By Jessica Barksdale
The man peered down at Tate, a glint of glasses, gray hair, blue windbreaker, practical in the evening wave of fog that swirled damp and hard around the house.
Tate jerked up from her dishes, blinking under the Venetian glass lamp shining down on her, the one her husband Robert picked out from the lamp store in Berkeley. Red and shiny, it illuminated every bit of grit, broccoli tip, and carrot peel left clinging to the farm house sink. But now, staring out the window toward the driveway, she saw nothing more than her own round face in the glass. Wait. There he was again. A meter reader? A delivery guy? But the blue jacket suggested otherwise. Most of the box-tossing guys wore brown, a color she believed no one should wear. Why brown? And shorts, at that. Like scary German schoolchildren.
Tate turned off the tap and leaned over the sink. There was a car parked to the right of the driveway, and she thought she heard a conversation up on the street. She reached over and flicked off the fancy light, the room sucked dry of warmth. And yes, there was the man, or at least his shoes, visible through the bottom of the top gate. Tennis shoes. Loafers, maybe.
The house doors were locked, the alarm on, as per Robert’s exhortations. “Feel as safe as you like up here in the hills,” he always said. “But this is Oakland. Especially at night.”
Robert loved to tell stories about the dismembering murderer who worked for a carpet-cleaning company, the gang of former high school track stars who went on a summer break home invasion spree, the armed guys who posed as social activists who rammed their way into houses and took everything. Robert prophesized that during any uprising or in the midst of protest, riot, or apocalypse, the hills were doomed.
“They’ll stream up here like ants,” he said. “And devour the lot of us.”
So when Tate came home from work and Robert was still at his office, she put down her briefcase and punched in the code for “home” and “active.” The system loaded with sensors to identify a friendly person moving inside. But outside? It was on the job, surveying the property, a digital stream at front and backdoors, sensors at every window.
Tate tiptoed to the dining room, knowing the sliding door gave her a better view of the driveway. She saw one of those silly cars from some decade, the ones that were cars but had beds like trucks. An El Camino, she thought. A car for the street.
She reached out to unlatch the door and step out on to the deck. Her heart pounded in her chest, a nervous clutch at her neck. But as she opened the door, ignoring the alarm’s beep beep beep, she heard the slam of a car door and the rumble of an engine, the kind that sucked up too much gas and ruined the air. There was one more laugh, and then acceleration, and the glow of brake lights as the car drove off, leaving the street empty with only the sound of robins and the barking of the neighbor’s noisy doodle.
“Who do you think it was?” Robert asked later over take-out. Despite a long day out on a building site arguing with contractors over design changes, everything about him looked folded and crisp and flat: his hair, his pants, his collar.
Tate sipped her white wine and shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before.” But as she said the words, she knew she had. In fact, maybe less than a month ago, she might have seen him skulking up on the street. Or maybe she’d just wanted the feeling of being watched, needing someone to notice her, pay attention, find her interesting and worth spying on. But really, someone had been there. She’d been pulling weeds in the front garden bed. Yes, she’d heard that same car.. The same laughter. She’d even smelled cigar smoke, so he’d been standing there long enough to light up.
She glanced up at Robert, her mouth full of this realization, but then she noticed the way he was eating his pot sticker. She was used to his silverware antics; the way he ate with his fork in his left hand and knife in his right, the European eating style he picked up in Scotland as a high school exchange student. Fully focused, he lifted the dumpling with his fork and leveraged it with his knife, one end of the potsticker ready to pop its meaty middle.
In another county Robert never would have gone to—China, Myanmar, Japan, Bhutan—he would have learned to eat his dumpling with chopsticks over a small bowl he held close to his face. There, he would have popped the whole thing into his mouth before the dumpling exploded. There, in that place he would never have agreed to live for one second—he a man more afraid of bugs and spiders than of global warming or traffic—his mouth would be covered with grease, but the food would have ended up where it was supposed to.
Tate looked down at her own swirl of noodles and long string beans, looking at Robert’s angled knife and shaking fork. At any second, pork would fly.
The next time Tate saw the man, she’d come home early from work, a migraine flaring after lunch.. As her head pulsed, she could hear the agents seated around the large round table, bragging about who sold what house to whom and for how much. Her office manager Anthony said, “Just go home. As long as you aren’t robbing us blind, no one cares about the accounting now that we’re making money again!”
So she’d driven up the hill, and fallen onto the couch in a head-pulsing stupor. But then in the miracle of two hours’ sleep, she awoke with only a migraine hangover, and the image of Joe. Her jaw was tight from clenching her teeth, a sad dream rattling around in her head like dice. But she swung her legs off the couch, pushed herself up, and shuffled to the kitchen sink for a glass of water.
And as she titled her head up to swallow, she saw the man again, standing next to the mailbox and staring right at her.
For a second, Tate thought he might be a whirl of migraine aura, a burst of image that started in one eye and worked its way into the other before leaving. But auras always preceded a migraine, and her headache was gone.
She picked up her phone from the counter and pressed 1, the number Robert had given himself when he’d programmed it.
“Are you okay?” he said when he answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you usually go over the records with Anthony after the Thursday afternoon meeting?”
Tate looked up at the man who seemed to be examining their boxwood hedge.
“I went home. I had a migraine. But that’s not—”
“Did you take some of those pills? The doctor told you to not wait.”
Tate sighed. “Yes, but just listen for a second. The man’s outside again. He’s standing on the street.”
“Call the police right now,” Robert said. “Or I will. Let’s hang up.”
“No!” There was a pause, and then she said more quietly, “I’ll do it, okay.”
“Fine,” Robert said, hurt pulsing under his curtness. “Should I stay on the line?”
“No. I’ll call you back, okay?” But Robert was right. She should call the police.
“Fine.” He clicked off.
Tate looked at her phone, seeing how easy it would be to press 9 and 1 and 1 again. But then she put down her phone and walked toward the front door, her head filled with the airy space of drugs and leftover migraine. She felt like she was in slow motion, that same feeling she’d had before when approaching something grim; the same way she’d felt much of her childhood as she walked down the hallway of her home, Joe’s bedroom always first. She couldn’t avoid it. Sometimes, she closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears and ran until she made it to the end and turned left into her room, slamming the door behind her.
She swallowed, breathed, and glanced up at the alarm pad. She hadn’t even turned it on when she came home. If he’d wanted to, the man could have broken in and strangled her on the couch. Robert would be so angry when he went over the alarm details online, that hole from 2-5, alarm unarmed.
Tate yanked open the door and walked out to the deck, staring up at the man who looked right back down at her. She felt her heart in her ears, heard it in her throat. Her head pulsed, that familiar one two throb.
“What are you doing?” she tried to yell, her voice a warble of uncertainty.
“Hi, there.” He turned toward her and she relaxed a little. He looked ordinary, someone her father might have brought home from work, one of the guys to sit in the family room and drink beer. Or he could be a homebuyer, a client of one of the agents, wanting to sit down and talk about mortgage rates and resale values. White haired and bespectacled, he could be a kindly uncle, a concerned neighbor, or a distant relative visiting from Iowa or Indiana.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, her heart skittered. But he wasn’t any of those things. He was a stranger staring at her from the street, a man who habitually drove up to her house to watch her.
Tate’s phone buzzed again, and she pulled it from her pocket to look at the screen.
“Hi there,” the man said again.
“Hello?” she said loudly.
“Did you call?” Robert asked.
“The man is looking at me now.” She stared at the man as hard as she could, only the fuzz in her head holding her back.
“Listen,” the man said.
“I want him to leave,” Tate said.
“I’m hanging up and calling the police.”
“I don’t mean—,” the man began.
“I don’t like him looking at me. I want him to go.” Her face heated up, tears at the back of her eyes, her throat sore from the scream building inside. The man stopped smiling, pulled his jacket around him.
The phone clicked in Tate’s ear. The man shook his head and backed away. He did something with his hand. A salute? A wave?
“I want him to go!” She walked toward the steps, her knees shaking, her breath like stabs. “I don’t want him near my house!”
She put the phone back in her pocket. When she looked up, he was gone. Tate listened until she heard nothing, not even the irregular beat of her scared heart. She listened until she realized she missed the sounds she was wishing would stop. She listened until she missed the idea of yelling at the man. She listened until she heard the police car burning up the street.
Later that night, Robert was finally asleep, confident now that the only reason Tate didn’t call the police herself was because of headache confusion. Tate, awake, watched the wall, the bathroom nightlight shining off the perfectly sand colored paint.
“Looks exactly like the beach,” Robert had said as he held out a fan of paint-chip samples.
Exactly, thought Tate, even though the last time she’d been on the sand it had been wet from rain. The Avenue Shelter supervisor had told her Joe hadn’t gotten a spot that night.
“He said something about Ocean Beach,” the woman said. “There’s a group of them that hang out down there. Build fires at night.”
Tate looked at the woman, mouth slightly open.
“What can I say?” The woman held up her hands, palms wide and white, creases dark like a map. “We just don’t have the space.”
Tate was home from college that summer, the one before her senior year, working in the city at an accounting firm. She caught the 6:42 a.m. train from the Walnut Creek BART station in the mornings, and the 5:07 p.m. from the Embarcadero station at night. The rest of the time was spent with her mother and father, eating dinner around the same table she had her entire life. After listening to her parents not talk about Joe for the thirtieth time, she’d decided to try to find her brother using the last piece of information she had about his whereabouts.
“I hate the zoo!” Joe had said, calling her from a payphone somewhere on Vicente Street. “I don’t like the sounds of those animals. The way they smell. Zebras are the worst. Maybe the rhinos are okay because they’re so far away. But remember that hippo? The one with the flat teeth?”
“I’ll come get you. You don’t have to go to the zoo. I’ll take you anywhere.”
“I’m on the street,” Joe said. “It’s okay.”
One Monday evening, instead of going home on BART, she took the N Judah Muni line out to the avenues to try to find him, starting on Vicente and walking large blocks as she searched out a payphone. She went 46th to Ulloa to Taraval, but by 8 pm, she’d found only herself. She stood on the wet sand, the sun a flattening persimmon smashed on the horizon. It was low tide. At her feet were the ocean’s castoffs, long ropes of rubbery seaweed with mermaid heads and dead crabs. Where would a person sleep on this beach, with all its rocks and sharp, strong winds that peppered her face with dirty sand? There wasn’t a homeless person in sight; not even a young one, barely in his twenties, wearing clothes he’d received at Christmas when he was still on his meds.
How could anyone know that the homeless man she was looking for had been homecoming king, football star, drama geek all rolled into one? Classmates texted him every minute. Someone even started a Facebook page for him, girls posting just-suggestive-enough photos. His teachers raved, his fans cheered, his counselors suggested USC or UCLA. Everyone knew the blond, tan, laughing boy. The one who could mimic Principal Scott, sing anything from memory, and smelled like heat, green leaves, and clean cotton sheets just out of the dryer. Before that terrible summer between sophomore and junior years, he was the one who scooped her off the street when she fell off her bike, told her stories he made up about the curious Nosotros family who lived under a rock in the backyard, and went trick-or-treating with her even when he was too old to wear his pirate costume.
But only Tate and her family had known his rages, his silences, the conversations he had with the other part of himself he kept hidden except at home.
She stood looking at the Pacific Ocean for a few moments, the waves pushing toward land, the repetitive crash crash a reminder of danger. Tate turned away from the beach, caught the Muni back to BART, and went home to not talk about Joe for the rest of the summer.
Now as she stared at her quiet sand-colored wall with no water in sight, no wind on her face, she wished she’d walked farther. Maybe if she had, she would have found him sitting on a washed up telephone pole, the one just down the beach a stretch or two. She could have taken him for a meal and convinced him to come home with her one more time. Tate’s silent parents would have let him back into the cave of his old room. Even if he’d left in the middle of the night like always, Tate would have been able to hold onto that instead of an empty stretch of wet, cold sand and the shadow of his absence.
Maybe the watching man knew something about Joe. Maybe he wasn’t here to spy on her but to tell her something. Show her, what? Give her, what? A message? A sign? He’d been coming to the house in order to deliver some news, and all she had to do was listen.
Robert threw his arm around her, his fist planted in her solar plexus. Tate tried to snuggle into his grip, but his fist became a rock, a force preventing breath. His clench made her feel she’d never left Ocean Beach, as though she had walked up to its terrible riptide and let it pull her out to sea, all the way to where Joe must have been swept.
“Shhh,” Robert murmured, his hard hand pressing hard enough to stop her heart, too. “Quiet now. Quiet.”
The third time the man came, he rang the doorbell. The door was unlocked, slightly ajar, Tate’s bags on the foyer table. But she didn’t realize this until she walked toward the knocking, noticing her wallet perched in the dark smile of her purse. What would Robert think? she wondered as she pulled open the door into the warm afternoon light. What would he say about her being home this early from work, doors and windows open, the air flowing through the entire house?
“Don’t be scared,” the man said, holding up his empty hands. “I come in peace.”
Tate nodded and then sighed. The man looked the same as before, carefully combed gray hair, dark glasses, blue windbreaker. If she were to describe a rapist/murderer/killer, he wouldn’t fit. But no one ever really knew what was inside someone else. He could be hiding inside, his dark heart pumping bad blood.
But his shoes, clean blue Nikes. White laces. Dressed like a messenger or a schoolboy, clean and sharp. Tate opened the door and let him in.
The man wiped his feet on the doormat and smiled. “I know I’ve been bugging you, but I’ve just wanted to see my old house.”
Tate stared at him. “You used to live here?”
He nodded. “Name’s Ralph Sweet, former dweller here at 5699 Merriewood.”
He put out a hand. Tate shook it briefly and introduced herself. Then she turned, leading him down the hallway and into the living room. They sat on the couch, and he shook his head.
“Wow! You pulled down the walls?”
Tate nodded. “My husband’s an architect. He liked the open plan living thing. He has other ideas for the second floor.”
“Well, this house has seen a lot, banged up as it was.”
Ralph nodded. “Yep, I was sitting in here. Of course, boxy as it was back then, I couldn’t see out the front windows. But I heard this bang! The whole house shook. I thought it was an earthquake, so close to the fault as we are. Then there was this terrible motor sound, the house quivering. So I ran outside and up to the driveway, and there’s this semi hanging.”
Ralph laughed. “Oh, I’m exaggerating. But you know how skinny the roads are up here. Well, he got stuck and then tried to turn around in the driveway. Dumb guy didn’t notice the driveway was wood! So he pulled over it and the driveway just broke off. Just clunked down. I had to rescue him out of his cab with a ladder.”
“That’s incredible,” Tate said.
“What’s incredible is that the house didn’t slide down the hill. Look up there!” Ralph pointed up to the ceiling. “See those plates on the beams?”
Tate nodded. “Robert told me they were seismic retrofit things.”
“No, they’re hold the-damn-house-together things. And in the basement? Ever see that big plate on the foundation?”
“Where that big crack is?”
Tate snorted. “The agent told us it was seismic, too.”
“No siree. It’s a patch on the busted foundation. The truck almost cracked this house in half.”
“Wow,” Tate said. “No one told us this when we bought it.”
“No one probably knew. There’ve been a few owners since we moved.”
Tate nodded, watching him. His hands were folded neatly in his lap as he stared out the window toward the huge, bent Monterey pines Robert swore could snap at any moment.
“I’ve got to get the tree guys on this,” he’d say every week. But so far, neither the trees nor he had done anything.
“So why are you here now? I’ve seen you before. You kind of scared me.”
Ralph inhaled. “I know. I’m sorry. I should have just knocked first. I just find myself driving down Highway 13 and suddenly, here I am, pulling up to the house. Like I’m on autopilot from twenty years ago. Darlene . . . well, I said we moved. It was really just me. She. . . this. . . this was her last house. This—”
Ralph swept his arm, as if to introduce Tate to the view for the first time, presenting the pines and redwoods and eucalyptus trees, the clouds hanging over the hum of the highway, the specific arc of still blue sky. “This was her last view. Those last months, she was in the downstairs bedroom. Brought a nurse in, twenty-four seven. She wanted it that way. Said if the house could live through the truck trying to kill it, maybe she could make it, too. If she stayed put, that is. And that’s what I did. Stayed put.”
“I’m sorry,” Tate said, swallowing. “Do—do you want to go downstairs? To see?”
Ralph looked at her, his eyes dark brown, wide, shiny. Then as a light breeze blew leaves against the glass, he looked out the window. “No, this is what I remember most. This feeling, right here, in the living room. So peaceful. Makes me think nothing’s changed.”
The sun dipped below the roofline, Ralph’s glasses sparkling. He might feel nothing had changed, but of course, it had. There was no getting it back. Maybe one breath, it could feel that the past was the present, that she and her family were sitting around the dining room table laughing, but she’d exhale and Joe would be missing. Dead, probably. Unfound, unclaimed, unwanted. There was no amount of beach walking that could pull him out of the water, unearth his bones from storm or sand pit. Her brother, like Ralph’s wife, would never be found again.
And even as she asked, she knew he couldn’t help her. “Do you know—Joe?”
She could barely lift her head to meet his glance, certain that now he would be the one thinking she was crazy. But in his gaze, she saw nothing but recognition.
“Sorry to say I’ve never met him.”
Tate sighed, looked at her knees, pressed her palms against the knobby bones.
“This Joe?” Ralph asked. “He’s?”
“My brother.” Tate looked up. “My big brother. He went missing. I haven’t seen him for seven years.”
Unlike fairytales, Tate knew people didn’t come out of the forest after an enchanted sleep, rubbing their eyes and pleased to be back home and sipping soup near the roaring fire. People didn’t sail in boats around the world without GPS systems and supplies, a reporter in every port. People didn’t even climb Mount Everest without a cell phone and a satellite. Even in the witness protection program, people popped up like bad rats. Joe wasn’t a pirate, not out on the Seven Seas with his mates and seven years of booty. People didn’t stay gone anymore, unless they were really gone.
“Maybe you need, well, like this.” Ralph shrugged and looked around the living room again. “You know. Visit.”
“About that,” Tate said after a moment. “I have to ask you something else.”
“It’s just that this is our house.”
“If you really need to. But I feel like, well, it’s weird. Like you’re holding the house still.”
“Sorry,” Ralph said. “Don’t mean to be stalking. Couldn’t help myself, really. But just needed one more visit. That’s all.”
They stood up and walked to the front door. Tate took his hand and squeezed it. “I’ll tell the truck story, okay? If we ever sell the house, I’ll make sure people know. How it cracked and broke and then was fixed.”
Ralph nodded, shook Tate’s hand again, walked up the stairs and headed up to the street. As always, the car door slammed and the engine glugged. She smelled the waft of gas and then heard the fleshy tires on asphalt. In her pocket, her phone buzzed but she didn’t answer it, letting it rattle against her hip as she looked up at the treacherous tree swaying above her, cones loaded, boughs heavy and ready to drop.
She didn’t call into work. She didn’t tell Robert, either. Instead, she drank coffee out on the front deck and waited for the commute traffic to die down and the fog to clear. Now and then, she glanced up, thinking she would see Ralph Sweet, but he’d kept his promise. When the sun burned through the gauzy air, she got in her car and headed down the hill, realizing when she slipped onto Highway 24 that she’d forgotten to turn on the alarm.
On the coast, the sky hung low over the ocean, lifting its skirt hem over the water, the air strangely warm. Tate headed toward the water and walked along the tide line, weaving as the water went in and out. Small white crabs scuttled sideways in front of her, water bubbled up from tiny holes. She crunched mussel shells and popped bulbs of seaweed with every stride.
In front of her, Land’s End. Behind her, the rest of California’s long coastline. Sand that looked nothing like her wallpaper. Seven years ago, Joe stood on this very beach, some part of this sand probably him. He was nowhere anymore, but some tiny bit must be leftover, a remnant, a trace. Tate fell to her knees and scooped up a palm full of sand and pressed it to her cheek, feeling how cool, how calm, how still.
She let the sand slip out of her hand and lay down, the water against her arm, waves on her knee, her hair, the seagulls squawking overhead.
If only he’d stopped walking. If only he’d been there when she arrived, turned to face her as she ran toward him. There he would be, smiling. There he was on her face now, in her ears, her mouth, washed in and out by the water whacking her.
“Hey,” someone called. “Are you okay? Hey! Hey! Hold on! Stop!”
Her hands starfished into the sand, Tate pressed harder, swallowing gritty water. Just like Ralph Sweet, maybe all she needed was a visit. She needed was to remember how her family cracked in two, her whole body needing a metal plate.
Tate dug deeper, clawing hard with her fingers, her teeth, her legs. Ocean over her, ocean under.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com.