Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 2 | Summer 1987 (Portland) /// Issue 34 of 41 /// Master# 34 of 73

shaped her character. She was a strong- willed, successful, basically happy little person. The Neighbor Lady usually had a crisis go ing . She was a refugee from a Reader’s Digest All Too True Life Experience—a tragedy looking for a place to happen. Except, at the same time, she was so much like a Punch and Judy Show. She was fat and prone to getting red in the face when she yelled at her kids, which was often, because there was always something going wrong or something really truly dreadful was about to descend on her scared little head. There was always somebody breaking into, or attempting to break into, The Ne ighbor Lady ’s garage; prow ling around her yard late at night; peeking into her bedroom window. She asked if I had heard The Prowler, The Peeker. Not only that, The Neighbor Lady was psychic. She had Dreams. When the police were absolutely baffled by some stupendous mystery, she assured me they could count on her for help. She belonged in The National Enquirer but fate dictated that she live next door to us. Some of this memorabilia still clutters up my mind. One time at our house she was “ visiting” with me and being indifferent, as usual, to her own four-year-old son. He started crying with frustration, came to me for support and clung to my knees. I looked at The Neighbor Lady in wonder. She didn’t even notice. She was talking. The Neighbor Lady confided to me that she had been abused as a child. Her mother, or perhaps an evil step-mother, gave her an enema every day. And washed and scrubbed her bottom till she was sore. How tacky, was my main reaction. I didn’t give it another thought until months later. Mieka Catherine was born an Aries and The Neighbor Lady’s child was born shortly thereafter. Suzanne took six weeks maternity leave and then went back to her job. School let out for the summer and I was suddenly very popular with the local kid network. All the other adults were At Work or Too Busy. Bitsy had another of her series of leg operations. Dwarves characteristically have bowed legs and they were trying to get hers straightened out as she grew. She was in a body cast for a month and a half. Then she had to learn to walk again. One day the kids carried her over to our yard so she could stand up and walk. Just for me. I was frequently called to referee disputes on the neighbor’s lawn or stoop. I would stay and hang out for a while thinking of myself as an anthropologist among a very short tribe. Just as the child is father to the man, so is the kids’ society the seed of the society of nations. I would sit on the grass in our backyard somewhere between the swingset and the sandbox. Accessible to the children, just about their height. They would come and lean against me just for a moment for a simple touch of reassurance. A touch of reassurance is all any of us ever really needs. I know that and you know that but tell that to The Neighbor Lady. Somewhere she is watching. We got a wading pool and I let Pieter splash and run around naked. Our little cheap house got really hot. Our whole family would sit in the wading pool to cool off. Sometimes after she came home from work Suzanne would strip down to her brightly colored brassiere and underpants, the ones that look like a regular bikini, and charge out to the pool. But The Neighbor Lady, peeking out from behind the curtains, sweltering in her Sacred Garments, was keeping score. We were having too much fun. We were bohemians smack dab in the middle of Muddle America. The Neighbor Lady never came out to play. When she did come out it was only to talk about herself and gossip about the neighbors. And I wasn’t interested. That was the real final great mistake. What The Neighbor Lady wanted was Attention. That’s why she had her crises and her Secret Peeper. She invented tragedies and imaginary people so that she too could receive a little sympathy, a little attention. One day Pieter and I were hanging out with the neighbor kids when The Neighbor Lady came home with her husband and Bitsy and announced: “ Bob, you have a Problem.” I felt a kind of weightless giddy sensation—a sense of helplessness and the feeling that I was involved in a slow-motion car crash just beginning to happen. I could see it all coming the moment she pronounced that simple sentence. The Problem was that The Neighbor Lady had chosen me as her next designated tragedy. What can you do when someone is playing Bumper Cars with their life and they decide to smash into you? The Neighbor Lady said she had brought Bitsy to their doctor for an examination. She claimed that Bitsy’s pubic area was rubbed red and sore and there was ev idence tha t she had been “ fondled.” The Neighbor Lady said she was sorry, the doctor was required to report it to the police. There would be an Investigation. 2 Hey, I grew up with television, I know what a Detective is supposed to be like. They’re supposed to be Bright, Curious, Investigative, Sharp. Even if they are Bad Guy detectives they at least have an Inquisitive mind. Imaging my surprise to meet Detective Cheap Suit—an overworked, bored bureaucrat. He informed me that I had been accused by The Neighbor Lady of having intercourse with Bitsy; fondling small boys; masturbating in the wading pool; and peeking into her bedroom window. Detective Cheap Suit wan’t interested in theories about the psychology of The Neighbor Lady. He showed no special appreciation of the obvious cultural conflicts caused by our intellectual, artistic family living in the middle of a working class neighborhood. “Why don’t you volunteer for a polygraph test?” was the main thrust of his investigation. It was simple. If I passed the test the case was closed. If I failed there would be “ a basis for a more thorough investigation.” Detective Cheap Suit allowed me a few days to get good and nervous. Then, at the appointed hour, I found myself sitting in a tiny, stuffy, room, not much bigger than a large closet. The walls were sheathed with old, stained, crumbling white acoustical tile. Boxes of junk and piles of graph paper were stuffed in the corner on the floor. On my right was The Inquisitor’s desk, entirely covered with knobs and wires and dials and an endless roll of graph paper. Directly facing me was a mirrored, one-way glass window. On the other side Detective Cheap Suit was watching my every move. “ Now don’t think of it as a lie detector,” began the Inquisitor. “ I don’t even like to use that word. Here, see this pen. I got these pens printed up to help people see what I’m really trying to do.” TRUTH VERIFICATION SYSTEMS, INC. is what it said on the cheap ball point pen. I wondered if he was offering it as a souvenir. “ There’s nothing to be afraid of. If you’re telling the truth the machine will corroborate it.” The Inquisitor smiled ingratiatingly. How much like a Life Insurance salesman he seemed. A large reassuring frame and a bit of a pot gut. He spoke so easily and was so ready to smile. But what was it about his eyes? It was as if his eyes were mirrored windows and he was way back in his head watching everything and taking notes. Polygraph tests are a form of 20th Century voodoo. You have to b.e- lieve in the machine. This was pounded into my head over and over and over again before I was allowed to take the test. The Inquisitor explained everything. He spoke with me at great length about The Area Of Examination so that there would be no lingering uncertainties in my mind to cloud the absolutely scientific results. The Neighbor Lady had accused me of so many things that they couldn’t all be adequately covered in one session. The Inquisitor said that the only actual evidence was Bitsy’s chafed and sore pubis. So that would be the area of examination. The Inquisitor solicited my help in compiling a list of seven questions. Six of the questions were about hurting children and sexually abusing children. WOULD YOU EVER KNOWINGLY HURT A CH ILD? DID YOU EVER TOUCH BITSY’S VAGINAL AREA? Various phra- sings and rephrasings along that theme. Every nuance of possible meaning was explored. All ambiguous phrasings or sentence constructions that might leave room for misapprehension were carefully eliminated. This is the art of polygraphy. The test must be tailor-made to fit the subject’s mind. I didn’t realize it at the time but the seventh question was The Control Quest io n . IS THERE ANYTH ING YOU WOULD BE AFRAID TO TALK ABOUT WITH ME? Well of course there is. Everybody has secrets somewhere in their past. But I lied and said, okay, that question seems acceptable to me. Which is why it ’s The Control Question. You’re supposed to lie. Finally, five electrodes were attached to my body. One on my left thumb. Two on the fingers of my right hand. One around my upper chest. One underneath a cuff on my right bicep. “ Don’t move,” The Inquisitor said. “ Sit still. Look straight ahead. Relax.” And he asked me the seven questions and I told the truth six times and lied on The Control Question. Fine. Great. Now do it again, he directed me. This time The Inquisitor only asked the 1 o w u o t u f l o d r s a ta w y h a i n le d hang thinking of myself as an anthropologist among a very short tribe. Just as the child is father to the man so is the kids’ society the seed of the society of nations. six real questions and left off The Control Question. It had served its purpose. He had me on his graph paper now. There were the squiggles my body caused when it told a lie. I told the truth six times. I imagined little Bitsy and my boy sitting in the room with me as a kind of support group. I cleared my mind of all negative feelings and felt myself suffused with love and goodwill toward all members of my funny species. Now one more time, The Inquisitor said. The law requires that the test be administered three times so that there is no possibility of doubt. So I passed The Great American Lie Detector Test and I was allowed to keep my children. And I was surprised to discover how deeply it affected me. You can tell yourself it’s only a silly voodoo game, but, in my case anyway, it’s a silly voodoo game that works. 3 The case was closed. What else is there to say? Just the bits and pieces and draggly-ass endings that differentiate our real existence from The Well Told Tale. That fall a really nice cooperative preschool only two blocks from our house was just about to begin classes. Parents took turns working with the teachers and the children so that everyone was involved in the learning experience. Pieter was enrolled. It was very exciting. The Neighbor Lady found out and told them I was a child molester. The Board of Directors called a special meeting. As the primary care provider of our children I would be the one accompanying our boy to school and helping the teacher with the other children. They had never before had a father in that role. The Board of Directors were all mothers. They were very understanding. They said how wonderful it was that now at last there are fathers who will help with children. They said they were really sorry but my boy could not go to their school. They said they believed me but there were other mothers who had heard rumors about a child molester and would take their children out of school. They couldn’t afford the loss of enrollment. The thought you are acting like a bunch of hysterical women came unbidden to my mind. I acted hysterical. I raced over to the house of one of our nicer neighbor ladies who had a child enrolled in the preschool and I asked her if she thought I was a child molester. Trembling with suppressed tears I told her the whole story. And she had the grace and wisdom to respond really well. She said that honestly she didn't know me well enough to say what Iwas but she didn’t think I was a child molester. She said it was okay for my kids to play with her kids. Having lived on that block all her life, she said don’t let The Neighbor Lady bother you. “She’s just a Trouble-Maker.” That was the decision of our neighborhood court. One by one, straggling out over the fall and during the winter the neighborhood mothers came forth and repeated the verdict. It turned out nobody really liked The Neighbor Lady. She didn’t have a friend on the block. We spent fall and winter searching for our version of The American Dream and at the end of January we finally found it. As soon as we could swing the financing we moved into a new home in a much nicer neighborhood. We are Property Owners, people of means. We're going to put up a six-foot-high fence. Humans are animals. Animals like to touch. It’s okay to feel good about your body. Even as I write this, i t ’s National Child Abuse Awareness Month. It’s on The Phil Donahue Show, National Public Radio, and yesterday Spiderman got a full-color two- page insert in our local newspaper telling kids It ’s Okay To Say No. At supermarkets all across the land the Child Identification Program is in progress. Get your kid registered like any other valuable piece of property, like a car or a major home appliance; so convenient while you shop. America has become a nation of strangers. But is teaching the next generation of Americans to be paranoid really A Good Idea? Aren’t there perhaps more constructive ways to deal with the root of the problem, which is really just Loneliness? Your are stronger if you have friends. Anybody who watches Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers knows that. Get to know your neighbors. But, even harder than that, let them get to know you. All that is required is some tolerance for people with different values. Even assholes who play Van Halen too loud all night long somewhere have a mother who loves them. The main point being that we are only animals, with no more and no less dignity than nature accorded all the other animals that walk and creep and swim and fly across the earth. Even when we’ re animals giving lie detector tests to other animals or building little Auschwitzes. It’s a humbling fact and a hundred years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species we still haven’t come to grips with it. There’s nothing to help us but ourselves. Writer Bob Sawatzki lives in Ogden, Utah. This is his first story in CSQ. Artist David C. Kane lives in Seattle. Clinton St. Quarterly—Summer, 1987 33