I couldn’t possibly have known that Ava’s mother would pick this night for a surprise visit. Predictable she’s always been, paying special heed to my warnings that it’s not a good idea for someone her age to drive. She’s eighty-six.
I have to place her there now, however, deep within that whole mottle of confusing events, that soft slide from infamy to tragedy. Had it not been for Ava’s mother, I would only have had to deal with the infamy.
Many years ago I confessed to Ava that I felt quite guilty because I didn’t like her mother very much. In one of those moments, however, that brought a measurable strengthening to our marriage, Ava said, “It’s all right. I don’t, either.”
Do I have it down right, I ask myself as I try to reconstruct what should have been a simple, if boorish, lack of etiquette? Is this how it truly was?
Night after night with our two houses deep in the woods Ava and I heard them fighting. We heard the most terrible of all languages: the argot of the violent marriage.
Curiosity stands in front of me like a dark horse with no rider, but I tell myself – This is what we, my wife and I, want to hear: the sweet music of troubles that touch us not at all.
We heard the blows, too – slaps, punches, kicks, thumps, whacks – and like most fights I’ve ever encountered (people sometimes surprised when I say this) I know the physical damage from those blows is most likely minimal, the spiritual damage incalculable. Still, this commotion puzzles me and puzzles Ava, my partner of some forty years. A pleasant life, whether achieved or not, is such a simple goal that it’s astounding how these (as yet) unseen neighbors seem to seek out a phenomenal amount of pain. We don’t, however (this the dark horse, the riderless horse), want it to stop.
Our intrusion, we tell ourselves, will be like a plastic spoon in a pot of boiling soup. We might be seen for only an instant, but then we’ll be everywhere. These are difficult thoughts; still, it is a genuine worry that someone is being brutalized over there. We are the neighbors. We have obligations.
A hot summer night. Black shoe polish covers our naked bodies. Tonight we are going to go over there. We are going to be covert, clandestine – purest of the pure peepers. For days both of us have been referring to it as a mission, as something fraught with danger.
“We’ve never been into ‘fraught’ before,” Ava says.
I laughed at that and explained to Ava how we’d be wearing only shoe polish and boots.
“Detection, of course, we need to worry about that. We’ll be inserting ourselves into the sort of domestic imbroglio even the police fear.”
“They do?” Ava said.
“A family’s quarrel is never predictable,” I said. “The cops know that. It’s like trying to tell a stranger in the park to stop spanking her naughty child.”
At Ava’s request, we spend a good hour one afternoon slapping each other around – needing the feel of it, the tension, the fear so that if there should be physical contact during our intrusion there need not be panic. Neither of us have ever struck the other before, so the exercise is strictly pedagogical. Oddly, it’s that boundless love we feel for each other that makes our blows real – true stingers, bruisers. A minor cut on my chin is blamed on her engagement ring. We both know, however, that genuine training never tolerates holding back.
We make love after that exercise, though, with both of us surprised over how nicely even that phony violence segued into the dominance of penetration and selfish pleasures.
I decide that someday I’ll ask Ava if she’d like to try that slap-dancing on a regular basis. I decide as well that it won’t be a day anytime soon.
A fact or two? We’ve owned our house but a short time. The day we moved in we noticed what we hadn’t noticed when we evaluated the house for purchase: the place next door viewed through a hundred feet of scraggly trees and brush. Our house cost three-hundred and fifty-thousand dollars and the kindest, most generous assessment of our neighbors was an agreed upon “white trash.”
That didn’t come out sounding very progressive, very liberal, which is the spot Ava and I occupy during long conversations on politics and all the things that are wrong with the world. Normally, I’m good at extolling the rights of the poor and the disadvantaged, while Ava enjoys parsing out the evils of big everything: corporations, governments, insensitive institutions, even hamburgers.
It is not hard, I discover, for an opinion to be shaped by house payments that will extend well into retirement, chits weighing in at sixteen-hundred and eighty-seven dollars a month. I remember that first teaching job where my monthly take-home was in the range of eight-hundred dollars a month. One time, jokingly, I told Ava I thought it would be much more meaningful for people to track their lives using the Consumer Price Index instead of birthdays. Ava didn’t think that was very funny.
Anyway, who doesn’t make the assumption (always mistaken) that the higher the price of anything the nearer you should be to perfection?
No (this, the notion of white trash), in my walks or a few hesitant drive-bys I’ve seen no dead cars in their front yard, no dead washing machines or stoves on the porch, no half-naked kids with jelly-smeared faces running around, no empty oil drums, no wash on a line left to dry for days at a time. It’s a thought that disturbs, not some junkyard actuality: I think we are, by any measure, better than they are. The first time that thought surfaced both Ava and I rolled our eyes at each other in guilt – the liberal’s classical downplaying of achievements butting up against folk with no achievements to downplay. Accuracy, however, trumps guilt every time, especially once we realized that the sounds of conflict we were hearing had nothing to do with the rational discussion of issues. Our neighbors, we could only guess, were kicking each other’s ass.
Ava began a letter to her mother one time like this:
Why did you always tell me I was no better than anyone else?
A cool reconnoiter, then, one afternoon (without shoe polish).
In various testing situations it would be called a dry run. I’m carrying a small basket, as is Ava, so that , if we’re somehow spotted by snoopy neighbors wondering about their snoopy neighbors, a story is readily available, something about looking for buckeyes and acorns.
“That’s an acceptable story,” Ava said.
“Newcomers, right?” I said. “Those city folk who bought that low-slung, single-story dream of brick and stucco with marble flooring and three walk-in showers.”
“Where’s our third shower?” Ava said.
“In the garage,” I said, “handy for the mechanic or the gardener. Anyway, why wouldn’t we be out exploring the woods, the creek, the flora, the fauna …”
“No flora and fauna talk,” Ava said. “Every time you do that we lose another neighbor. But, okay, our little baskets give us a story. You ready?”
I didn’t think all the brush and undergrowth would be as thick as it was, as snarly and prone to grabbing at our feet. Though we move slowly, we still trip and each of us falls at least once – onto a mushy cake of rotted leaf. Nor is our progress as soundless as I might have hoped so I make a note to myself that I’ll put in a small notebook later on: We should only do this on a windy night since complete silence is not possible in the brush.
After that first reconnoiter I said to Ava, “We seek nothing from them, yet our plan is to violate their intimacy, cruel though that intimacy often sounds.”
“Are you feeling guilty?” Ava asks.
“I live for guilt,” I say.
“You do?” Ava asks.
“It’s one of America’s most prized virtues,” I say.
“Speaking of which …” Ava begins.
“Guilt? Are we speaking of guilt?”
“I’ve begun to masturbate over images of what we might see,” Ava says.
“You’ve never struck me as an image person,” I tell her.
“I have an imagination, you know,” Ava says.
“No insult intended, honey,” I say. “But like what? What sorts of images?”
“Odd things,” Ava says, “a hapless woman slapped to the ground; sheer poverty causing dirty, unbathed people to tear at each other; of children (perhaps) viewing the savagery of a parent’s love gone terribly bad.”
“You find all of that sexual?” I say. “Sexually arousing?”
“Especially the man with the swollen eye, a bloody eye with all the worries that blindness can bring. A lot of women have fantasies about fucking a blind man.”
“I think it’s because to a blind man you’ll always be infinitely beautiful,” Ava says.
“Where is all that coming from?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “They’re only images, mostly vaginal in origin, masturbatory. How much of my telling do you think you can stand?”
I don’t know how to answer that question.
Sounds, finally. Domestic clicks and clatters. I can see that Ava wants to get closer, as do I, but this bit of woods is thinning out as we approach the neighbor’s house and detection becomes an issue.
Although this test run has us dressed in yard clothes – tough denims, flannel, heavy boots – a hard annoyance surfaces in the presence of bugs: small gnats, mosquitoes, flies, ladybug beetles.
Ava looks over at me and mouths the words, bug repellant. Had I a little more experience at this benevolent stalking I might have thought of that ahead of time. Still, I make a mental note to add bug repellant to the gear, along with an insightful footnote as to whether or not the bug repellant could interact with the shoe polish. I think of all of this as team details to be shared later:
“Perhaps the shoe polish itself will act as a repellant,” Ava suggests.
“Or we could just wear dark clothes,” I say. “I believe we have dark clothes – sweaters, jeans, gloves.”
“Too hot, darling. We’d sweat like pigs in a blanket.”
“I think we’ll be all right with what we’ve planned. Do you think there might be snakes in the woods?
“Nothing poisonous,” Ava says. “I’m sure of that. We’ll just have to keep our legs together.”
I think about that for a moment. We?
It is afternoon now, but at night the bugs will be worse. I don’t know that we had much of an actual plan for this first foray into neighborly spying, but clearly caution, as we creep nearer and nearer, was not part of it. Still, even with all the twisted, tangled, gnarly old growth a view, not a vision, emerges. A girl not yet of teen years, jeans and panties dropped down to her feet, stands near the house with both a sullen yet curious look on her face.
Her father, or at least an older man with grayish hair in a ponytail, a bushy mustache, is next to her, his words not quite intelligible at this distance. I wonder for a moment about what laws might exist concerning the witnesses to incest. Do we charge forth screaming, “Perversion!” or “Lunacy! Unhand the child!”? Or would it be better to wait until we’re safely home and place an anonymous call to the incest authorities? It seems a complicated subject.
We simply saw the child standing there with her drawers dropped. The older man – uncle, father, brother? What might we have known and when might we have known it? – open-mouthed in wonder over the child’s exposed genitals. Thus were borne out the original suspicions and the very reason for this risky spying gambit. But to help? What could we do? What could anyone do?
The older man, however, hands the girl something and then she talks. He gestures. She shrugs her shoulders, steps away from the jeans and panties on the ground, and then moves quickly to install that elastic precursor to the thong panty (I try to keep up on things), and then the sanitary pad. Apparently, an hygienic teaching moment has just taken place – a small stereotype mildly shaken since in my experience it has always been mothers performing such duties. I’ll have to ask Ava if she recalls any friends from years ago whose fathers took on that explanatory duty. With the child fully dressed, then, the father hugs her and they return to the house.
If that moment gave some color, perhaps a humanistic beige, to a family I’d been seeing in a black-and-white quirkiness, nothing much in my opinion actually changes. It simply seems a loose outfit, very loose. Even a gutter has become detached from the eave and droops toward the ground, grassy ground that hasn’t been mowed in a long time.
Of abuse, however, the subject is not yet closed as Ava comes over to my side and whispers, “That girl will be humiliated in her first gym class.”
“Why is that?” I ask, fairly certain of Ava’s answer (again, I try to keep up on things).
“Young girls these days,” Ava begins, “if they don’t use tampons they use panty liners.”
That was not a point I could argue either as to accuracy or equipment, so I said the only thing that came to my mind, “I don’t think they have gym anymore, Ava.”
Quite honestly, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw that our neighbors didn’t seem the sort who had credit cards or health insurance was “meth lab,” the neighborhood nemesis of choice these days. Official bodies around the country marshal all sorts of resources to combat “this scourge,” regardless of whether or not there happens to be anyone actually doing that in a given area. Law enforcement prides itself on proactivity, especially after the fact.
Still, who hasn’t seen the pictures? Malnourished bodies; pocked and scabby faces; bad teeth, thin and straggly hair – portraits of lives lived on the serrated edge of time. In my younger years, the worries didn’t seem quite so complicated. Would Uncle Jim ever stop drinking? He’s just killing himself, I remember someone saying, though he didn’t. In fact, in no time at all Uncle Jim was bragging about this six-month chunk of sobriety or that eighteen month ride on the wagon. Not every “Uncle Jim” made it, of course, but at least there was usually something besides “drank until his broken heart exploded” to put on the death certificate.
Pumped with virtue a few days later, I summoned up the muse of research one morning and discovered a few things. Even the White House, surprisingly, seemed worried:
Chronic methamphetamine abuse can lead to psychotic behavior including intense paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and out-of-control rages that can result in violent episodes. Chronic users at times develop sores on their bodies from scratching at ‘crank bugs,’ which describes the common delusion that bugs are crawling under the skin. Long-term use of methamphetamine may result in anxiety, insomnia, and addiction.
Having noticed nothing in there about intrusive neighbors, I decided to take a nap and was quickly joined in bed by Ava. Having passed middle age, including menopause, and having a sperm count that now numbers in the single digits, the two of us had begun finding renewed pleasure not only in these bodies that are sometimes cranky, certainly quite often stiff, but also in a strange sharing of moods, terrors, slimmed-down dreams. On the other hand, no turf is as finite as the sexual turf, and we felt sometimes like explorers in a land we’d never been to before, finding the breast, sans vision, as much handle as it is transport, and discovering that the penis, vagina, armpit, anus, foot, knee, neck, lips, ears, mouth, ankle, and navel are mere soldiers to be deployed toward an uncertain victory.
Mostly, though, that one afternoon, I felt somewhat snarky, even vicious, as I thought of the two of us lying there having fun while only a few feet away our neighbors lived in fear of strangers who might come down the driveway. Open-minded liberals, don’t you know, when they go bad they go bad all the way.
Henry? Who might that be? Do you want me to get the shotgun?
Oh hell no, Lulu, it’s just them new neighbors come to pay us a call. You know, the ones we hear fucking all the time.
Anyway, not yet having gotten a close view of those folks, I had no idea what sort of profile they might match.
“Ava?” I said one time.
“We could always just invite them over for bratwurst and sweet corn on the grill,” I said. “Maybe some beer or iced tea and then a little bocce ball or croquet.”
“Neighbors do that,” Ava said. “It’s part of the contract process.”
Confused by that, I said, “Contract process?”
“You know,” she began, “those necessary reassurances that they aren’t going to burn down your house as you sleep or kill and eat your cat.”
“We don’t have a cat,” I said.
“Which is why you find out during such moments about all the years spent in Rotary or Kiwanis, or who has a talent for making quilts to be donated to church sales, the pro bono legal work done for single mothers lean on hope, all the hours spent as election judges, soccer referees, classroom volunteers, book club members. It’s all about trust.”
“I don’t trust them,” I said, “which is why we have this project going.”
“Of course,” she said, “but you brought it up – entertainment as an alternative to snooping.”
“The snooping’s more fun,” I said.
“Especially if you don’t really want them to be decent, trustworthy people.”
I wonder if I’ve always been as malicious as Ava made it sound.
Ava, checking weather forecasts and moon cycles, picks a night for our grand assault: dry and a bit breezy, moonless.
“Make-up time,” I said shortly after we’d finished supper.
Anticipating a messy business, I have the shoe polish and bug repellant sitting on a small bench at the far end of our yard. I feel a sexy rush as we both strip down and help coat each other with shoe polish in the unreachable places, but the stinky polish and the bug repellant quickly trim my ardor. Just as well.
While the night was chosen by Ava, it’s ironic that, as we get ourselves ready, we hear noises, voices, from through the woods – point, no counterpoint (yet): “Don’t hit me again, you pigfucker!”
“Could be descriptive,” I say to Ava.
“Oh let’s not get into that,” she says. “I’m not sure I’m ready for deviant sexuality. Let’s stick with …”
“Children caught up in a family web of illegal drug making?” I say.
“… simple righteousness,” Ava says.
Then I have an odd thought as I say, “Did it ever occur to you that neighbors can do anything in the privacy of their own homes?”
“Absent their neighbors,” she says, “who might be incredibly nosey.”
“Mount up, trooper,” I say.
Under way. Heavy boots. Naked bodies coated with black polish and sprayed with insect repellant. Nothing more need be said about the total outrageousness of this venture. That has long since been talked away. Not everything, I tell myself, can be resolved by a call to Family Services or a letter to the editor.
In case of unplanned doings we each carry – taped against the small of our backs – a Motorola walkie-talkie with rechargeable batteries.
I lead the way and Ava doesn’t mind, our roles, our power relationship, not an issue in this project. In a few moments, anyway, we’ll spread out just a bit. After that, we lay on the ground and crawl, the soft, wet muck a reminder of how the land here slopes on down to a swampy creek. Oddly, I can feel the sweat on my back from the hot night, and an incipient hypothermia in my belly at the same time.
Ava looks over at me, smiles and whispers, “Intrigue.”
Quite honestly, as we neared their house I wasn’t ready for that first sighting, a disturbing moment: That man again, in the yard next to the front porch, the woman on the porch near the rail, near him. With one hand he gestures in harmony to his words, while the other is clenched tightly around the woman’s throat. Repeatedly, he releases his grip, drops his arm to his side, then seizes her throat again. She appears angry, disgusted with his maneuvers, but she doesn’t move.
Ava whispers to me, “They look healthy, not like druggies.”
I smile to myself in the dimness over Ava’s slang, then both of our bodies jerk, shudder in the muck as a scream emerges from the front door followed by a young woman and then another young woman, neither of whom is the young girl I remembered from the practice run, the one being taught certain sanitary practices.
Still, a familiarity in voice and obscenity begins to emerge. The man and woman near the porch stand and watch (that hand no longer on the woman’s throat), but they make no comments nor do they move to stop the scene – fighting, purely that. Fists are clenched and there is punching with blood being drawn from an eyebrow here, a split lip there. Images of “girly” fights fade as these two sisters (I assume) square off in the postures of experienced fighters. Equality reigns for a short time, then a blow is struck to the stomach of one, followed by a fist to the face. There is staggering but her opponent does not let up. Her eyes, her glance seems to land on both of us but there is no danger of detection. What she sees is the past. She sees memories, visions unblurred by swollen eyes. Perhaps she is watching television or remembering a party, a night at a fun club, a confession to a priest that filled her with the airy ecstasy of redemption.
“Sibling rivalry,” I whisper to Ava, who only says, “Those are not good parents.”
When the one girl is finally pummeled into unconsciousness, the other picks her up in her arms and – “Oh, shit,” I whisper, my words echoed precisely by Ava – carries her to within a scant few feet of Ava and myself. With a loud barking, screaming, breathy oomph, she throws the girl into the woods, a bare leg and dirty foot butting right up against both of our foreheads, the sole of that foot suddenly shiny with the soft glow of shoe polish. Even knowing this family evidences scant affection, the idea that one (at least) of those parents might step over to help the unconscious girl sends us scooting backward on our bellies, our progress unheard as the upright girl begins screaming excuses and explanations to the parents.
Well-distanced finally, and something deep inside wanting to come out as laughter, we get to our feet and finish the trek through the woods to home.
I couldn’t possibly have known that Ava’s mother would pick this night for a surprise visit. She isn’t even supposed to be driving because of her eyes, let alone right up the circular driveway and into the magnificent span of thermopane that fronts the living room. I assume (later, when assumptions and guesses can be made) that she mistook the gas pedal for the brake or the brightly lit window for some marvelous entrance into an unspoken glory. It hardly takes much reading of the newspapers to know it happens all the time and makes for interesting copy, the actual news stories always followed by long sidebars on senior citizens “on the road” and the heartbreak of turning in that final driver’s license. At least she didn’t wipe out half a dozen people in a convenience store. Anyway, Ava and I were finished by that time, so all we really had to do was to look in wonder at each other as the reality of crushed wallboard, broken glass, torn wiring, and shattered brick sank in.
Covered with mud, shoe polish, bits of branch, muck (and, as I, but not Ava, will later discover, the essence of poison ivy), we stare wordlessly at the nearly-new Cadillac piercing the house.
Thankfully still hidden, I also notice the police car with its lone officer standing and trying to figure out where to begin what needs to be begun.
Ava’s mother – neither of us emotionally close to her, Ava especially for reasons usually outlined only in journals that are eventually thrown away – is draped partly through the passenger window of the car and not moving at all. What’s a little confusing at that moment is how the police might have been called. Our house and our neighbor’s no-longer-drug house are the only houses on a long, curving cul de sac so it wasn’t as though some other neighbors might have heard something.
“Oh,” I finally say. “That’s right.”
“What?” Ava says.
“She has, the Caddy has, one of those global locater things on it. I think it even informs some office somewhere that a malfunction has taken place.”
“Definitely a malfunction,” Ava says.
Ava’s history with her mother is something you delve into only during long dental procedures. It’s not at all dramatic, only a sad tale of selfishness, but it allows us not to go running toward the car and gives us time to assess exactly where we are and how strange we would appear to a country cop. Ava’s mother has achieved her own strangeness but she is in capable hands now.
Quick thinking is required. Clad only in boots and filth, I run through several scenarios as to how we might present ourselves to this officer and the ambulance folks who would still be a good twenty minutes away if the cop had even called them yet.
Several days later I wrote a poem (speaking of journals that ought someday to be thrown away) trying to pin down the chaos of thought that wrapped into my head that night like a spider web in a wind:
We could sneak into the garage, spill some paint on ourselves, and
Lie down near some wreckage as though we’d been in the garage
And simply got garishly waylaid by this stupendous accident.
We could go around back, sneak into the house, grab some bottles
Of booze and, after tossing them around our bedroom, lie on the
Bed and look simply drunk, passed out after a session of really
Dirty – as in clumps, clusters, fragments – sex.
Perhaps we could make it into the bathroom and the shower and
Actually get a good bit of this gunk off before the officer found
Us and informed us that our raunchy bit of bathing had prevented
Us from hearing a quite nasty bit of circumstance involving our house.
Not much of a rhyme scheme but its power lay within its truth. Like some old time comic caught in a bind I entertained every possibility except the most obvious one. That option, however, did pop up after only a few moments.
Simply put, we walked out of the woods then and up to the house, the car, the officer. After giving the officer – a woman of about forty with dark, braided hair – a moment to place us somewhere in her gallery of oddities, I explained to her that we’d been hearing a lot of fighting next door and had decided to camouflage ourselves and sneak through the woods to observe and see what was going on; hence, “Our appearance, ma’am. We are a mess as you can clearly see. But we were worried about a whole bagful of things – drugs, incest, domestic abuse.”
The officer says she knows the family and seems satisfied with my explanation. She quickly turns back to the wreckage.
I’ve always found the truth to be quite workable.
Sadly, Ava’s mother is dead.