Wednesday, July 13, 2005


CATEGORY: Every day survival

Mostly houses are secret places. We surround them with well tended lawns and tiny fences and color coordinated flowers, but inside life grows wild.

Last night, I was walking my dogs. We took our usual route, looping past rows of secret houses, contained gardens and uncontainable lives. Jade and Starski explored with their noses; I inhaled the night and thought about my unfinished novel, my usual preoccupations.

Outside one such house, a familiar, but largely unknown neighbor, climbed out of his jeep. I have long admired his orderly yard, his blond children, the scent of family barbecues and the laughter that sometimes wafted through the air when I passed. While my dogs sniffed his petunias, I offered my usual perfunctory greeting, adding a meaningless "How are you tonight?"

The only trouble was that he really wanted to answer the question. How am I? he repeated, walking toward me, one hand raking his thick hair. Not good. Not good at all. The house would be on the market soon, and he didn't know where he was going.

By then, my dogs were tugging at their leashes. An extended stop, a genuine conversation was not in the program. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said.

Last week was my twenty first anniversary, and my wife surprised me with a divorce.

Again, I murmured my regrets. I would miss them in the neighborhood, I said, though my words must have seemed as empty as his future looked at that moment. I had never really known them.

He took a step backward, reestablishing the distance between us. If you know anyone who's looking to buy a house...

"Not off hand, but I'll think about it."

From the window, a girl of about ten peered out at us, but when she caught me looking, the shade snapped shut.

I continued my walk, but I was no longer thinking about the number of words I'd written in my novel. I was thinking of the secret life, the private longings and unknown sorrows that exist behind the walls of every house I passed.


Sharon Hurlbut said...

When I was in high school, training with the cross-country team, I loved to peer at the houses we passed on our route. We often ran the streets of an older section of town, filled with Craftsman-style cottages and expansive Victorians, as well as the occasional block of tiny brick rowhouses. I always wondered what was going on inside them, what stories they held and who the characters were. Your post reminds me of those times.

I love the way you captured body language in this - it took me right there to that awkward scene with you.

This is very thought-provoking, vivid, and a bit heartbreaking. I know I'll be paying closer attention on my walks from now on. Thanks!

Patry Francis said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sharon, and for sharing your old cross country route.

Patty said...

This scene is beautifully rendered. I could see every gesture, smell the manicured lawns, hear the mumuring of TV's in parlors.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder what goes on in the houses and apartments in our area. Secret lives that's for certain. I enjoyed the vividness of this piece and felt I was there watching it all unfold.

Roger Stevens said...

Did you think afterwards that maybe you should have stayed a few minutes longer? The guy obviously wanted to tell someone all about it.

You can tag me if you'd like.

Patry Francis said...

That's an interesting question, Roger, and really I would have liked to talk to him a few minutes longer. But he was the one to take a step backward and establish neutral ground...and then there was that child watching from the window; the front door wide open and his wife's car in the driveway.

Melly said...

A very nice post. Perfect example of 'show don't tell.'

Very sad too.

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