A short story about lives profoundly touched by tragedy, one that brings to light the potentiality of a domino effect of misfortune…
by: Lennon K. Riley
For years, everyone talked about what happened to Sally. I heard plenty during that time period, some of which was true and some lies. But I heard it first at home, when I was six, eavesdropping on Ma and our neighbor, Mrs. Shatterly.
I grew up in Queens in the ’60s, which was “the best time to be alive” if you asked my Aunt Muriel. You’d get a mouthful a’ teeth and a few spittle droplets with that comment, too.
In 1964, my little brotha was born and Ma became weird about too many people comin’ over to see him, not that that stopped anybody. My Uncle Kenny would do his double-shrug, with a nod to each shoulder, and say “If ya wanna see the kid, you gotta go through the big brotha.” Then he’d hand me a butterscotch candy from his pocket and swagger right in. No other such payments were made from other relatives or neighbors and, still, our apartment was packed with baby onlookers.
Our front door was revolving, with people always waltzing through to see the baby or play poker with Pop or gossip with Ma. I was the tag-along in my family’s full social life.
Uncle Kenny had a lotta smart things to say. “There’s a lotta holes in the ground, kid,” he’d tell me. “And a lotta problems are buried in those holes.” He’d give me a toothy side-grin and one of his winks before poppin’ a hefty cigar into the corner of his mouth.
It began to rub off on me. Once, I’d heard him shout, “I don’t give any motherfucka a kick-up!” He turned to me. “Charlie, what you earn is god damned yours, and you do what you gotta do to keep it.”
I didn’t know what any of it meant, but Ma gave me a mean bop! on the cheek when she heard me repeat it to my friend Bobby down the street.
One day, Ma got a visit from Bobby’s mom, Mrs. Shatterly, a few days after I said what I said that earned me the bop! I hid carefully in the hall and listened in, sure that Ma would tell her about what I’d said.
“Did you hear about what happened to Sally?” Mrs. Shatterly asked.
Ma took a quick drag from her cigarette. “The neighbor?” She touched her non-smoking hand to her fair hair. “Dark-haired girl?”
Mrs. Shatterly nodded, her eyes lit up with the new gossip. There wasn’t anything Delores Shatterly didn’t know about our neighborhood and its residents. New salon being built on 23rd? She’d brag she already pre-booked an appointment. That young couple that moved into 3G? She’ll tell you they already had coffee together, and that he’s a plumber and she’s a student. Did you know Ms. Whitling put in a new ‘frigeratah? Mrs. Shatterly did.
“It’s just awful, really,” said Mrs. Shatterly, though her tone didn’t make it sound awful. “Taken, right out there on the street in front of our building.”
Ma gasped. “That close? My god! It could have been Charlie or Bobby.” Our street was narrow and lined with complexes mere feet from each other.
“Just awful,” Mrs. Shatterly cooed delightfully.
“Did anyone see who took her?” Ma twirled a blond curl. She was entranced.
“Not a soul. The police went to every door in our building and asked.” I bet Mrs. Shatterly loved that. “I, of course, told them all I could to help.”
“But you said you didn’t see anything,” Ma pointed out.
“But I knew her,” defended Mrs. Shatterly. “Poor girl. I spoke to her mother, said she only went out to ride her bike and would be back in for dinner.”
“What happened to the bike?”
Mrs. Shatterly shrugged. “Police took it, I guess. It’s evidence now.
I’d never heard the word “evidence” before. I didn’t like the sound of it.
Ma took another drag from her cigarette before stubbing it out in the dirty ashtray. “Do the police have any idea who took her?”
“They’re looking into it, but I think it was that man that was always hanging around.”
“Creepy young man, mid-twenties, never shaved,” Mrs. Shatterly’s distaste for the man oozed in her tone. “The one that wanders down the street and stops and stares at the kids, sometimes for more than an hour or two, while they play.”
Ma shuddered. “No one said anything to him?”
“You know how it is, Ella, our neighbors don’t want to make a fuss. Wouldn’t be right to make the young man uncomfortable for just walking down the street.”
“Is that all he did?”
Mrs. Shatterly shrugged. “All we know he did so far. He was just around too much, always watching little Sally.”
A weird quiet fell over the room and carried its way into the hall where I stood. I wiggled a quick shiver out.
The front door flew open and pop came in, carrying a small grocery bag from the corner store.
“Hi ladies,” he said, giving Mrs. Shatterly a wink and Ma a peck on the cheek. “What’s it doin’?”
“Dolores was telling me what happened to Sally from down the street.”
Pop straightened up and froze still. I felt another shiver beg to come out.
“What happened was terrible, but I won’t have gossip about it in my home, you hear?”
Mrs. Shatterly stood and grabbed her bag from the chair. “It’s been wonderful visiting you, Ella.”
She gave Pop a nod as she walked toward the door. “You too, John.”
She waved a gloved hand to Ma and stepped out.
“It was harmless gossip, Jack,” said Ma, calling Pop the name only she called him. Not even Uncle Kenny called him Jack.
“Gossip is never harmless,” he replied. “But that family deserves far better than their neighbors practicing gossip from their tragedy.”
He sat next to Ma, taking Mrs. Shatterly’s seat. “It could have been Charlie.”
Ma put an arm around Pop and kissed the side of his head. “I know. He plays out there all the time.”
“I told Kenny and his boys to watch out for him from now on.”
Ma pulled away from Pop and gave him the stern look she usually reserved for me when I did something bad. “You didn’t. John, I don’t want those types hanging around our home or our son.”
I wasn’t sure what “those types” were. Ma loved Uncle Kenny, I knew that. And what could be so bad about his friends?
Pop closed his eyes and pinched his nose, a gesture he made that meant he was “at the end of his rope.”
“What do you want me to do, Ella? We can’t let anything like that happen to our boys. That girl was taken right out front. Her parents were just inside.”
“I could start smoking on the front steps.”
Pop nodded. “That’s a start, but we can’t watch him twenty-four seven on our own. And this isn’t just about our kids. The whole neighborhood is crawling with children.”
“Owing the mob a favor is no way to solve the problem.”
He gave her a look that said this would be the final word on the discussion. “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t.”
He stood up, the crinkling of the plastic bag swinging on his arm getting louder as he was coming to the hall where I was eavesdroppin’. I quickly ran back to my bedroom.
It would be a couple years before I learned more details about what had happened to Sally, but that day I was left wondering why it happened. Why Sally? Why our neighborhood? And why did Pop want what Ma called “the mob” watching us?
The conversions I overheard were too bizarre for my six year old mind to understand. Until then, my block had been safe and everyone was welcome. I didn’t understand how that could change after one day, or why.
Things weren’t the same in our neighborhood after that. My little brotha, and the three that came after him, never had the freedom of childhood the way I had before what happened to Sally. We never played with our friends without Ma watching from the steps, we all had curfews when we got older, and Ma called the house of every friend we visited ten minutes after we left to make sure we got there. She was a neurotic mess until I came of age.
Not that I could blame her. Our lives were touched by tragedy more than once after what happened to Sally. Several months after her disappearance, the police found her body in a field by the old mill. Then, a year after that, Uncle Kenny passed away. Pop wouldn’t tell me how explicitly, just that “he got the pink slip” from his boss. Soon after his funeral, Mrs. Shatterly had a heart attack and our neighborhood lost her too.
It seemed like Sally’s death settled a curse over our street. But I wasn’t mad at her. I figured she was just trying to tell us something. I never found out what, though I listened hard. It was a tough lesson to learn, growing up, that the monster who silenced Sally was stronger than a boy who, for years, just wanted to hear her.
Lennon K. Riley is a fiction writer, blogger, and essayist who gives advice to young adult women on relationships, career, and content writing. She currently live in Portland and hold a BFA in English Literature from Portland State University. Read more of her work at No Sleep For The Written.