I. On Starling Road the families, intact
and kindly, gathered in the evenings on
their pillowed lawns. An old-gold evening sun
stroked cats who strolled from palm to palm, resting
in lugustrum hedges or stretching on
magnolia trunks in glossy arcs. The kids
seemed not to dash or run, but glide along
the asphalt softening in the heat, heads bent
and flashing in the sun. The youngest ones
pumped down the road on tricycles, with Moms
in tow. We loved the shuffling fronds above
our heads, the pools behind our homes. Citrus
dropped off trees like ancient fantasies
of abundance: tangerines, Parson Browns, limes
and grapefruit fell uneaten in the grass.
No robbers came, no naughty kids grew up
therenot even traffic moved above a crawl.
The neighbors, in an evening ritual,
would greet each other on that cradle road,
the lush green, gold-flecked breast of Starling Road.
II. Across the street and up from us lived Phil
and Eleanor. They had a boy and girl
named Mark and Donnafixtures in the yard
who had a lonely air because there were
no peers precisely either age (eight or
nine, nine or ten) to play with. They followed
after teenagers, and babies in their
strollers, but mostly played alone or with
each other. They had a dog named Snowbell
a poodle-ette with dirty paws and the foolish,
jolly face of growing puppies.
Donna in particular would dog our
steps and call to us to "come see this," or
"look what I can do," before the cartwheel
or the dog-entangled summersault. I
wished I could oblige those kids by being
twelve years youngerMark and Donna had
a winning melancholy. Sometimes I'd give
in and chase them screaming, barking through
the yards, up one side of Starling Road and down
the other, until I saw myself: a
woman in a dress and high-heeled sandals
acting silly. I'd leave them suddenly,
leave them wondering what they did to make
me go away. I see their slight figures
in the yard, and hear their "please, please, please"
like distant chickees at my back. "Please come back!"
III. Alternating with their rounds of school
and boredom and "Go play outside," was the
thrill of the unexpected: Eleanor
was a woman given to drama. She
had a gift for hauling in the doubters
and rounding up support for sudden schemes.
Phil, bemused, would go along, but the kids
would explode in their enthusiasm:
"Guess what we're going to do! We're going to be
colonials, and wear knickerbockers
and bonnets! My Mom is making outfits
for us all!" And sure enough, in front of
their house appeared the Liberty Bell on
a trailer. Every weekend for a year we'd
see them troop out in their costumes to drive
the bell to local shopping malls, churches
and VFW halls. Even Snowbell
had a cunning tri-corn cap with ear-hole.
I see Eleanor, her busy, frantic
face beneath a laced mob-cap slapping at
the kids for screaming, jumping, walking on
her train, tense with significance and fear
her kids would misbehave, the car not start.
That Hallowe'en, when Mark and Donna came
to the door for chocolate kisses,
their costumes were out at the knee, hems down, frayed,
like midget refugees from Valley Forge.
IV. Even so, what could have prepared the souls
of Starling Road for this catastrophe?
One afternoon in Spring the kids came home
from school, Killarney Elementary School,
to be killed by their waiting mother. She
killed herself as well, and Snowbell, too. We
never knew why; Eleanor shot them all.
Did she hide the gun, so not to
frighten them, and sent them to their rooms to
wait? They might have thought they got in trouble
for neglecting chores or homework, pesky
tasks that hover over childhoodperhaps
they sulked. Or she might have done it better
she might have made them snacks and had them play
quietly alone. At the worst, the one,
Mark, perhaps, may have heard the shot that killed
his sister, or the reverse. Donna may
have heard her brother's bullet, and held her
Snowbell to her heart, and wondered if the
thumping in her chest was what she heard,
before her mother came into the room
with tears and eyes that said we can't go back
now, we're committed.
Phil found them in their
beds like pearls, each in a red shell. Snowbell
lay in Donna's arms like her own true child.
One might think the neighborhood that held us
all for decades in its yellow shawl of
light, its wax-white gardenia, verbena-
scented air, would not recover from a
traitor: no alarm exists to warn a
child from its mother. How could this be
home, that has a mark like Pilate's unwashed
hands? Or Cain, the bloody Cain? My parents
left the old homestead a few years later
the pool, the treestoo much with kids grown up
and gone away. Their condo complex is
lovely in its way: the lakes, the lawns, the
same unsilted, wine-like air and light that
falls on dogs and guns and kids alike. While
Starling Road remains; its pastel houses
still recline on beds of green Bermuda
grass beneath the torpid sky: empty, white.