256 Maple Lane is the thirty-seventh house on my list, and I swear, less than fifteen minutes ago, I didn’t think I was going to make it here. This neighborhood makes me feel like a Frankenstein doll mis-shelved in the Barbie dream world section. And although I know the phrase mental anguish isn’t necessarily a good enough reason to quit the terrible job you’ve just started, I’m beginning to think the entire human race is vapid and insensitive. So much so that I want to scream, “Come on people, it’s the census, you know what to do!” But, I’m going to give it one more chance.
Up close, 256 Maple Lane is your typical colonial with a navy blue door and navy blue shutters, sitting on a lawn that could easily be the size of a golf course. The box-shaped hedges and white rose bushes that line the front exterior of the house are perfectly manicured. And chirping birds can be heard from high up in the trees, like a Disney soundtrack for the whole neighborhood. Couldn’t be more different than my home growing up in Pittsburgh, designed by a mother who had given up on life, or at least the possibility of beauty in it.
I place my canvas bag down by the hedges and look for a shady place to warm-up my vocal chords. I’m constantly trying to find the connective tissue between what I do for money and my acting career, the sum total of which has been my very supportive role in a lousy Off-Off-Off Broadway play in Queens. With the toe of my right shoe, I push off my left one. Then my right. The moist sprigs of grass tickle the soles of my feet. Spreading my toes out, I try to snuggle them into the ground. Cold at first, but it feels good eventually. I roll my head in slow circles, careful not to over-extend my neck. With my knees shoulder-width apart and my head slumped over my body, I inhale deep, diaphragmatic breaths. If you’re not an actor, it’s a shocking public display.
“May I help you?” a boy yells from the stairs. He looks like he’s about twelve, with little man boobs and a pot belly. His smile feels like being punched in the face; his braces have bright green rubber bands connected by strings of spit.
“Oh shit,” I say, because he scares me.
“Are you homeless?” he asks, skipping down the stairs towards me. “There aren’t a lot of homeless people in New Jersey.”
“Umm, these are Michael Kors,” I say, pointing to my pants, and I add, “Is this what homeless people wear?”
“My mom has a Micheal Kors purse,” he says, and then adds, “I used to chew on the leather handle when I was little.”
“Okay. Well, I’m from the census. See? Here’s my button.” I finger my “Hi, I’m Clara. I want to take your census” button and continue, “Is your family around?” According to census-taker rules, I’m only allowed to interview household members who are at least fifteen years old.
“You’re not fifteen are you?”
A black Mercedes speeds past, blaring rap music so loud it crackles and booms at the leafy branches. The car turns the corner, and a dog howls after it. A few streets over, a shrill, car alarm sounds.
“No, I’m twelve and one quarter,” the boy says. He pushes two fingers to his forehead and salutes like he’s in the military, which is odd, but I’ve seen weirder. Spend a week in a theatre department anywhere and you see some bizarre shit.
I look around for my bag and my shoes. “Do you think you might be able to answer a couple of questions anyway?”
His smile unfolds slowly and he nods his head up and down, hopping on one leg. I want to pat his head, tell him to take it down a notch. Sometimes weird kids need special attention. When I was in middle school, I ate lunch with the chain-smoking school nurse. I still associate lunch with three, non-filtered, smooth Camel 100s.
“Probably,” he says. He kicks an anthill. His shoes are untied. We both watch the ants scatter. I want to tell him to tie his shoes because it’s dangerous to run around like that, but I don’t.
Orange and brown leaves make a tinkling sound as the wind shakes them. A crisp, red leaf lands on my head, and I interpret it as an encouraging sign to follow through with the interview. I dust off my Michael Kors pants and smooth my hair with my fingers. Some people tell me I look like a modern-day Lucille Ball, but with beady black eyes. Grabbing my bag, a brown nut-shaped-thing falls on my right foot and I think that must mean I shouldn’t do the interview.
“No, no. Wait. That’s not right. Give me a second,” I say, stretching my arms above my head because I don’t know what to do with them, and I want him to know I’m a professional. My last temp job didn’t turn out so well. I dressed up as a foamy slice of pepperoni pizza for The Pizza Pantry for nine hours and got walking pneumonia. I breathe in and try again. “It’s just that I’m supposed to come to the front door and say the census monologue there.”
“I could pretend like I didn’t see you, hide behind the door, and then you could knock on it. We could start the whole thing over.” He holds out his left hand. “I’m Franklin, but most people just say ‘Hey, Frank’ when they see me.” He chuckles, but something about the way he says ‘see me’ makes me think that there are slinky, greyhound–like boys with thin moustaches heaving him into garbage cans at school. He plants himself next to the anthill, which seems unwise, but I don’t say anything.
I sidestep the ruins of the anthill and grab the blank census questionnaire from the bag I left sitting on the ground, full of dozens of families’ lives abridged and summarized for government inventory. I notice the wet from the grass has seeped through the thin canvas to some of the completed forms.
“Crap,” I say, shaking the papers in the air. I want to give up because it’s only my first day and I’ve already managed to screw up, but I can’t afford to get fired. I slide my shoes back on with intention.
“Maybe you could blow dry them? My mom has a blow dryer.” He rests his red cheeks on his hands. His fingernails have little brown lines of dirt underneath them. I imagine the woman from the census office telling me that census takers are not supposed to go inside a client’s house under any circumstances, but I decide to anyway.
I grab the wet-stained bag and climb the steps behind Frank. He skips every other stair and talks nonstop even though his back is to me. He pushes the door open, and waits for me to follow him inside.
“Mom works for a bank, and she works until about six, sometimes. I take the bus home. It’s not a long walk. About three blocks. I’m not supposed to watch a lot of T.V. My dad’s not here because he lives in Miami with his young bride,” he says. This is probably something his mom says a lot, and that’s why he feels compelled to cough it out. I imagine a middle-aged woman with brown bobbed hair in a business suit talking on the phone to her best friend about the new wife in Miami. Maybe it’s the only time she cries.
“My mom and dad are divorced, too,” I say. And I think of my mother, alone in her shabby row-house in Pittsburgh, cutting out newspaper articles that she will send to me about single women in Manhattan being severed in half following a bad blind date. I have to remind her again and again that I live in the baby-stroller capital of Brooklyn with two roommates.
My eyes squint as they adjust to the dark. Inside, the house opens into a large den with a massive armoire, expensive-looking vases, and fabrics in plaids and floral patterns. Daisies and primroses everywhere. The room smells like a holiday candle. It’s no wonder Frank is maladjusted, there’s no man stuff. They could use one of those furry animal rugs and, maybe, a testosterone rain stick.
“I have a Wii,” he says, gesturing towards the den.
“I just have time for the blow dryer.” I glance at my watch and note that I have less than half an hour to get my questionnaire filled out and get to the next house. At the second house of the day, the Mitchells’ pee scented cottage made me think that they must seriously love or seriously neglect an animal they allow to spray its urine everywhere.
Frank guides me through the den and around the corner where there’s a carpeted staircase to my left, an open door straight ahead, and French doors on the right that lead to a perfectly appointed dining room.
“You can pass out just from holding your breath. Did you know that?” Frank asks.
“And, some people don’t have sweat glands. Did you know that?”
Frank is momentarily silent while he squints and burrows his head in his underarm.
Frank’s mom’s bathroom smells like Clorox and talcum powder. Delicate frames display different dried flowers: rose, violet, and daffodil. We rummage through her vanity drawers. She has a lot of cosmetics and bath products with fancy, French writing. In the bottom drawer, the blow dryer is neatly tied with its plug.
“Found it,” I say. I plug it in and station myself in front of the mirror. My elbow brushes a hand towel that looks like it’s never been used. I push the sodden questionnaires onto the counter and direct hot air onto them. The Morgan family’s questionnaire rests on top. They live two doors down in a window lined mid-century modern. If they had a space on the questionnaire for commentary, I would have written: silicone-engorged lips and a Xanax addiction.
“Mom let me put her makeup on once when I was little.” Frank has to yell to be heard above the dryer. Slumped on the tile floor behind me, he tilts his head down, and I can see him picking his boogers in the mirror and wiping them on the floor. He catches my eye when he looks up, and I turn away.
“I wouldn’t tell people that, like at school,” I say, trying to spread all five fingers to keep the paper from flying away, and also trying not to burn my hand. I shove the ink-smeared, crinkly questionnaires back into my bag.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Frank asks.
I stare at the blow dryer, a fancy, red gun-like machine with a funnel-shaped tip on the end.
“I had a little brother, actually. His name was Danny.” I concentrate on the sound of the dryer. It makes me think of how a lawnmower sounds. In the summertime, when I was a kid, there was always a lawnmower humming in our neighborhood. And I think of Danny, and how he looked like a peach peanut at the bottom of our swimming pool when he drowned. How there was the sound of a splash and then there was silence. How my feet burned on the gritty patio, and I felt like I melted into the ground. I was supposed to be watching him just for a minute while my mom ran into the house to grab a towel. I was seven. Danny was three.
“I’m going to be a world famous martial artist.” Frank crosses his arms over his little man boobs. Then, he pulls out his hands and begins chopping and slicing at the air.
There is just the hum of the blow dryer for a moment until he gets restless again.
“I could make you something to eat if you’re hungry. I can make popcorn, ravioli in the microwave, and easy mac and cheese,” he says. He stands up quickly, and paces back and forth in the small room until his body is too close to mine. He looks up at me and tilts his head.
“Why are you sad?”
The pressure of tears pushes against the back of my eyes and throat.
“Ever read Eugene O’Neill? He’s my favorite playwright. And, well, he wrote a play about a family. And, one of them died.” I swallow hard and stare at the small wooden cross that hangs on the wall next to the mirror.
In the reflection, I see Frank reach up and press his palm to my hair. It looks like he’s about to smell it. I jerk my head around. I look at him. Then I pull the blow dryer cord hard without turning it off, tie it not-so-neatly with its cord, and shove it back in the drawer. I stuff the remaining questionnaires into my bag.
I want to say I’m in a hurry, I’ve got a lot of shit to do, but I just keep looking at his red cheeks and his chubby frame.
“You could answer these questions I have even though you’re not quite old enough.” I hesitate. “Plus, I could use a really quick snack.”
“I thought you had to say something first?”
“No, no, I don’t. I mean I do, but we can skip that part if you can just help me fill out the questionnaire. And then I can get a snack and get out of here.” I turn the lights off and push him by the small of his back out of the bathroom and into the hallway.
“I’ve got a snake named Coco. I have to feed her first,” he says, grabbing my hand, and leading me up the stairs to his room. On the way up, I notice pictures of baby Frank with his mom and dad. His mom has the same wacky smile. As you go up the stairs, Frank gets older: first it’s Frank wading in a baby pool, Frank smashing pink cake into his wide mouth, and then Frank with his mom and dad at a Yankees’ game. His mom’s hair is curly and she looks worried. His dad is bald, pale, and sad-looking. No wonder he moved to Miami; he could use the sun. My own family portraits stopped after Danny’s death. Like we all died with him.
In the corner of his small room, Frank has a medium-sized tank with a three foot long red, black, and white striped snake in it. Posters of serious-looking Asian guys in karate outfits blanket his walls. He taps two fingers on the glass and the snake arches and sticks out her forked tongue. I look around the room for a place to sit.
“You’re into some dangerous pastimes, my friend.”
He opens a wooden box beside the cage and pulls out what looks like a baby mouse by its tail. “She only gets to eat once a week.”
“That’s comforting. Can she eat anything else?” I slump into a red bean bag chair across from Frank and Coco.
“Isn’t Coco cool?” He looks back at me with his wide, silver-studded grin.
“No, she’s terrifying.” I try to move around in the bean bag, but I’m stuck. Frank’s room is an odd combination of smells: shoe stink and laundry detergent.
With half of his body submerged in the tank, he asks: “Do you want to feed her?”
“She can only kill you if she bites you.” Frank laughs. “Just kidding. Coco’s not a killer.”
“Oh good. I feel much better now. Can I add her to total number of people that live in your house?”
Frank pauses and looks at me, trying to decide if I’m serious, so I laugh.
“You’re funny, Clara.”
“You too, Frank.”
Coco rustles around in broken pieces of bark.
“But hey, seriously, it’s just you and your mom, right?” I fill out the first question on the census sheet: there are two people living in the house.
“Yes, sometimes I let Coco sleep in bed with me.” He whispers this, as though it’s top secret, and I might have someone to tell.
I sit up, trying to exert some sort of authority or influence, but I’m at a loss. “Does your mom know that?”
“No, she wouldn’t like it if she knew I let Coco out of her cage,” he reaches in and folds his hands under Coco’s body, pulls her out of the cage, and lets her rest on his neck. She wraps her thin tail around his bicep and her round black head and white snout are eye-level with Frank’s. “This is how I do my homework.”
“You’re not afraid?” I ask. And I imagine my stomach flipping and splattering the walls with vomit.
“I used to be, but not anymore. She’s my best friend. I wish I had another one.”
I look at Frank as he pets Coco. At school, I wonder if he eats alone and daydreams about her.
“Do you and your mom rent or own your residence?” I ask.
“Own. Mom made sure she got it in the divorce,” he says.
“What’s your full name?”
“Franklin Kiln McKenzie is the name.” He salutes, again, with two fingers. He sits on his bed, looks at me, and asks, “Why do you work at the census? Is it a good job?”
“No, not really. I’ll put fifteen down for your age. Is that all right?” I think of my first house of the day, the Logan-Nesbits, and how Mrs. Logan-Nesbit had spinach stuck in between her two front teeth. I kept licking my tongue over my teeth, but she didn’t get the hint.
“I can make you something to eat if you’re still hungry.” Frank, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, looks like a baby bird waiting for a treat.
I look down at my watch. I’m already fifteen minutes behind schedule, and I think fuck it, why not?
“Sure,” I say.
He grabs my hand without looking up and pulls me out of his room.
“Your hands are as big as my dad’s,” he says.
“You shouldn’t tell a woman she has big hands,” I say, following him back down the stairs.
“Aren’t you going to leave Coco upstairs?”
“No, she’ll be good. I promise,” he says, and then adds, “Oh, wait, first, can we go outside? I want to show you something.”
Outside, as the sun sets, the trees mark faint shadows on the lawn. Frank stations himself in the middle of the yard and begins karate-kicking at the air. Coco’s tail wraps tighter around his bicep as she’s jostled back and forth.
“I just got my green belt.”
I push my shoes off and stand in front of Frank.
“That’s cool, but can you do this?” I place both my palms on the ground, arch my back, and anchor my toes in the grass, pushing my body into a yoga pose. “It’s called downward facing dog.”
“Umm, yeah. Yeah.”
Frank pulls Coco from his bicep and shoulders, balances her in both hands, and gently pours her onto the grass. He punches at the ground with his fists until he produces a very stiff pose.
“Relax into it a little. It’ll help you with your karate moves.” I smooth his back with the palm of my hand.
“Okay, it’s starting to hurt a little. Can I get up?” But instead of getting up, Frank collapses on the grass face first and starts doing push-ups. “How many push-ups can you do?”
“Zero. I haven’t done a push-up since seventh grade, when I was forced to by my sadistic gym teacher.”
“Yeah, I can only do twenty and a half.” After seventeen rapid-fire push-ups, sweat beads form on his hairline. He lies down on his stomach, resting his forehead on his arms. For a minute it’s quiet until the streetlamps turn on with a buzz-buzz sound.
Frank rolls over onto his back and starts to make snow angels in the grass. Dark yellow bulbs puncture the sienna and purple sky.
I lie down in the grass and start to move my arms, remembering how Danny and I made snow angels in our front yard one winter, when he was just big enough to get excited by the snow. Our impressions looked more like birds: two wings depressed into a white wet with a green grass underbelly. I think about O’Neill’s play. How the family is torn apart by loss, the downfall, the ever-continuing scene.
“Where’s Coco?” Frank says. Instantly on his feet, he starts running towards the street. The streetlamps make their buzz-buzz sound. Even in the light, Coco’s red and black stripes are barely visible on the slick, velvety black pavement. Only her white stripes stand out. A BMW zips down the street and runs over her. I can’t tell if it’s her front or back end. I close my eyes. I’m not sure if she screams, but I imagine I can hear a high-pitched whine, frantic and scared. Frank does scream.
“Coooco!” He kneels in the middle of the road and pulls Coco towards him as she hisses. Her black, white, and red body coils and uncoils in his grasp. As he pushes his hand towards her tail, trying to grab it, she darts her round head back and forth, and bites him on the soft belly of his palm.
“Oww.” He falls backwards onto his hands. Coco slithers across the black pavement to the other side of the road, and I see black white red slink under some neatly landscaped bushes.
“Oh god. You okay?” I run towards Frank and squat beside him. I imagine his mother coming home to a slowly-expiring Frank. I focus on the oblong tonsils of her throat as she yells at me, full-throttle. In the next scene, I’m wearing one of those delinquent orange prison jumpsuits because the census reported me to the police for job abandonment and child neglect.
“Why would she bite me?” Frank looks down and begins wiping the tiny black kernels of gravel from both of his hands.
“I’m not sure.” I stare at Frank’s hand, raw and bleeding. “I don’t know.”
“It hurts.” He holds his palm over the bitten one.
“Hold on, Frank. Stay with me, buddy.”
The streetlamps make their buzz-buzz sound. Frank stares at the bushes like he’s in a trance. “Coco’s not poisonous.”
“You sure?” I look at him, but his gaze is fixed. “I’m gonna get something to wrap it in. At least that might help a little.”
I run towards the house, up the stairs, and inside. I find myself in Frank’s mom’s bathroom again, stealing the pristine hand towel from its rack. I race outside to find Frank in the same place in the yard, staring at the bush where Coco disappeared.
“Do you think she’s gone?” His eyes penetrate the darkness. They move back and forth, searching the distant bushes.
“Maybe.” I hesitate. “Probably.”
He starts to cry. I push the towel onto his hand and he thrusts it back, hard, and nearly hits me in the face.
He stands up and shoves me with both of his hands, so hard I fall backwards on my elbows. He runs across the street to the bushes and I watch as he dives in, head and shoulders first, enveloped by the small, green leaves. I can hear him, at first a pleading that is low and soft Coco. Coco. Coco. And, then the sound becomes louder, a cry. I walk across the street to him.
“Come on. You can look for her in the morning, Frank,” I say, pressing my hand on his back. But he pushes it away and turns to look at me.
“Stop it. She’s not gone. I didn’t lose her. I didn’t.” His face is covered in wetness: snot and tears and saliva. He hides his face in the bushes, so I can’t see him. I lean down further, wrap both my arms around his waist, and pull him from the bushes. It takes the weight of me to pull him backwards. We spin around to face the house, while he kicks his legs in the air and flails his arms. When I let go, we fall to the ground in a mass, his arms still shielding his face. I roll over quickly and sit up beside him.
“You didn’t lose her. You didn’t. It isn’t your fault.” I stroke his hair while he sniffles and his body quakes from crying. I want so badly to tell him it’s going to be okay. That he will be okay. But I know better than to lie to him. I know that he will remember this feeling, this guilt, this burden for the rest of his life. And though it will be reimagined a million times, reconfigured, reshaped, and maybe even hemmed in a little, he will carry it with him like a scar that is invisible to the rest of the world. It will matter, his past. It will live with him in his present. The yellow streetlamps cast shadows on the black street, another day melting into another night. I think of Danny’s snow birds, flapping and fleeting, tiny hands pressing against the ground, pushing against the snow, marking deep lines on the ice-covered grassy earth.