Melanie hid in the corner so she couldn’t be seen through the little window in the front door. She crossed her fingers. Don’t knock, don’t knock, she mouthed. Her son Isaac grinned.
The knock came, tentative and feeble.
“You don’t have to open the door to that witchy trash, Sweetheart,” Melanie’s mother, Naomi, said.
Melanie shushed her mother and opened the door.
“How do, Miss,” said the woman thus revealed, the one Isaac had spotted coming up the street, the one who had pestered them too many times and had no real business here and always left a bad smell and even now was standing outside the screen door with her face like watery dough.
“Hello, Mrs. Packer,” Melanie said timidly.
“Don’t you look pretty today, dear?” said Mrs. Packer, and raised her tobacco-stained fingers as if in awe at the sight of Melanie. “Fresh as a flower. Might I trouble you for a glass of water, dear? So warm today, and I don’t drive anymore, you know.”
“Of course, Mrs. Packer,” Melanie said, and moved to get it.
“My, and who’s this?” Mrs. Packer said. Melanie was surprised to realize the old woman had opened the screen door and come in behind her uninvited. “This can’t be little Isaac, can it?” She pinched his cheek with her brown fingers. He jerked away. “Seems only a month or so ago I saw you out riding your trike, and here you are a big strong young man.” This time her hand fixed on his bicep, caressing up under the sleeve of his T-shirt.
“Get the water, Melanie,” Naomi said, springing to her feet. “And then Mrs. Packer can be on her way. I’m sure she has things to do.”
Melanie was grateful for the chance to slip away, if only for a moment. It put her beyond the smell, for one thing—human feces and hairspray and the kind of cigarettes old men smoked when Melanie was little. At the same time, she resented her mother for taking charge. It was Melanie’s house, after all, and if she felt visitors should be treated with a modicum of courtesy, why couldn’t her mother respect that? The water shrushed from the tap and made violent little patterns in the glass. She thought better of it and poured the water into a Solo cup. She heard her mother’s voice from the next room, giving tight-lipped, barely civil answers to questions she couldn’t quite hear. The glass, she noticed, had a residue of oily sediment. As if Mrs. Packer’s presence had already contaminated it from a distance.
“I’ll bet you have all kinds of girlfriends,” Mrs. Packer was saying as Melanie returned. “Big handsome boy like you. You probably have to beat them off with a stick.” Isaac looked miserable. Melanie felt guilty for not staying in the room with him. She felt guilty that he had inherited her shyness, her inability to tell people no. This was the one thing she envied her mother.
“He said he didn’t,” Naomi said. “Here’s your water, Mrs. Packer.” She took it out of Melanie’s hand almost roughly, slopping some over the side. Melanie felt she should offer a different cup, but already her mother had given it to Mrs. Packer and planted herself in front of the old lady, arms crossed. Anyone else would have taken the hint.
Mrs. Packer gulped, looked alarmed as if she might choke, then gulped more. Melanie was afraid she might have a seizure. Perhaps they should let her sit down for a while, out of the heat.
“Oh, that’s good,” Mrs. Packer said, and smacked her lips. The motion revealed a green smudge on her lower gum, like a sutured wound. “I think I’ve seen you in your yard, Miss,” she said, meaning Naomi, who was hardly young enough to be a miss. “With those beds of geraniums, on Fourth Street? Yes, I thought so. I tapped on your door the other day to pay you a call, but no one answered. Who’s that handsome man I see you with, that drives the green Ford? Your son, I imagine. Your family is so blessed.”
“My husband,” Naomi said.
“Oh, my, you must have to keep a tight rein on him!” Mrs. Packer set the flimsy cup on an end table.
“We won’t detain you any longer, Mrs. Packer,” Naomi said.
“Before I go, dear, I wonder if I might use your restroom.”
The thought struck both Naomi and Melanie speechless.
“It must be this way,” Mrs. Packer said, starting down the hallway.
“On your left,” Melanie said feebly.
“Here’s my chance,” Isaac said. He bolted through the screen door. Melanie saw his dark head reappear through the window, heard the clatter of his bike.
“The woman is insufferable,” Naomi said, so loudly Melanie was afraid Mrs. Packer must have heard. “You should never have let her in.”
“I didn’t!” Melanie said. “She came in without being asked.”
“She’s probably going through your medicine cabinet at this very moment.”
The wait was long. Melanie gazed down the hall. The bathroom door was still shut. She tiptoed down the hall to Isaac’s room. The notion had struck her that the old woman might be prowling about the house, maybe even stealing things. Or just pawing through dresser drawers with her smelly hands. Isaac’s door stood closed. She opened it and stuck her head inside. He wouldn’t approve of that, but this felt almost like an emergency. He was neat for a teenaged boy. His comic books stood ranged in white boxes. The fringed spread covered his bed and hung only slightly askew. She shut the door.
Everything seemed in order in hers and Herb’s room as well. She shut that door, too. Now she should be able to hear if Mrs. Packer took a wrong turn on her way back. She had been in the bathroom a very long time. Just then the central air hummed to life. Melanie hadn’t counted on that. It might be just loud enough to cover any noise Mrs. Packer made. The air coming from the vent over her head gave a whiff of something unpleasant. She felt suddenly as if Mrs. Packer might open the bathroom door at any moment and discover her prowling about, keeping an eye. She rushed back to the living room.
Naomi sat on the couch, paging furiously through a catalog. “Isn’t she out yet?” she snapped.
“I’m sure she’ll be out soon,” Melanie said.
“I hope she hasn’t had a stroke in there,” Naomi said. “That’s all you need.”
Melanie got out the duster she used for the ceiling fan and telescoped its handle out and went to work. Naomi cast an angry glance down the hall, then went into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, with the ceiling fan cleaner and the contaminated glass washed and so forth, both women had run out of things to do that could be done while you were waiting for someone to get out of your house.
“Ridiculous,” Naomi said.
“You don’t have to stay, Mother.”
“I don’t want that lunatic taking advantage of you. Her whole family’s trash. Always have been. Always talking about the witchy stuff they can do, but then they go around town begging for handouts and shoplifting. If they think they can do magic, why do they have to steal?”
“Should I knock on the door and ask if she’s all right?” Melanie said, so weakly even she realized she wouldn’t be able to do that.
Just then they heard Mrs. Packer’s voice. “Oh, what a handsome boy! I feel like I could eat him up.”
Melanie went to the hall and found Mrs. Packer admiring the family photos hanging there.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Packer said. “I’m sure he’ll turn out all right, even if he hasn’t shown any interest in girls yet. Some of them, it takes time.” Melanie clamped her hand over her nose and mouth. She did this before she even realized she’d been struck by a horrible smell—not just a bathroom odor, either. It was like a hospital somehow. Instantly she felt her gesture as an affront to Mrs. Packer, but Mrs. Packer didn’t seem to notice. In fact, she slipped her arm through Melanie’s and led her back to the living room.
“While I’m here, dear, I’ll just make a few calls. I’m afraid my sisters will be worried.” She looked expectantly at Melanie, but Melanie hardly knew what to say. Making phone calls would probably force Mrs. Packer to let go of her arm. That seemed absolutely necessary, because her hand felt like a balloon full of warm fluid on Melanie’s skin and the smell of ferment was intolerable. But phone calls would keep her in the house longer! And she’d be touching the phone! And the phone was in the kitchen, so she might casually touch the sheet cake that lay cooling there.
“Where’s your phone, Dear?” Mrs. Packer prompted. She opened her mouth to prod at her wounded gum, which seemed to seep in response, releasing an entirely new smell.
“You’ll have to make your calls somewhere else,” Naomi said, barging between them. “We have things to do.” She took Mrs. Packer by the arm. Melanie saw Naomi flinch from the feel of that arm, then grip it tightly nonetheless and guide Mrs. Packer toward the door.
“Oh, I understand,” Mrs. Packer said. “So many chores to do with a young family. Just one more sip of that water.” She plucked the cup from the end table as Naomi rushed her past it. Melanie was afraid it would hurt Mrs. Packer to move so fast. She was also afraid her mother would get those smells on her hands.
“Feel free to take it with you,” Naomi said. She pushed the screen door open, not relinquishing her hold on Mrs. Packer.
“Oh,” Mrs. Packer said tragically. She turned the cup upside down to show that it was empty. Melanie moved forward, meaning to refill it for her, but already Naomi had maneuvered Mrs. Packer onto the porch. She stood facing them, her back propping open the screen door, as if she meant to come back in, but already Naomi was shutting the big wooden door. Just as it closed, Melanie thought she saw on Mrs. Packer’s face a look of rage.
And then she almost had to laugh, because there went Isaac whizzing by on his bicycle, glancing at the house and then away. Had the poor boy been riding around the neighborhood all this time, watching for his chance to come home?
Sunday the wind blew sand along he street in fitful bursts. The heat was dry, so they had the windows open and the cooler off. Herb sat in his undershirt reading the sports section, and Isaac the comics. Melanie glanced in on them from time to time as she made the green salad and the tuna salad. Why she should look in on them, she didn’t know; sand storms always made her nervous.
“Let go of me,” she heard Isaac say. Doubtless his father had grabbed him by the toe or some such foolishness, which was exactly the sort of rough-housing the shy boy didn’t like. Herb shouldn’t pester him that way, but then that didn’t mean Isaac should use such an ugly tone with his father. All these thoughts ran through her head in an instant.
“What is it, son?” Herb said. He didn’t sound concerned, but by now Melanie was. And then Herb bellowed and Isaac screamed at once.
The first thing Melanie saw from the living room doorway was Mrs. Packer’s face. She stood outside the window, smiling in with childish glee. It took Melanie a moment to see just what was happening. Mrs. Packer’s hand had somehow broken through the window screen—had she punched through? And the hand, cut bloody by the screen, had hold of Isaac somehow.
“Let go!” Herb shouted. He swatted with his newspaper.
Now Melanie was in the midst of it, and she could see Isaac’s arm turning purple where Mrs. Packer’s fingers gripped. Isaac cursed and wallowed. Herb aimed another blow at Ms. Packer’s arm, this time a hard blow with the side of his fist, but it cracked the window instead. Melanie gouged at Mrs. Packer’s hand with her fingernails. Abruptly the hand let loose and withdrew. Mrs. Packer remained standing, grinning even more broadly. The green wound on her gum glistened.
There was a knock at the door, which was only six or seven feet from Mrs. Packer. Melanie stood irresolute. A visitor? What a ridiculous thing to have to deal with at a time like this! Herb shouted at Mrs. Packer, a mere inarticulate bellow.
The door opened. A head poked in. “Just thought I’d see if you folks need any help?” the woman said. She smiled a friendly smile.
At first Melanie thought it was Mrs. Packer, but she plainly saw Mrs. Packer still standing outside the window. In fact, she was raising her hand and moving it stealthily toward the gap in the screen, as if to try again. As if they couldn’t see her. Then she recognized the woman at the door: it was Mrs. Packer’s sister, who was also a Mrs. Packer, since they had married brothers. That was long ago; both husbands had been dead for years.
“Stay out!” Herb growled. He slammed the window closed.
“Such a handsome young man! I could eat him up,” Mrs. Packer seemed to be saying, but Melanie could hardly be sure with the window closed and a sudden burst of sand clattering against it.
“Don’t let her worry you,” said the second Mrs. Packer, letting herself in. “She’s just a little out of sorts. I’ll get her a glass of water and she’ll be fine.”
Melanie moved then to stop her. She shoved the second Mrs. Packer backwards. Her hands sank in as if the woman’s blouse were stuffed with wet rags.
“What in the raggedly blue hell is going on here?” Herb said, looking from one Mrs. Packer to the other. He seemed baffled by their resemblance.
“We won’t detain you any longer, Mrs. Packer,” Melanie said to the second one, remembering her mother’s words from three days before. She also remembered her mother’s actions and, taking the second Mrs. Packer by the elbow, moved her toward the door.
“I’m used to better breeding, my dear,” the second Mrs. Packer said. She flashed a smile that would have seemed winning on a better face, but hers was as moist and doughy as her sister’s. Worse, the smile revealed that she, too, bore a sore on her gum, a bigger one like a smashed caterpillar. And yet Melanie felt guilty at the reproach.
“Get out, you old bat!” Herb said, and came looming toward them.
“You wouldn’t put your hands on a lady, would you?” the second Mrs. Packer said.
“Oh my God!” Isaac said. The first Mrs. Packer had pushed her hand through the broken window pane and was groping for him. With every wiggle of her arm, the glass cut her deeper. Isaac grabbed a shoe and hammered the arm, with better aim than his father. He struck again and again.
“Tell him to stop,” the second Mrs. Packer said. “Such rude behavior in a young man!”
And then there was a flurry, so fast Melanie could hardly understand what was happening. She was afraid Herb had punched the second Mrs. Packer. In any event she ended up on the porch, and soon her sister joined her, each crowding the other to look through the little diamond-shaped window in the door.
“Crazy old bats!” Herb yelled. “I’m calling the police!” He shouted this directly at the diamond-shaped window, so they would hear. He clicked the deadbolt into place.
“Are you all right, Sweetie?” Melanie said to Isaac. He sat on the couch, clutching his arm.
“I don’t feel so good, Mom,” he said. His arm showed pale finger marks, and between them, raised purplish skin.
“What did she do to you?” Melanie said. She heard Herb shouting into the kitchen phone.
“The Packers, I said!” he bellowed. In the silence between his shouts, she heard a door latch turning, and then a whoosh and a tickering as the wind blew in sand.
“The back door! Herb, the back door!”
The back door opened into a mud room. Even before she reached it, she could hear the second Mrs. Packer saying, “We’ll just ask them for a tea towel to bind that up. They won’t grudge us that.” And once Melanie had burst into the mud room, they didn’t seem to notice her.
“Better yet, we’ll just rustle up that towel ourselves, so we won’t have to bother them. No one could object.”
“You’re crazy!” Melanie said. “Get out of our house!”
To her surprise, the first Mrs. Packer obeyed instantly. She backed out of the house without a sound, smiling over her dripping arm.
The second Mrs. Packer, however, held her ground.
“See here, young lady. You needn’t speak so to your elders. All we ask is a tea towel to bind up that cut, which seems very little to ask, considering. I don’t like to speak ill of anybody’s husband, but he’s as much to blame for that as poor Florence. Of course men like to play rowdy. We’ll return the towel, of course. I’m sorry we can’t launder it for you.” Melanie gasped at the thought of the Packers’ laundry. She couldn’t help herself. The old woman’s talk was making her feel nauseous and vaguely sleepy.
“Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to not have money for a washer and dryer,” the second Mrs. Packer went on, running her hand along the top of Melanie’s own washer. “My sister and I have mouths to feed, you know. The responsibility for all our nieces and nephews has fallen on us, and our sister a shut-in with a special diet. We don’t have a lot of money for luxuries like some people do. Oh, my!”
This last interjection broke Melanie out of the hold Mrs. Packer’s talk had taken on her. The cause was Herb, who had seized the red broom they kept in the corner of the mud room. He brought it down as hard as he could on the second Mrs. Packer’s head. Its straws hardly rumpled her hair. Herb cursed.
“Well, I never,” she said.
Melanie heard herself screaming, over and over, for the old woman to get out. Something very bad was happening. She realized that now, though she couldn’t think quite what it was. All this nonsense had to stop. She attacked then, windmilling at the old woman. She slapped again and again, pushing her out.
The screen door screeched as the second Mrs. Packer retreated through it.
“Well, I never,” she said again.
“You did it!” Herb said triumphantly. “But where’s the other one?”
That’s when Melanie realized what the bad thing was that was happening. Back in the living room, the front door stood open, the deadbolt wrenched from its screws and glistening on the carpet. Sand pelted in. Melanie saw the couch-cushion smeared with blood surprisingly thick, like the leavings after a serving of Jell-O. What she did not see, ever again, was Isaac.