5 gru 2011

“We have a right to know”

“We have a right to know,” said Dallas.
The men were standing out on Bergeron’s front porch, smoking cigarettes, with the exception of Dallas, who had taken up smoking a pipe after garnering a subscription to Playboy about six months back. There were four of them: Frank Dallas, John Kelly, Alan Gottfried (whom the men referred to playfully as “Gott”) and Nathan Bergeron. The wives were inside Kathy Bergeron’s kitchen, playing bridge and gossiping and listening to the news on the television.
It was what happened every week. It was normal.
John Kelly and Gott said nothing, simply looked down at their feet and smoked a little quieter, somehow. Kelly was a contractor, and the only bachelor in the group. He was perhaps the most-well-liked man in the neighborhood, by both the men and women, but he was a simple man, and not prone to abstract thought. Still, he was kind-hearted, and that meant more than brains in a lot of ways. He had nothing to say to Dallas, not because he agreed or disagreed, but because he was not sure.
Gott was close to Kelly’s opposite, and it was not uncommon for him to stop conversation for minutes at a time, eyes clouded over with thought, as he pondered God-only-knew-what. He was the oldest of the men, sixty-three–years-old, and he had been a university professor and poet before retiring this past year. His wife, Charlotte, was a good ten years younger, and a good twenty years wilder. It had been her idea to have these weekly dinners, certainly not her husband’s, as he was clearly uncomfortable with too much talk. His cigarette burned away between his fingers as he watched the house across the street, neglecting to raise the dwindling butt to his lips.

But Bergeron spoke, and with a confident smile:
“Frank, I can’t see how it’s any of our business. You ought to stop reading those Playboy stories…giving you ideas.”
At which Kelly chuckled rather loudly and even Gott let a smile cross his lips, at Dallas’ expense.
Bergeron’s eyes seemed to shine with the flare from his cigarette, smoke easing out of his mouth like the breath of God. He was an architect, and a damn good one; youngest of the men but already making more money that the rest of them, even Dallas, who was lining up to inherit his father’s share in a big city advertising firm. He was tall and handsome and in good shape for the suburban life, his arms still ropy with the muscle he’d gained in high school and his face only light with beard. In many ways he was a challenge to Dallas, as he was a challenge now; Dallas was quick to irrational thought and absurdist fancy, and it was Nathan who always reeled him in. Even now, out on the porch, as the lights flickered on in the house across the street, he maintained a level head. Yet within this realm of competition there was a firm friendship, and the two of them got along better when Kelly and Gott were away.
Frank puffed away on his pipe and shook his head, chuckling dryly as if to say, All right, fellas. Joke’s on me.

Still, he pointed the pipe at Bergeron, and then at the house across the street.
“All joking aside, it isn’t normal, and it isn’t right.”
To which Bergeron laughed, louder. “What’s not right about it?”
“He’s working at this hour, always these odd hours. And it’s a hook-light, I can see it wavering through the windows…he must be carrying it with him from room to room. I can hear him every time I walk by, Nate, always noise coming from that house. Except in the middle of the day, then it’s quiet. Too quiet. I just want to know, Nate. I need to know.”
Bergeron looked incredulous. “Need to know what?” he blurted.
“What’s he building in there!?” Dallas gesticulated frantically across the street with his pipe hand, and just then the quavering light coming from the house flickered off altogether. Gott started. Kelly gasped and actually dropped his cigarette from his mouth, whereas Dallas opened and closed his mouth like a trout, speechless in his apparent triumph. Bergeron only shook his head.
“Now he’s building something? Good God, Frank. You need to find something constructive to do with your time.”
Dallas chewed on the edge of his pipe, keeping his eyes on the house. His fear appeared to have surpassed curious fantasy and now bordered something very real, and it was almost contagious. When his spoke, it was with great effort to sound calm and rational.
“I tell you, Nate. Whenever I walk by that house, I can hear the sounds, and you can bet I recognize them. Hammers, saws, and the television on, way louder than it ought to be. Even heard a scream once, I swear it.”

Now all of the men, even Bergeron, turned toward the house across the street, the lamps along the sidewalks piercing the veil of darkness, hiding paranoid shadows between walkways. There was nothing out of the ordinary, and after a while, all of them began to feel very silly, even Dallas, and the conversation began to shift back to the standard talk of politics and more conventional local goings-on. About an hour and several cigarettes later, the women came out of the kitchen and chided their husbands that it was growing late. Finally, Kelly went home, and that was about the final straw, which led Charlotte to head on home while her husband stayed behind to smoke one last cigarette, and Kathy Bergeron kissed her husband on the cheek and walked inside, and Jeanine Dallas did the same for her husband but lingered on, not wanting to walk home without him.
At last the butts were snubbed out, smoking, onto the hard concrete of Bergeron’s front walk (he’d collect them in an ashtray when the others left) and the neighbors were easing to their own homes, and Dallas turned back with a sigh to the house across the street. It looked empty and dark, but harmless and altogether ordinary. He seemed a little defeated as he sputtered:
“I just wish I could know what it was he was working on.”

Bergeron shook his head once more, a little more playfully, and clapped his neighbor on the shoulder. “Look, in the morning, when the sun’s out; you’ll feel ridiculous for even having thought about it. Get some sleep, Frank.”
They shared a reassuring smile, that sort of Aw shucks, thanks, friend glance that men who’ve known each other for a good while all manage to create on command. Then Frank’s wife looped her arm through his and they started to walk home, until Gott spoke up for the first time in the last few hours.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Gott, and it made them jump a little just to hear his voice. He was eyeing the house through old clouded glasses and rheumy blue eyes. “I’ll tell you one thing. He isn’t building a playhouse for the children.”
And it came out sounding like a joke, and everyone laughed as they headed home, but there was no smile on the older man’s face as he made his way home alone, in the dark.

The next morning was Saturday, and the neighborhood awakened slowly and it was all business as usual. By noon the children had finished their chores and started a game of baseball in the end of the cul-de-sac, with John Kelly volunteering to play pitcher for both teams, just to make it fair. Bergeron leaned against his porch with his wife and Charlotte Gottfried, whose husband was stuck up at home because he had woken up “frightfully ill.”
As promised, Nathan had awakened feeling ridiculous about having even talked about their neighbor at the end of the street. After the others had left last night, Bergeron had been picking up the cigarette butts, and keeping an eye on the house across the street, when he realized that he didn’t even know the man’s name. Something like Jacobs, only maybe a little more foreign. He was older, almost Got’s age, and here they had been standing around in the dark like a lynch mob, making him out to be some kind of monster.
“Penny for your thoughts, Nate,” cooed a voice a voice behind him. He turned around, startled out of reverie. It was Charlotte Gottfried who had spoken, but his wife was chuckling as well, and it was clear enough that the two of them were having a laugh at his expense.
Bergeron shook his head.
“Sorry, girls. Just off in another place.”
“You mean across the street?” started his wife, her tone accusatory. She hadn’t mentioned it at any of the weekly dinners (it wasn’t her place to criticize her husband in public), but lying in bed together, Kathy had made it clear enough that she didn’t approve of the men’s “obsession.”

Nate sighed. “I was just thinking about how none of us know his name...”
Kathy had a look on her face that said she wanted to reprimand her husband and neighbors, but that quickly faded to one of mortification. Her cheeks reddened. She didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t remember his name, either, but her face said it all. There was a moment of guilty silence between the three of them, but it was broken by Charlotte.
“Jankowski. Everett Jankowski, the second. He used to run a consulting business-” She paused for effect. “-in Indonesia.”
There was no hiding the guilty smile on her lips.
Kathy Bergeron, meanwhile, looked aghast. “Oh, Charlotte! You didn’t!”
Her smile widened. “I did! Got his whole file...”
In addition to having a talented poet for a husband, Charlotte Gottfried supplemented her income by working as a secretary for the local real estate office. Charlotte had been known to, on occasion, sneak into the personal files of certain clients. She had never used the information to professionally blackmail, except when a divorcee of lesser repute had threatened to take first prize at the County Bake-Off. Charlotte had uncovered more than her fair share of dirty laundry on her rival and forced the woman to drop out of the contest. While Charlotte had never confessed this to anyone outright, she had implied enough that Kathy had figured it out, even though the incident had never been discussed soberly. Still, Charlotte found that she couldn’t feel much remorse for her actions. On the contrary, the secretary had found that on some visceral level, she had sincerely enjoyed her victory, dirty tactics or not. It was primarily that pleasant feeling at having uncovered a hidden fact, moreso than any actual personal interest, that had motivated her in investigating Everett Jankowski the Second.

“And he has a wife,” she added, nodding.
Kathy and Nate quickly turned their gaze to the house across the street, but Charlotte only laughed.
“Sorry, sorry, ex-wife.”
“Dead?” inquired Nate, trying to remind himself that this whole conversation was ridiculous, not to mention, probably illegal. There was no good reason for them to be snooping on one of their neighbors, a harmless old man. Nevertheless, it was hard for his mind not to race with images of Jankowski’s wife lying dead on the floor.
Charlotte shook her head.
“Nope, divorced.”
“Is she local?” burst in Kathy suddenly. She didn’t approve of this business, certainly not, but she couldn’t help feel a twinge of curiosity.
“Nope,” repeated Charlotte. “She lives in someplace called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee.”
Mayor’s Income, Tenessee. Damn if it wasn’t a strange name for a strange man to have come from. Nate had been hoping that the more facts Charlotte spouted, the more innocent and boring Jankowski would seem, but every new detail seemed to add a little more quirk to the old fellow across the street. He struggled to change the subject.
“Anyone seen Frank and Jeanine?”
It was a weak attempt, and Charlotte saw right through it. She was well-determined to keep this conversation trained on the provocative.
“Now, Nathan,” she tutted. “You know they’ve gone to visit his parents this weekend.” Suddenly the tut turned to a wry smile. “Or did you perhaps think that he’d gotten them?”

There was no mistaking which “he” she had been talking about, as both Charlotte and Kathy burst into giggles, covering their mouths with their hands. Nathan grew beet red, but was saved by a sudden interruption:
“What’s all the hubbub, guys and dolls?”
It was Gott. Charlotte frowned and pointed an accusatory finger at him.
“You were supposed to be in bed, sick,” she cawed.
The old man chuckled and leaned back, hands outward in a gesture of surrender. “Oh indeed,” he said. “Frightfully ill! But all that rest did me good, and now I’m fit as a fiddle. I just need to talk to young Mr. Bergeron here alone for a brief minute. Nathan?”
He grabbed Nate by the shoulder, and their wives exchanged suspicious glances, but there were already rounding the corner into Nate’s sideyard before anyone could make a comment. When they were completely out of earshot, Nathan got a good look at the older man. His brow was furrowed, and slick with sweat. There was a pronounced redness to his eyes, and a pale, papery quality to his skin that didn’t exactly signify perfect health.
“Christ on cracker, Gott,” muttered Nate. “You don’t look fit as a-“
“I went next door,” the old man blurted. “To Jankowski’s.”

Nathan’s jaw dropped, but he supposed it made sense. You didn’t get over the flu or even a cold from a two hour nap, but two hours was certainly enough time to sneak around your next-door-neighbor’s yard. Especially if your wife was across the street, talking with friends, and the rest of the cul-de-sac was occupied with a children’s baseball game. He continued to gape, but Gott didn’t seem particularly amused. He just shook his head.
“I live next door to the man. And while I thought Frank was jumping to conclusions,” he cast a furtive glance back in the direction of the house. “Well, something wasn’t right. So, I made up the sick bit to get Char out of the house, and I poked around a bit.” He paused and licked his lips, chapped.
Nate’s eyes were wide. “Well?”
“I swear to God, I heard someone moaning low.”
This drew a scowl from Bergeron, but Gott held up one hand to stop him from speaking. He was regaining some of his color, but he didn’t look well, yet.
“This was in five minutes, Nate. I sneaked all around that man’s house. As far as I can glean, he sleeps during the day, because although the television set was on, it had been left on. There was just static, turned up way too high, and under that, well...”
“The moaning?” inquired Nate. His tone was snide, but he was starting to get a little worried.
The older man didn’t pick up on the sarcasm. “Yes!” he said. “It was a woman, I tell you! Younger! I could hear them, like someone crying out in pain, for help, or...”
He trailed off, but Nate picked it up.
“Pleasure?” he was a little embarrassed even to use the work. “Have you considered he might have a lady friend over?”

Gott had. And that argument certainly didn’t work. There was no car in the driveway except Jankowski’s, and no one had seen or heard it leave since Thursday, and even Nate had seen the man unloading groceries. He had been alone. If he had been bringing a woman around, he would have had to sneak her in underground, for them not to have seen her. Nate rubbed his forehead, working this over in his head.
There had to be a logical explanation. Somewhere, there was something they weren’t considering, a lurking variable that explained all of Jankowski’s bizarre behavior. Nathan had been hoping that Gott would at least keep a level head, but even he had fallen prey to the paranoia of suburbia, and if Frank found out about when he came home tomorrow afternoon, he would be frantic. Gott and Frank would get John Kelly on their side, and pretty soon they would call the police and create a fiasco to enrapture the whole neighborhood, and all they would accomplish is frightening a helpless old man with some eccentric habits. He had to nip this in the bud right away, for Jankowski’s sake.
Nate clapped one palm on Gott’s shoulder.
“Look, calm down. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation behind everything. We can all go by tomorrow and talk to Jankowski, and if anything seems off, we can call the police, okay?”
The poet looked unconvinced, but he nodded.
“I suppose you’re right, Nate.” He smirked. “Even if he is some kind of Commie, or a whackjob, what can he do to all four of us? In broad daylight?”
With that, Nate smiled goodnaturedly and went back to his wife, and Gott to his, and they all had a laugh about the house across the street and sat down to watch the game. Everyone packed up before dinnertime, and, safely armed with the knowledge that the four of them would deal with Jankowski together, in broad daylight, Alan Gottfried left Nathan Bergeron to his own devices.

Bergeron, however, had never planned on waiting. He’d be damned if he let this paranoia escalate any further. Around 7 that night, he excused himself, claiming to have some extra work to do at the office. Nathan drove his car out of the cul-de-sac and out to one of the side streets of their neighborhood, parking it out of sight and walking back onto his own street. He felt like a burglar; he was wearing black slacks, and he had found an old black turtleneck and shrugged it on over his dress shirt. He trudged along the cul-de-sac, now sinister in the soft glow of the streetlights, and felt ridiculous for even letting it get this far. Well, he thought. Won’t get any further than tonight.
Nate inched along the edge of the lamplight, hoping to avoid being seen by any of the neighbors or, god forbid, his wife. After what felt like an eternity of heart-racing, deer-in-the-headlights sneaking, Bergeron finally stood out of the lamplight in the front walk of the house across the street. There were no lights on inside or out, not even the infamous flickering hooklight. There were no sounds from the house, or even from the other homes on the street.
It was quiet as the grave.

Nate felt fear creep the back of his neck for the first time since of all of this had began, but he quickly snuffed it, and walked up the dying front lawn to the door with renewed vigor. He would talk to Jankowski, apologize extensively, and sort this all out before things got too embarrassing. He walked up the front steps, chest puffed out, confidence reverberating in every step, and let fall four swift raps on the heavy wooden door, but felt some give.
The door pushed open.
Nathan paused, hesitant, and eased back. The last thing he needed was to make himself out to be some kind of snoop. He wanted this all sorted out in a calm and reasonable manner, with no one coming out looking bad. He knocked on the door again. Nothing, but the door swung inward a little more. Then...
A scream.
A woman’s scream.
And without thinking, Nathan bolted into the house, casting aside any possibility that he had been considering. It didn’t matter if Gott was right, or Dallas, or even if he had been right all along and Jankowski was a harmless old man; someone in there needed help, and Nathan Bergeron was the kind of man who didn’t ignore a call for help. He shoved aside the door and ran down the hall.
And straight into a baseball bat.
Jankowski must have heard his knocks, because he had been positioned right behind a bookshelf in the hallway, and had simply swung out with the bat right in time to smack the do-gooder in the forehead. Bergeron went down and stared up at the old man dazedly. Somewhere in the background, the woman was still screaming. There was a bang and a thud, and footsteps, and Nate realized that Jankowski had shut the door behind him. All of a sudden, the old man didn’t seem so helpless.

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