I.

The thing that frightened Carolyn most about moving home was the possibility of running into people she used to know, and for the first several months after she returned she lived in an almost constant state of nervousness over just such an encounter.

Carolyn had changed in the ten years since leaving town, to the point where the old Carolyn – the person she once was – had more or less ceased to exist; Carolyn was sure the people she used to know had also changed, and that she would not recognize them as the people she had once known, because those people had also ceased to exist.

But the fact that the people Carolyn used to know no longer existed was the crux of the problem, because Carolyn suspected that the people she used to know were not aware of this change: they would demand that Carolyn treat them as if they were the same person they had always been, despite the fact that they had become someone else entirely.

Of course, there were some people who would feel the same way Carolyn did, but this, too, was disconcerting to Carolyn; part of Carolyn’s fear of running into the people she used to know was the possibility of causing psychic pain to those who had long ago relegated the old Carolyn to a forgotten corner of their consciousness, and who would not want to be reminded of this fact by the new Carolyn, with whom they had very little in common.

But more frightening to Carolyn than causing psychic pain to those who had given up on Carolyn’s existence was the thought of running into those people who had not given up, who had, in fact, been waiting for Carolyn to return to the city for years now.

Such a person might have a great deal at stake in the idea that Carolyn was still Carolyn, regardless of Carolyn’s belief that she herself had become a completely different Carolyn entirely, and Carolyn could imagine the effect of such interactions, day after day, to the point where all of the progress Carolyn had made towards becoming a new and more evolved Carolyn would be destroyed by the unceasing demands that she return to being the Carolyn from before, the Carolyn who no longer existed.

So Carolyn developed a plan: she would keep a watchful eye out for the people she used to know, especially those awaiting the return of Carolyn, so that if she were to run into such a person she could find some means of escape from the situation before the person waiting for Carolyn could recognize her.

II.

There was one gap in Carolyn’s plan: she assumed that the people who were waiting for Carolyn would be easily identifiable, when in fact the people who were waiting for Carolyn might have undergone great changes since Carolyn last saw them – similar to the changes Carolyn herself had undergone – and therefore might be unrecognizable to Carolyn as the people they once were.

Once Carolyn realized that the people who were waiting for Carolyn might no longer resemble their former selves, the possibility of running into such people only increased, to the point where anyone in the city, no matter how unfamiliar, might be waiting for Carolyn without her knowing it, and Carolyn’s nervousness, which had only just begun to subside, returned twofold.

It occurred to Carolyn that the people who had changed the most from their former selves might also be the ones who most eagerly awaited the return of the old Carolyn, an idea that frightened Carolyn more than any other: that someone might have spent the ten years of Carolyn’s absence fixating on the old Carolyn as an emblem of their past, a sort of Carolyn-shaped substitute for lost things.

Carolyn did not know what she would do, exactly, to avoid such a person, so she developed a much different plan: she would become as little like the old Carolyn as possible, dress differently, down to socks and the accessories, and start purposefully doing things that she felt Carolyn would not normally do, such as eating alone, going to the cinema in the daytime, and riding in taxicabs.

By cultivating distinctly non-Carolyn habits, Carolyn had a twofold hope: firstly, that she would avoid the parts of the city that a person seeking Carolyn would habitually frequent, and secondly, in the unlikely event that she ran into someone seeking Carolyn in a non-Carolyn part of town, that her behavior and appearance would have grown so far removed from what was normally considered Carolyn-esque that she would be unrecognizable to the people who were waiting for Carolyn to return.

In this way the new Carolyn would diverge so far from the old Carolyn that Carolyn would no longer have to worry about being mistaken for a Carolyn that didn’t exist, and could go on being Carolyn without fear.

III.

As the months went on, Carolyn found that she genuinely enjoyed engaging in non-Carolyn habits; perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised her, considering that it was a need to try new things and new experiences that had forced Carolyn to grow and change in the first place, to the point where the old Carolyn no longer existed.

The only thing that worried Carolyn from time to time was the ratio of Carolyn-like behavior to un-Carolyn-like behavior, and whether it might be possible to cultivate so many non-Carolyn habits that Carolyn would cease to be Carolyn at all, and would become unrecognizable to herself; the more she thought about this possibility the more Carolyn began to become nervous, to the point where Carolyn’s nervousness over whether she was still Carolyn in any meaningful sense of the term was equal to – if not greater than – her earlier fears.

The only way Carolyn had of soothing this fear was to assure herself that no behavior could be truly un-Carolyn if Carolyn herself engaged in it, and that by taking on more and more non-Carolyn habits Carolyn was only expanding the definition of Carolyn; she was relieved to discover that the idea of Carolyn was large enough to encompass whatever Carolyn wanted to become.

IV.

Little did Carolyn know that she was fast approaching a larger and more complex problem: the idea of Carolyn was expanding at such a rapid rate that it was quickly becoming difficult for Carolyn do anything un-Carolyn, and this made it easier and easier for the people who were waiting for Carolyn to recognize her as Carolyn, no matter how had she tried to convince them otherwise.

That was the great flaw in all her plans: in trying to be as non-Carolyn as possible, she assumed the people who were waiting for Carolyn were expecting a particular kind of Carolyn, that is to say, the same Carolyn they had always known, the old Carolyn, the Carolyn who no longer existed.

What if, in fact, the opposite was true, and the people who were waiting for Carolyn had already begun to imagine a Carolyn who was quite different from the Carolyn they had once known, a Carolyn that changed with the passing of time; such a Carolyn might be comforting, insofar as it would reassure the people who were waiting for Carolyn that no matter how much Carolyn changed she would still be Carolyn.

What if the idea of Carolyn – an ever-changing Carolyn, forever evolving, but keeping at the core a sort of super-Carolyn, recognizable to the people who had once known her – was growing at such a rapid rate that there was no way Carolyn herself could ever hope to keep up?

The people who were waiting for Carolyn were forever dreaming of things Carolyn might be doing as they waited for her to arrive, so that no matter what non-Carolyn behaviors Carolyn tried to employ, in the end all Carolyn was doing was fulfilling their expectations of her, broadening the idea of Carolyn until it seemed to encompass an entire world of possibilities.

Carolyn tried the most un-Carolyn behaviors and non-Carolyn habits imaginable; she went to parts of the city where no one had ever heard of Carolyn before and gave a non-Carolyn name, just to be safe; she committed crimes for which no one would ever dream Carolyn was responsible; she even began to speak of Carolyn in the third person, as if by creating the character of Carolyn she could at last be free to be Carolyn again.

But it was all no use; each attempt to avoid being Carolyn folded effortlessly into the idea of Carolyn, and the idea of Carolyn grew so large that there was no way that Carolyn could escape.

In the end Carolyn was swallowed by Carolyn, and disappeared completely.

The Chinese Method

March 23, 2011

My boss is interested in the Chinese method. All day long, instead of making repairs, he walks around the shop and examines the guitars for signs of the Chinese method in manufacturing.

“China,” he says, ticking them off: “Korea: worthless. China.”

Guitars built in the Chinese method are his main moneymaker, because they are both playable and affordable. The Chinese method of guitar manufacture is rapidly cornering the market.

Our boss is convinced that the Chinese method is superior to our method in most areas, and that soon, whether we want to our not, we will be forced to adopt the Chinese method because of its overwhelming power and subtlety.

Yesterday a customer complained about the drought, and the boss informed him that the Chinese method of cloud-seeding, whereby rockets containing oxidizers are shot into the middle of clouds, creating precipitation, is catching on in many countries around the world.

I can see why the boss would be excited about the Chinese method. He is interested in efficiency, and everybody agrees that the Chinese method is very efficient. Recently he turned of the hot water heater in the bathroom, and when Wilson, the bass teacher, who drinks too much and is sometimes absent from lessons, complained, the boss told him that the Chinese method of heating discourages waste and that nobody needs hot water to wash their hands. He says that soon energy shortages will force us all to adopt the Chinese method.

I wish there was a Chinese method for the production of whiskey, Wilson says, maybe that way it would be cheaper, and I could use it keep warm. Wilson is open about his drinking in a way that dares the boss to fire him, but the boss is so timid in an argument that all he can do is wait until Wilson is gone and complain that under the Chinese method of labor management it would be easy for him to fire Wilson, because there would be ten people without alcohol problems waiting to take his place.

I feel the boss’ obsession with the Chinese method is distracting him from work, because the repair orders and the bills are terribly backed up.

I work all day, planing the necks of guitars and setting the action against the fretboard so that all the notes go down the scale in perfect harmony, and when I wince from what I’m sure is carpal tunnel my boss suggests that I should try the Chinese method of medicine, which involves cupping and tui na massage. I do not remind him that I am not paid enough to afford such treatments because I remember his rant about the Chinese method of labor management.

Many people are concerned that the Chinese method of economics. People suggest that there are parts of the Chinese method we might learn and apply to our own economic system, before it’s too late.

Recently the boss developed a plan, which he learned from a book on the Chinese method of agriculture, in which all of the teachers who work above the store would be asked to rent their rooms by the day, regardless of whether they had any actual students to teach, under the theory that they can find other uses for the rooms when the students are not there. The teachers, who do not share the bosses attitude towards the infallibility of the Chinese method, were not interested, and the boss, who is full of schemes but lacks the courage to put them into practice, was forced to relinquish his dream.

In the aftermath of this conflict, the guitar teacher, Andrew, placed a book on the boss’ desk, the Tao Te Ching, in the hopes that he might in the future employ the Chinese method of philosophical relaxation. Andrew is the best off of all of us, because he has his degree in music from a reputable institution, and is a specialist in all styles, including the Chinese method of music, which he claims is so pure and simple it only requires five notes to approximate the sound of water falling on mossy stone.

The teachers and I worry that the store is losing money, because we see the boss is only eating rice and vegetables at his work bench, and that he never eats out anymore, but soon enough he explains that he is only adopting the Chinese method towards nutrition, in which grains, beans, and vegetables strengthen the mind and the body. We wonder if he is being intentionally opaque; we have heard that the Chinese method of management does not encourage communication towards the laboring class.

Customers sometime lambast the boss for his seemingly nonsensical pricing structure concerning repairs, but Andrew, who is smarter than the rest of us, has suggested that the boss is adopting the Chinese method towards economic policy, in which figures are intentionally inflated by the central bureaucracy in service of fiscal necessity. Wilson, whose drinking has worsened noticeably, suggests that the boss study the Chinese method of learning how to do his damn job.

Edwin, the drum teacher, who is younger than the rest of us, has been studying the Chinese method towards the teaching of English, in the hopes that he might find a job abroad in case he is fired by the boss or our labor situation becomes untenable.

Recently the boss’ reactions to the Chinese method have become increasingly paranoid. He watches replays of the Beijing Olympics, and comments on the Chinese method of organization in awed and frightened tones.

The boss shared with me recently information he gleaned from a friend about the Chinese method towards arms manufacturing. His friend, who is a policeman and therefore susceptible to paranoid delusions, claims that the Chinese method of military export involves implanting all of their armaments with tiny chips, so that in the event of a war between China and another country all weapons made in China would either fail to work or turn against their users. The boss is very concerned that this subtle Chinese method of defense has completely turned the tables in the geopolitical arena.

Edwin came downstairs recently with a small black camera that he discovered in the corner of his lesson room, and although the boss insisted he knew nothing about it the rest of us took it as evidence that the boss has begun adopting the Chinese method of personal surveillance, to an unknown end.

Wilson, who no longer even bothers to hide the whiskey bottle clanking in his Jansport backpack, has taken to claiming that he knows more about the Chinese method than the boss does. For instance, he claims to know a great deal about the Chinese method of self-defense, or kung fu. He claims that if the boss ever tries anything he will apply his knowledge of the Chinese method of self-defense to the boss personally. There is some sort of conflict brewing between the boss and Wilson, but in accordance with the Chinese method of strategic military planning each of them has been strengthening their position without making their intentions known.

The teachers have fewer students than they used to, owing at least in part to the boss’ expansion of the Chinese method of heating to include the upper levels of the store, so that the lesson rooms are not entirely comfortable. It is only November, but Andrew, who views everything quite calmly, is already claiming to be employing the Chinese method of meditation in which you lower your body temperature to adapt to sub-optimal atmospheric conditions. I am fairly certain that the students are not familiar with this Chinese method of personal comfort.

Yesterday the boss refused to pay Wilson for one of his lessons, claiming he had taken a packet of bass strings from the counter without paying for it, and that he was getting off light, because if he were following the Chinese method of justice he would have cut off Wilson’s hand. Wilson, who speaks remarkably well even under the influence, remarked that the boss was mistaking the Chinese method for some other method, perhaps the fundamentalist Islamic method or the Texas method. He also threatened, calmly, to use the Chinese method of martial arts with which he was more than a little familiar on the boss if he didn’t pay him the money he was owed. In deference to the Chinese method of communal decision-making, the boss asked the rest of us if we thought it was fair for Wilson to take bass strings from the counter, and when none of us spoke up he paid Wilson the little money he was owed and told him never to come back.

There are now more fewer instruments than ever in the repair queue, and the boss is convinced that this shortfall is a result of Wilson’s engagement in the Chinese method of slander, waging a whisper campaign against him in the local musical community. Edwin has been put to work warding off creditors, but mostly he stands at the front desk, studying the Chinese method of English instruction and trying to avoid looking at the phone. Andrew is ensconced in the upstairs room, where he claims to be working on a particularly advanced form of the Chinese method in music whereby the precise location of two notes in a time-space continuum vibrate together and manifest in a chi-construction of luminous joy.

Me, I work my fingers to the bone while the boss neglects the more difficult repairs in favor of concocting some sort of Chinese method to murder Wilson in which the poisons used would be virtually undetectable. I am aware that I am being exploited, but due to the failure of our economic method in the face of the Chinese method there are few other jobs available.

Finally, the boss’ use of the Chinese method of personal surveillance has borne fruit. He claims that he has video evidence of Wilson breaking into the store at night, using some sort of Chinese method of martial arts to break the padlock on the door with his foot. All of us feel skeptical about this, especially because the boss told us about it while wearing a peaked military cap made in the Chinese method. By now the store is so empty that it would be easy to practice the Chinese method of tai-chi in the middle of the front room, because the boss no longer has the money with which to buy new stock. The boss claims this is because Wilson has stolen most of the instruments made in the Chinese method, which are his biggest sellers, and that without the revenue these instruments bring he cannot buy anything else, but we are no longer convinced by his excuses. We say we are tired of his obsessions with the Chinese method, and that we are all quitting.

This is when the boss, in a very unsubtle maneuver that belies his stated interest in the Chinese method, closes the grate of the store behind us, locks it, and forces us against the wall. He says that we are to engage immediately in the Chinese method of self-criticism, and explain how it was that we aided Wilson in his cowardly and undeserved attacks on the store which had for so long provided him his livelihood.

Andrew, who thinks he is very smart, says that he is sorry, that he lent Wilson a book on the Chinese method of breaking and entering, but that he never thought it would end like this, and the boss, sensing this is a lie, knocks him out with the butt of the rifle.

Edwin, who is less smart than Andrew but smarter than me, takes the Chinese method of self-criticism at face value and begins outlining all of the things that are wrong with him, through his tears, including his poor posture and his inability to correctly identify a gerund, and the boss, sensing futility, knocks him out with the butt of the rifle.

I am not knowledgeable in the Chinese method, so I say nothing.

Since I am the only one remaining who the boss feels might have information about Wilson, he locks me in the basement and subjects me to series of interrogations based on the Chinese method: “Medium-Starvation,” “Filthy, Infested Surroundings,” and “Exploitation of Physical Weakness.”

This is where I have been for several days now, and I wonder where the boss is; whether he is working on new Chinese methods by which to retrieve information I most certainly do not possess, or if he has met his own end aboveground. Perhaps the financial authorities, who are increasingly familiar with the Chinese method of fraud, have caught up to him. Maybe the police, who are now encouraged to use the Chinese method in apprehending suspects, have made short work of him.

In my time down here I have come to regret my lack of knowledge of the Chinese method, and if I ever get back aboveground I have made a promise to myself that I will devote my life to study, in the hopes that I might better myself and make a place for myself in the new world order. For now, I mainly concentrate on a Chinese method – or so I think, unless it is Indian, or even Indonesian – which I read of once as a child, in which a prisoner sings a song and charms his ropes into rising so far into the air that the rope forms a bridge into another, brighter world. I maintain some hope that by utilizing this Chinese method of rope climbing, this particular prisoner can at last find peace.

May 12, 2009

“I haven’t been well. I’ve been having some problems. My days have been full of problems.” Etta seemed determined to avoid eye contact. I watched as a leaf over her right shoulder let go of its branch and lazily spun down towards the surface of the stream. Her arm shot out like a mongoose and she snatched it out of the air.

“Here,” she said, and she stood up and turned around and stuck it behind my ear. She gave the impression of smiling intensely, almost freakily, but it was all in the set of her chin and the lines around her eyes. I didn’t really have a response to this. I wished she would sit back down.

“Uh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I told her. “What…what kinds of problems?”

“You know. The kind that mess you up.” She tapped the ember of her cigarette onto the carpet of brown pine needles and I ground it out with my foot. “Problems with the Man. I’m a wanted fugitive. Did you know that?”

“This isn’t really how I imagined our ten-year reunion,” I said. “We’re supposed to be trying to out-bullshit each other. I tell you that my four year old just tested into his preschool’s gifted program, you tell me about your recent promotion to Assistant Supervisor of Cell Phone Sales and CEO Fast-Tracking. Also, it should be indoors.”

“Also, there should be about a hundred and fifty more people.”

“Not necessarily. I’m okay with this many.” She came pretty close to a smile at that. Somewhat close.

“Ask me about the fugitive part,” she said, turning back to watch the stream.

I looked at my watch. It was 7:33 in the evening and the sun was teetering on the edge of South Mountain. Great golden shafts of light streamed down, gilding the hemlocks. A quiet breeze raised the hairs of my forearms – the chilly, resigned exhalation of the mountain. Half a mile away frogs were having sex. If only it would make the occasional effort, I thought, the world could be a halfway decent place to live.

“Okay, tell me about the fugitive part.”

She sat back down and this time I sat down beside her. I handed her a broken pine branch and she used it to tickle the water.

“No, I was making that up,” she said. “I was trying to out-bullshit you.” She sucked at her cigarette and pushed up her glasses. “I only wish I was a fugitive. I kind of feel like I’ve missed my chance to really fuck some shit up, and soon I’ll be thirty and no one will take me seriously anymore. Like, I’ll try to join a radical animal liberation terrorist cell and all the kids will think I’m a narc.”

“No one will think you’re a narc. They don’t even have narcs anymore. If they want to find out if you’re going to blow up a pharmaceutical plant, they just listen to your phone calls.” I shifted uncomfortably. I felt like I was missing the point.

“You’re missing the point,” Etta said. “Listen, I remember when we were like eight and your dad got his pants caught in the harvester, and you missed school for two weeks and our whole class put our lunch money in a pretzel bin to buy flowers for the funeral. And I came over to your house and we were going to go play in the garage and your mom was in there just kind of staring at all those canvases that he started painting and didn’t ever finish. And then we went out behind the grain silo instead.”

It was true. We went out behind the grain silo instead. Etta kissed me out behind the grain silo, I now realize, because she didn’t know anything better to do. I threw a corncob at her.

“I get it,” I said. “But you’re not going to get killed by a harvester. Look, you’ve done a lot of things with your life. You’re twenty-eight. I heard that you worked as the only female rodeo clown in Arizona for a while. That’s something.”

She stood up, sighed, chucked the pine branch into the stream. A congregation of startled crayfish exploded away from it in a burst of mud. She looked down at me. A halo of milkweed spores illuminated her from behind. When she spoke she sounded like the angel of bad news.

“You’ve changed,” she said. She had me there.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“Don’t say, ‘I couldn’t help it,’” she said.

“I wasn’t going to,” I said. But I had been thinking about it.

“I shouldn’t be so surprised. I just, I don’t know, I thought we’d go rob banks together. I have no idea what comes next,” she said, “and I’m scared, okay, I’ll admit that, I’m pretty scared. Pretty terrified. Got it?”

“Um.” I was still sitting down and my butt was getting wet. “Do you want a ride back to town?”

“Forget it,” she said. “I’m going to go get eaten by wolves. Do they have wolves here? Mountain lions? Deer? I guess they all got run over.” She strode forward into the stream, splashing water all over my trousers. “Something better get me,” she said, without turning back, when she was halfway across.

I watched her cross the stream and disappear among the skirts of the hemlocks, her bearing fixed on the ridge of South Mountain. What could I do? The most I could hope for was to ruin my shoes. I have never been good at helping people with their problems.

The sun was gone for good. Fifteen miles to the south, under a humming yellow lamp, my mother was waiting up for me on the porch of our old house. She was drifting off to sleep, and she needed someone to wake her up and take her inside and play a few hands of gin rummy with her and put her to bed. I got up, brushed off my damp trousers, and followed the path back up the bank to the parking lot.

The year was 1962, the place was Schenectady. I’d been working in pest control by day and shacking up with an alcoholic dancer named Pauline by night. In my pocket I carried a tiny notebook in which I placed a tally mark every time she didn’t respond to something I said.

I was on my second notebook by the time I got assigned to the Coleman place. Vince, my dispatcher, told me to bring four tanks of imiprothrin, a pair of galoshes, and a cyanide capsule, just in case. Randy lived over on the eastern edge of the city, in a rathole flat above a 24-hour pawn shop called Make Or Break’s. I meant to knock twice, but he swung open the door after only one.

In those days Randy looked nothing like he does today. His most notable characteristics were his dreaming, unassuming eyes and his painfully twisted back – a deformity attributed to a childhood bout with scoliosis, which would be suddenly and miraculously healed years later following a mushroom trip in the Himalayas.

He was cleanshaven, which I found odd, considering the bohemian trappings of his apartment. On an easel in the corner rested a canvas draped with a cloth, in which holes had been cut such that only very small portions of the painting underneath were visible at any given time. Candle butts were melted into the ceiling and the walls. In the kitchen I found a hifi stereo with an axe through it.

After a cursory inspection of the apartment turned up no infestation, I asked Randy for more details as to the specific nature and location of his pests. A rambling, near-incoherent monologue-cum-rant followed, by the end of which I was forced to conclude that the creatures plaguing this man were in reality the hallucinatory manifestations of the dozens of pieces of music gestating in his mind at the moment. I sat on a wooden milk crate while he described them to me, his eyes tracking them around the room: a bat-winged myna bird screeching from atop the doorjamb, a blue cat with six legs scurrying under the armoire.

It was hours before I left, retracing my steps through the snowy streets, lugging the imiprothrin back to the pest control offices. Stray dogs padded past without looking at me, yellow in the sodium lamps. When I arrived home, dawn was melting over the horizon and Pauline was gone. She’d taken my wallet and my record collection.

Feb 13, 10:15-10:30pm

February 15, 2008

My brother falls down a well in the hard light of Christmas morning while I roll across the empty left side of our bed and dream about oxen steaming through the night. Neither one of us can remember falling asleep the night before. In our stomachs spaghetti knots like a tangle of yarn and we viciously kick each other’s shins to warm up under our cold blankets.

“I can hear them wrapping things down there.”

“That’s not them, they’re not the ones who wrap the presents.”

“Shut up.”

“Listen! Really, that was a sleighbell.”

“That was somebody bumping against the tree.” At a certain point we tire out and go limp, each of us holding the other one like a stuffed animal.

He wakes up as the first razor of sun crests the far-off bumpy mountain range and quietly disengages from me. Down the stairs in his bare feet, right past the thermostat and into the immense holy presence of the tree which has burst up from our floorboards like a vital middle finger defiantly raised against the obstinately snowy world outside. We find the torn paper of his first gift, a green pair of rubber boots from Woolworth’s, near the rocking chair. He’s stepped on the ribbon and dragged it outside with him…it finally lets go of the boot’s sole halfway across the backyard, where it bleeds up at us from the inside of his footprint.

His trail traces a wild skirling path through the yard, around the stubble of the dead garden, into the trees at the edge of our property, to their final destination: the black eye staring up from the ground, the hole-in-one, the drain that we always tilt towards when we’re not watching.

Missed connections 5

November 26, 2007

You crawled out of a pumpkin – m4w – 24


Reply to: pers-489560763@craigslist.org
Date: 2007-11-26, 1:31AM CST

On Friday I was walking home from the train in a bit of a drizzle, paying attention to the stray cats and stoplights exuding their radiance, everything doubling in size at each moment, with my keys in my pocket. In an alley off 31st Street skulked a big black dumpster, and next to it sat a beautiful pumpkin the size of a bass drum.

Somebody was throwing it away, so I decided to carry it home, scrub it, and make it into several dozen pies. I took two steps towards it, and then I saw a thin line around the stem where the top had been cut off, then replaced. I watched as the lid gave a wiggle, rose an inch, slid to the side, tottered, and fell to the wet pavement. Seconds later, your head, in perfect profile, rose matter-of-factly from the hole in the pumpkin. You unfolded yourself, popping shoulders into place, brushing stray seeds from your jacket and strands of pulp from your hair. One leg and then the other rose, and you stepped out of the pumpkin and into the haze of the city.

Clearly I was in no position to say anything to you, but you turned your head and held my gaze for an indeterminate moment before giving me a half smile, then walked briskly down the alley to get lost in all that baffling and grimy plumbing. Your eyes were orange. If there’s any chance that I might see you again, please write to me.

   
   
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PostingID: 489560763

Neighbors make neighborhoods, but the Awbury Arboretum isn’t much of a neighborhood, and the people who live there keep mostly to themselves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasional rituals that bring families together: barbecues, a jazz festival, and, fittingly enough for this community of old stone buildings and unlit streets, a well-coordinated Halloween with costumes and tours of haunted houses for the kids. Still, families mostly point inward in the suburban fashion, and I never felt any pressure, growing up, to hang around with the other kids who lived around us. I knew our immediate neighbors, the Scattergoods, because their kids went to my high school, but other than that I barely knew the faces, let alone the names, of the five or six families who lived within the walls of the Arboretum.

One summer, when I was in early high school, my mother told me that one of our neighbors to the northwest wanted someone to babysit their daughter for a night. I was young enough that the thirty bucks they were offering seemed like a lot of money, so I said I’d do it. At six o’clock I put my summer reading books into a backpack and walked outside. The week before, lightning had hit one of the large oaks in the backyard, snapping it low on the trunk, and the vast bulk of it was lying in the grass. Its limbs dug into the ground like roots from the force of the impact.

“That Matty girl is hell on wheels, I hear,” my mom told me as I left. She warned me to be sure to enforce strict discipline.

“Don’t worry, Ma,” I told her.

“You’re just too nice a person,” she called after me, as I shut the door.

The old houses of the Arboretum are all clustered around what used to be long dirt roads; the main private drive, Awbury Road, was paved sometime in the twentieth century, but the other road was deemed unworthy of the same treatment, and stretches from the heart of the park to the northwest edge without meeting any driveway or tributary, one unbroken line of dirt.. For those other houses not connected to the main, paved roads, the owners have built their own driveways, unconnected to any interior road, directly to the busy city streets surrounding the park. The net effect of this turning outward is to close these distant houses to the rest of the Arboretum. Surrounded by groves of trees, the only way to reach those far properties is to walk from backyard to backyard, through small pathways cut into the tree line.

So I slipped out of my backyard and onto one of those narrow, wooded paths that cut between houses in the secluded northern section of the Arboretum. The ground beneath me smelled of leaves that had been left to rot undisturbed. I passed a crumbling shed, vines climbing its walls, its windows broken through by the branches of a tree growing inside it. In the twilight the hanging trees made a low tunnel; everything inside it was shaded and dim, and the light at the end looked flimsy, the lazy sun of a summer evening.

Once out of the tunnel, the property of that family to the northwest – I’ve forgotten their names, except for their daughter – opened up. I don’t know how much of it belonged to them and how much of it was the public property of the Arboretum – this was always an issue for the families who lived there – but there was a long stretch of green running up to the house, regardless. There were two weeping willows, one close to me, drifting across the image of the house like a beaded curtain over a girl’s room, the other farther on, past the house itself, shaking in the background.

The house had the ramshackle feeling common to almost all the arboretum homes. Built for rich people of a certain kind, they had been inherited by rich people of another kind entirely: alimony cases, like my mother, tenured professors, people who didn’t mind a little disrepair here and there. Even from a distance I could see that the veranda porch had a couple of obvious loose posts, and as I got closer it was clear that no one had used it for some time; boards had broken on the porch itself and been pulled off, like a piano with missing keys. There was one irregular turret growing from the right side of the third floor, and its windows were broken and boarded. Probably large parts of it were sectioned off and unused.

The parents were already ready to go. The woman, who had carrot-orange hair, cut short with bangs, was sitting on the front steps and jangling her keys against her thigh. She wore sunglasses and a pale pink tank top with her khaki shorts, and her style wasn’t much different from the girls I went to school with; for all I knew, she could have been wearing those sorts of clothes her whole life.

“Oh Sam,” she said, standing, as if she was surprised I’d showed up. “You’re here. Great.”

She held up her car keys and smiled.

“As you can see, we’re sort of rushing, so I left some notes on the fridge. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Matty’s already had her dinner, and she seems like she’s in a quiet mood tonight.”

“Thank the lord,” her husband said, emerging from the doorway. He was shaking his head as he mumbled the words. His brown beard was thick and only half trimmed, and he had the insomniac look: thick, dark circles and heavy lids.

His wife shot him a look that would have taken years to really understand, although the general impression wasn’t positive. I was suddenly glad to be staying in the house and not going with them to dinner. It didn’t seem like it would be a particularly pleasant experience.

“Thank you so much for helping us out like this,” the woman said to me, through gritted teeth.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

I waved to them as they pulled out of the driveway. It struck me that I didn’t know where they were going, when they would be back, or how to contact them. It was that time of the evening when your eyes see less than you think they do, and they just disappeared down the black length of the driveway.

The girl, Matty, opened the screen door and stepped outside. She had the same orange hair as her mother, and she was wearing a summer dress with big blue flowers all over it. She crossed one skinny leg over the other and waved at me.

“Hi,” she said. “Are my parents gone?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They just left.”

“Okay,” she said. “I was reading. In the living room.”

“I see,” I said.

“You don’t really have to watch out for me,” she told me, and turned on her heel and went back inside.

Following her in, the smell of the house surrounded me, a combination of curry and cardoman from that night’s dinner, a little dust on the old wood, and the same kind of incense my mother sometimes burned to cover up other odors. The ceilings were even higher than in my house, towering over me and the girl. Unlike my parents, who had dealt with the high walls by hanging large, imposing paintings on them, Matty’s parents had left them more or less bare. Even the furniture, a low coffee table and soft, sagging armchairs, clung to the ground as if shrinking away from the empty space. At one end of the living room, completely surrounded by the frame of a non-working fireplace, was a TV that looked like it had been around since the seventies. It was about two feet square, and had dials instead of buttons.

“Do you want to watch TV?” Matty asked me. She was lying on her stomach with a big, leather-bound book opened in front of her. She had caught me looking.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve just never seen a TV in a fireplace before.”

“It only gets black and white,” she told me. “It’s not a very good TV.”

“I think I’ll just get a glass of water,” I told her. “What are you reading?”

She held the book up so I could see the words on its spine: The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.

“Wow,” I said.

“It’s pretty good,” she said, shrugging.

I went into the kitchen, shaking my head. The note Matty’s parents had left was taped to the refrigerator. It was really nothing more than a couple of emergency numbers and the name of the restaurant they were going to. No mention of when they would be home.

The kitchen was even stranger than the living room. The cabinets along the walls were so tall they were impractical. When I opened them up to look inside it was clear that nobody stored anything on the top shelves. The island in the middle of the floor looked expensive, large and solid, with drawers and cabinets emerging on every side. A knife was lying on the countertop, bits of basil clumped along its edge, and little green lines following the path of the knife criss-crossed the polished wood. I looked straight out through the bay windows onto the lawn, which seemed a little neglected. So did the windows themselves; the panes were dusty, and the paint job was rough and patchy, as if someone had forgotten to sand and had held the brush with an unsteady grip.

There was a metal kettle on the counter next to the sink. When I was a kid, living in the country, I had known people who used coffee percolators, but it had been years since I had seen one. I tapped my finger against the sides. It was still hot. I took a mug with the Weavers Way logo and poured myself a cup.

I heard the scratch of a needle dropping onto a record, and as I leaned against the island and sipped my coffee the sounds of a string quartet began to wind up quietly in the other room.

Walking back into the living room, I saw Matty leaning over the record player, which sat on a small chest in the far corner. Having dropped the needle, she carefully lowered the plastic cover, stepped back from the turntable, and began to slowly edge the volume up on the stereo. There were four brown speakers, one at each corner, surrounding us. The warm sounds of strings, their melodies intertwining, began to circle the room.

“Do you have any homework?” I asked.

“I already did it,” she told me, her eyes turned back to her book.

I lay back in the armchair and looked up at the high ceiling. There was no overhead light, only the illumination of three tall floor lamps, and the shadows and light swelled and receded as the lamps blended into each other. Outside, the summer night was beginning. I could see the upper windows of my house through the trees, under peaked gables, looking ghostly through the windblown branches.

“You live over on the road, don’t you?” Matty asked me. I hadn’t been paying attention, and when I turned to her she had the book closed and pushed aside and was considering me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I live at 5 Awbury.”

“The big house,” she told me. “I know about it.”

“Oh really?” I asked, teasing her.

“You know, you have ghosts. My parents told me.”

I paused and narrowed my eyebrows. She looked very serious all of a sudden.

“What kind of ghosts?” I asked.

“My parents won’t tell me,” she said. “They just told me that there are ghosts in your house.”

“Well, I’ve never seen one,” I said.

“That’s why I’m not supposed to go on the path at night,” she told me.

“Well, like I said,” I told her, “I’ve never seen one.”

“Maybe that’s because you don’t have the gift,” she told me. “Maybe you’re not sensitive enough.”

“Have you ever seen one?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, looking at the floor. “There aren’t any ghosts here.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

Once I saw her face I regretted saying it. It was obviously something she had thought about herself. She set her face against the question, but there was a hint in her eyes, and in the way she tucked her thumbs into her fists, that she had spent some time considering the possibility.

“My parents told me there aren’t,” she said.

“Well, they know better than we do,” I said.

She nodded, but the way I said it, and the way she reacted, made us both realize that we didn’t believe a word of it. I sipped my coffee. With a slight friction, a trembling inside the speaker, the needle lifted off the record.

“The side’s over,” I told her. “Do you want me to flip it?”

“Nah,” she said, getting to her feet. “Do you want to play a game?”

“Sure,” I said. “What kind of game?”

“Flashlight tag,” she told me. “I’ll get the flashlights.”

I heard her banging up the stairs, and then a rustling in some distant closet. She came back with two heavy-duty flashlights, one yellow, one orange.

“You know how to play, don’t you?”

“Refresh my memory,” I told her.

“When you’re it,” she told me, slowly, as if I was a young or stupid person, “you turn on your flashlight. When you hit the other person with your light, they’re it.”

“So the person who’s running, they keep their flashlight off?”

She rolled her eyes.

“Obviously.”

“Okay,” I told her. “I get it.”

We walked out together onto the grass. It was high firefly season, and it seemed like there were hundreds of them, filling the air with a pulsing cloud of light.

“You be it first,” she told. “Close your eyes and count to twenty.”

I did like she asked. There was a light breeze at my neck, but the night was still muggy and close and full of buzzing insects. You could hear cicadas chirring, and the mosquitoes were landing on the backs of my legs.

I reached the end of my count. Circling the crumbling veranda porch, I swung the beam of my flashlight around, trailing it across the grass and onto the layered leaves hanging from the far tree line. Their lawn extended a couple hundred feet in all directions, and I might have lost her entirely if I hadn’t been able to follow the sound of her feet on the grass and her occasional quiet laughter. The grass was a little high, and spotted her and there with clover. With the flashlight sifting through the darkness I felt like a search party, someone investigating the night.

Finally I caught her, trying to glide under the hanging branches of the weeping willow.

“Okay,” she said, a little out of breath. “I’ll count.”

She stood against the trunk of the willow and started her loud countdown. Switching off my flashlight, I circled the house. I was surprised at how much my eyes could adjust, even after watching such a small beam of light. I could see the fence through the trees, and beyond that the suggestion of the Cope House, past the dirt road. I could see the broken boards on the veranda porch. Only the spaces inside the windows of the house, looking up, were too dark to make out.

I heard her intone the last number of her count, and I slipped off again through the grass. I took off my shoes and put them by the front steps, listening to her tramping around the circle of lawn. It was almost too easy to hear where she was going. The beam of her flashlight swept around the far side, and I picked my way around the stone and slipped between two pillars on the porch.

Without a light, and knowing you were being pursued, it was a completely different kind of game. The beam of Matty’s flashlight hanging on leaves and branches in search of me made me feel like a part of the night, like slipping into a hedge and disappearing, melting bodily into the wood and stone of the house and peering out between cracks in the masonry.

“Hey,” she began to call. “Hey!”

Letting out a deep breath, I peeled myself away from the slats of the veranda porch and began to run wildly into the night, towards the tiny pathways that criss-crossed the arboretum. I heard her excited gasp, and then the searchlight swung across, blinding me.

“Got you! Thought you could get away, did you now?”

She had an excellent approximation of an English policeman.  I found myself laughing even though I was out of breath.

“Now you hide,” I told her.

“You took a long time.”

“That’s because I’m so good,” I said, putting my face in my hands, my lips almost touching the cool stone of the house. I counted loudly, feeling the rough walls with the pads of my fingers.

When I finished and turned my beam onto the plain of grass, she was completely gone. I stood very still and trained my ears to the sound of footfalls, or giggling, but the whole place was silent. She was hiding somewhere, I knew, keeping quiet in some sheltered spot. I went from side to side, letting the beam sweep lazily over bushes and trees. When I focused on the sounds of the park, the buzz of insects and the occasional knocking together of the small branches, I found I could hear the tidal sound of cars washing in from the road below us.

I sat down against the trunk of the willow, slowly casting my flashlight around the lawn like I was conducting a sleepy waltz. I knew that I wouldn’t find her unless she wanted me to.   She knew this part of the park and I didn’t. I knew, too, listening to the sound of the cars moving down the road on their way from one part of the waking world to another, that we were both stranded in the orbit of this old, crumbling house, creeping around in the darkness, until someone decided to discover us again.

Finally, her reedy voice came out from the cover of the trees.

“Are you giving up?” she asked me. “Are you worried yet?”

She wasn’t far, but far enough. I sent my little light up against the trees where I thought I heard her voice, but all I could see was the surface layer of leaves, swaying in the wake of a small breeze.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When my mother decided to move out of her house, during her last days of residency, I liked to ask her nagging questions I had about the history of my old home: what were the older owners like, and how had it ended up the way it was when my mother bought it, half crumbled like many of the other houses in the Arboretum, covered with creeping ivy?

That was how I heard about the old recluse who had died in the upper room, and how I had grown to imagine his death, who had found him and under what circumstances. It was how I learned about the young millionaire who had died of a heart attack while playing polo, who had planned on renovating our house for his illegitimate daughter as a sort of minor inheritance. Instead, the girl’s mother had been forced to sell it to my mother, for one reason or another.

My mother never knew the details of the girl and her mother.

“She seemed like she was lost,” she told me, about the mother. “I don’t think she really knew what she was doing.”

About the daughter she didn’t say much of anything, only shook her head and said it was a shame, a kid being involved in something like that. So it was the daughter I wondered about, owning a house and then losing it.

There were plenty of strange children in the Arboretum when I was growing up. A woman who lived down the street, a quiet woman who was escaping a bad marriage, had a little boy who used to come over and play with my little brother. He had a habit of mimicking dinosaurs while playing with other people, groaning and making his hands into Tyrannosaurus fingers, retreating from the group and turning in circles in some sort of private game. I babysat for him once or twice, too, and heard him talk, obliquely, about his long-gone father. He brooded the whole time I was in his house, barely speaking to me.

There were a couple of kids, brother and sister, the girl around my age and the boy a little younger, who moved into the apartments above the Cope House when I was in eleventh grade. They were Christians of a conservative kind, home-schooled and deathly sober. Sometimes she wore a bonnet, but I don’t know if this was a personal or religious decision. Her skin was so pale it was almost transparent; you could see blue veins in her face. They would come over to my house and drink juice and we would walk around the yard talking, the girl and me, with her little brother trailing behind us.

“My parents are looking for a better place,” she told me. “We’ll be moving soon.”

She would admit to me, sometimes, that the place scared her, that she had a hard time sleeping at night. She told me these things as if they were a sign of personal weakness, and I never brought them up with her after she told me. Eventually she disappeared, too, without warning, so that it was weeks before I asked my mother where she had gone to, while she was in the middle of chopping carrots.

“You mean the Cope House girl?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she told me. “I never really knew their family. Were they Mennonites?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Some people just don’t take to this place,” she told me, matter-of-factly, and went back to her work.

So there were always children passing through, it seemed, dragged by their parents into these crumbling houses, living for a while with the close presence of the past.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was almost midnight before Matty’s parents pulled up into the driveway. Matty was asleep on the couch, the lights were dimmed, and I was reading the Dickinson she had left on the floor. It was comfortable, but the longer the hours got the more the night seemed to press in on the windows, the more I felt anxious, entertaining the irrational feeling that her parents maybe weren’t coming back at all.  I was happy, at first, to see her parents pulling up the drive.

Matty didn’t wake up, but moved a little in her sleep. The car door slammed, and I heard her mother confront her husband with a harsh whisper.

“Can’t you be quiet?” I thought she said. He mumbled in response.

She pushed the screen door open slowly with great care, and looked in on me with a smile.

“The girl’s asleep, is she?”

I nodded. Her mother’s smile was broad but her teeth were gritted, and her eyes were red. Her father stayed outside and smoked a cigarette.

“Well, let me go get some money out of the drawer,” she said, and went past me into the kitchen. I stayed in the entryway and looked out at Matty’s father, who leaned against one of the pillars of the porch and looked out at the woods. It looked like he was waiting for something. His brown hair was going bald on the top, and he slouched as he leaned, his shoulders hunched.

Her mother came back with an envelope.

“I hope she wasn’t too much trouble,” she whispered.

“Not at all,” I told her. “She was great.”

“We worry, sometimes,” she said. “That she doesn’t have enough kids to play with. I know it’s a lot to ask somebody your age to entertain her, but she really appreciates it.”

I nodded.

“This can be a lonely place,” she said.

“I suppose so.”

She nodded and looked at her feet for a second. Then she shook her head and began to dig into the white envelope.

“Can’t have you going without this,” she said, putting the thirty dollars in my hand, plus a five I pretended not to notice. “Thanks again for all your help.”

I thanked her for the money and started out the door. I hadn’t gotten twenty feet across the lawn when her father called after me.

“Not too far away, is it?” he said. There was an unaccountable edge to his voice. “We’re pretty tight knit around here, huh?”

I turned and looked at him. The porch light hit him from on top, highlighting the bags under his eyes. He looked like a much older man than he had earlier in the evening.

I never learned what he meant by the statement, but whatever it was he reconsidered it, and, looking a little embarrassed, gave me a mock-military salute.

“Come around whenever you like,” he said. “We appreciate the company.”

“Sure,” I said, beginning down the path, happy to be gone from that place, going home to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I never went over to Matty’s house again. When that summer finished senior year was a busy time, and like I said, there were never too many chances to meet the neighbors in the park, never too many reasons to walk down the paths to their houses.

One day, while I was away at college, one of Matty’s family’s dogs, an old, senile terrier, wandered into our yard and made the mistake of snarling in a weak way at our one hundred and twenty pound German Shepard, who nearly tore its throat out. The veterinary bills were gigantic, and though my parents paid them, the whole incident soured neighborly relations. Sometime later, before my graduation, Matty’s family moved away.

Despite the whole cast of lost children – the small boy with his dinosaur noises and inexplicable patches of silence, the Mennonite girl with her skin like pale paper, among others I don’t have time to mention now – Matty makes more appearances than anyone when I consider the kids who lived in the park when I was there, who played in its patches of forest and slept under the high ceilings of its houses.  She, more than anyone, seemed to belong there, to have made piece with the place on its own terms.  I think a lot about what she said about being sensitive, or having the gift.  I know that I would never have hidden in the dark woods at night at ten, slinking through the bushes while someone tried to find me with a flashlight.  And I wonder at how she evaded the questions I asked about ghosts, and whether she had seen one.

The strangest thing, too, is that it’s her face that I think of when I imagine the half-heiress who used to occupy my house, who I picture looking out into my backyard as I’ve been looking out at it in these last few weeks of high summer, the fireflies in full fanfare, their trailing lights about to fade as the autumn edges toward us. Maybe it has to do with her insistence that my house was haunted, or still is.

I imagine the mother of the half-heiress as my mother says she was, lost and tired, convalescing in the master bedroom. As she turns under the sheets, almost asleep, the half-heiress is on the first floor, walking from room to room. She runs her hand along the leaves of potted plants. She puts a record on the turntable. She stands on the ends of her toes to drop the needle on the vinyl, and then lowers the plastic covering. Outside night is falling; car engines swell and ebb among the hum of insects. The half-heiress watches the fireflies pulsing above the grass, accustomed to being left alone to watch the park at nightfall. The record starts with a crackle, but before the music begins to swell, filling the high room. the needle lingers on a black band of silence. Stuck in the gap, trapped somehow in a past that people only notice in glimpses, the half-heiress waits for time to catch up with her.