“I’m not joking with you, Malcolm.” As before, she startled and turned, as if toward a voice that I couldn’t hear.
“He said it again. ‘Sweet Melinda.’ ”
Suddenly she set out as if in search of the speaker, turning on lights as we entered each new space, and I followed her through the rest of the ground floor, turning off the lights in our wake. When we arrived at the front of the house once more, Amalia peered up the stairs toward the gloomy realm on the higher floor.
After she stood transfixed for a long moment, her face clenched with revulsion, and I asked what was happening now, and she said, “He’s disgusting. Obscene. Sick.”
Suspicious but half believing, I said, “What?”
“I won’t repeat what he said,” she declared, and she hurried out through the open front door.
I stood at the foot of the stairs, gazing up, wondering if she might be yanking my chain or if she might be serious, when I heard heavy footsteps in the upper hallway. And then a creaking arose from the stairs, as though somebody was moving from one tread to the next. The landing at the head of the lower flight creaked, too, and made a cracking noise, as if an old board had splintered a little under a punishing weight. The shadows on the stairs were not so deep that they could have concealed anyone. Whoever descended toward me, if anyone did, was no more apparent to the eye than Claude Rains in that old movie The Invisible Man.
Bad things happened to good people when invisible men or their equivalent were around. I quickly left the house, pulled the front door shut behind me, and joined Amalia as she descended the porch steps and hurried along the front walk.
As we passed through the gate, I said, “What was that about?”
“I don’t want to talk about it now.”
“When do you want to talk about it?”
“I’ll let you know,” she assured me as she turned toward home.
I said, “I guess we’ll have to eat those cookies ourselves.”
“Yeah. She doesn’t want them with walnuts.”
“And he doesn’t want them with chocolate chips. And I don’t think the new neighbor has any interest in cookies at all.”
“There isn’t a new neighbor,” Amalia declared as we hurried alongside our house, under the limbs of the twisted sycamore.
“There’s something,” I said, glancing over the fence at the Clockenwall place.
Sitting in my room, at the window, watching the house next door through a gap in the otherwise closed draperies, I tried to remember everything I knew about Rupert Clockenwall. He had taught English at Jefferson Middle School for forty years. He was scheduled to retire at sixty-two, but he died a month before the end of the school year.
During his career, he twice received the city’s Best Teacher of the Year award. He had never been married. Some people thought he might be gay, but he had never been seen in the company of a companion of that persuasion. Those were the days when people were ignorant enough to think that all gay men minced or lisped, or both, and had no bones in their wrists. Mr. Clockenwall exhibited none of that behavior. He never went away on vacations. He said that he was a bad traveler and a homebody. He always declined with regrets when he was invited to a neighbor’s house, and to express his gratitude for the invitation, he sent flowers. He never spoke an unkind word about anyone. His voice was soft and melodious. He had a warm smile. He liked to putter in the yard, and he grew amazing roses. Around the house, he favored Hush Puppies, khaki slacks, and long-sleeved plaid shirts; cardigans on cooler days. He’d once found an injured bird and nursed it back to health, releasing it when it could fly again. He always bought Girl Scout Cookies, usually ten or twelve boxes. When the local troop sold magazine subscriptions, he bought a lot of those, too, and when once they peddled hand-woven pot holders, he’d taken a dozen. He had a soft spot in his heart for Girl Scouts. He had no pets. He said that he was allergic to cats; dogs frightened him. He stood about five foot nine. He weighed maybe a hundred sixty pounds. Washed-out blue eyes. Pale-blond hair, going white. His face was no more memorable than a blank sheet of typing paper.
Rupert Clockenwall seemed to have been too bland a soul to come back from the grave on a haunt. The more that I thought about what had happened in his house earlier, the more certain I became that I had misunderstood it. After an hour, when I saw nothing of interest through the gap in my bedroom draperies, I went downstairs to help Amalia with her chores.
We worked together for half an hour, making the beds in our parents’ room, using the vacuum cleaner, dusting, before I asked if she was ready to talk about what had happened. She said no.
Forty minutes later, in the kitchen, after we had toted that barge and lifted that bale, as we were peeling carrots and potatoes for dinner, I asked her again, and she said, “Nothing happened.”
“Well, something did.”
Focused intently on the potato that she was skinning, Amalia said, “Something happened only if one or both of us insists it did. If both of us decide nothing happened, then nothing happened. You know what they say—if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see it, then it didn’t fall. Okay, all right, I know that’s not how it goes. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, maybe it didn’t make a sound. But my version is a logical corollary. Entirely logical. No tree fell in the Clockenwall house, so there was nothing to hear or see. You’re twelve, so maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but when you’ve had a few more years of math and a course in logic, you’ll understand. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“If nothing happened, what is it you don’t want to talk about?”
“Exactly,” she said.
“Are you scared or something?”
“There’s nothing to be scared of. Nothing happened.”