Through her front room window she watches the hot mess in front of the Krentcil place next door. Must be a couple of dozen of them sweating in the thick of August, scuttling over the sidewalk, tramping across the grass, cameras on their shoulders, fistfuls of scandal. Two news vans are parked at the curb, back-to-back, hatches open. In between them, reporters fidget. Hot enough to melt road tar, but they’ll wait.
Even worse a few weeks back. When Pat Krentcil first got arrested, you couldn’t park on your own street. Pundits posed questions: What kind of monster throws her 5-year-old in a tanning bed? What kind of woman pays to look like an overcooked roast?
After a while it died down over there. Until this morning’s headline: Tanked Tan-Mom Turfed from Bar by Drag Queens. Complete with link to video.
Her gaze settles back on a feral-faced man pacing the sidewalk a few feet off from the pack. He’s smoking, quick flicks, fast drags, eyes jerking here and there. There’s a camera slung over his shoulder. He yanks up his t-shirt and wipes sweat from his face.
She stares at the flat of his stomach. She moves closer to the window. A slash of pale rippled flesh sits just above his belt. Like a burn mark. As though someone seared him with a hot poker. Or a curling iron.
She takes a breath and smooths her blouse, presses the soft belly protruding at the front of her skirt. Her gaze burrows in, she imagines tapping him on the shoulder.
The man glances at his cigarette, flicks ash and then looks up at the Krentcil house. He looks to the house on the right, and the one on the left, until his eyes finally lock on the neighbor-woman standing in the window, painted up like it’s midnight, lips loud as a siren.
She fingers the short strand of pearls at her neck, concentrates on holding his gaze. He cocks his head, drops his cigarette and grinds it with his heel. When she doesn’t look away, he tosses her an easy smile. Her lips tilt up and she turns from the window.
Facing the living room now, her chest bangs, heart echoing off her ribs. She can’t move for fear of cutting a jagged hole in the moment.
When her door bell rings it gives her a jolt, but she holds her ground. She picks her cup off the coffee table, sips, and sets it down before she grabs her purse. She slides a deeper shade of red across her mouth.
The door bell rings again, followed by a knuckle-rap.
She shuts her purse and touches the breast pocket of her blouse, feels for the key.
“Who is it?” she calls, walking to the front hall.
“Hi, my name’s Jack Coady. I’m covering the story out here. Can I talk to you a minute?”
She puts an eye to the peephole, sees him looking back. “Is this about Pat Krentcil? Cuz, I can’t comment.” She turns and sets her back against the door.
“Actually, it’s a lot more urgent than that. Little embarrassing… Could I use your bathroom?”
“Don’t you guys have porta-potties or something?”
There is a light thump as he drops his forehead against her door. “If you’re with AP or FOX maybe. I’m just a stringer. Those bastards aren’t going to let me under their velvet ropes.”
She fingers the key’s toothy edges and looks through the peephole again. She can just see the worn seam of his t-shirt, the threads coming loose as she slides the key into the lock.
When the door opens, feverish air shoves through and mugs her skin.
He wipes his palm on his pants and sticks out his hand. “Jack Coady.” A game smile splits his face.
She shakes and looks past him to where the rest of them chatter on the sidewalk and spill onto the road. “My husband’s name. John. Jack to his friends.”
“Oh yeah?” His eyes run down the length of her, pausing here and there. “Not many Jacks around anymore.”
“Nope. Not anymore.”
“So, ah…Okay if I—”
She opens the door wider. “All right. Down there, second door on your left.”
“Thanks. I didn’t catch your name?”
He walks down the hall and she watches until he disappears into the bathroom. She shoves the front door closed with her hip, turns the key in the lock and drops it back into her breast pocket.
In the living room she glances at the photo album on the couch, her cup on the coffee table.
Soon the toilet flushes and tap water runs. The hinges on the bathroom door squeak. “Man, it’s hot out there.” Jack is standing next to her.
She glances out the window at the small mob. “Look at these idiots. No offense. But seriously, all this over a tanning bed?”
“It’s the kid. And cuz the mother looks like a fried catcher’s mitt in a skirt. How well do you know her?”
He follows Molly’s gaze to the New York Post van across the road. “I used to write for the Post. Most of us gotta freelance these days. You either find a story or start hawking umbrellas and prayin’ for rain.”
“They say the papers are going down the toilet.”
“Naw. There’s always gotta be news.” He looks around the room. “So, you and Pat Krentcil hang out much? Look at those nails a’yours. I bet you girls get your nails done every week together.”
Molly smooths her skirt and takes a seat on the sofa. “Think you’re pretty smart, don’tcha?”
“I’m observational. You gotta be in my line a’work.” He nods at the couch, thread tufting off the upholstery like bits of Brillo. “You got a cat, huh?”
“Used to.” She picks up her coffee cup.
“Mind if I sit?” As he does, his nose comes close enough to get a whiff from her cup. “Hey, you getting your party on? Why not, it’s five o’clock somewheres, right? I could go for a shot myself.” He sets his camera on the table.
“Go ‘head, bottle’s over there.”
He glances at the dining table where a half bottle of whiskey sits open. He licks his bottom lip a moment. “So Molly, what happened to your pussycat?”
She picks up the photo album, sets it in her lap. “Why you figure he stays with her? He never says nothing bad—not thing-one.”
“Who, Krentcil? Yeah. The Long Suffering Husband.” Jack grins. “Shoulda heard her screaming at him this morning. ‘Shut up! Don’t open the fucking door. I’m not going out there. I’m done!’”
“He feels bad for her, maybe.”
“Feeling bad for the other person—I mean really feeling bad for them—it kinda keeps people together. Don’t you think?”
“Some people don’t deserve it.”
She opens the photo album and looks at the child on the first page. “I think he wants to take care a’her.”
“That your kid?” When she doesn’t answer, he says, “She’d be around the same age as the Krentcil kid, right? Or one of ‘em. Your kids play together?”
She turns to another picture. This time the child is sitting on a man’s lap. Molly slides her a finger nail across the clear sleeve that covers the photo. “All kindsa stuff can happen out there. When you least expect it.”
“Got that right.” He takes a breath, bounces one knee and looks at a glass sitting on the coffee table. “Ah, what the hell.” He gets off the couch, heads to the dining table and returns with the whiskey. Back on the couch, he picks up the glass, holds it to the light and wipes lipstick off the rim with his t-shirt.
Molly glances at his bare stomach, the long pale scar.
He lets his shirt drop. “Ladies first.” He tilts the bottle into her cup and places it in her hand before pouring into his glass. “Like my uncle used to say, May the best of our past be the worse of our future.” He takes a good swallow.
Molly winces and looks at the picture again. “Tina used to sleepwalk.” Slipping fingers into her blouse pocket, she takes the key out. “We had to lock the doors from the inside.”
“No kiddin’. I got a cousin called Tina. She around? Maybe I could talk to her.”
“She’s with my husband.”
“When you figure they’ll be back?”
Molly takes a slow drink and then sets her cup down. She turns to Jack. “If something horrible happened to your wife, you’d go to her, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d be the last guy she’d wanna hear from. She doesn’t speak to me.”
Molly stares at him.
“Sure, theoretically speaking. You talking about Krentcil again?”
She turns and puts a hand to his jaw.
He looks at her, surprised.
Tears well in her eyes. She leans in, and brings her mouth close to Jack’s face, lets her breath find his lips.
“I gotta be honest with you, Molly. I wouldn’t mind.” He sets his drink down. “But I don’t want some guy bustin’ in. Know what I’m saying?”
“He’s gone.” She picks up his hand and lays it on her breast. “That’s my point.”
Jack looks from her eyes to the breast under his hand.
“Men want to feel needed,” she says and presses his hand solidly against her breast.
Molly traces a fingernail across his chin, opens her mouth to his.
He kisses her and his hand takes hold of her breast. “Hello, Molly.”
Jack digs his tongue into her mouth and tugs at the buttons on her blouse.
Outside, the sudden shock of breaking glass is followed by screeching. “I told you cocksuckers to get the fuck off my property!”
Jack jerks upright.
“No,” Molly says. “Just me. Just this.”
Another crash outside. Voices cursing, bellowing.
Jack jumps off the couch and rushes to the window. “Sonuvabitch.” He lunges for his camera, shoots a few frames through the window and then hustles to the front hall.
He twists the locks and yanks at the door. “How do you get this open.” He sets his camera on the hall table and tries again.
Molly stands up. “Why are you doing this?”
“Jesus Christ!” He kicks the door. He comes back into the living room. “Gimme the key.”
Molly turns to the window and sees Rich Krentcil struggling with his wife and a baseball bat, bear-hugging, pinning her arms to her sides.
Molly hugs herself.
Jack yanks her around to face him. “You going to give me that key?”
“What about me?”
He grips her wrists, prying her arms apart. Molly ducks her head and bites his hand.
Jack shoves her hard toward the couch. Molly trips and falls backward over the armrest.
He kicks the coffee table to the side, then drops on top of her, pins her and wrestles with the blouse. The pocket rips as he pulls the key free
Up off the couch, Jack backs away. “Lucky I don’t break your jaw. What the fuck!”
Once the front door is open he takes a last look at her, throws the key on the floor, and bolts out.
As Jack goes down the front steps, Molly scrabbles after him. On her porch, she limps in one high heel to the top step. Lipstick is smeared across her teeth and down her chin. Her blouse is open and torn, one breast coming out of her brassiere. She opens her lungs and shrieks, “Left your camera, Jacky-boy.”
Jack checks himself, grabs at his shoulder in disbelief. His face contorts. “Molly! Molly, don’t.” Red grease is smeared wide on his mouth. As if he’s been punched in the face. As if he’s the Joker.
From the curb, the crowd watches as Jack rushes back toward the woman’s steps only to see his camera hurled to the pavement at his feet
A low whistle from one of the journalists.
Patricia Krentcil lets her baseball bat drop as she stares at her neighbor. The whir of rapid shutters capture them all.