May 16, 2010
Sometimes when I’m between projects, pieces of stories come to me. Usually, I don’t write them down. I figure that, if they’re important enough, they’ll stick. Lots of times, too, I get interesting ideas that are just ideas. I may come up with a few paragraphs and get stuck on “what’s next.”
Still, there’s one story that has intrigued me for a while. I doubt I’ll be able to do anything with it, but it involves a neighbor. My house was built in 1926. A picture of it brand new hangs on our kitchen wall. On the front steps are two small boys, one with a thick shock of hair. That boy is an old man who lives several houses to the east of me. His family was the first owner of our home, and except for the time when he served in the Army during World War II and a brief period after his return when he first got married, he has lived on this street. Now, he’s grumpy and eccentric, even more so since his wife died not long ago. He walks down to the corner every morning, and whenever he approaches our house, he crosses to the other side and keeps his eyes glued to the pavement. Though I can understand why, I’m amused by his body language. He acts like we have the plague.
A couple of years back, I wrote a poem about him:
Suppose he was frozen
in black and white time, could stay
the little boy in the photograph
of our house from decades ago
on the kitchen wall—pounded
and plastered, painted
first turquoise, then gray, now papered
with summer flowers in bloom. Suppose
he could stay that forever child
who wears suspenders, leans
on the front stoop, argues
with his sister over a thin-wheeled
tricycle, waits for his mother to yell
at him to stop from safe inside
these unchanging rooms. Suppose
he could keep waking to radio static from
down the hall, sliding across the chipped
linoleum, eating his mother’s oatmeal
Then the boy would never grow into
the old man who polishes his shoes on
the day of his wife’s funeral, slicks back
his thick gray hair, forgets the eternal child
who lives on our kitchen wall.
After seeing the movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and just finishing The Man From Bejing, I’ve been in a more Scandanavian frame of mind, so please forgive this mercifully brief visit to the dark side:
The old man walked down the street, chin buried in his chest as he passed by the house he had come to see as pure evil. Oh, it was innocent enough looking, with its black shutters and shiny white paint job. There were toys scattered all over the front yard, a bike lying on its side, a plastic baseball bat, a leather glove, various tennis and golf balls, an overinflated beach ball.
He resisted the urge to cover his ears and close his eyes. He hated the house. His house. Or it used to be. His mother and father were the first owners. He and his sister had grown up there. Now they were all dead. Not the house’s fault, he supposed. Still, he couldn’t help blaming it for the emptiness in his gut that no number of Meals on Wheels could fill.
He recognized the current owners, though he would never so much as give them the time of day. The man was balding and bland. The woman nondescript. But their little boy—he had to be ten by now—he was a bad one, mean eyes and a nasty smile. Laughing at the old man, shouting hello.
It was a warm July morning, and peering sideways, the old man noticed that the house was locked up tight. The garage door was down, and the windows were closed. The entire place seemed to thrum. He stopped dead in his tracks and then crossed the street, arrested by a silvery object in the grass. The ground beneath his feet was squishy, even though it hadn’t rained in nearly a week. Moving closer, he saw that the object was a mercury ball like the ones that slithered out of broken glass thermometers when he was a kid. Except this one was huge, at least three inches in diameter. He squatted on the soggy grass. When he leaned over to look at the ball, his knees gave way, and he felt himself being pulled downward. He let out an ear-shattering scream.