Mostly, we minded our own business. But when the bungalow across the street had a moving van in front of it, of course I took note. It had been empty for over a year. The last family had left in a rush. We heard the father had kidnapped his children, but the mother had finally located them. The man and his second wife left the neighborhood soon thereafter. I think some of the kids on the block thought the house was haunted. Or cursed. It was made out of brick, but the second story had a white wood balcony that came to a point at the roof. The house stood back away from the street and had some reedy poplars and fir trees partly obscuring its view.
The day after the moving van, I saw smoke coming from the chimney. It was brisk for October, and the wood smoke mingled with the smell of overturned soil and dusty leaves. The wind had picked up so I decided to delay my outside chores and to drink another cup of coffee. Later, I saw my neighbor Russ out raking leaves, and decided to do the same.
“I see you’ve got a new neighbor across the street,” said Russ, raising his voice over the wind.
“Looks like it,” I said. “I haven’t seen them yet, though.”
“It’ll be good to have someone in that house again,” he said, but added, “As long as we like ‘em.” He laughed.
Russ and I spent a companionable two hours raking leaves and getting the yards ready for the winter ahead. I put my boat up on blocks with Russ’s help, dragged a tarp over it, and backed it into my garage.
“Lucky thing I have you as a neighbor, Russ,” I said. I was feeling particularly warm towards him and the block that day, its neat rows of ranch and two-story limestone houses overlooking our quiet street. I could see some kids and their dog jumping in piles of leaves further down the street, their shrill voices reaching us only intermittently because of the wind.
“I’d say it’s a lucky thing you have a two-car garage,” Russ said, as we pulled the door down. “I don’t know how you and Cheryl do it with only one car.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “The boat is worth it, I can tell you. And one kid is easier to fit into the backseat than four.” We both laughed at that.
“You got that right,” Russ said. “I knew it was the beginning of the end when we had to get a minivan.”
“Adulthood sucks, don’t it?” I said.
“Yep,” he said. We slapped hands and turned to our respective houses.
“Where’s Britney?” I asked, as I walked into the warmth and quiet of our kitchen.
“Gone to a friend’s for the afternoon,” Cheryl said.
“Guess that leaves just the two of us,” I said, and grabbed her around the waist. She resisted my kiss, and unwound herself from my embrace.
“I’ve got things to do,” she said.
Cheryl opened a can of tomato soup and poured it into a pan on the stove. She pulled saltine crackers from the cupboard, and cottage cheese from the fridge. As the soup heated, she scooped the cottage cheese into two small bowls, and then popped open a can of pineapple and carefully placed two slices on top. She set them on the kitchen table, and went to turn off the stove. As she brought the soup to the table, I noticed some movement at the house across the street. A heavy-set woman of indeterminate age stepped out the side door, and headed to a Honda Civic parked on the street perpendicular to us. She looked neither to the right nor the left as she hurried to her car. Her dirty blonde hair hung straight, except for an errant flip at the ends, as if she had slept on it wrong.
“Look at that,” I said to Cheryl, as she slurped her soup. She looked out the window just as the woman slipped into her car.
“I wonder how old she is. Thirty-five? Forty?”
“Something like that,” I said. “You think she’s got a bun in the oven?”
Cheryl laughed. “No, just fat.”
“Have you seen anyone else?” I asked.
“No. I bet she’s alone.”
“Alone? In that spooky house? She must be crazy.”
“She must be rich,” Cheryl countered.
“Houses on this street aren’t cheap and if she isn’t married, how can she afford it?”
“Good point,” I said.
We went back to our soup and cottage cheese.
October marched on, alternately cool and warm. We also had a lot of rain, and so by the end of the month most of the leaves were already gone. It seemed winter would be premature this year, and I tried not to think of the bleakness of the days ahead. Everyone stuck in their houses for the season. Just me and Cheryl and Britney. I remembered the winter before, and how silent our house had been. It had grated on my nerves. We were all livelier in the summer. I suddenly remembered Cheryl laughing at the neighborhood pool in August. I hadn’t made her laugh; I think it was Britney who had splashed her in the face. But I remembered the laugh. I hadn’t heard that in a while.
As for the woman across the street, we saw her sometimes going in and out, but she never introduced herself. She never did anything in her yard. The leaves remained crinkled and plentiful, blowing around, sometimes into the yard on the other side of her. We noticed a wreath of orange and red bittersweet go up on her front door. Some pumpkins sat on the front steps. In one window, African violets bloomed purple and blue under a grow light.
Russ had asked the mailman the name of the woman. Hannah Miles. The mailman said she was the only one at that address. I wondered about her. I met Russ getting out of his car one evening after work.
“You find her attractive?” I asked him, indicating the house across the street.
“Nah, too fat,” he said.
“I wonder what she does,” I said.
Russ snorted. “I think I know what she does.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh come on Dean. Don’t be so naïve. Haven’t you seen the other cars pull up after work? On the weekends?”
“I guess I haven’t noticed,” I said.
“They’re all women, too,” he said.
“The ones who visit her?”
“Yeah,” he said, and punched my arm. “They’re always gone in the morning, though.” He laughed again.
“You don’t think. . .”
“Yeah, I do think. No, I’m sure of it. Just look at her,” Russ said.
I considered. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said.
“Neighborhood’s going to hell,” Russ said, and shook his head. I wondered if I should tell Cheryl.
I thought of cars pulling up to Hannah Miles’s house. I thought of her opening the door to these women, maybe more than one at a time. I thought about them going to bed. Could this be true, right in our neighborhood? I decided I wouldn’t tell Cheryl.
Halloween fell on a Saturday that year. Britney and her friends decided they would all be Disney princesses and would trick or treat in our neighborhood.
“She wanted to be Jasmine,” Cheryl said, and rolled her eyes.
“I have no idea who that is,” I said.
“The one from Aladdin. I told her she was too slutty.”
“Better you than me,” I said.
“I talked her into Aurora from Sleeping Beauty,” Cheryl said. “Britney has blonde hair, for god’s sake. I told her she would have to be Aurora or Cinderella, those were her choices.”
“Sounds good,” I said, and looked out the kitchen window. The house across the street was lit up – the front porch light on, the pumpkins now with jack-o-lantern faces outlined by candles from within. I saw Britney and her group of friends standing across the street, looking sullenly at Hannah Miles’s house. Quickly, I moved from the kitchen to our front door. I opened it and yelled at them,
“Hey kids, stay to houses that you know. Don’t go to strangers’ houses, ok?”
“Ok Dad,” Britney yelled back at me. They moved to the next house. I saw a face in the window across the street, and we stared at each other until I went inside and shut the door. I went back to the kitchen, watching Britney and her friends go door to door.
“Shouldn’t you go with them?” I said and turned to Cheryl.
“Someone has to answer the door,” she said.
“Ok, I’ll go.” I threw on my jacket and ran to catch up with the girls. Within the hour, the temperature took a dive. It started to snow. At first, it was just wisps of white floating through the air. Then it got heavier, and I could feel the snow plop on my head with a splat, and then drip down my face.
“Let’s call it a night, ok Brit?”
“Ok. This sucks. I can’t believe it’s snowing on Halloween,” Britney said.
“Puts a damper on things, that’s for sure,” I said, as I put an arm around her.
By the time I crawled into bed, the snow lay heavy and wet on the ground, already six inches deep. We would be buried in it by the next day, I thought. I groaned inwardly, thinking of shoveling the walk and the driveway.
I couldn’t sleep. I thought about what Russ had said the other day, about Hannah Miles. I pictured the cars pulling up to her house, young women going inside. I thought about them spending the night. I felt aroused. I reached for Cheryl, curling up to her and kissing the back of her neck. She elbowed me in the ribs.
“Ow!” I said.
“I want to sleep,” she said, enunciating each word separately. I sighed and rolled back over to my side of the bed.
I still couldn’t sleep. It was after midnight. I got up to get a drink of water, and stood looking out our bedroom window. The house across the street was dark. Only the one Honda was parked on the street, covered entirely by snow. I stared at the house. What a bitch, I thought. Living it up over there as if the rest of us didn’t exist. Just keeping her secrets to herself, and not bothering with us. Fucking her lesbian brains out, probably. Suddenly, I was furious. I was so mad I almost dropped the glass of water. I knew I wouldn’t sleep now. I walked across the room, into the hallway, and down the stairs. I knew what I would do. I slipped on my boots over my bare feet, put on my jacket over my pajamas, and grabbed my gloves. I stepped outside. The cold, dry air took my breath away. I walked into the middle of the front yard, the snow coming up to my ankles now. It was the perfect snow for building snow men and snow balls – wet enough to pack tight, but not soggy enough to fall apart or soak your gloves. I made a snow ball, and aimed for the house across the street. I had a good arm, and the snow ball hit a second story window. I wanted to cheer, but instead made another snow ball. This time I packed it tight and then let it sit in my hand so that it would get icy. I aimed for the same window. It hit its mark with a loud smack. In my anger, I was frenzied, packing tight snow balls one after the other and throwing them at the same window. I did it over and over again, until my fury was spent. A light came on in the window I had been targeting. I quickly went back inside. I don’t know what came over me, but I know I felt better. I slept.
The big Halloween snow was a harbinger of things to come. It snowed all through November, heavy wet snows that soaked through boots and gloves, and hurt my back to shovel. One Saturday at the end of the month it seemed like everyone was outside, the adults shoveling yet another round of snow that had fallen the night before, and the children playing tag or building snow men in their front yards. The kids seemed like they never got tired of the snow, but I was pretty sure their parents did.
When it happened, I was leaning on my shovel, talking to Russ. We had seen Hannah Miles leave her house and get into her car. She turned the corner and was passing our house when her car slid to a stop and a scream came from somewhere nearby. Hannah got out of her car and walked to the front of it. We heard her say, “Oh my god, oh my god,” and then she put her hand up to her mouth. Russ and I quickly walked over to where she stood. People from further down the block had also started to gather around her car. Under the front left tire was the body of a black and white cat. We stood around it in silence for a moment, as Hannah sputtered, “I didn’t see it. I couldn’t stop.” From the crowd, a child suddenly screamed, “My cat! It’s George, Mom, oh my god, it’s George.” Kelly, a 10-year-old who lived down the street, pushed to the front of the crowd. Her mother followed closely on her heels, “Oh god, don’t look Kelly, don’t look.” She took her daughter in her arms, turning Kelly’s face away from the mess of blood and intestines and fur.
“Oh god,” the mother said again. “You bitch,” she said as she turned to Hannah Miles. “You careless, careless bitch,” she said as her voice rose.
“I’m so sorry, so sorry. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t stop. . .” Hannah Miles said again.
The crowd pressed closer, and soon everyone was shouting at her. The icy air made the voices seem louder, fiercer. The colors of people’s coats and mittens looked unnaturally bright, as the light from the snow reflected off the fabric. From somewhere, someone lodged a snowball, and it hit Hannah Miles squarely in the face. The crowd grew silent for a moment, but then it’s as if a dam broke, because then several in the crowd were pelting Hannah Miles with snow balls. And shouting. I heard Russ next to me, and even Britney. Where did she come from? I wondered if Cheryl would join in. It was mayhem – people I had known for years leaning over to gather snow, their faces mangled with anger. I don’t know who did it, and it happened so fast, but soon someone was swinging a stick, something that had blown down the night before. I heard it hit Hannah Miles, and then she was down on the ground. The stick hit her face. She looked up then. She looked at all of us, and we grew quiet. Her face was wet, and I wasn’t sure if the water trickling down her face was from the snowballs or from tears. Her lip was bleeding. She looked at us with soft blue eyes, and she said, “What’s wrong with you people?”