When my mother opened the door, her jaw dropped and her eyes bulged just like she’d been slapped across the face.
There wasn’t much to do in the crappy little town where I grew up most of the time. When we moved out of our established neighborhood into a new development things got even more boring. There weren’t any kids my age around, but my brother Ryan had more luck. A young couple with a kid just about his age lived on the cross street directly facing our cul-de-sac, and they became buds. Me, I had to stick with people I knew, or worse still, hang around with the two of them. Life could be pretty boring.
Since sticking with kids I knew from the old neighborhood wasn’t possible very often, I spent more time than I’d liked with Ryan.
My best friend Bill was my salvation from it. He lived about an hour away, but every summer he came out to visit us. He’d stay a couple of weeks, and we’d do all sorts of fun things, most of which involved trying to ditch my loud mouth brother and his whiny, pants-pissing friend. The rest of the time we tried to get spending money for the trek to the little candy store in the older part of town bordering our new subdivision.
Some days, though, there just wasn’t anything to do.
Those hot, dusty days we’d spend in our neighborhood were made of bike rides in the blistering desert-like air, finding adventures in ragweed hillsides and romping through the cracked yellow clay exposed by scraping and scaling house lots. We were kids, and the heat didn’t bother us too much. We had a centrally air conditioned house to retreat to when it was too much. But that almost never happened.
When the developer laid out the cul-de-sac we lived in, my parents were told the area behind it would be a park. My dad had big ideas about building a gate leading to that park, so my brother and I could go out there and play. He thought it’d make their lot more valuable later, since there would never be houses butting up against our yard.
The day they started clearing the yellow seed-topped wild grass and breaking open the ochre clay beneath, he knew he’d been screwed. The developer wasn’t planning on turning that area into anything but another street packed with cookie-cutter tract homes and the single olive sapling dropped square in the middle of the front yards.
Against the side yard of our pie-slice property facing the cross street, a young couple moved in not long after we did. They were pretty and fit and firm. He was a tall, bearded guy that always seemed to be working. I can’t remember his name to save my life, but I don’t know if I’ll ever forget her name: Sue.
She was a vision, all leggy and lean, with perfect curves and sassy brown hair. She had a smile that made me all awkward and nerdy — not that I needed any help with that — and she was nice, to boot. She’d always say hello to us as we puttered around the neighborhood. My friend Bill, much more precocious than I, used to say spicy things about her that made me blush and giggle. He’d say she was “fine”, but I guess now that’d be “phine” or something. He’d make sexual inuendos about her, at the ripe old age of 11 or 12. I smiled and nodded in agreement even though I had no clue what the hell he was saying half the time.
That particular hot dusty day of yellow dirt and sweat we were in our back yard. The fences were new enough to still be straight and rigid, but old enough to weather to that dirty brownish-gray. To ease the cost of the fences, a lot of knotty pressure-treated pine was used, and when the wood dried beneath that solar beating and whipping dry winds blowing in from the delta, it shrank. Big gaps would open between the fence boards, and knots would drop out leaving perfect peep holes.
Sue and her husband were young, tight-bodied twenty-somethings. Bill was a precocious boy full of hormones. I was a sheep following along behind him. So when he heard her come out of her house and recline in a creaking tattle-tale chaise of vinyl straps and aluminum tubing, his face beamed with a mischievous grin.
“Hey,” he said, “let’s go see what she’s doin’.”
I shrugged. “Probably layin’ out. She does that a lot.”
“Layin’ out?? She does?? Why didn’t you say that before??”
“I guess I didn’t think it …”
He was soft-stepping through the dirt, trying to hide the crunching his generic grocery store sneakers made on the cracked clay. We went past the patch of zucchini, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes my mother insisted on having, and got low and stealthy for the final approach to the fence.
We hunkered down next to him, Ryan being amazingly quiet. Bill put his eye up to a splintering knothole and squinted through.
“Holy shit, man,” he muttered, his face dropping in disbelief. “Oh my God. She’s out there in a bikini. Christ, you oughtta see ‘er tits!”
Truth was, I had seen them, a couple of times. At least, as much of them as he was seeing. I’d seen Sue plenty of times outside in a halter top, or bikini top with cut-offs, puttering in her yard. I didn’t need to look through that knothole to see it again.
But I pushed him aside just the same.
He eased aside to let me look. I could see some of her, lying in the sun, basted in Coppertone, sunglasses over her eyes. She looked so serene, so calm. But I couldn’t see much of her prone body, so I quickly lost interest. But Bill had other ideas.
“Wonder how close I can get to beaning her with this?”
I looked over, suddenly interested. He was pulling a fist-sized dirt clod up, and hefted it in his hand like a baseball.
I shook my head. He grinned. “Don’t think I can?”
“No, don’t … she’s nice, man. We have to live here.”
He considered. “Yeah, you’re right.” He absently tossed the clod into the air.
Somehow it sailed over the fence. His eyes bulged in horror as we watched it sail over the tops of the dog-earred boards.
We hunkered down and covered our ears, waiting for the cry of pain.
There was none.
Bill looked at me, and I stared back. He shrugged, and put his eye to the peephole again.
Sue was sleeping peacefully on her chaise. The spattered remnant of the projectile was sprayed over the concrete of their patio like spin art. He looked back at me and shrugged again.
Ryan giggled wildly. We both looked simultaneously.
Four or five dirt clods, all bigger than the one Bill threw, were arching fast over the fence like a miniature meteor shower.
“NO! …” The voice was Bill’s blended with mine.
It was too late.
There were the sounds of dirt clods dying in explosions of scattering clay and crumbling earth. One after the other they crashed. Bill didn’t wait to see what else would happen; he lunged for Ryan. But the butterball was quick enough and just out of reach, so he scrabbled out of the way. We couldn’t react fast enough to stop another volley from lobbing over the fence. We tried to shout whispers through gritted teeth at him, but he laughed his hideous, evil cackle and ran toward the house, sending yet another sortie of missiles across.
We bolted then, giving up on trying to stop the idiot maniac. We dove through the sliding glass door and slammed it shut behind us, hopefully sealing Ryan outside to die in the baking heat. We stumbled toward our room when my mother’s stern shout of “Stop!” froze us.
“What is going on?” she demanded, hands on hips in her “I’m pissed and want answers” stance. She’d been in the kitchen beside the slider we used for our escape. It was a miracle she hadn’t seen the entire event unfold, but she seemed ignorant enough.
“Nothing … we’re just … havin’ fun,” Bill said calmly. I was always astounded by the ease and smoothness of his parent handling. His silken tongue always soothed them and left us out of trouble. Well, usually anyway.
“Well, quit running through the house. You’re tracking dirt!” My mother wasn’t slurring her words yet, so I knew the binge hadn’t started.
“Okay, mom, we will,” I said, and we walked as fast as we could down that long hallway toward our room.
It was impossibly long that day … miraculously long. So long that just as we passed the entry way of chocolate brown ceramic tiles and dark-stained double doors, the doorbell rang.
My mother was still at the end of the hall when it chimed. Both Bill and I jumped at the sound and froze. Mom was able to make the trip to answer the door in about six steps, and we didn’t have the brains to run out that same slider when she passed us.
So she opened that door, and her face dropped in shock. Just like she’d been slapped.
Sue was standing at the door. She held her arms out away from her sides slight, barefoot and bikini-clad. But there was no joy in seeing her sleek tanned body for us this time.
She was covered in tiny little dirt chunks, shrapnel and remains of the large ones that flew over the fence and erupted all over her patio when they hit. The dry, crumbling dirt mixed with her suntan oil and became a sludgy goo that ran down her legs, her stomach, her arms …
… and her face.
She stood there, fingers combing dirt from her hair, pulled up and held in a barrett. She looked dead in my mother’s eye.
“Sue! Oh my God …”
“Will you please tell your kids to stop throwing dirt in our yard? Please?”
Bill and I made a hasty retreat for the bedroom. We should have gone out that slider in the back of the house, because it wasn’t pleasant after my mom closed that door.