It was a couple summers ago. August. We packed with economy, tidied the house, and set off for Virginia. Charles and Katherine, a lawyer and periodontist, agreed to stop in and replenish the water and food dishes for our parrot and lovebird. I gave them a key and left the burglar alarm off to make it easier for them to come and go. This was Queens, and one never knows, but I’d read somewhere that a good thief hardly cares about house alarms. A good thief is deterred by radio or television noise. So instead, I left our Alexa playing NPR loud and clear. Nestor, the parrot, had learned to say, “Alexa lower!” and “Alexa off!” but I knew I could control it through my Alexa app, so I felt at ease, or as much at ease as was possible, with the drug dealers living next door.
It had taken me a while to see it after we bought the house. Somehow I didn’t realize that the cars pulling up at all hours, visited at their windows by a young man who lived with his mother, who looked as young as he does, were doing anything but stopping by for a quick hello. We didn’t really interact with these neighbors, beyond a polite wave when we saw them, which was rare. They were night people, generally. That’s how the few other neighbors described them when I started asking around.
“They’re night people,” they would say. “You don’t see them much.”
It was the raid at dawn that opened my eyes. It was early in our second year living in the new house, which is really an old house that costs so much to keep standing that a new house would’ve been cheaper. That morning, my wife Kristen and I were sprung awake by the sound of our neighbors’ front and back door being smashed in simultaneously, and shouts of, “Police! Stay down!” From our bedroom window, we saw police cars and vans, marked and unmarked, splayed across the street like they’d swarmed in from all angles and slammed on the breaks. There were cops with body shields, helmets, flashlights, and guns drawn.
“I hope they’re innocent,” Kristen said.
“Innocent? I hope they find enough drugs in there for the death penalty. I want them out!”
“Go to sleep,” she said, pulling the covers over her head. “Don’t wish bad things on people.”
I watched the raid through the slats of our window blinds. As the sun began to rise it became easier to see the police going in and out, carrying boxes and bags. I wondered how our kids hadn’t woken up with all the noise. I envied them. I was exhausted. This was valuable sleep time I was missing. We were both teachers – my wife in an elementary school on Long Island, and I at a college in Westchester. It would be at least 18 hours before I’d be in bed again.
First they came out with the mother. She was screaming angrily in Spanish. I could still hear her even after they put her into one of the vans. Then they marched the young man out. He was yelling too, but in English.
“Don’t even TRY touching my mami!” he was saying, which I found odd since they had certainly already touched, cuffed and stuck his mami into the paddy wagon. They put him in the back of one of the cars. I could see him through the window. Early twenties, I guessed, but he looked like a little kid, crying and banging his head against the front seat.
An hour later, everything was over. We marched our own kids into the back of my car for school. Only one cop remained parked at the curb, writing something.
“’Morning, officer,” I said, before I got in my car.
“Drugs?” I said.
“Uh…yeah,” he said. I blushed.
Two days later, mami and the young man were back. For a week or so, no customers. A month later it was business as usual. I asked other neighbors if they knew about this particular activity of the “night people.”
“Oh yeah,” Tony said, he was the eighty-year-old that lived across the street. “They’re dealin’. The mother taught the kid the family business. I didn’t want to say anything to you when you were lookin’ to buy the house.”
“Of course!” Joanne said, she lived on the other side of our house. “Been doing it for years. One night a junky rang my doorbell and my husband almost killed him. Back when he was still my husband.”
“What are you blind?” Ray from the corner house said. “Before that kid did some time, they used to have loud ass parties all night.”
Eli was his name, I learned. He was 24. Dropped out of the local high school. Some said the place was a “Section 8” house, and the government paid the rent while neither had a job. The slept all day, smoked all night, and served as a local drug drive-through. So I guess that was their job.
“We’ve dropped our entire life savings and will pay a mortgage until we’re eighty to live next to THIS?” I said one day, a couple years after the raid, as I watched Eli through the window. He was yelling at some guy with a bat in his hand.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kristen said. “They don’t bother us.”
“They bother me!” I said. “Look at that!”
“It’s not like we don’t yell,” she said. “Maybe they hear us at homework time.”
“Nora, finish your math or you don’t get your iPhone is a bit different than, I’ll slit your throat motherfucker,” I said.
“He’s always nice when I see him,” Kristen said.
I hated everything about them. The drug deals, the fights, the mess of weeds and junk in their little yard, the two pit bulls who pooped with gusto in their backyard, which, though separated from ours by our tall, white PVC fence, was never cleaned up. At night, if I heard a car pull up, I’d flip the lights out in whatever room I was in and peer out between the blinds, wishing disaster upon them all. If it wasn’t a silent drug deal, I’d hear their voices at one of two loud extremes. One was riotous laughing, the other was expletive-loaded conflict in Spanglish. I wondered if there were ways I could get them evicted.
“We’ve tried everything,” Tony said. “The cops, wrote the councilman, even went to the newspaper. Nothing. It’s a big scam too, the owner lives in the basement.”
They weren’t the only thing I hated. I hated what we’d made of our lives by moving out of our rented apartment. From the moment we moved in and spent whatever money we had left fixing stuff, I was a man in terror. I was afraid when leaks came, when the boiler pilot light failed, when the roof looked worn, when the gutters were stuffed, when the property tax rose, when termites were discovered, when appliances broke, and when the electric bill grew to four times what we ever paid in apartments. I was afraid of so many things. By buying this house, I felt, we’d ruined our lives.
“I love this house,” my wife would say. “We’ll live the rest of our lives in it.”
“That’s because it’s ‘gonna collapse on us.”
“Oh by the way, Eli next door gave me his cell phone number.”
“What?” I screamed.
“He said his basketball bounces into our yard sometimes. He said if we ever see it to call him and he’ll come get it.”
“That makes no sense,” I said. “We can just throw it back.”
“Well, that’s what he said. He seemed nice,” she said.
“Well you better not text him or you’ll end up subpoenaed someday. That’s one Rolodex you don’t want to be in.”
A few months before our vacation, Tony waved me across the street. He whispered that a piece of mail from a bank was misdelivered into his mailbox. He opened it and learned that the night people’s house was in “pre-foreclosure.” It gave me something to hope for: another raid in the near future. This time, the bank’s marshals, sticking them all into cars and vans for good. Maybe their end was near.
I wasn’t always like this. There was ample mayhem in our apartment life in Manhattan. We lived above a cheating fireman whose girlfriend was a nurse at Beth Israel. They made all kinds of noise. Two buildings down from us a Greek mobster sat on a plastic chair all day watching an unmarked door at the back of a deli. Our apartment had roaches, and word was that two crazy twins on the top floor were so filthy that the roaches would go to other tenants’ apartment just for a gasp of fresh air. There was crime…robberies, car break-ins, gang graffiti, whatever…typical New York City, which I’d never stopped loving. We had kids now, though, and moved to this neighborhood because it was a kind of compromise. Still the city, but sort of the suburbs and somehow, I’d changed. I had property, and since I’d shackled myself to it forever, it felt like the view through the window slits ought to be pleasant and reflective of having done the right thing for my family that would doubtless be happy, and safe, forever.
We had made friends in the area, and it takes a village, so this was important. They were the kind of friends who, even as we’d just left four hours earlier for Virginia, two days before they had to, already came to check on our birds.
“The birdies are looking fine!” Kathy, the periodontist said.
“Aw, you guys are the best!” I said into our Volkswagon Tiguan’s handsfree speaker.
“NPR is playing. Something about Bernie Sanders,” she said. “Want this on?”
“Yes that’s our security system,” I said. “We don’t want Republicans breaking in.”
We all had a laugh.
“We’ll come back tomorrow and check them again,” she said. “Have a great vacation!”
It typically took the birds three whole days to empty their water and food – so really they only needed to come over twice in the seven days we’d be gone, but they were worriers, like me.
Colonial Williamsburg has people who dress up and pretend it’s long ago. You walk around, visit the shops, taverns, the smithy, stables, milliner’s shop, courthouse, even the jail, and the people hard at work with their hands and tools like it’s 1770, except that most of the places have air conditioning, thank goodness. The town and craftspeople are not only actors but historians too – they can answer your questions as if they’re actual British subjects, and you’ve just shown up from the future on a typical workday.
I loved it. We stayed in our own little cottage that was built in the 18th Century, and kept in the original décor. It too had air conditioning, and maid service, but opening the door with the skeleton key, walking into the sparse, shadowy parlor, sitting on the heavy, leather-bound chair by the hearth, I felt something calming. A sweet simplicity, something I never felt at our own house, and I tried to think of how when we’d get back to Queens, I’d make the place more like this one.
We got a great deal on the trip because August is hot as blazes in Virginia, so prices were lower. Our second morning we enjoyed our package-included breakfast, then started our day of touring. We took pictures of ourselves in the stockades, then attended a Native American-themed event with an actual teepee and weapons demonstration. We thought this was all very important for our kids to see. This trip was not only about relaxing, but learning.
On our walk to the restaurant for dinner, we ran into an African American man playing an enslaved person who talked to us about the horrors of the Middle Passage. Our kids asked him lots of questions. I mentioned that we’d voted for Obama and believed in reparations. He said he had no idea what that meant, but did say, “These rich white men gather here and talk about liberty. Freedom. But what will that word ever mean to me? To my people?” My eldest said she didn’t know, but that she heard about all this in Social Studies. The man smiled warmly at her, then at all of us, and wished us a delicious dinner.
It was the third night, and we’d just come back to the cottage from a long hot day of exploring, followed by a hearty meal at a tavern George Washington ate at over fifty times. We had tickets to a “Ghost Walk” tour that started in about ten minutes. The girls were in their room watching television. I sat at the hearth, staring at the empty fireplace. My phone rang. It was Kathy.
“Marc,” she said.
“Hello! How’s the hood? The King’s colony is thriving but there is talk of revolution!”
“I’m at your house.”
“Thank you again, so much. How are those birds doing?”
“I can’t get in,” she said. She sounded like she was going to cry. “I think we locked the doorknob by mistake. The doorknob won’t turn.”
I’d only given them the key for the deadbolt. I forgot about the doorknob because we never lock it. It has a tiny dial you can turn from inside to make it unmovable. It requires its own key, which was inside the house.
“We must have locked it that first day on the way out,” she said, upset. I then heard Charles, the lawyer, her husband. He sounded angry.
“Why did you lock this Kath!” Charles said. “Jesus Christ!”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so stupid!” she said.
“No!” I said. “This is nothing, don’t worry.”
If nobody could get in, it was quite possible that both exotic birds would be dead in two days. To save money I’d set the central air to 85 degrees, figuring their natural habitat was the hot rain forest. Now I wondered how fast the birds’ remaining drinking water would evaporate.
“Is there any other way into the house?” Kathy asked.
“Um…no, not without breaking a window,” I said. “The basement door is a steel storm door and it’s triple locked from inside. I had it put it in after the drug raid.”
“I’m so sorry for this!” she said.
Kristen came in.
“The girls are ready,” she said cheerily. “It’s time go see some ghosts!”
My heart was racing now. I thought of the old credit card slip trick I learned in college. It was the first time I’d ever had my own keys and I locked them in my dorm room regularly. I’d never had occasion to try the trick on our house door, but since it was that same type of doorknob, I thought it might work, despite the thick metal security plate I’d had put in around it, also after the raid.
“Either of you know how to use a credit card to open a door?” I asked, adding a bit of a fake chuckle in the question.
“I don’t,” Kathy said. “What is that?”
I tried to describe the method, but it came out unclear. It’s an art, really. You have to feel it.
“Can be any kind of card. Library card, college I.D….” I said.
“Let’s see,” she said. “Stop and Shop card?”
“Sure!” I said, “But use something you won’t need. It’ll get bent.”
She gave it a try.
“It’s not working,” she said. “And the card snapped in half.”
Charles stepped up. I had hope for him. He grew up on a farm in Indiana. He was driving and firing rifles at eight years old. He knew how things worked. I could hear the clicks and knocks of his attempts.
“Shit!” I heard him say.
I was already Googling locksmiths on my phone.
“Please don’t worry about it, I’ll send a locksmith,” I said.
“Oh no!” Katherine cried. “I’m just so, so sorry.”
“Don’t be” I said. “I should’ve warned about the doorknob! I would have done the same as you!”
Charles had gone around the house to look for open windows.
“Kath, please tell Chuck I’ll send a locksmith tomorrow. Just leave the key under the mat.”
“Are you sure? she said.
“Yes. And please forget about this, it’s fine. The birds are fine!”
We hung up, I called a locksmith cell number I found that seemed to service our area. I left a message asking for a price, then scrambled to get out the door and catch up with my family, who were down the dirt road toward the ghost tour meeting place. I texted Joanne, who said she’d never done the card thing either. I tried to think of nearby friends who I thought could have learned the credit card trick at some point in their lives. I called Tony, across the street.
“Nah, I’ve never tried that,” he said. “Get a locksmith. There’s one on Northern Boulevard. It’s after hours so it’ll cost ya’.”
I thanked him and kept thinking. It was almost dark. By now, the tour crowd was assembled and led to a small outdoor theatre. A woman wearing a bonnet talked about how ghosts lived all over Colonial Williamsburg.
My next thought was Ray, but then I remembered he was in Florida. There was Freddy, another friend and dad who lived a few blocks away. He was a Teamster and carpenter who worked on film and TV sets. If he couldn’t do it, nobody could. I called and got his voice mail. Whispering, I rushed it a bit.
“Freddy, it’s Marc. My doorknob is locked, I’m away and the birds are inside. Wondered if you could give me a buzz.” I hung up and saw the locksmith had texted back. $175 dollars before tax with no guarantee the door wouldn’t be damaged. I felt sick.
“Our first stop will be the House of Mr. George Wythe,” the tour guide said. Kristen and the girls followed along. There were about ten people on our tour. “Mr. Wythe was anti-slavery, even though he owned slaves…” she began.
“That makes no sense,” I said to Kristen, who shushed me.
The guide started a story, but all I had in my head was math. $175 dollars was about what we paid for dinner at Washington’s favorite tavern. That would make a $400 dollar evening with the tour price, having nothing to show for it but a temporary sensation of being full, a bunch of made up ghost stories and an unlocked doorknob.
“Kristen,” I whispered.
“Shush,” she said, keeping her focus on the tour guide.
“Give me Eli’s phone number,” I said.
She thought I was kidding and ignored me. I took her phone out of her bag and looked it up. I found “Eli Neighbor” in her contacts. I sent a text: Eli – Marc from next door. Friends feeding our pets while we are away locked selves out. Wondered if you knew the credit card trick to get in. Top lock key under mat if so. Thanks!
I sent it, then regretted it immediately. I’d just told an ex and most likely future convict who has drug customers pulling in all night that I was on vacation and my house was empty.
“Next we will head to the Public Jail,” the tour guide said.
I sent another text: Eli, please ignore that text. We’re home soon anyway. All good. Thanks!
I’d call the locksmith. I’d cut my losses. It was pitch dark now. I tried to focus on the tour guide.
“This story is a special spooky one,” she said.
I couldn’t get Eli out of my mind. I reached for the phone and wrote yet another text: Sorry to bother about that. It’s all good now. Hope you are well and see you soon!
I pictured him and his mami, and all his customers, already headed to our door with sacks and suitcases. I wanted to scream.
“So,” the guide continued. “Prisoners of all kinds were kept here, and they would pace, back and forth, awaiting their trial, or execution…”
My phone vibrated in my pocket. Freddy.
“So,” he said, a bit of a laugh in his voice. “Can you clarify that voice message?”
I explained the situation, and asked if he knew the credit card trick.
“If there’s a small gap,” he said. “You slide the card in to push the spring-loaded latch away from the catch. May or may not be possible depending on how much gap there is.”
I thanked him for the technical explanation, then asked if he could do it.
“Let me get this straight. You’re calling a black guy to come break into your house at night through the front door?”
I didn’t know what to answer to that. Luckily he laughed and said he’d be there in five minutes. I thanked him profusely and hung up.
“My first day of work,” the tour guide continued. “The jail door wouldn’t open. I was told by my co-workers that I had to ask the resident ghost if I was welcome, and worthy of entering his home. And only then…it opened.”
“That’s a thought,” I said to Kristen, my mood lifted by Freddy. “Maybe I should ask that ghost to go open ours.”
As the tour guide led us to the next stop, a text came. It was Eli.
Yo man, I’ll be home in an hour. No problem bro.
It was as if he’d read nothing but my very first text. I wrote back right away: Eli, no worries. All set. My pal’s taking care of it. He’s a carpenter. Thanks again!
Then the phone vibrated. I figured it was Freddie, and I got excited. It was Tony, from across the street.
“I got my eyes on a black guy right now at your door.”
“Tony that’s my friend!”
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Next we have the Peyton Randolph House,” the guide continued, as we walked across the green quad in the town center. “It’s considered the most haunted house in America!”
The phone vibrated again. Freddy again.
“I’m here,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“I have the right implements,” he said. “But there’s no way to jimmy the door lock without damaging the wooden door jam. The clearance is nil. There’s no gap at all.”
“Ah, gotcha,” I said, crestfallen. “And that wood piece would cost way more than-”
“A locksmith,” he said, like it was no big deal. “A hundred bucks and they’ll open it.”
“More than that, dear Freddy,” I thought to myself. I thanked him, we said goodnight and hung up. I noticed another text.
Looking like another hour, hermano. Will FaceTime you when I’m there.
Why was this guy not reading my texts? I wrote back: Eli please. Don’t bother. A farmer, periodontist and carpenter all tried it. Don’t waste your time. Thanks again, hermano!
I sent the text, put the phone in my pocket, took a deep breath and tried once again to listen to the guide. We were at the final stop and I’d barely heard any of the stories. At this particular house, the smallest one we’d come to, she claimed that noises were often heard, beautiful harpsichord music, late in the night.
“Of course, some life stories turn out very sad,” the guide said, suddenly quite sympathetic. “We think the person who lived here was a mother of a thief. Her grief for her son was so terrible, so relentless that her spirit can’t help but to linger here forever, tinkering out the songs she would play for him as a little boy, before he grew to be a criminal. At thirty he was given the death penalty. He was hanged.”
Hours later we lay under our canopied, 18th Century bed. I was angry with myself for forgetting to explain our doorknob to Kathy and Charles, and even more angry for not setting the alarm. Mostly I was angry for panicking and inviting Eli to get involved. I felt I deserved to be robbed, and pay a locksmith to boot. But after a bit of ale we bought at the market, and thinking back over the evening, I felt better. I thought to myself how amazing it was that we had friends like we did. Freddy ran over when I asked, Tony kept watch, and Kathy and Charles cared so much about us and our pets. I felt a longing to be home. Not to guard the place, but because it was home. That’s the value of getting away once in a while, I figured. One appreciates going back to be where one belongs. Maybe those ghosts that can’t seem to leave their own houses knew exactly what I was feeling.
I turned off the antique lamp beside the bed and shut my eyes.
It was hours later. I was fast asleep. The cell phone lit up the room. The ringer was off but the light woke me up. I grabbed it off the end table. Face Time. I accepted the call. Eli’s face appeared.
“Hey Marc, I’m inside,” he said.
“This Alexa is playing mad loud, bro. I don’t think the birds can sleep.” I think my mouth was open. “I’ll put your key back under the mat. I unlocked the doorknob, too. For your friends.”
“Eli…what the hell?” I said.
“Ah, sorry bro, did I wake you?”
“No! No! Not at all. Just…did you get my texts?”
“Ah yeah, sorry man. I was at the vet. Legend had a bad cut and we had a find a night vet.”
“One of my pits. The female.”
I watched him move to the Alexa and turn it down.
“Eli, I don’t know what to say. You saved me $175.”
“Ah no worries, hermano. It took me ten seconds. I used my MetroCard.”
“Ha yeah,” he said. “I’m not ‘gonna lie. I sweat it a little. Didn’t want to disappoint. I love you guys as neighbors. Your wife always waves when I see her.”
I looked at the clock across the room. It was after 2am.
“A’ight Marc,” Eli continued. “Have a great time wherever you are. Thank Jesus for the card trick!”
“I learned it in college,” I said. His face on the screen was still looking at me, smiling faintly. I didn’t know what else to say. “How’d you learn it?”
“The card trick?” he said.
“Oh. I learned it from my mami,” he said. “Goodnight Marc.”
We hung up. The phone went dark, but my eyes felt lit up. I lay there awhile, staring up at the canopy. It was silent. Not like Queens. Not like Queens at all. I got up and opened a window. I listened to the silence awhile, wondering if I’d hear that harpsichord the tour guide talked about. I waited awhile. Nothing. I thought about going out and getting closer, but I stayed put. After a while I got back into the bed, and closed my eyes, and tried to sleep.
Marc Palmieri’s plays include the New York Times’ “Critic’s Pick” Levittown, The Groundling, Carl the Second, Poor Fellas, and Waiting For The Host, the first American play written and produced for an online platform. All are published by Dramatists Play Service. His play for middle schoolers, S(cool) Days is being released by Brooklyn Publishers in Summer 2020. His screenplays include Miramax Films’ Telling You (1999). Marc has published twice in Fiction, in multiple annual Smith & Kraus Inc.’s The Best Stage Monologues, The Best Stage Scenes, The Best 10-Minute Plays and in collections of short plays and monologues by Applause Books. He received his M.A. and M.F.A. from The City College of New York, where he is Guest Faculty in the MFA Creative Writing Program. Marc lives in New York City and is full-time faculty at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry. www.marcpalmieri.com