It’s taken me years, decades, to realize what a vortex of evil we lived in as children. When I run over the names of neighbors, a list of crimes pops up like a running commentary. Nando, my older brother’s friend, the seven-year-old arsonist; the two of them set fire to the Torrez’s house, leaving them with a blackened façade for the next fifteen years. Two doors down, Johnny, the kid with the mother sartorially stuck in the 70’s, tortured cats; he had a steady supply, because the Mendozas’ seemed to always have a litter coming on, kittens playing under the lawn chair where Mr. Mendoza sat drinking beer all day, every day. Mr. Mendoza, who was raping his daughter (but only Elizabeth, who was always mean to me, and not Mary, who was always nice). Johnny’s mother, with her polyester pantsuits, helmet hair and Chevy Nova, would eventually pay two men to stage a break-in and murder her husband. Unfortunately for her, after she endured that afternoon tied to a chair next to her bleeding, groaning, hated husband, he lived to see her go to prison. That was years after the murder I remember most: the man not behind us (that is, not the man who killed rabbits in his back yard), but one over. I remembered him most because he drove a tire truck, a huge thing filled with used, grey tires, and because his daughter was a year below me at school. Did he kill both children when he killed his wife? I never really knew; I never saw the kids again, but I’ve never forgotten that night, the night he set his own tire truck on fire, the smell of burning rubber and the flames in the night, the sirens and then more sirens, different ones, and the gossip trickling from house into house at once: used a gun, her blood was all over the back wall, I saw it. Who said that? Was it the next-door-neighbors, the ones whose drug-addled schizophrenic son was the only one in the neighborhood who would take on my dad, taunting him and threatening him? Or the neighbors next to them, the ones whose oldest son tried to rape my sister? And that boy: what was his name, why can’t I remember it? I remember the story: him following my sister, jumping her, pinning her, somewhere on that sidewalk by the freeway, the fall before the teachers warned us, don’t walk home that way, don’t ever go there after dark. Someone … bad … is back there. That rapist was never caught, unlike the guy at the opposite end of the street, the white guy, the one with the cheerful smile and new video games and the thing for little boys. That one ended up serving a sentence.
The length of that sentence, his name, his address: I could look them all up now, I realize. I could probably locate year’s worth of police reports online with just a bit of effort. But I have not the faintest desire to do so. I don’t care about the history, the dead past, because that neighborhood remains all too alive, all too inescapable, the backdrop of my mind, despite all I do to erase it.
Like Mrs. deWinter dreaming of Manderley, I dream of my cursed neighborhood. And like Manderley, in my dreams, my neighborhood is beautiful. The trees are full of sap and green leaves, leaves that crunch as I climb the mulberry tree higher and higher, or they’re piled in yellow drifts over the spiny brown urchins of the stickerballs we fling at each other. The smell of jacaranda and catalpa lingers in warm evening air in my dreams. The sun sets in flame and violet, a brilliant wire of amber light outlines palm trees; the flat umbrellas of geranium leaves cool in the deepening dark. There are never any stars, though police helicopters often sweep by; we’ll chase them, my brothers and I, we’ll run from one side of the backyard to the next, guessing where the guy is running to and always hoping, dreading, that it’s our yard he’ll jump into next.
The grass is damp and has that deep lingering green that grass has in the setting sun, in the dusk, then in the dark. If we see a moon, we’ll play the game we alternately call “Murderer in the Woods” or “Werewolf.” We need a moon for this game; we need all three of us; we need the swingset. Given these three things, we can play deep into the night.
Two of us swing in the glider. It’s a comfortable size; we two can sit side by side and swing at a good clip. The air slides warm over our faces, through our hair. We face the house and make conversation. We’re a couple, driving through the woods at night, or a pair of campers, on our way home, or brother and sister, driving down the mountain. The job of driver rotates evenly; none of the three roles is preferred over the others. Driver and passenger talk as we think adults should – of the party we’ve left, or of the depth of the woods, or the charm of the moon. The swing squeaks; leaves whisper; the tension leaves our bodies. We really are just driving along, happy suburban people with orderly lives, enjoying the handling of our station wagon.
Then terror strikes.
The murderer (or the werewolf) leaps from behind the curve of the road (or the clump of firs, or the boulder, for the stucco corner of the house can be all those things and more) and attacks.
The monster savages the car. It grapples at the door, it climbs the slide and towers over its victims. It slavers and gibbers; its claws reach in … and the driver and passenger panic, scream, step on it. They slap frantically at the monster’s clutch. They cling to each other in terror that’s somehow genuine. The car speeds wildly along the mountainous road; the tires screech and slip, glass breaks.
Does the monster, hook-armed murderer or beast, ever get in the car? I can’t remember. I don’t know that it ever needed to. It had accomplished its goal; it had tasted the power of terror. The screams subsided. The drive begins again, with a new driver, a new passenger, a new monster lurking behind the trees. The adults drive, and admire the moon, and talk as adults should, about what a fun camping trip it has been, or how well Grandma was looking, and how long until they are home again. The night is warm and the moon hangs low. Soft wind ruffles our hair. In the house, in our real house, a real monster is waiting, a monster with neither hook nor fangs, one that hides in plain sight and can’t be fought off, can’t be screamed off. But right now we are driving. The tension is leaving our bodies. The night is beautiful, the woods are safe and deep. We drive and we talk. Any attack that comes, we know we can weather. We’re together. And for this moment, hanging perfectly, fleetingly, we are perfectly safe.