Billy and Oliver were their names. They lived two houses down. We went to the same elementary school and rode the same bus. (I remember jabbing one of those green vinyl seats, pushing my pencil into the yellow foam, and Oliver–or possibly Billy–laughing hysterically.) They were twins, non-identical. They had the same blond hair, but Oliver was taller than Billy. I remember their home, their backyard, their tree house. I remember Lucy, their gooey-eyed black poodle. I remember the living room, Billy and Oliver sitting Indian-style on maroon carpeting, watching cowboy shows all afternoon.
I remember their mother, Mrs. Maxwell. An unusually comely woman. So much so my mother–with obvious scorn–referred to her as Princess Grace. Not purely because of Mrs. Maxwell’s decided resemblance to Grace Kelly, but because Mrs. Maxwell seemed to my mother–though their lifestyles and responsibilities were virtually identical–an example of obscene privilege. “Women like that, everything comes easy to them,” she said to me. My mother was a bitter person; I took little that she said seriously. And yet I understood seeing Mrs. Maxwell as other, as fundamentally different. Mrs. Maxwell’s appearance was entrancing, almost unreal. She was like a mother from TV, a kind of radiant ideal. I remember how I liked going places with her and her boys, how I pretended I was part of the family, how safe I felt–as though her loveliness indicated some cosmic favor, a promise of protection from tragedy–a perception, of course, that turned out to be false.
I rarely saw Mr. Maxwell. My impression was that he was rarely around. He owned and managed two hamburger stands, places teenagers took dates, particularly in the summer. Saturn Stand, the restaurants were called. There were two locations; one was less than a mile from our home. My family never stopped there to eat–though I begged for us to on several occasions–but whenever we drove past we would turn and stare, as though passing the scene of a wreck. My mother would make little disapproving sounds–“mmmmm”—and shake her head. She was annoyed at how successful the business seemed–the lot filled with cars, all the people at tables. My family believed–and this was another component of my mother’s resentment–that those “dumb little restaurants” had made the Maxwell family wealthy. Though–save for Mr. Maxwell’s maroon Cadillac, which at some point vanished and was replaced by a modest white Chrysler–there was nothing extravagant about the manner in which they lived. Their house was small, like ours. My parents made sense of that by imagining them as stockpiling money in a cartoonish manner. Jokes were made about Mr. Maxwell stashing big piles of cash in closets and pillowcases. My parents continued believing, all the way to the end, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that the Maxwells were rich, were unreasonably privileged, had not suffered sufficiently before receiving so myriad their blessings.
The talk in the community, a few months after the fire, was that Mr. Maxwell had had a gambling problem; he was worried the mobsters would get to him, to his family. Someone else said tax evasion. He thought he would be arrested; he wanted to spare them the trauma of a legal ordeal and the resulting stigma. A third person said that Mrs. Maxwell was having an affair with a surgeon, and this was his revenge. I don’t know that any of that was true. It was probably just talk. Things people said to pass the days, ideas derived from soap operas and crime shows. All that Mrs. Todd–the woman who lived between our house and the Maxwells, and so a credible observer–said was that in the weeks leading up to it, Mr. Maxwell seemed spacey and changed, like a person on drugs, or like someone obsessed with inexpressible ideas–a distant, troubled man. That seems believable. But who knows.
What is not in question is that in December 1971–three days before Christmas–Mr. Maxwell strangled his wife while his sons were out. He laid the dead woman on their sofa, stuck a book in her hand, and waited. When Billy and Oliver returned, he injected them with grotesquely large doses of phenobarbital, swiftly ending their lives. He carried them upstairs and dressed them in pajamas. He laid them on their beds and tucked them in. He then doused his house and his person in gasoline–generously coating the Christmas tree–and lit a match.
I remember the flames, the fire trucks, the whole neighborhood standing around, orange in the firelight, gasping and weeping. My mother covered my eyes when the firemen carried out the little boys–ten years old–their limp limbs dangling down.
“They were a beautiful family,” everyone said, my mother included, all the old hate cleansed from her voice.
When we found out what had really taken place–after someone realized the lungs of the unburned children had not breathed smoke–the feeling was not something I can describe or quantify. It was a shock that has reverberated through the whole of my life, following me all the way here, to this.
The media came. They said he arranged his family, the bodies of his family–an image I am sometimes confronted with in my dreams–because he wanted it to seem ordinary, an electrical fire, something that started in the tree, not entirely rare this time of year. But that wasn’t the case, they said. Mr. Maxwell had murdered them, they said. This normal man on this normal street had just killed his entire family, they said.
Then they left.
Eventually the talk stopped too, mostly. And all that remained of the Maxwells was their big half-burned house. That from the outside looked almost inhabitable, almost the same. Save for where flames had eaten the roof, leaving blackly outlined cavities that rain fell freely through. And save for the windows–or rather places where windows had been, the heat having shattered the glass–that showed little views of the scorched interior: as black as space, as though the fire had not simply burned the home but voided it.
The back door was ajar, impossible to latch, the knob missing, the mechanism ruined. In any wind, the door would swing wildly, clapping like a pistol against the cracked siding–a clattering invitation to all the neighborhood’s kids.
Before they tore the house down–before they even nailed up plywood, occluding our view to the scorched interior, an act that made me think of someone in a movie, gently closing a dead person’s eyes–I walked in, explored briefly, even took a souvenir.
I was only inside for a minute or two. I remember the bubbled walls that looked like the skin of toasted marshmallows. I remember the sofa that resembled a boulder-sized raisin. I remember piss-yellow shafts of sun and the millions of motes suspended in them and my eyes following the light to the melted linoleum.
Near my feet, a big and toothy shard of black glass.
I picked it up and ran away.