It’s late in the spring and gardening is not my thing, but by the look of it, it’s everyone else’s. Elliott Park is one of the best neighborhoods in town, which itself ranks among The Top Ten Best Places to Live in America: good public schools, little leagues, and wooded cul-de-sac neighborhoods where women, like old Mrs. Williams to our right, who smells like fresh yogurt and smiles like a koala bear, still brings you a plate of cookies the day you move in.
The house was a short sale; a sweet little bungalow on Midway Court with a sun-catcher living room, a stone chimney, and a deck overlooking the southern end of a lily covered pond. When I’m on the deck, I can watch Sal hanging from the monkey bars in the playground by the pond.
My other neighbor is Penny Banton. Her face is hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat as she digs at the base of the Crepe Myrtle in her meticulous lawn. I make multiple trips from my Murano to the kitchen, shuttling oversized boxes of groceries. When I’m done, I walk over to Penny’s. Her husband Bob has a bumper sticker that gets me guessing every time I see it: Take Revenge, Shit on a Pigeon! I see him on their deck in the evenings looking out at the pond, and when the spring breeze blows, the scent of his smoke clouds wafts my way.
“How’re the kids?” I ask Penny. I can hear Sal’s voice in the backyard doing a play-by-play announcement of a Ravens vs. Patriots game.
“They’re great,” Penny replies. She has a casual, mellow demeanor of someone who is fine just now, all the time, and I like her for it. We walk around the house to the backyard—I have not been inside her house and I never will. Sal is playing all the parts, throwing, catching, tackling, and making the touchdown. Courtney is straddling a low branch of the white oak and watching. She is sunshine happy, a ready smile and sparkling eyes, the kind of kid who will never come tugging on your skirt to say: “Sal’s Mom, Sal’s not being nice to me.”
“Salim,” I call out.
When she sees us, Courtney jumps off the tree, grabs Sal and whispers in his ear. They race to us and Sal tells me Courtney wants him to stay longer. She nods a bunch. No, I say, and explain that Penny was kind enough to watch him for a few hours, but if she agrees, Courtney may come over and stay for dinner too. Courtney whispers in Sal’s ear again and he asks: “What’s for dinner?”
Confident about my Costco stocked pantry, I say I’ll make anything they like. Penny grants her approval and now the kids are bobbing, Sal with rip-roaring triumph, and Courtney with apple cheeks and pressed lips.
Courtney doesn’t talk.
“Oh no, she’s fully capable of speech but will only talk in front of a handful of people. It’s a thing, actually. Selective mutism.” The way Penny had explained this to me is the same as when she says: “The kids are great,” with a sure and guilt-free shoulder shrug.
I didn’t notice, in the beginning, that anything was the matter with the girl. The first time I met the Bantons, while the movers brought our furniture inside, Penny and I compared notes on our children the way mothers usually do. Courtney watched from behind a sunlit window on the ground floor, then shot out and snatched Sal’s hand from mine, and dragged him down the path to the pond.
“She doesn’t usually take to people so quickly,” Penny said.
So, for a while, whenever I ran into Courtney and asked her such questions as “How was school today?” or “Is your mom around?” she only nodded, pointed, or shook her head. I simply took no notice that the girl didn’t make a peep.
At Windmill Elementary Sal is the only one to whom Courtney talks, so they place him with her in Mrs. Esposito’s homeroom and he becomes the designated interpreter. He’s happy in the way that one is when they feel important. Penny helps me out in the way one does when they feel grateful. She watches Sal on the days my hours at the lab run past the closing time of the afterschool facility, and I always make a point of returning the favor she returned.
Salim and Courtney will be inseparable from the time they met in the spring of their fourth grade and through to the end of fifth grade. They’ll go to the same middle school, Elliott Manor; but by then, they’ll pretend they don’t know each other, and Penny and I’ll not be talking either.