I had a neighbor who said she kept a whistle by the telephone. Whenever a telemarketer called, she’d blow the whistle into the phone’s receiver. I wasn’t sure whether this was a terrible or a brilliant idea. Her name was Helen, and for ten years, she lived across the street from me. Helen was a nurse. She worked evenings and some weekends on the cardiology floor of the children’s hospital. I didn’t see her often, but when I did, it was usually from my porch. We’d wave at each other across our lawns, then she’d say something, but of course I couldn’t hear her, our voices lost in all that landscaping. Inevitably we’d get up and walk slowly across the grass, and for a few minutes, standing by our mailboxes, we’d talk.
Helen’s stories were mostly about kids with bad hearts, hearts that pumped too fast, or not fast enough, or hard enough, stories where the kids aren’t necessarily going to get better. I’m sure there were lots of uplifting stories too, but Helen didn’t share those stories with me, just the sad ones. As far as I knew, Helen had never married. She lived alone. Boyfriend, maybe, though I never saw him. There were cats, a pair of them. I’d been inside her house maybe five times in that many years.
“So whatever happened with the raccoons?” I asked her one evening. As we stood in the road, the sun seemed to take a deep breath before falling behind the mountains.
“I haven’t seen them in a few days,” Helen said. “But they’ll be back.” She folded her arms over her scrubs. The air had grown colder, and Helen’s porch light came on. The row of trees by my driveway looked like motionless giants. I looked past them to my house, two rectangles of light winking through the leaves, and then I was alone in the dark seclusion of my living room, Friday night, can opener in one hand, TV remote in the other.
It started to rain. Just a whisper on the roof at first, then a steady downpour. I stood up and walked to the window, listening to water rushing from the gutters.
There is one story in particular, the story of a boy with liver disease. He was not under Helen’s care, but being a friend’s son, she stopped in frequently to check on him. This boy was very young, only six when he died. Toward the end, his skin grew waxy and began to turn orange, until even his eyes took a yellow tint. I imagine him often, curled up on his hospital bed, sucking on a sheet corner with his sandpaper tongue. That was not a boy, I sometimes think.
The phone rang. It was Helen. “I’m sorry Mark,” she said. “I know it’s raining. But he’s back. The big male with the stripe over his eye. Can you come?”
Of all the things Helen tried–a cinderblock, a bungee cord over the lid–the raccoon was one step ahead of her, leaving a trail of garbage down her driveway for her to pick up in the morning.
“I just don’t get it,” Helen said, standing beside me in her kitchen. “They make such a mess, and I hardly ever hear them.”
It started with a chicken carcass, the bones found hanging from her shrubs like deranged Christmas ornaments. Then the little wooden owl went missing from her porch, the one holding a set of spare house keys. Soon after, a bag of cat litter left on the porch overnight was split down the middle. “Quite the mess,” Helen said.
“So where is he?” I asked, looking through the window at her rain-slick driveway.
“That’s the thing,” she said. “I didn’t actually see him this time. I just heard him scratching the garage door. I know he’s out there.”
Helen left the kitchen. When she returned, she handed me a towel. My sneakers had made a pool of water on the tile. “You’re soaking,” she said. “Whatever happened to rain coats?” There was something about doctors and nurses, the way they moved, and spoke, islands of hope in the middle of all that sadness. I always thought they carried a certain kind of grace.
The boy with the orange skin was always thirsty. Helen brought him ice cubes wrapped in paper towels. The boy used the ice to wet his chapped lips, and then he let the ice melt against his swollen cheeks, and on the puffy crescents under his eyes. Doctors allowed him cups of water, little six ounce Styrofoam cups that were never enough. The boy’s eyes flashed around the room, looking for familiar faces, for Helen, maybe, but mostly for his father. Where was his father? His eyes were like marbles, orange and glassy. Doll’s eyes. His skin seemed to molt, flaking away and falling onto the linoleum.
The rain was coming down hard now. Wind pushed the rain sideways, a flurry of stars sparking under the flood lamp before fading into nothing.
“I have an idea,” Helen said. “I think it’s the lights. Let’s turn them off and see if he comes back.”
“Then what?” I said.
Helen turned off the porch lamp, followed by the kitchen lights, until it was just us standing in the dark, listening to the rain and the sound of our own breathing.
“I need to tell you something, Mark,” Helen said. She paused. The house seemed to sigh under the pressure of the wind.
“About the raccoon?” I asked.
“Who gives a fuck about the raccoon.”
The thing about the boy is this: it was more than just the story of a boy with a bad liver, a boy who was dying alone in the hospital. It was also the story of the father who was afraid to visit him. Afraid of what, exactly? Afraid of the boy? Of himself?
“I think I understand now,” Helen said. “I thought of you alone in your house and I just needed to tell you that. Not that it makes a difference. But I think I understand why you stopped coming to visit your boy.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Helen had said what she needed to say, and now she was quiet.
It wasn’t just Helen’s story, though she was a part of it. It was a story about the boy, and it was a story about the father.
I looked outside, but it was just the rain and the wind and the trees swaying in the dark.
“Can I turn on the lights now?”
“Okay,” Helen said.