On the day my mom got her last chemo treatment, I fished from the dike of the Intake Reservoir. I wasn’t supposed to be fishing. I was supposed to be delivering the Hawthorne Pennysaver. My summer job was to place a crisp Pennysaver at each of the 465 doorways of the Pleasant Pines Apartments once a week, but I hadn’t done that for months. The Pleasant Pines was a creepy hellhole with moldy carpets and half-naked toddlers and thumping stereos and college students throwing empty Schlitz cans at you from their porch. Also the Pennysaver was not a real paper. It was twenty-four pages of ads and bogus articles on the beauty of aluminum siding. People did not appreciate having it left at their door. They glared at you like you had just left a flaming dog dump for them to stomp out — which is how I realized that they would not miss the Pennysaver if it never showed up on their mat. So instead of hauling my sack of papers up and down those nasty stairwells, I went fishing at the Intake. Then, after the Pleasant Pines rental office closed for the day, I hiked through the woods and pitched my papers into the dumpster behind it. Sometimes I poked at them with a stick, scattering them into the puddles of disgusting brown vegetable goo and moldy cottage cheese so it would look like the residents had thrown them out.
My bobber drifted toward the overflow, a concrete chute that dumped excess water down into Fall Creek. A little shack sat on top of the dike, covering the chute and the flood controls. I knew the waterworks guys hid the key behind the “No Trespassing” sign, so I sometimes got it out and stashed my fishing tackle inside the shack while I lugged my undelivered papers to the Pleasant Pines dumpster.
The bobber swirled down hard. I pulled in a bluegill and tossed it into the high grass behind the dike. My plan was to fish out the bluegill that would pull your bobber down like a huge bass but then only be one of the crappy, suicidal bluegills that would let you catch and release them six times in a row. The dike was starting to stink of rotting fish.
I dug my watch out of the Pennysaver sack. If I was home late one more time, my father was going to put my head on a pike outside our front door. My mom’s so-called treatments actually made her sicker, and when she got home, I was supposed to keep Sean and Mary out of her hair — which usually meant taking Sean in the other room and thumping him for being an ass. Then Mom would beg us to get along, and Dad would blow his volcano. Then, later, Dad would feel sorry for losing it, and he’d make us hold hands while he led a prayer. We’d pray for Mom while she lay next to us on the sofa, rolling her eyes and telling us to cut it out.
It was illegal to fish in a town reservoir, but I didn’t see how my worm polluted the water more than the slimy fish did. I reeled in another bluegill and lobbed it over the dike. I checked my watch. I was now cruising for a bruising, so I tossed the worms into the reservoir and packed up my gear. If I hoofed it to the Pleasant Pines, I’d still beat my parents home.
When I got to the top of the dike, though, something caught my eye. Down in the tall grass on the other side a strange animal thrashed — except it was too big and too white to be an animal. Was it an insane person? A runaway convict?
The grass parted. It was two people making out. They were really going at it. And they were old! The guy had wavy gray hair and wore a white oxford shirt. The woman had a handful of his butt. They rolled around some more, then sat watching the creek flow into the little gorge at the bottom of the meadow.
This deserved a better look. I loped back along the edge of the dike and came up behind the overflow shack. I set my papers down and fumbled for the key. Inside, dusty lines of sun shot through cracks in the siding. I edged around the concrete overflow shaft to where I had a view of the meadow and the creek. When I put my eye to a knothole, my gut dropped a foot. The man in the grass was our neighbor Mr. Romer! Who was a music professor and the choir director at Trinity Episcopal! Who’d played the trumpet at my aunt’s wedding! Whose kids were friends with my little brother and sister! Mr. Romer golfed in my dad’s league. He showered in the locker room next to my dad. And now he was lying on the ground beside some chunky college girl with a scraggly nest of black hair and pale skin.
I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t stop. I had never seen ugly people kiss. Every few minutes they tore into each other, groping like lunatics, like it was no big deal to feel each other up a mile from where Mrs. Romer was probably on her hands and knees scrubbing her kitchen floor. I cupped my ear, but all I could hear was the metallic pounding of the water in the overflow shaft. I began to feel dizzy, like I might tumble down the shaft myself. I felt like the guy in a movie who uncovers a terrible secret, an assassination plot or illegal weapons lab right under everybody’s nose. Because who was going to believe that Mr. Romer was playing tonsil hockey with some heavyset girl in the Fall Creek Wetland Preserve? I could hear my father: Professor Romer is a respected musicologist and an upstanding family man. And who was I? A thirteen-year-old who couldn’t even be trusted to deliver a crappy paper. I was like one of the freaks who claim to see flying saucers. I could see myself explaining how I was taken on board and seduced by naked blue aliens who cut me open and replaced my organs with the innards of a dog.
I looked at my watch. It was getting late. To get to the Pleasant Pines dumpster, I would have to hike right past their little love nest. No way was I doing that. I needed to stash the papers and come back later to ditch them. Or maybe I could unload them somewhere closer, like the Dairy Fart dumpster. Then again, what if the Dairy Fart manager saw me and called Mr. Hofstadter? He’d rip me a new one back at the Pennysaver office. My job would be transferred to some shiny-eyed sixth-grader who dreamed of working from paperboy up to reporter to whatever is higher than reporter. Hofstadter would call my dad and tell him to sit me down for a big heart-to-heart.
But my dad didn’t believe in heart-to-hearts. He believed in whaling me with Grandpa’s razor strop. The strop had some sick sentimental value for him. He referred to it with an evil slant in his eyebrows, like he secretly hoped he’d get to whale us with it. I had met with the strop once, and I wasn’t looking for a rematch.
Now something really amazing was happening down below. The girl closed her eyes and turned her face up toward the sun, and Mr. Romer traced her big red cheeks and her eyebrows and forehead with his fingers, like a sculptor smoothing clay. It was quite a sight.
Then again, it was pretty clear no one was going to be getting naked, and I didn’t have time to sit around watching two weirdos act out some cheesy love scene. I needed to scrap my papers and get my butt home. Suddenly I had a genius idea. I peered down the concrete overflow shaft. Talk about a place the sun don’t shine. I circled back to the door, dragged in my satchel, and poured all the Pennysavers down the shaft. I watched them boil and churn in the dark water. I didn’t feel bad. The papers were made of trees. Soon they would turn to pulp, destroying the evidence and making nice food for all the worms and crayfish downstream.
When I went back to the knothole, Mr. Romer and the girl were gone. I blew a sigh of relief, gathered my gear, set the padlock, and headed across the dike.
But now there was a new problem. Some of the newspapers had floated out of the overflow pipe into Fall Creek. Half a dozen clung to rocks and weeds in the stream. If someone spotted them, they would call Mr. Hofstadter to complain.
I skidded down the back of the dike and fished at them with my rod, but they only twirled into the shallows. I had to take off my shoes and tiptoe through the cool mud where Sean and I had once seen a snapping turtle. Each time my foot touched a rock, I pictured the turtle’s filthy beak severing my toes, and I chicken-leaped backward. Eventually I slipped and fell into the slime.
I was soaking now, so I waded to the mouth of the stream and threw the runaway Pennysavers deep into the corrugated overflow pipe. But a dozen more had already gone downstream. Wads of them surged in the pipe, getting ready to make the journey. There were nearly five hundred Pennysavers in there. What was the penalty for littering five hundred newspapers? Was it fifty dollars or five hundred times fifty? I pictured my father’s hair catching fire as he did the math.
When I turned to chase down the runaways, someone pushed through the brush at the far end of the meadow. It was Mr. Romer, heading back home. His white shirttails hung out, and he hummed to himself like it was normal to saunter past a spot where he had just made out with someone half his age.
As he came alongside the stream, he saw a paper float past. His head tracked back upstream to where I stood, the big orange sack that said PENNYSAVER hanging on me like a prison uniform. What could I do? I splashed out of the stream and sprinted into the woods toward home.
My father was on the patio waiting for the charcoal to get hot. He set his drink down and looked me over. “What the hell did you do, take a mud bath?”
“I fell,” I said.
He shook his head and lit a cigarette. “Don’t go tracking that through the house. Your mother’s in agony.”
“OK,” I said. I started taking off my shoes.
“I don’t understand why you can’t get home on time. We’ve got enough to deal with here.”
He walked over to where the handyman had just put in the new sliding glass door. I’d cracked the old one with a foul ball. “After dinner,” my dad said, “you and I are going to move these steps back where they were.”
“OK,” I said. They were huge concrete steps. I already knew I couldn’t lift them because my friend Mitch and I had tried, but I put on a good face about it because the new door had cost a fortune.
I hosed myself off and peeked in the window. Mom was dozing on the family-room sofa. If I went in through the back door, I could change in the basement without her seeing me.
Suddenly Mr. Romer walked around the side of house, clutching a wad of wet Pennysavers. A horrible dread flooded my gut. Mr. Romer eyed me as he shook my father’s hand. I lowered my head and scrubbed my legs.
“Casey, get over here and say hello,” my father said.
I walked over and shook Mr. Romer’s hand.
“While you’re here, Don,” said my father, “maybe I can get you to help me move these concrete steps.”
“Happy to,” Mr. Romer said.
While they looked at the steps, I quietly let myself into the house and slipped upstairs to my room.
I was putting on a pair of shorts when my little brother came in wearing a huge grin. “You’re in deep doody.”
“How do you know?”
My father emerged from the stairwell. He set a hand on Sean’s shoulder and said, “Shove off.” He looked in at me. “Don’t bother coming to dinner.” He shut the door.
Then it was the typical routine. They made me eat after they were done. My brother and sister poked their heads into the kitchen and made faces at me. When I was done, my parents called me into the living room and made me confess. They took turns, working me like cops, except that my mother had to lie on the sofa.
“I’m pretty disappointed to come home to this,” she said softly. “What are those people at the paper going to think?”
“Why do you put us through this when you know we’re having a rough time?” my father said.
“A lot of people know who delivers those papers,” said my mother.
“You know what it means to collect money for something you didn’t do?” said my father. “That’s called theft. People go to jail for that. Is that what you want? You want a criminal career?”
“And of all things, to pollute the water supply,” said my mother.
“It wasn’t in the reservoir,” I said. “It was in the stream.”
“I don’t care if it was in the Dismal Swamp,” said my father. “It’s still pollution.”
“I’ll clean it up,” I said.
“You’re damned right you’ll clean it up. That’s just the beginning of what you’ll do.”
They kept going like that until they had me crying and saying how sorry I was. I could see my brother’s shadow on the dining-room wall. In a few minutes he’d tell every kid in the neighborhood.
Usually once my parents broke me, they eased off, but not this time. My father wanted to hear the facts over and over.
“It was an accident,” I blubbered. “I was rushing, and they just fell in.”
“They just fell in,” he said.
My mother closed her eyes. “How come the sack didn’t fall in?”
“Because I grabbed it. I didn’t want to lose my fishing rod.”
“You didn’t want to lose your fishing rod,” said my father. “What a miracle that you lost all of the papers, but not your fishing rod.” He shook his head. “You know what bothers me the most? It’s not that you would cheat and steal and pollute. It’s that you would lie to us. Especially on a day like this. You don’t seem to understand what’s going on around here.”
“Let’s not bring that in,” said my mother. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “It’s not about that.”
“It is to me,” said my father. “He does it on purpose every single time.”
I was sobbing hard now. My mother sighed.
“You tell us the truth,” said my father.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” I said.
“Don’t lie to me!” he shouted.
I coughed it up in bits between the crying. “I was fishing. And then I left to deliver the papers. And I saw Mr. Romer down in the grass with this girl, and I was afraid to go past him. I didn’t want to be late because I knew you’d be in bad moods.”
They looked at each other. “What do you mean you saw Mr. Romer in the grass with a girl?” said my father.
“They were . . . you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“You know. Making out.”
“Oh, this is rich,” my dad said. “This is beautiful.”
My mom closed her eyes and shook her head.
“When are you going to learn?” said my father. “You’re not talking to a couple of your buddies here. We don’t subscribe to The Weekly World News.”
“It’s true,” I said.
“Get up,” said my father.
I knew what was coming next. “I swear to God it’s true!” I shouted. “I swear to God!”
He marched me into the basement and took the razor strop out of the old bureau. “Let’s go,” he said, running the leather through his fingers. “Move it.”
I howled before the leather even touched my ass. “I thought I could count on you,” he said between strokes. “I thought you understood what this family is going through. But you just don’t seem to get it.”
He panted between each wallop; that’s how hard he was going at it. I yelled for all I was worth until I heard him shut the bureau drawer. I put my face on the floor and sobbed until the door clicked shut at the top of the stairs. Then I rolled onto my back and set my naked rear on the cool cement. It hadn’t hurt as bad as I’d expected. It never did, but I always seemed to forget that.
A sharp tapping came from somewhere. I wiped my eyes and looked around. I heard muffled laughter and looked up. Crowded around the little basement window above were my brother, Mitch Rourke, Mitch’s younger sister, and little Al Romer. My brother was laughing so hard he was crying, holding his thumb and finger an inch apart to indicate the size of my shrunken dick.
I curled up against the cool, mildewed wall, out of their view, and pulled up my pants.
I was sick of my mom having cancer. Why couldn’t it have been my father? Or Romer? Maybe the bastard would catch it one day. I hoped the cops caught him humping that college girl in the football stadium some night. I pictured Mrs. Romer throwing him out of the house. Maybe he’d hang himself. Then my parents would eat their words. My father’s eyes would well with tears. We were wrong to doubt you, he’d say.
And to beat me with a razor strop, I’d say.
And to beat you.
I’d reach into my shirt pocket and remove his little tape recorder. I’d click it off in front of his nose and say, Of course I’ll have to turn this conversation over to Child Protective Services.
Or maybe I’d say, That’s OK. You were worried about Mom.
I cried again as I imagined him biting his knuckle and blinking back tears.
My mom would squeeze my shoulders. To think I defended that man, she’d say, just because he brought me CDs in the hospital and played at Sally’s wedding.
Little Al Romer wouldn’t be so jolly when he got heckled on the school bus. His father would be kicked out of the college and have to play trumpet in a filthy subway station for spare change.
All I needed was some proof. Then I’d teach them all a thing or two. They were going to be very, very sorry.
In the morning my father leaned over my bed. “Wake up,” he said. “I want those papers cleaned up this morning, then you look after Sean and Mary. Your mom’s sicker than hell.” An unlit cigarette waggled in his mouth. “I have a late meeting tonight. Mrs. O’Toole’s bringing dinner. I had better not get a bad report when I come home. Am I clear?”
He shut the door, then opened it again and stuck his head in. “You put those papers in the garage and count them. On Saturday you and I will take them to Mr. Hofstadter. Capiche?”
“I want every single one of those things out of that reservoir.”
“They’re in the stream.”
He sighed and shut the door.
I rolled over.
The door opened again. “Take Sean and Mary to the Rourkes’ while you’re mucking around out there. Your mother needs to rest. You understand?”
“OK, yeah, I hear you.”
“Now get up.” He shut the door.
I lay there until I heard his car drive off.
In the family room my mom lay on the sofa watching Hogan’s Heroes with Sean. Mary was playing waitress. She suggested my mom order the special, “clobbed lobster.”
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Fantabulous,” my mom said.
“Mom puked,” said Sean.
“I like to start my day with a good upchuck,” she said.
I made her a mug of chamomile tea and got myself a bowl of Rice Krispies. Then I sat in the chair next to her, eating and watching the Allied POWs slip crates of wine past Sergeant Schultz.
“Please don’t spill that milk,” she said. “You should sit at the table.”
I looked down at my bowl and sloshed the milk onto the Oriental rug.
Mom sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Send him to the Russian front,” said Sean.
“You be quiet,” she said. “I don’t want you guys at each other’s throats again today.”
After breakfast I dumped Sean and Mary at the Rourkes’ and humped it into the woods. I waded the creek all the way down to the edge of the ravine, piling the sopping papers on the bank as I went. Then I carried them home in my sack.
By noon the papers were drying in the garage, Mom was asleep on the sofa, the brats were getting lunch at the Rourkes’, and I was hidden in a grove of pine trees above the dike. I wore green painter’s pants and my dad’s green wool army coat. I lay in a prone sniper’s position holding my father’s Agfa camera with ultrazoom lens. Two peanut-butter-and-Marshmallow-Fluff sandwiches were crammed in my coat pocket. I had good visibility left and right. My plan was to photograph Mr. Romer swapping spit with the frizzy-haired chick. I would hide in the bushes all day long if I had to.
I imagined my father’s eyes widening when I handed him a photo of Mr. Romer and the girl. He would blink and take off his glasses and blow out a big breath.
See, I’d say, I told you.
But first I needed to make Romer squirm like an insect. I would pop into his office at the college and hand him a copy. Thought you might be interested in some nature photographs.
Hey, he’d say, where did you get this? Get back here, you little shit!
Even better, I could give the pictures to Mrs. Romer. I could slip them in her mailbox and watch her get her mail: a bill from Sears, a card from her sister, and then comes this plain envelope with big block letters printed in crayon. What’s this, some kind of joke? Her hands shake as she opens it, and when she sees the picture of her husband sucking face with the Brillo-haired girl, she says, Is that . . . ? Oh my God! and falls to her knees. Ha!
Then, after Mr. Romer had a good taste of what it felt like to get narced on, I’d slap the pictures on the table in front of my parents. I worked through several excellent scenarios where they ate crow and treated me like a king.
Meanwhile, where was the big lech? It felt like hours had slogged by. My dad’s coat was a furnace. I needed a drink. Mirages and strange visions would be on me soon. I looked down at the cool, deep water drifting slowly toward the overflow. Was it safe to drink? I had peed in it more than once. My brother and Mitch had peed in it. Deer and other critters probably peed in it. How long did pee stay in a reservoir? Screw this, I said. I stood up, covered my gear with a pine bough, and ran home for a drink.
The oven clock read 1:25. I had only been in the woods for an hour and ten minutes. My plan was crapola. The sandwiches had oozed into my dad’s coat pocket. I had zero photos of Mr. Romer in compromising positions, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum had come home and were harassing my mom.
“What are those things all over your mouth?” Sean asked her.
“They’re sores, honey.”
“When are your eyebrows coming back?” he said.
“Sean.” I drew my finger across my throat.
My mom readjusted her bandanna.
“Maybe you should paint some on with makeup,” Sean said.
I dragged him into the living room by his hair.
“Casey,” my mom called, “please don’t start!”
I pinned Sean to the living-room wall. “Are you mental? You don’t tell her she looks weird.” He wriggled in my grip, so I swatted his head.
Now my sister was calling for me. Back in the family room Mom was on all fours, drooling into the bucket. We watched her puke, then I washed out the bucket.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I’m just super, Casey. I’m absolutely great because I have such nice, loving kids who get along and help each other out when I’m not feeling well.” She wiped her lips and closed her eyes.
We watched her do her breathing exercises. I tried to remember how her hair used to look. I couldn’t picture it at all. My parents were right: I was a sorry excuse for a kid.
I wandered into the garage and stared at the wilted papers strewn on the concrete. Hauling that miserable pile of garbage into Hofstadter’s office was going to be the worst day of my life. I imagined mumbling my confession to Mr. Hofstadter. My father would boom, Speak up! and the secretaries would stop typing. I’d splutter how I had dumped the papers while Hofstadter rubbed his mustache and looked to my father for a signal about how tough to be. He’d hold out his hand for my delivery sack like a police commissioner taking my gun and badge. He’d probably give me a speech: We sure don’t like to know our papers aren’t getting to their final destination. And neither do our advertisers.
After we left, the secretaries would fall down laughing: Can you believe the little twerp thought paper would sink!
Or maybe Hofstadter wouldn’t fire me. Maybe he’d think about my mom and make me his charity case. Everyone would go quiet and give me a grim smile when I picked up my papers.
It occurred to me that I could just deliver them now. So what if they were a little wrinkled? It wasn’t going to get me out of confessing, but at least it “showed initiative,” which was one of my dad’s big things.
I peeled the papers off the concrete, loaded them into the Pennysaver sack, and headed out.
I approached the reservoir quietly, in case the lovebirds had turned up for a romp, but the only movement below was the occasional ripple of a jumping fish and the shadow of a cloud across the meadow. Any fool could see that no one was going to be getting frisky down there anytime soon. I slid down to my hiding spot and got the camera and knapsack. On the other side of the dike, I turned onto the gravel access road, which ran along the creek to a pumping station before it went down the hill toward town. If I hopped onto the Fall Creek nature trail for a mile, I could cut through the bird sanctuary, across the college soccer fields, and onto the rear lawn of the Pleasant Pines.
Before I got to the nature trail, though, I heard a truck idling and men’s voices. At the bottom of the pumping-station drive, past the sign that said, “Town of Hawthorne: No Admittance,” sat a yellow waterworks truck and a ratty white Volvo with bumper stickers that said “Hands Off Nicaragua!” and “Peace Works.” Two men were talking next to the car. One was a beefy waterworks guy in a blue shirt and pants, and the other was Mr. Romer. In the passenger seat of the Volvo I could make out a scraggly nest of black hair.
I picked my way through the trees down to the creek bed. I set the satchel and knapsack on some rocks, got out the camera, and scurried along the creek until I had a clear view through the pines. Mr. Romer waved his hands and said something I couldn’t make out. The waterworks guy shrugged and shook his head. My hands shook as I dialed the image in and out of focus. I got off a shot as Mr. Romer got into his car and another as the Volvo whined back in a semicircle. I tried to fire again, but I couldn’t advance the frame. The roll of film was kaput. While the car climbed the little drive toward the access road, I slunk back into the gully among the rocks.
A few minutes later I heard gravel spray as the pickup shot onto the access road. I waited another minute, then I hurried back to the knapsack and put the camera carefully inside. I began to smile.
I ran all the way down the nature trail, over the footbridge, across the college fields, and up the hill to the Blitz Photo booth in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. I had no clue how to get the film out of the camera, so I just handed the whole thing to the girl in the striped apron and paid for double prints. I leaned against the hot siding of the booth, panting and sweating. The strap of the Pennysaver bag had rubbed my neck raw. I considered hoofing it down to the Pines to deliver the papers while my pictures printed, but what was the point? My parents were going to be kissing my rear end whether I delivered those papers or not. So instead I sauntered across the parking lot and spent my last two dollars on chocolate milk and jelly doughnuts.
Forty minutes later I sat on the hot curb fumbling through the prints. Most were from the previous year’s family vacation in Wellfleet. My two were on the bottom. They were a little blurry, but you could make out the bumper stickers on Mr. Romer’s Volvo, and there was definitely a cloud of frizzy, dark hair in the passenger’s seat. So what if you couldn’t see her face? What was a married guy doing at a classic make-out spot with a girl? I had him dead to rights.
At home my mother dozed while the munchkins watched The Brady Bunch. I tapped Mary on the shoulder. “Come on,” I said. “We’re going to make something for Mom.”
In the basement we sat at the old kitchen table with the Crayolas and some construction paper. I spread the vacation photos out. Most were beach shots: Mary running out of the surf. Mary running into the surf. Mary looking bored inside a crumbling sand castle. The three of us kids fake-snarling in front of the wooden pirate at Ahab Mini-Golf. Sean lying on the AstroTurf, pool-cueing his ball through a windmill. Dad asleep on a float with a can of beer on his belly.
I picked up one of Mom sitting on a striped beach towel, squinting into the sun. Her hair was brown and wavy. As soon as I saw it, I suddenly remembered it again — how it had been short when I was little, then down to her shoulders later. In the photo it was thick and tangled by the ocean wind. Dad’s shadow stretched toward the dune behind her. Everything looked totally normal. It was just any old day at the beach, even though the stuff was growing inside her right then and there.
I tossed the picture back onto the table.
“We’re going to make a collage,” I said to Mary. I showed her how to arrange the photos and helped her glue down a couple. Then I let her have at it while I whittled some of Sean’s Lincoln Logs into knives and threw them at a styrofoam packing cube.
When Mary had most of the pictures glued on, I rounded up a pile of old magazines and cut letters out of headlines. When I had a decent pile, I showed Mary how to make a message on the collage while I worked on a smaller one of my own. Mary’s said:
I HOPE YOU FEL BETR MOM
I LOVE YOU
We added some glitter and macaroni shells.
Mary looked at my note and wrinkled her nose. “What does yours say?”
My note read:
YOUR HUSBAND WAS MAKING OUT WITH
A GIRL AT THE INTAKE RESERVOIR.
TAKE A LOOK.
“I messed mine up,” I said. “Can you add my name to yours?”
She nodded. As she poked through the pile of letters, I ripped off the words at the Intake Reservoir to hide my identity. Then I folded the note around the incriminating photos, and I slipped them into my knapsack along with the two copies. I was improving my criminal technique. I was even wearing Playtex rubber gloves.
After dark I crouched in the wood chips behind the Romers’ cheesy solar panels, looking through the sliding glass door into their family room. The sound of jazz came faintly through the wall. Al and Jenny Romer lay on the floor reading. Mrs. Romer stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Mr. Romer was nowhere in sight. Once he arrived, I planned to ring the front bell, leave the note, then run back around the house to watch what happened. I didn’t mind waiting. My father wouldn’t be home for an hour. I was dressed in black and slathered with mosquito spray. My sister was in bed, and my brother was watching Emergency with my mom, who thought I was upstairs reading. I was back in her good graces. Before I’d slipped out, she had put her hand on my arm and said, “What you did with your sister this afternoon was pretty great.” The collage sat on top of the sofa, propped against the wall.
Eventually Mr. Romer waltzed into the kitchen holding a musical score in one hand and a wineglass in the other. He opened the fridge and refilled the glass. He took his wine into the family room and sat in an easy chair by the fireplace.
I stood up and pulled the note from my pocket. But I realized Mrs. Romer wouldn’t say anything in front of the kids. I’d have to wait for them to go to bed if I wanted to see the powder keg blow. I knelt back down in the bark chips.
The kids were playing a board game. Every so often Mr. Romer whispered some advice in Jenny’s ear. Then Al got bent out of shape and went to Mrs. Romer, who told him what to do. This droned on for some time. What kind of weirdo kids spent all evening playing games with their parents? When were the Romers going to send them to bed?
Finally Mr. Romer drained his wine and got up. Great, I thought. He’s sending them packing. But instead he took off his dorky sandals and got down on his hands and knees. He opened the cupboard and pulled out a Nerf football. Al and Jenny jumped around like epileptics. They knelt at one end of the room. Mr. Romer teed the football up and slapped it to them with his hand. Al caught it and shuffled forward on his knees.
They were playing knee football. Mrs. Romer sat with her legs up on the couch and watched as Mr. Romer came at the kids with his arms over his head and a fake growl that revealed his crooked teeth. They wrestled their old man for yardage. Their laughing came right through the glass door. I could hear Jenny’s squeals even when the air conditioner hummed on. Mr. Romer let Al block him while Jenny made big gains, then he scooped her up like a doll and held her upside down before falling gently on her. If they tackled him, he’d roar and lie on his back while they piled on, laughing.
After a while he pretended to be tired out. He stayed on his back and faked sleep while they poked him and tried to pull him up by his arms. Nothing worked. They tickled him and thumped him. They sat on his chest and lifted up his eyelids. They drummed on his stomach and pulled his lips apart. They held his nose and covered his mouth. They ran their hands over his cheeks and his eyebrows. They smoothed back his gray hair, which was messed up from the game. They pressed their fingers to every bone in his face. There was something weirdly familiar about it, though I couldn’t remember ever touching my dad’s face that way.
I started to feel sad. I had been crouched on my knees all along, but now I sat back in the mulch.
Inside, Mr. Romer herded the kids up to bed, and Mrs. Romer moved to the recliner. It was the perfect time for me to ring the bell. She was alone and would not come outside to see who had left the note.
But I didn’t get up. A horrible heavy feeling pinned me to the ground. Mrs. Romer stretched and yawned. She rubbed her face all over, then lay back with her arm over her forehead just like my mom. I studied her face for a long time, trying to see whether she was happy or sad. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell a thing.
I stood up and brushed off my shorts. I walked around the side of the house. It was a moonless night, and the stars filled the sky like powder. It was like I had never seen them before — I couldn’t believe how many there were. Alongside the garage I lifted the top off the Romers’ garbage can. I pulled the crinkled note and photos from my pocket and tore them into tiny pieces. I sprinkled them into the can. Then I walked home down the middle of the street, looking up at all the stars.