I do believe my mother loved me. She’d invested our Grünenthal settlement money well and lived frugally herself so I’d have enough after her death, and with my inheritance I was able to buy a house—a foreclosed home in a leafy town not far from the city. The house, a scruffy abandoned place offered as-is at public auction, would be my new purpose in life: I would transform it into a haven lovely and serene. There was much to do. Things had been left behind: soggy boxes, broken chairs, a doorless cabinet, and in the corner of the living room, a heap of shoes and boots in all sizes, from toddler to large man.
I had the means to hire people to clear the place out, but I like the feel of physical labor. My two legs are rock-solid—impressive for any fifty-five-year-old woman—and so are my one and a half arms. I rented a 20-yard roll-off dumpster, now lodged at the curb in front of my house, and commenced clearing debris, load after load of old cookware, moldy children’s books, a bent bicycle, the boots. Of course, I made more trips than someone with two hands would have: that was the point, to feel the muscles of my body work to near exhaustion. The larger boxes I gripped with my right hand and rested against my left shoulder, my left limb raised high to balance them. I’m lucky to have the arm down to the elbow—many thalidomide babies have only a bulbous lump at the shoulder—and I’m lucky to have my two fingers attached to the stump, though I know it’s the fingers—thick and flipper-like, sprouting from an elbow—that upset people.
I began clearing mid-morning and worked without a break, not even for lunch. I don’t especially like eating. The early September sun was strong, and I loved the tickle of sweat on my skin. At twilight, a coolness descended, bringing with it a trace of autumn scents. Overhead viridian leaves had begun their morph into yellow ochre, crimson, raw sienna. I was enjoying this vivid scene, shuttling crap out of my kitchen, when the gold Highlander rolled up, parked at the foot of my dumpster, and discharged a blond man. Laptop case in hand, striding toward the front door of the house next to mine, he shot me a few smiley glances before slipping inside.
I’d been too busy with my work and dreams of my house transformed to notice anything about the neighbors. I paused now to examine the house next door. It was grander than mine, new construction built to look authentic, like a classic American four-square, sided in moss-colored vinyl. My home did not need to pretend to be original—it was: stucco and clapboard, its wide roof rising to a modest point, a dormer crouching beneath, its window like a single peering eye, slightly sinister. My place was quirky; I loved it. My front yard was not too big—perfect. Then I saw, on the neighbors’ short elm-shaded lawn, toys: a miniature football embedded in the grass, a Barbie convertible. Children. Children, right next door. I flung a box into my dumpster, went in for another, and when I re-emerged, the blond man was coming toward me, across our connected lawns, wearing jeans and a tee shirt now, smiling with many teeth in a big bald face and saying, “Howdy! I’m Steve! Need a hand?”
Of course, this happens to me all the time: the words handy, handle, handful pop into the speech of well-meaning strangers who are then mortified, their eyes leaping open with embarrassment. Steve’s face drained of color.
“I’m fine,” I quipped. “I like it.”
For a moment we stared at one another, my inscrutable reply lodged between us. What had I meant by “it”? A thoughtless comment? His hand? He nodded, ashen, and I bleated, “I’m Marlis. Nice to meet you”—a ridiculous abrupt attempt to seem affable. I continued down my walkway, and, I suppose, he went back into his house.
In my defense, I’m not accustomed to interacting with people. It’s not that I’m unfriendly; I don’t dislike people. But decades of experience have conditioned me to expect discomfort from strangers. To avoid looking at my deformed arm, they look at my face, which is also not terribly pleasing. I had not inherited my mother’s German beauty; I’d gotten my American father’s peculiar mix of Scottish, Dutch, Lithuanian, and Navajo—a sagging chin, winding nose, narrow eyes. An American soldier stationed in West Berlin in the 1950s did not have to be handsome to snag a gorgeous German wife. So people couldn’t say of me, she has a pretty face. Beyond this, I’m a classic introvert. I’ve never had that oversized, loud-story-telling personality that American culture has deemed “good.” All my life, my main companions were my mother and myself, and while my mother was generally melancholy, I’m pretty good company—I read a lot, paint landscapes in oils, enjoy documentaries on DVD, listen to National Public Radio, investigate topics on the Internet. For many years I worked as a freelance copyeditor for textbook companies—until they thought Spellcheck could replace me—so I’m familiar with a variety of subjects. And now I have this house, which I intend to transform into a thing of beauty, and after I do, I will adopt two orange cats, whom I will name Butch and Sundance. The thought of this floods me with contentment.
Night fell, and I worked at scouring the kitchen. The linoleum was revolting, no matter how much I scrubbed it, the pattern a sort of grim gray crosshatch. I couldn’t wait to rip it up. I washed down the laminate countertops and the windowsill and discovered I could see directly into the neighbors’ window. Our houses were at most five feet apart. So I flipped off my lights and indulged in some neighborly spying. There was Steve, all shiny, standing behind a kitchen island stocked with wicker baskets of fruit and gourds. Beside him was a woman, undoubtedly Mrs. Steve—a busy blonde as tall as he was. She wore a tight sequined Minnie Mouse tee shirt, and her mouth was chattering. In front of the kitchen island, on two cherrywood spindle-back chairs, squirmed two children—a girl, maybe five, even blonder than her parents, and a boy, maybe three, a redhead. The children were eating the last of their cookies, showering the tabletop with crumbs, as their parents merrily rinsed and stacked the dishes in the dishwasher. I couldn’t hear them, of course, but I watched until their kitchen was tidy, their tabletop wiped with an elegant swoop of an arm, and their window went dark.
After a week in my new house, I had to berate myself for my lack of progress. I’d cleared the main floor but had not yet started on the basement, and the dumpster had to be returned. Cracks were half spackled, loose floral wallpaper only half pulled off walls. I was wasting too much time spying on the Hamiltons. That’s who they were—Steve and Sherri Hamilton. I knew this because The Hamiltons was written across their mailbox in metal curlycue script, and one day when they were out, I peeked inside it and found magazines addressed to “Sherri.”
Why did I find them so irresistible? I had a theory. It was not that I envied them. I’ve lived long enough to know that marriage is not what it’s promised to be, and I’d never wanted children. More women feel this way than is generally suspected. My fascination with the Hamiltons, I believe, was a way of grieving my mother. I watched this window-framed couple and their perfect children in modern-day Norman Rockwell poses and thought, here was the life my mother had dreamed of, anticipated, expected. Instead, she got eight decades of guilt and self-punishment, living with the devastating consequences of what she did not know—first, that her beloved homeland was destroying whole races of people, and second, that taking thalidomide for nausea during pregnancy caused malformed fetuses. How could she have known? Poor Mother, prone to fits of apology for taking the drug. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know my deformity was “her fault.” She would cry at the kitchen table, and I would comfort her with one-armed hugs. By contrast, she never spoke of her childhood in Nazi Germany. When I was a teenager, I asked her about the bombing of Berlin. “It was very bad times,” she said, “I survived,” her tone riddled with regret. She was fourteen in 1945. I never asked if she’d been taken through the death camps to witness the piles of gaunt corpses. She wouldn’t have answered. Once I said, “It was lucky your family lived on the west side,” and she nodded, still not happy. She had no words to describe the Communists. The only trace of her childhood was a photograph of her, age eight, folded into the arms of her lovely round-faced mother, surrounded by the happy handsome faces of her older brothers and father, all in Nazi uniforms. The brothers had died in battle, and her father had simply vanished after the war, leaving his wife and daughter to live in the rubble by themselves. I knew this only because my father had told me.
Once I said, “It was lucky you met Dad,” and she nodded. He was a good man—too quiet, perhaps; a little homely; not really what she had in mind; but he was a decent man. He’d brought her to the U.S. just before the Berlin Wall went up. I know she missed him when he died—too young, from cancer—but I could also tell she took his loss to be part of her punishment.
“Mom,” I said out loud one evening as I spied on the Hamiltons, as though calling her to come see. “Mom”—and I was overwhelmed with sadness, thinking what a bad deal she’d gotten in life.
The second Sunday in my house, someone knocked on my door. It was the little Hamilton girl. “Hello,” she said, composed and grown up, her face corrugated on the other side of the screen. “My name is Emma,” she smiled, and I smiled and wondered why every little girl these days was named Emma. Eventually I said, “I’m Marlis.”
She held out a plastic bag of tomatoes and cucumbers. “These are from our garden. Mommy said I could bring them if I didn’t stare at your arm.”
“Oh.” I opened the screen door and took the bag with my normal hand. “Tell her thank you.”
“Did you get it caught in a machine? Daddy’s Uncle Tony got his caught in a machine.”
“No,” I replied, truly hoping the Hamiltons were not scheming to set me up with their one-armed Uncle Tony. “I was born this way.”
Emma craned forward to better see the oddity. It was my habit, when speaking to people, to keep my left arm tucked behind my back. Then Emma peered into my face. “Once I got babysat by Jamie Kitchka.” We gazed at each other, my hazel eyes fixed on her cerulean ones.
“Who is Jamie Kitchka?”
“The girl that used to live here.”
“Oh.” And I wondered aloud, “How long ago did that family leave?”
“I don’t know. Years and years. Where did they go?”
“I don’t know.”
She pressed her face into a frown. “They got ejected.”
“Did your parents say that?”
She nodded solemnly.
“Do you think they said ‘evicted’?”
The nodding stopped and she burst into giggles, “Oh, yeah.”
I grinned and wanted her to go away. “Okay. Good-bye, Emma.”
“Bye!” she sprinted off, and I stood with a bag of produce that would go bad before I could eat it.
Of course, the far greater burden was this new information I’d received. For two weeks I’d been throwing out a family’s belongings unthinkingly, incuriously. Now the family had a name—the Kitchkas. Was that Polish? Czech? I couldn’t help but feel I’d displaced them—at the least, I’d benefited from their misfortune, and I’d been too self-absorbed to even wonder about them. Now, as I worked to clear the basement of their dust-topped boxes, I was compelled to open each one first and sift through the contents. The Kitchkas appeared to have several children, or a few children who had way too much stuff. Little shirts and shorts and dresses—I should be giving these things to charity, not dumping them into landfills. Valuable moments were lost as I held up every red racecar shirt and purple bunny jumper to see if its condition merited donation. Then I found the box of photos.
They were old-fashioned snapshots—four-by-sixes in stiff yellow drugstore envelopes. There were photos of Christmas morning, of children blurrily ripping open gifts. One featured a little girl—Jamie?—posing with her new karaoke machine. The next several pictures were of this girl, her brown hair smoothed back and clipped with a plastic Disney princess, singing into the microphone, surrounded by clapping adults. Aunts and uncles? It was odd to see these cold still images with no sound. Somewhere, I hoped, the Kitchkas had video of her performance.
The snapshots were endless: babies, toddlers, a mongrel puppy. Surely the Kitchkas hadn’t meant to leave these behind. Surely they would want them back. Slowly an idea assembled itself in my brain: I could try to find the Kitchkas. I could find them and return their treasured belongings. Yes, I could do this. The thought of it pumped me with the feel of helium: what a good person I’d be!—a person who cared about strangers, and acted on it. I imagined the Kitchkas flinging open their door to me, throwing their grateful arms around me.
My mother would have been appalled. She’d often lectured, in her jumbled idiom, that I was never to “stick my foot” into other people’s business. My mother believed in privacy and self-sufficiency. We never hosted dinner parties or chatted with neighbors. She stayed inside, and she wanted me with her. All my childhood I’d heard, “You don’t have to go, Marlis”—to whatever—someone’s birthday party, a play at school. I could still hear her cottony voice. You don’t have to go, Marlis, she’d say, with a stutter of hope that I wouldn’t. Stay inside today, Marlis.
I’ve wondered if it was the Nazi in her—was she ashamed of having produced an imperfect child? Or was she trying to protect me, worrying about the Nazi in other people, even in a nice place like Illinois? In either case, it hardly improved my chances in the world—being hidden away like a family secret, kept close to a guilt-ridden woman so overcome with anxiety that it sloshed over onto me. I’d tried making forays into the world, but always somehow found myself back in her shadow, treating myself as she’d treated me, hiding myself away. In my thirties, I diagnosed myself with social anxiety disorder. I bought The Idiot’s Guide to Enhancing Your Social IQ. It was helpful.
Perhaps, I thought now, the Kitchkas were my opportunity to start becoming who I’d always admired: people who go out in the world and entangle themselves with others. I unearthed a silver-framed, eight-by-ten J. C. Penney portrait of a young couple humped proudly over their toddler—the dark-haired girl, in a red velvet Christmas dress. The mother looked pregnant, vaguely Hispanic. They were beautiful people, glossy and bright. I took the photo upstairs and posed it on my mantel.
My Internet search for “Kitchka” was not productive. A depressingly large number of obituaries appeared on my screen, though they were all for elderly Kitchkas. No information on the geographic distribution of Kitchkas was available, though I don’t know why I wanted to know that. I was pummeled by pop-up ads for Ancestry.com and other products intent on collecting my personal data. I learned that “Kishka” refers to Jewish recipes. “Jamie Kitchka” yielded nothing. Of course, I don’t do Facebook.
So the next time I spied the Hamiltons in their backyard, I made myself step out onto my deck and call over the privacy fence, “Hello!”
“Well hey, Marlis!” Steve sang back. Beside him, the little boy was bouncing. “Marlis, meet Jayden. Jayden, say hello to Marlis. Marlis,” Steve said again, being the type of person who says people’s names, “Here’s my wife, Sherri.”
Sherri rushed from their detached garage, which loomed over my smaller one. “Great to meet you!” she bubbled. “We’re so glad someone finally bought that house—it’s a great house,” she said, though it was clearly not as “great” as theirs. “We were just saying how happy we are someone bought that house and we should have you over for cocktails sometime soon though I’m not drinking right now—” Here she paused to shriek out a laugh and pat her belly, “I’m expecting again! We’re having another boy we’re so excited! He’s gonna be your special little buddy, right, buddy?” she said to Jayden. “So let me ask you something, Marlis: we’re thinking of the name Ryder but my mom says that’s a truck. You know those rental trucks? Do they still have those? I don’t know, when I say ‘Ryder’ do you think of a truck? Ryder, Ryder—did that make you think ‘truck’?” She went on about trucks—real trucks and toy trucks, then lurched onto the topic of dolls and subconscious sexism and toys that might be dangerous and toys lost on vacation and vacation plans and college funds. This is the type of chatter classic introverts like me cannot bear: this cacophony of random thoughts and associations, like a flock of seagulls gacking and flapping around wildly. I clung to the orderly thoughts in my brain. I was certain she would never stop talking. I clung to my porch railing. I began to lose sensation in my feet.
I realize this sounds judgmental. Clearly, Sherri Hamilton was a nice woman. Steve Hamilton was a nice man. Their children were attractive and well behaved. They were model Americans. Probably they had stick figures representing each family member adhered to the rear window of their SUV.
Suddenly Sherri stopped talking. She’d paused to swat a bee from Emma’s head, and I seized the moment. “About the family who used to live here,” I said, and the Hamiltons froze in place—even, I thought, the bouncy boy. A perfunctory sadness overcame them. “The Kitchkas,” Steve affirmed.
“What happened to them?” I asked. “They left a lot behind.”
“Just disappeared,” Sherri said spookily. “One morning they were just gone.”
“It was afternoon,” Steve corrected. “The bank foreclosed. They had one of those hinky mortgage deals, and I guess they didn’t know their adjustable rate could be, you know, adjusted.”
“How long ago did they leave?”
The Hamiltons conferred. She thought a year ago. He thought two. “We don’t know,” they concluded.
“Does anyone know where they went?”
Blank looks persisted. Then Sherri’s face blossomed with an idea. “We can ask around at the block party this weekend! All the neighbors will be out! Someone’s bound to know.”
“Great idea, Sherri!” Steve cheered, and I realized I was nodding. Block party. The phrase kicked at the inside of my skull. “Okay,” I said, “great.”
To be clear, I would rather stab myself in the thigh with a blunt utility knife than attend something called a “block party.” But if I wanted to learn the fate of the Kitchkas—if I wanted to step outside of my mother’s shadow and be who I wanted to be—I would have to go. I desperately wanted to be a better person. I had three days to prepare.
The next morning I awoke in such a foul mood I decided to treat myself to some unnecessary decorative thing at the Bed Bath. I love Bed Bath. But the northbound traffic on Harlem was maddening—vapid little wives gabbing on their phones in minivans, poking along five miles an hour below the speed limit. Everyone was the proud parent of an honor student somewhere. I tailgated them, honked, careened into the parking lane to pass them. In general, I would characterize myself as an impatient driver; today I was enraged. I hadn’t slept well. I did not want to go to this block party.
In the store, I battled my cart up the aisle. I handle shopping carts as well as any two-handed person, laying my forearm along the handle and using my right elbow as a counterweight. If today I crashed into an end cap display and terrorized other shoppers, it was intentional. I stopped at the kitchen section: rising 30 feet up a wall were rows of GoodGrip utensils, round and rectangular, black and white and pewter, their dense plastic packages twinkling in fluorescent light. It was too much for the human brain to take in. I retreated, banging into a stand of bakeware. I did not want to go to this block party.
The Hamiltons weren’t the only people on the block with little kids. What was I thinking, moving to this child-infested town? I have no tolerance left for children—I am tired of being their first lesson in not pointing and staring. I’ve trained myself to look away when I see them, but they lurk in my peripheral vision, parents tugging at them. I should have stayed in my apartment in the city, where there are too many people for anyone to be looking at anyone. Yet I’d wanted this home of my own—a house and a strip of land—a place to feel rooted, something solid and individual, some way to feel a part of the world. I hadn’t adequately thought this through—neighbors, families. Now I was faced with a God-forsaken block party, and children.
One evening decades ago, when I was a hopeful young woman dining in a restaurant, I spilled a bit of soup and made the mistake of grabbing the napkin with my left digits to clean up the mess. From across the room a little boy yelled, “Ewwww, look—she’s holding something in them!” His mother slapped his leg, but it was too late. I quit eating and sat, working out what was so awful: that the deformity was out in the open? That something that was not a hand was being used as a hand? Or, I thought with a dying heart, that I was touching something with this part of myself that wasn’t normal and therefore was unacceptable? That was it, I knew: I was too revolting for touch. My dinner growing cold, I held my left digits below the table and examined them. I’d always appreciated their attempt to become what they were supposed to be: the anterior was to be a thumb, I believed, and the thicker one was to separate into four slender fingers. I imagined I saw dents where the fingernails would have been. I left a generous tip on the table for the waitress and I fled, never returning.
Now I was speeding through Bed Bath, scraping merchandise off hooks with the edge of my cart. Really, this store had too much stuff packed in—why had I ever loved it?—wall after wall stacked with silverware and glassware and towels and sheets and blankets in every imaginable color. Then I came upon a display of clock radios—old-fashioned–looking things, like something from the 1980s. I paused to study them and found myself growing calmer. My mother had bought a similar clock-radio, along with many other new items, for my childhood bedroom when I graduated from college. She was so happy to have me home again. My first night back, I listened as she sang in the kitchen, making popcorn in the hot-air popper, staying up late with me to watch Monty Python on TV. We laughed together, and I kept glimpsing her face, shiny with joy—exultant because I’d come home. I remember thinking then, my mother loves me. She’d always loved me.
Then I realized: I do not have to go to this block party. I’d been pushing myself too hard. All those strangers and children. I am who I am, I thought; I can only do what I can do. Saturday morning I could say I wasn’t feeling well, a strategy that had worked all my life: people assume someone with a visible deformity has interior problems too. The Hamiltons could ask about the Kitchkas. I did not have to go to this block party.
Happy again, I headed toward the candle section. Here was something I’d enjoy: soothing scented candles glittering around the house. I pressed into their grotto, coped with the olfactory overload, and piled votives in my cart. Beyond the candles was a shelf of picture frames, some enormous with multiple openings for photos. I rolled closer. They were available in a variety of wood stains. They had clever designs. One had a silver cord draped like a clothesline from one side to the other, each hook on the line stamped with a letter: F, A, M, I, L, Y. Sample pictures of happy parents and children were clipped to each letter. The last photo, attached to the “Y,” was of a worried-looking cat.
An idea struck me, and suddenly I was putting collage frames in my cart: I could put the Kitchkas’ snapshots in these frames and hang them along the staircase—a generous act to compensate for my unwillingness to go outside and ask after them. I’d make a museum exhibit of them, I thought excitedly, gliding toward the checkout—it would be a tribute, a remembrance—and every night as I went up to bed I would think of the Kitchkas and keep them alive in the house and in my memory. They’d be a sort of family for me. This was good, I thought: no need to go to that block party.
By the time I got home, I’d had enough of my cowardice and rationalizations. Isn’t the human mind an amazing trickster? “Yes, Mutti,” I said aloud, knowing how she hated the German moniker. “I do have to go to the block party.” I would never become a better person if I kept cowering inside my dime-sized comfort zone. I had to go outside.
Unloading my candles and frames, I pep-talked myself. I knew how to do this. I’d wear a long-sleeved shirt and tie up the left sleeve. I’m lucky to have a normal right hand—the hand-shaking hand. I could remember to smile and make simple comments: That’s great. Wow. Awww. I would not imagine people were thinking negative thoughts about me. I’m an intelligent woman, I told myself: I can do this.
I laid the collage frames across my dining room table, brought up the box of Kitchka photographs, and selected pictures to put in the frames. One I filled with pictures of Jamie singing into her karaoke microphone. I imagined she had an astonishing voice, and I was struck by something she and I had in common: on my walls would be her singing unheard, like my paintings unseen. Another frame I filled with pictures of Jamie and her mother smiling, cuddling, eating birthday cake. In one close-up, the mother’s hand rested loosely on the daughter’s hair, and I recalled my mother’s touch, stroking the side of my head with long tender fingers. When I was little, she allowed me to pet her hair, too, with my right hand. Cautiously I would touch my fingertips to her blonde waves, pretending my fingers were little boats on a stormy sea. I loved being that close to her, hearing her easy breath, inhaling her soapy scent. Of course, as a teenager I was always mad at her—I was typical in that way. I hounded her about Nazi Germany. How could so many Germans have not known about the gas chambers? My history text contained a photo of Berlin after the Allied bombing—mounds of rubble settled under balls of sepia smoke—and I painted the scene in raw umber and burnt sienna, slapping the oils onto the canvas with my deformed fingers, spreading the morbid colors with the flat side of what should have been my thumb.
In the final year of her life, my mother was not clear-headed. Every day she began, as though she’d never said it before: “Marlis, when I was pregnant with you, I was so sick, so sick sick sick.” I tried to cut her off: “I know.” “I didn’t know . . . ” “I know.” “How could I know? I am sorry.” “I know.” She wouldn’t quit until I said, “I forgive you, Mother. It’s all right.” Every day I had to grant her this dispensation. “It’s all right.”
Maybe it wasn’t all right. Maybe she should have stopped to consider that taking thalidomide might harm me. Haven’t pregnant women through the ages survived nausea without a drug? Maybe I would have liked to have two complete arms and a few childhood friends and dates with men who spent more than one novelty night with me. If she couldn’t give me two complete arms, could she at least have given me a little confidence? Couldn’t she have helped me be in the world rather than locking me inside with our collective shame, making me wonder endlessly if she really did love me? But she never meant to hurt me. There is so much to not know. Wanting her to die in peace, I reassured her and in the process reassured myself: this is my life. I’m not unhappy. I’ve been satisfied, mostly, though looking now at the Kitchkas gathered at a Thanksgiving table in my own dining room, I couldn’t help but think this would have been nice, too—a little family, maybe. Listening to my daughter sing karaoke in my living room crowded with friends, and when she hit a high note, clapping my hands.
The Block Party began early, with happy shrieks of children reaching my open bedroom window by 8 a.m. I’m a person who values sleeping late. I rose to peer out at the flock of children fluttering round the cul-de-sac. There was no sign of the Hamiltons, or any adults, so I returned to bed and remained there till close to ten, when my doorbell rang—Sherri and Emma Hamilton come for me. Hurriedly I dressed, tied up my sleeve.
“Good morning, Marlis!” Sherri cheered from the bottom of my front steps. I tried to match her tone: “Hello!”
We began walking up the street, where a half-dozen neighbors had gathered beside a police sawhorse erected as a blockade. I drew in streams of air and let them out in measured jerks, but still my body tightened as we approached. Despite the overcast sky, the day held onto a late summer warmth and the neighbors were dressed in short-sleeved tops. My feet kept walking, one in front of the other, but my neck and shoulders and spine turned to stone. Emma pranced ahead a few feet, then back, again and again, as though tethered to her mother by an invisible rubber band. When we arrived at the circle of neighbors, a woman was in mid-chatter: “I told him that.”
“What did he say?” asked another woman in alarm.
“Student safety is our top priority, blah blah blah—”
“Did that satisfy you?” A third woman asked, her bobbing head shaggy as a Lhasa Apso.
“They could have been hit by a car!” The second woman shrieked.
“But they weren’t,” a man weighed in.
As the conversation trundled along, I deduced they were talking about a cross-country coach at the middle school, though how he was causing children to be nearly hit by cars remained unclear. Sherri listened with fervent attention: someday her children may be cross-country runners at the middle school. Apparently invisible, I floated off in my head: tomorrow I would go to Home Depot and look for bathroom tile. But would I regret cadmium yellow?
The conversation reached its dénouement, and Sherri began introducing me. The first man reached for a handshake, compelling everyone to do so. One after another, hands entered mine, round the circle, each shake accompanied by a name. My throat clamped shut; I never recall names. Sherri explained I was curious about the Kitchkas—did anyone know what happened to them?
An older husband and wife began to nod. They resembled each other—marriage can do that to people, I understand. They had slender heads on tall necks, large alert eyes, elongated noses—they looked like greyhounds, I realized, and felt myself smile. Air trickled into my chest again. Mrs. Greyhound said, “She lost her job and they couldn’t cover the mortgage, so the bank foreclosed.”
Mr. Greyhound frowned, “No-oh, they were underwater—and they walked.”
“What?” another man barked, straining at Mr. Greyhound like a pit bull. “No, sir, they were responsible folks. They both got laid off, and the bank took the house.” For some reason, Sherri began to giggle.
The woman complaining about the negligent coach perked up, small and mean and yappy. “Then they bought too much house. If you can’t cover your mortgage in the event of a layoff, you’ve bought too much house.”
“Does anyone know where they went?” I asked the group, the sound of my voice apparently surprising everyone.
“Back to Texas,” Lhasa Apso said.
“No, that was the Lancasters—remember the cowboy hats?”
“The Millers might know.”
The Millers, the Lancasters, the Hamiltons—was anyone on this block not attached to some proper-nouned unit? Pit Bull belted, “The McAuleys would know! Their son was good friends with the oldest Kitchka boy.”
“The McAuleys!” the ring of neighbors howled in unison.
“But they’re at Six Flags today!” Sherri fretted.
“They’ll be back in time for dinner tonight.”
Dinner? My intestines ached. Would I have to stay out here all day, and then—then, eat with these people? In my peripheral vision I caught a toddler furiously pedaling his big wheel at us; I hopped back just in time. Close behind him was another pack of neighbors—young parents and their little kids—the women trotting toward us, the men meandering, pausing to inspect bushes and small trees. In the lead were two women—one long-legged and elegant as an airedale, the other a stumpy-legged dachshund, who was raging, “She’d hate it! They said it’ll be easier to take care of now, and I said to them Isn’t that your job to take care of the people on your ward? She was always so particular about her hair!”
Airedale exclaimed, “I hope she doesn’t accidentally see herself in the mirror.”
“Hey, everyone!” Sherri called. “Come meet Marlis!” The new pack nosed their way into the existing circle. Airedale’s eyes glimpsed my empty sleeve, then snapped away. Sherri chirped, “Does anyone know where the Kitchkas went?”
“Didn’t they get foreclosed?” asked a young man with silky golden hair.
“Were those the people with the reindeer lawn ornaments that got stolen?”
“Who are you talking about?”
Dachshund squealed, “The Kitchkas. Kluskis are those egg noodles.” A wave of laughter traveled around the circle, and Sherri was reminded of Airedale’s to-die-for pasta salad. Was she bringing it again tonight? You could get gluten-free pasta now at the corner store, someone said; the Millers’ son had a peanut allergy, someone else added. What was the latest on getting healthy lunches into the elementary school? Was there a new music teacher yet? Should parents let their sons play football? What time did the Bears game start tomorrow? Did anyone have an air mattress to lend out?
A little girl ran up to Airedale, whining about a boy and a donut. The girl glanced at me and said, “Mommy, that lady only has one arm!” All eyes rolled toward my swinging sleeve, and my face caught fire. The pack grew silent, waiting for me to speak, expecting—what? a justification? an uplifting speech? I said nothing, and kept saying nothing, until a damp discontent thickened the air.
Then Dachshund began, “When I was in college, my roommate freshman year had a deformed hand.” She pointed her index finger up straight and stretched her thumb out at a right angle, unwittingly forming the “L” for “Loser.” “She had a regular thumb and one finger but then just little nubs and the whole hand was, like, withered—but she never hid it, and she was studying to be a grade school teacher! If some little kid in a store stared at her, Meredith would just march right up and say, ‘Hi!’ and she’d tell the mother it was okay, she didn’t mind—kids are curious, she’d say, that’s normal. Then she’d explain her hand was a birth defect and some people are born that way and that’s okay, she’d say, and it’s okay to be curious, and the moms would be so relieved! Isn’t that remarkable?”
Everyone nodded. I contributed, “We disabled people are quite inspirational.”
“My point is,” Dachshund continued at me, “it’s all in how you think about it. It’s, like, don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff! We all have some handicap to overcome, right?” Again heads nodded.
“Oh,” I replied, and in an inadequate attempt to fend off another silence, I said, “I see.”
It returned: an immense, oozing, oppressive silence, compressing our very souls, dragging on for many intolerable moments until Sherri, again for no reason, burst into giggles. It made everyone smile, including me. She laid a hand on my shoulder, her touch was so warm I wanted to fold up and fall into her arms. She said, “We’re gonna go find Steve and Jayden. Toy Story has got to be over by now!” And effortlessly she peeled me away from this unique circle of hell.
Side by side like good friends we walked back toward our homes. She didn’t speak, and I relished this long moment of simply being next to someone—this lovely smooth sensation. “I’m going in for a while,” I said. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Oh, no—are you okay?” Her pretty pastel face turned toward mine.
“I just need to rest a bit.”
“Of course!” she replied, as though she should’ve known a person with one arm needs frequent naps. “You’ll come out for dinner tonight, right? We’ll ask the McAuleys about the Kitchkas. I’ll save you a seat. It’ll be fun!”
Inside I lay on my couch with the lights out, like a migraine sufferer, though what ached was at the core of me. I lay there until evening came, and progressed, and Emma Hamilton rang my doorbell again and again and finally went away. I turned on the TV and ate some soda crackers, and when evening rolled into night, I went to bed and couldn’t sleep.
From below my open window came voices. I crept from my bed and peeked out. The neighbors had collected in the cul-de-sac around a flaming fire pit—they’d brought lawn chairs and coolers and reclined now in a timeless fraternity. I listened to their ardent hum of talk, their urgent reporting of worries about their children, their aging parents, their brothers or sisters getting divorced or marrying an inappropriate person. If the McAuleys were there, no one would remember to ask about the Kitchkas. I could still go outside, I thought. It was not too late.
Obviously, I was not going back outside. Inside, I was safe, and for the sake of preserving my flimsy self-esteem I was willing to not know about the Kitchkas. I crawled into my lavish bed and stretched my feet to the edge and wondered, what else was I willing to not know? But I would not punish myself for this. I would not hold myself to some unreasonable standard; I am not remarkable or exceptional. I am typical. Few people are willing to jeopardize their comfort or their righteous self-regard for the sake of knowing the dismal fate of others. I’d done as much as I could, and there would be other opportunities—or not. It was not my responsibility to return people’s abandoned belongings. It wasn’t my fault this family was evicted. It’s true what they say about personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. Anyway, I had the collage frames mounted on the wall along my staircase. I was doing more than these neighbors—I was remembering the Kitchkas, at least, and feeling bad for them. I drifted to sleep thinking of them, seeing their optimistic faces beaming at cameras, unaware of what was to come.
In the night I woke and thought I heard them—my ghost family—rustling downstairs. I lay still, listening to their music and giggles and conversation, and after a while I heard footsteps bumping up the stairs, voices and laughter rising. Through my bedroom door first came the children—Jamie in the lead, brothers following—romping in and chasing each other around my oval rug. Then my mother appeared, restored to her younger self, strong and full, snagging Jamie under the arms and raising her high with a shriek of delight. It made me happy to see her happy. Then came the Kitchka parents, leaning smiling in my bedroom door—our bedroom door—and a thrill shuddered through me: I was so lucky, immersed in such love and joy; so lucky that I was suddenly upright, laughing, and clapping my hands.