Jim stood on the curb and glanced up the empty street, then back at his watch. Curb was only a relative term since there wasn’t really a curb in this ancient neighborhood. It was just a transition from dirt and gravel to pitted, broken asphalt. He looked up the long, empty street. Few people drove down here and even fewer lived here. No one knew anyone on this street, which is anothscraller way to say the residents kept to themselves. The distance between the homes was generous reflecting a more generous time when land was cheap and before the contractors and the concept of maximizing profits and square footage took over. Most of the houses were in disrepair and surrounded by scraggly trees and bushes. The people living on this stretch of road were retired, childless, and standing with one foot in the grave. The city limits were close by and getting closer every year. Jim knew the city council was keeping an eye on this neighborhood. One day, it would probably become a strip mall.
He surveyed the street one last time before returning to the swing hanging from the cottonwood tree in the front yard. He had repeated this nervous pattern at least twenty times in the last hour. Walk to the curb, look, walk back to the swing, sit. His fingers curled around the weathered ropes suspending the swing, wondering absently if they would hold his weight, but not caring if they didn’t. He examined the frayed rope, fingering loose strands. It was new when he took it off the hook on the garage wall. That was the day he hung the swing for his nephew, Tyler, who was then four years old.
Tyler’s father, Richard, purchased the swing, on sale at the hardware store, during a rare and short-lived moment when he wasn’t being an ass. Predictably, the swing sat on a shelf in the garage for a year before Ann, Jim’s sister, asked Jim to hang it in the tree. Richard was in the garage sitting on his prized Harley. He took better care of the bike than Ann’s car, which was constantly disassembled and up on blocks, its body and greasy parts occupying most of the garage floor and pouring out into the driveway. Jim walked into the garage stepping over a tire and maneuvering around car parts and grabbed the swing off the shelf.
“What the hell you doin?” Richard said. He sat on the bike, aviators sunglasses covering his eyes, wearing a black tee-shirt that was two sizes too small, his arms folded across his chest. On the small finger of his right hand, he wore a bright, silver skull ring with ruby eyes. The tattoo of a black panther, coiled to strike, decorated his forearm.
Jim ignored him, scanning the garage floor and walls. He spotted the coil of rope hanging on the wall behind Richard, stepped around him and retrieved it. He left the garage to the sound of Richard’s voice, “Don’t fuck up my lawn.”
Tyler bounced happily around the front yard while Jim hung precariously from the tree and tied the ropes to a limb. Once the height of the swing was right, Tyler hopped into it and began to swing, his feet tearing at the pristine grass. Richard stood to one side glaring. Saying nothing, he stomped up the steps and disappeared inside, his displeasure punctuated by slamming the door. Jim knew the tough-guy look was all show. Dick was a coward and would do nothing when Jim was around. Behind closed doors was another story. After that, Tyler would telephone Jim and beg him to come over so he could use the swing; it was the only time Richard would permit it. Or rather, he knew better than to try to stop it. Jim stared at the scuffed ground at his feet where tufts of fresh grass were reclaiming the oval-shaped worn spot.
It was three months since Ann called him at work.
“He’s gone. I have to leave.” Her tone was tense, short.
“He’s gone? Richard?”
“I’m leaving,” she said. “I need you to watch the house.”
“I need you to watch the house. Will you do it?”
“What happened? Where’s Richard? Tyler ok?” He could picture her. Bruises on her arms, heavy makeup, and dark glasses.
“Tyler’s fine. I’m taking him with me. Will you watch the house?”
“Jim. Will you watch the house?”
“Yeah, I’ll watch the house, but…”
She hung up. He tried to call her back several times, but the phone was busy at first, then it just rang. Of course, she called him at work; she knew he couldn’t leave. He drove by the house after work, but the car was gone and the garage was closed. She finally left him. He knew Ann and Tyler would be all right now. That’s what he told himself. It wasn’t his problem, anyways.
The manila envelope appeared in his mailbox a couple of weeks ago. His address scrawled by her hand. There was no return address, and the postmark was illegible. It might have been Phoenix. Inside, he found the signed title and keys to the house. Stuck to the title was a yellow post-it: “It’s yours – Ann.” He didn’t go to the house right away. He drove by a few times after work, scanning for any sign of Richard, but he never stopped. The garage door remained closed, the driveway empty, and the grass grew unattended. If Richard was there, it would be precisely manicured. But Jim couldn’t stay away. He had bills to pay and not enough cash. If he cleaned it up and sold it, he could use the money to get his life back together. That was why, on this hot July day, he decided to stop.
When he unlocked and opened the door, he noticed the smell. At first he thought it was because the house had been closed up for so long. It wasn’t until he stepped in that it hit him. There was no mistake — he knew that smell.
He knew it from that long, hot summer when he was thirteen and lived with Ann and his mother in this house. The previous winter, his father died after a prolonged illness and his mother took to drinking. Ann was seven, and Jim was faced with having to raise his little sister and keep his mother sober enough to go to work. He did the household chores, the cooking, got Ann ready for school, and paid the bills. At first, he attempted to force sobriety onto his mother, but she was abusive to Ann when she was not drinking. He budgeted enough of their meager cash to keep his mother intoxicated enough to keep her quiet and protect his little sister from her unpredictable rages.
That was the summer he first smelled it. The intensity of the odor grew over several weeks. He set out one afternoon when his mother was passed out to find the source of the odor in the large field next to the house. Through the center of the field lay a deep, tree-lined ravine. In the ninety-degree sun, he followed the scent into the ravine where he found the dead horse. It lay on its back, bloated, its legs protruding into the air. Its lacerated flesh exposing white bones and yellow maggots roiling through the corpse. He immediately puked.
That was the smell greeting him when he entered the house for the first time in 15 years. The door was still open, and the stoop was decorated with the former contents of his stomach. He retreated to the car and drove to the nearest gas station where he helped himself to a cup of cola and the pay phone. Next to the phone was a tattered note that read “Odd jobs – no job too small.” He dialed the number and got a price. Now they were three hours late, and the day was getting hotter.
He glanced at the house and decided he should open some windows. When he reached the door, the sweet-acrid smell caused him to gag. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it over his nose and mouth. Stepping over the splatter in front of the door, he dashed into the house and opened as many windows as possible. The last one was stubborn and he could not use both hands to open it, so he turned and dove from the house, his stomach turning somersaults. He leaned over the rot-iron railing and retched.
Jim gazed down through watering eyes at a balding, middle-aged man standing at the foot of the steps. The man was dressed in blue overalls and a thread-bare flannel shirt. He removed a smoldering cigar stub from his mouth and grinned through darkened and missing teeth. A rusty pickup sat in the driveway, and a large, younger man was sitting on the tailgate pulling on a pair of boots.
“Zeke.” The man offered his hand. “You call the old lady about a clean-up?”
Jim accepted Zeke’s hard, calloused hand.
“Jim. I think something died in there.” He coughed and poked his thumb over his shoulder.
Zeke climbed the steps and sniffed at the open door. He screwed up his tanned, lined face and stepped back. “Yep. You got yourself a really nasty problem there. Probably a coon or a dog crawled in and died.” He scratched the stubble on his chin and rolled his eyes. “Gimme a hundred up front, and if I gotta clean up maggots or some crap, I gonna need more.”
“The lady on the phone said fifty.”
“She don’t set the price, mister, I do. I say a hundred.”
“I have seventy-five,” Jim said.
Zeke scratched his head. “Awright, that’ll work.” The younger man strolled up the walk towards them. He was a burly, round man with a Midwest “corn-fed” look. He wore a filthy, grey tank-top beneath his overalls and the muscles in his arm bulged as he carried a steel box in one hand.
“Where you want the tools, pa?”
“Ain’t gunna need no tools, boy,” Zeke said. “Just a strong stomach.” He turned to Jim. “We best get after that coon. Might be in the chimney.”
Zeke entered the house, his son following behind him. The large boy grinned at Jim as he walked past him not noticing that he planted his foot in the sticky vomit on the step. Zeke reappeared at the door.
Jim frowned and glanced inside the house.
Zeke grinned. “Ain’t that bad. I smelled dead in the ‘Nam worse’n this.” He disappeared back into the house.
Holding the handkerchief over his nose and mouth, Jim stepped into the house. It wasn’t as bad since he had opened some windows. The sickly sweet smell of decay was moderated by a light breeze that blew through the open windows. He stopped in the foyer and gazed around the living room. A thin layer of dust was evident on everything including the scuffed wooden floors. The furnishings had not changed since he was a boy and were now dated and ragged. Against the far wall was the plaid couch where his mother used to pass out after an afternoon of drinking. The leather recliner in the corner was his father’s favorite spot for watching the game on TV. There was the three-legged, oval coffee table that Jim’s mother fell over during their struggle when she tried to beat Ann with a leather belt. The floor lamp his father made from the trunk of a tree had served as a mountain battlefield for Jim’s plastic soldiers. The woven rug in the center of the floor was where twelve-year-old Ann stood, tears streaming down her cheeks, begging Jim not to leave.
Jim glanced at the wall next to the door. There was a picture of the children, Ann and Jim, standing in the front yard, holding hands and grinning. The tall figure of their father was behind them, resting his big hands on their shoulders. Next to it was a photo of Ann atop her father’s shoulders. Another photo was with Jim and his father working in the garden in the back yard.
Zeke was on his hands and knees, his head stuffed into the fireplace. His son squatted next to him, his upper lip protruded as he attempted to gaze past his father.
“I don’t see nuthin, pa.”
“Ain’t nothing there.” Zeke withdrew his head from the fireplace. “You got a basement or crawl-space?”
“Half basement, half crawl-space,” Jim said.
“Well, I guess we best look down there.” Zeke rose to his feet. “Smell ain’t so bad up here no-how.”
Jim motioned to them to follow and stepped into the tiny kitchen just off the living room. The linoleum floor creaked and popped under his feet. The sink was piled high with dirty dishes, the rotting food added its own scent of decay to the atmosphere. A pipe wrench and screwdriver lay on the floor in front of the open cupboard doors below the sink. A chipped laminate table sat in one corner. That was where his mother sat behind a half empty bottle of vodka when Jim told her he was leaving.
“What about your sister?” she asked.
“What about her?”
“Huh? What about who?” Zeke asked.
“Nothing,” Jim muttered. “It’s down here.” He opened a door next to the table and flicked a light switch. The stairs to the basement were illuminated by a single bulb that cast a shadowy gloom. The stairs were narrow, and they had to side-step down the steep course. When Jim reached the bottom, he felt for a light switch and flipped it. A fluorescent fixture mounted to the low beams on the ceiling flickered and chattered to life. The smell was stronger in the confined space, and Jim clutched the handkerchief to his nose and mouth.
The low ceiling in the cellar was constructed of exposed beams decorated by thick, dusty cobwebs. Against the far wall was a work bench with a partially disassembled garbage disposal sitting next to a mangled spoon. Various tools were scattered across the bench and on the floor. A spider ran past a red toy car lying next to an irregular, brown stain on the floor and a short length of steel pipe. That was where he found his mother one morning after she had fallen down the stairs and broken her hip. He quit high school in his senior year to go to work and support her and Ann until his mother healed. She was able to work after a year, but the experience taught Jim that his ticket out of the house was money and a job, so he never went back to school.
Zeke pushed past Jim, his eyes scanning the dimly lit basement. He stepped to the far wall which was about four feet of concrete topped with wooden planks that covered the crawl space. He sniffed at the wall then turned away with a scowl.
“It’s in the crawl space, ah’right.” He found a crow-bar hanging on the wall above the bench, jammed it between the boards, and levered it back. The board cracked and broke. “Help me out here boy, there’s a hammer on that bench.” The younger man lurched past Jim, snatched up the hammer and began to pry at another board. The boards gave way with loud creaks as the two men worked.
Jim stepped forward, but his foot kicked something on the floor. He looked down at the steel pipe that appeared to be stuck in the brown stain. Reaching down, he pried it loose and held it up to the light. The pipe was partially covered in the same color material that was on the floor. Long fibers stuck to the pipe. He plucked one of the fibers and held it up to the light. It looked like a hair.
“What’s that, Pa?”
Jim looked up. There was an arm hanging from the opening. On the small finger was a bright, silver skull with ruby eyes, and a panther tattoo on the forearm. A torrent of images rolled through his mind as he put the pieces together.
A spoon jammed the garbage disposal. Richard removed it and took it to the basement. Tyler was on the floor playing with his car. Richard was angry. He was not good with tools and probably jammed his finger. Tyler said something or maybe he did something. Richard hit Tyler. Tyler cried out and Ann came down the stairs. She saw Richard standing over her crying son. She was angry. She grabbed the pipe. In a moment, Richard lay dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Jim saw the scene as surely as the police detective would see it. It was all too easy to put the pieces together. There was no trial. The public defender convinces Ann to submit a plea. Jim is in the court room when they cuff Ann and lead her away. The lady from Child Protective Services holds Tyler who screams, “Mommy! Mommy!” She pauses at the door leading back to her cell. Her tear-filled eyes lock on Jim. They are the same eyes that gazed at him many years ago when Ann stood on the woven rug in the living room and pleaded.
“You can’t leave me with her,” she sobbed. “What am I supposed to do?”
Jim opened the door, paused, and looked back at his sister.
“That’s not my problem.”
Ann married Richard when she became pregnant at 16. He was the first man who was willing to support her. She didn’t finish school, and she had very few resources to escape the abuse she and her son suffered over the years. Jim knew what was happening, but it wasn’t his problem. It was never his problem.
But that was his problem. He didn’t care for his sister when she needed him the most. He left a girl of twelve with a drunken, abusive mother. He said nothing when she married Richard. He did nothing when he saw her and Tyler with the bruises and the broken ribs. He was the only one who could have stopped it, but he always told himself it was not his problem.
Zeke and his son stared dumbly at the dead arm hanging from the crawl space. They both had their backs to him, but they would turn around at any moment. The son was the immediate threat. He was stupid, but he looked strong. Jim stepped forward and aimed the pipe at the point where the spine met the skull. It only took two blows to bring the big man down and that was all he needed at the moment. The old man’s arms shot out and he fell back against the work bench. Jim slammed the pipe down on the top of his balding head. The blow tore the man’s skull open, his eyes rolled up, and he fell to the floor and jerked violently. He felt something on his ankle. The son grabbed the cuff of his pants. He struck three more times before the boy released his grip. He turned back to the old man, but the single blow had done the job.
As Jim drove away from the house, he glanced in the rear-view mirror. Flames were already visible from an open window on the main floor. He held no delusions that the fire would not be thoroughly investigated. The bodies would be found. They would find him because he had no intention of running. He would tell them the story he wanted them to hear. The story would be convincing and leave them no reason to look for Ann and Tyler.