On an early autumn day last year, when the heat of the summer had finally lifted and the air, free of the heavy blanket of humidity it had previously been forced to move under, blew briskly about its business unencumbered, and everything was revealed more clearly in the absence of August’s foggy haze, a man named Karl began to walk down his street toward a section of town he had never been to before.
In truth, Karl had walked down his street more times than he could count. He had lived on Apple Street for over ten years and he rarely drove his car, so walking was necessarily the way he got to the nearest bus stop or to any of the stores along Main Street. Apple Street wasn’t a very long street; it began and ended at two larger roads barely two hundred yards apart from and parallel to each other. Karl’s house stood about in the middle, between Prospect Avenue and Main Street, so a walk to the end of his street in either direction from his front door would take under five minutes.
Or so Karl assumed. Every time he left his house Karl turned left at the bottom of his front steps, toward Main Street. He never turned right. On Main Street he could find a drug store, a supermarket, several restaurants and coffee shops and even a video rental store. The residents were often seen on their porch steps reading the day’s paper or drinking tea on weekend mornings; on weekdays they were usually hurrying out of their front doors on their way to work in the morning.
As far as he knew the street to his right, Prospect Avenue, had none of these things. What it was known for was something entirely different: the homes were said to be in disrepair, residents wandered and loitered day and night, and what few stores remained open sold only liquor and lottery tickets. It seemed to Karl, in fact, that if half of what he heard about Prospect Avenue were true than nothing savory could possibly happen there, particularly to him. That may or may not have been the case, of course, since Karl had never actually been to Prospect Avenue, but he always felt that he could trust his instincts, which had served Karl quite well in the past.
Which is why things had to have been a bit out of sorts on this particularly clement Monday morning last autumn. Karl didn’t have to go to work that day; in fact, he never worked on Mondays and always spent the day at his leisure. That is not to say, however, that he spent his time idly; his leisure was in fact dictated by a series of consecrated rituals: reading the newspaper at the kitchen table with morning coffee and a bowl of cereal, poking around in the garden out back, and then, at about 10:30, walking to Main Street for a bit of shopping, browsing, and lunch. These were rituals he rarely broke if he could help it, barring a doctor’s appointment or truly bad weather.
Karl enjoyed these Mondays just the way they were.
Normally after breakfast Karl would have stepped out his front door and immediately turned left toward Main Street without so much as a flicker in his mind about what he was doing or why, and he would have been off down Apple Street directly, but on this day he stood in thought at the sidewalk in front of his house for at least a minute.
What was keeping him there was a strong and entirely unexpected inclination to go in the other direction.
He couldn’t figure out why he would want to change his routine but didn’t feel that the idea was particularly offensive to him either. so after thinking about it for a minute he simply turned right and began to walk. This, he thought, was perhaps the oddest element of his surprise change of routine – it seemed to be his own intuition that was directing him toward Prospect Avenue.
While it would be too much to say that he was exhilarated, he was almost certainly curious – even excited – about this spontaneous adventure, so he looked with great attention to detail at each of the houses and yards as he passed. The first house on his right he had of course seen many times, as it sat directly next to his own, but he hadn’t noticed it much from the front and had never seen the side opposite his own windows. Karl noted how odd it was that, even though he was quite friendly with his other next-door neighbors, he had never actually met the occupants of this house but had only caught glimpses of them moving behind their drapes or bringing out the garbage on Sunday nights.
The house was very similar to Karl’s and must have been built around the same time, but there were distinct differences that Karl picked up at once: the shutters were dark green as opposed to Karl’s black, the landscaping at the front was a bit less inventive (he thought), the outdoor lighting fixtures were much newer, and there was a dormer projecting from the north side of the roof. This was all interesting, of course, but otherwise unremarkable. He continued to scrutinize the house as he walked.
As Karl craned his neck upward, though, he noticed someone moving behind one of the second floor dormer windows. There were curtains hanging down from both sides and consequently it was hard to tell what the figure was doing, or even whether the figure he was squinting to see was male or female, but each brief flash of movement sent a tiny jolt of electricity through Karl’s chest, and he quickly found himself veering off the sidewalk and walking into an empty garbage bin.
There was, as anyone could imagine, considerable noise. It was Monday, after all, and the neighborhood’s garbage was always collected on Mondays unless a significant holiday fell on that day, under which circumstance the collection would instead be on the following Tuesday morning.
It was a shame, Karl thought, gaining his footing just in time to see the garbage bin rolling awkwardly into the street, that there had been no such holiday this week. Chagrined and wincing, he pulled himself off the macadam, hopped into the street, picked up the bin, and turned toward the sidewalk, where he planned to quickly replace the receptacle and continue his walk, albeit with a fresh limp.
He had also planned to complete the task without looking back up at the second floor window, but the same voyeuristic impulse that had forced his attention away from where he was walking seemed inclined to make its presence known again, and he let his eyes dart, ever so quickly, up to the dormer again.
He immediately wished he hadn’t.
Leaning out of the window was a young woman. She was looking at him, and she was laughing. Karl felt another bolt, this one less like electricity and more like terror, shoot from his heart up to his face, which tingled with the force of a million blood vessels quickly filling to capacity. Karl, fearing that the intensity of his blushing, together with his apparent loss of motor skills, might cause the young woman to mistakenly assume he’d just had an aneurysm and was in need of serious medical assistance, quickly looked away and focused his attention on the bin.
Under normal circumstances rolling a trash bin in position wouldn’t require much effort or contain any risk, however at this particular moment Karl felt compelled to focus every bit of his attention on the task, fearing, as he did, another embarrassing upset. Consequently several long seconds passed while he pulled and shifted the thing upright and back into its original place.
After what seemed like an hour he completed the task, and, staring at the handle of the trash bin for several seconds in the somewhat futile hope that the redness of his complexion would diminish, he gradually got his bearings back. He looked back up at the second floor window.
She was still looking at him. Her expression, this time, bemused.
His first inclination was to turn around wordlessly and go right back to his house, but it being full daylight and Karl being, as it were, on the spot, he had no choice but to acknowledge the woman. It was, to say the least, an awkward moment for him, and as such he found himself unable to render an appropriate response. He did, however, manage this:
The woman resumed laughing. Karl met her gaze but for a second, then looked away quickly.
“I’m sorry if my trash offended you,” she said.
Karl swallowed hard.
“Oh, no – it didn’t. Really.”
“‘Cause there are several more along the road here, just so you know.”
Karl nodded. “I’m aware of that.”
To be continued…