Edith Gallagher Boyd is originally from Philadelphia, the youngest of the seven Gallagher children. Her short fiction has been published in Potluck Magazine, The Furious Gazelle, No Extra Words, and Phoenix Photo & Fiction. Her non-fiction appears in Thought Notebook Collection, and her work is forthcoming in The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society. Edith and her husband live in Jupiter, Florida.
Peeking Through The Curtains
Jack didn't share my interest in our new neighbors. He had chosen our house without my seeing it. There simply wasn't time. His transfer came up so quickly, and I needed to give notice to the hospital before the move.
From the day we pulled into the short driveway, I had an eerie feeling about the place. Jack was able to read me so well, I avoided eye contact during our first tour of 19 Turner Rd.
The rooms were small, and the place felt choppy. He said, "Kim, I know you prefer open space and a great room, but in this neighborhood, that's hard to find."
I pulled him to me and said, "Jack, It's fine. I'd be happy with you on Saturn or Mars."
In his haste to find something, he accepted a year's lease in a furnished home. My first day alone, I sat in each of the over-stuffed living and dining room chairs, feeling a little like Goldilocks. I meant what I said to Jack about my happiness, but the house was really creeping me out. And I felt myself drawn to checking out our neighbors.
During one of my early trips to the supermarket, I met Charles and Anna, or more accurately, I met Charles, and studied Anna, her pale drawn face and flat eyes. Boisterous in his greeting, Charles introduced himself and his wife, and repeated Jack and my names in his welcome. Anna neither smiled nor spoke. He cradled her elbow as he led her to the car, and opened her car door. The courtly gesture both touched and rattled me.
As Jack and I lingered over our chicken marsala, I brought up my meeting the neighbors.
Clinking his wine glass to mine, he said, "So Charles opens the door for his wife, and this is a problem? he said, his full wattage smile letting me know how silly I sounded.
"I know they're older and all....but she seems like, I don't know......a shell or something," trailing off, knowing Jack was under scrutiny from his supervisors, and needed to unwind and relax.
Shifting gears, I took his hand and asked him about his day.
The next day, I watched Anna walk slowly through her side yard, her face devoid of any expression. Her husband didn't appear to be home, and I nearly walked out back to strike up a conversation with her, but chickened out, determined to mind my own business.
Knowing that my interest was growing into an obsession, I chastised myself one rainy afternoon, when the buzzer from my oven startled me from my perch at the window. I wanted to know what was up next door.
Having no time to make friends, I went to my desk and retrieved the yellow paper from the waste basket. Written in neat block letters, an invitation to a Potluck Dinner a few doors down from us. While not my thing, and less so Jack's, I felt it may be a way to get to know Charles and Anna Butler.
Before I could change my mind, I called the number to accept and offer to bring lasagna.
Katie Dowling answered during the second ring.
When I introduced myself, her warmth seemed to flow through the phone.
"Kim, we'll be so happy to see you and your husband. We didn't want to barge in, and ...we planned it, hoping you'd come. I was going to drop by tomorrow to invite you.
Don't worry about bringing anything...just yourselves. Do you two drink wine and beer?"
"Yes. Thank you, Katie," I said, relieved by her welcome.
As soon as I hung up I called my sister Carolyn to tell her about it. First, I apologized for being a phone stalker, as I'd been bugging her since a week before the move.
"Good for you, Kim. And when you find a job, you'll meet lots of people."
I told her I thought the woman next door was under some kind of a spell or something.
“Kim," she said, in her older sister voice, "I hope you're not blowing this up in your head. Has the move been hard on you?"
“No. Carolyn, I'm fine. I just don't want to bother Jack right now. I can see his mind whirling with his new job, and he doesn't need me dragging him down," I said.
I asked about her husband and kids and when I hung up, I felt that... all is right with the world feeling my sister gave me.
Later that evening, Jack surprised me with flowers, wine, and an upbeat reaction to the gathering. "Sounds good," he said, as I was placing the soft yellow roses on the dining room table.
As it turned out, Jack was unable to free himself from a working dinner, so I ventured to the Dowling's party alone. Clutching a chilled bottle of chardonnay, I tapped on their door, and heard a chorus of "Come in!"
Multi-colored balloons surrounded the couch and dining room table.
The Dowling children darted from room to room, jumping up to show me the balloons,
"Careful, you guys," Katie said, through a big smile.
Each balloon said "Welcome," and Katie guided me to see the cake her kids were clearly ready to eat. It said, "Welcome Kim and Jack."
I blinked back tears, and wished Jack were with me to feel the warmth and sense of community. Maybe our rental would become our long-term home.
reached into my purse to take a picture of the cake, and remembered to ask my hostess.
"Snap away," she said, "before the kids destroy it."
Both Jack and my sister Carolyn would be pleased.
My joy was dimmed by the sight of Anna Butler, seated alone on the back patio, while Charles was in the center of a circle of neighbors, gesturing like a boxer, animated while expressing himself.
After cutting the cake amid snapping cell phones, I walked a piece out to the patio and sat across from Anna.
"Charles doesn't like me to eat sugar," she said, while attempting to smile.
I restrained myself from commenting, hoping she would elaborate.
"He doesn't like belly fat," she said, while patting her skeletal torso, under her dress.
Carolyn would diagnose me as missing my job as a psychologist, but I retained the blank look I had with my patients, as I tried to draw Anna out.
When she offered nothing further, I said, "I saw Charles inside."
"Charles doesn't like me to be around other men," she said, as if she were mentioning a sale at Macy's. As if the comment were innocuous and normative, as one of my colleagues was fond of saying.
"Are you comfortable with that, Anna?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" She asked, looking at me directly for the first time.
"I'm Kim," I said, ready to extricate myself from this strange woman.
"Yes. Your name is on the cake," she said, and I started to wonder if she were one beer short of a six-pack, as my cousin Aidan would say.
"And your husband let you come alone?" She asked.
Dying to call Carolyn, yet again, I said, "Yes, Anna, He did."
The interaction soured me, making the potluck something I had to endure, rather than enjoy. Every time I heard a burst of laughter in the vicinity of Charles, I lost my appetite, knowing my hostess was checking to see if I was trying the assorted dishes.
Sensing she was a romantic, I pulled Katie Dowling into the kitchen and told her I had a surprise for Jack, and needed to leave.
"Enjoy," she said, with genuine warmth.
She fixed me to-go food in tupperware containers, which I promised to return during the week.
I waved good-bye to the neighbors, thanking them for their welcome. I let myself stare at Charles wanting him to know he may have an audience. He narrowed his eyes, a hint of menace clouding his features.
The Dowling children distracted me, as they each handed me a small gift, and I shook their outstretched hands, smiled, thanked them, and left.
Thrown by my encounter with Charles, I was relieved when the timer lights Jack installed popped on in our new home. So eager was he to excel in his new position, he revved up his natural thoughtfulness in little things, to make our transition easier.
Feeling safe as I entered, I was determined to be rid of the feelings that horrible man brought out in me. What business of it was mine if a long marriage was alien to me? If Anna enjoyed her servitude.
I popped open a beer, and settled into our living room, channel surfing for something funny. I found a Seinfeld re-run and it worked its magic on me, until I heard Jack's voice and bounced up to greet him.
His enthusiasm about his new position was infectious, and we enjoyed a special evening together. When he asked me about the party, I edited the negatives, my obsession with Anna, my revulsion with Charles. Never had a cake received such rave reviews.
A few days later, after washing my neighbor Katie's containers, I decided to drop by, hoping to seem more friendly than I was at the end of the party. The light green buds on the maple trees were sprouting, along with the pink azalea bushes during my short walk to her front door. I tapped gently, and she opened the door quickly.
With a glint in her eye, she said, "I hope our loss was Jack's gain the other night."
"It was, Katie."
Closing the door behind her, she threw up her hands and said, "Kids! What can I tell you? My house is a mess. Kim, we've started a community vegetable plot on Rider Street around the corner. It's our first year. Who knows what it will produce? Please join us. Most of us make a point of being there Thursday mornings so we can catch up. So far, none of the guys are interested."
Sensing a friendship forming, I told Katie I planned to drop by Blair Nursery to pick up some seeds and some gardening tips. And I did just that before picking up a roasted chicken, one of Jack's favorites.
Still feeling a little like a party crasher, I hesitated when I approached the gardening plot on Thursday morning. I recognized a few of the women from the Dowling party, and was ridiculously pleased to see Anna Butler digging in the dirt. After greeting the women, I knelt across from Anna, and using my trowel, began to plant some seeds. After a few minutes of digging, Anna turned to Katie and said, "Charles loves tomatoes. I started them inside six weeks ago. He only eats red ones, so I hope these are red and juicy."
"Anna, Charles will love your tomatoes," Katie said.
Katie's response was so heartfelt, her eyes crinkling with joy, I felt as if I may have the wrong idea about Anna. Maybe I was lacking in wifely devotion....Maybe Jack was missing out on something from me.
Feeling as if Anna would be more open to Katie, I asked Katie if she would consider the three of us walking here together, and then, red-faced with adolescent angst, I withdrew the offer.
"I'll ask her, Kim," Katie said, her lips drawn in an anxious line.
At that moment, I knew Katie was on to Charles and the situation.
Lying with Jack that evening, he noticed the change in me.
"You're getting to like it here, Kim..the ladies..I mean women..the gardening. I'll quit this job tomorrow if you're not happy. "
"And we'll live on my non income?' I said, knowing it was stupid as soon as I said it.
I made sure his eyes met mine when I told him how much his saying that meant. And that I was making friends and loved digging in the dirt.
A month into our walks to the plot, Anna was smiling and even teasing a bit with Katie. Her husband may have warned her about me, after our non verbal sparring at the potluck dinner. But he obviously had not proclaimed an edict that she avoid me.
And one day, when she saw me working in my own little garden, she called over to me, "Kim, enjoy yourself!"
I felt as if her sense of inclusion with the neighbors had opened her, as it had opened me.
My sister Carolyn felt the move had thrown me off kilter and the RX for me was a job.
Maybe in the mix, was her early motherhood's interfering with her education. But she had a profound respect for my degree and profession.
"I need this break, Carolyn. Jack's doing well, and we planned I'd give myself some time to unwind. Taking on peoples' stuff is draining."
"I hear you," she said, able to let go of her own opinions.
En route to our gardening plot, I mentioned Carolyn's feelings about my working to Katie and Anna.
Anna spoke so quietly, we barely heard her.
Katie spoke up, and asked Anna what she had said.
"Charles would never let me work," she said, looking down, knowing it would bother us.
Months ago, at the Dowling dinner, she didn't seem to get how bizarre her comments about him were. If she were one of my patients, I would have noted her embarrassment as growth. I tried to catch Katie's eye, but she rapidly changed the subject, clearly not wishing to gang up on Anna.
But during one of the following Thursdays in the garden, Katie met my eyes when Anna remained silent, looked drawn and gaunt, the slight luster in her cheeks fading, her progress appearing to reverse.
I sensed that Katie may be ready to speak about the situation honestly.
That afternoon, Katie answered my text, and surrounded by her animated children, we sat drinking iced tea in her kitchen. Her kids endeared me to them, as they were as natural and delightful as their mom.
Katie excused herself to put on one of the kids' favorite recordings, which had blasts of noise and plenty of action.
"They rarely listen, but will, if they sense our mood," she said, as she settled back down in the latticed kitchen chair.
"To be honest, Kim, knowing you are a psychologist makes me afraid to say something stupid or out of it. But truth be told, when the Butlers moved in these kids," with a quick thumb point toward the noisy playroom, "were babies, and I slogged around here craving sleep and paying no attention to the neighbors. Nobody warned me how much work kids could be."
"Well, obviously a job well done, Katie," I said, surprising myself with my affection for them.
"Thanks, Kim, she said as she put her finger to her lips, went to the arch in her kitchen and shot a glance into the playroom to ensure our conversation was private.
"I noticed how you reached out to Anna at the potluck which sparked my idea of including you in the veggie garden where we get to know our neighbors."
"In my practice, I've learned to trust gut feelings, and I felt an eerie feeling when Jack and I pulled into our rental. I didn't voice it, as I knew Jack had chosen it, and we try to be good to one another.....always."
"Yes, we do too, but I know what you see in Anna's deference to Charles is different than that," Katie said solemnly.
"Do we have grounds for an intervention?" I asked her, hoping for a yes.
"There is no battery, and no proof of any kind of verbal abuse...so, no, I think we just try to befriend her," Katie said kindly.
I left Katie's that Thursday afternoon feeling that Katie's life was so rich with her family, she didn't have as much room as I to dwell on strange neighbors. But I did, and I wanted a chance to untangle Anna's knots to help her to blossom. But my instincts told me I wouldn't get that chance.
The Thursday before the 4th of July, Anna wasn't in front of her house, and I went directly to Katie's. We both thought it was odd, as Anna had taken to texting Katie occasionally, if she was unable to attend a neighborhood event.
Katie reminded me that Charles was out of town on business, and maybe Anna had joined him. My gut told me that wasn't the case. That Charles would not allow it.
After a poor night's sleep, I couldn't shake the sense that something was wrong with Anna, and that I should follow my instincts and investigate.
Shortly after Jack left for work, I decided to stop by the Butlers' household.
After ringing the bell, and knocking, I turned the door knob, and found it was open.
Her home was very quiet. I stood in the foyer breathing deeply, and calling her name.
"Anna, it's Kim. Are you home?"
Knowing her bedroom was on the first floor, I inched along the hallway.
I felt her, before I saw her.
She looked peaceful; she looked sad; as she lay there lifeless, a note by her side.
I screamed and started to go to Katie's, but called her instead.
My years of watching crime shows helped me resist the urge to touch her, or read her note. There is a blank in my mind of what happened in the minutes before the police arrived.
I will always remember the expression on Officer Wilson's face, when I asked him to read me the note, and his "Sorry, Ma'am, it's personal...to the husband. Seems she disappointed him," the catch in his voice grounding me to the realization, that he was as upset as I. That his work had not blunted him. That he knew some people were too timid for this life, and we should notice them, show the courage to reach out to help them, to show them their strength ......while they are still among us.