Oh dear, we’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.
—from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window
The women were due back at any moment and Will would have to retreat far enough inside himself to evade the irritation of scrutiny, but for now he was able to enjoy fully and without reservation what he liked to call his daily gander. There was an elderly couple in the house across the street and they were always at each other like wild, feral animals. Scratching, clawing, occasionally biting—and not in a sexual way. They seemed to want to inflict near-constant physical pain and misery upon each other and they were not even remotely ashamed of this dynamic. Their grown children came to dine with them on Sundays and they did not hold back—not even a little. It was, in a world where nothing of importance seemed to take place beyond the cramped confines of a cell-phone screen, strangely reassuring to look outside and witness the depravity of human existence in real life. He knew he shouldn’t love it, but he loved it like he’d once loved pro football.
Today, the Meyer couple was having a late breakfast in their kitchen and that was, generally speaking, prime-time viewing. The women, his women—his wife and his two married-off and filed-away daughters—knew that he liked to look, but they considered it uncouth or unseemly or whatever church-ish way they had of saying he was a creep and a voyeur. Maybe it was a little strange or silly to enjoy the spectacle as much as he did, but it wasn’t spying. His evidence: the Meyer couple took their show into the front yard on the regular, they had never once in ten years closed their curtains, they still waved to him at the grocery even though they’d both clearly detected his watchful position in his second-floor study. If it was spying, then anyone who looked at anyone else was spying; anyone with eyes was a creep. In the world of the seeing, only the blind man is couth. That was a phrasing he had yet to unleash in his own defense. He was holding it in reserve. But if the occasion arose, he would not hesitate.
On most occasions of his looking, the couple conducted perfectly normal household activities—cleaning, eating, watching television—that were interrupted only by phone calls or staccato fugues of extreme violence. If the woman happened to pass near her husband’s legs as he sat on the couch, for example, he might extend them to trip her and then ignore her struggle to regain her footing. She, meanwhile, made a habit of jabbing him with silverware in the gut or the back, fisting his globular ear, or wrenching his nose. On one particularly notable evening of battle, they’d destroyed the contents of two china cabinets poised on opposite sides of the dining room by hurling them at each other. Will had only seen one end of the fight—he briefly considered taking a walk so that he could see it all through a side window before dismissing the idea as out there—but it was enough to convince him that looking was a rational, human response to this kind of behavior. Who could look away?
What happened on this, the final occasion of his gander was not exactly like the plot of the famous Hitchcock film—a release he’d always disliked, even despite Jimmy Stewart’s grumpy swagger and Grace Kelly’s swoon-worthy beauty. That is to say that he did not look across the way and think he might have seen a man murdering his wife; it wasn’t a puzzle or an intrigue. Rather, he looked across the way and saw Mr. Meyer fling a cast-iron pan into Mrs. Meyer’s head. She fell like a sack. Within five minutes the old man was at his door. Ringing, ringing the bell. Incessantly. And then knocking, trying the knob, the windows, the back door. The women were slated to return any minute. Will didn’t know exactly what they would say or do if they came upon the neighbor man imploding in their yard, but it was sure to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Who knew? Mr. Meyer might even become violent. He was, after all, a man capable of great, woman-specific violence. Will answered the door. “This about your wife?” he asked.
“You knew I was watching?”
Meyer again nodded. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, tapped on the screen, and then tilted it to show Will a picture of himself leering from the dormer window. He swiped to reveal another. And then another and another and another—each depicting different days, different daily ganders. Will wasn’t entirely sure what the old man was up to, but he knew a silent threat when he heard one. Cooperate or I’ll expose you. Meyer continued swiping, his gnarled knuckle doing the work of compouding years of evidence.
“I get the idea,” said Will. “You can put the phone away.”
Meyer slid the device into his pants pocket, folded his hands at his waist and waited—for what, Will could not exactly say. In Rear Window, the matricidal maniac confronted and wordlessly attacked the Jimmy Stewart character, shoving him out an open window. Meyer was wordless but did not seem inclined to attack. He seemed, rather, to be waiting for Will to make up his mind. Are you in or are you out? Will knew, even before asking, that there was no point in asking, but it was important to get the facts straight from the onset: “Is there any chance of resuscitating her?”
“No,” said Meyer. He shook his head, suitably somber.
“Did you even try?”
“If you saw her for yourself, you’d understand.”
Will sucked air through closed teeth. If he went across the street, he’d be hopelessly mired in this mess, but he had to go across the street because he was hopelessly mired in this mess. What he had here was a real situation; what he had here could not be Googled into an easy-to-execute five-step plan. No amount of any kind of life training could have prepared him for a moment like this one. The acronyms his daughters would use came to him, unbidden: OMG FML.
In the military, Will had been one to pretend not to see what he had seen when others transgressed. Close quarters, bored soldiers. Things happened. Sexual, sometimes sexually violent things. It was not his way to intervene, not his style. He wasn’t a rat, a tattler. His great fortune was to serve in a rarely-deployed unit. They did mapping and surveying. He only rarely fired his weapon and never deployed explosives on human targets. But time spent not firing and not bombing often translated into improvised time-wasting scenarios and exercises designed to blow off steam.
In one instance, he had quietly observed while a group of soldiers held down a kid they’d collectively deemed queer and shaved his genitals. He couldn’t say now why they’d done it. How had they arrived at this specific idea of torture? Wasn’t it a bit queer itself, this delicate handling of another man’s balls? And, while he knew that the boy had not been physically harmed—they were very careful and meticulous with the shaving, regarding all genitals as inherently sacred—he understood that it had surely scarred him. It was unlikely that the boy now regarded the incident as a little harmless fun at his expense. He was probably righteously pissed. He probably had a blog about it.
Occasionally, while looking back on his life, Will was prompted to consider contacting that soldier—or at least looking him up on the internet. Occasionally, he saw himself from outside of himself in that moment: sipping a cold beer and smoking cheap weed out of a bowl in the shape of a human skull. What in the hell was up with that guy? What was in his head while all of that was happening? He could hear the clank of the agitator in the striped can of shaving cream as they shook it, the muffled howls, the snickering. He could even remember the made-up song they sang—one that replaced the lyrics in a pop hit with lyrics about sucking dick. But, try as he might, he could not get inside his own thoughts. Was it possible he didn’t think at all? Was he a void inside?
His wife had recently used the word complicit on him. You were complicit in what happened to that soldier, she said. You may not have done it, but you were complicit. She was re-tooling his memory on him. Like it was a game, a damning-fact-finding or dark-history-spelunking adventure. Now that she was political, now that she was having her own me-too moment, speaking to her about his past was a risk. They would be sitting, watching some bullshit movie on cable and a gay character would get hazed and he’d say—unwisely, in retrospect—that he’d known a few soldiers like that and they usually, though not always, had it coming. You have to understand what it was like, he’d say. Some guys, they’ve never met anyone like that. They’re from small towns, they’re religious. You can’t be sticking it in their faces. If they get to know you, they’ll treat you fine, but if you’re sticking it in their faces, I say you might get what you deserve.
He’d say it, or something like it, half-knowing she’d use it as an opportunity to embarrass or condemn him and half-hoping she’d see he was trying. The world had changed very quickly and he needed to talk it through, find out what he thought now about what happened then. You’re complicit, you’re complicit, you’re complicit. Inside him, the past had tangled and knotted itself up—even his idea of his mother had been corrupted by this process, the woman whose graveside he’d visited for all these years fully believing she was a damaged angel—and new information simply entered this chaos and became dark to him. Queer eyes, trigger warnings, microaggressions. It was like a kind of aphasia.
Didn’t your mother used to beat you? his older daughter had said when he’d last asked her to visit the grave with him. Isn’t she part of the reason you family is so fucked up? His first impulse had been to smack her in the mouth, but he’d never hit either of his kids or his wife. For decades, he’d been beating back his first instinct—almost anytime anyone spoke boldly or rudely to him. The fact that his family did not know the great violence inside of him was a point of pride—proof that his mother hadn’t ruined him after all. Yes, but she’s also my mother, he’d said to his daughter. And so we’re going to visit her god-damned grave every once in a while and stick some fucking flowers on the ground.
And now, because the rules were different, he was retroactively complicit? No. He did not do, had never done what others had done. He did not beat, he did not rape, he did not grope or belittle. He did not take advantage. He did not microaggress or regular aggress. He had seen, yes, he had seen a great many things, but that did not mean that he had done these things. There was a difference. A very important difference. He’d dared his wife to ask him what he would do in the Hitler baby scenario. It was on the news, this ridiculous tweet-twat-twiddle-dee-dink, and he wanted to know what she thought he thought about this important issue facing the nation. I don’t have to ask, she said. Your whole life is the answer. And she was half right. He would have treated the Hitler baby like any baby—cradled its head, soothed it softly to sleep—but he also would have shot it dead. Bang. Blood on the carpet, blood on the walls. Both of those truths were inside him always and all the time. It wasn’t a battle; it was a condition. It was the human condition.
As he stood over a dead woman’s body in a kitchen decorated in an overzealous rooster theme, it came to Will that he would now be implicated in a murder and in a way that would perhaps forever stain his reputation, the reputation of his family, and undo all the work he’d done straddling an important line. He’d have to explain—to the police and then perhaps to a courtroom full of people—why he looked so frequently and so regularly that Meyer would know he’d witnessed the crime. All of the photos would come out. He’d seen at least ten; for all he knew, the old man might possess a hundred more. A hundred! Will would have to explain why he’d never called the police to file a report of domestic violence. The fact that the police had directly questioned him in the past about whether he’d ever seen anything hinky at the Meyer place was unlikely to look good. What they do is none of my business, he’d said, but they seem like a very happy couple to me. That was probably on a record in a filing cabinet somewhere, waiting to emerge and disgrace him.
If the true events of the day were to become known, there would be people who would always suspect—even despite any evidence to the contrary he might offer—that he was more involved, that he was part of it, that there were nefarious connections, obsessions of a sexual nature. Peeping Tom Peeps Murderer would be the clickbait headline. As he and this fidgeting shit of an old man leaned in close to observe Mrs. Meyer, it came to him that the only and best reason for refraining from looking at the spectacle of others had nothing to do with respecting their privacy, but rather the exact inversion of the concept. By looking, he was hopelessly and publicly ensnaring himself with these horrible, abusive, and yet perfectly ordinary and indeed otherwise pleasant people. No, it was better, finally, to keep the world out. Nail the door shut. Become a hermit—preferably a blind and mute hermit.
There was no pulse. He knew this without touching the old woman, but he touched her anyway—behind the ear and then again at the wrist. He’d seen dead and she was unequivocally that, the split in her forehead a true and hopelessly irreparable gape. Meyer stood squeezing his hands then bent to lift his wife’s blood-soiled apron over her face, a gesture Will appreciated but still regarded as gauche. There was no restoring Mrs. Meyer’s dignity. Not after what had happened to her.
“She was a good woman, but it was bound to happen eventually,” said Meyer. “I suppose you knew that.”
Will straightened himself and stepped away from the body. “The two of you were very rough,” he said. He felt the sudden urge to explain, rationalize his part in it. “I think I wanted to understand. Also, retirement has not—come naturally to me.”
Meyer sighed in agreement. “It was easier when we were younger. We had our work to take us out of the house and the children to tend. But then we were trapped in here, in this life. I don’t know who started it, but it kept on.”
“I could have stopped it, saved her.”
“No, I wouldn’t have let you.”
Will turned from the grisly scene—the skein of hair in the glopped blood is what got him, the hot tang of piss and death—to gaze across the street at his own house. He could see from this angle how his looking would be obvious and unsettling. He’d always assumed sheers over the study window at least partially concealed him. Now he could see that they did not. He could see very clearly into the room—his diploma on the wall, the pattern of duck-hunting gear in the wallpaper, his white ceramic lamp shaped like a bundled pile of fruit, the birding binoculars strung damningly in the dormer.
“The women will be home any minute and they’ll wonder where I am,” he said.
Meyer ignored him. “We talked about this sort of thing, about what we’d do. We had a close call once with the stairs. That was my so-called hip replacement. She said she thought she’d get away with killing me because she was a woman, but she assumed you might step forward to contradict her. I always thought you’d refrain from casting aspersions. You’ve been a very nice neighbor. Very polite.”
“The fact of a murder is a fact. My niceness as a neighbor, my—looking. That has nothing to do with it.”
“In a way, you could say that she consented. Of course, no one but you would ever understand that.”
Will could see how the old man had done well as a lawyer for so many years. “The women will be home and I don’t want them mixed up in whatever we’re doing here,” he said. He considered the weight of the body, the sheer unwieldiness of the lift, the impossible mess and its permanent consequences. “A fall would have been easier to get my head around somehow.”
“It was an accident,” said Meyer. “I know that sounds ridiculous, given the circumstances, but we had certain rules.”
“What in the hell happened?”
Meyer lifted the pan from the floor by its handle. “It was this. Do you know how much a thing like this costs? And it was too heavy for her to lift. Her wrists were made of glass, she said. ‘Why did you order it?’ I said. ‘You knew it would be useless to you.’ She said, ‘But I wanted it.’ You should see the piles of junk in this house. You probably have seen them. She orders these things. What good are they to us? The walls are closing in on me. Anyway, it wasn’t as heavy as I thought. It was an accident.”
Will knew about the line of cast-iron pans and their expense. It was something his wife and daughters had discussed. There was a knock-off line shilled by a celebrity cook from the South. That was good enough for his older daughter, but the younger one said it wasn’t the same. His wife talked about how you had to season the pan and it was better to buy a used one at the antique mart for that reason. Both daughters had deemed that idea disgusting. LOL. As if. He thought about the sedan pulling up and the women piling out. They were all heavier around the middle than they liked and they all wore athletic attire that seemed to draw attention to this fact. Why didn’t they wear less-revealing clothes? Why were so many parts of their casual fitness clothes transparent? Why was it OK now to wear a bra as a shirt and tights as pants?
“It was an accident,” he said. “That’s all you need to say to the authorities.”
Meyer hesitated. “Sergeant, I need to know what you’ll say. We’re in this together now.”
He didn’t know that the old man knew he was military. It was not something he discussed with casual acquaintances and he’d assumed (incorrectly, it now seemed) that his years of work in insurance had eased his carriage. “You don’t know me,” he said. “There’s nothing connecting me to you.”
“It’s true that I don’t know you, but I do know what you saw. And I have the proof.” He held up the phone and waggled it.
This was not the kind of territory Will was going to allow Meyer to draw him into. Looking was not the same as killing. Looking was looking. He was not directly implicated. “The women will be back. I won’t have them drawn into this mess.”
“Perhaps there’s a way in which this was all decided a long time ago. The first time you looked and you didn’t tell.”
They were in the basement, contemplating the deep freeze and then they were in the garage, tinkering with blades, and then they hauled a large rug down from the attic. Meyer had a minivan. The wife was supposed to be traveling to see her sister in Maine soon. He could say she’d decided to go early. From there, it would be a crapshoot.
He had wanted to tell. That was the painful truth of it. The soldiers defiling one of their own, the countless insults his wife and daughters endured in his presence, the way other white men tested his allegiance to his whiteness while in line at hardware stores and groceries. When he’d first discovered Reddit, he’d posed as a teenage girl. He invented life details: favorite color, proportions, an inspirational quote from a Broadway musical. He made an avatar on a website that lets you look like a cartoon character. He named himself Shelby—blond, blue-eyed, glasses, a soccer uniform. Anybody out there want to chat about Marvel? he wrote. He was hoping to discuss his guilty pleasure, the superhero series starring the block-jawed girl. Within hours, he was receiving sexual threats: I want to rape you blind.
Suck my cock or I’ll tell your parents you’re a whore.
Give me your street address and I’ll mail you a present. If you don’t, I’ll hack your machine and make you want to kill yourself.
After the business of consolidating all of the cleaning products into the Meyer’s kitchen, the idea of being caught somehow—seen—prompted Will to stalk through the house with the idea of whipping shut the drapes, but they were so coated with dust as to be stiff and immovable. The weirdness of it sheered his spine. His hands came away with years of accumulated particulate matter and he drifted outside of himself. He knew enough to know that he was in a state of shock, but he didn’t know enough to know what to do with that information. He thought, absurdly, of gossiping to his wife about the state of the neighbors’ window treatments—Filthy as hell, can you believe it?—but then he’d have to tell her why he’d been in the house. Why was he in the house? He kicked at the base of the drapes and dust shelved off to reveal an orange hue that had not been popular since the 70s.
The curtains in his childhood bedroom had been brown. Thick and heavy, capable of muting both light and sound. His mother insisted they be closed at all times and never opened. Any street-facing windows in the house were subject to this policy. It was one of her special demands. And, like many of her special demands, it made very little sense in the context of their lives. They lived deep in the woods in a home that had once been a farmhouse, but was then a structure in the process of a slow collapse. Little was left of the farm—some old and rusted equipment, fence lines overgrown with vines, a gutted barn with the remnants of tobacco leaves still clinging to the rafters. And while a gravel road did run the length of the property, it was exceedingly rare to see a vehicle pass. The nearest neighbor was more than a mile away. What was she hiding and from whom?
They’d been abandoned by his father, a man he remembered only as a stout pair of legs in tattered jeans, but provided for by a small inheritance. The farm was part of the arrangement. The idea was that his father would get it up and running, producing again. Instead, he had succeeded only in producing a rapid succession of heirs to a dilapidated throne. Five kids in five years and Will was the last and youngest of them. It was the old story—a man who evades responsibility by drinking his life away. Will was disinterested in the outcome by the time he was a toddler and his father disappeared soon thereafter. His mother’s paranoia ramped up from there. These days, she’d probably receive a fancy diagnosis and designer pharmaceuticals to match. Back then, people in town called her an eccentric, a shut-in, a weirdo. The word she used on herself was flighty. As in, My father always said I was too flighty to sit for an education, but I taught myself how to live just fine. As in, I’d cook for you, but I’m so flighty I’ll forget to turn off the stove and burn you all to ash. As in, I’m so flighty, I can’t remember how I got this brush in my hand.
She was ashamed of the mess. That was part of it. It was not easy to maintain a house while also tending to five small children alone and in the sticks, but she was not terribly interested in trying. And then, when the kids were older and in school, she dropped all notions of society and became a feral ghost haunting the place. Will’s oldest sibling was a girl, Claire, and she became the mother. She did the washing and cleaning; she walked into town and bought groceries. She learned how to sign checks and pay bills. If there was trashed piled in the house, she had the kids toss it out the back. Once a month, she paid a neighbor to haul scattered refuse to the dump. So, there was order to the house and its systems, but it was a child-produced order and would not stand up to ordinary adult scrutiny.
The other (and primary) part of his mother’s paranoia had to do with the fact that the state was prone to intervening in cases like these and she did not want the kids separated; she did not want to be left alone in the collapse. There were curtains and cardboard panels in the downstairs windows that lined the front of the house. The little window in the front door was painted black. Never, in his memory, had anyone ever arrived at that door and threatened to remove him from his home, but his siblings could remember a warm-faced woman with a clipboard and so the worry was with him. He let the mess and the state rationalize his mother’s paranoia and left the brown curtains in his bedroom window alone. Until one day, he didn’t. He’d been dreaming of Peter Pan, the idea that a wild, lost boy would reach out his hand and offer to take him away to Never-never land, and he’d developed the habit of parting the curtains in the night, closing them before dawn, when he was again inevitably disappointed by Peter’s failure to arrive.
His mother could pretend her flighty nature had kept her out of school, but the truth was that her rich father didn’t see the point in educating women. She could pretend that it was her scattered brain causing fires in the house, a kind of fanciful forgetfulness that drew her limited focus away, but he’d seen her light a few with steady-handed deliberation. She could say she didn’t know how the hairbrush found its way into her hand, but he knew it as the nearest item in reach when she’d come to his room before dawn and found the room exposed to the street. The beating Claire had received in his stead was one that he’d blamed on himself until very recently. A character in a book told another character in a book that it wasn’t her fault her daughter was raped. It wasn’t your fault. You have to let that go. And he was floored, his chest hammered by the fact of it. His mother had beaten his sister for no good reason and it was not his fault. His mother had beaten his sister so badly that she’d dislodged two teeth and damaged an eye. It was not his fault.
His wife knew he had shit in his past. That’s what they called it. His shit. And his daughters knew about it too. But the language they would apply to it was different than the language he knew how to use. Whenever he was struggling with the past as a young man, he’d called Claire on the phone and she’d given him the right words. Our mother had troubles, she said, but she loved us in her way. The emphasis was on the fact of the love. Claire had taught him to honor the part of their mother that had wanted to keep the family together. She’d taught him where to look when looking at the past, which is to say that she’d taught him to edit out the pain. But all of that was now unraveling. At any moment, a fresh take would arrive via the television or the internet or the bloody NPR and he’d be re-living his trauma again. He was like an outdated robot. Danger Will Robinson, danger, danger. A machine sputtering into nonsensical irrelevance. A man.
In the upstairs bathroom mirror, his face was his face. He washed his hands with the oversized bar of red soap in the dish and then dried them on one of the matching hand-towels. There were roses cross-stitched into them—a thing that had been common once upon a time, but was now as absurd as the idea of wearing a hat to work. He heard the old man pattering around downstairs. “Where are you?” Meyer shouted up. “I need you down here, buddy.”
After staging the heavy rug in the garage and layering sheets of plastic into the minivan, they were both covered in sweat and Meyer suggested they rest in the living room. The kitchen was not visible from there and they could almost pretend that nothing had happened and speak to each other like neighbors visiting on any ordinary Sunday afternoon. Meyer was not the kind of person with whom Will shared very much in common. The inside of the couple’s house told him what he’d always suspected: they were old in the way that black-and-white television shows were old. They were old like even some young people were old—poised in a different history, the myth of simpler past, an idea that never updates itself, that clings to old fixtures and styles. MCM or whatever they called it. The couches were covered with thick, transparent plastic. The rugs were shag. Everywhere there were framed pictures of the happy family. Olan Mills. The husband and the wife and their smiling children. How did they live with the contradictions? The bruises and the bloodied noses? How did they live?
They drank water out of juice glasses, the only sound in the house that of their breathing and swallowing.
“I have wondered why you watched. What you got out of it, what it did for you,” said Meyer. “I could never ask, of course.”
Will had to give it to him. He was smart to keep the focus on the looking, on Will’s sin. Meanwhile, the wife’s body was stiffening on the dated, flower-printed linoleum.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really think much about it. I guess you could say I got a kick out of the two of you.”
Meyer nodded. “I can see how we’d be entertaining. Better than reality television!”
This would be the moment when they’d drink iced tea together. The wife in the black-and-white television show would bring it into the living room on a tray and she’d stir the pitcher, crystals of white sugar whirling beneath her wooden spoon, which she’d clank on the rim. They’d shift the conversation to something lighter. Sports, lawn care. Will knew this scene. He’d seen it his whole life, but discerned it as false. A cover.
“I come from a troubled home,” he said. “There was child abuse. Physical abuse. My mother was a very disturbed person. Maybe that’s why I looked at the two of you. It was familiar.”
Meyer nodded his head. “I understand the kind of thing you’re talking about,” he said. “It can do a lot of damage to a young person. I should know.”
“Why did you do it? Why did you hit her? You could have chosen not to, but you did it. For years, you did it. You made the same decision again and again.”
It was a difficult question, but Meyer did not resist and he did not hesitate. “In my day, when you married, you married for life. We took vows. We had our differences, but we agreed to stay together. That’s what saved us from becoming like all those other families you see. Latch-key kids. Drugs. All that. We preserved the family unit.”
“What do you think of your family unit now?”
Meyer winced. “You’re right,” he said. “I was wrong to do it. A man should never hit his wife. But I did it and now she’s dead. She would want me to hold it together, though. ‘Hold the fort,’ she would say. And that’s all I’m trying to do. Don’t you see? The children will never have a chance if they know. It will destroy them. They will blame themselves. How could they not?”
Will imagined the TV wife returning to the room, re-filling the tall glasses of tea, the ice clinking. Would you care for anything to eat? A sandwich perhaps? And he’d agree, mainly out of politeness, but not because he was actually hungry. When she returned, she’d have an elaborate spread for them. Pre-prepared, surely. Maybe a dish of little pickles or olives. The bread cut into careful triangles and crustless. He’d deem it incredible. Say she’d really outdone herself this time. She’d shush him and then retreat into the kitchen. Who knew what she did in there? She’d be at the ready when it was time to lift the tray away. And then the visit would end and he’d return to his home, perhaps seeing it freshly anew. What a great life, he’d think. What fine neighbors I have. And it would be a lie and he would know it as a lie even as he thought it, but it would be a necessary lie. And that was the point.
Will was well-acquainted with the cross-generational impulse to conceal the uncomfortable truths of family dynamics. It was, in a way, the story of his life. When he was about twenty, he met his siblings on the hillside where his mother was buried next to the lost husband she’d despised. All five could generally be depended upon to observe this tradition, though they otherwise tended to steer clear of each other. He set the flowers in the vase at the foot of the stone and told them he didn’t know if he’d be back again.
“Why?” asked Claire. “Why now?”
Their mother had been dead for years. He’d forgotten the songs she used to sing to him as a child. He’d forgotten the scent of her freshly-washed hair. And now that he’d lost those details, there were few nice remembrances to fill in the dark empty spaces. “Because I’m getting married and I don’t want to think about this shit anymore,” he said. “I want to move on.”
Claire said she understood but it was clear she didn’t agree. At the car, she told him she loved him and turned to leave. Then she thought better of it and grabbed him by the sleeve.
“If we stop coming here now, the family will fall apart and we won’t have a chance to be normal, ordinary people,” she said. “Do it for me.”
And so he came. And he came and he came and he came. He kept showing up because that’s all she’d ever asked of him. He kept doing the thing, acting like a member of a normal, ordinary family. And when Claire died suddenly, they buried her next to the mother she despised and the husband she’d despised, the burial plot filled to the brim with terrible, despicable history. But what they said was that they were all together in heaven now. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. That was something they repeated to anyone who asked how they were handling things now that Claire, their true mother, was gone.
The next time his wife accused him of complicity, he knew what he was going to say. He had the phrasing down exactly. Yes, he would say. He’d rise from the couch where they’d be sitting together, watching another piece of shit streaming on whatever the fuck he-ho Hulu, and he’d give it to her straight, right in the eye. I’m complicit and you’re complicit and the whole, rotating world of human shit is complicit. That’s what life is all about. We’re all in it together, don’t you see? How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy? When the time came, he’d be ready. He’d have the right words for the occasion at the tip of his tongue. He’d know what kind of sense to make. Original sin. That’s what he’d call it. We’re simply born to this fate, he’d say. What can we do, but live? And then they’d go back to the movie and maybe critique the casting and the plotline over a little cheese plate and a glass of red wine before bed.
Here, now, shifting on the hot plastic sheathing the couch in the Meyer family room, he had less to say than he did in his hypothetical fantasy, but he was no less sure of his logic. “I’ve decided not to help you do—it. This,” he said, gesturing to the kitchen. “I realize that I’m knee-deep already. You’ve made me a party to it. But I’m not going to go any further with it. You shouldn’t have knocked on my door.”
“But I did and you answered. You’re here and you’re doing this. We’re doing what has to be done. It’s what men do.”
“Nope,” said Will. “You’re a weak excuse for a man. I’m whatever fucked-up thing I am, but at least I’m not that. If you knock on my door again or try to contact me or my family in any way, I will beat the life out of you.”
Meyer was upset and sputtering, but he was powerless now to stop Will from leaving. What was he going to do, fight him? Engage him in a philosophical debate about the notion of consent? As he neared his own porch, Will looked up to the dormer window and imagined a little boy’s hand emerging—his own, he knew. He knew it was silly to imagine such a thing. An indulgence. Every night as a child, he’d reached and reached for an escape that never came. Of course it didn’t. What would he tell himself now if he had the chance? You’re complicit. No. You’re not to blame. No. It wasn’t an either/or scenario. It was a fraught mess, the human disease. This is life, kid. You’ll get used to it.
Inside the house, the air conditioning was too high, as usual, and his cell phone was on the kitchen table, wiggling. There were seven text messages and three voicemails from his wife. She was at the other store with the girls. Should they pick up this new outdoor furniture set at this price or should they wait for a better deal? She needed an answer right now. Do whatever you want, he texted. It’s what you’ll do anyway. She texted back almost immediately. You’re too late. It’s already done. Back in twenty.
He called 911 from the gas station down the block and reported an incident in the neighborhood. Gave the address, but didn’t name names. I don’t know those people, but they’re rotten as hell and somebody should do something about them before one of them winds up dead. Meyer was in the van when they found him. There were flaws in his plan. The kitchen had been bleached rather hastily. He’d hidden the iron pan poorly. The woman’s bloodied clothes were buried in a shallow hole in the backyard, the van was damningly lined with plastic. But he may have gotten away with it if no one had called. It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs today, but no one worries very much about what an old man gets up to in his own home—that’s the spin he chose to put on it. The line was successful enough to elicit a chuckle out of his girls. They got his double meaning, the fact that he-too was an old man and the fact that nobody cared about whatever it was that he did. “Dad,” they said. “Cut it out with the Dad jokes.”
For a time, he worried that the 911 call would lead to incriminating revelations and that Meyer would sell him out to the police. He thought about the old man swiping through photo after photo and saying, See? See? But he also imagined an exhaused cop on the other side of that conversation. So, what does this show, that you spied on your neighbor? So what? What am I supposed to see here? Meyer might try to spin it, but it would be too late, his lawyerly equivocations would be useless, meaningless outside of the trap of Will’s dark history. On the occasions when “the incident with the neighbor,” as it came to be known in his household, would arise, Will would feel a gut-pang of nervous trepidation: what if his wife finally asked him if he’d seen anything? Don’t even try to tell me you weren’t watching. I know you. But she never asked. Life moved on as though all were forgotten, forgiven. He thought about that old Hitchcock film enough to consider streaming it. In the end, though, he settled for Googling the famous quotes: “You asked for something dramatically different! You got it!” But what was different? What had changed? He looked deep into Grace Kelly’s face in a movie still. She was so god-damned beautiful—her scupltural sheen, her delicate pearl-rung neck. And she wasn’t real, he realized. He felt this quite deeply. She was so very far from real.