All good investigations start at the beginning.
Victorian-aged Mrs. Nelson, the previous owner of the house on Oak Street, had died in February at ninety-seven years of age. She had been a frequent customer of the antique shop for nineteen years, her house visible from back steps of the store, where I would watch her day after day. She’d often sit on the porch in a rocking chair I had not been nursed in, singing her sad ballads in her phlegmy, cracking voice. I could never figure out what they were about since I was only six, but I imagine they were tragic because sometimes Mrs. Nelson would stop in the middle of a word and lie back in the chair, consumed by grief, I assumed; I couldn’t see more than her figure’s outline from a block away.
Mrs. Nelson’s only daughter, who was also old and walked slowly, spent a week running her hands along the chipping white railing before tacking up a “For Sale” sign and leaving for the retirement home in Florida. The house needed a new coat of paint; what once might have been a becoming shade of pink was fading to an irregular coral, and the white railing, windowsills, and shutters were speckled with brown. The upstairs windows appeared opaque, and the copper knocker at the front door had turned the color of the Liberty Bell. There were no realtors, no open houses, just a sign listing a phone number with a West Florida area code.
The light green- and yellow-dotted leaves began to appear on the femured branches of the tree in the front yard, the gnarled roots causing bumps in the browning grass. For all those months, no one noticed the house—its unrequited flirtations with the morning joggers, the birds that avoided its perches, its forced loneliness. When summer came, the leaves on the tree wilted, the humidity weighing down the edges so they drooped melancholily. It was then that we left for Maryland, and it was then that the “For Sale” sign disappeared from the yard.
Mom and I flew back four days before school started. A tire swing flapped from the tree in Mrs. Nelson’s front yard, but I didn’t see anyone outside. The neighbors claimed that one day the sign was taken down, the carpenters sanded, repaired, and repainted, and the next week the tire swing had been hung. They had seen no moving truck. The family had only been seen on one occasion. I saw them that one time before school started.
They, Lynnie and Dave, came to the antique store August 29th , inquiring about furniture. Mom had shown them around, pointing out the best of the beds and chairs. They picked a sun-worn, purple-velveteen love seat. I was sitting behind the counter, drawing like I did every day, tiring of tree after flower after rays of sunlight; the flora began to look wilted.
“Is this your daughter?” Lynnie had asked my mother as she walked to the cash register.
“Yes, this is Emma. Are visiting town?” We lived in a town where everyone knew everyone and everyone’s cousins.
“No, we moved in last week. I’m Lynnie,” she held her hand out to my mother. “And this is Dave.”
Dave inclined his head.
“We have three children of our own,” Lynnie continued. She turned to me, her blue eyes kind, unwavering. “What grade will you be in next year?”
“Second,” I said, eyes widening. I kept my marker, then outlining a bunny rabbit, on the paper.
Mom’s eyes widened when she heard “three children.”
“That’s the same grade as our oldest daughter,” Lynnie replied, turning toward Dave, who gave a curt nod.
Mom punched the stubborn buttons on the cash register, and the receipt began to print loudly, like the sound of an ornery, old housecat. We had an old one, Terry, who’d died in February. I asked if he could be buried with Mrs. Nelson. Mom said she’d have to ask.
“Maybe we could schedule a playdate once school starts,” Mom added. “Would you like help moving this to your car?” She gestured to the love seat.
“No,” Dave replied. “We’ll carry it home. It’s only a block away.”
Mom blinked twice, her graying hair bouncing as she twitched her head to one side.
“Did you buy Mrs. Nelson’s house?” Mom asked.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Lynnie replied cheerfully. With that, she and Dave lifted their newly acquired furniture and carried it out the back door.
“How strange,” Mom murmured, as soon as they’d left.
“What’s strange, mommy?” I looked up from my drawing.
“They paid cash—eight hundred dollars in cash.”
I left mom gazing at her wealthy hand and ran out the backdoor. They were halfway to the house by then. There were three children in the front yard—the eldest had the youngest situated on her hip. Two girls and a little boy, who ran down the sidewalk in ragged, plain t-shirts and jeans, barefoot, and without an adult minding them.
The three danced into the house as their parents stumbled through the doorframe, kicking the wooden front door closed with a shrouded foot, the brass knocker tapping as the family disappeared within their coddling walls.
I stayed on the back step for a half hour, hoping they would reappear, all five of them, hoping they would sit on the tire swing and invite me to fly with them. But there was no sign of anyone, inside or outside, and sunset came, blue fading to pale orange as Mom called through the mesh screen to say it was closing time and we were heading home.
While Mom buckled me into her five-year-old Volvo in the back parking lot, I glanced behind my shoulder at the house; she told me to stop squirming. Clutching my 24-pack of crayons and my recent masterpieces, we pulled away. As we did, the lace curtains in Mrs. Nelson’s house parted, revealing a tiny face peeking out the window, maybe at me, maybe at something else. I will always wonder; I will never know.
The first day of school came and went I suppose, because I don’t remember much. Mrs. Morrison served as teacher for the seventeen second-graders at the private Hudson Day School, which I attended from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Mrs. Morrison had white hair, her face lined and somber. She smiled, but never seemed happy about it. Most days, she wore a denim dress, straining over what might have been a pregnant belly on a younger woman.
Every day since my first day of kindergarten, Mom and the Volvo had picked me up at precisely 2:35, when class ended. The older kids went home via the pick-up line, but Mom always parked and waited outside the door with the non-working moms, most of whom talked about their tennis matches at the Club or their shopping trips in the City.
On the first day of second grade though, a new woman waited outside the door, something the housewives had never confronted before. The woman had long, undyed blonde hair, wore paint-splattered overalls, and bounced a two-year-old on her hip. Most of the moms thought she was a new nanny. Nora Fitch and Hanna Roberts, unofficially the town gossips, eventually discovered she was a mother, causing raised eyebrows and sideways glances among the mothers waiting. To alleviate the misconception, they invited her to what they called “The Second-Grade Mother’s Group,” for which they served as Co-Presidents.
For the next five minutes, until the classroom door opened and the flushed little boys and girls spilled out, the women of the group introduced themselves, giving the impression they were kinder than they actually were.
When I exited the classroom the second day of school, I found my mother talking to Lynnie, her still-light-brown-but-graying, curly mop cut like a boy’s for practicality’s sake juxtaposed with Lynnie’s Pantene-worthy, hip-length mane. I had a dentist appointment that afternoon, so as soon as Mom saw me, she whisked me straight to the car. Lynnie only smiled in her jeans and tie-dye shirt as I took Mom’s hand and we walked away.
On the third day, I bit Romaine and we become inseparable. Mom stopped coming to pick me up by the end of the week since every time she did, I always wanted to go to Romaine’s house instead.
Lynnie picked us up, and we watched Boo waddle toward the house or we would hold his hands as we swung him in the air like half a circle of a jump rope. We licked our orange pop-pops and took turns pumping our legs on the tire swing. After we jumped off, we hurried to play dress up. I wore the faux-fur stole, Romaine wore the wedding veil, and Ara wore the pink feather boa. Dave took a break from his theorems to serve us tea, scrunching up his face and speaking in a British accent, making us laugh so hard that our faces turned red and our dress-up digressed from a tea party to a farce. He lifted us over his shoulder as we squealed and flailed our legs in mock fear. He was our enigma, morphing into whatever we asked him to be, at our service. He was an actor, a servant, a father; he played with us like nothing else existed.
Mom picked me up from the Victorian house at exactly 5:02 every evening, shortly after the shop closing time. I was never ready to leave when she arrived, since we hadn’t finished playing in the little house, reading a book, putting on a fashion show with the dress-up clothes, whatever it was that day, so she patiently waited in the living room on the sun-washed love seat she had sold. Lynnie kept her company, but what they talked about she never mentioned.
That may be the easiest place to begin.