That Night

A Novel

Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

That Night
ONE
That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad--the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their light summer clothes--startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.
This is serious, my own father remembered thinking at that moment. This is insane.
I remember only that my ten-year-old heart was stopped by the beauty of it all.
Sheryl was her name, but he cried, "Sherry," drawingout the word, keening it, his voice both strong and desperate. There was a history of dark nights in the sound, something lovely, something dangerous.
One of the children had already begun to cry.
It was high summer, the early 1960s. The sky was a bright navy above the pitched roofs and the thick suburban trees. I hesitate to say that only Venus was bright, but there it was. I had noticed it earlier, when the three cars that were now in Sheryl's driveway and up on her lawn had made their first pass through our neighborhood. Add a thin, rising moon if the symbolism troubles you: Venus was there.
Across the street, a sprinkler shot weak sprays of water, white in the growing darkness. Behind the idling motors of the boys' cars you could still hear the collective gurgle of filters in backyard pools. Sheryl's mother had already been pulled from the house, and she crouched on the grass by the front steps saying over and over again, "She's not here. She's gone." The odor of their engines was like a gash across the ordinary summer air.
He called her again, doubled over now, crying, I think. Then he pitched forward, his boot slipping on the grass, so it seemed for a second he'd be frustrated even in this, and once again ran toward the house. Sheryl's mother cowered. The men and the boys met awkwardly on the square lawn.
Until then, I had thought all violence was swift and surefooted, somehow sleek, even elegant. I was surprised to see how poor it really was, how laborious and hulking. I saw one of the men bend under the blow of what seemed a slow-moving chain, and then, just as gracelessly, swing his son's baseball bat into a teenager's ear. I saw the men and the boys leap on one another like obese, short-legged children, sliding and falling, raising chains that seemed to crumblebackward onto their shoulders, moving bats and hoes and wide rakes that seemed as unwieldy as trees. There were no clever D'Artagnan mid-air meetings of chain and snow shovel, no eye-to-eye throat grippings, no witty retorts and well-timed dodges, no winners. Only, in the growing darkness, a hundred dumb, unrhythmical movements, only blow after artless blow.
I was standing in the road before our neighbor's house, frozen, as were all the other children scattered across the road and the sidewalk and the curbs as if in some wide-ranging game of statues. I was certain, as were all the others, that my father would die.
Behind us, one of the mothers began to call her husband's name, and then the others, touching their throats or their thighs, one by one began to follow. Their thin voices were plaintive, even angry, as if this clumsy battle were the last disappointment they would bear, or as if, it seems to me now, they had begun to echo, even take up, that lovesick boy's bitter cry.
 
They had first appeared just after dinner. Three cars--hot rods, we were still calling them then (not one of us imagining the phrase to be more than descriptive, never considering it somewhat obscene)--turning onto the north end of our block, moving slowly, steadily. I had just joined my parents on the front porch. I saw my mother raise her chin to look over the wrought-iron railing and the rhododendron bush as each car stopped at our corner, one waiting patiently for the next, like cars carrying beauty queens in a stalled parade, and then, just as slowly, carefully, they turned to the right.
We could see they were full of teenagers; there was animpression of black leather elbows at each window, black hair, sunglasses. No radios were playing and so only the sound of the straining, impatient motors seemed threatening. Like a big man snoring, I thought, or a dog growling in his sleep. I can't recall at all the cars' colors or their makes. A Chevy of some sort, no doubt, say turquoise or sky blue, then a dark one, say a dark green Ford with tinted windows (and the tinted windows must be true because Sheryl's boyfriend was in that second car, pressed into the back seat between two others, and none of us saw him until the cars, after who knows how many slow circuits of our street, suddenly turned with a sound like an explosion and drove onto her driveway and up over her lawn), the third perhaps a white Buick with one long red stripe that ended in a pitchfork or maybe a devil's tail.
When they approached a second time, about ten minutes later, again turning onto the far end of our street and still maintaining that patient, creeping speed, my mother said, "Uh-oh."
As the last car once again rounded our corner, making a left this time, I saw Sheryl's neighbor, Mr. Rossi, standing at his front door. He wore a T-shirt and suit trousers and held a folded newspaper in one hand. His short, thick arms were both stained with darkening tatoos. He turned away only when the low rumble of their engines, which did not change even after they'd left our block, had faded completely.
I once thought they had been wise to maintain this slow speed even after they'd left our street, to slowly cruise a dozen blocks, to spread suspicion up and down the neighborhood, dissipating it, but now I wonder if they would have avoided suspicion altogether if they'd taken off, backfired, burned rubber.
This was not an especially rough town, but by then its residents must have simply resigned themselves to hoods and gangs and hot rodders, to teenagers in trouble, the way the first frontierspeople must have resigned themselves to an occasional Indian raid, an occasional outlaw who shoots up the saloon. At that time, in our town at least, it was a given that hoods bombed around, intimidated the band members who tried to get past them into the pizza parlor, drank beer. Word was that some of them poured gasoline over stray cats and set them on fire, screamed "Fung-goola" into old ladies' bedroom windows in the middle of the night, smoked reefer--that one had pulled and used a knife on a geography teacher (something I recalled only years later, when our university announced it was cutting the entire geography department), that another had run his car into the dry cleaner's window, but essentially, they were innocents. When they got out of hand the police could be called and, without nightsticks or tear gas, scatter them.
On the night he came for her, it was the uncharacteristic speed, the calm, that made us take notice. It was their order, their odd control (they all sat still inside their cars, looking straight ahead) that made my mother say as they passed a third time, "This is ominous."
My father looked over his newspaper.
Next door, Mrs. Evers had brought her garbage to the curb (her husband would later carry the lid like a shield into the battle) and now stood with her hands on her hips, watching the cars as they passed, one, two, three, through the stop sign and, this time, down the next street.
She turned, saw my parents, and slowly climbed our steps. She was a big woman, freckled, pot-bellied, her belly split like a backside by her caesarean scars. She was famously homely around our neighborhood, not so much because ofher looks, which were plain enough, but because of her husband's. Mr. Evers was exquisite, handsome in that chiseled Hollywood way that could make even the oldest mother suddenly shy, and it was the speculation regarding why a man who looked like that would have married a woman who looked like this that had transformed poor Mrs. Evers from not good-looking to our very code word for ugly.
She had four sons, one my age, the others younger, all of whom later swelled into monstrous adolescence, went on to become bouncers and third-rank football players and, my brother sometimes said, retaining walls. It was Georgie, her oldest, who had cried so terribly beside me as the fighting began.
She had dark hair and a wide, pitted face. It amazes me to think she was only about thirty then.
"What are those kids up to?" she asked us.
My mother shrugged. "They just keep driving past."
"Joyriding," my father said, his tone indicating that it would be silly to make any more of it. Once, in order to illustrate how one bad habit can completely destroy your good name, he had told me how he had happened to see Mrs. Evers push her fingernail up into her nose, examine it, and then put it into her mouth. I myself had already seen her do this any number of times--stretched in her chaise by their aluminum pool, reading the newspaper with one hand--but now the gesture took on the significance of his moral and I could no longer look at the woman without disapproval.
Mrs. Evers stared at the street as if the three cars were passing once more, although--and I had begun listening for them now--they were nowhere near.
"They're going so slow," she said.
"Maybe they're teaching each other to drive," I offered. I used my father's "Why worry?" tone, hoping he'd catch my disdain.
I suppose they ignored me. Mrs. Evers again looked down the street. "I just hope," she said, scraping a piece of her dinner from between her teeth with yet another fingernail, "it doesn't have anything to do with Sheryl."
I caught my mother's look: a pinch between the eyes, her mouth shriveling to the size of a dash. I saw her wrestle for a moment with her desire to protect me from what she considered the sordid details and her desire to gossip.
"He knows she went away?" she whispered, the whisper a kind of compromise, I suppose. "Doesn't he?"
Mrs. Evers shook her head, but said, "I don't know. They had to have their number changed. He was calling."
My mother put her hand over her heart and looked at Sheryl's house across the street and three houses over. It was much like all the rest, brick and shingle, no front porch like ours, but four front steps and, under the front window, an odd hedge, dead in spots and in need of trimming. At that time, everyone in our neighborhood was painting their bricks red or white, or, in a scattered kind of houndstooth, a little of both, but Sheryl's house still had plain dull brickcolor bricks--they looked somewhat dusty in comparison--and I took this as an outward sign of her household's one distinction: Sheryl's father had died the spring before; she, her mother and her grandmother lived there alone, as everyone put it, meaning without a man in the house.
Their front door was wide open that night behind the aluminum screen door, as were the front doors all up and down that side of the street on this, on every, warm summer evening. We could see just faintly the white stair stepsbeyond the door. There was a window fan, a blur in the front upstairs window.
My mother put her hand to her heart and looked at the house, and I looked with her. It could not have seemed more forlorn, more unprotected.
"I'm sure they told him she's not there," she said.
"I hope they told him," Mrs. Evers said, sucking her teeth. "He's a troublemaker." She nodded emphatically at the word, for Sheryl was indeed "in trouble" and surely he had made it.
My mother shook her head. "None of those cars is his."
Mrs. Evers was halfway to her own side door when the faint guttural sound of their approaching engines came upon us again. Now curtains in other windows began to stir. Mr. Carpenter, our neighbor across the street, paused while setting a sprinkler out on his lawn. His wife appeared in the window behind him.
I noticed this time that when the first car stopped at the corner, the second stopped just past Sheryl's house, the third just in front of it. No one in the cars turned to look at her house, at any of our houses, and yet it was easy to imagine that despite what seemed a steady forward pace, it was before and around Sheryl's house that they lingered.
When they had passed, my mother mentioned this. My father, who this time had watched the full progress of the cars down our street, the paper for once forgotten, said, "You could just as well say they're interested in our house. All their cars stop in front of us, too."
I saw that the young childless couple who lived next to the Everses--they had what the other women in the neighborhood called "the unlikely name of Sunshine" (always tagging the accusation with a mouthed "Jewish," as if thatboth explained the name and made it even more unlikely)--were now out on their driveway and that Mr. Meyer, who lived on the opposite corner, was already on his porch.
I looked again at Sheryl's house. There was only the spinning fan, the pale shadows behind the thin screen door.
The sun by this time was just below the houses across the street, but not yet low enough to give any real hint of darkness. Since it was a usual night except for the cars, other children had begun to come out. I remember the Meyer twins tossed a ball on their front lawn. Billy Rossi crossed the grass between their driveways and was admitted through the Carpenters' side door. Jake, the little retarded boy from the end of the block, rode his bike up our driveway and then, as he did every evening, called for help until my father went down to turn him around. From here and there, the sound of lawnmowers rose like the staccato drill of locusts.
I don't remember hearing any arguments that evening, none of those strained, echoey exchanges between husbands and wives, parents and children, that made us turn to one particular house as if to a radio, raising our noses as we listened, as if strife were a scent on the air. And as far as I can recall, no neighbors went out looking showered and flushed and, the wives especially, unusually polished, for anniversary dinners or wakes. (Whether these were really the neighborhood's two most common social engagements, I can't be sure. I'm relying now only on my mother's comments. When we saw the wives emerge in silver blue dresses or sequined tops, my mother would say, "It must be their anniversary." If they left the house on a weekday night dressed in simpler Sunday clothes, my mother would say, "They must be going to a wake.") Except for the cars, ausual evening. My parents, as usual, keeping vigil from behind the rhododendron bushes. Enough, too much, has already been said about boredom in the suburbs, especially in the early sixties, and I suppose there was a kind of boredom in those predictable summer evenings. I suppose boredom had something to do with the violent, melodramatic way the men later rushed to Sheryl's mother's aid. But I remember those nights as completely interesting, full of flux: the street itself a stage lined with doors, the play rife with arrivals and departures, offstage battles, adorable children, unexpected soliloquies delivered right to your chair by Mrs. Evers or Mrs. Rossi or whoever happened to climb our stairs. It's nostalgia that makes me say it, that most futile, most self-deluding of desires: to be a child again, but there was no boredom in those suburbs, not on those summer evenings, or at least not until this one. For after this, after the cars and the sudden spinning onto her lawn, the boys with their chains and the fight and the chilling sound of her boyfriend's cry, after this, no small scenes could satisfy us, no muffled arguments, no dinner-at-eight celebrations, no sweet, damaged child, could make us believe we were living a vibrant life, that we had ever known anything about love.
Venus, as I've said, was already bright.
 
On their fifth or sixth time past our house, my mother said, "Maybe I should call the police."
"And tell them what?" my father asked her.
She considered this briefly. "That they keep driving around."
"Nothing wrong with that," he said.
My mother looked at me. I could tell she didn't want to call. If she'd wanted to, she simply would have gone inside and done it.
"Somebody's probably called already," my father added.
Now we were simply waiting, waiting for the cars to return, for whatever was going to happen to happen. Mr. Rossi was again at his front door, his shirt off and the newspaper now open and loose in his hand. There was a blue television light behind him.
We saw Elaine Sayles walk to the mailbox on the opposite street (my mother swore she only pretended to put something in it) and then stop to talk to Mr. Carpenter, who was now sitting on his front steps with a beer. We saw them both glance up and down the street as they spoke. Mrs. Sayles was a tidy little blonde, the only woman in our neighborhood to wear tennis whites to the supermarket--to wear tennis whites at all, I suppose. She was said to have come from money, although her husband wore gray work clothes and carried a lunchpail. She left him and their three children for Harvard while I was in college, but on that night she was still a silly short woman in a tiny white skirt, flirtatious, nosy, quite capable of merely pretending to put something in the mailbox.
This time when the cars passed, the boy in the front passenger seat of the first one turned full face to us and grinned an enormous Sergeant Bilko grin. He wore sunglasses, maybe mirrored ones. I don't know if he had a counterpart on the other side of the car, but when the last of the three had once again passed, Mrs. Sayles was already hurrying back to her house. Mr. Carpenter, still sitting on his stoop, was beginning to look somewhat mean-eyed.
"She'll probably call the police," my mother said, a splinter of annoyance in her voice.
But the cars passed again: we calculated that they'd just driven around the block; and again, they must have gone to the boulevard and back; and once more: around twoblocks, or maybe as far as the grammar school and back. We waited.
Now night was beginning to show itself, along the hedges, in the bushy center of trees. As we waited for them to return, the interval growing longer and longer, becoming the longest yet, we saw Mr. Rossi turn from his door and go back into his living room. We saw Mr. Carpenter crumple the beer can in his hand, stand and, bringing the can to the garbage, look up and down the street one last time. He too went inside, and Mrs. Sayles turned on a light and drew her curtains. We were beginning to spot lightning bugs. Down the block, the Sunshines (who were sportsminded, it was assumed, because they were childless) practiced a few golf swings with an imaginary club, he standing behind her, her arms inside his, and their cheeks together. The Meyer twins began tossing their small pink ball with a vengeance, aiming at each other's thighs. One or two cars passed. The streetlights snapped on. My parents began to discuss something else entirely.
I suppose we all believed that the boys had given up the game; that with the beginning of darkness they had gone on to the highway or to the broader, less peopled territory of the schoolyard or the parking lot outside the bowling alley; that they had grown bored with teasing us, scaring us, laughing at us, and had finally moved on to their real fun, to adventures that we, even as observers, couldn't share.
None of the boys in those cars was more than nineteen or twenty and yet they obviously, maybe instinctively, knew something about courtship. When we finally heard the engines again, that constrained roll and tumble of slow-moving, mufflerless motors, we merely sighed, not daring to smile. We turned our backs to them, tossing our heads likehurt girls, snubbed tramps. Mr. Rossi did not leave his television; Mrs. Sayles's curtain didn't stir.
They traveled in the same order: the blue one followed by the green, then the white one with its red devil stripe or a black flourish shaped like a striking snake.
The first was just at Sheryl's house when all the engines seemed to explode and the cars, as if the road itself had suddenly leaped and tossed them into the air, were over the curb, one on Sheryl's lawn, one perpendicular to it, up over the sidewalk, the third at an odd, twisted angle in her driveway.
My mother grabbed my arm at the sound, pulled me even, as if she would have me run, although both of us were still in our chairs. My father had jumped up, his arms raised, a caricature of rough-and-ready. The other men were already out of their homes.
The car doors--the ones that faced the house--swung open and the boys slid out. They seemed eerily nonchalant; some even stretched, as if they'd simply stopped for gas in the middle of a long trip. Rick was with them, of course, and he strode unhurried across the lawn and up the three steps. He knocked, not violently, more a polite rattle at the screen door, while his friends stood in loose formation by the cars, looking around and behind themselves as if they planned to stay awhile.
It was their calm and his, especially his as he stood there at the front door, waiting for someone to come, his shoulders hitched back, his fingers slipped into his rear pockets, that must have kept us all at bay. We had seen him standing there in just that way a hundred times before; we had seen Sheryl come to the door, seen Sheryl's mother, on countless Saturday nights, greet him and let him in, and even thoseof us who knew Sheryl was gone, even those who knew why, must have considered the possibility that this was some crude and spectacular rite of hood courtship and that to interfere, to call the police, to run, at this moment, to her mother's aid, would have been foolish, either terribly childish or terribly middle-aged. Except for the sound of the idling motors, the smell of exhaust, the black strip of torn grass, it seemed harmless enough.
I don't know when we would have noticed the chains.
Rick rattled the door again and then cupped his hand to the side of his face to look inside. I thought I saw, but only faintly, Sheryl's grandmother appear on the stairs. And then her mother was behind the screen.
There was some exchange of words. Sheryl's name must have been heard by the boys scattered around the lawn, by the neighbors standing nearby. Rick suddenly glanced up at the house; his movements for the first time somewhat abrupt, nervous. He said something else through the screen and then quickly grabbed at it, pulling it open. He spoke again, as if the opened door would give him more meaning. We saw him lean inside, his foot on the threshold. His voice grew louder, but his words were still unclear. Then, in one swift movement, he pulled Sheryl's mother through the door. He was holding her forearm. I remember she wore green Bermuda shorts and pale blue bedroom slippers. He swung her around and off the steps. She fell with her arms out, the dry hedge catching her hips and her legs. I don't know if she screamed, but at almost the same moment she fell, the front door slammed--the real door this time, not the screen--and Rick began to yell.
Now the men in the neighborhood were running to their garages, calling to one another with what I remember onlyas sounds, sounds with lots of go's and ca's. "C'mon," I suppose they said. "Let's go." My father answered in kind, barking one syllable from our porch and then rushing past us. My mother, who still had a death grip on my arm, said, "Go call the police."
Rick had kicked the door and then run down the steps, yelling for Sheryl. He sidestepped across the lawn, looking up to the bedroom windows, to the one spinning fan. Her mother cried, "She's not here," and he looked down at her, made as if to kick her, and then, spinning around, called again. He was bouncing now, almost jiggling. He moved backward across the lawn, looking up at her house, yelling for her. You could hear the men running in the street. You could hear the boys gathering up their chains.
Rick bent as if he might fall, danced a little and then drove his fists into his thighs. His cry rose above the idling engines, the footsteps, the hum of backyard filters and window fans, the hard sounds that passed between the running men. For just one second before the fighting began, it was the only sound to be heard.
Copyright © 1987 by Alice McDermott All rights reserved