The house was perfect and the asking price surprisingly low. The realtor told Jerome and his wife, Jenny, that the home had been lost by its previous owner through foreclosure.
"Very sad for them," the realtor said, "but a bargain for you."
Jenny cooed at the built-in cabinets, the cathedral ceilings in the great room, the field-stone fireplace made granite boulders glinting with quartzite and the chilly stone slabs in the kitchen. From the home’s deck, she raised her hand as if she were holding a conjuror’s wand and gestured: Behold! The lot sloped down to the river where the stream purred over pebbles in cool, braided rapids. Small cliffs shadowed the creek beyond the flowing water and the ledges were pocked with cubbyholes from which swallows came and went. The shady green landscape was perfumed with bird songs and bright with blue and yellow and purple flowers.
The house was tucked into the slope of the hill, a dozen yards above the river, its redwood deck with hot-tub jutting out over a fern-filled ravine oozing spring water into the creek. A small footbridge arched the gulch next to the river and a path made from red-brown bricks inset in the hillside like a complex mosaic ran parallel to the stream.
"What is that?" Jerome asked.
"The easement," the realtor said. "It’s a walking trail that links all the properties here at River’s Bend."
"River’s Bend" was the name of the neighborhood, a dozen or so houses, nestled in the hillsides overlooking the creek, each lot blessed with a view of the stream, the picturesque dell, the glint of water rolling merrily over stones and tawny bars of sand. The city was nine miles away by township road, close enough for convenience, but sufficiently remote to be invisible from this pleasant wooded place in the country. Jenny said that she thought she glimpsed deer grazing in wooded glen. "Of course," the realtor said. "There are so many deer it can be a nuisance."
"A nuisance?" Jerome asked.
"Deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, you see...wild turkeys all the time come down from corn fields to drink at the stream," the realtor said.
The realtor wore plastic sunglasses that wrapped around her broad, pale face and it made Jerome a little uneasy that he could not see her eyes. Earlier, when they first met in the foreclosed home’s driveway, the realtor told Jenny that she was recovering from cataract surgery and that bright light was painful to her and that she hoped that they would excuse the fact that her doctor had prescribed sunglasses for her that she couldn’t remove even for a minute. "It’s okay," Jenny said and the realtor grinned and showed her yellow teeth and Jerome wondered at her age. The woman’s face was bo-tox smooth and her jawline firm and she was beautifully accessorized with a dangly necklace over her large bosom that seemed to be made of bleached, elegantly shaped bones, turquoise rings on her fingers, and sandals with rhinestone straps on her small, white feet. She looked prosperous and smelled faintly of rose-water and lilac.
They walked down some steps inset in the fern-green slope to the pathway along the water. Jerome looked right and left and saw that the laid-brick trail followed the stream through archways of undergrowth that seemed to have been carefully manicured and cut-back away from the path. In the distance, someone was chugging along the trail on a compact beige-colored golf-cart.
"Everyone is the neighborhood has equal access to the trail," the realtor said. "It’s charming isn’t it. But just the people in the neighborhood, mind you. It’s not a public trail."
"So it’s an amenity," Jenny said.
"Like a gated community," Jerome added.
"But without the gates," the realtor said.
The trail curved to follow the river’s bend and the golf cart vanished in the green foliage. A hawk rode a thermal overhead, surveying the cliffside pockmarked with the swallows’ burrows.
"There are six houses on this side of the creek running up to the point where the meander of the river changes direction," the realtor said. "There are another six houses on this same side of the creek after the point."
"Who owns the other side of the stream?" Jerome asked, looking across the stream, rippling with mild rapids.
"You do," the realtor said. "That’s one of the benefits. You own the opposing bank as well, up to the clifftops where it’s farmland, zoned agricultural. So no one can acquire the property facing your home and build anything that might be detrimental to your view."
"That’s wonderful," Jenny said.
"If you’re interested," the realtor said, "we can go up to the promontory, the place where the river changes direction. There’s an easement on the point too, just a little lot where it’s too steep and wild to build with some ruins."
"Ruins?" Jerome asked.
"During the Civil War, there was a gunpowder rolling mill there," the realtor said. "You need lots of water to make gunpowder. There’s nothing left now but some walls and a little platform where the rolling mill was located. The neighborhood association owns that in common too."
Jenny shrugged. Jerome could see that she was ready to sign anything that the realtor set before her.
"Maybe, we should meet some of the neighbors," Jerome said.
"You know, the head of the Neighborhood Association wants to me you too," the realtor said. "I’ll get him on his cell-phone and, if he’s around, you can see him right now."
She placed a call.
Jenny sidled up to Jerome on the footbridge arched over the ravine. Water trickled under their feet. "It’s just perfect," Jenny said.
"Too good to be true," Jerome said through tightly clenched lips.
Bradford, the president of the Neighborhood Association, was at his house and he said he could meet them "at the Point."
"That’s what the neighbors call the bend of the river with the little park," the realtor said.
They walked through the cool, empty house. The rooms whispered faintly to them and the pale carpet and hardwood floors seemed never to have been marred by furniture or any other use, pristine expanses dappled with leaf-shadow from the trees surrounding the home. Stainless steel glinted in the big kitchen like the blade of a half-veiled knife.
The realtor drove them in her daisy-yellow Cadillac to the Point. A narrow one-lane driveway coiled around the curve in the river and Jerome could see large, nicely maintained houses standing in the creek-side hollows. Two fat wild turkeys strutted across the lane. Where the road turned to track the river-valley beyond the bend, there was a broad place in the lane where cars could be parked with their sides nuzzled up against a big, spiky cornfield. A little asphalt path was woven into the hillside and they ambled through three or four sinuous curves before reaching a stony clearing. Old trees arched up into the sky and there were big boulders the size of cows brooding in the river gorge. Above the boulders, three or four crumbling masonry walls intersected and there were steps hacked into a flank of rocky ledge, crude toe-holds that climbed four feet up to a squat, black pillar. The pillar was smeared white with bird-droppings from the swallows nervously entering and leaving their dwellings bored into the mud cliffs on the other side of the river. A golf-cart was parked next to the ledge and a sinewy man with a sun-burned bald head was standing over them on the stone pedestal encrusted with bird-lime.
"Bradford," the realtor said.
The little man was wearing sunglasses also and held in his hand a baseball cap. On the brim of the baseball cap, the word "Duffer" was printed. The man slipped down from the pillar, sliding along the rock shelf on other steps engraved in the stone even smaller and more tenuous than the toe-holds. He moved with surprising grace and speed.
"Welcome to the Point," Bradford said. He shook their hands. His grip was vise-like and cold as iron sunk in the belly of a deep, glacial lake.
"Bradford developed the whole neighborhood," the realtor said.
The little man also wore sunglasses, but he nudged them down on his cheek so that Jerome and Jenny could see his clear, startlingly blue eyes. He looked over the rim of the dark glasses for a moment, and, then, slid them up over his eyes again.
"I built this place," Bradford said.
"It’s wonderful," Jenny told him.
"Excuse the mess up here," Bradford said. "The birds have fouled things up." He pointed to the dense impasto of birdlime on the pedestal. "Kemal," he shouted, "where are you Kemal?"
A fat boy came trotting from some nearby bushes, his face twisted in a big, jack-o-lantern grin. He seemed to be zipping up the fly on his khaki shorts.
"We’re going to have to clean this up, Kemal," Bradford said. Jerome noticed that the small man spoke with a faint accent.
Kemal shrugged and sat down in the driver’s seat on the pale golf cart.
"Kemal is kind of our mascot," Bradford said. "He’s a foreign exchange student and lives with my wife and I."
Kemal seemed not to hear what Bradford said. Jerome noticed he had an Ipod tucked in the breastpocket of his shirt, earbuds stuffed in his ears.
"We’re looking at the house, up the creek," Jerome said.
"Oh, yes," Bradford replied. "The Winston place."
"Winston?" Jenny asked.
"Foreclosed," the realtor said.
"A real shame," Bradford said. "First time that’s ever happened out here. This is a very, very solid neighborhood," he added.
"What happened to the Winstons?" Jerome asked.
"A divorce or something," the realtor said.
"A tragedy," Bradford added.
"Do you know where they are?" Jerome said. "I should maybe ask him about the furnace, you know, the roof, the HVAC and so on."
"I don’t know where they went," the realtor said. "They separated or something."
"Do you know where they are?" Jerome asked Bradford.
"Oh yes," Bradford said.
"So I should talk to him...or her..." Jerome took a pen from his pocket and prepared to make a note on the small pad of paper on which he had scribbled directions to the neighborhood.
"But you can’t reach them," Bradford said.
"I don’t know where she’s gone. But’s he’s inaccessible," Bradford said.
"Just make her warrant the furnace, HVAC, and so on," Bradford said laughing. He waved his baseball cap at the realtor then set it on his head.
"Will you do that?" Jerome asked the realtor.
She grimaced. "If the price is right," the realtor said.
"We have picnics here, bonfires and stuff, like that," Bradford said. "In season."
"Very nice," Jenny replied.
"Tell them how you found this place," the realtor said to Bradford.
"It was after the war," he said. "I came back from the battlefields, you know, and I was wild in those days, willing to take some risks. So I got a job crop-dusting, flying over the fields hereabouts and putting down pesticides and, one day – I’ll never forget it – I came low over this river and the bend where we’re standing. I was spraying the corn on both sides of the valley, making passes and I saw this old mill – there was more of it standing then – and the ravines and the rapids and I thought it was just about the prettiest place that I ever saw. So I went to the county recorder’s office, found out who owned the cropland on this side of the creek – I knew some of the farmers because I had dusted for them and so I had pretty good rapport with those old timers... so you know, I made ‘em offers and bought the land that they couldn’t till, the wooded slopes down to the river and, then, the other bank too. The land didn’t mean anything to them because you couldn’t plant it in row-crops but I understood that it was valuable. So I got the property, went to the Township Zoning commission and got it all subdivided and platted and, this, my friends is the result." He waved his hands over the landscape and Jerome followed the motion of his fingers and saw the windows of the big houses nearby glinting in the tall trees, glimpsed fragments of lawn through the thickets, flower beds decorating the edge of a winding path and bird houses tacked to trees and, even, a wooden shelter for bats hanging overhead.
"It’s a magical place," Bradford said. "You know, I mean that literally."
Kemal had taken a big sack of M & M’s from his pocket and was gulping them down. He was fat everywhere. Even his fingers were plump, chubby stubs that he used to slide the candy between his blubbery lips.
"It is magical," Jenny said.
"Does the river flood?" Jerome asked.
"Now that, my friend, is a very intelligent question," Bradford said. His cheek twitched as if he were winking but the sunglasses concealed his eyes. "It could flood and, you know, it might flood. There’s a dam upstream only a mile or so, but they let water come through if it the level gets too high...and so..."
"So it does flood?"
"No," Bradford said. "The Association, the Neighborhood Association takes care of that."
"Really," Jerome said. "How much does it cost?"
"Oh, next to nothing," Bradford said.
"What is next to nothing?" Jerome asked, directing the question to realtor.
"She doesn’t know,’ Bradford said. "I know." He spread his arms to encompass the neighborhood. "We all know."
Jenny said: "I’m sure it’s no big deal."
"It doesn’t cost much of anything," Bradford said. "I give you my word."
"Okay," Jerome said.
"You trust me?" Bradford asked.
"Of course," Jerome replied. "You seem trustworthy."
"Out here in the country," Bradford said. "We’re all in this together. Do you know what I mean? We’re all in the same boat together. One for all, all for one."
"It sounds cozy," Jenny said.
"It is," Bradford replied.
They shook hands and Jerome and Jenny walked up the curving blacktopped trail to the parking spot. The golf cart whirred behind them and they gave way to let it pass. Kemal was driving and Bradford sat beside him, his leg casually cocked out of the cart.
The cart sped by and the realtor shook her head: "That kid..." she said. "Every time I come out here he’s tooling around in the golf cart. It’s like he’s never in school. The folks out here, they just dote on him."
"Does he speak English?" Jenny asked.
"You know I’ve never heard him talk one way or the other," the realtor said.
They sat in the realtor’s car. Jenny and Jerome were a little warm from the walk up the hill from the Point and so the realtor turned on her vehicle and ran the air-conditioner. They discussed terms and conditions. "It’s all contingent on financing," Jerome said. "But we can get the money," Jenny added.
It seemed that the Purchase Agreement was too formal a document to sign in the car. So they stepped out of the vehicle and, first, Jerome signed, then, Jenny leaning over the glazed, bright yellow hood of the Cadillac to execute the document. The realtor looked relieved, although her expression was hard to gage because of the sunglasses wrapped around her forehead. She said: "You understand about the easements, the lane, the trail on the properties, the common ownership of the Point."
"More or less," Jerome said. Jenny nodded her head.
"The lawyer can explain more about that at the closing," the realtor told them. "Make sure you tell your lender. It can affect financing."
"Will do," Jerome said.
They shook hands standing on the edge of forest, the cornfield glinting in the breeze, stalks bright gold and amber moistening to green where they were inserted in the black loam. The realtor drove them back to their car at the foreclosed house that they had just purchased.
On the road back to the city, Jerome asked Jenny: "What did you make of Bradford?"
"Nice," she said. "Like your favorite uncle."
"What war do you think he was talking about?" Jerome asked.
"I don’t know Vietnam or Desert Storm, you know, first Iraq war or something," she said.
"You don’t know your history very well," Jerome said.
"I don’t care about wars," Jenny said.
"I was thinking maybe the Korean war," Jerome told her.
"When was that?" Jenny asked.
"I don’t know," Jerome said. "Maybe 1960 or something."
"You’re crazy," Jenny said. "He wasn’t that old. You don’t judge age very well."
"I guess you’re right," Jerome said. "Do you think we’re making a mistake?"
Jenny shrugged. They had come to the brink of a hill and, suddenly, the farmland and open country gave way to streets and churches and small skyscrapers irregularly spaced, the city spread out below them.
"Who knows?" she said.
"Maybe, we’re making a mistake?" Jerome said. "What if the neighbors are all weird or something? It seems like pretty tight-knit community."
"Only twelve houses," Jenny said.
"Or is it thirteen with the place we’ve got the offer on?"
"I don’t know," Jenny said.
"Are we making a mistake?"
"We are not making a mistake," Jenny said.
The lawyer looked like Richard Nixon on a bad day and he spoke with a sibillant lisp. Legal documents were fanned-out across the conference room table. Jenny and Jerome inspected those documents, suspiciously eyeing them from a distance as if they were an array of blackjack hands. A loan officer from the bank that had foreclosed on the home sat next to the inert bulk of his briefcase set on its side on the table like a dead muskrat. The lawyer seemed to enjoy the sound of his voice which seemed odd since his intonations and inflections, always hovering midway between admonition and threat, grated on the ear like chalk squeaking on a chalk board.
The lawyer told the buyers that normally he didn’t attend closings involving residential real estate, that the bank handled these transactions with a paralegal closing agent, but that this specific agreement was exceptional and, therefore, his presence was required. "It is because of the ancillary undertakings," the lawyer said. "Those must be thoroughly explained."
The lawyer said that Jenny and Jerome were purchasing their home subject to an easement and a maintenance agreement relating to that easement. "In other words, your real estate comes burdened with certain restrictions, rights and obligations."
The lawyer digressed. He told the couple that many neighborhoods in the City had once been "restricted" – that meant, the owners of the homes could not sell their property to Jews or "people of color." The banker looked embarrassed and fiddled with the combination lock on his briefcase. "Of course, those kinds of restrictions, once very common, I can assure you, are unenforceable today," he proclaimed. "Time’s change."
"So are the agreements in our contract, you know, the agreements in these documents unenforceable also?" Jerome asked.
The lawyer took off his bifocals, set them gently, on the table, and, then, for emphasis, picked his glasses up again, setting them low on his nose so that he could peer over their rims at Jerome.
"Oh, no," he said. "these covenants are very much enforceable. That’s why I’m here to explain this to you. The last transaction, the one involving the foreclosed purchasers – well, let me say that claims were raised as to confusion about the easement terms. The purchasers didn’t exactly want to abide by certain aspects of the easement agreements. And so – "
"So they lost the property?" Jenny asked.
"Something like that," the lawyer said, shifting his watery gaze to her.
"We wanted to talk to them, you know, about the house and the property..." Jerome said.
"I’m afraid that can’t be accomplished," the banker said.
The lawyer put up his hand to signal silence.
Then, he said: "I simply want to insure that you know about the easements, that you’re properly signed-up, and that you understand what this entails."
The lawyer said that an easement was a right to make use of the property of another, limited, however, by certain terms and conditions. "In this case," the lawyer said, "there is a trail that runs parallel to the river. You’ve seen it, of course. You are granting an easement to the each and every neighbor in your subdivision to use that trail as it traverse your land. Do you understand that agreement?"
Jenny and Jerome nodded their heads.
"The easement runs with the land. It’s not personal to you. Rather, it’s recorded with the County and anyone who buys the property grants that easement in perpetuity to the other properties along the river – thirteen, I think, in all."
"Twelve," the banker said.
"Thirteen including Jenny and Jerome," the lawyer said, correcting him. "Because, you see, in exchange for that grant, that conveyance, you are also authorized to use the trail as it winds along the river on the property of your neighbors. You can traverse the entire extent of the trail, to the point of land where the river bends and, then, in both directions across the adjacent lots."
"Any kind of use, at any time?" Jerome asked.
"Well, there are limitations. Except for certain designated holidays, special days, you shouldn’t use the trail after 11:00 pm at night. I don’t think the trail is kept shoveled or clear of snow in the winter months. And, of course, use is limited to bikes, pedestrian, travel, light wheeled vehicles..."
"Golf carts," Jenny said. "We saw people cruising along the trail on golf carts."
"I think that’s right," the lawyer said.
"It seems simple enough," Jerome said.
"There’s a common driveway agreement too," the lawyer said. "It’s pretty standard."
He tapped a pile of papers. "Okay," Jerome said.
The lawyer nudged a sheaf of papers toward Jerome: "This – (he said) – is a maintenance agreement. It’s kind of a neighborhood association agreement. In exchange for use of the trail, everyone agrees to share equally in the maintenance expenses associated with the trail. There are annual assessments, I think. And you have to attend two neighborhood association meetings annually. They are on March 20 and September 22. I want you to note those meeting dates."
"Why those dates?" Jenny asked.
"They seem familiar to me..." Jerome said.
"Those meetings are mandatory," the banker said. "I know it seems weird but you have to attend. See those are the meetings where the responsibility is shared. The people who lost the home – I want you to know that they refused to attend those meetings. After the first one they opted out, and that...well, that...that was..."
"That was the beginning of the troubles that led to their foreclosure," the lawyer said briskly.
"Well, if it’s important to attend, we’ll be there," Jenny said. Jerome nodded his head in agreement with her.
The lawyer talked for a few more minutes. Then, pens were produced and Jenny and Jerome bent over the documents, signing them one after another, without taking the time to read the legalese. The final document was printed in bold letters on a single sheet.
"What is this?" Jerome asked.
"A confidentiality agreement," the lawyer told him.
"Confidentiality?" Jerome said. "Why do we need a confidentiality agreement?"
"So you won’t talk about the easements or the business of the neighborhood association," the lawyer said. "Take a moment to read this."
Jerome scanned the document.
"Is this typical?" Jerome asked. "Is this ordinarily part of a home transaction?"
"No," the lawyer said. "Almost never."
"So why do we have to sign this?"
The lawyer shrugged. "I don’t know," he said. "But the association has hired me to conduct this meeting and they insist you sign the confidentiality stipulation."
"I don’t see any harm," Jenny said.
"You have to sign in blood...your blood..." the lawyer said.
"What the hell?" Jerome replied.
"No...we have to prick your finger and have you sign the confidentiality agreement in blood," the lawyer said.
"Really?" Jenny asked.
"Really," the lawyer said.
"What the hell?" Jerome said again.
"I’m just teasing you," the lawyer said. He handed Jerome a pen.
"Just sign it in ordinary ink," the lawyer told them.
The banker laughed loudly, a harsh barking sound. "He had you there," the banker said. "You believed him."
The people in the neighborhood along the river were successful, hospitable, and welcoming. On the July weekend after Jenny and Jerome moved into their home, the neighbors invited them to a bonfire at the Point. There was beer and a picnic table with hors d’ouevres and someone had brought a CD player so that music resounded, echoing off the low, pierced cliffs on the other side of the stream. Golf carts were parked in neat ranks along the trail.
The summer was dry and brush on which the bonfire fed was dry to the point that the branches and twigs shuddered when thrown into the flames and, then, erupted explosively, great tongues of fire licking upward into the night. Introductions were made but the night was dark and the big fire threw a livid glare onto the people standing near the blaze and they were sweating so that their eyes and cheeks and upper lips glistened with an orange flicker. Somehow, the big bonfire made it harder to see and less easy to recognize people than would have been the case if the encounters had simply occurred in the darkness, voices calling to one another and recognized by tone like musical notes.
The river trembled with fire-light and Jerome thought he saw the dark eyes of deer and raccoons watching them from the shadows. Bats tumbled through the air. The fat mascot, Kemal, squatted near the fire, his face impassive and broad, a Buddha crouched with his back to the flames. Sometimes, people threw him scraps from the food table and, when a song played on the CD player that he liked, Kemal stood up and danced, waggling his fat buttocks and shimmying in a haze of acrid smoke.
Jenny said that it was extraordinary that there were no mosquitoes.
Mr. and Mrs. Henderson said: "We never get them here. They leave us alone." They were retired school teachers. Their granddaughter was an executive in Silicon Valley.
"Why is that?"
"It’s a magical place," the Henderson’s said.
Jerome gestured toward Kemal, dancing in the shifting veils of wood-smoke. "He’s a good dancer," Jerome said.
Bradford shrugged. "He knows he’s getting to the end of his time with us," he said.
Bill and Rhonda were a handsome couple. They stood outlined by the bonfire’s blaze and the sweat gleaming orange and red on their foreheads made halos above their eyes. Bill was a commercial pilot. Rhonda was a bookkeeper for local contractor. They pointed to the fleet of golf carts parked along the path.
"Which is yours?" Bill asked.
"We don’t have one," Jenny said. "We walked up here from our house."
"Oh, you have to get one," Rhonda said.
"Yes," Bill told them. "We have a kind of parade at the Fall meeting. With the carts."
"Really?" Jerome said.
They drank beer and some of the couples danced to the music as well. The men talked about sports and the women discussed their children and grandchildren. Strange lights moved through the sky. Kemal was drinking beer, sometimes by holding the tube from the keg between his lips.
"Should he be drinking?" Jenny asked.
A tall woman wearing sandals and huge hoop earrings said: "Where he comes from, kids his age are allowed to drink."
The tall woman was a hospital administrator.
"Really?" Jerome said.
"He’s used to drinking," the tall woman said.
Later, Kemal took off his clothing, stripped to his jockey shorts, and waded in the stream, splashing water all around him. The bonfire had collapsed into itself. The neighborhood people ignored him. A college professor who taught mathematics pointed out formations of stars in the sky. A life insurance salesman and his wife went to the edge of the river, kicked off their shoes, and stood knee-deep in the stream.
Bradford proposed a toast to Jenny and Jerome. An orthodontist produced a guitar and began strumming it. He sang the theme song from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. When the words "a three-hour cruise" occurred in the tune, everyone sang – some of the voices were deep and dark, others were shrill, and some of the people whinnied like horses.
Everyone had a good time.
The people in the neighborhood supported one another. The younger couples still had children at home, participating in high school sports or theater or music. Neighbors attended football games and band concerts so that they could praise the accomplishments of the children next door or down the lane. They helped out in one another’s gardens or assisted the older people in clearing brush at the edges of their lots. On the weekends, the woods and the river gorge hummed with the sound of chain-saws, men busy as bees in the thickets cutting wood for winter.
The tall woman who worked as a hospital administrator led Jenny on a tour of her acreage, pointing out the trees that she had tapped for maple syrup last Spring. Jerome jogged on the trail every morning when the cold, wet fog filled the spaces between trees, foaming up from the river. He met neighbors walking their great, shaggy dogs and nodded to them. When someone was sick, or had to be hospitalized, the women carried casseroles to the ill person’s house or picked wild flowers in the meadows for the hospital room. At night, Jerome saw Kemal riding a golf cart alone down the brick and cobble trail, wan headlights probing the darkness, fat and round as a little king, steering with one hand, a liter of soda pop cradled between his thighs.
In late August, a green cloud dangled over the sultry fields. The cloud had doors, also colored green although darker, mixed with ash, and, late in the afternoon, the doors opened, releasing tornados that whirled like tops around the county, killing cows and lifting silos and trashing mobile homes. Folks from the neighborhood volunteered to help with the clean-up and they formed crews to pick through the debris where the storms had shredded outbuildings and torn limbs from trees as big as trees themselves and left them in driveways and ditches where baffled birds nested in them. As the crews combed the wreckage, the skies lowered again until the shroud of clouds dragged over the earth and, then, a vast, continuous rain ensued. There was no sunset but, when the light diminished into night, the fall of rain increased, torrents falling through a steady cannonade of thunder.
Jerome returned home, wet and muddy, and Jenny told him that the river was rising in an alarming way and, further, that there was a rumor that the local authorities might have to relieve pressure on the little dam upstream by releasing water through the spillways. "But this will flood us," Jerome said. He stood on the deck, next to his hot tub and grill, both of them draped in rain-slick black canvas. He heard the river more than he could see it – a churning waterfall sound in the spray of rain. The current had whipped the stream to foam and Jerome thought he saw ribbons and bands of white water surging past the house.
"It looks like the river is above us," Jerome said. "The crest of the river seems to be higher than our house."
"How can that be?" Jenny said.
"Apparently an optical illusion," Jerome said.
"Should we evacuate?" Jenny asked.
Jerome called Bradford on his cell-phone and said that he was concerned about the river and the torrents of water roaring past his house.
"It’ll be alright," Bradford said. "We’re protected."
"How are we protected?"
"We just are," Bradford said. "You can depend upon it."
The next day, Jerome cautiously walked along the trail, wading through soggy green drifts of fallen branches. In a couple of places the trail had been washed away, the paving bricks slumped down to lie in disarray on the edge of the swollen, glistening river. All the leaves were wet and dripping with water and the day sparkled with a million glinting highlights, the sun touching prisms of water on branches and foliage.
Bradford was standing with a shovel near a place where the flood had torn away part of the riverside trail.
"Much damage?" Bradford asked.
"None to my house," Jerome said.
"Didn’t I tell you?" Bradford said. "You were protected. It’s like an easement; it runs with the land."
"You were right," Jerome replied.
Bradford said: "We have to get the trail in order for the neighborhood association meeting in September."
"When is that?" Jerome asked.
"Equinox...Autumn equinox," Bradford said.
A battered-looking squirrel limped across the trail and the sky above was immensely deep and cloudless and blue.
On the evening before the meeting of the Neighborhood Association, Jerome saw Bradford’s golf cart purring along the walkway next to the river. The evening was still and little columns of gnats danced over the rippling rapids and the river was brown and green. Kemal was driving the cart. He had grown very fat during the last month and his summer shorts and tee-shirt were too small for him. A roll of pink flesh was extruded over the top of his shorts like a flabby belt around hs midsection.
Jerome stepped from inside his house and stood on the redwood deck. Bradford walked up the stone steps to the landscaped terraces that Jerome had built along the river-side of his home. Frogs were singing in the thickets.
"Just wanted to check to see if you’re gonna make the Association meeting tomorrow night?" Bradford asked Jerome.
"I’ll be there – eight o’clock right?"
"Eight p.m.," Bradford said.
"What’s on the agenda?" Jerome asked.
"Some assessments for maintenance, not too bad at all. Flood protection, of course – we do that every years. This and that," Bradford told him.
"We’ll have some adult beverages," Bradford said. "The Hamptons are going to do a pig roast."
The Hamptons were neighbors who lived on the other side of the point. Mr. Hampton managed a grocery store in the city. His wife was a bookkeeper at a furniture warehouse in one of the small towns a few miles away.
"That should be great," Jerome said.
"They’ve got the pig and an actual roaster, a big chain-driven rotisseries rig," Bradford said. "It’s scary-looking, like black torpedo or something. But I’m sure the pork will be first-rate."
Jerome reached out and shook Bradford’s hand. He made the gesture impulsively.
"My wife and I..." Jerome said. "My wife and I...we just wanted to thank you, to thank you for letting us be a... be a part of...."
"Don’t mention it," Bradford said. "After tomorrow’s association meeting, you’ll be just one of good folks in the neighborhood."
"I know," Jerome said. "It’s home for us now. So I want to thank you."
"Listen," Bradford said. "Real estate is the only real wealth in the world. It’s the only thing that matters. Did you ever fly into London, maybe, or Hamburg?"
"I guess so," Jerome said. "London...but that was years ago."
"When you look out the window as the plan drops down to Heathrow," Bradford said, "you see those little farms, the fields, the villages in the middle of the fields, the ancient lanes and stone fences and hedges. You understand that those fields were laid out that way at the time of the Domesday Book, a thousand years ago. The partition of the land, the placement of the barns and silos, the villages, the farmhouses, all of that is a thousand years old or older. The boundaries are eternal. The same tract of land may be owned by a hundred people one after another, but the description of that land, the location of the acreage, it’s always the same geographic site."
"Really," Jerome said.
"It’s exactly the same in Germany. The same in Mexico City. The plots of land, the barrios, the townsquares, all of that organization, the plat, as it were – that’s all from before Columbus, probably from before the Aztecs even – it’s ancient. Those old fences, those thorn-hedges, they go back hundreds of years, thousands of years, way back to before Christ, when the world was still pagan."
"I suppose," Jerome said.
Bradford turned to leave. The evening was cool and tiny fingers of mist were rising from the still deep lagoons in the meanders of the river.
Down the hill, sprawled across the golf cart, Kemal was eating a big candy bar.
"We’ll be saying goodbye to Kemal tomorrow," Bradford said.
"He’s going back to his home-country?" Jerome asked.
"He’s pretty much done here," Bradford said.
The roast pig seemed to have been stretched out like fine caramel taffy and its skin was burnt brown and brittle. The hog rested in a great bath of fat rendered from its meat, grease glistening in the flames from the bonfire at the Point, the roast animal’s haunches and open belly pillowed on nut-brown heaps of moist pulled pork. Everyone commented that they had never tasted meat so sweet and fresh and juicy.
The fat masonry pedestal at the bend in the river had been cleansed of the bird-droppings covering the flat slabs that crowned the pillar. The surface of the slabs were black, as if painted with a crinkly dark pigment.
Jenny asked Bill and Rhonda whether the brick ruins had been painted.
"Oh, no," Rhonda said. "You’re just seeing the residue."
Kemal was staggering around the edges of clearing, tripping over roots and fallen branches and river-rocks. He seemed to be very drunk. His lower jaw and his cheeks were slick with pork grease.
Bradford and the woman who worked as a hospital administrator stood with their backs against the fat pedestal-shaped pillar. The woman had a small flashlight and, as the meeting progressed, she took handwritten notes on a legal pad. The flashlight was clumsy to hold and its beam slipped haphazardly from face to face, illuminating the features of the neighbors who stood in circle around the broken stone monument – it seemed as if the hospital administrator was mostly making her notes by the red light of the bonfire that lunged toward the sky, spraying sparks up into the darkness.
The mathematician who taught at the college said that he had devised a formula to pro rate the neighborhood assessments. He set down his beer on a flat stone and explained the formula but no one seemed to understand it. There was no dispute, however, because the assessments were, more or less, equal, differing by fifteen or twenty dollars on sums of about three hundred dollars total. Mr. Henderson made a motion to accept the mathematician’s assessments. Someone seconded the motion and it was unanimously passed.
"Tonight," Bradford said, "we are saying farewell to our friend, Kemal."
When he named Kemal, the neighbors applauded loudly and hooted and the fat young man raised his plump, pink hands as if to bestow a benediction on them all. Someone suggested a toast to Kemal and everyone raised their cups of beer in his name.
Mrs. Henderson announced: "We have arranged for an exchange student to come here next month from Kenya. It will be a young woman. I’m sure we will all be excited to greet her."
The neighbors showed their approval by applauding Mrs. Henderson’s remark.
The airline pilot produced a small, globular CD player. Everyone stood at attention while the machine played "The Star Spangled Banner."
Bradford climbed up onto the stubby pillar and stood there next to Kemal and the tall woman who worked as a hospital administrator. Kemal was wobbly on his feet, swaying back and forth. Curlicues of smoke glowing with sparks rolled up from the fire and seemed to darken their red-lit faces. The big woman stepped behind Kemal and seemed to hug him, wrapping her long arms around his shoulders and chest in a tight embrace. Bradford took a big box-cutter with a hooked blade from his pants pocket and slashed the blade across Kemal’s belly. The boy’s shirt was ripped and thick, glistening stuff spilled out over his belt and made a ragged dark apron dangling down across his groin and thighs. Kemal raised his head and squealed.
The woman released him and Kemal dropped to his knees on the stone pedestal. With both hands he was groping at his wound, trying to stuff the offal back inside his body.
Bradford raised the boxcutter swiftly so that drops of blood were flung from the blade into the darkness.
"This is for the pioneers," Bradford said loudly. "This is for the Indians who the pioneers murdered. This is for the buffalo that the Indians slaughtered. This is for the wild creatures and the fish and the earth and the river." He paused. Kemal’s blood sprayed from the places where he had been slashed. "This is to keep the river from rising and washing us all away," he said. He stooped to rip furrows in Kemal’s shoulders and upper neck.
The tall woman took the box-cutter from Bradford and hacked at Kemal’s back, above his kidneys. Then, she waved the knife in the air and, one by one, the neighbors climbed up onto the pedestal, slipping and sliding in blood, to stand there lit by the flames as if on a stage, pausing for a moment, thrust or slash arrested mid-air, it seemed, before gouging at Kemal. He groaned and wriggled, a black mass at knee-level twitching in the flicker from the bonfire.
"It’s your turn," someone hissed to Jerome. "We all have to take responsibility for this."
Jerome ascended the altar and was handed the blade. It was slippery in his hand, twisting away from his grip as if it were a living thing, a kind of wet, warm serpent. He bent over Kemal and dragged the blade through the back of his scalp.
Bradford said: "This is a perpetual easement, non-exclusive, binding on your heirs, assigns, estate, and successors in interest."
Jenny couldn’t get up on the altar. She slipped and almost fell, but, then, a dozen arms were behind her, lifting her onto the pedestal. Bradford bent over and rolled Kemal over. Jenny took the knife from Jerome and swiftly cut Kemal’s throat.
"Now, you’re one of us," Bradford said to her.
Jenny turned to the neighbors gathered below her and showed them the dripping blade.
"There are no mosquitos," the tall woman said. "And now the river won’t rise."
"It’s a magical place," Bradford said.
And everyone agreed with him.