“There it goes again. Listen!”
Once again Danny sat quietly and listened. From the night streets, not far from the backyard where they sat, came the familiar noises of the urban shuffle: the rusty hum of window air conditioners, the huff and grind of aging cars, the passing blare of a boom box. There was nothing that Danny hadn’t heard before. Even as a child with a playful imagination, the sounds of the surrounding neighborhood never inspired anything resembling a sense of wonderment. But now, his father was sitting there by the glow of a candle, head cocked, eyes locked, tuning in on phantom sounds coming from beyond the backyard fence.
Lou leaned back into his wicker rocking chair and smiled to himself as he inhaled the night air. From the corner of his eye, Danny thought he saw a few of his father’s white hairs stir, and he leaned forward to sniff at the muggy stillness.
“You smell it too?” Lou asked, wide-eyed.
“Yeah, I smell it. Someone threw their garbage in the alleyway again.”
“Nooo,” Lou laughed, “the smell of pine trees, the odor of fresh earth. Didn’t you feel that breeze?”
“There hasn’t been a breeze in three days,” scolded Danny, a no-nonsense working man who believed that if work didn’t set you free, it at least got you a house in the suburbs with some distance between the neighbors. He sniffed the air again and twisted his nose. “It’s garbage.”
Lou stared at the ground until Danny reached over and removed the empty glass from the table beside him.
“Do you want another iced tea, Dad?” he asked, then added teasingly, “or should I run out to the alleyway and scoop us up a cup o’ spring water?”
Lou’s eyes glinted with amusement. “Iced tea would do fine, thank you,” he called to his son, who was already halfway through the back door and into the kitchen.
The light coming from the opened refrigerator scarcely pierced the darkness, but it was enough for pouring tea. Danny paused to look through the window above the kitchen sink as memories mixed with his curious study of the backyard.
Like all the other row house backyards, theirs was a scratch of land about thirty feet long, as wide as the house and as useful as the occupant’s imaginations. It was once a child’s playground, a mother’s garden, a dog’s domain; there were parties beneath plastic lanterns, sunny pictures taken by the back fence, laundry fluttering on the clothes line. But eventually the backyard fell from favor, becoming the repository of spare and useless household parts.
It wasn’t until his father retired and began searching for something to do that the backyard regained its former status and Danny found himself helping construct a homemade sanctuary. They raised a six foot high stone and stucco fence with a stone archway, laid a red brick patio, and topped it off with a canopy of ivy covered latticework. But the jewel of the whole project was the garden gate, a thick, oak-wood door salvaged from the razing of an old estate. Tall and imposing, with ornate carvings and a gracefully curved top, it seemed to have its own stories hidden in its grain.
Once again, with family visits and friendly gatherings, the backyard had become an extension of his parents’ hospitality. And though the space could be as gay as a wedding or as serene as a retreat, it was now assuming the aura of a holy place, complete with visions and nocturnal whispers.
Danny shook the image from his mind and closed the refrigerator door.
“I don’t want you worrying about me,” Lou said with renewed clarity. “I know you think I’m going nuts or something. It’s just a fantasy. No worse than some soap opera on T.V.”
“No, Dad,” Danny said, shaking his head. “You...you’re talking like there’s babbling brooks...and bear crap...and woodsy stuff out there.” He swept his arm in a wide arc toward the fence.
“I know,” Lou said firmly, hesitated as if he wanted to consider something, then leaned back in his chair. His stare wandered toward the wooden gate encased in stone and hanging ivy. “Your mother loved the woods,” he said with a wistful smile. “We should have bought that cabin when we had the chance, but we needed so many things then, things that would need to be replaced and added onto until there was no room for dreams.”
Danny saw old memories of his mother’s disappointment fill Lou’s eyes.
“She used to say she was a dryad,” Lou laughed. “I began to believe her...the way she looked at the rain or held the leaf of a plant like a child’s hand. Maybe that was all she needed. A place beneath the trees to visit on weekends and vacations. A place where the clean air pulls a deep breath.”
Danny sat with his hands folded in his lap. “Is that what this is all about?” he asked. “Is that why you’re hearing things that aren’t there, smelling odors that couldn’t exist in this neighborhood? Trees rustling overhead? There’s only two trees within five blocks and they’re both half dead.” He pointed toward the fence. “There’s nothing out there but broken down row houses in a broken down neighborhood.”
They reached for their drinks in unnoticed unison. Lou shook his to hear the ice cubes jiggle; Danny gulped his down, pausing to examine the gummy film at the bottom of the glass.
“I know where I live,” Lou said. “It’s no natural wonder, but this neighborhood still has some dignity left to it. And so what if I sit back here daydreaming? It’s not bothering anybody.”
“What about the trouble with the neighbors?”
Lou shot Danny an indignant glare.
“Yeah, I hear things too, Dad.”
“It was nothing. Just a couple of the neighbors little...basket cases.”
“I heard you chased them down the alley.”
“You hear a lot for someone who visits every other week.”
“They threw water balloons over the fence.” Lou squirmed and pointed. “And I’m sure they’re the same little...brothers who’ve been carving into the gate. Yeah, I chased them. Almost caught them, too.”
Now Danny squirmed.
“Age sure plays hell with the reflexes,” Lou laughed, trying to lighten the subject. “Like when I slipped last winter. The adrenaline didn’t kick in till the end of the fall...just in time to feel the bone snap in slow motion.”
Danny laughed, then leaned closer. “Face it, Dad,” he said, “most of the people moving in now...they don’t care about it as a neighborhood. They see it as a place to flop until something better comes along. And the old-timers who are left, like you and Mrs. Reese and Tom, well, to them, you folks are just relics from a time they don’t respect.”
“I’m not moving in with you and Patty.”
“We got the extra room, Pat loves your company - there’s a big yard you can hang out in.”
Lou smiled, but shook his head. “This is where I belong, son. This is where your mother and I started, and this is where I want to end. My house, my memories.”
For the remainder of Danny’s visit they exchanged polite and familiar small talk. After seeing his son to the door, Lou returned to the backyard and settled into his rocker.
He no longer slept the good sleep. Instead, it drifted just out of reach, teasing him with promises of its cryptic blackness. It was only in the peace of his backyard that he felt the grip of awareness loosen. His visions of misty valleys and forest gardens stirred drowsy yawns. As his eyelids lowered, he heard the sound that water makes rushing over smooth rocks. A night hawk called out high overhead, and trees rustled as a fragrant breeze came brushing over him. He lifted one eyelid long enough to see the candle’s flame bow and flutter. “My, oh, my,” he intoned before slipping into a vast dream...
Chuck and Nan had recently moved into the house directly across the street from Lou. Quick tongued and cynical, they soon became the neighborhood leaders, drawing to them a peer group eager to shed their own thin crust of decency.
“Yo guys, here comes the mayor,” Chuck purred to a couple of the neighbors hanging out in front of his house. They turned and watched Lou as he made his way along the other side of the street, carrying a small parcel of groceries.
“They’re all the same,” Chuck said, glaring at the old man. “Think they own the damn neighborhood ‘cause they lived here so long.”
“Just collect their checks and bitch about the noise,” one of the neighbors said.
“Yeah, but this one’s a little creepy,” Nan added, mimicking her husband’s big-shot smile. “Sitting out in that fancy backyard like it was Club Med.”
“More like Club Medicare,” Chuck said and they laughed with guarded mirth.
“I heard he chased your kids down the alley the other day,” someone else said.
“They told me all about it.” Chuck rose from his front stoop and spat. “And I told my kids they can walk through that alley anytime they want. Believe me, if it happens again, me and that old bastard are gonna have more than words.”
“If he ever touches one of my kids they’ll be burying him in that backyard,” came another prophecy.
“You never know about loners like that one,” Nan said. “You never know when they’re going to snap. The next time he chases kids down the alley it might be with a knife...or a gun. You see it on the news all the time.”
They all agreed with grunts and nods, then turned as Lou’s door was closing behind him. Through the lace curtains that hung in the front window they could see the square of daylight that shone above the kitchen sink at the back of the house. In between, Lou’s gauzy silhouette darted about in pursuit of some mysterious chore; a dim and malevolent figure flickering in and out of view until finally disappearing through the back door.
It was another humid day when Danny came to visit. After calling out from the front door, he entered the house and headed straight for the backyard, slowing for a moment to look at the desk in the corner of the living room. There was a stack of nature books, along with a pair of owl-shaped eyeglasses, marking pencils, a magnifying glass and a fat, charred candle. At a glance it looked like a conjurors’ alcove. Danny smiled to himself, thinking the only things missing were the sorcerers’ bent cap and crumpled robe.
He didn’t see Lou through the kitchen window, but when he saw the garden gate ajar he went rushing out the back door. Panicked by visions of his father chasing kids around the neighborhood, he didn’t notice the sweet, musky fragrances or feel the cool stillness chilling the sweat on his body. It wasn’t until he was halfway to the gate and stunned by a feeling of disorientation that he became aware of the strong sensation of being someplace else.
The rest of his steps were slow and difficult, like wading through a marshy bog. From an indistinct distance came the cries of wild things; displaced and uneven, as if trapped in the tangled beginnings of a mutant wilderness. He lunged at the handle, pulled the gate open and stepped through to find his father wandering blindly in the alleyway.
“Oh, no. Dad!”
Lou turned with a jolt. He stood momentarily dazed, comprehending the weathered fences and rusted lamppost, the crooked brick pathway with the stubborn weeds, the frantic look on his son’s face.
He quickly shuffled to Danny and embraced him. “I’m all right, I’m all right,” he whispered breathlessly, then pulled away, rubbing his forehead. “Living alone is eating at me more than I thought,” he said, then turned to look around the alleyway again, drifting back into a dreamy calm. “But I could swear I was there...in the forest...deep into the woods.”
Danny grabbed his father’s hand. “Nothing happened here. Nothing at all.”
As he began to lead his father back to the house, Lou stopped to look at the alley side of his gate. There were spray painted lines, carved grooves and a few wads of dried gum. “I use to know every family on the block,” he said, running his fingers over the scored wood. “We practically raised each other’s kids.”
Chuck, Nan and a couple of neighbors sat out front, eyeing the furniture and straining to see what the movers might have left behind. After the truck was packed and pulled away, Lou and Danny came out of the house, locked the front door and followed in Danny’s car.
As they were driving across town the weather broke. A swift wind stirred, followed by thunder and lightning. Lou was unusually quiet.
“What’s wrong Dad?”
“Well Danny, I, ah...want my gate.”
Danny pulled over and stopped. “I guess you want it now,” he sighed as the first of the rain splashed against the windshield.
“They’ll take it if we don’t. And it will be simple. Just knock the pins out of the hinges, grab the gate..”
“Okay, okay, Dad. No problem.” Danny smiled at his father’s boyish excitement as he began to make a U-turn.
By now, Chuck and his friend, Sam, had broken through the front door and were scavenging through the house.
“Hey, it’s jungleland,” Sam laughed as they stepped into the backyard.
Chuck only noticed one thing. “That’s mine!” he demanded, pointing to the garden gate.
“That is nice,” Sam cooed. “I wouldn’t mind having that for myself.”
“In your dreams,” Chuck said, elbowing Sam out of the way. “Just give me a hand getting it out of here.”
“Aren’t we going to flip for it?”
“I got your flipper right here,” Chuck said, grinning, just as a white flash and bang sent them diving to the terrace.
“That was a close one,” Chuck howled while the thunder rolled away. As they got back on their feet a loud ripping noise came from the other side of the fence.
“What the hell’s that?” Sam yelled.
“Got me,” Chuck called back as he slid the iron bolt across and pulled the heavy door open.
A stiff wind blew their hair straight and their heads lifted upward, following the erratic cracking sounds popping overhead. Their jaws dropped as a massive shadow came falling out of the patchy darkness...
When Lou and Danny arrived back in the neighborhood they found themselves in the midst of a commotion. The street lights were out, police cars were blocking the intersections and traffic was being redirected. They parked a couple of blocks from Lou’s street, then joined in with the crowd hurrying along the sidewalk. They overheard talk of an explosion; maybe a pipe burst or a transformer was struck by lightning. Someone said a gas leak blew away one of the houses and the two men looked at each other, trying to recall who was in charge of checking the appliances.
Up ahead they could see people turning onto Lou’s street and Danny went running after them.
When Lou reached the corner, he started to squeeze his way through the crowd when Danny appeared, pushing his way back. Lou grabbed hold of his arms.
“Was it my house?”
Danny gave a curious stare, then looked back over his shoulder. Lou shook his arms again and Danny turned and nodded, “Your house, the house across the street...maybe the house behind that, I don’t know...”
Lou let go of Danny’s arms and pushed onward.
A light drizzle swirled in the retreating breeze of parting clouds and a three quarter moon appeared, seemingly tilted for maximum reflection. At the front of the crowd stood a line of policemen, and Lou had to rise on his toes to see past their shoulders. There, jutting out from the rubble of his house and disappearing into the rubble of the house across the street, was the thick, hulking trunk of a fallen tree.
“What is that?” someone behind him whispered.
Lou just stared ahead and said to himself, “It’s a redwood.”