Weirdness lurked in corners of fenced yards and basements of split-level homes. Afternoons were orderly, of a piece, as we played aside the pleasant, luminous surfaces of homes and yards. Ugliness: acid creeping from a neighbor’s pool into your yard; the stink of rotting food behind a restaurant; the sticky nests of spiders inside the abandoned milk case. (“Life is tough; thank God there’s design,” said Paola Antonelli.)
Randy was doughy, squat, with short legs. I liked his freckle-faced sister. She was soft-spoken, pale and narrow, with boyish hips and straight black hair that fell to her shoulders. They lived behind my house in the cul-de-sac on Bucknell Drive. The games would begin innocently. Kick the ball, chase the dog, climb the swing set.
In my memory, the gap between innocence and fury is erased, a Nixonian excision—such misbehavior was in the air, after all. Something gone for good. What remains is Randy’s face, a comic balloon swelling, crimson with rage. Somehow, while playing with his sister and me, Randy became upset. The game stopped and Randy threw a fit, but this was different from the tantrums we all threw, indulged in, sobbed ourselves out of. Randy, eight years old, looked murderous. His eyes bulged, his lips foamed, his small hands went stiff out in front of him, as if he was trying to strangle some invisible creature. He hopped from foot to foot, grunting toward us. His mom rushed from the house, scolding me, grabbing Randy by the wrist and dragging him back inside, feral on his leash. His sister darted away into the further reaches of the yard. Randy’s home was alien; as far as I can remember, I never went inside. A glimpse of green ferns, velvety flocked wallpaper, a strange kitchen, a stone floor strewn with newspapers. He disappeared into the dark of the front hallway, screaming and thrashing. The next day I’d see him and he’d be fine: blonde and placid, stripe-shirted, grinning at me, eager for a play date.
After he erupted the first time, a certain minor note had been struck in the air, and a cheerful tone of eternal afternoons was forever changed. The glimpse I’d gotten into mania, the dreadful power that Randy couldn’t control, felt like a peek into the distinct world of adults, of darkened foyers where dark, uncontainable things happened, where disorder prevailed behind closed doors. His mom’s face was complicated, weary, and mournful. A year or so later Randy was shipped off to a “special school,” the inside of which I begged myself not to imagine.
Walking home on Amherst Avenue, I looked up to see a boy leaning his head out of a window of the house two down from mine. A long, viscous rope of vomit fell from his mouth, a gray-white stream glinting in the sunlight, landing soundlessly in the grass near the air conditioner. One of the Emig boys. A muffled voice rose in anger from the rooms behind him; I matched it to a vague, motherly face. I was too young to know anything about hidden drinking or hangovers, but the lurid wrongness of it all stained the afternoon. Something in the headlong rush of it, the soft head bobbing forlornly out of the window, the alarm sounding behind him in the split-level house said shame, before I knew the word. I don’t know: maybe he had a stomach virus, or food poisoning. But why retch out the bedroom window, turning a private moment public? I knew without knowing that the Emig boy was holed up in his bedroom in misery, trying to hide.
What begins as rumor can never circle back to fact, instead moves inevitably toward myth. She was elderly and lived a half mile away on Arcola Avenue, in a home set back from the street. There was a large plate-glass window in front: one day someone fired a bullet through the window that killed her. This is a fact, yet the news arrived to me less as information than as a gloomy song, a melody that lingered from earlier eras. That is: I don’t remember the incident, I remember the telling and the re-telling. I know little about her except what I’ve imagined, and what I’ve imagined is awful. How do I posses an image of a white head of hair, of a small woman sitting at her kitchen table in front of a window, mildly staring into the middle distance? Around this time two young girls, the Lyon sisters, vanished from Wheaton Plaza near my house. For years their gradeschool photos, affecting and tragic in black and white, hung in post offices and stores, casting-call sheets for our communal and ongoing nightmares of What Happened and What If. I had—I have—the grainy photos as evidence that these young girls existed. Four decades later, they’re still gone. For a year after the Arcola Avenue shooting—which was random, and also, as far as I know, an unsolved mystery—I’d walk or bike past her house on my way home from Saint Andrew’s, and her front window became a kind of screen onto which I’d project stories of what had happened, and why, silhouetted hoods, glass shattering impossibly, of family members I never knew but imagined in their noiseless grief, but I’d always circle back to a woman, sitting, her hands clasped gently on the top of the table, the details of the kitchen behind her blurring.
Our family’s spending a week at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, where we’ve rented a house. I’m lying in bed in the room I share with my younger brother, trying to doze, broiling with sunburn in the air conditioning, listening through the thin walls to my older brothers in the next room. One of them is telling a story of which I can make out muffled parts. A boy they knew from high school walked to the train tracks and laid down on them. No I don’t want to hear this—but I’m going to tell you—. The train barreled down the tracks and screamed its whistle and…. I don’t wanna hear this—. One of my brothers whimpers, or cries out. My brother telling the story is insistent, he will finish. The night’s fabric is torn, and I deeply regret my childish urge to eavesdrop. I stay awake for most of the night, upset with my brothers for talking in the dark. Braced for ugliness and disorder I still couldn’t name, I brought this story back to the suburbs, a new, eccentric thumping in my chest.