Despite her husband’s opinion, Samantha preferred not to let her children rot in jail. The cool April sun had set and they were eating dinner by candlelight. They had been talking about their sons and recent news of an elderly couple beaten to death last week by three boys between the ages of eleven and fifteen, all apprehended yesterday and now awaiting trial.
“If one of my sons did that, I’d let him rot in jail.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You’re just saying that.”
Samantha didn’t know how to test his conviction as she was hardly likely to encourage her children to go and do likewise.
“What about Gavin?”
“What about him?”
“If Gavin had been involved, I don’t think you’d want him locked up and the key thrown away.”
His mouth stuffed with garlic-flavoured mashed potatoes, Mark didn’t reply. Just as Samantha thought. Like any loving parent, herself included, Mark would not abandon his children in their darkest hour. Although he’d deny it, Mark clearly favoured Gavin, so skilful in basketball, chess and karate. Well, to be fair, he also showered praise over Simon, brilliant on the alto Saxophone and piano, who organized and led the school’s jazz ensemble and played a mean game of ice hockey. Mark went to every game to cheer Simon’s body checking and stick handling. Both boys also achieved straight As in their school reports, which mattered to Mark more than it did to her. As a high school history teacher, Samantha understood how easy it was for students to get first class results by doing as they were told, flattering a teacher’s ego by paying eager attention, asking and replying to questions, and regurgitating information in a coherent fashion.
“Now, if Howie somehow got involved with the wrong sort.”
“Howie? He’s only thirteen.”
“So is one of the boys who killed that poor couple. Just supposing. Would you really want him to rot in jail?”
“Damn right,”he replied with a smile.
“But not Gavin or Simon?”
Both boys went directly after school on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings to one extra-curricular activity or another. Mark paused in cutting a cutlet and held his fork over the wine glass. Howie came home late as he dawdled, ate his meal quickly, then disappeared into his room after doing the required household chore for the day.
“They’d never even dream of such a thing.”
“I can’t believe you think Howie would.”
“I never said that. The discussion is academic. Our boys are fine. They’re not about to break into peoples’ houses and bludgeon them with baseball bats, are they?”
“No, of course not.”
In class, Samantha tried to listen to students give their reports on the assigned topics. She liked to get them talking about the Plains of Abraham or the Riel Rebellion. Although many students cribbed their work from the Internet, often with the assistance of parents, she didn’t mind because in the end they had to speak in their own voices without reading directly from a text. Originality didn’t matter a whit, an absurdity, really, when she thought about it. Forty students times the number of her classes times the number of years she had been teaching, all of whom now trolled the world wide web for facts and theories: how was it possible for adolescent minds to concoct original ideas about an essentially limited field like Canadian history? If they understood the matter more than not, got the facts right, and spoke in comprehensible English, she was content to pass them. Indeed, to scatter As about like gold coins.
“Very good, nicely spoken, Angel. Any questions?”
She surveyed the room. To avoid her glance, most students bent their heads over notebooks on their desks, some hiding cell phones. Even though it was unprofessional, Samantha had her personal favourites, but tried not to let feelings interfere with judgement. The clever ones actually wore the mask of eagerness, thinking she’d avoid them if they looked interested and knowledgeable. They would merely repeat what she had already said on the subject in previous classes or whatever they had seen on a website. But today Samantha wanted the exercise to pass quickly because she found it difficult to pay attention to teenagers repeating common knowledge and historical banalities when she was still mulling over the story of old people slaughtered by children like her own students, no older than her own sons, give or take a year.
Who among them would smash her skull, or run amok spraying bullets from an automatic until the bodies piled up in class rooms or the corridors ran with blood? Who among them would invade the homes of law-abiding citizens and kill? And why? How could a child even conceive of such monstrosity, then act upon it? She didn’t allow herself to suspect any of her students, nor did she have any original ideas.
“Bad things happen to good people, no one knows why,” was Mark’s explanation last night, followed by “They see too much violence in their video games and in the movies,” and “Parents are losing control of their own kids.”
During her break in the teacher’s lounge, the topic of adolescent murderers dominated general discussions, displacing the latest pedagogical theories about learning differences, and teacherly obsessions with the five paragraph essay. She didn’t hear anything remarkably dissimilar from Mark’s point of view, or hers for that matter. A mathematics teacher originally from India whose virtues he extolled daily, although he hadn’t returned to the country in forty years, blamed the values of western civilization, specifically American materialism which inevitably determined how Canadians lived.
“What values exactly do you mean, Vijay?”
“Instant gratification, something for nothing, the decline of courtesy and obedience, hormone-addled teenagers with lunatic desires fed by the media, you need only to examine popular culture.” He offered her a mug of tea.
Accepting, she didn’t argue the point because, upon closer inspection of the evidence and motives as reported in the papers, the boys had indeed murdered for a quick fix of cash, wanted something for nothing, and could hardly be called either courteous or sane under the circumstances. She did, however, disagree with Vijay’s sweeping cultural generalizations which always struck her as more convenient than insightful. To avoid dispute, for the man loved disagreement and debate with fellow teachers, she asked him if he knew where she could buy asafoetida as she was planning to cook an Indian lentil dish on the weekend, and apparently the ingredient possessed anti-flatulent properties. Her sons needed more fibre in their diets, more exposure to the world’s culinary wonders.
Six months after the killings, the investigation complete, the victims’ adult son and daughter wanted to sell the house and had engaged Mark’s services.
“Would you like to see it?” Mark asked after returning home from driving Gavin and Simon to their Saturday morning acitivites. Howie had remained silent at breakfast and shrugged when Mark asked why he had nothing to do that morning. Fortunately, Mark didn’t pursue that line of inquiry because Samantha sensed resentment in her youngest child’s clutching of the cereal spoon. She had cautioned Mark about his good-humoured teasing of Howie. Her husband had simply shrugged his shoulder and tousled his son’s hair. How gangly the boy had grown. It wasn’t so long ago when he used to cuddle up with her on the sofa in the recreation room and they read the strange and wonderful novels of Lucy Boston together one winter, well, she read more than he, especially after everyone else had left the house.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Brilliant answer. Afraid?”
“Afraid of what? I’m not afraid, I’m just not ghoulish.”
“You wouldn’t even know a crime occurred. The place is spotless, not a drop of blood or brain residue in sight.”
In the end she decided to go and was taken aback by the similarity between the Stromberg house and her own: both raised bungalows constructed twenty years ago, with attached garage and cedars flanking the front door. She could well have lived in such a place herself. And yet the difference between the two houses was eerily apparent. And it had nothing to do with paint colour.
“This house is dead.”
“What do you mean? It’s brick and vinyl siding. It’s neither alive nor dead, it’s a house.”
Samantha knew what she meant. The windows seemed blank, opaque really, impervious to light, and it wasn’t the result of the draperies being drawn. The rectangular flower beds with their arrangement of frost-bitten begonias and functional impatiens imitated the perfection of a cemetery. Stunted by topiary, the cedars had been sheared and shaped into geometry.
“I wouldn’t buy this place,” she said as Mark unlocked the front door and they stepped on to the parquet floor of the chilly interior. “Fortunately, you don’t have to. I told them to keep the place heated. Doesn’t help my pitch if prospective buyers feel uncomfortable. People don’t want to walk through a cold house..”
“Or a dead one.”
Mark didn’t hear as he entered the living room to the right. She remained standing under the dusty brass chandelier. The boys had sneaked into the house through an unlocked basement window sometime after eleven in the evening, she recalled. And started rummaging around in the dark, surprised by a light suddenly switched on.
“What?” She was startled by both questions, the first hers, the second Mark’s response.
“You want to see the kitchen. They had it remodelled before...”
Even Mark thought it wise not to say the obvious. An enviable kitchen, she admitted, ceramic backsplash, granite counter, slate floor tile, island, built-in-pantry, and steel appliances.
“I can see finger prints on the refrigerator door.”
“What are you, a cop?”
“That’s the problem with steel appliances. They show every mark. And the granite...
“What’s wrong with the granite counter top.”
“Nothing, it’s all the rage now, granite counters...I don’t see why. My laminate is perfectly serviceable, attractive, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
“What a pity they didn’t have your input before they remodelled.”
“All that money put into this kitchen...it is beautiful. Were they gourmet cooks?”
“How should I know? I need to check out the basement, great family room downstairs.”
She paused at the top of the stairs, watching Mark’s back. They were murdered in the family room. Apparently Mr. Stromberg had heard noise and went down to see and one of the boys—the fifteen year old? the thirteen year old?—swung a bat against the side of his head, knocked him down then struck three times, according to his confession which he repeated in juvenile court. Then Margaret, after a few minutes of silence as if they had all—the boys—stopped in their tracks watching blood flow from Mr. Stromberg’s skull—Margaret called after her husband.
“Peter? Everything alright?”
“Who the hell is Peter? My name’s Mark, remember?”
“That was his name.”
“The man, Peter Stromberg.”
“You need to get a grip, Sammy.”
True, but she couldn’t be as cool and indifferent as Mark, checking out things to be certain the premises would show well for the Open House tomorrow. Not a stray magazine, not a lamp shade out of kilter, no casual casting aside of an afghan or piece of clothing, no unwashed dishes, no family portraits, certainly none of the slaughtered couple, anywhere. The mantel above the fireplace with the field stone surround remained bare except for two brass candlesticks. At the bottom of the stairs a new rug covered the tile. It would have been easy to clean the blood, if any, off.
“Good. I told them to put a bowl of lemons and apples on the dining room table. Adds a touch of class, don’t you think?”
Oxygen would have been nice, Samantha was about to add, except she knew it sounded silly and, despite the evident heaving of her chest, one could breathe. Mark breathed very well, flitting from one room to the other, approving, whistling, checking off a list on his blackberry, opening cupboards, making two or three calls on his cell phone. And poor Margaret, her body crumpled and awkwardly arranged at the bottom of the steps, her white cotton eyelet nightgown soaked in blood. Surely, prospective buyers would know the history, the recent history of the house. The price had been reduced, murder tending to have a negative impact on market values.
“Good, we’re done. It shows well, I think.”
“Oh, you mean...are you still on about that? People forget. This house is in great condition, ideal location, a bargain.”
“If they forget, why not raise the price?”
“Because my clients want it off their hands as soon as possible. I said people forget, I didn’t say the family has forgotten.”
No, she didn’t imagine they would and yes, she could understand why they’d want to be free of the property sooner than later.
They returned home later in the afternoon after stopping off at the market for fruit and vegetables—even Mark had decided to change his eating habits now that he was approaching his 45th birthday and a 40 inch waist. Despite a certain heaviness about the hips, she had managed to keep reasonably trim for her age and only recently considered applying a rinse to her mostly chestnut hair. For supper he wanted to grill salmon and vegetables on the terrace as he enjoyed barbecuing in September. If it got too chilly, they could wear sweaters or retreat to the dining room. He bought burgers for the boys in case they were home. She noticed. Howie’s bicycle on the lawn. With luck Mark wouldn’t comment on its being unlocked.
“I see Howie must still be hanging around. Why doesn’t he do something on Saturday like his brothers? By the way, I’m taking Gavin and Simon to the ball game tomorrow. I didn’t ask Howie because last time he didn’t show much interest. Maybe I’ll think of something else to do with him. but I don’t think he much cares one way or the other.”
The butternut squash in the bag would have made a very handy weapon, indeed, and sometimes, fancifully of course, she could just brain Mark. Not all boys were the same, Samantha refrained from speaking to avoid yet another tiff over the boys. Not everyone liked what her husband liked. There were many different ways of being perfectly happy and male, weren’t there? Defending or explaining Howie didn’t win him any points in his father’s eyes.
“Well, I’m glad he’s home.”
“You would be.”
“What does that mean?”
His cell phone rang. Flipping it out of his pocket and opening it with a graceful, experienced gesture and, speaking in his jocular, real estate voice, he walked out of the kitchen, and out of reach a potential explosion. Samantha placed the bulbous-ended butternut squash in the pantry.
For the barbecue, a neighbouring couple joined them, elderly and good-natured, retired civil servants who clucked over government waste of tax payers money and the violence of contemporary youth. They had in fact personally known the murdered couple, and wondered what the world was coming to. Mark had tried to engage the boy in conversation, joking to his neighbours that Howie would grow up and surprise them all one day. Samantha, much to Howie’s visible embarrassment, explained how carefully he had constructed a city of several thousand Lego pieces just last year—she had a photo of it somewhere—but had since dismantled it. And Mark asked him too loudly if he needed anything, like money for running shoes, or just a few extra dollars for a movie. Howie grabbed a plateful full of burgers, grilled zucchini and potatoes, then left the adults to their own pleasures. He mumbled something, a sullen kind of thanks, before disappearing through the sliding patio doors.
Declining help from their neighbours, they cleaned up after the meal, including Howie’s plate which they found on the kitchen table. Mark retreated to the garage where he wanted to change the oil of his car. Rather than read a novel or grade student papers, she wondered if Howie wanted to watch a movie. They could go to the local video store together, not more than five minutes drive away.
Of course, she knocked first. Seated in his corner chair, Howie immediately saw whoever entered his room. The computer monitor was positioned on the desk with its back to the door. He blogged and chatted with any number of like-minded cyber friends, if that term actually meant anything, and Samantha, determined to operate on a system of honour and trust once her boys had reached their teens, had decided not to query or investigate too closely. Education and parental advice had cautioned them about predators and unsavoury on-line practices. Too much policing only led to subterfuge and parents, surely, had to respect their children’s privacy? What was the point of policing every move the boys made, as if rigorous attention really prevented delinquency or worse? Oh dear, rearing children had been difficult enough without the interference, now inevitable and inexorable, of the Internet. How often had she read about psychotic kids logging onto bizarre and violent websites? Admonishing her children not to do so, discussing the methods and motives of madness and perversion, all finding happy sticking places in the world wide web, had been their only weapons. That, and love, and goodness. Both she and Mark loved their sons, and really, they were all good people. As Howie did not reply to the knock, she claimed a mother’s right to enter and was surprised not to find her son in his room. Checking the computer, Samantha saw only the monitor’s screen saver of contracting and expanding multi-coloured circles, polyhedrons and parallelograms.
Looking out his bedroom window, she could see beyond the front yard into the hydro field across the road, which cut through the neighbourhood. In the winter the hydro pylons rose above the houses like frosted giants made out of meccano pieces. Although some neighbours disliked living near the towers with their buzzing, live wires, Samantha found them oddly beautiful and hypnotic, contemporary sculptures really, and believed the landscape of bland architecture improved by their presence. Supposedly cows suffered, the milk in their udders somehow disarranged by the magnetic field or ions, or some such thing. She had also read about the statistical probabilities of carcinogenic effects. Neither bovine nor apprehensive, she celebrated the towers as bringers of light and heat and all sorts of good things prepared on her electric range. Of course, as a parent, anxiety lay like a sleeping cobra coiled in her heart, hissing awake especially when predators lurked about the lilac bushes, snatching children later found ravaged and slaughtered. Nothing like that had happened in this particular hydro field, but past experience, she understood perfectly well, in no way determined future events. And there, without a jacket, stood Howie in his black sweats and black T-shirt imprinted with Kurt Cobain’s face, swinging a baseball bat in the field.
Surprised, she moved away to call Mark but upon seeing that Howie missed the ball every time he threw it up with his left hand and tried to hit it with his right, she decided to let the boy play without being overlooked by a mocking, disapproving father. It would also spoil the pleasure of the moment for the sun was setting and the towers acquired a pinkish-gold cast and the still green field of clover, burdocks, bachelor buttons and wild asters deepened to dark emerald with hints of purple, and her boy, her darling youngest child, practised hitting the ball with...no...yes...could it be?
From this distance it was too hard to tell so she rummaged through a closet in Mark’s den down the hall and found the family binoculars. Downstairs she heard Mark on the telephone talking to the oldest son of the murdered couple. Why anyone wanted to mortgage themselves to a house in which psychologically damaged boys had bludgeoned people to death with a bat, she couldn’t fathom. Apparently, a potential buyer wanted a second view tomorrow, but a promise to his boys meant that Mark could not make himself available so he asked the son to show the interested party himself. Would he mind terribly? He, Mark, would immediately talk to the client Sunday evening and discuss terms and probably reach a deal. People never doubted Mark’s ability or confidence.
Adjusting the lens of the binoculars, she spied Howie, who had moved further afield, almost directly under a pylon, and swung the bat again. Yes, the bat as she suspected, belonged to Mark. None of the other boys had ever been allowed to use it because his own father had given the bat to Mark thirty years ago when Mark played in a little league and had achieved quite an impressive record as a hitter. It had been signed by no fewer than five, once famous players of a team she no longer remembered, so presumably it carried both monetary and sentimental value. “If any of my boys becomes serious about playing ball, well then, he gets the bat when he hits his first home run. Not before. Until then it stays in the closet,“ he had said to Gavin and Simon a few years ago before they had even joined a local baseball teams. Howie had also been present. Both boys had in fact hit home runs during the three years they played, but somehow the subject of the famous bat never came up again, as Howie never joined a team. Nor did she recall ever seeing the bat again until this very moment. Mark had stopped playing baseball himself a decade ago.
Was it dangerous to play directly under the hydro tower? She hadn’t really given the matter much thought since all the neighbourhood children had over the years commandeered the hydro field as their communal park, soccer field, even camp grounds at times. What if Howie somehow hit the metal or the ball flew up and rebounded off the wires? Not that Howie seemed to have any luck connecting. Each time the ball fell to the ground, he picked it up and tried again, clearly determined to strike bat against the ball. He swung hard, once so hard, he knocked himself off balance and fell. Then he stood up, threw the ball above his head, waited for it to fall within range, swung and missed. Why did he persist so? Curious, she did notice that, despite failure in one regard, Howie’s swing seemed to get stronger. Rather than tiring from the exertion, even from where she stood watching the boy through binoculars, she could tell he was swinging harder and harder, faster and faster. “It doesn’t matter if he hits the ball,” she whispered, the pane of glass misting over from her breath. “It’s a kind of exercise.”
She tried to focus on Howie’s face but he bent and turned and twisted so much that she couldn’t catch him, except for once or twice when he paused to stare at their house. She fixed on his expression, or lack of it, because she saw, however briefly and perhaps fancifully, a clenched impassiveness, more a mask than the face of a boy, nothing she had ever remembered seeing before. The phone downstairs rang and Mark answered. She didn’t hear the conversation. A few minutes later he shouted. “Simon and Gavin want to stay at Billy’s house for dinner then go to a movie. Okay? They won’t be back until eleven or so, before midnight anyway. Billy’s dad promised to drive them home. I said they could.”
A common enough arrangement although she wished that Howie had somehow been included. Yes, of course, all children were not the same. Still, she would have preferred more social activity and fewer solitary past times. How could a mother force friendliness? The last time she had offered to read with him Howie looked as if she had stripped naked in the school corridor in full view of his classmates and teachers. Not wishing to emulate Mark’s way of seeing things, she decided to let Howie alone, just to demonstrate patience and love and to let Howie know, however discreetly, that she would never desert him.
With the late-setting sun, the shadows lengthened in the field, shifted and reshaped by a rising wind promising cool rain overnight. She wanted to go outside and call Howie. Given the hour, it was better to go to the video store now than later, but the boy’s efforts somehow transfixed her to the spot by the window, as if she needed to discover how long he’d continue before exhaustion defeated him. Holding the binoculars against her eyes until her own arms ached, Samantha caught her silent and gesticulating son in the perfect circle of the lens, and kept watch. The towers reared in the darkening September sky. By shifting her position or moving the binoculars up and down, they lurched, became animate and emboldened, adroitly lifted their elegant legs off the cement moorings and glided towards the oncoming clouds. Her persistent boy pointlessly continued swinging his father’s baseball bat against the air under the vibrant, buzzing wires.
Published On: April 15th, 2007
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/070415.htm