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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Beacon Falls


by A.S. Pinchasick




I wake up mummified in my twisted blankets. It takes a few seconds to realize I am soaked in sweat as scraps of my nightmare come back to me: My mother and I slicing open pomegranates; our hands crushing the seeds; their red juices running through our palms’ paths, dripping off our fingertips and bleeding into bowls of water.   


I kick the bedcovers away and rip off my shirt. My skin is free to breathe, and I begin to feel better. It’s mid-morning, and peeking out the window, I can see the sun is positioning itself for another humid day. Mom says we’re too classy to hang blankets in the window so we hang sheets instead. Chelsea’s bed is empty; the five stuffed animals she sleeps with—one for every birthday—dangle off the edge and lead a trail out of our bedroom. I pick them up and put them back. The mirror above our dresser reflects bangs plastered to my forehead and sleep-creases on my cheeks. I try to rub the creases out of my face with my palm, give up, and get dressed.


Chelsea is sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, still in her Care Bears nightgown, craning her neck to see the small television on the counter: Saturday morning cartoons. She’s sucking her thumb, a habit she never grew out of, and for some reason I can’t picture her being older, ever.


“Chels, why don’t you sit on a chair?” I pick her up and swing her onto a chair. “Where’s Nick?” I ask, opening a box of Life.


“Riding his bike,” she says, still not taking her eyes away from Looney Toons. It’s rwabbit season, Elmer Fudd declares. There’s a note tacked on the cabinet telling me to clean the kitchen, do a load of towels and make sure everyone gets lunch before one. She signs it, Thanks, Mom, and with a half-hearted bribe: P.S. If everything is done when I wake up maybe we’ll go to the park.


I slide open the door to the living room one centimeter at a time to avoid the scraping noise it makes against the wooden floor. The only two bedrooms in our apartment are for me, Chelsea, and Nick so Mom sleeps on the pullout couch. The fan is on, gently thumping against the window screen. Her body looks broken when she sleeps. She works nights at a place for people with problems, and says: we’ll never know the meaning of tired. I carefully slide the door shut.


“Make sure you keep that down, okay?” Chelsea shrugs, her way of letting me know she heard me, but it looks more like she’s answering Bugs Bunny, who just asked, Eh, what’s up doc?


Outside, the sun is reaching higher in the sky and I squint against it. Nick’s bike is missing from the porch where it usually leans against the railing. It’s only ten-thirty and he’s already out trying to conquer his world. He’s just like Dad though, a goofy goober, always making us laugh, and annoying the crap out of us at the same time. I take after Mom mostly; we don’t make jokes, we just listen to them.


I sit down on the front step and start tapping my sneaker, trying to think of something to do. My best friend Jessie wouldn’t let me forget that she was going away on vacation with her family in New York this week. I was kind of glad she wasn’t here now because that would mean she hadn’t gone yet, and would still be going on and on about the pool and fireworks on Lake George.


If she were here, we’d be climbing Beacon Hill looking for arrowheads. I learned in my eighth grade geography class last year that Beacon Falls was built over an Indian burial ground. My town, along with six others in the valley, is cradled by hills. When you come in on the highway you’re greeted by a sign that says, “Welcome to the All-American Valley.” When I was little I asked my Dad if that’s why we kicked out the Indians. He laughed and said, “more or less the reason.” The highway and the train tracks each run along one side of the river, and you can see all three from the porch. I put my finger up horizontally in front of my face, close one eye, and the highway disappears behind my finger. Without it, the tracks look more like the fingers of brown vines instead of scrap metal, the river is more of a secret, slithering through the birches and the pines and the small hills, to me, are mountainously green.


I decide to go for a walk and immediately regret it when I get too far away from my house and too hot to think about walking all the way back. The air is so thick it’s like trying to breathe underwater. The river is tempting. I lean over the guardrail on the side of the road and stare mesmerized at the water running over slick rocks, and the small, rippling crests winking at me in the sunlight. Two summers ago, a boy drowned in this river. He was all over the news but his death was quiet. Everyone talked about how nice he was, what a great friend, a good head on his shoulders. “He was older than you and he knew how to swim,” Mom said. “Just goes to show.”  After that, the river was treated like a newly arrived stranger to town; people grabbed their small children by the arms if they got too close and peered suspiciously at it through their car windows as they drove by. It never looked dangerous; it didn’t rush or rage or even flood, and I think that’s what made people nervous.


I’ve wandered into the really nice part of town. Nick and I were a little older than Chelsea is now when they started tearing down the woods to make this neighborhood. I don’t remember a lot about the woods but I do remember how quickly they disappeared. Steep piles of sand and ground waste took the place of the trees. Over the following months, Nick and I had climbed up to the top of the dirt dunes to slide down or crawl on all fours through the piled brush. Looking back now, I see the stripped, broken trees lying like the piled limbs of skeletons. We didn’t stop playing on the construction site even when the house frames went up one day overnight. We ran up stairs that stopped in mid-air and got a strange thrill walking through the finished empty houses; we looked out the windows of the large, carpeted bedrooms, hid in the closets, and laid sprawled on our backs in the great rooms, sometimes falling asleep and waking up under large shadows on the blank walls.


Now the houses are all colors pure as Easter, people have cars that sit solid in driveways, and lawns that my brother will one day mow for money. I picture a proud woman, like my mom, pruning the flowers and the shrubs, poking miniature windmills in the fertile soil for the Fourth of July; red, white, and blue flashing in the sun.


Every once and a while, Mom tries to decorate. “Did you see the wreath I made for the door?” She had asked last Christmas. I hadn’t noticed it but I said, “yeah, it looks nice,” anyway. Then, feeling guilty, I went outside to actually look at it, and saw why I hadn’t noticed it in the first place. It was pathetically small, made of twigs rather than a weave of fresh pine needles. It bore no frost covered berries or hearty fruit. The thin red bow at its base was tangled with frustration. For some reason, I felt sad looking at that wreath—even more than when I see the thin, purple skin that pools under Mom’s eyes.


I sit down Indian-style on the sidewalk at the edge of someone’s lawn. The street looks like it’s been cemented in Jello: heavy and still. I put my head in my hands and twirl the Fourth of July pinwheels with my hot breath. Suddenly I hear the door to the house open, and immediately think I’m about to be scolded for sitting on someone’s property, for twirling his pinwheels, for disturbing the peace. But a man in a suit walks swiftly to his SUV in the driveway, all business. I watch as his wife follows him to the driver-side window. He rolls it down, and they startle me when they start kissing. I try to pluck blades of grass out of the lawn but I can’t look away; I’ve yet to have my first kiss. Her hands are cupped down on the window ledge and her eyes are scrunched, and he’s smiling or grimacing, I can’t tell. I think about Mom and Dad: it was dangerous when they kissed.


Her husband drives away down the road passing a boy on a bike that’s turning onto the corner. I shade my eyes to see who it is. It’s Nick. I can tell because he never sits; he always stands up defiantly on the pedals with his small chest thrust forward over the handlebars as if he were clearing the way for a royal procession down the middle of the street. He walks the same way: chest leading, arms still at his sides, taking strides too long for his legs. He’s grinning. I feel bad because you’re supposed to feel good when someone smiles but when Nick does, it annoys me. Maybe it’s just because he’s my brother.


“Hi chief,” he says as his bike slows to a stop. I ignore him because Dad called me “chief.”


The woman is almost back inside her house so I jog to her front step to catch her. I realize too late that I have nothing to say so all that comes out is “Hi.” She stops short of closing her front door and turns around, surprised. She has eyes that are as dark as a blueberry stain, almost purple, and laugh lines. She looks at me, at my brother, and then up and down the street as if she isn’t sure if we are lost. She says hi like it’s a question.


“I was wondering if you were looking for help,” I say, almost too quickly.


“Help?” she asks.


“Yeah, babysitting.”


“How old are you?”


I say fifteen instead of thirteen because I think it sounds better.


She’s looking past me, at Nick. He’s popping wheelies off the sidewalk.  


“That’s my brother,” She’s biting her lip so I say, “I’m CPR certified.”


I’m not really, and I think about breathing life into a stranger, and that painting The Creation of Adam comes into my head. It hangs in the living room above the couch and when Mom isn’t sleeping under it I often find myself looking at it. On the bottom of the print it says: God the Father breathes life into Adam, and I always wonder why it says breathes when God and Adam are about to touch fingertips not lock lips. I start to think: you don’t have to be unborn for someone to give you life—maybe you just have to be asleep. 


“I don’t need a babysitter, thank you,” she says.


“How about some house help? I’ve been told I work wonders with a vacuum.” She tilts her head to the side, like a dog does when you talk to it.


“Okay, sure.” she says. “Why don’t you come back Saturday though?”


“You got it,” I say, “Saturday, thanks” just as she’s closing the door. I walk back to Nick singing, “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days.Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days.Thursday, Friday, Happy Days.The weekend comes,my cycle hums,ready to race to you!”


“You’re weird,” Nick says as I climb onto the pegs of his bike and he pedals us home.  




Nick lets the bike drop to the ground. The front door is open and the fan is in the kitchen window now.


I realize I haven’t done anything on Mom’s list yet and open the screen door to find her doing the dishes. Her jaw is clenched and she’s placing the clean ones on the drying rack a little too hard so they’re clashing together. I gingerly pick up a dripping plate and start drying it with a rag.


“No,” she says through tight lips, “don’t bother now.”


“You weren’t supposed to be up yet. It’s only twelve,” I say.


I start putting away some silverware.


“Should’ve known I would only get four hours of sleep and have to do everything I asked you to do. What have you been doing all day?” she asks, slamming a cup upside down on the rack. I peel my gaze away from the suds collecting at the rim of the cup to look at her. Her eyes are bloodshot and her cheeks are swollen. I feel my chest tighten.


“I got a job,” I say.

“A job?” she blinks once. “Doing what?”


“Cleaning this lady’s house. I start Saturday.”


She grips the counter edge as she says, “Are you freaking kidding me?” I always kind of wish she would just say it: are you fucking kidding me. I start making a sandwich for Chelsea to move a little out of her way.




“In the sub-division. For the summer.” The woman didn’t say for how long but I figure it sounds more believable if I say, “for the summer,” because even when I’m not, Mom makes me feel like I’m lying. I spread peanut butter on white bread.




I stop.


“Oh, I get it,” she says, placing a hand on her hip. “You’re only nice to the people who couldn’t give two hoots about you.” I think: ‘two shits.’


She’s talking about Dad. She brings him into everything, even these dishes. Mom begged him to grow up because he drove a UPS truck and collected Hot Wheels cars. He burned pizza bagels, forgot to give us lunch money, and ran around the house squawking like a chicken with all three of us clinging to his back, his neck, his legs, laughing and screaming. Now he lives in Florida with his new girlfriend who has huge hips and a clean face. I never met her, so all I can say about her is what I can see from the photograph in the Christmas card he sent last year: they were standing on the beach and she didn’t look tired. It said, Merry Christmas to Nick & my baby girls. It’s weird having a sunny Christmas but I like it. Don’t bankrupt Santa. Love, Dad. Mom threw the card out and said: “Having children doesn’t make you a father.” I picked the card out of the garbage and saved it.


Chelsea pokes her head around the corner and asks if we’re going to the park today.

“Nope, because you’re sister is being a snot.” When Nick is pissing her off, it’s “because you’re brother is being a booger.”


Chelsea gives me a look that burns. I slap the other slice of bread on the sandwich and push it into her hands as I walk by—the clangs of dishes and blunt bangs of cabinet doors hit me on the back like a two-by-four.


I go into my room, and seeking refuge, sit in front of my dollhouse. It’s wooden, and when I was little, Mom and I painted it white, and the shutters, yellow. It’s not like the Barbie palaces they sell at Toys ‘R’ Us or the Fisher Price plastic models that are in Dr. Schumann’s office. Dr. Schumann had a mustache that tickled the corners of his mouth and looking at it made me itch. “Do you want to play with the dollhouse?”He had asked his clipboard but was talking to me. I didn’t want to play with the plastic house–I had just been looking at it because I knew mine was bigger and its people didn’t have painted-on clothes–but I said “sure” anyway because I thought it was what I was supposed to do.


It was the same reason why I had an appointment with Dr. Schumann in the first place. An old nun had come to our classroom that week and talked about how, sometimes, “families can have problems,” and how it’s important to tell someone if you have a “mommy or daddy that hurts you.” The old nun had tipped forward on her toes, peered carefully over her glasses, and asked the class in almost a whisper if anyone “needed to talk.” And for some stupid reason, I raised my hand because I had thought it was what I was supposed to do. My Dad had left us, and wasn’t that mean? And didn’t it hurt us? But when I got to Dr. Schumann’s office and picked up the dolls with their painted-on clothes, I realized what the old nun didn’t know: you don’t have to be hit, to be bruised. I put down the dolls, looked at Dr. Schumann, and figured he probably didn’t know that either. So I talked to him about school, the friendship bracelets I was making, and how my favorite meal was macaroni and cheese from the box. He told my Mom that I was fine and she cried.

I’m too old to play with dolls now so I don’t. But I still like to rearrange the furniture and the people, and instead of acting out their lives, I tell their stories in my head.

I don’t flinch when I hear Mom banging on Nick’s door with her fist. Chelsea comes in, takes off her nightgown and leaves it in a puddle on the floor. I get up and put it in the laundry basket as she wiggles into a pair of Osh Kosh overall shorts. Mom is yelling at Nick for disappearing on his bike “as if nothing needs to get done.”


Chelsea asks me if she can play with the dollhouse and I say sure, but that means I have to leave the room because she gets embarrassed when people listen to her so I grab my Judy Blume paperback and close the door behind me.


I find myself back outside on the porch. I’m just starting to read about how Margaret does exercises to make her boobs bigger, even though I know from experience it doesn’t work, when the screen door opens and Mom stands in the doorway.


“You know, I would just like a little help around here, that’s all,” she says.


I try to keep reading but I can’t so I just stare at the words on the page.


“Look at me when I’m talking to you please.” I lift my head up so I’m looking at her waist. She asks why I went looking for a job. I shrug because I didn’t go looking for a job I just found one. What was I supposed to say anyway? That I was spying on a couple as they kissed? So I say: “to have money to go swimming at the country club.”


“Well, now that you have one, you should really save any money you make. For college.”


I shrug again and look back at my book.


“You know, so that one day you can hire someone to clean your house.”


She pauses, “Who is it?”


“Judy Blume,” I say, looking back at my book.

“No, who you’re working for.”


“Oh, I don’t know. I forgot to ask her. She lives in the white house in the cul-de-sac.”


Mom nods as if she knows who I’m talking about. “Well, just behave yourself while you’re there,” she says. She goes back inside sighing, “I am so tired, so tired,” and I feel like she has poked my bruises.





The heat has come down like a lid on a jar, tightening the air, and the clouds are wrapped around the hills like thick cats’ tails. Mom says it’s going to storm because the leaves have turned their faces to the ground. She makes me put on my raincoat as I’m leaving to start my job. I’d almost rather be cleaning someone’s house than staying home because Jessie came back from Lake George with a new set of diving skills and an annoying story of how she kissed the lifeguard. I spent most of the week making lists of things I would buy with the money I’d earn: the LeAnn Rimes cassette single of “How Do I Live,” a necklace with a tiny gold key charm that I found in one of Mom’s catalogs, and for her, a new American flag because the old one tears, a bit more, every time the wind blows. Then Mom said: “You shouldn’t be spending what you don’t have.” And I said, “yet.”


Nick offered to give me a ride but I thought it might look unprofessional showing up to the first day of the job on the back of my brother’s bike. I start to wonder if this woman has a white couch, if her kids have their own rooms, if she puts on his tie in the morning, and he tucks her in at night. I check up and down the street to make sure the coast is clear before I start twirling down it humming the “Happy Days” theme song: “Saturday, what a day, groovin’ all week with you.” I pass the river, which seems to be rising out of its bed to hover in the air, twisting through the valley, its own ghost. The welcome sign on the highway looms over the dense fog, casting its stark white message over Beacon Falls.

I knock on the door and it opens almost instantly. I say with the charm of a doorbell, “Housekeeping!” because I’m nervous she won’t remember me but she does. When Mom isn’t looking I sometimes stick my head in the freezer to cool off, but this house has air conditioning, so I sigh with relief as I step inside, and free the hair that has slicked itself to the back of my neck. It’s dim, as if all the lights are veiled with tissue paper.


“Would you mind holding on just a second?” she says, holding up a finger.


“Sure,” I say. She disappears around the curve of the stairs, and is enveloped by the second floor hallway that is open and dark like a gaping mouth.


Alone, I feel like Harriet the Spy without the notebook. There’s a clock ticking from somewhere and a painting on the wall. It’s of a young woman sitting at the bottom of a rainless, tan and yellow field. Her pink dress is faded and pale from the sun, though there isn’t one in the picture, and she’s twisting around to peer up at a large house at the top of a hill. It’s strange because it looks as though she has fallen or can’t get up. She’s reaching for the house which I’m sure is about to fall off the edge of the painting, it’s so far away. I put my hand on the cool wall to stay steady on my tip-toes as I lean closer. A breeze is carrying away loose pieces of her pinned hair. The air-conditioning unit in the window across the hall kicks on and the cold air tickles my bangs and gently pushes them across my eyes.


“Do you like it?”

I jump away from the wall, realizing my nose has been nearly pressed against the painting. “You just look like you’re about to hop in,” she says.


“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so close.”

“Oh, it’s alright.”


“Is it supposed to be sad?” I ask.


Her eyebrows lift slightly. “I don’t think so. It’s called Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth.” She walks down the hall, her kitten heels tapping on the dark wood floors. I start to peel my dirt-dusted sneakers off heel for heel when she says over her shoulder, “Oh, honey, don’t worry about that.”


I’m disappointed because this house is just as immaculate as I imagined. There aren’t shoes kicked off in the hall, day-old dishes rotting on the dining table, shirts slung over chairs, or crayons abandoned in corners. I start to feel awkward because I don’t see anything to actually clean. She sits at the kitchen table, crosses her legs and begins to write on a pad of paper in loopy handwriting.


“I always like to make a list. It seems more manageable then,” she says, handing me the sheet of paper. The top is embossed: From the hand of Joan Simmons.


“Where is Mr. Simmons?” I ask.


“Pardon?” she says. I hold up the paper. “Oh, at the store. He’ll be home within the hour. Everything you need should be in the pantry. Would you like a glass of water? Or lemonade?”


I am suddenly aware of a smell, unrecognizable at first in the presence of the bare air generated by the unit in the hallway. It is faint and sour: a combination of the dust of vitamins, latex gloves, and stale mouths.


“No,” I say. And remembering my manners, “Thank you.”


I’m to clean things that only appear dirty when viewed through a microscope. Mrs. Simmons has written: Dust and vacuum the living and dining rooms, wipe down the counters, and clean the downstairs bathroom, please.  Studying the list, I plan to vacuum last so that I can position myself in the dining room for a chance to see them kiss again when Mr. Simmons comes home. This way, I’ll have something to say the next time Jessie starts yapping about Frenching the lifeguard.


I start by dusting, gently picking up vases from mantles, sugar dishes and flour canisters from counters, and picture frames from side tables. Mr. and Mrs. Simmons embrace each other in one, her white dress graces the ground, and it looks exactly how a wedding should. Its frame is especially heavy in my hand and I am extra careful when moving it to swipe my rag under its shadow. Placing it back, I wonder if Mrs. Simmons has a son and hope he is a lifeguard.


Down a hallway, running my fingertips along the wainscoting, I wander into a guest room to find Mrs. Simmons sitting on the bed, her back pressed against the headboard, a glossy, hardcover book in her hands. The cover is of a muscled man with his shirt off clutching a swooning woman.


“What are you reading?” I ask.


She looks up at me and hesitates before saying, “The Spanish Billionaire’s Pregnant Wife.”


“Oh.” I say. “I like to read too.”


“That’s good,” she says. “What do you like to read?”


“Funny stuff. Like, Are You There God It’s Me Margaret.” I point to the book sagging open in her hands. “Is that funny?” I ask.


She looks at the pages and says, “Not really. It’s a romance novel.”


“I like your wedding picture. It looks like a love story,” I say. She doesn’t respond at first. I start to back out through the doorway because her eyes are staining a darker blue with faraway thoughts, and I want to leave her like she is, lost in her perfect memories, but she looks up, frowns, and says, “Don’t worry about this room.”


I look at the rag in my hand.


“Actually, there’s a pile of magazines in a basket under the coffee table. Would you mind throwing out the ones from last year?”


I nod and leave.

The next half an hour is spent looking at Anne Geddes’ pictures of plump babies in a book above the toilet I’m supposed to be cleaning. Mr. Simmons still isn’t home when I finish vacuuming the dining room so I give up waiting, kneel into the plush carpet of the sitting room, and pull the basket of magazines out: mostly Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Woman’s World’s. Mom often sits at the kitchen table with a magazine before she leaves for work, with a cup of coffee and a pair of scissors. She clips out diagrams for gardens, renovation plans for bedrooms, and tips for wallpaper applications, murmuring “I could do this,” even though we don’t have permission to change the apartment or room to grow things. I dump the basket out onto the floor and find a newspaper clipping at the bottom, creased unevenly and ripped in places. I recognize the article as I unfold it; Mom posted the same one on our refrigerator for the entire summer, as a blaring reminder to be careful.


Boy Drowns Saving Younger Sister


Beacon Falls, CT―A thirteen-year-old boy drowned in the Housatonic River after trying to save his seven-year-old sister on Saturday afternoon, according to police.


The young girl was wading in the river when she fell into a hole.


“When that river freezes over in the winter, it changes the shore line and the current, and can create deep pockets in the riverbed. So it’s tough in the spring for swimmers,” said Sergeant McCarthy of the Beacon Falls police department. 


Her older brother and two boys were searching for fishing bait when they heard the girl’s distress calls. They ran to her aid, and her brother jumped in the river to help. He was able to pass the young girl to one of his friends before being swept away by a strong current.


The thirteen-year-old boy was recovered by police down-river after a neighbor called 911 and was driven to Waterbury Hospital but did not survive. The girl is in critical condition at the hospital now.


Next to it is a snapshot: A boy with gapped front teeth with his arm over a little girl with white blond hair. They’re in their bathing suits, and the sun is so bright, their eyes are squinted tightly shut. Every day we went outside that summer Mom told us to look after each other, not to go swimming without an adult, to stay in our neighborhood, but we never did.


The front door opens, Mrs. Simmons’ heels tap through the hall and fade into muffled movement through the ceiling. I fold up the clipping, put it back in the basket and drop the stack of magazines from this year on top. I figure I’ve missed the kiss so I scoop up the old magazines and decide to go ask Mrs. Simmons if I can take them home for Mom.


I go to the bottom of the stairs, one arm cradling the magazines and the other resting on the banister. The Simmons’ kids probably slide down it I think, as a strain of voices fades out about halfway down the stairs.  I make no noise on the carpeted runner as I walk up. I can’t help thinking of the sun poking through the beams of the bare house, me and Nick climbing a ladder to this second floor, the sawdust falling softly on our heads and hands like ashes. There’s a glow of a TV pulsing out of a room at the end of the hallway so I follow it.


“What the hell is she doing in front of the TV again?” Mr. Simmons’ voice is like a small hammer striking the other side of the door.”


I freeze at the door and can’t bring myself to fully push it open.


“She likes it. It calms her.”


“She shouldn’t just sit in front of it all day.”


“Please―” she says.


I can’t feel the arm that’s holding the magazines so much and my eyes are stinging from holding still.


“Christ, turn it off,” Mr. Simmons says. A palm smacks the screen, and someone emits a gargled whimper. I can’t turn around so I fall through the door just as Mrs. Simmons says, “We have a guest downstairs.”


In the shadows of the corner, a girl with white blond hair is hunched over at the shoulders and sagging to the floor like a limp flag on a pole. Her doe eyes stare out unfocused, her slack mouth is glistening with drool, and she is moaning with frustration. An emergency announcement interrupts Looney Tunes:  There is a tornado warning in effect for Hartford County. I don’t remember dropping the magazines.


I burst through the front door and fling myself out into the street. Mrs. Simmons is standing on her stoop, calling to me. But the wind is whipping up the street sand, stinging my ears, and I can’t see anything but the houses, stretched out and translucent in the storm-swollen air. Their wooden doors are plastic, their grass is green poured paint, and I’m counting the addresses—crude, copper characters, 36, 39, 42, 48—until I can’t tell the difference between them anymore; the driveways are stapled to the houses, the houses nailed on to its neighbors, the steps cemented to the street.