Every day around 3:30 PM the ancient, scarecrow of a man would kneel down behind the small group of wild bushes in front of his shack. There he would wait until exactly 3:37 PM, at which time he would rise to his feet and hurl a rock across the street.
Sometimes these rocks--usually about the size of a softball--would land in the ditch or just inside the tree line. When one didn?t make it across the street, he would retrieve it, carefully shuffling across the lanes then returning to drop it behind the bushes. It reminded me of a turtle playing fetch.
I say "every day", but I?m not sure how long he had been doing it before Cynthia and I moved into our new home down the road. The first time I spoke to him, roughly six months after we became neighbors, I asked why he threw the rocks.
"Don?t know," he had answered and I didn?t push the issue.
However, over the course of another six months, which included several weekend nature walks, I became familiar with his pattern. I eventually realized he would perform his ritual the exact same time each day. And, after seeing him throw a rock on one of the very few weekdays I was home, I concluded this was an everyday practice for him.
His name was Lucas. His small, splintered home was built long before ours. We had contracted our new home after Cynthia got pregnant. Both of us yearned for the mystery of the woods we grew up around, so we bought twenty-five acres on the fringes of west suburbia. The only way we could afford so much was to move thirty miles out of the city; a small price to pay for giving our child the gift of growing up with Mother Nature.
Lucas was our closest neighbor. Even so, he was easily half a mile from us. His home very much resembled the man. A scaly, rusted tin roof topped the weathered, warped boards that barely passed for siding. A small porch bucked and wavered in front, acting as a cracked lower lip to a gaping mouth where the door was coming off. An outhouse, in much worse shape, stood at the other end of his dirt yard, shunned by the house.
Our home was a modest three-bedroom, two-bath ranch with a cozy wrap-around porch and genuine tire swing hanging from one of the many hardwoods scattered about the yard. We had all the room we needed for our welcome addition and ourselves. Tucked away in those trees, we both felt the pressures of the urban life melt away.
The solitude proved to be a larger blessing when Cynthia lost the baby at seven months. Being so far out of the city meant relatives and well wishers were few and far between. There were no neighbors bringing over casseroles (if Lucas had, I doubt we would have eaten it). The loss seemed to be more than our marriage could withstand. I withdrew to my study most evenings, afraid to approach her, not wanting to invoke any disturbing thoughts or memories that would start her on another crying jag. She mostly sat in the living room, watching television. She took a leave of absence from both work and us, then seemingly her life in general.
I was on another walk, avoiding Cynthia, when I finally built up the nerve to talk with Lucas again. I found him sitting on his front porch. He was staring ahead at the road or the trees--it was hard to tell as the whites of his eyes had yellowed so much they blended with the light brown color around his pupils. He didn?t seem to take notice of my approach until I opened my mouth to speak and he cut me off.
"Sorry ?bout your baby," he grunted then rolled his tongue along his blackened gum line as if the comment tasted sour in his mouth.
This caught me by surprise. For a brief moment I didn?t understand what he was talking about. Having never seen the old, beaten truck in his yard gone, nor ever seen any visitors parked outside his home, I was amazed that he knew of Cynthia’s miscarriage.
"Thank you, Lucas," I stammered.
I stood there for a moment, pretending to be as interested in the trees and sky as he seemed. A car passed by and we both turned our heads to follow it. Two crows called from overhead and landed in Lucas? front yard, scratching and pecking at the dirt, then flying away, voicing their disappointment. I opened my mouth to speak, this time to ask how Lucas had known about our misfortune, when he cut me off again.
"Don?t know," he said.
Over the next few months Cynthia came back around, slowly. She went back to work and our relationship grew less tense, though the connection we had been so excited over early in our marriage hadn?t seemed to return. I continued my occasional visits with Lucas, though for the most part the conversation was still lacking. In the course of fifteen visits with Lucas, I learned only three additional facts about our estranged neighbor:
He had never been married.
He had never had kids.
He had a way of "knowing things."
The first two were rare bits of conversation offered by Lucas. I did most of the talking; he would nod or grunt. I pried a chuckle from him on one occasion, relating a story from my youth involving two friends and some firecrackers. Other than that, he never much responded much to what I had to say, at least verbally.
However, one hot afternoon we were sitting on the porch, again in silence, and he spoke:
I had learned to refrain from asking the "whos" or "whats" of his comments. I had gotten used to his cryptic quotes and even more cryptic--if not seemingly uninformative--responses. Usually, there was no need to ask. It became just a matter of time and patience; the answer would come. Sometimes it took minutes. Sometimes it took days.
In this particular instance the answer took only a few minutes and came in the form of an SUV bearing out-of-state license plates. The vehicle passed once, slowing down while the female in the passenger seat and two children in back gawked out the window at us. It wasn?t long before they came back from the other direction and rolled up next to the porch to ask directions.
After they drove away with a flurry of smiles and waves, I was able to get one word out before Lucas answered my pending question.
"How-" I began.
On one of the many occasions when we were just sitting on his porch enjoying the breeze, I saw his hands grip the armrests of his rocker. His eyes went wide and his lips trembled.
"You okay, Lucas?"
When he didn?t respond I stood and leaned in close. He was breathing, though it was quick and shallow. His eyes stared past me, through me.
"Lucas?" I repeated, when suddenly the spell passed as quickly as it had started.
"Somethin? bad gonna happen here," he said, calm and apparently not as concerned as his initial reaction warranted.
He did not answer.