“Nothing bad ever happens here.” That was common wisdom in the New Hampshire hamlet where I grew up. In summer, liberated from school and feral, children were shooed outside after breakfast, called in for lunch, then sent out again to amuse themselves until suppertime, ranging like untethered dogs.
True, the youngest Linski girl did drown in a well. After that, folks called Mrs. Linski irresponsible, though I couldn’t see in what way she was different than any of the other mothers whose children roamed the neighborhood. The following year, Donny Ouellette lost a leg in a mowing accident. When he came back to school, he would detach his prosthesis and show off how he could walk on one knee and his stub. His mother escaped approbation because, you know, boys do get into things. Ken Raymond had deep scars on his forearm where a rabid raccoon bit him. He had to travel to the hospital in Harriston every day for two weeks to have an injection with a needle. Still, we all felt safe.
I was on my own a lot when school was out. My brother Roy, six years older, had a summer job at the Rexall lunch counter. Kent, the only child my age within walking distance, was by default my constant companion — an easy-going freckle-faced boy who would do whatever I told him. With nothing to do and the freedom to do it, we roamed fields, woods, and marshes. We climbed trees, jumped from the bridge to swim in the river, stole tomatoes from gardens, smuggled treats to neighborhood dogs.
Our favorite excursion was spying on Mrs. Crowell who lived across the field in back of Kent’s house. By midsummer the unmown grass, which grew right up to her back steps, was almost as tall as we were. Bending over, we could move through the grass unseen. Close to the house, flat on our bellies, we had a good view without being visible.
We waited for Mr. Todd to hurry across from his house, tap on the back door and enter. This happened with regularity two afternoons a week. Mrs. Crowell’s husband ran the hardware store over in Preston which was open late on Tuesday and Thursday, not that we understood the synchronization required to conduct an affair. Mr. Todd, who sold insurance, could come and go as he pleased.
In our grassy post, I elbowed Kent, “Go closer, try to look in the window.” We tittered about how Mrs. Crowell would look in her underwear. I had a notion from glimpses of my mother — white bra and underpants, pale thighs with a lattice of purple veins.
“What if they see me?”
We had been kicking a ball which I tucked under my arm when we headed into the tall grass.
“If they see you, you’re looking for your ball,” I said as I threw the ball close to the house.
Kent sighed, snuck forward and retrieved it right beneath the window.
“I don’t like that you did that,” his voice a little too loud.
“Shhh. Could you see them?”
Just then, Mr. Crowell parked his army green pickup down the road and walked toward the front door. Approaching the house, he hunched over to stay below the windows.
“Oh no, he’s sneaking in. He’s going to catch them.”
We snickered. It was funny, like when a teacher caught Roy smoking and his buddy yelled, “Oh boy! You’re in trouble now!”
I aimed the ball high and threw as hard as I could.
Flummoxed, Kent croaked, “What are you doing!”
“I’m warning them.”
The ball thudded against the window, and a head bobbed up. A minute later, Mr. Todd pushed out the back door buttoning his white dress shirt, the tails hanging over his belt, buckle flapping. He looked around frantically as he came down the back steps. The lattice which sealed off the crawl space under the steps was pulled loose on the end and curled out a little. He dropped to the ground and crawled in.
I didn’t need to be told what those two sharp cracks were. They were familiar sounds from hunting season when my mother would dress me in an oversized red sweater and admonish me not to leave the yard. We lay frozen in place. Silence for what seemed like a long time, then the slap-slap of a screen door as Mr. Crowell ran out the front, climbed in his pickup and gunned it out of there.
Silence except for cicadas. After a while, Mr. Todd crawled out from behind the lattice, mud streaked down the front of his shirt and dried leaves stuck to his pants. I expected him to go into the house where Mrs. Crowell was, but he didn’t. He headed back toward his own house looking over his shoulder as he staggered.
“We should go look in the window and find out what happened,” I said.
“Are you nuts! I’m not going near there.”
“But what about Mrs. Crowell? We need to find out what happened to her.”
I hunched down and walked toward the house while Kent reluctantly followed. As I approached, a police car came down the street and crunched onto the driveway. We dropped to the ground. Muffled shuffling and banging came from the house. The back door opened. Officer John Dever stuck his head out and scanned the field, looking right over us as we held our breath, then went back inside.
Kent and I thought we knew, and yet we couldn’t imagine, what the policeman had found. He rushed out to his car and radioed someone, his voice choked and urgent. I realize now how young John Dever was, only a few years older than my brother, and how shocked he must have been to see Mrs. Crowell’s blown apart body. Perhaps he had seen a gunshot wound before, a hunting accident maybe. But not like this, shotgun up close. Two shots, people said. I knew that; I heard them. One in the abdomen and one –Jesus –in the face.
Dever’s arrival spared me from seeing a naked Mrs. Crowell ripped open like in a war movie. When he went back in the house, we ran. We didn’t retrieve our ball, didn’t look back, headed for my house because it was farther away. Once there, we sat on the living room floor saying nothing, waiting for my mother to come home so we could pretend to be playing.
Only much later did I wonder how the police knew to come so quickly. Perhaps Mr. Todd called the police. Maybe Mr. Crowell himself went somewhere and called. I imagined him putting nickels into the pay phone outside the center store, sobbing about what he had done. He didn’t turn himself in though. The town’s two policemen approached his pick-up on Old River Road as he sat with his head in his hands, shotgun on the seat beside him. If he intended to use it on Mr. Todd, he hadn’t gone to Mr. Todd’s house where he would have found him. He didn’t resist the officers. Lost and overwhelmed, he confessed.
The last time I saw Kent was at the reception following my mother’s funeral. His wife Mattie, pregnant with their second child, interrupted us. Ignoring me, she instructed Kent, “Save seats at that table. I’m getting some of those meatballs before they’re gone.”
He looked at me sheepishly.
“It’s fine. Go,” I waved.
Kent and I never told the grownups what we saw. We never played in that field again. Soon after, we were both old enough to have bikes which changed our rambles. Then, in a blink, we were in junior high where boys and girls hung out separately. We grew apart.
The town has changed, the population tripled. There are more houses, but it is emptier. Children don’t play in the fields and woods because they are all at camp. The center store closed. Out on the bypass, there’s a Walmart, a Chili’s restaurant, and a Stop & Shop where Ken Raymond, rabies bite survivor, is a manager. Everyone has moved on. Nothing, not the grassy field, not Kent, not the townspeople, shows traces of the enormity we witnessed.
I alone seem haunted. I have never stopped asking myself, “Did I save Mr. Todd? If so, was I responsible for Mrs. Crowell’s death? If I hadn’t thrown the ball, if Mr. Crowell had caught them, would he have shot Mr. Todd and not his wife? Or would he have shot them both?” I threw a ball which changed what happened, and I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad.
When, as an adult, I read John Grisham novels, I would imagine myself testifying in the trial that never happened. A lawyer who looked like Matthew McConaughey would ask my eight-year-old self, “How many shots did you hear?”
“You’re sure? Not one? Not Three?”
“Now, think carefully, Harriet, because this is very important. When you heard those two shots, where was Mr. Todd?”
“He was hiding under the stairs.”
“Outside? Not in the house?”
“No, not in the house.”
This mental game was oddly satisfying, as though telling the story in court could sort out the right and wrong of it. But it’s not enough. I can’t come to terms with the horror I witnessed, when nobody else knows what we saw.