Adam Parker Cogbill
The signs! The signs! They were turning up everywhere. Who was it, and how did he know so much? Or it could’ve been a she. Sandra Cotter said it had to be a she, because only a she could’ve overheard and cataloged so much clandestine behavior. Mr. Bombadier, the seventy-two-year-old bachelor who lived alone in the immense house at the end of the street, and to whom many of us had never spoken before the signs began to appear, said it had to be a he, a little he, the kind of little he who could scuttle beneath hedges and clamber about in the neighborhood’s lightest branches.
Before the signs, the most excitement our neighborhood had experienced since I’d moved there with Emma and our daughter, Rosie, was when the oldest Barrow boy booby-trapped several mailboxes with dog excrement. A better-than-average prank, possibly, if one’s father is not the mailman. Ms. Wendling, who’d been one of the five victims, declared the entire event, “something to laugh about.” And there had also been the Glassbands, Brian and Kayla, whose arguments were audible from across the street when they really worked themselves up. He’s since moved to Oakland, she to New Jersey.
But the signs! If they were any indication, our neighborhood was a tragic, ruthless place. In fact, it was difficult to imagine how so much could’ve gone on unnoticed in the houses next to us and just across the street. We were scathed. We were revealed in a manner better left for confessionals and deathbeds.
You’d be leaving for work. Taking the trash out. Standing outside for a smoke. The Urbaez family liked to grill, and Harry Eskowitz washed his car every Saturday. The Barrow boys had a bike ramp made of cinderblocks and wooden boards at which they road their bicycles at top speed in attempts to dunk a basketball in the adjustable hoop at one end of their driveway, a setup that produced all manner of shrieks and clangs. The college girls, Ann, Dana, and Delilah, liked to tan together on the roof of the house they rented. The Patel children, Nadia and Omar, had a new puppy, a Jack Russell they’d named Frog, and they’d been spending summer afternoons in the front yard tormenting it with a soccer ball twice as big as it was. Sandy Williams could often be seen playing catch with her son, Miles. Nel and Christian Chippendale were always fiddling in their garden. The Cotters’ garage was always open, and the sounds that came from its depths reminded me of high school shop class. Mr. Bombadier never came outside, but he was often at his chair by the window, water glass of wine in one hand. And these people, these unassuming, splendid, mostly slightly-overweight people, who separated their recycling every Wednesday, whose freezers were full of dinners—they were subjected to such claims! Such allegations! “Marge Eskowitz terminated her first pregnancy in November, 1990.” “Sandy Williams refuses to let her son sleep in her bed when he’s had a nightmare.” “Manny Urbaez masturbates every Thursday evening at eight o’clock in his living room while Cora Urbaez is at night class.” “Nel Chippendale has fake breasts.”
I believed Ms. Wendling could have been a likely culprit. She was the sort of patient, perceptive person whose virtues were surely a disguise for some dark secret. She was the widow of a cruise ship captain who had gambled away their retirement before suffering a fatal heart attack. I suppose my neighbors thought her too kind to publicize others’ secrets. But perhaps I was—am—more aware of the potential for human treachery than she. It was six winters ago that I took in my brother, Greg, who had lost his job and home, and five summers since he and my wife and daughter piled into my car and left. I don’t wish to give the impression that I did not try to get Emma back. I went first to the police, who informed me that they were not a private detective agency, and unless my wife had been kidnapped or there was a specific court order, there wasn’t much they could do. Did I want to report the car as stolen? I did not. There are any number of reasonable explanations I could give for this: it was a resource for Emma and Rosie, if they could keep Greg from ruining it, and it provided an escape if they needed one. Or, it was a reminder that I was still a part of their lives. Or, it was a gesture of bitterness—I had washed my hands of them, and one day they would feel badly about what they’d done. Or, I didn’t want to send the police after them as though they were criminals. They were, after all, still my loved ones. I don’t know if any of these justifications are correct, and neither has the passage of time helped me to acquire a new, wiser perspective.
After the police, I tried contacting jewelry stores, as my wife has worked her entire life appraising jewelry, a skill her father began teaching her when she was six that has been the one unflagging love I have known her to have. That must sound hopeless and pathetic, I know. She could’ve been anywhere, and with her experience, and the number of jewelry stores—not to mention appraisal businesses and private contractors—in the United States, what hope did I have of success? I didn’t even know if she was still using our name.
But I had a plan. I assembled a ranking of states that I thought Greg most likely to flee to. I consulted state maps and compiled a separate list of towns and cities. Then, I made a list of the jewelry businesses and their phone numbers in each town. All of this information was available on the internet, and although it sounds like a fruitless project, it filled my evenings and weekends with routine.
I could cross off an entire town—or several, if they were small—in a weekday, and I could do a great many on each Saturday and Sunday. Cities took longer but they provided a larger sense of accomplishment when I finished them. I worked hard for two months, and would’ve continued indefinitely, except that while waiting in my physician’s office one day after work, I read in a magazine article that there were close to five hundred municipalities in the state of California. I canceled my appointment, rushed home, and checked my progress. In two months, I had covered one hundred and ninety-six towns. Less than half of one of fifty states. If she was even in one of the fifty states. Weren’t they more likely to be in Canada than Hawaii or Alaska? I nearly flew into a rage. I boxed up my project and shoved the boxes into a corner of the garage. “Fine,” I said, as I covered them with a painter’s tarp. “Stay there. Wherever you are.”
She writes, occasionally. Rosie, that is. She is thirteen now. She writes about her school friends, of which she currently has four, all organized into a fragile hierarchy subject to sudden and violent change. Rosie has a great deal to say about what is unfair. It is not fair that Sorroco Meadows is allowed to have as many people as she would like over on a Saturday night, while Rosie can have no more than two. It is not fair that we put all of our trash on boats and dump it in the Pacific Ocean. It is not fair that she has to take the bus to school. She has told her mother a million times that Sorroco Meadows sits behind her and yanks her hair and pretends to be telling the girl next to her awful things about Mark Welch—who Rosie does not mention otherwise in her letters—when she is really saying it to bother Rosie. It is not fair that Greg does not recycle. It is not fair that her mother refuses to call her “Rose,” even though she has said a million times that “Rosie” sounds infantile. It is not fair that people should collect their dog’s poop in plastic bags which will never, ever biodegrade, or that milk and gas prices are so high. If I can make it past thirteen, Rosie writes, I’ll be okay.
I think she is growing into a good person. I imagine that she would’ve thought the signs unfair. I like to think no signs about her would’ve been made.
My neighbors were beside themselves; something had to be done. Christian Chippendale and Manny Urbaez suggested the founding of a neighborhood committee dedicated to uncovering the signmaker’s identity. We all volunteered—at least in part, I suppose, to avoid becoming suspects. We were all so concerned about becoming suspects. Harvey Naylor and Arnold Millward offered their living room as a meeting place. Nel Chippendale went door to door and organized the food and drinks. Everything was set to go until Rachel Sanchez also went door to door and suggested that her house might be a more comfortable space for a meeting. A banner had been attached to the side of Rachel’s house that read, “Rachel Sanchez has a closet full of mannequins that she goes on imaginary dates in her kitchen with.” She managed to gain the support of the college girls, Ann, Dana, and Delilah, because Delilah was afraid of cats, which Harvey and Arnold kept two of.
While we decided which place would be better, John Barrow, Sr. removed a sign from Mr. Bombadier’s empty flagpole that read, “Leo Bombadier cries himself to sleep most nights,” and it was reported that a sign appeared on Nadia Patel’s bedroom window that claimed, “Taj Patel is the father of only one of the children living in his house.”
Ultimately, we decided on Harvey and Arnold’s residence because it could hold more of us and because Rachel’s loneliness made us nervous. To our knowledge, she had never had a significant other, even one that’d left or died. Nery Guerra would act as secretary for those with cat allergies or aversions.
I am certain that we began with the best of intentions. We left our houses with pots of vegetables covered in tinfoil, enchiladas still in oven-hot Pyrexes, tins of brownies so recently baked that they stuck together. We brought them over still steaming, so that we had to wear oven mitts to carry them, and we brought garnishes of grated cheese, salsa, jars of homemade butter cream frosting. Sandra Cotter had hollowed out a watermelon, carved it to look like a swan, and filled it with fruit salad. Manny Urbaez had made a ten-layer dip and homemade tortilla chips. Nel Chippendale brought sugar cookies shaped like houses. She’d outlined the windows and doors with icing and topped them with heart-shaped sprinkles.
Given what I know now, it seems unlikely that we would’ve discovered who was responsible, let alone how to make the person stop. What seemed most important was that we plan and execute a meeting. Things were out of control, and we had to do something. Still, it was clear from all the fidgeting—Peter Lind’s compulsive swaying, Harry Eskowitz’ leg tremors, Elena Guerra’s finger tapping—that we were aware that, having congregated, that if we left without arriving at some sort of solution, then we would be back where we started. Beryl Barrow kept her boys within arm’s reach. Nery Guerra kept breaking the pencil he was using to take notes.
As for myself, I sat in a corner, in one of the simple wooden chairs that Harvey had taken from the kitchen table, and kept my hands folded in my lap and waited as long as I could before raising my hand and suggesting—acknowledging, really, as I am sure everyone was aware of the possibility—that the signmaker was probably one of us. Even before I sat back down, the room swelled with muttering and the scraping of folding chairs being adjusted.
“Is there anyone who has not been victimized?” Taj Patel asked finally. “Mr. Cotter?”
“We found one tied to our doorknob that said he”—she did nothing to indicate that she was referring to her husband, whose name we had clearly read on the sign—“shot our dog when I was on vacation. Which just isn’t true. The dog ran away. We posted in the newspaper and everything.”
Nobody spoke. Sandy Williams cringed.
“It ran away!” Sandra insisted.
“Mr. Barrow?” Taj asked.
“That son of a bitch,” John Barrow, Sr. said. “My whole family’s been victimized.”
Beryl Barrow’s arms were around her boys. Her face did not change. They had both been accused of infidelity, and their children had each received their own signs, most noticeably a small index card mounted on a popsicle stick that claimed that Frederick Barrow, age nine, peeked in the bedroom windows of his neighbors at night.
“Daniel Parker?” Taj Patel asked. Everyone except for those near me turned to look.
“My brother left with my wife and daughter,” I said. “It’s no secret anymore.”
Sympathetic nodding. For a moment, despite the variety of our failures, we felt in concert. I was astonished by how dignified it made me feel.
Then, Harry Eskowitz said, “At least you don’t have to live with a whore.”
All compassion dissolved. Marge Eskowitz slapped her husband, and we began to shout at each other. Christian Chippendale gestured repeatedly for us to sit down, although many of us had never been seated in the first place, and begged us to remain calm. Peter Lind kept wailing, “How could you!” Nel Chippendale’s face was in her hands. Taj Patel said something unspeakable to his wife, Laboni. Neil Cotter and Hart Tugwell looked as though they were near blows. Harvey Naylor pushed Arnold Millward away. Cora Urbaez said something beginning with, “You think I’m the one who” to Manny, and he slammed his hand on the coffee table and declared the meeting over. As he stalked out, he bumped into Rachel Sanchez, who had arrived late and had been forced to stand outside, and knocked her over. He neither apologized nor offered to help her to her feet.
We retreated to our houses alone. Some deliberately walked several feet in front of their partners. Some refused to go inside, sitting on stoops, arms wrapped around their knees. Others sat in their cars. Some drove away and didn’t return until the following day. The Barrow boys played a game that involved no other directives than hitting trees with rocks from increasing distances.
The worst signs were those that confirmed a loved one’s worst fear. “Cora Urbaez votes Democrat.” “Hart Tugwell does not believe in God.” “Laura Lind eats meat when Peter Lind is gone on business.”
I suppose it is no longer accurate to say I miss my wife and daughter. Not that I do not experience a fierce loneliness each night, and especially on holidays, but what I miss are the sounds of a full house: being summoned by a person who has something she must tell me, a conversation happening in some other part of the house, someone laughing at the television. I miss my wife’s presence in our bed, my daughter sprawled over the dining room table to color; I miss waiting for the bathroom.
It had become my routine to return from work and turn on the television. I liked to be able to hear it, even if I rarely watched it. I would leave it on as I went about my evening, boiling water for hardboiled eggs, reading the paper, smoking cigarettes on my front stoop. It is a simulation, admittedly, a ward for loneliness. But it is no more of a simulation than when my wife said, on some nights, it was too hot to lay so close, to touch at all. She could’ve told me it kept her awake, being held. Was she ashamed? Wanted to avoid hurting my feelings? I’ve given the matter some consideration, and I think it’s most likely that she didn’t have the energy to discuss why she felt the way she did: she’d accepted that something between us was irreconcilable, and it wasn’t a battle she wanted to fight. It was a relief, actually, realizing that there was such logic in her actions.
I spent my early evenings organizing. I became remarkably good with space, and my house was filled with various racks and bookshelves and CD organizers, filing cabinets, bureaus, and chests. There were so many possible patterns, so many logical ways to file and arrange and sort. And such a productive, cathartic activity! It was not only about ordering, but about positioning, about relationships between objects. Emma loved to rearrange furniture, and I imagined that if I ever saw her again, she would’ve appreciated this new side of me, this desire to organize.
After the meeting, the Special Neighborhood Watch Committee, as it was being called, fractured into several groups. They roved the neighborhood in small, incensed bands, each with its own grievance. There was the group of spouses whose partners had been unfaithful (which, in some cases, contained spouses who were married to each other); a group of parents who believed the ordeal was harming their children; a plastic-surgery-and-venereal-disease group; a small group of serial masturbators; and a miscellaneous group of “concerned citizens.”
I suppose I should have involved myself. Everyone was doing something. I could’ve gone door to door and asked if anyone had seen anything suspicious, taken a watch shift at a window at night, patrolled yards and sidewalks in the early morning. There was a time in my life when I was an active participant in neighborhood politics. I’ve attended town meetings. Stood in front of grocery stores asking citizens if they would sign this or that petition. But that time was past, and I felt more than ever that taking action was useless. What did we hope to find? A freak?
Someone so unlike us in appearance or thought that he (or she!) could not possibly understand us, and whose actions must therefore have come from an unrecognizable, inhumane place? But we had already admitted that the signmaker was probably one of us. The identity we were trying to uncover was one of our own.
“Peter Lind has not been able to perform sexually since his mother died” was peeled from the living room window by the Linds’ daughter, Janelle, who was nineteen, and home “indefinitely” from college. Nery Guerra found, “Elena Guerra attempted suicide in 1994” wrapped around his mailbox.
I don’t know whose idea it was. I stepped out one morning for my morning cigarette, and saw, in Hart Tugwell’s yard, a chaos of brown and black slag. I was in my robe, barefoot. Earlier that week, a sign had been found on his garage that read, “Hart Tugwell’s first wife left him after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.”
I went over to have a closer look. They were boards, and they looked to have been taken from trash piles, ripped from dilapidated fences and buildings. They were jagged, full of bent nails, and several had been charred black, as though they’d been part of a structure that had been on fire. They varied in length, width, and thickness. Most were pine. I looked about to see if anyone was watching. I touched one of the boards with my foot, and it felt damp with early morning dew. I shrugged, and returned to my step, assuming it was a part of something I lacked the necessary facts to explain and which would probably pass without affecting me.
But by the time I’d returned from the work, construction was well underway. It was Hart Tugwell, Nery Guerra, John Barrow, Sr., and Cora and Manny Urbaez. They’d bound the boards in fours with rope so that they formed makeshift columns and were driving them into the ground. They were building it right through the Barrows’ backyard toward Hart Tugwell’s. I stood outside and smoked and watched them. Hart was shirtless, his skin the color and texture of potato skin. His chest and back were covered in hair as wispy as the smoke of a snuffed-out wick. Cora Urbaez wore brown work boots with metal eyelets that glinted in the sun. She would occasionally lean on Manny’s shoulder and lift her knee to expose the underside of the boot so that she could tap the dirt loose with a shovel. Nery’s overloaded work belt dragged the seat of his jeans halfway down his rear. The Barrow boys ran back and forth from the house with cold drinks. As far as I could tell, none of them spoke, except to consult Nery, who seemed to be directing the project. Across the street, Peter Lind watched with his arms crossed, and various Patels stepped outside to check construction progress. I theorized that I was watching the results of some strange group breakdown. Across the street, a sign that read, “As a boy, Neil Cotter shot rabbits and stuffed their anuses with bottle rockets and set them off on doorsteps” was taped to a chair on the Cotter’s porch.
Later, I ate a dinner of canned black beans and toast and reread my daughter’s latest letter. They had been to an amusement park, and Emma hadn’t gone on any roller coasters. Rosie didn’t see why it was a big deal when it was clear that roller coasters were machines put together by mechanics who knew what they were doing, and had been tested, and tested again. Why, she wanted to know, were adults so scared of everything?
I was startled by a knock at the door and flung black beans onto the letter, obscuring, among other things, the salutation, so that it read only, “Dad.” The knock came again as I was brushing at the letter, and I clumsily ground one of the beans into the page. Later, after I’d done my best to clean it up, it still retained the kind of dark smudging a never-before used eraser makes.
At the bottom of my stoop stood Hart Tugwell, his hands behind his back, bent slightly at the waist. He’d put on a white t-shirt that bore the logo of a well-known light beer. His face and arms were covered with dirt that’d run with his sweat, and his hair was arranged in small, jagged clumps, like hills in a child’s drawing. His neck, which was a wrinkled pile of skin, quivered.
“Hart,” I said.
“Good evening, Daniel,” he said.
“Can I help you?”
“I think maybe you can. A couple of questions, if you’ve got a minute?”
“Great, great. You’ve noticed, probably, that we’ve begun working on a palisade.”
“Right. It’s a wall, when all’s said and done. A defensive structure.”
“I see. You think we could be raided?”
Hart cracked his knuckles. “My first question is if you’d mind if we took it through your backyard?”
“We could take it around the back of that little hedge. I can’t say you wouldn’t notice it, but it wouldn’t tear up the grass much.”
“Would that be alright, Daniel?”
I waited, in case of late-arriving feelings of outrage.
“That would be fine,” I said. “When will you be doing this?”
“Oh, tonight, maybe. If we can get a few more volunteers. Tomorrow if we can’t. That was my other question. We wanted to invite you to join us.”
“I see.” I could see he was about to explain. “Maybe not,” I offered.
“Right. Okay then.” He turned to go, but looked back before I’d closed the door. “Daniel?”
“It’d mean a lot to everyone.”
“I’m not really a builder.”. He nodded as though I’d confirmed something. I called after him, “I’d just slow you down!”
He limped around the back of his house. Someone—Harvey Naylor, I thought, although it was difficult to see in the dim light—approached him. They spoke for a few seconds and then shook hands. I closed the door and returned to Rosie’s letter. I could hear their hammering long into the night, even when I’d stuffed my head under my pillow and pulled the edges down around my ears.
When I could stand it no longer, I threw my sheet and blanket off, stormed down the hallway and through the living room to the front door, and flung it open. The night was ringing with hammer blows and a whining drill and men and women shouting to each other. Several wore headlamps, and they’d set up high-powered lanterns in several strategic locations. I can only imagine what I looked like to those who might’ve seen me, hair wild from tossing in the bed, pale and naked, standing in the doorway, spotlighted by the lamp above my front door. My fists were clenched and I was on the verge of crying out in protest. I stood there a full five minutes before slamming the door as loudly as I could and retreating to my bed.
By sunrise, I’d given up on sleep. They’d gone through my yard and were hard at work in the Chippendales’. The palisade sagged in various places, and groups of boards hung loosely in their fastenings. Hart and Nery and Manny and Cora and Harvey were nowhere to be seen, but a new work crew, consisting of Sandy Williams and her son Miles, John Barrow, Sr., the Eskowitzes, and Neil Cotter, had taken over.
“John!” I called. He turned and waved. “Aren’t you going to work today?”
He said something unintelligible.
“Took the week off!” he shouted, and turned back to the palisade.
“Can you do that?” I called back. “Can a mailman do that?”
I had a dreadful vision of come home to discover the entire neighborhood hard at work, everything ladders and work belts and hammering. There would be a refreshment table in the middle of the street full of finger foods, a plate stacked with burgers and hotdogs, coolers of beer and pop, and they would’ve begun a walkway around the top of the palisade along which children would already be running, even as their parents called, “No running on the palisade!” The Patel children, who were the most enterprising in the neighborhood, would be wearing cardboard armets with working visors and carrying long sticks with a string attached at both ends, and they’d carry backpacks full of sticks for quivers of arrows, and they would peer over the tops of the barricade and fire burning arrows at invading hordes.
I was not far off. By the time I’d come back, there was an army of my neighbors working on the fortification. They worked in shifts. They had a system. A small team would dig a trench, and another team would construct a portion of the wall, and then together they would insert the pre-constructed section into the ground. A third team worked further back, securing loose posts and adding crosspieces and braces. There must have been a fourth group that went looking for wood. They had gone through the Chippendale and Cotter yards and would soon begin the Linds’. And it appeared as though they’d somehow gotten permission from the landlord who rented to the college girls to build around the very rearmost part of the property. Delilah and Dana had set up lawn chairs in their front yards and sat there in their bathing suits, watching. Even Leo Bombadier had emerged from his home and joined the building crew, although his role consisted mostly of standing several yards away from the actual work, drinking his wine and occasionally mumbling. People from nearby streets stopped to look. There was a visit from a pair of police officers who looked on suspiciously, conducted a series of interviews, leaned on their cars while scratching their heads in the sun, and left.
Around this time, I received another letter from Rosie. It was the first time I’d received two letters from her in as many weeks—typically I got no more than one every month or two, and I wondered at first if this was some act of rebellion against her mother. I was both unnerved and excited at this idea; I wasn’t sure I wanted our relationship to become an extension of her dissent, but I hoped that her opposition to her mother might escalate to the point where she revealed her address. I would’ve written her under a pseudonym. One of the friends she’d told me about, perhaps. I would’ve told her that if she ever wanted to visit, her room was still available. That she could come anytime she wanted, and that I could send her money for a ticket. I could send her money even if she didn’t want to visit. I could have asked what she needed. She never wrote about being too cold at night, or not having enough to eat, but I wasn’t sure these were things she would’ve thought to mention in her letters.
Her newest was a three-page long paragraph about bowling. She had been to a bowling alley with Mark Welch every day after school for a week, and she believed it to be the most amazing place she’d ever been. It wasn’t the bowling so much as the people at the bowling alley. She described the peculiar practice of a group of cargo-shorts wearing men in which each time one threw a strike, he took a rubber chicken from a plastic bucket and placed it in one of the large side pockets shorts, where it remained until the game was finished. None of the men, Rosie wrote, seemed to think this the least bit odd or funny. It was, to them, a tradition as normal and obvious as decorating a Christmas tree. And there was a woman there each day wearing one of two plastic ten-gallon hats. The hats were the same shades of pink and red as Valentine’s Day cards. And there was a great deal of variance in bowler’s styles. Some took three steps, some five. One boy began all the way back at the plastic benches so that he had to step up onto the wooden floor when he approached. Some bowlers turned away after they released, as though they had no interest in seeing where the ball had gone. She saw a woman lose her footing and fall on her rump—Rosie’s exact word—and slide forward so that each of her legs landed in one of the gutters. She wrote that all of this had become incredibly important to her. At the end of the letter, she suggested I go to a bowling alley, preferably on a League night. I didn’t have to bowl if I didn’t want. I just had to watch.
At the time, I vowed that I would do as she asked. As soon as I had the time and the energy, I would go. I still intend to.
They seemed to become more enthusiastic the farther they extended the thing. Enough of my neighbors had joined in that they began work on the Urbaez yard and the Patel place simultaneously. I could hear them at all hours. Hammering was only one of my worries now; somebody’d produced a chainsaw, and I could hear Neil Cotter’s planer several hours a day. There were ladders and toolboxes and tarps scattered across the neighborhood where small teams were repairing or improving or sanding the existing wall, and Nel Chippendale and Laura Lind had gone out and filled a station wagon with primer. I could only imagine what color they intended to stain it. The only new signs were the ones that appeared on my property. One of the Barrow boys had knocked on my door earlier that evening and handed me one that he’d found tied to the gutter with red yarn. It read, “Daniel Parker does not remember his daughter’s birthday and has no way of finding out when it is.”
“Thanks,” I said to the boy.
“Don’t you have it written down somewhere?” he asked. He had a slingshot in his back pocket. They all carry slingshots now, slingshots or cardboard crossbows or scotch tape ammo belts of sticks that I think they may be pretending are throwing knives.
“No,” I said.
“Couldn’t you just call her grandma, or something?”
“Did I ask for your assistance?”
“But couldn’t you? Is she dead, or something?”
I closed the door. I leaned forward and let my forehead rest against the wood. I kept my knees straight and stood on the balls of my toes so that I formed a hypotenuse between the floor and a point halfway up the door. I had a sudden fantasy in which I was told by God or some other all-powerful source that the world was about to be destroyed, but for every five seconds I stayed in this position I could save one person. My knees began to ache. I calculated that if I were able to stay motionless for an hour I would only save seven hundred and twenty people worldwide. If I lasted three hours, I would be in excruciating pain, and would still have saved only two thousand people. Then it occurred to me that it would be highly unlikely that any of these people would be Rosie, or Emma, or even Greg. I suffered a slight panic, and my knees buckled. I caught myself before I crushed my nose into the door. After I got back to my feet, I headed for the garage.
In twenty minutes, I had the boxes from the garage stacked in the middle of my kitchen, and I’d swept the table clean of newspapers and crumbs. I took my laptop from my briefcase and got to work. If I worked through the night, I would have several lists of numbers to call when the jewelry stores opened the following morning. I began on Los Angeles. I would finish Los Angeles, and then I would do San Diego, and then San Francisco. I could already see my mistake. I should never have organized by state. I should’ve organized by city. Greg was attracted to cities, and logically cities were the largest clusters of people and were therefore where I’d be most likely to find Emma and Rosie. I had it figured out. I would make a new list, one in which I ranked the country’s major cities by where Greg was most likely to have taken my wife and daughter. I was back on track, and I felt fresh and motivated.
Mahogany. They stained the palisade mahogany. They finished it with a gate, and Taj Patel and Hart Tugwell were dreaming up a pulley system in the Cotters’ garage. It was a huge, neighborhood-swathing thing, and no longer rickety. They’d gone over it again and again until it looked well-proportioned everywhere.
At the completion of the staining, they had a ceremony. I was nearly finished with Chicago at the time. When I was done, I planned to begin on Houston, and then Denver. There were speeches from Nel Chippendale, Manny Urbaez, and, astonishingly, Leo Bombadier, who, although he spoke briefly, seemed to have gained a second wind. As a person, I mean. The way he moved, he could’ve been twenty-five years old. He drew quite a crowd; even I went to hear his speech. He stood on a folding chair and read from an index card that he removed from the breast pocket of his pressed short-sleeve button down. While he spoke, he repeatedly ran his knuckles down his cheeks to wipe away sweat. He would then stretch out his hand and shake it like someone who has just touched a hot stove. I don’t remember his entire speech, but I remember one part in the middle, which went like this:
“I come from a family of builders. My grandfather worked construction jobs his whole life. My father ended up in insurance, but he did construction until he was in his forties. My mother worked in a factory that made sweaters, which I’ve always thought was like building. And she got that job because of my Uncle, who had been working there since the depression. He was the only man on this whole floor of women, sitting at a machine, making sweaters. But he fed his kids that way. None of my cousins starved. Building is a fundamental human activity. We have to build whether we like it or not. It’s hardwired into us. It comes down to being tool users. That’s how our early ancestors solved their problems. They used tools. Monkeys with tools, that’s what we are.”
When he stepped down from the folding chair, everyone cheered. Hart Tugwell put his arm around Leo’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Nel Chippendale produced a bundle of sparklers leftover from the Fourth of July and began to pass them out to the children.
The revelry came to a sudden halt when Frederick Barrow fell from the palisade catwalk. My neighbors clustered around him as he lay wrecked in the street, one arm twisted beneath him, head ducked against his chest, darkening the asphalt with blood. One of his knees was pulled up so high it nearly touched his chest. My neighbors murmured, covered their mouths with their hands. John Barrow, Sr., tried to gather the boy in his arms, but seemed too worried about hurting him to lift him up. Cora Urbaez organized the other children and sent them inside for water, for a blanket, for anything. Beryl Barrow raced into her house and returned with bandages and gauze and several large white rags. She tried in vain to stop the bleeding, and then declared that he could not wait for an ambulance. She shoved her husband aside, lifted Frederick into the car, and began to accelerate before John Barrow, Sr. had both legs in the passenger seat. She did not ask Laboni Patel if she would look after her other two sons, but then, she did not have to. All around, neighbors looked at each other anxiously, as if such a thing couldn’t or shouldn’t have occurred during such a time of celebration.
Now I live in a neighborhood with a palisade and a partially paralyzed nine-year-old. Several weeks ago, I finished with Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I have not yet begun a new city. My rankings appear to me to be increasingly arbitrary. The more I think about it, the more uncertain I am of my project’s infallibility.
While sitting in the quiet of my kitchen last evening, I was troubled by my part in all of this. The signs, the palisade, Frederick Barrow’s accident. I find some comfort in the knowledge that I am responsible for only the signs about me, while the confessions and disclosures that followed must have been my neighbors’ own. That we all pretended to accept the official explanation—that a single, apparently omniscient signmaker was terrorizing our neighborhood—perhaps suggests that we were less afraid of the transgressions themselves than we were of our neighbors seeing us admit to them.
Should I have acted differently? Confessed myself to my neighbors in hopes that they would confess themselves back? Why did I never consider this a possibility?
I fear that I am becoming someone I never intended to become.