I live in a neighborhood where horses sometimes wander, and so do drunken old men and well-trimmed hobos dressed in L.L.Bean duck boots. The local township serves out “BEWARE OF GYPSIES!” newsletters at the eve of spring, warning us that “roving bands of strangers looking for work are known to travel these parts during the summer months.”
I used to hate it here. We had a peeping tom sneaking around the open fields at night, looking into windows and always getting caught due to a relentless stupidity. I tried to move as soon as the tom cracked my own kitchen door open and paralyzed my baby boy with a cavernous fear that lingered for some time.
That’s what I used to call people when they drove by, looking on at me from my crumbling front porch, staring at my Peeping Tom in the Neighborhood! Be Alert! sign curiously. No one wanted to shoot the Tom as badly as I did, but I was the only one in the neighborhood without a firearm.
I once woke with the sweet semblance of a dream that lingering the edge of my memory. In it, I carefully peeled the eyelids off the tom after my Russian friends held him down and tied him to a termite infested sugar maple in the crusty, jumbled hill country behind my house.
Sometimes, when I’m having a long day and the wind is not traveling quite right, and people are unfair and unbending, I still close my eyes and find that sweet space, where I have the paring knife and the eyelids, and I go to swift work keeping that reprobate’s eyes permanently open.
But that was then. Today, things have improved, and I dream of better moments, like being skinny again and sticking my sand-warmed toes into map-less ocean waves. And I haven’t seen the tom in a long while, and that has brought peace to my home, something that eluded us for so long.
At first, peace sailed away from my mind in large chunks the size of river barges in a muddy river. After therapy and police visits, it shrank, sailing away in man-sized fists, but the fists were still big enough to steal everyone’s sleep at night.
Eventually, all that was left were normal fragments of anxiety that every human heart endures at the end of a long day, those teaspoon servings that wake a sleeping soul from a late afternoon nap like a bored gnat in summer. There was only one other time I felt a fear as consistent as the one that came with the tom, was the summer I spent traveling the desert.
I was two years old and climbing aboard a sun-baked Arizona boulder with my brother. We were wearing matching overalls, and I was crying because I was tired and didn’t understand where I was. The space was too open, and the dry heat was cooking my baby skin into the color of an overripe opened banana. I couldn’t understand the exposure because I was from Oklahoma where the heat is measured in droplets and dew points, and where the wind can be noted by the various strains of its howls. I didn’t understand this absence of wind movement, this air that’s sucked the water clean and dry from the rocks. And I wanted to go home. I was begging my mother to take me back home and let me sleep, but she promised me that this would be a beautiful picture on the way to an even more beautiful Oregon, and there I could sleep. I could rest once we got to the Promised Land, to the other side.
So, I wiped my fat baby face and held in my heart vomit. I lumped my lower lip to look like the shaped edge of my mother’s teal Fiestaware tea pitcher, the one she uses to pour me milk on happy Sunday mornings before Pentecostal church, where preachers scream and old ladies slap the sides of their legs in Gospel fits. And I stopped crying, thinking of my lip the shape of that pitcher just so, and she took the picture and let me crawl back down into the car, which was strewn with plastic milk jugs, filled with cold water and dangling in ragged ropes against sides of the engine to keep it from overheating in the American desert. But the trip was not short, and the Western desert was not small. We did not have an air conditioner, and my brother’s forehead slurped with sweat when he fell asleep against the greased fingerprinted window at the hottest points of the day. So, I had to lay in the backseat and count the rarely passing trucks as they entered and exited the view from the car window, or interpret the occasional cotton cloud as it floated against the periwinkle sky. I had to endure, and the closer I came to Oregon, the shorter the gaps between passing trucks and clouds and the lesser the heat of the sun.
This same sense of unfair displacement, of extended exposure, is what I felt when we had to nail our windows shut, get a wireless alarm system, and buy two dogs who would soak up our anxiety and seethe and drool in hate when visitors neared our gates.
And it was the one and only time I ever struggled with unforgiveness, the very thing the leg-slapping ladies said would separate a man from an all-forgiving God. Four years later, I still pass the places in the neighborhood where I spotted the brick head contour of his dark, overweight shadow, and I make the Sign of the Cross and wish him conversion and a harsh displacement of his own.
Get out of my neighborhood.
St. Michael, the Archangel, spear him like you did Satan when he challenged the innocence of heaven.
And this is my prayer at night just before I feel the grip of the paring knife in my hands, the sense of slicing and the peeling away of a bad man’s eyelids, and I feel a warmth come over my chest – like a heating pad over a stiffening arthritis – and it spreads into sweet sleep and I thank God for His mercy, that He only let the door crack and bounce closed on itself and not swing wide open.