Nº3 - Kaiser

51 Glen Eagle Way was a pretty house by virtue of dark paneling set in creamy mocha-colored brick; four thin white pillars; lighted walkways; immaculate hedges and geodesic outgrowth.

58 Glen Eagle Way was a prettier house by virtue of its second digit.

My mother always said I was lucky because I was born in nineteen eighty-eight; I always believed she just tried harder that year. But she would never forgive 51 Glen Eagle Way for having not procured an eight in its number. In fact, by induction, I feel that had our street been randomly extensible, 888 Glen Eagle Way would have been the rough equivalent of Shangri-La. And if my mother had been in any way a quantum physicist, she would have attempted the deed with alacrity.

In reality, she had an Master of Business Administration, which reduced her to observing that with opportunities like 8, 18, 28, 38, 48, 58, 68, 78, and the Holy Grail, 88, theoretically available, our humble abode was no less than a statistical outrage, much like 97 percent of the stock market and 99 percent of Caucasians. Yet with a much-haggled mortgage already in hand and an augmented chip on shoulder, she could only turn her jaundiced eye to the neighborhood, and specifically, poor number 58.

58 was no Shangri-La. In a few precocious childhood exploits, I discovered that it was the residence of an aged patriarch. George was a German of the Junker variety, a war veteran since '45, and wheelchair-bound for almost as long. As far as I could discern, he was also deaf, blind, and mute, but apparently not, as every morning I watched him start his gleaming white Crown Victoria and drive away to some enigmatic country club. Since my mother relied on my not-so-innocuous staring to procure information about the residents of our street, 58 was not well understood. One day, I reported to the wok with some confusion that his name was Kaiser, and so The Kaiser he became.

Kayleigh was The Kaiser's granddaughter. I met her while running from the earthworms in our backyard, as she and her teddy bear stared at me from her grandmother's azaleas. A moment together revealed that we shared a common fear of earwigs, and the summer was spent playing jacks on tree stumps and abusing one another's tolerances for nature, although it may have been more human nature in my case. I believe I will always remember her, as she was the one who showed me the decay that would haunt me for the rest of my life.

Kayleigh was an interesting character, and I always found it incongruous that a child of seven would be brought up in such a house as 58. From the outside, it was the epitome of old white money. From the inside, it was old white money. Immaculate parlors, kitchen, dining room, baths; the staples of rocking chairs, Arcadian firestoves, hunting rifles, knitting, crystal, encyclopedias, pianos, gramophones, Ella Fitzgerald, vinyl before it became indie rock. Even one room filled with gawking, lifeless porcelain dolls, which I avoided at all costs. Yet beneath the facade, there was always some tacit tragedy, and I thought the entire calamity of the twentieth century lay in what The Kaiser and Mrs. Kaiser had witnessed.

I never did ascertain Mrs. Kaiser's name, though she took care on our first meeting to properly enunciate it for my immigrant ears. Over the years, I revised my initial auditory miscarriage from Haysey, to Heidi, and finally to Helen. Not that it mattered in the least, for to me, she was all character and the lack of it. She fascinated me with her pert figure, short bleached-blonde hair, hot pink halter tops, and bottomless capacity for physical exertion. On the other hand, she never appeared to realize that she was married to the man she wheeled about everyday, whose own face was continuously set in a grim scowl. Indeed, she never appeared to realize anything. She bustled about, pushing law mowers and baking truffles. She talked on her cell phone excessively, booking manicures for herself and inoculations for George. She stared charmingly at me, and stared charmingly through me.

Her granddaughter had the same capacious eyes of violet, except she chose to stare at ghosts.

"I believe in ghosts," Kayleigh declared with self-importance one day. "They're everywhere. In closets, in people, in dogs and cats. Don't you think?" Then she decided that there was one behind me, and we ran outside into the rain: or, I should say, she ran outside into the rain and I followed at precocious distances. I would have followed her anywhere, even though she was never the one I believed in.

We spent summers locked up in closets of our own accord, telling less-than-scary ghost stories, but always hurting more-than-we-let-on. We watched Little House on the Prairie, which, strangely enough, was her favorite television program, although I was certain lukewarm was about as close to heartrending as being with her could get. We ran from every shadow we perceived, exploited every falsehood, and tasted every fear in tacit, masochistic appreciation.

There was something greater than the occult in what we tried. Kayleigh once opened her violet eyes to the widest they would go, and produced a naked die from behind her back. She asked me in a subdued voice to do the honors in my palm.

"Let's see how many more years my grandfather will live."

I was terrified. I remember praying to everything divine that I knew of that the dots would spell a six, for my juvenile conscience throbbed at the thought of being held responsible for The Kaiser's death.

As it turned out, six it was, and he died the next year anyway.

It wasn't my fault. I swear.

But I watched them wheel the hearse out past the Crown Victoria he loved so much and I could not stomach anything for a week.

I never saw Kayleigh again. I would sit on the veranda, holding the two halves of cheap popsicles, waiting for her, and she never came back.

But I grew up and I am confident she did as well. A child of seven can only stay incongruous with a house long enough to become incongruous with the neighborhood, with her world.

Years passed. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a pink halter top straining chastely against artificial breasts as a shriveled, yet perfectly-tanned arm slid around the waists of endless younger men. It was like someone had suddenly distilled the dye from her head and linked her up to a personality IV. I could only muse, along with the rest of the godforsaken street, with its crowded houses and runny mouths.

I watched the Crown Victoria move into the garage for good. There was soon a rumor that Helen was getting ready to remarry. I was thirteen, and I was crestfallen.

"Stop staring at that house," my father ordered, absent-mindedly. "Go play Monopoly or something."

Right. Those Germans were a lot like Park Place.

I guess Kayleigh was right, after all. There are ghosts everywhere. And never more so in the illusion of home that bricks create, and the felicity that might be bought with merely an eight.