Skip to main content

Radon


[clock] 33-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1992

In the summer of ‘88, when my older sister turned 16 and started dating a 34-year-old Amway salesman, my father discovered we had unacceptable levels of radon trapped in our house. That was ten years ago, though it doesn’t feel like it. It was a presidential election summer, and in addition to Howard, Julie’s new boyfriend, my mother was upset about George Bush’s campaign tactics, which she called Nazi-like and un-American. My father was worried that Michael Dukakis might win the election and ruin the economy, and he was also upset because his favorite TV preachers were all in trouble—Oral Roberts said God was going to kill him unless he raised four million dollars soon, Jim Bakker was being revealed as a bisexual, and Jimmy Swaggart had been caught with a prostitute—but most of all my father was going crazy about radon, which he was convinced would give us all cancer, soon. And everyone was worried about AIDS, which I heard one newscaster describe as a plague that could eventually wipe out half the world’s population.

Luckily, no one was worried much about me. I was 15, on the baseball, football, and basketball teams, an average student, and my two best friends, whom I hung out with constantly, were Mary Dao and Allan Freizman. Mary—a year younger than us and a grade ahead of us—was the smartest girl in the district, and Allan was another all-around athlete, like me. One night that summer my parents were in the living room arguing. They had started out discussing politics and eventually got around, as usual, to radon and Julie’s boyfriend. My father wanted to spend four thousand dollars to seal up and ventilate the basement, and my mother wanted him to do something about Howard. “Honey,” my father said. “Breathing the radon trapped in this house is the equivalent of smoking sixteen packs of cigarettes a day.” “Honey,” my mother answered. “Your 16-year-old daughter is sleeping with an Amway salesman.” Upstairs, in my room, I was searching my closet for a dark jacket. Mary, Allan, and I were meeting at McDonald’s. We were casing a house we planned on robbing.

I don’t really know which one of us started the whole robbing thing, but that summer was the beginning and end of it. No one in the world would have ever suspected us. No one did. We must have robbed a dozen houses, all told. In the beginning it was a game. There’s not a lot to do on Long Island, so we’d walk around, through the developments. Pretty much, we’d wind up in people’s yards, where we’d sit and talk and drink beer and smoke grass when we could get it, and we’d keep an eye on the people through their windows. One night Allan brought binoculars, hoping to catch a peek of someone getting undressed. We didn’t. It turned out to be an old lady’s house where we wound up. We had a couple of joints with us and Allan wanted to go hunting for a better yard, but Mary just wanted to get stoned. So we compromised. We’d get stoned where we were and then go looking for a better yard.

Mary’s skin looked like it was always deeply tanned, and she had big eyes and black hair slicked straight back (she claimed she’d rather die than wear bangs) and pulled into two little pony tails that made her look pixieish, along with being so frail. But God, was she smart. She spoke Vietnamese, French, and English, all fluently; and she always had a book in her pocket. Half the time, Allan and I didn’t know what she was talking about, and she knew we didn’t know and went on anyway. It impressed us, and I think she liked impressing us. Allan and I admired the hell out of Mary, and we were both trying to get her to take off her clothes.

That night in the old lady’s yard, Mary was explaining our philosophies to us. “Rick,” she said, sitting cross-legged under a tree, slightly above me. She toked on a joint, held the grass in, and then spoke as she exhaled, her voice high and thin. “You’re a materialist,” she said, pointing at me, the joint between her fingers. “You don’t care about what you can’t see or feel—and maybe use. But if you can’t see it or feel it, man—you don’t give a shit about it.”

“You mean,” I said, “that’s like because I’m always saying how I want a hot red Ferrari Testarossa and a big house on the ocean.”

Allan took the joint from Mary. He said, “You been watching too much Miami Vice, man.”

I must have been stoned, because I remember rolling on the ground laughing at that.

“What about me,” he asked Mary. “What am I?”

“You, man—you’re a grade A, number one, no-holds-barred nihilist.”

“A what-ist?”

“A nihilist. That means you don’t believe in shit. Nothing. Nada.” Mary picked up the binoculars and looked at the moon.

Allan thought for a moment, then said: “How do you say that again, what I am?”

“A nihilist.”

“And what about you,” I asked her. “What are you?”

“Me?” She handed Allan the binoculars and took back the joint. “I’m an existentialist.”

We both stared at her.

“That’s like a nihilist who’s into self-delusion. Sort of.”

Allan checked out the house with the binoculars. “Hey,” he said. “Look at this.”

And that’s when it started. Allan had seen the old woman take some money out of a bowl and put it in her handbag. A few minutes later, a car pulled up the driveway and a man took her away. I don’t remember who said what first, or if anybody even said anything—but we must have all been thinking the same thing, because a few minutes later we kicked in a basement window, climbed up a flight of stairs, and ran out the back door with the money. Later, Mary said it was the most exciting thing she had ever done. The money came to a little over 80 dollars, which we split evenly. That was a couple of months earlier.

The place we were casing—-Allan spotted it driving home with his dad. Allan’s father’s an ex-cop who owns a topless bar on Jericho Turnpike. Or he did then anyway. Now I hear he’s retired in Florida. Allan always said he didn’t hate his old man because it would take too much energy. He said his father was a stupid drunk who didn’t care about anything but screwing the dancers who worked for him. His mother he didn’t know. She had left when he was a child. Allan told us that she had moved to Alaska and married a Husky. He said he couldn’t blame her for wanting to move up in life.

The house he spotted was only a few blocks from his own. An ambulance had just driven away and a police car was parked at the curb. Allan’s dad stopped to talk to the cop, the way he always did, and Allan overheard that the man who lived there was old and three-quarters dead, and kept a loaded gun in every room. At the mention of the guns, Allan said he slunk down in his seat and acted bored while trying to hear every word. The old man used to be important— something about something in World War Two, but Allan didn’t get the details. Now he refused to live in a home or with his children. The whole thing was too good to pass up. Guns were easy money in the city: we knew a pawn shop that bought them no questions asked. All we had to do was sit in the old guy’s yard and wait for him to leave the house.

I couldn’t find the dark jacket I was looking for, so I settled for denim. In the living room, Julie had joined the argument. From the top of the stairs, I could see my father sitting back in his Lazy Boy like a reluctant judge, while my mother stood on one side of the chair and my sister on the other.

“I won’t have this!” my mother said, slapping the arm of the chair. “I want you,” she said to Julie, “to bring him here tonight. And I want you,” she said to my father, “to tell him we’ll have him put in jail if this doesn’t stop right now.” She looked at Julie. “I won’t have this,” she repeated.

Julie talked to Dad as if they were the only two people in the room. “This is nobody’s business but mine,” she said calmly. “I’m grown up now. I’ll make my own decisions and I don’t need any help from anyone.”

My father had lain back and crossed his arms over his eyes, as if bracing himself for a crash.

“Dad,” Julie said. “Look at me.”

He lowered his arms. Julie’s hair was bright red and shaved at the temples, short over the top, and long in the back, where it was dyed blond. She wore a gigantic crucifix dangling from her right ear, and a “Jesus is My Friend” T-shirt that was too small on her: it left a few inches of her stomach bare and her breasts struggling for freedom. Her pants, she had slashed with a razor from top to bottom, so from where I stood I could see she was wearing red panties.

My father said, “I realize you’re grown up now, Julie—”

My mother sighed.

“But,” he continued, “Your mother has a point—”

Julie groaned.

“Why don’t we compromise,” he said. “Bring him over, just so that we can meet him.”

“I don’t want to meet him!” my mother screamed. “I want you to shoot the son-of-a-bitch!”

“See!” Julie yelled.

My father jumped up, excited. “You know!” he shouted, quieting them both. “We didn’t always used to argue like this, did we?”

I thought to myself: this was extreme, granted, but, actually, yeah—they always argue like that.

“Did we?” my father insisted.

“What?” Julie said.

“What? Radon—that’s what!”

My mother covered her face, and Julie turned her back to him. They both sighed.

“Go ahead!” he screamed. “Treat me like I’m mad! I’m telling you, this poison we’re breathing is half our problem.”

For a moment, everyone was frozen: my mother with her face covered; my sister looking at the wall; my father glaring at both of them. Then his shoulders drooped forward, and he left the room with tears brimming in his eyes. He went out into the yard.

My sister went to her room. As she passed me, she said: “What are you staring at, jerk-off?”

My mother looked up. When she saw me, her face brightened. I’ve always had that effect on her, even now. She says I’m the best thing in her life. “Rick, honey,” she said. “Come here.”

“I’m meeting Mary,” I said, on my way down the stairs. My mother loved Mary. When she came to visit, they’d often sit and talk for hours while I wandered in and out, pretending to be interested. My mother never questioned what I was doing, as long as I was doing it with Mary.

By the front door, she put her arm around my shoulder. “Five minutes for your Mom,” she said. “I need to talk to somebody sane around here.”

We sat down on the front steps, under the dim yellow light. Behind us, the bug-zapper was working overtime: I can still hear the pop and sizzle of bugs getting fried. “Really, Mom,” I said. “I’ve got to go in a minute.”

“Did you witness all that?” she asked. “The whole pathetic scene?”

With me, my mother was always dramatic like that—like I’m this pure thing besmirched by a dirty world. “Maybe Dad’s got a point about the radon,” I said. “Do you know what it is—radon?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s wishful thinking.”

I looked down at the steps. I always hated it when she said things that I guessed made some kind of sense if you were smart enough to figure them out—which I never was. I blamed it on the teacher in her. She was a high school teacher.

“Your father,” she said. “Your father’s a fool. You know I don’t love him anymore.”

“I know,” I said. “You’ve told me.”

She looked at me. I guess she heard something in my voice. “I shouldn’t do that,” she said. “I know. Talk to you about your father like that—about me and your father.” She was about to cry. Tears were building in her eyes. “It’s just that . . . . I need to. . . .”

“It’s okay, Mom.” I put my hand on her arm.

“Poor Rick,” she said. “You have so much to deal with. It must be hard, growing up now: the whole world literally falling apart, society degenerating the way it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s tough.”

“This Willie Horton commercial,” she said, perking up. “Here’s a man climbing into the White House on the shoulders of a rapist. Could anything be more cynical, more devoid of morality? What’s happened to ethics in this country?”

I said, “Yeah.” Which is what I always say when I don’t know what the hell my mother’s talking about.

“Reagan,” she said, “coming on the television and lying to the American public like that, lying through his teeth—with such sincerity. Liar. Liar. Liar.”

I was tempted for a moment to ask her what Reagan lied about. I liked him. I thought he was a good guy. But the temptation only lasted for a second. “Mom,” I said. “I have—”

“Go ahead!” She gestured as if she were talking to someone standing in front of us. “Pollute the water, foul the air, destroy the planet! Who cares, as long as you make a buck? God Bless the almighty dollar in whom we trust!”

I tried again. “Mom,” I said. “Mary’s waiting. Okay?”

“Sure,” she said. “You go have fun. Between this greenhouse thing, ozone holes, nuclear weapons everywhere, and, God help us, this new plague, this AIDS. . . .” She stopped suddenly and took hold of my wrist. “Rick,” she said. “You’re not. . . . You haven’t started. . . .”

“No,” I said. “I haven’t.”

“Well, you know about condoms, though? Right?”

I stood up. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll see you later.”

She hugged me. “I didn’t embarrass you, did I?”

I shook my head.

As I was walking down the steps, she asked: “Have you read about the hospital waste washing up all over the East Coast? It’s unbelievable what they’ve found: AIDS-contaminated hypodermic needles, vials full of AIDS-contaminated blood, a stomach lining, chopped off body parts, eye—”

“No. I missed that,” I said, walking into the shadows. I called back: “See you later, Mom.” Behind me, she stood there by the front door, under the yellow light, and looked out at our quiet suburban street, her face a mixture of disgust and fear, as if in the line of dark houses and neatly mown lawns she saw something repulsive.

I always liked walking on Long Island. There you are, surrounded by millions of people—but they’re all locked up tight in their houses, and you could just as well be on the moon as you pass by the blue television light coming from their living rooms 15 feet away. It’s nice: private. I always liked it. A few weeks earlier, I had sneaked out of my house at three in the morning to go over to Mary’s. It was dumb, really. We hadn’t done anything: touched each other, seen each other, nothing. Then we just decided one night—I’m 15, she’s 14—that we’d do it: have sex, sleep together. So I climbed out my window at three in the morning, and Long Island’s something different at that hour. It’s changed. The streets are dark and quiet, hardly any cars on the roads. You can hear natural things: the wind shuffling leaves and branches, a bird chirping, that kind of stuff. When I got to Mary’s, she had left a ladder leaning against the house, and I climbed up to her bedroom where she was waiting, kneeling by the window in a white cotton gown that pictured Sylvester the Cat looking over a picket fence at Tweety Bird. I should have known she wasn’t serious.

Even if she were, I don’t know that I could have done anything: I was so nervous about being in her house, her parents asleep a few doors over. Mary’s parents were tough. I’m sure her old man would have killed me had he found me there. He used to be a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. Mary obeyed her parents, but she said she didn’t respect them. Her brother Robert was gay. According to Mary, he had been all his life. She loved him, and she used to love having him around the house when he was a teenager, in high school, and his friends were over all the time. They practically lived there, especially between three and seven—after school and before their parents got home. Then, when Robert was 16 and a junior, his parents found out and everything changed. They sent him away to school and forbade Mary to even mention his name. The parents paid his bills and pretended he was dead. And lost Mary’s respect. She said her life had never been the same after Robert went away. She was never as happy as she used to be when Robert and his friends were always around the house. They paid attention to her, she said. They treated her like a princess.

In her room, Mary took me by the hand and led me to her bed, where we crawled under the sheets together. She had a flashlight there, and I had this feeling like I was seven years old again and playing Tent on a sleep-over. Mary was happy. I could see it. She smiled and held my hand and her eyes were mischievous and bright. I didn’t know a lot about sex then, though I had seen enough of it on television to know I was going to have to get past Sylvester and Tweety before anything happened. Mary had started talking about the heat, which was unbearable that summer, in the 90’s and 100’s day after day; and everybody was talking about the greenhouse effect. Mary was getting into what was going to happen when the polar ice caps melted, flooding the poor, underdeveloped countries where the people were already suffering terribly. She said, “Thirty-five thousand children die every day from hunger. Right now. Imagine what will happen when their whole country turns into a giant lake.”

I put my hand on her breast.

She smiled. “The industrialized nations,” she said. “They’ll have the technology to just pump—”

I tried to pull up her gown.

She pushed my hand away.

“Mary. I thought we said. . . .”

“We did. But I’m worried about AIDS.”

“Jesus,” I said. “You sound like my mother.”

“I like your mother.”

“I know you do.” She had been to the house a few days earlier and spent most of the evening talking to her. “Mary,” I said. “We’re both virgins.”

Mary lay back on her pillow and let the sheet settle over her like a shroud.

“How can you be worried about AIDS if we’re both virgins?”

She said, “You could have gone walking on the beach and stepped on a needle. It’s possible.”

I said, “I’m going to kill my mother.”

Mary grinned. “Mother-killing. I read about a primitive culture once. . . .”

Mary went on, but I stopped listening. Every once in a while I’d reach over and touch her breasts and she’d let me, but if I tried anything more, she’d just say “AIDS, you know,” with this look like there was some kind of joke going on that I didn’t get. I stuck around till daybreak anyway, and from then on after that I was always grabbing feels off Mary whenever I could get her alone, which I was constantly trying to do. Years later I found out from Allan that he had had about identical experiences with Mary, only she had never let him into her bedroom in the middle of the night—which I was unreasonably pleased about.

When I reached McDonald’s, Mary and Allan were waiting in the fenced-in playground area, sitting under a ten-foot plastic statue of the hamburglar.

Allan said, “How come you’re always late, man? You’d be late to your own funeral.”

Mary said, “So what’s up with Julie and her new dad?”

Mary had this thing that Julie was seeing Howard because dad was a nonentity and she needed a father she could love. “Same stuff,” I said. We left McDonald’s and started for the old man’s house. “My father’s still got radon on the brain.”

“Didn’t you tell him,” Mary said, sounding exasperated, “that radon’s not a problem in this part of the country?”

“He says the tests show radon.”

Mary put her hand over her eyes. “I told you,” she said. “You can’t trust those tests. They’re rip-offs.”

“But he had some professional radon guys check it out.”

“Oh, great.” Mary laughed out loud. “What are they charging him to get rid of it?”

“Four or five thou.”

Allan joined in. “What are you saying, Mary? They’re ripping him off?”

“It’s a possibility.” Mary rolled her eyes.

Allan thought for a moment. “You think we could pull off something like that?” He jumped in front of us. “Radon Busters! We be fast, radon be slow!”

“We’re too young,” Mary said. “You have to be an adult male to work that kind of rip-off.”

“Oh,” Allan said. “Too bad.”

When we got to the old man’s house, we found all the lights off. In the backyard, we sat by a Mimosa tree. Thick clouds had sailed in, and we couldn’t see much at all in the darkness.

“What do you think,” Allan said. “You think he’s out?”

“I don’t know.” We had been there once before when all the lights were out, and then just as we were about to break a basement window, the television went on. Loud. Very loud. We could hear it clear all the way out in the yard. “Don’t forget last time,” I said. “This guy never keeps the lights on. He’s weird.”

“I wish he had a car,” Allan said. “Then we could just look in the driveway.”

Mary said, “That’s very helpful, Allan.”

“I was just saying.”

Mary touched my arm. “Go kick in the window. If he’s home, we’ll just take off. The hell with it.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “And I get shot in the back.”

“That’s not Wyatt Earp in there. The guy’s a hundred and fifty years old.”

“Shit.” Allan walked casually to the house and kicked in the basement window. He just stood there.

I looked at Mary.

“He’s showing us what balls he has.”

After a minute or two when nothing happened, he slid through the narrow window and disappeared.

Mary ran to join him. I checked all the windows one last time, watching for any movement, and then joined them.

The basement smelled like no one had been in it for years, musty and damp. Allan was searching the place with his penlight, looking through cardboard boxes and inside closets. Mary and I took out our penlights and looked around. When Allan started up the stairs, we followed. At the top of the steps, a door opened on a dark corridor.

“Let’s search the rooms together,” Mary whispered.

“Over there.” Allan pointed his light at an open doorway.

“This is the part I love,” Mary said, almost to herself. “It’s so exciting. You never know what you’ll find.”

Inside the room, I said, in a normal voice: “How come you’re whispering when we’re the only ones here?”

Mary shushed me. We were in a den, and Allan was searching through the drawers of a roll-top desk. “Bingo,” he said, and dropped a Colt 45 on the desk top. “This guy’s a regular cowboy.” He spun the barrel. “Loaded.”

“From the other side of the room, I heard a loud click and then Mary: “Holy goddamn shit,” she said. “It’s open.” I turned to see her kneeling in front of a safe. The thing was three feet high and must have weighed five hundred pounds.”

Allan said, “Won’t be anything in it,” and went back to searching the desk.

Mary grabbed the handle and pulled the door open.

I knelt behind her. Inside the safe was a small open area full of papers, and then a bunch of compartments with little round keyholes. Mary tried one and found it locked. “Shit,” she said. They didn’t look like the kind of compartments you could break into without plastic explosives. I reached around her and pulled the papers out. They were mostly insurance policies and legal documents. One was an 8×10 picture of an old guy who I guessed was the guy that lived there. He was dressed in all that long black Jewish gear. “Shit,” I said, and turned back to Allan. “I think this guy’s a rabbi or something.”

“So, man?” Allan sounded pissed. “I’m supposed to give a shit?”

Mary said, “He didn’t mean anything.”

“Hey!” Allan hurried around the desk. For a second I thought I had gotten him mad enough to fight me, but it turned out he had found a key inside an envelope. He crouched beside Mary and tried one of the compartments. The key turned and he pulled out the drawer. It was full of hundred dollar bills. Mary whipped the drawer out and started counting, and Allan unlocked the other compartments. They were all stuffed with money—mostly hundreds, some fifties and twenties. “Oh my God,” I kept saying. Mary said, “Jesus” every time Allan opened another drawer. By the time he pulled out the last compartment, Allan was laughing out loud, Mary was repeating “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and I was slapping them both on the back and whooping.

“Fifteen, twenty thousand,” Mary whispered.

“Vacation in ‘Vegas,” Allan said. “Shit, we’ll go to Monaco!”

“I’m putting mine in CDs,” I said. “I’ll be rich by the time I’m twenty.”

Mary said, “You’re such a—”

Behind us, there was a fourth voice. It was small and thin. “Bobby?” it said. “Roseanne? Is that you?”

We all three turned around slowly, and all three of us looked at the gun on the desk top. It was strange. We didn’t yell, or make a sound out of fright, or jump for the gun—we just turned around slowly and looked. Perhaps it was because the voice was so small none of us were sure at all that it was really there.

In the doorway, an old man was bent over behind a walker. “Is that you?” he repeated, sounding a little frightened this time, and then he reached up and switched on a light.

Allan and I leapt across the room simultaneously and hit him so hard we knocked him the length of the hallway. He slid back and banged into a closed door. I shut off the light and in another couple of seconds Allan had pulled two trash bags out of his jacket, thrown all the money into them, and handed one to Mary. We went out the back door and tore through a trail of back yards until we neared Allan’s house.

“Damn,” Allan said when he caught his breath. He was smiling. “That guy flew like he had wings, man! He must have thought a truck hit him!” He laughed.

“Shit,” I said. “I was scared to death. I thought sure the old son-of-a-bitch would be carrying an assault rifle or something! I thought we were dead, man!”

“He couldn’t have hit you with a bazooka,” Mary said. “Here. How come I’m carrying this?” She swung the bag of money over to me.

Allan said, “How much you think we got?”

Mary didn’t answer. Allan and I got quiet, because when Mary didn’t answer, it meant she was mad.

By the time we reached Allan’s house, it was drizzling. The light was on in his father’s bedroom, so we crossed around to the side of the house, toward the entrance to his basement, which was finished like an apartment. When we passed the kitchen window, we saw a naked girl by the kitchen table, and we froze because she was only a few feet away from us. She was standing there taking the last bites of a sandwich as calmly as if she were fully dressed in the privacy of a locked-up room, and not stark naked directly in front of an uncurtained bay window. She had long, blond hair and a body that made me stare, even though Mary was right there. The girl didn’t look a hell of a lot older than us, and the letters LDB were tattooed once in a diagonal line across her right breast, and once again where her pubic hair should have been but wasn’t. The letters were tattooed so low there that if she ever let her hair grow back they’d be covered entirely. She finished the sandwich, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and left the kitchen.

“Ouch!” I looked at Mary. I was trying to make a joke, because I was a little embarrassed about the way I had stopped and looked. “You think that tattoo hurt?”

Mary was standing with her hands on her hips. “I don’t know,” she said. “I heard branded cattle don’t really feel it.”

Allan said, “Another dancer—my dad’s latest. Come on.” Inside the basement, we emptied the money onto a poker table, and Allan pulled down all the shades and locked the door to upstairs. Mary sat at the table and started counting. Allan stood across from her. “So what are you so pissed about?” he asked.

“You didn’t have to hit him so hard,” Mary said, without looking up from the money. “You probably killed him.”

“Get out of here!” Allan said.

I said, “We didn’t kill anybody.” It turned out later that I was right, though we did break the old guy’s hip.

“You still didn’t have to hit him so hard,” Mary said, counting faster.

Allan leaned over the table. “What are you, feeling guilty?”

Mary didn’t answer.

“Shit,” Allan said. “What’s an old guy like him need it for?”

“All he’s going to do is leave it to his kids,” I said. “And I don’t see them doing anything for him.”

Mary looked up from the money. “Twelve thousand, four hundred.”

“Man,” Allan said. “I thought it was more.”

“Me too,” I said.

Mary divided the money into three stacks. She took one, wrapped it in her bag, and stuffed the bag into her jeans. “This is the last time for me,” she said, and started for the door. “I’m not doing it anymore.”

I grabbed my money, bagged it, stuck the bag under my shirt, and hurried to catch up with Mary.

Allan threw himself across the table. “Hey, come on guys! Why don’t you stick around awhile?” He gestured toward the ceiling, meaning he couldn’t go upstairs because of his father.

Mary was halfway out the door. “Can’t you just go up and go to sleep?”

“Too many funny noises.” Allan grinned.

Mary hesitated, as if she might change her mind and stay—which I hoped she wouldn’t because I was looking forward to being alone with her. Finally, she said: “Just go to sleep down here, Allan.” And she walked out.

“I got to go,” I said. “I told my parents—”

Allan waved me off. As I closed the door he was counting his money.

I walked Mary back to her house. The clouds had blown over and it had stopped raining. We hardly said a word to each other until we reached her block. I always knew she was more sensitive about things than she let on because of how she talked about Robert, and because of that night I spent at Mary’s: once when she had fallen asleep for awhile, I looked through a bunch of books she had lined up under her window, where she liked to lie and read, and they were all books on philosophy and religion, the kind of stuff I don’t think anybody even writes anymore, and there was another book too, about the Vietnam War, something Mary never talked about, and when I opened it up, I found things underlined, including the number 13,500,000, which wasn’t just underlined but circled, and it turned out to be the number of Vietnamese killed and wounded in the war— which surprised me, because I always thought it was such a small place that I wouldn’t have guessed there were that many people in the whole country.

When we reached her house, all the lights were out. Mary said, “My parents must still be in the city. I thought they’d be home by now.”

“Can I come in then?” I asked. “Come on—we can just forget about tonight.”

“Why?” she said. “Why do you want to forget about some old blind guy we just beat up and robbed?”

“He wasn’t blind and we didn’t beat him up.”

“Christ,” Mary said. “He was mostly blind—that’s why the lights were never on in the house. And he was mostly deaf—that’s why the T.V. came on so loud. He’s probably a little senile too. I’ll bet anything he thought we were his kids. I’ll bet anything he’s got children named Bobby and Roseanne. And I still won’t be surprised if I read in the paper tomorrow that you guys killed him, you hit him so hard.”

“We didn’t kill him,” I said. “All we did was knock him down the hallway so we’d have time to get out. You know,” I said. “Nobody had to drag you into this. You liked the whole thing as much as we did.”

“Because it was a game. We were stealing little shit. We weren’t hurting anybody.”

“Come on, Mary: insurance’ll cover the guy’s losses, plus he’s got kids who can take care of him. Plus he’s so goddamn old what’s he going to do with the money?”

Mary just looked at me. She said, “You don’t believe in anything, Rick. Nothing at all.”

I took a step back. Without thinking, I said: “What’s there to believe in?” Then I added, quickly: “I know what I believe. I believe that you and I should make love, the way we said we would, because I don’t know what the hell we’re waiting for.”

Mary nodded, as if agreeing with herself about something. She was quiet for awhile, and we both stood there on her doorstep staring at each other. Finally, in response to my proposal, she smiled and said: “AIDS, you know.”

“Stop that shit.” I moved closer to her. “We’re virgins. We can’t have AIDS.”

She shook her head. “I’m not a virgin. I had sex when I was 12 with one of Robert’s friends, and now I found out he has AIDS. So does Robert. That’s where my parents are tonight. Making arrangements for him to stay in a hospice in the city.”

My knees got that feeling, like they’d turned to water, and I felt shaky and chilled. I was thinking about the times I made out with Mary, how we’d stuck our tongues in each other’s mouths. I didn’t say it, but Mary knew what I was thinking.

She said, “You can’t catch AIDS from kissing,” and went into her house and closed the door. That was the end of it. I never saw her again, except at school, and she never said another word to me or Allan.

I walked home telling myself you couldn’t catch AIDS by kissing, and by the time I got home I had myself pretty well convinced, but I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous about it anyway. On the porch, I checked to be sure the money was well hidden under my shirt, and I tried to look casual as I walked through the front door. No one was in the living room, but the door to the basement was open, and Julie and Dad and a guy I guessed was Howard were all crawling around on their hands and knees. They looked like they were grazing. They didn’t notice me and I walked by the open door and found my mother alone in the kitchen with the lights off, sobbing. I didn’t know what to say, or if I even wanted to say anything, but she had seen me, and I couldn’t just ignore her. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

She shook her head.

I pointed to the basement. “Is that Howard with them?”

She nodded.

“What are they doing down there?”

“Looking for cracks,” she hissed. “Howard sold your father some gunk to seal up the cracks and keep the radon out. The three of them are down there like a little happy family sealing up the basement.”

“Oh,” I said. I had forgotten about Dad’s radon problem.

“You know what he told your father?” she asked, still hissing. “That they were just friends. That they had a “platonic” relationship. That’s what he said.” She spit out the word. “Platonic.”

“Right,” I said. Julie had been sleeping with the guys she dated since she was 13. At 15 she had an abortion, and after that my mother put her on the pill.

“And he believes her,” my mother said. She started crying again.

I left her there in the kitchen sobbing and went up to my room. I undressed and stuck the money under my pillow and got into bed, and for some reason that little time between getting into bed and falling asleep is what I remember best and sharpest about that night. It’s a vivid memory—clear and troubling in a way I can’t pin down. I think now that I was in love with Mary, and I remember that night because that was the end of it—but it’s something more, too. Like it means something, but I don’t know what. I’ve never stolen anything since, and neither, I’d guess, have Mary or Allan. They both went on to college, as I did, and now Allan does something with some corporation, and Mary’s married and has a kid—so she didn’t have AIDS after all. I never heard what happened to her brother, but I’m sure he’s dead by now. I’m an engineer with Toshiba. I’m still single, I screw around a lot, but someday I want to get married. I never spent my four thousand from the robbery. It’s mixed in now with a few thousand more, all in CDs. I can’t say I ever really felt guilty about the robbery—so that’s not what bothers me in the memory. It’s something else. I’m in that bedroom waiting to fall asleep, the money’s under my pillow, Mom’s crying downstairs, and Dad and Julie and this guy Howard are crawling around trying to seal up the basement—and it all feels like it means something that it’s somehow beyond me to understand. It’s like one of those dreams when you’ve lost something important, when something tremendously important is missing, and you don’t even know what it is.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading