A week after the fourth of July, my dog Speedy nipped an eight-year old kid who wandered onto my property from the subdivision across the way. Speedy was a Shepherd-Husky mix and normally pretty docile, so I thought the kid must have been teasing him, asking for it somehow. The kid went home and cried to his parents, then his father came over and said he’d called the police. He was about a foot shorter than me, and had a litigant’s righteous air. But, either he was bullshitting, or the police forgot to come, because that was the last I heard about it.
The subdivision used to be a sloping meadow, a hazy stretch of long, tawny grass speckled with wildflowers from May to September. A guy down the road owned it ever since I could remember, but then he moved to an assisted living facility and the land was sold. Not long after, skeletons of houses appeared, and within what seemed like no time, there was a neighborhood of mini-mansions and smooth tar lanes, two curved stone entrance walls, and a big sign that read The Meadows at Glastonbury in fake-fancy gold letters. I planted a row of fast-growing spruces so I wouldn’t have to look at the thing, and nailed up an orange no trespassing sign on a tree by my driveway because I had a swimming pool behind my house and if somebody sneaked in and drowned in it I could have been held liable.
“He might still make trouble,” my wife Sally said about the kid’s father a few days after the incident while we were having breakfast in the kitchen.
“Trespassing is against the law,” I said. “He shouldn’t let his kid run around like that.” I didn’t have children and didn’t care for them, so Speedy biting the subdivision kid bothered me not at all.
“For pity’s sake,” Sally said. “The boy crossed the road. How far did you go when you were a child? I was all over the place.”
“There weren’t any perverts back then,” I said. Sally laughed at that.
“Remember razor blades in apples at Halloween?” she said. “I think that was one of those urban myths, but my parents wouldn’t let me eat anything but the wrapped candies.
“My mother gave out popcorn balls,” I said. “Kids loved them.” I didn’t really know if that was true. What was true was that I loved them, and my mother. I’d grown up in the house where Sally and I lived; I bought my brother’s half when Mom passed.
“Maybe I’ll make a batch of my oatmeal lace cookies and take it over.” She cocked her head toward the subdivision as if she meant to bring cookies to every house.
I took a third piece of toast and coated it with strawberry jam. “You don’t know where they live.”
“They live on Buttercup Lane. In the Gone With the Wind house. It’s got a row of two-story pillars out front, couldn’t be uglier if it tried.”
It was so typical of Sally to know such a thing that I didn’t even bother to ask how. “If you bring them cookies they’ll think we’re sorry, which implies guilt on our part.”
“Oh, now, shut your mouth,” she said good-naturedly. I was her third husband, and I usually did as she asked because I wanted to be her last.
I met Sally at an Al Anon meeting two years ago. She was there because her second husband was a drunk, and I was there because of my older brother, who used to get pie-eyed and berate me over the phone about my supposedly superior attitude. Though I was a corporate attorney and he was unemployed at the time, the only reason I felt superior at all was that I didn’t get drunk every night. I was loving him a little bit less every day, and his accusations had been wearing me out, so I decided to go to Al Anon one evening at the suggestion of a friend at work. The thing about Al Anon is you stand up and pour your heart out and then it’s crickets, nobody says a damn thing. I hadn’t known that before I’d gone, and it gave me the creeps: I felt like I was talking to a school for the deaf. I had already decided I wouldn’t go back when Sally came up to me afterward.
“I have a sister like your brother,” she said. “Only she isn’t a drunk, she’s just a bitch.”
She didn’t look like the kind of woman who’d call anyone a bitch, never mind her own sister. Her pale braids were wrapped around her head and she wore a puffed-sleeve shirt that was printed with little flowers.
“What do you do about your sister?” I said.
“I haven’t talked to her in years,” she said. “Life is too short to be involved with toxic people.”
“Well, your husband sounds pretty toxic,” I said. She had described an incident in which she locked herself in the bathroom while he broke everything breakable in the bedroom.
She stared at me as if my hair was on fire. “You’re right! But I never think of him like that.”
“How do you think of him?” I said.
“I think of him as he used to be. He was the nicest guy you ever met.”
I nodded. “Not anymore, I guess.”
She asked me if I wanted to go for a drink, so we went to a wine bar around the corner. Then we drove back to my place and sat by the neon light of the pool and ate coffee ice cream from the carton. The way she ran her pointed tongue over her lips was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen, but eating ice cream and talking about ourselves was all we did that night. The next week, I went back to Al Anon just to see her, and we did the same things again, but this time the night felt like a sauna, and she tore off her sundress and dove into my pool.
“Turn around so I can get out,” she said.
“The pool is lit up, Sally, I’ve already seen it all.”
“In that case.” She got out of the pool. Water streamed from her shoulders and breasts; her hair wept down her back to her waist. Her bikini underpants were glued to her body, showing a dusky triangle between her thighs.
“You can’t be naked and expect me not to be turned on,” I said.
She smiled. “I don’t expect that.”
There was a stack of towels in the pool house. I got one and wrapped it around her. “What about your husband?” I said.
She tucked the end of the towel between her breasts and said, “Oh, he’s passed out by now.”
On summer Fridays, I left work at one. Everyone in my office did. I’d eat some leftovers and watch a game on ESPN, then take a late afternoon swim. Sally was usually painting in her studio upstairs, and wouldn’t knock off until supper. When I walked in the door at about one-fifteen and heard her voice from the kitchen, I thought she was talking on the phone.
“Of course it’s terrible,” she said. “Nobody should be treated like that. But there are bullies at every school.”
I went into the kitchen and said, “What’s going on?”
At the table was a dark-headed little boy who was eating an oatmeal lace cookie. The cookie was delicate and crumbled onto his plate. He lowered his face to the plate and pressed his tongue against the crumbs.
“This is Macon,” Sally said. “The boy Speedy bit.” Macon looked at me out of the corner of his eye. Speedy was sweeping the floor with his tail, waiting for a handout. Sally talked to me over the kid’s head. “Macon’s parents work all day, so when I went over to The Meadows with a plate of cookies, I found him all alone in the house. They just moved to here from Chicago, so he doesn’t have any friends yet, isn’t that right, Macon?”
“Well,” I said, because I didn’t know what to say. Neither Sally nor I had ever referred to the subdivision as The Meadows and hearing her say it unsettled me. The kid took another cookie. He was wearing a yellow polo shirt and red shorts and a pair of brand new Nike sneakers: clearly he belonged to somebody. “I’ve got this thing I need your help with,” I said to Sally, and she followed me out into the hall.
“Poor boy,” she said before I could speak. “His parents leave him from eight in the morning to six at night with nothing but a cheese sandwich for lunch. He ought to be in Little League or something.” She shook her head in disgust.
“It’s against the law to take a child from his home, Sally. What if his parents came home unexpectedly? You could be charged with kidnapping.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sally said. “I already called his mother. She sounded relieved, actually.”
“That a stranger has her child?”
“She knows who I am; it turns out we’ve met before.”
“Where on earth?”
“At Mary Yarrow’s baby shower. I thought her name sounded familiar, and I was right. We both gave Mary a set of onesies.”
I knew Mary and her husband Chester; they had an obscene number of children. “How does Mary know her?”
“Book club,” Sally said shortly. “I know what you’re thinking, and we’re not going to disturb you. He brought some toys with him and we’re going to sit outside.”
“What about your work?” Sally was a magazine illustrator and juggled deadlines like duckpins.
“Things are pretty quiet today,” she said. “I could use a break anyway.”
They disappeared from the kitchen and I stood over the sink with a piece of steak and a beer, gazing out the window as I gnawed the meat from the bone. The spruces hadn’t grown quite high enough to hide the subdivision. I wondered why Macon’s parents had chosen to live there instead of in a regular neighborhood: the houses looked grand but they were cheaply constructed, with featureless cement walls behind their fancy facades. The sun beat down on the browning grass; heat waves rose from the tar. The trees were no taller than I was. I’d never seen any kids over there, but I hadn’t been looking for them either. When I was a kid, I had my brother to play with, and plenty of friends at school. My mother stayed home to take care of us, and was always a benevolent presence, purveyor of Band Aids and snacks.
I washed my hands and went into the den. From there I could see the backyard. Sally lay on the grass looking up at the sky, the full skirt of her pink cotton dress spread as wide as its pleats would allow.
She was in the habit lying on the grass and studying the sky, as if the answers to life’s mysteries would drift down like snow. Macon drove a plastic truck around her. My first thought was that Sally was going to get grass stains on her dress, which was one I particularly liked; my second thought was that Speedy should have been inside with me instead of sitting out there watching Macon’s truck as if it were a live rabbit. I opened the window and whistled for him. He looked up at me and broke into a run.
“That’s a good boy,” I said when I let him in. We settled down in front of the TV to watch a Red Sox game.
After a while, he started whining like he needed to pee, so I let him out and watched him mark a shrub. Then he went over to Macon and sat next to him while the kid played with Sally’s phone. He was kneeling on the ground, a rapt expression on his face, tapping the keys with his thumbs. His skin was the color of skim milk, and he looked like he needed more to eat than a cheese sandwich and lace cookies.
“Speedy,” I called. “Speedy come here!” It wasn’t until Sally sat up and shooed him away that he came running back to me.
On Thursday the next week, I came home early because my allergies were making me miserable. Macon was in the backyard, throwing a ball to Speedy. I watched as he made a few feeble throws before I took off my suit coat and joined them.
“How come you’re not afraid of Speedy?” I asked. “After he bit you and all.”
“He didn’t mean to,” Macon said. “We were playing. My arm got in the way of his mouth.”
“Then why’d you send your dad over here?”
“I didn’t. He saw where Speedy bit me and made me tell him what happened. I said we were playing. I don’t know why he got mad.” He looked up at me with almond-shaped brown eyes. They were spaced so far apart I thought of those pictures of aliens with eyes on the sides of their heads.
“Well, never mind,” I said. “Let me show you how to throw that ball the way he likes it.” I took the ball and threw it hard against a tree. Speedy sprang up when it bounced off the trunk and caught it cleanly in his mouth.
“Wow,” Macon said.
“Keep your wrist straight,” I said. “Don’t let it flop around or people will say you throw like a girl.”Where’s Sally?”
“I figured that much myself.” I went inside and called for her. She came down from her studio upstairs. “Is he here every day?” I said as she stood looking down on me from the second floor landing. She was wearing her paint-splattered work smock and a pair of frayed jean shorts, her hair in two pigtails tied with green yarn.
“Macon?” she said. “More often than not.”
“I don’t think that’s smart,” I said. “Especially as you’re not watching him.”
“I can see him from my window upstairs.”
I shook my head. “Not good enough. You can’t see the pool from there, and what if he falls in? He could drown in an instant.”
She came down the steps and kissed me lightly on my lips. She was wearing the lilac perfume I had given her for Christmas, and smelled like springtime and paint. “Believe me, he’s not interested in the pool. He doesn’t know how to swim.” She looked at her watch. “What brings you home at this hour?”
“So if he fell into the pool he’d definitely drown? No, honey, we can’t have him here.”
She reached into the pocket of her smock for a stick of Juicy Fruit. Chewing gum was her only vice. “All right, fine, I’ll stay with him,” she said as she peeled the foil from the gum. “I can work in the mornings before he comes over.”
“Why are you so determined to have him here?” I said.
She folded her arms over her chest. “Why are you so determined not to?”
“I just told you why.”
She turned and stalked with purpose into the kitchen. “Macon?” she yelled out the back door. “It’s time for you to go home.”
“Come on, Sally, don’t be like that. I didn’t mean he had to go home right this minute.”
Macon came in. She put her palm on the back of his neck, a gesture that startled me in its intimacy. “Lord you’re hot, Macon. It’s about ninety degrees out there.”
“I’m okay,” he said. He looked up at me through his eyelashes. I felt like the big bad wolf.
I was almost choking from post-nasal drip and my eyes felt like they’d been pelted with sand. I left the kitchen and went upstairs to the bathroom for the allergy medication I’d forgotten to take that morning. When I came down again, I heard Sally’s voice.
“Some people are just angry for no reason, and even though they act like they’re mad at you, it doesn’t really have anything to do with you, it’s all about their own problems.”
I went to my den and dug into some work I needed to finish that day. Sally’s footsteps creaked above me as she walked around our bedroom. I rolled my chair away from my desk.
“Sally?” I called.
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
She came down and stood in the doorway, tapping the jamb with her bare toes. “I was just about to take a shower,” she said.
“Why were you saying all that about me?”
She frowned. “All what?”
“What you told Macon. That I’m angry for no reason.”
Her face cleared. “I wasn’t talking about you, for goodness sake, why would you think that? I was talking about Macon’s father. You saw how he is when he came over here. He’s one of those men who’re always jonesing for an argument, and Macon is afraid of him. Isn’t that awful, to be afraid of your father?”
“Plenty of people are,” I said. My father had been a quiet man, the opposite of my garrulous mother. He read to my brother and me in a whispery voice full of drama, and checked under the bed for monsters when he tucked us in at night.
“I think it’s terrible. He sits in that empty house all day long and then his father comes home and yells at him.”
“Okay, you don’t have to play a violin,” I said. “He can come over in the afternoons, but keep a sharp eye on him, Sally, I mean it.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “I mean it,” she mocked. “You’ve gotten so bossy, when did that happen?” She pivoted away and sprinted up the stairs. A minute later I heard the gurgle and moan of water running through the pipes.
“You’ve got two problems, as I see it,” my brother Kip said. I could just imagine him sitting back in his chair and putting his feet up on his desk. My “problems” were nothing compared to his, but he’d been sober for over a year, and we could talk on the phone now like normal human beings. “The first problem is you’re jealous.”
“Jealous!” I said. “Of what?”
“Sally loves the kid, obviously.”
“Sally doesn’t love the kid, she feels sorry for him.”
“Whatever,” Kip said. “You’ve always been possessive of Sally.”
“What do you mean? Is that really what you think?
“I think you’re the lucky one.”
“Gee thanks,” I said, though I knew it was true.
“Plus you hate kids,” he said.
“I don’t hate kids, I just don’t want any. I’m almost forty, they’d tire me out.”
“If you say so.” He paused to take a drag of a cigarette. He’d taken up smoking when he stopped drinking, giving him a necessary distraction while lopping years off his life. “The second problem is you are incredibly paranoid about people falling into the pool and drowning, it’s weird. Why don’t you put a fence around it? I can’t believe your insurance agent hasn’t already told you to do that.”
“He did. I ignored him.” I had landscaped the pool area with a flagstone patio and clouds of pink and white rose bushes that flowered all summer if I made the effort to deadhead them. A maple tree had once shaded the deep end and dropped its wing-shaped green pods in the spring; I’d cut the tree down when I bought the house, and now the water reflected the sun all day long as if it were a tropical sea. I swam before work from June to September, and drank a cocktail on the patio on fine evenings. I couldn’t imagine a fence – or rather, I could. “It would be hideous,” I said.
“Oh, and worrying every minute about a lawsuit is better,” Kip said. “It’s an attractive nuisance, am I right?”
“That’s the legal term for it, yes.” Kip had done a year and a half of law school, and knew a smattering of jargon that he enjoyed airing out now and then like old pillowcases from a trunk. He’d been selling insurance ever since he dried out.
“It seems like a pain in the ass,” he said.
“Who’s jealous now?” I said.
“Not me. I can come over and swim any time I want, but I don’t have deal with the thing. How much time do you spend cleaning it?”
“A couple of hours a week.”
“See, I don’t have to do that.”
“Maybe I’ll make you the next time you’re over.”
“Hah. I don’t think so.”
“Just you wait,” I said.
I didn’t think I was possessive of Sally. Even if I’d tried to be, she wouldn’t have tolerated it. She had dozens of friends from every stage of her life and made new ones all the time. I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to help Macon because she was kind to everyone that way, the chief confidante of her women friends, the first responder to every crisis. But her friends weren’t in the habit of coming over every day. I wondered if she did love the boy. Though she said didn’t want children, maybe she’d changed her mind. She would be thirty-seven in a little more than a month; technically it wasn’t too late. Having someone else’s kid hanging around was far preferable to having my own. I considered the truth of that before picking up the phone.
“Do you think I’m possessive of you?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said distractedly.
“Listen, baby, I’m busy,” she said. “I’m on deadline, and Macon is here. He’s playing with my colored pencils. He’s pretty good at drawing.”
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said. “Why isn’t he outside?”
“Because you told me to watch him,” she said in a severe voice. “Now for goodness sake let me go.”
“Never,” I said, which made her chuckle. She hung up without saying goodbye.
I chose a wooden post and rail with a welded wire screen that I was assured would be practically invisible. Of all the choices – picket, chain link, electric wire, to name a few — it was the most natural looking, and would weather to a mellow gray. I could imagine growing climbing vines on it, clematis or what have you. The guy said he couldn’t install it until September.
“What’s the point then?” I said. But if you offer enough money, you can make almost anything happen, and on a Friday morning a few days later a “Fences Plus” flatbed truck heaped with wood pulled into the driveway at six o’clock, and five brawny guys arrived a few minutes later in a handful of busted-up vehicles. I hadn’t told Sally because I wanted to surprise her, and by the time she got up most of the posts had been sunk.
“What is that?” she said.
“I’m putting in a fence.”
She stared out the window at all the activity. “But you always said a fence would be ugly.”
“It’s relatively attractive as they go,” I said. “You won’t have to worry about Macon falling into the pool anymore.”
She looked at me. “I never worried about that. You worried about that.”
“Well, the pool is an attractive nuisance, and now we’ll be compliant with the law.”
“Attractive nuisance!” She laughed. “You’re an attractive nuisance.” She turned and went to get dressed.
I walked out and watched them bang in the posts. Some rails had started to go up. A guy was unfurling a bale of wire. When I came back from the office at half past one, the fence was complete, and the “Fences Plus” flatbed was gone. Macon was sitting on top of a fresh wooden rail, looking at the pool. It never occurred to me that he could climb it. Speedy was watching him avidly, at the ready for I didn’t know what.
“Get down from there,” I said. “That fence is meant to keep you out.”
“Why?” he said as he climbed down.
“Because you don’t know how to swim,” I said meanly. I could have put it another way.
“I do a little bit,” he said. “I’m going to camp next summer.”
“You don’t know how to swim and you’re going to camp?”
“My mom says I’ll learn how there.”
“You ought to know how before you go or the other kids will make fun of you.”
He looked down at his feet and rubbed his nose with his fist. “So what,” he said to the ground.
That moment, I saw Macon’s life unspool like a reel of a disturbing film. He was the kid who was pushed around in school hallways, his books slapped out of his arms. Ignored on the playground, picked last for baseball, the butt of jokes he didn’t understand, he’d go to camp and be teased and tormented there and it would all be the same to him. He couldn’t throw, and he couldn’t swim, and his father was an asshole.
“My dog likes you better than me,” I said. It was the only compensation I could think of.
“We’re pals,” he said proudly. “But he likes you best.”
“Listen, do you have a pair of swim trunks?” He nodded. “Go and get them, I’ll wait for you.”
I walked to the house and called out for Sally, shedding my suit coat as I climbed the stairs. She came to the bedroom door.
“You were right, the fence is okay-looking,” she said. “We can grow some honeysuckle or something over it.”
“That’s what I thought.” I found my trunks in a dresser drawer.
“Okay, I’ll be in my studio. Have you seen Macon?”
“I saw him when I came in.”
Outside, I tested the gate in the fence. It had a metal hasp if I chose to lock it. I walked in and looked around. The fence really wasn’t so bad. I sat down on the chaise where I had courted Sally with a carton of coffee ice cream. The pool’s surface was glassy, and the sky the kind of bright, sunless white you saw on humid days. Macon ran around from the front of the house wearing a pair of striped swim trunks. He clambered over the fence.
“There’s a gate right there,” I said. Maybe he heard me, maybe not, but I never did see him use it.