LET’S SAY IT’S 1987. The whole family is out in the backyard, Memorial Day weekend. Father, mother, sister, brother, brother’s pregnant wife, and me. The old grill has got burgers spitting grease over by the garage. Folding lawn chairs, citronella candles. The next-door neighbor is smashed again. Sometimes he cross-dresses, but not today. He has brought some unsavory guy home from a downtrodden pickup bar and they’re hanging around on the porch across the way, looking over at us, our American family.
That night unsavory guy murders inebriated neighbor in his bedroom, while we all sleep next door.
Let’s start this over again. Let’s say it’s 1978. Probably something less dramatic is going on. Just the ancient simmering passive-aggressive stuff between mother and father, house needs some repairs, brother is off at college, sister has a steady guy. I, the youngest, am neither here nor there, not in any recognizable state of belonging. Lots of daydreams on the front porch. Will my backhand improve this year? Do boys like you better if you ignore them or do they want encouragement? The one side of the driveway is starting to crumble. Dad should get someone to look at that before it gets much worse.
Upstairs, the third step down from the second floor has a distinctive creak. You can tell who is coming downstairs from the timbre of the creak. This is probably one of the few things that will remain the same when the house is sold, decades later. The buyer will gut and renovate the house and flip it to some prosperous doctors, but that one step will still have a creak.
Stand across the street and look over at the house, our house, not the neighbor’s. The two windows on the second floor look like eyes, and when the shades are pulled down partway, those are the eyelids. The front door is the mouth, opening and closing.
In 1987 I will try to sleep with my eyes open for a while. If someone you meet in a bar can just pretend to like you and then come home with you and kill you, well then, you’d better remain alert. It’s a greedy, prosperous time in America. But weirdness is happening all the time. A little girl falls down a well in Texas. The Unabomber sends another package. The Treasurer of Pennsylvania shoots and kills himself during a televised press conference.
The 1960s into early 70s: The alcoholic neighbor has not moved in yet. There’s a family living there with an Italian last name. Life seems generally chaotic over there. We play with the kids but there’s something not quite right. They put way too much butter on their toast; it’s unhealthy. The kids’ birthday parties always seem semi-disastrous. The dad runs some sort of nightclub. The family moves out suddenly one day. I could swear I see bags of money in the backseat of their car, but it’s possible I have added that detail. It’s a television moment, captured at a sharp angle through the backseat passenger-side window. Some things are just so close to the ABC Movie of the Week, you can’t separate it all out.
One year in the early 70s the alcoholic moves in. He has money—some connection to oil—and could probably buy in a fancier neighborhood but here he comes. The house has been unoccupied for a while, so we’ve been playing in the backyard over there, making it our turf. He shows up one day while we’re chalking a hopscotch board on the pavement, tells us to clean it off. Doesn’t seem to like kids. He will live there until he brings the guy home that night.
Early 1990s, we three offspring have moved away, mother and father remain. Ancient problems persist, the original furnace is barely working but Dad says you can’t trust most repairmen, there’s only one guy in the city who really knows how to work on that thing. The cats’ water dish, down by the kitchen, freezes over one winter. They are essentially living without heat. Christmas is still magic, though. Tremendous care is still expended on certain things. We all come home from our other cities, the model train is below the tree, Mom slaves over the dinner, we all hug and feel guilty when we leave.
Brother’s pregnant wife is from Japan; he met her while living there. She has never been to America before the trip in 1987. She’s nervous because she’s seen all those violent American TV shows, she’s heard about all that crime. Is it safe to go to America? Of course it’s safe. And this is not New York City, this is a midsize, post-industrial city clawing its way back from obsolescence and it’s going to be fine. So the first night brother’s wife is there, nestled in our American family, the next door neighbor is killed, confirming her worst fears.
The morning after it happens, Mom runs upstairs before we’re even awake and starts yelling, “Ted is dead!” (His name was Ted.) The police are ringing our doorbell. Did you see anything suspicious? Yes, I say, I certainly did. For one thing, that guy did not seem like he was gay. He was leering over at us females in the yard next door. He was not there for sex, he was there for something else. The police have photographs of some suspects, a pile of them, and they ask us to look through. I sit in our civilized living room and thumb through the stack. Sister and I both pick out the same picture. This is the guy who was here, I say. I am holding the guy’s face in my hand. Of this I am sure.
Dad says he thought he heard screams during the night, but they probably just blended in with his dreams. Or did he say that? No one seems to remember that detail but me.
Ted has a Boston terrier with the face of a cicada, a dog who is so needy she can’t seem to breathe oxygen without being by her owner’s side. I keep thinking afterward, the dog’s entire world collapsed that night. She was the only other creature who lived in that house.
Two thousand-something: Each of us kids has had one kid. When we come back to visit now on holidays, there are grandchildren to do the things we used to do in that house—throwing things down the laundry chute, peeking through the banisters of the staircase, slamming the front screen door. The ceiling in the living room, the room with the two baby grand pianos, barely played now, is starting to cave in. Water is leaking from above. Dad, that looks dangerous, we all say. A plumber should be called but which one? All these years, Dad has tried to fix everything himself.
The last Christmas visit, 2008. Everyone tries to be cheerful, but house and home, mind and body, it’s all starting to fall apart. A death in the family. The one remaining parent cannot keep this place up. We kids sell the house in 2009. The clean-out happens over the summer. When you look at the empty cellar of a house, you see the bare foundation, something you may have forgotten was even there. The basic integrity of the structure becomes apparent. Still, you can clear the whole place out but most likely you’ve still left something behind. The house never reverts to a completely neutral state.
Now, in the neighborhood where the downtrodden pickup bar was located, there are farm-to-table restaurants. There’s a Whole Foods down the street and some new offices for Google. Baby in former sister-in-law’s belly is now a beautiful young woman living in California.
And next door, the woman who bought the house with her husband right after the murder is still there. They got a very good deal on the house—who wants to inherit that narrative?—and moved in with their two small children and made a life, never spoke about it. Both lawyers, they were solid and kept the place up. Their kids grew up and moved away, the husband and wife got divorced. The wife has remained but she’s antisocial, she doesn’t say a word to us as we’re clearing the place out, throwing TVs out of windows. In the backyard we use the old grill, barely standing now, to burn some paperwork.
In 1987, they catch up with the guy who did it. Over the years, when I’ve told this story, I’ve always said, “They found him in Vegas.” Where did I get the Vegas part? It’s as though my subconscious just couldn’t help embellishing.
Vegas sounded right for 1987—tawdriness, excess, the boom before the bust. But sister, who has a better memory for these things, says, No, no, it was St. Louis.