Friday, July 28, 2006
In Which We See the Forest For the Trees...
"Well, it wasn't one of my guys," said the landscaper I had just collared from two houses down. We were standing in my back yard, under the shade of the aspen where the Brownie claimed to have spoken with a mysterious old man who told her to stay out of the backyard or she might get hurt.
Having recently had a traumatic few weeks during which my dog was kidnapped from this very back yard (and I had to kidnap him back), I confess I had jumped to an alarming conclusion: that this man might have been the father of WW, the guy who stole Blaze. WW lived in another state and, having recently been paroled, couldn't leave his state without going through a complicated permissions process. But what if his dad had decided to come here on his son's behalf? What if this was the beginning of a wave of terror?
In general, I love a mystery, but a mystery I can solve, you know? Not being able to confirm who this old guy was for certain was putting me in a bit of a state. So I had been grabbing every landscaping, lawn-mowing, shrub-pruning guy I could find and asking if they had an old man in overalls in their employ, someone who was maybe scouting our back yard, trying to drum up a little business trimming our hedges or limbing our trees. No one knew him, no one except the Brownie had seen him, and he certainly didn't match the description of any of our neighbors.
Come to think of it, he really didn't match the description of WW's father. The Brownie described the man she talked to as being very tall, and WW's dad was shorter than me by a good few inches, so I'd have put him at about 5-foot-7. Of course, to a little girl, that's tall.
And then, of course, I had to consider my source. The Brownie has an extremely active imagination. She talks to trees and flowers, as well as her bicycle, video game characters, and animals, stuffed and live. She's also a serious pretender, capable of imagining that, say, the giant bean bag in our family is actually my brother. And she'll maintain that conceit for hours, even days (as I'll discover when I go to sit down after dinner and she'll scream, "No Daddy! You'll sit on Uncle BB's tummy and make him go blurp!!"). Maybe this old farmer in overalls was just some Farmer Macgregor type conjured from a Beatrix Potter book and the Brownie and her fellow foxes were on the run from him.
In any event, as the week progressed, the Brownie didn't mention the man again, and nobody matching his description showed up on my property (I know because I set up my trusty wireless security cameras, the ones that came in so handy when I was under siege by my dogshit crazy neighbor). In fact, no one showed up in the back yard at all. Not even kids. As with my brother the beanbag, the Brownie was keeping up at least one pretense of her story: stay out of the back yard or you'll get hurt. How exactly someone was going to get hurt, she wasn't specific on, but Thomas became a true believer. For the rest of the week, he and the Brownie and their friends stayed in the front yard.
At least they did until Friday, when two of Thomas' friends came over for lunch. It wasn't too hot for a change, and so Her Lovely Self set out the kids' food on the table on our back porch, which is an elevated wooden deck just off the kitchen, commanding a view of the entire back yard. The Brownie hemmed and hawed and finally decided that eating lunch on the back porch wasn't the same as being out in the back yard, so she sat down to a nice lunch of cottage cheese and fresh fruit. Her Lovely Self was just pouring the lemonade, when she saw something moving out of the corner of her eye.
She looked up, just in time to watch that aspen tree fall right to the ground.
Afterwards, she told me it the oddest, most graceful thing she had ever seem. When 40-foot-tall trees topple, you expect to hear the CRACK of wood, to see the whirlwind rush of branches crashing through the air, to feel the earth shake as an object that weighs more than your car collapses to the ground.
But that's not what happened at all. Instead, the aspen just slowly leaned to the right and didn't so much fall as lie down. "It was like a giant invisible hand was gently turning it on its side," she said later. The only crack of wood was the slight snapping of two pickets on my neighbor's fence as a large branch broke them. The rest of the branches of the tree rustled a little--as if blown by a mild wind--before coming to rest on the raspberry bushes and vegetable garden right nearby.
The little area where the Brownie liked to have her picnics vanished. It was completely obscured by the trunk of the tree which, however gently it fell, turned my daughter's picnic spot into a gully of dirt. If she and her foxes had been sitting there when the tree went over, they would have been crushed to death.
And the scary part, as it turned out, was not that some stranger in my yard had apparently warned my daughter about this days earlier, it was that there was almost no way any man could have predicted this.
"I call these the handsome killers," said the tree surgeon, who came a few days to give us an estimate on grinding the stump and removing the brush. "There was absolutely no outward sign that this tree was going to fall." Then he explained to me that some trees will get sudden and fast-progressing diseases that affect some of the roots, but not all. Thus the tree will still get water and nutrients from the soil and look perfectly healthy, but meanwhile, the strongest roots, the very anchors of the tree itself, are already dead, leaving you with a handsome, half-ton pillar that with no warning could topple and destroy anything in its path.
I told the tree surgeon about the old man who had warned my daughter to stay out of the back yard. Granted, he hadn't told the Brownie that the tree was going to fall, but it was the obvious assumption to make. The tree surgeon shook his head and smiled. "Well, if that fella comes back, you give him my card. I'd hire him. He must have X-ray vision."
I've been cutting lumber since I was Thomas' age, so I set myself the task of limbing the tree and cutting it down to the stump. Not only would it save me a few hundred dollars, it was a good bit of exercise, especially for my injured wrist (just recently removed from its splint).
Besides, it's not often I get to use my chain saw, and there's just something wonderfully, ridiculously satisfying about propping yourself on a stump with your chainsaw and surveying your handiwork.
The Brownie watched thoughtfully from the back deck as her little picnic area became a rather bright, bare, open spot.
"Are you sad to see your tree go, honey?" I asked as I laid the branches into neat brush piles.
"No," she said, looking around the yard. "Foxo and I can always picnic over under play fort." She paused. "Daddy?" she asked.
"Yes?" I asked, getting back to my work.
"Do you think the man I saw was the bad man who had Blazey?"
I shook my head. I still thought he probably was some itinerant worker wandering through people's yards, looking to drum up work. It really happens all the time in our neighborhood. Indeed, over the two evenings it took me to finish my work on the tree, no less than three men ambled through and offered unsolicited estimates to do more tree or yard work on my property. Alas, none of them was an old man in overalls. I'd have given him the work. Hell, I'd have given him a drink for saving my daughter's life.
"Who do you think he was, honey?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I don't know." She paused. "God, maybe?"
I smiled and shrugged right back at her.
As I said before, I love a mystery.
While I prefer mysteries I can solve, I also know there are some mysteries you'll just never get to the root of.
And maybe that's exactly how it should be.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Thursday, July 27, 2006
In Which There is More Trouble in the Back Yard...
And so the rest of the summer passed uneventfully.
Okay, the next three weeks, anyway.
Wounds healed, routines were restored, what excitement there was to be had was had in ways that perfectly befit summer: I took Thomas to his first major league ballgame; we spent a stupid amount of money at amusement parks, we made plans for end-of-summer trips and back-to-school shopping.
Then, just when I thought things were well and truly settled down, the Brownie came bursting into the house one day and in short order I was reminded just whose life I was living.
The early moments of the event are sketchy. I remembered that Thomas and Her Lovely Self were the next block over, watering plants for a vacationing neighbor. I remembered that Blaze went with them. And I remembered that it was morning, a weekday morning, and I was taking a half-day from work. Which is to say I was nowhere near conscious when my daughter tromped in through the back door, carrying all her foxes and a picnic blanket with her. In the summer, she likes to have picnics with her animals, see, usually out under the leafy aspen on our side yard, especially in the cool of the early morning or evening. It's a quiet, secret-garden kinda place with good shade. Perfect spot for a little girl to hang out and have an imaginary bitch session with her foxes, right?
Evidently not this morning.
"Back so soon?" I asked, looking up from whatever the hell I was doing, probably trying to navigate a spoonful of sugar into a cup full of coffee. "Too hot already? Bees bugging you?" I asked. It had been getting heat-wave-warm earlier and earlier this month, and my daughter had been known to cancel picnics on account of heat, or bees (the foxes don't like either, you see).
The Brownie looked over at me. "Nope," she answered matter-of-factly, dumping her foxes into a handy beanbag. "We just came in. The man told us to."
Whatever the hell I was doing, it must have been pretty engaging, because it was several seconds before I summoned the presence of mind to ask the obvious question. When I finally did say, "Oh? What man, honey?" it was already rhetorical. This was a mid-week morning, a common time for landscapers and tree trimmers and such folk to be puttering about the yards of my neighbors. Sometimes they have to run a large, sharp, piece of machinery or spray some deadly toxin on neighboring dandelions, and when they do, they courteously warn whoever might be nearby. Surely someone like this had just told the Brownie to stand clear.
"The old man under my tree," she answered, arranging her foxes just so in the beanbag. "He said if I came back out there, I would get hurt."
Well, it wouldn't have mattered then if I had been engrossed in open heart surgery. When you've had the kind of month I've had, and you hear your 5-year-old girl tell you that an unidentified man standing under one of your trees has just warned her not to come back out or else she'll get hurt, you drop what you're doing and you pick up something else.
In my case, it was my trusty cricket bat, which I used to keep under my bed (don't ask, I just did, okay?) but now keep in the front closet, within easy reach of the door.
On my way back through the front hall, I paused at the dining room window, which gave me a partial view of the mighty aspen where the Brownie had just spoken to the stranger. It's a dark little grove that tree makes. The branches have been hanging especially low this year and that's deliberate: partly because they enhance the shade, and partly because I've been a little too busy the past, oh, two years, to actually go over to the side of my own house and trim them.
Now I wish I had. I couldn't see anyone.
I poked my head back around the kitchen door. Over in the family room, the Brownie had re-established her all-fox picnic--this time in front of the sofa--and seemed to take no note of my alarmed state.
"Honey, there's no man out there," I said. "Was he working in the neighbor's yard?"
She looked up. "No. I was having a picnic under the tree and he was just right there all sudden."
"Did he touch you? Did he--?"
"No," she said, slightly elongating the vowel sound, her first warning that she was clearly beginning to lose interest in the conversation. "He was just leaning on the tree. He was nice."
"What did he look like?"
Now the Brownie stopped fussing with her foxes and thought a moment. "He was big. He was like a giant," she said at last. "He had old hair (by this she meant white hair) and glasses. Oh, and he was dressed up like a farmer."
"You mean he was wearing green?" I asked, thinking for some reason of old Mr. Greenjeans from the Capt. Kangaroo TV show. But I also remembered one local lawn maintenance company dressed their employees in uniforms that more or less matched the vivid, unnatural shade of green their special chemical mix so often produced in my neighbors' lawns. "So he was in green clothes like the lawn guys?" I asked again.
"Noooooo," she exhaled. "He had a white shirt and farmer pants that come up the front." And she made a gesture that suggested suspenders of some kind. I frowned. Sure didn't sound like the Chem Lawn guy.
Then I understood.
And a wave of fear drenched me like a sudden waterfall.
"Overalls? You mean he was wearing overalls?" I asked weakly.
The Brownie nodded and went back to her indoor picnic.
An old guy wearing glasses and bib overalls.
There was only one man I'd seen dressed like that in the past few weeks: the man who owned a farm some 500 miles away. The man who kept an unregistered puppy farm on his premises. The man who I knew as the father of my nemesis, WW.
Fully awake now, I bolted into the kitchen and set the timer on the microwave for 5 minutes, then handed the Brownie the phone. "If I'm not back when that buzzer goes off, you know what to do," I said. She grabbed the phone like it was a great prize and nodded eagerly. I used to worry about making my kids overly anxious by going over the family emergency plans--you know, the usual What We Do In Case of Fire/Bad Guys/Daddy Knocks Himself Out--but the Brownie lives for these moments. She's a girl of action. Plus I think some part of her secretly wants to call 911 and tell the dispatcher that her father has brained himself on some low-hanging pipe.
"Now lock the doors behind me," I said. Then I was gone.
My neighbors are well used to watching me make a spectacle of myself, but even they were surprised to see me in my state that morning. Granted, I was still wearing my pajamas--a pair of boxer shorts and my t-shirt bearing the legend "Nice bongos"--and my hair was sticking straight up like someone who had just escaped a halfway house for hair product abusers. And of course I had the cricket bat, high over my head as I vaulted the front porch railing and pelted barefoot around the corner of the house to where the aspen sat.
I'd like to think that any man standing laconically under one of my trees, telling vaguely threatening things to my daughter, would have been a little startled to see me. I'd like to think I'd have gotten off one really good swing (and let me tell you, if you had to compose a list of things to have laid upside your head, a cricket bat would go way down at the bottom. It's flat, it gives maximum thwack, and it hurts like a mad bastard).
Except no one was there.
For a brief moment, I felt this odd, hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck chill, like I had just stepped into a forbidden forest. But it was just a little spot of shade on the side yard and in a moment it was pretty obvious no man was crouched there in the shade, trying to hide. I peered over my neighbor's fence, craning around, looking for a landscaper, a lawn mower, a meter reader. Nobody.
I was completely alone in my back yard.
And I haven't even gotten to the strangest part yet…
Sunday, July 23, 2006
In Which the Knuckle Dragger Surrenders Control to Someone More Adroit...
Yes well, as the human returns to his own vomit, so I find myself once more taking to the keyboard. But I stand before you a changed dog. I won't belabor the details. His Verbose Self, a 100 percent purebred Glory Hound if ever there was one, has regaled you with his exploits. And if the truth must be told, I don't have it within me to denigrate him (though he so often invites abuse and it would be rude not to accept the invitation).
You hear every so often about pets traversing great distances to be reunited with their families, but it's not often that you hear the reverse happening. I fear that this time I owe the Man a debt I can never fully repay. For once, he listened to the Girl (she sensed that I was alive, if not well. Of this more at another time) and cast aside his bananas long enough to find me. There are not words--in his tongue or mine--to express my gratitude.
Not to him, of course. But to you. For your well wishes, but also for your great good deed, which arrived in the form of this touching email:
Dear Magazine Man,
In honor of your astonishingly heroic rescue of Blaze, we, your readers, have contributed a donation to the ASPCA. We sincerely believe that your tale is a lesson for all... for all time. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for your astonishing effort and angelic inspiration.
Chuck Mann (whose idea this was in the first place)
Geek's Girl (and family including the furry, four-legged member)
The Man has linked you to your respective blogs where he knows for pretty-near certain who you are. If he got it wrong and your blog is not listed here--for example, cyber Lothario that he is, The Man apparently has had electronic congress with at least two Tamaras, and a host of Merediths and Marilyns--please, please, oh for the love of Dog please cease his anxious bleating about linking to the wrong person or snubbing anyone by accident: Email your link and you will be added to the list.
And if you did not want your name listed, I apologize in advance. I also blame The Man, and suggest you direct your emails of ire to him that he might preserve your anonymity. Just understand that he knows you did not do this for recognition, but he would be a cur of the lowest breeding indeed if he did not celebrate your love and kindness in some way, howsoever small it might be.
For my part, even if I were not a dog, I would be speechless. This generous gesture on our behalf is nothing short of an Absolute Good and it makes me want to roll on the floor and expose my belly to you all.
But if you did not partake in this fine gesture, do not feel bad. Your thoughts and prayers these past few weeks did a great deal to buoy us, not to mention light a fire under the tail of The Man.
I will not soon forget it. Neither will he.
Henceforth, you are--all of you--members of the pack.
That is all.
Except to thank one more fellow--Sir James of Blogwick, whose artful banner was a true inspiration and, with his kind permission, will now have a permanent place here, over to your right, where it shall henceforth denote the most exciting area of this blog. Which would be the collected stories featuring,
Your Humble Servant,
Blazey BHBBBD (nee Blaise)