Writings and Reflections

Pain in the Attic Window

by Lloyd B. Abrams

I had gone to fetch a ball that the dogs couldn't find. Some retrievers, I thought. Further along the path, a hundred feet away or so, I noticed a long-haired, disheveled-looking guy in a red flannel shirt and jeans kneeling on the ground, in a lotus-like position. His hands were resting on his knees and he was staring up at the sun. I picked up the ball, threw it towards the dogs, and then slowly walked over to him. I didn't want to startle him so I watched him for a few moments. Then I asked, "Doesn't it like, uh, hurt your eyes?"

After a few seconds - a pause - he turned his face up towards me. He seemed to take a while to focus. His words came out slowly, as if each word were carefully weighed and measured. "No. I do it all the time."

"When I look up at the sun," I said, "I close my eyes. I see black, with orange spots."

"I don't close my eyes. If I do, I still see things. Things I don't like. I keep my eyes open."

Just then, my Wheaten terrier bounded over to us. "It's okay, Jimmy. Daddy's just talking to this nice man."

"Jimmy. Nice name."

"Yeah. We named him after ..." Usually I go into the spiel about naming him after Jimmy Conway, the Robert De Niro character in Goodfellas, and how my son named his dog Henry, after Henry Hill, and how our previous dog was named Paulie, and so on. But I didn't think he'd grasp the connection even with a prolonged explanation. So I ended, simply, with, "... a character in a movie."

"Nice name."

I took the Poland Spring bottle out of my back pocket and squirted some water into Jimmy's mouth. I was glad he learned that trick from his buddies in this dog park. It saved having to carry a bottle of water and a bowl.

I knew this guy was "one of those." My wife accuses me of having a "wacko magnet in my ass," and insists that there's something about me that attracts people like him, like when we we're on the boardwalk, or at the mall, or on a city street. But I was curious, and he was probably a hell of a lot more interesting than the other pet owners, who dwelled upon such earth-shattering issues as the ambiance of the few available dog parks, the professionalism and fees of their veterinarians, the skill of various groomers, and the relative quality of plastic bags in which newspapers were delivered that we use for poop pick-up. We've talked about the bags with the same reverence and profundity as Eskimos do about snow.

I persisted: "So, why do you look into the sun?"

"I don't know. But it feels good."

"Doesn't it hurt your eyes?"

"It feels good," he repeated.

"But it could burn out your retinas."

"It feels good," he repeated again. He started to raise his voice.

"Okay, but why do you do it?"

"Because of the attic. The window in the attic."

"The attic?"

"They put me in there. The window was up high ..."

"Allan! Are you bo-bo-bothering the man?" A scraggily-haired woman, who looked to be sixty, but who was probably closer to forty, was almost upon us. I hadn't heard her approaching.

"No, we're just talking," I said. "He's a really nice guy."

She grimaced and gave me a strange look, as if to ask, "Are you kidding?"

"Allan, tell me the truth. Were you staring at the sun again?"

"No. I. Was. Not." Each word was its own sentence. He looked up at me, and I nodded.

The woman must have noticed my conspiratorial nod but she said nothing.

"Come along. We have to go home now." She took hold of his arm and tried to lift him up. She had the sour smell of smoke and alcohol. I'm glad she didn't see me wince.

"C'mon, Allan. Get up. It's time to go."

He slowly got to his feet, but he kept looking down at the ground, as if he were unsure of his footing.

"Say goodby to the man."

"Goodby, Mister." He was still looking down his feet. He had on torn, filthy slippers that were, at one time, light blue.

She shook her head and looked at me with expressionless, bloodshot eyes. Her face was prematurely wrinkled and her gray-streaked hair was frizzy and unkempt.

"Let's go." With her hand on his arm, she urged him on. She walked lopsidedly, like a stroke victim who had been paralyzed on one side. I watched this odd couple trudge through the gate and then slowly cross the street.

His words bothered me: "The attic. They put me up there." I was curious to see where they went, so I decided to follow them.

"Jimmy!" I called out. "Let's go." He eventually comes when I call. I often joke, "sure he listens - but only when he wants to." This time, I only had to call him twice before he trotted over to me.

"Good dog," I gushed, as I rubbed his head and patted him on his side. "Good boy." I clicked the leash onto his collar, waved to the other owners who may or may not have noticed us leave, and we began to follow the plodding man and woman. Because Jimmy was tired out from romping with his canine buddies, we were able to proceed without him surging ahead. We kept our distance as I kept the man and woman in sight.

We passed the tract homes that were built after World War II for returning soldiers, and then we walked into the newly-gentrified older section of town. Most of the stately colonials had already been renovated. Those older houses was certainly better constructed than any of the cookie-cutter homes sprouting on former potato fields turned into house farms further outside the city.

I watched from the opposite side of Jane Street as the couple turned up a walk and then onto the front porch of one of the large homes. Theirs, number 147, was sandwiched between a house-magazine-ready home with a four-color scheme and flowering rhododendrons in front, and another whose ornate woodwork had been stripped and refinished. With fading dark brown shingles and peeling colonial-blue trim, at one time 147 Jane must have been magnificent, but it was now sad and rundown, with an abandoned, derelict look. Compared with the two on either side, it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

The woman unlocked the front door and guided the man inwards. I heard him say something like "No ... no ... I don't want to ..." but he did not put up a fight. The door shut with a thud behind them.

Trees with newly-opened, baby-green leaves surrounded their house, but I was able to spot a tiny window, no bigger than an air vent, high up on the south-facing side, right below the peak. It was off-center, and it looked as if it were placed up there by accident. I imagined the man as a boy, locked in the attic, too short at first to stand up and look out the window, and sitting, but more probably kneeling, on his own particular spot on the rough hewn floor boards, and staring up at the sun, and periodically changing position to follow the sun's blinding glare as it tracked from east to west. "It feels good," he said. I shuddered at the surge of utter loneliness and isolation that rippled through me. And then I wondered: What the hell was with these people?

By then, Jimmy had lain down on the grass in the utility strip between the sidewalk and the street. "C'mon. Let's go," I said. I gently pulled on his leash until he rose and stretched and let me lead him away.

As Jimmy and I continued on our way home, I wanted to know more about the people. I decided to change our route to the dog run so we would walk by their house every day, even though it would take us several blocks out of the way.

It rained all the next day and, as usual, Jimmy, who hated getting wet, refused to go out. I searched on the computer to find out more about the people. First, I did a reverse address lookup and then coughed up $14.95 for information. The registered owner of 147 Jane Street was Thomas McNally, and I found detailed information about the property, including its evaluation, sales history and the number of household residents, as well as, of course, the telephone number. When I googled "Thomas McNally" nothing popped up. And the same was with "Allan McNally," although I tried various spellings of his first name.

Luckily, the next day was clear and mild, and we left on our new longer walking route. He'd have to read new "pee-mail" and leave his scent on different poles, trees, fence posts, bushes and hydrants, but I was sure he wouldn't mind. When we walked by the dilapidated house on Jane Street, I could stop only briefly to give the house a close look without being too obvious, and also because Jimmy was pulling, urging me to "hurry up, Dad" on his way towards the dog run.

Allan was not on the path, staring into the sun, and I was disappointed. The only people around were the dog owners - of Stogie and Fury and Fritz, of Lobo and Lucky and Gale. "Gale?" I had once asked. "Yeah, I named her after my first wife," her owner replied. "Your first wife?" "Yeah. Because she was such a bitch." The others laughed although they had probably heard the punch line before. I didn't know if it were the truth but I really didn't give a damn.

When I found the opportunity, I asked them, "By the way, do you know anything about a guy - his name is Allan something - who sits and stares at the sun?"

Stan said, "Yeah, I noticed him. But I didn't think nothing 'bout it."

Marianne and the others shook their heads. "What about you, Pete? Don't you live nearby?"

"I seen him now and then. Wandering ... in his own world. Sometimes there's some old broad with him. He's probably some kind of nut job. Anyways, what do you want to know for?" I seen him ... old broad ... nut job ... anyways ...

I shrugged my shoulders; I didn't want to tell them why I was asking. Soon after bringing Jimmy there, almost a year before, I realized that the owners wanted to keep things on a superficial level. I thought of my uncle's sour observation about certain people, whose "superficiality runs deep." This inevitably made for shallow relationships, unlike the dogs, who did not have such human restrictions.

I watched Jimmy run around with his buddies, and when he finally got hold of a ball, he refused to relinquish it, as usual. Several of the retrievers stood around, barking at him, then whining, but only I noticed his almost imperceptible quivering lips, baring teeth, which warned them to back off. Later, after an hour or so of depthless discourse, we all walked out together with "see ya"s and promises to return the next day.

Across the street from 147 Jane, an older woman was down on her knees, doing some gardening. I made a clicking noise and whispered, "Let's cross" to Jimmy. He is so attuned to me that he stepped right out onto the street.

"Wow! That's a beautiful garden!"

The woman stood up and wiped her forehead on her sleeve. "Why, thank you so much." She gave me a big smile.

There was a row of plants with vibrant yellow, pink, orange and red blooms. "Aren't those are tuberous begonias?" I asked.

"Yes, they are."

"They're beautiful. We have a couple of the regular kind, but there're nothing like those."

Jimmy, who needed frequent breaks when it was too warm, prepared to lie down on the grass.

"That's a really handsome dog," she said. "What kind is he?"

"Jimmy's a Wheaten terrier."

"That's what I thought, but aren't they usually smaller?"

"Well, he's big for his breed, but he's all mush. Thank goodness he's not an alpha dog. That's all I'd need ... a terrier his size with an alpha's personality."

"Com'ere, Jimmy," she said. He got up and ambled a few steps over to her, and then promptly lay down again. Then, "He's gorgeous."

"Yeah, we're really lucky. We got him from the pound. I always tell my wife that she 'picked a good one.'"

"How old is he?"

"Oh, about six or seven. I don't really know. Somebody dumped him."

"You can never figure out why people do the things they do."

Good. An opening. "Yeah, by the way, what about the house across the street? All the houses around here are so beautiful. People've put a lot of work into them. Yours, especially."

"Why, thank you, again. That's a nice thing to say. But the house across the street ... well, it's a long story."

I gestured with my hand to go on ... to tell me more.

"I don't know if I should ..."

I knelt down and started to pet Jimmy and to stall for time. He oozed over on his back to give access his belly.

"Well, it's a long story," she repeated. Then: "They're only the three of them living there now. A boy and a girl and their father."

A boy and a girl? But I said, "That's quite a big house for only three people."

"All the houses around here are as big. It costs a fortune to heat them in the winter. That's one of the reasons why you've got more than one family living in some of them."

"What about them?" I nodded towards the ramshackle house.

"They're barely getting by. The boy's never been right, and the girl ... well, she's never been right either. Especially ever since the accident."


"Yes. Well, they said it was an accident. If you ask me, it was the boy who pushed the girl down the stairs ... and on purpose. He was always so violent ... couldn't be trusted. I never let my kids play over there."

"When did it happen?"

"Back in the 70's ... 1974 to be exact. The same summer that Nixon resigned. 'I am not a crook' ... what baloney."

I did the math. "That's, uh, over thirty years ago ..."

"Right. The boy was around twelve and the girl was two years younger. That's right. She was ten. A sweet young thing. Well cared for, too."

"And what happened?"

"Well, the kids were playing in the kitchen while the parents were busy upstairs. Then she slipped and tumbled down the basement stairs and hit her head on the concrete floor. But like I said, I think she was pushed. By him, by that brother of hers. Could never trust that boy.

"She was barely breathing when the fire department finally showed up. The parents must've called when they found her. Certainly couldn't've been the boy who called. He was a schizo ..."


"Yes, that's it. Schizophrenic or autistic or something like that. The older he got, the worse he got. When he was a kid, I used to see him sitting out on the front steps, rocking back and forth. Sometimes he hit his head with his fists, and sometimes he'd even hit his head against one of the posts. It was hard to watch. And then one of the parents would have to go out to get him and drag him back inside. Always made such a hullabaloo.

"But after the incident, accident ... whatever you call it ... the parents grew more and more distant. Like they were strangers.

"You've got to realize, this had always been a pretty close-knit neighborhood. We've all lived here for years. Most of us've gone to the same church. St. Mary's down on Main Street?"

"The one with the church bells that ring every hour on Sunday?"

"That's the one. And all the kids were in the same school and in the same classes together. Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Soccer and Little League. Sunday school, too. And when they weren't somewhere else, they were out here, on the street, playing tag or ball or shoot 'em up."

"Allan - that's the boy's name - would sit on the stoop rocking, like I said. The parents tried - they really did - to get him to play with the others but he wouldn't know how, couldn't learn how. And then he'd get angry or frustrated and he'd take it out on the other kids. My kids. The neighbor's kids. So they didn't want to play with him."

"That must've been tough on everyone."

"Yup. And the girl - they used to call her 'little Cathy' because she was a spittin' image of her mother Cathleen, rest her poor soul. Her real name's Patricia. Nice Irish name." She chuckled. "Anyway, Pattie played with everybody, even the boys. You know how they can be. And it all stopped after the accident."

"How many kids did they have?"

"Just the two of them. A real tragedy. Their two children, both damaged, both ruined."

"That must've been horrible ..."

"You can say that again. At first, all of the families tried to help out with money, food, ... you name it. The girl was in the hospital for weeks. Brain injured, the doctors said. Irrep ..."


"Yes, irreparably. It wasn't like it is now, with doctors and drugs and rehab and all those things. After all, it was thirty years ago. And they couldn't do a damn thing. Sorry, pardon my language."

"No problem ..."

"So they kept her home, too. They said she needed to recuperate. Sure, we went over to visit, as I said, and we made our kids visit, too. But after a while ..."

Her voice trailed off.

"They kept the kids home all the time?"

"Yup, both of them. Little Allan was locked in the attic most of the time. 'To keep him out of harm's way' was how they put it. And after Pattie started to get better, they made her start to watch over him, take care of him. Didn't think she'd ever amount to anything Can you believe that? She was ten, eleven, and he was two years older and bigger and stronger than she was. And ever since then ..."

Her voice trailed off. She had a pensive look on her face.

I wanted her to go on, so I asked, "What did the schools do? What about getting them some kind of help?"

"If you were a teacher, would you want someone like Allan in your class? Yeah, I know, he'd be in special ed, but even they found they couldn't keep him contained in those classes. 'Uneducable,' they said. They'd have to send him to a special school but the school district wasn't willing to pay for it. After a while, Tom and Cathleen gave up fighting and kept him at home. If it were me, I would've hired a lawyer or something. But nobody could get through to them to the parents. You've got to ask yourself: Why would the school district want to chase after them? After all, it would've cost the district a heck of a lot of money. 'Throwing good money after bad' was how they'd've put it, I'm sure, although they'd never put anything in writing. They just keep stalling, postponing meetings, making excuses, hoping they'd go away."

"But what about the girl?"

She looked up at the house and then at me. She lowered her voice and stepped closer. Jimmy opened his eyes, stretched with a groan, and then closed them again. "They were a nice Irish family, if you catch my drift. There was an awful lot of drinking going on. An awful lot. Some say that's why the kids were left alone to play by themselves in the first place ... and that's why it happened. You'd think they'd've slowed down a bit but it was just the opposite.

"Not only did they give up fighting the school district about the boy, they didn't bother to even try with Pattie. So they kept her home as well. They drank and they ordered her around, like their own personal servant. They turned her into their own private nanny. And poor Pattie ... she didn't know any better."

I sadly shook my head.

"By that time, all the girls her age were going into junior high, and, you know, they get so cliquish and bitchy. So intolerant, even though we all tried to teach them different. They didn't want anything to do with her. Didn't want to even be seen with her.

"It wasn't just me and my kids. You've got to realize it was everyone ... all the families. The Schmidts over there, and the Mahoneys and the Callahans. It was everyone."

"I guess that's to be expected."

She lowered her voice and went on. "And there was one other thing. I could never've put my finger on it, but I think that Tom McNally was a bit too friendly with Pattie, if you catch my drift. It wasn't anything they did or said, but it was the way he was with her. Like when he stood too close, or when he had his arm on her shoulder, or when he touched her. Any of those things would've seemed innocent, but put altogether ... Well, it sure creeped me out."

"Did you say anything to anybody?"

"Well, I mentioned it to my husband, and he told me to mind my own business, and a few other words I won't repeat. After all, I couldn't prove anything, so I kept it to myself. But I did hear snippets, rumblings - you know .. things - from some of the neighbors - suspicions, accusations ...

"And I guess it was understandable. Of the two, Cathleen did more of the drinking. After she was run over ... it was right over there" - she pointed to the end of the street - "Tom had no one to, uh ... not that it excuses anything he might've done ... but it sure helps to explains it."

"Run over? When was that?"

"Three or four years after Pattie's accident. The driver wasn't drunk but she certainly was. Staggered out into the middle of the street and got herself killed. As if she had meant it to happen. D-O-A when the ambulance showed up.

"Boy, it got worse and worse for them."

"That's for sure. But if you ask me, someone should've done something. The sad thing was that we kept it all to ourselves - it was the neighborhood secret. And it turned out to be the neighborhood curse."

All I could do was shake my head. "You know, I think I saw Allan in the park the other day. He was staring up into the sun."

"That'd be him, all right. I heard that's all he did all day when he was up there in the attic. Besides rock back and forth and hurt himself."

"And then this gray-haired lady came to get him."

"Yup, that's Pattie. She looks terrible these days, not that I'm much of a looker. You probably noticed her limp but she gets around okay, I guess. As well as could be expected. Much better than when it happened. It took a while for her to learn how to walk again."

"You said their father still lives in the house with them?"

"I don't see much of him at all anymore. He doesn't go out, I suppose. They don't have a car anymore, not that the kids could drive. Kids - listen to me - they both've gotta be in their forties. But it's not like either one of them could ever get a driver's license."

"So how do they do it? How do they get by?"

"Some of us go over there and help out. Like, when I prepare a tuna casserole, I make enough for two pans and then I bring one over for them. A few days later, Pattie'll return the pan to me, good as new.

"Most of the other neighbors do the same kind of things, except the ones who've just moved in. They don't have the history, of course. It's not like we get together and plan anything, have a neighborhood meeting or anything like that. Bert Sheehan, from down the block, rides his mower over and does their lawn every now and then. In the winter, he cleans the snow away with his snow blower. Margie, his wife, splits up some cases when she gets back from Costco. 'Smitty' - that's George Schmidt, he lives over there - she pointed at a big white house several doors away - helped fix their boiler last winter. Boy, that was one cold day. And Theresa Maloney - her husband's gone now - Terry helps them write out their checks and pay their bills. I'm pretty sure she kicks in something, too. Mostly everyone helps out in some way, in their own way. It's just the right thing to do."

"The Jews call it a mitzvah - doing a righteous deed."

"You have something there, all right."

I had the feeling that she might have said more than she had intended, and I wanted to end our conversation on an up-note. "I've enjoyed talking with you, Missus ..."

"It's Raynor, but you can call me Jean."

"Jean. Well, you've already met Jimmy. And my name is Sam. Sam Kaplan."

"Nice to meet you, Sam."

"Likewise." Jimmy's ears had perked up at the mention of his name, and he started to stand up.

Jean bent over to rub Jimmy's head and ears. "And it's nice meeting you, too, Jimmy." He leaned against her as she continued to caress him.

"Okay. C'mon Jimmy ... we've gotta go."

"See you both around."

I turned to go. When I glanced up at the house across the street, the ripple of a curtain in an upstairs window caught my eye.

"I guess someone was watching us," I whispered to Jimmy. But to him, it was of no concern.

It rained the next day. I began writing this story, the story of one family's tragedy. If they had lived in the city, the McNallys might have been one of The New York Times's "Neediest Cases" around Chrismas time. I wanted to go back and speak to some of the other neighbors to get a fuller picture. Since the weather was becoming warmer, the other Jane Street people, like the Schmidts, the Callahans - even Theresa Maloney - might be outside doing some gardening or other yard work. I figured that the more time I spent walking in that neighborhood, the greater the chance of "accidentally" bumping into them. I was sure that Jimmy, with his special way of ingratiating himself with strangers, could be the ice-breaker. And I was right. Even Terry Maloney, who claimed she was allergic to dogs, told Jimmy he could come live with her anytime.

A week after I met Jean Raynor, the sky was an exquisite blue and there was only a slight breeze. It was one of those perfect mid-May days when you really know that spring had finally sprung. I also wanted to start out early because the prevailing weather pattern meant that it would get cloudy and a lot cooler during the afternoon. I assumed that the early dog and owner contingent would be at the dog run so I slipped the squirt bottle and a couple of plastic bags into my back pocket and Jimmy and I set off.

When I made the turn from Convington onto Jane Street, I caught a whiff of smoke. I'm usually sensitive to odors. But it wasn't from the old electric plant out at the bay. It wasn't from the diesel trucks over on Main. It was something more ominous. I knew that odor! It was the acrid smell of a house on fire. Up ahead there were police cars. They were parked on one side of the street. A red and white fire marshal's van was on the other side. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I got closer, I saw the yellow "Police Line - Do Not Cross" tape circling the McNally property. And when I looked up, I saw the broken windows, the charred outside walls, the scorched, gaping holes in the roof.

"Sir? Please cross the street, sir." A young police officer had his hands up to stop us. "You can't come this way."

"What's going on?"

"As you can see, sir, there was a house on fire."

"Is everyone okay?"

"No, Sir. There were three dead."

"Oh, no! My God! What happened?"

"Sir, I don't really know. Why? Did you know them?"

"Not really," I answered. "But can't you ...?"

"I've already said too much, sir. Could you please cross the street?"

I knew I wasn't going to get anything more out of the officer. Jimmy and I crossed over and walked up to Jean Raynor, who was standing on the sidewalk, staring at the house. She was in a daze.

"Jean?" She turned to look at me. Her eyes were red. "Jean ... what the heck happened?"

"Oh, it's you, Sam. They're dead. The three of them. They're all dead."

"Jeez ... that's terrible. Horrible." I couldn't find any other words to say.

"It happened in the middle of the night. An explosion. Woke us up. Wasn't a loud boom or anything like that. It was like when you spray too much fire starter on a barbecue and then light a match. A 'woomf,' but only bigger. And then the whole house was in flames.

"The firemen showed up right away, but they couldn't get into the house. When they did, it was too late. Later on, I watched them rolling away the bodies. Three body bags. One right after the other."

I slowly shook my head. "That's really dreadful." I pointed to the van and asked, "Why the fire marshal?"

"From what I've gathered, they think the fire was set. For a house to go up like that, some kind of accelerant had to be used - gasoline, kerosene - something or that sort."

"Who would've done such a thing?"

Tears welled up in her eyes and she dabbed them away with a crumpled tissue. "I figure it was one of them. Pattie came over yesterday afternoon with, you know, one of my glass pans. Clean as a whistle. I asked her to come in to have a cup of tea. Usually she said 'no,' but this time, she followed me in and sat down at the kitchen table. She started to cry. I asked, 'What's the matter?' and she didn't answer for a while. She just sat there whimpering.

"I waited, and finally said, 'Pattie?' And she said, between sobs - and I told this all to the police, Sam - she said, 'I've had it. It's enough. It's too much.' Those were her exact words. 'What's going on, Pattie?' I asked. 'Is there anything I can do?'

"I could barely hear her when she started whispering to me. She said, 'There's someone watching us. I know it. He's watching our house.' She then got up to look out the window. 'He's not there now but it's a man with a big tan dog. He walks that dog back and forth, back and forth. Always staring up at the house. I can't take it anymore. I can't take anymore of it.' Then she stumbled out of the house. I tried to stop her. I really did. But you know who she was talking about, don't you, Sam?"

I took a deep breath and then let it out. "Jean, I didn't think ..."

She shrugged her shoulders and her tears started flowing again.

Just then, a man in a rumpled suit approached us. "Sir? May we have a word with you?"

As he escorted Jimmy and me back across the street towards his waiting partner, I glanced up at the house. Only one wall, the south wall, remained unscathed. And the only window that was left untouched, the only one that was not blown out, was the one way up high, right at the peak.

Rev 6 / February 21, 2007

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February, 2007…Copyright © 2007, Lloyd B. Abrams
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