Kyle threw his basketball in the air; on its way down it killed Mrs. Bryant stone dead. It was a clean wholesome April day, and she’d been watering her rosebushes, until the ball descended like the hand of God and slapped her straight into the hereafter.
Harrison, the woman’s neighbor, was first on the scene. Every Saturday he walked his standard poodle to the dog park at the end of Preston Drive. This Saturday, he and Monica the dog walked only as far as 202 Belden, where they found Mrs. Bryant lying facedown in her Lady Banks rosebushes. The hose in her hand was still running.
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While Monica sniffed the soil around Mrs. Bryant’s left knee, Harrison panicked. He was not good at dealing with emergencies. He got flustered easily. This was a problem at the high school where he taught. Usually Harrison drove to Chik-fil-A for lunch, and read a paperback over his #4 combination.
So now, caught in the warm, humid smell of cut green grass, Harrison was utterly lost. He snuck his hand into his pocket for his cell phone; there was nothing. He looked up Belden, towards the intersection with Preston, and saw only the blank white faces of the empty houses. It seemed that everyone was napping. There were children selling something from a card table at 246, but he ruled them out: no one self-assured enough to handle sudden death would sell lemonade for five dollars a pop. The high price smacked of insecurity.
Harrison looked to the gray asphalt of the street. There was a basketball in the gutter, a new one, still bright orange, with the stiff parallel ridges of molded plastic banding the black bars not yet worn down. Even past the smell of the grass, Harrison could catch the tart sharp scent of the ball, the same sour perfume of unhappy days in gym class. Monica tugged on the leash; she knew when there was a job to be done. Also, she had to pee, and she sensed it would be inappropriate around a dead body. She was a very polite dog.
None of this changed the fact that here was a dead Mrs. Bryant, with the wide seat of her velour pantsuit streaked with soil, and Harrison didn’t know what to do. He thought back to when he’d seen her: at neighborhood open houses, a few times at Starbucks, and once when their hands accidentally met in the asparagus of the produce section. Mrs. Bryant. She ordered a grande Chai and liked asparagus. She made sausage balls for the open houses. Her son’s name was Peter and he had a realty firm in Tallahassee. She didn’t like dogs. She told anyone who would listen about the aphids on her Lady Banks roses, or how unusual they were in not having thorns.
Harrison told Mrs. Wilson later, in a slightly tasteless moment of honesty, that he thought about just running away and pretending he hadn’t seen her – which, in retrospect, might have been healthier for everyone. He should have left the discovery to someone more self-possessed, someone who would flip Mrs. Bryant over and confidently begin CPR while shouting instructions to the admiring crowd. Even if Mrs. Bryant had been dead as a doornail by then, at least the gawking neighborhood would have been comforted by the swift and decisive action of a local messiah. But this was Harrison, self-centered in the way of lonely people, who just went around the back of the house to turn off the hose, and stopped a moment to let Monica squat at the side of Mrs. Bryant’s garage.
Kyle ran, with his backpack thumping into his spine at every footfall. Kyle was a good runner; he was eleven, with the kind of elasticity that let him give his mom a big thumbs-up after being rammed into the hard dirt of the football field. As he ran, he saw the ball descending, again and again, into the gray cotton-candy cloud of Mrs. Bryant’s hair. Later, twenty-three and stoned, he told his girlfriend about that run: he said he saw the cracks in the sidewalk all trickling together, snaking along under his feet like water. He said he kept running, but he couldn’t get ahead of the sidewalk, and the cracks were moving along inexorably gaining speed under his sneakers, and he was so afraid to stop running that he couldn’t even force his fingers out of their fists. The girlfriend, an unfeeling and unoriginal person even under normal circumstances, said it was some strong shit, man.
But on that clear fresh-faced day in April, Kyle was sure Mrs. Bryant was dead. He had just watched his ball rise into the air from his hands, higher than he’d ever seen, slowly rotating orange against the succulent rich blue of the sky. Then it turned, plunged, and as it hit an invisible hand hurled Mrs. Bryant to the ground.
Harrison eyed the doorknob warily. Could he go in? He had read things in detective novels. Things that would make anybody anxious. Every jury in the world believed in fingerprints. But still – someone had to call 911, and there was nobody home next door. He put his hand in his sweater, against his stomach, and snuck up close to the door so that he could turn the knob with wool-covered fingertips. It swung open easily. Too easily, thought Monica.
Harrison and Monica took a few tentative steps into the living room. There was Mrs. Bryant’s living room, familiar from one of those clumsy Christmas parties infested with whining children, with the ticking grandfather clock in the corner and the smell of Harrison’s Great-Aunt Nell. Monica trotted to the center of the room, stopped, and looked around. She sniffed the potpourri on the coffee table and read the titles of the thick books next to it: Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World, and These are the Voyages…a three-dimensional Star Trek Album. Climb aboard the Starfleet for a space adventure in 3-D!
Harrison was apt even in his own house to wander around without remembering why. In Mrs. Bryant’s house there was a host of other distractions to keep him from remembering the corpse on the lawn, if he hadn’t been that kind of person anyway. He found himself drawn to a series of photographs on the wall next to the stairs. It’s hard to take good shots of flowers; they usually look sappy, and anyway, often the real subject is a baby in a fairy suit. But these were good, and even Harrison’s amateur eye could appreciate one of a wilting tulip. The mats were signed in black ballpoint: DBryant, in sweeping capitals, with a long flat tail on the crossbar of T. D, he thought, D for what? Dolores? Dorothy? Donna? Surely not – she didn’t seem like a Donna. Donna only made him think of Donna Summer.
The doorbell rang. Monica barked. Harrison remembered the situation in the front yard, gasped, and scurried to the door. Maybe it was Mrs. Bryant, alive after all; she might have only been mostly dead. He opened the door breathless, with Monica nosing past his knee.
Of course, it was about as likely to be Donna Summer as the semi-deceased Mrs. Bryant. Instead there was Mrs. Wilson on the stoop, leaning on the frame. She was tiny and blond, and coming from the dark cave of Mrs. Bryant’s house she looked even tinier and blonder than usual.
“Harrison!” she wheezed. Here was the end of Harrison, he thought. Found in the dead woman’s house, fingerprints everywhere, with a crazed glint in his eye. “But I never suspected!” the neighbors would say. “I mean, I did see him yell at the barista at Starbucks once, but we never in our wildest dreams thought he would be unlawful!”
“Harrison!” wheezed Mrs. Wilson. She leaned in closer to whisper with her eyes opened wide, “Mrs. Bryant is dead in the front yard!”
Monica sniffed. No need for melodrama.
Kyle opened the door to his house on Lunar Crescent at the same moment as Harrison opened the door at 202 Belden Street. In terms of dealing with guilt, Kyle had a distinct advantage over Harrison in that as a rule he thought clearly and confidently; but he lost points by having just inadvertently killed someone.
Kyle pulled open the front door and crept into the marble-tiled foyer. There was a note on the sideboard where they usually put the mail. The note said: “Hi baby, just gone to the grocery store – ROFLOL, Mom xoxo.” Kyle’s mom wanted to understand the generational references her son used so assertively, but acronyms were never her strong point.
Kyle stared at the note. In the swooping letters of his mother’s handwriting he saw only the ball descending against the lush blue and Mrs. Bryant’s cotton-candy hair. He shook his head, gulped, and said, “Shit,” right there in the hallway. It echoed, and Kyle was eleven, so he said it again. Then he thought of Vin Diesel, and he said, “Shit, man,” in as low a voice as he could muster, with his arms crossed and his white K-Swisses spaced out on the tile. He had never seen a Vin Diesel movie, but he was sure that this was how Vin would react to Mrs. Bryant’s demise. Sometimes the basketball hit somebody, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles (you say this very low and threateningly, so that everyone understands you’re taking a harmless grandmotherly phrase and making it dangerous, because you’re Vin Diesel, and that’s just how you roll). Gotta make some sacrifices, man.
In the clean white foyer, with the coolness of the air-conditioned house raising goosebumps on his scrawny arms, and the silence battering his ears, he had nothing to do but stand on the echoing tile and say, “Shit, man,” in the voice of someone else.
“Mrs. Bryant is dead in the front yard,” said Mrs. Wilson again.
Harrison said, “I know. I came in to call 9-1-1.”
“Will they be here soon?” asked Mrs. Wilson.
“What?” said Harrison.
“The 9-1-1 people, the ambulance – will it be here soon?”
“Oh, the ambulance,” said Harrison. “Oh, yes, yes.” And immediately thought, oh fuck.
There was an awkward lull. The neighborhood wasn’t really all that friendly.
“So,” said Mrs. Wilson after a while, still squinting up from the doorframe, “what should we do now?”
Harrison said, “I don’t know.”
“Should we watch her?”
The three – Mrs. Wilson, Harrison, and Monica – trooped back to the yard, screen door swinging shut behind them.
“How soon are they coming?” said Mrs. Wilson. She was a little blond woman who wore white tennis skirts and a visor all the time. She wasn’t athletic, but she did like movies about sports, and she kind of had a thing for Andre Agassi.
“Huh?” said Harrison. He stared down at the Mrs. Bryant’s broad bottom. Was that wrong, to notice the broadness of a dead woman’s bottom?
“How soon is the ambulance coming, Harrison. The ambulance that you called?”
“Oh, the ambulance,” said Harrison. Oh, I didn’t call them. Would you mind? Do you know the number? He said, “Five minutes,” and then took a tiny moment to give himself an internal withering glare. Then he said, “One second,” and dashed into the house, leaving Monica to guard Mrs. Bryant and silently critique the unseemly length of Mrs. Wilson’s white pleated skirt.
Kyle was daring himself in the mirror of the powder room. He had decided that the right thing to do – the Vin Diesel thing to do – would be to return to the scene of the crime. But this was terrifying. What if no one else had found her? Would he have to call the police? Confess to the crime? Kyle was no stranger to law-breaking – he had T.P.ed Jessica Bronson’s house last fall, and once, he’d stolen a pack of gum, but that didn’t really count because he was four and his mom made him take it back – but he felt like a hardened criminal. Cops? No problem. He would just explain what had happened, and everything would be fine, just like that time he’d skipped a math test.
But Mrs. Bryant was dead. He knew it, as inexorably as he knew his own name. A woman was dead because of him.
Balls of Kleenex littered the marble counter. Kyle could see, when he leaned in close to the mirror, the crawling red veins on his eyes, and the pink skin around his nose. He sniffed. His nose was still running, and his whole body felt battered. He considered taking a nap. But he couldn’t – couldn’t – in the empty house. He would just see, painted on the backsides of his eyelids, the sidewalk stretching ahead of him while he ran.
He needed the incentive of the Dare. He was the fifth-grade king of Truth or Dare, despite the fact that he only had one Truth: name your top five hottest girls. But nobody ever picked Truth. Why would you, when Dare gave you the opportunity to do something like eat an entire jar of mayonnaise in thirty minutes? For Kyle and his friends, there was no contest. And anyway, they would have all named the same five girls, the only fifth graders with breasts, who in the next year would develop unhealthy attitudes about food while the boys simultaneously developed unhealthy attitudes about the girls.
But Dare was impossible to refuse. You couldn’t not do a Dare. That would be social annihilation. You might keep your self-respect, but that’s no fun when Jessica Bronson’s invited everybody but you to her end-of-the-year swim party with a virgin pina colada machine. So if Kyle dared himself to return to 202 Belden, he had to do it. Those were the rules of Truth or Dare.
“I dare you to go back,” he said to the mirror. Behind his reflection, on the other side of the mirror, he could see the toilet, and a print of an angry-looking rabbit in a gilt frame above the tank.
“I dare you to go back,” he said. Kyle gave himself a hard stare. He knew how to pressure people into doing stupid things.
“I double-dog dare you to go back,” he said to himself. “I triple-dog dare you.”
Still he could not shift his eyes from the mirror. He had been triple-dog dared, and he couldn’t even move. His palms lay flat and sweaty on the marble, inert, unresponsive.
“I quadruple-dog dare you,” he said. His voice sounded high and tight in the tiny bathroom. He swallowed. “I quintuple-dog dare you!” he said. He was running out of numbers; it usually only took three dogs to make the victim succumb.
The garage door rumbled and creaked, and it seemed only a second before he heard hinges squeak, the rattle of keys on the kitchen counter. “Kyle honey? I’m home – I saw your backpack – where are you? Come help me unload the groceries.”
Kyle saw his own face whiten in the mirror. Mom was here – who would surely say, “It’s all right, Kyle honey. It’s not your fault. TTFN, honey.” He swept up the Kleenex and dumped them into the thimble behind the toilet. He clapped his hands over his nose, exhaled, and shouted, “Coming, Mom!”
He would tell her what had happened. He was an open book.
When Kyle told her about the ball and Mrs. Bryant, she would be concerned and motherly but a tiny secret thought would enter her mind, just an unruffled murmur behind the sympathy she really felt. She would be furtively pleased that he had given her an event of his inner life. She would wonder how parenting made you selfish like that, that she would want her boy to be always tiny and coming to her with scraped elbows, so small he could curl up and fit in her lap with her arms in a ring and fingers comfortably laced. She would wonder: how was change so much more powerful than happiness?
“Yes, this is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“Hi, yes, I’m at 202 Belden Street and it would be really great if you guys could get here in like three minutes. Could you do that?”
“What is your emergency, sir?”
“Well, the emergency is that I kind of panicked, and I told my neighbor that I had called you guys already, but I hadn’t, so could you come as soon as possible?”
“Sir, when you say you panicked, what were your symptoms?”
“I mean, I guess I felt a little light-headed.”
“Sir, do you feel shortness of breath?”
“Actually, yes, now that you mention it.”
“And do you feel woozy?”
Harrison dropped the phone. A roach had run over the toe of his left sneaker.
“Sir? Sir? Oh my God, he’s gone down,” said the tinny voice of the operator from the dangling phone, and the skillful technicians at 9-1-1 promptly sent an ambulance to 202 Belden Street to pick up the man suffering from an acute panic attack.
Monica, Mrs. Wilson, and the dead Mrs. Bryant were bonding outside.
“You’re a pretty dog, you know that? Yes you do, yes you do, my honeybear sugarplum,” cooed Mrs. Wilson while stroking Monica’s ears. Monica watched the basketball shift a little with the wind. Harrison was never affectionate. Sometimes all she wanted after a hard day was a little scratch, you know?
Harrison jumped from the front door onto the lawn.
“What happened to you?” said Mrs. Wilson. She watched Harrison walk over to the roses. She knew that he had nobody except Monica. She saw it in the frayed hems of his pants; why fix it, when nobody would really check everyday, and it might seem like he only had the one pair of tattered pants that he wore on laundry day. Not that Harrison needed a girlfriend or a wife to take care of his pants. Mrs. Wilson was a liberated modern woman, and besides, he seemed just a little bit gay.
To stall, Harrison said, “What?” which to Mrs. Wilson meant: indigestion. She decided not to ask for further information.
“Hey,” she said, frowning. “Is that your basketball? That one in the gutter?”
“No,” said Harrison, following her stare. “No, that was there when I got here.” Had it been? He couldn’t remember. It seemed hours and hours since he and Monica had left for the Preston Drive Dog Park. Harrison’s students hated his inability to accurately judge the passage of time.
Harrison squinted down the street, towards Preston Drive. The children at 246, upon reaching the point of diminishing returns, had abandoned their card table with, to be honest, more concern for the new kitten at 248 than their economic prospects. But there was also a boy coming down the sidewalk, with a woman around forty: clearly his mother. Monica could tell they had a sense of their own importance. Mrs. Wilson noticed the woman’s expensive jeans. Nobody thought of Mrs. Bryant except the Lady Banks roses.
A siren keened through the silent air of the street, its source still a few blocks away.
“Help!” said Mrs. Wilson suddenly. “Have you come to help us? There’s a dead woman here!”
The boy and woman approached. The woman had her arm around the boy’s shoulders, and a martyred expression.
The woman left the boy by the verge of the property. He nudged the grass lip edging the sidewalk with the rubber toe of his sneaker.
The siren continued, closer and closer, howling its way to 202 Belden.
The woman said to Harrison and Mrs. Wilson, “Hi, I’m Karen Fielding. We met at the Christmas party at the Maradoñas’?” She was conscious that she had pronounced the name correctly. They shook hands over Mrs. Bryant. “That’s my son, Kyle,” she continued, pointing at the boy.
Harrison wondered if the dead body at their feet at all interfered with her composure. But Monica, with the advantage of a canine nose, could smell her sweating.
They were shouting above the sirens. The ambulance had arrived on Belden Street. It hurtled toward 202, skidded into the driveway, and the EMTs poured out, rushing to the assembly on the lawn.
“Is this the man with the panic attack?” gasped one of the blue-clad men.
“What?” said Harrison. Really, thought Mrs. Wilson irritably, this is all getting a bit childish.
“Can’t you see there’s a dead woman on the ground?” Mrs. Wilson gestured angrily, hand on hip, toward Mrs. Bryant’s velour rear.
The EMTs had already unloaded a gurney and were wheeling it toward the rosebushes.
Kyle watched. Now, they would call the police, and he would be finished.
The EMTs loaded Mrs. Bryant onto the gurney. Soil streaked her face, at last released from the ground. She had nothing to do now but lie on the gurney.
Harrison recalled the photographs of flowers. What was her name? Dolores, he decided. She looked sad; she grew roses. That made sense.
They watched as the EMTs wheeled Mrs. Bryant to the ambulance, in the sheer golden air, crisp like apple juice over the roses and the silver letters spelling “Emergency Vehicle”, like that, shiny and clean as if there were no emergencies at all.
One of the EMTs walked back over. He was burly, the kind of guy who went to the gym in between his afternoon shift and picking up his daughter Laila from ballet. He said: “Do any of you want to go with her?”
Harrison frowned. He thought the EMT should have come up with a better way of putting it. This way, it sounded like he was asking them to die just to keep Mrs. Bryant company.
Kyle had no idea what Vin Diesel would do. It seemed that Vin limited himself to dark alleys and fast cars, which hampered the applicability of his worldview to situations like this: mom, lawn, dead neighbor. Kyle said from the sidewalk, partly because of the silence but a little bit because it was true, “I want to go.” He was eleven. He had yet to learn that his fierce philosophy could be situational. He had strong ideas of goodness.
Which meant, of course, that his mother would go too. Not for Mrs. Bryant but for Kyle, to remain as long as possible in this place of trust like the slant of sunlight through a window, where Kyle would tell her things and she would listen with her arms around him and her fingers laced.
Monica thought about going, but decided it wasn’t really her place. Besides, the grass she’d eaten by the side of the house was beginning to disagree with her, and who wanted an emergency of that kind?
Harrison wouldn’t go. The episode had worn him out. He wanted to home with Monica and watch the marathon of Law and Order: SVU on TNT. It was so safe in his armchair.
Mrs. Wilson couldn’t go. She had to pick up her daughter from soccer. And anyway, she had barely known Mrs. Bryant. None of them had known her. She flicked the hem of her pleated skirt impatiently.
The Lady Banks roses were the only ones who really wanted to go. They wavered and shuddered from the wind, or because they were sad. They had known Mrs. Bryant, the touch of her rough palm, and the way she squinted in the morning with one eye shut and the other almost. They watched her get her newspaper, not the New York Times or anything but just the local pages, every morning. She sometimes forgot that she was in her bathrobe and read the front page standing at the intersection of the sidewalk and the path to her front door. They had endured storms and aphids, then pesticides, for her. They had preened for her camera, or drooped at her coaxing hand. Lady Banks roses have no thorns; their stems were smooth and supple, designed not for evolutionary advantage but for ease of cutting, handling, stuffing into vases by tender human hands.
They had to go home to get the car. On the way from their house to the hospital, Kyle watched the vacant faces of the houses go by slowly, one by one. His mother smiled from the driver’s seat of the Yukon. There was a swing set, there a bed of pansies, but the people were all inside. Were they eating together? Were they watching television? Would they play a board game, sit in the dark alone, listen to the sprinklers start with a sputter and a hiss at the moment of dusk?
They passed 202 Belden. Harrison and Mrs. Wilson had already left, and the ambulance was gone. The yard looked the same as all the other yards, except for the roses. They bloomed, still, their pink petals whitening in the honeyed sunlight. At dusk, they would darken again, and by the time the newspapers arrived the dew would have settled on their leaves. Meanwhile they guarded the house with no weapons, thornless sentries, with nothing to protect and no one to save.