Cul De Sac
Benny brought his daughter, Deirdre, back from the hospital at sunset. We all watched from our living room windows—from our driveways and yards while pretending to work—as the old Dodge minivan coasted slowly down the block and bumped up onto the curb in front of their house to rest at the foot of the driveway, just off the road. Benny cut the engine and hopped out of the car, slammed his door and hurried around to the passenger side with such nervous energy that it all seemed to be contained within one frantic motion. His sneakers weren’t tied, and we thought he would trip as he navigated their crumbling front steps up to the screened-in porch with his little girl in his arms, her fingers entwined at the base of his neck. But he didn’t.
As the screen door hissed shut and finally bumped and clicked closed, and first one light, than another, came on in their house, until the whole place was lit up, we relaxed from our vigil, and began, slowly, to slip back from our windows and into the safety of our homes. Even after the police had come and the paramedics had arrived and staunched the bleeding, strapped her to a plastic gurney and hoisted her up and into the ambulance to speed away with Benny following close behind in the Dodge, we’d still hung around in a ragtag huddle, lingering there in the middle of the street, staring at the empty place where Benny had knelt at his daughter’s side through the whole thing; at the dark stain on the pale asphalt that, on any other day, could have just been oil. We could all still remember the first time that one of Mrs. Conroy’s dogs had gotten loose. One of the Stendahl kids, though no one could remember which one now, had started screaming. But nothing happened that time. Yet as we watched the paramedics pack up and leave, and in the shocked silence that followed, nobody had known what to say aside from whispered sounds of disbelieve and one constant thought repeated over and over: “She ought to put them down.”
All but one of the officers had left the lights atop their squad cars flashing in their absence and the three vehicles sat in a row along the curve of the circle, their tires edged into the sloped gutter of the curb and the red and blue lights flashing to harsh and mismatched rhythms. We stood around in that air of crisis while our children in our houses peered out from their bedroom windows with awe at the spectacle in our midst. And, like them, we gazed shamelessly on at the sight of old Mrs. Conroy in conversation with the policemen, the shortest of the three with his hat removed and tucked beneath his arm, one of them nervously cocking his elbow every few seconds, like a tic, as if he meant to reach for his weapon. But in the end all that transpired was talking, a slap on the wrist, and as Mrs. Conroy retreated into her home and the officers marched across her lawn single-file to their cars, Caroline Douglas—Carol, for short; who had no kids of her own but often sat smoking on her front steps in the evenings so as to keep an eye on the kids who played street hockey in the circle—strode out from our clutch to confront the short cop in front, his hat now perched squarely atop his uneven crew cut.
“What happened?” she said.
“A little girl got attacked.” The officers didn’t break stride, and Carol was forced to change direction.
“I mean up there,” she said, gesturing behind her with an almost burned-down cigarette to the now empty porch that leered out at us, the poorly maintained railing’s fence posts like jagged teeth in a menacing grin. “What’s the verdict?”
“We told Mrs. Conroy to keep her dogs in the yard.”
“On tethers,” the officer said.
“That’s all.” He cleared his throat. “We’re sorry ma’am.” Glanced at his watch, polished the face with his cuff. “Frankly, there’s not much we can do.”
And they got in their cars and drove off.
Carol had fumed for a while and we’d joined her then. It felt good, yet eventually we’d found our homes if for no other reason than out of muted respect for Benny, and the generally held feeling that it would be rude of us to still be standing there like gawkers when he returned. Now, with a humid summer evening ahead, those of us who’d lost our appetites earlier picked at leftover dinners in silence, and then, with TVs flickering in our windows and cicadas and crickets blanketing the night with static, we settled in to wait, and wondered what would come.
* * *
That week the township had conducted a survey to figure out how many deer there were per square mile in our area and the figures published in the newspaper, two days earlier, had called to our minds a woodland Tokyo sitting flush with our backyards. In the first week of June alone there had been three car crashes and one more barely avoided in our neighborhood alone, and each time a wounded deer had been found not far off the road. Upon publication of the survey, the sheriff’s office announced almost immediately that teams of highly trained sharpshooters would be dispatched to the woods all night, every night, until the deer population had been thinned back to normal.
Sharon Klein from up the street, a mother of four grade school boys who were often seen playing war games in the woods, charging out from behind fallen trees just beyond the lines drawn by our lawns and trilling their lips for machine gun fire as they dove for cover where, hidden, they’d gasp in mock pain at the numerous gunshot wounds they’d sustained in the field, had written into the paper the day after the sheriff’s announcement to wonder aloud, in ink, “Snipers? In our backyards? With all due respect, sheriff, shouldn’t we be worried?”
In response, sheriff Mason himself had written a letter that ran the following day—the morning of the day on which Deirdre was attacked—, saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll be using suppressors on our rifles. We won’t wake you up from your beauty sleep.”
As far as we knew, nobody planned to respond in turn. Sharon was angry but didn’t want to drag it out any longer. Yet it kind of seemed like Mason had completely missed the point.
* * *
For the next few weeks, we all waited, each of us knowing deep down that it was only a matter of time before something, though we didn’t know what, would happen. We watched the two houses for signs of activity. Benny’s porch slumped sadly, repairs halted midway, so that the clear plastic tarp across the front of the home billowed more and more each day with whatever breeze swept through, while the Conroy house loomed ever-present on the edge of our collective vision like a thunderhead, rumbling down at the bottom of our register, daily portending a storm. Her dogs stayed inside for a full week after the incident, yet Mrs. Conroy sat on her porch as always with her cigarettes and tall glasses of ice, ceaselessly sucking on one or other and then tilting the glass up and shaking a fresh cube loose into her mouth, flaunting her status as untouchable elder; the woman who’d been living there since before any of us.
Some days she dangled her feet out through the bars that ran the edge of her porch and let them hang limp towards her sun-scorched lawn as if she were daring us to strike, as if she thought us no better than her dogs.
Benny, meanwhile, stayed hidden.
To all of us he was an enigma.
From when he and his daughter had first moved in we had marveled at Benny, wondered at him: a loping, shambling man; in his thirties with the gait of an invalid, with a haircut like James Stewart’s in Harvey that never seemed to match entirely his strong, stubbled jaw, his facial structure that of a Greek marble statue. And yet he was quiet, shy even—a small, timid boy playing make-believe that he was a grown-up. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Many of us had heard Winnie Patche’s story, at one time or another, of the time, when during a barbecue at the Fitz’s a few years back, she had ducked inside for more napkins and found Benny and Deirdre in the kitchen. Deirdre wouldn’t have been older than five or six then, yet Winnie described how she stood defiantly across the table from her father with the air, not of a petulant child, but of an exhausted, resigned adult—world-weary and bitter. And though they didn’t move, and no one spoke, and there was really no evidence, objectively speaking, of anything wrong with the scene, Winnie felt something holding sway in the air that day, and, after the telling, so did we.
Yet we got caught up in the wake of the incident and, frightened as we were, our sympathies were with him, as if we’d been able to suddenly transfer our unerring respect for Deirdre—who we pitied—to her father, who we’d never understood.
* * *
In the midst of it all, at dusk on a Tuesday, another car hit a buck one street over in a cul-de-sac, just like ours, that most of us had never bothered to visit. The driver was a young mother who’d left the house in a hurry, her three-year-old in his car seat behind her. Most of us whose backyards abutted the section of woods that served as a dividing line between the two streets had children who dutifully snuck across the border and returned with vivid descriptions of the little car demolished, caved in as if it had collided with a wall. The deer, we were told—a stag with shattered antlers—had been, in our children’s eyes, as big as a moose. With her headlights switched off the young mother had snapped her eyes from the road to fetch her son’s rattle from the floor, only to knock the animal’s legs out from under it, driving it onto her hood and through the windshield.
Our children hadn’t seen any bodies—thank God—but there’d been blood.
Some nights we could hear the sharpshooters in the woods. The rustle of underbrush and the crackle of twigs, the heavy tromp of hooves running and then, alone, the dull thud of bodies, heavy as they collapsed dead to the earth lacking voices with which to cry out. And we strained to hear—while at once trying to ignore—the muted whispers of silenced guns lashing out again and again in darkness. How well we all knew the feeling of safety close to home, how quickly it can fracture and fade.
* * *
Mrs. Conroy, through everything, seemed only more determined each day as she sat hour after hour in her usual spot on her wide, covered front porch. She had to have known we were watching her, waiting for her to slip up. Carol’s sister-in-law, Diane, came to live with Carol and her husband, Steven, the same week that Mrs. Conroy let the dogs back out into her corral of a yard that ran the side of her house, and the two Douglas women took to almost perfectly synchronized shifts out front, chain-smoking menthols in Carol’s case; Diane peering over top of her newspaper as she thumbed her way from front to back over the course of each day. And Mrs. Conroy mirrored them across the circle, disappearing from her porch intermittently only for as long as it took to refill her glass.
The dogs, in that week indoors since the attack, had acquired a mythical air, and from that first morning on we saw them no longer as Mrs. Conroy’s pets, but as her brooding familiars. They prowled the yard with heads hunched and tails low and broke free of the poorly tied tethers of flimsy kite string within an hour of being set free. Beneath the high sun they paced a tight perimeter along the property line and stopped frequently to paw the earth at the base of the chain-link fence, kicking up weeds and dirt past their back legs and growling with the effort.
The circle of asphalt lay at our heart like a vast, becalmed sea, devoid of life for the bulk of each day save for the mail truck and occasional visitor, save for when we left to run errands and came back. One afternoon in the middle of the week the sky grew dark and the humidity broke and it poured for over an hour. The gutters roiled and the storm drains backed up and while Mrs. Conroy’s dogs huddled together—a heap of mildewed fur on the strip of dry grass where the porch roof extended out, with a broken downspout swaying in the wind like a pendulum waiting to drop to the yard—our children played outside while we watched, or while we didn’t; able to enjoy, for a moment at least, the luxury of not needing to worry.
* * *
Three weeks and two days after the incident, word spread that there was to be an impromptu barbecue held in the Fitz’s backyard the following night, Saturday. Things in the neighborhood had seemed to be returning to normal that week, and for as many of us who felt that the barbecue was a rally—a chance for us all to at last come together, out in the open, against Mrs. Conroy; to drum up some fresh, righteous anger—there were just as many for whom the barbecue was a blissful return to summertime routine, a signal that the blackout had ended, that we could once again—thank God—have fun. And to those of us who continued to pay attention to him, odd though it was to accept, it seemed as if Benny belonged to the latter camp, rather than the former.
Indeed, we all wondered whether Benny would come. Wondered how Deirdre was doing. None of our kids had seen her around, hadn’t spotted her tanning by the pool that Benny had finished putting in only days before the incident, and the night of the storm she hadn’t come out to the circle with everyone else. “She’s probably still terrified,” had been the general murmur to which we all nodded in turn. And so we were pleasantly surprised that night when Benny showed up well into the festivities, and just that little bit disappointed upon realizing he’d come alone.
“But she’ll be here,” we heard him say, reassuring Greg Stendahl, whose daughter played basketball on the same team as Deirdre. “She said she’d come over in a bit.”
Amidst citronella candles on bamboo stands and with a classic rock station whispering quietly from speakers in the open mudroom door, we stood and made small talk as Jim Fitz, a retired public defender from Baltimore, tended the grill. After Michael Klein, the oldest of Sharon’s four sons, had managed to lure the dogs away, Jim’s wife, Ursula, had been the first person to reach Deirdre where she’d lain motionless in the street, and now she stalked the crowd of neighbors clutching a white plastic trash bag in one hand and a diet soda in the other, falling into brief conversation with whoever had empties. Around our knees charged our youngest children, deep into a heated game of capture-the-flag, and in the corner of the yard Carol stood smoking with Benny, who we hadn’t known smoked until he’d produced a pouch of tobacco from his pocket, rolled a thin cigarette, and dipped his face towards a wavering flame.
Later, Jim, from his green plastic throne—out of which he rose, every few minutes, to check on the last of the hot dogs and burgers that no one would eat—conducted our little knot like a tight chamber orchestra, holding forth as if from a podium in a warm concert hall.
“I heard that this happened before,” someone said. “That she’s already had to move twice.”
Jim shook his head and said, “Wouldn’t surprise me. Wouldn’t surprise me at all,” before tucking his beer into the chair’s built-in cup holder and standing to cross the yard to the grill. When he returned a minute later he said, “Listen,” and, sitting down, said, “The dogs.” We quieted. Enshrouded as we were now in the dark of the early evening, some of us expected to hear them baying out there. But they weren’t; the only sounds were the sounds of the party—the chatter of voices and the lull of the radio—and beyond that the crickets in the treetops.
“I had a case kind of similar to this one back when I used to live in Baltimore,” said Jim. “Little girl, just about the same age as Benny’s daughter over there.” He inclined his head towards the high wooden fence that ran the length of the border between his, and Carol and Steven’s, backyards, and we all followed his gesture to Benny’s house beyond. Deirdre had yet to make an appearance.
“And what I told the defendant—this little girl’s father—who’d snuck into his neighbor’s backyard who had this bull mastiff that’d savaged his kid, was that if it’s in the street, and you hit it with your car, then it’s not against the law,” he said, rapping at the arm of his chair to emphasize. He grinned boyishly around at us, took a swig of his beer and set it back down before adding, breathlessly at first as he swallowed, “It’s just an accident. You get it? Dog’s in the street…—” he drove one fist into an open palm—“Pow.” He seemed to stare past us to Benny across the yard. “Accident.” He nodded, took another gulp of beer, and stood to check the grill.
When he came back he added, as he retook his seat, “Of course by then it was too late, the advice. The guy’d snuck back there and slit the dog’s throat in the middle of the night with his girlfriend’s best cooking knife, and the dog made a lot of noise—” he took a gulp of beer—“and the cops came. But I figured he’d have liked to know anyway.”
“Did he?” someone asked.
Jim shrugged. “Who knows?”
* * *
Though Benny hadn’t been near enough to hear Jim’s pronouncement firsthand, somehow the sentiment, if not the statement word-for-word, made it back to him, and for those of us still paying attention, the change in him was almost immediately clear. In the days leading up to the Fitz’s barbecue Benny had begun, as far as we could tell, to relax. He’d left in the morning for three days counting, coasting down the street, around the corner and out of sight, presumably for work, and then come home two nights in a row with steaming pizza boxes, kicking the driver’s side door shut and then balancing the pies atop one splay-fingered palm like a waiter in a French restaurant as he propped the screen door open and then let himself inside. But by noon on that first Monday following the barbecue—after yet another locked-down Sunday for all of us, with the cul-de-sac, like a prison yard, holding us together while at once keeping us apart—Benny’s minivan hadn’t budged from its place in the driveway, and the house stood shut as if deserted. Some of us went so far as to wonder aloud if perhaps he hadn’t left, fled for peace of mind and for the safety of his daughter, but then there was the car, and surely someone would have heard or seen something if he’d gone.
That night, while we all ate our dinners and gave our kids baths and played games and watched movies, Benny left his house and moved his car down the driveway and onto the grass in the shadow of his porch. At some point someone noticed him and then we all began to take note as we peered from curtained windows out at the eerie scene of the boxy van and Benny’s silhouette in the driver’s side window, perfectly postured and unmoving in vigilance, and we followed his gaze to where we all knew it rested on Mrs. Conroy’s sleeping house.
“What will he do?” we asked one another, and realized we had no way of knowing. For weeks it went on like that. Benny sat through every night, waiting in darkness for his chance, and we watched less and less until we’d stopped paying attention entirely. In the weeks that passed, the Stendahls put their house on the market and the sheriff’s office distributed leaflets thanking us as taxpayers for our support regarding the “deer situation” and informing us that only six weeks remained before the conclusion of the project, “Just in time for the end of summer,” it read; enclosed also was a brochure on deer ticks. Two days later several of the Klein boys found a pile of slaughtered fawns in a ravine they often played in and Sharon once again took up the call to disarmament, berating the sheriff this time in a front page editorial—only now she didn’t let up, and gradually many of us who’d been drawn to Benny for whatever different reasons found a new fixation in Sharon Klein. Finally, almost two months after the incident itself, those of us who still thought about Benny began to ask an echoed question of ourselves: what would we do?
* * *
In the end, Carol was the only one who actually saw what happened, from her perch in the open window of her darkened second story bathroom, sneaking the convenience of a late night cigarette inside the house while Steven slept. From her to Diane and on and on it spread so that eventually we all knew it by heart.
Benny that night, as on all nights since the barbecue, had sat in the shadows of the driver’s seat of the minivan. Watching.
Carol said she saw one of Mrs. Conroy’s dogs streak across the Stendahls’ unfenced front lawn well before Benny shifted the old Dodge into neutral and rolled slow and silent from the grass in front of his house, off the curb, and into the circle like a hunter in the dark, as if he’d gone through the motions all those nights we weren’t watching. Carol said she knew Benny that night, understood his every action, felt herself sitting where he sat, the blood pulsing harder and faster through her veins with each slow second that the minivan eased, creaking, through the night. Carol said that Benny waited until he was almost directly on top of the dog, its silhouette squatting near the edge of the circle, just a few feet out from the Patche’s curbside planter, before he jerked his key in the ignition and the old Dodge’s engine sputtered and caught loud enough to stir some of us, however briefly, from sleep. For the shortest fraction of a second his headlights illuminated what Carol hadn’t seen: the frozen image of hunched Mrs. Conroy in an off-white bathrobe and backless slippers squatting before her dog and hooking a frayed leash to its collar, before the hard thud threw him forward against the steering wheel and the engine stalled out. Carol said that she took her stairs two and three at a time and that she grappled with her front door before diving into a sprint that took her across her lawn and out to the asphalt. And then we all remember the rest, for it was to the sound of screaming—a high, desperate wail from the street below—that we finally woke.