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You couldn’t see it, but her eyes were dancing

INSIDE/OUT

“How’s it going, Pete? Nice haircut! Today’s the big day, huh?”

“You said it, kid!” Pete shouted back with a smile. “Today’s the

big day!”

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Pete and his wife, Laura, lived in the same complex as my friend

Buck back when I was 12 or so. We saw him almost every day walking on

the street, to and from the factory in which he worked. He was a

quiet man in his 40s who always walked with his head down and his

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lips silently moving, as if carrying on some running disagreement

with himself. But he was a nice man, and would let Buck and me come

over from time to time to watch cartoons on his color TV.

This we did only when Laura was in the hospital, which she often

was. When she was home, we tended to stay away from the place.

Buck had told me earlier that he had heard Laura was to come home

from the hospital that afternoon. When we spotted Pete coming up the

street in a clean shirt and fresh haircut, a paper bag full of

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groceries under his arm, we knew it was true.

All that day, Buck and I made it a point to play ball in the grass

courtyard in front of Pete’s place. The courtyard was surrounded on

three sides by old bungalow rentals; Buck and his mom had lived in

the back bungalow for as long as I could remember, and Pete and Laura

had moved into one of the side bungalows a few years back. It was a

small, crowded compound, and everyone knew too much of each other’s

business.

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So when the ambulance pulled up just around dusk, half the

neighbors were waiting, gathered around Buck and me on the grass

outside Pete’s porch. We watched silently as two men in white

uniforms wheeled Laura on a hospital gurney up to the porch,

collapsed the gurney, and carried her inside as Pete held open the

screen door.

From where I stood I caught a glimpse of Laura’s face as she

turned it toward us. She looked completely out of it, her blue eyes

filled with a watery vacancy. But as she was carried inside, she

lifted her head suddenly in the direction of the crowd, and very

deliberately stuck out her tongue at us.

The women in front of me muttered in Spanish and made the sign of

the evil eye. Then Pete politely thanked the men in white, walked in

the house and closed the door behind him.

Buck whispered: “They’ll be back in a couple of months. You

watch.”

By they, Buck meant the ambulance drivers. It was common knowledge

that Laura was crazy, and the moment she returned from one of her

hospital “visits,” Buck invariably started the countdown for when the

men in white coats would return to take her back. This was the second

time I had watched the ritual unfold: Pete coming home in his

best-pressed shirt, and the welcome party of nosy neighbors gathering

outside his door.

I had never seen Laura’s legendary craziness in action, but Buck

had told me it manifested itself in the worst possible way.

“All she does is sit in her recliner all day, scribbling numbers

on a notepad,” he had said, as if this were the spookiest form of

insanity imaginable.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I had said.

“It’s not. But when she isn’t doing that, she orders new furniture

over the phone, and has it billed on Pete’s credit. She’s got a stack

of furniture catalogs this high,” he said, holding his hand up to his

chest. “And they keep bringing the furniture, even though there’s

nowhere to put it and even though Pete’s going bankrupt. Then, when

he can’t stand it anymore, he calls the hospital, and they come and

take her back.”

Within days after Laura’s return, the delivery trucks began

pulling up in front of the complex. Buck and I would stop whatever we

were doing and watch as the delivery men would haul huge cardboard

boxes or cellophane-wrapped sofas or box springs into the house. Each

time, Pete would stand on his porch watching them, one hand thrust

into his pocket while he puffed nervously on a cigarette.

Sometimes the delivery men would pull up and walk empty-handed

into the apartment, then leave with some piece of furniture Pete had

insisted be taken back. Each time as they left with furniture in

their arms, we would hear Laura’s voice shrieking to high heaven that

she was being robbed.

“Help me! Help me! They’re robbing me blind!” the disembodied

voice would shriek. No one came to her rescue.

This went on for weeks. Then one day, Buck and I were hanging out

on his front porch when we heard the unmistakable sound of smashing

dishes coming from Pete’s place. Thinking Pete might have finally

lost it and was doing something terrible to Laura, we ran into their

bungalow.

Laura was sitting on her recliner in the living room, scribbling

long columns of numbers on a notepad and seemingly oblivious to our

presence or the shattering racket going on in the kitchen. We made

our way around the stacks of boxes and new furniture and walked into

the kitchen. One look, and we knew what was going on.

Pete had been beating the daylights out of a cube steak with a

meat tenderizer, and then decided to use the mallet to go to town on

a stack of dishes by the sink. He had finished with the dishes and

was starting to smash the small china teacups in the cupboard when he

noticed us standing there, and stopped.

“It’s OK, boys,” he whispered, breathing hard and still holding

the bloody mallet. “I just got a little carried away, is all.”

Then Pete suddenly dropped the mallet to the floor and rushed into

the living room. Buck and I followed him.

“Do you want them to take you back? Is that what you want?” he

shouted at Laura.

“That’s none of your concern,” she said, her eyes not leaving the

columns of numbers on the paper. “That’s none of your mind.”

Pete ran his hand through his hair and leaned back, almost

collapsing against the wall behind him. Next to him on the wall was a

framed black and white photograph of a handsome young couple in

bathing suits, facing the camera with their arms around each other’s

waists. Behind them a white beach sloped down to some exotic shore.

Big waves seemed about to break carelessly upon the sand.

I stared at the picture a moment and realized with a shock that

the couple was Pete and Laura, though it was hard to imagine the two

of them had ever been so young and beautiful. Pete’s squinting eyes

sparkled with boundless confidence. Laura’s head was thrown back in

laughter, and even though you couldn’t see them, you knew her eyes

were dancing.

“You’re ruining us,” Pete said dismally. “You’re ordering things

faster than I can send them back.” Laura said nothing.

“You gonna be OK, Pete?” Buck asked. Pete said nothing. After a

long moment, Buck and I silently walked out the door.

That night, the ambulance came to take Laura back to the hospital.

It arrived just as a delivery truck was pulling away.

The weeks passed, and occasionally Buck and I would spot Pete

walking to or from work, his head down and his lips silently working.

Though we didn’t realize it, Buck and I had stopped dropping by to

watch cartoons on the color TV.

Then one day we saw Pete walking down the street in a crisp new

shirt, his hair neatly trimmed, a bag of groceries under his arm.

“Hey, Pete. Nice haircut,” Buck called to him. “Today’s the big

day, huh?”

“You said it, kid,” Pete answered with a smile. “Today’s the big

day!”

* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former

Leader city editor, is a Times Community News

editor. Reach him at 484-7019, or by e-mail at

david.silva@latimes.com.


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