Halfway down the block one of the guys who worked for Ricky taking care of their houses was hosing down the sidewalk. Ricky's guys tended to be small, dark, and stocky, former residents of some Central American country who were willing to do almost any kind of work to earn money. This one had just washed out all their garbage cans, but the effort was fruitless. The greasy sheen on both the pavement and in the cans would reassert itself, summer's urban perspiration. It was one of the reasons people who could afford to do so fled New York, for Nantucket, the Hamptons, somewhere cleaner, greener. Somewhere more boring, Nora often thought to herself.
Two young people dressed for exercise approached them, both with that peeled-grape skin of youth that was hypnotic and hateful when its moment had passed you by. "The park's that way, right?" said he, pointing toward the end of the block. "That's a dead end," Charlie said. "This is a dead-end block.
There's a sign at the corner."
"A sign?" said she.
"It's a dead-end block," repeated Nora, for what felt like the thousandth time. They'd petitioned the city to put up two signs, one on each side of the street. dead end. It made no difference. "Go back, go left, go left again. You'll hit the park." This, too, was a sentence Nora had uttered many times.
"It's a dead end," said he to her. Nora stared at the girl's face. Her eyebrows were like sparrow feathers dividing her high, smooth brow in two. Nora sighed. She supposed she had looked like that once, and hadn't appreciated it a bit. When she looked in the mirror nowadays, which she mainly did to see if she had anything in her teeth, the clean edges of her jaw seemed to have blurred, the corners of her mouth sliding south.
The young woman put her hand out toward Homer. Sitting on his haunches, he leaned forward and smelled it, then looked her in the eye. Homer had very pale blue eyes, the color of eucalyptus mints, which made him look demonic, although as he had aged he had become a calm and businesslike dog, too intelligent to waste time on aggression. Sherry and Jack Fisk, who lived halfway up the block, said that when someone reached toward their dog they could feel a faint buzzing through the leash, an interior growl that meant they should hold tight and step back. But the Fisks' dog was an enormous Rottweiler who looked as though he should be patrolling the fence at a maximum-security prison. Brutus was, as Charlie once said, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Sherry Fisk complained that their house was far too big, but that there wasn't a co-op in Manhattan that would have accepted her and Jack as residents with Brutus in tow.
"The minute that dog dies, I downsize," she had said.
"We're not going anywhere," Jack said. "Maybe she's moving, but if she is, she's going alone."
"I might," Sherry said.
"Yeah, you do that," Jack had said. Nora hated bickering, but with Sherry and Jack she scarcely even noticed it anymore. As long as Jack was not actually shouting, things were tenable. Nora always had knots in her shoulders after talking to Jack Fisk. It was as though her body sent messages that her mind didn't recognize until afterward.
The basic layout of the Fisk house was almost exactly like the Nolans', which was almost exactly like the Lessmans' and the
Fenstermachers' and the Rizzolis': a kitchen and dining room on the lower level, a double living room above, and two or three bedrooms on each of the floors above that, although some of the bedrooms had been turned into dens or offices. The Fisks had done a gut renovation, so their rooms were high and white and unornamented; the Nolans had some period detail, walls of oak wainscoting, ornamented mantelpieces.
"It is a big house for only two people," Nora had said to Sherry. "When the twins are away there could be somebody on the top floor and I wouldn't even know it."
"If I lived with her in a two-bedroom apartment, I might kill her," Jack Fisk said. Nora laughed nervously. Jack rarely laughed at all.
The Fisk house was bracketed by that of the Fenstermachers, who were perfect and hosted the holiday party every year, and a house that had been owned for ages by people who lived in London and rented it out. The renters never had enough stature on the block to gossip with their more durable neighbors, and Alma Fenstermacher never gossiped at all. But Nora suspected that while Charlie sometimes complained about TV noises rumbling through the common wall from the Rizzoli house next door, the occasional child screaming at a sibling or toy dog yipping at nothing, the Fisk neighbors heard more than that, and more often.
Nora looked at her husband. He was not even admiring the rear of the young woman as she turned and went back the way she had come, hand in hand with the young man. Charlie was too mesmerized by his good fortune, staring through the narrow opening at his car in its space, a faint smile on his face. With his thin, sandy hair, round blue eyes, and pink cheeks, he looked like a small boy. He was one of those people whose baby pictures looked more or less like his driver's license photo. He even looked boyish when he was unhappy, his full lower lip protruding a bit when he talked of someone at work who was being unfairly elevated, one of the guys he had come up with who had just gotten a big promotion.
"Congrats, party people," Nora heard from behind her, and she clenched her molars as she turned.
"Major league congrats," repeated George, the most irritating person on the block.