One day Mr. W was there, and the next he wasn’t.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. No one knew exactly when he disappeared. Peter mulled this over in the days that followed. Had it been weeks? Months? Why hadn’t they noticed?
Maybe because he was a little old man living alone. Mr. W occupied the corner house on Fountaindale Drive, a beige brick split-level with a single-car garage. Peter and the other neighborhood kids envied him because his property had twice the yard theirs did. Yet unlike some of Peter’s neighbors who deemed their lawns Strictly Off Limits, he didn’t mind the kids using his front and side yards for games. “Just not in the backyard,” he’d say as they darted onto his grass while playing Kick the Can. Mr. W was resigned to the tumble of bodies onto his perfectly mowed lawn, a football careening into the peony bushes, an apologetic face at the front door asking for permission to enter the backyard to retrieve a baseball.
Peter knew a few things about Mr. W: He had been a high school teacher, his grown-up children, Ralph and Eva, were even older than Peter’s parents, and his little gray dog, Max, was his pride and joy. But Mr. W mostly kept to himself. He didn’t invite the neighborhood kids inside for a drink of water on a hot day or offer his bathroom for washing blood off a scraped knee. He stayed planted in his doorway, the gray dog at his feet, when a kid rang his bell. Peter didn’t even know Mr. W’s full name until a stray letter appeared in his family’s mailbox: Mr. Steven Wiaterowski. No wonder everyone called him Mr. W.
What stayed with Peter after the old man was gone was a handful of images: Mr. W pushing the lawn mower on a summer day while wearing a bow tie. Mr. W saying “Who’s the best of dogs?” as Peter knelt down to pet Max’s soft head. Mr. W holding his screen door open in anticipation of the needs of a child, but only willing to give so much.
Why hadn’t they noticed?
The only time Mr. W was at Peter’s own house had occurred five years earlier. Mr. W walked down the street on a summer evening to ask Peter’s father to help him buy a deep freeze. Peter’s father had been sitting on the concrete stoop, a can of beer in hand. Peter hovered on the edge of their conversation, watching Mr. W ask about the benefits of a deep freeze, the best place to buy one, and how he would get it to his house. Peter’s father tossed out opinions effortlessly, like a basketball slicing through the net. Goddamn right to buy a deep freeze; refrigerator freezers took an inch of ice all around and barely fit a frozen pizza. Sherman’s had the best price and quality, not like Sears gauging everyone with their mark-up. He’d take Mr. W over the next Saturday in the van, and they’d use his hand-truck to haul it into Mr. W’s garage. Mr. W surrendered to Peter’s father’s superior knowledge. He admitted to his abiding love for turkey and anticipated he could buy at least six in the coming November at the lower prices. “I’ll be set until April!” he enthused. Peter could picture those turkeys: the rounded, cold breasts, legs bulging from the sides, lining the bottom of the freezer.
That Saturday, Peter’s father dismissed his request to accompany them to Sherman’s. “You’ll be in the way,” he said. Peter had to settle for watching for the van’s return.
Mr. W appeared at the appointed hour of eleven, wearing a white dress shirt, navy bow tie, and gray slacks. Peter had never seen him wear a t-shirt, or a Bears sweatshirt—the uniform of the neighborhood men in colder weather—or any shirt without buttons and a collar. Peter’s father had made no such effort in his attire, wearing a t-shirt, battered work jeans, and a baseball cap. He strode to the van, shrugging off Mr. W’s thanks for undertaking the errand, and swung his long legs into the driver’s seat. He had the engine roaring before Mr. W could shut the passenger side door after his graceless hop into the seat. Peter watched his father crank down the window and rest his arm on the door frame, turning the steering wheel with the palm of his hand to reverse the van onto the street. Peter heard Mr. W talking about turkey again as the van roared off. “The funny little man,” his mother once called Mr. W. Peter’s father had responded with a snort.
The hour between eleven and twelve stretched endlessly. There was only so much Peter could do with sticks and bugs within the boundaries of his yard, restrictions that even as a six-year-old he chafed against. Eventually the van cruised around the corner, paused in front of Mr. W’s house, and reversed into the driveway. His father emerged, opened the back doors, and pulled out the hand truck. Then he looked from the freezer to Mr. W and, scowling, spoke a few words before striding away. Mr. W stood before the deep freeze, running his hand along the gleaming surface, then opening the top to peer inside. After a few minutes, Peter’s father returned with two other men to lift the freezer from the van. The requisite grunts and goddamns reached Peter’s ears as the men muscled the appliance to the ground. Then the brilliantly white deep freeze glided up the drive and disappeared into Mr. W’s open garage. Peter would see it occasionally as he biked past in the years that followed, glowing in the back of the garage, humming with the promise of cartons of ice cream, bags of frozen vegetables, and Mr. W’s beloved turkeys.
Before Mr. W disappeared, Peter had rarely spoken to the old man for more than a minute or two at a time, and these conversations had happened by chance. In the last year that Mr. W lived on Fountaindale Drive, when Peter was eleven, he would encounter Mr. W walking the gray dog past his house. Or he’d say hello as he rode by on his bike, and Mr. W would wave from his knees in the flower beds. As an adult—and an old man—Mr. W was to be treated with respect. Peter also assumed that he had no interest in his thoughts or feelings. Most of the men in the neighborhood treated children this way; Peter expected nothing different from Mr. W. So the conversation about Girl Scout cookies, when Peter was ten, ended up being one of the most significant interactions he had with Mr. W, though he didn’t realize it at the time.
Peter’s best friend in the neighborhood was Maggie, who lived across the street and was the same age. Peter and Maggie were the younger siblings, and they used each other’s company for escape. At fifteen and thirteen, Peter’s brothers, Michael and Damon, were beginning to lose interest in pummeling their little brother, but Peter still spent significant time at Maggie’s house in order to avoid them. Maggie too would appear on Peter’s doorstep when her sister, Ellen, had been particularly nasty, and she and Peter would hop on their bikes and speed away together.
Maggie was also a Girl Scout. The girls in her troop wore their sashes to school on meeting days, and for a few years they battled to see who could earn the most badges. Cookie sales provided another arena for competition among the girls, although solicitation was much less to Maggie’s liking. She shrank from ringing the doorbells of strangers and asking them for money. Peter accompanied her out of loyalty. He recognized the embarrassment his friend felt in having to blurt out, “Hello my name is Maggie would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?” and her greater embarrassment when the answer was a brusque “no,” followed by a firm shutting of the front door. Peter always hoped for a big order after these rejections, but their neighbors, the ones who didn’t mind children knocking on their doors, consumed cookies only modestly and orders for more than two boxes were rare.
That chilly April afternoon had been particularly unsuccessful. Although they had visited a dozen houses, Maggie had added only six boxes to her total. They stood at the corner of their block, deciding whether to continue.
“Mom says I should sell at least fifty boxes. I’ve only sold twenty-three.” Maggie bit a tendril of curly brown hair nervously. “I bet it’ll take at least three more days. Man, this sucks.”
Peter smiled to himself. Maggie wasn’t allowed to say “sucks” in front of her mother, who considered it a swear word.
“Maybe Mr. W will buy five boxes!” he replied hopefully. “Let’s try his house.”
They rang his doorbell and heard Max’s sharp bark. “I can’t remember how many he bought last year,” Maggie was whispering as the door opened.
But it wasn’t Mr. W who answered. His son, Ralph, filled the doorway. Holding a half-smoked cigarette, he opened the screen door just wide enough to speak. “Yeah?”
His eyes moved past them. Peter instinctively followed his gaze and saw Ralph’s black Granada parked down the street.
Peter and Maggie knew from overheard conversations between their parents that Ralph stayed with his father when he was “down on his luck.” Ralph didn’t have a particular profession, just a series of jobs with vague denominators like “supervisor” or “management,” “at the warehouse” or sometimes “in an office.” Most recently it had been the bowling alley. Peter’s father had seen him there and reported that Ralph had not been pleased to be greeted. Of course, Peter’s father had asked Ralph whether he as manager also wore the patchwork bowling shoes, so it was not surprising that Ralph had been terse.
Ralph finally returned his gaze to them. “What do you kids want?”
“My…my name is…” Maggie’s spiel died on her lips. Ralph took a long drag from the cigarette and flicked the butt into the yard.
Peter sensed he was about to shut the screen door. “We’re wondering if you’d like to buy any Girl Scout cookies.”
“Girl Scout cookies?” Ralph snorted. “They let boys in the Girl Scouts now?”
Peter flushed. “No. I’m just helping Maggie.”
“Huh,” Ralph said. “Well, we don’t want any.”
He turned away, closing the screen door. But then a brown station wagon pulled into Mr. W’s driveway and hepaused.
Mr. W’s daughter, Eva, got out of the driver’s seat. She smiled.
She wasn’t Eva Wiaterowski anymore; she’d been Eva Johnson for at least twenty years. She didn’t live in town anymore either; she was forty-five minutes away in Bloomington. With a husband and two teenagers, she didn’t come to Peoria often to visit her father; instead, he drove to Bloomington every few weekends to see her and the grandchildren. But everyone on the street knew Eva and liked her—liked her much more than her brother Ralph.
Eva opened the passenger-side door and lifted out a brown paper bag. “Ralph,” she called. “Could you help me? I bought a few things for Pop.”
Ralph brushed by Peter and Maggie wordlessly. Eva turned to them. “What are you two up to? Maggie and Damon, right?”
Peter shook his head. “I’m Peter. Damon’s my brother.”
“That’s right. You’re getting so big that I confused you!” She shook her head. “I remember when you three boys were hanging on your mother’s legs. Now you probably don’t even talk to her—like my boys don’t talk to me!”
“Peter is nice to his mom,” Maggie reassured her. “But his brothers are mean sometimes.”
“Brothers can be like that.” Eva glanced at Ralph, who had slammed the car door shut.
“How many cans you got in here, Eva?” he complained, hoisting the two bags.
“There was a sale on sauerkraut, so I got that and some soup.” Eva opened the screen door for Ralph, and he vanished into the house.
She paused in the doorway. “Did you kids need something?”
Peter knew Maggie wouldn’t ask again after Ralph’s dismissal. “Maggie’s selling Girl Scout cookies. Mr. W bought some last year, so we thought he might want some.”
“Well, let’s see.” Eva called into the house. “Pop! Could you come to the door, please?”
Ralph’s voice came from inside. “Waste of money, Eva!”
Eva shook her head. “I was a Girl Scout, way back when. Pop will want to help out.” She shifted the brown bag in her arms and glanced into the house. “Wait here.”
A few moments later Mr. W came to the door, Max wiggling at his feet. “Hello, Maggie, Peter.”
“Hi, Mr. W,” they chorused.
Mr. W turned to Maggie. “I understand you have something important to ask me.”
Maggie took a breath. “It’s Girl Scout cookie time!” she said, parroting the slogan on her order form.
Mr. W listened as Maggie explained the different varieties of cookies and how her goal was to sell fifty boxes. “Hmm,” he said. “I liked what I ordered last year, but I don’t remember what that was.”
“Probably Thin Mints,” Maggie responded. “Everyone likes those.”
“Tagalogs are good too,” Peter chimed in.
“How many cookies come in a box?” Mr. W asked.
Maggie scanned the form. “I don’t know.” She looked up, worried that it mattered.
Peter jumped in. “Don’t worry, Mr. W. The Girl Scouts won’t cheat you. They’re a reputable organization.”
Mr. W raised his eyebrows. Peter flushed happily, knowing that a ten-year-old’s use of reputable had impressed the old man. “Is that so? I’ll place an order, then.”
Peter and Maggie looked at each other hopefully. Maybe this would be the big order, the one to end the day’s solicitation and allow them to return to better things than cookie commerce.
Mr. W handed the form to Maggie. “Here you go, dear. Hope this helps!”
“Thank you, Mr. W!” she said.
“You’re welcome. Goodbye, now!” He nudged the dog back gently and shut the door.
They headed down the driveway. Maggie looked at the form and then at Peter.
Her face reflected the disappointment Peter felt in his gut, the bewilderment that arose when adults didn’t understand the role they should perform. The two walked silently down the street toward their own houses. It was time to call it a day.
Ralph began parking the black Granada in Mr. W’s driveway, rather than on the street, later that spring. Mr. W’s car, a dark blue Tempo, was stowed safely in the garage after every use, so it seemed strange to Peter to see the Granada hulking in front of the house. And unlike Mr. W’s car, the Granada had rust flaking from its sides and dirt crusting the wheel wells. The smell of its exhaust lingered unpleasantly after Ralph had driven away.
This time, though, the Granada, and Ralph, seemed to be staying indefinitely, although Mr. W’s routine did not change. He still mowed his yard thrice weekly, ran the clippers over the hedges to maintain their rounded shape, and fussed over his flowers. He and Max went out the door every night at seven o’clock for their evening walk. On Mondays Mr. W and other senior citizens visited the grocery store for their extra discount, and he returned with three or four brown bags. One silver trash can was perched on the curb on Wednesday mornings and retrieved shortly after its contents had been swallowed by the garbage truck.
The Granada came and went without a set schedule, sometimes disappearing for the entire day and other times remaining lodged in the driveway for several days. A small oil stain appeared on the driveway, flashing its grimy rainbow from the otherwise pristine white cement. Once when Ralph and the Granada had gone for the day, Mr. W emerged with a box of kitty litter and carefully scattered the grey pellets over the oil. But the Granada returned and the oil stain grew steadily darker and more prominent upon the drive.
Summer arrived. The air grew heavy with heat and moisture. Peter and Maggie glowed with sweat when they rode their bicycles or tromped down into the woods to investigate the creek, its muddy track sucking at their shoes deliciously. Nightly baths no longer seemed unreasonable.
That summer—the last summer Mr. W lived on Fountaindale Drive—offered the best moment of Peter’s life so far. The best moment for many years to come, in fact—one of those perfect summer evenings where a skinny ten-year-old boy could emerge triumphant against impossible odds to earn the respect of even his sneering older brothers. An evening where he, Peter, was the hero of the neighborhood.
Of the fifteen kids living on Fountaindale, Peter and Maggie judged six to be appropriate playmates. This group gathered to play games—Capture the Flag, Kick the Can, kickball, or baseball—on a Saturday afternoon or weekday evening. Kick the Can was Peter’s favorite; he kept an old silver coffee can tucked away in the garage for their games.
The game began one weeknight after dinner. Television offered no appeal on a night when the temperature had finally dropped out of the high nineties. Peter and Maggie were already outside, gathering the other kids for kickball. Peter saw his brothers, Michael and Damon, shooting hoops in their driveway. Damon’s friend Paul was there too, heckling them rather than attempting the lay-ups and jump shots effortlessly netted by Peter’s brothers. Maggie’s sister Ellen was sitting on the front steps of her house with her journal. Sarah, another thirteen-year-old, came from down the street and joined Ellen on the steps, talking to her friend but glancing over at the boys playing basketball.
Peter turned to Maggie. “Forget kickball. Let’s ask Ellen and Sarah to play Kick the Can.”
Maggie was wary. “They won’t.”
“They might,” Peter argued. “And if they do, so will Michael and Damon and Paul.”
Maggie paused. “You’re right.”
He was right. Sarah agreed quickly, jumping up off the steps. “We should do something fun tonight!” Her glance toward the three with the basketball was obvious even to Peter and Maggie. “We used to love Kick the Can!”
Ellen closed her journal. “If you want to talk to Damon, you could just go over there.”
Sarah huffed. “I don’t want to talk to Damon!”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “Really?”
“Okay, I do,” Sarah giggled. “And this way I can find a hiding spot with him too!”
Peter flushed, knowing that Damon and Sarah had been kissing since the spring, and not quite sure why the idea was both interesting and repulsive. But Sarah’s ulterior motive was less important than the prospect of the older kids joining their game. Once Sarah and Ellen crossed the street to talk to Damon, Paul, and Michael, Peter knew the older five would join the game.
With the kids assembled on the sidewalk next to Mr. W’s house, they established the boundaries of the game: the front and backyards of eight houses. With the exception of Mr. W’s backyard, the kids could hide anywhere. The person who was It would have to track down those hiding one by one and then step on the silver coffee can to capture them by announcing their location before they could run away: “One-two-three on Maggie behind the willow tree!” The silver coffee can was the jail. The game would end when everyone was captured, or it would start anew if anyone were able to sneak past the person who was It and kick the can to free all the prisoners.
Paul agreed to be It first. He sat on the sidewalk, closed his eyes, and began to count. The twelve players scattered to find hiding places. Michael, smirking, kicked the can into a low hedge, so it would take Paul some time to find it before he could begin searching for everyone. Sarah and Damon ran off to the last yard in the game’s boundaries, where they could crouch together in some secluded space. Peter jogged toward his own house, uncertain of where to hide. He looked back at Paul, who had speeded up his counting since no one could protest.
Suddenly Peter realized just the place. He doubled back, stepping softly as he passed Paul, and entered the yard belonging to the Grants, an older couple who lived behind Mr. W. Decades before they had planted pine trees at the perimeter of their backyard that were now probably one hundred feet tall. Peter crossed their side yard and circled behind the pine tree closest to the street. The limbs were heavy, drooping downward in languorous sweeps of bark and needle. He stretched his hands in front of him as he moved forward. The dry needles jabbed into his skin in painful pricks; then the pine bark rubbed its dust and sap against his bare arms. Twigs stabbed his scalp as he ducked his head through the limbs. At last, he entered the space closest to the trunk of the large tree, which was surprisingly roomy. He dropped to his knees and wriggled toward Mr. W’s fence, confident that no one would be able to see him under the limbs.
The sidewalk was empty. Paul was looking for the can in the yard across the street from Mr. W belonging to the Widenors. After a short time he plucked the can from the hedge and placed it on the sidewalk. Stepping on the can, he called, “One-two-three on George and Eddie in the Widenors’ apple tree!”
The tree issued both groans and the twins, who trotted toward the can obediently. “How did you know we were there?” Eddie asked.
Paul was casual. “It was obvious.” He was already scanning the yards for his next target.
The twins, now imprisoned, dropped to the sidewalk, and Paul loped away. He spotted Ellen picking at her nail polish rather than paying attention. “One-two-three on Ellen by the Widenors’ shed!”
Ellen sighed as she approached the can. “This is so fun!” she said sarcastically.
The sidewalk next to the can became well-populated in the next twenty minutes. Safely out of sight in the pine tree, Peter watched Paul easily capture Maggie and all of the younger kids. Then he saw Michael glide from behind the last house in the boundaries of the game—the DeMilos’ red brick ranch—and crouch behind their car. Peter knew his brother, the varsity football player, wanted to receive the adulation of the younger kids as their rescuer. Paul was jogging farther from the can in search of the last players. Michael dropped the stealth and rose to his feet. Paul looked across the side yards and saw Michael. He wheeled around and sprinted toward the can. Michael, not seeing Paul, ran more easily, confident in his triumph. The kids scrambled out of the way as Paul slid to a stop, stomped on the can, and yelled, “One-two-three on Michael running toward me!”
Michael was seconds too late. He exhaled loudly and glared at Paul.
“Sucker!” Paul taunted. Peter grinned at Michael’s frustration; it was satisfying to see his athletic older brother taken down.
Peter was so intent upon watching the game that he was surprised to hear a whine at his ear. It was Max. Mr. W must have let him out during the noise of the last few minutes. The dog shoved his nose through the fence toward Peter, and he offered his fingers for him to lick. Max wriggled and barked sharply. Peter froze—did the kids notice Max’s attention to the fence at the pine tree? Apparently not. Paul was heading toward the DeMilos’ yard, moving farther away from the can with Michael out of the game.
The backdoor of Mr. W’s house banged. Peter gazed through the fence to see Ralph standing on the patio, bending his head over a cigarette. He wore a white undershirt that traced the curve of his rounded belly. Black hairs curled from his chest and armpits. He straightened, sliding the lighter into his shorts pocket, and inhaled deeply from the cigarette. Peter saw him gaze over the short fence toward the noise on the sidewalk. His eyes narrowed slightly.
Peter looked away from Ralph just as Paul returned to the can, grinning. “One-two-three on Damon and Sarah in the bushes by the Sullivans’ house!”
A few seconds later the two emerged, slightly disheveled, from the far side of Peter’s house. Sarah dropped to the curb next to Ellen, pretending to ignore Damon; Damon gave Paul a sly look and inclined his chin.
“Aw, yeah!” Paul crowed. “Sar-rah-rah-rah!”
Sarah huffed. “Shut up, Paul.” She glanced at Ellen and giggled.
Peter started and the dog froze. Max had curled into a ball against the fence, chin on his paws, enjoying Peter’s distracted scratching along his spine. At Ralph’s command his body tensed, but he did not move toward the house.
“Max! Now!” Ralph spat the words.
The dog rose and trotted toward the back door. Peter turned back toward the game, watching Paul scan the yards for a glimpse of Peter. He was the last kid free, the only one who could kick the can. Peter heard the murmurs of surprise that he, Peter, was the only one remaining. He felt a rush of annoyance that they were so shocked.
A sharp yelp tore through the evening’s calm. Peter whipped his head toward Mr. W’s house. Max was crouched at Ralph’s feet, whimpering. Ralph held the door open and yelled, “Go! Now!” His black shoe arced toward the gray dog, connected, and tumbled him into the house.
Peter’s heart raced. The kids on the sidewalk had noticed too. “Did he kick Max?” Sarah cried.
Michael’s face contorted. “What an asshole.”
“Let’s go tell Mr. W!” Maggie tugged at Ellen’s hand.
But nobody moved. In the end, Ralph was an adult, and they were kids.
Paul returned to the task at hand. “Peter’s dead meat!” He jogged across the Widenors’ backyard, scanning the yards ahead but glancing behind him in case Peter were to make a move toward the can.
The twins called for help. “Peter! Come save us! Kick the can!” It was gratifying to hear his own name invoked as the savior.
Paul, now searching Peter’s yard, was far from the can. Distance was on Peter’s side. He began wriggling forward, commando-style, under the heavy pine limbs. The needles scraped against his face and hair; the dried twigs ground uncomfortably under his hands and knees. The grass was cool and soft as he scrambled out from under the pine tree. Maggie gasped as he rose to his feet. The twins jumped up and down. “There he is!” they screamed, inadvertently alerting Paul, who wheeled around as Peter ran across the Grants’ lawn toward the street.
Paul lunged forward, but he was two houses away. Peter only had to cross the street. He jogged the last few steps and swung his foot, a grin splitting his face. His sneaker connected with the silver coffee can with a satisfying thunk. The can spiraled through the air, the evening light sparkling on its curved side, and tumbled down the street.
Pandemonium. The kids howled in triumph, darting away from the sidewalk to hide again. “You did it!” Maggie cried. Even Michael and Damon tossed off “Nice work!” and “Right on!” before loping away. Paul returned to the sidewalk, yelling, “No! I am not being It again!”
Peter sped off toward his own house, relishing his triumph, the air rushing past his face as he ran faster, faster, away from the can and into the freedom of the July night.
Max disappeared first.
It was September when Peter realized he hadn’t seen Mr. W walking the little gray dog after dinner. School had started, and as a fifth grader, Peter found himself with real homework. If he went outside in the evening, it was to cross the street to Maggie’s house with his homework in hand. Maggie’s mother wouldn’t let them work together, only compare their answers once they were finished, and only if that happened before eight o’clock. So, Peter would spread out his work on the kitchen table immediately after dinner, ply pencil to paper, and, once finished, head across the street. He should have encountered Mr. W and Max during these comings and goings, as Mr. W walked the dog between seven and seven-thirty every night. He wondered, standing at Maggie’s doorstep with homework in hand, whether Mr. W was walking the dog during the day.
On a late September evening, Peter sat at the kitchen table, trying to diagram a particularly troublesome sentence. Peter’s father ambled in and opened the refrigerator. Peter’s mother, washing dishes at the sink, looked up. “Did you know, Rich?” she said. “Mr. W lost Max.”
Peter jerked his head up. His father cracked open a Coors and took a long swallow, leaning against the counter. “That so?”
“He was only six.” His mother rinsed a plate. “Usually those little terriers live longer.”
“Max’s dead?” Peter blurted. His throat felt thick. He clutched the pencil tightly.
His mother turned from the sink. “Yes, honey. Mr. W told me today when I saw him at the grocery store.”
“When did he die?”
“A week ago.” His mother shook her head. “He was so upset. I was sorry I mentioned it.”
Peter’s father took another swig of beer. “I’d be upset too if I was left alone with Ralph.” The words were cold, but his voice was surprisingly gentle. Peter’s father looked his way. “Peter, this weekend go tell Mr. W you’re sorry. That dog was a good friend to him.”
Peter nodded. The lump in his throat grew. He would take Maggie with him; she would know what to say.
Mr. W cried a little as they stood on his doorstep that Saturday. Peter held the screen door as the old man fumbled for a handkerchief.
“I don’t know what to do with myself.” Mr. W wiped his eyes and replaced his glasses. “I keep looking for him. I even filled his food bowl this morning.”
Maggie murmured some consoling words.
Peter had a sudden inspiration. “Why don’t you give us Max’s food, Mr. W? I bet the DeMilos could use it for Pickles, and then you wouldn’t have the bag there to remind you.”
Maggie nodded. “We’ll take it over to them.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He sighed. “No, you’re right. I’ll get the bag.”
“Good idea, Peter,” Maggie whispered as Mr. W disappeared into the house.
The roar of a broken muffler startled them. The black Granada pulled into the driveway and Ralph emerged. His wrinkled maroon shirt had the logo of the bowling alley stamped on the breast pocket. He strode toward the house, glowering at Peter and Maggie. “What do you kids want?”
Peter shrank from the vitriol in his eyes. “Mr. W is giving us Max’s food.”
Ralph brushed past them. His breath stank of beer. “Huh.”
The screen door banged shut behind him. Maggie turned to Peter. “I hate him. Remember how he kicked Max?”
“Shhh!” Peter glanced uneasily into the house. “He might hear you.”
“I don’t care,” Maggie retorted.
Mr. W appeared with the dog food. “Thank you, children,” he said, handing the bag to Peter. “I’m glad Max’s food won’t be wasted.”
“Pop!” Ralph’s voice rang out. “Where are the damn pierogies?”
Mr. W pulled the screen door shut. “Thank you. Goodbye.”
Ralph’s voice rose into a shout, the words indistinguishable through the closed front door. Peter and Maggie glanced uneasily at each other as they walked down his driveway.
Was that the last conversation Peter had with Mr. W? Surely it couldn’t be, because fall and winter passed and spring had begun when Mr. W’s daughter began to call the neighbors. Mr. W took his walks alone that fall, looking smaller and sadder without Max tugging on his leash ahead of him. Peter remembered Maggie’s mother holding a rake, the lawn half cleared of brown leaves, speaking intently to Mr. W, whose shoulders were sagging under his plaid jacket. Maggie’s mother had put her hand on Mr. W’s arm for a moment. It had surprised Peter. Maggie’s mother had never offered Peter a similar comforting gesture, even though she had known him all his life. Mr. W’s sadness, it seemed, touched even his sternest neighbors.
But once the afternoon sun disappeared by four-thirty, there were no more evening walks for Mr. W or anyone in the neighborhood. By mid-November the temperature remained stubbornly in the twenties, and everyone stayed indoors. No one thought about when they had last seen Mr. W. At least, not until Eva began to call and ask.
The phone rang in late March. Peter was watching television with his father when his mother appeared in the doorway. “That was Eva, Mr. W’s daughter.” Her voice was nervous. “She wanted to know when we’d last seen him.”
“Who? Mr. W?” Peter’s father was still looking at the screen.
“Yes. She hasn’t talked to him in several months. Ralph always picks up when she calls.”
His mother hesitated. “She’s worried that…that maybe her father isn’t well.”
Peter’s father raised his eyebrows. “What does that mean, ‘isn’t well’?”
She glanced at Peter before replying. “She’s concerned, Rich. I couldn’t tell her when I’d seen him last. December, maybe?” She bit her lip. “Usually we bump into each other at the grocery store, but it’s been a couple months at least. And I haven’t seen him outside, but it’s been too cold for him to take walks. When did you see him last?”
Peter’s father shook his head. “Hell if I know. October? November? He was raking leaves in his front yard.” Suddenly he leaned forward on the couch. “Damn it. He had a black eye.”
“What?” The word escaped Peter’s lips before he could stop himself.
Peter’s father didn’t notice the interruption. He nodded vigorously. “His left eye was black. He said something about tripping in his kitchen and hitting a chair.”
Peter’s mother put her hand to her mouth. “Should I call Eva back?”
“No.” Peter’s father waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t overreact. That was months ago. He’s an old man, he took a fall. If something’s happened, Ralph is there.”
Peter’s mother shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s just so strange.”
Peter thought, I have to talk to Maggie. Maggie will know what to do.
The next day they huddled together during homeroom. “Maybe we should knock on his door,” Maggie said.
Peter shook his head. “What if Ralph answers?”
She was insistent. “We’ll ask for Mr. W and say it’s really important. And we won’t leave until we talk to him.”
“He’ll slam the door in our faces.”
Maggie took a breath. “My mom told Eva she hadn’t seen him since November. I don’t remember seeing his car at all this winter, just Ralph’s black one in the driveway.”
“But Mr. W parks in the garage.”
“He always goes somewhere during the week. We saw him driving all summer!”
Peter and Maggie stared at each other. They knew, with all the assurance of the young, that something was very wrong.
And so, one afternoon in early April, Eva Johnson came to her father’s house and started pounding on the door. Peter and Maggie were sitting on the sidewalk when her station wagon pulled up. Eva usually said hello when she saw them, but not today. Instead, she stormed across the yard and rang the doorbell, then wrenched open the screen door and pounded on the front door. “Ralph!” she shrieked. “Ralph! Open the door!”
Eva had, over the span of two weeks, called all of Mr. W’s neighbors. Peter’s mother spoke grimly of what she knew in front of Peter, too concerned to censor herself. The Grants, whose backyard faced Mr. W’s, had told Eva that the pine trees blocked their view of her father’s property; of course, they had not seen him, nor Ralph either. Privately, Mr. Grant told Peter’s mother that Eva was probably worried that Ralph was spending all of their father’s money, since Ralph was no longer working at the bowling alley. Without those shifts to command his schedule, Ralph stayed home—or so the neighbors assumed by the constant presence of the Granada in the driveway. And with all his free time, Ralph should have at least shoveled the sidewalks when it snowed, Mr. Grant had complained to Peter’s father. Mr. W had been meticulous about shoveling, careful for Max’s small feet on icy pavement. But neither of them had shoveled this year.
“Ralph! You open this goddamn door! I know you’re in there!”
Peter’s jaw dropped. Eva was pounding both fists on the front door. Down the street Maggie’s mother looked up from her daffodils. She rose and walked toward Maggie and Peter.
“Ralph! Open the door! Pop! Pop, can you hear me? Pop!”
Maggie’s mother stopped next to them on the sidewalk. Maggie turned to her. “Mommy?” she whispered.
“Open the door open the door open the door!”
Maggie’s mother spoke calmly. “Maggie, go home and find your dad. Bring him over here right now.” Maggie tore off toward her house.
She turned to Peter. “Peter, you too. Find your dad. Bring him out.”
Maggie’s mother crossed Mr. W’s side yard and approached Eva. Peter knew he should go home and find his father, but he just stared as Eva turned to Maggie’s mother. “He’s in there, Ralph is in there, and he won’t open the door! He changed the locks! My key doesn’t work!”
Peter felt a coldness melt into his flesh as Eva burst into tears and Maggie’s mother folded her in her arms.
It was Peter’s father, and Maggie’s father, and Mr. Grant who got Ralph to open the door finally. By that point a crowd had gathered in front of the house. Few people spoke. Maggie’s mother and Peter’s mother stood with Eva in the driveway. Maggie’s mother held Eva’s hand, while Peter’s mother patted her back. Peter saw tears on Eva’s face.
When the front door opened, a low murmur ran through the crowd of neighbors. Ralph stood in the doorway, his face thunderous. “How dare you?” He jabbed his finger in the men’s faces. “This is a private family matter. Get off my doorstep.”
“It’s Pop’s doorstep!” Eva shrieked. “Let me talk to Pop!”
“He doesn’t want to see you!” Ralph glared at her. “Why do you think he hasn’t come to the phone? Leave us alone, Eva!”
“Keep it down, Ralph,” Maggie’s father said. “Let’s not make a scene.”
“Just let her see your father’s all right,” Mr. Grant reasoned. “Then we’ll get her out of your hair.”
“You know how women are, Ralph,” Peter’s father said. “Gotta see for themselves.”
“No.” Ralph filled the doorway. “No one’s coming in the goddamn house.”
Peter heard a gasp. Ellen stood behind Maggie, her arms wrapped around her younger sister. “This is not good,” she whispered. “Not good at all.”
Maggie stared at Peter from the cocoon of her sister’s arms. “Peter,” she said helplessly.
How much longer did it take? Peter wondered later. Half an hour? An hour? Somehow the men convinced Ralph to let Eva enter the house. Her shrieks could be heard outside as she moved from room to room. “Pop! Pop! Where are you? Pop!”
Peter and Maggie and all the neighbors heard Ralph sputter excuses that Mr. W had decided to take a trip to Chicago that week, so he wasn’t there after all. And they saw Eva storm out of the house and slap Ralph across the face so hard that he staggered against the beige brick exterior of the house.
“His car is in the garage,” she said, suddenly calm. “His coat is in the closet.” She leaned close to her brother’s face and hissed. “And his glasses are on his dresser.”
She stepped away from her brother, retreating until she reached the driveway and felt the support of arms around her. Peter’s mother and Maggie’s mother held Eva tightly; the three women had eerily identical icy expressions as they regarded Ralph, who was panting on the front walk. No one moved. No one spoke.
Then Eva’s face crumpled. “Ralph, what did you do to Pop?”
Ralph, frozen until that moment, tried to rush into the house, but the men grabbed him. He spit obscenities as he struggled to break free. They pinned him down on the sidewalk until the police came. Peter never found out who called them. He stood there in the fading afternoon light with the rest of the neighbors. He stood next to his best friend and watched the officers take Ralph into the house, and later, bring him out again in handcuffs and push him into the back of a patrol car.
For they had found Mr. W curled up on top of the body of the little gray dog, whose spine was broken. They found Mr. W with his skull bashed in, his body in the bottom of the deep freeze in the back of the garage.
About the Author:
Robin E. Field grew up in Illinois and Hawai‘i. She has her B.A. from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She teaches contemporary literature at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Field’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dalhousie Review, Orange Blossom Review, and The Long Story. She tweets @robinfield and blogs at wp.kings.edu/robinfield.
*Featured art by Walt Ward