Featured Image by Marcel Langthim from Pixabay
My car was full of candy, and feathers too, the first time I drove to the man’s house. It was the morning of Halloween and my boy Benny was dressed in a Goodwill costume that looked like a shabby pair of pajamas. I’d tried to improve the Angry Bird suit by plastering it with yellow feathers, but most of them had detached and were floating around my car. I dropped Benny at school and drove across town, snatching at the feathers and tossing them out the window, hoping I wouldn’t be pulled over for littering.
I’d Googled the man’s home address many times. The map view showed just the street and a long row of tall leafy shrubs. I tried the satellite view too, but it was a blur of brown and green revealing nothing. This was about a week before the sentencing, and I needed to see the man’s house, to have some notion of who he was in the world before I had to face him again.
After the accident, after the police had handcuffed the man and ducked him into a patrol car and then taken my statement, some paperwork had arrived in the mail, a Victim’s Rights Notification. I was even assigned a Victim’s Rights Advocate named Tara. The documents provided me with the man’s name and his home address, which I found odd. I mean, what if I wanted retribution? I didn’t, but what if I did? I thought they should at least keep the perp’s address private, if not his name. Talk about an invitation for trouble.
When I told my sister Rhonda where the man lived, she said, “Asshole! He must have more money than God.” She said that about everybody who wasn’t in our family.
Dad, though, he held the wealthy in high esteem. He owned the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and recommended it to everyone he met. “Hi, I’m Ed. Say—” (reaching into his jacket pocket and presenting the book)—“Have you heard of this book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad? I swear it’ll change your life.”
I exaggerate, but it’s not far off.
Unfortunately, Rich Dad, Poor Dad hadn’t helped Dad. He’d been sleeping on my couch since he got laid off two years back.
Dad had nothing bad to say about any rich person, not even Donald Trump, who he adoringly referred to as That Motherfucking Genius. He truly believed the rich were a race of higher beings. If he ever encountered a person he judged to be wealthy—due to style of clothes, model of car, a European accent—he would bend into subordinacy, bowing at the waist, addressing the person sir or ma’am. At those times he did not mention the book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Rhonda and I gave him endless amounts of shit over it.
That last day of October, I drove my new car, bought with the check that had come in the mail from the man’s insurance company. The car’s GPS led me across the river, through downtown and then up a steep hill, back and forth, left and right, all the way to the top where even from the road I had a view of the city skyline.
I parked across the street from where the man’s house was supposed to be. Giant poplar trees lined the sidewalks, their crowns great canopies, their yellow leaves falling arabesques. The only sound was the whir of lawn machinery, a team of Hispanic men working with mowers and leaf blowers and edgers and weed whackers, clipping and raking around a neighboring property like an army of harvester ants.
I saw no other people, no cars passing by, and even with the noise there was a sense of silence, a deep inhale.
I didn’t get out of the car that first day. The long line of tall leafy shrubs looked exactly like it had on my screen. There was one gap in the hedge, at the corner of the property, blocked with a weathered wood gate, just wide enough for a car to pass through. The two doors of the gate were padlocked with a rusted metal chain.
I wanted a cigarette, but clearly this was not a place where people smoked, and though there seemed to be no one around but the lawn guys, I didn’t dare, not even inside my car.
Finally, I turned the key in the ignition and crept along the shrubs and turned left onto a different street. Here the hedge continued, then abruptly stopped, opening onto a circular driveway that coiled up to the front door of what I could only describe as a mansion. Or a manor. It was a house like the one in Downton Abbey.
I exaggerate, but trust me, it was amazing.
It was then I realized the address I had must be for the back entrance to the house. The wood gate would have been the service entrance. Maybe even the servants entrance. Now I was at the front of the house: red brick wrapped in waves of ivy, a wide front door painted gleaming black. I drove by swiftly, scanning for people. The property was four times the size of the surrounding lots. I pulled over again in front of the next house down the road and looked back. The circular driveway was lined with hydrangea, the flowers of which were a red-blue that was not quite purple.
I thought about the man. There was no way that man lived in this house. There was no way the man who’d rammed into the back of my car, so drunk the police had to help him get out of his own vehicle, lived in this house.
Then again, I couldn’t imagine any one man living in this house. Not even That Mother Fucker Donald Trump.
I took a picture of the house with my phone, imagined showing it to Rhonda and Dad—her offense, his delight. And then I drove back down the hill.
But I never shared the picture with anyone. It became a secret, all mine.
That night, Dad took Benny out trick-or-treating and I went to my waitressing job at the Olive Garden. Everything was the same, but not the same. I waited the same tables I waited most nights, but now I felt different. I felt something close to hope.
The next day, I went back up the hill and parked in front of a colonial-style house four blocks away from the man’s house. I wore a floppy hat and a pair of dress slacks and a rain coat—though it wasn’t raining. It was my nicest coat. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, admiring the way all the grass was just an inch high and edged back from the cement with not a dandelion in sight. The landscaping was tidy and meticulous, seeming to flow from one yard to the next, puffballs of round azalea streaming into a curl of rhododendron rolling down a slight hill into tufts of black grasses. Birds sang overhead, beautifully, like tinkling bells. It was the opposite of wilderness.
I’d concocted an excuse, in case I was approached. I was a realtor with a client who was looking for a certain type of home in the neighborhood, a house on a big lot. The client’s name was confidential, of course.
But there were no people, not in the yards, not on the sidewalks, no cars on the streets. The windows in all the houses were dark.
Arriving at the man’s house, I saw the back gate was open and in the drive was a truck marked Sunset Heating and Cooling. I walked as slowly as I could while still moving. The back of the house was more window than wall. A pair of French doors opened onto a stone patio where there was a long dining table that would seat at least twelve. At the edge of the patio was an inground pool, sealed for the winter with a bright blue cover. I turned the corner and walked along the front of the house. The air smelled of dry leaves and dryer sheets. As I passed the entrance to the circular driveway, I noticed a Japanese maple tree in the corner of the yard, it’s leaves blood red. Under the tree was a statue of the Buddha sitting cross-legged, his right hand raised.
I walked back to my car under the poplar canopies, savoring the structured silence, the ordered peace. It was as if the immaculate lawns, the wreathed front doors, the gleaming Mercedes cars parked on the tiled driveways, these things kept one safe, sheltered from the pandemonium of the world.
I may be naïve, but it was difficult for me to believe that a place like this could exist. And now that I knew it existed, I wanted to be part of it.
The sentencing took place downtown at the County Courthouse. Tara, my Victim’s Rights Advocate, recommended I bring Dad and Rhonda for support, and also Benny, so both the judge and the man could see the child who’d nearly been killed.
I expected the sentencing chamber to be like a huge church with rows of pews, like in the movies, but it was just an office conference room with folding chairs and cheap carpet. We sat in the first row, Tara, me with Benny in my lap playing games on my phone, and then Rhonda and Dad.
The man entered the room with his lawyer. I knew it was him, but I wouldn’t have recognized him on the street. I remembered him as a sort of sad clown, bumbling and bloated, blind drunk in a three-piece suit.
I’d learned from Tara that he’d voluntarily checked into a drug and alcohol rehab facility and he’d been there during all the time that had passed between the week of the accident and now. He was a doctor, a surgeon, and a professor who worked at the big teaching hospital on the hill.
He and his white-haired lawyer were dressed in similar dark suits, the lawyer’s gray, the man’s navy. The lawyer’s tie was yellow, the man’s light green. They took their seats in the front row across the aisle from us. It reminded me of a wedding with the bride’s family on one side and the groom’s on the other. Though he didn’t seem to have any family.
Rehab had done him good. He looked like he’d lost twenty pounds and the puffiness in his cheeks was gone. He seemed taller than I remembered, and his black hair was longer, with a nice wave. His expression was stern and he stood tall, shoulders back and chin out, every bit the man who went home to a mansion.
It took him awhile to look at me. He laser-focused on the judge laying out the charges against him: Aggravated DUI involving a minor. I stared at the side of the man’s face and he stared at the judge. The tally came in at 120 hours community service, continued participation in an outpatient rehab program and installation of an ignition interlock device—a breathalyzer—in his car for a minimum of one year.
Finally, the man was ordered to pay me $20,000 in restitution for pain and suffering. Beside me, Rhonda whispered, “Oh my God.” Tara had told us the amount would be between $2,000 and $6,250. The man’s face didn’t change. What was $20,000 to him? Something or nothing? I guessed bringing Benny was a good idea after all.
I was offered an opportunity to speak, but I’m no public speaker and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I passed.
The man, though, he did speak. Across the aisle from us, he stood and turned to face me. Tara rose to her feet and nudged me up with her.
“I’m truly sorry for what I did.” His eyes were pale blue, like Dad’s. He glanced down at Benny, who was absorbed in a video game. “And I’m sorry to your son—please let him know that. I knew I had a problem. I knew I needed to get help, and I’m sorry it took something as bad as this to force me to take the first step.”
They were all looking at me. I was stuck on the words, something as bad as this. I was pretty sure he was speaking about his own experience and not mine.
I smiled and nodded. The man and his lawyer turned back to the judge.
Outside the courthouse, as we were climbing into my new car, Dad clapped me on the shoulder. “Look who won the lottery!”
“Screw that,” said Rhonda. “Benny could’ve been killed. The amount should’ve been $50,000. Or $100,000. It’s always the assholes that got more money than God.”
Dad wrassled Benny’s hair. “Killed? Nah, not a scratch on him.”
To me, the $20,000 felt like nothing. I owed $39,000 to credit cards.
At work that night I fantasized that the man walked into the Olive Garden. He approached and took my hand and led me out the front door. The people sitting at my tables were furious. “Hey, get back here! Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I imagined driving with him in a black sports car up to his mansion, following him into the dark house, up the stairs to his bedroom, allowing him to undress me in the quiet twilight.
I returned to the man’s house. Day after day I walked under the poplars while teams of maids came and went from the houses with buckets of cleaning supplies and Fed Ex drivers stacked Amazon boxes on front porches and landscapers corralled the relentless shower of leaves.
I started to believe the man and I were meant to be together. This was the silver lining. I served pasta, picturing the wedding announcement that would run in The Tribune. Thrown together—literally—by an accident, William and Maureen met when his Lincoln Navigator plowed into the back of her Mercury Cougar, nearly crushing her six-year-old son. Neither could have imagined on that day that they’d spend the rest of their lives together.
I pondered the angles. I was thirty-four. I could still get pregnant, and then Benny would have a sibling. I imagined Benny and his little sister running out the French doors into the backyard and doing cannonballs into the pool. We’d buy another house in the neighborhood so Dad and Rhonda could live nearby.
Thanksgiving morning, exhausted after working double shifts the previous five days and not in the mood to cook all morning, I told Dad and Benny I needed to make a grocery run.
I drove to the man’s house. Now, there was more light in the previously shaded yards. A group of white men played football on a wide front yard. A pair of kids walked down the sidewalk, leading a barking dog. One house had eight cars stacked in the driveway.
Aggravated, I almost left. Then I put on my realtor face and marched forward, slowing down only when I came to the man’s property line. I held my phone to my ear and pretended I was on an important call. I did and did not want to be seen.
There was a tinkling sound in the air, like wind chimes. The smaller trees in the front yard were bare of leaves except for the Japanese maple, still blazing red. I turned the corner to the back of the house and the wind chimes became music, classical. I walked slowly, feeling the music, wishing I knew the composer and the piece. The gate was open. A woman sat on the patio, leaned back in her chair, bare feet on the table, holding a steaming mug. She was reading a book. My pace quickened. On the far side of the hedge I stopped, heart pounding. The woman looked to be my age. Who could she be but the man’s wife?
I ran the remainder of the block until I came to the next house. “Shit.” I said it out loud. Furious, I spun around and walked back to the house. The woman was standing now, insulated by the yard, and she looked up, right at me, and smiled.
Here I do not exaggerate: I was shocked by her appearance. She looked like a peasant, round and lumpy, wearing a linen shift that fell to her shins like an apron. Her hair was gray-brown and bushy. How had she let herself get that way? Wasn’t she afraid the man would leave her? Mine sure had, and I looked a lot better than she did.
I walked in circles around the whole block, but when I passed by the third time, the gate had been shut.
Driving home, I wondered how I could be such an idiot. Did I really think he lived alone in that huge house like Jay freaking Gatsby?
I worked double shifts that weekend and I thought a lot about the man’s wife. Why hadn’t she been at the sentencing? Did she even know about the accident? Was she aware he’d gone to rehab? Was she afraid he’d lose his job? Had she kicked him out? I bet it had been a hard time for her. But something didn’t fit.
It came to me at the peak of dinner traffic, delivering oversized plates of lasagna to an eight top with six kids. Serenity. With the music and her book and her smile, the wife was serene. Yes, that was the word for all of it, the street, the sidewalk, the trees, the house.
I’d been told there were some things money could not buy. I always thought serenity was one of them.
Monday, I dropped Benny at school and drove across town and parked in my usual spot, four blocks away. Imagine my delight when I saw that every house was trimmed for the holidays. There were candles in windows, garlands on gutters, lights strung from roof gables. Even the mailboxes were wrapped with evergreen and poinsettias.
I was like a kid on Christmas morning, grinning from ear to ear as I walked, and I walked swiftly, full of anticipation for what I’d find at the man’s house.
But it turned out the man’s house was just the same, not a red or green trinket in sight. I scanned the front yard. The back gate was closed. I walked around the block and passed the front yard again. I slowed at the back gate and attempted to peek around the edge. And then I heard a soft crunching sound, a car pulling up behind me.
I spun around, expecting to see the man’s black Lincoln. The time had come for me to be seen. But it wasn’t the man’s car. It was a police cruiser. The car stopped, parked half in the street and half in the driveway. Two officers got out.
I hurried forward, trying to get out of their way. “Ma’am,” one of the officer’s said. He looked as old as Dad and twice as thick, stuffed into his stiff blue suit, his belt like a rubber band around his stomach. “We’d like to have a word with you.”
“Me?” I pointed to myself.
The other officer, fresh-faced and solemn, nodded. “We’ve received complaints that you’ve been loitering in the neighborhood.”
I shook my head. “Loitering?” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. “I haven’t been loitering. I’ve been walking. Uh, I’m a realtor and I have a client looking for a house in this neighborhood.”
“We know who you are, ma’am.”
I giggled anxiously. “There must be a mistake.”
“Ma’am, is your name Maureen MacPhee?”
My face got hot. I nodded, perplexed.
“As I said, we’ve had complaints that you’ve been loitering in the neighborhood. Loitering is a criminal offense, ma’am, punishable by law. Now, it’s time for you to leave and not come back.”
I scanned the houses on the other side of the street, the rows of dark windows. “I’ve just been walking. I haven’t done anything wrong. I mean this is a city street, right? You can’t stop me from walking along the street.”
The young cop changed his stance, rolled his shoulders. The old cop continued. “Ma’am, we’re happy to take you down to the station to discuss this further. You’ve troubled the people who live in this neighborhood long enough.”
I’d troubled the people? I was the one who had my car totaled, whose child was put in danger.
“No,” I said. “I’ll leave.”
The old cop pulled a small notebook from his pocket. “The record will show we’ve had this conversation. If you come here again, there will be consequences.”
I practically jogged down the sidewalk, glowering up at the dark windows, feeling like I’d been betrayed by a community of ghosts. When I arrived at my car I got in and lit a cigarette. Could they arrest me for smoking? How did they know who I was? Did the man’s wife think I wanted retribution? Did she think I was going to sneak in and boil her pet rabbit?
I opened the window an inch to let out the smoke and stared across the street at a manger scene, expertly recreated in the front yard of the colonial house. The manger was a lean-to-shed, built nearly to scale. Inside were plaster casts of Mary and Joseph flanking the baby Jesus, dressed in rags, lying in a pile of hay, surrounded on all sides by goats and donkeys, chickens and pigs.
Rhonda was wrong. God didn’t have any money.
I did want retribution. I flicked the cigarette out the window. If you could buy serenity, could you also steal it?
I turned the keys in the ignition and drove straight to the man’s house and pulled into the circular drive in front, blocking one entrance. I marched over to the Japanese maple and grabbed the stone Buddha statue by his elbows. He didn’t budge. I leaned my ass on his face, put all my weight on it. The statue tipped and then popped out of the ground with a thump. I rolled him to the car and opened the trunk. I held him in a bear hug, bent my knees and hoisted him up onto the bumper, then lowered him down into the hatch.
I slid into the driver’s seat and reversed out of the driveway. But I’d be back. People like that had no right to be serene.
Rebecca Haas has worked as a journalist and public relations executive for twenty years. Her fiction and creative non-fiction stories have appeared in The New Ohio Review, Into the Void, and The Oleander Review, and have been performed by Liars League PDX at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon. Her novel-in-progress was shortlisted for the 2019 First Pages Prize. She won first place in the 2019 Dreamers Creative Writing Flash Non-Fiction Contest. Rebecca lives in Portland with her husband and children.