clean, straight lines
The house loomed before him, the black shutters stark against the white façade. Leading out from the front stoop ran a pathway, each individual piece of flagstone cut into precise rectangles, and on each side the grass glistened. The lawn was even but ready to be trimmed, and Clement imagined that if he were the one who cared for it, he’d cut each side at opposing forty-five degree angles so that the pathway would sit in the middle of the apexes formed by the grass lines. That technique would take longer than the current owners’ choice of horizontal lines, a bit more maneuvering of the mower, but it would lend visitors an air of importance as they approached the house. It was the kind of extra work in which Clement would take pride. He’d never really considered living in a house like this one, but he’d worked on similar ones, and if he were the contractor he’d suggest erecting a picket fence, white of course, so that the children and pets could run safely and freely within its confines. The winters in Pennsylvania weren’t quite as brutal as in northern New York and the property would be easier to maintain. It wouldn’t be difficult at all.
A car rolled by. Clement stiffened, knowing that every tinted window could veil an official checking up on him and charting his progress. He slung his satchel over his shoulder, smoothed his shirt, and approached the house. At the stoop he paused and read the “Welcome” sign on the door; certain that the word did not apply to him, he stepped forward and pressed the button.
The chime faded. He waited. He raised a finger to ring the bell a second time, but stopped when he heard rustling within. He shuffled backwards down a single step. He looked up at the door. He tried to appear unassuming and harmless. The door opened to reveal a young woman in jogging shorts and a tank top, a green bandanna knotted at the top of her head. Clement guessed that they were roughly the same age, she perhaps a bit younger, but as he stood in the shadow of her suburban home, he couldn’t help but feel subordinate.
“Good morning,” she said. Clement hesitated, and she added, “Can I help you?”
Clement had spent two weeks rehearsing this speech, but he struggled to remember the beginning. “Good morning, ma’am, my name is Clement Dan-”
“Hun,” she said, “If you’re here to sell us something, you’ve picked the wrong house.”
Clement cleared his throat. “No ma’am,” he said, “nothing like that. I’m here to tell you, to notify you that…well, I just moved into an apartment on 86 Hickock, and-”
“Oh, just around the block? Welcome to the neighborhood!”
“No,” he continued, reaching into his bag, “I have to come to your house, to every house in the neighborhood, to notify people of my address and to show you this official notice of rehabilitation.” He pulled the certificate from the bag, but instead of taking it she placed a cautious hand on the door.
“Rehabilitated from what?”
Clement took a deep breath and dropped his eyes. “I’m a reformed sex offender,” he said, “I served two years for statutory ra-…relations.”
He’d repeated the statement countless times since his release, but now, at this house, in front of this woman, it was like he’d screamed it. He extended the certificate. The woman withdrew into the house. The door closed and the lock turned. This was his first house. He had twenty-nine to go.
Clement retreated to the road. He knew that no matter how delicately he phrased his statement, no matter how repentant he tried to appear, at every door he would find the same drawn faces looking down upon him. It seemed to Clement that people had looked at him that way even before the situation with Abby Waumbackner had spun out of control. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he’d always be a part of the landscape, and he would grow old under a crooked back, muttering “ma’ams” and “sirs” until the end.
When he’d taken the position six years before, no one in the community had seemed to think that a man in his early twenties was fit to coach a fourteen-and-under girls’ hockey team. As a teenager, Clement had been somewhat of a star in his hometown, but when he developed tendonitis in his right hand, presumably from his landscaping work, he could barely hold a stick. The hand improved, but his chance at a scholarship vanished. It had been years since he’d touched the ice when the youth hockey director approached him to fill an unexpected coaching vacancy. He accepted the job not for the minimal pay that it provided, but for the opportunity to get back into the rink. No one expected him to last the year, or for the girls to respond to his coaching so positively, or for the team to go on to such success that several team parents asked for him to return the following year. He agreed to return, but every time he left the ice facility he noticed those parents who hadn’t spoken to him, closed off in their own circles, engrossed in their own conversations.
Clement started driving Abby to practice the next season after her mother’s second DUI within the year. His apartment was only about a quarter mile from hers. She barely spoke of her family life, but Clement knew that she was an only child and her father had long since been absent. At first she would arrive at his house at around seven in the evening, but she steadily began to come earlier to the point where she would walk there after school to do homework and eat dinner before practice. Clement was unaccustomed to having company in his apartment, but he related much of his own past to Abby’s, and he grew into the routine of preparing dinner while she did her school work. They would then eat together in front of the television. They had a little world together, a solidarity in which Clement took particular comfort when they pulled into the rink’s parking lot in his pickup and parked among the minivans and SUVs.
The first time Abby stretched out on the couch and put her feet on Clement’s lap, he was horrified to feel an erection build and create a noticeable protrusion in his jeans. He was twenty-five. He hadn’t been with a woman for nearly a year and was overly sensitive to human contact. He sat there with his eyes glued to the television, wanting the erection to subside but also relishing the intimacy that she was showing him. When it came time to leave, he found himself looking forward to the next time they’d sit down together, wondering if she would do the same thing. He tried to assure himself that his reaction meant nothing, that it had nothing to do with any further desire, but he couldn’t stop thinking of her socked feet nestled in his lap.
When on the following visit Abby once again lay down, Clement moved a bit closer so that he could rest his hands on her ankles. This contact increased with every visit, and soon her legs were draped across him. On the night when Clement finally maneuvered himself so that he hovered over her in order to kiss her, it was like he was simply obeying an unyielding tide. He was aware of his misconduct even as his lips touched hers, but the hot sensation of her breath against his cheek neutralized his ability to deter his actions. He slid in between her legs and started thrusting methodically against her, her body not reciprocating the movement, but not actively resisting it either. He unbuttoned her shirt and moved his mouth down into her chest, hoping to incite her participation and therefore quell the distant voice in his head that reasoned for him to stop. He massaged her buttocks and began to pull her off the couch to meet his driving hips, but the limpness he felt as her body sagged on either side of his hand was like that of a corpse, and he stopped. He paused for a moment before raising himself from the couch, clenching his eyes shut as a child does when attempting to become invisible. He walked out of the apartment and sat outside on the frozen cement until it was time to go to the rink. Neither he nor Abby spoke during the ride to or from practice.
For a week Clement lived in anticipation of the phone call, claiming ignorance at practice of reasons for Abby’s absence, and when the director finally called to demand an immediate meeting, Clement didn’t hesitate to grab his coat and walk out the door. The story of his transgression had made its way from Abby to a teammate and then around the circle of parents, and by the time it came to the director and back to Clement his behavior had been exaggerated sufficiently to warrant criminal prosecution. Although the doctor ultimately declared that no form of penetration had occurred, Clement’s lawyer, after listening to his client’s account of the evening, convinced Clement to accept a plea bargain to avoid the public embarrassment and possible longer sentence that would result in a trial. Clement thought of that decision as he walked down the street walled with pristine homes, charged with the duty of knocking on every door and repeatedly confessing his guilt.
Clement tried desperately to think of an acceptable way to deliver the necessary information without inciting the rage of the entire neighborhood. His parole officer had been no help. The sheet of requirements that he’d read aloud in his office had become increasingly absurd as Clement sat helplessly across the desk. Clement wasn’t allowed anything but “unavoidable” interaction with minors. He wasn’t allowed to establish residence within the tri-state area, to cross Pennsylvania state lines for eighteen months, or to visit New York state for two years. If working at a private home, he was required to have an adult present at all times. He wasn’t allowed to withhold his conviction information from anyone, including landlords, employers, and potential co-workers or neighbors. Clement had asked how he was supposed to continue with his life. The parole officer had looked up from the paper, took off his glasses, and leaned forward.
“Son,” he said, although he couldn’t have been more than five years Clement’s elder, “It’s not easy. I see a lot of these cases, and to be honest, most of them end up back inside within the year. It’s a long, hard road. It’s part of your sentence.”
The officer told Clement about an apartment with affordable rent near a clean rural community. It was set back in the woods, real quiet, he’d said. There was one stipulation; the neighborhood tenant board had a requirement that ex-convicts with sex offenses on their record notify each house personally. It was all the officer could offer. He suggested that Clement take it.
The officer produced a list of information that Clement was obligated to relay: address, conviction, years served, notice of rehabilitation.
“You expect me to go to people’s homes and tell them this?”.
“Not expect,” the officer said, “Require. If you fail to perform any of the tasks laid out by your parole, it will be considered a violation and you’ll serve another sentence, usually longer than the first.”
Clement waited for the officer to continue, but the man had already begun to examine another file. Clement stood and offered out his hand, but when it went unnoticed, he allowed it to fall to his side.
Clement shaded his eyes from the sun to size up the next house. Structurally identical to the first, the second house looked as if the owner had fallen behind on maintenance. One of the shutters swung out perpendicular to the siding, scuff marks covered the bottom of the columns of the entrance way, and the grass was uneven, overgrown on the sides and burned in the middle. Despite the images of suburban euphoria that the first house had conjured, Clement felt a bit more comfortable at this one. Whoever owned it was too busy to take care of all the odds and ends of the property, just like Clement had been with his apartment, even when he’d taken care of the homes of others for a living. The owner of this house was busy; wealthy, and certainly not blue collar, but at least one who didn’t square off every corner of his life. Still unsure of what he would say, Clement strode up to the door.
He knocked, hoping that no one was home. He slid one of the straps of his bag over his shoulder, thinking that he’d simply leave a prepared envelope at the door. Sealed inside was a letter that explained all the information that he was legally obliged to give, and although he was supposed follow up with another visit, he reasoned that as long as the house had the information, his action would be adequate. He knocked again for good measure, aware that his parole officer could theoretically be monitoring his progress at any time, but as he began to open his bag, he heard footsteps from inside. The door creaked open and a boy, no older than ten and dressed only in pajama bottoms, stood before him.
Clement clutched his bag in front of him and inched away. This had to be an “unavoidable” situation, no reasonable person could expect him to foresee such an occurrence. He looked to the left and then to the right, but saw no one.
“Um, could I speak to one of your parents?” he said.
The boy narrowed his eyes and looked the stranger up and down. Clement stood as if before a jury, one that could sense his nerves and the guilt that they betrayed.
“They can’t come to the door right now,” the boy said, “Maybe you should come back later.”
Clement almost smiled at the boy’s response, but he remembered his place and again started to open his bag. If he could simply drop off the letter he could move on to the next house, no problem.
A black sedan pulled into the driveway. The music from the car’s stereo disintegrated as the driver closed the windows and sunroof, and the man emerged from the car; dark sunglasses, black polo, khakis, he looked to be in his mid-thirties, several inches taller than Clement and growing as he walked across the lawn holding a white paper bag. He radiated confidence. He was the kind of man for whom Clement had worked for years. Sometimes that kind of man would come out and banter with the crew, his leisure clothing contrasting with the crew’s raged jeans and browning tee-shirts. After a brief conversation he’d usually ask how long the job would take, and then disappear into his air-conditioned home. That kind of man handed Clement paychecks and pats on the back for a job well done and ranted hysterically over minor, honest mistakes. Now, standing with the man’s son and armed with terrible news, Clement could only imagine his reaction.
The man greeted his son from afar, and in the same optimistic tone, said to Clement, “Good morning! What can I do for you?”
Clement lowered his bag. “Hello,” he said, “My name is Clement Dan-”
“Stanley Proctor,” the man said, shaking Clement’s hand, “And this here is Miles. If this is about the lawn, I’m getting to it. I had no idea the tenant board would be such a stickler for details when I moved in here. Things are so hectic this time of year, I haven’t had time to fix the siding around back.”
“It’s not about the lawn,” Clement said.
“Well, come on in. Miles, go get dressed.” The boy disappeared. Clement remained on the stoop.
“I really don’t have time, sir. I’m new in the neighborhood, you see.”
“So are we!” the man said, “Tough being the new guys around, especially with all the neighbors trying to fill in as mom. You wouldn’t believe how many calls I get from these ladies offering to baby-sit or bake; sometimes I wonder who they’re mothering. It’s good for the kid though, can go wherever he wants, almost no traffic. You have kids?”
Clement was ready; in a clear voice he would state his address, then his crime and time served, and he would stand tall with his certificate in hand to face whatever explosion was to follow. The man would certainly swear at him and probably throw him off the stoop. He might hit him. Clement had spent years dealing with men like this; a good ally when things were going smoothly, but a nightmare to have against you. He thought of his parole officer, sitting behind a desk with a fan blowing in his face, listlessly going through the papers that would dictate the rest of another man’s life. It’s part of your sentence. It was unreasonable. He’d done enough time.
“Yeah,” Clement said, “Got a boy, a little older than yours. Lives with his mom.”
The man clasped his hands together. The two began to talk of the various exploits of their boys. Clement was shocked at how easily he was able to keep up. He said that his boy was a natural athlete. He got to see him several times a year, but talked to him every week. Not bad in school either, real good kid. The more he described him, the more real he became, and as the man countered any statement of Clement’s with a full story of his own, Clement mostly stood and listened. It was easy.
He’d never intended to lie. After prison, his first thought was that he’d never do anything that would bring him close to that place again; if a cashier gave him too much change, he’d make sure to return the correct amount. He’d be that thorough. But as he stood on that stoop, he realized that other men continued to dictate his life. He was free from prison, but the rules had changed. There was no normal life anymore, not for a man forced to parade his guilt in such a way. He had no idea where the lie would take him, but at least it would be a different place than if he invited yet another community to condemn him for a mistake that he regretted making far before it became inflated and the facts were muddled under a cloud of ethics and conjecture.
The man continued to talk of his son. Clement stood and listened, glancing to his left at the first house he’d visited, imagining the woman to be watching him with a phone propped between her shoulder and ear. He knew how quickly and inaccurately information could travel in wealthy neighborhoods, and in a planned community such as this they probably had a calling tree for this kind of thing. He looked down the rows of houses, all constructed from the same mold, and inside each one he envisioned incensed parents discussing the situation, warning their children to not to walk alone and to avoid the rapist who lived around the corner.
The repetition of his name jolted him back to the present. Clement looked at the man. “What?”
“Do you want to come around back and have a look at that siding?”
Clement paused for a moment before he began to speak, but he stopped when a girl appeared at the door. Her streaky hair drooped into her face and the makeup from the previous night had smeared. She wore nothing but a man’s dress shirt, unbuttoned so that her chest was in constant danger of exposure, and a silver anklet glittered against her impeccable skin. Clement quickly looked away.
“Did you get the Pepto?” she asked.
The man handed her the bag. “Clean yourself up,” he said, “And put some clothes on; the kid’s awake.” She took the bag and withdrew into the house.
The man grinned at Clement. “College girls,” he said, “Wild little things, but they simply can’t handle their booze.” He reached both hands above his head and stretched as he emitted a slight moan, but Clement kept his eyes on the ground.
A cell phone’s pop song rang. The man fished through his pocket and looked at the phone.
“Roberta,” he said to Clement, nodding toward the house to the left, “Never short on advice, never afraid to call. She’s a one-woman neighborhood watch.” He opened the phone and answered as he stepped inside the house.
Clement waited for a moment on the stoop, but when he heard the man come to the door and close it, he fastened his bag over his shoulders, walked down the pathway, and started home. After a few minutes he turned down his own street that was littered with single story apartments like the one he’d just rented. He wasn’t required to visit these houses. They didn’t have a tenant board.
Inside his apartment, Clement mindlessly opened the fridge. Except for the previous night’s take-out container and a box of baking soda that was there when he arrived, it was empty. He looked out into the living room which merged with the kitchen in a way similar to his old apartment. That place, despite its shabbiness, had a warmth to it, especially when Abby started to come by and Clement had made sure to clean it regularly. The couch was set less than ten feet from the television, and when they ate together and watched reruns of canceled sitcoms, it was as familial an experience as Clement could remember. His current apartment was unfurnished and there were stains in various spots on the carpet. The sheetrock was cracked and crumbling, and the windows had been painted shut. It not only looked like it had housed a line of solitary men, but it exuded such decrepitude that it appeared incapable of ever accommodating a family. Even if he wasn’t cited for a parole violation after lying to one neighbor and failing to notify the others, this apartment would be his prison.
Clement grabbed his coat and a bag of clothes that had remained by the door since he’d moved in. He walked outside and lowered his truck down from the jack; the brakes were suspect, but he’d have to try to fix them another time. He threw the bag in to the truck’s bed and jumped into the cab. On the third attempt the truck started, but instead of backing out of the driveway, he pulled forward, climbed over a pile of brush and a fallen “yield” sign, and accelerated down the road.
Clement drove west. He’d never been farther than Pittsburgh, but he found comfort in following the same path as outlaws and fugitives when there was nothing out west but open space. He knew little of states like Wyoming or the Dakotas except for their great expanse, but he figured they were good places to get lost in the land. He didn’t think he’d be considered a dangerous criminal, but if a man had to spend his life looking over his shoulder, it was a better bet to do so in an area where he could see people coming. The east was wound so tight that he could barely move; perhaps in the west he could find the room to breathe.
Clement stuck to the back roads, thinking it possible that by now the authorities might have been notified of his aborted duties and were looking for him on the main highways. As he drove, if he felt that any road took him off course for too long, he turned off it and onto another in order to follow the sun. After several hours he approached the state border, and through the cloudy dusk he made out a sign that read “Leaving Pennsylvania, Come Back Soon!” Again certain that the message did not apply to him, he leaned on the gas and drove across the Pennsylvania line, unsure of which state he’d just entered as it did not provide a greeting.
ben bellizzi grew up in the hills of western New England before switching coasts following college in Vermont. He had the privilege of studying with professor John Laskey for two years in San Francisco, and now resides on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Mountains. He thanks you for your time, always.