I might be the only person I know that puts his laundry out on the line to dry. There’s a dryer on the back porch beside the communal washing machine, but I never use it. I like how I can hang it up, and forget about it. Hours later, when I remember, there it is, dry and waiting.
We have no alley on my street. The back fence I share with the neighbor on the next street over is a simple wire hurricane fence, but in their yard is a dense stand of bamboo, so thick that I can’t see their house. All I know about them is their dog. Peachy. He’s a spry but quiet little dachshund who always comes pushing through the bamboo to watch me string up my wet clothes. He sits there patiently, studiously. On those occasions when I hear some guy on the otherside of the bamboo call Peachy by name, the little guy begins wagging his tail, and it is only with forced deliberation that he manages to break away from the show (meaning me) and push his way back home, toward the voice.
Today, I was unpinning from the line a black dress shirt that I needed for tomorrow’s job interview. It was a windy autumn day, and when a strong gust rolled into my back yard, I found myself looking toward Peachy to see if he might be entertained by the pecan and cottonwood leaves I could feel playing around my ankles. But, no, he kept his eyes fixed on me. Well, on my hands. And as I notice his head shift, I also saw a black form move past my ear. It was my shirt, billowing up into Peachy’s bamboo. It cleared the fence and tangled up there just long enough for Peachy to catch his breath in amazement, jaws agape; I could hear the shallow intake of breath. And then the shirt fell down beside the dog. The silence was broken by the clatter of a pecan falling on to my tin roof. Peachy snapped up the shirt, and they were both gone. And it was silent. Not even the leaves stirred.
I called, softy. “Peachy! Here, boy!” Just the way his master called. I tried louder. And even louder. But nothing.
I was wearing shorts and slip-on Vans without socks. I cautiously got up on the fence, trying to keep my legs from the wire metal prongs on top. I made the mistake of reaching out to steady myself on a sprig of bamboo. I went down fast. But the ground was soft. I made sure no one had seen, and I pushed my way carefully through the bamboo.
Coming into the open of my neighbor’s yard was like an H. Rider Haggard novel, where the hero pushes back some jungle plant and sees the inexplicable Lost City of Whatever. I marveled at the beautiful thick grass. A lush stand of ferns beneath the shade of a grapevine arbor. A line of manicured loquat trees. And most amazing or all, a swimming pool. I had no idea this Shangri-La was here. My backyard had little more than nettles, dandelions, and a rusted Webber grill.
I spied Peachy sitting on an Adirondack chair with a cushioned seat. He had my shirt up there with him, draped across this forepaws. I moved slowly, so as not to cause him to think it was a game.
When I was about ten feet away, I had this trifecta of sensory input. They all happened pretty much at the same time. I smelled burning clove. I heard the reverb guitar from Donavan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” buzzing from tiny speakers. And I saw a slim young man barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt reclined in his own Adirondack chair, wearing blue-tinted glasses, headphones, and smoking a black clove cigarette. He had his eyes closed and was nodding his head to the music.
I suddenly realized I was crouched down, practically on all fours on the grass, coaxing a dog with kissing noises, while in someone else’s backyard.
I quickly stood up.
The man in the blue glasses must have had his eyes opened enough to see my movement. He slid off the headphones, pushed his glasses up on his head, and smiled at me.
“I’m so sorry. Didn’t hear you come in.”
“Um, well….” I pointed back to the bamboo. “I came over the fence.”
He kept smiling. And he waited.
“Your dog got my laundry. Well, a shirt of mine got up in your bamboo….”
The man pivoted in his chair. He remained sitting but placed his feet on the grass. He looked to his dog. “Peachy!” he said severely. “Bring it here!”
The dog leaped down, his tail thrumming. He carried the shirt to the man and laid it at his feet.
“I’m so sorry about this. My name’s Warren.”
I gave my name. We shook.
Peachy wandered over to the pool. I looked over and watched him pace along the edge near where an inflatable mattress was floating. He studied the situation for no more than five seconds, and he gave a little hop, landing on the mattress. He shot a look of satisfaction towards us, and he curled up and went to sleep.
“Is he safe on that thing?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Warren.
“I mean, you know, if he falls off….”
“Oh. Then he’ll do the dog paddle.” Warren was looking closely at my shirt. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but it looks like my little sweetie has torn it.”
“I’m sure I can fix it.”
Warren waved me off. He got up and walked to his back door. “I’ll get you fixed up in a jiff. Come with me.”
Inside the kitchen Warren introduced me to Scott, a talk gawky man with shoulder length blond hair pulled back behind his ears; and Babs, a puffy middle-aged woman wearing a chartreuse apron over a conservative pantsuit. Babs had a bouffant of airy lacquered apricot hair, and a pair of turquoise earrings large enough to be strapped around a championship wrestler’s midsection.
Scott and Babs were assembling a salad. She was brushing mushrooms, and he was slicing them with a chef’s knife.
I was announced as “the nice guy from beyond the bamboo.”
Warren leaned in to kiss Babs on the cheek. “She’s my mother,” he said sheepishly.
Scott gasped with pretend chagrin. “Make that mother-in-law!” He looked at me. “She’s my mother.” He reached out and gave a sharp slap at Warren’s ass. “And she’s the biggest fag hag in the city. But,” he said turning to me, “I’ll let you in on a little secret–”
Babs cracked a open a ginger ale can directly under Scott’s nose. He recoiled from the spume, and sneezed and cursed.
“Hey, you don’t even know what I was going to say,” he said with a soft whine.
Babs laid a hand lightly on my cheek, and as quick as it was there it was removed.
“I have so many secrets. And this son of a bitch of mine knows I treasure each and every one of them.” She shot a nasty glance to her son that wasn’t nasty at all. “And speaking a secret makes it something else. Something mundane. Gossip. Simple, tawdry gossip.”
Warren left in search of his sewing kit, and I was steered to a seat at the kitchen table with a ginger-ale and bourbon as Scott and Babs continued with their salad and entertained me with stories, mostly those concerning what a “queen” Scott’s father was.
The first time I had bourbon and ginger ale, I was eighteen and living in Worcester, Massachusetts. I’d found an apartment in an old house that had been turned into an Orthodox Jewish temple. At that time I only had the vaguest concept of the history of the sabbath goy, but it hardly mattered. My little apartment no longer had a job assigned to it. The duties once carried out by the goy tenant were now all automated, and thus I became simply the kid who rented the apartment.
There was a little patio beside the front porch with a hammock and some chairs. I used to sit out there reading and writing. The man who lived next door was with the congregation. He was quite well off, and his house was massive. Most everyone called him the Commodore. He had been in the military — the navy, I assumed. Also, he had been mayor for a decade or so in one of the outlying towns. Now, he lived a comfortable retired life. Just him and his daughter in a large house.
The Commodore’s daughter, Millie, never once spoke to me. And I believe she never had spoken to anyone. I had overheard someone from the neighborhood, a professor from over at the Polytechnic, refer to her as profoundly retarded. I took exception with that “profound” remark.
Millie lived in the coach-house behind the Commodore’s home. She seemed to be able to take care of herself well enough. She had no nurse or care-giver, and she was always clean and well dressed. Millie was maybe thirty-five. She often came over to my patio while I was reading. Sometimes she sat in one of the chairs, stiff and staring into space. But, as often, she’d just be there with me, standing, pensive, as if waiting for something. She’d only look at me if I moved or said something. But when I spoke to her she’d do nothing more than look over, acknowledging that I spoke, and drift back off to some unfocused spot.
The Commodore never came to collect his daughter. She never moved beyond the property of her house or the temple. She had no interest in the busy street out front. She made me think of a tame deer, poised to flee, but no longer needing to. When I’d go inside, she never made to follow me. She’d either wait outside, or wander back home. The Commodore never brought her to the services.
One day the Commodore invited me over to his place for dinner.
It was nothing special. He had a pizza delivered. It came from Franks, a place down the block where I often ate — also, Frank kept me supplied with pot and valiums. We sat at the table in the Commodore’s huge kitchen. He kept my glass filled with what he simply called a “highball.” It was bourbon and ginger ale, mixed perfectly to his measurements. He waited, pensively for me to finish, so he could build me another one from the ground up. None of this bullshit of “let me freshen your drink.” It was one part Old Crow whisky, three parts White Rock ginger ale. No substitutes. No deviations. And it was perfection. Like a slightly tart and earthy cotton candy that eventually bludgeons you down so that you’d twitch a bit, but you’d still marginally be human … more or less.
He had this mustache that was full and thick and I knew that were I to live to be a thousand I could never cultivate a crop like his. He made a great presentation about wiping that upper lip with the back of his hand after every deep drink from his highball glass.
The Commodore never looked at Millie, who, during my visits, was always in the doorway or seated at the kitchen table. Millie never looked at her father.
That first night when we were clinking glasses and sharing pizza, the Commodore lifted a finger solemnly — we were in the vicinity of drink number seven — and drew my attention to Millie. She was standing in the doorway to the utility room watching me.
“Millie is like a dog. Obedient, and asking so little.”
I wanted to tell him that I thought Millie was more like a cautious deer, but I wasn’t quick enough.
“Ten years ago,” he continued, “I had the foundation of the north wing jacked up to make it level again. The contractor stayed for the entire week in the coach house. Millie didn’t live out there at the time. But I soon learned that the two of them were …. How can I put this delicately?”
I looked from the Commodore to Millie, standing in the doorway.
“Do you?” the Commodore asked, tracing with a fingernail patterns on the condensation of his highball glass. “I let him stay until he finished the job. You know, the foundation.”
In my dim recollection, the conversation took a turn towards some other, miscellaneous, topic.
When the Commodore hung himself in his stairwell that winter I was a bit peeved that the cops never came next door to interview me.
Millie, I learned later, went to live in a group home outside Rutland.
Babs and Scott were asking my opinion of some reality television show I’d only vaguely heard about.
“Is that the one where they all live in the same house?”
Babs laughed and shook her head.
Scott told me: “That defines so many of them. But, yes. Yes, they live together.” He lifted up my empty glass and made to fix me another drink. I shook my head. He shrugged and continued. “Anyway, that’s where this Ice Queen, Mona, comes in.”
“What a bitch,” Babs said, hissing the final word through her teeth with terrible seriousness. “USDA whore.”
“Oh, yeah! And she’s got this poor little nebbish guy–”
“He’s a fucking postman!” said Babs with sudden enthusiasm.
“She’s got him wrapped around her pinky.”
I noticed Warren enter the kitchen with my shirt. He tilted his head, and I followed him into the front of the house. Babs and Scott kept up their banter, apparently oblivious to my absence.
“I see you survived the assault of the stereotypes,” Warren said with a smile as he looked down at the shirt in his hands. “That boy does love his mother,” he added softly, letting me see a bit of eye-rolling.
“Okay,” Warren said, turning the folded shirt toward me. “I’ve stitched it up pretty nicely. Also, your collar button was about to fall off, so I sewed it tight.”
“It looks great. Thank you so much. The only nice shirt I have.”
“Well, take a deep breath as we head back through the Babs and Scotty Show–”
“Actually, I think I’m safer not climbing that fence again. I’ll go around the block.”
He walked out the front door, and I noticed that the fence surrounding the backyard came up to the side of the house. Peachy was looking at us, wagging his tail. He completely ignored a large chow with matted hair sitting in the yard on the other side of the fence from her. I’d seen this quiet, slow-moving old dog wandering the neighborhood for at least two years.
“We call her Brownie,” Warren said of the chow. “She absolutely adores Peachy. He pretty much ignores her.”
“Life can treat you cruel,” I said. Warren lifted his hand. We shook. And I walked around the block to my house.
Warren had invited me to drop by, whenever. I’ve never took him up on it. But when I do my laundry, I still have Peachy to keep me company. And, it’s strange, but after my visit to Warren and Scott’s backyard, I hear sounds from the pool all the time. And I never did before.