You could take stuff if you had a car waiting. Late at night, the families were asleep. No one knew you were in there, would even dream it. Quiet town in summer, unlocked front doors, open windows, garage bays like yawns. I never took though; I was always more of an observer type.
I slipped in through the window on the way to my mom's. The layout was like all the others. Every place was the same thing: a colonial, two rooms deep on the first floor: dining room to kitchen, living room to office, office to porch. I could feel everyone sleeping, up there. Maybe seven years since the summer after I graduated high school, the last time I was doing this, here in this town, and that still, that calm sounded exactly the same. Photos and notes about phone calls covered the fridge. "Excellents" ran down the list on a report card, except for one "Satisfactory" in Spelling. Still, though, pretty good. The first-grader probably had the first bedroom on the left. One of the photos showed this family on a beach, but all wearing jackets. Mom, Dad, pink-haired girl, beaming bowl-cut boy, who I could’ve been. They maybe asked some guy there to take the photo. I get asked to do that a lot. Somebody once told me I have kind eyes, which I took to mean I look too naive to know how to steal, how to hurt someone. Maybe that's why I never felt guilty for looking in places I probably shouldn't.
A list of chores on a kid's chalkboard showed Robby hadn't emptied the dishwasher. I pulled down the door, slid out the rack, and grabbed a white mug with a sketch of a blue whale. Before I opened it, I knew which cabinet the mug belonged to. They always said no one got broken into in my hometown. Me, I never broke in. Everywhere was wide open.
A game I used to play was to see how close to the sleeping kids I could get before getting too scared and booking it. To check if I could do better now, I climbed the carpeted stairs. On the landing, two doors faced me, but, just to see, I rounded the banister, and made for the master bedroom. I pressed my ear to the door and heard snoring. A dead sleep. The mistake some people make when sneaking in or out is to open the door too slowly, trying to will the hinges into silence. But to kill the creaking, you throw the thing open in one quick sweep.
Real late at night, houses never get fully dark. Even with drawn shades and a dull moon and low clouds, somehow a little light spread out, and my eyes adjusted. The mother and father faced each other in their sleep, not touching, but like fetal position and facing each other. Sometimes you could see a thigh, a breast. I could have done anything to them, unconscious below me, right then. I could've stolen the wallet off the dresser, jumped into bed, freaked them out. It's something to realize what you can get away with, that you have the tools to hurt, to hit, to scream, if not the will or want to. But, like I said, I was a watcher. I just looked at them: a mother and father sound asleep together. Just to see, I reached out and tapped the mother's wrist.
Before closing the front door, I leaned in, and shouted, "Hey! Lock up!" Then, I booked. I shot a glance back to see a light on upstairs. It would be denied down to a dream. Nightmare. No one would notice the blue whale mug. Even if one of them did, Robby would take credit and begin an okay relationship with small lies.
It was after midnight, and my mother would be comatose, no matter when I showed: witching hour, lunch, dawn – she was on her way out, I heard -- so I went to a friend's. He worked at the town's restaurant in winter, the golf course in summer. One of those guys with a lot of potential in high school and just like couldn't hack it after. A guy like that, you hope he'd forget how awesome he once was, or that at least a girl would someday smile at his back while he told a story. But Carl thought I was magic for taking off. I was good for going away.
When I got there, Carl cracked two beers, hugged me, and I told him about the house and family.
"Do you still do that shit? You shouldn't do that," he said.
"I haven't in years."
"Still, though. You're like a peeping Tom. Your eyes aren't for some things."
I watched a car light sail across Carl’s living room ceiling. Slow.
"You see your mother?"
"See her. You'll be sorry you didn't."
"I'll see her," I said.
Visuals flare up, die down. Images demand you look, then you get fooled. You got to be ready to look, to be nice to whatever you see, but then you give up because there's too much. You check out a girl getting dressed with her hair up in a towel and think of comforting morning rituals. You watch a balloon float up and hope the kid's not too sad. You spot a romance book in a stranger's kitchen trashcan and hope no one needed it. But you got to ration. Some things can empty the well. You got to look away.
I got sick of looking at Carl, living his little life in his little place, and found a house with a glowing window. I knew the house, the family, on my street. They had older kids, but I guess they sold it because these were young boys, hanging out in the lit-up room. I started a cigarette, watching them do the same, pass it around, and bend their heads to the open window. Then the light cut out. I figured they heard footsteps in the hall, but a minute later they cracked the front door too slowly. One of them, maybe the one who lived there now, spotted me. They formed a tight wall, staring me down. I stepped onto the black-green grass.
"Hey, guys," I said, and I looked at all of them at once. When they didn't respond, I figured I was scaring the shit out of them: I would be the mystery man, the outsider, who snuck into this town and terrorized young boys. I pictured it on the news, on the firsts, so I added, "I used to live up the street. the Nelsons, you know?"
"Where?" said the one who I guessed lived there.
"Twenty-four. Cardinals on the mailbox." And they calmed down, or the weed mellowed them. There was no bad man here, no thought of it for long.
"You want to see something?" one wearing a backwards hat asked. And the group headed around the house, into the woods there. I followed a safe I'm-not-going-to-kill-you distance behind. They unearthed a cache of sparklers, firecrackers, bottle rockets, roman candles. Each grabbed a weapon of choice and spread out on the lawn.
"Won't that wake your parents?" I asked, glancing at the black panes.
"Maybe." said two of them.
The first bottle rocket went up, cleared the tops of the trees, and became just a whistle for a moment. Before the little rocket exploded, I scanned the stars, thinking nice thoughts about fate and meaning-making, that long ago some big thing decided I should stay away from here. I thought about my dad, my inability to help my mother after that. Maybe it was better for her, without me. Maybe our then two member family didn’t need me, that I wasn’t useful. Then, after a joyous POP, my eyes swallowed the weak purple beauty-burst of childhood pranks that littered the black sky and erased the stars.
"It's the fear of getting caught, isn't it?" I said while they shot off roman candles. Roman candles don't make much noise, though. They sound like Godspits. I thought I heard police sirens, way off, in my head.
"Jake got caught last week," said backwards hat.
"Fuck off." Presumably, it was Jake who said this.
"Jerking off in the basement."
"You'll all get caught," I said.
"Not me," said backwards hat. "I do it in the shower."
"Even there," I said. "You get seen. It won't matter though, if the person’s like me."
"What's that mean?"
"I'm good. Decent. I know what to look at, maybe, or look for, so no one hides."
They burned the sparklers and ashed the droplets of hot light on their forearms while backing away.
I headed off, but turned back to see lights go on, then off at Jake's. I thought about waiting a little, going back to watch the sleepover: a childhood memory I couldn't possibly remember because my eyes were shut the whole time.
She had locked the door, so I slipped in through the porch window. Even though he died right after I finished high school, papers covered his desk, and plaques still hung on the office walls to remind anyone who entered that my father once had a life.
A woman slept in the living room. Folded shirts lay next to her, along with needles and prescription bottles on the coffee table. I felt like I was in someone else's house again, the fear of her waking up, seeing me, and calling the cops. The framed pictures I didn't recognize at first. I grabbed one. All of us, before Dad died, after I graduated grade school or something meaningless. My father in there. Now it was Mom's turn. I told the Hospice lady I'd just be a minute, but she didn't stir.
I lay on my old bed, pulled back the curtain, and stared out to the neighbor's house through the trees there. I felt like I had snuck back after being in so many people's homes, after looking at trophies in dens, china in glass displays, souvenir magnets of zoos on fridges, calendars with tiny birthday cakes on birthday days, like when I was young. I had done it, got back in my bed without getting caught. I was here with my mom, after looking in the places I shouldn't have. But I still wanted something more.
I threw open the door to the master bedroom with one sweep, which my mother did not hear, or she was too almost-dead to notice. She lay on her side of the bed with more than half the queen-size empty. A stuffed teddy bear with angel wings sat where Dad wasn't. Did she hug that, in the night, and believe for a moment someone was with her? My mother was always pale, but now she looked so white she was see-through, made of light. She breathed thin scratches. I could have done anything right then.
I wanted to crawl in and make up a bad dream to tell her about. It seemed foolish and pathetic, and she didn't need to think her son was insane right before she checked out.
"Hey," I said. "Hey, you there?"
She just kept breathing, kept living a bit longer. I climbed in, tossed the angel bear. "Hey, Mom," I said, and I watched her dying eyes flail under her dying white eyelids. I saw her. Slowly, I reached out and touched her eyelid. Then I jumped out and swiped the house key off the dresser in one quick silent scoop.
I went out the way I came in. Around the front, I stabbed the key in the door lock, opened up the place, and took off.
Sometimes, I like to remember that after I split, I spun around to see a light on upstairs, that I watched as my mother forgave me with some beautiful gesture, and that I nodded knowingly. But I don't think anyone would believe that. My mother died a few hours later. I spent the night far away. First in a neighbor’s foyer. Then somebody’s bedroom. Then a kitchen. One onto another. I flipped through piles of photos. I watched parents dream. I drew birthday cakes on calendars. It wasn't that good though. Before I left town, I saw Carl again and told him to find a sweet girl and to get too busy to remember missed opportunities. Taking off, on the bus, I watched out the back as my old town's green street signs grayed, the grass yellowed, the black tar went white, the blue colonials dripped sick green, the lid of a trashcan blew off and rolled to the edge of the world, the fading pink skies began to erase telephone poles and brick chimneys from their tops down, and the red, already-vanishing everything else back there dissolved away. But I knew that would happen. Kind eyes get used up.