I discovered a deck of naked playing cards wrapped in a red rubber band a few weeks before. Somebody just left them there on the picnic table like a gift. Images of naked women were usually hard to come by. Some of the other kids in Trafford stole Hustlers from the 7-11 and I was lucky if they’d let me catch a glimpse of those glossy pages. Most ended up confiscated and trashed by concerned parents before I received a second look.
I found them on a Saturday. The playground was empty, the basketball court cracked and crumbled from the hard winter. A bare maple tree no higher than a toddler stood behind the memorial plaque for the kid who died after that car hit him while skateboarding. The town dedicated the playground in his memory. I didn’t know him.
There’d be weeds shooting up through those cracks soon enough and the court would be full of two on two games that went late into the evening. I looked over my shoulder and slipped the cards into my coat pocket. I wasn’t interested in basketball.
I walked the side streets and alleys where the fenced off backyards were patches of mud. Growling dogs and power tools and car batteries waited behind the chain links. I stopped briefly at St. Regis, where I went to school, and considered chucking the cards down the sewer out of guilt. But I didn’t. A wind chime hung in the window of the rectory.
Across the street from our house lay a patch of woods that ran up a hill and flattened into a small clearing. The whole of Trafford spread into full view from that point. Through tree branches, I gazed down on the town and felt like I was its puppet master, manipulating cars that crossed the bridge in and out of town. Hung up by invisible strings, Trafford moved with the flick of my wrists.
I grew bored of that fantasy. The cards were important. I flipped through them once. And then I flipped through them again. The naked women on the backs were partially dressed in a western motif with rhinestone chaps. Several of them held lassos in provocative poses. The background was a desert scene with painted cacti and sand. The model on the ace of clubs struck me. She wore this cowboy hat that pushed her teased blonde hair out and down over her shoulders. Her breasts with pink nipples popped out of the fringed blue vest. Her green eyes were glassed over. Her legs were spread over a hay bale and between them a mound of blond pubic hair sparkled in the camera light.
The wind pushed an empty beer can through the brush. The houses on this part of Homewood Avenue were identical except for the colors. Our neighbor, an elderly woman named Irene, lived in a gray one. Irene dragged a garbage bag out her front door, her hair slicked down. She struggled with the load. With one final pull, the bag ripped and left a trail of men’s shoes and collared shirts behind her, but she didn’t bother to pick them up. She walked back through them and slammed the door. Shirts and shoes poured out onto the sidewalk.
I slipped the ace into my pocket and dug a nice sized hole in the soft mud to bury the rest. They would no doubt rot in the muck but I kept what was important with me. I wiped my hands clean on a patch of wet grass and weaved through the trees to the bottom. My tennis shoes scraped across the black cinder that had been kicked up from between the bricks on our street. I piled the clothes and shoes on the sidewalk by Irene’s porch. Every light in her house burned, every window illuminated. Her television was turned to full blast and the dialogue from the console speaker bled through the windows. The clothes smelled of mothballs and cedar. I left them in a heap at her door.
Irene’s boyfriend had died in his sleep. He died in her bed. Shortly after the funeral, she started breaking into our house. We never kept the front door locked. My father found her snoring on our couch a few times when he got up for work. He’d wake her up and guide her back. We thought this was funny when it started. My mother told everyone she knew.
You’ll never believe this, but we have this crazy lady next door who…
That’s how her stories began.
Then it kept happening. And happening. With more frequency. Irene let herself into our house on a daily basis. This was part of the morning routine.
Evenings we ate at the dining room table, my father, mother, and I. Into our mouths we forked macaroni and cheese with ground beef, what my mother called Homemade Hamburger Helper. The grease pooled in the cheese sauce. My mother never drained the beef, and I hated it. But I didn’t have a choice. At the table, my father wore his work denims and his tattered blue USA emblazoned ball cap. He wore it from the time he woke up in the morning until he went to bed. I cleared my plate while my parents moved on to cigarettes and coffee. Mom did menthols while dad puffed the more manly full-flavored like a locomotive.
“She’s just sick, Ray,” my mother said to him. She pulled the glass ashtray to the center of the table. Gray hairs spread out from the part in the middle of her worn-out perm. She was due for another dye job. “That’s all. Just sick. She’s not hurting anyone.”
“We got a kid,” my father said. He pointed toward me with his thumb. “What if she comes in here with a butcher’s knife? Then what?”
My mother sighed. She pushed her empty plate toward me.
“Clear the table,” she said to me, “and load the dishwasher. I bought a half gallon of Neapolitan. Help yourself after you load the dishwasher.”
I jumped up and grabbed our plates and headed for the kitchen.
“And don’t just scoop out the chocolate,” my father said. “I hate when you do that.”
I laid the dishes in the sink and pelted them with hot water. My parents continued arguing in the dining room.
“She’s not going to come in here with a butcher’s knife, Ray,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s not stupid,” he said. “It’s not hard to imagine really.”
The grease ran off the plates in sheets and swirled down the drain. Bits of ground beef stuck in the strainer. I gently rubbed the residue off the forks with my fingers and a thin layer congealed on the tips. Water beaded on my hands like rain on a freshly waxed car.
“What we should do is get a hold of her family,” my mother said. “Let them take care of her.”
I opened the dishwasher and loaded the forks and plates, and the morning coffee mugs, and everything else from the sink. The detergent poured swiftly out of the box and bits of soap scattered on the tile. I closed the door and flipped the switch.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” my father said. “I’m not saying I don’t agree with that. But we’re locking her out.”
We had no clean bowls. All that was left in the cupboard was an empty Cool Whip container. I took the half gallon and scooped the chocolate.
“For Christ’s sake, Ray.”
I took my ice cream and walked past them. They sat on opposite sides of the table. Spent cigarettes smoldered in the ashtray. The acrid smoke hung between them. My mother flipped through a pile of junk mail, while my father tapped his fingers on the coffee mug.
“Karen,” he said. “I’m locking that damn door tonight.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”
Not long after, my mother went upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom. The running bathwater echoed through the house. My father sat in the sun porch on a wicker chair and watched a talk show on the small black and white television, his bare feet propped up on an orange milk crate. He finished the last of his beer and turned the television off. At the front door, he stopped, and craned his head around the corner.
“Paul,” he said. “What’re you still doing up? Isn’t it time for bed?”
“Dad,” I said, “what’s wrong with Irene?”
I didn’t understand her. The light at the top of the stairwell formed deep shadows under his eyes. He pulled his cap off and rubbed his forehead, his hands cracked and chapped. My father struggled for an answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. His belt hung unbuckled from his waist. It jingled when he walked.
At the door, he stopped and peered up the stairs. Then he turned the bolt and yanked on the door.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he said. “Now go to bed.”
Before I went to sleep, I retrieved that ace of clubs card out of my dresser drawer. It wasn’t the allure of naked flesh that drew me, but the alien nature of the woman on the back of the playing card. There weren’t women who looked like that in Trafford. Women like that lived somewhere, but not where I lived. They were real, but impossibly real, like a picture of a tropical paradise landscape on the back of a postcard or in a picture book. There really was water that blue and vegetation that lush and sand that inexplicably white. The water of home ran a murky brown and the sand of the state park beaches were full of rocks and bottle caps. I pushed the card deep into the drawer and crawled under the blankets.
I don’t know how much time had passed when the glass shattered. I got up and went to my bedroom door. The lights flipped on in my parents’ room. My father came out carrying the baseball bat he kept by his bed and wore nothing but his underpants and his blue cap. A piece of lint dangled from the hair on his stomach. An unlit cigarette danced between his lips.
“Go to bed,” he said. He poked my chest with the bat. “Everything’s fine.”
The steps groaned under his weight. He moved slowly and held the bat cocked above his head. His figure disappeared into the dark living room. I ran back into my bedroom and waited for something to happen. My father ran up the stairs and into their bedroom. He shut the door, but the light and his voice carried out through the crack at the bottom. I crept out to listen.
“Call an ambulance,” my father said. “I’ll get dressed and try and do something. But call someone.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Just hurry,” he said. I heard his belt buckle jingle. “It’s Irene.”
“What?” my mother said. I heard her push the blankets aside and jump off the bed.
I scattered down the steps and around the corner. The night air that blew through the shattered window made the living room cold like a meat locker. Irene lay face up on the carpet. Her mouth hung open. Cuts marked her arms and hands and forehead. The blood ran down her arms and face and soaked into the carpet. She had used her hands to break through. Broken glass littered the living room. Her hooded sweatshirt lifted and bared her stomach. Red lines ran up it.
My father’s hand pulled me back.
My mother grabbed the phone off the receiver and dialed. Her heavy steps caused the good china on the curio to shake. The matching mugs that hung on the hooks clinked together.
“Go to bed,” my father said. “Now.”
My mother talked to a dispatcher on the cordless. “Our neighbor broke into our house,” she said. “Yeah. No, no. She’s cut up pretty bad. You need to send someone.”
My father walked out into the cold air and lit a cigarette. He leaned against the porch and waited. My mother hung up the phone. I wanted to do something, but there was nothing to be done. I remembered how Irene used to invite me into her house when I was a kid and pour me a glass of milk with Nesquik so old it didn’t dissolve. I drank it anyway. She used to come around the house in late summer with handfuls of plump tomatoes and just walk in the screen door and lay them on our table. This wasn’t out of the ordinary. It’s what neighbors did. People trusted one another.
“Go upstairs,” my mother said to me. “You shouldn’t see this.”
“Will she be okay?” I asked. “Will Irene be okay?”
“Ray,” she shouted, “tell your kid to go back upstairs.”
“Will she be okay?” I asked again. I started up the stairs.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Just go on.”
I lingered on the steps as my mother walked into the living room.
“God,” she said. “My God.”
My father walked out to the sidewalk and peered down the hill, searching for the ambulance. My mother came to the door.
“Ray? Ray? Do you see anything? Is anyone coming?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s coming. The ambulance is coming.”
He flagged down the ambulance with his cap.
When Irene’s family put the house up for sale, my mother stopped telling stories about her. My father stopped talking. We ate dinner in front of the television and then my father would get in his car and drive away. For a while, my mother crouched on her knees with bottles of foul smelling solvents and a scrub brush to try and get rid of the stains on the carpet, but her efforts just turned the red blood a dark, slightly faded brown against the beige. My father came home late at night. I’d hear him while I was in bed. He’d gently shut the door and crawl up the stairs. They’d talk in their room, argue mostly. Their muffled voices carried through their door and filled the house.
I’d go to the ace of clubs in my dresser drawer. The other cards were buried in the muck, but I didn’t care. I made her come to life. Her smooth breasts inches above my face. The soft skin of her inner thighs wrapped around my torso pulled me through to an alternate universe where there was all pleasure and no pain. And nobody died and nobody went nuts. The doors never locked and nobody argued.
Her hot breath haunted my neck. The blond hair fell down on my face as she threw off that silly cowboy hat and tossed her head forward. This woman existed somewhere. And as my parents aired their grievances with each other through the night and into the morning, I wanted nothing more than to be where she was.