My wife removed ladies underwear from a paper bag. “Found a bag. Opened the bag. Looked inside the bag.” She held up a pair with thin mint stripes. “We need to deal with him. With this!” She cried. I passed her a tissue.
Outside, I found our son, Evan, playing with plastic soldiers. He had a whole make-believe world out there, organized and systematic. He’d buried some soldiers under leaves, while others huddled in small platoons, as though our idyllic lawn was the battle of Khe Sanh. And while the other kids his age were busy courting and making out next to the Niagara River, I often wondered why my son fantasized about killing or fighting for democracy or being a hero like the way we all thought Phil Gruber was a hero when he came back to our neighborhood after Vietnam.
“Are you sure this is the type of person you want to be?” My wife and I sat at one end of our kitchen table, while Evan sat at the other. He wore a Buffalo Bills T-shirt, which I’d bought him when he turned thirteen—we both loved O.J. Simpson, even though he’d recently been traded to the 49ers.
Evan’s marsh-green eyes drifted, as my wife removed another piece of underwear from the bag. She stacked them according to size. Evan appeared to have a weakness for larger women.
“Why?” She stopped crying. “Why did you do this?”
A smirk flickered across his face. She started to cry again. The tension was terrific.
Evan had only finished his first year at LaSalle Secondary School (where his sister was a sophomore) and that’s why I thought it was okay for him to screw up. I wasn’t angry, per se, more concerned about what other people would say about him.
My wife unfolded a pair with yellow stars and examined it. “I feel so dirty.”
“Do you think anyone knows?” I pictured us eating a tuna casserole for supper and using our neighbors’ undergarments as napkins.
“Of course they will know when I tell them,” she said.
“Maybe we can avoid that.” I talked to her like Evan wasn’t in the room. “Maybe we can keep it our secret.”
“We have to return everything,” she said. “What kind of person do you think I am?” She placed her hand back in the bag, as though she expected a different outcome.
“They’ll never forgive him,” I said.
“He deserves that. Don’t you think?”
I looked at Evan and imagined him sneaking around the neighborhood, sliding himself through laundry room windows, and lingering a few feet from clothesline, all the while attempting to avoid Phil Gruber during one of his midnight patrols.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, my wife and I would watch Phil march through the neighborhood. She’d nudge me awake, pull me out of a dream like the recurring one I had where I was skinny dipping in the Niagara River with Sam Rockdale, and ask me to stand by the window with her.
“Look at him.” Together we’d stay silent, holding hands behind our bedroom curtain, as Phil stopped at our corner. He was slender and the green jacket, which he’d brought back from the war, hung well below his waist. Then he’d make a left, and continue along Ninety-ninth Street toward the canal.
“Is he sleepwalking?” My wife had developed bouts of insomnia that spring, which resulted in dark stains under her eyes.
“Situational disorder, I think. Let’s go back to bed.” I’d wait until Phil disappeared.
“The problem is that we don’t know whose go with whom.”
My wife had finished emptying the bag. “This isn’t right. This is an early sign of a bigger problem.” She listed symptoms of depression: recluse, lethargic, average grades. A year earlier she’d taken a pop psychology night course at the University of Buffalo.
“Those are generic terms that describe everyone. That doesn’t make you do this.” I wanted to touch the minty green pair. Instead, I looked out the window at our neighbors above ground pool.
“I feel fine,” Evan finally said. “Perfectly normal.”
We both worried about our kids’ health, sometimes even more than our own health. Some of the fumes from the canal smelled deadly, especially during the spring thaw that year with all the extra rain and melting snow. Phil Gruber’s family had discovered black sludge in their vegetable garden. And there was that rumour—one that I never confirmed—about a thin green mist that hovered over manholes when the temperature hit a specific degree. I had never seen the mist—not sure I fully believed it existed—but I’d heard about folks who’d walked through it late at night.
“Why did you go through my stuff?” Evan said.
“I didn’t go through your stuff. It was under your bed.”
“That is my stuff.”
“I was changing your sheets.”
“Enough.” I stopped them and ordered Evan to his room. I could already taste that carpet cleaner-like stench from the canal, which wasn’t even a canal, or a bit of canal, but rather an abandoned landfill that ran under the LaSalle Secondary School playing field and continued all the way up to a handful of bungalows on Colvin Boulevard, like the Gruber’s and a group of veterans who warred in Korea.
Evan left the kitchen, disappeared down the hallway to his bedroom. I counted three piles of underwear. They varied in style and color. I assumed some were for different occasions like date nights, while others might be worn during a summer barbecue, when those things happened on our street.
My wife began placing everything back in the paper bag.
“Let me.” I took a silky piece of fabric from her hand.
Before the underwear and the stench and the dark stains under my wife’s eyes, there was a canal. There’d been a groundbreaking ceremony and plans for a state-of-the-art city with parks and homes and decades of free electricity. Lot 60, where said ceremony had taken place, was sold and sold again and years later young couples, who turned into young parents, purchased affordable homes on top of the canal. They stocked their cupboards with canned soups and vegetables, beef broths for holiday stews, and below the kitchen sinks they stored fondue pots and fondue forks and punch bowls for parties. And on humid evenings, before calling it a night, I’d stroll out to the front lawn, stepping over Evan’s army, and talk to those other parents. Together, we’d complain about President Carter or all that noise from the factories down the Robert Moses Parkway. Then we’d brag about our kids—our sweet and wonderful kids—and all the amazing opportunities they had waiting for them out there in the world.
After my wife had gone to bed, I carried the paper bag to the backyard. I chose a spot near where we’d buried our family cat a few years before. The cross the kids had made was long gone and in its place there was a rock. I began digging. The soil was light and moist. At the time, I didn’t know about any of the stuff that was eventually discovered under our home or the other homes close to the canal. I didn’t know about the premature babies or the stillborn babies or the moms who couldn’t even have babies. Or ever would’ve guessed that after my wife found out she would take the kids and move to her brother’s place on Grand Island. That night, I focused on the task at hand. It felt like the only thing I could do. I picked up the paper bag, removed the pair of underwear with the thin mint stripes, and then dumped everything else into the hole.
Back inside, I washed my hands and went to bed.
“What were you doing out there?” My wife turned over.
“Nothing. Go to sleep.”