Empty word balloons of breath slip from the young woman’s mouth and vanish in the night air as she moves toward me on the sidewalk that transects the snow-covered quad. Between the hem of a dark woolen coat and the tops of short soft boots, the flesh of her calves flashes silver in the moonlight. Hunched forward, hands in pockets, there is somewhere she wants very much to be, someplace warm where she can relax and roll the tension from her shoulders, free of the heavy coat and the chill weight of a New England winter. We come abreast each other near the silent fountain at the center of the quad, the marble bowl and pedestal rimed in ice. She raises her eyes to me, acknowledging our brief intimacy as cohabitants of a time and space, or perhaps to gauge the possibility that I pose a threat; it’s feasible that I know her, have taught her at some point, but I am no longer very good with faces and names. I see the movement of her eyes and turn my own away. Across the quad is the Van Meter Building, unremarkable, a faux La Corbusier. I stare at the ghastly thing as I walk on and the crunch of rock salt beneath slim, barely-booted feet sinks in silver distance behind. My breathing has changed, I feel lightheaded, yet for all the welcome exposure of her lower legs it is not lust for a fellow night walker that causes this. Not with the arid tightness in my throat, the unconscious lengthening of my stride toward home. Not with the abrupt and familiar cramping deep in my belly. This is nothing so painless as lust.
Back in my den by a small fire, awaiting the blank relief of my latest medicine, I think again of the old man. He must have had a first name, and I’m sure Mona could provide it if I called tonight and asked. But to my mind he is simply Renshaw and that is, I think, enough.
He became important during the summer when I was nine years old, that first confused summer after the war. It had to have been summer because I had all kinds of time, more than I ever had during the school year; no one I knew studied as much as I did for school, not even Mona and Rick. My parents were obsessed with education, and my aptitude for things academic had been noted. A plan was born. I did my homework each day upon arriving home from school, then read ahead in one subject for an hour. After that I was quizzed on the extra reading by my father, or by my mother in his absence. I don’t think I resented the extra work, and as my life progressed I had reason to be grateful for it.
Neither of my parents had graduated from high school. Many of the Depression generation sought to correct that failure through their children, and to their credit my parents succeeded. First the twins, Mona and Rick, and then I, five years their junior, graduated from college. This was a pass to lifelong security, in my parents’ eyes. For me, of course, it led to a lifetime in school, where I have in fact found whatever security I’ve had, and where I hope I have managed to do some good.
I had been aware of Renshaw for years, of course. With an older brother and a block full of families with children, the presence of an old and mysterious recluse two houses away was not something of which I could be ignorant. But the war had quite naturally commanded the greater part of my attention; although my father could not serve, having lost the use of his right arm in a highway accident when I was an infant, most families on our street had sent a son or a father, at least an uncle or a cousin, and there was no end to the movies and radio programs featuring soldiers, sailors, and airmen bravely battling the evil Nazis and Japanese. It was wonderful; it seemed the war was fought for the benefit of small boys, as the world entire lay open to my imagination and front lawns became Pacific Islands, while every backyard tree harbored Nazi snipers. My friends and I would pair the names of neighborhood enlistees with those of the best movie actors to create our own pantheon of American warriors: Larry Wayne; Errol Walters; Gregory Beck.
It was in 1943 that our street first lost a soldier. Larry Belson, the brother of a girl Mona knew. One evening before dinner, Mrs. James from three doors down came to the house and spoke softly with my mother in the kitchen. Within minutes my mother was gone, out of the house with what was supposed to be the family meal, to the Belson house on the corner of Hudson and Passaic Avenue.
A quiet settled on the street then. The excitement of the war, which for us children was patriotic enthusiasm but which I came to realize in time was constant anxiety for the adults, went on, but with no tolerance for the customary games. I was sharply hushed if I fired a dime store pistol at an imagined Japanese soldier, silenced with a look of shocked disapproval as I undertook to fall loudly and heroically beneath an enemy fusillade. My friends were likewise constrained. If our attentions at any time during this period turned toward the faded yellow house occupied by an all-but-invisible old man, I can’t recall it. The adults’ insistence on quiet simply turned our war in a new direction, toward the rewards of covert activity. We imagined devices that rendered our weapons noiseless and spent the daylight hours riding bicycles and playing ball until darkness called us to the fields of secret battle.
Further losses were visited upon Hudson Street before war’s end, each followed by a time of muted play. Gradually, each such period would end and our lives become much like they were before, if altered by yet another name we could no longer use in constructing our heroes. My friends and I honored the fallen with a miniature graveyard in woods near the ball field at Morristown Park, a row of small crosses made of sticks lashed together with kite string. We could not find a satisfactory means of inscribing names on these meager monuments, but we occasionally laid out circles of victory garden spinach leaves as ersatz laurel wreaths around them.
Oddly, I recall the first time Renshaw’s name registered as something worth remembering; it was before the war, one evening at the dinner table while my father smoked a Chesterfield and my mother and Mona cleared the dishes. I must have been five or so. Rick was not there; it’s likely he’d finished his meal and bolted outside to his friends, his custom until he discovered girls and stopped being home much at all. My father looked at my mother as she reached for the bread plate and said, "Haley tells me the old man was out last night."
Mother stood upright, the plate on the palm of her hand. "Renshaw?" she said. I watched her intently while my hands beneath the table rolled the peas I wouldn’t eat into a cloth napkin, which I stashed in a pocket.
"Yeah," my father said. "Out in his yard after midnight, walking. Just walking in circles."
He must have a dog, I told myself. I wondered if I could play with it sometime.
"How did Haley manage to see him?" my mother asked. Her tone said that Mr. Haley, our next-door neighbor, must have been doing something wrong. Mr. Haley beat his own dog, Butch, so she was probably right.
"Says he heard him. Moaning or singing, a real low sound. Said it spooked him and he got out of bed, went into the attic and looked out the window so he could see around that pear tree."
"And he was just walking?"
"That's what Haley says. Around and around, making that low sound, smacking himself in the leg with his fist."
Mother shook her head, frowning. Then she took the remaining heel of bread into the kitchen. She would find a use for it, of course.
"Finish your potatoes," my father told me.
Indeed, there were rumors about the old man, then and for several years after. Some had him hiding in his house from the law, coming out after dark to curse and rave in his fenced yard about the criminal partners who had abandoned him. Others had him leaving late at night to operate a web of criminal enterprises he secretly ran in New York City, less than an hour away. The ones I liked best, that summer I was nine, portrayed him as a rich old miser, hoarding gold and jewels and other treasure that he’d stashed away throughout his house, distrustful of banks - as many older people were - and fiercely determined that no one would take so much as a dime while he lived. During our covert warfare period, my friends and I embellished this theory. He’s a Nazi spy, someone would offer; he’s keeping money and gold the Gestapo stole for Hitler. It thrilled us to think of the old man's treasure, so clearly not his to keep, and with my two closest friends, Doug Haley and Mike Smith, I began plotting to right the scales of justice.
"My dad saw him walking around in his yard," Doug said, amazed when I related my memory of the dinner table conversation. We were gathered on the front stoop of my house, our bikes laying nearby as the sun set. "He never said anything to me."
"He wouldn't," Mike told him. "My folks think the old man's off his nut, probably dangerous. They don't talk about him when they know I can hear it."
"How long've they been talking about him?" I managed to say.
"Same as yours, I guess,” he said. “Off and on for a long time, but a lot in the last few weeks."
We decided that Renshaw represented an intolerable mystery. No one had the right to be so unknowable. I doubt we thought about it at the time, but it occurs to me now that our thoughts had led to the same fundamental conclusion reached by the adults around us. The difference, of course, was that young boys observe fewer of the social niceties than do their parents. We were not bound by the conventions which bridled their curiosity.
Mr. Haley’s long ago attic excursion was a lamentable half measure. I proposed that each of us pilfer a flashlight from his home, and that we meet one night after our parents were asleep to reconnoiter the old man's house. Doug and Mike agreed.
Finding a flashlight was no problem for me. Rick kept one in a dresser drawer, with his pocketknife and compass in the tin lockbox he kept under his pajamas, the box that also contained five small, hand-colored photographs of naked women. These were the only such pictures I had seen. I found them interesting for comparative purposes; surely Mona didn't look like that without her clothes, or my mother. I thought that possibly Theresa Aiello, who lived on the corner of Hudson and Center, might, but at nine this line of thought was purely academic. For his part, fourteen-year-old Rick did spend considerable time at the Aiellos’ house, although Theresa's younger brother Anthony was his closest friend and that might account for it. Perhaps not.
The key to the lockbox was on the top shelf of the closet in the bedroom that Rick and I shared. The flashlight's batteries were strong.
Waiting wasn’t easy to endure. I was appalled by the number of petty impediments that can arise when something truly important needs to be done. Though we had committed ourselves to action with the clear-eyed zeal of crack paratroopers mobilizing to drop behind enemy lines, we were thwarted in succession by Doug’s sudden departure on a ten-day vacation to Cape May, a brief recurrence of Mike’s asthma, which panicked his mother and kept him confined to his room for more than a week, and the unforeseen, maddening impossibility of my leaving the house late at night without waking my parents, whose room opened onto the upstairs hall near the head of the very creaky stairs I had to descend in order to escape. On two occasions I was compelled to feign sleepwalking, Rick’s flashlight held to my belly by just the flimsy drawstring of my pajamas. Only God knew how much ill-gotten swag the old man had buried in the yard behind his suspiciously high fence while we, righteous agents of his imminent exposure and destruction, suffered these ignominies.
During daylight hours there was now fairly regular talk about Renshaw in the parental ranks. Discussion centered on his reclusiveness, and there was disagreement as to whether he had always been so solitary. Mike’s mother argued that he had at least been civil to her at one point, perhaps before the war, before his wife left him.
“Why did she leave? That’s what I want to know,” Mike reported his father saying. “Maybe she knew something we ought to. Maybe he’s doing something we should know about.”
As the war neared its end, and was then at last over, the question of what Renshaw did, alone in his house, became pervasive. After years of having our attention focused across the sea or overhead in fear of an enemy attack that the government insisted would never come, it seemed we had suddenly become aware of our immediate surroundings again, with some of the war’s anxiety lingering to color our perceptions; it might have been that the tension of the war was too great to release all at once, or that the losses suffered had forever removed the certainty that where we lived was a safe place. But there was no denying that the neglected yellow house became a magnet for speculation, its inhabitant somehow more than just an odd, longtime neighbor. Renshaw became a human inkblot test - what do you think he is? What are you afraid he is?
At dinner one evening I asked my mother about him. I was aware that doing so meant risking the exposure of my own interest in the subject, but if I was to learn anything, if I was to learn even if there was anything definite known about the old man at all, asking my mother seemed the surest and safest course. My father was prone to dislike what he considered intrusive questions about anyone; when he had mentioned Renshaw to my mother in the past, I believe, he had been genuinely unsettled by Mr. Haley’s account of the old man’s strange behavior, so unnerved that he needed to speak of it to effect a kind of exorcism. Sharing what Haley had told him with my mother was a method of lessening its power to wrongly preoccupy his mind. He felt he had no right to know his neighbor’s business, or to speculate.
“Mike says the old man in the yellow house is crazy,” I said, casually. My mother stared at me across the table. Mona, beside her, looked at me as she had one morning when I showed her a dead mole I’d found in the yard. Rick kicked me sharply under the table.
“Mike should mind his own business,” my father said.
I was not to be cowed. Whatever I learned might prove useful to Mike, Doug, and myself in fulfilling our mission. “Do you know him, mom?”
My mother answered after a brief pause, perhaps expecting my father to speak. “He’s an old man who lives alone,” she said. “That’s not a reason to say there’s something wrong with him.”
Mona chewed a forkful of her dinner. She nodded, as if to say, There. Mother has spoken, now leave it alone.
“Some people say he was a Nazi spy,” I said.
Mona closed her eyes and my mother looked blank. Beside me, Rick made a noise that might have been a laugh.
“Enough,” my father said from the head of the table. He leaned across his plate and stared at me hard, not angry but determined that I not miss his point. “I won’t hear that said in this house. I don’t know what the truth is about that old man, but no one should be called that without a scrap of evidence. No one.” Plainly, he had heard the rumor before. I was not aware at the time that many adults were deeply frightened by reports of spies at work in the nation. There had been arrests in Manhattan; an innocent man was beaten near to death in a town nearby, on the strength of rumor alone. I was unaware of these events.
Yet even at nine, I realized that the conversation was over.
“Eat your peas,” my mother said.
I began to prepare for the full scale investigation of Renshaw’s house and yard by staging minor reconnaissance “raids” of my own. After dark, after I had been in the house for my bath and was dressed for bed, I would announce that I’d left something - my fielder’s mitt or a comic book - outside, and didn’t want it damaged by rain, dew or marauding nocturnal animals. My mother or father, if the announcement drew any response at all, would scold me for my carelessness and tell me to get it and come right back. Out the door I would go, Rick’s flashlight in hand, to dash quickly behind the Haley’s house to their side yard.
The risk of being seen by someone in the Haley’s house was slim. The shades were always drawn on that side, because the windows afforded a view of nothing but the crabgrass in the side yard and the east side of Renshaw’s home. The interior of the old man’s house was not entirely dark, and the dim light that could be seen shifted irregularly from room to room behind gauzy curtains; the effect of this unpredictable and meager evidence of life must have played havoc with Mr. Haley’s nervous disposition.
There was a method to my approach. I would first crouch beside the basement window near the back of the house, my own back to the first board of the high wooden fence that began at the end of the wall and enclosed the yard. Slowly, I leaned forward until I could peer into the window by turning my head just slightly. The basement was always utterly dark, and the windows had gone unwashed for years. Nothing to be seen there. Still crouching, I moved forward along the wall of the house. There were three windows on the first floor: one, almost directly above my starting point, I took to be the kitchen window; the next was midway along the wall; and the last very was near the front of the house. Typically, none of these were lit. Renshaw’s habits, whatever they were, apparently kept him on the second floor of the house at my bedtime hour. I came to expect the dim light in an upstairs window as I crossed the yard separating his house from the Haleys’.
The middle window belonged to a dining room. There was a table and four chairs, a small chandelier, and a glass-fronted china cabinet across from the window, against the far wall. I did not see this all at once; by chance, a full moon helped me one night to see the china cabinet, which reflected its slanting light, and by shielding the flashlight with my hand and shining it indirectly through the window glass, I was able on successive nights to discern the outline of the table and chairs. They were big, thick pieces, the table oblong and the chairs without cushions on their seats.
In the front room, one night, I saw something. I had completed my rounds of the basement and dining room windows, not trying the kitchen window because experience had proven it was blocked by something, cardboard or a light wood, from within, and was just looking into the front room around the window frame when a flickering light, like a candle flame, pulled back from the filmy curtain and quickly disappeared toward the other side of the house. And in that single, terrible instant before the light withdrew, leaving a blue trail in the air before my eyes, I glimpsed a horror.
I jerked back and flattened myself against the wall beside the window. I stared toward the west wall of my friend Doug’s house, feeling foreign and lost. What I had seen had no place on Hudson Street.
I attempted no further solo exploration of Renshaw’s property. I could think of no suitably important possession left outside on the following night, and so went to bed directly after my bath to lie haunted by the same image that had plagued me all that day. I tried hard to sleep, as the previous night was a fitful failure; my performance on the ball field in the afternoon had been notably lacking in vigor, and I did not want Mike and Doug to think I was unfit for the mission to come. I told them only that I thought we must act very soon. I didn’t mention what I’d seen and found that I was doubting it myself. Why try to describe something that was only glimpsed for an instant? I reasoned. You don’t really know what it was. Proceed as planned. See it together.
Rick came to bed at his usual time, after ten. He put on his pajamas in the dark and turned on his bedside lamp after he lay down. I was awake.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” he said.
“I’m not tired,” I told him.
He smiled and shook his head. “You’ve got duffel bags under your eyes. What’s wrong?”
I told him about Renshaw. I explained that not knowing anything about him was driving me crazy and described the mission that Doug and Mike and I had pledged to undertake. I said nothing about my visits to the house.
“You’re going to look in the windows?” he asked.
I nodded, feeling guilty in my silence, but more worried that he might betray me. Would he tell dad?
“I wondered what you were doing with my flashlight,” he said. “I can tell you what’s in the downstairs rooms, anyway. He’s got a table and some chairs and an old Victrola like grandma’s got in Lyndhurst.”
I was amazed. “You looked?”
“Stupid,” he said. “Of course I looked. But I never saw Renshaw. For all I know he doesn’t exist, or maybe he’s just an old ghost now, floating around inside that ugly yellow house. Look! There he is at the window!”
“Stop it,” I said, trying to conceal my terror. I didn’t look at the window, but I didn’t pull the sheet over my head, either. It was a small triumph of will.
“Stay away from that old man’s house,” Rick said. Mom and dad are all worked up about him, all the grown ups are, and they might have a point. There’s something wrong with that old guy, and the best way to find out is to let mom and dad find it out. I heard mom say they might call the police about him. She told Mrs. Aiello that she’s almost got dad convinced to do it. You leave it alone and maybe we’ll know soon enough.”
After Rick was asleep I thought about why I didn’t tell him what I had seen in the front room of Renshaw’s house. The thing in white, floating away across the room, gliding up the stairs, just like the stairs in our own house. The eyes I saw through the window glass for just part of a second. If I told him, I told myself, he would not believe me. Or he would tell mom and dad. Or both. The risk was not acceptable. This was something I’d promised to do. This was a mission. Mike and Doug were signed on, too, and I could not let them down.
If what Rick said about our father calling the police was true, there could be no more delay.
Doug slept late the next morning. Mike and I were waiting for him on the Smiths’ front steps when he came outside.
“You look tired,” Mike told him.
“Har har,” Doug said. “What you want to do?”
I told them.
“Tonight,” we agreed.
Having tested every conceivable route down the stairs from the upper hall, I now could follow one that allowed a silent descent. Moving precisely, with a lightness of foot suited to traversing a minefield, I could negotiate the steps in zig-zag fashion without a single telltale creak or pop to awaken my parents. Success was further assured at the dinner table when my mother granted Rick permission to spend the night at Anthony’s house. Though a sound sleeper, my brother would occasionally stay awake for an hour or two beyond the official “lights out,” reading contraband magazines with the aid of his flashlight. To my relief, he didn’t ask for it before leaving for the Aiellos’.
Mona was no impediment to my plan. A resolutely perfect child, she went to bed at the appointed hour and slept the sleep of the good. To this day, I’ve no doubt, her dormant hours are untroubled. Her own children have followed her model and are doting, ever present, kind. We have lived always in parallel worlds. She would not mark my passing by her door.
My parents were asleep by ten o’clock. Their regularity was a comfort in many ways, and on this night I blessed them for it. I made my way down the stairs with a gratifying smoothness and slipped out the front door of the house like a wraith.
Ribbons of translucent cloud slid across the night sky, softly obscuring the crescent moon. I waited behind Doug’s house impatiently, my skin tingling, every nerve receptive to the slightest movement of the heavy summer air. If necessary, I would resort to tossing clods of grass, even small pebbles, against Doug’s bedroom window. There would be no aborting the mission tonight.
“Hey,” Doug said. I jumped, startled. He was standing behind me. “Gotcha, huh?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
Mike appeared then, flashlight in hand. Absurdly, the light was already turned on.
“Hey, idiot, turn that light off,” Doug said.
This was not good. Mike and Doug, both slightly larger than I, were fond of physical play, wrestling and punching each other in the bicep until one begged off, saying “Uncle.” It could be loud. “Enough,” I told them. “Turn out the light and be quiet, damn you.”
The profanity stopped them cold. At nine, we had not yet begun using it with any frequency. The words were imports from the adult realm, potent and serious. It was a different time.
“We have to do this right,” I continued. My voice was firm and even, the voice of command. I liked the way my friends looked at me then. I had the plan, and they listened.
The wood fence enclosing Renshaw’s back yard was tall and extended straight back from the sides of the house and along the property line at the far end of the lot. Built five or six years earlier, it had excited some comment at the time, as there were no other fenced yards on the street. Rick told me once that he’d assumed the man had bought a big dog, or that his wife was going to plant a garden and didn’t want us running through it, as we would doubtless have done. But interest in the odd event had faded as the possibility of war increased. Pearl Harbor had eclipsed it entirely. Only the sight of Renshaw’s wife climbing into a cab at the curb, the driver heaving two big suitcases into the trunk before pulling away, managed to draw any attention to the yellow house after that. Until it was apparent that the old man wasn’t coming out anymore.
According to Rick, Mrs. James had brought him a pie, long ago. She didn’t like to talk about it, he said. Mrs. James was otherwise quite a talker.
I explained that we would go over the fence one at a time. Doug had alertly brought a stepstool from his house, which would enable us to get a good grip on the top of the fence and pull ourselves up. Coming back, the pear tree on the other side would make things even easier.
“Why do you get to go first?” Mike said. “Why not me or Doug?”
“I’m not going first,” Doug told him.
“Shut up,” I said. “Keep your voices down. You can go first if you want.”
Mike considered it. He looked at Doug. “Nah,” he told me. “You go first.”
Looking back, I can see that my friends’ commitment to the mission had never matched my own. Planning was all right with them. Talking about the things we would do, the adventures we would have, that was all good fun. But when it became clear, on this humid night, that I was actually going over the fence into the old man’s yard, they wavered. I had to do something.
“Look,” I said, struggling to keep my voice at a whisper. “We all said we would do this. We can’t back out of it now.”
Mike wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I’ll do it,” he said. “But how about if you go over and then come tell us if the coast is clear? That’s part of any mission, somebody goes first and makes sure it’s safe.”
Doug agreed. “Yeah, that’s how they do it.”
“No it’s not,” I said. “What if half the troops decided to wait and not land with the rest on Omaha Beach? You think that would have been good?”
They had no answers.
“Let’s go,” I said. I picked up the stepstool and turned toward the fence.
I dropped softly to the ground near the base of the pear tree. The yard was dark; the tree and the house blocked what little light the moon might have provided. Within the confines of the fence, the blackness was nearly total. There was no sound.
I moved in a half crouch toward the back wall of the house. The grass was high, brushing my shins and knees. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the back door and two basement windows just above ground level. There was another window at the first floor level, and two more above. No light was visible in any of them.
The basement windows were dark. I crouched between them, breathing hard.
Rick’s flashlight was wet and slick in my hand. I held it sideways against the glass, as I had learned was best. Cupping a hand over the lens, I switched it on.
I could see nothing definite, only shapes. There seemed to be stacks of something, boxes, I decided, filling the room beyond the glass. The bulky shadows reached almost to the window itself. Treasure?
On impulse, I turned off the light and ran my hands along the window frame. If it’s loose at all, I thought, maybe I can get it open. There. Movement at the lower right corner of the frame. I worked my fingers around the corner, pinching them painfully, my knuckles rubbed raw on the sill. I tugged, and the window came free in my hands. I knelt there, holding it.
I stared into the dark basement. All I had to do was slide in over the sill and I’d be there, at the heart of the mystery. I would find the answers to the questions, learn things no one else knew. I set the window against the wall beside me and stood. My mouth was dry and my legs shook. I pressed my hands against my knees to still them. If I was quiet, I could even go upstairs inside the house, walk through the front room, the dining room, the kitchen. I could write my initials in the dust on the old Victrola, sit in a chair at the big wooden table. I could look out that back window above my head and stare into the yard, into these shadows, from inside.
A sound behind me announced that Doug and Mike had arrived. Suddenly I didn’t want them with me, didn’t want to share this any longer. I turned to wave them back.
It wasn’t them. The old man was there. He had been in the back yard all along, in the darkness, and I hadn’t seen him. I saw him now. Close enough to touch.
Tall and thin, he looked down at me with the huge, sunken eyes I’d seen in a waking nightmare, through a window. His hairless head and arms protruded through ragged holes torn in a white bed sheet, which he wore like a shroud. His right arm rose and fell repeatedly against his side, the balled fist thudding against his leg. His face was skin pulled tight against bone, twisted in a grimace of unspeakable pain. I watched his mouth working, seeking speech, but from his throat came just a rasping, glottal sound that sprayed my face with flecks of spit. He raised an arm, reached out to me.
I ran. I bolted around him and fled through the tall grass, scrambled through the lower branches of the pear tree and leaped the fence, hit the ground between Doug and Mike and kept on running, out of the Haleys’ yard to the sidewalk, up the front steps of my own house and through the door, upstairs and down the hall to my room. I dove into my bed, pressed my face to the mattress and the pillow to the back of my head. I squeezed my eyes tight, but the face and the sound and that bony, black-nailed hand remained. My mother and father appeared, my mother held me, my father’s warm hand stroked my back. Mona looked in from the hall, sleepy and confused.
I was sick to my stomach, and my father carried me to the bathroom, where I continued vomiting in the toilet. I sat on the floor there, my back to the cool tub, my shirt soaked with sweat, and I smelled my own fear, my horror, my unreadiness for living. My father helped me wash my face, and my eyes in the mirror frightened me to my bones.
I calmed eventually, enough to tell them what I had done and seen. They called the police. The old man was taken away that night, to a hospital where he died within days. Or weeks. I can’t remember now. It was cancer, they said, and my father told me this himself, I don’t know why. The doctors said it was everywhere in the old man. It was in his throat and in his lungs. His belly was eaten up with it, and one of his upper arms was a mass of hard nodules, like stones beneath the skin. They said it had savaged him for years. He should not have lived as long as he did.
What were my parents thinking, I wonder now, when I told them what I’d done? What did they feel? I told them everything, even that I had removed the basement window and had decided to go in.
There was no anger, which surprised me. I expected my father to be furious at such an obscene violation of the old man’s privacy, but he was instead nearly silent. He told me what he heard of the old man’s death and disease, but that was all. Perhaps he felt partly responsible for what I’d done, because he had not called the police earlier. My mother, I recall, was plainly relieved that I had not been hurt, and for a long time after that night insisted on knowing where I would be when I left the block and was more likely to watch me ride my bike or play ball.
What my parents could not see, apparently, was that my world had changed. I had changed. My reconnaissance, instead of providing answers, had brought me more questions. And these were questions, I somehow knew, that they were incapable of answering. This knowledge imposed a distance between us and I began to miss them then, years before either would die.
How could there be pain like the old man’s? I wondered. How could a human being live with such agony, alone but surrounded by people? How could no one have gone to his door, why hadn’t anyone bothered, after that one stupid pie?
How could my own parents, good people two houses away, have let the old man suffer so?
In time, a consensus was reached among the adults on Hudson Street. The approach of the war had frightened Renshaw so badly, they decided, that he deliberately isolated himself from all human contact, with fatal results. He began stockpiling the cases of canned food that eventually filled his basement, and outfitted his home for an open-ended period of self-sufficiency, installing an oversized water tank in the kitchen that was fed by a rainwater trap on the roof. At some point, relatively early in this process, his wife had simply fled.
Perhaps, the general reasoning continued, as an older man with vivid memories of the first World War, he was so fearful of another that he could not trust anyone at all, not even enough to find help when the unexpected happened, when his illness took hold and began to destroy him. He was a victim of the war, this argument ran; I heard it stated many times. My father, for example, talking with Mr. Haley at an outdoor neighborhood dinner in early August, gestured toward Renshaw’s house with the bottle of Ballantine Ale in his hand and said, “Let’s hope he’s the last one the war kills.” Haley grunted agreement and they turned away, toward the card tables laden with bowls and platters of noodle salad and potato chips that stood along the sidewalk outside our houses.
I couldn’t agree. I stumbled through the waning weeks of summer void of energy and interest in baseball, bicycles, toy guns, and all those things that had until so very recently engaged me. Mindful every moment of the mute yellow house two doors from my own, I could not blame the war for the old man’s suffering. Not I, who had twice looked into his eyes and run away.
I wonder now, with my own children out of college and living far from me, and my wife long married to another man, which was Renshaw's greater pain, which the more virulent cancer: was it the disease or the isolation? I have been subjected, these last seven months, to chemical and radiation therapies, without effect. I have told no one. I take long walks at night around the campus, squeezing a rubber ball in my coat pocket when the pain stabs deep. I'm on a Leave of Absence, but won’t be returning to work.
On nights like this one, when the moon is bright and swift clouds pass like translucent veils across its face, I am careful not to meet the eyes of those I pass as I cross the quad. I haven’t the right. I manage my pain alone and have so far succeeded, I think, in retaining my sanity. Perhaps that is a benefit of the treatment, the one good thing that comes of the medicines I take that Renshaw never had. Or perhaps I am simply not as alone as that old man had been, who walked his pain at night in a dark and empty yard.
I wonder if my parents ever realized their hypocrisy, the lie they told themselves late in the war, when the camps were liberated? I remember it clearly. They shared the pervasive attitude, you heard it everywhere, that rejected the German people’s claims of ignorance. “They must have known,” my father said. My mother agreed. That sort of horror could not have gone unnoticed.
I hope, somehow, though I am not a religious man and will not choose to become one at this late date, that Renshaw knows what has become of me. I like to think he knows I am dying and that I am alone, though surrounded by people, by the voices of children, of the young. I want him to know that he is often in my thoughts, as the snow falls and as the fire I build here in my den fails to warm me. I want him to know, most of all, that I have stopped running now. I will take his extended hand. I will embrace him.
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