Iris Warner drove up to Benicia, California, last month from Phoenix. Iris has three sons, none of whom married wisely, according to Iris, and she rotates visits between them. Son Michael and his wife, Kathy, live in Benicia, right on Main, just up the street from the Shop and Run. Of her three daughters-in-law, Iris dislikes Kathy the least, mostly because Kathy is an executive with a capital E and she is never home. She powersuits her way out of the house at 5:30 a.m. and is rarely back before eight. Iris spends her evenings watching Michael make repairs to the house, which is falling apart, and visiting with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jessica. Iris spends her days sitting on the front porch, watching Main Street.
The house is three blocks from the fire station and two blocks from the police department. Most afternoons an ambulance with two sleepy paramedics inside parks in the shade just up the street. The speed limit is a crawling 25 mph on Main. Iris watches the police give out speeding tickets, one right after another, just doing their job like checkout clerks moving the products along a conveyor belt at the supermarket. Iris wishes she had binoculars and could read lips. She thinks that Michael should get a police scanner.
Michael has been debating about whether to tell his mother about Houdini, the fifth-grade class garter snake that Jessica brought home during Easter break. Houdini somehow escaped from his aquarium without even disturbing the lid. There have been some reported sightings, mostly by his wife, who is high-strung and a screamer. Michael suspects the snake tunneled out and has left the building.
Michael wouldn’t want his mother to leave because of a loose snake. When his mother visits, she is home with Jessica after school and that saves on the cost of a baby-sitter. If his mother stays for a week, Michael can replace the showerhead in the downstairs bathroom. If she stays for a month, he can replace the backsplash behind the kitchen sink. So far Michael has not mentioned the snake.
His wife would rather pay the baby-sitter.
“There’s something wrong with a woman her age who doesn’t ever want to go home,” Kathy whispers to Michael. Kathy turns off the bathroom light and sits next to Michael on their bed. Iris is asleep in the next room. “She sits on the porch all day, watching everyone’s comings and goings. I’m surprised the neighbors don’t complain. You don’t think she’s getting senile, do you?”
Michael doesn’t answer. He is distracted by matching underwear — Kathy’s bra, her panties, even her half-slip are a slinky pink edged in black lace. The slip catches on his jeans and slides halfway up Kathy’s leg when she turns to look at him.
“You know,” Kathy says as if the thought has just occurred to her, “why don’t you call your brother Larry? She hasn’t seen Larry and Sue for a while. I’ll bet they’d be glad to see her.”
There is a freckle on Kathy’s thigh. Michael never remembers that freckle is there until he sees it. It always triggers in him a kind of lustful déjà vu.
“I don’t know,” Michael says. “Last time she visited them she took Sue’s Chihuahua to the vet and had it neutered. I don’t think Sue’s over that yet.”
“Then she just needs to go home and stay home for a while. It’s time to face facts, Michael,” Kathy says. Kathy is used to talking firmly at the office. Wake up and smell the coffee, stop beating around the bush, get with the program, she says.
Michael stiffens suddenly and looks over Kathy’s shoulder. “Don’t move,” Michael says. “I think I see the snake.” Kathy shrieks, lunges at him, and buries her face into his chest. “Nope, sorry, just my tie.” Michael pats her shoulder where her bra strap has fallen to one side and pulls her closer.
Michael has more than one reason for wanting to distract Kathy. Most of the time, Kathy’s mind is back at the office, and so far she has not mentioned the snake in his mother’s presence. Another reason is that Iris has hinted that she might like to stay on with them permanently. Michael thinks this is a great idea. He sees the blinking lights of longed-for home improvement projects flashing in his brain like signs along the Las Vegas strip — “New Roof” and “Refinished Hardwood Floors,” and farther down the street, “Recessed Low Voltage Under Cabinet Lighting” and “Brick Patio with Built-in Barbecue.”
Iris does indeed have a home of her own. She lives in one of those adult gated communities built around a golf course. She can’t see the street from inside her house. All the windows face the golf course in the back, where little packs of doddering old men in pastel pants move in slow motion, swinging their clubs and gazing at the sky. Sometimes, Iris sits on an aluminum chair in the garage with the door open, just so she can watch the road. It can be hours before a car goes by, its driver peering straight ahead over the steering wheel. Iris gets bored sitting there.
On Main Street in Benicia there are always people walking by or riding bikes. Iris watches grown men with beards and baseball caps ride past in the middle of the day. Men in T-shirts, men in unbuttoned shirts that flap behind them, men with no shirts riding on old Schwinns and rusty mountain bikes. There is something slightly seedy about full-grown men on bicycles. Why don’t they drive? Did they lose their licenses, their keys? They are certainly not bicycling for exercise. They pedal leisurely toward the Shop and Run and return with plastic grocery bags dangling heavily from the handlebars.
Then there are the walkers. Iris has named some of the regulars. There is Mr. Beagle, a sharp-faced middle-aged man who yanks and drags his puppy along behind him. “Call that a walk?” Iris wants to yell to him. There is Baby Jane, a tiny woman in her 60s who wears high heels with white anklet socks. Her skirts are too short for a woman her age and she saunters down the street like a Southern belle after too many mint juleps. One hot afternoon, Baby Jane appears wearing white gloves, the kind that button with a pearl at the wrist, and a wide-brimmed straw hat with ribbons trailing down her back. Who is she trying to impress? Iris thinks. Certainly not Iris, who believes she is invisible high off the street on the front porch.
Spitting Boy comes rolling past on his skateboard. Spitting Boy is tall and thin with bald patches on his scalp and clownishly baggy pants. Iris thinks Spitting Boy must have some kind of glandular problem. There is Serial Killer, a long-haired buffalo of a man who plods down the street with his eyes trained on the uneven sidewalk. His hair hides most of his face except his protruding forehead. His fingertips seem to graze his knees and he doesn’t swing his arms when he walks. No matter what the weather, Serial Killer wears a heavy, brown corduroy jacket, bulky enough to hide any number of weapons. If there is ever an unsolved murder in Benicia, Iris plans to call the police with her hunch about Serial Killer. She imagines herself on the six o’clock news, the camera zooming in for a close-up of her face. “I used to watch him walk right past the house. I knew there was something evil about him. He gave me the willies.”
Sometimes Iris’s granddaughter sits with her on the porch after school. Together they sip lemony iced tea made from powdered mix while Iris comments on the street activity.
“I see Baby Jane has a new pair of shoes,” Iris says. “It looks like her feet hurt.”
Jessica nods solemnly and licks some sugary foam from her upper lip. She has been entrusted by her father to keep the secret of the loose snake from her grandmother. The secret feels like a wire spring pushing up inside her. When she is alone with her grandmother, Jessica is afraid to open her mouth too often — the word “snake” could come rushing out of her involuntarily.
“You know, I don’t think Spitting Boy is quite right in the head,” Iris says. “I used to think he had some sort of medical condition, but I’m beginning to think it’s an emotional thing. Nobody needs to spit that often.”
Tuesday evening, after Michael gets home and fixes dinner, he and Jessica leave to watch the talent show at Jessica’s school. Iris has elected to stay home — she saw more talent shows than she cared to when her boys were little. She sits on the front porch in the cool twilight and watches the walkers and the cars glide by. She is still sitting there when Kathy gets home from work.
“Anything exciting happen today?” Kathy sips a diet soda and drums her fingers on the porch railing. Kathy lives on diet soda and fingernail polish fumes.
“Pretty quiet,” Iris says. Kathy’s skinny intensity makes Iris nervous.
Kathy frowns down the steps to the street. “I think I’ll change my clothes and walk down to the school. Maybe I can meet Michael and Jessica coming back.”
Iris isn’t listening. In the gloom, she can see Serial Killer coming, hulking along. It looks like he has something in his hand. A big rock? A severed head? Iris leans forward to get a better look. The front door clicks as Kathy goes inside.
Serial Killer draws closer, lurching along like Frankenstein. When he is even with the house, he stops, looks up, and stares balefully with piercing eyes right at Iris. Iris feels her heart take a bounce in her chest and she shrinks back into the shadows of the porch. He is holding a bowling ball and THERE IS NO BOWLING ALLEY IN BENICIA!
Slowly, Serial Killer turns his head, looks back down at the ground, and continues his way down the street. He pauses for a moment at the corner, then turns to the right and disappears.
Iris collapses back in her chair, holding a hand to her throat. Maybe now is the time to call the police. It must be against some law to walk around brandishing a bowling ball. A bowling ball is more dangerous than a big stick or a baseball bat. Of course, it’s not a loaded gun or a machete, but Iris cannot think of one good reason to transport a loose bowling ball on city streets. Iris is just starting to rehearse her conversation with the police when there is a blood-curdling scream from inside the house, then Kathy bolts out the door and down the front steps.
Serial Killer! Iris thinks. Serial Killer has doubled back through the alley and is in the house! Iris flies off the porch. She catches up with Kathy on the sidewalk and grabs her around the waist.
“Under my bed,” Kathy gasps. She only has one shoe on and her hairbrush is gripped in her hand. “He came out while I was standing there and crawled down the hall. I think he’s gone behind the TV.”
“Oh my God!” Iris says and clutches Kathy tighter. “Why is he behind the TV?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Kathy whimpers.
“We need to get out of here,” Iris says. “We need to call the police.”
“Oh, no,” Kathy says, “Michael will take care of it. We’ll just wait out here until Michael comes home.”
Iris is both touched and alarmed by this.
“He will kill Michael,” Iris whispers. “He’s armed. He has a bowling ball.”
Kathy looks at Iris for a long moment, then puts her arms around the older woman’s shoulders and pulls her close.
Michael and Jessica turn the corner and see mother and grandmother, wife and mother-in-law, locked in an embrace out on the sidewalk. Michael smiles and squeezes Jessica’s hand.
“Look,” he says, “look at that.”
And in the fading light Michael imagines he can almost see his old house transformed — new gutters and downspouts, double-paned windows, professional four color paint job, and a porch swing for his mother to look out over the street.