The Fiction

Other People‘s Houses

From the Summer, 2019, issue 

(No. 43)

George Pfromm

Sunday, August 21, 1977

The tips of her sneakers drag across the grass, rip at the longest blades, and bring up soil as she brakes. The swing creaks and shakes at the sudden stop, both feet holding themselves tight to the ground like a Roman statue. It is the only sound this Sunday morning. Her house the only house that breathes. It is as if it is the lone survivor of a catastrophic epidemic that swept through the neighbourhood overnight. An alien invasion.

The silence had kept her awake long after her parents ushered the police out, crushed their cigarette butts in the only empty crystal ashtray, and gently told the girls it was time for bed. She had ignored the lull of sleep, stared out the window to the house across the street that still glowed like it was radioactive. That still crawled with police. That still beckoned to her with the simple pulse of a flashlight. This had always been the signal. Certain well-timed pulses of light. She would put her hand up against glass and spread her fingers, so he could see the outline of her hand, a wave. So he knew she was there. This time had been no different, except when the pulses shifted downstairs, then moved across his front lawn to the road. The pulses had come so close, she could smell the heat of the light. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse.

That pulse is now in her ears. She turns in circles, twisting the chains once, twice, three times, till the knot of metal comes up against her chest. Till she is trapped. All she has to do is let go, and she will spiral in the other direction. Come undone. Be free.

Free. He had said something about that last week. Something about getting out. Being his own man. Whatever that meant. “But you’re just a boy,” she had said, immediately regretting it, immediately understanding that such words made her sound like his mother, her mother, every mother on Laurel Drive. But he had smiled and said, “And you’re just a girl.” As if that had meant they were even.

The morning sun revolves around her as she lifts her legs, holds them out straight like a porcelain doll, and spins. Already the heat pinches her skin, and she longs for the coolness of 62 Laurel Drive’s pool, but it had been covered. Someone had made sure of that. She had seen so herself. Because after the pulses of light had died, and the car had slunk out of the driveway like a common thief, she had grown fearful. Something new was wrong. So she had gone downstairs, aware of her mother still up and pacing, but certain she could get past her, certain she could, like the best of ghosts, slip through Angie’s room and out the back door.

The air had been surprisingly cool, and she was struck by how strange it was to be out so early, while the world slept, how thrilling this aberration in routine. She had cursed herself for not taking a cardigan with her as she crossed over the neighbour’s back lawn and kept close to the side of his house, where her mother’s stare could not possibly reach. The goosebumps on her skin came sudden, like sharp pinpricks, like when her mother had her tested for allergies and dots of blood had made a grid on her arm where the doctor had repeatedly pushed the tip of a needle in. She scratched at the memory, at the lingering sting in her arm, as she peeked out to survey the street, up and down, north and south, before darting across and weaving her way through the dark to the Brocks’ fence.

It had been an easy climb, but an awkward landing as she fell hard on her knees. The dew was heavy, and there was upturned soil, so she would have to be careful to wash her skin off later. She got up and inspected the yard, remembered the purple dress, and found it there, still rolled up like a dog’s ball. She held it close, shaking her head at Rob’s foolishness. He had said he’d come back for it. How could he forget? What if the police had found it? Oh God. The police. She had pictured the faces of her parents in shock as the police explained how they found this dress in the backyard, and Rob’s explanation for it being there, of her part in the crime. The disappointment. The confusion. The revulsion. She had shaken the image free, reminded herself that she had the dress now. That no one knew anything.

She had walked over to the deck, which was empty. All the loungers were gone. Why were all the loungers gone? It did not make sense. She had pressed herself up against the sliding doors, tried to see inside, but it was pitch black. She had wondered if maybe the loungers had been stacked just beyond the glass. She also wanted another look at that marvellous kitchen where she never got to bake. Her fingers tried to slide the door open, but it was locked. So, she had slipped back to her own house, but not before checking both mailboxes, because sometimes he left her things there. A crushed flower or blank postcard.

She is spinning again. And as she spins, she sees a figure walking along the grass. The figure evolves in her imagination with every revolution she takes, every flash of flesh her eye can grasp. This is how she sees people now. In pieces.

“Hey, Liv.”

Another drag of her toe and the spinning ceases. Liv looks up. In front of her stands Laura Hearst, hands deep in her pockets, her eyes puffy as if she has been crying.

“Is Angie around?”

Liv shrugs, annoyed at the interruption, and twists the chains again, turning and turning, till the metal structure groans under the pressure.

“Somewhere,” she says, ignoring Laura’s eyes as they survey her like a strict teacher might oversee a final examination. “The door’s probably open.” Liv longs to get rid of her. “Go in if you want.”

But Laura does not move.

And now Liv is trapped, stuck inside her self-imposed prison and the neediness of some silly girl for her friend. She wants to let go, feel the rush when she hangs her head back and points her toes out in a glorious ballerina twirl that will propel her beyond the stratosphere. But she does not like Laura here with her puffy eyes and downcast face, ruining every potential thrill. So she stays inside the knot of chain. Waits.

“Liv?” Her name sounds different in Laura’s mouth, as if the front teeth rest too long on the bottom lip and the V gets drawn out like a vibration. Laura is now seated in the other swing, holding onto the chains with both hands, turned slightly to the left.

Liv does not care to respond, and instead takes a deep breath and inhales the metal’s rusty odour. She casts her eyes to the sky, lifts her feet, then lets go.

“What!” she yells as the chains come apart.

Laura moves back to give Liv room should she flail or propel her legs to the side.

“Friday night. Do you remember? When I saw you?”

There is the sound of water gushing. Or is that blood rushing to her head? She has a momentary sense of panic, of her blood pouring out her ears or out of that grid still visible on her arm, and falling to the grass, making large puddles for jumping in. Liv cannot bear to look at Laura, so she drags herself to a stop and jumps out of the swing.

She prances over to the picnic table where she has left her favourite book, and says, “Yeah, at the party.” She picks up the book and smooths out the cover and its picture of a woman with prickly tree branches for arms and twigs for fingers.

Laura also gets up, drops the swing. She wipes her hands on the back of her jeans and follows Liv’s path to the table while the chain clangs against the metal frame.

“Look, Liv . . .”

But Liv is clutching her book to her chest and kicking at an imaginary spot on the ground.

“Didn’t I say you could go inside?” she says, finally looking up to stare into the pale face in front of her.

Now Laura has to look down, as if afraid.

“Well, yeah, but, I just want to ask you something.” She digs deep again in her pockets for something unseen. Then she says, “How did you know before everyone else?”

Such wide eyes. Liv looks into them. Wide enough to contain things. She remembers, of course. The shock as it buzzed through her heart. The cold smell of Mike’s agony. Rob in his father’s oversized clothes. The gun positioned so neatly. Laura in the street. And now Laura has remembered, knows a thing she should not know. Liv stares beyond Laura to the basement door, wishing it would open and Angie would come out to save her. But it is her mother, yelling through the kitchen window, who is the unlikely heroine.

“Liv! We’re leaving in ten minutes already!”

All Liv can do now is shrug Laura off. “I have to go,” she says and skips away, but not before turning, mid-skip, to call out, in a singsong voice, “See ya later,” as if there had been nothing to this moment. Nothing worth talking about or bringing up ever, ever again.

Laura watches Liv turn the corner and disappear. Everything is disappearing, including this summer, her grip on it, on herself. She walks to the swing and kicks it, hard, considers knocking on Angie’s door, desperate to talk to someone other than her father, a man who does not know how to talk. But then Angie, it seems, does not know how to talk anymore, either. So what is the point if there is no one to listen? She does not knock on the door. Instead, she turns to the cold loneliness of her house, unaware that Judy is still at the window, watching the swing rock violently.

Goldie is the first out of the car. She runs to the front door and hangs off the doorknob, yelling, “I have to go!” to the twilight.

Dov slams the car door and yells back, “For God’s sake, Goldie, calm down!”

He walks up the pathway, jingling the keys, as Angie and Liv amble out of the back seat, arguing over whatever it is two teenage girls crammed together in the back of a station wagon argue over during a long hot drive back from the city after a long hot afternoon in their bubbe and zeda’s apartment.

Judy is pulling out a sleeping Tiny from the front middle seat. The twinge in her back starts to flare like a growth spurt as she adjusts Tiny on her hip and Goldie yells again, “I have to peeeee!” And just before turning her glare to the retreating backs of her other two daughters, now slapping each other across the arm, she looks across the street at number sixty-two and its darkened windows. A new knot ties itself tight in her stomach. Will it always feel that way, every time she steps outside her front door? Like she is being confronted by darkness?

Inside the house, the walls reverberate with the fury of the girls’ fight, which has moved into the kitchen, and has awakened Tiny. As he cries, Goldie, fresh out of the bathroom, whines for everybody to be quiet. That it is too loud. How can anyone think?

Dov bounds down the stairs, two at a time, ready to unleash a tidal wave of frustration, all of which has been building since the terrible event of early Saturday morning. And just as he is about to enter the kitchen like an enormous, fear-mongering wave, Judy passes Tiny to him, and nods with her eyes, as if to say, “I’ve got this.” The wave recedes, and Dov pats Tiny’s head and coos, “It’s all right, it’s all right,” as he turns and goes back up the stairs.

Judy, meanwhile, stands in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed, eyes on the two sullen faces moving through the small space, each looking for a temporary salve. Liv finds it in a can of soda she pulls out from the fridge, and Angie finds it in an open bag of chocolate chips. She pours a handful of chips out into her palm, then shoves them all into her mouth.

Liv glowers and says, “Those are for baking.”

Angie opens her mouth, and dark brown spittle drips off her lips onto her chin. Some of the spittle flies out and hits Liv in the nose. “So?” she says, trying not to laugh.

“You are such a pig,” Liv mutters, turning to the doorway and finding it blocked.

“That’s it, both of you,” Judy says. “Stop it, now.

Angie swallows the mass of chocolate, then says, in a muffled voice, “It’s her fault. She always starts it with her bad attitude.” She attempts to pour another handful of chocolate into her palm, but Liv suddenly moves back and slaps her hand. The bag falls to the ground, and chocolate chips fly in all directions, scattering the floor like it was a massive tray of raw cookie dough.

“Look what you did, jerk,” Angie says, throwing the now empty bag at her.

“What I did? You’re the one who ruins everything with your fat mouth!” Liv is screaming now, and Judy takes a step forward into the kitchen, her arms out ready to contain Liv within them, to control whatever wrath has overtaken her.

“Liv, Angie, that’s it. Enough is enough. Clean this mess up right now.”

There is a momentary silence. Liv is breathing heavily, the soda can still in her hand, unopened. Angie sighs, gets down on her knees, and starts corralling all the tiny chips into a pile. Judy takes another step, places one hand on Liv’s shoulder and says, “Help your sister. It’s your mess too.”

But Liv shakes off her mother’s touch.

“Don’t touch me,” she says through clenched teeth.

The echo of her words floods the room, turns Angie’s face tomato red. This fight has gone too far. “Liv is in for it if she keeps talking like that,” Angie thinks, her fingers working quickly. The sooner this is done, the sooner she can escape. Who knows what might come next.

Judy leans against the counter, blinking angry tears away. Something inside this beautiful creature, some trembling, evolving thing, threatens to consume her, Judy fears, forever. “What has gotten into you?” Judy whispers, remembering how she found Liv cowering in the chair in the basement after the ambulance had arrived, after Rob had finally calmed Mike’s screaming to mere sobs. She remembers the way Liv had talked to the police, in a clipped robotic tone, as they stationed themselves at her kitchen table, taking notes: “I was with Rob. The whole time. At the party.” And she remembers this morning. In a much louder voice, she asks the question that has been on her mind all day. That is, perhaps, the real reason behind this argument between sisters.

“I saw you talking to Laura this morning outside. She looked upset after you left. She even kicked the swing. What were the two of you talking about that could’ve gotten her so upset?”

Liv is on her knees, delicately picking up every chocolate chip she can find and placing it in her palm like it is the tiniest scrap of diamond. “It’s none of your goddamn business,” she hisses.

And Liv’s voice, the way she hurls “goddamn” into the air, runs up and down Judy’s spine like an overzealous electric current operated by a just-appointed executioner. But before the first jolt can reach her heart, Dov is on the floor, grabbing Liv by the chin, squeezing her cheeks together, and sticking his finger in her face. “Don’t ever talk to your mother like that again, you hear me?

Angie has fallen back on her heels, eyes full of blame. Goldie hides behind a chair, afraid to move, afraid to get too close to anyone should they throw words at her, should such words strike her down.

When Liv does not respond, he squeezes her cheeks harder till tears slide down and strike his knuckles like a pounding rain.

“I said, ‘Do you hear me?’ ”

Liv nods, says a muffled, “Yes,” and goes limp. Dov lets her face go, finally, and says, “Both of you clean this up, now. If I hear one more word, out of either you, out of any of you”—he momentarily glowers at Goldie—“you will all be grounded for the rest of your bloody lives. Got it?”

As if hit by shrapnel, Goldie runs out, her footsteps pounding the stairs, faltering only when the door to her bedroom shuts.

Dov sits down, and his face, a cold, sneering mask, looks up at Judy still leaning on the counter, her hand to her mouth, her eyes fixed on the back of Liv’s head. No one says a word as the chocolate chips are cleaned up, one by one, and thrown away.

The two then walk quietly out of the kitchen, the glare of both parents hanging over their heads like storm clouds, their father’s final words to them for the evening—“Not. One. Word.”—dropping like thunderclaps in their ears, the terrible roar vibrating long after each girl retreats to her room. Angie, relieved for the darkness, falls to her bed, headphones on, Zeppelin blaring, her eyes cursing Liv up and down for every perceived slight, while, minutes later, inside her own darkness, Liv stares out through the blurry glass at number sixty-two longingly, a key pressed against the sweaty skin of her palm.

“Home,” she whispers.