Casa Solar

“Billions,” said Bill Fogarty, leaning closer to his wife. He held the wavy carcass of Time at arm’s length. “They gave away billions this group here. Bono—B O N O—the rock star. He’s the ringleader. They’re what they call Good Samaritans.”

“I know what a Good Samaritan is,” said Maudie. “They used to collect nickels in cans.”

“The new Good Samaritans,” he corrected, slapping the faces with the back of his hand. “These ones don’t collect anything in cans.”

They sat welded in matrimony amid magazines that seemed to have washed ashore from many different years. Their conjoined seats creaked with every movement. When Bill burped, he pulled in his chin to look like a stentorian.

“That’s gotta stop,” said his wife.

“Eye doctors,” he declared. “They’re the worst for making you wait—even worse than dentists.”

Maudie had a few appointments each year owing to a degenerative disease called keratoconus, which rendered her legally blind. She could see some things in blurry form, but not most, like B O N O on the battered cover of a magazine. They’d made a life of each other, together fifty-three years. Both were topped with thick white tufts, like rooftop protuberances in a Christmas card scene. Both wore glasses though Maudie’s were incapable of correcting her sight. Both were a bit overweight but not too much. Both waited for the other at doorways and complained about the chronic lifelong failure at hurrying up. They would probably end their days in Endicott, New York, for no other reason than inherited property.

What was there to say about Melody Huber’s detached Victorian? When she died at ninety-eight, it was still stunning in a way no living person desired, a rabbit warren of 12 X 12’s—music room, front parlor, side parlor, dining room, kitchen, kitchen pantry. The tung-oiled floors glistened; there were no nicks in the hundred-year-old woodwork that had never been painted over in multiple layers that included a 1940s-hospital shade of turquoise.

The Trinidadian lady Melody had hired to dust the place twice a week continued coming a month after the old girl died in a hospital in Sayre. Melody was childless and always “very particular” about whom she let inside over the course of sixty-plus years. She left a large amount of stock to her nephews Frank and Carl; to their sister, Maudie, she left the house, which would have been an attractive period reno if not for the fact that it stood on valueless land.

“Ya got stiffed, Maudie, plain and simple”—Bill had said it many times over the past year.

“It’s because I’m the girl” was his wife’s rationalization. “Old lady pictured me as the one lining up dolls on a bed. The one who’d keep the place neat.”

“We ought to bring in chickens, right? Ought to raise chickens to spite her.”

“If people knew we had chickens someone would steal them.”

When Maudie and Bill were finally called in to the examining room, the new eye doctor told her the same thing she was told by the old one in Massachusetts: she needed to go back to the corrective lenses that she’d worn successfully for a decade or else she’d continue seeing very little. It was during the move to New York she got an infection and couldn’t wear them for a few weeks. But extending the blackout to months and now a year—that was all her choice.

As they made to leave the clinic, Bill paused at the shiny gold planter stuffed with plastic ferns. “Just look what the cat dragged in.”

His wife sighed. “You know I can’t just look at anything.”

“Take a guess.”

“If you’re talking about my brother, the cat would be dragging him out.”

“Hidey hidey hi!” hailed Frank.

Bill winced. “Says who?”

“How’s our little Helen Keller.”

Bill took his wife’s elbow. “You’re a goon, Frank.”

Frank Huber had retired early and now had very little to occupy his days; he consequently spent most of them stalking the people he knew. Somehow this continued on for decades.

“Lookit this,” he said, holding out his new phone.

“I bet you can use it to beam yourself up,” said Bill.

Maudie plowed ahead, resolute in her blurred vision. “I’ve got some cake at home for you to take. You can follow us.”

Frank continued to play with his phone. “I know the way.”

“Stop diddling with that thing,” snapped Bill. “You got old hands.”

Back in Melody Huber’s driveway, Frank reappeared, still diddling with his old hands. “News flash,” he said, looking up and squinting. “The housing boom—it’s coming to the Twin Tiers.”

“Oh, really?” said Bill.

Maudie shook her head. “You’re just saying that.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re just saying that,” she went on, “because even though you’re cold-blooded, your blood’s warm enough to make you feel some guilt. You and Carl got money to let you buy your toys; me—I got this.”

When Melody was alive, Carl Huber had made it a job to ensure that nothing happened to her assets. As long as she stayed in the house, those assets weren’t being pissed away on some fancy nursing home. Carl’s two sons, both cops, had checked up on the old lady daily. Now with Melody passed and the money doled out, Bill and Maudie were on their own.

Bill looked with discomfort at the precious etched window on the landing of the front stairs—smack dab in the middle of a slum-in-the-making. The Binghamton-Endicott-Endwell-Johnson City metropolis had been on a steady slide into the gutter for many decades, since the pullout of IBM and demise of Endicott-Johnson Shoes. At the turn of the millennium many believed that someone was recruiting “welfare types” to skew the census Democrat, though nobody had a theory as to who this might be. Republicans believed the welfare types to be Mexican, Honduran, and Southeast Asian gang members and their pregnant girlfriends.

“What do they even mean by housing boom?” Bill wanted to know. “It’s just people spending way too much for what anything’s worth. It’s all gonna come down—fast.”

“You need optimism,” said Frank. “You got burned when you were down, and that was a bad time. But there’s money out there.”

Maudie laughed. “Who on earth are you talking about? In case you didn’t notice, we’re both old people. You’re old people.”

“Lookit that!” Frank cried with disgust.

“What?” said Bill.

“Lookit how she struts!”

It was one of the Russians who lived next door. Maudie’s brothers and their wives called all Russians “snooty Russians.”

Bill turned away. “I usually try not to.”

“She’s a hooker,” said Frank.

Bill made a face. “Now how would you know that?”

“She keeps a lit Christmas tree in that kitchen window year-round, and she’s nothing but a hooker.”

Somehow this anger—Frank’s defiled sense of propriety—made Bill grin. Who on earth was Frank Huber? At his youngest son’s second wedding, the father of the bride was caught on videotape stealing a compression toolkit with a bow.

“A hooker,” Frank insisted.

“Oh, just stop with the hooker business,” said Maudie. “You sound like those old shows—Starsky and Baretta. The new word is ho. Even Bill knows that.”

Her husband nodded. “Hidey hidey ho.”

After the cake was dispensed, after Frank finally drove away, Maudie went to sit in her chair in the music room with all the windows. Bill fell into his chair beside her.

Maudie seemed preoccupied with staring straight ahead. “We should’ve had more kids.”

“If I had a nickel for every time you said that.”

“We should’ve adopted.”

“What do you mean—after Billy? In case you don’t remember, we were already old in 1983.”

“I mean before. We should’ve stocked up.”

He laughed. “Our son was a hero. Reagan said so.”

“He was sleeping. He didn’t even know what happened.”

Her husband stiffened. “He was a marine, Maudie. He put himself in harm’s way.”

“That’s what I mean. We should’ve stocked up. We shouldn’t’ve been surprised he got killed.”

After some minutes of silence Bill muttered, “An only son who died—the only thing I have in common with God.”

Maudie sighed. “If I had a nickel for every time you said that.”

A few minutes later she added, “We’ve got to do something about that twenty-year-old candy down in the freezer. No one’s gonna eat it.”

Bill shook his head. “The Billy Bar never took off.”

She reached out to pat his hand on the chair arm. “I always liked it. I liked the wrapper.”

He pulled himself up and shuffled to the kitchen to assemble the makings of sandwiches.

“Whatever happened to those old kinds of Russians?” she yelled after a few minutes.

“What old kinds of Russians?”

“The ones always getting drunk on the TV shows. Gilligan’s Island. Get Smart. They seemed like nice fellas.”

Bill walked in holding a package of Swiss cheese. “They were cosmonauts, Maudie. Cosmonauts. They put them in space to keep them off the wadka.”

The screech of a child’s voice sliced through the atmosphere en Español.

“Those South of the Border types,” he muttered, turning back toward the kitchen and his task, “always screaming bloody murder at each other. Pedro! Carlos! Poncho Villas!”

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“You waited this long to tell me that?”

“Better late than never!”

This made him come back into the room. “So why don’t I go out in the street and yell ‘Pedro! Carlos! Poncho Villas!’?”

“You could, but those aren’t their names. It’s ‘Patrick! Connor! Alexandra!’ ”

Bill lifted his arms in frustration as he walked away. “Mildrew Chen!”

The Chens had lived across the street from Bill and Maudie in Braintree. They ran a restaurant and had a bunch of brainy kids in public schools. Their middle son liked to come over and ask Bill what he was doing. The first time Bill couldn’t make out a word the kid was saying. He grabbed a pen that said Dorchester Candy Company, ripped off a piece of Globe, and said, “Write down your name.” When the boy spelled out M-I-L-D-R-E-W, Bill twisted his face in consternation. “Mildrew?” The kid nodded. “Got a sister named Moldy, have ya?”

“We were lucky to know Mildrew,” his wife shouted. “What a mind!”

Mildrew Chen grew into a genius and an excellent joke-teller. He went to MIT on all kinds of scholarships and now had a show on public radio about how science is both funny ha-ha and funny strange.

Bill nodded to himself. “Kids like that,” he hollered, “few and far between.”

These days, the curious kid in Bill and Maudie’s neighborhood was a girl, Martha-Stewart San-
chez. She was missing a hand and part of her arm, and you had to call her Martha-Stewart, like Mary Jane or Betty Lou. She was a natural-born storyteller with a penchant for tall tales, but Maudie cut her a lot of rope because she was telling these tales to build her English vocabulary.

Her best stories were about “back in the village,” before Oxnard and before Endicott—like how the back seat of her father’s old car had a hole in the floor so that the kids could pee while they were driving. And how her Uncle Hector, blind since birth, had worked sorting mushrooms in Oxnard but was now laid off and unemployable. And how her “dangerous” cousin—the gang member people called Uncle Homeboy—was said to be heading east to settle the score with family members in the area.

As far as Bill was concerned, the clan was a sprawling mess—the father worked mowing grass at the En Joie Golf Course and got into crazy credit card debt buying a new Lincoln Navigator. According to Martha-Stewart, her mother’s three sisters with the tattooed eyebrows were doing time for grand theft auto back in California.

“What did they steal,” Bill had joked when Martha-Stewart told him the story, “a Lincoln Navigator?”

She blinked at him. “Well, yeah.”

Magically on cue, Martha-Stewart Sanchez let herself in through the back door. She knew where to find the key.

“You want I make you a sandwich?” Bill asked her.

She wrinkled her nose at the strips of lean turkey.

“Don’t be eating junk,” he warned.

She held out her hand to show what was in it. “Fruit rollups.”

He shook his head. “All sugar. All corn syrup.”

“The reason Mexicans are fat is because they like corn is what people say.”

“You mean white gringos like me.”

She shrugged. “People.”

He stared at her. “You’re a tool there, Martha-Stewart.”

“You make sandwiches like you had a restaurant.”

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything.” He paused. “There was a restaurant I wanted to buy up in Rockport, though I can’t say why. It was called Ken’s Korner with a K. Though that had to go, the name.”

“Would you call it Bill’s Korner with a K?”

He laughed. “I wanted to make it a bar, and Maudie would have none of that. Can you imagine—a schoolteacher with a husband who ran a bar?”

“What would you call your bar?”

“That’s easy,” he said. “Billy Bar.”

She shrieked. “Like the candy!”

He made a gesture with his hands to take it down a notch, the shrieking.

“I might have a restaurant someday,” she announced.

“Oh, yeah?”

She nodded. “I’ll call it Casa Solar, like my favorite restaurant in the world.”

“And where’s that?”

She made like she was tracing something on the countertop. “Back in the village.”

“What’s that mean, Casa Solar?”

“House of Sun.”

He smiled. “Here we have House of Pancakes.”

Just then Maudie entered the kitchen. “International House of Pancakes,” she corrected.

“Hear that?” he said to Martha-Stewart. “Everything in America is big, grande.”

Maudie moved around him to take a one-armed hug from the girl.

“Casa Solar, eh?” he continued. “So what d’ya eat there?”

“Fish tacos.”

“Fish tacos? What d’ya get—the head and tail sticking out either end?”

“They’re SOOO good!” she exclaimed. “I’m going to make you a fish taco right here.”

He smiled to himself. “I used to do a lot of fishing with Billy.”

Her face lit up. “Did you fish in the ocean?”

“It was right after we moved to Massachusetts,” he went on. “I’d take the boys to Ponkapoag Pond.”

“What boys?”

He looked up from his task of wiping down the cutting board. “It was Billy and uh . . . uh . . . ”

“What boy?”

“Tell her,” said Maudie.

He seemed in a daze. “Huh?”

“Tell Martha-Stewart about our other son.”

The girl shrieked even louder than before. “You had another son! Did he die in the marines too?”

Even though Maudie couldn’t clearly see her husband she looked at him and shook her head.

“He was Billy’s boyhood friend from here,” said Bill, “from Vestal. Tyler was his name and he was always causing trouble.”

“He was technically an orphan,” said Maudie. “He lived with different aunts and uncles. He had two half-sisters that we knew of. They were older and went with a rough crowd. Just a bad, bad family—let’s leave it at that.”

“Why’d we do it?” Bill asked, turning to look at her. “Why’d we adopt that walking nightmare?”

“The boys were inseparable.”

Bill turned back to arranging six sandwich halves on plates.

Maudie looked at the blurred form of Martha-Stewart. “Bill got the job at Dorchester Candy when Billy was fourteen. We felt it was a sin to leave Tyler to that fate.”

Bill nodded. “The only thing we could do was try to adopt him.”

“Did he go into the marines,” the girl asked, “like Billy?”

Maudie laughed. “He was arrested a few times. He could never adjust to Massachusetts. He was like so many people from around here—fish that can only swim in the local pond.”

“After Billy died,” said Bill, “we got some money from the government, and Tyler found a way to steal it from us. He stole a whole lot of money. We were racked with pain and suffering and weren’t paying attention. It was terrible.”

Maudie looked toward the girl. “Tyler Stuby was a bad person.”

Martha-Stewart moved to put both hands on her hips in defiance; the lack of a left one was no deterrence. “I will go find Tyler and I will kill him and I will get the money back!”

“No killing people,” Bill ordered.

Her defiance collapsed to a pout.

Maudie switched to her scary teacher voice that was good for no more than five words. “Martha-Stewart Sanchez.”

Bill stared at the girl. “You hear me? I said no killing people. Ever.”

In a booth at Tri-City Chicken, Maudie opened the laminated menu she couldn’t read. “I’m ordering me a fish taco.”

Her husband shook his head. “Don’t even start.”

The specials were written on paper attached with a paperclip. Maudie removed one piece from the menu and snagged a waitress. “Can you read this to me, honey?”

The young woman leaned down as if addressing a toddler. “It says it’s ‘made from our private-stock pear-shaped ham.’ ”

After the waitress walked off, Bill asked, “Why not a ham-shaped ham? Why’s everything got to be so damned complicated?”

“Not everything’s complicated.”

“Name one thing.”

She looked about even though there was little she could see. “The streets,” she said, referring to a presidential naming system that started at Adams and stopped at McKinley. “That’s one thing.”

“But why did they only get to M and stop? Why not Nixon?”

“You ended up hating Nixon for tricking you.”

“They love the Grand Old Party around here. They should’ve paved a Nixon Avenue.”

She laughed. “It would have to be a dead end.”

“This whole city is a dead end, Maudie. People shop over there at the Family Dollar. That used to be the A&P.”

“Eight O’clock Coffee. You could grind it yourself in the store.”

Bill crossed himself. “The Great Atlantic & Pacific—RIP.”

“The mom and pops are all gone.”

“Walmart. Chains like that—enemy of the workingman.”

“Today’s workingman is a woman.”

Bill made a face at his wife. “Why the devil do ya counter everything I say?”

“Are we dickering?”

“What do you mean dickering?”

“In the Rite Aid the other day I heard these two old folks going at it.”

We’re old folks, Maudie. You just told your brother that.”

“Yeah, well the wife finally says, ‘A lifetime of dickering is all I got from you.’ ”

He looked heartbroken though she couldn’t see to know. “You feel that way about me, do ya?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Questions like that mean you’re watching too much of that Hallmark TV. You need to get out on a bike.”

As they approached the house on the drive home, there under the streetlight was an old white sedan with a hood like a king-size bed. On it a guy was hammering his pelvis into a woman with her bare legs in the air. The Russians.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Bill with disgust.

“What is it?” asked Maudie.

“Pornography on top of a vehicle.”

Maudie laughed. “You sound like a cop.”

He was too disgusted to pull into his own driveway. Instead he parked on the street out front. Cut the ignition and sat there with both hands still on the wheel. “I managed a candy plant twenty years for this?”

“Gee,” she said with amusement. “I haven’t heard you say that in a while.”

Long after Billy’s passing and Tyler’s thievery, there was another episode of seismic turbulence: Bill was fired from his job at the Dorchester Candy Company and lost half of his pension. He had managed the plant for twenty years. He and Maudie made the mistake of going on a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary trip to Alaska—a three-week cruise. Bill came back to find that the FDA had been there: “twenty rodent-like pellets” had been discovered. Bill was devastated to lose his job, but given that he grew up in Pittsburgh, he also felt lucky to find menial work for Woburn Electrical for five years beyond retirement.

He was growing testy. “All water under the bridge.”

“Maybe you should’ve taken that job at the Superior Nut Company.”

This made him outright angry. “I keep telling you: Stop talking about the past. We’re here, this is our house, this is it, Maudie—the end of the line. Besides, what would I have got from that dump of a place?”

“When I called, you could’ve answered the phone ‘Superior Nut.’ ”

He pursed his lips. “You’re not gonna make me laugh this time.”

After a moment she asked, “Why are we sitting here?”

He gripped the wheel tighter. “And would you look at that?”

Maudie sighed. “More pornography on a vehicle?”

For some reason, the yards and yards of unspooled cassette tape glistening by streetlight on the pavement unnerved Bill to no end. For weeks it had been sitting there on the street, their street.

“That damned cassette tape—it’s everywhere. Nobody even uses the stuff anymore. They call these things ‘throwbacks.’ I heard it on the radio.”

“I told you—you need to get on your bike.”

Bill shook his head. “What the devil are we doing here, Maudie?”

She exhaled heavily and grabbed for the door handle. “We made a mistake, but it doesn’t matter because we’re almost in the grave.”

The next afternoon as Bill was washing dishes, Martha-Stewart let herself in the back door to reveal a face wet with tears. “Maudie!” he yelled. “Martha-Stewart’s crying!”

He bent down. “What is it, honey?”

She shook her head. “No special laptop.”

In January, a big charity in New York City had made a show of giving Martha-Stewart a laptop made for users with a single hand.

Bill lifted her onto a stool at the counter. “Did someone steal it?”

“A boy in school took it and he smashed it on the playground.”

Maudie arrived to catch this piece of news. “So what did the principal do, honey?”

“Nothing!” she cried. “No one did nothing!”

Anything,” said Maudie, pulling out a stool. “No one did anything.”

“That’s terrible,” said Bill. “What kind of school is that?”

Maudie shook her head. “You get what you pay for.”

“Christ,” said Bill, “when did they say you can get that prosthetic?”

“I don’t know,” said the girl, leaning onto the counter to sulk. “It’s because I’m growing.”

Bill took out his phone. “We’ll call the police and get this kid’s parents to get you a new computer.”

“No!” Martha-Stewart pleaded, leaping up to clutch her hand over the phone. “No, we can’t. My father won’t call the police for nothing.”

Anything,” said Maudie. “What’s the boy’s name, honey?”

“Daren Maynard.”

“Let me write this down,” said Bill, grabbing his pad and a Dorchester Candy Company pen.

“What are you going to do?” asked the girl.

Bill scribbled vigorously on the pad and put the pen tip closer to his eyes. “What is it with these damned pens anyway?”

“They’re twenty years old,” said his wife as she moved to open a drawer so he could grab another.

“What we’re going to do,” said Bill, “is make him apologize, that’s what.”

“That’s right,” said his wife. “And then we’re calling that place in New York to get you a new laptop.”

After Martha-Stewart had gone, Maudie called her brother. “Carl, ask the boys to find out who this kid is. He bullied a little girl and smashed her laptop. We need to talk to his parents.”

“Christ, Maudie,” said Carl. “Mexicans?”

Carl’s son Bryan was the one to call back. “So I got the 411 on these Maynard people. Auntie M, you don’t want to deal with these hicks. They’re trailer trash.”

Despite the advisories, just before dinnertime Bill and Maudie drove all the way into the sticks on 26. Bill slowed to a stop in front of a rural shambles.

“What’s it look like?” asked Maudie when he turned off the engine.

“Well,” said Bill, “Bryan was right about the trailer trash. There’s a house, there’s a trailer, and there’s trash. Plus all these signs in their yard.”

“Signs? Who’s running for something?”

“They’re inspirational signs. Jesus Starts NOW! with the exclamation point.”

“Starts now?” said Maudie. “I thought they always left Jesus running.”

“Another one says Welcome to the Land-O-Love! It’s got the exclamation point.”

“Did you say Land-O-Love?”

“Yeah, like the butter.”

Bill and Maudie got out of the car at the side of the road and struggled down a hill of the property. At the door of the shambles Bill kept knocking harder and harder until the door was opened.

Bill was nervous and began talking. “There’s a boy named Daren Maynard who bullied a little girl and smashed a laptop that cost hundreds of dollars. The girl got the laptop as a prize.”

“Who the fuck are you?” the man asked.

Bill glanced at the BEWARE OF DOG sign. “Her name is Martha-Stewart Sanchez. Daren needs to apologize for doing that to her.”

“Holy fucking shit. Spics? You gotta be kidding me.”

“We’re just asking that he apologizes,” said Maudie.

“Who the fuck are you people?”

There appeared behind him an obese woman that Bill had to assume was the wife, but given the place, she could be anything to anyone.

“These people are bullshitting on Daren,” the man told her without turning around.

Maudie stepped forward. “I was a schoolteacher for 45 years. Saying you’re sorry goes a long way.”

Now both just stared at Bill and Maudie with their mouths hanging open.

“The boy needs to apologize to her,” said Bill impatiently. “Destruction of property is a crime, and her family’s taking that loss. But it will teach everyone a lesson.”

The man’s temperament had turned to seething, ready to explode. He walked physically into Bill so that the old man stumbled backward. “Look, no little spic is giving my kid grief on anything, you hear that?”

“Let’s go,” said Maudie grabbing out for her husband’s sleeve.

“And you tell her greasy friends that, too,” said the woman.

Bill was of course upset, but he was also caught out by something in the woman’s appearance. She was a mess, but that birthmark on her face. No way was this mutation a line item that you either got or didn’t get. It happened like that once and not again. It was one of Tyler Stuby’s half-sisters, only now she was middle-aged, dirty blond, and huge. He remembered that her name was Darlene.

The couple made the extravagant decision to visit Tri-City Chicken the second time in a week to get their minds off what just happened.

“Oh, no, not that guy,” said Bill.

“Don’t be prejudiced,” said his wife.

“I don’t like the way he talks.”

“I love the way he talks.”

Their waiter wore a pin on his green apron declaring “Ask me what I know.”

Bill looked impatient. “Well?”

“Well what?” said the waiter.

“Well whaddya know?”

“Michael J. Fox is the new Debbie Reynolds.”

Maudie gasped. “Is that true?”

“My grandmother used to say ‘That poor Debbie Reynolds,’ ” said the waiter. “Now my mom says ‘That poor Michael J. Fox.’ ”

Bill had to pull his head back to process that one. “Why on earth was Debbie Reynolds poor?”

Maudie slapped her hand the table. “Because Liz Taylor went and stole her husband!”

“Yeah,” said the waiter, snatching the menu from Bill’s hands. “Everyone knows that.”

After some moments of silence Maudie declared, “The world in these parts is ugly, Bill.”

Her husband struggled with whether to tell her about Darlene. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten her. “You were the one wanted to move back here,” he said.

“I know, I know.”

He thought for a moment. “All the eye problems started during the move. You didn’t take the lenses out.”

“It was too much for old people like us to move. That was crazy—and expensive. We spent so much money.”

“Just get the new lenses and we go back to how it was before. I’m losing patience with you, Maudie. You WANT to be blind.”

He could tell she was lost on a completely different avenue of thought. “I know!” she cried. “Let’s throw a party for the neighborhood kids. We can get rid of those Billy Bars.”

He laughed. “If they eat them they’ll die and the parents will sue.”

“You kidding?” she said. “Russians and Mexicans?”

He rubbed his face spastically, hand over hand, like Curly from the Three Stooges. “You’re always yelling at me for saying things like that!”

“Yeah,” she said, “but I’m joking. Being sarcastic.”

“How do I know you’re joking?”

She beamed at him. “Because I’m the person who’s always right.”

He looked away—from his wife and the prospect of telling her about Darlene. He just couldn’t bring himself to dump another worry onto the fire pit.

The Fogartys’ decision to throw a party for the neighborhood kids was unprecedented in an area where no one was neighborly.

“We need to rent a trampoline,” said Maudie the morning the two sat at the countertop to make the list.

Bill mouthed to himself “No” and wrote something on his pad. “The kids will break their necks and the parents will sue.”

She nodded in agreement with herself. “A trampoline and orange pop.”

Her husband laughed. “Listen to you with pop? All those years in the Commonwealth with their tonic and you never once said pop.”

“It just comes over you. They call it ‘reverting back to your native ways.’ ”

“Like the civilized Eskimo going back to the igloo.”

“That is one bad analogy, mister.”

“Well kids don’t drink orange pop anymore. They drink watery things in big bottles. Blue water with blue vitamins.”

The party ensued with the trampoline, all kinds of pop, and more unfrozen Billy Bars than anyone could have thought possible. The consensus among the kids was that the bars tasted chalky and stale, but somehow everything put out got eaten. The pretty, pencil-thin Russian girls who were four years apart but somehow managed to match exactly were heard to say loudly, while stuffing their faces, “Mexicans eat anything.” Martha-Stewart played with the pencil girls but did not like them. “Russians steal anything,” she whispered in warning to Bill.

Fortunately, the action occurred not inside the house but on a covered trampoline the size of the entire backyard. Children from everywhere came pouring in uninvited—even drive-bys—
until it got to the point that children of “decent white people” were included in the mix.

“How did we end up with those ones here,” Bill asked his wife, “those Gap kids?”

Maudie did not have to see to know what he meant. “Affirmative Action in the wrong direction.”

Bill thanked his lucky stars that they’d had the sense to get Frank’s teenage granddaughter, the bossy high school organizer who enjoyed disentangling brawling toddlers, to serve as sergeant-at-arms.

“My God,” he said to his wife, “these things should come with their own police.”

She smiled. “Trampolice.”

“Ingenious! We’ll have to market that and wait for the money to pour in!”

Later that night, when they cleared out the place save for Martha-Stewart singlehandedly filling giant Glad bags larger than herself, things took a turn.

“Oh, yoohoo!”

They both heard it from the street the first time but refused to believe.

“Oh, yoohoo!”

The second time they looked at each other before Bill went to the door and flicked on the light. Underneath it on the porch was Tyler Stuby, their adopted son, staggering drunk.

“Fucking unbelievable!” he shouted, tilting his head back like a howling wolf.

“Tyler, what do you want?” asked Bill.

In the kitchen Maudie phoned her nephew Bryan. Martha-Stewart, with her keen survivor’s wits, had already backed silently into a darkened corner near the opened pantry door.

“Ma and Pa, I’m home!” Tyler yelled, shoving his heavy, lunging body inside and practically falling onto Bill.

“You have to leave,” said Bill, steadying the man.

Tyler broke free and jostled himself down the hallway to the back of the house, to the kitchen. “The Candyman can ’cause he mixes it with love and makes the world go round!”

He blinked like an animal in the kitchen lights. “Ma, your loving boy is home!”

“You have to leave this house,” said Maudie.

“Man!” he said, “wowee-wow! I got lots of friends who’d just love to come and do their cribbin’ here—Chateau Fogarty.”

He began the inept process of ransacking the kitchen—first for alcohol and then food—to the extent of his ability, slamming cupboard and refrigerator doors and knocking bowls from the party off the countertop.

Somehow he managed to spy the cowering form of Martha-Stewart with the stub of an arm attempting to cross its mate over her chest. “What the fuck is that”?

Suddenly . . . police, as evidenced by sirens doing their belching of bloops directly out front; the flickering red had seized the darkened dining room.

“Aw, shit,” Tyler cried, stumbling and grabbing for the door frame. “Fuck shit. Where’s the goddamned door?”

Maudie ran into the hall toward the front while Bill stood planted, watching Tyler’s sloppy panic. He already knew he would not tell Maudie that their adopted son looked like Charles Manson.

It was a narrow escape, like in the silent movies—cops in the front door, crook out the back. One officer traced the path into the yard but eventually came back.

Maudie talked to the one officer while Bill again dialed Bryan. “You need to get that man into jail.” She tried to hear both the officer’s questions and pieces of Bill’s frustrating conversation.

When the officers left, Bill began pacing in the kitchen. “Carl’s stupid sons are good for nothing.”

Maudie put her hand to her mouth in fret. “It’s my fault. Why did we return to the scene of the crime?”

Through all this they had not noticed Martha-Stewart, who by instinct cleaved to the shadows when men in uniforms talked loudly.

Now she emerged into the open. “Uncle Homeboy will protect you from Tyler.”

“Listen, honey,” said Maudie, taking the girl’s arm, arranging her in front of her, and groaning as she bent to speak face to face. “Your Uncle Homeboy is how you lost your hand. You need to recognize the good guys from the bad guys.” She looked up at her husband. “Bill and I always had a hard time figuring that out.”

There was another party on the horizon that Martha-Stewart could not stop taking about—the eighty-fifth birthday of the Sanchez family patriarch.

“Are you coming? Are you coming?” she’d been asking for two weeks.

“We live here,” said Bill, “don’t we?”

“We’re gonna put the green light out on the porch like we did in Oxnard!”

“Hear that, Maudie? The green light. This is big!”

After that night with Tyler, weeks went by without similar incident. Neither Bill nor Maudie would dare discuss the repercussions for fear of jinxing their luck.

For the Sanchez party, Bill carried over the very last box of Billy Bars. They were welcomed with many non-English-speaking open arms. Bill was impressed that the family had got a city permit to spill their affair onto the street.

The matriarch gave them a non-verbal tour of her birds in several walk-in cages—“aviaries” Martha-Stewart called them. The patriarch had diabetes and could not walk; he sat planted on a reclining upholstered chair brought out to the front yard. Bill and Maudie were introduced to the blind Uncle Hector wearing his yellow glasses.

“He looks like that Dalia Lama I saw on TV,” Bill had whispered to his wife. “Wearing the ski goggles.”

There must have been fifty or so adults and an uncountable number of children—lots of music, lots of shouting and laughing, plastic trash cans filled with bottles of Dos Equis, all kinds of uninhibited dancing. With the rapt attention of Martha-Stewart—who would tear away to do something fun and then show up back at their side, out of breath—the couple had a good time in an environment that was completely alien.

Just as they started making their good-byes, however, luck abandoned them. They heard men shouting near the street and felt the special sweat of panic that traveled well in crowds. They moved into the front yard with Martha-Stewart. Out on the sidewalk was Tyler Stuby, sober this time but waving a handgun.

“Uh-oh,” said Bill.

Maudie grabbed his arm. “What is it?”

“Tyler,” he said, leaving out the part about the gun.

His adopted son was pacing in front of the entire ensemble. “Hasta la vista, baby!”

“Why aren’t people running?” shouted Bill. He waved his arms. “Go! Go!” He looked at Martha-Stewart. “Tell them all to run!”

He was confused and disoriented by the trance of the scene—a maniac waving a gun and yet all these unarmed people standing their ground with their children.

And then suddenly the sound of a speeding vehicle shattered the tension. An enormous white SUV came to screeching halt in front of the house and in front of Tyler, who in confusion pointed the gun with both hands at the tinted windows but didn’t seem to know where to fire.

The doors opened to reveal assault rifles before any human form. Tyler fired but the three commandoes had already charged him to the ground, brutally kicking him while he shrieked in pain. Someone tossed clothesline and then duct tape and soon Tyler looked like the deer a hunter would be tossing into the bed of a truck.

Maudie kept pulling at Bill’s arm. “What’s happening?”

Bill could not answer because there were no words.

Finally, the smallest of three petit women in spiked heels, denim jackets, and tight jeans pointed her semiautomatic at Tyler’s taped and bleeding face. “Hey, bitch. You see Kill Bill?”

There was a brief spike of tension that something more fatal would happen to the prisoner, but with the approaching sirens, the armed women hopped in the car and sped away.

The partiers went crazy with shouts and cheers. Martha-Stewart jumped up and down with excitement.

“I’m lost,” said Maudie. “Are we safe?”

Bill grabbed the girl. “Who are those ladies?”

“La Mujeres!” she shouted. “My aunts!”

He looked confused. “The ones in jail?”

“They got out!”

“What did you call them?” asked Maudie. “What does that mean?”

“La Mujeres is their gang,” she said. “It’s really big in Oxnard.”

Bryan and three more cops immediately began to bully the partiers and act like they were going to shoot the next person who didn’t speak English.

“We need to extradite this motherfucker to Georgia,” Bryan told Bill as he yanked Tyler by the back of his shirt.

With his mouth still taped, Tyler looked to Bill like he might be seriously hurt. “He needs a doctor,” Bill said with concern. “Can’t you see him jerking and twitching?”

Another cop laughed and leaned toward the gagged man. “He needs his methadone, don’t he the wittle baby?”

It was all too much for Bill, figuring out who was on what side. He walked back to Maudie and the remnants of partiers. He asked Martha-Stewart, “What were those girls taking about killing me?”

Maudie nodded. “They said ‘kill Bill.’ ”

Martha-Stewart laughed hysterically. “That’s all the English words she knows!”

Later that night as they sat in their chairs in the music room with all the windows, Maudie asked, “Bill, is this a happy ending?”

“Not for Tyler.”

She shook her head. “I wish I got to see those girls with the guns.”

“Well, they’ve got their Navigator so they must be happy.”

“Martha-Stewart told me about the eyebrows,” she added. “They shave them off and then tattoo on new ones—forever. And I thought, “This I gotta see.’ ”

“Really, Maudie?” asked Bill. “You wanna see again?”

She scratched at her hair. “Maybe I’ll think about the lenses.”

Bill thought about how they say that the reason you have kids is that you don’t want to be alone and lonely in old age—that even though you have a spouse, that’s not the same as kids who will be there for you and make you feel connected to the world.

“Hey,” said Maudie, reaching out for his hand, “who’s the Superior Nut here anyway?”

Bill did not hesitate on meeting her halfway, holding on tight. §