Of course, I haven’t seen him since he was 9, the year I left Chicago for New York. The only memory I have of him is as a dark-haired little boy, chipping golf balls by himself on his lawn.
I should mention here that he didn’t murder just one person. He murdered two. His mother and his grandmother. We’ll call him Andy.
Andy’s grandmother was a tough lady who lived two houses down, in a manicured sixties-era bi-level, with a friendly, pear-shaped husband and a fluffy orange Pomeranian named Fritzie. I encountered this neat, put-together lady and her dog every day on their regular walks down the street. Desperate for doggie contact, I begged her to walk Fritzie, and every now and then she let me hold the leash.
Someone else I encountered every day on his regular walks was a skinny, chain-smoking, bare-chested, long-haired young man. (And when I say long-haired, I mean all the way down to his butt.) Naked to the waist, flicking his ash onto our rosebushes, he was an extraordinary sight in my plain-vanilla suburban neighborhood, pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of our house.
Soon, the young man disappeared. When I was old enough, my mother explained who he was. Though I had never seen her, there was someone else living in that house, an only daughter. She’d been away to college somewhere far away and exotic, and had returned home with a non-Jewish husband, the long-haired young man.
The friendly, pear-shaped husband died, of heartbreak, it was said. In a hushed whisper, my mother explained that the daughter drank. Or drugged. Or something. In all of the 15 years that I lived at home, I never saw her; she never emerged from the house. Eventually, what did emerge was a little boy.
About this time, the house with the manicured lawn began to take on an unkempt appearance, the juniper bushes in front growing high and gnarled and wild, the white paint peeling off of the window casements. Crabgrass and dandelions choked the lawn that no one ever mowed anymore. No one came out of the house now. Except for Andy.
Andy looked like many other 8-year-old Jewish boys; dark hair, big eyes, cute, small, vulnerable. There were no friends, no playdates. I never saw anyone play with him at all, not his mother, not his grandmother.
As a teenager, all I wanted to do was move to New York, and when I was 19 I did, ending regular contact with the sad, busted family two houses down. With the shining city of New York filling my horizon, I forgot all about them.
But Mom never forgot. When she had extra, she would bring them a pot of chicken soup, or her homemade gefilte fish. Once, as my sister and I hurried through the cold from the house to the car on one of our infrequent visits from New York, the tough lady, who no longer looked neat and put together, stopped us to say how wonderful Mom was. The Jewish community had abandoned her, she said, but not my mom.
The years went by. Breaks-ins became common on my parents’ street. We all knew who was behind them. On successive visits, I saw the house grow stranger and more decrepit. Mom told me that the grandmother finally kicked Andy out for his drug use.
In 1996, I was living in a two bedroom apartment on 97th Street. I’d just had my first child. Mom was staying with us, teaching me how to be a mother.
One night, as we did the baby dance in front of the TV, rocking side-to-side and back-and-forth to comfort my colicky infant, a breaking news story flashed across the screen. Double murder in Chicago, a woman and her daughter. A dog. The murderer was still at large. And there, beyond the yellow police tape, was Andy’s house, in all its crumbling glory.
The police spoke to everyone on my block. Surprise surprise, they all shrugged their shoulders. The newspeople interviewed a next-door neighbor who, surprise surprise, also had no idea who might have done it. No one was dumb enough to mention Andy.
But I think the police already knew. He was arrested the following day. They put him on suicide watch.
Andy had been living on the street. As drug addicts often do, he came home looking for money. His mother refused. There was a knife. She started to scream. He needed his mother to keep quiet. Then he needed his grandmother to keep quiet, too. And the dog.
I’ve thought a lot about Andy since 1996. I think about how easy it would have been to avert the tragic ending. If he had gone to a different school. If his teachers had noticed that he needed help. If he’d had playdates. If he’d had friends. If his learning disabilities had been addressed. If the Jewish community had gotten involved. If people hadn’t turned away and looked in the other direction. If someone had cared enough to interfere.
In every class I teach, there is bound to be a child with uncombed hair and shadowy eyes who looks a little haunted. Though the other kids complain, I always give them extra attention. Sometimes the people who need help the most are the ones who do not ask.