It’s amazing what you see when no one seems to see you. Like the fact that Cindy Palumbo was having an affair with her husband’s brother. He came over when Mr. Palumbo was out of town, which he is a lot, being a truck driver and all. I knew she was a hussy the minute I met her. You ask me how I knew? Been working in a library for fifteen years and in the quiet I learned to pay attention to how people act, rather than what they say. I know when a kid is about to try to slip a DVD into their backpack, or some guy is planning to sit at a table just to pick up a pretty girl. And I knew Cindy Palumbo was no good by the way her eyes danced around the crowd at the first neighborhood picnic he brought her to, the way she seemed to scan the faces for an attractive man and drift oh-so-casually in his direction when she found one. I knew by the way she became distant and wooden around other pretty women. Disliking the competition, is my guess.
Mr. Palumbo parks his rig on the street in front of his house. It takes up three spots at least, but no one minds because he’s such a nice man. In the winter he shovels my driveway without me asking. I tried to pay him once and he looked honestly insulted.
Aw c’mon Aggie, he said. What’re neighbors for?
He calls me ‘Aggie’, which makes me feel ancient. I’m only forty-three, but I guess a woman my age, living alone and with no kids must seem matronly. It doesn’t help to have an old-fashioned name like Agnes. I think he’s probably closer to my age than to his wife’s, which might be the problem. When he left, Cindy Palumbo strutted her stuff in the front yard in tiny cut-off shorts, pretending to prune bushes. Her tops low-cut and so tight you’d wonder how she could take a breath. Within hours, the brother-in-law shows up in his flashy sports car. He goes in and stays awhile. When he comes out, he’s grinning like a Cheshire cat. Disgusting, the both of them. I don’t think Mr. Palumbo likes his brother much, but I don’t know that for sure.
But affairs are pretty tame stuff. Christine Turner who lives in 5306 with her husband and two kids has an eating disorder. Her house is always overrun with teenagers because the daughter is real popular, so Christine sometimes purges outside, directly into the trash can. She looks around first, up and down the street and up at the Bells’ windows next door in 5304 and then she upchucks, right into the can and replaces the lid. Afterwards she pulls out a handkerchief and daintily wipes the corners of her mouth like someone at tea with the Queen of England. If you looked at Christine Turner, you would never know it either, because she is Miss Prim and Proper for sure, all pulled together, all the time with her little twinsets and low-heeled pumps.
Judd, her eighteen year old son does drugs. A car comes by every other night or so, after his parents and sister are probably in bed, and he goes out to the curb and gets something which he slips into his pocket. It’s a nice car; one of those foreign ones. I think the dealer is another kid at the high school. I could call the police, but then people would know I’d been looking, and then they would start looking at me. Most evenings I sit at the bay window in my living room and the blinds are open just a smidge. I don’t mean to watch, but the amount of action is just unbelievable. Real life trumps television any day of the week.
Cecil Parker in 5312 beats his wife. I would be surprised if I was the only person who’d figured that one out. She is as nice-looking a woman as you could ever hope to see in real life and up close, with a creamy complexion and soft brown hair that always looks like something out of a shampoo ad. She wears long sleeves all year long and sunglasses even on cloudy days. When she says hello, her head is always bowed as though she expects you to just as soon reach out and strike her as tell her good morning. One night I heard thumping sounds coming from their place so loud that I thought for sure he would kill her. He had to have been flinging her back and forth against the wall to be making sounds like that. I reached for the phone and dialed 911 but couldn’t go through with it and hung up. And don’t you know someone called me back? Apparently they keep track of stuff like that – hang ups to 911 – and have to check back to make sure there wasn’t a real emergency and to warn you about crank calling if you’re some kid with nothing else better to do. Well, I can tell you, that was the last time I ever did that. That night I told them I thought I heard a prowler but it turned out to be a neighbor looking for his cat outside.
But Cecil Parker’s wife wasn’t the one who turned up dead, was she?
And let me tell you, the murder didn’t stop Cecil Parker’s wife-beating schedule, not one bit. I don’t think he goes through that stage you see in movies and on television, where there’s remorse and flowers and tears. I think he beats up on her just as routinely as some men have a beer after a hard day’s work. Someone ought to do something about that.
The Friday they discovered the body, I worked late. There was a book-signing for ‘Song of the Desert’, that god-awful memoir from that woman who moved to the Sahara and married a nomadic tribesman. I don’t think the library ought to sponsor book signings but I suppose we’ve stooped to the level of competing with bookstores now. I was there monitoring the crowd and making sure the fans didn’t linger too long after getting their autographed copy of the book and believe me, it was quite a task. That kind of book always draws out the aging hippie crowd, the types who fantasized about doing something equally adventurous but only got as far as Yosemite National Park, married a guy from their hometown, settled down and bought a Volvo station wagon.
I got home around nine-thirty and all of Mason Avenue was cordoned off and there were cops and cop cars everywhere. I had to show my driver’s license before they would let me in and then they told me I should stay inside and that someone would be by to talk to me. No one came that night and by the next morning most of the police cars were gone, and there was just a crime scene investigation van parked outside. As they prepared to leave for work, some of the neighbors were standing around gossiping, talking about what they had or hadn’t seen. Funny thing about it was that when I’d gotten home the night before, I ate my dinner and went straight to bed. Not used to working late and all. You would think that I would be at my window the one time something big had actually happened, but I wasn’t. Wasn’t too shocked about it, I guess. Surprised maybe, but not shocked.
Why wasn’t I shocked? It’s been what I’ve been talking about all along. There are lots of secrets on Mason Avenue, and I know most of them. Now if you ask me would I have expected a murder, I would have to say no. But I guess what I mean is that people are never what they seem. They are more interesting and mysterious than anything I ever read in a book or saw on television.
Someone finally came to talk to me the next evening. He was a young uniformed officer and his female partner. I think his name was Daniels and her name was Goldstein; I don’t have great recall for names of people, just of book titles. They asked whether I knew “the victim” and what, if anything I had seen. I told them I was at work when it happened, and they asked me why I thought that, whether I had some sense of when it happened. Daniels and Goldstein were young, obviously hadn’t been on the job for too long. The notepad that Goldstein used to take notes looked brand new, as did her shoes. I figured they were recent graduates of the academy and canvassing the neighbors was busy work they were being given. It seemed to me that what the neighbors might or might not have seen should be more than busy work and that they should send out real detectives to ask the questions, and I told them so. That annoyed Goldstein, and after that she was very snippy with me.
“I have no clue when it happened,” I told them. “I just heard some of my neighbors talking about it, that’s all.”
“Who did you hear talking about it?” Goldstein asked, her pen poised above paper. “What are their names?”
“Oh, everyone,” I said.
“Did you hear anyone in particular speculate about when the murder occurred?” Daniels asked.
“Murders don’t ‘occur’,” I said. “People commit murders.”
Goldstein’s lips tightened into a purse but Daniels pressed on.
“Did you hear anyone in particular speculate about when the murder was committed?”
“Yes. I think it was Robert Nelson in 5313.”
Goldstein scribbled the name and address in her pad.
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? Anything you think might be important.”
“I have no idea what might be important,” I said. “I’ll leave that to the professionals like you. If you have a direct question, please ask it and I’ll do my best to answer.”
That made Daniels smile a little and I decided that I liked him, but not his partner who seemed like a real piece of work.
About a half hour after they left, someone rang my bell. It was my next door neighbor the wife-beater. He said there was an impromptu block meeting at the Turners’ in fifteen minutes and did I want to come. I said I would and he left, crossing over to the other side of the street to knock on the Rendells’ door. I spent the fifteen minutes pulling myself together and having a quick cup of coffee.
At the Turners’, there was standing room only in the living room. Almost every family on the block was represented by at least one person, but more often two. There was a plate of pastries that looked hastily thrown together for the occasion, and a stack of papers cups next to a punch bowl on the coffee table.
“Well, something awful and unprecedented has happened in our little community,” Blake Turner said, opening out the meeting. “Christine and I were shocked, as were all of you I’m sure. So we thought it would be a good idea to invite folks over to talk about it and see where we go from here.”
“I say we revisit the idea of hiring a private security firm,” someone said from the sidelines.
I couldn’t see who because I was sitting on the sofa and most people were behind me. I was one of the few who’d made it to the meeting precisely on time.
“Now everyone knows it’s unlikely to be some crazed killer roaming around, right?”
This came from Reed Cook. He was an architect and a divorcee who lived alone in 5301. He dated a lot and brought women home almost every weekend, rarely the same woman in a row. Some of the neighborhood women talked about him like he was a god, but he was a little too European in his style for my taste. All those close-fitting, narrow-legged jeans and tight shirts.
“What are you saying, Reed?” someone else piped in.
“It’s not likely to be a stranger is all I’m saying,” Reed responded.
This caused a wave of murmurs that Blake Turner tried to calm by putting up a hand.
“Look,” he said, “there’s no point our speculating about something like that. The police are doing their job. I’m sure many of us have been visited by them already, and I for one am confident that they’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Are you, Blake? Well, in the meantime, my wife is telling me not to go out running in the morning any longer. And I’m not one hundred percent comfortable having Amy walk to the school bus stop on her own. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not the community I pay all these damn taxes to live in.”
That was Mike Steeple who said that. He was the kind of guy who always referred to his wife and conversations they’d had, but she never seemed to speak for herself. I looked over my shoulder and she was standing right next to him, nodding earnestly and wringing her hands. It was then that I noticed that none of the women had spoken, myself included. That was typical of Mason Avenue meetings though. Dominated by the voices of men. I got a little resentful right then if you want to know the truth. I was part of the problem, though. I routinely let them all get the better of me, these loud-mouthed, testosterone-driven cretins. They took liberties – having parties and letting their guests park in my driveway, borrowing my lawnmower without asking and thinking it was okay just because they brought it right back – just because they were men.
As I sat there, listening to the meeting spiral out of control and become a cacophony of male voices, I thought about Cindy Palumbo who’d been stabbed what we’d all heard was more than thirty times, and left to bleed to death on her bathroom floor. She might have been a floozy, but she didn’t deserve that. And now these men were mostly concerned about property values and having to curtail their exercise regimen. Well, maybe Blake Turner was right and the police would get to the bottom of it, but in that moment, I wasn’t so sure. What could they learn about Mason Avenue that I didn’t already know? Where could they go without alerting someone who was perhaps the guilty party? I, on the other hand, could go just about anywhere. People didn’t ever notice me.
Like I said; it’s a gift.