enough to bake a decent pie. Larry took unaffected delight as mouth-watering whiffs of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted through the house and she was delighted at his delight. "No store-bought apples for us," city-boy Larry declared. "We're pioneers living off the land. Toot sweet!" Yet the Howards owned nothing save the apples they consumed. Hemmed in by pink aluminum siding, their elation drifted away like ragweed pollen in an Indiana summer. Renters, tossing hard-earned money down the tube she'd hear Larry grumble, sometimes even in her dreams. And so they skimped, did without, and concentrated on saving the down payment to buy their own place.
Then, on a sun-splashed spring morning, a guiding wind at their backs, the refocused Howard family lit out for Indianapolis, 46 miles due north. With mixed emotions, Celia tearfully waved farewell to the pink pleasure palace.
* * *
That evening when Bev told Larry about the encounter with Mrs. Packard, he went off, no surprise. Across the kitchen table, hands folded in her lap, she waited, hoping he'd remember to keep his voice down until they were sure Celia was asleep upstairs.
"That strange woman carrying on about Celia's beautiful skin," Bev had said, immediately wishing she hadn't, belatedly realizing it would only make things worse. At least she didn't prattle on about her hair like some of them --oh, it's so soft. She had read where a big-time movie star had shaved her four-year-old adopted Sudanese daughter's head. Knowing nothing about hair that didn't bounce and behave, she had left the little girl looking like a miniature Michael Jordan. How awful, you'd think a world-famous actress could afford to hire one of us to do the child's hair.
"Her skin? What?" With both hands, Larry shoved down on the seat like a fighter pilot ejecting from a burning jet.
"Never mind honey, it's not important."
"Kathy Murray tells us everything about those houses, even stuff we didn't need to know. Why didn't she tell us a goddamn pervert lives right down the street from us? The lowest form of human life."
"Honey, that's what you say about politicians." She teased, wanting him to lighten up.
His forehead creased and he managed a weak smile.
"What if Kathy didn't know? I'm sure she would have told us."
"Bev," Larry said, blinking, "why are you siding with her?"
"What're we gonna do?" She asked, not sure they needed to do anything.
"What do you mean? I'm not sitting still for this. This is fraud. We need legal advice. That's what we need." He sprang to his feet, pacing around the chair.
"But lawyers cost money and--"
"What does this shit-bird look like anyway?"
"Honey, I have no idea." She was up now, at the refrigerator holding a St. Pauli Girl, extending the beer toward him, anticipating the request. She loved when he'd hook his strong arms around her waist and reel her in. Like Hemingway fishing for thousand pound marlin off the Florida Keys, he'd say. Sometimes he'd threaten to stuff and mount her, or was it mount and stuff? She would remind him he'd never been to the Keys then plop onto his lap and if things started up he might take her where she wanted to go.
"Is he black, white, or what?"
"Larry, I said I don't--"
"Maybe we should sue."
"Sue Kathy? No, no, she's good people. I'm sure she didn't--"
"Good people, my foot! I'm talking about the real estate company. Corporations don't have feelings, baby." He sat down again, hesitantly, as if not sure he'd stay.
Her eyes followed the green longneck bottle gliding to his lips, the doleful hesitation before bringing it down, all because of some shadowy neighbor. She longed for peace in their new home and was becoming furious with a man she'd never seen. She would talk to Celia and warn her never to speak to Mr. Cork. Never go anywhere near him and, of course, never enter that house alone or otherwise. Celia would be okay, she'd see to it.
"Did we keep last Sunday's newspaper?" he asked.
"I think so." She moved to the back porch, to the blue recycle bag.
"And bring some writing paper . . . please. I'm gonna write to the newspaper, the real estate problem solver column. A handwritten letter is better than email, they're more likely to respond." He was bobbing in the chair and she understood adrenaline was pumping as he anticipated action. "This low-life could be a blessing in disguise," he said. "We could end up with a sweet settlement out of this."
He took a healthy swig then lowered the bottle and wrote:
We have been in our new home that we closed on not long ago. Now, one of the neighbors has informed my wife that a man living on our block is a registered sex offender. Other neighbors confirmed it. Using the resources of Megan's Law, they informed us the man was convicted of child molestation and served time in prison. We have a ten-year-old daughter and do not appreciate living so close to this kind of deviate. Can we sue to have the sale canceled and get our money back? Can we sue the seller? His agent? Can we sue our agent? Shouldn't they have told us about him?
Signed, "Deceived Buyer," he handed it to her and she read, aimlessly twirling a strand of uncooperative side-hair.
"Looks fine honey, you should go ahead and send it."
She hoped he'd be satisfied with the response but remained concerned because in truth, only one neighbor had spoken to her. What if Mrs. Packard is wrong? Even so, no good would come from revealing her fears to Larry. His mind was made up.
* * *
Three Sundays went by with no response from the newspaper and Bev felt anxious. She still had not laid eyes on Claude Cork, and it occurred to her he may not exist. Maybe I'm guilty of stirring up a commotion over nothing. She had walked to the Spanish colonial house at the end of the block once, stopping and staring, looking for telltale signs. Signs of what?
In the kitchen one Sunday morning, Larry had the newspaper spread in front of him while Bev scrambled eggs. "Look, they printed my letter." He rustled the paper excitedly then read aloud the response.
Dear Deceived Buyer:
You can sue, but winning may be difficult. First, you must show the sellers were aware of the man's background and intentionally withheld the information from you. Then you must prove the value of your home has decreased because a convicted child molester lives on your block. You were fortunate to have learned of his background sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, neither the seller nor the agents had a legal duty to disclose the information. You should have exercised your rights under Megan's Law before you signed the sales agreement rather than after you moved in. Remember, jurisdiction in this matter is controlled under federal statute, not state law. Good Luck.
He flung the newspaper to the floor then jumped up, pacing the room like a double-crossed African dictator, finally relenting at the living room picture window.
"No legal duty my foot! I'm not buying that not for one minute."
"Eat. Your eggs are getting cold," she said, bone weary of it all.
She sensed his anger stemmed from feeling outmaneuvered and realized that for the rest of the day life with her man would not be endless dollops of Häagen Dazs white chocolate raspberry truffles. The wording on a novelty doormat sprang to mind, from Dante's The Divine Comedy--funny when she first discovered it in a catalog from PBS--the inscription at the entrance to Hell: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."
He ate in silence and then returned to the window staring in the direction of the Cork house, scowling as if he'd just spotted an exultant pervert chilling on the porch jeering him with blustery defiance.
* * *
A creamy half moon trailed along with Bev in a bank of rolled light-gray clouds as she walked back to the dismal corner house. Seasoned climbing vines nearly overwhelmed a rickety wooden pergola arching over the walkway leading to the front door--a structure just begging for paint. Upstairs, behind half-open blinds, a golden light flickered like the eye of a tiger measuring his prey. In the driveway sat a banged up late model gray Chevy Cavalier with Kentucky plates.
She moved under the arch to the door and listened for a moment to the strains of doleful country music. At least the music had melody. A whole generation of kids has grown up hearing only rhythm and thumping bass, Larry often said, with no melody playing in their head. She hesitated then backed away, having second thoughts about knocking. He may be gone already. Wouldn't such a man necessarily travel light? She couldn't imagine him owning furniture, a closet full of clothes, trophies, scrapbooks, personal knickknacks. What would he do with those things in prison?
* * *
The next afternoon she again walked to the house and in the brushed blue sky cauliflower-like clouds drifted low under the sun. The Chevy was nowhere in sight. On her knees by the pergola, a starkly thin woman tended beds of gardenias, foxglove and lavender. The woman had on jeans and a white tee with the words: US OPEN 1999 in green above a spinning golden tennis ball. Clumpy reddish-brown hair she'd piled atop her head and russet tortoise shell glasses dangled from a brass chain around the neck.
Bev had stopped on the winding stone path leading to the door. The woman, unaware, appeared run-down as though recovering from some serious illness. Bev considered easing away quietly. Then, surprising herself, she coughed intentionally to signal her presence.
The woman froze, bony bare knuckles pressed into the soil, head tilted as if blind and listening for a telltale sound. She picked up a trowel, sighed then spiked the tool into the ground. Her angular face turned slowly and regarded Bev, giving the impression she'd been expecting her visit all along and understood its singular purpose.
Arms crossed, hugging herself, Bev managed a half-smile, harnessing ill-timed stomach flutters as the ashen-face woman moved toward her. Said she was Janet and her raspy voice revealed that like Mrs. Packard, she too was a smoker.
"Don't tell me," Janet said, "you boogied over here looking for the sex maniac." She stooped and banged the trowel against her shoe knocking off the caked black top soil. Unprepared for sarcasm, Bev didn't respond while Janet stared blankly at the loose soil, mouth breathing, as if wonder-struck by its dark richness.
"We recently moved in and--"
"I know who you are, but you don't know nothing about him." She paused and looked away. "My sister is his mother, see--but she weren't no good. I did all the raising after he turned seven. The cops went and put his face on those stinking Internets, saying it's the law. Downright shitty if you ask me, pardon my French. I fount out that when they put you out there in cybo space it's forever. So what can I do? It ain't right to keep punishing him over and over. Ain't right at-tall."
"I have a daughter, surely you can understand my--"
"Yes, I seen your little one. Marie Packard just runs her mouth. You don't have to agree. I know she thinks I'm not the right kind to be living on this block. But I was here before her! Anyway, Claudie ain't here. Been near bout four months now since he stayed with me. Let me ask you something. Shouldn't that boy have the right to live somewheres and not get hounded to death?"
She stared off over Bev's right shoulder and her eyes were two brown Milk Duds stuck together in the bottom of the box.
"He's sorry for what he done. Lord forgive him, he didn't mean to do harm. Two years in prison and I won't even say what disgusting things they did to him up there." Janet lifted her shoulders and sucked air deep into her bony chest. "Claudie was a young 19 and that big-bosom little she-devil--every bit of 15--she did the enticing. On him like white on rice! That boy didn't know whether to kiss her or tie her up. Talking 'bout love! What do they know? She put a real whim-wham on my Claudie--you hear me? Girls nowadays are way too fast."
Bev winced at the sweeping denunciation.
Janet went on. "So, being a minority and all, maybe you can sympathize." She turned her head and coughed twice, harsh, hacking coughs disturbing to hear.
"Oh?" Bev said, her tone surprisingly flat and cold.
Janet fidgeted with the brass chain, lifted her glasses and almost at once let them fall. "Now, now, don't go taking that the wrong way," cough, cough. "I'm just a-sayin--"
"So, he's not here any more . . . on Wilmont?"
"He's got to live someplace. The cops, they come around here checking, calling on the phone, thinking he's still with me, but he ain't here. Laying up somewheres near Lexington, Bluegrass Country. Says he gets along fine with them beautiful horses. Doctors say he's got what they call a his-tree-onic personality disorder. Any little thing can get him riled up. To Claudie everything is a big deal, the end of the world. Wasn't like that before all this. They can't give him no medicine cause he liable to take it and kill himself. But he can't stay here. It's just too much."
"Too much?" Bev echoed, her empathy level sitting on empty. "Very good, thank-you. I'll . . . I'll tell my husband."
Janet's head lifted and for the first time made eye contact, the spiritless empty gaze of someone whose heart had endured prolonged neglect and only dimly recalled the soothing assurance of love's embrace. "Tell him ain't no cause to worry and please don't go spreading my business to that Packard woman."
"No, no, and I really like your garden. I see you have tomatoes coming up too," Bev said, pointing to the sun side of the yard, wondering if she could ever again engage Janet in a neighborly fashion. Wondering, too, if any regular white people, plain old garden-variety, lived in the well-kept houses on Wilmont Street.
* * *
That summer, Janet's vine-ripened tomatoes kept coming up, big juicy beefsteaks so bountiful she had to give them away lest they rotted on the vine or ground. She had placed a handwritten Help Yourself sign by the tomato basket beneath the pergola. Each time Bev took the delicious tomatoes, the point hit home that Janet was alone and lonely. Am I taking and giving nothing in return? Would it hurt to be kind to a lung cancer survivor? How much longer can she live with just one lung? "Thank God he gave us two," Janet once said and, ironically, it made sense given her debilitated state, the ever-present portable oxygen tank standing by like a loyal eunuch.
One Sunday afternoon in August, Bev decided she'd help Janet weed and thus show her appreciation for the delicious tomatoes. She put on faded jeans, which made her hot before she'd done a lick of work, grabbed a pink sun visor and pink garden gloves and then walked over.
"Howdy," Janet said, coughing and trying to suppress a cough, then coughing more.
Bev surveyed the small garden, about 8x10 feet, planted away from the tree line allowing the blossoming tomatoes to gulp up the nourishing Indiana sunlight. "Hi there. Need any help?"
While they worked, neither woman spoke the other's name. Soon Janet was bustling about and smiling but saving her precious breath. Bev was on all fours, pulling every big weed she encountered, falling into a rhythm, pulling and yanking with fierce determination, proving she had come to work. She smiled recalling a remark on MSNBC by the wife of a philandering southern state governor that after moving out of the mansion, what she missed most were the prison convicts who had tended the garden and washed her two large dogs.
Thirty-five minutes turtled by before Bev rose to her feet, knees popping, and with a comical flourish slipped the garden gloves off. The short walk home was therapeutic.
Bev didn't offer her services again and thought it strange when Janet dropped out of sight even though fresh-off-the vine tomatoes continued to show up in the basket until late September. Once toward the end of the season, Bev stopped by and saw only a few imperfect tomatoes noticeably inferior to those left before, which she didn't take.
* * *
The leaves fell, autumnally brilliant shades of russet, burnt-orange and green at first, then mottled brown, until finally winter's cold wet grayness insinuated itself. Off and on Bev had noticed the car with Kentucky plates in Janet's driveway, but no one had seen her all winter. Soon it would be time to begin spring planting. One Saturday morning in April she had taken Dexter out for a walk, wondering how it had become her job. Suddenly the Jack Russell mixed terrier began excitedly pulling and straining on the leash near Janet's house, barking at something he smelled. She tugged and tugged against the leash and finally had to cross the street to quiet him, thankful it wasn't a skunk or the remains of one.
Two days later, ready to leave for work Bev was alarmed by the shrill wail of sirens so near she found herself dashing out to the street, unexpectedly mingling with a clutch of concerned neighbors. In front of the Cork house stood a fire truck ambulance and two police cars. Marie Packard was out there talking, she would know everything.
Janet was dead and, in a short while, firemen brought her out, a lumpy mass beneath a white sheet. A warm wetness trickled down Bev's cheek.
"Can you believe it! That sicko was living in the house with a dead woman. I heard'em say she may have passed a week ago. I knew something was wrong."
Will somebody please make her shut up?
"Look! They're putting him in the car." A stooped man wearing jeans and a Purdue University hoodie was sandwiched between two cops, one pushing his head into the car. "He's one strange bird."
"So who called 911?" Bev asked.
No one in the small group spoke, but she watched Marie Packard's pinched face crumble and she knew.
Marie Packard said, "If he was living here more than seven days, he was supposed to register. I researched it. I checked on the Internet"--beaming inappropriately--"the girl was over twelve, no violence was involved so he only has to register for ten years. It's called Zachary's law."
Flashing red and blue lights seemed less foreboding, eerily entertaining in the bright morning sunlight. Cops and firemen stood around gabbing like mid-level executives on a corporate retreat, missing only the Merlot and cheese. The ambulance took Janet away and now a light cordial wind stirred, a pleasant Indiana day if one disregarded the inconvenient spectacle of death.
Neighbors had noticed the change in the quality of tomatoes in the basket, greenish-red, small and lopsided, unlike the plump juicy ones Janet usually put out. Bev surmised it was Cork, someone who understood nothing about maintaining a garden, who had continued putting them out. Wanting to keep up appearances, wanting folks on Wilmont to remember Janet another week, another day, another hour. And Bev would later learn that Cork, though supposedly living in Kentucky, had remained holed up in the house all winter with his frail secret burden, faithfully caring for the woman who'd been like a mother to him, hiding in plain sight, sneaking out at night for food, medicine and cigarettes. Because his sex offender registration was not current, avoiding the police was vital.
As the patrol car pulled away, Cork twisted around and peered longingly over the rear seat, his woebegone eyes red-rimmed and fearful. Others had labeled him a half-alive demon, undeserving of simple kindness--Quasimodo of Wilmont Street--but now he looked displaced and more lost in this life than a pink flamingo in Antarctica. Bev's right hand lifted, the fingers wiggled, openly acknowledging his frazzled humanity. He raised his handcuffed hands and waved back, dazed and uncertain, though she no longer was.