"I don't like the way he looks at her."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't mean anything. I just don't like the way he looks at her."
"Melissa likes him. She thinks he's nice." And so do I, Ann Taylor thought. She didn't want to talk about this again. She didn't say so.
"Nice to her. Of course he's nice to her. I'll bet." Mrs. Kensington took a quick sip of her tea. "I bet he's really nice to her. You know what I mean, Annie. A grown man shouldn't be looking at a little girl that way."
"Bert Gordon? You think he's like that? Eileen!" Ann glanced at the wall of her kitchen, as if she could see through the dining room beyond, through the bricks, across twelve feet of grass, and into Bert Gordon's home. For a moment, she imagined him sitting in the recliner near his TV, flipping through pornography books. And then leering at videos. It was so incongruous she almost smiled. Eileen Kensington was looking at the mottled surface of her tea. The creamer had left a vague oil slick. She surrounded the cup with both hands, as if to catch the warmth. Ann Taylor stared at her friend.
She'd known Eileen for a couple of years. They had seen each other occasionally at the market; Eileen lived down the block, and she had been friendly when Ann and Dougie walked by in the evenings. After Walter moved out, two years ago, Eileen turned up one morning with fresh-baked bread. Ann wasn't ready to talk, but Eileen could not be turned aside. Eileen had helped her get the job at Albertson's. They sat in her kitchen now, most mornings, after Melissa and Dougie left for school, until it was time for work.
Bert Gordon was Ann's neighbor, a bachelor, about her age, maybe a few years older. He and Walter had talked over the fence a lot, the three or four years before the divorce. But they were never all that friendly. Walter was snide about Bert's "education" when he talked to Ann about their neighbor, and Bert seldom started the conversations the two men had at their boundary. He didn't seem to hit it off with Walter, and he expressed no surprise when she told him that her husband had left her.
"No loss, frankly," he had said, shocking her a bit. Then he told her about the time he and Walter had been standing in his front yard, shooting the bull, and the cat from the next house over had come up to them. "It meowed at us like we owed it something," Bert said, "and Walter kicked it without even looking down." He was silent for a moment, then he added, "You can tell a lot by how a man treats dumb animals."
He was nice to her and Dougie and Melissa, and he listened when she talked about some of the uglier things she'd been through with Walter, about the hardships over having to work, and the relief of not pretending everything was all right. He'd given the kids Christmas presents each year, even before. "Christmas requires kids to give presents to; I just thought I'd borrow yours, since mine are grown," he had said to Walter the first time, when he gave the kids each a book. After the divorce, she'd gotten to know him better, and Melissa did like him. And Dougie; but Dougie liked everybody.
That morning, Bert and Melissa had left at the same time, waving and smiling to each other, Melissa off to school, Bert headed for his car and work. Eileen was just coming up the walk, and she saw it all. So had Ann, for that matter, and she'd waved too as he got in his car, and he'd said good morning and it's going to rain. He was nice. And Melissa knew about the things to watch out for. She knew that even her Daddy was not allowed to have bad secrets. Ann was getting close to angry now, sitting at her kitchen table with Eileen Kensington, thinking about what had set this off.
"Bert's known Melissa since she was four years old," she said.
Eileen sighed. "I'm sorry I said anything, Annie. What do I know? If you want ‘Lissa to play with a grown man, it's not my place...."
"You make it sound like you've seen something," Ann said. "You can't just say something like that with no evidence." She almost asked if Melissa had told her something, but she didn't want to open that can of worms. Don't help her, for Heaven's sake, she thought.
Eileen lifted weary eyes to her friend's face. "Evidence," she said flatly. "You think Albert Gordon is going to do things when he can get caught? You think he's that stupid?" She shook her head. "People never suspect untilBang!it happens. And there you are."
Ann Taylor changed the subject. She mentioned Mary Kimball's mastectomy, and Eileen picked that up. She half listened, nodding when she should. She and Bert Gordon were friends. Eileen could be exasperating sometimes. Always seeing the worst in people. If Eileen didn't tend the kids, she wouldn't be able to work, that was true; and she was a help in other ways. It had been good, once her shyness was past, to talk about Walter, and his girlfriend, and the child support battle. She didn't tell Eileen any dirty secrets, though.
And Dougie liked Eileen Kensington. Of course, he liked everybody. And Eileen knew cookies were the way to a boy child's heart. Melissa was a different story. She had complained once that Mrs. Kensington was nosy; what a surprise. But Ann Taylor had nothing to hide, nothing she was ashamed of, anyway, and Melissa was good at saying no to nosy questions. That's a fact. She was a ten-year-old with spirit.
Bert. He'd moved in next door more than five years ago. Six. He'd known them for some time, and watched Walter's attitude get ugly and said nothing, keeping out of their business. He was a nice man, supportive when he knew she wanted support. After Walter was long gone, after the divorce was final, she'd even thought, for a while... but he wasn't her type, honestly, and he didn't seem interested either. Just a friend, after all. She wasn't much of a catch, truth be told, with her pear bottomgravity's curse.
She touched her hair, tuning in to Eileen's voice vaguely, but not really listening. She had seen grey in her hair lately. It seemed premature, the grey. Of course. She was getting careful how she looked in the mirror, she thought. No more than she had to. But her mind kept turning back to Bert as Eileen wondered if Mary's husband was as supportive as he might have been. They'd gotten together for Thanksgiving, she and Bert and the kids. He brought wine and a homemade pie. And he always had Christmas gifts for the kids and her. Nothing expensive, just nice. Thoughtful. Books, usually. The one with the moth was still Dougie's favorite.
Ann had to leave for work at ten. As they started down her stairs, Eileen glared at the Gordon house. His porch light was on. It was always on.
"He lives all alone over there," she murmured.
"Well, lands, Eileen, so do I! Except for the kids and the dog."
Eileen looked sternly at Ann.
"Make light of it," she said. She turned away, and they left together, down the block to Eileen's house and the grocery a block farther.
That evening, Ann told Melissa about their vacation trip, planned for the Fourth of July weekend, another visit to their grandmother's. They hadn't been back since Papa's funeral. The store manager had approved her request for the time off, and her mother had bought plane tickets. "For an early Christmas present," she had said when Ann protested. When she broke the news to Melissa, her daughter jumped straight up and swung a broad backwards haymaker like a basketball player after a slam dunk. Then she said, "I'm gonna tell Mr. Gordon!" and headed for the door.
Ann looked at her daughter's face. Losing her Daddy was hard. And he didn't care about her at all, Walter; she'd figure that out eventually. That would be hard. "Don't forget your homework," she said.
"Yeah. Right." With a launching bob toward her mother, like a wild curtsey, Melissa spun and ran out the door, her dog at her heels. In a few seconds, she was on Bert Gordon's porch, breathless and grinning.
"Hey, Mr. Gordon, I'm going to Omaha to see my gran'ma again!"
Bert Gordon looked up from his Discover magazine. He sat on the porch to smoke and read. He subscribed to lots of magazines, so he had a new one every few days. Discover, Smithsonian, Time and Newsweek, American Heritage and Esquire, even two women's magazines that he read a bit of then left for Melissa to read and take to her motherVanity Fair and Redbook. Ann borrowed the news magazines, too, and sometimes Melissa also took the science magazines, if there was a good story, like about dinosaurs. Or diseases. Ann said the science magazines were way over her head, but she was grateful Melissa got to enjoy them. With just child support and Albertson's, she certainly couldn't afford magazines. They just got the paper.
He read in the evenings, usually, smoking a cigar. It was a regular habit in the summer. When he had magazines for her, Melissa would sit in the matching deck chair and read too, sipping lemonade or creme soda he brought her from his fridge. Bert Gordon enjoyed his cigar and iced Jack Daniels, and they read without much conversation, like two retired gentlemen on their porch, unless Melissa found something worth repeating, or something raised a question. Sometimes Ann and Dougie would join them, but Dougie lacked patience. The silence was maddening and the conversation was boring. More often, Ann took him for a walk and left them to their sober studies.
Mr. Gordon removed the smoldering cigar from his mouth and lowered the magazine to his lap. "You going to drive?"
"Silly! I can't drive!"
He slapped a palm to his head dramatically. "What was I thinking?! Well, is your mother going to drive?"
"My mom can't drive a plane!"
"So you're going to fly?" She got her mouth open before he blurted, "Don't say it!"
"What're you going to do with Rotifer?"
"‘Rover is going to camp'," she said, mimicking her mother's tone. Rotifer was her dog, a little mongrel, mostly Australian Shepherd, that she'd had for about two years. The puppy had been a birthday present, the first birthday after her daddy left. As soon as her friends had left and the party was over, she had brought the puppy over to meet Mr. Gordon, tucked into her coat against the cold. Mr. Gordon had been on the porch, just like this evening, except with his winter coat on, smoking. She'd introduced the puppy as "Rover," and Mr. Gordon had claimed he thought the dog's name was ‘Rotifer.' It became the dog's secret name. Her mother had named him without consulting Melissa.
"I thought you said ‘rotifer,'" Mr. Gordon had said when she mentioned wishing the puppy had a special name.
"What's a rotifer?" she had asked, looking down at the new puppy.
"I think it's some kind of one-celled thingie, like a paramecium."
"Para-me-see-um. It sounds like a pair of mice!"
"Amoeba. That's a one-celled animal."
"I know about amoebas. I saw some in a microscope. They're neat! They just oosh around."
"There was a movie about a giant amoeba. The Blob!" he added, menacingly. "Tried to eat Steve McQueen."
"Is he an actor?"
"Used to be."
"You mean he quit?"
"No, he died." He had paused reflectively. "Cancer."
"My gran'pa had cancer, I think."
"Yeah. I remember."
"Nobody said." She had been seven when her grandfather died, the summer before she got the dog, before her father moved out. Ann had talked to Bert then about how to "break it to her," but he'd been no help. The day they renamed the dog, a year later on her eighth birthday, was the first he'd realized that she still didn't know what her grandfather died of. Grown-ups! he had thought, and he had smiled at the strong little girl on his porch, her puppy peeking from her coat. She was worried that the new puppy would not be sufficiently distinguished by its name. And offended, he thought, in that resigned way kids learn to be, by adult secrecy.
"I got to go then," she said, hugging the new puppy. "To the funeral? They wouldn't say what happened; just he died. There was this man, my Uncle Fred, he kept saying Gran'pa's ‘gone away.' Then he'd say, ‘to a better place.' I thought Omaha was pretty nice. I want to go to the zoo if we ever go again." She'd pulled the puppy from her coat and held it up to her face and said, "Rotifer." The puppy grinned back agreeably. He was named.
"I don't suppose there are many better places than Omaha," Mr. Gordon had said, smiling at the dog and its eight-year-old owner.
That was how, two years back, the dog had become ‘Rotifer' for all the kids and for Mr. Gordon. Ann Taylor had been startled at first, the first time she heard it. But she decided it was just one of those silly word games Melissa loved. Once, when Bert slipped and called the dog "Rotifer," she had corrected him. "His name is Rover, actually. The kids just call him that."
Rotifer, two now and a rambunctious ball of grey silky fur, grinning his infectious, toothy grin, was checking Mr. Gordon's front yard tree. Melissa shifted her weight to one hip and stuffed her right hand in her back jeans pocket.
"So you're going to get your chance to see that zoo. After all these years," he said to Melissa, drawing out the last words a bit. "You think it's still there?" He opened his eyes wider, looking innocent.
She gave him a sharp, exasperated look to say she was on to him, thank you, and then she spun and sat in the other chair, scooting back firmly. It was a big wooden deck chair, and deeper than the length of her upper legs. The edge struck her calves. Her lower legs stuck out at a bit of an angle, and she straightened one leg. She looked at her scruffy jean cuffs. She turned the raised foot slowly, rotating her ankle. Mr. Gordon put his Discover on the concrete and leaned back. He drew on the cigar. He was always careful to blow the smoke away from her; this time, off to the south and up so it made a thin cloud near the porch ceiling. She wrinkled her nose anyway, scrunching her face in disgust.
"Camp, huh?" he said. "Tell your mom he can stay here if she wants. When are you going?"
"July second. That's two weeks."
"I gotta go," she said, suddenly. She bounced up and was gone, Rotifer rushing away with her. Bert Gordon smiled to himself, examined the ash of the cigar, and went back to his magazine. Punctually, in a moment Ann's screen door slammed.
The next morning, Eileen came by Ann's to sit and talk over coffee, as usual after her John had gone off to work and Ann's kids were gone for school.
"There was that doctor, you know, up in Lovell," Eileen said.
Ann was startled. Then she recognized yesterday's topic in its new form. "The dentist, you mean?"
"Doctor, dentist," Eileen said dismissively. There was no point in correcting Eileen Kensington. "He was messing with his female patients."
"That was grown women, I thought. And he drugged them."
"You think he checked their ages? When John and me lived in Evanston, we had this man, Randy Hansen, he seduced an eighteen-year-old girl, just out of high school. He took his car to be serviced, and they found pictures."
"You mean, of her?" Ann paused. "Doing things?"
"Naked. Heck sake, Annie, I didn't see them. Naked pictures of her. Linda something. Tavener, Linda Mae Tavener. He was old enough to be her father. Thirty. Thirty-five, I guess."
"Andrew Tavener and his friends took that Randy out somewhere and fixed him."
"You mean..." Ann said faintly.
"They cut him, Annie. Do I have to spell it out for you? They fixed him so he wouldn't care about girls any more."
"Oh," Ann said in a small voice. She didn't want to know this story. Her stomach hurt. Sometimes talking with Eileen was like watching a wreck go by; you couldn't help but look, no matter how much you didn't want to. She drank the last of her coffee, looked at the clock.
"Then when he got out of the hospital, he killed himself in the garage. He got stinking drunk and turned on the car. They didn't find him for a long time. Then they looked in the garage."
"I have to get to work," Ann said. Glancing at her purse on the sink, she thought, Melissa will be old enough to take care of Dougie soon. Twelve. Maybe sooner. She avoided looking Eileen in the face. She wanted to ask Eileen how she knew these details, but no. No questions. She wanted it to stop now.
"Andrew told my John about it. All of it. They sent Linda to live with her aunt. She swore up and down he didn't interfere with her. What do you expect? She loved him." Eileen dropped the verb between them like a jagged piece of wire. Ann stood up and got her purse. "At least she wasn't pregnant," Eileen added.
As they stepped off the porch, Bert pulled up next door and got out of his car. He looked to be in a hurry.
"Albert Gordon! What have you been up to?" Eileen shouted, so cheerily that he and Ann were both startled.
"Forgot something," he said, half jogging to his house.
"You take care now," Eileen yelled, smiling. He waved, unlocked his door, and disappeared inside.
Eileen walked with Ann down the block to her own house. Ann went on to Albertson's. She was working some extra hours, and Eileen insisted the kids would not be a problem. The extra hours would cover some of the cost of the vacation. Just two weeks away.
They were in Omaha nearly a week. Melissa made it to the zoo. And so did Dougie, who was scared of the giraffes, f'Pete's sake, as Melissa confided to Mr. Gordon the day they returned.
A few days after they got back, the kids went to visit their dad. Ann let Melissa take Rover along. She wouldn't have, normally, but they were just back, and Melissa didn't want him to get lonesome "again." Ann invited Bert over for dinner while they were gone, a quiet evening, a pleasant summer night.
When the kids and the dog got back from Walter's, there was some new tension, something that had put a cloud on Melissa. Ann couldn't get it out of her. She had a bad scratch on her thigh, but it didn't look infected. And it was nothing earthshaking, after all. Rover had jumped up on her and caught her with a nail. No reason to be sulking. Or mean, for that matter. "Melissa, what is it?" she said after the girl snapped at Dougie and reduced him to tears.
"Daddy hates my dog!" she cried, her voice wavering between plaintive and defiant. She threw herself onto the couch and stared at the television, her back to her mother. Ann studied her stiff back. Melissa swung her hand in a sideways arc, striking the back, the knuckles, against the unpadded wood on the arm of the couch.
"He doesn't hate your dog," Ann said, "and even if he does, just don't take him any more. Don't do that." Melissa didn't react. It was as if she hadn't heard, but she didn't hit the couch again. She stared at the TV. Then she got up and went to her room. Ann was relieved. Walter. They were lucky to rid of him. She began preparing dinner.
She decided to make her mother's great biscuits for dinner. She hadn't tried in years, but Melissa and Dougie both loved them, and they were fast. The kids had a fit when Grandma produced them Saturday at dinner. Maybe it would lift Melissa's cloud a little. She wasn't much of a baker, though. She discovered, after scanning through the recipe and checking her cupboards, that she didn't even have baking powder. She called Melissa and sent her over to Bert's.
He was on the porch, reading the paper.
"Mom says can she borrow some baking powder. She's totally out," she said by way of greeting. She didn't make eye contact, and her tone was sullen. Mr. Gordon knew better than to smile.
"I think I have it. Let's look." He got up, putting the paper down on a new Redbook. He went inside. Melissa followed him.
He glanced back at her as they crossed the living room. She was limping slightly, wincing as she moved her right leg.
"What's up? D'you hurt your leg?"
"Rotifer jumped up at Dad's. He scratched me. Bad!"
She slumped like a discarded puppet into a kitchen chair while he searched the shelves for baking powder. She looked around. His kitchen was messy, not like her mom's, but not too bad. He just didn't put stuff away. He had a nice picture on the wall, over by the phone, but with no clothes on. It was a girl, like a Greek goddess, sort of, in a temple, and with some filmy stuff on but you could see all through it. He had some roses dried up on the window in a vase, almost black. She guessed they were his red ones. Lemonade mix was by the sink. The table was between them. It had salt and pepper shakers. And some bread crumbs, on the other side. He probably ate there.
"Here it is," he said, putting the can on the table between them but not letting go of it. It was more on his side of the table than hers, his hand gripping the top of the can, as if he were leaning on it. "Sorry about your leg."
"Daddy said he'd kill him," she said, turning her head away. Mr. Gordon's kitchen calendar was on the wall by the door to the front room, so she hadn't seen it when they came into the kitchen. It was some kind of painting, like a western with horses. It had some writing on it, and a couple of green circles he made in green ink.
"I'm sure he didn't mean it," he said. He waited for her to look up. She looked at his fridge. Magnets, but no pictures or messages. She looked back at the calendar.
"He meant it," she said in a fierce whisper, glaring at the horses. "He meant it!" She looked for something else to stare at; nothing.
"Grown-ups are always exaggerating," Mr. Gordon said. He took a step toward her, toward the corner of the table. He was still holding the can of baking powder. He lifted it, as if to hand it to her, but then didn't. He sank into the chair on his side of the table and put the can between them again, releasing it and letting his arm rest on the table.
"He meant it," she said to the horses.
Mr. Gordon looked at the can. It was red, lidded with plastic. It was nearly full.
"He threw a knife!" she cried suddenly. "He threw a knife right at him, and it crashed against the wall. He threw it!"
"In the kitchen. He was cutting and Rotifer jumped up. He jumped up on me and he got under my dress and scratched me and I hollered at him and he ran away and Daddy was cutting a chicken with his big knife but he shouted at Rotifer and just threw it. The knife. Then he chased him."
She began to cry, like a wall collapsing, hysterical gulping sobs that stabbed Mr. Gordon like a thrown knife.
"Well," he said lamely, "he missed, huh? With that knife."
"He hit him," she said between gasps. "I said stop and he just hit him and hit him. Roty screamed."
He stared at the sobbing child. He looked at his walls, his windows. She kept crying. He started to say something, thought better of it, stared at her distraught face.
She wouldn't stop crying, and there was nothing he could think of to say. She had abandoned herself to her weeping. She looked around the room, as if she had lost something, as if she was alone in a strange place and had lost something and couldn't leave till she found it. She struck the back of her hand against the edge of the tableonce, twice, then again.
He stood up and came around the corner of the table, moving into her line of sight. He sank to his knees in front of her. She braced her head back against the chair and she struck the table edge again, and once more, hard enough that he was afraid she would bruise. Her nose was running, and her face was shiny, streaked with tears.
He put his arms around her, pulling her slim shoulders toward him.
"It's all right," he said. He put a hand on her head and pulled it to his shoulder. Her body jerked with the convulsions of sobbing, but she was bonelessly limp, and she got quieter against his shoulder, like a bird motionless in cupped hands. "I know it hurts," he said. "I know."
She put an arm around him. He wrapped her in both arms, pressing her against his chest. "He hurt him," she said, her voice muffled by his shirt.
"It's all right," he said. She sniffed, almost a gasp, her arm around his neck. "It's going to be Ok."