hauncey Malone arrived unexpected, singing through our cemetery gates. A terrycloth bathrobe flapped around his coveted Judas Priest t-shirt and knee-busted jeans. From the top of the hill we watched with eyes glazed from the joint passing between us. His first escape from the madhouse took half a year, the second eight weeks, and this last time he’d been locked up all summer and most of fall already.
The moonlit graves separated the quiet avenue in the distance from the woods at our backs. We had arrived through the trees, riding our bikes on a winding dirt path. Before Chauncey’s surprise appearance the scene had stayed quiet except for one of us coughing smoke, another’s laughter in response, or a car rushing by with the passengers holding those breaths, never turning their heads in our direction. A white-barked ash held its stripped arms out over us where we leaned against the frigid tombstones. It was easy in November to pretend we were shaking off the cold, because as a teenager you want to believe the dark is nothing to be afraid of. For a long time we can live that lie. But later we learn we were right. If the stars blew their fuses? And then darkness? Who knows what would come for us then?
The song in his throat was a medieval elegy. He discovered it in an a cappella music book that hadn’t been taken out of our town library in a million years. Endless in verses, the scroll of lyrics spoke to him. Chauncey chanted the words in some minor key dirge down in his basement room on Roosevelt Turnpike, holding court before Anthony Giacombossi, Remy Slesinger, Warren Chlebek, and me.
Above the shuffling of our poker cards and banshee vocals from the cassettes in the boom box, we could hear the boots of Chauncey’s stepfather creaking overhead and, late at night after our tapes played themselves out, the flick of a lighter as Chauncey’s mom— Maureen, we called her—settled in with a cigarette at the kitchen table for the first in a series of sighs as her smoke drifted to the ceiling fan, spinning with the blades to get shot out once again, continuing to rise with gained momentum into the ventilation shaft; through the house’s thin walls, drifting past the insulation, rusted pipes, loose wiring, spiders and their webs, the smoke would travel until it entered the attic room, lingering there, suspended over the sleeping bodies of the state’s cast away retarded girls.
Beatrice, Anastasia, Rose, Claire, Janette—they were freshmen in the Special Ed program at our school. When they saw us in the halls they waved; we always looked the other way. Otherwise they became blurred faces behind the windows of a small yellow bus shuttling them to and from Maureen’s. On those rides home after school they must have looked forward to dinner, where it wasn’t Maureen’s cooking that stirred them into a frenzy, but the attention from their permanent guest at the table: Chauncey’s stepdad.
Everyone called him Lucky. His white eyebrows and blonde mustache made him an easy target in the WANTED posters of his past. At the collision shop his boss had a habit of saying he’d hire criminals but never trust them, and Lucky would slither under a smashed up Indian low rider, a spark plug gripped between his teeth. Once a month he unlocked his cabinet of illegal guns in the garage to polish the weapons that were now his souvenirs of a life he’d left behind. Every night he sat down at the head of the kitchen table in his moth-eaten undershirt, surrounded by the attic girls’ beetle brows, crooked ears, wall-eyes, clawed cheeks, hung jaws.
After the dropped forks and spilt milk of their evening meal together, Lucky ran a comb through his mustache, lifting the tattoo of a serpent that curled around his forearm. Getting to his feet, he took his flannel shirt from where it hung on the back of his chair and filled its sleeves, fastening buttons with callused fingers (his hands were stained black with grease; not even the industrial soap he used could return them to pink) and said, Who’s in for repairs? The girls shrieked, each struggling to raise her hand the highest. Wintertime meant a Thursday night ritual, when they would flock around the workshop in the garage as Lucky tinkered with his motorcycle. Lining the shelves, labelled coffee cans held nails, screws, washers, bolts, spark plugs. One unmarked can overflowed in crumpled dollar bills Lucky no longer spent on cigarettes—a fund he called his wishing well.
Three photographs tacked to the garage wall:
1) Maureen in the middle of a blizzard wearing dark sunglasses.
2) Stan Deridoorian—Lucky’s best friend and former partner in crime—seated on a motorcycle in undershirt and jeans, arms across his chest, looking away. (A month after this was taken, fleeing a flower store robbery Lucky had refused to go on, Stan lost control of his handlebars, broke through a guardrail, jack-knifed into a ditch he never came out of alive).
3) Lucky kneeling with the girls outside a movie theater with posters behind them for Return Of the Jedi . Beatrice and Claire grasp his hands. The others hug him. Lucky’s mustache rises above his cheekbones in a smile as he yells something at the camera.
I knew from all the awful horror movies Chauncey had dragged me to that zombies did not return to the world singing. They came back for revenge. The low moaning notes rumbled through his voice as he ascended the hill, grappling for breath. Remy Slesinger spooked when an ash branch tapped his head. Balancing on the limb, a squirrel settled its glassy eyes on every one of us before it leapt to the ground and darted off down the slope, veering out of Chauncey’s path.
’Twas a haunting between/Did smash up our dream/We’d now only glean/ In the jagged-edged gleam/Of shards
, he chanted from a face obscured in shadows. I imagined phantom arms reaching out of the ground to drag him under. One blink and he was gone. I rubbed my eyes and he was back. Shaking my head at Anthony Giacombossi I said,
I’m seeing things
Anthony stared down, following the path of his leather jacket’s zipper to where it disappeared over the bulge of his stomach. I’m scared, he said, taking a Jawbreaker from a pocket and popping it from the wrapper into his mouth. Warren Chlebek stabbed the joint out on a gravestone and whispered, Play dead.
I’d be pushing up dandelions by now if I hadn’t buried the habit!
Lucky yelled to Maureen through the door that separated the garage and the kitchen.
But I won’t become one of those people who preaches.
Maureen exhaled over her crossword puzzle. She smoked alone after he quit. His forsaken Winstons had become her brand, and she lit one after another while he worked on his motorcycle. Maureen listened to him talking to the girls through the shut door and pictured him on his knees beside the engine, pointing a screwdriver into the air. She heard him ask,
Who wants a job? Lucky needs a beer.
When the door flung open, Maureen did not turn around to see the clumsy bodies scrambling to the refrigerator before hurrying back to him, each bringing a can. With her back to the closing door, she stared at the clue under her pen (DOWN 7: Person or thing past saving) then the empty boxes waiting to be filled. 5 letters. The word was on the tip of her tongue when she heard Lucky pop the tab of a beer, and imagined him drinking from the can. She closed her eyes on the blurring newspaper and saw Lucky watching thick flakes fall past the high windows lining the garage door; he licked foam from his blonde mustache, and she tasted snow.
Through the woods came a blast of wind to our backs. We braced ourselves. Fallen leaves brushed past, chased by a white plastic bag that took flight down the hill, flying over Chauncey’s approaching figure. Clouds crept in, extinguishing the moon. In his natural range—the middle register—he sang now about goblins and saints, witches and angels, the specters of this world and the next who deliver prophecy. No wonder the spine of that music book hadn’t been cracked in so long. Who wanted to hear songs like this? Chauncey crooned, snapping his neck as he threw back his head.
The date he picked wasn’t a mistake. My sixteenth birthday hadn’t felt any different from all the others. The same cards from my aunts had come along with the same phone calls from my two remaining grandparents, followed by the same sit-down with my mom where she told me the same story of my birth that always began, You almost killed me. At home a Carvel cake would be in the freezer, and a box of candles would yawn beside a note that said to rouse my parents when I got home from the library. They’d have had my head examined if they knew where I spent most of my nights. In the graveyard we had the vantage point, overlooking the whole town. A patrol car’s misery lights could be spotted with plenty of time to make a getaway. Not that any of us felt important enough to get chased after, except for Chauncey, who demanded it, becoming our undisputed leader by default.
Did he mean the song as a present to me? If so, it proved a bad one. On November 13th—nine days after this night—Chauncey Malone would turn eighteen. Almost two years before that, on his sweet sixteen, I rode for hours in the passenger seat beside him in his jeep, heading into upstate New York to visit his real father, Patrick “Bones” Malone, whom Chauncey hadn’t seen for six years, since Bones chased him out a second story window, a fall that broke both Chauncey’s arms and got him sent down to live with Maureen in Jersey. Upstate there are more woods than any place, and in autumn the trees burn reds and oranges for miles along the single-lane roads. Insects splattered against the windshield as we wound the tight curves. I prayed we wouldn’t run out of gas while Chauncey talked: I had to call my dad this morning and REMIND him it’s my birthday. He pushed in the car lighter (which had never and would never work), tucking a cigarette between his lips. Yours is November 7th, he said. His hand in the air between us mimed a pistol, the hammer of his thumb dropping, barrel of the index finger pointed toward the roof. See, I know that, he said. I’ll ALWAYS know that.
My birthday’s the 4th.
He pulled the car lighter from the dash and stared at its rusted spiral.
There were no streamers, no presents, no cake. The three of us sat around Bones’ kitchenette with instant coffee while Bones strummed an out of tune acoustic guitar. The bathroom door opened to a girl in food-stained sweatpants who could have walked right out of Maureen’s attic. Her eyes looked too close together in a massive head. The thermal arms of her shirt had to be pushed above the elbows to free her hands, which she stood wringing in the doorway.
That’s Candace, Bones said.
Chauncey turned to her and said, Today’s my birthday.
She smiled, revealing the whitest, straightest teeth I had ever seen. My own were growing in on top of one another. Bones leaned the guitar face-first against the wall. Wasn’t for the clients we’d be starving up here, he said. Union’s been on strike since Labor Day.
The work Lucky did all winter geared up for spring, when he could return to his night rides. On
evenings Maureen missed the deep freeze, the blizzards, the haled backstreets and iced traffic lights that kept everyone indoors. But once the weather shifted, Lucky opened the garage door to the driveway, corralling the girls into lawn chairs at the threshold as he wheeled out his Triumph.
He gave them gloves, earplugs, protective glasses, a child’s helmet. As the motorcycle revved he’d bungee-cord the first sputtering passenger to his body then call over his shoulder, Rosy don’t do like last time and choke on the wind so I have to pull over and carry you home again. When your mouth fills up with air, press it into the back of my shirt and breathe through the nose, understand?
Storming through the kitchen door into the garage, Maureen jabbed the air with her cigarette and said, The clients don’t have any business on that motorcycle! The girls puckered shut their eyes as Maureen passed them and stepped onto the driveway, smoke pouring out her nostrils. It’s their time for bed.
Lucky said, The girls can’t stay cooped up in that attic.
What if the state people…what if they…Lucky, huh? What if I lose those monthly checks from the state, and then I lose the mortgage on this house, and then we have no place to live, then what do we do? Tell me, what do we do then?
The girls want to fly, he said, knuckles grazing her cheek until she shook him off. Behind him, Rose lipped his shoulder, a trail of drool leaking from her lopsided grin as Lucky cleared the kickstand with a boot, tearing into the night. In the basement, we could hear the motorcycle roaring up Roosevelt Turnpike. I said to Chauncey, Where’s he take them, anyway?
He lit a joint and inhaled, counting off with his fingers one, two, three, four and a half before the smoke danced out of his lungs. He rides out along Marlingale Avenue and back, he said. Takes about five minutes but they think they’ve been gone a week.
Outside the garage in her frayed bathrobe, Maureen crossed her arms under her breasts. You could tell she’d been a real knockout once, with that red hair and porcelain skin. When she’d married Lucky she told him no more kids; she was through with all that. But as the motorcycle reappeared in the driveway her frown lifted into a smirk, and her eyes lit up when applause erupted from the folding chairs.
Where they came from none of us knew. Their mothers sent coloring books, Easter candy, makeup kits, glossy magazines, knickknacks from tropical islands—things Maureen had to keep from them. What are the clients going to do with a makeup kit? Maureen said. Make a filthy mess out of the attic, that’s what. I can’t give them candy, are you kidding me? I’ll have them bouncing off the walls they’re already bouncing off. Here, you kids eat it, you, all of you look stoned out of your minds. Have any of you eaten anything today?
The parents never visited, but the State people did, and those days Maureen locked us out of the house, yelling through the screen door, Stiffs coming today, boys!
Calendars full of X’s—we’ve flipped through them, trying to pinpoint when everything went wrong. By the fifth month Chauncey had become someone who smashed windows with a fist. The seventh month he couldn’t pass a fire alarm without pulling it. During the tenth month he assembled a bomb in the park out of a tin can, broken glass, and gunpowder, which exploded before he could finish building it. He walked home, bleeding, his face and arms black, into the kitchen where Maureen finished wiping one of the clients’ mouths with a paper towel, turning to him, unshocked.
What the devil happened to you?
she said. He poured himself a glass of water, blood on his hands, in the sink, a bright red streak across the glass he was about to drink from.
I blew up,
he said. Weeknights of the eleventh month he went out to the tracks alone, where he could throw Molotov cocktails at passing trains. On the twelfth month he would hold up a convenience store with a toy gun, two days before his 17th birthday. On this Sunday night the place looked empty. A security camera recorded the entire episode:
The woman working the counter has frosted hair and chipped nail polish. The last thing she ever imagined doing on a Sunday night in her forties was working at the 7-11 in our town. Chauncey Malone enters dressed in black. The woman reads a tabloid magazine at the counter, which she looks up from as Malone approaches the register and laughs, which we can see but not hear. He falls to his knees, disappearing from the camera. The woman closes her magazine and watches Chauncey perform what we have speculated is a backwards somersault. Landing on his feet, he reappears on the screen, wildeyed. He twirls a realistic-looking pistol, cowboy-style, on one finger, pointing with his free hand at the cigarette racks over her head. Does the woman on the screen recognize Chauncey Malone? We don’t know. But she does not step back or raise her hands above her head. Instead she gives him a long, hard look—a stare like a slap that says: I have already wasted my life on men like the one you will become, and you don’t scare me, not at all. Chauncey lowers his head as she throws a pack of Marlboroughs to the counter, flicking a matchbook behind. He pauses with a parted mouth he decides to shut, jamming the cap gun into the waistline of his jeans before snatching up the cigarettes to tap the pack against his leather wristband. Walking through the glass doors, he exits the video. With her palms flat on the counter the woman stares after him, then picks up the phone. We do not see Chauncey Malone sit down on the curb outside, although the woman does. Chauncey listening to the sound of his stolen cigarette as it burns out between his fingers, waiting. We watch the woman on the video watching him. She is our witness. She sees Chauncey flick the cigarette away as the lights of a police car approach: red, blue then blackness again. No sirens. Chauncey lights a match from the book and holds it before his eyes. Beyond the flame the flashing lights, our town, the whole world disappears.
The thirteenth month they sent him away.
When Chauncey forgot to take out the trash a second week in a row, Lucky ripped open the basement door and shouted from the top of the stairs,
You make a mess, you live with it!
A black bag landed at the bottom step with a thud. Then another came rolling down, leaking a trail of grease. The four of us stood, our red eyes widening. Chauncey kept guard at the sheet that was his bedroom door. Lucky called,
A loser—that’s you. LOSER!
before the door slammed, shaking the walls. The only light came from a lava lamp Anthony Giacombossi found on a curb during Big Trash Night. He had carried the lava lamp down the basement stairs cradled in his doughy arms, plugging it in on his hands and knees.
This may take a few minutes to warm up. Sorry.
From a pocket he pulled loose a Twizzler whip and devoured it with his eyes closed. Remy Slesinger, embracing the boom box to his chest, pressed STOP then REWIND as he said,
You don’t have to apologize for every—
I’m sorry, Anthony said.
The lava lamp was tacky, ridiculous, and all of us loved and wanted to own it. So it went to Chauncey’s, where we spent the most time together indoors. Already we had brought things of our own to the room. Remy’s Iron Maiden cassettes shared the same space with Warren’s Heavy Metal comic books. The boom box was mine. Now Anthony’s offering completed the pact. Plumes of fog swirled in a purple storm, pin-wheeling a tornado of smoke against the glass to mesmerize us all.
That’s not me, Chauncey spoke out from the silence that had descended. It isn’t. You guys think I’m a loser? Remy Slesinger pressed PLAY on the boom box, and a slaying guitar solo lifted our spirits. Remy could not stand at full height in the basement room. To be over six and a half feet tall at fifteen, his parents worried he would end up a giant. He rolled his shoulders forward, even sitting down. Blonde ringlets framed his face and fell over his chest. Why listen to anything your jerk-off stepfather says? he asked. Beside the lava lamp Warren Chlebek sat drawing skulls on his forearm with a ballpoint pen. His thin mane was tied into a ponytail. He hated Remy’s hair and height, knowing he himself would be bald before twenty five—a tradition among men in his family—and he would always be five inches shorter than he thought was fair. He said, Lucky’s the loser. That retard belongs in the attic anyway. A big round of laughter erupted, followed by a sudden hush.
Turn up the music, I said.
Chauncey stood and said, Turn it up alright, staring at the basement’s low ceiling. Wake the dead. He walked to me in the corner, throwing an open hand I met, our palms smacking together. Then he cradled his arms around Anthony’s gaining weight and hugged, hoisting the boy off his feet. Anthony struggled as Chauncey yelled, I may be half-crazy but at least I’m alive!
Somewhere in the haze of those fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh months of trouble, we sat in the school cafeteria above our gray lumps of food on neon orange trays, drinking soda from paper cups without straws or lids. Chauncey’s hair hung to his shoulders. A fake diamond earring pierced his left lobe. Holding the cup, his hands were sheathed in gun-metal-gray, fingerless gloves. He sucked up ice and spit it back into the cup, one cube flying from his lips towards the face of Steve Fretano, a hulking presence passing by, heading for a table near the windows where other football players in Polo shirts laughed with blonde girls wearing push-up bras and Jordache jeans. The ice cube whizzed by Fretano’s profile, just missing his nose. His eyes opened wide, one hand leaving his own cafeteria tray to point a finger at Chauncey.
Go bang your mother, Malone
, he said. Chauncey’s leap across the cafeteria table looked anything but graceful. Like a doomed superhero, he punched Fretano in the lips with a fist still clutching the paper cup. Ice cubes spilled to the floor. Fretano, although twice Chauncey’s size, looked terrified. Because you never know what somebody who gets called a lunatic might do in the name of his mom’s honor, like grasping your ears and rolling you across tables with him as kids finishing last minute math homework gasp and foods go flying, Chauncey still turning with you, off the table, where you land on your back, smack against the cold floor, and spinning on, the way as a kid you descended those long hills until the world turned too fast, but Chauncey with you now, above then below and on top again as you roll past the feet of the five girls from Maureen’s attic who sit at an end table, girls who stand, dragging untied shoelaces with them, swooning when they recognize Malone. He pulls you to your feet, taking you in his arms as though about to dance, and slams you both into the concrete wall. It all lasts until two gym teachers enter the cafeteria blowing whistles to pull him off you, Chauncey still spitting in your face.
Sitting in the principal’s office half an hour later with his clothes full of ketchup, milk, mayonnaise, sauerkraut, grease stains, Chauncey appeared as if ready for a talk show, himself the guest of honor with one leg crossing another and his fingers laced together over a kneecap. The rest of us waited outside, watching and listening through the left-open door. The Principal, a bachelor who wore funereal suits with loud ties, shook his head behind the desk that was too large for him. Tell me, Mr. Malone, why are you sitting in that seat? he said. Did I not tell you last week I didn’t want to see you in here again? Am I dreaming, Mr. Malone? Are you a ghost?
The madhouse would keep him out of jail, they said, although it wouldn’t, not once he’d slipped off for good. Maybe they figured: if he is insane then he’s going to the right place. And if he isn’t, he’ll come back. The problem was he did come back, acting crazier than ever.
On the day of his first return I sat in my room thumbing through an issue of Playboy I’d found in the woods. Water damage to the pages meant I had to peel them apart. The long strands of my brown hair, so greasy it turned black, kept falling into my face. Just as I was prying loose the folds of Miss April 1984, an emerald field with a Centerfold’s doe legs appearing before my eyes, my mother yelled out my name from the bottom of the stairs. Dropping the magazine and kicking it under the bed, my face blushed and erection died. I’m doing my Biology homework! I yelled, cracking open the door.
Malone on the phone, she sing-songed back. Her shoes squeaked off toward the sound of water running in the kitchen sink. Tearing down the stairs, I rushed to the receiver.
You’re out, I said.
I’m back. His words got swallowed in a garble of static.
In the tomb, he said. The earpiece crackled. Reception’s hell down here on the cordless.
You’re fading out.
My mother hummed over the faucet, washing last night’s dishes.
The graveyard, his voice said from far off. Fifteen minutes.
Burial grounds turn a different place in the daylight, when there’s nowhere to hide. I strolled the aisles of headstones—
Saracci, O’Cullen, Valagopolous, Mazza, Daniels, Zarokovsky, Garmo, Erikson, Shambelon
—until I came to an empty hole. At its side stood a mountain of dirt with an abandoned shovel jabbed in. Over the edge? Only blackness. Lowering myself beside the rim, I smoked half the joint I’d rolled to celebrate Chauncey’s release and, angry at him two hours later for never showing up, I finished the rest and spat into the grave, looking over both shoulders as I pedalled off.
We have since theorized that the phone call to me came after he’d escaped, gone home, and been trapped—when he knew there was no secret passageway to corkscrew him from his fate. Following this thread, it’s easy to imagine Lucky entering the kitchen, surprised to hear Chauncey downstairs. This is the part we don’t like to think about, but has to be true: Lucky turning the skeleton key on the lock of the basement door to seal Chauncey inside. With Chauncey on the phone below him, Lucky rode his motorcycle to the police station, five minutes away. When Lucky approached the front desk, a man in uniform asked, What’s your trouble? Lucky sneezed. This happened when he got nervous. A shotgun blast—Wah-chooo! A glaze settled over his eyes. Under his boots, the floor shifted. Wah-choo…wah-choo! He’d never been inside a police station without handcuffs on. Gripping his nose, he held his breath before exhaling: A loon’s trapped in my basement.
That was in May. The police came and dragged him back to the madhouse, but he broke out again by the end of June. At that time I was down the shore with my family. A tradition. All the uncles and all the aunts and all the cousins got together in the big house the adults rented every year, which would be overflowing at the finish of those two weeks with sand, flip flops, half-eaten cheese sandwiches, soggy towels, a million cigarettes, after-hours laughter, off-key warbling, arguments, empty bottles. I cloaked myself in black shorts and t-shirts, spending most of my time in the arcade (a cave full of smoke and neon lights) obsessed with Donkey Kong and Q-Bert. Sometimes I’d put on my mirrored sunglasses to walk the boardwalk among older boys with sunlight reflecting off the tin badges pinned to their wet swimming trunks. They whistled at girls who were probably my age but looking much older in their bikinis and summer tans. Afternoons, swimming in the cold ocean, I heard the white-nosed lifeguard from his tower of a wooden chair blowing a whistle, screaming at someone to come back. There wasn’t a jellyfish or hypodermic needle epidemic that year. One happened earlier—waves of them, jellyfish everywhere; my mother cursed the sea, wept in the sand, red sting marks covering her arms, legs, the palms of her hands. The other would come later. After hundreds of needles washed up along the Jersey shoreline, we stayed away for years. My father refused to ever swim in the ocean again, a decision he would later admit had broken his heart. On the beach at night I smoked grass with other loner kids. They, like me, were just visiting. When we exhaled over the sand dunes, listening to the sound of crashing surf, we could almost forget fall and the lives we would return to.
Chauncey Malone woke Anthony by shouting his name in the Giacombossi’s front yard. His voice had woven into Anthony’s dream. Anthony opened his eyes, happy, then scared. Chauncey was both in his dream and outside his window. Anthony wanted to go back to the dream. A voice, his name. Anthony! Anthony! He did not go to the window. The blinds remained closed, but Anthony, lying on his back, breathing through his nose, could picture the neighbors already mowing their lawns, some retrieving newspapers from doorsteps as they arrived back from trips to Main Street with brown bags full of hot bagels or pink boxes stuffed with donuts. Before he could imagine biting into a powdered jelly himself, he saw the neighbors turning to stare at his house, his window, as Chauncey yelled, Anthony! I’m outside! Come to the window! It’s me! Anthony rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in a pillow until the dream scattered, and the voice went away.
Chauncey walked to Remy Slesinger’s house, which looked tiny when considering the boy’s unstoppable height. Calling Remy’s name, Chauncey stomped through the flowerbeds. The Slesingers (people of average size) were en route to Maine, taking Remy to basketball camp. Mr. Slesinger had had it with his tall shadow of a son, the gloom stooping over you at fifteen years old! It’s summer, he said. This is fun I’m talking about. You’ll love camp. Remy Slesinger did not love camp. Humiliated in bright basketball jerseys and gym shorts, even in the middle of nowhere Maine, he stood out among kids intimidated by his height, his golden curls, his acne-scarred shoulders. Walk to the basket; watch for the ball. Even there, with his enormous hands waiting, he looked tragic. Remy Slesinger never touched another basketball after that summer. He kept growing and his parents continued shaking their heads. Later, none of them saw the footprints Chauncey Malone left over the chrysanthemums, where he had pressed his face to the Slesingers’ living room window. He curled a fist, half-threw it then bit his knuckles, heading to Warren’s.
When he got there he pulled clumps of grass out of the manicured lawn. A neighbor, hidden behind a curtain, dialled the authorities. Chauncey’s voice, hoarse by then, coughed out Warren’s name. Kleb-ek! Kleb-ek! With soiled hands he unscrewed the Chlebek’s garden hose from the sprinkler and sprayed Warren’s bedroom window. Warren raised the blinds and stood behind the spray with his hands to the glass as the police cruiser arrived. Later, Warren would tell us, I almost didn’t recognize him. They cut off all his hair.
Another time, during a party at his house when Maureen and Lucky were away, Chauncey picked the lock to the gun cabinet. In the kitchen we sat drinking whiskey on the rocks, betting cigarettes on our game of blackjack. Beside a pyramid of Camels, Remy Slesinger fanned the cards one-handed and said,
You’re in or you’re out. Last chances.
Smoke curtained the air while the stereo blared a Van Halen LP in the living room. Don’t ask me where the clients were that night. I don’t remember. I’ll never forget Chauncey’s stepsister Ashley showing up. Ashley at twenty-two years old, an age we couldn’t even imagine; Ashley who sold grass grown somewhere upstate with her prison guard boyfriend; Ashley who always wore miniskirts, even in winter, when she accessorized with leg warmers; Ashley chain-smoking Parliaments in Maureen’s bedroom; plastic bags lined with fresh green across the baby-blue pillowcases. A secret knock got you inside the room to Ashley crossing her legs on the edge of the bed, her tight black sweater crushing all our lungs. We emptied our wallets with haste to feel her fingertips brushing our own as she passed over the bags, taking our cash and tucking it away inside her bra. We lingered there, hands in pockets. We could not stand to watch her waving goodbye as she pulled a purse strap over her shoulder and walked out the front door to her rusted emerald Camaro. We wanted to yell,
Wait! Take us with you!
But she was already gone. I still wished she wasn’t, hoping she’d let me ride shotgun as Chauncey handed me a pistol at the kitchen table. Kids poured in the front door—faces from the halls. In a town our size, a party didn’t mean you waited for an invitation; you heard about one and you went. Beside me, Warren Chlebek said,
David Lee Roth is such a fag
as he folded his cards. The music rose from the living room until the kitchen table vibrated the half-empty cups, rolling papers, plastic motel ashtrays, stolen lighters, a bag of Doritos, a National Enquirer. I was not in the kitchen hearing Alex Van Halen’s double-kick drums thunder through the house but listening to the same song from the cassette deck of Ashley’s Camaro. I saw her twisting the volume knob all the way up as she shifted into fifth gear, cut the headlights, and we were gone when I raised my hand and pointed the gun at Jessica Rosenthal.
Why Jessica Rosenthal? The richest girl in town? I didn’t even know her. She wore red lipstick, a white t-shirt with a black bra, acid-wash jeans; her blonde, feathered hair looked soft at her narrow shoulders, and her long-fingered, pretty hands worked on a Rubik’s cube across the table. Why her? It could have been anyone. She didn’t look up, not even when Chauncey smacked me in the face and took the gun out of my hand.
The foundations of our houses had sunk in the deep valley. I could see this from the graveyard when the cloud cover rolled off and the moon reappeared in slivers. Then the streets caught the glare and shimmered, snaking our direction until the rust of the cemetery gates looked as clear as the cracked-up path that led into the tall grass, where all up the line the glowing headstones had become the color of polished bone. Shouldering free of his bathrobe, Chauncey’s ragged clothes swung loose over his chiselled frame. His face rose to the moon’s spotlight, illuminated. A buzzed skull. Those sunken eyes. Like a real maniac now, he held that look of the departed, the fallen, the missing, the already gone. When his voice went falsetto the song cracked but continued in broken notes forming a soundtrack for the earth to spit coffins into the sky, a scene fit only for Chauncey Malone, the star of what this had become: the worst horror movie ever—a musical!
No one sang in the freezing morgue of our town’s Shop Rite. Ruined men with scarves noosed around their throats ran the butcher counter, sighing as they ripped wax paper from huge spools. They never made eye contact, too busy watching the big clock at the wall, not time seeming to pass between the fish and the pork chops and the ground beef and the cold cuts. The women stocking the aisles wore fake lashes over black eyes. They lived out by the tracks and already looked ten years older than they could have been. Bluelipped from the temperature nobody could figure out how to control, they cocooned themselves under layers of snowflake sweaters. Their favorite thing to do was huddle in the employee lounge upstairs—an airless room boxed in with wood panelling—and chain smoke. They would do this until a manager wearing a ski mask came and found them, demanding they all get back to work.
Chauncey, earmuffed, manned the checkout register five nights a week. He always had his nametag on upside down. The name printed on it was wrong anyway. Everyone there called him Charlie. The Halloween he worked at Shop Rite, they had an employee contest for best costume. Fifty dollars, cash. We stopped by to see him that night, clutching bags full of candy we’d earned by throwing sheets over our heads and walking from house to house with empty pillowcases. Chauncey’s powdered face held a trickle of fake blood running lip to jaw line. In his mouth a set of plastic fangs clenched an unlit cigarette as he jumped through the automatic doors. I won! he said. I’m a winner! his cape flapping in the wind.
That money went toward his prized possession—the reject jeep. The jeep came with a snap-on canvas roof full of rips and tears. The seat belts were a joke; they wouldn’t have protected anybody from anything. The car’s gas gauge didn’t work, and how many times did I have to help push that piece of garbage back to Maureen’s? The jeep would die for good out on Marlingale Avenue half a year later. I stood at the side of the road as he destroyed the vehicle with a crowbar. First went the headlights and taillights, followed by the windshield. Glass cascaded over the asphalt. The canvas roof fell away where he slashed it free. Then he dented the hood, the doors, the fenders, and wailed on the bumper until it crashed to the ground. Last went all three rear view mirrors. Seven years, I said each time.
Undertakers must go on vacation come October, because the weeds grew as high as the wild blades in the cemetery. Knotted vines climbed out of the soil to strangle the headstones. Maintaining his lead, Chauncey trudged uphill, keening now,
Darkest light/Unholy night/ Tangled frights/And no flight of sleep/Exhumed in the deep,
as the automatic sprinkler system came to life, arcing jets over the graves he crossed.
Warren Chlebek said, Here comes the client.
Shut up, I said.
Remy Slesinger bent his knees, jabbing a finger into Warren’s small chest. You’re a real bastard, Chlebek, he said. You know that? Raising two middle fingers, Warren yelled, I was just kidding, you ogre! Then he dropped his hands and turned. Jesus, Anthony, he said, why are you crying? With his damp lashes batting and his blurred vision still focused on Chauncey’s advancing face, a spasm shuddered through Anthony’s plump body then caught in his throat, so he gagged before spitting out the words, I’m just so sorry.
It had already happened by the time I knew it was over. Biking the long way home from the graveyard no-handed, I kept to the backstreets lined in piles of dead leaves, tearing into one heap after another, feet in the air, leaving a mess in my wake. Somewhere a fireplace blazed; its chimney smoke curled into my nostrils, releasing the after-burn image of Chauncey as he had climbed the final slant of the cemetery’s hill, his lips in a jagged smile that made me look away. I took a left onto Main Street to glide through the only traffic light, past the already-closed pizza place, the Five and Dime, the Italian deli, the bakery, the magic shop, the single screen movie theater I’d been fired from for refusing to cut my hair. His singing hushed when I turned my back on him, and it wasn’t until riding off on the dirt path into the woods, never looking back, that I heard the voices calling after me, his loudest of all. The spokes of my bike tires rattled over the train tracks, where the No Name Bar’s window held the shadows of arms wrestling under wreaths of smoke. In my fogged head, I fast-forwarded myself home, where I would enter through the kitchen and climb the stairs to my room. Behind me I would close the door that always screeched from its unoiled hinge. This sound would jerk my father awake downstairs in front of the television, where he would reach for the remote control, pressing buttons. My mother, an insomniac, propped up in bed with a scotch in one hand and a book in the other, would hear the noise and spill her drink over the sheets, then pick up the empty glass, holding it to an ear. The wind was all I could hear now and the only thing left to feel as it flailed my hair into a whirlwind of strands whipping my chin and cheekbones. I pedalled the home stretch to my driveway and ascended to the side of the house, dumping the bike on top of the coiled garden hose.
For Chauncey Malone it would always be trouble: sent to the madhouse again, his voice unanswered again, the police again, locked up again, a life full of train-smashed pennies again, again, again, again, again. A year later we already thought of him as the one who got away, because his next escape would be to New York City, where the state of New Jersey could no longer touch him. We would not know then (how could we? But we would, we would) that he would fall in with criminals, drug addicts, mad and half-mad men, that Chauncey would die early this morning on his twenty-first birthday in a rat-trap apartment among people who were not his friends. Even in solitaire there are double-dealings—cards we’d sooner hide or bury, but we’re forced to look, and here’s the most crooked hand of all: it should have been him who aimed that revolver on Jessica Rosenthal, but it wasn’t. It was me.