the murder house

I know a murderer.

Of course, I haven’t seen him since he was nine, the year I left Chicago for New York. The only memory I have of him is as a dark-haired little boy, chipping golf balls by himself on his lawn.

I should mention here, he didn’t just murder one person. He murdered two. His mother and his grandmother. We’ll call him Danny.

Danny’s grandmother was a tough lady who lived two houses down, in a manicured sixties-era bi-level, with a friendly, pear-shaped husband and a little Pekingese dog named, appropriately, Pekie. I encountered this neat, put-together lady every day on their regular walks down the street. Desperate for doggie contact, I begged her to walk Pekie, and every now and then, she let me hold the leash.

Someone else I encountered every day on his regular walks was a skinny, chain-smoking, bare-chested, long-haired young man. It was 1972. Naked to the waist, flicking his ash onto our rosebushes, he would pace up and down the sidewalk in front of our house. And when I say long-haired, I mean all the way down to his butt.

Soon, the young man disappeared. When I was old enough, my mother explained who he was. Though I had never seen her, there was someone else living in that house, an only daughter. She’d been away to college somewhere far away, and had come home with a non-Jewish husband, the long-haired young man.

The friendly, pear-shaped husband died, of heartbreak, it was said. Pekie died too, to be replaced by a shaggy Old English sheepdog. In a hushed whisper, my mother explained that the daughter drank. Or drugged. Or something. In all of the fifteen years that I lived at home, I never saw her; she never emerged from the house. Eventually, what did emerge was a little boy.

About this time, the house with the manicured lawn began to take on an unkempt appearance, the juniper bushes in front growing high and gnarled and wild, the white paint peeling off of the window casements. Crabgrass and dandelions choked the lawn that no one ever mowed anymore. No one came out of the house now. Except for Danny.

Danny looked like any other little kid; dark hair, big eyes, cute, small, vulnerable. There were no friends, no playdates. I never saw anyone play with him at all, not his mother, not his grandmother.

As a teenager, all I wanted to do was move to New York, and when I was nineteen I did, ending regular contact with the sad, busted family two houses down. With the shining city of New York filling my horizon, I forgot all about them.

But Mom never forgot. When she had extra, she would bring them a pot of chicken soup, or her homemade gefilte fish. Once, as my sister and I hurried through the cold from the house to the car on one our infrequent visits from New York, the tough lady, who no longer looked neat and put together, stopped us to say how wonderful Mom was. The Jewish Community had abandoned her, she said, but not my Mom.

The years went by. Breaks-ins became common on my parents’ street. Word got out that the grandmother kicked Danny out for his drug use. On successive visits, I could see the house grow stranger and more decrepit.

Fifteen years later, I was living in a two bedroom apartment on 97th Street. I’d just had my first child. Mom was staying with us, teaching me how to be a mother.

One night, as we did the baby dance in front of the TV, rocking her back and forth to comfort her, a breaking news story flashed across the screen. Double murder in Chicago, a woman and her daughter. A dog. The murderer was still at large. And there, beyond the yellow police tape, was Danny’s house, in all its crumbling glory.

The police spoke to everyone on the block. They all shrugged their shoulders. The newspeople interviewed a neighbor who, of course, had no idea who might have done it. No one was dumb enough to mention Danny.

But I think the police already knew. He was apprehended the next day. They put him on suicide watch.

Of course it was unplanned. He’d been living on the street. He came home looking for money. His mother refused. There was a knife. She started to scream. He needed his mother to be quiet. Then he needed his grandmother to be quiet, too. And the dog.

Today, a rabbi’s family lives there. They have lots of children. They seem happy. I don’t know if they know what happened in their new house one cold and snowy night fifteen years ago.

I’ve thought a lot about Danny since 1996. I think about how little it would have taken to avert the tragic ending. If he had gone to a different school. If his teachers had noticed that he needed help. If he’d had playdates. If he’d had friends. If someone had cared enough to interfere.

In every class I teach, there’s a little boy with messy hair and dark eyes that look a little lost. Though the other kids complain, I always give him a little extra help. Sometimes the people who need help the most are the ones who do not ask.

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