Billy Baker lived down the street from me, near the dead end. I was ten and he was eight, but he had a way about him that made him seem older. He lived with his mother and two sisters, Maggie, eleven, the oldest, and Josephina, five. His father showed up every other week or so. We could hear the music blasting from his white Camaro as he pulled around the corner. He parked in the street, wheels angled toward the road. I remember him walking across the front lawn – a tall thin man with short dark curly hair, white sweater and black jeans and tennis shoes. He stopped to pick up a bright yellow Tonka truck off the lawn and carried it to the front of the house.
“Hiya, Bill,” he said, dropping the truck in the patch of dirt beneath the front windows. There was no garden, no bushes in front of his house like mine, no tall flowers or pine trees – only a strip of dirt and a chipped gray foundation.
Billy and I sat on the front steps, crushing small rocks with larger rocks. His Dad slid his iridescent sunglasses into his hair and squeezed the back of Billy’s neck. He called me “Tony,” the only one who used that nickname, and it always made me feel like he knew some secret about me. I smiled politely as he walked past us and into the house.
The inside of Billy’s house was like a wound, something delicate ripped wide open. Josephina’s juice boxes and melted ice pops left hard red blotches on the beige carpet. Crushed saltine crackers dusted the stairs. The big red couch was stained with Coca-Cola and one of the cushions was torn so badly it looked like it was sliced with a steak knife. When we watched TV, Billy pulled chunks of cotton from the couch and threw them on the floor. Billy’s father didn’t seem to notice.
His father walked down the hall and into the bedroom. I heard him say something to Billy’s mother and shut the door behind him. Billy nudged me with his elbow, thin black hairs curling over his top lip as he grinned. He muted the television and crept toward the hallway. Maggie sat with perfect posture at the kitchen table behind a fort of math and science textbooks covered with brown paper bags. Josephina was alone with her bucket of chalk in the driveway. Billy beckoned me toward the hallway.
We got down on our hands and knees and crawled toward the bedroom door. I was right behind Billy, the black bottoms of his bare feet inches away from the tips of my fingers. He turned around and slid backwards on his butt until his back was against the wall. I crawled forward and sat next to him. Billy put his finger to his lips.
His mother moaned – a soft whimpering, the whispers of a foreign language. Steady and breathy, as if there wasn’t enough air in her bedroom. Billy giggled quietly, thrusting his hips into the air. I’d heard these sounds in the movies Billy and I watched on cable late at night, men and women rolling in bed with sweaty, painful expressions, but I had never heard them in real life. She moaned louder; I pressed my ear to the door.
“Billy!” Maggie whispered, peeking over her thick textbook. “Get away from there.”
Billy looked at her, gave her the finger. She shook her head and looked at me. I shook my head, too, with half a smile as if I didn’t want to believe what was happening. Part of me didn’t. Part of me was frightened of what went on inside their house. The other part was curious.
Her moans quickened and for the first time I heard the bass of his father’s voice, then silence. Normal sounds slowly broke through the blood-rush in my ears – the scratching of Maggie’s pencil, Josephina’s singing in the driveway, the cool outside air blowing through the curtains. The bed creaked, and we ran back to the living room.
A few minutes later, his father came out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen. He stretched in front of the open refrigerator with a can of Diet Coke in his hand. He popped the top and took a long swallow; each gulp audible in his throat. I pretended to watch TV as I stared at him leaning on the refrigerator door, absently flipping through a stack of Josephina’s drawings stuck to the freezer with magnets shaped like fruits and vegetables. He held up a family portrait – the mother in a long bathrobe with wild hair, Maggie standing up straight, neat clothes, arms full of books, Billy holding a toy gun, spraying bullets in the air like a cowboy, and the father smiling in his white Camaro, three lines shooting out from the back of the car to show how fast he was going.
He put the portrait back on the freezer and finished his Coke. The delicate echo of the empty can on the counter followed by the papery slap of an envelope filled with money. He kissed Maggie on the cheek and walked into the living room, said goodbye to me and Billy, took a quick look around the house, put his sunglasses on and closed the door. We heard him whistle as he walked across the front lawn. Through the window, I watched him get in his car, the convertible top blossoming as he drove up the street.
Billy’s mother shuffled out of the bedroom, her bathrobe never completely closed, always revealing too much. A blotchy breast, a pale veiny thigh. She seemed to sleepwalk everywhere she went – the kitchen, the backyard, the elementary school to pick up Josephina. In the evenings, Billy forced her to walk to McDonald’s and get us food. Screaming and cursing, he told her to get a pen and write down our order. He said it was okay, that I could go ahead and tell her what I wanted. She knelt beside me with a pen in her hand, looking up at me with exhaustion, as if my answer could save her. I told her what I wanted.
As chaotic as Billy’s house was, I didn’t feel threatened. His life was so completely different from mine, equally exotic and incomprehensible, that it seemed too far away to do any harm. I was a voyeur, an extra. My house was only a hundred yards up the street, but it was miles and miles away.
When I returned home, I stared at Mom’s garden, the finely-trimmed lawn, and the blue sky shimmering in the pool, a reflected world washed clean of consequence. At the dinner table, I ate with visions of Billy’s house safely tucked away inside me.
Since Billy was younger, we never saw each other in school. I was closer in age to Maggie and sometimes I’d see her at the bus stop or in the corner of the library. If the hallway was empty, sometimes we’d wave to each other, our hands never any higher than our hips. Most of the time, we looked the other way.
My mother and I often saw Billy’s mom walking around town in her bathrobe. She limped up a quiet side street, her face caged in black hair. She shuffled along the white line, cars whipping by at forty miles an hour, her bathrobe undulating in heavy waves like a waterlogged cape.
“That poor woman,” my mother said, her tongue clicking on the back of her teeth.
We never stopped to give her a ride. We thought about her only when we saw her and drove on.
I didn’t want to associate with Billy or his family outside of his house. Inside his house, I was not myself. I was Billy’s protégé, his understudy in the ways of evil, learning how to be bad. Outside, I was the polite, chubby, red-cheeked child with the permanent smile. Always polite, always got along with others. I was known for my ability to share. But inside, I longed to learn Billy’s language, to communicate with the world the way he did.
It was the opposite for Billy. Outside of his house, he felt vulnerable and weak. Once, I invited him to visit my grandparents in New Jersey. He agreed, and I imagine I felt comfortable with the situation because we’d be far away from our hometown and no one would know us. My parents asked me if I wouldn’t rather take another friend, someone I knew better. They didn’t know as well as I did what went on in Billy’s house, but they sensed something, as if a sinister soundtrack became audible as soon as Billy appeared. As my father loaded Billy’s backpack into the car, he looked at me as if I might still change my mind.
Billy didn’t talk the entire trip. Not one word. Nor did I see him eat anything. When my grandmother asked him if he’d like some lasagna or a slice of meatloaf, he just shook his head and sat at the table with his head down. Though he was obviously uncomfortable, I marveled at the power he had over the table, each of us not sure how to behave in his presence.
Josephina was five, but still couldn’t talk. She communicated in one-syllable sounds and hand gestures. She’d point to a box of chicken McNuggets and open her mouth wide, waiting for someone to feed her. She’d squeal and scream, reaching for a can of soda on the counter until someone boosted her up. When she wanted to go outside, she scratched at the door like a small dog begging to escape.
With her bucket of multi-colored chalk, she drew bright worlds on the hot black driveway. Smiling yellow suns coaxing laughing purple flowers from tall magenta grass. Herds of unicorns and giraffes and dinosaurs ran together through open fields. She sang songs to herself in her own language, baby-talk much too young for her, as if there were an infant ventriloquist hiding behind her, controlling every word she said and lyric she sang.
Billy rode his bike up and down the driveway, screeching to a stop over her drawings until her worlds were blurry and his bike tires were coated with chalk. His mother and sister yelled and chased him down the driveway as he peddled just enough to stay ahead of them, laughing. I sat in the grass, the urge to stop him surging up in me, to kick Billy from his bicycle with the tip of my sneaker like a peasant suddenly spearing the dragon with his sword. But I didn’t. I watched Josephina stand above her world crying, a stub of chalk in her hand, wondering where to start.
One day, Billy and I were in Maggie’s room. Maggie was downstairs. Their mother was asleep. Josephina sat on the edge of Maggie’s bed as we flipped through a dirty magazine and dialed the numbers in the back. We used Maggie’s telephone, the trendy kind made of clear plastic so all of the inner workings were visible. The transparent receiver blinked in Billy’s hand.
“What’s that?” he said, “you want to speak to Anthony? Okay. Here he is.”
Billy tried handing me the phone but I ran to the other side of the room, tripping over Josephina’s Twister mat. He laughed and gave the phone to Josephina instead. I picked up the cordless phone on the table and listened. A woman on the other end moaned softly, asking Josephina what she wanted. She said she wanted to please Josephina and make all her fantasies come true. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, baby? Josephina seemed soothed by the voice, as if listening to a nursery rhyme. Billy hung up the phone and Josephina screamed, holding the phone to her ear, slapping all the buttons, trying to make the voice come back.
This is when I would leave. Josephina would scream and Billy’s mom would wake up and run to her – What? What is it? What’s the matter? – but Josephina couldn’t tell her, couldn’t speak her language. She’d just scream and reach out in the air for some invisible savior. I’d slip out the back door and run home.
I slept over there only once. In the middle of the night, I began to sleepwalk. I got up from my bed and walked down the stairs. Somehow, I made it through the obstacle course of toys and dishes on the living room floor and into the kitchen. My hands searched the walls for the door knob and as I began to turn it, Billy’s mother touched my shoulder.
“Anthony,” she whispered, “where are you going?”
Her question woke me, and I was suddenly inches from her face, her wrinkled olive skin, long thin black hair. She looked like a zombie. She was breathing heavy; she must have chased me.
“Home,” I said, “I have to go home.”
“It’s late, though. You can go home in the morning.” She turned me around and sent me back through the house, back upstairs, back to Billy’s room.
In the middle of the night, I heard Billy guiding Josephina down the dark hallway, into his room. The rustling of Billy’s blanket. Josephina’s mysterious language. Billy whispered; she giggled. Silence. Then I heard only Billy, no words, only breath.
In the morning, Josephina was gone. Billy was sleeping. I snuck out the back door and walked home, no one there to stop me.
Though I couldn’t see in the darkness, Billy and Josephina’s sounds drew pictures in my mind like chalk on asphalt. I felt I could no longer safely watch lest I be responsible for what I was witnessing.
But I continued to go over there. It was not my life.