As often as he could, Francisco sat on the porch, hands resting on his plump belly, smoking a cigar. The ash of his cigars matched his thinning hair, but was a little more gray. He found the most time to smoke in the early morning. Gurkhas and Liga Privadas were the only cigars he smoked. Thomas would sit with him at times, but only if it happened to be afternoon. Francisco enjoyed the cool, east-coast breezes that swept through after the sun rose. Nine months out of the year, Thomas was uncomfortable. After so many years of forcing himself to sit in the wind, he decided stopped. Thomas became very vocal about his opinion that there were better ways for him to spend time with his husband.
Francisco agreed with Thomas that there were better ways for the pair to enjoy quality time together. For many years, they worked together at the small grocery store that they owned in town. The only store around for miles, it was a successful business venture. Now, they were old, though. A tall, dark, young man, Xavier, worked there for most of the time Thomas and Francisco owned it. Thomas worked the counter for a handful of years after his husband lost interest in it. Eventually, he decided it would be best for his health if he didn’t stand still at the cash register all day.
Thomas and Francisco both loved spending time in their home. It was a large plot of land. There were so many trees that their gardener, Maggie, always said the forest would swallow the property whole one day. Thomas designed the house himself, with a bit of aid from an architect he knew from university. The couple’s dinner guests would regularly get lost on their way from the living room to the dining room. After several complaints, Francisco hung cleverly placed paintings that helped to point out the path. One of them was of a Russian writer with a stern expression, holding a quill pen in his outstretched arm. Another, a ballet dancer dancing with a swan, both facing the direction of the dining room door.
A porch wrapped around the entire house. Chairs sat around every corner. If Francisco wanted to sit in the sun in the winter, there was a chair. When he felt like overlooking the small pond next to the house, he could. Thomas preferred the front of the house but rarely sat outside alone. In the early days, men would come to their house to threaten them. Many a pick-up truck sped by, tossing road kill at the couple as Thomas drank tea and Francisco smoked. The tranquility of the New England air was always interrupted by those frightening memories, at least, during those first few years. Not long after the third raccoon landed on their steps, Thomas bought a shotgun.
Neither of them had ever shot the shotgun at anyone. They each took it out once, behind their house. Thomas shot a pumpkin, despite the trouble he had holding the gun up. Francisco didn’t hit anything. Word must have got out about their purchase, according to Francisco. Once they had the gun, the taunts only came from teenage boys. The boys would often end up coming into their store a few days later to apologize. Xavier often remarked on how silly it was the grown men, who likely owned guns as well, were afraid of that cheap twelve-gauge. Francisco would argue, saying it was intimidating.
“Grown men know the difference between a toy and a gun, but boys do not.”
There were a few good years, after purchasing the gun, that neither of them had anything to worry about. Those years ended suddenly, and their quiet life became full of hissing static.
Their neighbor, known to them only as Joe, lived in his house since the end of World War Two. His wife died the year before Thomas and Francisco moved to town. For the entire time that they lived next to one another, Joe neither caused nor reported any problems. Not a sound came from his windows. After a while, he could be heard yelling in pain while working on some project in his garage. That phase only lasted a few months. He’d lost the hearing in one ear while fighting the Germans. Had a nasty scar all the way across his back. His wife, Ethel, was pampered for the rest of her life after they wed. After she died, Joe was only seen outside working in his yard. His yard was a beautiful garden thanks to his efforts. Thomas and Francisco regularly found baskets of vegetables outside their front door. Anything that would grow, Joe would share with them. He included things that weren’t supposed to grow that far north. Maggie often accused Joe of buying those items, but only when he wasn’t around.
Eight years after Ethel died, Joe joined her in the afterlife. There was a large estate sale, where Francisco found an Italian tobacco pipe and a box of beautiful cigars. Shortly after Joe’s death, a new neighbor moved in. This man was an artist. He painted large pictures that people liked looking at. Thomas and Francisco spoke with Maggie in depth about how they didn’t understand why people liked looking at his paintings so much. They didn’t understand why he was driving an expensive convertible, having never worked a regular job. The first time they met, he introduced himself as Radwin Ali. He gifted the couple the painting of the Russian writer. Even though he hated it, Francisco hung it outside of the living room because it was the place that bothered Thomas the most.
“Do you have to hang that putrid thing on the most visible wall in our house? This isn’t what I pictured seeing every time I lead our guests to the back of the house.”
“Thomas, it looks perfect in this light. There’s nowhere else in the whole house that this would look good. I know it’s dreadful, but it belongs right here.”
Francisco didn’t believe at all that the painting belonged on the wall where he hung it. He thought it was a good way to tease Thomas for years to come.
Radwin Ali invited the two of them to his housewarming party, but they declined. He’d left the note in the same spot that Joe would leave his baskets of vegetables. Seeing the paint smeared envelope on the porch brought back a group of emotions that Francisco, who found it, didn’t want to feel.
The party was loud. In one form or another, it seemed to go on for a month. After it ended, another party took its place. Whether it was day or night, Radwin Ali kept a constant stream of visitors. The guests were all enamored by the isolation and colorful nature of the area. None of them failed to express their awe. A car would pull up next to one of the dozen others in Radwin Ali’s driveway, then someone would let out a horrible shriek. Overnight guests of Thomas and Francisco were regularly awakened at odd hours by the screams. Their shock would subside when Radwin Ali shouted back.
“I know. Isn’t it extravagant?”
Things got to the point where if Thomas didn’t warn their guests of the disturbing activity, Francisco would. it became a strange habit that neither of them enjoyed forming. Many of their guests would announce that they’d changed their minds about staying the night upon hearing the warning. The couple became jealous that Radwin Ali could have all the guests in the world, and they could have none.
When Ali died, a torturous social weight was lifted from their shoulders. Thomas said he felt bad about how he reacted afterward. Francisco called him a liar. Truthfully, they were both relieved that they could resume a normal life. They began having their own guests over again. Most of the time, those guests would stay the night. For a while, no one asked about Radwin Ali’s accident. It was a summer night, while the group was drinking a variety of Malbecs, that someone finally asked about it. Francisco was reluctant at first but told the story as his friend persisted.
“Radwin Ali drove a fast car, a convertible. It was blue, with a tan top. He never took it to a mechanic. Obviously, he didn’t know how to work on it himself. The thing had a simple problem. Looked to me like the connector between the alternator and the headlights, or something of that nature. Every so often, his headlights would go dark.
When he drank at those infernal celebrations, he liked to take girls out for a drive. He’d go up and down the dirt road here to the east. I don’t think he lived here long enough to learn them well because he’d ran his car into a ditch once before.
He took two girls out in his car one night and sped up and down the road, through the fields out there. I saw his headlights go out when they were still far away. Thomas says he thinks Radwin Ali lost track of where he was. I feel bad saying it, but it is kind of ironic, in a way. The man was famous for his paintings. That one you saw of the man with the pen in the hall on your way back here, he gave that to us. Anyway, he had the house painted white when he moved in. When he crashed that convertible into it, he and those poor girls were splattered all over the wall. We still can’t figure out how he didn’t go through the whole damn house, going that fast.”
“He had a lead foot, that’s for sure,” Thomas commented.
The dinner guests were so amazed by the story that they brought others to the parties hear it. They’d tell Thomas and Francisco that they tried telling it, but didn’t do the tale justice. The new guests, the ones neither of them knew, would rarely stay the night. As soon as the story of Ali had been told, they’d grow tired and leave.
Francisco would tell how Maggie burst through the back door of the house from the garden. Her first thought was that a shelf in the basement had fallen on top of Francisco. A puzzled look came over her face when she saw him running down the stairs to the hallway. He had come down thinking one of the larger gardening machines had broken.
“Did the lawn mower just explode? Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine. I thought something fell on you. I was worried you died.”
“I’m fine. What would have made that sound? I thought I heard a woman scream.”
“I thought so, too. Maybe it was an accident on the road.”
Maggie and Francisco both ran out the front door. A large crowd was running out the front door
of Radwin Ali’s house, gathering outside. There was a smoke plume from the opposite side, as though there were a fire. Neither Maggie nor Francisco could see the light a fire would cast. When the first few in the crowd rounded the corner where the smoke was coming from, they screamed. Some of them ran in the opposite direction. Upon hearing the shouting, Maggie and Francisco bolted off the porch, towards Mr. Ali’s house.
Fighting her way through the crowd, Maggie looked around to see people balled up on the ground, crying. Francisco stood at the back of the crowd. He had a good idea of what had happened.
“Maggie, there’s no need for you to go up there.” He shouted over the wailing. “It’s just going to be ugly for you.”
“I might be able to help,” she said. Francisco couldn’t hear her but saw her intent when she looked back at him over her shoulder.
“He knew what he was doing when he took those girls out in that damn car.”
One of the couples that were crying on the ground looked up at him. They were puzzled that someone would be so callous about such a horrible accident. The girl whispered something in her boyfriend’s ear.
Maggie froze in place when she finally saw what was around the corner. The entire wall of the house was covered in blood. One of the girl’s dresses had been torn from her body and become stuck to the gelatinous red coating spewed across the siding. A mangled, burnt, blue and tan mess of metal was curled up in the grass. A mass of what looked to Maggie like four bodies was pinned between the crumpled car and the bloody wall. It turned out that, on impact, Radwin Ali had been split in half just above the waist. His long black hair was soaked in blood. She stepped on paint brushes scattered about the grass from a box that had flown from the back seat. At the center of the slew of brushes was a Bloody Cranes-bill he’d taken from the garden she’d been tending all spring. Maggie walked back towards Francisco with a blank face. She stared into nothingness as he tried to comfort her with a hug.
“I told you. That’s nothing you needed to see.”
“I know. I’m going back to the house. I can’t help them.”
They hoped to find Thomas in the living room when they walked in the front door. He was nowhere to be found. Francisco’s anger built as it grew later in the evening, and then he went to bed, and Thomas still wasn’t home. Maggie stayed the night in the downstairs guest bedroom. She spent it sobbing, which awoke Francisco several times. When he finally rose from bed, as the sun came up, the house was quiet, at last.
“This is going to be a tough couple days,” he said to himself.
He pulled a cigar from one of his boxes and sat on the porch facing Radwin Ali’s house. Francisco looked up after lighting his cigar and saw Thomas standing next to two men in long brown coats. Another man was spraying the blood covered wall with a garden hose. Red water was running down the driveway, underneath one of the coated men’s heavy boots. The man didn’t seem to notice.
Remembering that he was furious at his husband, Francisco pulled in smoke quickly with every draw. The Gurkha bit the tip of his tongue with its heat each time. When Thomas was finished talking to the men, he turned towards the house. As he approached, he saw the red glow that grew and fell. It lit up Francisco’s face, then went dim again.
“Francisco, these men want to talk to you. They’re not police. They’re from the paper.”
“I am not talking to anyone. Not them, not you.”
“Where were you last night?”
“Oh. I fell asleep in the back of the store on those bags of potato flakes. I suppose gray hair makes a man tired.”
“Potato flakes? I should believe that?”
“The truth doesn’t change whether you believe in it or not. You should talk to those men, though. They just want to know what happened. Neither of them were out all night, sleeping on sacks of potato flakes, so you can’t be angry at them. You can be angry at me later when you’re finished talking to them.”
“Oh, fuck off. Why would the paper need to know what I saw, anyway? Maggie saw it much closer than I did.”
“Because Maggie is asleep, and the kids that were there said that you saw it. These men didn’t see it, but they want to imagine what happened.”
“The paper is garbage. I will not talk to them.”
The two men walking began walking towards him from behind Thomas. One of them was smoking a light cigarette. The smell of it annoyed Francisco. It reminded him of the city he’d come from, where everyone smoked cigarettes. Few people smoked cigarettes out in the country. These men must be outsiders, he thought.
“Good morning, Mr. Ochoa,” the man on the left said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out in the grass.
“What was that? That is my grass you are standing on. Pick up your cigarette butt and leave. I am not talking to reporters.”
The man nonchalantly picked up the cigarette, putting it into one of his coat pockets.
“I’m Carl, this is Bill. We just want to ask you about yesterday. You’re already sitting out here, right? It’s not much more effort for you to speak.”
“Is that clever? You want clever? I’ll go inside, then. Not much effort, either.”
Francisco set his Gurkha down on the ashtray next to him. Thomas scowled at him as he got up from the white tweed chair and went inside. He shut both the screen door and the glass front door behind him, locking Thomas out. The three men watched as he glanced at them through the fabric hanging behind the door, then disappeared into the darkness of the house.
“I’m sorry for my husband,” Thomas said. “It must have been traumatic seeing Radwin Ali’s body. You know, we have one of his paintings hanging in our threshold.”
“So you were close?” Carl asked.
“Somewhat. He gave it to us when he moved in. It’s of a Russian writer. I’m fairly certain it is famous.”
“If it wasn’t before, it is now,” Bill said.
“Radwin Ali was a loud man. We know a lot about what happened at his house because we couldn’t help it. Maggie probably knows the most, but she’ll be less helpful than Francisco. At least for now.”
“Sure, well, we’ve got time. If we want to get this book out, it should be soon, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. We’ll come back later in the week when things have settled a bit. Thanks, Thomas.”
Bill and Carl walked back to the opposite side of Radwin Ali’s house, where their sedan was parked. The other man, who was still spraying the house, kinked the hose when they walked by to not ruin their coats with red mist. Thomas looked around, then sat in the chair Francisco had been smoking in. It was still warm from his body heat. He didn’t know what to do while he waited for Francisco or Maggie to let him into the house. He picked up what was left of Francisco’s Gurkha and puffed it back to life.