Not to Pry
by Cara Miller

Less than a day after her neighbor lost his job with the Fire Department, Loretta traipsed across her yard carrying a plate of homemade raspberry scones. She considered herself the consoling type. Not overly popular, but liked well enough by those who knew her, misunderstood by those who didn’t. She and Jerry were certainly not friends, not since the year before when she caught his two boys displaying her garden gnomes in various sexual positions. She had marched the boys back home and insisted they be punished. Take away their television privileges, she suggested. That was where they got such nonsense. Jerry had chuckled at their harmless prank and then became defensive. He could discipline his own children and would thank her to keep her opinions to herself. He was a hothead that way, easily insulted and very slow to forgive. Loretta hoped to change his attitude today with this small gift and a heartfelt pep talk about how he lost his job for a reason. The sooner he gets back out there, the sooner he’ll find a job that truly suits him.

Unfortunately for Jerry, his misfortune was splashed across the front page of the paper. He’d nearly burned down the fire station when he covered his Hot Pocket with aluminum foil, turned the old, temperamental microwave on to its highest setting, and then was called away with the rest of the squad on an emergency run. There was a picture of Jerry in his uniform, soot smudged on his cheeks, a bewildered look on his face as he looked at the charred metal and melted plastic casing that used to be the microwave. The headline read, “Fire Department Goes up in Smoke: Harmless Mistake or Gross Incompetence?” There was so much damage, officials were debating whether to make repairs or start from scratch.

“I’m sure you’re not the only person something like this has ever happened to,” Loretta said flatly, patting Jerry’s muscular forearm and feeling immensely uncomfortable. “You’ll find another job in no time.”

Jerry grunted and sneered, tapped his forehead in an exaggerated display that made her feel gullible and small. They both knew Loretta was oblivious to the realities of the job market. She’d been living off her ex-husband’s alimony and child support payments for the last fifteen years. In that time, she hadn’t so much as glanced at a job application. She spent her days gardening, watching The Price is Right and Dr. Phil, playing Mah Jong on the computer, and writing articles for the neighborhood newsletter. As self-appointed editor, she felt it her duty to stay informed of neighborhood issues, and this often included the wearisome task of being a listening ear to those who had a story to tell. She preferred to think of it not as prying, but counseling. Consoling.

“Well, thanks for coming over, Ms. Shlotski,” Jerry said, sounding more annoyed than grateful. He stood with his feet planted and arms crossed like a bouncer at a nightclub. “I’m really not up for company today, though.”

There was something else about his appearance that struck Loretta as unusual, though she couldn’t immediately discern what it was. He was wearing a stocking cap on his head — in April — and a loose-fitting sleeveless shirt with the word “Hurricane” stamped across the chest in block letters. He also had on green sweatpants with snaps down the sides so he could tear them off in one quick motion. The image of this flashed quickly in her mind.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” she said, felt her face turn red. “I made something to cheer you up.”

She handed over the plate of scones, lined with a pastel yellow doily. “They’re especially good if you put them in the microwave for about twenty seconds first.” She cringed at her own careless remark, though Jerry didn’t seem to notice. He was looking at the plate as if he’d never seen a scone before. “Anyway, I just wanted to check and see how you are doing. Are you feeling okay?”

“Not really.”

“Right. That’s understandable. Do you want to talk about it? I mean, what happened anyway? How is Marcy handling all this?”

His jaw tightened. “Marcy is fine.”

Though she could see Jerry was getting irritated, Loretta was convinced that he truly wanted to confide in her — deep down. Men were always a little harder to crack. “Oh, I don’t believe Marcy is fine. You’ve got two kids, and she already works a lot of hours at the bank. What did she say when she found out?”

Jerry gave a long, tired sigh as if ready to surrender his secrets. “Well there was one thing she wanted me to be sure and tell you.” He leaned forward, his face inches from hers, the whiskers on his chin so close, she imagined their tickle on her skin. “Butt out.” He shoved the plate back toward her and then slammed the front door in her face, leaving Loretta teetering the plate in her hands.

Once she regained balance, she stood aghast on the front porch. Had she really been dismissed after going through the trouble to make this man scones? She hadn’t felt this mistreated since her husband had announced that he was taking a job transfer to Phoenix, and Loretta and Ellie – age two at the time – wouldn’t be coming with him. “This isn’t about another woman,” he’d said that night at the dinner table, shoveling in mashed potatoes like he knew it would be his last home-cooked meal. “Okay, it isn’t just about another woman.”

Recalling this long-buried memory made Loretta shudder, and she stormed off Jerry’s porch vowing not to do anything nice for that family again. Let someone else water their flowers when they’re on vacation and baby-sit their Xbox-warped kids.

She was nearly to her own front door when she realized what was strange about Jerry’s appearance. It was his eyes. They had been glassy and slightly unfocused. He seemed to have been looking at her eyebrows during their entire conversation. It could have been her imagination. Or a sign of Jerry’s emotional turmoil. More than likely, he was stoned out of his head. She glanced over her shoulder at Jerry’s house. The shades were drawn.

“Whatever,” she said under her breath. “It is none of my business.”

Try as she might to distract herself throughout the next several days, Loretta couldn’t help peaking out her window toward Jerry’s house. It remained dark and lifeless, though Jerry’s white truck was in the driveway. “I don’t care,” Loretta would say, busying herself with vacuuming the drapes and sewing a button onto one of Ellie’s sweaters. But a short while later, she would find herself back at the window to see if anything new was happening with Jerry. She saw when his boys, Caleb and Jeremiah, got off the bus at 3:45 each afternoon and when Marcy came home at 6:30 looking worn out and depressed. Jerry left for a short time one evening and came back with a plastic grocery sack and a case of Corona. Loretta noticed that the front door never seemed to be locked. Each time someone came home, they breezed inside without hesitation.

Meanwhile, Ellie came and went as she prepared for the next item on her busy schedule. She was a senior in high school with an older boyfriend who had his own apartment near IUPUI. Loretta didn’t like that, but felt powerless to stop her from doing anything. Ellie was also on the varsity tennis team and finalizing plans for college. She already had an apartment picked out – close to the boyfriend. “Stay home for dinner tonight, Ellie,” Loretta said one evening, leaning against the doorframe to Ellie’s bedroom. “We haven’t had a night that was just the two of us in a long time.”

Ellie was busy packing makeup from the top of her dresser into her purse, staring back and forth between two shades of lipstick. On the wall behind her, Loretta could just make out the subtle outline of a unicorn. Ellie’s walls were turquoise with large posters of cityscapes. But when Ellie was little, they had been lavender with stickers of doe-eyed unicorns floating regally at her eye level. She had named each one.

Now she looked at her mother with pity and slight irritation. “I can’t tonight, Mom. I’m going to a study group for econ. We have a test on Friday.”

Loretta thought about questioning why Ellie needed makeup to study econ, but kept the comment to herself just to avoid the eye roll that would surely follow. And the attitude. God, Mom, enough with the questions. Just leave me alone. Ellie had a short fuse these days.

“Okay, then,” Loretta said. “Maybe another night.”

Ellie left ten minutes later, sped down the street in the white Grand Prix her dad had bought her. Loretta watched from the window, caught her breath when Ellie rolled through the stop sign at the end of the block. Crossing Highway 34, Ellie emerged directly in front of an SUV. The scene unfolded in slow motion for Loretta, who was poised to grab her cell phone from the counter and sprint down the street. She imagined the deafening crash, broken glass, flashing lights of an ambulance. The stretcher.

So immersed was Loretta in this nightmare, she almost didn’t believe it when the SUV came to a stop and Ellie sped on through the intersection, her taillights disappearing over the next hill.

“Damnit, Ellie,” Loretta whispered, relieved and slightly nauseous. Ever since Ellie had climbed out of her crib and bit through her tongue, Loretta had struggled with the feeling of helplessness that accompanied motherhood. Sometimes, it was more than she could handle.

Loretta continued to watch as the SUV sat idle for a beat and turned left into the edition. Because she knew the make and model of everyone’s vehicle in the neighborhood, Loretta paid close attention to this SUV. She didn’t recognize it. Also, it was driving very slowly, practically coasting past her mailbox. Loretta had a pen and paper stationed on the window ledge for just this type of suspicious activity. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make out the license plate.

The vehicle stopped on the curb in front of Jerry’s house and waited. Loretta couldn’t see anything inside the tinted windows, nor could she detect movement in Jerry’s house. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two until finally she saw Jerry dash across the lawn. He didn’t come through the front door, but seemed to emerge from the shadows beside his house. He opened the back door of the SUV, hopped in. The vehicle took off down the street before Jerry could even close his door.

The whole thing was over in minutes. The neighborhood turned quiet and unmarked as if nothing had happened. In contrast, Loretta felt charged, almost giddy from the unexpected excitement and dizzying emotions. She would wrap her arms around Ellie when she came home, scold her for careless driving. As for Jerry, she’d washed her hands of him, but that didn’t quell the suspicions churning in her gut. This incident meant something, she was certain. And it was no accident she was there to see it. She picked up the pen from the window ledge and wrote “8:45” on the top line of her notepad – a subtle reminder of what time Jerry had left that evening. It wasn’t spying, she reassured herself. Her observations were purely coincidental.

That small notation of time was just the beginning of what Loretta would soon consider mounting evidence against Jerry. Throughout the next couple of days and into the weekend, she stayed near her dining room window so she could keep tabs on him. He stayed inside during the day, refusing to answer the door even for the UPS man.

The only time he opened the front door was when a heavy-set woman wearing a Wok-n-Roll hat drove up on a moped and delivered Chinese food. She handed him the brown paper bag and he dug around inside as if checking to make sure his order was correct. He was wearing the same green break-away pants as the other day. Only this time, he was shirtless, and Loretta could see that he had a large, white bandage covering the upper portion of his chest. It covered his nipple and wound around his ribcage. He also had red mark on the right side of his face, but from her distance, Loretta couldn’t tell if it was a scratch or a bruise. He quickly handed the woman his money and then closed the door. She seemed un-phased by his abruptness and had no qualms about counting the money before she stepped off his porch. She rolled her eyes and then emptied the trash from her pockets onto his front lawn as she headed back toward her moped.

Loretta wrote on her notepad, “Chinese food at 1:23 p.m. Big bandage. Big muscles. Bad tipper.”

Each evening the same SUV came by and picked up Jerry. According to Loretta’s log, he had left at 8:45, 9:17, 9: 13, and 10:15 p.m. respectively. And though she tried to stay awake to determine when and how Jerry arrived home, she always fell asleep, woke up convinced she’d missed something important.

By Sunday, Loretta was exhausted, having spent three consecutive nights at the dining room table. Ellie had left the evening before to sleep over with a “friend,” which gave Loretta the freedom to stay home from church. It was warm and rainy outside, and the possibility of severe weather was high, according to the weather forecaster. Loretta loved storms. She took this as a sign that she should lounge on the couch in her pajamas. And whenever she had the slightest inkling to glance out her window toward Jerry’s house, she bit the inside of her mouth, fought the urge. Spying had become a habit of sorts, a secret indulgence. And, yes, by now she realized it was, in fact, spying. Feeling that her efforts at espionage had been foolish and demented, she told herself repeatedly that the stakeout was over. To hell with Jerry.

Loretta settled deeper into the couch, sipped her tea. The next news feature was a local story. There had been three arson attempts in as many nights to the top government offices in the city – the Health Department, the circuit court, and most recently, the City Building.

The reporter was standing near the rear exit of the City Building where the fire had been set the night before. “Fortunately, no one has been hurt during any of the arson attempts, which have been late at night when offices are closed. Each time, the perpetrator used a large dumpster just outside the buildings to set the fires, obviously hoping that they would spread.” He pointed to a blue, metal dumpster adjacent to a brick wall streaked with black soot. “Fire officials are investigating any and all leads. However, they believe this to be the work of teenagers with no real arson experience. The damage here is very minimal. Also, the perpetrator’s calling card, which has been left at the scene of all three fires, is somewhat juvenile.” He lifted up a wrinkled, slightly singed sheet of paper with the words “Kiss My …” at the top and a clip art picture of a butt crack in the center. The three-letter word at the bottom was blurred. The reporter struggled to keep a straight face as he continued. “If you have any information regarding this investigation, please contact your local police department.”

Loretta cracked a smile, too, tickled by the stupidity of today’s criminal. Dumb kids. Minutes passed. The news moved to another story. But Loretta was stuck on the arson story, sifting through the details until something clicked. She sat up in her seat. The arson attempts coincided perfectly with Jerry’s outings. And he had motive after his public humiliation the week before. Then there were the marks on his face and chest. Could have been burns.

What Loretta soon decided was she needed hard evidence. Something more incriminating than her time sheet and “gut feeling.”

Believing that this was her opportunity to do something truly meaningful, Loretta turned slowly from her position on the couch to look out her dining room window. It was more important than ever that Jerry not know he was being watched. Seeing that the coast was clear, she rolled quickly to the floor and crawled on her hands and knees to the window, stopping halfway to hike up her nightgown. She quickly drew the blinds, peeked out through a tiny opening at the edge of the window.

Jerry’s truck remained in its same spot in the driveway, but Marcy’s blue Lumina was gone – a sign to Loretta that the family had gone to church. Knowing that Jerry and Marcy served as ushers at North Point Church of God – also Loretta’s church – she now looked at the house with the realization that it was probably empty. This was her chance to take a quick peek inside. She recalled her resolution to stay clear of Jerry, realized the lunacy of her plan. Even so, she began to move slowly toward her front door, compelled as if by some cosmic force she found impossible to ignore.

Though it was daylight, she grabbed a flashlight from the cabinet beside the front door along with a stocking hat (because her hair was a mess) and a screwdriver (because it seemed like an obvious necessity). She opened the door and was instantly slapped in the face by a gust of wind that tore the doorknob out of her hand. She hadn’t noticed the storm coming in. Now she saw the dark clouds lingering overhead mixed with an ominous light that made her feel like she was on the set of a movie.

Working against the wind, she leveraged her body weight to pull the door closed and stepped into her front yard just as fat raindrops began to fall. The wind whipped her nightgown around and she grabbed at the light cotton material to keep it from lifting over her waist. At the same time, the gusts prodded her along, pushing her onward despite the budding doubts that beckoned louder with each step toward Jerry’s front door. What if someone saw her? What if someone was home?

Before she could come to a satisfying conclusion, she stepped onto Jerry’s front porch. She paused for a moment to put the screwdriver in the front pocket of her nightgown. If someone did answer the door, she’d act distraught and say that she’d seen a mouse in her kitchen.

Loretta watched the dining room window for any sign of movement and then rang the doorbell. No answer. She rang twice more and then proceeded to knock. When she was convinced there was nobody home, she turned the knob and opened the door just wide enough so she could peek inside. The house was dark except for a little bit of light that filtered through the curtains. There was a faint smell of sausage hanging in the air. Once again, the wind blasted. Loretta fell inside as she clung desperately to the doorknob. She scrambled to regain her footing, but tripped on the welcome mat in the entryway and crashed into a small glass table standing against an adjacent wall. The table shattered against the tile floor along with a large bowl of aqua-colored pebbles.

Loretta ended up on her right hip with pieces of glass carved into her hands. The sound of hundreds of pebbles scattering across the floor seemed endless and horrifying. The only thing she could think to do at that moment was run. Run home and hide. Or maybe leave the house and say she’d been gone all along. But she couldn’t go out the front and risk being seen. Quickly, she got up and pushed the door closed. Her only option was to leave through the backdoor of the house, hop the gate into her own backyard.

From where she stood, Loretta could see the entryway into the kitchen. She’d been in the house enough times to know that the sliding patio door was just past the breakfast table on the other side of the wall. She started in that direction, then hesitated. Remembering the pebbles that waited silently on the floor like tiny landmines, she turned, switched on the light, gasped when she saw the terrible mistake she’d made. Two bloody handprints marked the front door like neon flares. The very sight made the sting in her hands throb, and she looked down to see blood trickling from the fresh cuts, staining the sleeves of her green pajamas and dripping to the floor. She grabbed hold of the waist of her nightgown, hoping it would absorb the blood and then darted toward the kitchen, stepping carefully. When she got to the patio door, she found that it, too, was unlocked, and she used her shoulder to slide it open and shut it behind her. Stooping low to the ground, she sprinted out of Jerry’s backyard in the heavy rain and somersaulted over her own fence. Up the stairs to her backdoor, she had just made it inside when she heard the unmistakable ring of a siren coming closer.

Two police cars tore into Jerry’s front yard. Loretta watched from her window as three officers ran, guns drawn, toward the front door and disappeared inside. How did they know? Had she been spotted? Feeling that she had only minutes before they’d be knocking down her door, Loretta ran upstairs, showered, cleaned her hands, stuffed her bloody nightgown under her mattress. She made it back to the dining room window just in time to see police escorting Jerry out of his house in handcuffs. He was wearing a blue polo shirt with khaki dress pants, walked with his head bowed to hide his face.

“Oh, no,” Loretta whispered as panic began to squeeze her chest. She could only assume there had been a terrible misunderstanding, and that she was to blame. “Wait,” she said running out the door. Her bare feet squished in the grass as she ran across her yard toward the police car where Jerry was about to be loaded. The rain and wind had completely stopped, leaving a chill in the air and an eerie silence. “Wait!” she yelled again. “It’s my fault. I was the one who broke the glass table. I had seen a rat in my kitchen, and I came over to see if Jerry could help me kill it. His front door flew open and I fell into the table and sliced my hands.” Once she’d opened her mouth, she couldn’t stop talking. Rambling. She held out her palms, shaking. All three officers and Jerry stared blankly. “So, you see, it’s my blood that’s all over the house. It was such a silly accident, and I was going to come over and explain everything just as soon as I got myself cleaned up. I completely intend to pay for the damages.”

Jerry rolled his eyes and put himself in the back of the squad car as one of the officers stepped toward Loretta. “You’ll have to work all that out with the family later, I guess. We are arresting Mr. Gruck on unrelated charges.”

“What charges?” Loretta couldn’t help but ask, fully expecting him to guard the information as police business.

Instead, he lowered his head and whispered, “Arson. It must have been you who triggered Mr. Gruck’s security system earlier – when you opened the door. They called his cell phone first. He didn’t answer. They called our station next. We came in response to a suspected break in, but once inside, we found evidence against him that we couldn’t ignore.”

Loretta took one more step forward, inches from the officer’s face. “What was it?”

“I probably shouldn’t say,” he said, peeking behind him to see what the other officers were doing. One was talking into his radio; the other was writing on a clipboard. He turned back to Loretta with a slight grin. “The calling card from the fires.”

Loretta envisioned the flyer she had seen on the news. “You mean…” She struggled to find the words.

The officer nodded slowly. “Dumb son of a bitch left three copies sitting on his printer.” He chuckled discretely and then turned serious. “I’m sure we’ll be in touch soon with further questions.” He said this louder so his colleagues could hear. He gave her a wink, then he turned and got in the passenger side of the squad car. Jerry sat in the back staring at Loretta with contempt.

She watched as the police cars backed out of Jerry’s lawn and drove away. She could see as Jerry lay his head back against the headrest in the back of the car, probably cursing himself. “Dumb son of a bitch,” Loretta repeated before heading back inside.