“But if there hasn’t been a burglary, can you imagine the hell they’ll put us through for making that call?”
By “they,” she didn’t mean the police. Our mother liked nothing more than having a legitimate reason to criticize us. She’d peck and peck and peck at you for the littlest mistake, until you thought she was going to keep at it until you were nothing but bones. And our old man, who couldn’t stand the sound of our mother’s voice when she was in attack mode, would shout at Amalia and me, as if we were the ones making all the noise: “I’m just tryin’ to watch a little TV here and forget what a shitty day I had at work, okay? Is that okay with you two, is it?”
Repeating her admonition to me, I said, “We can’t barge in.”
“No, we can’t,” she agreed, as she stepped across the threshold with the plate of cookies. “But remember how Mr. Clockenwall wasn’t found for a whole day after he died. Someone might need help.”
I followed her, of course. I would have followed my saintly sister through the gates of Hell; by comparison, the house next door wasn’t particularly forbidding.
Although the sheers hanging over the windows allowed a little daylight to enter, the living room remained cloaked in shadows, a silent solemn chamber in which you might have expected to find a cadaver casketed for viewing.
Amalia flipped a wall switch that turned on a lamp beside an armchair.
A film of dust sheathed the table on which the lamp stood. A pair of reading glasses lay beside a paperback that Mr. Clockenwall might have meant to read before his day turned as bad as any day could be. There were no signs of vandalism.
“We live next door,” Amalia called out. “We came to say hello.” She waited, listening. Then: “Hello? Is everything all right?”
In the kitchen, the refrigerator hummed. Breakfast dishes were on the table, a smear of egg yolk having turned hard and dark on the plate. Toast crumbs littered the Formica surface. The heart attack had felled Mr. Clockenwall here, perhaps as he’d risen from his meal, and no one had cleaned up after the coroner’s van took the body away.
“It’s terrible to live alone,” Amalia said.
The sadness in her voice seemed genuine, though Clockenwall had not been a man who reached out to his neighbors or sought in any way to alleviate his loneliness, if in fact he was lonely. He had been polite; and if he happened to be in his yard when you were in yours, he would spend a few minutes in agreeable conversation over the fence. No one considered him aloof or cold, only shy and on occasion melancholy. Some felt that perhaps in his past lay a tragedy with which he had never been able to make his peace, that the only companion with which he felt comfortable was sorrow.
Amalia was somewhat distressed. “Somebody should have cleaned up these dishes and emptied the refrigerator before things in it spoiled. Leaving it like this … it’s just wrong.”
I shrugged. “Maybe no one cared about him.”
My sister seemed to care about everyone, even making excuses for our parents at their worst, but now she said nothing.
I sighed. “Tell me you don’t mean we should clean this up.”
As she was about to answer, her attitude abruptly changed. She turned with a start and said, “Who, what?”
Perplexed, I said, “What—who, what?”
She frowned. “You didn’t hear that?”
“No. What didn’t I hear?”
“He said, ‘Melinda. Sweet Melinda.’ ”
“It sounded like Mr. Clockenwall.”
When I was younger and my sister was not yet perfect, she had enjoyed spooking me by reporting with great conviction things like, Dad didn’t realize I was there, and he took off his face and under it was this lizard face! Or on one occasion, Oh, God, I saw Mom eating live spiders! She was so convincing that I needed about a year to become immune to her bizarre declarations, and for another year I pretended to believe them because it was such fun. Then she became interested in boys and lost interest in scaring me, although I was never so scared by any of her hoaxes as by a couple of the idiot guys she dated; even in those days, however, she was too smart to go out with a psychopathic maniac more than twice.
“Mr. Clockenwall is dead
and buried,” I reminded her.
“I know he’s dead and buried.” Holding the plate of cookies with her left hand, she rubbed the back of her neck with the right, as if smoothing away gooseflesh. “Or at least he’s dead.”
“I’m not nine anymore, sis.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I know Mom eats only dead spiders.”