For more than twenty years the Langs and the Turners lived side by side in wood-frame Victorians separated by the Turners’ narrow driveway, each house a mirrored replica of the other with a wide front porch and bay windows. Their living rooms had matching fireplaces, but Hank and Betsy Lang still had the original Art Deco wall sconces above the mantel. Bob and Melinda Turner had replaced theirs with cheap frosted globes back when the boys were teenagers and no matter how many times Melinda told them not to do it, Bob Jr. would lob a football toward the fireplace and Eddie would leap from the side over the plaid loveseat to catch it in midair, often missing despite the amount of practice he put into it, and eventually both of the antique glass shades had been smashed.
Melinda missed the elegant look and soft light of the sconces, but Bob said they shouldn’t spend the money on another vintage set because there’d be a crop of grandsons doing the same thing in the living room soon enough. That hadn’t happened yet, though sometimes Melinda wondered if she might have a grandchild among Darla Stepanski’s half-dozen kids, since more than once over the years Darla had been seen hanging onto Bob Jr.’s arm at the Starlight Tap like she knew him better than either of them admitted in daylight.
Hank and Betsy Lang had two grown daughters, Charlotte and Rachel, and five grandchildren, three in town and two away. The three in town were over there after church almost every Sunday, changing into the play clothes that were kept for them in the mahogany dresser of Betsy’s guest bedroom. Melinda had always wanted a guest bedroom and you’d think that in a three-bedroom house she might have one now that her sons were twenty-eight and thirty years old, but Bob used one as a messy office and the boys’ old room was still the place where Bob Jr. would end up on the nights he was too loaded to drive a mile to his apartment but could manage the two-block walk from the Starlight to their house. They’d hear him stumble up the stairs long after midnight and the next morning he’d be sprawled across his old bed, still dressed and stinking of cigarettes, liquor, and sometimes worse things. What with him being there so often it had never been worth the effort to replace the twin beds with a queen mattress or remove the Heidi Klum posters or fix the hole Eddie punched in the drywall after missing a Hail Mary pass in his last high school football game.
It wasn’t like they often had company, but Melinda wanted to be the kind of woman who had a quiet, pretty guestroom in her house. She liked talking to Betsy about how she’d fix up the boys’ old room someday, and Betsy never judged her for not having done it already.
Betsy and Hank were twenty years older than Bob and Melinda. More than neighbors, they were like a jovial aunt and uncle to the Turners, not at all like Melinda’s real Aunt Trish and Uncle Bill, whose evenings began with back-slapping jokes and ended with yelling and broken glassware. Hank and Betsy were fun without the drama. The most dramatic thing they ever did was die, first Hank of stomach cancer one dismal January and then Betsy of a heart attack in the produce aisle at Pick-and-Save five months later.
Melinda was in shock from losing both Hank and Betsy in such a short time. Bob was suffering too. So they weren’t prepared to see Charlotte and Rachel and their husbands sweep over the Langs’ house like a team of robots to clear everything out before Melinda even had a chance to ask for a memento, like Betsy’s ceramic frying pan or a sterling silver picture frame or even a twin sheet set that would remind her of Betsy every time she made up Bob Jr.’s bed. The daughters were curt and businesslike, as if their orphaned state was somehow Bob and Melinda’s fault. Maybe they’d always been jealous of the Turners’ friendship with their parents. Or maybe they had a lingering resentment over a few mishaps over the years that Hank and Betsy had forgiven right away, such as the time Bob Jr. and Eddie lit off bottle rockets in the driveway and accidentally scorched the siding under Langs’ kitchen window.
So the house next door was emptied and cleaned and repainted and put up for sale in no time at all. The backyard shed where Hank and Bob had puttered around was torn down and replaced with squares of green sod that were already turning yellow at the edges, as if even the grass knew a wrong had been done there. Yes, the shed was rickety and harbored mice, but it had been a fine place for Hank to store his tools and try out new ideas for birdhouses and barstools, with Bob around to help with any heavy lifting. The hasty overhaul made it feel like all the memories of Melinda and Betsy baking cookies together or the two couples sipping daiquiris on the Langs’ patio on summer evenings had been discarded with the rest of Hank and Betsy’s precious things.
Melinda missed the easy socializing they’d had with the Langs. At five p.m. almost any day of the week she and Bob could go next door with drinks and a basket of popcorn and spend an hour before dinner talking about TV shows or the neighborhood or Hank’s year in Thailand during Vietnam. With the Langs gone there was no one to have cocktails with but Bob, and he mostly wanted to talk about how Melinda’s job search was going.
So it was a cleaving, a terrible loss, and Melinda walked around with a hole in her heart until a Saturday morning in October when a moving van pulled up in front of the Langs’ house, followed by a blue Honda CRV. She peeked through her living room curtains and watched the new family unload itself—a husband, a wife, and two kids, just like Betsy and Hank’s family and just like her own, which had to be a sign. The man was tall and lean with sandy-colored hair. The woman had straight dark hair, chin length, and wore a loose gray top with black yoga pants. Their daughter, maybe seven or eight, had a pink ribbon in her dark ponytail that matched her pink outfit. The son was a little towhead in a Spiderman T-shirt. They looked adorable.
Melinda’s heart beat faster. The good old days could happen all over again, only this time it was Bob and Melinda’s turn to be genial role models for the young family next door. Maybe the reason Melinda had been laid off from her job in the city permit office was so she’d have more time for her neighbors. Maybe there’d be mornings when her new friend would drink coffee at Melinda’s kitchen table while asking for advice on mildew or how to stop her mother-in-law from butting in or other issues that Melinda was well prepared to deal with.
The family had gone inside now. Melinda imagined them going from room to room in their new house, admiring the original details she knew so well: the living room with its fireplace and antique wall sconces, the built-in china cabinet in the dining room, the cedar closet in the upstairs hall. Excited, she stood at her kitchen sink and gazed through the window across the driveway into the identical window above the sink in her neighbor’s kitchen. She waited.
Eventually the other woman walked into her own kitchen. First she was opening boxes and putting things away. Melinda controlled her impatience. At last her neighbor stepped to the sink with something in her hands.
Melinda waved but the woman wasn’t looking out the window. She flapped her hand more vigorously, a huge welcoming smile on her face. Nothing. Well, her neighbor couldn’t possibly know that Melinda and Betsy always looked into each other’s kitchens and waved whenever they saw each other. She tapped on the window, lightly at first and then louder. The other woman finally looked out her own window, her eyes locking with Melinda’s. Melinda waved exuberantly. The other woman stared and barely lifted a limp hand in acknowledgment before turning away.
Stung, Melinda grabbed a sponge and began to swab down her counters. When she looked out again she almost fell down.
The window across the driveway was a blank white screen. For the first time in more than twenty years, the shade had been pulled. Her view into her neighbor’s kitchen, into the soul of that twin house, twin life, was blocked.
But moving day was hard on anyone, Melinda reflected later that afternoon. She had moved back to the living room window to watch the furniture being unloaded from the van. What she saw wasn’t to her taste: plain metal chairs, a mustard-colored leather couch, angular lamps that seemed more appropriate for a factory than a home where children lived. But she knew it was a big world, and people could furnish their homes however they wanted, and poor taste didn’t necessarily mean bad people. Melinda found forgiveness in her heart as she sipped a brandy and Diet Coke.
She was starting to feel better. After all, how friendly had she been to Betsy on their first day as neighbors? She couldn’t remember if Betsy had even been around on the chaotic day in 1995 that she and Bob had moved in, with the boys running up and down the stairs, turning the faucets on and off, ripping open boxes to find their toys.
What she did remember was that within a couple of days Betsy had brought over an apple pie still warm from the oven, along with paper plates and plastic forks and a plastic pie-server. Melinda cleared a place to sit at the kitchen table and she had her first conversation with Betsy, who seemed to enjoy herself even though Bob Jr. and Eddie kept interrupting to howl about something or other they hadn’t been able to find yet.
So Melinda could wait.
On Monday morning she had a pie ready, not homemade but she’d heated it in the oven until the apples bubbled through the brown crust. Bob had left for work and next door the kids and husband had left in the Honda, probably to school and work. It seemed like a good time to stop by with warm bakery in her hands.
Melinda went to the back door because in twenty years she’d never gone to the front and wasn’t about to start now. She opened the screen and rapped on the diamond window of the storm door—three fast raps and two slow, the signal she and Betsy had used for all those years, which she would pass on to Little Betsy, as she was calling her only until she knew her neighbor’s real name.
No answer. Maybe Little Betsy was unpacking boxes in the upstairs bedrooms and couldn’t hear the knock.
She held the pie with one hand and tried the door. It was locked. Even with a potholder for cushioning, the heavy foil pan was uncomfortably warm. Melinda fished around in her pocket. She’d had a key to the back door of this house nearly as long as she’d had the key to her own. She really couldn’t see what else to do, because if she just left the pie at the back door the squirrels would dig into it before Little Betsy even knew it was there.
Her key worked with the same up and down jiggle that she’d always used, and she walked through the back hall and into the kitchen—so like her own, only with newer cabinets and no wallpaper. She was still deciding on what would be best: calling out in a neighborly way, or leaving the pie on the table as a nice surprise, when Little Betsy walked into the kitchen and screamed.
Melinda screamed too and dropped the pie. It landed an open box of cookware and flipped over.
“Get out!” shrieked Little Betsy.
“I’m so sorry!” Melinda yelled back. She grabbed the pan and tried to shovel pie back into it, but the hot, soggy clumps were already dripping to the bottom of the box. “I only wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. The back door was unlocked!”
The lie surprised and comforted her, coming out of nowhere like that. She gave up on the pie and wiped her fingers on the potholder.
“Just leave,” snapped Little Betsy. “Don’t ever come in like that again. If you want something, go to the front door and ring the bell like everyone else.”
Within a week Melinda knew the neighbors’ routine. Another car had appeared and Bitch Betsy apparently had a job, because on weekday mornings she drove off in an old Corolla before the husband and kids left in the Honda. The house was empty until BB came back with the kids in the late afternoon. The new neighbors never glanced over at the Turners’ house during their comings and goings, never waved. They just marched in and out of their house like it was standing alone in a field, not part of anything else.
Melinda was in a constant state of agitation, wondering what they were doing to the inside of the Langs’ beloved house. Betsy would have never wanted her home to end up with these cold strangers. More and more it seemed like she and Betsy deserved to know what Bitch Betsy was up to over there.
So one morning after the neighbors had left in their two cars, Melinda used her key again.
She was practically hyperventilating as she slipped in through the back door. Melinda amazed herself. She’d never thought she was the kind of person who would sneak into someone else’s house. But she owed it to Betsy to be there.
She began her tour in the kitchen. It hadn’t changed too much. Betsy’s dinette set had been replaced with a pine table and four metal chairs. The flowered curtains were gone and there were mini-blinds instead of shades on the windows. But the white countertops and appliances were the same, and pots dangled from the wire rack over the stove just like when Betsy lived there.
Melinda wandered into the dining room, which was empty except for a wicker basket full of toys. She softened a bit at that. “At least she lets them play,” she said to Betsy. She was having a conversation with her dead friend as she moved through the house. Though one-sided, it was still comforting because she could perfectly imagine what Betsy would say back.
“Look at those chairs,” said Melinda, moving into the living room, where the mustard couch had landed along with a chrome coffee table and two ugly side chairs. “Would you want to sit in those? They’re like plastic buckets!”
“Not my style,” Betsy would have said diplomatically.
“And no pictures on the walls. Do you think she hasn’t gotten to it yet or—oh my God!”
Melinda stared above the fireplace mantel. The vintage sconces were gone. In their place were two twisted pieces of metal, each with a bare bulb nested inside. They were hideous.
She sank onto the mustard couch, weak with shock. “Oh, Betsy,” she whispered, rocking back and forth. “What has she done?”
A rattle at the front door froze her in place. Then the day’s mail clattered through the slot and hit the floor.
Melinda ducked. God, she hoped Timothy hadn’t looked through the front window. He’d been the mail carrier on this block for so long that he acted more like a gossipy neighbor than an employee of the United States Postal Service. She could imagine him saying casually to Bitch Betsy, “Hey, I noticed you and Melinda Turner were visiting the other day.”
She waited, her heart pounding, until she was sure that Timothy had moved on. On her way out she glanced at the pile of mail on the floor. The top envelope was addressed to Allison Fitzsimmons. So that was Bitch Betsy’s real name.
The next time Melinda waited until Timothy had delivered all the mail on the block before letting herself into Betsy’s house. Not Allison’s house. Bitch Allison had lost her rights of ownership when she tore those beautiful sconces off the wall.
The kitchen looked sanitized. No dishes in the sink and not even a crumb on the counter. In the dining room the toy basket seemed untouched. Melinda briefly scanned the living room, shaking her head at the metal monstrosities above the fireplace, and then climbed the stairs to the second floor.
She hated the changes in the master bedroom. Years ago she had helped Betsy paint a cheerful border of spring flowers on the pale blue walls. Now the stenciled flowers were gone and the walls were a bleak white. There were lead-gray curtains at the windows and a silver-gray bedspread on the queen bed. So blah. It was like a black-and-white movie in there.
There wasn’t a guest bedroom anymore because the children had their own rooms. The daughter’s room had a white bedroom set and was decorated in pink and purple. The son’s room had pine furniture and posters of race cars. Both rooms were cluttered and colorful, which reassured Melinda. She’d been wondering if Child Protective Services would respond to a call about a house being too tidy for children to thrive.
She saved the basement for last. As Melinda descended the wooden steps, she took in the familiar smells of damp concrete and stale beer and teared up, suddenly seized by grief for all she’d lost. She wanted it to still be Hank and Betsy’s rec room down here, with a beat-up pool table and big wooden bar and neon beer signs. She wanted to sit with Betsy at the bar chatting over cocktails while the guys shot a game of pool and complained about their teams.
The pool table and beer signs were gone. The bar looked forlorn without any of Hank’s barstools parked in front of it. A bunch of cardboard boxes were piled there instead, with “FOR GOODWILL” written in magic marker on the sides.
Melinda noticed some wires sticking out of the open box on top. She took a closer look.
There were the wall sconces, resting in a bed of crumpled newspaper.
She pulled one out and gazed at it reverently: the filigreed wrought-iron base, the amber slipshade curved and ridged like a shell. She remembered cozy evenings upstairs, the Langs’ living room lit with a honeyed glow. She could hear Betsy’s voice in her head. No, it was more like she could feel Betsy’s hands squeezing hers in excitement.
Melinda would forgive Bitch Allison almost anything if she could take this box home. And why couldn’t she? It wasn’t stealing. BA obviously didn’t want the sconces. She was ready to give them away, and Melinda was ready to take them.
She carried the box upstairs and paused for a while in the back hall, thinking and not thinking. Her palms were sweating as she clumsily locked the door behind her.
Her driveway seemed as wide as a football field, but Melinda forced herself to cross it at a normal pace, not rushing. This is a gift, she told herself, and it’s just the same as if I were carrying a loaf of Betsy’s zucchini bread or a potholder she made me or anything else.
Inside her own house, Melinda set the box on her kitchen table and poked at the wires, making a plan. She couldn’t ask Bob to put up the sconces because he’d ask too many questions. So she wrapped them carefully in an old towel and hid them in the back of the cedar closet. Then she burned the box in the fireplace.
After that she didn’t feel a need to go next door. She had other things to keep her busy, like YouTube-ing how to install wall sconces. It wasn’t that hard. The left one ended up slightly crooked but they still looked beautiful on her living room wall.
Bob wasn’t very observant about home décor, so it might take him a long time to notice the change. Meanwhile it was a secret known only to her and Betsy. She knew what she’d say if Bob ever asked about the sconces: she’d gotten them cheap on eBay.
Melinda didn’t hate Allison anymore. She didn’t even mind when her neighbors put up an eight-foot wooden fence along their side of the driveway. She could still see into their backyard from her bedroom window, but she didn’t look very often.
She signed up for an antiques class at the community college. She started going to estate sales, mostly just to look. One evening when Bob asked if she’d filled out any job applications recently, she told him to back off because her career was in transition right now.
The next time Bob Jr. lurched upstairs late at night, banging around and swearing, Melinda shook him awake at dawn.
“Go home!” she said. “Clean up your life. You can’t come here drunk any more. I’m changing the locks.” And she did, right before she ordered a queen-size bed from Sears and tore down the Heidi Klum posters and nagged Bob until he fixed the hole in the drywall and painted the walls of her new guestroom a soft green.
She liked to go into the room and sit in the overstuffed chair that she’d found at a rummage sale. She’d look around peacefully and think about what else she wanted.
“Grandchildren,” she told Betsy one day. “What if I already have some? They could come over and I could keep a change of clothes for them in here, like you did. I wouldn’t let them play in the living room. We could fix up the basement. Get a pingpong table or something.”
She looked out the window at the shuttered blinds across the driveway. “I should have a talk with Bob Jr. Or Darla herself if that boy won’t say anything. Don’t you think?”