Edna can't understand why I feel guilty about what happened across the street. She doesn't know about my part in the whole affair. "You didn't shoot anyone, dearie," she said to me this morning over her mug of Earl Gray. "Why are you taking responsibility for the actions of a maniac?"Edna must be the only woman in the world who can get away with saying "dearie." Everything about her is dignified. She could make the word "asshole" seem like a natural endearment. I, on the other hand, am just a silly old fool. It's always been that way between me and Edna. For thirty years now, she's been proving her superiority on a daily basis. Until Monday afternoon, it's been in little ways, like the way her blue hair looks terrific and mine just makes my face look gray, or the way there never seems to be a dirty dish in her sink or a soiled piece of clothing in her hamper, or the way her flowers never fail to bloom a full week ahead of mine. Monday was the topper though, the way Edna tried to prevent the mess that I helped create.
I'm getting ahead of myself though. I haven't written so much as a letter in fifteen years. So bear with me. It might take me awhile to ease into this confession, but I must get it out. I won't go to my grave with Arthur Kates on my conscience. When I finally pass on, someone will find this, and I hope they will forgive me for being such an irresponsible snoop, for letting Arthur kill all those innocent people.
That's what I am, an irresponsible old snoop. But I couldn't tell Edna that. I couldn't admit to her that I gave up watching the soaps years ago in favor of watching out my window, that my greatest joy in life, until the murders, was spying on my neighbors. Edna would be shocked if she knew. So this morning, when she tried to absolve me of guilt, I nodded and said, "Yes, yes, Edna, you're right as usual," then took a long swig of my tea, accidentally issuing a loud slurp when it started to burn the roof of my mouth.
I have three windows along the front of my house. Two of them are in the living room, facing the Randall's white cape. The Randalls had a rough go of it a few years back when their son, Randy Randall, went off to college somewhere in Minnesota. The whole first week he was gone, Rosie Randall sat on the window seat in his bedroom, clutching a tattered old teddy bear and crying. At night, when Ralph Randall came home and turned on the lights, I could see deeper into the house to the mess in the kitchen, the clutter in the living room, the dirty laundry strewn over their bed. At first, Ralph tried to comfort his wife. He ran straight upstairs after work and threw his arms around her hunched shoulders, kissing her on her pale forehead. After that first week, though, he got impatient. That's when the fights started. One night I saw Rosie slap Ralph across the face. I never would have expected it of her, such calm, well-bred woman. But anyway, after that, the Randalls started taking ballroom dance lessons together and the fights stopped. They got boring.
So I started spending my afternoons and evenings in the kitchen. I even moved my blue arm chair in there so I could sit and knit comfortably at the window while I watched Arthur. The Kates also have a cape. It used to be white like the Randall's, but Arthur painted it forest green after he quit his job at the insurance company.
He must have taken a liking to paint fumes, because after he was done with the house, he dragged everything out of the garage and set up an easel. I'll never forget Katie Kate's face the day she came home form work and found her lawn littered with oil cans and clippers and rakes and tools and all the other junk that builds up in a garage after eleven years of living in a place. She didn't make a fuss though. She just went into the house to change into jeans and then came back outside with a garbage bag and a key to open the padlock on the bulk head.
Arthur was oblivious, furiously splattering paint on his canvas. I don't think he even realized Katie was home until she ambled into the garage, covered in grime and grease, to admire his painting. At least she pretended to admire it. When Arthur turned his back, I saw her wrinkle her nose and shake her head.
For the next month, Arthur painted and painted, from the time Katie left for work in the morning until the time she arrived home at night and got dinner on the table. Then one afternoon at the end of May I heard an awful pounding. I rushed to the kitchen window. Arthur was driving a sign into the ground at the end of their driveway. When he moved out of the way, I saw that the sign read, "Original Oil Paintings, Low Prices."
Edna saw the sign, too. She happened to be at her mailbox, when he finished sticking it in the ground. I watched her drop her bills in the pocket of her apron and amble up my walkway. I opened the door, as soon as she reached my brick steps.
"Have you seen that god awful sign?" she asked, walking past me into the kitchen and dropping into my easy chair.
"How could I miss it? What with all that pounding," I replied.
"I don't know how poor Katie can stand for this," Edna continued. "First he quits his job, now he's making a fool out of himself. 'Original Oil Paintings, Low Prices'," she mocked. "No one advertises art that way. He acts like he's selling lawn mowers or used cars or something useful like that," she sighed and shook her blue head. "I don't know what this neighborhood is coming to. . .Do you have any of that peppermint tea left, dearie? I'm afraid my nerves are a bit frazzled."
Edna got over the sign quickly. After a week or so, she stopped mentioning it all together. I have little doubt that her nerves would have been further frazzled if Arthur had actually attracted customers, but he didn't. I saw Rosie Randall head over there one day after lunch, but she left without a painting, shaking her head. Apparently, Arthur wasn't blessed with much artistic talent, but he sure had plenty of perseverance. Day after day, he sat in that garage with his monstrosities. I was starting to grow bored with him. It seemed like he would never move away from that silly easel of his. I was starting to wonder what the Randalls were up to. Then, on the very day I decided to move my armchair back into the living room, Arthur had a breakdown.
I smelled it, before I saw it. People don't use fireplaces in August, so when clouds of smoke began to drift in through my open windows, I knew right away that something was up. I pushed my chair forward, back into the kitchen, so I could pass through the narrow hallway. I rushed immediately to the window that looked out over Arthur's lawn, and there he was, standing in front of a roaring bonfire, wailing and weeping, and kicking the ground.
I rushed across the kitchen and turned down the radio, silencing the NPR newswoman so I could hear exactly what Arthur was fussing about. It only took a few seconds to get to the radio and back, but when I returned to the window, Arthur was gone. For a moment I thought he had thrown himself in the fire. I drew a deep breath, and when I released it, Arthur stumbled out of the garage loaded down with dark, hideous canvases. I glanced over at the end of the Kates' driveway and, sure enough, the sign was gone, fueling the growing fire.
I watched the forest green cape in earnest for the next week, waiting to see if Arthur was going to find a job now that his painting career had literally gone up in flames. Katie was parking in the garage again, and she smiled more often on her way from the car to the house each evening. She must have been expecting a change in Arthur, too. In fact, she told Edna as much when they met at the mailboxes on the Saturday after the fire.
"Right now, Arthur's just sitting in front of the television," Edna related to me over her knitting needles. "But Katie thinks that's a good sign. It is, after all, more normal than painting."
Poor Katie, bless her soul. She was wrong about Arthur. The television didn't keep him occupied very long. On the second of September, another pounding lured me from the stove, where I was boiling some grapes from Edna's arbor that I had saved for weeks in the freezer. My first thought was that Arthur had decided to resume the painting business, but I saw immediately that I was wrong. He appeared to be building something, some kind of structure. Occasionally he paused to gaze up at the old oak tree to the right of their driveway.
Edna arrived on my doorstep about a half hour after the pounding began. "For god sakes, dearie," she said, "close the window. That god awful hammering is going to drive me absolutely insane."
"We certainly wouldn't want two lunatics in the neighborhood," I replied, turning the lock on the window. "What, in god's name, do you think he's up to now?" I walked across the kitchen to stir the stewing grapes. "Another 'business'?" I asked sarcastically.
Edna leaned forward in the blue recliner and pressed her face to the window. "I think he's building a tree house, of all things," she answered. "Come here and look."
I dropped my wooden spoon on the counter and rushed across the kitchen. Sure enough, Arthur had propped an aluminum ladder against the trunk of the tall oak tree. "Where is he?" I asked, scanning the yard. Edna covered her mouth with her left hand and pointed up at the branches of the tree with her right. Arthur was sitting on a thick limb staring at the road and swinging his legs.
It didn't take Arthur long to finish the tree house, a few weeks maybe. I must say, that I wasn't very impressed with his handiwork. He was almost as bad at carpentry as he was at painting. First of all, he used untreated pine boards. Any fool knows, that untreated pine boards won't make it through a single New England winter. Another thing that was odd about Arthur's tree house is that there wasn't a ladder, only a thin piece of rope, dangling from the flimsy structure. Arthur sure looked funny shimmying up and down that rope five or six times a day. Even on rainy days, Arthur still preferred to do god knows what in that tree house of his, rather than just staying inside watching television. From my window, I could see a large hole in the side of the fort, large enough for a man to stick his head through. I wondered on many a rainy day that month whether Arthur was going to catch pneumonia and burden poor Katie even further.
I'm nearing the end of my story now, my confession, if you will. It was a chilly Monday afternoon in mid October, just this past week. I was sitting in front of my kitchen window, knitting a pair of socks for cold winter mornings, when I saw Arthur emerge from the house. I didn't notice the rifle at first, because he was dressed all in black: black boots, black jeans, black sweater, black gloves, black scarf, and a black wool hat. The gun was pressed up against the side of his leg. He walked stiffly towards the tree house and stood there for a moment, looking up at the rope. Then he glanced around nervously and dropped the rifle in the grass. He returned a few minutes later with the ladder, and propped it against the tree. He made quite a production of climbing up the ladder with the gun pressed against his side, then back down the ladder, dragging it into the garage, then back outside, and up the rope.
I waited for the gun shot. Maybe Katie Kates will be better off without him, I thought. My whole body was tense, as if the gun were pointed at me. I wondered if anyone else had seen Arthur dragging the gun up that ladder. Edna was doing her
weekly grocery shopping, but Rosie was home. It was pure torture, expecting the shot at any moment, not knowing when exactly I would hear Arthur's final bang.
Then it happened. The phone rang next to me on the wall , and I nearly jumped clear out of my skin. I sprung from my chair and knocked the phone off the hook. It dangled for a moment before I pulled the receiver up to my hand. I could hear my daughter's impatient voice, "Hello? Ma, you there? H-e-l-l-o?"
"Yes, dear, sorry. I dropped the phone." My breathing was heavier than usual, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Ma, I'm glad you're there. I have a huge favor to ask."
"Well, now isn't exactly the best..."
"Ma, this is an emergency. I have to be at work in twenty minutes and the babysitter hasn't shown up yet. Should have known that girl wouldn't turn out to be reliable. Can you drive over here and watch the kids until Michael gets home? I'm desperate here."
"Hold on just a moment," I said. I took a step forward and looked out the window, up at the tree house, then I glanced at the phone, cradled at waist level between my shaking hands.
"Ma? Ma? What are you doing? I don't have much time here," my daughter hollered at my bellybutton. I glanced back at the tree house one last time, and that's when I made my fatal decision. I decided that Arthur could live or die without me in his own good time, that his tree house and his gun were none of my business. I lifted the receiver to my ear.
"Shush, Lila, I'll be right over."
Michael was late getting home from work that evening, so I made the kids dinner, steak and peas, and sat them down in front of the television to watch the 6:00 news. I sank into Michael's brown recliner and reached for the remote. I examined it
for a moment, searching for the power button, then switched the T.V. on. Looking into the screen was like looking out my kitchen window. There was Arthur Kate's forest green cape, his shabby tree house, his lawn swarming with officers and neighbors and reporters. "The police have not yet released the identity of the victims," the reporter said in a grave voice. I switched off the T.V. at the exact same moment that Michael walked in the door. I don't think I told him what happened. I don't remember saying goodbye. I don't even recall how I maneuvered my car through the crowded street to my garage.
The phone was ringing when I walked in the door. I ignored it, slumping down into my blue easy chair. Then my doorbell chimed. It was Edna. "Open up. Open up. I know you're in there. I stood up reluctantly, walked out into the hallway, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
"Edna, come in, dearie," I said awkwardly, moving aside so she could walk past me into the kitchen. "You must tell me what's going on."
"You better sit down for this one," she said, settling down into my armchair. "A complete massacre. That's what happened." I sat down at the table on one of the wicker chairs. "Arthur and Katie are dead. So are Rosie and Randall. Lucky thing you didn't get home earlier. You would have made number five."
"My god," I gasped. "What happened?" As if I didn't know.
"Arthur," Edna moaned, "That goddamned crazy Arthur finally snapped." She paused for a moment, as if to collect herself. "I was getting my mail around four thirty and I happened to look up at that awful tree house." Edna was wringing her hands in her lap. I had never seen her so flustered before. "I looked up, and I saw Arthur's face peeking out from that hole in the wall, and right below Arthur's face, resting on his shoulder, I saw a rifle." She grabbed my knitting off the window sill and started a shaky row on my stocking. "So I ran inside. I thought he might shoot me, but I made it to the phone, where I called the police. This is all their fault really. Took them forty-five minutes to get here, forty-five minutes, and in the mean time, Arthur was just waiting for work to let out so he could pick off all the good citizens in the neighborhood, one by one, even his own wife. Can you believe it? His own wife. Poor Katie Kates. She was the last victim. Then he shot himself. Cops showed up not five minutes after it happened. Too bad I didn't notice that bastard sooner. Pardon my language, but my nerves are altogether frazzled."
You see now, why I couldn't tell Edna about my snooping, why I couldn't admit to her that the shootings were my fault. Someday though, my daughter, or her husband, or maybe even Edna will find this confession and I will pay for my crime through the tainted memories of my loved ones. God have mercy on my soul. And Arthur's.