It was a day like any other. Wally, Edward, Peanut, Sal and I were busy building a Big Wheel ramp of stolen cinderblocks and plywood. It was not our first attempt to fly on our bikes, but a new design was necessary, one we hoped wouldn’t result in Wally getting stitches in his lip, like the last time, even though him talking like Fat Albert never got old. It would be near impossible to get him to test the upgrades but I tried to coerce him nonetheless. While I begged him to tryout our new device, with the amended safety features, we were overcome by the sound of sirens, fast approaching. We did what any other band of unsupervised seven year-olds would do. We hopped on our bikes and headed in the direction of whatever drama was unfolding. Nothing exciting ever happened in our neighborhood, especially in broad daylight, and we weren’t going to miss it.
The last time something almost exciting happened the fire department had to come help Mrs. Harrison, who was a million years old, out of her bathtub. Hardly earth shattering but traumatic since we could have lived our whole lives without catching a glimpse of Mrs. Harrison’s saggy ass.
Sal still brings it up with the same sense of dread and wonder he had in that moment.
“How can someone’s ass look like that? It couldn’t be just age, right? She must have been in a fire or something.”
It didn’t matter. From the sound of it this was a much bigger issue than Mrs. Harrison’s ass-flesh. Well, maybe not for Sal. We peddled as fast as we could. Even Peanut, the last to sport training wheels, was curious enough to keep up. We arrived to the top of the hill and were frozen with shock. Completely unable to process what scandalous event must have been taking place inside the Owen house. Our jaws slack. Fire trucks, police cars, neighbors milling around, obviously distressed.
We had seen the hearse before when Wally’s great-grandma had died after she went crazy. Wally and I saw her through the screen door peeling potatoes naked just a few days before. Mrs. Janesky waved her bottle at us, told us to get lost and called us “nosy little fucks”. Wally said he didn’t think he would ever eat potatoes again and doubted his ability to play with his new egg of silly putty. Which required no explanation.
This was different. This was serious.
Mr. Raymond, the man who picked up old lady Janesky, came out of the front door with a body, covered in a sheet, on a stretcher. We all knew the Owen family. Patty was in Peanut’s class, first grade, same as us. She was a sweet, quiet girl with pigtails, who always wore a dress. I didn’t play with her. She was too well behaved for the likes of me. Her mom was our lunch lady, a vibrant woman who had a breezy, carefree attitude. Mrs. Owen looked like a character from The Mod Squad.
“Someone must be dead,” Edward offered.
“It’s like being with Kojak himself,” Sal sniped.
“I’m just saying.”
“Who’s Kojak?” Wally inquired.
“Duh. A famous detective? On t.v.?” Sal was nine and the worldliest of the bunch.
“My mom only lets me watch Sesame Street. Sometimes the Electric Company, until the black guy comes on. Then she turns it off. She says Jimi Hendrix doesn’t belong on t.v. . Who ever that is. And, Zoom? Pffft! Out of the question!”
“Wally! Stop babbling.”
“I’m scared. I think we should go home.”
We were terrified with good cause. Patty and her two brothers stood in the picture window and stared blankly at the ensuing chaos.
“Hey! Look! It’s Patty! Hi Patty! It’s me, Peanut! Patty!” Peanut attempted to procure Patty’s attention as she was put into the back of a police car.
“Aw, man! She’s lucky! I wish I could get a ride in the back of a police car!”
I was sick with envy. Then her brothers were put in the same car. She never looked in our direction even though Peanut waved at her like she was in a parade.
“Who’s in that car?”
Wally pointed to a lone police car, lights flashing. We snuck a little closer. A man sat in the back of the car with his head hung. We got close enough to see it was Mr. Owen. He looked up at us. He had blood all over one side of his face and on his shirt and tie. There must have been a terrible accident, a terrible accident. The sight of the bloodied Mr. Owen sent us home faster than the songs of the sirens had drawn us. Mr. Owen had turned into a monster. We were convinced of it as we breathlessly piled into Fran’s studio.
“Fran, you won’t believe what we just saw!”
“Why does she call him that?” Sal asked Wally.
Fran didn’t look up from his drawing board as we told our tale. The sirens. Mrs. Harrison’s saggy ass. The hearse. Old lady Janesky peeling potatoes. Mr. Raymond. The body. The free rides in the police car. Mr. Owen covered in blood. All of it, the whole sordid story. I could see Fran’s jawline pleat, in and out, in and out. I knew he was thinking or getting annoyed, same jawline betrayal.
“I’m going to take a walk. You stay here.”
“Aw, c’mon, Fran!”
Fran shot me the look. You know the old saying about a face being able to stop a clock? This was similar. We sat on the curb in front of my house and anxiously awaited his return.
“What do you think happened?”
“Maybe Mr. Owen got into fight.”
“It had to be an accident.”
“Maybe he owed the mafia money. My Uncle Jack owed them money and they came to his house and cut off his thumb. He says he can only hitchhike in one direction now.”
“That’s stupid, Sal. Why would Mr. Owen get money from the mafia?”
“Who’s the mafia?” Wally inquired.
“Ask my Uncle Jack.”
Finally, we saw Fran breach the hill. He was white. We ran in his direction to see what he had found out. We barraged him with questions. He said nothing. He held my hand while we walked home. It was then I knew it was bad. Fran told the boys to go home and to tell their parents that he would be calling them.
Once alone I peppered him with questions in my subtle, wily way.
“I have to call the Janesky’s. I can only hope the old man picks up. I hate talking to the mother.”
So much for my investigative skills, I sat on the studio stairs and listened to him dial the phone.
“Sue? Fran. Wally tell you I was going to call? Yeah. They told me the same story so I took a walk. I don’t know why they didn’t come tell you, maybe because you are half in the bag by noon. Does it make a difference? Charlie Owen went crazy and killed Kathy. How am I supposed to know? Maybe he was half in the bag too. Stabbed her. In front of the kids. Charlie Jr. hit him over the head with the fire poker. That’s all I know. I’m sure you will tell it much more colorfully than I will. Feel free to call the henhouse. Save me the trouble. Yep. Bye.”
Stabbed? To death? In front of Patty? Fran rounded the studio stairs.
“World has gone crazy, huh?”
It certainly had.
Fran drove us to school the next day. The car was silent. Our usual, rousing, rendition of the Popeye song didn’t even cross our minds, let alone our lips. We all knew the horrible truth. Well, what we could process of it.
By lunch I had almost forgotten about Patty and Mr. Owen’s bloodied face and the body. Wally and I made our way to the lunchroom. At a table in the far corner we spotted Patty eating her lunch, a wide berth surrounded her. I don’t know what compelled us to sit with her. We had never done so before and would never again. She looked through us just as she had the day before. Wally and I took out our lunches.
“I guess your mom can’t be our lunch lady anymore cause you’re dad killed her, huh?”
It seemed reasonable commentary to my seven year-old mind. Blunt. Unedited. Detached. My adult self remains horrified. Patty focused on my face for a brief moment but said nothing. I never heard Patty utter another word in our long acquaintance. It could have been a profound retreat from reality or a deliberate silence for a select insensitive few. I have yet to forget Mrs. Owen’s kindness or the carelessness of my seven year-old self towards her daughter.
Mr. Owen was released from prison after serving thirty-eight years for killing his wife, our lunch lady.
I don’t know what became of Patty and her brothers.