I spent twelve years in the state penitentiary for crimes imagined by children and believed by adults. For those twelve years, my body became my enemy and my commodity — I let the inmates hurt me so I could live. Besides the common abuses, they also broke my fingers and thumbs and sometimes the little bones in my hands. Once, they shattered a wrist. They’d wait until I healed, then find me again, often working both hands so I couldn’t feed myself. If I fought or resisted, they said they’d cut off my fingers. They pinned my arm between their bodies, and sometimes I wished they had cut off the fingers so we could have been done with it. I’d wait for the shock of pain and tell myself they didn’t hate me so much as hate themselves.
I was put in isolation to let my hands heal. I don’t remember much from these periods. I know at first I felt relieved to be safe, but within a few days I felt numb, and under that a horrible loneliness, as if I’d been abandoned and forgotten. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus my thoughts. I tried to sleep as much as possible. I felt myself growing lighter, as if becoming transparent. When I spoke, my voice sounded thin and hollow. Sometimes I thought I was dying.
I remember Ray, one of the guards, feeding me when I couldn’t feed myself. He gave me four minutes of his time, then left; if I wasn’t finished eating, I had to cup my plate between the casts on my hands and eat like an animal. Sometimes, depending on the meal, I talked to Ray for the four minutes while he cut up my food, but he was a stern man, as conservative with words as he was with time, and he mostly just listened to me. Still, it was a relief. He stopped coming after my casts were removed, but I was held in isolation for an extra two weeks; I pleaded to return to the others, where I’d at least be part of something. It didn’t matter that the inmates would come for me again — that was inevitable.
Out of isolation I mostly kept to myself, looking forward only to the big yard, where I sprinted back and forth along the fence, running until I couldn’t breathe or until my legs cramped or I vomited. But after a minute of rest, I’d start running again. This was pain, but it was my own doing. Each day they didn’t break my toes or my feet, I was grateful.
Over the years the inmates came to handle me with a sense of routine and duty. It wasn’t always necessary to strike me or treat me roughly, though one or two of them occasionally did. In time, after both pinkies and a ring finger had been amputated above the bottom joint, after pins had been drilled into an index finger and both middle fingers, after nearly a dozen casts, they seemed to tire of me.
And then, after twelve years, I was released, the convictions overturned. I had been a victim of the moral panic that had swept the country over sex abuse in day-care centers. I remember reading about similar cases — one in California, two in the Midwest — where they couldn’t get convictions, where the authorities were found to have coerced the kids. My lawyers told me that the prosecution had destroyed and buried evidence, that the children’s testimonies were no longer credible. Thirty-two counts of first-degree sexual offense, six counts of first-degree rape, thirty counts of taking indecent liberties with children, and eighteen counts of crimes against nature. Nine life sentences. All dropped. If you read the indictments, they say my wife and I and two of our employees engaged in ritualistic satanic child abuse; that we sodomized, raped, and molested half of the children at our day-care center one fall.
The fact that I’m innocent is still something only I know for certain. I am not an evil man; deep down the children must grasp this. That is the stubborn nature of truth: only the players know it. After my wife and I were both incarcerated, we were rarely able to phone each other. We still talk every now and then, but at times I wonder if I hear the cast of doubt in her voice — her innocence does not ensure mine. Or maybe it’s not doubt so much as weariness and disinterest. We have never been a strong couple. It’s as if we’ve lost a child: in the aftermath, some couples are able to feel a greater bond, to turn to each other. I’ve tried being selfless, tried feeling her misery, but, in the end, her misery is hers alone, as mine is only mine. Perhaps that is the most honest thing we give each other. When she calls, I’m pleased to speak with her, but we keep the calls short and begin our goodbyes before the stillness sets in.
I don’t blame the children for what they said. They are no more guilty than I am. But I don’t understand where or how the rumors started and why everyone believed them so readily. It seemed once the first child claimed we’d touched him, others were already making claims of their own. Everything piled on top of us. We couldn’t catch our breath, and when we tried to say this was all impossible, no one listened.
I’ve come to accept what people did to me — first the parents, the police, and the social workers; then the inmates. I used to think I needed to forgive them: the parents who were protecting their kids, the inmates who knew only cruelty. But forgiveness isn’t helpful to me. I don’t think I can forgive, and anger has become too exhausting. I used to feel a catharsis when angry; now I just feel angry. I’d rather let it go. What I really want is for people to accept me again. I want them to see me and think I might be someone they wouldn’t mind talking to.
Now I am forty-five — ironically, the age at which men are supposed to feel a sudden urge to start over. I guess we’re supposed to worry about death. Some men will buy sports cars and sleep with women half their age, but I want only to sleep and move slowly. I want normalcy. I go to bed early so that I might offer myself to each morning as a supplicant might offer himself to his god. I wake to the robins calling to each other and drink my coffee outside on a lawn chair while the hints of purple light give form to the fir trees across the street. The cats are up, too, usually sitting in the driveway, waiting. It may seem like a small pleasure — sitting outside drinking coffee and watching the day unfold — but I’m grateful for it. When my neighbor Linda Lowe, a woman in her fifties, pulls out from her garage, she looks for me and then waves as she begins her hour drive. A little later, Mr. Yunker, a few doors down, waters his roses, a watering wand in one hand and his small terrier’s retractable leash in the other. He praises the dog when she squats to pee. I’ve regularly seen a deer and her two fawns visit his roses; Mr. Yunker has surrounded the plants with chicken wire, but a few stems have escaped the fence, and the deer nip off their buds. I’m always tempted to scare the deer away, but I imagine they enjoy the snack. Anyway, I’m careful now with people and their belongings and the moments of peace they create for themselves. When I begin to hear the highway noise in the distance, I return inside to fry an egg.
It is still early, and I clean up, dry the pan, and leave it on the stove for tomorrow’s breakfast, an act that I’ve come to see not as routine but as an act of faith in myself. Then I soak my hands in hot water to soothe the dull ache I wish I could ignore. Sometimes, when the pain is too much, I take something.
Before I head to the YMCA for my swim, I walk with my neighbor Clemento. He lives with Maria, his daughter, who has told me he is over ninety. His face doesn’t look so old, but his body is aged and broken. He usually stays in his chair, except when he takes his daily walk down the block. Doctors have fused several vertebrae in his spine so that he’s permanently bent to a near right angle at the waist; during our walks he clasps his hands behind his back, giving him a thoughtful, almost scholarly, appearance. Were he to release his hands, they would dangle and swing below him like a monkey’s.
Clemento doesn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak Spanish. But on those walks he talks to me, and sometimes he’ll sing songs that have only the faintest melody. Maria says he’s mostly remembering his early years; his memory of the recent past is largely failing him. I suppose this is the way things go, that our minds eventually wipe themselves clean in a frighteningly systematic way, moving from the present to the past as we become more and more like a child. There’s a beauty in this. So I listen to Clemento’s talking, at times inserting my own “Yes,” or “I see,” not to make fun of him, but because I think I grasp his intent. Sometimes, when he’s quiet, when it seems the walking is difficult for him, I tell him scenes from my own childhood.
After seeing Clemento, I walk the ten minutes to the YMCA for the morning lap swim. I’ve never been a swimmer, but I’ve found a kindness in the water: the strange nonsilence underneath, the buoyancy, the rhythm of my stroke. But mostly the water doesn’t hurt my hands. In prison I ran until I got sick; it seemed necessary then. Now I’ve come to think I might enjoy living into old age, and I’m trying to be gentle with myself. I swim in the slowest lane beside the circuit of elderly women who bounce and trot along the pool floor until the water is up to their shoulders, then loop back to the wall. I could swim faster, but I prefer to lie on my back thinking, Chicken, airplane, soldier, a phrase from when I learned the backstroke as a child. Afterward I sit with the other swimmers in the amber-lit sauna and listen to their talk. They don’t rush off to work but bide their time, joking and trying to make each other laugh. I imagine they are artists or small-business owners. I don’t join in, not because I’m afraid they wouldn’t welcome me; I just don’t know what I would say. Everything I imagine saying seems flat or awkward or forced, and I realize I have forgotten how to talk to people. I sit and listen and silently repeat their words to myself as if learning a new language.
It’s the same at Pete’s Drugstore, where I often have lunch at the soda fountain among a group of retired men and the occasional teenagers who order shakes. We eat tuna-fish or ham-and-cheese sandwiches with canned soup heated in the microwave; the food comes quickly and is reliably mediocre. This is not an excitable group. The men have known each other since childhood, and there’s a lassitude and patience that I enjoy. Silence is not unwelcome here, though the men often nod or glance at me as if I had an opinion about the crows’ seeming noisier this year, or whether certain streets need repaving. I’ll nod back or give a half smile, then return to my sandwich. Sometimes some of the men will have a scoop of pistachio, mint-chip, or rum-raisin ice cream. Occasionally I’ll join them. Ice cream is a rare, pure pleasure; although I feel as if I deserve it, I’m cautious not to indulge myself.
The first day of my release, I walked around downtown looking at the displays in the shops, afraid to make eye contact with anyone. There was nothing special or fancy about these stores, but I felt as if I were wandering around some foreign town. It didn’t occur to me that the things I saw were available to me, that buying something because I liked or needed it was possible. Mostly I wanted to be near people again: people walking among each other, doing ordinary things, not thinking it odd to be surrounded by strangers. I sat on a sidewalk bench where it seemed relatively safe to watch them. When someone caught my eye and said hello, I ventured a greeting back. I spent the afternoon sitting there, returning nods and practicing my hellos. When I left the bench, I stopped to read a menu at a restaurant and realized I could eat there. The world was opening before me. I was flush with freedom, but I also felt as if I were falling.
A few days after my release, I went to an AA meeting. I don’t drink much; I just wanted to be with people feeling raw and rent. When it was my turn to speak, I told the group I’d had a drinking problem for the last twelve years, starting when I’d lost my wife and child in a car accident, and how I wished I’d died, too. I held up my hands with their mangled and missing fingers and said this was all I was left with. It was a terrible lie, but it felt true. I stared at the floor as I spoke and told them I’d lost twelve years of my life, that the days had rolled away from me, and the only thing that felt real was the pain. It hurt to hold a fork, to brush my teeth. I didn’t deadbolt my house at night because some mornings I wouldn’t be able to turn the key to unlock the door. The woman next to me was crying, and when she placed a hand on my shoulder, I could no longer speak. Afterward, when a few of the men introduced themselves, I could only nod at them. I didn’t return the following week.
Even though the job stiffens my hands, I work as the afternoon produce clerk at the Red Apple, a few blocks from Pete’s and the YMCA. I’ve kept my world small and manageable; I don’t need anything more. I want only to recognize people and have them recognize me, though not actually know me or my name. For this reason I like my work: shoppers see me but don’t seem to think of me. Standing in line at the movie theater, people have introduced themselves, sure that they know me but unsure how. When I tell them I work at the grocery store, they nod, satisfied, then laugh. I smile back. I know I could ask their name and where they work and how long they’ve lived here, but I feel a trembling need to stay quiet, to let it be. I tell myself to be careful, that I don’t really know this person. “You probably get that a lot,” they might offer, and I’ll politely nod. “Well, good to meet you. Again.” And that will be the end of it.
You’d be surprised how many questions people have about fruits and vegetables, and how often they think I can answer them. What’s the difference between a Gala apple and a Pink Lady? How do you tell if a cantaloupe is ripe? Are garnet yams the sweet kind? How much zest will one lemon give? Why are avocado pits so large? Why is spinach so dirty? Is there a way to cut onions without crying? Are the peaches mealy? What is an Asian pear? When I asked the manager what I should tell them, he brought me a pocketknife. “Give them samples,” he said. “That’s what they really want.”
The past year, I’ve been reading cooking magazines and books about fruits and vegetables. I can’t say I know very much, but if I see someone inspecting our peaches, I’ll walk over and smile and produce my pocketknife. I’ve prepared my words: “Peaches that smell good, taste good.” Then I’ll cut the peach in half and offer up a wedge. Sometimes, with someone I recognize, I’ll slice myself a piece and join in, saying, “Best peach I’ve had all hour,” a line I once heard the manager use. I usually get a laugh.
I rent a small but clean mother-in-law unit in a neighborhood of small houses. There are few young couples or, for that matter, kids. It’s quiet and reasonably safe here. Corrections usually notifies the police and neighbors when a sex offender is released into their area, but because I’d been exonerated, they weren’t allowed to tell anyone. I told my prison counselor, “I want to start over. Somewhere new, where people won’t have heard of me.” An acerbic man, he seemed to believe every incarcerated person must be either guilty or deserving of punishment. He wouldn’t look at me as he sorted through papers on his desk. He treated me like another guilty man released on some legal loophole. “You’ve got your clean slate, a new life,” he said, his voice pinched with anger. Still, I believed him.
Now, almost a year later, a young woman stands behind my screen door, her side to me as she gazes at Maria and Clemento’s house. I’ve said hello, but she hasn’t responded. It’s growing dark outside, a little late for solicitors.
“Yes?” I ask. I recognize her from the store. This morning she asked if we guaranteed our cantaloupes, and when I offered to open one up so she could try a slice, she shook her head and said, “Will you take back a bad one?” to which I replied, “Of course.”
Short hairs cover her head like a scrap of brown velvet, except for the front of her scalp, where a rope of bronze hair falls to one side of her face. Three silver rings pierce the flesh beside an eyebrow; another small hoop goes through her nostril. She actually has a beautiful face, but she seems determined to make herself unattractive. Her clothes are tight, as if she bought them small to emphasize her thin body.
She turns to face me. “Do you remember me?” she asks. “The cantaloupe?”
“Yes?” I ask.
She stares at me, and I wonder how she’s found out where I live. I also wonder if I said something offensive at the store, or worse, if I somehow made her think I would like to see her standing in my doorway at night in her tight-fitting clothes.
“I bought the cantaloupe. It was OK,” she says.
“My car broke down,” she says quickly. “Can I use your phone?”
She nods over her shoulder. “The blue one in front,” she says.
A few cars line the street, including a blue one I don’t recognize. I’m still suspicious of her, though, so I ask her to wait outside. She’s sitting on the top step when I return and hand her the phone.
“I don’t know who to call,” she says, standing up and holding out the phone. “Can I come inside?”
“You need a phone book?”
She’s watching me, searching my face, and I sense that nothing good will follow if I let her inside.
“You don’t recognize me,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
She says my name, which, for a moment, I want to deny. “I’m Britt Kindel,” she says.
I know the name. She watches me to see if I remember.
“I was one of the kids,” she adds to be sure.
I remember almost all their names — it was a small day-care center — but I especially remember the ones who testified. I also remember Britt’s mother from before the accusations, a tense woman who rallied the other parents to demand we lead the kids in a short prayer before lunch.
“I need to talk to you,” she says.
“I don’t understand. Who told you I was here?”
“Can I come in first?”
“How did you find me?”
“Someone called my mom. I overheard her talking. They gave her your address. Now can I come in?”
I can’t absorb what I’m hearing. I only want her to leave. I start to wonder if I’m being set up somehow, if talking with her will be used to convict me again. I scan the street for someone waiting in a car or a windowless van.
“Your parents know I’m here?”
“My mom, but she doesn’t care. She checked out a long time ago. As far as she’s concerned, it never happened.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk.” She squints for a moment, and I can see that she’d like me to make this easier for her. “About what happened,” she says.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“I don’t want to talk about it either,” she says. “I was five.”
I feel myself relenting. “I don’t owe you anything,” I say, then quickly add, “You helped put me in jail.”
“According to you, maybe,” she says.
“Who told your mom I was here?”
“Let me in first,” she says. She’s wearing knee-high black socks and a straight skirt that stops just above her knees. I realize that neither of us feels safe talking in my doorway.
We step into my living room, and I tell her to sit. She chooses the couch, watching as I settle in an armchair across the room. She is the first person to visit me since my release, and for a moment, I feel a pang of embarrassment at my lack of hospitality.
“I don’t know who called my mom,” she says.
“Someone from Corrections?”
“I said I don’t know.” She glances around the living room as if trying to locate something. “You live alone?” she asks.
I tell her my wife and I are separated.
She nods, satisfied. “I want to know what happened,” she says.
“At the day care?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“I testified against you.”
“You believed it,” I say. “What about now? Do you still?”
Her head leans to the side, and she stares at me. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Then you don’t believe it?”
“I didn’t say that.” An adolescent irritation edges her voice. “I hardly remember anything from back then.”
She shakes her head as if disagreeing and says, “Talking with some man, an interview that went on and on, how I kept asking my mom for some water, but she ignored me. I remember the courtroom, my mom crying.”
“They coerced you. That’s what you’re remembering.”
She sits there, picking at a fingernail with her thumb, the clicking sound reminding me of a squirrel working at a nut.
It’s dark outside, and I rise to turn on the lights and close the curtains. I stare down at this girl, who I imagine is moving into womanhood not with anxious pleasure but with caution. I try to remember Britt as a five-year-old, but I can’t connect her to any memory. She pulls at her skirt, that ridiculous rope of hair dangling in her face.
“You must know,” I tell her. “Deep down, you must know I never touched you.”
“I want to believe that — I do — but I can’t. I want so badly for this to never have happened, for you to be innocent. And for me —”
“I am innocent.”
“But how do I know that?”
“You were there,” I say, my voice rising.
“I was five.”
“But you know. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here.” I feel my anger gathering and with it an ease with words. “You wanted me to tell you, so listen: Nothing happened. You were told a lie, so you repeated it. I should be the one asking you for the truth. You’d think I deserve it after everything. . . .”
I want to go on, but her face is blank. She stares at the floor between us, and I know she won’t hear anything more I say. I consider apologizing but think better of it. I’m tired of acting as if it were my fault.
I hear the wumpa-wump, wumpa-wump from some kid’s car stereo, followed by another, slightly different rhythm as the cars pass like two insistent heartbeats.
Britt stands. “Never mind,” she says. “Talking won’t get us anywhere.” She walks to the door and opens it. “Anyway, . . .” she says, pausing for a moment as if contemplating something outside. Then, without saying anything more, she steps into the dark and closes the door.
I sit in my living room wishing I could hide, feeling that my world has again shifted in some horrible way. After a while, I turn in early and make sure the house is locked. I leave my window open and listen to a neighborhood dog bark at a passerby or a deer or maybe its own shadow. There’s a soft murmuring, an occasional laugh; Linda Lowe is sitting in her garden, sipping a drink and talking to her boyfriend from the city on the phone. A little later, the four or five college students in the rental across the street start playing their guitars on the porch, a kind of old, insistent gypsy music that has no words, only a running, twisted melody. These night sounds are familiar to me, and I’m thankful for them. I’m still awake, though, when the music has stopped, when I hear only the swelling of wind in the trees. I’m afraid to sleep, as I was so many nights in prison, not because I fear the night, but because I fear the coming day.
When I go outside the next morning, coffee mug in hand, there’s a blue sedan parked in my driveway. Someone is sleeping on the reclined passenger seat, and without looking closer, I know it’s Britt Kindel.
I no longer try to understand people with their beehives of contradictions and beliefs. What am I to think? That Britt Kindel is hounding me, approaching me with a cantaloupe and asking my store’s policy on rotten fruit as if to test me? And now she’s asleep in my driveway. What would her mother say about this? Or, for that matter, anyone who knows my past? My coffee in one hand, the lawn chair in the other, I walk to the back of my house. The lawn is weedy and enclosed by a half-fallen fence, but there is peace here, and I am not stuck inside.
By the time I go next door to walk with Clemento, Britt’s car is gone. Maria invites me in to wait for Clemento. He is quiet today, she tells me. She says he’s having some pain in his legs, but he still wants to walk. I realize that Maria knows little about me except that I’m divorced (I’ve led her to believe this), that I work at the Red Apple, and that I’m a kind man to walk with her father every day. It occurs to me that I know as little, or as much, about her, and yet I think it’s reasonable to say that she is the person I would call if I needed help. I have gone so far as to list her as my local contact in case of an emergency at the Red Apple. I don’t know if she would be pleased or annoyed at this. I suppose I would consider her my closest friend here, and that saddens me. We talk occasionally, but the talk is mostly about her father or the weather. I’d like to talk with her more, but it seems we have established a friendly formality between us, and I’m careful not to upset things.
I’ve often thought that to gain someone’s trust, you must first trust them; although this sounds like a wise and convenient aphorism, I’m not sure it holds up, especially in my case. And yet, as I’m walking with Clemento, I begin to tell him about myself, about being in prison, and I show him my hands. He listens, and I think he might nod at times, and when we return to his house, he takes my hand with the two missing fingers and holds it in his for a moment. Maria helps him to his chair and steadies his shoulders as he leans back into it. He says something to Maria, who gazes at me with sympathy, or maybe fear. She nods toward her father. “He says you’ve had as much hardship as him. He says he would fix your hands if he could.”
After my swim at the YMCA, I cut through the park on my walk to Pete’s for lunch. It’s a small-town park with a fountain and bandstand in the middle. I hear music, then see Britt playing a violin near the fountain, where a small crowd of adults and children has gathered. Her eyes are closed, and she seems unaware of her audience. She plays something Irish, a beseeching song, her body rocking slightly as if by a gentle tide, and once I see her eyebrows lift when the tune seems to call out. I feel uneasy watching her, as if her playing were too private, as if it were a kind of lovemaking between the musician and her music. She seems years older than eighteen, a grown woman who has suffered and survived her share of disappointments and regrets. I’m struck by how lovely she is, even with her half-inch buzz cut and her silly rope of hair nestled at the base of the violin. When she finishes the song, I feel myself shrink, preparing to be seen, but her eyes don’t move past a small boy who is trying to jump but succeeds only in throwing his torso upward, his heels lifting slightly with the effort. It’s a comical sight, and I wonder if Britt will smile, but then she begins another tune, something fast and a bit off kilter.
I’d stay longer and watch her, but I’m horribly aware that were anyone to know the accusations against me, they would surely suspect the worst. I walk around the fountain until I’m standing before Britt, whose eyes are still closed. Her violin case holds a dollar and a smattering of coins; I leave a ten-dollar bill.
I’m listening to the men at Pete’s discuss the old method of felling trees with two-man saws when Britt takes a seat at the opposite end of the semicircular counter. She stares at me as if she were reading a menu on a far wall, and I return to my soup. When I look up she’s ordering a tuna-fish sandwich and a cup of chicken-noodle soup, and then she regards me again. I nod, but she doesn’t return it. It seems she’s watching everyone around me with a kind of curious interest, as if she were studying a foreign and peculiar culture. I focus on my lunch, contemplating my food as I eat it. I want her to see that I’m a patient and conscientious man. I glance up; she’s staring at my left hand with its missing fingers, and I pull the hand discreetly into my lap. After she finishes her soup and sandwich, she asks for another sandwich to go. She pays with a handful of change.
A few hours later I see Britt at the grocery store, talking to the other produce clerk, Smitty, a quiet man who spends his break time studying to be a nurse. My hands are aching — they often do when I stock produce — so I head to the back and run them under hot water. When I return, Smitty is smelling a mango, then showing Britt how to feel for its ripeness. They seem oddly serious, even morose, like two doctors palpating a body for a growth. They agree upon one, and Britt places it in her basket beside a loaf of white bread. Then she wanders the produce aisles, inspecting carrots and bell peppers but selecting none. Mostly she watches me arrange the lemons, and I tell myself she is only trying to learn who I am, but I still feel as if I were doing something wrong. When she meanders past me toward the deli counter, I say hello, and she nods back. A few minutes later I see her leaving the store empty-handed.
When I return home, the driveway is empty, but as I’m readying for bed, I see the blue sedan pull in. To say that Britt is stalking me wouldn’t be right; she doesn’t hide herself, and her interest is understandable and essentially benign. It’s as if she wants her presence known and, for that matter, wants me to share in hers. But it can’t be very safe sleeping in a car. And then there’s the question of the neighbors: how could I explain to Maria that some girl has chosen my driveway to sleep in?
In the beginning when I was in prison — and, to a lesser degree, toward the end — I badly wanted someone to believe I was innocent. If just one person believed me, if my reality extended beyond myself, I could begin to accept and forgive everything that had happened to me. And now here’s Britt, following me about the town as if familiarity might bring actual understanding. I suspect she wants me to prove myself trustworthy, that she wants to trust me almost as much as I want to be trusted.
It’s dark outside, but she sees me coming down the driveway and lowers her window. She’s eating the tuna-fish sandwich from Pete’s. A collection of fast-food wrappers and paper bags litter the floor on the passenger side. The back seat is cluttered with half-full garbage bags and clothing.
“Why are you sleeping in my driveway?”
“It’s safer than the street.”
“But what are you doing here?”
“I left home,” she says.
“You’ve run away?”
“No. I’m old enough to leave. There’s a difference. Anyway, my mom’s given up trying to make me do anything,” she says, then adds, “I’ve never been an easy kid.”
“But you don’t drive five hours to some new town to sleep in someone’s driveway. You go to a friend’s house, or a relative’s.”
“They’re the ones I’m trying to get away from. I don’t want to be where people think they know me and my history.”
“You need to go home,” I tell her. “You can’t camp out here.”
“I’ll park on the street, then, but I’m not leaving.” She finishes the sandwich, crumples the paper bag, and throws it on the floor. “Call the cops if you want. But you won’t. That’s the last thing you’d do.”
Across the street, a porch light flashes on, and two young men appear with their guitars and start to tune up.
I can’t have Britt parking in my driveway or, for that matter, on the street. I’m taking a risk helping her, but she needs it, and, despite everything I’ve told myself, I still feel I owe her something. “Listen,” I tell her, “I have an empty garage, and if you want, you can pull in there. There’s even an old couch that the last tenants left behind. It’s probably more comfortable than your car.”
Her hands rest on the steering wheel as if she were driving a stretch of straight highway. “OK,” she says. “All right.”
After she pulls into the garage, she gets out of the car and walks past me to the couch. She’s standing with her hands on her hips, as if she wants to sit but is waiting for me to leave. I ask, “Does your mom know you’re OK?”
Her eyes close for a moment, her head tilting slightly. “I don’t know.”
“You haven’t talked to her?”
“No. She’s called my cell, but I haven’t answered.”
I imagine a missing-person report, the police finding her in my garage. “You need to call her,” I tell her.
She nods. “I know.”
“Just to check in.”
“I know, I know.”
“You’ll call tonight?”
“Can I trust that?” I ask, and suddenly I feel like a parent striking a deal.
Annoyance sweeps over her face, betraying her adolescence, but she sighs and looks away. “I don’t know why you care,” she says, “but I’ll call. I will.”
I go back inside. As I’m getting in bed, I wish I’d offered her a pillow or blanket, and, at the same time, I regret having even offered the couch. I’m concerned that somehow she might think this the lechery of a guilty man. I know I have done the right thing, but still I worry. This is the burden of innocence: to imagine oneself as guilty.
I’m up earlier than usual the next morning, and I take my coffee to the front yard in the predawn light. The garage door is closed, as it should be, and I can’t help wondering if Britt and her car are still there.
Later, as I’m leaving the house, I hear her playing her violin in the garage. She’s sitting on the couch when I enter.
“You could knock,” she says.
“Sorry,” I say. “You can’t play in here. The neighbors will hear you, and they’ll start to wonder.”
She plucks a loose horsehair from her bow and drops it on the floor. “OK, fine,” she says, “but next time, knock.”
I want to respond to this, to her assumption that there will be a next time, but I know she’s right, and part of me wants there to be a next time, too, so I can remember to knock and show I mean well. That night, I tap on her door, and when she answers, I enter with bedding for the couch.
For the next week, it’s as if we were two wild animals left to share a cage divided by a screen, so that in time we might learn to live with each other. When I find Britt wandering about the produce section at the Red Apple, looking bored, I open a melon and arrange some pieces on a paper plate for her. One time I crumble a good gorgonzola beside a few slices of red pear, and though she grimaces when tasting the cheese, she finishes the plate and thanks me. One night when I make pasta, I see her sitting on the garage steps, spreading peanut butter over the end of a loaf of bread. I bring her a fork and a bowl of noodles, then return inside to my own bowl. At Pete’s, she watches me as I try to make conversation with the other men. Each day, I want to buy her an ice-cream cone or milkshake, but I suspect she wouldn’t accept it, and anyway, what would the men think? When I sit in my living room reading at night, I leave the shades open so that, were she to see me, she’d see a quiet, ordinary man. Each day I find her playing her violin in the park, and each day I leave in her case whatever I can afford. Only at the YMCA am I free of her, and I sense this has everything to do with her neither owning nor wanting to be seen in a swimsuit.
One day when I return from work, I find her talking across the fence with Maria. A few days earlier, when I found her sitting on my back steps eating a pint of strawberries, Britt told me about Linda Lowe’s boyfriend of three years who has never been to her house. “He says he’s allergic to her cat,” she told me, “but she thinks he’s not ready for a commitment. Mostly they go out to dinner. I told her she should get rid of him.”
That night I knock on the garage door and tell Britt I’m not comfortable with her talking to my neighbors.
“Why not?” she says.
I don’t answer.
“I’m not going to tell them about that. That’s what I’m trying to get away from. Maria thinks I’m your niece. I probably reflect well upon you.” I want to tell her I don’t want a niece, but that seems beside the point. She continues, “All we talked about was her family in Mexico. Her husband lives there, taking care of his elderly mother. Neither of their parents can fly, and they’re too old to be alone, so Maria and her husband haven’t seen each other for four years. Can you believe that? All she wants is to be with her family.”
“Please,” I say. I hold my hands out as if trying to calm her. “Just please.”
“Trust me,” she says. “We want the same thing.”
“And what’s that?”
She thinks for a moment. “To start over. To be safe. To fit in. Pretty much what everyone wants.”
The next night, when I hear her playing music with the boys across the street, I sit in my front yard and listen and tell myself I’m OK, that I’m safe and normal, and that despite all their fear, people have decent hearts.
The following morning, as Mr. Yunker is watering his roses, Britt sits on the walkway beside my chair. She’s wearing the same outfit as when she first knocked on my door, but she’s missing the black knee-high socks, and her legs look thin and long. I suppose if Mr. Yunker thinks to ask anyone about Britt and me, he’ll be told that she’s my niece, in town for a visit. But except for his perfunctory wave to me each morning, Mr. Yunker has never seemed particularly interested in anyone.
“The guys across the street said you’re always up early,” she says.
“No, they stay up.”
We watch Mr. Yunker’s dog strain against the leash to reach a patch of grass, her front paws madly scraping the ground.
“Last night I slept with one of them,” she says.
I remember watching them on the porch, and I wonder if she went there intending to sleep with one of them, how she must have offered herself up. And now I can only think, Yes, of course, and I was supposed to see it coming from where I sat.
“It doesn’t bother you?” she asks.
I want to tell her what really bothers me: that I’ve lost twelve years, that I’ve lost my wife, that I’ve lost my hands. She’s really asking me if I’m envious, and of course I am, but not in the way she’d like to think.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” I say. “I’m not your father.”
“That’s what my mom would say, except for the last part — if she’d ever say anything.”
She plays with a shoelace, using the tip to pick at a hole in the side of her shoe. “Do you like me?” she asks suddenly, as if needing to speak before stopping to reconsider.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you like me?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I suppose I don’t like or dislike you.”
“That’s the worst possible answer. What, you don’t have an opinion?”
“I don’t really know you.”
She nods to herself. “I suppose I don’t know you either. I guess you can’t ever really know someone.”
I want to tell her I disagree; that it takes time and, for me, courage and perhaps a little faith. And even if she were right, it’s better to try than to lock yourself in a cell of your own making. But I say nothing; she’s young, and these are things she can learn only on her own.
I finish my coffee; usually I make only one cup, but now I wish I’d made more, so I could offer some to Britt and join her for another cup.
“Do you like the guy?” I ask, nodding toward the house across the street.
“No.” She stares at the grass, which needs watering. “I don’t have any friends,” she says. “Not real friends.”
“I suppose I don’t either,” I say. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re about as close a friend as I have.”
“That’s pathetic,” she says, but not cruelly. “I know what you mean, though.”
Mr. Yunker’s dog begins to circle around a spot of grass, and we can hear Mr. Yunker praising her, drawing out his words as if talking to a baby: “Find the poo-poo spot. That’s it. There you go. That’s a good spot. Good poo-poo.”
“That’s pathetic,” Britt says.
To everyone their faults, I think.
We watch Mr. Yunker clean up after the dog with a plastic bag; then he heads inside. We’re quiet for a while until Britt stands and stretches. “I need to sleep,” she says.
I don’t see Britt playing her violin in the park that day, and that evening I listen for the opening and closing of the garage door, but I don’t hear it. When I wake in the morning, I look through the garage window, then search the street for her car, but I already know she’s gone.
I sit on my lawn chair in the morning light. Linda Lowe drives by, and we wave. Her window must be down, for I hear the false, overexuberant voice of a morning disc jockey. Mr. Yunker appears in his yard with the paper in one hand, the leash in the other. His dog has found something in the grass and digs furiously, only to stop and press her nose into the dirt, then sneeze. Across the street, the boys’ house is dark and still. To my surprise, I miss Britt. I wish I had told her more, though I’m not sure what: maybe about prison or my wife, though of course neither would have been appropriate. I wish she had told me more about herself, but then, I didn’t ask. I demand little of anyone, and, in turn, few requests are made of me. Of Britt I know only that she was unhappy, that her mother didn’t seem to love her enough, that her father was absent, that she played a violin and slept with boys. I was scared to ask her more about her life, just as I have been scared to ask anyone. And so I didn’t know that Maria is married and misses her husband, or that Linda Lowe’s boyfriend holds her at arm’s length. I only swim in a pool and eat at a soda fountain and stack fruits and vegetables at a grocery store while watching those around me with caution. For all purposes, I might as well sit on my front lawn and watch the world pass by me. Suddenly I feel like talking, and I want to call my wife, but I don’t think she’d want to listen. It’s a bit early, but I rise and cross my yard, past the garage, to stand before Maria’s front door, readying myself to knock. I feel bold and reckless, and I know the feeling will pass, but I want to hold on to it.