Rumor was we had a spy living on our block. Or maybe someone in

the witness protection program after having provided secret testimony at

government hearings in Washington. This was a couple of years after

President Kennedy had been assassinated, a time when an aura of

suspicion and distrust seemed to have spread even to our Boston suburban

neighborhood, which, according to Jerry Kavanaugh, was exactly

nine-point-four miles from Fenway Park. "That's Jerry for

you," his sister Angela would say, part prideful boast, part

complaint, "always with the stats."We lived next door to the Kavanaughs and the source of most

rumors was Mrs. Kavanaugh, who played the organ at St.

Bartholomew's Catholic Church, and who had made a promise to God to

take in several foster children for each of her own the Lord had granted

her. This notion was a cause for humor between Jerry and my older

brother Matthew, the kind of thing they wouldn't explain to me

because I was eleven, though one day Jerry offered that God had nothing

to do with it. He said it had to do with his mother's eggs and his

father's sperm, and he lost me there.The Kavanaugh house, a large Victorian in need of paint, was

overrun with children. Our house was also an old, creaky Victorian,

though not so ramshackle as the Kavanaugh's because my mother

asserted that she hadn't moved out from Dorchester to live like

you-know-who. Matthew's room was on the third floor, and at night

he would sit by his window with the light off, looking across at the

Kavanaugh's, waiting for the light to come on in Angela's

window on the second floor. She had a tendency to go about her business

without pulling down a shade or drawing a curtain. Some nights (I know

this because my room was on the second floor, directly below

Matthew's), Angela would turn on the light in her bedroom and pace

back and forth while undressing. She tended to wear her father's

old white dress shirts, the ones he wore to work at the electric company

until the collars began to fray. She would unbutton her father's

shirt and shrug it off her shoulders. Then she would turn her back to

the window, place her arms behind her, and there would be a moment of

hesitation, something like the magician who pauses before producing the

white dove that flies out over the audience, followed by a swift

maneuver where the brassiere was unfastened and held aside in one

languid hand before it was dropped to the floor. She would then raise

her arms up, piling her long brown hair on top of her head, and fasten

it in place with a large barrette. Upstairs I could hear the floorboards

creak beneath Matthew. Often the show would end there. Angela would

usually walk out of view, though sometimes she'd traipse past the

window again, maybe wearing her terrycloth bathrobe. Sometimes

Matthew's room overhead would fall into an extended silence. Other

nights he would flee his room, pound down three flights of stairs, burst

out the back door, and pitch tennis balls against the garage door until

my mother would finally come to the kitchen window and tell him to stop

before one of the neighbors complained. But no one ever complained. It

was just a noisy neighborhood. There were kids everywhere, playing

games, running, screaming, shouting, riding bikes. Every house had kids.

We had four: Matthew, me, and the twins. The Kavanaugh's six, plus

all those foster kids; the Macy's five; the Gellman's a mere

three--all up and down the block one house after another, spilling over

with kids. There were safe havens, and there were houses that, when

approaching, I would avoid by crossing the street to the opposite

sidewalk. The Gellman's dog had bitten at least three kids on the

block, but they refused all attempts to have the animal restrained until

the police took the dog away and kept it in the pound for ten days.

Charlie Macy was known to hide behind a bush in his front yard and pelt

kids with stones. I sometimes thought of the neighborhood as a war zone,

and every time I ventured from the house I was on a secret mission

behind enemy lines.I became convinced that the spy lived in the brick house on the

far side of Dr. Linden's house. My theory was based on the simple

notion that it was the only house that didn't have any kids. Spies

didn't have children.For a long time, no one seemed sure who lived there. An elderly

couple, Mrs. Kavanaugh said, had bought it after old Mrs. Carlisle

passed away, which could mean anything. They were all elderly. The fact

was, we never saw anyone come or go from that house.Next door to the brick house, behind Dr. Linden's garage,

there was a basketball court, not full-size, but with lines and circles

painted on the asphalt, and at each end a hoop with a chain net. The

doctor and his wife had had it built years earlier for their older son,

who had died from some disease like polio, and they didn't object

to neighborhood kids using the court. The ping of the dribbled ball

echoed off the back of the garage as well as the side of the spy's

brick house which loomed above the shrubs.There were rarely even any lights on in that house. One night

after dinner I went down to the darkened basketball court, pushed my way

through the shrubs, and walked softly across the back of the yard, where

there was a marble statue of a naked woman. She had been holding

something up, a basket of fruit, or maybe the scales of justice, but her

raised arm was broken off at the shoulder. I stood behind her (we were

about the same height) and watched the back of the brick house. I

remained in the yard for maybe a half an hour and nothing happened. Then

I slipped back through the bushes, and walked home, pleased with the

fact that I had not been caught.I returned a couple of nights later. I had an alibi: I was

supposed to be watching TV over at Tommy Farnham's house. Instead,

I stood behind the statue, listening to the crickets in the shrubs. I

liked it there in the dark. I liked that no one knew I was there. It was

better than standing at my bedroom window, knowing that Matthew was

above me in his room, waiting for Angela to do her thing.I had also acquired information: the elderly couple who lived in

the house was named Stieglitz. Mr. and Mrs. Hans Steiglitz. I knew this

because one afternoon I just happened to be on my bike in the front of

the house as Mr. Eagan, our mailman, worked his way down the block."I found this" I took the envelope from the back of my

pocket and handed it to him."Thirty-eight Abbott Road" Looking up at the brick

house, he shook his head. "This is the right address but the Bakers

don't live here. Where--""It was just lying on the sidewalk.""Well, you did the right thing, Sean, but nope, this is Mr.

and Mrs. Hans Steiglitz on Abbott Road. The Bakers live two blocks over

at thirty-eight Algonquin Hill Road." Mr. Eagan tucked the envelope

in his bag.And I'm thinking won't they be impressed by how

official their address looks, banged out on my father's Underwood

typewriter, but confused when they find nothing in the envelope.So I was standing in the dark with a name, Mr. and Mrs. Hans

Steiglitz, when suddenly the back door opened, casting a trapezoid of

light across the yard. A man stood in the doorway, gazing out. I

didn't move, other than trying to make myself smaller than the

statue. There was a voice from within the house, a feminine voice, very

faint, and the words unintelligible--and there was some kind of foreign

accent.Mr. Steiglitz remained in the doorway so long that I was sure he

knew I was there, and I was about to come out from behind the statue,

raise my hands and surrender, when he stepped out into the yard and

walked along the back of the house. Away from the light, it was

difficult to see him. He seemed to bend over, and I heard something

move--slither--in the grass to my right. Then I heard something squeak,

and just as I thought spigot a fan of water sprang from the grass,

glistening in the light cast from the open doorway. Mr. Steiglitz went

back inside the house, leaving me in the dark behind the statue, soaking

wet.II I went back the next night. It was Wednesday; Mom and Dad were

out playing bridge. I stood behind the statue and waited perhaps twenty

minutes. This time, when the back door opened, two people came outside,

a man and a woman. They walked along a gravel path and entered the

garage, and a minute later a car backed down the driveway and headed for

Lincoln Avenue.It was hard to tell if there were any lights on in the house

because there appeared to be drapes closed behind all the windows. I

watched the back door. He had only closed it; no key. Nothing strange

there: few people locked their doors in our neighborhood; why should

they? Finally, I crossed the thick summer grass and waited outside the

door. The house was silent. I put my hand on the door knob and it turned

easily. Still, I waited--minutes passing, my heart throbbing--until I

pulled the door open and stepped inside.I was in a mudroom: coats and hats hanging from hooks; shoes and

boots lined up on the flagstone floor. The air was different--warm, and

there lingered the smell of something that had been cooked too long.

Through the door to the right there was a kitchen and the light was on

above the stove. I could see just well enough to walk carefully, heel to

toe in my sneakers, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and then

I stopped in the vestibule. A wide archway opened into the living room,

and down the front hall were the stairs, and another door, which was

half opened, casting a plane of light across the hardwood floor. I went

down the hall slowly and could just fit sideways through the open door.

The light came from a desk lamp, brass, with a green glass shade.I walked over to the oak desk. (I knew oak because my

father's Underwood typewriter was on his oak desk and the grain

always made me think of tigers.) There was an ink blotter and everything

on the desk was stacked in neat piles: papers, envelopes, several books.

In the center of the ink blotter was a stack of paper, and typed on the

top page were words in a language other than English. Lots of vowels.

Accent marks.The phone rang.It sat on the corner of the desk and my heart kicked against my

ribs as I backed away from the desk until I bumped into a bookcase with

a glass door that was cool against my bare forearm. From somewhere

overhead, I heard footsteps; they seemed to cross carpet and come out

into the hall at the top of the stairs. Whoever it was answered, causing

the phone on the desk to stop ringing.A woman's voice, soft and weary, as though she'd been

sleeping, echoed down into the vestibule. "No, he's taken

Marsha to the bus," she said. "I'm fine. A little tired.

I've been lying down, but I need to get up or I'll never get

to sleep later."She listened for a long time, and while she did, I walked

carefully to the door to the hallway and slipped through. There was a

light from the second floor--angled light that came from the open

bedroom door, I guessed--and it cast her shadow on the wall above the

staircase. Her figure was tall and slender, and something about the way

her arm was bent to hold the phone to her ear made me think first of

Angela when she raised her arms to clasp her hair on top of her head,

and then it made me think of the missing arm on the statue out in the

backyard."Yes, all right, I will," she said, finally. And then,

after a brief pause, she said something I couldn't understand. It

wasn't English.After she placed the receiver in the phone's cradle, she

took a few steps toward the banister--I was sure she was barefoot. There

was a long moment when neither of us moved. I was about to run, to

sprint down the hall, into the dining room, through the kitchen, and out

the mudroom door, when she said, "Hans, is that you?"At that moment I was willing to die. Stop my heart right there.

Her bare feet padded down the stairs. Just as she reached the bottom,

one tread groaned, and then she turned and looked down the hallway at

me.She grew taller as she placed a hand upon her throat. The sound

she made seemed an inhalation of surprise, but also a sigh of

recognition."Hello there," she said."Hello.""What's your name?"I didn't say anything."Live around here?""I'm sorry," I said."Don't be.""I'll go. I didn't take anything. I--""It's all right.""Are you going to tell?"She took her hand away from her throat. It was a gesture of

surrender. "No. But I am going to have some ginger ale. Won't

you join me?"I was not good at gauging the age of adults. They all were about

the same, it seemed; or they were really old, like my grandfather who

had come and stayed with us two years earlier, had all his teeth pulled,

and died a few months later, before my father had finished paying Dr.

Babcock, our dentist. Mrs. Steiglitz didn't smell old. There was

some perfume, or perhaps a lotion she put on after her bath that was

intended to be pretty and fresh. My mother kept such things on her

vanity, sprays and creams, but they just made me sneeze. Mrs. Steiglitz

made me think of an open window in May, when the lilacs are just

starting to bud.We sat at the kitchen table and drank Canada Dry ginger ale on

ice in tall glasses. Her eyes were huge, dark and moist, as though she

might cry at any moment; but she also seemed pleased, or maybe relieved,

to have me there. Her long fingers kept touching her hair, pushing at

the piles of dark curls, as though she were afraid they would fall out

of her head. She was wearing a nightgown, made of some fine, gauzy

material that I was afraid to look at--I could only get to her bare

shoulders. When I finished my glass of ginger ale she poured me some

more, and there was a moment when she leaned forward and her nightgown

opened up. I glanced down. I saw them. Not all of them, but enough to

know that they were nothing like Angela Kavanaugh's."I love ginger ale," she said.I nodded."Has to be Canada Dry."I nodded."I tried that store brand they have at the A & P, but

it's not the same."I shook my head.She took a sip from her glass. There was something about her skin

I couldn't figure out. It didn't seem real. There weren't

any wrinkles, and I wondered if she was wearing a lot of makeup. When

she put her glass on the table, she looked at me seriously, and I

expected her to ask how I got in the house, or why.I cleared my throat, planning to explain, but then I surprised

myself. "You have an accent," I said. "Where are you

from?"She seemed pleased by the question. "You're quite

observant. I'm from a region known as Trentino-Alto, which is in

the mountains of northern Italy, close to the Austrian border.

Hollywood," she said, exasperated. "Three-quarters of the Alps

are in Italy, but they insist on calling them the Swiss Alps. Before I

was married my name was Malatesta, Francesca Malatesta. My husband Hans

is from Austria."She paused, and I realized I was supposed to tell her something

about myself. I was supposed to tell her who my parents were so she

could call them and inform them that their son had broken into her house

in the dark of the night while her husband wasn't home. Or she

might just call the police and let them contact my parents, which in the

long run would be worse for me."I like ravioli" I said."Do you?""Yes. Chef Boyardee""Ah, si." Then she smiled at my confusion. "It

means yes.""In Italian"She nodded."You speak Italian with Mr. Steiglitz?" Her eyes

widened slightly, impressed, and I realized I had given away some

information: I knew their name."And German, sometimes," she said."I thought he was from Austria""He is, but they speak German, though it is their own form

of German. Italian is more pleasant to the ear. It's musical,

whereas German--German sounds like someone trying to chew ice

cubes" Then she tipped her glass to her mouth, allowing an ice cube

to slide on to her tongue, and then she said something--it was German, I

was sure, because she sounded like the Nazis in the movies--and as she

spoke she crushed the ice loudly with her teeth.I smiled, but only for a moment. She seemed surprised--and

disappointed--that she had done such a silly thing. She turned in her

chair and studied the floor as though she had lost something valuable.

Her legs were crossed, and she folded her arms on her top thigh. I was

afraid to look down. I finished my ginger ale in one draught, letting

the ice cubes stack up against my nose."I should get home," I said."Yes, Mr. Steiglitz should be back soon" She sat

upright then. Her eyes were concerned, and I couldn't tell if this

was for me or herself. "We'd have some explaining to do. Me,

all alone in the house with a strange man."I put my empty glass on the table."Perhaps," she said, barely a whisper, "this

should be our little secret?""All right.""So you won't tell?""No." I stood up, careful not to scrape the chair legs

on the floor. "I promise.""Thank you.""You're welcome. Bye.""Bye."I walked toward the mudroom, getting as far as the doorway before

she spoke. "You didn't tell me your name," she said. I

paused but didn't look back at her. "I was wondering about

your first name.""It's Sean.""Sean. It was a pleasure to meet you." I looked at her

then. She smiled, though something in her eyes suggested she was sorry,

or perhaps she was in pain. "Would you come and visit me

again?""You want me to?""I would, yes," she said. "Si." "All right."I went into the mudroom and let myself out the back door.I didn't go near her house for several days. I was scared of

the place, though I wasn't sure why. Fear of getting caught by an

Austrian man who spoke German as though he was eating ice cubes, or

because I had liked being there in the kitchen with Francesca Steiglitz,

whose maiden name was Malatesta?However, one afternoon a bunch of us were playing basketball on

Dr. Linden's court. I kept gazing up at the brick house, at the

windows that were visible above the shrubs, imagining that she was

watching us from behind the drapes. I played hard, dribbling and

shooting well (for me), imagining that she was observing my every move.

But there were distractions. This was one of those rare boy-girl games

that we sometimes played. It was a bit of a concession on the boys'

part, because we knew we could play better, harder when there were no

girls. But having a few girls on each team made things interesting in a

different way.I'm talking about Angela Kavanaugh's belly button. As

usual, she was wearing one of her father's white dress shirts,

untucked, and she seemed always to be moving and jumping so that her

arms often lifted above her head, and as her shirttails rose up you

could see her smooth, flat stomach. Angela's was the most intricate

belly button I had ever seen; it was an "innie"

("outies" were generally perceived to be gross, which really

meant they were interesting), and a glimpse of the complicated folds in

that shallow crater of flesh could freeze me in my tracks on the court.

Matthew, who was playing center on my side, was more interested in the

rest of Angela. They managed to bump against each other, brush by each

other, and often simply collide. At times it appeared Angela's

doing--she'd dribble the ball two-handed toward him until she

couldn't help but become entangled in his arms (and then cry

"Foul! I get a free throw!"), while at other times he would

lunge toward her, grabbing her by an arm or, once, around the waist. The

rest of us watched all this, aghast, as though it were some exotic

mating ritual. We played until dinnertime. It was a Friday and we were

having fish sticks, which I could only eat if they were loaded with

heaps of tartar sauce. After dinner my mother and father were going out,

invited to a cocktail party, and once they drove off, all four of us

scattered, free of any supervision for hours.When it was dark, I walked down the block and took up my place

behind the statue. This time I didn't have long to wait. Mr.Steiglitz came out the back door, accompanying Marsha to the bus

(I presumed). It was so warm that she wasn't wearing a coat this

evening, and I was baffled to find that she wore a white dress, and that

she carried a rather large leather satchel--much more substantial than a

woman's handbag. Minutes after Mr. Steiglitz pulled his car out

into the street and left, I went up to the door. I just stood there for

a long time, undecided.I finally opened the door and went into the mudroom; everything

looked the same and the house was silent. Slowly, I walked through the

kitchen and the dining room, and paused in the vestibule. The light was

on in the den at the end of the hall (it was dark at the top of the

staircase), so I went to the door. Mrs. Steiglitz was lying on a couch

beyond the desk, and when she saw me she tried to sit up.It was difficult for her. She seemed different; more frail."I should have knocked," I said. "I'm

sorry."She touched her head, and I realized that it was her hair. Rather

than massive curls, she didn't have much hair at all, and what she

had was short and black and matted to her skull. Her eyes, though still

large and dark, seemed embarrassed, but then she said, "No,

it's all right, Sean. I've been wondering if you would ever

return." Then she adjusted the cushions, making a place for me on

the couch, which she patted with her hand. "Please come and sit

with me."I went around the large coffee table and sat beside her. The room

was warm and the air smelled odd, like medicine. "I've been

busy," I said, "but I thought I would pay a visit." This

was the kind of thing some of my mother's friends would say if they

showed up at the house unexpectedly--my mother always welcomed them,

though after they left she'd usually say something about them

having too much time on their hands.But my saying this made Mrs. Steiglitz smile, and I think she

meant it. "It's good to see you." She struggled to get to

her feet. "I'm going to get us some ginger ale. I'll be

right back." She was wearing a bathrobe this time, and as she left

the den she retied the sash about her waist.There was a book, a large book, opened on the coffee table in

front of my knees. I leaned forward and looked at the picture--it was a

drawing of some kind, not a photograph, and the figures were naked. I

simply could not make out what they were doing. They seemed to be all

together in a way that was disgusting and scary. I was afraid to look at

the book, so I sat back on the sofa and just tried to stare at the

framed pictures hanging on the walls--old black and white photos of

couples who were posing for their portraits the way people used to

before they smiled for the camera. There was one photograph of children

standing on a pile of brick rubble in a street. They looked proud. Proud

and hungry.I heard the tinkling of ice in the glasses in the hall, and then

Mrs. Steiglitz came into the den. She placed our ginger ales on the

coffee table, making sure each was centered on a cork coaster. I liked

coasters; they were so grownup."Oh," she said, leaning toward the open book. "Oh,

dear." She began to close the book, but then hesitated. "You

saw this?"I nodded."Do you know what it is?"I shook my head.She inhaled and released her breath slowly, and then she seemed

to have come to a decision. "Well, I best explain." She picked

up the book and placed it in her lap. "This is a book with a famous

poem in it. The Divine Comedy, which was written a long time ago--over

six-hundred years--by a man named Dante Alighieri. But people usually

just call him Dante. Have you heard of him?""I think so.""He was Italian, see?"I looked down at the book and she was pointing to the left-hand

page, which had lines of poetry in a heavy script. It wasn't.

written in English. "That's Italian?""Si," she said, pleased. "Italiano. And

this--" she pointed to the right-hand page--"this is an

etching by an artist named Gustave Dore. He was born in Austria,

actually quite near where Mr. Steiglitz is from."I looked at the figures in the illustration. "What's

the matter with them?" "They're in the Inferno," she

said. "Hell."After a moment I picked up my glass of ginger ale and took a long

drink, thankful that it was ice cold. "I go to St.

Bartholomew's School," I said, "and the sisters talk

about hell all the time, but I never--I never thought it would look like

that.""It's called contrapasso," she said, gazing down

at the book. "Retribution. Sinners go to hell and their punishment

often takes the form of their sin on earth.""Their souls don't just burn for eternity?""Yes, but it can be worse, much worse. Some suffer from

fire, some from ice. It depends on their sin." She turned to me

then and studied me carefully. "How old are you, Sean?""I'll be twelve next fall.""And the sisters, they talk about hell in school?""Every day.""Do you want to look at this, or shall we put it away?"

She began to close the book."No, show me," I said.She hesitated a moment, and then she flipped to the front of the

book. It was very heavy and the paper had a pleasant smell. "All

right. Then we must start at the beginning." We looked down at a

sketch of two men in cloaks, standing beneath dark trees. "This is

Dante, and this is Virgil," she whispered, as though she were

telling me a secret. "They are poets."Francesca held the book in her lap and turned the pages, telling

the story about the two poets' descent into hell. Sometimes she

would read a few lines in Italian, and then explain what they meant. I

was an altar boy at St. Bartholomew's, which meant that I had

memorized a series of Latin responses we were to say during mass, but

the priest always spoke Latin in a flat monotone that was deathly

somber. Francesca speaking Italian was like music, rising and falling

notes, and r's that rolled off her tongue dramatically. Mostly we

looked at the illustrations. I'd never seen anything like them.

They seemed at once real but unbelievable. They depicted vast spaces,

caverns, trails along the edges of sheer cliffs. The figures were

grotesque: they had wounds; their faces expressed incredible suffering

and agony. But they were also gorgeous. As Francesca spoke, barely a

whisper, she leaned over the book and the lapel of her bathrobe fell

away from her chest. Sitting next to her, I could look inside and see

her right breast, the way it hung heavily off her ribcage, the way the

nipple was surrounded by a circle of flesh the color of wine, the way

the breast rose and fell as she spoke. I looked at the illustrations of

the Inferno, I looked at her breast. I was certain that I was committing

a sin (the nuns would certainly think so), but I couldn't stop

looking, looking so hard I could feel a heat and intensity in my

eyeballs, such that I imagined that when I died and went to hell my

contrapasso, my retribution, might very well be to have my eyes burn for

eternity. But it was too late. I could not look away.We were both so absorbed by the story that we didn't hear

Mr. Steiglitz until he pushed open the door and said, "Who are you

talking to?"Francesca closed the book in her lap and I sat back on the couch.

Mr. Steiglitz watched me for a moment, his eyes more calculating than

angry, and then he said something to her that I guessed was German--he

sounded as though he was chewing on ice cubes. She responded in

Italian--her voice was not just a song, but a plea. They continued to

talk this way, in two languages that I didn't understand, but it

was clear that they were both becoming upset. I had the feeling

they'd had this argument before, and they talked as though I

wasn't even there.When they stopped, he was breathing audibly through his

mouth.Glancing at Francesca, I saw that her eyelashes were matted with

tears.I stood up. No one said anything, though Mr. Steiglitz stepped

out of the doorway, allowing me to pass. I walked out of the den and

left the house by the back door.III I avoided Dr. Linden's basketball court, and when I would go

down to Marisi's corner store, I would always walk on the opposite

sidewalk, fearing that Mr. Steiglitz might be looking out the window

watching for me. I couldn't get some of the images of the Inferno

out of my mind. One afternoon, I was in the train depot across Lincoln

Avenue with Leo Kavanaugh, who was a grade behind me in school, who

showed me the Playboy he'd stolen from his older brother

Jerry's room. That night, I didn't sleep at all, because I

kept thinking about the pictures of the naked women but imagining that

things were happening to them that had been portrayed in

Francesca's book: the women would be scorched, frozen, slashed,

clawed; their internal organs would dangle from gaping wounds; they

would be beheaded, with blood gushing out of their necks and coating

their breasts. Their mouths and eyes, which seemed to have beckoned

longingly from the pages of Playboy, were transformed into pleas for

mercy. I was tormented through the night by such images, and in the

morning my mother took my temperature, determining that I had a

fever.A couple of days later, we went on vacation for two weeks down on

Cape Cod. We swam in the ocean every day, we fished, we dug clams at low

tide, we wrapped our heads in beach towels and pretended we were

Lawrence of Arabia in the sand dunes. I got sunburned but I slept better

at night thanks to the cool salt air. Matthew met a girl named Barbara,

and at night sometimes they let me go with them to watch the Cape league

baseball games in Chatham. The arrangement was that I'd stay in the

bleachers overlooking the ball field, while they went off somewhere to

make out. At first, the two weeks on the Cape felt as though they would

last forever, but suddenly we were piled in Dad's car and driving

across the Sagamore Bridge, headed toward Boston.When we returned home, the days were shorter, the nights chilly,

and my mother took us shopping for school clothes. I was going into

junior high school and wouldn't have to wear a white shirt and

plaid tie every day as I had at St. Bartholomew's. There was a

minor scandal in the neighborhood: Angela had begun dating a boy from

Needham who played football. Matthew didn't seem to care, and

neither of us spent our nights watching the Kavanaugh's house from

our bedroom windows.School started after Labor Day weekend, and on that Thursday

afternoon as I was walking home, I saw an ambulance parked in the

Steiglitz's driveway. There was a small gathering of adults and

children on the sidewalk across the street: Mrs. Kavanaugh and several

of her children and foster children, and Mrs. Marisi, whom I had never

seen in broad daylight. The ambulance was backed up in the driveway, the

light on its roof flashing, the rear doors open; the crew, we assumed,

were in the house, entering through the back door. We couldn't see

anything really, but for some reason Mrs. Marisi was convinced that she

knew what was going on."Foul play," she said. "I've seen it

coming." She had a cardigan sweater over her shoulders and her arms

folded against the autumn air. "Down at the Italo-American Club

they talk about the wife," she said to Mrs. Kavanaugh. "Paola

Fortello used to clean house there once a week until they let her go,

but the stories she'd tell. That woman was--she was ..." But

then, looking down at all the children staring at her, Mrs. Marisi

tugged her sweater about her and concluded, "Well, it's just a

crime and a shame, is what it is."Mrs. Kavanaugh nodded her head. "I'm telling you,

witness protection program, though more likely spies." She began to

herd the children down the sidewalk toward her house, saying, "No

point in our standing here and gawking."Mrs. Marisi said, "Some of us have work to do," and she

started back toward her store at the end of the block.Suddenly I was alone on the sidewalk across from the

Steiglitz's house. The flashing light on the roof of the ambulance

was mesmerizing. I felt conspicuous standing there in my new school

clothes, but I kept watching the windows of the house, waiting for some

movement, something to indicate that someone might be looking out from

behind the closed drapes. But I saw nothing. I kept telling myself to

leave, but I stayed just a minute longer, until I heard something from

the back of the house: voices. I moved down the sidewalk for a better

view up the driveway and just caught a glimpse of the crew as they

wheeled a stretcher to the back of the ambulance and put it inside--but

I couldn't tell who was on the stretcher because there was an

oxygen mask covering the person's nose and mouth. Then I also

caught a brief look at Marsha, the woman Mr. Steiglitz was always taking

to the bus at night, and in the daylight it was clear that she was

wearing a nurse's uniform. There was then a great deal of milling

about as the ambulance doors were being closed by the crew. I

couldn't tell if Marsha had gotten inside the ambulance, or whether

she went back inside the house. When the ambulance came down the

driveway and turned into the street, it released one blast of its horn,

an ear-splitting sound that seemed to say Whooop-Whooop!--and then it

sped down the road toward Lincoln Avenue.A couple of days went by and no one seemed to know what had

happened. Actually, no one seemed very curious. If it were any other

house on the block, everyone would have known what was going on, and if

someone was ill, visits would be paid to the hospital and meals would be

delivered to the house. But Mr. and Mrs. Steiglitz were different, and

no one bothered.That weekend, it was hot and muggy. Indian summer. We were

wearing shorts and t-shirts again. Saturday night, Matthew had a date

(his third with a girl named Cathy, who was a junior), and after dinner

I went outside and hung around on the Kavanaugh's porch where there

was usually some ice cream and Reddi Whip being distributed in small

plastic bowls. (The best part was passing the aerosol can around and

taking a blast of Reddi Whip right in the mouth.) After dessert, the

Kavanaugh kids went in the house to watch TV, and I wandered down the

block. Now that it was mid-September, it got dark early, and soon I was

standing behind the statue in the Steiglitz's backyard.I couldn't see any lights on in the house; as usual, the

drapes were all drawn. I wasn't sure there was anyone in there

until I heard a door shut. I went up to the back door, put my hand on

the knob, and turned it. The door opened. But I just stood there,

staring into the mudroom. I kept telling myself to just go home, but I

also felt that this was my only chance, so finally I went inside and

walked through the kitchen and dining room. There was something

different about the house: large cardboard boxes were stacked in the

dining room, and the shelves in the corner hutch were bare. My feet

echoed on the floor, and I realized there used to be a rug under the

dining room table.I went into the vestibule. The door to the den opened and Marsha

stepped out into the hall. She was older than I had thought (though how

old I couldn't say), and her gray hair was tied up in a bun beneath

a small white cap. When she saw me, she put her hand on her chest and

said, "Dear God, you gave me a fright. I thought it was a

burglar."Someone spoke from the den, so softly that I couldn't tell

who it was, and Marsha, who now seemed irritated, glanced over her

shoulder and said, "Why it's just some boy." Looking at

me again, she said, "What on earth are you doing in here?" And

she made a shooing motion with her arm, as though I were a dog."Go--go now."But then she looked into the den again, and said, "What? Are

you serious? I think we should call his parents, or even the police.

I've already had one heart attack in this house." But then as

she stepped out into the hall she squared her shoulders indignantly, and

said to me, "All right, then. I'll not be responsible. You,

you come in here." She began walking toward me, and would have

knocked me over if I hadn't stepped aside. "Your presence has

been requested." Turning into the dining room, she practically

hissed, "And I will get you your ginger ale."I went down the hall and stopped in the doorway. Francesca lay on

her side on the couch under a blanket. She had her wig on, and she

looked pale, which I never imagined possible. It seemed to take all of

her effort to extend her arm toward me. "Sean. Please, come sit

with me." She didn't sit up but just patted the couch.I went around the coffee table and she took my hand and guided me

down on to the edge of the cushion; but that wasn't enough, and her

arm pulled my back right against her stomach. "Look at you,"

she said. "You look, I don't know, so grown up.""I started junior high school last week.""Wonderful" She smiled; her teeth seemed dingy.

"No more nuns."I shook my head."No more talk of hell every day."I shook my head, and smiled, too."Girls?"I looked away.Her arm was still around my back and she squeezed my shoulder.

"You know, I saw you from the window one afternoon. You were so

dressed up. The girls, they won't be able to leave you alone.

You'll see."I was embarrassed to talk about girls, so to change the subject,

I said, "Mrs. Kavanaugh--she's our next-door neighbor--she

thinks you're spies."Francesca laughed in a way I'd never heard her laugh before;

there was real joy in her voice, and I imagined that there was a time

that she used to laugh that way often. "Where did she ever get that

notion?""Mrs. Kavanaugh, she just thinks things up. My mother says

she's very opinionated.""Si, capisco. I understand." Francesca's

expression changed, as though she'd just remembered something.

"But how did Mrs. Kavanaugh know?""What do you mean?""But I was, during the war.""A spy?""Well ... sort of. It wasn't, it wasn't like in

the movies, but I was still a girl really, and often I would carry

messages from our village up into the mountains, where my father was

hiding with the partisans.""Partisans?""They fought against the fascists in Italy. What I did was

quite common, actually.""But dangerous.""War is dangerous, Sean.""Are--are you in hiding now? That's what Mrs. Kavanaugh

says.""Does she? No, I'm not in hiding now. Mussolini's

dead.""He was on Hitler's side.""Si." "And you weren't.""Many of us weren't." She was silent for a moment,

and then she said, "If there is a hell, that's where they are

now."Marsha came into the den with two tall glasses of ginger ale on

ice. She was so disgusted she couldn't even look at us, together on

the couch. After placing the glasses on the coasters on the coffee

table, she left the room."Please, drink." Then, as though we were in on a

conspiracy together, Francesca whispered, "She's so bossy. I

think she's a fascist."I picked up my glass and, as I drank, the fizz coming off the

ginger ale was cool and moist on the tip of my nose. It was then that I

noticed that all the photographs had been taken off the walls, though

their hangers were still nailed to the plaster. I put the glass back on

its coaster and said, "You're moving.""This is all very sudden," she said. "You see,

I've been ill for some time, and the stress turned out to be too

much for my husband." I looked at her. "He had a heart attack,

Sean. You didn't know?"I shook my head, and then I couldn't help it but my eyes

began to water. "I saw the ambulance that day, but I didn't

know--I thought it was you they took away.""That was a reasonable assumption," she said as she

placed her hand on my face. A finger kept my tear from running down my

cheek. "But that's one of the things you can never forget.

Terrible, unexpected things will happen." Her eyes became moist,

too, but only for a moment, and then they became hard, even stern as she

looked at me. "So you always have to be ready for that. Prepared

for the surprises. Sempre. Always."She took her hand away from my face, picked up my glass, and gave

it to me. I looked down at the bubbles around the ice cubes. "Where

are you going?"She didn't answer.Without taking a drink, I put the glass back on the coffee table.

I turned on the couch and lay down beside Francesca, and her hand guided

my head until my cheek was pressed against her breast.

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