Three Two-Family Homes
Just after 5:00pm, almost evening, in an old neighborhood of two-family homes that borders Maple Street. November. Leafless trees. Slate sky. A chill in the air. That far north, dwindling light. Three two-family houses, tall, close together, then a gravel alley, and across the street, an old gray church that stays dark except for Sunday worship.
Nearby, some of the streets could be called rundown. But not these homes; they've been kept up pretty well. Nell lives on the corner. She has both halves. She lives on one side with her elderly mother, and the other has served as a family business for nearly three-quarters of a century, the side along Maple, which is a busy street that has seen better days. Next to Nell are the de la Madrids: the father, mother, and two teenage girls. They share a wall with an old man. The last unit on the old man's side is empty; the McMann family lives on the far side. Then there's the alley.
Across the street sits the north wall of the big stone church, usually in shadows and because of that, covered almost entirely with moss.
Nell is cleaning the top desk drawer in her office for the last time. She's turned over the accounting business, which her father began, to a nephew who had already been almost a partner for a number of years. There isn't much for her to do; all the business things stay put, and she'll only be on the other side of the wall, after all. She sets a heavy three-hole punch on the immaculate desktop. It's the only things she's taking, and that's because her father gave it to her years ago. She sits still in the dim light.
Next door, Mr. de la Madrid plays the violin. He gives some music lessons and is a substitute teacher for the diocese elementary schools. In keeping with the old ways when they'd lived in Spain, his wife doesn't work. The two girls are thirteen and fifteen. The fifteen year-old is rarely at home; she's already involved in body piercing and the local café scene. The thirteen year-old sits on the back step with a skinny boy who will be going with her from the Catholic elementary to the public high school. He's let his blond hair grow down over a forehead of acne. Mrs. de la Madrid is trying to take a nap on the chenille bedspread in their downstairs bedroom, but she's having trouble falling asleep. Of course, no curtains are open. They never are.
The old man closes his front door behind him, leading his beagle on a leash. He wears a black jacket, tan corduroy trousers, a red flannel shirt buttoned at the collar, and plain brown oxfords. He climbs down the steps slowly. He'll head up Maple Street towards the Spokane River, along the ledge above it, then back down Pruitt Street and home, the same route he's taken morning and night for the eleven years since he'd gotten the dog from the pound. The old man has never married. He also walks daily to the hardware store over on Division Street where he's worked for forty years, well past when he could have retired.
The near side of the next house remains empty because the old man prefers it so. He owns both the house he lives in and the one with the empty unit. He prefers it because of the quiet it affords him. A number of years ago, he rented it to a young single woman. She was nice enough, but she eventually got a boyfriend who played the electric guitar all day and threw beer cans out the back door. Then he also heard Mrs. de la Madrid yelling at her daughters on the other side; this started around the same time, when they were eight or nine. Always in the upstairs corner bedroom. He began hearing a whacking sound, like a rolled-up magazine hitting something, coming from the same window a few months later. Of course, the girls screamed, but Mrs. de la Madrid may have been hitting the magazine against her own hand as a kind of warning. In any event, both places were paid for, so when the single woman moved out, the old man decided commotion on one side of him was quite enough.
Tom McCann, in the next unit, has moved ahead in his business career. The liquor distributorship he works for has taken on three new brands, and he's gotten two to represent. That means more travel to Missoula, Pullman, the Tri-Cities, and Yakima, but so be it; the advancement is the thing. His wife, Shelly, is excited, too, because she thinks it might allow her to get her boutique off the ground. She doesn't tell Tom about how these ingredients are linked for her, but she dreams pretty regularly of them. She crochets like crazy, and Tom still believes that this preoccupation involves only crafts fairs and church bazaars for which he has no other emotion other than exasperation. However, Shelly has bigger plans. She is crocheting again now: an afghan. But the pot roast is finished in the crock pot, the kids are watching TV, and Tom is always late, so all is well.
The old man turns at the corner and heads up Maple towards the river. Nell watches him go. She's always thought of him as a still man; even the spooning of a can of soup into a pan, as she's seen him do countless evenings through his kitchen window on walks of her own, seems a still endeavor. She hears Mr. de la Madrid in the midst of his evening concert. The moment he begins varies, she supposes, with his schedule of lessons, but he plays faithfully every evening for nearly an hour: sweet, passionate melodies, drifting phrases. She imagines him playing with his eyes closed. She does his taxes and knows each month must be a stretch. Nell, too, has heard the whack of the magazine, but she has also chosen to ignore it.
On the de la Madrid's back step, the skinny boy has taken the younger daughter's hand, and she has let him. It's the first time for them both. Neither speaks, but each looks straight ahead where a cat crawls along the back fence over the garbage cans. They each feel a remarkable and exciting lightness, and they think separate thoughts about who they will tell afterwards and in what order. The boy considers linking fingers, but he dares not try. The moment is enough, and he doesn't want to ruin it. In the dwindling light, he thinks, "Soon."
Tom McMann is driving home with wonderful news: he's been asked to join Rotary. He's a big man who drives, even now in the late fall, with the window cracked substantially. He's loosened his tie; he's beaming, thumping his thumbs on the steering wheel to some song from his youth on the radio that he can't name. When he tells Shelly, he'll lift a bottle of the distributor's best wine from his briefcase. But the person he's really anxious to tell is Bill Campbell who had the desk across from him in those early years when Tom was struggling. They were trainees together, but Bill did well almost immediately; so well, in fact, that a headhunter had lured him off to Boise on the management track of a startup software company. Tom hasn't spoken to Bill in several years, and is trying to think of a pretense for calling him with the Rotary news.
The old man stops along the high ledge to look down at the wide river and the city's skyline behind it. He doesn't notice the graffiti on the rocks. He does watch the breeze dipping the long arms of the cottonwoods along the river's edge. He's pleased that the librarian called today to tell him the biography he'd reserved had come in; he'd stopped to pick it up on the way home from work. He had potato soup, crackers, and a pot of tea to look forward to. Perhaps he'd make a fire, the first one of the season. That would be nice.
Nell stops in the doorway to look back at the office a last time. She holds the three-hole punch in one hand. It's a plain room, nothing on the walls; just the desks, six tall green file cabinets, chairs, the computers and fax, an artificial plant on a stand by the window. It smells dusty, exactly like her own home a few feet away. She's certain that the aromas from both sides of the wall have mingled over the years. They remind her of her father. And the thoughts about him, his memories, she knows, have something to do with the reluctance she feels about retiring.
Mrs. de la Madrid sighs and rolls over onto her stomach. On the bedroom walls, there are all manner of religious memorabilia, a good bit of it from the old country. Mr. de la Madrid is playing a minuet from Mozart, one of his favorite pieces. He is playing it with emotion partly because the young girl who'd just finished her lesson was lazy and bored and had hardly practiced at all. Four months of lessons and the girl could still not play, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Mr. de la Madrid had trained for a classical career, but it never came to pass.
Tom McCann pulls up to the house and chagrin immediately intrudes upon his revelry: the boys have again left their bikes in the driveway. He looks across at the dark wall of the church and shakes his head. He takes his cell phone from the briefcase on the passenger seat and calls the house. His wife answers, looks out from the living room window as he gestures angrily in the front seat of the car. She sends the boys out quickly and hides her crocheting under the couch.
A woman walks backwards with the same cadence she's had since her husband had called police and she’d left through their back gate. The officers had caught up to her at Lawson and Maple and had been following her slowly since, sauntering almost and talking to her. Neither of the officers has his hand on his gun, and neither makes any sudden movement. Their voices are slow and even. The woman is still holding an open gasoline can in one hand and a Zippo lighter in the other. Every now and then, usually when she begins to cry, she raises the can over her hand and tips it as if to pour, then stops. Some gas has spilled onto her flowered blouse. A small group of people has accumulated behind the police officers, but back a bit, following from a distance. People have also come out of businesses and homes onto lawns. The woman passes the entrance to the church and turns the corner in front of the three, two-family houses.
Nell locks the office door behind her and steps off the landing. She stops when she sees the woman walking slowly backwards across the street.
Mrs. de la Madrid finally falls asleep. With the curtains drawn, Mr. de la Madrid continues his minuet. On the back step, the boy tells the younger daughter that he ought to be going soon, that it's getting late. She lowers her head and says, "Not just yet."
The old man turns left at Pruitt and allows the beagle to sniff around an overgrown lilac. He looks across the street where two men in coveralls are entering a tavern. The streetlamps blink on.
Tom McCann sees the woman with the gas can as he climbs out of the car in his driveway. The boys have put away their bikes and scampered inside ahead of him. His wife is hurrying to get dinner on the table. He walks slowly to the end of the driveway, his briefcase dangling from one hand, his eyebrows knitting together.
Two cruisers enter the street from opposite directions. The one that's come from Maple stays along the curb crawling a few feet behind the officers on foot. A uniformed arm comes out of the passenger window halting the gathering crowd. The other cruiser comes from the opposite direction and stops facing the wrong way on the church side of the street across from Tom McCann's house. The officer driving this car scuttles off against the wall of the church in the shadows behind a tall bush. His partner walks to the front of the cruiser and leans against it under a streetlamp holding a blanket and a small fire extinguisher. The woman keeps along, her back nearing the second cruiser, flicking the flame now and then on the lighter, the two officers on foot approaching slowly.
Nell holds the three-hole punch to her lips. The old man continues along Pruitt past the grocery store. With his breath held, the boy suddenly puts his arm around the younger daughter, and a new blush spreads across them both. Tom McMann sets his briefcase down in the gravel and mumbles, "Jesus Christ."
The woman passes the officer leaning against the second cruiser with the blanket and fire extinguisher, glances at him, and begins to whimper. She is a heavy woman in blue stretch pants, and her brown hair is short and stringy. She changes her direction and backs onto the short stretch of lawn between the sidewalk and the side of the church. There, she falls to her knees. The officer in the shadows creeps towards her from behind. The woman lowers her head between her legs. Her shoulders are shaking. She drops the lighter and can, which tips over, pouring gasoline onto to the thick, browning grass. The officer in the shadows quickly handcuffs the woman behind her back. His partner puts the blanket over her shoulders. They lead her to the approaching cruiser, which has come to a stop. The officer in the passenger seat helps her into the back. Then they make a U-turn to Maple, left towards downtown, fast but without a siren.
The remaining officers carry the gas can and lighter to the second cruiser, climb inside, and leave in the opposite direction. The crowd drifts off. In a matter of minutes, the street is again empty, still. The afternoon entering evening is like any other.
Nell walks quickly down one set of steps and up another into her home. Her mother is sitting tilted in her recliner staring at the TV with the volume turned off. Nell sets the three-hole punch on the coffee table. Before going into the kitchen, she straightens her mother's glasses, which have fallen askew. She heats leftover pork and beans in the microwave while she opens a small can of Mandarin oranges and pours milk into a cup with a toddler's lid for sipping. She takes silverware from a drawer and a bib off the hook that also holds dishtowels. She puts everything on a tray table and carries it into the front room. She sits on a straight-backed chair and begins to feed her mother. The bib has a sailboat on it. Every time her mother opens and closes her mouth, Nell does the same.
Next door, Mrs. de la Madrid snores quietly. The boy tenderly rubs the younger daughter's shoulder and thinks about what it would feel like to tell someone you loved her. Crickets hum. Mr. de la Madrid plays his favorite strain, his lips trembling as he does.
Tom McMann sets his briefcase down inside the back door. His family is already at the table. They look at one another.
He asks, "Did anyone see what just happened?"
They think he is making reference to the bikes in the driveway, so they all lower their eyes. When they do, he thinks they saw the woman, as well. He shakes his head slowly. After a moment, his wife shakes her head, too. The boys frown and shrug sheepishly.
The old man passes the empty unit, then slowly climbs the steps to his own. He hangs his jacket and the dog's leach carefully on a hook inside the door. The dog curls up in his basket by the foot of the stairs. The old man's new library book lies ready on his red easy chair lit with a globe of light from the standup lamp that has a paper shade. He touches the heavy book delicately with his fingertips, then goes into the kitchen to make soup.
Outside, it's become full dark. Three two-family homes: one brown, one green-gray, another faded pink. Surrounded by fading light. In the midst of lovely music from a violin. A neighborhood like any other: full of interludes, a symphony in and of itself. Never ending. Even late at night, the homes still and dark, the wall of the church full dark, the dim streetlamps dotting the darkness, it's like a beautiful single note being played: lifting, discordant, trembling to be joined by other instruments, to begin again at the break of day.
William Cass has had a little over ninety-five short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions in Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California.
This story originally appeared in Bellowing Ark (2001)