She wore hats. Big hats that she tilted to the side of her face, always to the left side of her face. She lived in a house that was run down and she mostly kept to herself. Sometimes she was seen at night, walking, always wearing high heels and her hats. People would talk about her, as people in small towns do, and they would say things, usually at parties, usually at small get-togethers, quick-paced walks around the town. There was a faded blue water tower standing on the bad side, the wrong side of town. This side of town meant cement and it meant weeds, and it meant litter, but not a lot of litter, just the normal amount. This side of town meant chain-link fences and it meant a joke of seeing how many chain-link fences you could count, and then it meant not being so funny anymore, the joke. Driving through this town you notice the green sign that reads Peabody, and then the water tower above the power lines that reads EABODY. No, it is not a mistake or a mix up; a fight between some who prefer Ps and others who don’t. The P washed off, some sort of storm or magic, and if you ask people in the town when this happened each will give you a different date.
This woman, the woman in question, the woman who wore the hats, this woman lived on the wrong side of town. She lived in a house that was run down and had a small front yard with a big sidewalk, but no litter. This woman did not have litter because this woman was not the type of woman to attract litter. She lived on the wrong side, but she was mostly clean. Litter-free. She was the type of woman that other women hate, but only because they cannot be like her. She was the type of woman that was living in a town in a house by herself while all the other women were middle-aged and living with their husbands and their children.
Sometimes the children ride their bicycles into that other side of town, the bad side, the side of town that would be across the railroad tracks if there had ever been any railroad tracks here, but these residents do not believe in trains. The dirtiness and the awfulness of having babies and then having to watch these babies stare at their mothers with spittle coming out of their pursed lips and constipation set in their twinkly eyes as they repeatedly force out, “Choo-Choo,” this is why these residents don’t have trains.
The children ride their bikes, against their parents’ orders, down this street on the wrong side of town and they grip their handlebars and look straight ahead, a child can only be so bad, and they fly, up and down this street all afternoon. They think of how lovely it is to feel this free, this open, some even go so far as to take off their helmets, remove their grips. Years later when two or three of these boys are men and are thinking about cheating on their wives, thinking about buying a convertible, thinking about blowing their brains out, they will think back to this moment in time, riding their bicycles, and they will become nostalgic and they will trick themselves into believing that this was the only one singular time in their lives that they had ever been happy.
The woman, sitting inside of her house, this house on the wrong side of town, this woman never did pay any attention to these children. She did not yell at them to put their helmets back on or to get out of the street, she did not bake them cookies or offer them lemonade. She never seated herself out on her front porch and read her newspaper, bestowing upon the children knowing glances every so often. There was no interaction.
It was the Sunday morning newspaper, the newspaper that came out on Sundays. It was in this newspaper, this newspaper with its useless stories and its misspelled words; it was in this paper, in small bold print, that the people in this town learned about what had happened to the woman who wore hats. As the story goes, this was a tragedy. It must have been the summer of ’68 or ’72, maybe even ’86. Since then the town library has burned down and there remain no records. The fire was started by a kid or someone’s uncle. All anyone really knows for sure is that the person in question was definitely drunk. Or perhaps the story goes that they definitely were not drunk.
On that Sunday morning, the morning that this particular newspaper came out, the newspaper boy had slept late and, for no reason that he could think of, he had also wet the bed. In telling this story to his fellow playmates he would always add in the bit about sleeping late, it made him appear aloof, but he would always leave out the part about wetting the bed. That just made him appear like a baby. It was just beginning to be light outside when the newspaper boy woke up and found the back tire on his bike flat. So he was forced to walk. Strolling up and down through the straight streets of Peabody he thought that there was something strange in the air. This something strange could perhaps be tied to the massive manure factory that was located the next town over, but no one ever told the boy this. He was a sweet child but not a good storyteller, too much of a weakness for the dramatic.
As the newspapers settled onto the front stoops the sun was up and people inside their houses were just beginning to drink their coffee and think about the church service that they had almost just attended. Wives were standing over the stove, pretending to be thinking about cooking a large breakfast, children anxiously believed, while husbands figured out the truth. Cereal bowls were set out. As the men went out with their cups of coffee in their hands, some already spiked with whiskey despite the early hour, they were surprised at how nice the weather was, and then they found themselves surprised about that thought.
Some were sitting on the couch, others on the toilet when they read the headline; one man had gone back into his bed. No one spilled their coffee or screamed for their wives. No one had to sit up any straighter, or pay any more attention to what exactly life meant. “Woman Dies in Quicksand.” The story was short; there was no follow-up on page three, four or five. Sometimes the town newspaper had upwards of six or seven pages, but this year when little Tommy had gone to the state fair he just hadn’t been able to bring home anything good. The woman’s name was mentioned and there was a small picture, black and white, grainy, it showed a line of trees surrounded by a thin strip of flapping police tape. The picture could have been taken anywhere where there were trees and a police squad, but the caption informed the reader that the misfortune had taken place at “The Old Marshall Lot.” Calling it “The Old Marshall Lot” was misleading. The lot was not old, nor did it belong to the Marshalls. There was a family living there now, going by the name of Hirschberger, they had built a replica of an old-style farmhouse. Everyone in the town knew of course that Jews weren’t farmers, but had decided with the newfound trend of political correctness that they guessed perhaps these Jewish people could do whatever they wanted.
The photo in the news story was of the large stretch of field behind the Hirschberger house; it was a wooded lot, fairly expensive. Fairly expensive, the lot contained trees, a stream. The wooded lot was lush with autumn-colored leaves. Couples were known to bring blankets out and give themselves to each other here, swearing eternity under the stars until school started.
The town was confused. The men read over the article quickly as they shifted pages, but found that they could not get that picture out of their heads. That picture of nothing they could not get out of their heads. Out of their heads they could not get that picture of empty. Mothers would bang their shopping carts against each other as children tucked lollipops into empty pockets. Get-togethers now consisted of dressing up in ironed clothes only to sit down for hours and muse over what could have happened. The article gave no details and no one could get ahold of the Marshalls for any kind of statement. Someone dialed the Marshalls’ number and could not get an answer. The Marshalls were not talking. It was eventually remembered that the Marshalls were vacationing in Florida, a retirement retreat, and also that it hadn’t even taken place at the Marshalls’ house. Years upon years later it would be remembered that there was no one by the last name of Marshall who even lived in the town of Peabody, and so, for some months after, everyone would wonder who they must have been trying to talk to.
The last unexpected death remembered in the town of Peabody had been of a transient, a wino who you would sometimes see walking behind the fence that surrounded the main parts of the town. He would always walk with an umbrella and a brown bag. He would always walk with a cane and a suitcase. He would always jog listening to music. He would always stroll while taking pictures. He was found face-down in a water pipe. The newspaper told the town that the cause of death appeared to be homelessness. Homelessness or poorness, the newspaper told the town. In small print the newspaper reported that homelessness or poorness or blackness was the cause of death, but everyone knew that that had been just a misspelled sentence. The town had not been confused about this.
The woman who wore hats, the strange woman who wore hats and high heels, the silent woman who wore hats and spoke to no one, the dead woman who had once worn hats had no family that anyone could find, and so funds were raised by the local church and grocery store to pay for her funeral. The town bought a casket; black, very classy. There was no body. At the funeral, people wore their best, a few cried. Handkerchiefs were brought out; small tears were squeezed, their makers looking around first, left to right, front to back. Yes, this was sad, see? From the front of the church the preacher spat about an angry God and the rain that had not been coming down for months. He asked for an Amen, and then for some money. He was granted neither. At the house of the woman, food was served. Vegetables, a cheese tray, there were no utensils.
Everything inside the dead woman’s home was beige. Inside the house of the woman who was dead, the walls were lightly colored. Everything was brown in the abode of the deceased. The walls were bare, a few tasteful paintings of flowers or a house with a garden. There was one of two children sitting by a pond playing with geese. People walking through this house were disappointed. They had wanted something. They had needed to find something. They had been expecting to find something that showed she was different. Different was what they had been looking for.
A lady, searching through the woman’s drawers for colorful little tablets full of awkward-sounding names, found a necklace identical to one she owned. A man sticking his fat fingers beneath the mattress for a gun, a rope, an ice pick noticed the same sheets he had in his own home. A grandmother on her hands and knees in the closet, old appendages swiveling around, looking for dead animals, sacrifices to some unknown god, only found her own brand of pantyhose. Everyone made their way back to the crowd. A single line was made, and shuffled through rooms. Things were touched, and remembered; neighbors inspected the dustiness and the mundane.
People began to get angry. One man forgot to remove his shoes and ruined the carpet. No one said a word. As the women exited, they dropped their sorrows off at the fridge. Rectangular, square, and circular containers filled with lasagna and goulash meant to feed an army of starving men would now go untouched. The empty house would survive for weeks off faintly tinted Tupperware smeared with angry last names. None of this would be returned, but no one knew what else to do.
The rain had finally begun to fall. On a drunken Friday night a few men left the bar and wandered back to the place in the picture. No one said anything as the men exited at last call. The yellow police tape was still there, as it had appeared in the picture, flapping slowly, giving up. Water was driving onto the men’s backs and the men’s shoulders and the men’s faces as they walked around the yellow tape. The men walking around the yellow police tape were being soaked by the rain. Chilled to the bone were the men walking. One of them found a woman’s high-heeled shoe. It was red, shiny. Without knowing why, he slipped it into his jacket and continued walking, the bulge making an uncomfortable feeling in his side, in his heart. Each man was unsure why he was there; and yet they all stayed. In the distance, through the woods, the men could see the outline of the faded blue water tower.
Eventually, one by one, stating that their wives would be mad and worried, everybody took off for home. Finally, at almost daybreak, the men started off for bed. In due course, as goes the story, the men turned from each other and shuffled back. Stumbling into their houses that night the men woke their wives, shaking them desperately, harshly. Staring into worried eyes, they found they had nothing to say, and the women were not in the mood anyway.
The next fall, school started, summer was over. Children were forced this year to attend a safety class. Notifications had been mailed directly to the homes on cheerful flyers explaining to the parents exactly what was being done with their offspring. No one had any more opinion about the woman in the high heels. The woman with the hats and the high heels, no one could remember. No one thought about that woman. The class consisted of stations filled with older ladies from the next town over holding out bright pamphlets. Children learned what to do if they were ever attacked by bees, or how to escape from a car that had just rolled into the lake. Demonstrations were performed of what to do if you were on a diving excursion and the ocean top suddenly caught on fire from an oil spill. The conversations around the dinner table now centered around the knowledge that quicksand was denser than the human body. The little boys and girls eagerly told their parents that it would be almost impossible to drown in it. In fact, the little boys and girls told their parents, it wasn’t even real.
That autumn something was wrong. That autumn mothers no longer felt like serving their roast beef and the YMCA had to shut down classes that taught yoga and knitting. Phone calls were put out; the school stopped. Everyone decided that they were safe enough.