I’ve got the number on Lou. I can tell you his routine, his habits, how and when he laughs and who he spends his time with (no one) and why he leaves the house, and the hours he keeps; we’ve been neighbors for five years. The man sails out the door three times a day, at nine, one, and five o’clock, and returns with three cans of Steel Reserve, a pack of Camel Turkish Silvers, and sometimes a few groceries too. One percent milk, Wonder bread, Starkist tuna, Powerade if the temperature broke a hundred—gas station fare. Otherwise, he’s not up to much. He does his yard work or tinkers with his Pontiac Bonneville—he was a mechanic back in Nebraska—or when he’s feeling semi-sociable, he’ll sit on his front porch with a Michael Crichton novel, not so much reading as gazing. But always out the door and back three times a day like clockwork.
I’m not the type of woman to spy on my neighbors, but you learn things when you’ve lived in one place for a time, especially down a lonely lane like ours that offers more weed-snared lots than homes. These details seep into you like the smoggy Phoenix air that shrouds the McDowell mountains in a chartreuse fug. Lou is single with no kids as far as we know, though last year he picked up a pretty little Staffordshire terrier, fawn and white, called Betty Rocker. He lives catty-corner to me before the street turns. It’d be impossible for a good neighbor to miss the fact that he didn’t leave his house at all last Wednesday. And while he’s a stand-up guy, he’s got a touch of the oblivion about him. He needs someone to look out for him—someone in the know.
On Monday I was still awake at midnight. That’s not unusual for me—I’ve been an insomniac since my husband Nathan died in ’94. Our son takes after me in that respect; Elliot used to wake up whenever I did when he was a toddler. Even in high school he’d wander into the living room at the witching hour and scrunch up on the left of our beige sectional, and I’d curl in a ball with an afghan against the other arm. Together we’d gape at Nick at Nite reruns. My kid is twenty-six now and for all, I know sleeping like a corpse, though he can’t be bothered to call his mom.
But that night, I’d popped two Benadryl and was blearier-eyed than usual but not much sleepier for it. I’d passed forty-nine without the need for bifocals, but when I hit fifty the doc gave me two gifts: progressive lenses and a Bietti’s Crystalline Dystrophy diagnosis, which really only means I’ve developed terrible night vision and my periphery is shrinking. Thanks, chromosome four.
I heard a hollering voice over the murmur of the low television volume. It came from Lou’s place. I felt like someone had slipped ice down my collar without my knowing; the voice, a man’s, was agonized, bellowing and pleading. I couldn’t pick out words, but I recognized the ache from my son’s cries when he was a baby. Some cries you could ignore, could roll over and go back to sleep, but others were a desperate howl that yanked you right up. Now I stirred from the couch and fumbled for my progressives—the cheapest pair I could buy because eyes be damned, I’m saving for a backyard pool—but they weren’t in their usual spot on the end table.
Hand to my forehead, I cracked the front door. The sidewalk in front of Lou’s was a smear in the puddle of flickering streetlight overhead. A stumbling figure circled his maroon Bonneville and yanked each door handle in turn. I knew it couldn’t be Lou because even when Lou was just headed to Circle K, he’d glide toward his car like a hawk on a thermal, never a care to weigh him down. The guy by his car lurched from one end to the other. I squinted, working to make some sense of the muddle of movement. He might have been gripping the roof as he went. He growled a sound stream I couldn’t parse.
I turned to Chad Tooley’s house right across from me, the hooligan around Elliot’s age whose redheaded lady friend had fled in the dead of night six months ago. Chad had been acting erratically since then—maybe he was burglarizing Lou’s car? I turned back to the Bonneville when the man walloped the trunk. The thwack rang like metal on metal, but the sound was deadened in the mid-summer humidity.
I shot to the end table on Elliot’s side of the sofa where I kept my cell and yelped when my foot sank into my lenses, fallen to the ground, but by the wrong table. Gnashing my teeth, I limped back to the front door with my thumb poised over the emergency call key. By the time I reached the threshold, the man had vanished.
I grabbed a plastic broom from the hall closet and counted to three hundred before creeping from the house barefoot and over to Lou’s. Cars whooshed over the freeway a few miles south. I widened my eyes as much as I could and swiveled my head to the right and left. Everything was blots, smudges, and shadow. With my nose inches from the car, I surveyed for any dents or broken glass. No damage. Pausing, I peered into Lou’s rear passenger window. Despite the muted blur, my eyes made of most colors, an electric blue shone in the streetlight. Gradually, I made out a layer of fifty or more half-empty Powerade bottles sprouting from the floor of the backseat. By the color, they might have been Mountain Berry Blast. I glanced over the surrounding expanses of asphalt, at Lou and Chad’s shuttered houses, before stealing back to my own. There wasn’t a blessed soul out there with me.
Lou was a snowflake in our desert neighborhood because