All the houses on Carson Lane were either pink or blue. The pink houses lined one side of the lane whereas the blue houses sat facing them from the other side. Women lived in the blue ones. Men lived in the pink ones. None of the women or men had ever tried to marry.
In the fifth blue house lived Martha Swann. She fed a dozen tabby cats and rode her rusted bicycle to work. Sometimes Martha made homemade soup for the men in #1 through #5 on the pink side. She did not eat the soup herself because she liked to have peas every night for dinner. Martha did not like to spend money on expensive foods, and every so often, she hunched down and shared the cats’ supper with her dozen tabbies. Whether peas or cat food, Martha Swann always took her precious time with her fork. Her mother visited each week. Her mother would say: “Why do you have to eat each and every little pea, one at a time? I’ve finished up my dinner. Now I have to sit here and watch you and your fork. Just clanging and scratching all over the plate. You always did clang and scratch. Drove your father half mad, my best guess.” At such times, Martha would just stare out one of her windows and watch Anton cut his lawn.
Anton lived in pink house #4. He cut his grass almost every evening. The men and women of Carson Lane said that Anton did not have a last name, or that it had too many syllables to be considered a decent last name. His lawn was the same size as everyone else’s. It took half an hour to mow. But he spent an extra half-hour down on his knees with toenail clippers, making sure that all of the blades of grass were the same size.
Sometimes, late at night, Martha Swann would sit on her front porch banister and enjoy her long cigarettes. She drew her eyeliner on thick and rocked her legs back and forth, always keeping one open eye on Anton. She would watch Anton pampering his grass, and she would picture herself making love to him. Martha had spoken to Anton many times. They usually talked about how late the mailman was. Anton would talk at length about the latest film at the Cineplex.
The Cineplex didn’t really offer the latest films. It showed genuine classics for 75 cents to the customers who were willing to fight through the vines and forest to find the building. But the men and women of Carson Lane never had any trouble finding the Cineplex. They all lived just beyond the east forest, and their Anton had beaten out a path many years ago with a machete so the walk through the gnarled trees would only take a few minutes.
Martha hated parting with 75 cents. On some pleasant nights, though, she would grab her spare-change bag and walk through the forest. Every time she went in the Cineplex, she saw Anton in Theater #4. He sat very low in his chair. His faded baseball cap wrestled his black hair down to one side of his head. He laughed out loud during the tedious parts of movies.
He laughed the hardest when he watched the Winter Special at the Cineplex every year. When the main actor scolded one of his daughters about her piano playing, Anton threw his popcorn at the screen and filled the empty theater with his notes of perfect joy.
Martha liked to watch Anton’s reaction to the movies even though she never understood the films herself. She assumed he never saw her, all those rows behind him, but she tried to stay quiet as she ate peas from her purse or fiddled with her mascara.
In pink house #3, beside Anton, lived Silas. Silas was very burly. He came home almost every day with a pickup truck full of catfish. Often, he would visit Martha Swann and ask her if she might would like some fish. Martha would say she didn’t believe she could eat a whole fish by herself. Silas would grunt and touch her wherever he wanted. Martha did not like the way he smelt. She wondered why he wore the same outfit every day.
Around Christmastime, Silas would always host a grand fish fry for all of Carson Lane. The men and women would file out of their pink and blue houses and head down to Silas’ lot. If the weather had not turned too cold, they would eat outdoors.
Anton made it clear that he did not approve of eating outside because he considered Silas’ lawn much too unkempt. Silas would pick Anton up in the air every time he complained. He would spin him around and then set him back down while all of the neighbors stood still and watched like hungry sheep. No one dared ask Silas why he felt like he needed to spin people through the air.
Whenever Silas spun Anton around, Martha Swann would turn away and count as many stars in the black sky as she could find. She hoped Anton would not fall and hurt his head.
Martha’s mother had come to visit her for the holidays. She’d made it clear that she wanted to stay with her daughter for several weeks this time. Martha, in return, made sure her mother knew full-well that she wanted the both of them to attend Silas’ dinner party this year. Martha said it was good to be cordial sometimes. Martha’s mother said she would love to go along, said she would like to try some catfish, since she hated eating only peas and gravy during her visits with her daughter.
Martha’s mother went by Mother Jane. She expected everyone outside her own family to call her by that name. If someone refused to say Mother Jane, she would take off one of her winter gloves and glove-slap the offender. She liked to tell her daughter that it was a good thing to get men scared at first.
Mother Jane did not treat her daughter as most mothers do. She scolded Martha about every move she made—except for her smoking cigarettes. Mother Jane was proud that Martha smoked cigarettes. She called it one of those precious little signs from God, who forever cared about family traditions and must have caused them with all His overflowing grace.
On the night of Silas’ dinner, a group of neighbors were trying to play shuffleboard on the uneven pavement of Carson Lane. All of the other residents were huddled nearby in Silas’ yard.
Silas’ house was just across the way from Martha’s. Martha and Mother Jane passed by the shuffleboarders on their way over. Martha gave her hello to Tiffany Margaret of blue house #2. Tiffany Margaret screamed at Martha, said she shouldn’t interrupt her when she was lining up the perfect shot. Martha remembered that she always screamed when she talked. Martha decided it was her own fault for listening so hard to Tiffany Margaret.
Mother Jane and Martha had reached Silas’ yard when they looked back at the girl again. She was hovering over the shuffleboard triangles and the men were picking up all of the discs. Mother Jane called her loose trash and told Martha that she’d better never turn out like Tiffany Margaret.
Mother Jane reminded Martha that when they got nearer to the crowd they needed to find Silas first thing. Martha said he was not hard to find.
It was Mother Jane who introduced herself to the towering man. She stood by him, though, like she’d known him for half of eternity. Silas said that he was glad to have her; he said that sometimes the visitors of Carson Lane were interesting to him, and sometimes they weren’t, but he would partake of his food with all who came to gather at his tables and praise his face and speak well of his loins.
Martha kept searching around until she found Anton. He was sulking near the Styrofoam Jesus and the other ornaments in Silas’ yard. She loved Anton’s old sportcoat. He had a thin, red tie on over his flannel shirt. The ends of his pants were covered with clumps of wet grass. Martha could tell that Anton wanted to chat because he was finger-tapping on his cider bottle. She did not look at him when she told him hello.
“I’ve never asked you what you do exactly,” he said. “That had just occurred to me.”
“About what?” she answered. “What do I do about what?”
“No. I mean what do you do for money?”
“I’m an architect, a nurse, a magician, what does it matter?” she said.
“I used to be in seismic acquisitions,” he said.
“I don’t think I know what that even means.”
“Pre-drilling for oil. Laying dynamite and doing acoustics. But, you must understand, I didn’t want to lose my hearing forever. It was a matter of conscience.”
“Yes. At the moment.”
Martha played with her cuticles. “I’m a painter.”
“I would love to see your work.”
Mother Jane edged up beside the couple. She had a piece of fried catfish dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“My Martha means to say she is a house painter. She works with a crew. The Lord did not see fit for her to be a full-fledged artist.”
“This is my mother, Anton,” Martha said. “Mother Jane.”
“It’s a pleasure, Mother Jane. Martha has told me nothing about you.”
“Do you have the Lord?” Mother Jane asked.
“I think so.”
“You’re rather a beautiful thing.” Mother Jane put her long arm around Anton and guided him over to the shelter of Silas’ hammock.
Martha stood alone. She noticed how the pink paint on Silas’ house was in far worse condition than Anton’s. Silas’s house had the worst pink paint out of all the men’s houses from #1 through #5. Maybe he would like me to paint it, she concluded.
When the evening sky thickened over with darkness, an unexpected snow began to fall on all of Carson Lane. Silas bullied everyone into coming inside his house. He said he wanted to show them the magnificent bison head he had mounted on the wall. Most of the people were just glad to get out of the snow.
Martha did not like how Mother Jane was behaving. She had stolen Anton and kept him penned on the hammock for over an hour. Presently, she was making him give her a piggyback ride into Silas’ house. They skirted past Martha without even glancing over at her.
Martha felt like the only thing she wanted to do was walk over to the hammock. She studied the impressions where they had sat. She brushed off a thin layer of snow and made her own seat. She watched some of her neighbors dance inside the glow of Silas’s den. She did not see Silas with them.
Martha imagined Silas was boasting in the hallway about his prize bison. He was probably yelling and spilling his cider over all of the shorter men. Martha was just certain that was what was going on inside the house, so she was very startled to find Silas coming up behind her at the hammock.
He kissed the back of her head.
“How many times a day do you wash your hair, I wonder?” he said. “If I were made to guess, I’d say seven times. Definitely seven times.”
“Your house needs a new painting,” Martha said.
“I never heard of anybody washing their hair so many times. Aren’t you afraid it might start to fall out?”
“I could paint it for you. You know I’d do an honest job.”
“How come you won’t sit over on my lap?” Silas was trying to pull Martha onto him. “I don’t like all that eye makeup on girls. I really just don’t.”
Mother Jane and Anton were coming back out to the hammock.
“Silas!” Mother Jane said. “This is de-cid-ed-ly a party.”
Silas paid her no attention because he was braiding Martha’s hair.
Anton remained stoic.
Martha made herself focus on Anton’s sad eyes as she felt her hair tugged over and over. He worked with dynamite, she thought. She had never seen eyes stare with such a sad blue.
When Martha awoke the next morning she did not know where she was. She was covered in snow. Her lips had sugared over dry. She remembered the bottles of sloe gin and how close Tiffany Margaret danced with Anton. Anton had also danced with Mother Jane. Martha realized Mother Jane and Anton must have let her fall asleep on Silas’ hammock.
Martha stood up. The snow fell off of her dress and onto the ground. The sun was bringing the world a hint of warmth again. Martha watched two birds chasing each other. She would have liked to paint them in a nature scene. She thought of the dozen cats wanting food and made her way back across Carson Lane.
When Martha walked back into blue house #5, she saw Anton and Mother Jane asleep on her sofa. Silas was sitting on her carpet. He was using the grandfather clock’s glass for a mirror as he shaved his beard.
“I couldn’t find a breakfast to make from out of your icebox, Martha,” Silas called out. “Just a few pea boxes.”
“I am very cold, Silas,” Martha said. “Will you run me a hot bath, please? Later on I can make some soup for you all.”
“I love that soup. But no soup’s in that icebox.”
Anton broke out of his sleep. He yawned several times. He had no shirt to cover up with, so he tugged down the Santa Claus beard and hat from his face and fitted them over his skinny, birdcage chest.
“Does anyone know what time it is?” he asked.
Silas had finished shaving his chin. He pulled out his chrome revolver from his overalls’ pocket. He swept the gun’s shiny barrel over Martha’s head, back and forth, pushing the snow away from the part-line that crisscrossed down her head.
Martha stared at Anton’s bare chest. She enjoyed the feel of the gun on her scalp.
“Anton, I need a hot bath,” Martha said. “Somehow I was left out in the snow.”
“Martha, I’d really like to do something today,” Anton said. “I’d really like to teach you how to throw a boomerang. I found one at the antiques. It’s got a good yellow color. Say you will.”
“I need to make some soup for us all, I suppose.”
“Just say you’ll let me teach you something about the boomerang, Martha. I”ll run that hot bath for you and even get in with you.”
Mother Jane sat up straight on the couch.
“Why did your shaving have to make such a noise, Silas?” Mother Jane asked. “My late husband never made any kind of noises when he shaved.”
“I was hoping to go the movies tonight too,” Anton said. “We’d have enough time to throw the boomerang and go to the movies. The Cineplex is just over the woods.”
“I know, Anton,” Martha said.
Silas left all of his hair on Martha’s carpet. When he stood up, the whole room seemed to shake. He blew on his gun although he had not fired it. He two-stepped out Martha’s front door without saying a word of goodbye.
Anton moved toward the bathroom.
Mother Jane walked toward the kitchenette. She started boiling water.
Martha listened to Anton as he ran the bath.
Mother Jane edged nearer toward her daughter on the sofa. She tapped Martha’s hand and blew over both of their coffee mugs.
“Mother,” Martha said. “Your skirt is covered in something purple. How did you manage to get sloe gin all over your new skirt?”
“I want to read the newspaper, baby bird. I don’t care if it is covered in gin. Martha—do you not get the newspaper? You really should.”
Anton came back up the hallway. He was naked.
“Mother, you need to clean the gin out of your skirt,” Martha said. “I have to go take a bath with Anton now.”
Mother Jane stared at her black coffee like it was her best friend. Martha and Anton could tell she was ignoring them now, the same way she ignored her skirt.
Martha and Anton walked into the bathroom and sunk down at opposite ends of the giant tub. They agreed that under the bubbles it was warm but not scalding at all. Martha and Anton shared one of Martha’s long cigarettes. Anton claimed Martha’s bathroom had the best television in her house. Martha flipped through the channels with the remote. The remote was covered in the same dripping foam as her hand.
“I think you will get how to throw that boomerang in no time,” Anton said.
“Did you sleep with my mother, Anton?”
“Why are you asking something like that?”
“Please, don’t take umbrage—”
“I’m not taking umbrage.”
“Fine. I have two more cigarettes for us, Anton, after these.”
“Fine. After that I want to shampoo your hair. Or shave your legs for you even. Maybe just shampoo your hair.”
“I think I would like that.”
Mayor’s Park was for the neighborhood children on Carson Lane and its cousin streets.
It was built for a long-forgotten mayor who had fathered seventeen children and who had wished for such a park. The park had two swings and plenty of sand. But there were no more children around.
Martha Swann twirled around in one of the swings. She blew cigarette smoke through her teeth. Her forehead was pressed against one of the swings’ ropes. Her fur coat was covered in grains of sand.
Anton was wearing a frog-green sweater. He’d said Martha gave up like a baby when it came to the boomerang.
Martha did not understand the boomerang. She’d said the wind was awful and the day was much better for kites. Why couldn’t they just fly some kites?
Martha watched Anton walk to the far corner of Mayor’s Park. He turned back to wave at her. He was waving her over to him.
“It might be good to try it one more time before we go back,” Anton yelled through the wind. He looked to the clouds. “If it were warmer, it would be about time to cut my grass. When spring comes again, I could mow your lawn for you, Martha. You never ask,” he shouted.
“The cats will be dying for their supper.”
“Throw it just like I showed you. You’ll do fine. You can’t think of it like a Frisbee.”
Martha closed her eyes and tossed the yellow boomerang again.
“There you go.” Anton ran to her. “You’re already picking up steam! That’s good. That’s real good.” He smiled.
Martha and Anton stayed out at Mayor’s Park for hours, until nightfall, smoking, tossing, kissing, swinging, yelling in the harsh wind. Martha tried on Anton’s bright green sweater while Anton slipped into Martha’s big fur coat.
Just before midnight came upon them, Martha nestled with Anton in the wet remains of snow. She read the history marker high above them. She told Anton what the cast aluminum sign had to say about the mayor.
Soon after, Martha said she thought she saw the ghosts of the mayor’s children dancing all around them. Anton twirled his boomerang and tried to whistle for the ghosts. He did not believe in them. He said it was not practical to believe in them.
When all was quiet, Martha and Anton slept.
The Cineplex was playing a late-night special about the Greek gods. The Nectar Planet had only four actors. There was no dialogue. Only a handful of people remembered the movie. Anton claimed it was his favorite.
Anton and Martha were alone in Theater #4. They were covered in patches of snow. Martha said she would try the popcorn although she had never eaten it before.
Anton stood up throughout the film. He explained to Martha how he got nervous at certain parts. He wanted Apollo to win—it was only right, he said. Martha reminded him that he already knew how the movie ended. She did not understand the movie very well, so she looked around the theater for shadows and for moments of color.
One of the Cineplex janitors came snailing down the aisle. He stretched out and started his nap on some of the third row seats. Martha thought the man looked like a tired and wrinkled old elf. She thought his ski-cap was his small attempt to look human.
Martha held Anton’s arm. She wanted to tell him about the elf she’d found. But Anton was watching his film. Martha held onto his hand. The popcorn butter greased their palms away, over and over. Anton always sealed them back together again. Martha thought that was funny. She decided she was happy.
She knew just who it was when she heard the door.
Silas had banged open the side door of Theater #4. He emerged under the corner of the giant projection screen. He had not paid for a ticket because he had ripped open the emergency door.
The janitor still slept.
Silas took frequent swigs from a thermos full of heated whiskey. He walked over the aisle carpet like a mutilated bear. He used the end seats as his guide, though he had to stoop down low to reach all of them.
Anton had not seen Silas enter. He was enjoying what he’d called the single best most important part of his movie.
Martha studied Silas as he tried to walk. She buried herself in her chair, under her popcorn bucket.
Silas took a seat beside Martha.
Anton glanced over and offered his neighbor a wave.
Silas pulled Martha toward him.
Martha looked forward. She wished the film would start making sense to her. She wished Silas would not bite her ear. She decided she would shriek. She had never done it before.
Anton, startled, moaned on and on about their ruining of The Nectar Planet. He stood up and glared as hard as he could at Silas.
Silas got up in no great hurry. He looked into Anton’s blue eyes for a long time.
Martha was afraid that Silas was going to pick him up and spin him around in the middle of the theater.
Silas did not spin Anton this time. He punched Anton. He punched him to the right and then to the left; he punched him back into his seat.
Anton popped back up to meet Silas’ fists again and again, and yet again. He tried to become one of the immortal gods from the movie blaring on behind him. He tried to belt Silas back.
He could not.
Martha spilled her popcorn and ducked under the swings and blows.
The janitor sat up and looked around behind him.
Anton bled. After Silas had stormed off and left, Anton said he wanted nothing, just some ice, maybe, for his teeth.
In the early hours of morning, it snowed again over Carson Lane.
Mother Jane said Martha could go outside with Anton for a while. She called the afternoon sun splendid.
Martha stood up and saw her mother pacing the front porch. She told her she was already outside. She told her she had been outside before Mother Jane ever woke up.
Mother Jane sipped her coffee and sang.
Martha had been tumbling over the pine straw and snow mush under her front porch, looking for a lost tabby. She had almost given up hope.
Anton came around from the side of the house. He had been very busy. He pulled an old, rusted children’s wagon behind him. The wagon still had a faint hint of red. Inside the wagon were one trembling cat and several buckets of paint. The paint was not for the wagon.
Martha ran up to him and welcomed her skinny cat back home.
Anton tied a line of twine around the wagon handle.
“Where are we supposed to get a ladder?” he asked.
“I bet there’s a few in my backyard. I’ve kept the things no one else wanted through the years.” She smoked. “I am a commercial painter, Anton.”
The sun shone down over their scalps when they neared Silas’ roof. They talked about what they would have for lunch and how delicious the pollock fish were going to be. Martha said she was ready to eat a whole one, she was so hungry. Anton said it had been a long time since he had painted anything.
Then, for two hours they had nothing to say to one another.
It was Anton who decided to break their silence.
“When did Silas say he wanted this done—I mean is he going to pay you for doing his house over like this?”
“Have you ever thought about growing a beard?” Martha asked.
“No. Should I start one? I can.”
“It’s just I saw this movie once. We saw this movie once at the Cineplex, you didn’t know I was there, and the man, this ascetic type of man had a full beard.”
“John the Baptist.”
“Yes. It was about him. Could you ever be an ascetic?”
“I don’t know. There is too much in the world to avoid it all, I guess.”
“He’s not paying you, is he? Do you think we’ll get into a heap of trouble? Maybe I should know now, Martha.”
“He hit you, Anton. More than ten times. He hit you.”
“Let’s stop for that lunch now. It looks like there won’t be much work for us when we get back”
“Okay. It’s going to turn out nice. I really think so.”
Martha and Anton helped each other as they climbed down the ladder. They walked away from Silas’ house without looking back at it.
Down on Carson Lane, the vagrants and visitors, the joggers and the runners, the woods-travelers to and from the humble Cineplex, the few parents from Mayor’s Park and beyond, and all those lifetime residents still wonder about house #3 on the pink row from time to time. They would just like to know why it was made black.