There was no doubt it was my fault.
Tommy and his family moved in upstairs from me on a warm August day. It was Tommy, his mother, Tommy’s grandmother, and the grandmother’s boyfriend. While the movers clumped up and down the stairs, Tommy played in the backyard with a bright yellow truck and several action figures. I sat at the drafting table in my back corner room, watching him pile all of the action figures into the back of the truck and drive it around. He made loud vroom-vroom sounds, overly masculine-voiced dialogue, explosions, gun shots, and all other manner of little boys’ play. His brown hair, in a floppy bowl cut that hung just below his eyebrows, became wet with sweat, eventually pasting itself to his forehead. He was seven years old in every sense of the word.
Watching him opened a wound: My wife died giving birth to a stillborn boy. After, I poured myself into my work as an architect, and eventually, I opened my own firm. I was proud of the work I did, giving homes to families who might not have otherwise been able to afford them—that was how I had closed the wound. I did that for years until it was time to retire. I hung up my T square nine months before Tommy Turner moved in upstairs.
Tommy’s mother, Tiffany, was a sweet young woman who, when she should have been in college, had gotten herself knocked up by a good-for-nothing guy who skipped town. She told me this the second time she invited me up for coffee, sitting at her wobbly kitchen table. The grandmother sat in a rocking chair in the living room and tsked at every plot point.
“I felt really stupid,” Tiffany told me. “But”—she looked at Tommy playing in the living room near his grandmother—“I couldn’t wish for a better result.” Tiffany usually kept her brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and often only wore tinted lip balm, and that day like most others, a certain beauty shined through her exhaustion.
“You are very lucky,” I told her.
She never asked about my history. I resisted telling people about my wife and child. The looks of pity—the titled head, the squinted eyes. I liked that my conversations with Tiffany were always about Tiffany.
The grandmother, Lily, who was probably 10 years younger than I but looked 10 years older, was a piece of work. She was always around, lurking with her grunts and her looks. She treated Tommy as horribly as she treated Tiffany, constantly calling him “Thomas,” like he was in trouble. Every time she barked his name—even when he hadn’t done anything wrong—Tommy jumped. A few times, when she was towering over him, yelling at him about something or other, she moved her hand and he instinctively winced. I knew in those moments what would have happened to Tommy if I hadn’t been within eye- or earshot.
Lily’s boyfriend, Pete, was almost never around. I assumed he worked construction. He dressed like the guys on my sites dressed and had the same determined look when he left in the morning and the same hunched shoulders at the end of the day. When he came home, that’s when the yelling really started, usually between him and Lily. Boy, they were vicious. He called her all manner of names, and she threw even worse language back at him, often insulting the size of his manhood. Dishes broke. Feet stomped. Doors slammed. Tommy escaped to the backyard when these fights happened, which was almost daily. Every once in a while, his mother would join him outside, nervously smoking a cigarette, overlooking his play.
One day, as Tommy played in the backyard and fighting ensued above me, I sat at my drafting table, speckled sunlight dancing over a drawing that imagined a rundown factory up the highway as a community center. It was early October, Tommy’s birthday just a few days prior, and he was playing with the T-ball set he’d received as a present from his mother. He fruitlessly swung at the ball sitting atop the plastic tee, twisting and spinning his whole body, his swings becoming wilder and more erratic, until eventually, he started hitting the ground with his bat over and over. After several swings at the ground, the hollow plastic bat thumping on the cement along with the voices upstairs, he collapsed into tears. Tiffany was nowhere in sight. I could hear Lily and Pete screaming back and forth about water spots on the dishes. Tommy was alone, in the backyard, crying his eyes out.
I got up from my drafting table and went to the screen door that led from my apartment to the yard. The screech of the door’s spring got Tommy’s attention, and he stood up, wiping tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Hey there, Tommy,” I said.
“Hi Mr. Marcus,” he said, sniffing back some snot.
He nodded, trying not to cry.
I asked him if he wanted tips on how to hit the ball. I gave him the same advice my father gave me: feet a little more than shoulder width apart, not too tight on the bat, keep your eye on the ball. When Tommy swung again, me standing behind him, gently guiding his arms, the bat made contact with the ball, which glided right into one of the windows of my back room, rattling the loose pane in the window but thankfully not breaking it. Tommy jumped up and down, and I gave him a high five. I don’t know if you have kids or not—I don’t know much about you at all—but being able to make a kid, who had just moments ago been crying at the injustice of it all, literally jump for joy is like no other feeling. I fetched the ball from the bushes, set it again on top of the tee, and encouraged Tommy to try again. Time and again, he swung, made contact, and jumped up and down in celebration.
Later that night, the fight having calmed down and Tommy probably in bed, Tiffany sat on the steps that led from their apartment to the yard, chain-smoking. I grabbed two beers and opened the screen door. Just as her son had been, she was alerted to my presence by the squeak of the spring.
“Want a cold one?” I raised one of the beers in her direction.
“Sure would.” Her cheerfulness was clearly put on.
I sat down next to her on the stairs, handed her the beer, and watched as she effortlessly took the cap off by holding it against the edge of the railing and hitting it with the heel of her hand. I handed her mine and she took the cap off with the same swift motion. We clinked the tops of the bottles and each took a swig.
She said, “It must seem pretty bad to you, huh?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know what she was talking about, why she was out there chain-smoking.
“Don’t insult me.”
“It is . . . loud.”
“And mean,” she added, with a laugh.
“I know they’re loud, and they’re mean, and it must seem like the most abusive family ever, but they really do love each other. And me,” she said. “And Tommy.”
“There’s definitely a lot of passion there.”
“What you probably don’t hear is that they make up every single time. And by make up, you know I mean—”
I held up my hand. “I know what you mean.”
“That’s just how they are.” She took another swig, letting the beer slosh around in the bottle when she was done. “Even with my father. But, they were never mad at each other long.” She laughed and took another swig.
“Why aren’t you like that?” I asked. “I mean, you don’t seem so . . .” I couldn’t find the right word without being offensive.
“Passionate?” she added, elbowing me.
“Yes,” I said, “passionate.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “No idea.”
“Tommy’s not like that either.”
“Nope, he’s the quietest, sweetest kid.” She shook her head. “I think he’s too young to understand that just ’cause they’re hooting and hollering doesn’t mean they’re mad at each other.”
I was too young to understand it too. “He did seem upset today.”
“He was.” Another swig; she took three for every one I took. “He told me what you did for him today.” She put her hand on my forearm. I hadn’t been touched like that in years. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” I responded.
“He couldn’t stop talking about it. He kept saying how he couldn’t hit the ball and then all of the sudden he could and again and again and again.”
“He just needed a couple tips, that’s all.”
We sat in silence. She smoked another cigarette.
“I know with such . . . passion coming from upstairs that you must think that Tommy’s in danger or that he might get hit . . .”
I put up my hand. “Listen—”
She put her hand on mine and lowered it to my knee. Again, the softness of her hand. “No. Really. I’d never let that happen.”
I thought back to seeing Tommy flinch when his grandmother’s hand twitched. I had been hit, smacked around by my father; I knew that twitch. “Of course.”
The silence fell heavy after that. I feared my “of course” came off as doubtful as it really was. We exchanged niceties about the weather and the neighborhood, but there wasn’t much to talk about outside Tommy, which felt off-limits at that point. When she decided she was ready for bed, she used my knee for leverage to get up, pecking me on the cheek as she rose. “Thanks again,” she said. “For Tommy.”
I opened my mouth to say, “Of course,” but caught myself. “You’re welcome.”
After that, it became an almost-nightly ritual for us, sitting on the steps, both of us drinking, her chain-smoking. The conversation always centered on Tiffany or Tommy, never on me. I like to think that she began to think of me as a father figure, just as I had come to think of her as a daughter.
Around Thanksgiving, I saw Pete at the grocery store. He was a tall guy, with a pot belly, the kind of older construction worker who looked out of shape but could probably shame any of the workers a third of his age. He was in the bakery section yelling at one of the store’s employees, a young woman, round and plump on the bottom, with obviously dyed, short red hair. She had a smile plastered on her face, frantically looking around for someone, anyone, to help her.
I was in the meat section, several yards away, trying to be inconspicuous. His voice was raised, but his words were unclear. She was a tall girl, but he still towered over her, and he used his physical dominance, as well as his voice, to intimidate her. All the other employees in the store were steering clear of the altercation. As I pushed my cart past the pork section and the chicken section, the contours of his words became clear. “I want to understand why this bakery can’t seem to produce a decent cookie to save its life.” I sped up my cart, one of the front wheels skittering, walking up beside the pair to the left, pretending to look at a display of brioche. I looked over at them and feigned surprise. “Oh wow!” I said, pointing my finger back and forth between us. “Hey neighbor!”
The red-haired girl used the opportunity to escape, and the brute watched her leave and turned his pinched face in my direction. “I was in the middle of a conversation,” he said.
I looked around and let my enthusiasm fall away. “I guess it wasn’t much of a conversation,” I said, my voice an octave lower.
He snorted. “You’re that fruitcake who lives below us, right? Always talking to Tiffany and Tommy.”
“I enjoy their company,” I said.
He tried to push past me. While he had five inches and fifty pounds on me, I was used to dealing with brutes. I inched over so he couldn’t pass. “You should think about treating people better,” I said.
He put a finger on my sternum. “And you should think about keeping your nose outta other people’s business.”
I stepped aside, not wanting to take the altercation to the next level, fearing what would happen right there among the baked goods. He lumbered past me, almost imperceptibly favoring his right leg. I pulled my cart around to follow him from a distance to make sure he left without bothering the girl or anyone else. He headed straight for the doors.
As winter arrived in upstate New York, my nightly beers with Tiffany became fewer, and then completely halted. The fighting, though, continued. And Tommy continued to escape to the backyard, building impressive snowmen and snow forts. I joined him on several occasions, especially when I knew Tiffany wasn’t around, relishing the opportunity to play in the snow again. Tommy and I had massive snowball fights—I always let him win—and, one time, built a snow fort that even I couldn’t see over. He was always somber at the beginning of our play, but by the end, laughing and happy. Each time, he’d run back up the stairs to his apartment, waving, yelling, “Thank you, Mr. Marcus.” Each time, Tiffany would come down that night or the next day with a plateful of cookies, a banana bread, a pie, or some other goodie, and thank me for the time I spent with Tommy. She never entered my apartment, despite several invitations, excusing herself, saying that she needed to spend time with Tommy.
By the time spring arrived and melted away the snow fort and the hills of snow that had previously been snowmen, Tiffany had gotten another job at a clothing manufacturer two towns over, the town where I think your printing plant is. The grandmother was left to supervise Tommy after school—if supervising is what you’d call it—while Tiffany and Pete were gone at work. Often, though, Tommy was relegated to the backyard. One day, a particularly vicious neighbor dog got loose and ran onto the property. Tommy stood frozen in terror. I leapt so quickly from my drafting table that I knocked it over. I was able to chase the dog off, and I comforted Tommy with a hug. He was finally calm when the grandmother appeared, screaming “Thomas” and giving me a dirty look. I could have sworn I heard her mumble “pedophile” under her breath as she closed the door behind her.
I persuaded Frank, the landlord, to pay for a fence under the condition that I install it. It was nice to use my hands again and work up a sweat. When I was a practicing architect, I often visited the work sites and helped out with construction. The workers were always surprised to find out that I was the architect, in jeans and work boots, hammering or threading through wire beside them. The fence was a wood slat deal that came up to a little above my waist; not so tall as to restrict the field of vision or light, but tall enough to prevent neighbor dogs from getting into the yard. A week later, Tommy helped me paint the fence white.
My nightly beers with Tiffany resumed. She told me about her new job, and I listened to her stories of the coworkers she was beginning to like. The fighting between the grandmother and the boyfriend continued but seemed to lessen in severity and frequency. Still, there were days when my ceiling shook from the stamping of feet and thrown objects. Tommy became a pro at hitting the ball off the tee, so I taught him how to catch and throw. I had to buy us both new mitts—I hadn’t had one in years, and he’d never had one. We did this in silence, for hours on end, the ball going back and forth. I’d sneak him sodas and ice cream—Tiffany didn’t mind—but the “secret” did bond us.
One night, after Tiffany and I retired to our respective floors, I was doing the dishes when I heard a crash in the backyard. I sneaked into the dark back room and noticed the door to the small clapboard shed closing and the single light bulb inside turning on. Worried that neighbor kids had hopped the fence and were rummaging through the shed, I investigated. As I crossed the small space, a giggle escaped from the shed, then a steady pounding. It had been a while, but I knew what I was hearing. Apparently the kids had hopped the fence to engage in intercourse in our shed. I approached the door, which never really fully closed after being painted for the fifth time, and through the slight crack, could see two large figures, standing, thrusting, grasping each other. “Lily, oh Lily,” the male voice said. “Harder, Pete,” said the other voice. “I love you.”
Stuck in place, I watched through the crack, Lily and Pete, so often yelling curses at one another above me, now in front of me making love. They kissed passionately and held on to each other like the world was ending. My aging body remembered what it was like to not be able to hold another person tight enough. It had been long ago, but I remembered. I found my arms and hands tensing, my pelvis seeking out an opposing force.
After sneaking back into my house and sitting in the dark back room, I watched Lily and Pete leave the shed, patting down their clothes, fixing their hair. They held hands as they tiptoed across the backyard, and right before they reached the stairs, Pete pulled Lily close and kissed her like people used to in movies. I spent the rest of the night in the back room, drifting in and out of sleep, dreaming and remembering such moments from my own life.
By the time school was out, the fighting had returned, though, and I learned from Tiffany that Pete had gotten hurt on the construction site and was unable to work for the next six to eight weeks. The family couldn’t afford the lost pay; the workers comp wouldn’t cover everything. Tiffany’s mother would have to go back to cleaning houses, a backbreaking job for a woman with pretty bad arthritis. I told Tiffany she could count on me to help out with Tommy as much as she needed, but she was too proud to directly ask for help or to take my charity.
Tiffany was around less, trying to pick up extra hours at work and tending bar part-time, Lily was either off cleaning houses or recovering from having worked all day, and Pete was chomping at the bit, his masculinity threatened. I felt bad for all of them but mostly for Tommy. Pete was particularly harsh with him, constantly yelling and calling him names.
I tried speaking with Tiffany about it one night, but she descended into tears. “I know,” she said, “if Pete’s arm would just heal, he’d go back to work, and everything would be fine. Everything was fine, I mean, not perfect, but doable. Now—” She started crying again. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. I held her as she cried. It had been a long time since I’d offered comfort to a woman. The last time had probably been my wife, those many years ago. Do you know what it’s like to live your life devoid of human touch? “I don’t know your situation. I’m sorry, Steve,” she said, wiping her tears. “This is probably more than you wanted to hear.” I reiterated my offer to help out with Tommy when I could, proposing that I could take him to the state fair. She nodded her head and said, “Thank you. I know he’d like that.”
Tommy and I went to the fair the week after and indulged in every type of food and ride we could muster. As usual, he didn’t have much to say. Seeing him get excited about a certain game or screaming his head off in terror during a particular amusement ride was enough for me. I’d ask him if wanted to eat this or that, and he’d enthusiastically shake his head. I’d ask him if he was brave enough for a certain ride, and he’d puff out his chest and, in a low voice, say, “Yes sirree!” On the drive back, he fell asleep in the passenger seat, and I felt a sense of pride and protectiveness I never thought I’d feel. I wondered if I could have felt any better had he really been mine—either my own son or my grandson, it didn’t matter. I imagined that my heart would explode if that were the case.
We reached the house just as the summer sun was setting. Tiffany had probably just started her shift at the bar, and the grandmother was probably soaking her feet in the living room. I carried Tommy from my car, through my apartment, and up the back stairs. The boyfriend opened the door. “What the fuck is this?” he asked. Tommy stirred.
“Tiffany said I could take Tommy to the fair today.” Had he really not noticed that the boy was gone? “He’s exhausted. I could just put him down in his bed and be gone.”
He scoffed. “I’d bet you’d like to take him to bed.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “What?”
“You old perv. Put my grandson down.”
I gently shook Tommy so he’d wake and knelt to put him on the ground. His eyes opened, but he was barely awake. “We’re home, Tommy.”
“Tommy!” Pete shouted. “Get your ass inside!”
“Give him a second, friend. He’s barely awake.”
Pete grabbed my arm and pulled me up to his level. “I’m not your friend, pal.”
I pulled my arm back. “And I’m not your pal, friend.”
“You know, I’ve had enough of you hanging around my grandson—”
“He’s not your grandson,” I muttered.
“What did you say?”
I looked him straight in the eye and, louder this time. “He’s not your grandson. You’re not even married to his grandmother.”
He stepped closer to me. “And I bet you’re real jealous of that aren’t you? I see how you are with the boy and with Tiffany. You want to be part of this family. Well, you’re not. So keep your pervy self away from us.” He pushed me back with his healthy hand and the hand that was still in a dirty cast. “I don’t want no child-fucker coming up here.” He looked at Tommy who was standing directly behind me. “From now on, boy, you don’t play in the backyard.” He looked back at me again. “We should probably call the police on this sexual offender here.” He poked me in the chest, and I’m not sure what came over me, but that’s when something shut off in my brain. Between being pushed around by this bully, being called a pedophile, and, worst of all, having Tommy taken away, the rage took over and my mind went blank.
I didn’t remember at the time, when the police questioned me. I barely remembered at the trial. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because my lawyer advised me heavily against testifying, telling me that the district attorney was a master at turning people’s words around on them. You were there—you saw how everything got twisted. But, after the sentencing and after getting settled in jail—if one can ever get settled in jail—what happened next came back to me.
I hadn’t fought another man in decades. I was never a fighter in the first place. But my instincts took over and I pulled my right arm back to punch the bastard in the face. I must have stepped back, or at least moved enough of my body backward in the windup that I knocked into Tommy, who was still partially asleep. He fell backward. The wooden railing on the stairs was rotten just enough to break. You saw the pictures during the trial; I think your newspaper printed a few of them. Tommy, splayed on the ground, his back broken and limbs bent in unnatural shapes, eyes wide open, blood pooling under his slight body.
When the police came, I was in shock. The flashing red lights from the ambulance, all the questions from the police. The handcuffs were on so tight the tips of my fingers tingled. I was barely able to speak, and it was that silence that allowed Pete and Lily to paint me as a pedophile, as someone who had kidnapped the boy that day, probably taken him to some hotel, and done the unspeakable. No amount of denials from Tiffany helped—they said that she had somehow been brainwashed. No amount of proof had helped—receipts from the county fair, video of us driving in and out of the parking lot. At one point, as you know, they found some parents from the buildings I built to say that I came around and flirted with their children. Combine all those lies with a district attorney up for reelection and a jury suspicious of a single man living alone interested in helping out a neighbor boy, and I was toast.
So that’s why I’m writing you today, telling you this story. Yes, it was my carelessness that caused Tommy’s death, but I’m not the man they claim I am. I had just wanted a child of my own, a boy to play catch with, a son to spoil at the state fair. I know there’s no new evidence, there’s no chance of appeal. But, I was hoping that you could help me get my side of the story out, at least. Your coverage seemed fair. The Daily Freeman never ran an editorial against me, and one time I looked into your eyes as you sat in the gallery and I could see something resembling sympathy, like somehow you knew that this wasn’t what it seemed. You could come and we could talk, and then, if you decide, only if you decide, you could do a story.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they let me have visitors.
by Tim Fredrick
Tim Fredrick is a fiction writer, teacher, editor, and book designer. His short-story collection, We Regret to Inform You, was called “captivating” by IndieReader. His work has been published in Burningword, Pif Magazine, Wilde Magazine, and Em Dash Literary Magazine. Tim is the executive director and founding editor of Newtown Literary, a literary journal and nonprofit organization supporting the work of writers in Queens, NY. He has been profiled in The Daily News, Poets & Writers Readings and Events Blog, and DNAinfo, and has been featured on WBAI’s “State of the Arts NYC” and NY1. For more information, visit timfredrick.com.
About the Artwork
The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.