It’s 7:45 in the morning, and my neighbor Orrin is pacing in his backyard, wearing pajamas and a plaid robe, a holster on his hip, a loaded small-caliber pistol in his hand.
Backing out of my driveway, already late for work, I pause only long enough to make sure that Orrin is not aiming at my house. I have seen Orrin with a pistol before. I have heard the distinctive sharp report of his .22, and peered out to see him dragging a dead snake to the garbage, or crouching on his patio, trying to pick off chipmunks at close range. More than once, I have pulled my dog in from the yard, afraid that one day the gun would get the better of the old man.
Today I’m certain that Orrin is after that skunk.
We’ve all been alarmed by the skunks waddling with increasing frequency through our suburban evenings. Last night there were anxious shouts across backyards about someone seeing a rabid skunk just down the street, and we know it is nothing to take lightly. Our homes are close to a wooded area, which we like because it provides privacy (or an illusion of privacy), but we always seem startled by the presence of animals that are not pets: the fat groundhogs, the sleek and incongruous deer, the raccoons in search of water, spitting and hissing in the sudden beam of a flashlight. Skunks are unpleasant. A rabid animal is more like an assault.
This morning Orrin is convinced that the diseased animal, skinny and wobbly, is in fact hiding in a fringe of small shrubs on the edge of his property.
“We’ll dispatch this in a military manner,” he says out loud to no one in particular.
Worried about being late, I drive off, leaving the skunk to Orrin and his pistol. What Orrin will do I can only imagine.
* * *
Since we lost our son Ethan, two years before we moved to this neighborhood, we get jumpy about a lot of things. Certainly the threat of a rabid skunk, the unsettling appearance of a pistol. But also much less. We’re quick to imagine, to exaggerate, to panic. We try to tamp it down, but a trace of anxiety always lingers. We were living in a city before. People say you can be anonymous in a big city, because of the constant motion, and because all of the variety around you is also indifference. But the suburbs offer their own brand of anonymity. You can blend into the pace and routine of this modest neighborhood of old Cape Cods and practical brick one-stories, mini-vans, and giant American pickup trucks crowding the driveways, the lawns fertilized, the shrubs trimmed, the seasonal decorations rotated on schedule—big red hearts, leprechauns, scarecrows, and snowmen—ornamental banners flapping in the front yards like nautical flags signaling the status of the household. We thought this would make us feel secure. We thought it would help us retreat from memory.
* * *
I picture Orrin bending more deeply into his arthritic squat, and slowly squeezing off four shots, taking his time between them, each resounding in the still morning with a compact, understated crack.
If the skunk is indeed there, Orrin will clearly miss it. The first two shots will raise brief puffs of dry July earth. There will be a long pause as Orrin re-sights, waving the pistol unsteadily in the direction of his backyard, before firing again. The third of his shots will hit a large rock half buried in the shrubs, and ricochet through the air like a stone skipping on water. It will pass through the wire mesh in the Bennetts’ back screen door and enter their kitchen. The Bennetts, Harvey and Doris, a retired couple nearly as old as Orrin, live directly behind him. Their house is situated on their lot so that the back door is only fifty or sixty feet from where the .22 caliber bullet could glance off the rock at a precipitous angle.
Orrin and the Bennetts are not friendly. They have hardly spoken in years, the result of some bristly dispute about clearing a tree felled by a summer storm. The Bennetts are too old to care about Orrin’s opinion, and too exacting to tolerate any of his eccentric habits. I’m absolutely sure Doris would be livid if she knew Orrin was pointing a pistol anywhere in the direction of her house.
* * *
We talked about our jitters and fears with Dr. White, the therapist we were seeing. She was our second therapist, because we couldn’t get along with the first, who started to scold us for not coming out of our funk faster.
Dr. White said, “Those feelings are natural. But remember, accidents happen more or less at random. They can happen to anyone. Yes, in theory, some accidents might be preceded by something that increases the odds—like negligence—but still, accidents are, by their nature, unplanned and unexpected.”
She read the skepticism in our eyes, the discomfort in our bodies.
“However,” she said. “Even if there is no actual evidence of something like negligence, an accident might create, in those close to the victim, feelings of guilt or insecurity, questions starting with, ‘What if…?’ ”
She was certainly more patient than our first therapist, but she still cautioned us. “Constructing scenarios in your mind, and concocting the worst possible outcomes, can prolong those feelings of guilt.”
* * *
My wife Eva and I are civil to the Bennetts, but we find them fussy and self-conscious. They seem perpetually surprised by other people’s behavior, and generally disappointed by most of it. Their children reside in other states and visit infrequently, occasions for brief, awkward backyard picnics when the grandchildren are dressed too formally and act too restrained. The Bennetts break out an old grill, and, non-drinkers themselves, buy a couple of bottles of white wine that one of the spouses usually consumes single-handedly. When we first moved in, and I introduced myself to Doris, she gave me an owlish look, shook my hand across their fence, and made an elaborate ceremony of pronouncing our Polish surname, repeating it with care, as if she had never before encountered such an arrangement of consonants and vowels.
“Are you Jewish?” she asked.
Startled, I raised my eyebrows at her question. “No. Why? We’re Catholic.”
“Oh,” she said, arching her own eyebrows. “You know, Harvey and I were among the first to build here. Orrin and his wife. Then Harvey and me. The Hogans across the street. The Griffiths and their in-laws. We all belonged to the Lutheran church. There were more trees then, and fewer neighbors.”
From the beginning, Doris was perplexed by our ten-year-old twins’ activity, the way they climbed the old maples in the backyard, wrestled loudly in the grass, and rode skateboards on the street.
She would beckon Eva over to the fence, thinly masking her disapproval with a feigned concern about the kids’ safety, which she expressed with hand-wringing urgency whenever she could. Eva would stride into the kitchen after a backyard encounter, and stand with her hands on the edge of the sink, as if to balance herself, shaking her head and cursing in a quiet mutter.
“She was telling me about the boys again.”
“Our ‘Danger Twins’?”
“Yes. Either she’s lying, or her kids had the most sheltered childhood ever. Wearing bicycle helmets before bicycle helmets were invented.”
“It’s like she knows.”
Eva and I have never told any of the neighbors about Ethan, about the accident. We have instructed the twins not to mention it.
“It’s like she knows, and she says these things to upset me, to make me feel bad.”
“She doesn’t know, and she would talk like that regardless. Dr. White and everyone else says we should be careful not to be over-protective with the boys.” I hesitated. “Do you think it would help if we told her?”
“Her? Oh my God, no. Not her.”
Of course, none of that is to say I would want Orrin to shoot Doris Bennett.
* * *
Orrin is robust, for someone at least eighty. Some of the neighbors call him feisty, but that may just be code for he’s an old codger, or he’s a real pain in the ass ass. He dodges efforts to pinpoint his exact age, and hell, he’s probably more than eighty.
He walks with a stoop, but still at a surprisingly efficient clip. He is tall and he’s stayed skinny, so he looks wiry. And he’s bald as an egg. Not default baldness, but the kind you invite, the look affected by professional athletes and musicians and tough guys. He probably had a regulation crew cut before, but I’m guessing he’s been bald for years, and was shaving his head long before it was cool. He’s got a thin, hooked nose, and a big smile full of his own teeth, a half dozen shades of off-white, leaning unsteadily against one another for support, but his own nonetheless. He likes to wear gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses with eerie yellow lenses.
When we moved in, he would corner me whenever he could, and insist I join him for a beer on his shaded patio. Orrin is part salesman, part cranky eccentric. “Come on,” he’d say, steering me by the elbow, making it impossible to pull away without a rude and awkward tug. “You have a few minutes for a beer. It’s hot enough for that.”
While my lawn waited, half-mowed, or my dog sat panting, un-walked, and one beer turned into three or four, he would ramble on, a muddle of anecdotes and coy sidebars about old neighbors, or local politics, or his time in the military, embellishing the vague arc of his tales with luminous detail: a niece who was a waitress in town until she suddenly quit and fled to Sedona, with some surprise lottery winnings and a generous-tipping customer fifteen years her senior, planning to sell turquoise jewelry in the lurid Southwest sun; the army buddies he would meet every summer to water ski on a nearby lake, as stupidly drunk as fraternity boys, until they all got too old to risk strangling themselves on the tow ropes; his friends on the small borough police force, who would share a peek at old Polaroids discovered in confiscated stolen property, middle-aged women caught in randy, languorous sexual poses, the photos snapped by their grinning, eager husbands, or maybe someone else.
One day he showed me his custom-designed walk-in gun closet, built into the corner of a guest room, with an interior of gleaming white walls, specially made wooden cabinets for his pistols, and wall racks for his rifles, all protected by a door that looked like the entrance to a safe, complete with a combination lock.
Orrin’s wife is dead. That is, his second wife is dead. He stresses the second part, and offers no detail about a first wife, although a few neighbors enjoy arching an eyebrow and hinting that a woman who visits every now and then may, in fact, be his first wife. But that just sounds gossipy to me. He never mentions children.
* * *
I can imagine Orrin’s third shot entering the Bennetts’ kitchen just seconds after Doris has turned from stacking the breakfast dishes in the sink. It will miss the back of her head by eighteen inches. Teasing the laws of probability, the bullet will angle through a scalloped wooden valance over the kitchen window, and into the wall behind it, the trajectory taking it through a knot in the dark pine, effectively disguising it to even careful examination. Startled by the abrupt noise, which registers as a quick swoosh and a distinct snap, as if someone had suddenly cracked a thin strip of wood behind her, Doris will stare at the small clock radio propped on the window sill above the sink, trying to reconcile the new and unexpected sound with the familiar jingle playing on the radio. Seconds later, the last of Orrin’s shots will hit the same rock, at a spot a few inches above the previous bullet, veering off at an angle and imbedding itself in a nearby tree. Doris will continue to stare at the radio, unaware that she is saved from another projectile by a favorite birch.
Perplexed, she will go to the screen door to stare out at the otherwise unremarkable summer morning. It’s quiet and noisy at the same time. There will be birds whistling and chirping to each other, the dull angular buzz of a chain saw starting up in the distance, the distinct diction of television voices on one of the morning news programs, coming from a small set on a neighbor’s screened-in back porch. But nothing to explain the sound she heard. She will see Orrin in what appears to be a bathrobe, bent over the low bushes at the edge of his backyard. She will purse her lips and shake her head. What’s he doing in the yard in a robe anyway? She will not notice the holster.
Doris’s husband Harvey won’t detect the hole in the screen until a day or two later, when he’ll notice a wasp trying to squeeze through the opening. Puzzled, he will examine the hole, ask Doris if she has any idea what happened, and curse softly about having to replace the screen. No one will discover the hole behind the valance for years, and will never make a connection to anything. The workers hired by the new owners to remodel the kitchen will simple patch the hole when they tear away the valance. Today, however, Doris will be confused about the incident, and, like a befuddled witness giving the police a nervous and self-contradicting account, will be unable to tell for sure what she actually heard.
* * *
Dr. White wanted us to tell her when we dreamed about Ethan.
“Dreams. A shrink’s tool box,” we joked, to make us feel less self-conscious.
But we dutifully described the dreams: Ethan falling from incredible heights; searching for Ethan in giant abandoned buildings; a dozen versions of a car crash—Eva driving, me driving, Ethan driving, his car seat wedged behind the wheel, his tiny hands on the leather; fevered dreams, sluggish dreams; but all of them ending with Ethan just beyond our reach. No matter how surreal the dream scenario, we could never reach him.
“How did that dream make you feel?” Dr. White would ask.
“Like shit,” Eva would sometimes answer, when she was feeling impatient with talk about symbols and about conflicts over misguided feelings of responsibility.
Dr. White wasn’t offended, wouldn’t push back. She’d nod, which meant, “And?”
“It made me feel like shit,” Eva would say again. “Because I still want him back.”
* * *
Most of the neighbors overlook or excuse Orrin’s unconventional behavior, even if he’s prowling around his backyard in his bathrobe, waving a loaded pistol. Orrin has lived here longer than all of us, his house a complex design with different levels and unexpected entryways, a house that doesn’t exactly fit. But the neighbors like him being here. Maybe it’s the mystery of his profession, or the military background he likes to remind us about. Maybe it’s the big gun closet. Maybe it’s part of the ironic nature of our slice of suburbia. People champion hard work, vote conservative, and cultivate practical ambitions for their kids. But secretly they like the idea of something enigmatic, the intricate twist of fortune, the spice that might get spun into the vanilla formula of their own lives. They feel a sense of security in his quirkiness, and Orrin sweetens the deal: he’s a pain in the ass, but a reassuring pain in the ass.
Near as I can tell, Orrin made a living as a self-employed businessman who never formally stopped working, and may, to this day, still be conducting a measure of his business—linked, some say, to the defense industry, which still has a big footprint in our region, although I have no idea how in hell whatever it is he did, does, or is alleged to do, connects to military contractors. He comes and goes often enough. He gets a lot of deliveries. Nearly every day a FedEx van or UPS truck shows up in front of his house, the uniformed drivers hopping out with their assorted loot, sometimes a stack of packages balanced on a dolly. He could be replenishing the tools of his mystery trade. Or, the deliveries could just be car parts or fishing equipment or kitchen gadgets he buys late at night, half-sloshed on gin and tonic, phoning up the home shopping channels to chat with the vacuous, good-natured hosts, looking to order some of those great deals, one in each of the three colors, if you please.
The defense industry stuff rumored about Orrin may simply stem from the fact that he was in the military, and he likes to talk about it. Based on the battle details he peppers his stories with, he must have seen some combat in Korea, although I wonder if he spent as much time in the service as he lets on, and I suspect his officer’s grade was more junior than he’d like you to believe. But even now, he loves to bring a certain ceremony to the idea, showing up in dress khakis at high school ceremonies to award VFW scholarships, wearing his old envelope cap to weekly meetings of something or other, going to veterans’ conventions where he and his buddies use giant military-style binoculars to spy on women changing their clothes in hotel rooms across the street.
And, although he’s bald and bent over, he probably looked good in a uniform in his day. He’s still inclined to anything that hints at a uniform. Early in the morning, he’ll collect the newspaper from the driveway wearing a crisp white shirt and creased chinos. After lunch he might don overalls, a military ball cap and safety goggles for a circuit of the yard on his riding mower. Later in the afternoon it’s a royal blue jumpsuit to fawn over his BMW sedan, washing and polishing and lubricating with gusto. In the early evening it’s back to khakis, a fresh starched shirt and a bolo tie, to sit on the patio with magazines and beer.
I can imagine that today, after examining the shrubs and walking around the perimeter of the yard, holding the pistol in his outstretched arm, Orrin will grudgingly retreat into his house to dress in a camouflage shirt and calf-high boots, intent on taking his weed trimmer to the edges of everything in his yard.
* * *
Sometimes, in the beginning, we would bring articles we found on the Internet to Dr. White, as if we were witnesses for our own prosecution.
“Reliable studies show that eighty percent of accidents are the fault of the person involved in the accident.”
“But you are on the other side of that percentage.”
“The twenty percent.”
“No. The other side of the fault. You were the victims.”
“Ethan was the victim.”
“And obviously so were you.”
“Just survivor’s remorse, then?”
“You have to consider,” Dr. White said patiently, “that you may want to feel guilty, even though you’re not guilty, because it seems to overlay some logic onto an illogical phenomenon. It’s understandable, but it’s false logic nonetheless.”
We stared at her. There were times when she let the silences run on for minutes.
“False logic,” she eventually said again.
* * *
When I arrive home in the evening, Orrin is watering his front lawn, a thick green hose coiled in the grass. Keeping the spray going, he raises one hand to wave me over, animated, anxious. I leave my briefcase in the car, and walk slowly toward him, keeping an eye on the garden hose. I’m wearing a new blue blazer and some favorite gabardines; I don’t trust his aim with that nozzle.
He flicks the index finger of his free hand in a dismissive gesture, and makes some type of exaggerated squint or wink behind the yellow lenses of his glasses.
“I’m sorry, Orrin. Skunks?” I feign misunderstanding.
He stops spraying, and I take particular notice of the section of lawn he’s been saturating, the cinematic glistening of the beads of water on the grass in the angled summer light before sunset.
“Yeah. You know—the goddamned skunks that have been parading all over the neighborhood. I had one in my sights this morning.”
“I saw you in the yard when I left. Was it rabid? Was it the rabid one they were talking about last night?” I do not have to feign my actual concern over this possibility.
“Damn it. I don’t know. I got off a few shots.” He makes a clicking sound with his tongue and teeth, a kind of multi-purpose oral signal he uses when he wants to signify something that is important or funny or sarcastic, but doesn’t want to use words to dilute its significance.
“Did you hit it?”
“I don’t know. Couldn’t find it. Old lady Bennett”—Doris is younger than Orrin—“came to her door and stared for a while, but I don’t think she saw anything either.”
Orrin pauses to contemplate the grass, and I begin to negotiate a departure that will avoid a spray of water across my gabardines. I’d like to get back to my own home.
“You know, we had a rabid skunk around here once before.”
That is enough to make me hesitate, and I look to the eyes I can just make out through his sunglasses.
“Bit a little kid, I think maybe three or four years old. Kid almost died. Very serious. Really. They had to fly him by helicopter to one of the big medical centers, and he was sick for a couple months. Same situation. I wanted to dispatch that skunk to hell. Carried my sidearm around for days trying to get a shot. Family moved away a few months later.”
Orrin fiddles with the trigger of the nozzle, and I stare again at the pristine shimmer of the wet grass, and the droplets clustered on the big round nozzle of his hose. He screws up his face, flaring his nostrils as if he smells something he can’t identify but doesn’t like, his upper lip raising to show his dull, yellowed upper teeth. “Afraid I did get one of the Bennetts’ black and white kittens, though. It looked a lot like a skunk from where I was. Never bothered to tell her. Didn’t make much sense. Back then she had a mess of kittens running around anyway. Not sure she even missed that one.” He wiggles the hose, getting ready to spray another section of grass.
Reflexively, I look at my own house, look to the backyard, feeling a sudden, vague uneasiness.
“I’ll get the little son of a bitch next time. In a military manner.”
For a moment, I fear that I will blurt out to Orrin that we once had another son, a lovely boy named Ethan, but there was an accident, and it wasn’t Eva’s fault, and we feel his loss like an invisible scar that will never go away, but I know that not even Orrin, with his pistol hijinks and quirky resolve, could have saved him.
But I just say, “I’m sure you will, Orrin.”
Later in the day, Orrin will corral another neighbor to sit with him on his patio, drinking beer and cursing about what he assumes are his earlier misses, the damn skunk still loose and menacing. There will be citronella candles in the darkness, and the electric sparking sounds of the bug zapper. As it turns out, Orrin will never actually come close to getting the skunk. The next afternoon, a borough policeman and a county agent, called in by prudent residents, will shoot the rodent in an empty field two blocks away.
I did not actually hear the shots, of course, or see the ricochets, or any of it for that matter, having seen only a glimpse of Orrin with his pistol as I was backing out of my driveway. I was already down the street, tuning the car radio to a classic rock station when Orrin fired his first shot.
But I know this is what happened. Or could happen. I know that something like this will happen.
The evening is holding its breath. There is a tension that resonates between the houses, an almost audible strum of disquiet that hums along beneath the sound of the spray coming from Orrin’s hose. Getting my briefcase out of the car after leaving Orrin to his lawn, I sniff the air, a clammy, distinct, but not quite traceable threat in the suburban dusk, and I take notice of what appears to be a scrawny black and white rodent, or maybe just a skinny cat, wobbling along in the distance at the far end of the street.