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In The Country of No Compassion

By Teresa Kennedy

Lorelei Morton was reflecting out loud as she swiped at some crumbs that it was a shame about the Nelsons.

“Shame, “ echoed Susie Jenkins. Susie was blonde in a manner of speaking, and owned a house across the dead end circle that formed the neighborhood where they lived. She had come over that morning to see about staging the Nelson place--out of hope that new drapes and the right color walls would improve its chances to be sold. The neighborhood association considered such maneuvers essential and gone so far as to vote on it, too. And so, Lorelei who the association’s head and a persuasive sort, had enlisted her friend for the task.

Now, they sat together over cokes and Devil Bars. It was ten-thirty in the morning and too early for snacking in Susie’s opinion, but seeing the house from the inside had filled her with an emptiness as big as a room.

In the midst of Lorelei’s decorated kitchen, she blinked uneasily against the light that streamed through the blind. The sun that summer held for Susie the quality of a punishment, throwing everything under it into high definition. The days drifted past in a stuporous heat--like a movie of the future or an ad for TVs. Susie wouldn’t have minded rain; sometimes during a monsoon she would stand on her patio and raise her face to the pelting water, gaping like a duck. But there was no sense wishing--rain was a month away at least and the TV weatherman didn’t hold much hope for that. Global warming, they always said. But everything stayed the same.

“I can’t even imagine how it must be for them. The family, I mean.” she said out loud. “I have to close my eyes every time I see the For Sale sign. I swear, Lorelei--those empty windows make me feel so sad--just like the world is ending.”

“Don’t be silly--it just needs brightening up is all. Think of it like a facelift.”

Susie looked doubtful. “Do you remember? In the bathroom? How we made fun of her wallpaper? But then-- there was this moment--after you went into the family room. I almost felt like she was there--watching us.”

“Ridiculous!” Lorelei shot her neighbor a look of slit-eyed disapproval. Sometimes she thought privately that Susie was just about anything a person could ask for in a neighbor except smart. Of course, the Jenkins were clean and quiet and active in the association as they could be. But even Lorelei had to admit the woman had an imagination.

“It’s just a house, that’s all, “ she continued. “Just exactly the same floor plan and square footage as yours or mine. I don’t think they even customized it when it was going up. Me and Ed, we made sure we did ours. That’s how I got my skylight and kitchen island.”

Susie nodded vaguely and tried to smile. Lorelei’s Mexican-tiled kitchen island was the envy of Pantano Circle. And while Susie herself questioned the wisdom of a skylight that almost certainly would lead to a fade spot in the carpet, it did offer a strange kind of atmosphere as you entered the Mortons’ hallway. As though--if you stood in that beam long enough, you might dissolve into nothing but atoms or dust. Still, she supposed--when it came to taste--not everybody had some.

Lorelei shifted her substantial behind in her chair. In shorts, the backs of her thighs had a way of sticking to the vinyl of her dinette set no matter how high she set the central air. She inhaled deeply and frowned. “I can’t feel too sorry for the Nelsons, Susie. I just can’t. Not to speak ill of the dead or anything--but--bottom line--there’s nobody to blame but themselves, is there? “

Susie stared at her. “You mean Rachel?”

“Well in a way--I guess. Rachel did it, didn’t she?”

“But they seemed so nice, at first. She was pregnant--remember that?. When they first moved in. Everybody was--so--hopeful. Just like a regular family.“

“Exactly.” Lorelei stabbed at the tabletop for emphasis, her nail clicking against the surface..” That’s what I’m saying--I mean it wasn’t a crime--was it? It wasn’t some threat---If it‘d been like that--we got a neighborhood watch for that. We keep an eye out for dangers.”

Susie had to admit it was true; the neighborhood watch committee, consisting of herself and Lorelei and several others, had been in place for months. It meant that all the members could spy on each other‘s coming and goings and record their suspicions In less than two months, Maris Bailey’s maid had turned out to be illegal and the committee also decided Tom Paxton couldn’t keep his wrecked Toyota parked in his driveway anymore, due to the way it detracted from the look of things

“No one could have predicted something like that--“ “Lorelei went on, jerking a thumb in the direction of the Nelsons‘. “What happened over there--That was just--random, that’s all.”

Susie sighed and sipped politely at her coke, wondering if there was a way to suggest discreetly that Lorelei should consider having her eyebrows done. She sighed a little. “Poor Rachel. But I don‘t suppose there‘s anything that could have prevented it.”

“Not with Rachel, they wasn’t. Played ’em close to the chest, that one. I mean, she was sweet and everything, but kept to herself, didn’t she?“

Susie frowned delicately, trying to recall her neighbor‘s face. Had her eyes been blue? Or was it brown? “She did?” she said, coming back to herself “Well, yes--I suppose she had to. I mean, she always seemed busy enough But there was something a little different, about her, wouldn’t you say? You know--independent?“

Lorelei nodded “Exactly. Independent. That’s what she was, all right. You could tell from her colors. Not enough neutrals.” She paused. “ That’s what we need to do over there. Get it back to neutrals. Those are what sell a place. That‘s what my decorator told me. He said--“neutral colors help a person to imagine themselves differently.” That’s why I did my whole house neutral. In case I ever have to sell it, people will be able to forget I was here first.“

“True, “ Susie agreed. “But shouldn’t I get some silk flowers? For an arrangement?. Just to make it look more welcoming?“

“Welcoming? I figure you can welcome them when they put their money down. I just wish somebody would buy the place, that‘s all. It don‘t look right for the neighborhood, standing empty like that. No reason, either. It‘s been nearly two months. And we have to think about the landscaping, too. Can’t forget about that. My yard man told me all those plantings of hers have just gone crazy. I had to send him over there to cut me some sage. Remember how she always kept us in sage? ”

Susie looked distressed. “Maybe we should burn some around the house. You know, like the Indians. Smudge the place.“

Lorelei paused, momentarily confused. “Smudge it?”

“Yeah--it‘s supposed to --uhh--cleanse--things. Like auras. Or spirits. They did it to me and Ben when his youngest got married. It was supposed to keep out the negative energies.“ Susie stopped and studied her manicure for a moment, blushing for no reason. She felt almost guilty , as though she’d promised to keep some secret, and somehow let it slip.

Lorelei eyed her critically and recrossed her legs. “Well, I heard of a lot of things that were supposed to sell a house, but never that one. Ed told me once about how the Mexicans say you have to give it to St Joseph if you can‘t sell. Get a statue and bury it on his head in the yard. But I never heard about sage.” She tore open another Devil bar and chewed it slowly, as if trying to remember something .“Maybe we should get some volunteers and paint the outside, too.. Two months is too long. It‘s unnatural.”

Susie looked worried. “I read on msn the whole housing market is just collapsing. Foreclosures just about every place. They say all the backyard pools in California are going to give us West Nile virus, too.”

“That’s what pesticides are for,“ responded Lorelei. “I got better things to worry about than mosquitos who don’t even live here Besides, foreclosures are nothing but opportunity knocking,” she went on firmly. Lorelei’s husband was in real estate, so she couldn’t help but think so. “And if you ask me--a family doesn’t protect their investment, it’s their own damn fault what happens to ‘em.”

“Oh, Lorelei!” Susie admonished. “That’s so judgmental! We shouldn’t be like that--” Lorelei made a little sound deep in her throat. “It‘s a free country, ain‘t it? And I got my opinions, same as you do. Besides, this whole valley’s growing like a weed, you know that. Unprecedented, they called it in the paper. Unprecedented“ Lorelei inhaled deeply, enjoying the moment and gesturing wide.. “Why, not two years ago, this was nothing but desert! Now look at it. New neighborhoods going up everywhere. And not one of them selling houses under a half a mil. It‘s the dream, Susie. The American dream.”

But Susie was unconvinced.. “Dana Foster, at the corner? She thinks the agent keeps telling folks about Rachel. How she did it. But I can’t think that’s true, can you? I mean, an agent’s got to earn a living, too, don‘t they? So why would she tell them anything bad?”

Lorelei scowled “Dana Foster is a bitch, “ she answered flatly. “Breast cancer or no breast cancer. Every since she got sick, she’ll say just about anything for attention.” Susie gasped a little, and Lorelei paused at her shocked expression. Until quite recently, Dana Foster had taught Middle School and led nature walks at the church. “And you didn’t hear that from me, either. Didn’t I buy a pink ribbon just like everybody else? I‘m sorry for her troubles, but let‘s just say between you and me that she’s got some issues..”

Susie shut her eyes and willed herself not to think about Dana, whose skin had turned waxy of late. From her window across the circle, Susie had seen her in her kitchen, too thin in her nightgown, her smooth, round, bald head reflecting the morning light in a way that made it difficult to breathe. Last Thursday, Dana had been outside and turned in her driveway to stare at Susie watching, her eyes feverish and bright, as though consumed from within. ”It won’t be long now--” she’d called out. But Susie had only stared at her then looked uncomfortably away. “The rains, I mean.” Dana had finished. “The rains”

“I thought she was doing better,” Susie said aloud. “She told me meditation helped.“

Lorelei stood up abruptly and headed for the refrigerator, revealing bright, angry looking red streaks on the back of her legs where they‘d stuck to the chair. She flung open the door and stood in the cool, scowling. “Be that as it may, I got no patience for gossips.” she said. “Rachel Nelson should have known better and that‘s that.”

Susie watched of the last fizz escape from her Diet Coke, the little bubbles rising to pop in a caramel-colored sea. It seemed like a long time before she spoke. “It was the divorce, I suppose. With Rachel. Don’t you think?“

“Did it send her over the edge, you mean?“ Lorelei considered it. “I doubt it, I really do. Don‘t you remember that Christmas party after she had the second baby and was looking good again? Don’t you remember she was all over Ed ? “

“It was just a kiss, “ Susie chided gently. “Under the mistletoe“

Lorelei sniffed “Well, mistletoe or not--there’s just some who’ll use any excuse, won‘t they? Only they‘re not usually the type to get broken up over their divorce. Chris Nelson must have had his reasons, and that’s all I have to say.”

“Still, “ Susie sighed, surreptitiously fingering the line of grime that ran underneath the lip of the table. “It made her a single mother--all by herself.”

“Exactly,” growled Lorelei. “The whole thing was irresponsible.”

Susie shifted uncomfortably and wished she could leave. Sometimes, a woman like Lorelei Morton could grate upon the nerves. “Well, I don’t know about that Lorelei I mean, she just lost her mind, is all. I don’t know how you can call that irresponsible, exactly.“

From across the room, Lorelei slammed the refrigerator door shut and returned to the table with a plate of seedless grapes and cheese. “The grapes aren’t so good, “ she instructed.. “One dollar forty-nine a pound for too sour, if you ask me. But the cheese helps. Besides,” she said, returning to the subject. “Everybody knows it was the pills. One of those interactions I‘ll bet you anything. It happens all the time. One day you‘re completely functional, and the next--BLAM!”

In Rachel Nelson’s bathroom, the police had found forty-seven amber jars of medication, lined up on the side of the tub like soldiers, the bottles all opened and well within reach of her two naked children, Joshua 2, and Evan, not yet 5. They said the babies cried as they sat in the chilling water, while out in the family room, Oprah’s Debt Diet was cranked to full volume. They found Rachel upright in an armchair, still clutching the gun she’d kept for protection, with most of her face blown away. Outside, the Nelson’s dogs had howled at the sunset, begging to be unchained and fed.

“Oh, you can’t blame the pills, Lorelei!” Susie protested. “Everybody takes pills, now. You can‘t hardly go to the doctor without them writing a prescription for something, can you? Pain--depression. Anxiety. “ Susie looked worried at this last word. Her own supply of Wellbutrin was running a little low. And the noxynol, too. “They just put you on them and forget all about it.”

Lorelei sniffed “Well I wouldn’t know about that. But I do know there are plenty of folks who’d be darned grateful to have what Rachel Nelson had. A nice house, two little kids and plenty of health insurance, too. Believe me--they get that house sold and those kids of hers are going to be sitting pretty.”

“Pretty,” echoed Susie. The remark made an image swim up in her mind; the two little boys, silent as soldiers--stuffed in the church pew between Tom Nelson and Rachel‘s sister from Chicago. They seemed almost identical, with short pants and bow ties--their wide brown eyes betraying no expression at all. Bow ties, Susie thought. Even now, it was hard to imagine.

“So--you don’t think she--you know--planned it?” she asked uncertainly

“Planned it? Planned what?” Lorelei stood up again and began foraging through her cupboards, opening and slamming the doors. “You know what you’re problem is, Susie? You think too much, that‘s what. Rachel Nelson is dead--and I’m sorry as hell about that--but frankly? That’s all I need to know.” She plumped back down abruptly, tearing at the plastic lid of a tin of Pringles. “Planned it--“ she went on disgustedly “Jesus.”

“I just meant--that is--I just wondered, was all. Her house. Being there this morning got me wondering--shouldn’t we have known something? ”

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda--” mumbled Lorelei, munching chips. She rinsed that down with a mouthful of coke, swallowing hard and wondering where she stashed her cigarettes, away from her neighbor’s prying eyes.

After a moment, she regained her composure. “Look, all I’m saying is everybody has secrets, Susie.” she went on, more gently. “Everybody in the whole world, and that includes you, me and Rachel Nelson too. I can’t help that, but that’s why we have to stick together, don’t you see? Look out for each other. That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it? Being good neighbors. Building our community. That‘s what we do in a community. Protect each other’s interests. Maybe Rachel was a weak link--but we all are invested here, don‘t you see? We have to go on.”

Susie glanced at her and then away again, not wanting her neighbor to see the darkness welling up in her eyes. “Where are they, Lorelei?” she asked suddenly

Lorelei sat back and fingered the last of the Pringles. “Who?”

Susie‘s voice dropped to barely a whisper, faraway and sad. “The boys--those babies. I mean, what happened to them?”

Lorelei shrugged and peered at her watch. She had a waxing appointment at three. “Huh? Well, I don’t know--I suppose they’re with their father.”

“Or that sister--” Susie put in hopefully. “The one in Chicago. She seemed nice, didn’t she?”

Lorelei stared at her. “What difference does it make? “she asked, a little irritably “The important thing is for us to get that house sold. Set those boys up for life. Almost, anyway. I heard she had life insurance, though. They said so at the memorial. You want another coke?”

Susie understood it was time for her to go. She rose gratefully and eased toward the kitchen door, carefully arranging her sunglasses. “I’ll bring by the paint samples tomorrow.” she said, and waited while Lorelei disabled the alarm. And with a little wave, she slipped through the doorway and out into the relentless light.

In Rachel Nelson’s overgrown backyard, sage grew uncontrollably in an urn-shaped terra cotta planter under a window. Feeling for the second time that day like some intruder, Susie Jenkins saw that and some petunias, too, shriveling in the sun. She fretted over the sad condition of the potted cactus and the palms and wandered to the low wall that surrounded the flagstone patio, gazing out at the mountains that watched so impartially over the valley below. Everywhere, tidy neighborhoods spilled out across the desert and crept up the foothills, looking like game pieces spread out on a board, abandoned in the middle of play.

She turned back to the dead woman’s house, frowning and searching for signs of decay Houses were funny that way, she knew. Left empty too long, they fell apart when you weren’t looking. Two months and already a crack ran underneath the downspout, an edge of peeling paint near the door. She reached down absently and tore up a handful of sage, thinking of the strangers who dwelt all around her, living and dying in vast empty rooms. The scent of it rose up--sharp and clean and unforgiving as she rubbed the plant between her palms, scattering the bruised leaves at her feet.

From somewhere in the distance, she heard the howling of a neighbor’s dog, begging to be unchained and fed.

(C)opyright 2008 Teresa Kennedy, All Rights Reserved

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