Mackall-InterrogationThe doorbell rings, and I know before I answer it who will be standing on our misnamed welcome mat. It will be the intruder. A threat to my family. A domestic terrorist. An eight-year-old child.

Sure enough, it’s the girl from the next street asking if my granddaughter is over. The little shit seems to have a sixth sense about Ellie’s visits. What I hate admitting to myself or anybody else is that I fear this child. The house she lives in screams of too much activity and not enough care. Too many people come and go. The little girl’s older brother walks down our street in shorts and without shoes to catch the school bus in the middle of an Ohio winter. He’s either deranged or his parents don’t give a damn. Seven years ago I would have worried about the boy getting sick, wondering if he was receiving the love and care he deserved, agonizing over what misery drove him barefoot and broken into a February morning. But that was seven years ago. In certain important ways, I’m much less of a person now.

I hear the knock again. My wife answers the door. She tells the child that Ellie would love to come out and play. Her greeting sounds annoyingly cheerful and welcoming. Ellie, six years old next month, seems to like the little girl, but Ellie likes everybody. My wife accompanies Ellie outside, but I stay in the house. I don’t like sharing my granddaughters with anybody, but my anxiety about this girl goes deeper than that.

I look out the window and watch Ellie and the little girl at the door run around in front of our house. All I hear is what one would expect to hear: little girls laughing, their sharp, small exchanges piercing a placid summer evening, their shrill voices like tiny tears in a leaf.

I imagine the little girl and Ellie walking around the neighborhood in a few years, acting bored, smoking cigarettes, being pursued by boys I know all too well, romantic young boys lured by the hum of dusk, boys bruised by a world they don’t understand, boys eager to bruise back.

I was far more empathetic right before and immediately after my granddaughters were born. For their first couple of years on earth I even entertained delusions of becoming a better human being. I was moved anew by the world and its wonders, at times joyful to the point of idiocy. But then something changed. I woke up one morning realizing that I could no longer afford not to judge people, especially people like the family of the little girl out in the yard with my granddaughter. A family, I should add, I do not know and have never met. The house is unkempt and neglected. The whole place reminds me more than a little of where I grew up. Small ranch houses filled with factory workers and their families. Houses and lawns unseen to by parents who worked fourteen-hour days to feed the children the Catholic Church encouraged them to rhythmically deliver into the world.

I continue watching two little girls run around our front yard. I want nothing more in life at this moment than for this child to leave our home. I don’t want her to return, not ever. I don’t want to care for her. I don’t want to worry about her. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night considering what I may owe her. I don’t want to be the sensitive progressive I believe myself to be. We can’t save everybody.

Not a word of this comes out of my mouth. I don’t want to witness my wife’s knees buckle in shame. I don’t want her to look at me with eyes that wonder who the hell it is she’s been married to all these years. I turn from her gaze, holding tight my anger and fear, but mostly my shame, watching my granddaughter and the little girl at the door run smiling through dappled grass.

As she’s leaving, the little girl picks up her bike and skillfully spins it, aiming her front tire toward the street. I’m awed by the artfulness of her move. She tosses her head back, smiles, waves, pedals away. I watch her through my reflection in the window, and I see us both clearly—someone to love, someone to fear.


Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and The Last Street Before Cleveland. Co-founder of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”  He teaches at Ashland University.

Artwork by Jeff Kallet