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After we cleared the table, after she washed the dishes and I dried them, she said, “Hey, let’s make oatmeal cookies.”

“With chocolate chips and walnuts?”

“For Mom and Dad, we’ll make them with chopped anchovies and lima beans, just to see their expressions when they bite into one. The rest with chocolate chips and walnuts. We’ll take a plate of them to the new neighbors and introduce ourselves.”

She rattled off a list of things she needed: baking sheets, mixing bowls, a spatula, a pair of tablespoons, a measuring cup.… Because I suspected that this might be the first of many tests to determine if I could eventually be entrusted with a steam iron, I remembered every item, collected them in a timely manner, and didn’t drop even one.

The delicious aroma of baking cookies eventually reached the living room, where our mother left the TV long enough to come to the kitchen and say, “Are you making a mess?”

“No, ma’am,” Amalia said.

“It looks like a mess to me.”

“Only while we’re baking. It’ll all be cleaned up after.”

“There’s housework that should come before this kind of thing,” our mother said.

“I’m ahead of schedule on the housework,” Amalia assured her, “now that school is out.”

Mother stood just inside the door to the hall, an apparition in her quilted pink housecoat and morning hair, looking mildly confused, as though the task upon which we were engaged must be as mystifying to her as any complex voodoo ritual. Then she said, “I like mine with almonds, not walnuts.”

“Sure,” Amalia said, “we’re going to make a batch like that.”

“Your father likes the walnuts but not the chocolate chips.”

“We’re going to make a batch like that, too,” Amalia promised.

To me, my mother said, “Have you dropped and broken anything?”

“No, ma’am. I’ve got it together.”

“I like that glass measuring cup. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

“Be careful with it,” she said, as if I’d said nothing, and she went back to the TV in the living room.

Amalia and I baked the cookies. We cleaned up. I didn’t break anything. And then we went next door to meet the new neighbors.


When we climbed the steps and set foot on the porch, we saw that the front door stood ajar. The sun remained slightly to the east, hot light slanting under the eaves and painting a bright rhomboid on the floor. We stood on that illumined patch of gray-painted boards, as if on a trap door, while Amalia held the plate of cookies and I pressed the bell push. No one responded to the chimes, and I rang again.

After I’d rung the bell a third time, when it seemed obvious that no one was home, Amalia said, “So maybe it was a burglar last night. In spite of all the lights. I mean, a burglar wouldn’t care about leaving the door open after himself.”

Through the four-inch gap between door and jamb, I could see the shallow, shadowy foyer and the darker living room beyond. “Then why would a burglar bother to turn off the lights? Maybe something’s wrong, someone needs help.”

“We can’t just barge in, Malcolm.”

“Then what’re we gonna do?”

Leaning close to the door, she called out, “Hello? Anyone home?”

The answering silence was worthy of our father when he stood on our back porch eating his breakfast sandwich.

Amalia called out again, and when no one responded, she pushed the door inward, so that we had a better view of the cramped foyer and the living room, where everything appeared to be furnished as it had been when Mr. Clockenwall had been alive. In the month since his passing, no one had come to dispose of his belongings.

After my sister called out again, louder than before, I said, “Maybe we should go home and call the police and report a burglary.”

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