Though I’d lived in the house for several years, I’d never noticed the gate located at the end of a concrete side path that led from my front door to my neighbor’s fence. I’d walked the short trail to within a few feet of the fence, where further passage was blocked by a cluster of Coyote bushes. I’d wondered at its purpose – a paved path to nowhere – but never for long.
It was just another oddity in a property full of them. Hoses randomly snaked from one place to another, attached to nothing; neat piles of firewood decayed far from any place to burn them, as if waiting to be lit as signal fires; stray bits of metal and plastic, some recognizably hardware, most unidentifiably shaped, periodically emerged from the dirt, like cicadas heeding a soundless call.
Now, leaning squinty-eyed into the Coyote bushes, I could make out a door outlined in the fence, thinly covered by a tangle of Wisteria. Brown-rusted hinges camouflaged themselves against the weathered wood.
“Huh,” I said out loud. “Curious.”
A few days later, as I lingered on the path to admire a handful of succulents I’d just planted, a thought bubble drifted into my head and popped softly. The fence gate, the path, they’d been placed intentionally, concrete evidence of a relationship between the two properties, one sufficiently strong to merit undertaking a modest construction project to link them together.
I rolled the insight over my tongue. The woman who sold me the house, and then promptly died, had spoken bitterly about her next-door neighbor.
“Not trustworthy,” she said. “Better to stay away.”
I hadn’t probed further, filing the admonishment in my mental folder marked, “people, places, things to avoid.” It’s one of my favorite files. Everything in it marks someone or someplace with whom or which I don’t have to engage, not even think about. A responsibility relief.
My few interactions with the neighbor reinforced the former owner’s advice. I’d encountered her a handful of times. An elderly woman with hair badly dyed blonde, as if she’d tie-dyed it by knotting together various strands and then dipping her head into a metal bucket filled with yellow paint. Her voice came first, announcing her impending appearance, a screech to “stop that noise” or “I’m calling the sheriff” loosely directed at the distant sound of a chainsaw, or more fiercely at my gardener’s hammering in an irrigation system. The last time she materialized, shouting from her deck, she was wearing something akin to a patched together burka – a veil that looked like it was fashioned from a well-used kitchen rag; floppy hat; muumuu-style housecoat – which I took to be pandemic-wear. For all I knew, she worn it all the time, protection against any number of lurking ills.
When I first moved into the house, I tried my best to be friendly with other neighbors, introducing myself as they walked by with their dogs, asking the right questions about the weather, or where to buy groceries. I discovered that mentioning my property’s former owner, who’d lived there for more than 40 years, had the opposite effect of “open sesame.” It stopped conversation entirely or caused an uncomfortable shift. The neighbors looked towards their feet, or over my shoulder, before quickly saying their goodbyes. The longest verbal reaction I received was, “Yes. Harriet. A complicated person,” followed by the sound of someone walking away, yanking at their dog’s leash.
Once I discovered the reaction I could elicit just by dropping her name, I used it like a weapon.
“Did you know Harriet?” “I bought Harriet’s house!” “You don’t know me, but perhaps you knew Harriet!?”
I’d lean in after launching the query, happily anticipating the tiny explosion I hoped to glimpse within my target’s eyes, which tickled a deliciously deep memory of long-ago spats with my younger brother. I was disappointed when they had no idea who I was talking about.
I’d made few friends. No one who might be able to solve the fence-gate mystery. No one, except perhaps Jo-Jo.
Jo-Jo was the neighborhood’s oldest living resident. His body seemed to have morphed into a shape more turtle than human; tough leathery skin, a kind of shell-like hump on his back that forced a permanent 20-degree bend. My previous attempts at conversation, which were mostly directed at the fluffy white hair that covered the top of his head, Chia Pet-style, had failed, but not for the usual reasons. He was close to deaf. Only the stealthiest of words, uttered in exactly the right pitch, seemed equipped to sneak past his aged aural defenses.
I found him, twice-bent, weeding his front yard at a sloth-like speed.
“Hi, Jo-Jo!” I yelped, keeping a respectful distance. No response.
“Jo-JO,” I tried again, modulating my voice to mimic an adolescent boy in mid-puberty.
Jo-Jo wobbled mostly upright, eyes sparkly beneath caterpillar brows. He smiled, gave a half-wave, and slow dived back to his previous position.
“UmMMM, could I ASK you a QuesTION?”
He nodded as he slowly ascended.
“Did YOU know HARRiet, the woman I bought MY HOUSE from?”
Something flashed in his eyes. He kept nodding, though the motion could have been his head relocating its balance after he stood up.
I paused, not sure how to best formulate my question. “Um, DID she get A long with her NEIGHBOR? I MEAN, THERE’S a path between HARRIET’s, um, MY, property and a gate in the FENCE NEXTDOOR…”
Jo-Jo looked at me, his head bobbling. His eyes shone like a bird of prey, or a brilliant star at the bottom of a very deep well.
“The path was well used,” he said, in a strikingly clear baritone. “Then, in time, it wasn’t.” He smiled amiably, gave an exhausted wave, and slowly bent back to his task, dismissing me.
WTF, I almost said out loud. If I wanted a cheap Yoda substitute I’d go to the Zen Center, or scroll through Tik Tok.
I wanted to shout at him, to demand a better answer.
“THANK YOU,” I screamed. “SEE YOU LATER.”
I slow walked back home, cursing myself for taking an interest in something. Still, I couldn’t let it go. Once an item was out of my no-responsibility folder it was almost impossible to stuff it back in. It lay there, sharp-edged, pricking at my mind.
I picked up my pace, and soon found myself at my neighbor’s front door. I raised my hand to knock, pausing in mid-air like a Black power salute. A couple of crows cawed behind me. I started to turn towards them when the door burst open.
My neighbor stood in the threshold, in full faux burka, only her eyes visible above the rag-veil. I could see hurt in them, which snapped to anger. We stood, silent, looking at one another.
I cleared my throat. “Um. Hi. I live next door,” I stammered. “I was wondering. Did you know the former owner, Harriet?”
Something shifted in my neighbor’s eyes. They softened. She opened her mouth slightly, as if to speak, and then frowned. Another moment passed. I smiled, first weakly, then, mustering all my strength, as warmly as I could. She took a deep breath, and gently sighed.
“I thought I knew Harriet,” she finally said, her voice hoarse. “But it turns out I didn’t.”
She stepped back and shut the door.
The story of the path and gate, placed long ago and then abandoned, is still hidden, at least from me. I haven’t seen or heard my neighbor since I encountered her at her door. Though things are quieter, I miss her occasional angry screams.
I regularly pass Jo Jo’s house. When he’s in his yard he waves me by, like a traffic cop ensuring proper flows.
It bugs me, the not knowing. As I take my daily walks around the neighborhood I chant to myself – path, gate, closed, path, gate, closed – as if by cracking open the words themselves would reveal the mystery. I experiment with different accents, emphasis; PATH, gate, ClOsed, which I’m tempted to take to Jo Jo, but don’t. I like the sounds that can be shaped from “path” and “gate;” “closed” makes me feel sad, or angry. I work the word harder, then softer, elongating it, experimenting with its feel.
If I see a gate on one block or another I’d previously not noticed I often stop and examine it carefully, eying the vegetation to measure its frequency of use. Sometimes someone comes out. We strike up a conversation, about the weather, or their garden. I never ask them about Harriet. But I want to.