I listen to Murphy bark for fifteen minutes before dragging myself out of bed to close the window. Seven a.m. on a Saturday. My neighbors, the Gilroys, have four kids and this big, black Newfoundland my daughter would have loved. Allie couldn’t get enough of dogs, but I’m allergic, so we never got that puppy she’d wanted. She would have been fourteen last week. After two years, these are the things I think about.
“Murphy!” My face is pressed up against the screen. It’s been the same crap every morning since the Gilroys moved here from Alabama. I used to yell a few choice words out my window before stumbling back to bed, but I’ve since decided it’s not worth the energy. If it’s not their dog, it’s the kids, and I don’t plan on swearing at a bunch of squirts.
I slam the window and roll back into bed. The yellow walls make the bedroom even brighter, and I know I’m not sleeping in today.
“Shut the window,” my wife says. She turns onto her side, away from me, and stuffs half our blankets up against her face and ear.
“Jesus, I just did,” I say.
“Well, we need new windows. I can still hear barking.” Mumbling something I can’t hear, she grabs my pillow and buries her head under it. My side of the bed is bare except for the mattress’s fitted sheet.
“I’m gonna make coffee.”
I get up, throw on a bathrobe, and head downstairs. The local forecast plays on Channel 8: High of ninety-two degrees. I lower the thermostat. Rosie’s gotta have the place freezing all the time, probably something to do with those menopausal hot flashes she keeps complaining about. From the family room window, I can see two of the Gilroy kids riding their bikes up and down my driveway.
Rosie thuds down the stairs like she weighs as much as I do. “Can you believe those people?” she asks. She’s standing behind me, looking over my shoulder at the Gilroy’s house. “They have their windows open in this heat!” she says, shaking her head. I’m not sure why this is supposed to outrage me.
“It isn’t that hot yet.”
“But it’s going to be, and you know they’re too cheap to turn the air conditioning on.” She sits down on the sofa and spreads a pile of envelopes on the coffee table. “Have you seen this month’s electric bill? My God!”
“Don’t tell me you’re surprised. You’ve gotta have this place like an icebox all the time, what did you think would happen?” The bill might not be so bad if she’d learn to turn lights off when she left a room. I can walk upstairs at any time of the day and find a closet light on, or a bathroom light on. There’s where the real waste of electricity is.
“John, why are those kids in our driveway?” Brian and Molly are still riding around, wearing helmets but no shoes.
“For crying out loud, hon, they’re not doing anything.” I’ve seen all three kids outside year round without shoes, feet black as soot. And shorts in the winter. Reader’s Digest printed an article about how our society is too clean. Kids who aren’t exposed to enough germs when they’re young will get sick more often as they age. There must be some truth in this because I’ve never seen a Gilroy kid with a cold. When the family’s first dog died, they kept it out on the porch all winter, waiting for the ground to thaw so they could bury it in the backyard. I could rattle off fifty health violations before stepping foot inside their house.
“Where’s that character, what’s his name? The father I mean—” Rosie asks.
“His name’s Bill. Would you please leave the kids alone?”
“Well, why aren’t they better supervised?” Rosie asks me this question about twice a day. “Shouldn’t that father of theirs be watching? God knows he doesn’t do anything useful with himself.” Bill’s an accountant who works from home. I’d guess he’s about ten years older than his wife. Rosie sarcastically refers to him as ‘Mr. Boy-Toy’ for this reason, mocking his ‘bald spot’ and ‘beer gut.’ The truth is I’m probably in better shape than Bill. And he looks like a homeless man half the time. I’m not really sure why an attractive girl like Patty’s with him. But then, she’s never around, busy doing her five-year residency at Geisinger Medical Center. The fact that she wants to be a doctor makes that dead dog story more unbelievable to me. “They keep a barrel of coal on their front stoop!” Rosie says, pointing. “Coal.”
“I don’t care about the coal,” I say. Their lawn has grown so tall that the grass is seeding and weeds are sprouting everywhere. I’ve gone through two bottles of weed-kill because of all the damned dandelion fuzz that blows over from their yard into mine. And Rosie must bitch at least once a week about the fallen shutter and untended vegetable garden. The only thing missing is a rusty truck propped up on some cinderblocks.
Our front doorbell rings in succession five times. “I refuse to answer that!” Rosie says. Neither of us moves toward the door. I know it must be Molly. Sometimes she comes over and asks to borrow my daughter’s old toys. I’d rather see the stuff put to good use, so I lend Molly a Frisbee or jump rope. My wife doesn’t know I do this. She boxed up all of Allie’s belongings and stacked them in the attic a few weeks after Allie’s body gave in to the cancer. Lying in the hospital bed, she’d had nothing left of her hair but some red fuzz. She tried to make light of it and called herself a little peach. We joked about how much cooler her head would be in the hot weather while she helped me clean the yard.
Molly starts knocking at the back door. Often, if I’m mowing the lawn or pulling weeds, she’ll run over and ask, ‘John, can you come play?’ I can avoid ten minutes worth of why are you busy questions if I agree to kick a ball around. Bill doesn’t come out of his house much. Sometimes I bump into him on the way to check for mail. He tells me he’s been locked up in the office, or mentions something about tax returns. His kids must think I’m decent stand-in entertainment.
“John!” Rosie glares at me. “What if they crash their bikes on our property? Those people could file a lawsuit against us!”
“Jesus Christ.” I set my coffee mug in the sink, grab the newspaper off the counter, and step outside onto the patio. Rosie follows me through the sliding door. She’s still wearing her pink bathrobe and matching slippers. I un-tuck my shirt and sit back on one of the green, cushioned chairs, propping my feet up on the patio’s brick wall. If anything, those kids will get into trouble on their own property. Bill lets them all run wild, even Mac. He’s two, almost three, and hasn’t spoken a word yet. Last week he got into Bill’s truck through an open window. I saw him climbing all around the front of the truck, turning the headlights on and off, and ran over there to grab him, afraid he’d knock it out of gear and go rolling down the street.
Rosie waddles around the patio, scouring the area to make sure everything’s in order. After Allie died, she vacuumed the house every day. Then dusting got added to the list, and mopping. Now, all of the condiments in our refrigerator must have their labels facing forward. “Look John,” Rosie whispers, pointing at a Yellow Jacket that’s hovering below the rain gutter. “Go get the spray!” Flailing her hand frantically, she tugs on my arm. “Those little buggers are making a nest in there!”
“Let them, they’re carnivorous.” I flip to the sports section of the paper. Danville Sophomore Bruce Rankin to Swim in State Championship. “Helps keep the other bugs away.”
“You are so lazy!”
“That’s what Saturdays are for,” I say. Her eyes roll and I feel a blast of cool air as she disappears into the house.
* * *
“Wow, what a transformation!” I say, winking at Rosie. Her hair is curled and she’s wearing a snappy black and white outfit.
“Oh, do you like my new Capri pants?”
“Is that what they call those? Not high-water pants, huh? Yeah, I like them.” She jingles the car keys and takes fifty bucks from my wallet, which I’d left on the patio table. The only thing she knows how to do on a Saturday is shop. Our shelves are exploding with knick-knacks. Statuettes, empty vases, crystal animals. We could sell stuffed bears back to the Boyds Company. And I’m sure the amount of Yankee Candles we own breaks some sort of fire code.
Rosie crouches over me, smiling. “Here, put some more sun block on your face. You’re toasted.” She grabs my hand. A white line of Coppertone rains down into my palm. “Rub it in.”
“Where are you going?” I ask. It’s the first Saturday of the month, and I saw the bouquet in the car earlier.
“I have some things to do, then I’m headed to the mall,” she says, adjusting her sunglasses.
“They’re just going to wilt in a few hours, Rosie.” I say it as gently as I can, but realize my mistake as I watch her lips purse up.
“I’ll see you later.” And I’ve ruined our five minutes of normalcy.
The Buick creeps down the street and out of sight.
* * *
Reaching my hand into the PVC pipe, I dig out rotting leaves from the drain. Water gushes through the white grates and out into the street. It’s the damned chipmunks. They crawl in when the pipe’s dry thinking they can nest. Then a big rain comes and plugs everything up. One summer when Allie was about ten, I left rat poison in the flowerbeds to get rid of the pests. She noticed and threw a fit, crying hysterically, yelling at me about how rat poison makes the animal suffer and bleed to death through its nose and eyes. She wouldn’t talk to me for three days after that, one of which she spent hunger striking, tied up with jump rope in the garage for over an hour.
I wipe the green slime on the side of my pants. Across the street, Murphy’s chained without food or water, to the basketball hoop. There’s no activity at the Gilroy house, so I figure I better head over there to check on the dog. The sun’s shining high overhead and his dark fur soaks up heat like a sponge.
“Hey Murph,” I say. He whimpers at me. My shoes scrape up gray paint chips as I shuffle up the steps to the front door. “Hello?” No one answers. I knock harder and wait a few minutes. “Son of a bitch.” Murphy sits up, cocking his head at me as I unchain him. “Come on, boy,” I say while leading him to the shade of a nearby oak tree. I fasten the long leash around the girth of the tree and begin hunting around the backyard for a water bowl. The backyard is littered with plastic toys, Bill’s tools, scraps of lumber, and dog shit. Finally, I find a red bowl and fill it up with water from a garden hose. I set the bowl down in front of Murphy, then drag the hose around, spraying him down as he laps up the water. “That’s a good dog.” His tail wags, and I’d like to believe he’s grateful.
Rosie pulls into our driveway. The trunk pops open and I watch her unload three shopping bags: two from JC Penny and one from The Gap. Shopping therapy. She spots me from across the street.
“I’ve got groceries,” she yells over. “Come help me unload!” I walk to the car and start taking the heaviest plastic bags inside. “Put the steaks in the sink. You can barbeque them tonight,” she says.
“What else did you buy?” I ask. My fifty dollars, and then some, won’t be seen again.
“Oh, just some new shirts,” Rosie says. “And an adorable picture frame.” We must have a million pictures frames stored in the attic. I let it go.
“I thought I could get that picture of Allie blown up. You know, the one with the carousel horse—from her eleventh birthday.” Rosie digs around in one of the bags, taking containers of Yoplait out one by one, and lines them up on the top shelf of the fridge.
“Yeah, that’s a nice picture.” I drop a lemon in its appropriate drawer. “Allie looked real happy in that one.” Rosie wipes the kitchen counter with a dishtowel.
“Oh shoot! Do we have any propane left?” she asks. “You better check.”
I step out onto the patio and examine the gauge on the barbecue’s propane tank. “It’s low,” I call in to Rosie, “but it’ll be enough.” Tomorrow I’ll run down to Cole’s Hardware and fill it up.
“Hi John.” Startled, I almost hit my head on the underside of the grill.
“Molly! You scared me!” She laughs. Dirt smears her face, and there is a hole in the right shoulder of her pink T-shirt. I spot Brian chasing a rabbit through the Hawkins’s flowerbed. “When did you get home?” She doesn’t answer, just chews on her fingers and giggles. Rosie watches us from the window. “What did you do today?”
“Ride my bike,” she says. “What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to grill steaks.”
“Because Mrs. Oranchek wants to eat them for dinner,” I say. “Is your mommy home yet?” I ask. “Uh uh,” she shakes her head. “I’m hungry,” she says. Patty’s car is in the driveway.
“Didn’t you eat lunch?”
“No,” she says.
“Why not, Molly?”
“Yeah. Ice cream,” she says.
“You ate ice cream for lunch?” She nods. “Wait here,” I say, walking around the side of the house and into the garage. I’m sure the Gilroys live on EasyMac, Hamburger Helper, and fast food. I caught a glimpse of their kitchen sink once when I ran over to lend Bill a power drill. There must have been a month’s worth of dishes piled up. Pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers covered the counter.
I hand Molly one of the low-fat yogurt snack bars I found in the mini fridge. Rosie thinks I need to be on a diet for my high cholesterol. I’ll let myself get to 300 points before I eat those chalky things, but the kids seem to like them.
Rosie taps on the window, making the phone signal with her hand. “I’ll be right back, Molly,” I say. She moves her hands to her hips.
“Be fast, John!” she demands.
“Okay kiddo.” I go inside and Rosie hands me the phone.
“Who is it?” I ask. She rolls her eyes.
“The ditz,” Rosie says. “She wants to talk to you. I can’t imagine why she’s calling here.” I pick up the receiver.
“Yeah, hi John. How are you?” she asks. Her voice wavers a little.
“Fine. Yourself?” Patty has called our house two times over the past year. Once when she was pissed off about a letter Rosie wrote regarding the ugly barrel of coal on the stoop, and the other to tell us she found our mail in her box. “Everything all right?” I ask.
“Well, um,” she hesitates. “Have you seen my kids?” When Allie was young, she never left Rosie’s sight. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street alone until she was eight. “I just got home from work and I’m not sure where they ran off to.”
“Don’t worry, Molly and Brian are over on our back patio,” I say. “I can send them home for dinner if you want. Molly told me she ate ice cream for lunch, so I gave her a quick snack.” I realize this probably sounds like I’m laying a guilt trip on her even though I don’t mean for it to.
“Is Mac there?” she asks.
“No, he must be with Bill,” I say. Since Molly and Brian have been wandering around the neighborhood, my guess is that Mac and Bill are doing the same.
They can’t find the kids, I mouth silently to Rosie. She throws her arms into the air in disbelief. I try not to chuckle.
“Bill’s here with me,” Patty says suddenly. She sounds more panicked. “He—fell asleep.” A pit forms in my stomach. “I can’t find Mac,” she stammers. “Oh God.” I remember how I felt when I lost Allie at Hershey Park. It would never have happened if Rosie had been there. Allie was six. I took her to see Disney on Ice in the arena. Before the show started, I thought it would be a good idea to let her use the bathroom. I waited outside the restroom entrance, but she never came out. I had no idea there were two bathroom doors. She had walked out the second door and ended up on the wrong side of the arena, where a security guard found her.
“Calm down,” I say. “Call some other neighbors. I’m sure we’ll find him in no time.” She hangs up. Rosie stares at me with crossed arms and a disgusted expression meant for Patty and Bill. “Tell Brian and Molly to go home.”
“All right,” she says. They’re sitting at our patio table, laughing and bouncing in the chairs. “Kids, your mommy wants you home now.” I think about the traffic on Kaseville Road. The creek between my yard and the woods. Nearby fish ponds.
* * *
Patty’s mascara dots the purple bags beneath her lashes with black smears. Her curly hair’s a mess of frizz around her face, and she looks tired. Old, almost. “Thanks for the help,” she says.
“Sure.” I don’t look at her as we move from one backyard to another. The wind smells like hamburgers and charcoal. Patty lets out a sigh as it whips the loose, blue hospital scrubs against her legs.
Bill Gilroy’s been drinking a lot lately, or at least that’s what Louise Hawkins has been telling my wife. I overheard one of their conversations during Rosie’s gourmet group. Louise is the nosiest woman I’ve even known, next to my own wife. She goes on and on about Bill’s supposed love of whiskey and whatever other dirt she has on the rest of our neighbors. But I’m sure there’s some truth to her ranting and raving. Now and then, I see Bill shoot some hoops with Brian, but usually the only interaction he has with his kids includes yelling or dragging one of them into the house by a shirtsleeve. He has the patience of a drunk.
“How’s your residency going Patty?” I ask. She shrugs.
“It’s a lot of work.” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been busy with the kids,” she says. “Leukemia patients, terminally ill ones mostly. Sometimes it just breaks my heart when I see—” She stops mid-sentence. “I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me, I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s all right,” I say, but my heart won’t stop pounding. “I see a bit of her in Molly, you know?” I don’t know what compels me, but I reach into my wallet and pull out a picture of Allie. Patty smiles.
“Beautiful,” she says.
“Yeah.” Mosquitoes hum around my head; they’re fierce tonight. I nail one on my arm and blood bursts out from its crushed body. “Damned bugs.”
“Uh-huh,” Patty says. Doug Hawkins scours the lower half of the neighborhood. “Hey, Doug!” He’s poking around in a field of knee-high grass on the outskirts of his property. “Anything?” she asks.
“No one’s seen him,” he says. The hand on my watch has barely moved twenty minutes, but I would have sworn an hour’d passed. Still, too early to call it in. When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity. I used to read books about Einstein and relativity to Allie when she was in the hospital. We talked about time travel and outer space too, anything related to science or nature. As a twelve-year-old, Allie knew more about planets, bugs, or famous physicists than I did. She could drop a fact about Pavlov or something and crack me up, but I think it stunned Rosie, who thought the patty-cake days would never end.
* * *
Mac’s got on nothing but a diaper and a smile. He’s crouched in a gravel-filled ditch along Kaseville, clinging to what was once a green and blue stuffed bunny. Holding the creature high with a grubby arm, he croons at me. I shudder as a red Toyota zooms by us.
“Hello Mac,” I say. Rattling the bunny by its ears, he giggles. “Where have you been?” More laughing. I pick him up. For a moment he looks confused, but then presses his grimy face against my shirt, gripping my neck with both arms. I remember when I found Allie at the lost child center in Hershey. She hadn’t even wanted to look at me, because I made her miss half the show. No fear, just anger about the inconvenience. The security guard had told me Allie was calm the whole time, and that she’d found him. Went right up to him with her ticket stub and said, ‘I’m lost.’ Pretty good for a six-year-old.
Mac smells like he’s needed a changing for the past two days. I don’t know how he’s not screaming and crying. “Patty!” I yell. She spots us from across the road and runs over.
“Thank God!” I hand him off. Patty’s squeezing the poor kid so hard I doubt he can breathe. “Come here sweetie.” She wipes some of the dirt off his cheeks with her sleeve. Mommy’s here, you’re fine now. You’re fine.” And I know she’s convincing herself.
* * *
“Good, you’re home.” Rosie has the patio table set and a cold Pepsi waiting for me. “I guess you found him then?”
“Yeah. On the side of the road, can you believe it?”
“Lord, not really.” I expect her to rant about the irresponsibility of the Gilroys, or how we should call the cops and child services, but she doesn’t. “Tell me if these steaks are done enough.” She cuts into the thickest one.
“I thought you were afraid of that thing,” I say, pointing to the grill. The starter broke last summer. Basically, to light it I just turn on the gas, toss in a match, and pray not to blow myself to China.
“Well let me tell you it was scary! We need a new barbecue!” Her eyes get wide as saucers. “You should have seen the flames when I lit it, John!” she cries. I can’t help but laugh.
“A new barbecue, is that right? And do you want that before or after I replace all the windows?” I ask.
“I’m glad you think you’re funny. Too pink?” She stabs a piece of meat and holds it eye-level with me. Through the sliding door, I can make out Allie’s framed picture on the kitchen counter.
“Nah, that’s done.” We sit down to eat. The air has finally cooled down a bit, and the moon is starting to shine through the haze.
“Listen to that!” Rosie laughs. “It’s a Cicada summer.”
“Great, maybe their buzzing will drown out Murphy,” I say. She chuckles, but it fades.
“These are the same brood,” she says. “From years ago.” She’s right. I think of that summer; of waking up in the morning to find tan exoskeletons stuck to our oak trees. Little, hollow shells that crumbled in your hand. “Allie was alive, that last time we heard them,” Rosie says. “She was two.” Rosie comes over to sit in my lap. I can’t remember the last time she did this. I put my arms around her. I’d set a Cicada on Allie’s palm that summer so she could feel the vibration from its wings. They don’t bite, and she hadn’t been afraid of it at all. Allie just stood with her arm still as wood. I remember the look on her face—that grin as she rubbed its iridescent head with an outstretched pinky, delighted to hold a live thing in her hand.