Five Houses Down

Remember to close your curtains after dark. If I’m passing by an open window, I’m going to slow down and see what I can see. Though I’ve been rewarded enough through the years to continue indulging my guilty pleasure, it matters not what someone might be doing. It’s just that I’m curious about what’s going on whether driving by a lonely house on a dark country road or gazing at all the neighboring windows from a high-rise hotel room.

Is someone on the phone? What are they talking about? Are those people having a party? Why are all the lights on in that house on the hill with only one car parked in front? The house over there is completely dark at 8:00 every night. What do the occupants do each day that requires them to get up so early? Every residence triggers a long list of questions and provides hours of speculation.

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The immaculate house a few doors down. Lacking curb appeal, I’m left to wonder what the owners do all day.

The fifth house east of my childhood home has fascinated me for decades. My mother once remarked that the little white house standing back from the road was so well kept; yet she never saw anyone outside. Keep in mind that we couldn’t see the house from half a mile away unless whizzing by it in our rush to reach the highway, but one would think in 40 years that we’d see someone in the front yard at some point.

Except for meticulously trimmed boxwoods to camouflage the front steps, there are only four other small plants along the front, which do nothing to mask the raised foundation. There are no grand flowerbeds, no colorful borders, nothing to be mowed around or anything to please the eye. The owners are clearly not trying to attract attention or provide visual interest.

In a real estate listing, the smallish dwelling might be described as “cozy” or “quaint” or “meticulous,” but this well-maintained abode raises so many questions in my mind. In an area outside of television cable service, there’s not a satellite dish attached to the slightly pitched roof, and speaking of roofs, I’ve never known this house to need a new one. The white shingles are always in good shape. The lawn is never out of control, but in more than four decades, I’ve never seen anyone mowing it. There are no trees on the front of the lot, and those four plants along the front would take no more than ten minutes to prune, and that would include getting out the tools and putting them away.

There is no barn or garden shed, and the carport, which was added later, no longer has a car in the drive, nor is there anything else stored in it. My last trip to the neighborhood had me slowing down. There was a vehicle in the drive as I passed on the way to see my parents, but there were no cars on the place during the rest of my stay.

I believe someone lives there, and they have the means to keep the place up, but my casual research indicates these people do not enjoy gardening, being outside, watching TV, or getting involved with the neighbors. The backyard is unfenced, there are no pets running toward the road, the house faces north, and some of the windows are high, which indicates limited natural light.

It’s true that I haven’t been around much in decades, but when I was younger, I went by that house at least twice a day. There were never additional cars on holidays, no kids playing in the yard, and there were certainly no eye-popping light displays. These people didn’t even light a candle in the front window.

In my imagination, these two people—perhaps now only one—have been sitting in the dark for almost 50 years discussing anything but gardening, animals, food, exotic travel, and whatever is coming on television tonight.

When I was six, my sister took me trick-or-treating after a battle over my last-minute costume. I liked the idea of dressing up and going out, but I was never keen on asking people to give me candy, which has resulted in my becoming one of those adults who doesn’t like asking for help.

We’d just moved in a couple of months earlier, and perhaps we saw a porch light and mistook its meaning. Dad drove us, and Karen walked me to the door. That Halloween night was the one and only time I’ve ever gotten close to the house though I have passed it thousands of times. The lady of the house dropped pennies into my bag while her husband complimented my costume.

The lack of candy on hand indicated they weren’t expecting trick-or-treaters. I was surely the only kid they’d had that year or perhaps ever. I can recall the husband facing me, standing on his wife’s right, and I think she had blond hair. It could’ve been gray. I have always remembered them being “really old,” but I was six and anyone over 35 could have admitted to being 40 or 70 and I would have believed them. Considering how much time has passed, they couldn’t have been too old that night if either of them are still living in the house and keeping it up.

I was more focused on the coins the lady dropped into my bag. I was ready to reconsider my stance on begging if every knock on the door resulted in cold, hard cash. Because I was blinded by filthy lucre, I missed a wonderful opportunity to steal a glance inside a house that has haunted my imagination for decades. I can’t very well go to the door now and introduce myself as that six year-old kid who came trick-or-treating one time over 40 years ago. The sight of my gray hair would shock them into realizing how long they have been sitting in there night after night as the years became decades and faded into the past. I’ve lost my window of opportunity to know what they’ve been doing in there all this time.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Seek and Ye Shall Find

A notification recently appeared in my in-box calling for short stories. One of the preferred topics was One’s Crazy Family Members. I was disappointed to learn that only one submission at a time would be considered, as I could probably send 300 pages to them and still not begin to scrape the surface.

A few of my family members have always feared I’d write about them. Their assumptions have been correct. If some aspect of their lives is worth reading about, they should consider how interesting they are. However, no one has complained so far, but people see themselves differently than others do. I’ve not experienced anyone walking over to me at a family gathering and yelling, “I don’t appreciate your telling the whole world what a terrible driver I am!” For one reason, the person in question has great faith in his driving skills. The other reason I’ve never been accosted is my decades-long absences from family reunions. In most cases, I tend to stick with material and people who can’t get their hands on me without holding a séance.

Writing about the dead is a lot more fun. I don’t have to censor my words, I can build up or tear down the plot without worrying what Great-Aunt Maudelle would say if she read about that time her granddaughter danced on the tables at an OSU frat party. When the guilty are still alive, I have to change OSU to SMU and make everyone a Methodist to lend them a sense of decorum.

I recently submitted my DNA for testing. A close relative had already told me that her results were as white and bland as a cotton bed sheet, having not revealed so much as a hushed-up secret marriage or a passenger on a boat load of prisoners coming from England. After my results were posted, I was contacted by a verified “fourth cousin or closer” whose ancestry contains a number of regions on the globe outside of “Great Britain, Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula.”

I am intrigued by the various reasons people explore genealogy. Some are looking to connect with distant relatives while some closet royalists seem to be searching for that shred of evidence that put 7th Grandmother Elspeth into the King’s bedchamber circa 1539. A lesser noble would do, preferring dukes and earls to knights, but few researchers seem to realize that such distant and unseemly ties to the sovereign will not get you into the royal enclosure at Ascot.

I do think there are some interesting stories that turn up from time to time. Some friends have turned up a variety of characters while others get a greater sense of how their families ended up in the United States. I found a document indicating that some centuries old uncle had enough of a gambling problem that the man’s father-in-law had to make specific exclusions in his will to protect his daughter’s interests.

I suspect a great deal of genealogical motivation falls under the category Greener Pastures. Having spent a lifetime with the same old faces staring back at them from across the Thanksgiving table, a segment of researches are hoping their luck might be better with a new set of cousins. The pontificating egghead and his cousin who spends her time repurposing used bleach bottles into apparel eye each other with disdain. “We have nothing in common,” they tell their friends. “Nothing. Nada. Zilch.” But family is so important.

Rather than treating close friends as though they were family, the professor and the bleach bottle milliner much prefer blood relations. They get on the computer, sign in and desperately start searching for better relatives in Nebraska. As they both joined the same genealogical research site, their best matches turn out to be each other. There are a few other matches, but they’re secondary. The researchers are desperate and reach out to the rancher in Arizona and the dental hygienist in Michigan. Those people are either too buy, too uninterested, or too satisfied with their relatives to respond to an urgent inquiry by someone claiming to the child of a great-great-grandmother’s sister.

I enjoy a peak into possibilities, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular pastime. I was cured of any such cousin curiosity after hearing that I had relatives out there who owned a sporting goods store in New York. I got it all wrong. I was thinking New York, weekends in the Hamptons, sailboats, polo mallets, and gins and tonic in the clubhouse only to find out they were upstate and catered to more of a fur-trapping-on-the-Hudson clientele. Sometimes you leave home only to find out that you never had to.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Eclipsed

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By permission, and with appreciation, this is Ben Lester’s photograph of the eclipse on August 21, 2017, as seen in Oregon’s Path of Totality.

Ten days before his death in 1940, Edward Frederic Benson, author of Dodo, The Blotting Book, Mrs. Ames, the Mapp & Lucia novels, and a host of ghost stories, delivered a final autobiography to his publishers. The cleverly named Final Edition reveals a number of secrets and memories the author felt it was time to share. He wrote about his mother, widow of one of Queen Victoria’s Archbishops of Canterbury, her companion, his siblings, and various friends. He was the last family member to survive, as he had no children, nieces, or nephews. Such a fate meant his getting to write what he pleased without censorship.

Among the anecdotes, some of which drag on for pages, I enjoyed the opening of chapter five where he described a “total or nearly total eclipse of the sun” that he experienced with his brother Hugh in August 1914.

Benson’s brother, an ordained priest, had converted to Roman Catholicism in spite of being a son of a Protestant Archbishop, and he was awaiting a response to find out if he would be serving as Chaplain to Catholics on the Western Front of World War I. Benson wrote that they checked the bible and found that “the darkening of the sun was not a phenomenon allocated to Armageddon, but to the Day of Judgment, something final and apocalyptic was clearly at hand.”

The two men found the eclipse most interesting and gazed “at the reflection of the diminishing orb on the surface of a bucket of water, where it could be regarded without bedazzlement. The heat of the summer morning was chilled, the circular spots of light filtering through the foliage of the Penzance Briar became crescent-shaped as the eclipse increased: the birds chirruped as in the growing dusk of evening and went to roost. Then through the darkness and silence there sounded the crackle of gravel under the bicycle of a boy from the post office with a telegram for Hugh. It was to tell him that Pope Pius X was dead. This added to the sense of doom and finality.”

By comparison, Jerry Lewis’s death didn’t carry the same weight when it came to portents in the 2017 eclipse this week. We also have advanced warnings of solar and lunar events with certainly more precision than I suspect they had a hundred years ago. Therefore, we were able to plan the day and drive over to a nearby hilltop where one can see four volcanoes in a single panoramic spread: Mounts Jefferson, Hood, Adams and St. Helens.

We didn’t take a bucket of water, even though the sight of a crescent on its surface would have been interesting, but a bottle of sparkling wine and our ISO approved sun-gazing glasses. Being more than 50 miles north of the Path of Totality, we didn’t experience total darkness, but certainly in the moments before totality, a breeze began blowing and the bright sunlight of a warm August morning dimmed to the point that the outdoor lights on the farmhouses below us came on.

In the cool duskiness, had it been night we’d have remarked about the brilliance of a full moon brighter than we’d ever seen, but knowing it was the sun with only a small percentage of its light shining down on us, we marveled at our star’s ability to light the earth while mostly blocked out.

In those short minutes, we gazed at the sky then at our surroundings, remarking how vital is the sun for life on this planet. Once we noticed the moon’s movement, a rooster crowed in the distance, some small birds took flight overhead, and then there was the “crackle of gravel” as cars drove off the hill. We waited for everyone to leave as the heat built and the light returned.

Benson made a few more mentions of contemporary fears in 1914, the idea that if one needed to identify the antichrist, the German Kaiser would have fit the bill, and how a sense of foreboding was connected to a total eclipse. Such attitudes seem strange to me in an age where there were already motorcars and electric lights, but in the pre-television age of World War I, the moon landing was still over a half-century in the future. In fact, the Space Age wouldn’t begin until after a second world war had ended.

What has changed in a century? The Internet, self-driving cars, personal telephones, endless news cycles, and a global economy, but more importantly, what hasn’t changed? There are still madmen terrorizing the planet, marching armies, and displaced refugees.

We have embraced technology, we have gained a greater understanding of space, and we recognize the science behind an eclipse. Why, then, do we continually fail to learn the lessons of peace and love?

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

It’s Me Again

My conversation of late has been limited to writing, gardening, and what’s for dinner. For that reason, I’ve done my best to stay in the forest and avoid making people roll their eyes at yet another discussion of Murdered Justice, what heroine Maggie Lyon is going to do next, how the garden is growing, and what is trying to eat everything in it.

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Murdered Justice by Patrick Brown is available from W&B Publishers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

To catch you up, I’ve received a lot of nice feedback on Murdered Justice, and I’ve been typing away on the sequel and neglecting One More Thing to Read in the process. I hope to have Pennington’s Hoax (the proposed title) in the publisher’s hands by Labor Day, and though I’m prejudiced, I like where the inquisitive Maggie Lyon is headed next. If all goes well, there will be a third book in the series, and after I finish my latest round of research, I hope to have an outline for it by November so that I can escape the winter weather and dive once again into Maggie’s dangerous world.

As with most things I do, life’s lesson is patience and timing, and the garden teaches me daily that regardless of my intentions, the natural order will win every time. I may plan for the book’s characters to go in one direction, but as their personalities are revealed, I realize they will do as they wish without considering my feelings just as Nature takes place without any concern for my efforts in prodding it along.

I’ve been reporting my disappointments and small triumphs to gardening friends for months, and after long stretches of complaining, most of the garden started showing promise in July. The hibiscus seeds that Carolyn sent finally sprouted and started to grow. I can’t wait for the blooms even if I have to wait until next summer! The cuttings from Anne took root, the wild seeds I sprinkled late last summer made two nice patches of foxglove, which will bloom next year, and the forsythia have doubled in size. It seems that next year is the time for results.

We’re not the only ones enjoying the garden this summer. A nomadic young doe comes through once a week with her fawn, and a few of the rabbit families continue to multiply while others in their colony go missing. The scene is similar to a live-action Disney film if you aren’t worried about having your hard work trampled and eaten. There are a few improvised wire enclosures to keep hungry animals off the new plants, and the rabbits’ dislike for tomatoes and cucumber vines seems to be true. However, the newest little one likes to explore the borders and tear up leaves as it cavorts. Adorable, but be cute somewhere else.

It could be my imagination, but training rabbits to mind the boundaries while they’re young seems to help. The 2016 rabbits stayed out of my way, and grew into fearless adults. I could almost catch one if I wanted, and there have been moments in recent days when I would like to have, but this latest baby has taken respectful notice of my presence. For the first few weeks of its life, it peeked out from time to time, wary of open spaces and the birds of prey that patrol them at all hours. Lately, the little darling has grown braver, occasionally straying into forbidden territory. Those are the moments I storm out of the house, down the hill and wave something large like a jacket that I’m hoping resembles a raptor’s wingspan to something small and low to the ground. I feel a tinge of guilt for making it neurotic until I glance over at the assaulted irises. Doubling as a living scarecrow seems to be working on rabbits, but not on the deer.

These larger mammals have decided I’m some strange being that makes unconvincing animal sounds while gesticulating wildly, as if my presence is for their mealtime entertainment. Loud noises and quick advances no longer get a startled reaction as they did in June. Mama stands her ground, staring at me as her growing infant hides behind her to see what I’ll do next. Her expressionless gaze was fixed on me last week while standing in the fireweed and taking a good-sized munch out of some blooms, as if doing so were none of my business. She’s become like a lethargic cow that’s used to human contact.

I tried waving the jacket. I clapped my hands. I pretended to run at them, but they just watched. Finally, I yelled, “I’m going to eat your baby!” I wouldn’t for a number of reasons, but I’d exhausted all my other threats. Perhaps it was my tone, but the pair scattered like I’d broken up a teenage keg party. I smirked as they fled, congratulating myself on having done an excellent job with natural pest control, but they returned 12 hours later as I was getting into bed. She looked up to see who was making all that noise from up above, knowing I wasn’t about to get dressed and go all the way down the hill to shoo her away. She seemed to be saying, “Oh, it’s you again.”

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1