The night Danny McSwene was murdered the Buchovskys were at the Chinese opera. The three of them—Simone, her sister, Juliet, and their father—had been there all day, from nine in the morning, to be precise, and were not released from the performance until ten that night. The coroner’s report said that he had died somewhere between eight and midnight, so his death might not have occurred during the performance but, rather, when they were eating dinner later. The exact time is not crucial. Still, Simone will always think of the actors’ endless wailing and excruciatingly slow movements and their white, painted faces when she thinks of Danny McSwene’s last moments.
Their father had a long tradition of dragging them to such events. When they were small Simone was sure he searched carefully for the most tedious and difficult performances to bring them to. She thought he was trying to teach them something—patience perhaps, or tolerance—but she realized, now that she was older, twelve, that he simply had had no idea what torture these outings were for young children, and she was convinced he thought that she and Juliet enjoyed them as much as he did. He liked to refer to the three of them, their family, as a trio. Simone always imagined them as a trio of flute, violin, and piano, though she could not say who was which instrument, but as she got older she could not think why her imagination had settled on such shrill and plucky instruments. They were really much more like bassoons and violas—unassuming and hardworking.
It was especially cold the day they went to see the Chinese Opera and it was cold in the theater too, so Simone kept her coat and gloves on the whole time. She imagined, however, that the actors were warm enough. They were heavily clad and their movements, as slow as they were, seemed to require a lot of effort—each placement of the foot, each slow swoop of the hand, even the eyes labored, prowling slowly, meeting the gaze of the enemy or a lover. At first she enjoyed the performance. She liked the feel of the gong reverberating in her legs and in her heart and was amused by the costumes and the stories, the details of which were outlined in the program. She fell into a sort of trance, concentrating on color, sound, and movement without thinking about the plot or the cacophony, but after the one intermission, during which the three of them ate black bread with butter and honey, she grew increasingly bored.
Their father had promised to take them to their favorite diner after the performance for a late dinner. When Simone and Juliet were younger their father was able to get them to do just about anything—sit through a lecture about the diary of a foot soldier in Napoleon’s army or the uncut version of a movie about the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev—if he promised that they would have dinner at a diner afterwards. Though each had their favorite form of eggs, all three of them always ordered eggs. Eggs and milkshakes.
During the second half of the opera, it had grown even colder and all Simone could think about was that she was cold, though she never would have dreamed of excusing herself, of asking permission to take a walk or go to the Coliseum Bookstore, which was just a stone’s throw away from Lincoln Center, where the marathon Chinese opera festival was being held. So she sat through the rest of the performance, rubbing her hands and dreaming of the oily warmth of the diner. Later, after hearing the awful news about Danny McSwene, Simone felt that she should have been using this time more wisely instead of wasting it, thinking about the cold and wondering whether she should order a mushroom or cheese omelet.
Danny McSwene was their favorite of their neighbors’ seven sons. There was quite a difference in age between the oldest, who were twins and lived together in South America, where they worked for a philanthropic organization, and the youngest, who had graduated from high school the year before. Danny was the middle child and the quietest of all the McSwene boys, although Simone did not really know the twins or Alan, who was next in line and had been shot in the lung in Vietnam and then married a Japanese woman, whom he had met when he was on leave. When he came home, he and his wife lived with the McSwenes until they could get settled. It was summer and Simone remembered them lying on lounge chairs in the backyard for hours at a time until they both were very brown. With the two youngest boys, Simone and Juliet played catch, but, though they both were athletically inclined, they were no match for the McSwene boys, who included the two of them in their games nonetheless, perhaps, Simone thought, because they secretly longed for sisters.
Butbabysat. As soon as their father was out the door, the excitement would begin. The first step was to clear the living room, move everything—the couch, the chairs, tables, rugs—through the kitchen and into the family room. They did this efficiently and carefully, making sure not to scrape the walls or scuff the wooden floors.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have wooden floors,” Danny McSwene said every time. “Carpeting is the scourge of the modern world. How on earthanyone supposed to dance on carpeting?”
When all the living room furniture was piled into the family room, they changed into their dance clothes. Danny McSwene wore special shoes and wonderful black pants with pleats. He had a collection of silk shirts—pink and purple and green. Simone and Juliet put on their good school shoes. One night Simone got to wear pants and lead while Juliet wore a dress and followed, and the next time they switched roles.
Danny McSwene had a collection of records that he carried in a green patent leather satchel that he had bought in New York specifically for that purpose. They always started with waltzes and ended with the cha-cha-cha, their favorite. His favorite was the tango, which Simone found a little embarrassing, especially when he insisted on more passion. “Where’s the passion?” he would call over the music. “More passion, more passion!”
At the end of the dance sessions, they put the furniture back exactly right, so their father wouldn’t notice, though he would not have minded, would have been happy to know that they were having such a good time with Danny McSwene. Still, Danny made thempromise not to tell anyone, and they never did, not even after he was dead.
They did not learnabout Danny’s death until two days after it happened because they were not in the McSwenes’ inner circle. Though they were all fond of one another and happy to be neighbors, the Buchovskys kept their distance, as good neighbors do, and the McSwenes kept theirs. And so they learned about his death from the local newspaper, the Suburbanite. On the front page there was a photo of Danny McSwene in his chef’s uniform. He had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America the spring before and moved to New York, where he had gotten a job at a restaurant with stars. The newspaper said he had been found in his apartment in Greenwich Village—shot in the back of the head. Execution style, they called it.
They did not go to the funeral. Their father avoided religious ceremonies of any kind, even weddings, and tried to have as little as possible to do with all things religious, though they sometimes went to concerts at Riverside Church in New York, and he was a great admirer of liturgical music, especially Russian Orthodox, which he played at full volume while they cleaned the house every Sunday morning. Despite his appreciation for religious music, it was a matter of principle with him to fight against what he called the forces of unreason, in his own quiet way, as he did when he was drafted into the army and refused to declare a religion on the official paperwork. Even when the superior officer explained that they needed a religion so that they would know how to dispose of his body if he died, their father was unbending.
“You can just leave me there for the vultures, like the Zoroastrians do,” her father had said. Every time he told the story, Simone could not help but imagine her father dead, the vultures pecking at his flesh, his eyes, and when he came to that part she always laughed so as not to let on that she was frightened.
“Like who?” the officer had said.
“The Zoroastrians,” her father answered.
“Is that a religion?”
“Yes,” her father had said. “They leave their dead exposed to the elements and the vultures in what they call the tower of silence.”
“How do you spell that?” the officer asked.
Her father spelled it out for him.
The man grabbed the form, crossed outnoneand wrote Zoroastrian. “There, now you have a religion. Now you can die.”
Still, even though Simone was afraid to see it, she felt they should be there to watch Danny McSwene’s body be let down into the earth, to throw a clump of dirt onto the coffin as she had seen mourners do in movies. “Don’t you think we should go?” she asked her father just an hour before the funeral was to begin.
“It’s much more important to pay our respects afterwards,” he explained. “They won’t even notice who’s at the church.”
“But for Danny,” Simone said.
“Do you think he was a believer?” he asked.
“I don’t know. We never talked about it,” Simone said.
“Well, if he wasn’t, he would have preferred us not to go,” he said.
“But we don’t know whether he was or wasn’t,” she argued.
“No, we don’t,” he said, leaving her with nothing to argue against, for one cannot argue with incertitude.
“What if it were a Zoroastrian funeral?” Simone asked. “Would we go then?”
“Maybe,” he said. “At least then it would be all out in the open.”
“What would be out in the open?” she asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Everything we don’t want to see.”
“Like the wound?” she asked.
“Like the wound,” he replied, taking her in his arms, for she had begun to cry.
When they saw the mourners arriving back at the McSwenes’ house after the funeral, Simone, Juliet, and their father went over to pay their respects. They were dressed all in black. The girls wore Danskin tops and they had made a special visit to the Tenafly department store to buy black skirts and tights. Their father wore his funeral suit. They brought a bottle of vodka and baklava because their father said they should bring something not too elaborate. At the McSwenes’ house, there were plenty of black scarves and black ties and black shoes, but they were the only ones all in black. They stood awkwardly in front of the picture window that looked out onto the McSwenes’ backyard where, just the summer before, Simone and Juliet had played catch and flipped baseball cards.
Their father made his way around the room, shaking hands with Mr. McSwene and all the remaining McSwene boys. When he had finished conveying his condolences to the men of the family, he joined his daughters at the window. “Mrs. McSwene is upstairs in the bedroom,” he said. “I think you should go see her.”
They climbed the stairs to the second floor slowly. They had never been upstairs before. The McSwene boys had been outdoor companions and it never would have occurred to them to visit their rooms, look through their books, listen to their records. Mrs. McSwene, all in black also, was lying on top of a cream-colored bedspread like a giant felled chess piece. Surrounding her, on both sides of the bed, were women of all ages, the two oldest seated near her head holding her hands and the younger women closer to Mrs. McSwene’s feet, kneeling on the floor, clasping her legs.
No one noticed Simone and Juliet as they stood in the doorway watching. Simone wanted to flee, but she knew they could not simply turn around, descend the stairs, and tell their father that they had not known how to approach Mrs. McSwene. He would not have understood about the barrier of women. And they could not have lied and said they had spoken to her when they hadn’t; it would have made them sad to lie to their father about such a thing. Juliet pulled on the sleeve of Simone’s black shirt but Simone ignored it. She was focused on Mrs. McSwene’s grief. She moved toward Mrs. McSwene and, as if she were Moses and the women the Dead Sea, they parted before her.
“I would like to extend my condolences,” she said, but all Mrs. McSwene did was tilt her head without directing her eyes in her direction, as if she were blind and trying to hear more clearly. “Of all your boys, Danny was my favorite,” Simone said, and Mrs. McSwene began to weep. She twitched on the bed and gasped and the women ran back to hold her hands and wipe her brow. Someone brought a glass of water and the older women pulled the weeping Mrs. McSwene up on her pillows and held it to her lips, and when she would not drink, they tried pouring it into her mouth, but the water ran down her chin and onto her black dress.
“She doesn’t want to drink anything,” Simone said quietly, and all the women turned and stared at her. Juliet ran out of the room.
“Come closer, Simone,” Mrs. McSwene demanded in her raspy smoker’s voice that was raspier still from crying. “Sit down.”
Simone sat down and closed her eyes. Mrs. McSwene pulled her closer and whispered directly into her ear, “He was my favorite too.” Then she turned away and started to weep again.
When Simone returned to the living room the mourners were looking out the picture window, watching the bright pink winter sun setting. They were standing, holding their drinks as if poised, waiting for that last burst of pink to disappear so that darkness could fall. Her father was not one of the sunset watchers. He was leaning against the wall looking at a large art book, which he was holding up with one hand.
“Simone,” he said, as if he had been worried that she was lost.
“It’s getting dark,” Simone said.
“I suppose we should be going. Where’s Juliet?”
“I don’t know,” Simone said.
“We must find her then,” her father said. He returned his book to the shelf. The sun had set and the mourners had dispersed from the window and formed small clusters around the living room, talking quietly, more quietly, it seemed, because it was dark. Someone turned on the overhead light and everyone looked up, as if they had been caught in a searchlight. A woman began weeping. “Should I turn it off?” the man who had switched it on asked.
“No, it’s getting dark,” someone answered for all of them.
They walked silently back home. Their father wanted to make scrambled eggs for dinner, but no one was hungry, so they had chamomile tea and Zwieback, which is what they ate when they were sick. That night Simone could not sleep. She tried reading, forcing herself to read what she called the pretty poems, the ones she usually skipped over—Wordsworth and Cummings, Housman. She hoped that flowers and love and small hands would cheer her up, but she could not rid herself of the image of Danny McSwene sitting at his desk with a bullet hole in the back of his head. She tried to imagine what kind of person would feel compelled to executeDanny McSwene, who had always been so polite and had a dimple in his left cheek.
Simone closed her eyes and pretended she was sleeping in a house overlooking the ocean. The house was humble—a small whitewashed cottage with a fireplace and stone floors. She tried listening for the crashing of the surf on rocks and the sound wind makes on water. But Danny McSwene entered her cottage by the sea, sat in her simple wooden chair in her simple kitchen with cast-iron pans and earthenware pitchers. He sat down and said that he was very, very tired and asked for a glass of water. “Please,” he said, and blood was pouring out of his head and onto his shirt and a puddle of blood formed on the stone floor at his feet.
Simone got up then, walked quietly down the stairs, put on her coat and gloves and scarf. She stood in the backyard looking at the back of the McSwenes’ house. She had expected it to be dark, but to her surprise, the house was totally illuminated, and she could see clearly into the empty living room and kitchen. She saw the furniture and the bookshelves and the fireplace.
She walked toward the house, and when she reached it, she stood in the flowerbed underneath the living room picture window, her breath clouding the glass. She stood there waiting for someone to come down the stairs, but no one appeared, so she stayed put, stood there in the dark and cold until dawn. She wanted, then, to turn around, and walk back to her warm house, get under the covers, sleep, finally, but she remembered Danny and how he could feel neither heat nor cold, nor long for sleep, so she stayed.
Finally, just when dawn was turning to day, she saw Mrs. McSwene descending the stairs, pausing on each step as if to make sure it was strong enough to take her weight.
Mrs. McSwene stepped off the last step and walked into the living room. She paused in the middle of the room. Her lips were moving, and then they stopped, as if waiting for a reply. Mrs. McSwene was wearing a robe and Simone imagined the women helping Mrs. McSwene change out of her black funeral dress. She wondered whether she would have preferred to keep it on. Something seemed to startle Mrs. McSwene and she swung around and before Simone could drop to the ground or run, Mrs. McSwene saw her. Because Simone did not know what else to do, she waved. Mrs. McSwene walked to the window and pressed her face to it, and her face seemed like some separate thing trying to push its way through the glass.
Finally, Mrs. McSwene opened the back door and Simoneentered. “Sit,” she said, pointing to the sofa, and Simone sat down. Immediately, Simone began shaking. “How long have you been standing out in the cold?” Mrs. McSwene asked.
“A long time,” Simone said.
“I’ll bring some whiskey,” Mrs. McSwene said and walked over to the liquor cabinet. She carried two very full glasses of whiskey back to the sofa and sat down next to Simone. Her robe had come undone and Simone could see Mrs. McSwene’s thighs, so she averted her eyes. Mrs. McSwene noticed that her thighs were exposed and stood up to adjust her robe, then sat down again, farther away from Simone. She reached into her pocket for a pack of Newports, tipped a cigarette out, and lit it, inhaling deeply. Simone took a sip of whiskey.
“I need your help,” Mrs. McSwene said.
Simone leaned in towards Mrs. McSwene.
“I want you to tell them to go away,” Mrs. McSwene said.
“Tell whom to go away?” Simone asked.
“All of them—my sons and sisters and the cousins and friends and in-laws. I don’t even know who they all are, but they seem to know me, know that what I need to do is eat soup and rest and cry. They keep telling me that I should cry, that crying will do me good.”
“But, I . . .” Simone’s hands began to tremble, so she put them under her thighs and pressed down hard upon them. “But I don’t know them,” she said.
“What?” Mrs. McSwene asked.
“I don’t know them,” Simone repeated.
“Of course, you can’t tell them,” Mrs. McSwene agreed. “You’re just a child.” She pulled out another cigarette and held it gently in the palm of her hand as if it were a baby bird.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t tell them,” Simone said. She thought of Danny and how he would have known how to get them all out of the house without making anyone feel bad.
“So you’ll do it?” Mrs. McSwene took her hand.
“Yes,” Simone said. “Where are they?”
“They’re everywhere. You’ll just have to start opening up doors,” she said.
Simone climbed the stairs slowly, thinking that the only thing she wanted now was a plate of her father’s heavy, hot kasha, thinking that if she ate enough of it, she could finally fall asleep, sleep way into the afternoon until it was dark. She sat down on the stairs and tried to muster the courage to open the doors to the rooms where the sleeping mourners lay. She knew that Danny would have wanted her to help his mother, who had loved him more than she had loved her other six children. But Simone couldn’t do it. Back down the stairs she went, softly, so as not to make the floorboards creak. She turned the latch and opened the front door and stepped outside where the sun was now bright and ricocheted off the remaining patches of snow, catching her right in the eye as if she were the killer.
Inthe days that followed, Simone avoided the McSwenes’ house, so she did not know whether the flock of cars that stood in their driveway had thinned slowlyor whether they had all disappeared at once like geese from a lake. Once they were all gone, she wondered whether Mrs. McSwene missed having them all there, trying to get her to eat and drink and cry and bathe. She imagined Mrs. McSwene lying on the living room couch and Mr. McSwene standing in front of the fireplace playing the bagpipe that always stood in the corner near the sofa.But maybe he stopped playing the bagpipe after Danny’s death. Maybe all they wanted was quiet, but this is something she would never know. The Buchovskys did not talk to the McSwenes much after Danny’s death. They waved from their side of the fence and left bags of apples from their apple tree on their back porch.
But sometimes at night before she fell asleep, Simone would imagine herself finding Danny McSwene’s killer, cornering him in a dark alley, smashing his head against the wall while he begged for mercy and leaving him there, bleeding on the street. It was always raining in her pre-sleep fantasies, and in the distance she could hear cymbals crashing like at the Chinese opera, and she moved in rhythm with them until they ceased completely and all she could hear was Danny’s executioner calling out for her help: “Don’t leave me here, don’t leave me. Have some mercy, for God’s sake, have mercy.”