Story Time: short stories to read and share

Dear Friends: From time to time, I’m thinking once a month, I’ll be posting some short stories or occasional book reviews. If I run out of stories of my own, I’ll be reading classics that are out of copyright.  You’ll be able to listen or read.  Here’s the audio link for the first one, Child of God, the story of what happens when a neighbor’s schizophrenic son moves in.


…and here is the text copy.

CHILD OF GOD

Carla Finney was cutting boxes open with a box cutter, folding back the cardboard wings to look inside, then marking them by the room they belonged in. There were toys, her grandmother’s china, a Kitchen Aid, a tricycle that her daughter Penny had just outgrown—so much stuff. Having a first house was like having a first baby, you’re not sure what to do with it.

The jelly was somewhere in a box, so she made herself a plain peanut butter sandwich and stood at the front window to look around her new neighborhood. In the apartment they had left the day before, she’d only caught glimpses of the weather, but from this window she could make her own predictions—the clouds were high, no rain expected.

The neighboring houses were set on quarter acre building lots, some two floors, like hers, and some older three-story homes with big porches and ornate decorations along the roof line. The emerald lawns marched down the street in disciplined lockstep, all mowed, trimmed.

Something caught her eye as she was turning away. Light pulsed and some wisps of smoke were floating from the bow window of the house across the street. At first she thought she was seeing things, but this was a live fire! She ran to the phone to dial 911 but she was so discombobulated she couldn’t remember her new address, so she rushed to the sidewalk in front of her house, just in case she could do something to help.

The fire engines clanged up the street and in a jiffy, one team hooked up the hoses while the other team went up the steps to check inside the house. After a few minutes, the fire was out. A window was broken, black streaks stained the shingles and the smoke smell was strong, but after the fire engines left, it was still, quiet.

Carla walked back home, anxious to call Kevin. She just wanted to hear his voice. At first she couldn’t remember where the phone was. There was one in the living room, another in the kitchen, but it was hidden behind a pile of kitchen towels. She dialed the office and the receptionist put her through to Kevin. Thank goodness he wasn’t out on  job somewhere.

“What’s up?” Kevin said.

“The neighbor’s house caught on fire. Right before my eyes.”

“Jesus! Which neighbor? Next door?”

“God no. Across the street. I’m shaking like a leaf.” She could barely hold the phone. “It’s suddenly struck me that this could happen to us. Now we’ve got our own house and this could happen!”

“I’m in construction, honey. Our house won’t burn down. Take a break. Maybe lie down for a minute.”

Carla took a deep breath.

“You okay? I’ll leave early. I’ll bring pizza”

***

The next morning, Carla was back at work on the boxes when someone knocked at the kitchen door. It was a woman in her fifties probably, dressed all in white: trim fitting  pants, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap.

“Hi there! I’m your neighbor! Ginny DiAngelo. I live right over there.” She pointed to the white house next door. “I brought you something.” She offered a metal baking pan covered with tin foil. “Lasagna.”

Carla was tickled. “Come on in. It’s a mess, but I guess you’ll understand.”

Ginny’s eyes darted around. “I remember when we first moved in. What a disaster! It took me months.”

“Yup. It’s going slow.” Carla put the lasagna in the refrigerator. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Let’s do it! I have a doctor’s appointment at 10:30, but we got some time.”

Carla moved to the counter to start the coffee maker. “My married name’s Finney, but I used to be Carla Fresia—I’m actually Italian like you.”

“Paisan! We’ll trade recipes!”

“My Nonna made a killer lasagna. Is your lasagna from your grandmother, too?”

“My grandmother was a terrible cook.”

“What?”

“Go figure. Well! What a day to arrive!” Ginny shook her head from side to side. “The only fire we’ve ever had around here.”

Carla leaned against the counter as the coffee dripped into the pot. “Milk? Sugar?”

Ginny’s popped her palms off the table. “Nope. Black for me.”

Carla poured the coffee into the mugs they’d bought in Disneyland.

“I was worried about Margaret. She lives by herself and she doesn’t get around very well. She has COPD.”

“What’s COPD?”

Ginny closed one eye and thought a minute.  “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Something like that. Except when her son’s home, she’s all alone in that big house. She oughtta be in a nursing home or something, but she can’t bear to leave the place where she and Paul raised their family. Paul died a few years ago.”

Carla sat down at the table and took a sip of her coffee. “Where does her son live?”

Ginny raised her eyes from her coffee cup without lifting her head. “Good question. Nobody knows for sure. He’s schizophrenic, paranoid schizophrenic.”

Carla drew her head back. “Paranoid schizophrenic?”

“Don’t worry. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I have two kids, you know.”

Ginny laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ve known Alex since he’s a baby. He’s very polite. Real pity. Such a handsome boy.”

Carla was still frowning.

“No really. He’ll never bother you. If you want, we’ll go over tomorrow so you can meet Margaret. She’s a very nice person.”

As the two of them were going up the front steps the next day, Ginny said, “It’s safer for Margaret to leave the front door unlocked in case she has an emergency.” She opened the door and called out, “Margaret?”

A faint voice said, “Come in!” and they went down the dark corridor that still smelled of smoke into a spacious kitchen. In a room to the right, Margaret was sitting up in bed in an old-fashioned white nightgown with little flowers all over it. “Hello! Come in!” She had a round, pink face.

Ginny kissed her on the cheek and said, “This is Carla Finney, your new neighbor.”

“Wonderful! So nice to meet you.” Margaret’s voice had an accent. Maybe English or Australian?

“Nice to meet you, too. I brought you some of my famous sausage and peppers; that’s what my husband calls it.” Carla proffered a tray covered with tin foil.

“Would you mind putting it in the freezer? It’s over there.” Margaret pointed to the corner of her bedroom. “Sausage and peppers will be wonderful for a cold winter night.” She swung her legs sideways to snuggle her feet into pink slippers and lifted her bathrobe from the back of a chair. “I think a cup of tea is called for.” She shuffled into the kitchen with Ginny following.

The  freezer was so full that Carla had to move things around to accommodate her sausage and peppers. Then she stopped for a look into the rooms to her left where the fire had broken out. The living room had old-fashioned china and photographs on the mantelpiece. A closed door led to the room where the fire would have broken out.

“So!  Big doings! When are they going to take down the boards off your windows?” Ginny said.

“Theoretically, in a few days. You know how those things are, though,” Margaret said.

“My husband Kevin’s in construction, so if you have any problems, you let us know, okay?” Carla sat down at the round, marble-topped table.

“Very nice. Always good to have friends in the business.” Margaret smiled.

“How are you anyway?” Ginny asked. “Are you okay?”

Margaret went to the sink to fill up the tea kettle. “You mean that little hospital visit? The usual overkill. They fussed and checked my breathing, but the door to the music room was closed, so the smoke hardly reached me. I don’t think I breathe any worse now.” Margaret put teacups on the table and dropped two teabags into the teapot. “Would you like a cookie?”

Carla smiled. “Is the Pope Catholic?”

“Everybody likes a cookie.” Margaret said.

“We were worried about you, Margaret,” Ginny said. “You could have been trapped back here.”

Margaret sighed. “The point is…I wasn’t.”

“How did it start?”

“Alex.”

“I didn’t know Alex was home!”

“He’d just gotten home. He was smoking a cigarette and he threw it in the waste basket and, well…. He doesn’t pay attention the way he should. It isn’t as if he set the fire on purpose, but you know what they say, “harm to others.’ They took him away.”

Carla felt faint at the thought of a son, her son, being “taken away.” Yet Margaret showed only a resigned acceptance of Alex’s fate. “Where did they take him?”

“He’s in the hospital at the moment. He always tries to be sent to a jail instead of a hospital because they don’t give him medications in a jail, but thank goodness, this time he’s in a hospital.”

Walking back home, Carla said to Ginny, “You said he wasn’t dangerous.”

“Not intentionally dangerous. Alex is not like the Ax Murderer. Besides, not everybody who sets a fire by mistake is crazy.”

“I can’t even imagine what it must be like for either Alex or Margaret. It’s terribly sad. But I think I will be cautious about him if he comes back.”

“I guess that’s the right attitude. Yeah. Terribly sad.”

***

Ginny became a good friend the way good neighbors are good friends; you don’t tell them too much, but you help each other out. The other neighbors were nice, too. The widow Mrs. Stein lived next to Margaret in a big house with a beautiful garden. She was out every day if the weather was good, weeding, pruning, mulching, harvesting, planting. Mr. Donofrio, a retired parole officer, was gruff, and his wife only emerged on Sunday mornings when he escorted her to the car for Mass, dressed in heels and a black dress, with a shawl over her shoulders, looking like one of the women in The Godfather.

Just before Thanksgiving, Carla was lifting load after load of soggy leaves into the wheelbarrow, sweating even though the temperature was hovering above freezing. There would be eight at their holiday table, their first in the new house, and she wanted everything as perfect as she could get it. After finishing with the leaves in the back yard, she came into the front yard and saw a man sitting on Margaret’s front steps. He was tall, skinny, looked like he’d run track in high school. Alex. He was the right age, and who else would be sitting on Margaret’s steps? He was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt. Carla’s body felt an empathetic chill, but the cold wasn’t bothering Alex.

Every day after that, he sat on the front steps for hours at a time and this annoyed Kevin. “Margaret has inflicted Alex on the neighborhood. It bothers me to have this misery staring me in the face every day. If he’s so sick, he should be in the hospital.” Then Brian, one of his employees, told him about his schizophrenic sister, and Kevin tried to tone it down.

Carla took her concerns to confession, where Father John reminded her that Alex was still a child of god worthy of compassion and she added him to her bedtime prayers.

It got colder, Alex wasn’t outside so much, and Carla put him out of her mind. Then one day the kids burst into the house, “Mom! Mom!” Patrick threw his backpack and jacket on the floor. His eyes were wide open. “Mom, Alex is naked! He’s walking down the street.”

“He’s scary, mom!” Penny’s eyes were about to flood with tears. “We thought he was coming after us! We ran home through Mr. Donofrio’s back yard.”

Carla ran to the front window and saw Alex going up the front steps of Margaret’s house. He wasn’t quite naked. He had on a pair of ankle high white socks and construction boots.

Carla called Kevin who came straight home and called the police.

“They said they’d look into it,” Kevin said, falling back into the chair. When Carla called, he’d been in the crawl space of a house he was remodeling and his clothes were dusty, the dust sticking to the velvety upholstery. He hadn’t stopped to stamp the dirt off his shoes and there were footprints on the kitchen floor. “They said they’d look into it. They know about Alex, he’s ‘pretty harmless’ they said. They said to get a photo if it happened again.” And Kevin put a camera on the front windowsill.

When Alex first appeared on the steps, Carla and Kevin had told the kids that Alex “wasn’t well,” but now they had to go deeper.

“He looked at me like a zombie!” Penny said.

“Being naked in the middle of the street is illegal.” Patrick announced.

“From now on I’m coming to school to get you” Carla said. “We don’t want that to happen again.”

Patrick screwed up his mouth. “That’s so lame, Mom. All the kids walk home by themselves.”

“Just for the next few days anyway. Alex isn’t going to hurt you, but he has a kind of mental sickness and people like him do unexpected things.”

“Does he take some medicine?” Patrick asked.

“I suppose so, but not all illnesses are curable with medicine. People like Alex can be helped, but not cured.”

Kevin was still angry. “I’m going to call later and find out exactly what the police plan to do. I get it that he’s not a bad person, and I feel sorry for the guy, but you can’t have people like him on the loose.”

“I feel sorry for him, too,” Penny said.

“He’s pathetic,” Patrick said.

Carla gave Patrick a look. “Father John says he’s a child of god and we should have compassion.”

“Sorry,” Patrick mumbled.

That night Carla read her kids a story about a rescue dog so they’d have dreams about rescue dogs.

Afterwards, Penny said, “Can we have a dog now?”

“A big dog,” Patrick said. “It could walk around with us and bark at anybody sketchy.”

While Carla did the dishes, Kevin paced back and forth in the kitchen. “Brian says they’ve closed the mental hospitals, so there isn’t enough room for all the people like his sister, and Alex. They pump them full of drugs until they calm down, then they put them back on the streets and nobody follows up.”

“I guess I could go over to Margaret’s and see what her advice is. She’s always in the back of the house, she might not even know what he did.”

She didn’t go over though.

A few days later Carla saw a police car and ambulance arrive at Margaret’s house. She stood at the window and watched. After a while, the policeman bounced down the front steps and drove off, then two EMTs came out with Alex between them. His face was blank as he climbed into the ambulance.

Tears seeped from Carla’s eyes when she thought how crushed she would be if Patrick was helpless and too strange for the world to handle.

The next day, she took a Shepherd’s Pie out of the freezer for Margaret, who barely looked up from the kitchen table when Carla came in. “Thank you for coming, dear. It’s been quite a day.”

“I saw the ambulance and I’m just so sorry about Alex. I can’t even imagine how I would feel.”

“That’s so sweet of you, but I’m used to this. He’s been in and out of the hospital since he was seventeen years old. They go through the rigmarole, then the minute they’ve drugged him so he’s catatonic, they let him go.”

“Catatonic?”

“I don’t mean actually catatonic, just anesthetized with all the drugs.”

“How awful that must be.” Carla’s empathy was painful.

“The side effects are  terrible, especially the dry mouth.”

“How old is he now?”

“Twenty-seven. Ten years, and never a moment of peace. There’s no cure. They say there is, but there isn’t. Only ways to keep him quiet. So he doesn’t bother anyone.” She gathered the strength to talk. “Even at his worst, I am always happy to have my son here. I want to know he’s well taken care of, because nobody else cares. Not really. They say that a person has to be a danger to himself or others, but a few years ago he walked out into traffic and nearly got killed. The police picked him up, but that wasn’t enough to get him into a hospital. They don’t even care if he kills himself.”

“Wow. That doesn’t sound right.”

“I always have to find a way he’s a danger to somebody else,” she started to laugh, “usually me. This time, he kicked a chair out of his way, not at me, but I took my moment and called the police.”

Carla cleared her nose of the overflow tears, glad she’d brought Kleenex. “If it was Patrick, I would do what you did and give him a place to live when there was nowhere for him to go. I just never thought about these things before.”

Margaret hung her head. “Yes. Thank you, dear. It’s always like this with Alex. Up and down, up and down.” She took a moment. “There but for the grace of God could go any one of us. It isn’t his fault.”

Carla felt relief that Alex was gone, then felt guilty about her relief. She didn’t want to talk with Kevin because he got so riled up, so she went to see Father John. They sat in his dark office at the back of the church, with robes and paraphernalia hanging on the back of the door.

“When somebody has a heart condition or cancer, the whole neighborhood doesn’t change! They might bring food or sit with somebody, but they don’t have to worry about whether the children are safe and they don’t have to watch him suffering in public!” Her voice was louder than she wanted it to be. “My neighbor Ginny was right—he didn’t intentionally cause harm, but intentional or not, he did set the house on fire and terrified my kids! The way he barged around like an animal, a wild bear or a dog! Once he kicked over the garbage can!”

Father John sat forward in his chair, elbows on his desk, fingers intertwined.  He nodded.

“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t call him an animal. That was wrong. I’m sorry.” She sat back in her chair.

Father John smiled. “We’re all animals, aren’t we? The human animal.”

“That’s a very philosophical thing to say.  Is that even Catholic?”

Father John laughed. “Human beings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”

“I never heard of a schizophrenic dog.” Carla realized she’d made a joke and began to relax. “Some things. Just. Are. I’ll keep praying for him. And for everybody.”

A year passed with no sign of Alex. Margaret mentioned him occasionally; sometimes she knew where he was and sometimes she didn’t. Her health was failing and Ginny and Carla agreed that it was better that Alex wasn’t around. How could Margaret deal with it when she was slowly becoming bedridden? The kids went back and forth to school with no thought of Alex and Kevin was relieved to be able to forget all about him.

They visited Carla’s family over Mother’s Day and when they got back, she checked in on Margaret, who was sitting at her kitchen table with a tall, attractive woman with dark braids halfway down her back, a long skirt, a long sweater, and a scarf around her neck. Was this Margaret’s daughter Dorothy?

“Hello dear! How was your trip?” Margaret was peppy. “This is my friend, my new friend, Helen.”

Helen stood up and shook hands. “Nice to meet you.” She had a mellifluous speaking voice.

“Join us, dear,” Margaret motioned to a chair. “Get yourself a teacup.”

While the family was away, Helen and her two sons had moved into Margaret’s second floor. “I haven’t been able to go up a flight of stairs for years. So why not? Why not make use of the place? Helen plays the piano, and she lived in the same quartier in Paris where I lived. Isn’t that a coincidence?”

“Oh my!” Carla didn’t know what a quartier was, but okay.

“It’s a long story, but let’s just say the kids and I had nowhere to go and Margaret’s invitation was a godsend.”

Margaret looked mischievous. “We’re going to fatten her up a bit. Her old clothes are falling off her.”

Helen got a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, and after school her boys often came to Carla’s house to play with Penny and Patrick, so the two mothers talked together all the time, but they never mentioned Alex. Carla wondered if Helen even knew about him. All that Alex owned was on his back, so when he went away, the only trace of him was a small, framed photograph of him as a boy on the living room mantelpiece.

Carla didn’t tell her that at any unforeseen moment she and her kids might find themselves living with a schizophrenic who, among other things, might suddenly appear naked or set a fire. If Helen knew that, she might move out and besides, it was none of her business. Patrick and Penny had probably not forgotten about Alex, but there was no sign that they had told Helen’s boys about him either.

At the beginning of Helen’s second summer there, Alex did come back. This time he walked around a lot more than before. He wore the same clothes every day; a white tee shirt with dark gray work pants, a belt, and heavy yellow boots. He brought home McDonald’s bags from the shopping center down the road and ate his burgers and Coke sitting on the steps.

“Makes me nervous,” Kevin said. “You never know what he’ll come up with.”

“It’s confusing,” Carla said, “because crazy people are just about normal, except for that little bit of strangeness. If I told someone that he was taking three showers a day, or none at all, they wouldn’t automatically think he was crazy. It’s a matter of degree.”

Kevin shrugged. “I guess.”

***

One day Carla saw Alex drive around the corner in an old jalopy. She called the police to tell them a schizophrenic was driving a car and they said, “Schizophrenics are allowed to drive.” Kevin called the Department of Motor Vehicles, and they said the same thing. Kevin put down the phone and looked over at Carla. “I feel about his driving the way I’d feel about a hurricane; something bad is coming, and all you can do is pray it doesn’t hit your house.”

“I’m going to ask the kids to walk on the other side of the street if they see him, just as a precaution.”

Kevin scratched his head and let out a heavy sigh. “Poor guy.”

Five days later, Alex turned into Mr. Donofrio’s driveway, drove across the yard, through the rose garden, and scraped the bottom of the car when he went bam! over the curb back into the street. Mr. Donofrio called Carla in a fit. “Hey! That sonofabitch run over my roses. The frigging idiot! Get his mother to lock up that crazy son of hers before he kills somebody!”

“Oh!” Carla said.

“I’m calling you instead of Margaret cuz she’s sick. I don’t want to shout at her.”

“You know she’s bedridden now.”

“No. I didn’t. I don’t want to bother her, but, oh, I don’t know….”

Kevin went next door and had a couple of beers with Mr. Donofrio, but they did not come up with a brilliant solution.

A few weeks later, Ginny said the car had been repossessed. “He forgot all about it and left it somewhere.”

Then Alex was spending his days on Margaret’s porch. He had a roll of toilet paper on the railing, some newspapers, and a blanket. Coke bottles, McDonald’s bags, and newspapers lay disordered.

Kevin called the police to complain but they said they couldn’t evict a man from his own mother’s porch. “That makes sense. I can understand that. But then I said, ‘He’s going to the bathroom outside; he has toilet paper out there. Is that legal?’ and they said if we saw him relieving himself in public, they’d pay him a visit.”  Kevin displayed the camera in his hand.

Carla felt the situation escalating, so she went across the street with a pan of Brownies. Besides COPD, Margaret had diabetes and wasn’t supposed to have sweets, but Helen and the kids could finish them off after Margaret had a taste.

Alex said a sullen “Hello” when Carla passed him going up the front steps and she returned a cordial “Good morning.” He turned his head to watch as she knocked on the door. Helen opened it, let her in, looked at Alex, then locked it.

Carla stopped for a moment before following Helen down the hallway. So Alex’s living on the porch wasn’t his idea; they were locking him out! Now who was crazy? It certainly was not normal to lock your own son out.

Margaret was propped up in her hospital bed in a frilly pink nightgown, her white hair puffed out like bird feathers. The room was the same, with the freezer in the corner and the walls lined with knitting wool. Her eyesight was going and she couldn’t read, but she could see well enough to watch an exercise show on tv.

“Come on, Margaret, let’s do some squats!”

She lifted her eyebrows and smiled. “Do you know that your muscles still get exercise by watching a program like this?”

Carla laughed and wondered if that was true.

Helen made some tea and they each had a brownie, then Carla asked, very nicely, about Alex living on the porch. She was in the chair next to Margaret, holding her hand.

“Yes,” Margaret confirmed, a little hard edged. “I wish he could come inside.”

There was an edgy silence, then Helen reminded Margaret that Alex had left the water running in the sink one night and Margaret couldn’t get up to turn it off, so the next morning when Helen and her kids came downstairs, the kitchen floor was flooded, with water dripping into the basement. “Alex can’t stay here anymore. It’s dangerous for you, Margaret.”

Carla squeezed her hand.

“There but for the grace of God could go any one of us,” Margaret said.

Carla crossed myself and said, “Amen.”

Helen took a long breath and blew out forever. Margaret had said she’d fatten her up, but she was now even thinner. She’d come to Margaret’s house to be safe with her kids and now she was taking care of a paranoid schizophrenic and a bedridden diabetic with COPD as well as herself and her kids.

Margaret looked over at Helen and said, “Couldn’t we just let him in to take a shower or go to the toilet? Isn’t it inhuman to lock someone out to live like a rodent on the front porch?”

Helen was on her high horse now. “Every time he comes in to use the bathroom, he unlocks the back door or a window or something, and then he materializes in the house like Houdini. He’s not stupid.”

“No” Margaret gave a proud little smile, “he was always very bright.”

Carla spoke up. “He’s going to the bathroom out on the lawn, and I’m sorry, but the other neighbors complain about it. I didn’t know whether I should talk to you about this or not.”

“I appreciate your telling me.” Margaret turned to Helen with a smile. “We don’t know what to do either, do we Helen.”

Helen paced back and forth. “Even if we let Alex inside, it doesn’t cure him. He’s living in the same world out there as he is in here, except that he doesn’t have a bathroom.” She brushed her long hair off her face again and again. “The same voices are telling him to do whatever they tell him to do. He doesn’t even feel the heat or the cold. He’s—he’s—the sickest person I ever knew—they never ever leave him alone. The voices. It’s awful.”

“Or a shower. He doesn’t have a shower either.” Margaret said.

Helen said sometimes he didn’t take a shower anyway, and sat back down.

Then Margaret said it was good it wasn’t cold because if it was cold they couldn’t lock him out.  Now, it looked like Margaret agreed with Helen!

Carla tried to change the subject by telling them the secret that makes the brownies so yummy—double the vanilla—but neither of them wanted to change the subject.

Margaret turned her head away. “I’ve given up on him. It’s not fair. I would change places with him if I could.”

Carla’s insides curled up. “I’d change places with my son, too.”

Helen swept her hair back and put her chin in her palm, looking guilty.

“Margaret,” Carla said it as gently as she could, “you have to think of the neighbors too, because nobody wants a house burning down, or police cars and fire engines scaring the kids.”

Margaret talked about his beautiful manners when he was a kid, how he played the cello like an angel. She said that a psychologist told her that Alex’s illness was because of faulty parenting, and Helen got annoyed and said that paranoid schizophrenia was not a parenting issue. She banged on the table so hard her tea spilled and she said she hated locking him out, and if he’d only take his medication, he could come inside, and Margaret said the medicine makes his mouth dry.

They were going around and around, so Carla told them she had to make dinner, which was true, gave Margaret a hug, gave Helen a hug and left.

Alex disappeared a week or so later. Ginny said they assumed he’d gone to a boarding house.

***

A couple of months after that, Margaret died. Carla went to the funeral with Kevin and the kids. The kids were sad. Margaret had taught Penny how to cook some fancy things, like pavlovas and veal scallopine with lemon sauce, and she taught Patrick how to read music, and he was now in a band. Mr. and Mrs. Donofrio were there, and Mrs. Stein. Helen and her children came of course, and Margaret’s daughter Dorothy flew in from California. She was tall, blond, and thin. She looked like a model, with fancy leather boots. She’d never done a darn thing for her mother, and Carla questioned why she even bothered to come to the funeral—not to her face.

Margaret’s house went on the market and a few months later an artist bought the house. He said he liked the light in the attic room. Helen and her kids went to live with her mother in Tucson.

After he left that last time, nobody saw Alex or heard any news of him. Carla wondered if he even knew his mother was dead. What would happen if he walked into that house one day, the way he’d always done, expecting to find his mother?

The story of Margaret and Alex gradually became no more than neighborhood gossip. The kids never mentioned him, Kevin still got riled talking about mental illness, and Carla felt an eternal sadness in a particular cavern of her heart. Then she read in the newspaper that Alex had died the day before, just a few blocks away. He must’ve been around 40, not old enough to have a single grey hair. He was walking on a moonless night down Liberty Street in black clothes in the middle of the road and the driver didn’t see him. He flew into the air, hit the windshield, and his neck broke instantly. Ginny said the driver was so upset the police had to take him to the hospital.

In confession, Carla told Father John that she was ashamed that when she said her prayers that night, she said, “God, thank you that Alex is not suffering any more.” She started to cry. “Father John, I said thank you that he was dead.”

He patted her hand and said, “Pax nobiscum.”