The battered gray mailbox at the end of our cul de sac used to read “400” in red letters before some neighborhood kid (who wasn’t me) stole the four and probably hung it in his bedroom next to a Red Sox poster. The red zeros they left behind looked like two eyes. During the summer, when waves of heat made the asphalt blurry, they almost blinked at you if you squinted real hard.
We lived in a housing development called Oak Forest Manor, though most of the trees around us were sickly-looking maples whose strung out branches gave little shade. We’d moved into the neighborhood a year ago, three days before I turned twelve. I’d had to celebrate my birthday with a Carvel crunchy cake propped up on a cardboard box instead of our dining room table, which didn’t make the move from California until a week after we’d arrived. My parents were convinced suburbia would be good for me. I was not. They said I‘d love the northeast, bribing me with images of carved pumpkins and hockey on frozen ponds. Mom swore I’d be able to hear wolves howl at night, and Dad promised snowball fights and trips to Fenway. All I knew was it was almost my birthday, I’d left behind all my friends in San Francisco, and life pretty much sucked. And then I met Connor who belonged to the double “o” mailbox and the dilapidated house behind it.
Connor was fifteen and had ears like hockey pucks, which he hid under an old Kenworth baseball cap. I saw him the first time when we pulled up to our new house after the long drive cross-country. He was standing at the lip of his driveway, and we stared at each other through the car window. I waved, but he stood with his arms pinned to his sides. That very afternoon, my Mom marched down the street and invited him over. I begged her not to, but when she sets her mind to something, she’s as immovable as cement.
The next day, Connor knocked on our door ten minutes early and stood there like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. He wanted to bolt, but when he was struck by my dad’s “Hullo, there,” he had no choice but to come in. We sat around on folding chairs while Mom made small talk, and Dad hid behind the newspaper. After tuna fish sandwiches and some awkward conversation, my mom threw us outside so she could unpack, and we spent the afternoon kicking rocks down the empty street.
“Is that your house?” I asked, pointing past the mailbox to the house, which peeled paint like a snake shedding skin.
“Yup” And his face closed down like a trap door. So, we left it at that.
From that moment on, Connor and I started to hang out. We weren’t friends really, but we shared a common boredom. As summer dragged its feet into August, we practiced pitching against the tree in my backyard and ran after the ice cream truck every time it meandered into our neighborhood. We made rockets out of plastic bottles filled with Coca Cola and Mentos and drew tattoos on our skin of our favorite rock bands. But the truth is, I never felt like I really knew him. At times, he was as quiet as a mute. I guess he was just shy, but that shyness felt like a splinter I couldn’t pull out. It made my hands itch to punch him just to see if I could knock something into his dull brown eyes.
What bothered me the most was that he never had me over to his house. If we needed a snack, we always got it from my refrigerator. If we needed to pee, we used the wall of old Mrs. Whitley’s garage, which backed onto our property. And day after day, Connor’s house sat there, hiding secrets behind its cracked and peeling door. Even Connor’s family was a mystery to me. I knew his mom worked from home. Dad said he thought she did telemarketing, but she never invited us in for so much as a granola bar. I also knew Connor had an older brother, but I overheard my parents saying he was in a juvenile hall upstate. And Connor never mentioned his dad, and so, I didn’t ask.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I came up with a plan. It was the week before school started, and we were having a contest to see who could spit a watermelon pit the farthest. I knew I was going to win. I’d beaten a bunch of kids at an all school picnic the year before. I told him the loser of the contest had to do whatever the winner asked. We lined up at the curb of the sidewalk in front of my house, and sure enough, my pit landed about a foot beyond his.
“Ok, you win. So, what do you want me to do?” He asked.
“I want you to show me your house,” I answered like it was nothing special.
“Yeah, come on, Connor. We’ve been hanging out for like two months, and I’ve never even seen your room. What’s the deal? Do you have a dead body in there or something?”
“No.,” he said.
“Yeah, I bet your grandma’s in there,” I said. “You probably got her stuffed like some old moose head. And you talk to her just like that guy from Psycho.”
“I do not,” he said.
“Well, then, what’s the problem? What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid.” He said, and with that, he took off down the street, with me following close behind, making chicken sounds.
When we got to the front door, he turned the knob with a quick and furtive movement, and we walked in. After the glare of outside, the inside seemed pitch black, and I couldn’t see a thing. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out a small living room with an old raggedy couch on one wall and an overstuffed armchair in the corner. A woman was sound asleep in the chair. She looked like Connor except she had stringy gray hair and a slack open mouth. In front of her on the scarred coffee table, there was an open bottle of something brown and a container of orange juice. A talk show blared on TV, and the room smelled like cigarettes and something else musty and slightly rotten. I paused for a moment, but Connor didn’t even look in her direction, as he walked past her and up the stairs.
“You wanted to see my room. Well, here it is,” he said, opening the door.
There was a single bed in a room the size of my parent’s closet. He had an old dresser covered with 70’s decals that said “Dy-no-mite” and “Keep on truckin'” and a piece of plywood over two sawhorses for a desk. The only thing on the walls was a small wooden crucifix above the bed.
I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid to go back downstairs where Connor’s mom was passed out, but I was also afraid to stay in that room a moment longer. My face felt hot and uncomfortable.
“Want to see something cool?” Connor asked.
“Sure. I guess,” I said.
Connor opened his closet door and took out a shoebox. In the box, he pulled out something wrapped in black cloth. Slowly, gingerly, he pulled back the cloth and showed me the knife. It had a huge blade with a serrated edge on one side and a flat sharp edge on the other. The handle was black and shiny.
“It’s my brother’s. Before he left, he gave it to me. Do you want to hold it?”
“Uh- sure.” And he handed it to me. It felt heavy, like anvil heavy, and I was suddenly sweaty all over. I handed it back.
“It’s very sharp,” he said, and then paused for a moment. “Can I show you something else?”
“Sure” I said, not sure at all.
“But you’ve got to promise not to tell anybody. Especially your parents.”
“I promise.” I said.
He went back to the closet and carefully parted the shirts and jackets that were hanging there. The back wall was pock marked and gouged out in a thousand tiny places. There were so many holes; they made a pattern that looked a little like the state of New Jersey.
“What’s that? A map of New Jersey made out of Braille?” I joked, but my heart was going so fast, I thought it was going to conga right out of my chest.
“No, that’s what I call my ‘Wall of Detoxification’. Sometimes, you know, things get really tight in here.” He gestured around the room with the point of the knife. “And in here too.” And he marked his chest. “And I don’t know. I gotta let off steam, you know what I mean?”
He smiled at me, and I saw a spark of something behind the flat screen of his face. I looked away.
“Sure. I know what you mean. I feel like that sometimes too,” I said with a mouth all strange and cottony.
“So, I just come in here and you know, de-tox-if-y.” He said, jabbing the air with the knife for emphasis.
“Oh, yeah, sure. Sounds cool.” I said.
Then, he put the knife back in the closet, and we headed outside as if nothing had happened. In the sun, I found myself blinking hard. Everything around me seemed strange and wrong. The shade beneath the anemic trees felt darker somehow, and my house, where I could see Dad raking up leaves, seemed not just down the street but a million miles away. I waved to my father, who thankfully, waved back.
“Uh, I gotta go. I think my Dad’s calling me,” I said to Connor and fled from him up the street.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room with my face pressed up to the air conditioner. My mom was sure I was coming down with something and made me eat Saltines and soup for dinner even though it was 90 degrees outside. For the next few days, I did my best to avoid Connor. He stopped by a few times, but I always found an excuse not to go out; my Dad needed help fixing the garage door or I had to finish some summer reading for school. My mom kept asking if there was anything I wanted to talk about, but I just shrugged her off.
I never told my parents about the knife, and that secret burned in me like a brand. I started having nightmares. In my dreams, Connor had his knife and that strange smile on his face. In my dreams, he was yelling “De-tox-i-fy” as he chased me.
On a Monday, in the middle of October, Connor and his mom disappeared. They left in the middle of the night. All we knew was one day, they were there, and the next, they were gone. About a week later, a state trooper and some moving men came and loaded up their furniture in a truck. They posted a white eviction notice on the door, and it stayed there until a young couple moved in and started to fix up the place. One of the first things they did was toss the mailbox into a dumpster they had in the driveway. I was glad to see it go and for the first time, in a long time, I finally slept without dreaming anything at all.
Susan Kean Cattaneo is Assistant Professor of Songwriting.