Like Hell You’re My Neighbor

Ellen McGrath Smith

Sadie tossed her bathing cap behind the pool filter, below the deck, on a dark patch of gravel and shadow. She didn’t care if the tubes in her ears fell out. The stupid thing made her feel like a geek with a tulip-bulb head. In fact, the white rubber was formed into scallopy white rubber petals. Besides, it was very clammy underneath and she couldn’t hear well with it on. That made no sense, because the tubes were put in to help her hear better. The cap made a popping suction sound as she peeled it off. When she tossed it on that gray patch, she noticed that it landed exactly where she’d imagined it would land when, two weeks ago, she watched her mother pay for it at Grant’s.

It was bad enough she always had to be on the watch in case her period came. So worried about red stains on her bathing suit down there, she didn’t want to have to worry about being weird on the top of her head. Her period hadn’t come yet. Her mother said not to worry, that the later you started, the later you stopped. Whatever that meant, Sadie took it as just another “glass empty” turned into a “glass full” by her mother’s deft and conscious touch.

Bathing caps made Sadie think of dainty ladies. The Olympics were going on in Montreal, and on TV Sadie’d seen these swimming ladies who were demonstrating what they did in the hopes of having it accepted as a real sport. Sadie’s brothers cracked up while watching them. Synchronized swimming. They looked so perfect and ridiculous. This is how swans were, too:  perfect at first glance, but if you really started to stare at them part by part, they began to look unbalanced and odd with their thin, essy necks like teacup handles on one end, and their other ends squat and puffed out as a mug. Teacups bothered Sadie too, when she looked at them longer than the normal length of time for looking at things. In general, she didn’t trust daintiness. She liked to break it apart until she could find the clumsy truth and somehow justify her reluctance to be dainty and feminine.

Jamie Terelli’s above-ground backyard swimming pool was the only place to be in July, on Hoggart Street, in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America, on earth, in the milky way, in the universe. Sadie had a new record underway — five days in a row of being invited to swim there, not counting Tuesday, when lightning struck the Terellis’ clothes pole in the morning and Mrs. Terelli was so upset she didn’t let the kids go in the pool all day. Instead, they played church in the woods behind St. Pamphilus, which was a really bizarre thing to do but they did know all the words. Of course, Jamie Terelli got to be the priest. All summer, everybody had to kiss her butt, because of her swimming pool.

Sadie found it tempting, after the street lights came on and swimming was out of the question, to tell Jamie what she really thought of her: that she was a bony, whiny, pea-brained brat. Under the corner street light practicing cartwheels so that she could be like Nadia Comeneci, Sadie had nearly broken decorum the other night when Jamie started whining about how she was sick of watching her do cartwheels and having to tell her if her legs were straight. Sadie wanted to tell her then that she didn’t understand anything about practice and discipline, and that she would never amount to anything.

She kept quiet, though, and went along with the change over to a game of red rover. Last week, when she had gotten Jamie mad, she’d been exiled from swimming on what had to be the hottest day of the summer. She moped around the house. Her mother told her, hey, rise above it. Put on your suit and we’ll fill up the bathtub.

Her mother was big on things like assertiveness and positive thinking. She always told Sadie that nothing was so bad a good attitude couldn’t turn it into good. She kept books around the house with psychedelic pictures of the human brain on the covers. Still, in the dim afternoon light of the bathroom, soaking in the narrow tub, Sadie felt like a loser. No amount of creative visualization could get her to not see that she was a girl in a swimsuit lying in a bathtub. The water wasn’t blue. The idea of going underwater for a tea party was ridiculous because (A) there was nobody else to gurgle and gesture at, and (B) when she surfaced for air she banged her head on the faucet and stormed from the tub in pain and rage.

Now, in the Terellis’ pool, she sat on the vinyl bottom, her arms straight out like airplane wings she regularly moved up and down to keep herself from bobbing upward. Her tea party partner was Janet Clay, a neighbor who was a year or so younger than Sadie. Bubbles and garbled words issued from Janet’s mouth. Sadie offered her a cup of tea, her lungs filling up faster than those imaginary teacups. They had agreed before going down to try to do a full minute. Sadie was counting faster than was right. Janet couldn’t stand it; just as Sadie told her “ten more seconds,” she shot up like a rocket. Sadie followed, thinking dolphin. She always liked to see how high she could rise above the water once she broke through its blue skin. She was part Sea World phenomenon, part mermaid, and without that stupid cap on, she could throw back her hair in a single streamline as she rose.

The dolphin-mermaid breaks the skin of blue, and an arena of sound greets its graceful form. But this time, the sound was just the rush of air and the other children’s voices trailing up the side driveway to the street. Only Janet and Sadie were left in the backyard. Either the ice cream man was out there, but he never came this early, or her brother Wayne and his friends were staging one of those big fights with the kids from Dumferline Street.

The gravel on the driveway burned and pricked Sadie’s bare feet as she ran dripping to see what was happening. A crowd of kids pooled at the top of the driveway. They were speculating in breathless voices. Freddy Clay, Janet’s big brother, was talking into his fist as if it were a police radio, clenching his teeth to make it sound like he was speaking through static, saying, “One Adam Twelve. One Adam Twelve. Nut-case in progress.”  But Sadie couldn’t see anything, and Jamie’s college brother, who — since Mr. Terelli was dead — acted like he was Mr. Terelli, would not let any of them go past the top of the driveway. “It’s not safe,” he said, his little pencilled mustache flying like the birds Sadie used to draw before she got a real art teacher for art class.

There was a way Sadie could get around the boys who wouldn’t let her pass, to see what was going on. She hopped in pain back down the gravel driveway and began cutting through the backyards near the Terellis’. First, you climb the Averys’ wall, drop down into the Seemillers’ vegetable garden. The Seemillers’ yard is totally enclosed by jagger bushes, roses, and a tall wooden fence that can give you a splinter just from looking at it. This is because the Seemillers and the Clarks hate one another. Sadie knew what she had to do. She had listened to her older brother and his friends talk about doing it one night when they raided the Seemillers’ garden. It’s a very daring and dangerous maneuver. You have to actually go into the Seemillers’ house.

Sadie tried to overstep all the pools of grease and oil as she ran through the garage and into the cellar, where a dryer was listlessly turning. There was a narrow window just above ground that you were supposed to climb up through, into a window well and onto the walkway on the side of the Seemillers’ house. But, to get up to the window, you needed to climb first into the utility tub, over which the window was open at a sharp angle. Standing in the tub, getting ready to crawl through the window, Sadie heard adult noises coming from in front of the Seemillers’ house, which was right across the street from her own house.

“Go on. Make me shoot. I’d love to.”  It was her father’s voice. It was her father’s drunken voice. She hadn’t heard it for two weeks.

“Come on, Jim. Just cool off. I’m your neighbor, remember?  I haven’t done anything to you…”  That would be Mr. Clark. Of course, Mr. Clark would be right there. His life, when he wasn’t collecting overtime at J & L Steel, consisted of torturing his hedges and his little fake lawn, and watching the neighborhood like a hawk.

“Like hell you’re my neighbor!”  Sadie heard her father shout in a booming slur. In the clammy cool of the utility tub, her feet had sent a message to her bladder, and she really had to pee. “Where were you when I was put out of my own house?”

It wasn’t like that, Sadie thought. “Put out” made it sound like the ending of the Flintstones, when Fred Flintstone picks up the pet saber-tooth tiger and puts him out on the front porch for the night with a bottle of milk; then the cat sneaks through the front window and ends up setting Fred on the porch. He just picks him up and puts him down. Sadie’s mom had simply said that if her dad didn’t leave, she and the kids were going to leave. And that was mainly because she wanted him to quit drinking so much and trying to kill her. That had happened two weeks ago, right after Sadie had gotten her tubes put in because she was getting so many earaches.

Her mother said she loved Sadie’s dad but that she couldn’t keep on enabling him. Sadie thought that if “enable” was related to “able,” and if “enable” meant “to help someone be able,” it was kind of mean for her mother to quit doing this. But Sadie agreed that he was not being nice around the house. He hadn’t even mentioned the tubes in her ears. All he wanted to talk about was Timmy O’Neal. Timmy O’Neal had been her dad’s friend. They’d worked together on the police force. In May, Timmy shot himself. This confused Sadie because Timmy was the funniest man alive. When her dad brought Timmy home on drinking nights, those nights were always laughing nights, not brooding, yelling, or crying nights. Sadie’s mother said something about the tears of a clown, and of course, there was a big hit song about that but nobody shot himself in it. Sadie’s mother also said that a man who drinks too much has no business carrying a gun. But Sadie’s father said Timmy shot himself because nobody cares about cops and what they go through.

“Nobody gives a shit.”  It felt almost good to hear his voice, even like this. Sadie let the pee out. It was hot on her legs. Pee is like tears, she thought, only smellier. Overhead, there were footsteps in the Seemillers’ kitchen.

“For Christsake, Mel, call the police. He’s waving that gun around and I don’t like the way he looks. Call the police. Don’t go trying to talk to him like The Mayor.”  That was Clark’s nickname, The Mayor, because he acted like he was in charge of the whole street.

“It’s a fine day when you have to call the cops on the cops.”  Hearing Mr. Seemiller’s voice overhead, Sadie knew she had to climb out of there. But if she did, she’d be right in front of her father. What would he do when he saw her?  She wished one of the tubes would fall out of her ear, so she could walk out to him with it cradled in her palm. Maybe he’d panic about her going deaf. Maybe he’d drop everything about Timmy and how cops are treated and pick her up and shout, “Can you hear me?”  Would her mother be up on the porch, crying, “No, Sadie, no. Don’t enable him!”, or would she be locked in the bathroom, meditating, trying to turn her human mind the colors of the minds on the covers of her books?  Sadie wished that, if she was going about the business of turning bad into good, she would hurry up.

The dryer stopped with an emphatic sigh. That sent Sadie running back through the garage, the garden, over the Averys’ wall, and onto the hot gravel of the Terellis’. Mrs. Terelli was telling all the kids to go into the backyard where they’d be safe. Sadie didn’t want to see any of them. She ducked under the deck behind the pool filter and pulled the rubber cap over her head. She crouched there forever, it seemed. The tulip bulb muffled the edges of the words of the kids as they laughed, splashed, had tea parties, and mimicked her father’s performance. She did not know how she was ever going to get home without being seen. Her mother always told her to hold her head high no matter what. The ladies who did synchronized swimming held their heads up above water, smiling ridiculously as their arms and legs parted and pointed and flexed. Their heads seemed detached somehow from those mannequin bodies. Sadie wondered when her mother would start looking for her. That night, more Olympic gymnastics. Sadie really wanted to watch that. She wanted her mother to fill up the bathtub and tell her get in, this is the lake of your dreams, it is placid and lavender blows on the breeze.