I was in the kitchen washing dishes, listening to the radio. All afternoon it was bad news. They kept cutting into the music to talk about it. A train had derailed near Baltimore. An old man in New Jersey had been arrested for molesting a dozen kids over a span of years. Fires kept springing up in the west every couple of days, and nobody could say whether arson was involved. There was another storm due to hit our coast. And so on. After each news update they’d go back to jazz covers of Joey Levine or Leif Garrett songs, and then after a few minutes there’d be another update.
Through the kitchen window I could see four or five kids in Halloween costumes coming up the drive. They wore tee-shirts printed to look like suits, and they had on latex masks. One had on a latex mask of President Clinton and one of President Bush and one of Vice President Spiro Agnew and one of the wrestler Hulk Hogan. It’s amazing how time passes. We hadn’t even thought about buying candy yet. I wiped my hands on my pants and went to glance around in the pantry to see if I could find anything.
The group of kids at my front door didn’t even bother holding out their trick-or-treat bags. It was hard to tell behind their masks, but somehow I just knew they were disgusted with me. I thought I should apologize for my efforts. One of the children near the front of the group, smaller than the others, with strawberry-blond hair poking out from around his Hulk Hogan mask, pulled a gun from his trick-or-treat bag. I could tell from the way he held it that it was heavy. If it was a toy gun, it was more realistic than any toy gun I’d ever seen. He motioned for me to back into the house.
“What’s going on here?” The other trick-or-treaters spread out across the living room and began fitting whatever they could into their trick-or-treat bags. The kid with the gun reminded them to check upstairs. I was frightened. These kids couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. What in God’s name did they think they were up to?
The kid with the gun made a loud fart noise behind his mask. “Don’t give me that look,” he said. “Consider what you’ve done to the world. It’s barely inhabitable, and getting worse every day. By the time we’re your age there won’t be any world left to live in.”
“Well, sure, but that’s not all my fault.”
“We don’t care whose fault it is. What difference could fault possibly make to us? We’re getting what’s coming to us, now.”
Just then Nancy came into the room. She’d been in her office looking at paint swatches and she had a couple in her hand. I guess she’d wanted to get my opinion. We’d been planning on repainting. She’d probably been concentrating so hard she hadn’t even heard us in here. She gets like that. Anyway, the kid with the gun waved her over to stand next to me.
“Frank, what in God’s name is going on in here?” I explained to her the situation as well as I knew it, that what I’d thought were trick-or-treaters turned out to be a band of robbers. She narrowed her eyes at me in disbelief. “For God’s sake, Frank. You should have known better.” She peered at the kid holding the gun on us and made a little clicking sound with her mouth, like she was considering something. “Aren’t you Jimmy, from down the street?” The kid didn’t answer her question, but his ears, where they stuck out from the edges of the mask, turned a bright red. Nancy went to college with Jimmy’s dad, and she used to babysit Jimmy when his parents went away for the weekend.
All around us the other three kids were destroying everything Nancy and I had spent our whole life together building. One of the kids was walking around with a baseball bat that he’d found somewhere, smashing in television sets, framed pictures, telephones, and various small electronic devices. One had found a tube of lipstick and was drawing pornographic images on the wallpaper. One was attempting to defecate on our cat. It was horrible. From time to time the kid with the gun, Jimmy, I guess, would glance at his compatriots. I got the feeling that he wanted to join in. That when they’d first made their plans, he thought holding the gun would be the exciting part, but now he wasn’t so sure.
The kid with the gun slipped his hand underneath the Hulk Hogan mask. He appeared to be picking his nose. “Jesus, Frank, why don’t you just rush him?” Nancy said. “Don’t you think you could get the gun away from him if you tried? He’s probably never even fired the damn thing before.”
“Sure, but what if I didn’t? What if the gun were to go off in the struggle that ensues?”
The kid wiped his finger on the back of the pseudo-Edwardian love seat beside him, and told us that we better not be thinking of trying something. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about him, Jimmy,” Nancy said, giving me a look of distain.
“I don’t see you trying anything,” I said.
After the kids had gone I tried calling the police several times, but they never answered. Nancy sat at the living-room table, breathing into a paper bag. From time to time she’d take the bag from her mouth and say something about how she didn’t understand how a kid with such great parents could go so wrong. Meanwhile, I tidied things up as well as I could, sweeping up glass and righting plants that the kids had knocked over. Nancy always talked about what it would be like, going to Rome and Warsaw and places like that all the time, the way Jimmy’s parents did. I suspect that, at some point in the past, she carried a torch for Jimmy’s dad.
Several hours later another knock came at the door. I armed myself with the baseball bat and looked out the spy-hole, but it was the police.
Both officers wore dark glasses, even though it was night. In the porchlight, I could see myself and Nancy reflected along their surface. The officers introduced themselves as Officer Chumley and Officer Bingo. I told them that I’d been trying to call them for hours. “Of course you have. And it never occurred to you that we have other things to do,” said Officer Chumley. “Guy like you thinks we’re just sitting around the office, waiting for you to call us up to complain about something. Did it occur to you that our nation was founded on self-reliance? What if Benjamin Franklin called up emergency services every time the British attacked? What if Franklin Delano Roosevelt called up the cops when the Japs hit Pearl Harbor? Instead of asking himself what he could do for his country, rather than vice versa?”
“Well, anyhow, I’m glad you’ve come,” I said.
“Sure thing,” said Officer Chumley. They followed us into the house.
“What the hell happened in here?” said Officer Bingo.
“That’s what I was trying to call you about.”
“Never mind that,” said Officer Chumley. “We’ve got bigger bugs to fry here, Bingo.”
“Is that man sodomizing a goat with his nose?” asked Officer Bingo, studying one of the pornographic lipstick drawings on the wall. After a moment’s reflection, he said, “It’s very lifelike, actually. The perspective’s quite accomplished. And there’s something touching about the man’s expression. As though he never intended to sodomize this goat, but was forced into it by outside circumstances.”
Officer Chumley held up a photograph. “Do you recognize this boy?” It was Jimmy, of course. “We believe he might be involved in an accident of some sort.”
“An accident?” I asked.
“For the moment we’re assuming it’s an accident. Why? Do you know anyone who would wish him harm?”
He was looking at me like he knew something I didn’t. God, I was really beginning to sweat. Of course I hadn’t done anything to Jimmy—but could I prove it? Nancy was here the entire time, she could vouch for me—but would she? Or would she let me hang? We’d had our share of problems recently. I’d said some things I now regret. The way she was looking at me, with these two cops here, well, there was just no way I could tell what she was thinking. “You seem to be biting the inside of your lip,” Officer Chumley said. “That wouldn’t be a sign of anxiety, would it? There’s no reason for you to be nervous, is there?”
“No reason whatsoever,” I said.
“Perhaps we’d better take a look around, just in case. You’d be alright with that, wouldn’t you, Mr. Lehrman?”
Just then Officer Bingo caught sight of the swatches of paint on the living-room table. He held them up to the light to examine them. “Hey, Chumley, would you say this looks like evidence?”
“It does look like evidence,” Chumley said. “Though of what, it’s hard to say. Could be that we ought to take that to the boys in the lab.”
“How can I explain it to you? We were planning to repaint the house,” I told them. “So many things had been going wrong for so long. Our son left for Utah to join a cult. He refuses to speak to us, because we’re impure. We tried so hard to raise him right. My wife and I, we hardly ever speak to each other anymore. I’m sure that we won’t make it through another year of marriage. But repainting the house seemed to offer some small promise of hope.”
Officer Bingo put down the paint swatches. “An eggshell blue,” he said. “That would really open up the room.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.
James Tadd Adcox lives in Chicago. His work has been featured in Barrelhouse Magazine, The Literary Review, and is forthcoming at Spork online. The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, a collection of short fiction, is available from Tiny Hardcore Press.