The neighbor had his gun. Alice watched him put it into the glove compartment of his minivan while his wife was helping the children into their seats. He carried it with them whenever they left the city – for protection, he’d said one afternoon last summer when she’d been walking past and he’d come out of the house carrying it.
“Protection from what?” she asked, a little stunned to see it in his hand like that.
“Don’t you watch the news?” he said and turned his back on her.
Ever since, she’d kept her eyes on them. They were a strange couple, private, reclusive. The children were a little strange too, pale, dark-haired creatures that barely ever saw the light of day. If they did come out into the yard, the mother came too, sitting on the porch with a book in her hand, talking to them in her soft voice while they organized piles of trading cards or picked dandelions apart with their fingers. The oldest one, a boy, had received a bike for Christmas and sometimes he rode it in a wobbly circle around the perimeter of the yard. Alice watched from her living room as he learned to ride it, assuming he’d take off down the block when he had it mastered, but he never did. He just came out occasionally and made the circuit of the yard, unable to get enough momentum going for a smooth ride, walking the bike back to the garage after a few minutes effort.
Today the children were waiting in the van while their parents travelled back and forth from the house to the car with blankets, a cooler, the badminton set. Alice put a leash on Daisy and went out for a walk. When she got to the street, her neighbor was putting plastic bags of food into the back of the van.
“Nice day for a picnic,” she said loudly. He turned and gave her a nod. She let Daisy wander into their yard, so she could have an excuse to talk to him.
“Going somewhere fun?” she asked.
“Just out to Hopper,” he said, slamming the back hatch. “My brother’s kid is having a birthday party at the park out there.” He was a big man, with a full beard and thick arms. He crossed them over his chest while they stood together which made him appear even bigger. The bulk of him was intimidating and she couldn’t help thinking he liked to make people aware of it.
“Hopper’s a nice little town,” she said, pushing the button to reel Daisy’s leash back in. “It’s good to get out of the city sometimes.”
He scowled. “Bunch of idiots out there. Place is getting taken over.”
She’d heard this from him before. His work at the water plant was being taken over by females. The school his kids attended was being taken over by illegals. She didn’t know what was going on in Hopper, but she understood the idea.
“Well, the park should be fun anyway,” she said, waving to his wife as she came and stood beside them and scratched Daisy’s head. Natalie was pretty, long-haired and delicate with grey-green eyes. She looked like she could be in a Waterhouse painting, crimson-robed, draping her long, smooth arm into a lilypad pool. Alice smiled at her. “It will be nice for the kids to be able to have space to run and play.”
Natalie nodded and smiled politely and Alice took that as her cue to say goodbye. She‘d walk down to the park, let Daisy chase squirrels for a few minutes. She’d almost reached it when she saw the minivan go by. What was it like for those children with parents who were so defensive about the rest of the world? Her own kids had grown up in the neighborhood and had the run of it, riding their bikes up and down the streets until the sun set, playing ball in this very park. She thought of the boy on his wobbling bike and felt a wave of compassion for him.
Later that week, when the neighbor was gone to work, she went across and asked Natalie if the children could come over and help pick her grapes. “I’ll be with them,” she said, when Natalie stood up to come along. “You could get a little alone time.” Natalie hesitated, but after giving the children some low-voiced instructions, she agreed.
Annake and Beth, the younger girls, and the boy, Aiden, followed her across the street and into the house, hesitating inside to look at her things with solemn eyes, taking in the art work, the baskets of yarn, the drawing table. She offered them cookies and cups of milk to help them relax and then showed them the backyard garden and the grape arbor she’d had built. She told them to go ahead and go under the canopy, which they did hesitantly, the girls clinging to each other’s hands. She stood outside and listened as their whispers turned to happy chatter. It was cool and dark in there, a space that longed for children. When they had come back out again, grape leaves clinging to their clothes and hair, fingers sticky with the grapes they’d eaten, she showed them how to choose the ripest bunches and cut through the stems, lay them neatly in the basket she’d brought from the house.
After they finished picking enough grapes, she brought them back inside and they made juice, pulling the fat grapes off their stems and cooking them down in a big pot. Annake poured in the sugar and Aiden stirred it with a wooden spoon while she and Beth wiped the counters clean. They were eager learners, quiet and attentive, willing to work. After a couple of hours, Natalie came to check on them. Alice gave her a bowl of grapes and poured some of the hot juice into a bottle for her to take home, told her that the children had been a great help and she meant it. Standing side by side, she saw how Aiden and Natalie had the same frail air, the long limbs, the unusual beauty.
“There will be more grapes in a few days,” she said, surprising herself. “Would you all like to come back?” And they did, picking the grapes until they were gone, then the figs, then helping her tidy up the garden, harvest what was left of the late summer produce. Natalie often came with them, sitting on the back steps with her book in hand while the children talked and worked with Alice.
The children were back in school by this time and they chatted to Alice about what they were studying, their classmates, the elaborate rules of the playground. Aiden was lonely, she could tell, but Beth and Annake seemed to fit in fine. Only once did they complain about a teacher – that was Beth, who had begun second grade and was dismayed at the amount of writing the teacher, Mr. Lasko, expected from her. Annake, who was in the fourth grade, and the most outspoken of the three, said matter of factly, “It’s because he’s a Jew.” Alice was so taken back she nearly dropped the bowl of beans they’d been picking.
“What does that have to do with it?” she asked, a little sharply. Annake’s face took on a sullen look. She was most like her father, Alice realized, intelligent, but quick to blame, quick to be defensive. She was about to say something more when Natalie left the porch and joined them.
“Beth,” she said gently, “tell me something about Mr. Lasko that you do like.” She began to help Annake with the beans.
“He doesn’t yell,” said Beth after a while. “And he doesn’t let Nathan Banner take cuts in the lunch line like Mrs. Perry did.”
“Does he still have the prize jar if you finish your homework during the week?” asked Aiden. He was deadheading the flower border and there was the peppery smell of marigolds in the air.
Beth nodded. “It’s mostly just stickers and candy though.” She twined a bean tendril around her finger and pulled it out to examine the spiral she’d made.
“I like Mr. Lasko,” said Natalie, and she smiled at Annake before looking at Alice. Not frail, Alice realized, there was strength there.
After that, she began to notice all the ways Natalie worked with the children, redirecting their conversations, listening to what lie behind the words, bringing them to the conclusions she wanted them to have. It was done so neatly that the children barely realized they were being guided. For the first time she considered what Natalie was up against every day, and how she resisted it. The children were remarkable, really, when she came to think of it. She thought of Aiden and his bike. He was carrying the bowl of beans into the house and she watched him with a surge of affection. There was persistence in them, a kind of defiance she hadn’t known to look for.
She stood and wiped her hands on her jeans, said, “This looks good. Shall we be done for the afternoon?” They gathered up the tools and put them away, coiled up the hose, locked the garden gate. About this time of day their father came home, and the children were always anxious to greet him. He was not unkind to them, she’d learned that much at least through their conversations. They washed their hands at the spigot, trailed out through the backyard gate and across to their own house. Natalie followed behind, turning at the edge of the yard to say “thank you” as she did every time she came. Did she realize what Alice had thought of her and the children all this time? Probably, she decided with some dread. She thought of the first afternoon she’d invited the children over and imagined what Natalie had said in that low-voiced conversation: “Mrs. Inman is very kind. What a nice neighbor to invite you all over.” Alice’s cheeks grew hot.
“Thank you,” she said quickly, pushing the gate closed. “It’s been so nice. Really.”
Natalie stopped and asked, “Would you like to come to dinner sometime?”
Alice hesitated, imagining eating dinner in their house, her neighbor’s heavy presence across the table, the inevitable discussions that would make her burn and have to bite her tongue, and she began to make an excuse, find some way of permanently delaying it, but then she caught Natalie’s gaze and she understood what was being offered, what was being asked.
“Yes,” she said, gladly. And she meant it.