By Monica L. Bellon-Harn
Laura learns to live in ordinary time as she roams rooms of a starter home her husband picked out. When live oaks that lined the streets barely gave shade, this neighborhood was coveted. Now intertwining branches form a canopy over vacant avenues. Canted walkways to front doors are patterned in mildew that comes alive with each rainy day. Laura frees corners from cobwebs left by previous residents until outside sounds draw her to a large picture window where she watches tops of heads bob above a stone fence and hands burst up to grab a basketball and shoot it into a makeshift hoop. The trees and flowers look like she could still be in Louisiana and even though she is just across the Sabine in Texas she feels a world away.
Beeps from her watch tell her it is one o’clock and she has not eaten lunch. Knowing her husband would be gone until tomorrow at a new employee orientation, she drives to a po’ boy shop across town run by Vietnamese women. Inside a large fan pushes mid-July air so filled with grease it cannot cool anyone. Laura follows signposts that are taped along a wall – order here, pay here. Foreign letters on the walls convince her this place does not sell Louisiana shrimp and she feels rebellious purchasing an import. At the cash register, a price list tells her the cost. She nods wordlessly and hands over her cash when a lady points to the amount.
Heat resonates from the styrofoam container she opens in her car. Her mouth cannot fit over the sandwich so she plucks the shrimp with her hand and pops them like popcorn. She thinks about learning Vietnamese or Spanish, but finds her native language hard to wrangle. She wishes she could spout a series of words for others to order and tell her what she means to say.
Homeward bound, she pulls into her driveway and sees a posting fixed to the stop sign in the far corner of her front yard. Grass tickles her painted toes free in her sandals as she walks across the lawn to stand in front of a laminated sign from which a man stares down at her. Sex offender is printed in red under his picture along with a copy of his crimes against children. Sweat trickles down her neck and she pulls her long hair into a ponytail as the story of a man she knows is revealed letter by letter. Lee is his name. She and her husband met him the weekend they moved in. They were stacking boxes by the front door when he approached.
“I sure like this house,” Lee said. “Never been in it but I looked through the windows once when it was vacant so I know you got yourself a winner.”
“Thanks,” her husband said. “Do you live around here?”
“Well I walk around here a lot but I live about eight blocks north in an apartment,” Lee replied moving closer to them.
He told them he was from Cameron, a small southwest Louisiana town. Sweating slightly under his cap that advertised LSU, he grinned broadly.
“Anyone from south Louisiana suits me fine,” he said as he winked at his wife. “I’m from Mississippi but she grew up a few towns over.”
“Shoot,” Lee said to Laura. “We’re from the same neck of the woods.”
Light cast from a late afternoon sun minimized shadows on his face and she could glimpse familiar boys she once knew. He leaned on a cane that he did not look old enough to need.
“Anyway,” he said. “I walk around here looking for small jobs. Hard to make it on my check from the state.”
Her husband offered some work taking boxes out of their rented U-Haul, but Lee said he couldn’t get up and down the ramp. He stood on the porch as they worked until her husband handed him a ten-dollar bill.
From then on Lee would stop to talk to her when she was outside, which was often. Even in the noon heat she would make her way into the yard once the quiet of the home became deafening. If she saw him coming she would head behind the gate but when she was meditating on the endless weeds with her back to the street he could surprise her. He would say, “Hey girl” with an unearned intimacy and pepper his words with enough Cajun French to remind her of her hometown. Keeping a couple of dollar bills in her pocket to get him to leave became a habit. “Give your husband my regards,” he would say as he backed away.
Laura looks closely at the picture that suggests Lee except in the picture he wears no cap and his short hair stands slightly on end. His buzz cut is like the boys she knew who played football at her high school. His grin is replaced with a sneer that reminds her why she married a man with a college degree who drove her away from that town. She wants to peel the tape and take the sign down. She doesn’t want the announcement that there is a pedophile among them. She wonders if anyone ever saw him in her yard, giving him money. Looking around for neighbors, she keeps her hands to herself and walks back into her house.
Her watch reads three o’clock in the afternoon so she goes inside to pour herself a glass of cold water and opens her laptop. Yesterday’s search for shade gardens appears with a barrage of green hues. She types the words ‘sex offender’ and in two clicks, a map opens with dots marking locations around her neighborhood. Clicks on the dots reveal faces with text about crimes and risk levels. The keys clack furiously and she opens new tabs and windows. She finds herself quite out of the ordinary.
With a press of the plus key the map widens and pulls in surrounding neighborhoods in her city, then small towns on the outskirts, then across state boundaries. The number of names increases, but the names she is searching for never appear. In a newfound omniscience she looks down on the streets of her childhood town. Her lens narrows as she finds a small clapboard house with a gravel drive. Laura and her brother would stand at the edge of the drive, hard by the highway, wanting to run past the barbed wire fence nailed to wooden posts that flanked the yard. But they didn’t. Season after season they waited as the sugar cane crops surrounding them were planted. At harvest the fields were burned and black ash fell from the sky on the wind gusts. They would look toward the blue sky as their heads were powdered and faces were smudged. Rocks crunched under the black blanket as they ran.
Ringing draws her out of her head and she hears her husband telling her his hotel room is nice and his meetings are going well. He tells her to lock up, so after she hangs up, she checks deadbolts and latches. Her hand on the smooth steel of window cranks confirms no one can come through. Through the blinds she sees the sun descending and the posting is clear under a streetlight. It reminds her that thresholds can be crossed so she unlocks her front door and walks outside.
When she was eleven and her brother was twelve, they waited in the front room of their house for their parents to come back from the grocery store. His long legs stretched out as he reclined against a floor pillow fingering his new puka bead necklace that he saved up to order from a catalog. When Laura saw how excited he was when it arrived she knew he would really leave one day to find the exotic places he read about. She sat at the front window leafing through his library books about other countries hoping he would take her with him. She lazily traced her finger over maps, so she never noticed four older boys stride up to their home and burst through the open door. Their eyes landed on her brother and they lunged for him. He emerged from the tangle of arms and legs – crawling first, and then standing. She reached for the yellowing t-shirt of one of the boys. Her fingers grabbed the edge of the scratchy sun-washed fabric and he pulled away. They chased her brother down the middle hallway to the back door. His legs splayed as he tried to outrun them but he didn’t have a chance.
Her brother went down, his hand reaching for the backdoor to escape outside. They grabbed him and pulled him down the hall. Slick with sweat and tears she moved to the hallway, but one of the boys grabbed her and pinned her to the floor. She heard her brother scream. When the silence came, her face was pressed to the wood floor and she could feel the beat of footsteps before the squeak of rubber from shoes as the boys ran around the corner toward the front door. The boy got off her and said, “That’ll teach your brother about boys. Don’t make us come back and teach you how to be a girl.” She lay on the floor until she heard the front door close, and then she got to her feet and crept down the hall. The door to her brother’s bedroom was almost closed, so she peeked through the slight gap. His pants were torn and his face was red and fierce. Like a stop frame in a movie, they were briefly still until he caught her eye.
“Don’t say a word,” he said.
She didn’t. She never has. When he left home her parents wondered why he never called or returned to visit. Laura would just shrug her shoulders and look out the window to the open fields.
She walks past five blocks and sees Lee on every stop sign but she is in the open so she keeps walking to the edge of the neighborhood. She stops when she hears the sound of steps behind her. Lee announces himself so she turns around.
“You are out late,” he says.
“There’s a lot of turns in the road,” he adds when her eyes shift to the signs he took down gripped in his hand.
“Yes, there are,” she whispers looking over his shoulder.
“I stay where the city won’t put parks and the schools are so bad there ain’t many kids in the neighborhood,” he says. “I just walk these blocks but I don’t live here.”
He reaches out and she thinks he wants to grab her arm so she flinches. “Tell them,” he begs as he puts his hands in his pocket. “Tell your neighbors I took the right turn.”
She wants to walk past him but she is in limbo, balancing the line between action and inaction, speaking and silence, presence and absence, confession and omission.
“There is no one to tell,” she replies and she moves to walk toward her house.
Lee stands aside and says, “I got no place else to go.”
Lights appear in neighborhood homes and shine on the sidewalk. Laura sees a woman washing dishes through a window. A door opens and a family dog is let outside. She keeps walking and doesn’t look back. Once she gets to her house she doesn’t want to go inside. If she could she would stay outside, a vigilant watchman, but the bugs begin to bite with ferocity so she walks back inside locking the door behind her. She wonders how many years had to pass for the unraveling of that pact with her brother. She sits in front of her picture window and stares into the backyard she can no longer see. She waits complicit in her silence, maintaining a continued penance, hoping to return to ordinary time soon.
About the Author:
Monica L. Bellon-Harn is a native of Lake Charles, LA and lives near the Texas and Louisiana border. She studied short story writing through The Writer’s Studio and with Texas author Jim Sanderson. She is a professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences.