Breakthrough Mailboxes of Southern Pennsylvania
Across the street, the young, blond entrepreneurs have opened for business at the end of their driveway, cardboard signs advertising the sale of their small sister. She sits in the gravel, wearing a leash. Her hair’s in pigtails. Her brothers are screaming. No cars stop, though many swerve as they pass the property, nearly mowing over Fallingwater, Rhonda’s masterpiece mailbox.
Rhonda watches through the French window of her rancher, stress-squeezing a bottle of tacky glue, a tiny sconce on her newest model drying crooked. It’s the final day of her bereavement leave, but her mind is on last month’s accident—when a rubbernecking motorcyclist wiped out and totaled her Monticello mailbox, its miniature Corinthian pillars catching in his silver beard. Her art, erased. That day, the kids were playing a game called Semper Fi! where they pile inside the recycling tote, wait for the hum of a coming vehicle, and pop out jack-in-the-box style, screaming military slogans in hopes of goosing the driver.
Theirs is a bent, busy street on the edge of York City, where motorists, having endured a slew of long red lights, like to pretend the new 35 mph sign says 53. Rhonda’s property starts where the sidewalk dissolves into a gravelly shoulder and Tower Avenue doglegs out of town. In the apex of the bend stands her mailbox—clearly visible but totally vulnerable.
Today the two boys, maybe nine and six, shout at every vehicle that passes the property. “One hundred percent organic girl! Listen up, shitheads! Only one in stock!” If a car goes by without reaction—not even a honk or a jostle—it’s the middle finger for its rearview mirror. The boys have stubby, ugly middle fingers, like chopped-off hot dogs. She’s never met their father but imagines his hands are rough, dirt in the creases, grease in the lifeline.
Closing the curtain, Rhonda shakes her head and decides to intervene. She enters her garage, hoping to sneak up on the kids from the side and convey to them the danger—is it too rash to call it terror?—they’re bringing to this neighborhood, to their own troubled family, to her art.
With the garage light off, she bumps into the Chrysler Building, stubs a toe on the stairs of the Met. She loves to walk through this room full of mailboxes pretending it’s a dark gallery the tourists can never find. And this piece, she hears the docent whisper, was the first, started the month of the artist’s divorce. This one’s named after her son, who never calls. The voice fades as she descends the driveway.
“In fact, we’ll pay you to take her!” the boys yell as she limps past her hedgerow and across the street. “Fire sale! Fire sale!”
“Boys,” she says, as if they’re her kids and not strangers who moved in a few months ago, “you’ll regret the day someone stops and, you know, suddenly she’s gone.”
“She who?” says, maybe, Derek. Derek is the name she hears their father yell most often.
“Your dear sister,” Rhonda says.
“All she ever does is sing,” he says, taking the end of the leash and whipping it around his head like a lasso. A passing Subaru swerves at the road’s bend—missing Fallingwater—then speeds off. In the silence left behind, Rhonda hears it, the girl whisper-singing a wordless song.
“I think it’s pleasant,” Rhonda says, though the noise grates. “Like a bird.”
“We don’t want a bird,” the other boy says, fists in his swim trunks. “We want waffles!”“Isn’t today a school day?” Rhonda asks. It’s late September.
“Belgian waffles, lady.”
“So you want to give your sister away for waffles, but I wonder—what would your mother think?”
“Do you see her?” says Derek. “Do you see our mom, like, around?”
Rhonda kneels in the stones to make eye contact with the girl, who can’t yet be four years old, whose mouth opens a bit wider to sing, “Our mother in the clicker.” “The clicker?” Rhonda asks, squinting at the girl. “Is this some kind of riddle?”
“Shit, the TV clicker,” says Derek, pointing with an invisible remote, pressing his thumb, hating this channel, the Judgment Channel, this obnoxious episode featuring a sixty-seven-year-old, gray-hair-hanging-to-her-ass, nosy “artist” named Rhonda. The other boy comes over and tucks the long gray hair into Rhonda’s back khaki pocket. All the children laugh.
A weathered Buick approaches slowly, the engine popping, the window sliding down.
“Go get jobs!” comes a young, hard shout. When Rhonda turns, the car speeds away, the back tires spraying stones, but it swerves—the joke so funny that the driver lost his grip—and there they go, off the road. Fallingwater falls.
The teen reverses, gets out, pulls a black knit hat off his head, and asks if what he hit belongs to her. The kids run inside, Derek pulling his sister along with the leash. “Swear to God, lady,” the driver says. “I’ll replace this, uh—was that a mailbox?” Rhonda picks up one of the house’s tan cantilevers. The blue cellophane creek blows through the neighbor’s yard.
“Listen—I have a job.” She points the piece at him. “And I have to go back tomorrow.”
That night, because it’s warm and she is able, fit, focused on longevity, Rhonda walks five blocks to the YorkArts Center and drops off her Hemingway House for their yearly local juried show. Last fall, her Monticello was chosen (so was nearly every other submission), but it was displayed sloppily on a low stool behind the snack table. Alone, she had left the reception early.
The clerk who takes her piece smiles as an ornamental six-toed cat falls from the house’s balcony. She tries to explain Fallingwater to him. Truly, it had been her landmark work. Often Rhonda worries that she’s not really an artist, only averagely clever and a little annoying. An image comes into her mind as she walks home—her mailboxes going two for ten at a quick and careless estate sale auction. “Two for five!” her son yells to the bored buyers. “Fuck it—free! Fire sale!”
On the way, she stops at Turkey Hill and buys a giant Pepsi slushie. She sucks it down in the parking lot until her brain freezes. She’s had three weeks off to mourn Alan’s death. Not that she needed any time at all to grieve her ex-husband— they’d been divorced eight years and she hadn’t loved him since—when? College? Back when she was painting and he still watched her like a television? She was entitled to the benefit, though, and since her boss is a creep, she milked it. Her plan was to turn the leave into a self-funded artist residency, an opportunity to abandon her current mode of imitation and finally design something original—a home nobody’s ever seen.
However, apart from finishing Fallingwater, she’d wasted the time watching and worrying about the kids across the street. She wondered what care looked like to other people, wondered when neglect became abuse. They weren’t really the same, were they? Alan had hit their son, AJ, five times during his eighteen years in the house, and Rhonda remembers each one—especially the first, how she just stood at the sink, scrubbing so hard the steel wool ate a hole through the tin baking sheet.
The WALK sign is on, but she’s not walking.
For eighteen years, Rhonda taught crafting classes and shelved books at the library, but after Alan left, she had to find a job with health insurance. For a while she worked as a cafeteria aide in the high school, then three years ago she took a job at a counseling practice called Total Hope Life Services. When she applied, she imagined working with at-risk youth and young mothers, guiding them past the failures of their parents, maybe using arts-and-crafts therapy. But instead, she checks patients in at the front desk and suffers the requests of the staff’s four “hope therapists” and Troy, her needy boss. He’s the owner, and he believes in hugs. To work he rides a bicycle that—after fifteen minutes of Troy grunting and sweating in the lobby—folds up to the size of a briefcase. Everything he wears is wicking. “Wicking,” he explains to Rhonda weekly. “Feel it. Rub. The sweat comes out of me, but then this stuff just—fwwwp—wicks it right off.” He smells like her son’s old hockey bags in the back of the garage. Every morning, Troy’s shoes click loudly down the hallway, disturbing the appointments, leaving tough, dark marks.
Today, when Rhonda returns to the office, it’s worse than she remembered. Troy has hung new “art” on the walls, one print still bearing a half-torn Target price sticker. There’s a four-panel image of a daisy carrying through each season, a montage of mantras, a gray-scale Eiffel Tower.
Rhonda sits at her desk, hidden by stacks of counseling notes to be filed, when Troy clomps into the waiting room.
“Rhon!” he says, folding in a handlebar. “Did you have a great bereavement?”
“Well,” she says. “I mean—I think it was healthy.”
“You look like a wrung sponge,” he says, eyes on his shoes. On her first day, Rhonda was forced to take a “technology test” during which Troy stood behind her, watching as she navigated the practice’s webpage, reports portal, and billing system.
Rhonda types with two fingers. She knows it’s abnormal, but she’s actually quite fast. “Oh no,” Troy had said, dropping his hands to her shoulders. “I see you’re a pecker.” When he said it, she’d been concentrating too hard to feel insulted, but she felt it later, and cried quietly into her sangria glass at Applebee’s.
Now he’s at the side of the desk, leaning over the folders, spotting them with sweat.
“How are you, Troy?” she says.
“Buried, Rhon. Just swamped. Not easy working two jobs while you’re off. Really, I’ve broken some true sweat this last month.”
“Good thing you’ve got your wicking.”
“Do I sense an attitude today?”
“No, no. Sorry.” She rises, takes refuge near the printer.
“Rhonda.” He’s behind her now. “You know I’m sorry for your loss, right?”
“Thanks,” she says, turning and accidentally stepping into his hug. Surprising herself, she leans against him, lets out a loud breath. Her eyes close for a long, unpleasant moment.
“Do me a favor, stop by my office at lunch. We should debrief about the bereavement.”
“We should?” she says, thinking of the neighbor kids. What are they doing for lunch?
“Policy,” he says. “A few questions, you know—T’s to cross, lowercase j’s to dot.”
“It sounds like a grief pop quiz.”
“OK,” he says, nodding. “So it is an attitude.”
There’s a flimsy, rusted, head-high filing cabinet in the break room where the Office Communal Foods forms are kept, charts on which the employees are supposed to record the amount of shared items they’ve consumed each day, like coffee, sugar, ketchup, and, for some reason, ice cubes. This morning, Rhonda’s alone with the cabinet, fighting with the top drawer. The massive case tilts forward easily, especially when the top drawer’s pulled all the way out. Others have complained about this in the past, complaints Troy has waved away as part of his employees’ secret plan to bankrupt the company with needless overhead expenses.
Pulling the top drawer farther out, Rhonda imagines what another month off could do for her art. She opens a second drawer. What will Troy ask in this meeting? She opens a third drawer, and the metal tower lurches forward, and she screams before she feels a thing.
The next day, the kids across the street have a new, disturbing scheme running. They’ve stuck their sister in the crotch of an oak alongside the road. From the perspective of passing cars, you can’t even tell she’s up there. In the driveway, about ten yards off, the boys go down on one knee and level cap rifles at the orange leaves. Every time a car guns around the bend, one of the brothers yells “Open fire!” and they shoot, their bodies rocking with dramatic kickback. The girl then sidles out of the tree and falls four feet to the ground, where she lies splayed, tongue out and eyes rolled back. She’s not a bad actress, Rhonda notes. But it’s wrong. It just is.
They’re boosting her back into the tree when Rhonda rolls up on her knee scooter. Fallingwater has been replaced by a model of the Guggenheim she’s not super proud of, its spiraled white atrium resembling a sort of toilet tank.
“Are you two trying to destroy my mailboxes?” she says from the shoulder. Startled, the boys turn. The girl slips from the branch, crumples to the ground.
“Illuminati confirmed!” they shout.
Rhonda doesn’t understand, but wants to.
“One,” Derek says, “you’re always watching us.”
“Two,” the other boy says, “you want to control our every move.”
“Three,” Derek says, “you look like a witch, you make shitty weird castles, and …”
“Seven,” the girl sings, “you get no mail!”
“Illuminati confirmed,” the younger boy says, nodding. The insults, silly as they are, still sting. Rhonda looks at the slate-gray prefab house behind them, its Veneerstone siding and hollow Corinthian pillars. Yeah, the place is big, but she can tell it’s empty inside.
“You know, I lost someone, too,” she says. “My husband. Plus, my son never visits.”
“Oh, no,” says the younger boy, “the movie!” He runs to a lawn chair and grabs a handheld camera.
“I’m your neighbor,” she says, looking at Derek. “And neighbors can talk to each other.”
“Wyatt—give me that!” says Derek, pressing buttons on the camera. “We’re making a YouTube. If enough people watch it, you get money, and then maybe a TV show.”
“Or a concert!” says the girl. Her shirt reads I CUT MY OWN HAIR. “Concert, too, right?”
“Yes, Jessie. God,” Wyatt says.
“The best part,” says Derek, “is editing it on the computer. Like, when people drive by, you can zoom in on their faces. You can put them on a loop.”
“Yeah,” says Wyatt. “They look like this.” He lifts his eyebrows and crosses his eyes.
“Yeah,” says Derek, “it’s like—” He does a droopy zombie face.
“Like—” Jessie says, mussing her hair and shoving out her tongue.
“Like this?” Rhonda says, screwing up her face like Troy folding his bicycle.
The children scream with laughter. Wyatt grabs her hand and whispers, “Wanna come inside and see?”
Her suspicion about their home is correct—there’s nothing inside. The walls are off-white and endless. The vinyl flooring mimics granite. There is practically no natural light. She doesn’t see any clear signs of abuse, unless you consider the air-conditioning that blasts from the vents to be a form of punishment.
“It’s like a cave in here,” she says. “I’m freezing.” But Wyatt assures her that Illuminati witches can’t freeze. Rhonda looks at her phone and sees an email from Troy with the subject heading “RE: Workers Comp.” (“Just some t’s to cross here, but I’m curious …”) She puts the phone away. Jessie grabs her by the ring finger and pulls her to the living room, where Rhonda’s scooter catches on the lip of the carpet. A Hannah Montana poster is spread on the floor, held down by an array of action figures.
“This my boy band,” Jessie says. “They sing YouTubes and be famous.”
The living room is just a pleather sectional, a giant television, and three windows with the blinds drawn. Rhonda used to own a TV but mostly kept it in the closet. A quiet man, a reader, Alan hauled it out only for special occasions, like the Super Bowl or a Vietnam documentary. They’d always seen TV as a bad socializer, like video games. Her own mother spent years in front of a TV, bound to her recliner, Rhonda only a bother. Because she was alone, Rhonda didn’t blame her as much as she blamed entertainment, its usurping power to distract.
Jessie turns the TV to VH1 and begins to sing, though no one on the show is singing. It’s a reality show apparently focused on poolside fistfights, but the girl hears a tune in it. Screens don’t seem to be stifling these kids’ creativity, though maybe they’ve made them fame-obsessed. But doesn’t everyone dream of being seen? Rhonda often fantasizes about seeing her work in a museum, of giving a great, brief speech to a sharp crowd of admirers. “Have a ball,” she’d say. “Drink the wine! Oh, and try the mini-quiches!” She’d wear a loud dress, something geometric and yellow, her hair done up and remarkable.
“Dad say we not famous. Derek say Dad a bully. Miss F. say no bullies in Bible school …”
“Wait,” Rhonda says. “When will your father be home? When does he get off work?”
Though the three voices come from different rooms, they all ring out together in the same practiced monotone: “However long it takes, for fuck’s sake!” Jessie extends the vowel sound in “sake” and pitches the word up an octave. The voices echo through the empty house. Rhonda thinks of what she’d do with a place like this. Ever since she and Alan closed on the rancher, she had anticipated a bigger home, something more ornate, a structure she could work with, a house that might inspire her to pick up a brush again. It’d been a big upgrade from her mother’s single-wide, but she’d always thought it was a first step to something better.
The first time Alan hit their son, AJ was four. Alan was on the phone and AJ was beneath the breakfast table, calling his father’s name. When he pulled the placemat from the end of the table, bringing his father’s breakfast shattering to the floor, he scrambled out to find Alan’s arm flying back against his face.
“All he wanted was your attention!” Rhonda yelled at Alan afterward.
“I reacted,” Alan said, the line still live, the phone hugging his red neck. “I just reacted!”
He would react again when AJ was nine. And again when he was eleven. Fifteen. Eighteen. And Rhonda, each time, would react, too—react by wondering how she could love a man whose instincts she couldn’t trust. She tried. She couldn’t. It didn’t work. Why did she wait for him to leave? This is the question that her art can’t formulate, that her son can’t ask, that these poor neighbors could never answer.
“And him name Momma,” Jessie says, holding up a shirtless, wounded G.I. Joe, and Rhonda sees the lip of a bruise on the girl’s upper arm. She reaches out and pulls Jessie’s sleeve further back.
The girl jerks away. “Hey!”
Suddenly Rhonda feels warm, nervous, like an intruder. For all anyone here knows, she’s a threat to this family. Following them inside was a dumb idea. She wheels out into the foyer, past what she notices now is a giant ragged hole in the drywall. She doesn’t ask.
“Where go?” Jessie says. Derek and Wyatt come sliding down the hall in socks.
“What the hell? I was gonna show you the video,” Derek says. “It’s just loading.”
“And I made you this,” Wyatt says, holding out a sandwich on a plate. Rhonda takes it from him, smiles, flips up the hearty bread. Ham, Brie. Is that apple?
“Pear,” Wyatt says, smiling. Jessie rushes out into the foyer and hands her the clicker. Rhonda takes the hefty remote, feels its gummy buttons.
“Dad told us he put her ashes in there,” Derek says. “So we can’t ever lose it.”
Rhonda tries to change the channel, but it doesn’t change. The credits keep rolling over two lovers crying in a cabana. “My ex-husband’s wife, Theresa,” she says, “had his ashes made into a little silver gemstone. She wears him on a ring.”
“That’s disgusting,” Derek says, and his siblings nod. It really is.
Wyatt grabs the remote from Rhonda, shakes it near his ear. “Duh. There’s nothing in here.”
“Dad’s a liar,” Derek says, and his siblings fall silent.
From the doorway, the kids are calling: “Don’t leave! You’re not a witch!” Rhonda’s halfway down the driveway when their father’s truck whips in, nearly clipping her cast. She scoots through the grass, toward the safety of the road and, just beyond it, her own house.
Behind her, the truck door slams. “Excuse me,” the man says. She’s only ever seen him getting in and out of the truck—never in the yard with the kids, never on the porch, never taking walks or in the driveway working on projects. “Do you have business here?” She keeps rolling until she reaches the road, a demilitarized zone.
“Lady?” he says, his voice close at her back.
“The kids,” she says, angling around toward him. “They, uh … well.”
“Kids? My kids? Those kids in there who just lost their mother?”
“I know, I know, but—” she says, backing toward the road.
“Oh, you know? You’re a know-it-all. Well, do you know where your property ends?”
“Listen, they broke my mailbox. Their reckless games. It’s happened twice now.”
“That one there?” he says, leaning to see past her. Rhonda stares at his suit, his leather shoes—brown and shining, but scuffed. She inches farther away from him, closer to home. He laughs. “I’m not sure they couldn’t have done any more damage than you done.”
A passing car honks at Rhonda, whose cast juts out into the demented road. “Get out of the fucking way!” the driver shouts from the window.
“What happened to your leg there?” the man says to Rhonda’s back. She’s pushing out across Tower Avenue. “Don’t suppose my kids are to blame for that, too?”
Rhonda arrives home shaking. She wants only one thing: to work. To make art. But she can’t work in the living room—not with that house across the street, the lights flashing on and off, the doors slamming. And it’s too cold in the cramped kitchen. And the back porch is swamped with ladybugs. She hates this fucking house, always has. In AJ’s old room, she spreads her materials on the bed and begins a strange new … what? It’s not clear. She wings it. She paints the crooked siding a dark stone. Nearly black. Bars in the windows. No windows at all.
Even with Joni Mitchell’s Blue at full volume, Rhonda can hear the father screaming. There have been sharp, lone shouts before, but this seems to be a full performance. She grabs her phone to call the police—maybe just a noise
complaint—then hesitates. An old thought comes to her, one she’s hated for decades: who is she to claim to know the proper way for a father to act? Is it better to live with a mean man or none at all? If she steps in, things could get worse. The kids could be taken away. She stares at the phone. There’s a beautiful alert for a missed call from AJ, which she immediately returns.
Her son is worried about her injury, the fact that she hasn’t been working for over a month. When he coughs out the words “group home,” Rhonda interjects that she is sixty-four—though she’s really sixty-seven—and those places are for eightyyear-
olds. AJ asks, “Why are you crying?” and she hangs up.
He calls back.
“Talk to me,” he says.
“How? You never call.”
“I’m calling now. I just called.”
Rhonda feels a sick sinking in her gut, like a car cresting a country hill. “We need to talk about your father.”
“You mean, why you didn’t go to his funeral?”
“He abused you, AJ. Don’t you see that?”
“Are you serious? I was there, Mom. I had to hide my own bruises. I saw it again and again. I still see it.” He’s trying hard not to shout, and she loves him for it. “But I forgave him. We reconciled.”
“Years ago, when he moved to New Mexico.”
“When he left me.”
“Yes, we talked about it for hours. It was awful. But I had to find a way to forgive him.”
“What about me?”
“Have you forgiven me?”
The line holds quiet.
“For the neglect?” AJ says.
“The neglect?” Rhonda says. She needs water. “What are you saying? I meant—I mean, because I never stopped him. Somehow I just hid. I ignored it.”
“Mom, if you don’t see how that is neglect, then how can I forgive you?”
Saturdays, Rhonda always switches her mailbox, but today she sleeps late. The argument with AJ knocked her down like five NyQuil, and now she can’t remember where it ended. She’s heavy in the bed, an anchor out of water. Turning over, she sees the dark, unfinished monstrosity she’d been making the night before and, beside it, her phone, which she checks: only a voicemail from Troy, about workers’ comp, and he misses her, and there’s a meeting with a lawyer.
At noon, she pushes out to switch her mailbox. This week is Glass House, a simpler piece, but she’s always fantasized a life with nothing to hide. The sky looks ready for rain. The neighbor’s truck is home. At the end of their driveway, the boys
are tied to their own green plastic mailbox. A sign reads: free, o.b.o.
“It’s a new game!” Wyatt yells to her. “It’s called See How You Like It.”
“Noooo,” Derek corrects him. “Dad says it’s Taste Your Own Medicine.”
Rhonda turns around slowly, kicks her way back to the garage. “Wait, wait!” Derek calls. “Dad doesn’t get the filming part. He’s not even recording! There won’t be anything to put on YouTube. Go get us a camera, Rhonda.”
“Or, wait,” Wyatt says. “Just take us!”
“Yeah, Rhonda,” Derek says. “We’re free!”
The handheld camcorder was her gift to AJ one Christmas. She watches the little screen while she wheels through the house. Maybe he would make home videos, she’d hoped back when she bought it, but the memory card is only full of bootlegged movies from his friends’ houses. Air Bud recorded on a camcorder so AJ could watch it in his room, beneath the covers, alone.
She’s deleting, clearing space, when her cell phone rings. Her instinct is to ignore it. Could it be the final call from Troy, the one that says she’s being fired?
No, it’s from YorkArts. They’ve passed on her piece, and would she come pick it up at her earliest convenience? She drops the phone and leaves it on the floor. She will not cry. In the garage, she rolls right over the steps of the Met. It makes such a satisfying crunch.
Outside, she sets the camera on top of Glass House and frames the neighbors. Wait until the police see this. “Ready?” she says and clicks the red button. The boys begin to act like victims, straining against their ropes, grasping at the thin air.
“The Illuminati is pulling the strings!” they yell. Their voices fade behind her as she pushes off toward the city. “Mom! Mommy, help us!”
Rhonda powers up the sidewalk, head down, toward the city. She’s got video proof of abuse, but the policemen at the desk don’t want to watch her video. She shoves it in front of them. “Clever,” they say, ignoring her other evidence—bruises on the kids, holes in the wall, how he keeps them out of school. The officers scratch a few notes, but neither asks for names or an address. “You ever heard of a free country?” one mumbles.
From the police station Rhonda goes to the gallery. “Thank you,” says the clerk who hands over her mailbox. Without tears, she thanks him back, though what for? Outside, she has to work to balance the piece on the handlebars of her knee scooter, and just as she’s ready to push off, the door to the building swings open. Out comes a man whose feet click against the sidewalk. A canvas the size of a sports-bar television obscures his head—a crude, cartoonish-looking pair of leg bones, snapped in half and, for some reason, bleeding. The man puts down the painting, unlocks his bicycle from the no-parking sign. His legs and arms are slick with wicking. A sweat coats her boss’s face. “Troy,” she says as he tries to mount his bike with the awkward, violent painting under his arm. “Wait!” she says. “I didn’t know you were a painter.”
“Well, Rhon. I guess I’m not,” he says. “Not according to these people.”
“What is this?” she says, pointing to the canvas.
“My accident.” The sweat on his face might be tears as he explains how a surgeon had to remove a whole section of shattered bone. A car ran him off the road. His left leg’s a quarter-inch shorter now. “The bike shoes help a lot, kind of even
out my step.”
It’s quiet. No cars pass. Rhonda takes a breath and says, “Don’t touch me at work.”
“You mean hugging?”
“Actually, I mean,” she says, “I quit.”
Troy sighs, mounts his bike with the canvas squeezed under his armpit, and gives no wave. Rhonda’s nearly home before the mailbox slips from her handlebars and tumbles to the street. Perhaps a passing bus will smash it. She doesn’t wait around to see.
When Rhonda finally wheels up to her house, she feels very light. It’s possible her broken foot has disappeared—that’s how little she’s aware of it. Unless she looks down at her body beneath her head, she can’t guarantee any of it is there. This feels different. Not good, not bad, just empty.
The boys are still tied to the mailbox. Derek’s shirt is pulled up to his nose and he’s crying into the collar. Wyatt, sprawled and kicking the air, looks like fresh roadkill. The sun, on its arc back down, heads for the top of their house. Hours they’ve been out here.
“It’s over now,” Rhonda says, reaching down for the knot of plastic rope. “Game over.”
“Did we win?” Wyatt asks. Rhonda nods, though she’s not convinced. The knot’s so small, and impossibly tight. She tries, using her teeth, then gives up. As it falls from her hands, she reaches down again, her leg slipping off the scooter, and she tips onto the lawn. Here she lies, watching the sky turn pink. Ladybugs hover on flat paths through the air. The boys lean back in the dirt beside her. The rope around their waists has rubbed the skin of their hips raw. This is something she can see with her eyes. Evidence. What else? She sees that she will not be able to save them. And a glass mailbox, across the street, throwing around the last light
of the sun, delivering what only a fool would view as hope.
“I am going to go home. I am going to go home and call the police until they come.”
“Why are you talking like that?” Wyatt says.
Rhonda struggles to her feet and back onto her scooter.
“Why are you leaving?” Derek says. “Can we come?”
The boys’ protests grow louder as she crosses Tower Avenue a final time. There are quick cars coming, but they’re still far away. Behind her, the boys strain at the ends of their leashes, trying to chase. They pull and pull and stretch the rope, and when the post gives way, they fall forward into the road’s stony shoulder, shocking an approaching driver, who swerves. The car crashes through Glass House and hurtles over the hedgerow, unable to stop before it levels her.
The day before her U-Haul comes, Rhonda hosts a garage sale that AJ calls a gallery opening. A few dozen people wander by and walk inside. There’s the Robie House, Chrysler, and the Capitol. There’s Farnsworth, Taliesin, Hollyhock, Eames. Look at the dented Met, the Unity Temple. Visitors stroll the space as Rhonda watches from a wheelchair, woozy on pain pills but bursting with nerves. The strangers touch; she does not stop them. No prices are posted, but if they ask, she says, “Make an offer.” She doesn’t count the money. Each sale, she takes another pill, dry.
By early evening she’s hardly awake. The sun falls low enough to shine directly into the garage—a tunnel of light she feels her chair creeping toward.
AJ puts his arm around her shoulder. “Theresa’s here to see you,” he says.
Rhonda opens her eyes and sees a dark-haired, middle-aged woman who takes her hand and shakes it.
“Alan told me you were an artist,” she says. “Undiscovered.” The ring on her finger is charcoal-colored, but glowing. Could that be him? “Oh, here,” she says. “You can hold it.”
Rhonda shakes her head. Theresa hugs AJ, walks the gallery, opens her wallet. When she leaves, it’s with the Unity Temple under her arm, heels clicking on the driveway.
“Do me a favor?” Rhonda asks AJ, but hears no answer. “Can you make sure the kids across the street are OK? I’m sorry, love. But can you do that for them?”
Soon the garage door is sliding down, but Jessie sneaks beneath it, singing. She’s wearing a bathing suit, waving to Rhonda, skipping down the rows and peering into windows, peeling open little doors as if picking a lash from an eye. She finds an unfinished mailbox tucked back in the corner—a pitch-black house with pillars, a porch that looks foreign yet familiar—and gathers it into her arms. Her song gets loud, louder, thundering as she approaches, trying to wake the artist from her sleep.
“Why’s this one empty?” the girl says, setting the house on the card table.
Rhonda leans forward. She wants to answer, so she peers inside, watching, as if something might emerge.
“They all are,” Rhonda says. And together they reach to fix the little garage door, which is either falling closed or coming open.