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Cityscape

1.

One of the great charms of the mid-sized Southern city in which I live is the hodgepodge of neighborhoods that fill its borders, each unique and reflective of the people who live in them. One of the oldest, and largest, is an irregular grid of streets filled with closely packed single-family houses. This neighborhood bridges two large medical centers, and is home to a diverse group of doctors, teachers, students, and other upwardly mobile types, as well as working-class families. For decades, it enjoyed a reputation as a friendly, almost quaint neighborhood, well-known for lazy summer evenings idled away in front porch gatherings and temperate autumns when small children would run and play up and down the sidewalks.

Several years ago, during the week after Thanksgiving, a newly arrived family decorated their house for Christmas. The display was enormous and elaborate, with every bush and tree adjacent to the home ablaze with hundreds of colorful bulbs. The house, too, was framed with blinking lights. But the centerpiece of the holiday display was an enormous nativity scene set up across the front lawn. The figures of the crèche were life-sized and included the three Magi and several animals. The owners had also carefully wired an angel to the eave so it hung suspended above the scene, as large as any of the figures below it, its wings and arms spread wide. The angel was positioned below a large, illuminated star fastened atop the roof.

The display quickly became the talk of the neighborhood and even found itself the subject of stories in the newspaper and on the local TV news. Following the appearance of these stories, people from all over the city, county, and beyond began driving by to witness it, necessitating that the family keep the display lit up later and later each night to accommodate the viewers.

But as it turned out, the great, bright star that shone down on the holy scene was situated on the roof such that it was exactly even with the window to the neighbor’s master bedroom. So bright was this star that, even with the blinds closed, its brightness punched through enough to light the room as though it were midday. The couple who lived in this neighboring house, a middle-aged insurance executive and his wife, explained the problem to the newcomers, making it clear that they weren’t angry, certain that the people with the ornate decorations would be embarrassed when they learned of their unintended rudeness.

It turned out the new arrivals were devout fundamentalists who informed the sleepless couple that, while they might be sorry for the inconvenience they were causing, they’d come to the conclusion, through prayerful consideration, that God had chosen them to inspire others to find the true, but sadly lost, meaning of Christmas. They pointed to the growing stream of visitors each night as evidence that this was right. So rather than politely turning off the offending star at a reasonable hour each evening, it stayed on all night, every night the following week. The police were called out, but they had no better success at convincing the owners of the display to cooperate. Lawsuits were threatened, but the insurance executive and his wife knew that it would take weeks or months for the courts to settle the issue, and by then, the lights would have been taken down and the point moot.

The newspaper reporter who’d written the original piece about the decorations was alerted to the feud, and the story quickly became the most talked-about issue in town, starting a citywide debate about religious rights, property rights, and common courtesy. Opinions, based on emotional letters to the editor, showed nearly even support for both neighbors.

Six days before Christmas, in the middle of the night, a loud popping noise awakened residents of several homes along the street where the controversy occurred. Someone, it turned out, had shot and destroyed the ersatz Star of Bethlehem. The insurance executive was immediately accused, but he denied it vehemently and no evidence was ever produced to link him to the shooting.

Despite this, two days later, when going outside to retrieve his morning paper, the executive discovered his Lexus sedan had four slashed tires and two shattered windows. Assuming it was the work of his neighbor, he stormed next door and demanded immediate restitution for the damage. The newcomer swore he’d no knowledge of the vandalism, but implied that whoever had, in fact, committed the act had certainly been sent by God to atone for the sacrilege the insurance executive himself had carried out. A shoving match ensued, but the men’s wives were able to separate them.

The irate insurance man strode to the back of his own house, to the small, detached garage, and found a sledgehammer he’d used some time ago while building a fence. He marched back to the neighbor’s front yard and proceeded to swing the tool at each of the parts of the nativity scene, demolishing the heavy, plaster figures one after another. The owners of the crèche came running out of their house, as did the insurance executive’s wife, and together they tried to stop the frenzied destruction. More struggling ensued, and only moments before the police arrived, the insurance executive managed to shove the other man to the ground. He lifted the sledgehammer and swung it backward in order to bring it down on the figure of the Christ child. Unfortunately, the neighbor’s wife was standing right behind him and took the force of the hammer directly on the top of her head. Before the ambulance arrived, she was dead.

The insurance executive was arrested and charged with negligent homicide, but because of the mitigating circumstances and the fact that he lacked a prior criminal record, he was released on bail and sent home to await his trial. Two days later, on Christmas morning, distraught over causing the death of the woman and the shame he’d brought on his family, the insurance executive hung himself in his basement. His widow sold their house within three weeks, for far less than its value, and told none of her friends where she was moving. The executive’s neighbor, beside himself with grief over his wife’s death, would not leave his house after her funeral and left all of the decorations untouched, including the debris from the shattered figures on his lawn. Several months later, responding to complaints from the neighborhood association, the city had to clean it up and billed him for the service. Subsequent to the publicity of these tragedies, the persons who’d shot the star and vandalized the car came forward to confess their crimes.

The neighborhood has only recently returned to something close to its old ambiance, but now if you drive around that area at Christmastime, you will find a section, several blocks wide, where no one decorates their house for the holiday.

2.

Some eight or nine years ago, a young man, the son of a prominent national politician, was attending the small, prestigious university in our city. One day, after noticing a number of homeless persons while driving around town, he decided he needed to do something to help these unfortunates who he felt had, as he’d later tell his roommate, slipped between the holes in society’s safety net. Money, he decided, was too easy and too impersonal, and too often misappropriated by those in charge of distributing it. He wanted to do something tangible.

When, after several weeks, he was unable to think of anything specific, it occurred to him that his problem stemmed from not having an adequate understanding of the circumstances in which these homeless people lived day after day. The solution seemed obvious. With spring break approaching, he backed out of an intended trip to Mexico with a group of friends and, instead, made plans to spend the entire week living on the streets of our city, subsisting only on what he received in donations from strangers, or what he could otherwise find. His roommate tried to talk him out of this noble, but foolish, scheme, sensibly explaining that his friend could ultimately do more for the downtrodden by lobbying his father, whom most expected to make a run for the presidency in the next election, to endorse legislation that would improve the lot of the poor in general.

But the young man was undeterred. The final week of school before the break he stopped shaving and began wearing the same clothes each day. On the final day of classes, immediately following his last exam, he went back to his dorm, wrote a note to his roommate wishing him a good time in Mexico, then left campus.

Eight days later, on the evening before classes were to resume, the young man walked into his room at school, disheveled, dirty, and subdued. His roommate, anxious to hear about his friend’s social experiment, pressed the young man for details of his week on the streets. The latter was reluctant to talk about it, explaining only that there was a vast subculture of homeless persons, unknown to the majority of people who pass by them everyday without a thought. He wouldn’t go into specifics, but did mention that he had befriended a man whom he knew only as T, and that T had, in some way he wouldn’t elaborate on, saved his life.

As the new semester began, the young man was unable to concentrate on his studies and skipped classes frequently, sometimes disappearing for hours on end, only to show up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t long before he started to be gone for several days at a time. His grades suffered and he was soon at risk of failing out. The roommate, concerned about his friend, called the young man’s parents and explained what had occurred and the personality changes that had taken place.

The following weekend, the politician and his wife came to the campus to see their son and to find out what was happening to him. He wasn’t in his dorm room and no one knew where he was. They waited there until shortly after midnight, when at last the young man showed up. A loud argument, which was witnessed by many students in the residence hall, ensued involving the young man, his father, and his roommate. There was some pushing and shoving and the young man threatened to kill his father if he didn’t leave him alone. The campus police were called, but before they arrived, the young man walked out of the dormitory, ostensibly to cool off. To this day the young man has not been seen again.

When a few days after the fight at school it became obvious that the young man wasn’t coming back, his father, using his considerable wealth and political clout, arranged for the FBI and private investigators to track him down. But even with these extensive resources, no trace of the young man was found. The homeless man known as T was identified and located. He was found wearing a sweatshirt that had belonged to the young man. T was taken into custody and questioned at length, but he was unable to provide any information that could help in determining where the young man had gone.

Months later, blaming himself for his son’s disappearance, the young man’s father quit politics in order to spend all of his time looking for his son. He used up most of a considerable fortune following any lead, no matter how dubious, driving and flying all over the country over the course of the next five years. The frustration of this fruitless mission began to take its toll, both financially and emotionally. The young man’s parents were forced to sell their huge home and move into a small house in a rundown part of the city. They both began to drink heavily, which undoubtedly played a significant role in the automobile accident in which they were killed.

It was thought by many that the funeral of his parents would be the incentive that would bring the young man out of hiding and back to our city. However, it is not known whether or not he even learned of their deaths, because he never showed up. Many assumed that he, too, had died: a victim of the streets.

Each year our local newspaper now runs a story about this mysterious young man and how his disappearance may have inadvertently changed the course of our nation’s history—a speculative piece full of whys and what-ifs about how different things might have been had his father stayed in politics and been elected president, an assumption that seemed to gain more certainty after his death than it ever had while he was alive. And this story would have slipped into the status of nothing more than interesting local legend had a caretaker at the cemetery not noticed some of the objects on the grave of the young man’s parents. He found two fresh white roses and a small sign made from a piece of cardboard. The sign, printed with black marker, read, “Please Help. Anything Will Do. God Bless.” A handwriting expert studied the sign and concluded that, based on a comparison to samples from old college notes, it was nearly certain that the sign had indeed been written by the couple’s son. The freshness of the roses, too, indicated that the items had been placed that same day.

Nothing else has ever been found on the grave, and it’s been two years since the flowers and sign were discovered, but many people here (including myself) find themselves stopping now whenever they see homeless persons. We give them money while studying their faces, each of us certain we’ll be the one to discover, at last, the missing college student.

3.

Twelve years ago my wife and I bought a house beyond the northern limits of the city. We loved this house as much as people can love such things, and shared enjoyment and pride in taking care of it over the years. It sits atop a rise on a large, wooded lot in what was, at the time we moved in, a planned development. While not restricted in the way a gated community would be, its exclusivity stemmed from simple economics: average families couldn’t afford these properties. And, technically, neither could we. But we were young, childless professionals who harbored unbridled optimism concerning our future and figured that if we struggled a little for a few years, our success would soon provide the means to transform our home from a financial burden to a sound investment. As it turned out, we were right. In less than five years, both my wife and I were earning six-figure salaries.

The most appealing of the house’s attributes was the most basic—location. It was outside the city in a rustic section of the county, yet our development’s entrance was situated on a main highway connecting with the nterstate, which provided quick access to anywhere in town. Most days I could leave our house and be in my downtown office in less than fifteen minutes. To this day, despite the insidious advance of the city limits, the house enjoys relative isolation accorded by a buffer of untouched woods that surround the small, private community. And although I witnessed increasing growth along the highway as I made my daily commute to work, the only intersecting road close to the house is a narrow, dirt lane that curves into the woods, remarkable to me only as a valuable landmark that I used when giving directions to our place, since it is exactly eight-tenths of a mile from the entrance to the development.

Like so many things that our eyes stop seeing after they become familiar, this unmarked road soon went unnoticed as I sped past on my way to and from town. There were never, that I have witnessed, any cars going down or coming from it, and I unconsciously assumed it was an old hunting path or shortcut to some place I never even bothered trying to imagine.

One Saturday six months ago, our daughter (who is two weeks from turning seven as I write this) was riding in the back of our minivan. I’d just picked her up from a friend’s birthday party and she was unusually quiet. I assumed she’d worn herself out playing and, in fact, she seemed droopy-eyed when I peeked at her in the rearview mirror. So it startled me when, passing the dirt road eight-tenths of a mile from home, she asked if we could stop and walk down it. I started to ask why, but instead made a U-turn at the entrance to our development and parked on the narrow gravel shoulder across from the path.

The early December sky was a brittle blue with big puffy clouds barely moving. The air was crisp without being cold, the kind of air that brings everything into sharp focus. As we walked along the hard, red clay road, I held my daughter’s hand. The road curved to the right and then again to the left, disappearing deep into the woods. We hadn’t gone more than half a mile when I could no longer hear cars from the highway where our car was parked. I glanced down at my daughter, who looked up and smiled, but I couldn’t tell if it was an excited or a nervous smile.

We ventured farther into the woods, the naked maples and oaks standing in harsh contrast to the durable green of the pines. The trees seemed to close around us, and the road’s end was nowhere in sight. I mentioned to my daughter that the road was likely a dead end and that we’d probably seen most, if not all, there was to see. And had I stopped right there and turned us around, I know things would be different now. But we kept walking just a bit farther, rounding another bend, and that’s when we saw the house.

Actually, my first impression was that it was no more than a shack, perhaps indeed a hunting blind, bolstering my initial suspicion about the purpose of the road. Except that a thin, steady line of smoke rose from a pipe vent that angled up from the tin roof. The walls of the structure were simple boards and I could not see any windows. I stared at the ramshackle building, trying to reconcile my assessment that no one could possibly live in such a place with the sight of the smoke streaming from the chimney. I was about to tell my daughter that we needed to turn back when a man carrying an armload of sticks and branches came around the far side of the house. He was thin and walked bent forward, like the burden of the sticks was great. From where we stood, his eyes were no more than shadows set deep in his face above the sharp ridges of cheekbones that were, to my reckoning, sickeningly prominent.

When he noticed us, the old man stopped briefly, then continued into the house with his load of kindling. I waited to see if he would come back to find out who we were once he’d relieved himself of his load, but he didn’t. I looked at my daughter and could see the unspoken questions in her eyes. We turned and walked back to the car. Once buckled in her seat, my daughter asked me if I thought the man actually lived in that house. I said I doubted it, telling my first real lie to her.

I was unable to shake the image of the gaunt stranger (my neighbor, I realized), and for weeks, whenever I passed the dirt road, I would slow down, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. My daughter seemed to forget about the man in the flimsy shack and we never again spoke of him. I didn’t mention him to my wife.

In late January our area was hit with an ice storm. For two days I didn’t sleep, worried about the man in the woods. Once, in the middle of the night, I even climbed into my SUV and drove to the road and started walking down it, but chickened out, compounding my guilt and anxiety.

I know I should just take a walk down the dirt road and see for myself that the old man is fine. But I keep asking myself, what if he isn’t? Who knew he was there—and could have helped him—besides me? Is it worse to know, or not to know? These questions paralyze me. And now my lack of sleep has begun to take its toll; I’ve became irritable. My wife and I fight often about little things, about nothing. I haven’t been able to concentrate at the office and today my boss suggested I use some vacation time to get myself together. I’m thinking of quitting instead.

I don’t know what I’ll do or where I’ll go if that happens, but I do know that, no matter what, I won’t complain.