He said, “Do you hear—?”
She listened. She’d just come to join him on the terrace at the rear of the house.
It was dusk: The calls of birds close about the house were subsiding. A flock of glossy black-winged birds had taken over a hilly section of the lawn for much of that day but had now departed. At the lake a quarter mile away, not visible from their terrace, Canada geese and other waterfowl were emitting the random querulous cries associated with nighttime.
At first, she heard nothing except the waterfowl. Then, she began to hear what sounded like voices, at a distance.
“Our neighbors. Must be on West Crescent Drive.”
The husband spoke matter-of-factly. It was not like him to take notice of neighbors unless in annoyance—which was rare, in Crescent Lake Farms. He seemed bemused and not annoyed.
They had never seen these neighbors. Whoever lived on the far side of the wooded area were strangers to them. There was no occasion for the husband and the wife to drive on West Crescent Drive, which wasn’t easily accessible from the cul-de-sac at the end of East Crescent Drive, where they lived: This would involve a circuitous twisting route to Juniper Road, which traversed the rural-suburban “gated community” called Crescent Lake Farms, an approximate half mile north on that road, and then a turn into the interior of the development and, by way of smaller, curving roads, onto West Crescent Drive.
Like a labyrinth, it was! Crescent Lake Farms was not a residential area hospitable to strangers. Easily one could become lost in a maze of “drives,” “lanes,” “ways,” and “circles,” for the gated community had been designed to discourage aimless driving.
Their three-acre property did not include frontage on the man-made ovoid Crescent Lake. But a small stream meandered through it, to empty into the lake a short distance away.
“They sound young.”
The wife heard what sounded like low, thrilled, throaty laughter. There was a strange un-settling intimacy to this laughter, as if their neighbors on West Crescent Drive were very near and not a quarter mile away, at the very least.
They stared at the massed trees, expecting to see human figures there.
“Yes. And happy.”
The wife had brought drinks for the husband and herself: whiskey and water for the husband, lemon-flavored sparkling water for the wife. And a little silver bowl of the husband’s favorite nuts, pistachios.
Hungrily, noisily the husband chewed pistachios. Yet his attention was riveted to the dark cluster of trees which the sounds of voices and laughter penetrated.
It wasn’t unlike hearing voices through a wall. Intimate, tantalizing. You heard the musical cadences but not distinct words.
Drinks outside on the terrace behind their house was their ritual before dinner, in warm weather. Though the husband wasn’t any longer making his forty-minute commute to Investcorp International, Inc. in Forrestal Village, on Route 1, where he had directed the applied math and computational division of the company for the past seventeen years, the husband and the wife had not changed their before-dinner ritual.
They had lived in this sprawling five-bedroom shingleboard house for nearly thirty years and in that time, very little had changed in the gated community which was one of the oldest and most prestigious in northern New Jersey.
There was a waiting list of would-be homeowners. Elsewhere, properties were difficult to sell, but not in Crescent Lake Farms.
The wife thought, We are protected here. We are very happy here.
His head cocked in the direction of the massed trees, the husband finished his whiskey and water. The voices continued—softly, teasingly. A sudden squawking squabble among geese in the near distance, and the gentler sounds were drowned out.
In any case it was time to go inside for dinner, which was more or less ready to be served—in a warm oven, and in a microwave. And on the kitchen counter a lavish green salad in a gleaming wooden bowl with feta cheese, arugula, avocado, cherry tomatoes—the husband’s favorite salad.
“I think they must have gone inside. Over there.”
Shyly the wife touched the husband’s hand. He did not, as he used to do, turn his hand to grasp hers, instinctively; but he did not brush her hand away as he sometimes did, not rudely, not impolitely, but half-mindedly.
It appeared to be so: Their neighbors’ voices had faded. All you could hear was the quarrelsome sound of waterfowl and, startlingly near at their stream, the excited miniature cries of spring peepers.
She said, “Will you come inside, darling? It’s late.”
Airy and melodic the laughter, summer evenings.
Almost, the husband and the wife could hear through the woods a delicate tinkle of glassware from time to time—wine glasses? And cutlery.
The neighbors-through-the-treesfrequently dined outside. Their voices were low and murmurous, and no words were distinct but the sounds were happy sounds, unmistakably.
“Oh—is that a baby? D’you think?”
The wife heard something a little different, one evening in June. A sweet cooing sound—was it? Just barely discernible beyond the nocturnal cries of the waterfowl on Crescent Lake and low guttural bullfrog grunts in their grassy lawn.
The husband listened, paused in his pistachio-chewing.
“Though we haven’t heard a baby crying, ever.”
The wife sounded wistful. Her own babies had grown and departed the house at 88 East Crescent Drive years ago.
The wife was thinking, They are dining by candlelight probably. Their faces reflected in a glass-topped wrought-iron table on a flagstone terrace like ours.
If the husband-through-the-trees brushed the hand of the wife-through-the-trees, the wife could not observe. If the wife-through-the-trees paused to take up the baby in her arms, to kiss him on his little snub nose, the wife could not observe.
“A baby would cry. So maybe it isn’t a baby.”
Yet, the soft cooing sound persisted. And adult voices, and throaty laughter. The husband and the wife listened acutely, sitting very still on their terrace.
It was their custom now to eat outside. In the past, the husband had not liked to eat outside which he’d thought too picnicky.
The wife did not mind the extra effort of carrying things from the kitchen and back again. The wife quite enjoyed the romance of mealtimes on the rear terrace, in the company, at a little distance, of their mysterious neighbors-through-the-trees.
Since his retirement, the husband was very quiet. The wife felt lonely even as she told herself, Don’t be ridiculous! You are not lonely.
It was strange that, in the past, they’d had no particular awareness of these neighbors. Possibly, a new family had moved into the house on West Crescent Drive?
Other, nearer neighbors, who lived on East Crescent Drive, were more visible of course and more annoying, at times; there were frequently large summer lawn parties, children’s birthday parties with balloons tied to mailboxes, political fundraisers involving vehicles parked on both sides of the narrow road. But over all, Crescent Lake Farms was a quiet place. In the homeowners’ manual, disturbing the peace and privacy of our neighbors was expressly forbidden.
And the properties were large: a minimum of three acres. So your neighbors weren’t inescapable, as in an urban setting.
Now the wife recalled: At Easter, on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon when their daughter Ellen had come to visit with her two small children and they were walking in the back lawn, the wife had heard an unusual sound through the thicket of trees—a woman’s voice, it might have been, so melodic as to seem like music, but indistinct, and soon fading. At the time she hadn’t known what it was, assumed it was coming from their neighbors at 86 East Crescent Drive, and had paid no particular attention to it.
The husband hadn’t noticed this female voice at the time. Their daughter, distracted by her young children, hadn’t noticed.
Ellen said, “This is a lovely house. I have such good memories of this house. It’s a shame, you will probably be selling it …”
Selling it? The wife reacted with dismay, and did not glance at the husband, knowing that the husband would be upset by their daughter’s careless remark.
“… I mean, since it’s so large. And it must be so expensive to maintain, especially in the winter …”
The husband had walked stiffly on, headed for the edge of the property, where there was a gate, rarely used, that opened onto a no-man’s land—a densely wooded area that belonged not to any private landowner but to Hecate Township.
The wife was embarrassed by the husband’s rudeness. But she, too, was offended by the question and did not want to think that their other children were speculating about their future.
The wife remained with their daughter
and lively grandchildren, talking of other things.
Now, the wife recalled that awkward episode. And the way their daughter had lifted one of the children into her arms, with such familiarity, and such confidence, and joy. Listening to the neighbors’ cooing baby weeks later, she was feeling a pang of loss.
Inwardly protesting to her daughter, But we are so happy here! Whyever would we want to move?
“What is that?”—the husband was baffled.
The wife listened: a soft blunted sound as of wood striking wood, she was sure she’d never heard before.
It was a morning in mid-June. The wife and the husband were outside on the deck reading the Sunday newspaper that fluttered in the breeze. A part of the paper had gotten loose from the husband’s grasp and had been blown into shrubbery close by, which the wife would retrieve.
“Is it coming from—over there?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Some sort of—repair work? A kind of hammer striking wood?”
“Not a hammer. I don’t think so.”
They listened. Again the blunted sound came, a near-inaudible crack.
They were staring at the trees. Pine trees, deciduous trees whose names they didn’t know—beech? Oak? Beyond their six-foot wire fence was a dense jungle of bushes, scrub trees, mature trees. However deep the woods, whether a quarter mile or less, it was as opaque to their eyes by day as by night.
The wife had to suppose that not one but two fences separated their property from that of the neighbors-through-the-trees. For the other property would be fenced-off as well.
In the land owned by Hecate Township there was a median strip kept mowed in the summer, probably no more than fifty feet across, where power lines had been installed.
The husband and the wife had never walked along the median. The wife had a vague recollection of stubbled weeds, marshy soil. Nothing like the fastidiously tended suburban lawns of Merion bluegrass, the preferred grass for Crescent Lake Farms.
Years ago when they’d walked more frequently, often hand in hand, they’d walked in parks, or along hiking trails; they had never explored the area behind their house, which did not seem hospitable to strolling couples.
The wife assumed that there were signs posted in the woods behind their house, as elsewhere in Crescent Lake Farms, forbidding trespassing, hunting with gun or bow.
White-tailed Virginia deer dwelt in the woods of Crescent Lake Farms. Occasionally, no matter how vigilant homeowners were, no matter how high their fences, deer would manage to slip through, to ravage gardens in the night.
It had happened, the wife’s roses had been decimated, years before. Her carefully tended little vegetable garden, even her potted geraniums. But the husband had had the fence repaired, and no deer had set foot on the property since.
Crack!—a light glancing sound.
It was utterly baffling, what this sound might be. At once sharp, yet muffled. A playful sort of sound, the wife thought.
The husband had ceased reading the newspaper. The politics of the day infuriated him: Even when power lay with the politicians he supported, and the opposition appeared to be failing, so much in the political sphere seemed to him vile, vulgar, meretricious, inane—he threatened that he wouldn’t be voting at all.
The husband, whose professional life had been involved with the most complex algorithms and equations, knew to distrust the sort of crude polls you saw reported in the media, and “statistical studies.” The husband made the droll joke that roughly forty percent of what was printed in the New York Times in such quasi-scientific or -economic terms was fabricated by researchers.
“Only naïve people take polls seriously. The publication of a poll is a stratagem of persuasion.”
After degrees from Harvard the husband had begun his career at a mathematical research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then, he’d been recruited by a medical-science research center in White Plains, New York. Then, by a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Princeton, New Jersey, where he’d developed algorithms brilliantly forecasting consumer purchases. By the time he’d moved to Investcorp International, Inc., his work in mathematical computation was so complex, the wife had virtually no knowledge of what her husband did or how it was related to the actual world.
“What is it that Dad does?”—so the children would ask one by one.
The wife recalled when her young husband had talked excitedly of his work to anyone who would listen. But in recent years, never.
She no longer made inquiries. Much of his life was separate from hers as if each was on an ice floe, drifting in the same direction and yet drifting inevitably apart.
“Something hitting against something else—that’s what we’re hearing. It sounds like wood.”
The husband was impressed, the wife had solved the mystery.
“Yes of course! Such a civilized lawn game—
They did not mind the glancing crack of the mallet against the croquet ball, for the sound was diminished at a distance, like their neighbors’ voices and laughter.
“I’ve never played croquet, have you?”
“Oh, long ago. At my grandparents’ house on Nantucket.”
The wife spoke wistfully. The husband spoke nostalgically.
“D’you think they have guests? They’re playing croquet with guests?”
They listened. It was impossible to tell from the near-inaudible murmuring voices.
The wife half-closed her eyes. In twilight, figures clothed elegantly in white were gracefully wielding mallets, striking painted wooden balls and driving them forward in the grass beneath little wire hoops.
The woman, or the women, wore long skirts. The men, white coats and trousers.
“I’d like to play croquet again. Would you?”
“Yes. I’d love to play croquet with you.”
They smiled at each other. The wife felt an impulse to take up her husband’s hand and kiss it.
On the backs of her husband’s hands, bruises the hue of grapes. His blood was thin: He bled easily, beneath his skin. This was to correct for high blood pressure.
“We could order a set online, maybe. I doubt there are croquet sets for sale in town.”
They realized that the croquet game through-
the-trees must have ended, when they’d been talking. It was past dark by now: fully night.
The trees beyond their property were a solid block of darkness like a gigantic mouth.
High overhead, a blurred moon that cast a blurred light.
“Darling? Come here.”
The wife called excitedly to the husband, who was working in his home office on the first floor facing the front of the house.
Though there was no longer an office at Investcorp International, Inc., yet the husband’s office at home remained his home office.
“Hurry, darling! Please.”
It was midday. Strains of music were penetrating the trees at the rear of their property, sweetly delicate, captivating. At first, the wife had assumed that the exquisite sound was the singing of an unusual species of bird but when she’d listened closely, and determined that the sound was coming through the trees, she realized that this was no bird.
“I think someone is playing the violin over there. I mean—it isn’t a recording or a radio, it’s an actual person.”
The husband had come outside, frowning. He seemed irritable at having been interrupted at his desk yet he leaned over the railing, listening.
“Maybe a child? Practicing his lesson?”
The husband frowned, cocking his head.
“I’m not sure that I hear anything. I think you’re imagining a violin.”
They listened, intently. There came, from the roadway in front of the house, a sudden blaring of rock music: from one of the damned tradesmen’s vans, or delivery vans, so prevalent in the neighborhood.
“I’m sure that I heard—something… . It wasn’t ordinary music but something special.”
The wife knew: It was household protocol never to interrupt her husband when he was working in his home office. The children had never dared.
Apologetically the wife said she might have been mistaken. She was sorry to have called the husband and she knew that if she admitted her error at once, the husband would not be angry with her.
He was saying, petulantly, “I didn’t hear a thing. Certainly not any violin.”
The husband returned to the house. The wife continued to listen, in a trance of expectation.
But she heard no more “violin” notes. Maybe the sound had been a bird’s song after all.
Or blood pulsing in her ears. Beating in her heart.
That was what she’d been hearing—wasn’t it?
They had been married for nearly forty years.
Not an hour, had they ceased to be married in forty years.
The husband had been “unfaithful” to the wife—probably. On those business trips. On company “retreats” to Palm Beach, Key West, Bermuda and St. Barts, Costa Rica, and Mexico, to which wives had not been invited.
But these trips were of the past. The last one had been several years ago. The wife had ceased to think of these humiliations as one ceases to think of an illness, painful but not lethal, of long ago.
The husband would be a domestic animal now, confined to the household and to the wife. And to his online life, in his home office.
The wife had not been unfaithful to the husband. Not with any man—any individual.
In her heart. In the mysterious and uncharitable way of the heart.
But I love him. That will never change.
“Listen! A dog.”
Not often but from time to time, when the neighbors-through-the-trees appeared to be in their backyard, or on their deck, adults and a child, or children, there came the sound of a dog barking—not protracted, not disturbing, just two or three short barks, then silence.
A dignified dog, the wife thought. A German shepherd, or a border collie. One of those elegant long-haired dogs she’d always fantasized owning—an Afghan.
“I think we should get a dog, darling. Everyone says …”
“Dogs are too needy, and demanding. Dogs have to be walked twice a day.”
“Once a day, I think.”
“It might depend upon the breed.”
“Twice. And I don’t have time.”
You are retired. You have all the time in the world.
“A dog would be lovely company for us both. And a watchdog.”
The husband laughed, the way the wife said watchdog.
“Oh, what’s so funny?”
The wife wanted to laugh with him but the husband had turned his gaze to somewhere beyond the trees and had not seemed to hear her.
“Listen! Is it—Satie?”
This time there was no mistaking, they were hearing music through the trees: piano music.
Acutely they listened, on the terrace.
“Definitely, piano music. It seems remarkably near.”
“An actual piano, being played. But not by a child—this would be an adult. Someone who has played for years.”
The wife-through-the-trees, the wife thought. She herself had had ten years of piano lessons, as a girl, but had not seriously played in more than twenty years.
Delightful music! Just audible, at dusk.
Mixed with the sounds of waterfowl at the lake, frogs and nocturnal insects in the grass.
The poetic stately notes of Erik Satie. The wife was deeply moved—this was her music, she’d played with such eager pleasure for her piano teacher at college.
She’d had talent, her teacher had said. Beyond his words the subtle admonition she must not acknowledge, for fear of embarrassing them both—Only just not enough talent.
She’d known, she’d understood, and she’d accepted. You have gone as far as you can go, very likely. You must not delude yourself, you will only be disappointed.
Her life since that time had been a systematic avoidance of delusion. She had thought this was maturity, clear-mindedness. She had married her husband knowing that he could not love her as much as she loved him, for it was not in the man’s nature to love generously and without qualification, as it was in hers. In matters of emotion, he had gone as far as he could go.
Yet, she would love him, and she would certainly marry him. For she was eager to be married. She did not want to be not-married. She did not want to be conspicuously alone. And whatever followed from that decision, she vowed she would not regret.
Three children, whom she loved (unevenly). For no mother can help loving one child above others, as no child can help loving one parent more than the other.
Before she’d married her husband, at the age of twenty-three, she’d had her single great emotional adventure that would last her lifetime. This memory had crystallized inside her as a secret, insoluble as mineral. Her self had seemed to form around it, encasing it. And never would she reveal it.
The music of Satie reminded her. Tears shimmered in her eyes, the husband would not notice.
The composer’s annotations in the compositions were original, curious—du bout de la pensée, sur la langue, postulez en vous-même, sans orgueil, ouvrez la tête, très perdu.
How strange that had seemed to her, a girl: très perdu.
She’d spoken aloud. The husband glanced at her, in mild curiosity.
When the husband was not critical of her, the husband was bemused by her. Their marriage had not been a marriage of equals.
Through the trees, the piano music ceased; then, after a moment, began again, what seemed to be a new composition by Satie, that differed from its predecessor only subtly.
Composed in the 1880s, the piano music of Erik Satie sounded contemporary. It was eerily simple, beautiful. It was unhurried as time relentlessly passing second by second and it was seemingly without emotion even as it evoked, in the listener, the most intense sorts of emotion—melancholy, sorrow, loss.
A rebuff to Romantic music perhaps, with its many cascading notes and emotional excess, or to Baroque music, the fierce precision of clockwork.
“Isn’t that something you used to play?”—the husband seemed only now to recall.
She said, laughing, “Yes. But not so well—I’d never played the music so well.”
In fact she’d played Satie quite well. Her teacher and others had praised her, and they had not exaggerated.
The wife and the husband had not had an easy week, this week: There had been doctors’ appointments, scheduling for “tests” and more appointments, stretching into the summer.
The husband’s tenderness with the wife was just unusual enough to leave her shaken and uncertain. She knew it was his apprehension of the future—their future.
He is afraid. But I must not be.
The neighbors-through-the-trees lived in a house that mirrored their own, the wife presumed. Possibly, it was an identical house: artificially weathered shingleboard with dark red shutters, a steep roof, several stone chimneys. A three-car garage. Not a new house, for Crescent Lake Farms was not a new subdivision, but an attractive house, you might say a beautiful house. And expensive.
The wife had not driven by the house at 88 West Crescent Drive but she’d studied the Crescent Lake Farms map and saw how precisely the lots were positioned, three- and four-acre properties on each side of the man-made lake and each with its replica like halves of the human brain.
The property at 88 West Crescent Drive was three acres, like their own. It was equidistant from the man-made lake less than a mile to the east.
The wife had been fascinated, as an under-graduate, by human anatomy as well as by music. She’d thought, perhaps, she might apply to medical school—but requirements like organic chemistry and molecular biology had dampened her enthusiasm.
Yet she remained (secretly) fascinated by illustrations of the human body, its labyrinthine yet symmetrical interior. The brain was the most complex of all organs.
Cortex, cerebellum, spinal cord.
Frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, temporal lobe.
She was fascinated with the possibility of “dissection”—the human body opened up, its secrets labeled. Yet she could not bear to look upon an actual human corpse. She certainly could not bear to see a human corpse dissected.
The mere sight of blood caused her to feel weak, faint. Even the thought of blood. It was an involuntary reflex like gagging.
“Hello? What are you thinking about?”
The husband was staring at her, smiling.
“I—wasn’t thinking. I was listening to the music.”
She’d forgotten where she was, for the moment. The pristine piano notes of Erik Satie had faded and in their place were the raucous cries of Canada geese, flapping their wings and squabbling on the lake.
“‘Seul, pendant un instant’—‘alone, for a moment.’ ”
At the piano she’d neglected for most of her adult life she was playing—attempting to play—Satie. Inside the piano bench she’d found the yellowing photocopied pages she had annotated many years ago, precise instructions from her music teacher.
She did not want to think, Mr. Krauss must be dead. A long time now, dead.
She’d loved him, at one time. How desperately, how helplessly—and yet, in secret. For he’d never known.
Her fingers had absorbed his interest. The sounds that leapt from her fingers. Of her, he’d had but a vague awareness, and very little interest.
He’d been at least thirty years her senior. And married.
He’d hummed with her piano playing, when she was playing well. Half-consciously he’d hummed, like Glenn Gould. But when she struck a wrong note, or faltered, the humming ceased abruptly.
She’d begun now with the simplest Gnossienne. Her fingering was awkward, she struck wrong notes. The very clarity of the music was a rebuke to her clumsiness but she continued, she returned to the beginning of the piece and continued through to the end; and, at the end, she returned again to the beginning and continued through to the end, with fewer mistakes. She did this several times before moving on to the second Gnossienne. She began to feel a small hesitant satisfaction—rising, almost, to elation—joy! I haven’t forgotten. The music is in my fingers.
For ninety minutes she remained at the piano, playing the music of Erik Satie. Her shoulders ached. Her fingers ached. She was having difficulty reading the notes, that seemed to her smaller than she recalled. But she persevered. She was quite happy, with even her fumbling fingers. Someone came to stand in the doorway, to listen. Her heart reacted, she was startled. Though knowing it could only be the husband.
She waited for him to speak. He might say, Hey—that’s pretty good.
Or—Hey, is that the music we were hearing through-the-trees?
Or—The piano needs tuning, eh?
But when she turned, there was no one in the doorway.
She closed up the keyboard. She was strangely excited, and apprehensive. She foresaw returning to all her piano music, the many old and yellowed books and photocopied sheets, like an excavation of the past it would be, digging back into time.
The music is in my fingers. Any time I want to retrieve it.
It was just past 6 p.m. The midsummer sun was far from the treeline. The husband was on the deck at the rear of the house, for something had attracted him there.
He’d brought a drink with him. Earlier each evening he was leaving his home office until, this evening, he’d left to come out onto the porch before 6 p.m.
The wife came to join the husband, distracted. She’d heard him calling to her and hadn’t realized at first where he was. There had been a telephone call from her oncologist—she’d had to call back, and to wait several long minutes.
It will be a simple procedure. A biopsy with a local anesthetic, a needle.
The husband had left the terrace and was standing in the fresh-mowed grass. He stood approximately fifty feet from the fence at the property line.
He was listening to—what?—the wife heard what seemed to her familiar voices, through the trees. A ripple of laughter.
But there were unfamiliar voices as well. The wife was sure she’d never heard these voices before.
These were dissonant sounds, somewhat jarring. The laughter loud and sharp and a dog’s barking commingled with the laughter, distorted through the trees.
A party? A picnic?
There were children’s voices as well, and shouts. And the dog barking excitedly as they’d never heard it bark before.
“They sound happy.”
“They sound drunk.”
The wife wanted to protest—this was unfair. She understood that the husband felt envious. It had been a long time since they’d hosted a party at their house.
An odor of barbecue, wafting through the woods. Fatty ground meat on a grill. Salsa, raw onion. Beer.
They had friends—of course. Numerous friends, and yet more friendly acquaintances. But their friends were like themselves—their political prejudices, children and grandchildren, homeowners’ complaints, experiences in travel, physical ailments. Like mirror reflections these friends were, and not flattering.
And their older friends were fading, irrevocably. Some of them had retired to the southwest, or to Florida. Some were mysteriously ill. A few had died—it was always a small shock to realize, But she isn’t alive any longer. There is no way I can reach her.
The wife had accompanied the husband to his fortieth reunion at Harvard the previous year. The husband had arranged to meet old classmates, a former roommate, “friends” he’d maintained, to a degree, over the course of decades, though the men had rarely seen one another in the interim. The wife had liked these men—to a degree—and she’d liked their wives, who were making a special effort to be friendly with one another, under the strain of the college reunion which was tightly scheduled, boisterous, and exhausting. And on the drive home, when the wife said how good it was to see the husband with such old friends, one or two of the men “like brothers,” clearly enjoying himself, the husband had listened in silence and not until they were home, preparing for bed, the husband brooding, slump-shouldered, and the flaccid flesh at his waist and belly pale as unbaked bread dough, did he say, in a flat cold voice, without meeting the wife’s startled gaze, “Frankly, I don’t care if I ever see any of them again.”
Yet, hearing the festive sounds of the party-through-the-trees, clearly the husband felt envy, as well as disapproval; he had to be thinking, the wife surmised, that since retiring from Investcorp, he saw relatively few people from day to day and from week to week.
The husband had only recently wielded such power—in his division at Investcorp. And now …
The husband said, “That sounds like—what?—furniture being dragged on the terrace?”
They listened. Through the trees came a sound very like furniture—heavy, wrought-iron terrace furniture—being dragged along a terrace.
More voices, laughter. Raucous laughter, and braying laughter. The wife was shocked, their neighbors-through-the-trees had not seemed like such—well, gregarious people. Until now they had seemed like an ideal family, well-bred, private.
The husband said, “Maybe it’s a political fundraiser. It sounds large.”
The husband detested noisy “fundraisers” in the neighborhood. The husband had grown so contemptuous of politicians—even “conservative” politicians for whom he felt obliged to vote, in the effort of maintaining his accumulated investments and savings—the wife avoided bringing the subject up to him.
“I don’t think it’s that large. I think it’s just—another family or two. An outdoor barbecue, in summer. I think they’re just having fun.”
Not just one dog was barking, but at least two. And now came amplified music, some sort of rock, or—was it “rap”?
The husband turned away in disgust, and stomped back into the house. The wife remained for a few minutes, indecisive, listening.
How loud they are. But how happy-sounding.
The husband must have been thinking aloud. For he hadn’t addressed the wife, who was standing a few feet away, gardening implements in her gloved hands.
“What do you mean—‘the Jesters?’ ”
“That’s their name: ‘Jester.’ ”
“I don’t understand. Whose name?”
“Our neighbors through the trees.”
The husband gestured in disgust, in the direction of the woods. Already, on this weekday morning, though it wasn’t yet noon, there was a barrage of noise coming through the trees: lawnmower, leaf blower, chain saw.
The wife said, faltering, “But—everyone in Crescent Lake has lawn work done. We have our lawn mowed and serviced. How is this different?”
“It is different. It is Goddamned louder.”
The wife recoiled: The husband was being irrational. Surely the decibel level of the chain-saw-through-the-trees was no higher than that of the chain saws the husband had hired to trim away dead limbs from their own trees?
In any case it was too noisy, the wife had to concede, for she was trying to avoid a migraine headache, and nausea from medication, for her to work outside in the rose garden, which had suffered an onslaught of Japanese beetles and badly needed her care. She had wanted, too, to remove those tough little tendril-weeds from the terrace that poked up between the flagstones, giving it a shabby look.
Too noisy for the sensitive husband to remain on the terrace where he’d brought some of his home-office work—his laptop, investment accounts, sheets of yellow paper on which he penciled notes.
The wife shut the windows and turned on the air conditioning. A ceiling fan in the husband’s office made a gentle whirring sound.
“The lawn crew won’t be there much longer, I’m sure. Then I’ll help you move outside again.”
The husband waved her away with a look of commingled disgust and dismay that pierced the wife to the heart.
“Those damned Jesters! What did I tell you!”
This day, mid-morning, a lovely day in late June, there came what sounded like raw adolescent voices, boys’ voices, through the trees. And barking.
And there came, too, as the husband and the wife listened in fascinated horror, a harsh sound of slapping against pavement. Slap-slap-slap.
“A basketball? They have one of those damned portable baskets in their driveway so their sons can practice basketball.”
“What do you mean, ‘so soon?’”
The wife wasn’t sure what she had meant. The words had sprung from her lips. Faltering, she said, “They’d just been young children, it seemed. So recently.”
She was thinking, What has happened to the croquet set?
She was thinking, We forgot entirely about it! Croquet.
No longer could the husband linger on the terrace after breakfast where it was his habit to read the newspaper that so infuriated him but which he could not seem to resist—the New York Times.
Often then in the days following, intermittently and unpredictably through the day, there came the sound of teenagers practicing basketball, playing amplified rap music, exchanging shouts. It seemed clear that the Jester children had visitors—the shouts were various, at times the several young voices were quite distinct.
No words, only just sounds. Raw brash crude sounds.
And the dogs’ nonstop barking, that continued after the young people left, often into the night.
It was astonishing to the wife and the husband, how loud these noises were; how close-
“It’s like they’re just outside our house. They couldn’t be any louder if they were inside our house.”
“Maybe—we should go away. Sooner than August.”
They’d planned two weeks on Nantucket Island, in August: in a rented house on the ocean, to which they’d been returning for decades. But the husband was furious at the suggestion of being driven out of his own house, by neighbors.
“I wouldn’t want to give them the satisfaction.”
“But they don’t know anything about us—they don’t know us.”
“They know that they have neighbors. They know that their noise must carry through the trees. And what of their neighbors on West Crescent Drive? You’d think that they would have complained by now.”
“Maybe they have. Maybe nothing came of it.”
“Listen!”—the husband lifted his hand.
For now, there was the sound of a younger child, crying. Or screaming. Sobbing, screaming, crying.
Other childish voices, shouts. The teenagers’ raw-voiced shouts. Must have been a game of some kind involving physical contact.
And the dogs’ barking. Louder.
The husband and the wife left their house earlier than they’d planned for dinner in town. The husband could barely eat his food, the ignominy of being driven away from his own house was intolerable to him.
At least when they returned, the noise through the trees had abated.
Only nocturnal birds, bullfrogs, and insects in the grass. And high overhead, a quarter moon curved like a fingernail.
In gratitude and exhaustion, the husband and the wife slept that night, in their dreams twined in each other’s arms.
“Listen!”—the husband threw down his newspaper, and heaved himself to his feet.
There came a child’s cries, another time. Quite clearly, a girl’s cries. Amid the coarser sound of boys’ voices, laughter. And the barking dogs.
“But—where are you going?”
“Where do you think I’m going? Over there.”
“But—there’s no way to get through. Is there?”
“It sounds like a child is being harassed. Or worse. I’m not going to just sit here on my ass, for Christ’s sake.”
The wife followed close behind the husband. She had not seen him so agitated, so activated, in a long time.
They were descending the lawn, in the direction of the gate. The grass had been cut recently, not in horizontal rows but diagonally across the width of the lawn. The air smelled sweetly of mown grass that had been taken away by the lawn crew.
Rarely opened, the gate was stuck in grass and dirt and had to be shaken hard.
The husband was very excited. The wife felt light-headed with excitement and dread.
For this was a violation of Crescent Lake Farms protocol. No one ever approached a neighbor’s house from the rear. It was rare that anyone “visited” a neighbor’s house uninvited.
“There’s a girl who’s hurt. And that hysterical barking. Something is terribly wrong over there.”
“We should call 911.”
“We don’t know their house number.”
“The police would find it. We could tell them the situation—approximately where the Jesters live …”
“‘Jesters’ is not their name.”
“I know that. Of course, ‘Jesters’ is not their name. We don’t know their name.”
“And we don’t know their address. We can’t even describe their house.”
“But we know—”
The husband had managed to get the gate open. It was a surprise to see that, like the fence, it was badly rusted.
They made their way then into the thicket of trees, onto township property. Here were scrubby little trees and bushes and coarse weeds, thigh-high. And there was the median, where the power lines were, that looked as if it hadn’t been mowed for weeks.
Somewhat hesitantly the husband and the wife made their way into the woods on the other side of the median. Here, there were many trees that appeared to be just partially alive, or wholly dead; there had been much storm damage, broken limbs and other debris heaped everywhere.
There were no paths into the woods, that they could discover. No one ever walked here. No children played here. It was not the habit of Crescent Lake Farms children to wander in such places, as the generation of their grandparents had once done.
About fifty feet into the thicket, they encountered a fence. The six-foot fence belonging to their neighbors-through-the-trees.
They were panting, very warm. They peered through the fence but could see nothing except trees.
The noises from their neighbors had abated, mostly. The girl had ceased crying. The other voices had vanished. Only a dog continued to bark, less hysterically.
“Maybe we’d better go back? We don’t want to get lost.”
“Lost! We can’t possibly get lost.”
The husband laughed incredulously. A swarm of gnats circled his damp face, his eyes glared at the wife like the eyes of a man sinking in quicksand.
“The fence is like our own. Unless we’ve gone in a circle, and it is our own fence… .”
“This isn’t our fence, don’t be ridiculous. Our property is behind us, on the other side of the median.”
“Yes, but …”
The fence did resemble their own fence. It was (possibly) not so old as their fence but it was rusted in places and had become loose and probably, if they could locate the gate, they could force the gate open, and step inside.
Hello! We are your neighbors on East Crescent Drive.
We don’t want to disturb you but… . We are concerned …
The husband held back now. The husband was having second thoughts about his mission now that the alarming noises seemed to have ceased.
Again the wife said maybe they should turn back?
It seemed an extreme measure, to approach their neighbors’ house from the rear, like trespassers. To come up to their neighbors’ house from the rear, uninvited.
For this would be trespassing and Crescent Lake Farms expressly forbade trespassing.
The children called. One by one, in sequence.
As if the calls were planned.
First Carrie. Then Tim. Then Ellen.
The husband told them that things were fine, more or less. Except for the Goddamned neighbors-through-the-trees.
The wife told them that things were fine, more or less. Except for the neighbors they’d never met, across the median on West Crescent Drive.
“For God’s sake—Mom, Dad! Don’t you have anything else to talk about except the neighbors?”
Their children were exasperated with them. Laughed at them. The husband was furious, and the wife was deeply wounded.
“But—you don’t know what it’s like, with these people. Your father is under such strain, I’m worried about his health.”
“What about your health, Mom? We’re worried about you.”
And: “If you’re unhappy there, you can move. The house is much too large for two people. The maintenance must be out of sight, especially in the winter … Mom? Are you listening?”
No. She wasn’t listening.
Yes. She was listening, politely.
Into one of those retirement villages? Your father would never survive.
They explained that they were not unhappy in their house, which they loved. In fact they were very happy.
Only just upset, at times. By their neighbors-
“The Jesters! Goddamn them.”
Another party on the back terrace. From late afternoon until past midnight.
Amplified rock music. Throbbing notes penetrating the dense thicket of trees. The Jesters were thrumming with life: There was no avoiding the Jesters who penetrated the very air.
The wife returned from her chemo treatment ashen-faced, staggering. Fell onto a bed and tried to sleep for three hours, during which time she tried not to be upset by the amplified music-through-the-trees and by her own nausea. The husband had shut himself in his home office.
(Was it gunfire? From the Jesters’ property?)
Hunting was forbidden in Crescent Lake Farms. As were firecrackers, fireworks—any kind of noisy activity that was a disturbance of the peace and privacy of one’s neighbors.
Middle of the night, uplifted voices. Waking the husband and the wife from their troubled sleep.
The adult Jesters were arguing with one another, it seemed. A man’s voice sharp as a claw hammer, a woman’s voice sharp as flung nails. At 3:20 a.m.
(Were the children involved in the argument? This wasn’t clear, initially.)
(Yes, at least one of the children was crying. A forlorn sound like that of a small creature grasped in the jaws of an owl, being carried to the uppermost branches of a tree to be devoured.)
“We have to speak with them. This can’t continue.”
“We should file a complaint. That might be more practical.”
“With the Homeowners Association? Nobody there gives a damn.”
“With the township police, then. ‘Disturbing the peace’—‘suspicion of child abuse.’”
“No! The Jesters could sue, if we made such allegations and couldn’t prove them.”
“Then we should speak with them. Maybe we can work something out.” The wife paused, trying to control her voice. She was very shaken and close to tears. “They’re decent people, probably. They don’t realize how disturbing they are to their neighbors. They will listen to reason …”
In their bedroom, in the night, the husband saw that the wife was ashen-faced, and trembling; the wife saw, with a pang of love for him, a despairing sort of love, that the husband was looking strained, older than his age; beneath his eyes, bruised-looking shadows. Yet he tried to smile at her. He took her hand, squeezed the fingers. He was like an actor who has forgotten his lines, yet will make his way through the scene, eyes clutching the eyes of his fellow actor, the two of them stumbling together.
“I’m so sorry this is happening to us. Now you’re retired, you should be spared any more stress. I wish I knew what to do.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It isn’t up to you. I should be more forceful. We can’t let our lives be ruined by the Jesters.”
It was quiet now. The terrible quarrel had flared up, like wild fire, and abruptly ceased. There had been a sharp noise like the shutting of a door.
Tentatively the husband and the wife lay back down in their bed, the wife huddling in the husband’s arms. By slow degrees they drifted into sleep.
Slap-slap-slap. The boys had returned to their early morning basketball practice. The dogs were barking. Someone shouted words that were nearly distinct—Don’t! Goddamn you.
“If you’re coming with me, come on.”
“But, are you sure …”
“We have no choice! We’ll talk with them, and if they don’t cooperate we’ll file a formal complaint with the township police.”
Bravely the husband spoke. The wife hurried to keep up with him, headed for their car. She saw that the husband had shaved hastily and that tiny blood-nicks shone in his jaws.
The husband always drove. The wife sat beside him, sometimes clutching at the dashboard when the husband drove quickly and erratically and spoke as he drove, distracted.
The husband was saying that there have been “primitive cultures” in which the populace cut down trees year after year—decade after decade—until at last there was but a single tree remaining on the island—(evidently, these were “island aboriginals”)—and this tree, they cut down.
Then, there were no more trees. The people were amazed.
Amazed and mystified. For there had always been trees.
Where had the trees gone? Had demons cast a spell? The belief of centuries was, there had always been trees.
The husband said grimly, “You do not question inherited beliefs. That is blasphemy, and blasphemy will get you killed.”
The husband laughed, “Yet: Where are the trees?”
The wife had no idea what the husband was talking about. She had missed his initial remarks, as they’d climbed into their car, in haste and yet in determination.
She thought, Does he mean, we have no idea what will happen to us next? Or does he mean—we can alter our future, before it’s too late?
The husband drove along East Crescent Drive, and at Juniper Road he turned right; a half mile north on Juniper, and a right turn onto a smaller road, then another small road, then West Crescent Drive.
“These houses are beautiful. And the landscaping… .”
The wife spoke admiringly. The wife was very nervous, both about the husband’s driving, which was too fast for the circumstances, and about their impending destination.
The husband said, “West Crescent isn’t any different than East Crescent. The houses are no more beautiful here. The landscaping is similar. In fact, some of the houses are identical with houses on our road. Look—that Colonial? It’s a replica of the Colonial a few doors down from us.”
The wife wasn’t so sure. This Colonial had dark green shutters; the Colonial on East Crescent Drive had dark red shutters.
They came to 88 West Crescent Drive. The road curved as their road did, and the cul-de-sac resembled theirs. To their surprise, the mailbox at the Jesters’ house was made of white brick and stainless steel, exactly like their own, but the Jesters’ mailbox door was opened, and the interior of the mailbox crammed with what looked like an accumulation of rain-soaked junk mail.
Growing in a little patch at the base of the mailbox were ugly, coarse-flowering weeds. In a little patch at the base of their mailbox the wife had planted marigolds as she did every year.
“Oh my God! Look.”
“What is …”
To their astonishment, the house they believed to belong to the Jesters resembled their own, though not precisely. It was a sprawling country house of weathered shingleboard, large, with a horseshoe driveway like their own, but badly cracked and weedy. The elegant plantings in the Jesters’ lawn had been allowed to grow wild. Rotted tree limbs lay scattered in the weedy grass.
The husband and the wife were stunned. The husband and the wife were nearly speechless. For it seemed that the Jesters’ house had been damaged in some way, and was boarded up.
“Do you think—no one lives here?”
“That isn’t possible …”
The husband had parked their car at the curb. Cautiously now they were making their way up the driveway, staring.
Waiting for a dog to rush at them, barking… . Two dogs.
It was so; the shingleboard house was shut up. Seemingly abandoned. No one lived here, or had lived here in a while. There was a dark stain across half the façade, like scorch.
It was scorch—smoke damage.
As the husband and the wife approached the house, they saw that there was a faded yellow tape around it, at least so far as they could see. On the tape do not enter by order of hecate township fire dept.—do not enter by order of hecate township fire dept. was repeated in black, badly faded.
The fire could not have been recent. But how was this possible?
Boldly the husband approached the house, stooping beneath the yellow tape. The wife protested, “Wait! Where are you going? It’s a violation of the law …”
“No one is here. No one is watching.”
“But—maybe it’s dangerous.”
(It might not have been correct, that no one was watching. Just outside the cul-de-sac, at 86 West Crescent Drive, there was a large putty-colored French Provincial house with numerous glittering windows. And a vehicle parked in the driveway.)
The husband approached the front door, stepping on debris on the stoop. As if to ring the doorbell, though obviously there was no one inside the wreck of a house.
They could see now that fire damage was considerable. From the road, it had not been so evident. Much of the house had collapsed, at the rear; downstairs windows were boarded up, somewhat carelessly; part of the roof, burnt through, had collapsed. The wife was shivering in the midsummer heat. Did anyone die in the fire? How many? The wife did not want to think, Was it arson? And when? Beside the heavy oak door there were inset windows, of stained glass, which were partly broken but not boarded up; through these, the husband and the wife stared into the house, into a foyer with a silly, forlorn-looking crystal chandelier, a badly stained tile floor, miscellaneous overturned furniture.
A chair lying on its side. A crooked mirror, reflecting what looked like mist, or gas. Smoke stains like widespread black wings on the once-white wall.
A smell of something terrible, like burnt flesh.
“Please! Let’s leave.”
“No one can see us.”
“People have died here. You can tell. Please let’s leave.”
The husband laughed at the wife, irascibly. In the reflected light from the stained glass his skin was unnaturally mottled, rubefacient; his eyes narrowed with thought, a kind of frightened animal cunning. His nostrils widened and contracted as if, like an animal, he was sniffing the air for danger.
The wife pulled at his arm and he threw off her hand. But he relented, and followed her back to their car.
The wife saw that the husband had parked the car crookedly at the curb. It was a large gleaming new-model Acura, a beautiful silvery-green color, yet parked so carelessly it looked clownish. The husband saw this too and drew in his breath sharply.
“What the hell? I didn’t park the car like this.”
“You must have.”
“I said, I did not.”
“Then who did?”
“I did not drive! You drove.”
“You drove, and you parked the car like a drunken woman or a—a senile woman. Lucky we aren’t in town, you’d have a ticket.”
“But I didn’t drive here. I would never have driven here. I didn’t even bring my handbag, with my driver’s license.”
“Driving without a license! That’s points on your license.”
The wife was deeply agitated. The smell of the burnt house and what had burnt inside it was still in her nostrils. Badly she wanted to flee home and lie down on the bed and hide her face and sleep, but in the corner of her eye she saw a figure approaching her and the husband, from the house across the cul-de-sac. A white-haired woman, genteel, with kindly eyes, in gardening clothes, on her head a wide-brimmed straw hat. On her hands, gloves. The wife saw that the white-haired woman had been tending to roses bordering the driveway of her house, a striking red-brick Edwardian with a deep front lawn. Obviously, the white-haired woman had, like the wife, a gardener-helper who came at least once a week to till the soil for her and take out the worst of the weeds.
“Excuse me! Hello.”
The white-haired woman removed her soiled gloves, smiling at the husband and the wife. Hers was a beautiful ruin of a face, soft as a leather glove; her nose was thin, aristocratic. Her small mouth was pale primrose-pink.
“Are you—by any chance—considering that house? I mean—to buy?”
“To buy? The house isn’t in any condition to be inhabited.”
“Yes. But it could be rebuilt and repaired.”
“And it isn’t for sale anyway, so far as we can see. Is it?”
“I wouldn’t know. I mean—it might be listed with a Realtor. Realtor’s signs aren’t allowed in Crescent Lake Farms.”
The white-haired woman smiled at them wistfully. She went on to say how hopeful they all were, on West Crescent Drive, that someone would buy the house soon, and restore it. “What a beautiful house it was! This is all such a shame and a—tragedy.”
“Why? What happened?”
“The fire was—wasn’t—an accident. So the investigators ruled.”
“Who set the fire, if it wasn’t an accident? One of the sons?”
Seeing that the husband was eager to know, the white-haired woman became cautious. She backed away, though with a polite smile.
“No one knows. Not definitely.”
“Was there a son? A teenager?”
“There’s an investigation—ongoing. It’s been years now. I don’t know anything more.”
“You must know if they died in the fire? Someone did die—yes?”
“Who? The Jesters, of course. How many of them died in the fire?”
The husband was speaking harshly. The wife was embarrassed of his vehemence, with this gracious stranger. She tugged at his arm, to bring him back to himself.
“‘The Jesters?’ I don’t understand.”
“What was the name of the family who lived here?”
“I—don’t remember. I have to leave now.”
The white-haired woman turned quickly away. That so gracious a person would turn her back on fellow residents of Crescent Lake Farms was astonishing to the wife though the husband grunted as if such rude behavior only confirmed his suspicions.
“Let’s go. ‘The Jesters’ are taboo, it seems.”
The husband drove. At the intersection of West Crescent Drive and a smaller road called Lilac Terrace he turned left, thinking to take a shortcut to Juniper, and home; but Lilac Terrace turned out, as the wife might have told the husband, to be a dead end. no outlet.
After some maneuvering, the husband and the wife returned home to 88 East Crescent Drive. In their absence, the house had remained unchanged.
Next morning at dawn they were awakened by—what was it?—a battery of shots—crack crack crack CRACK.
The wife sat up in panic thinking that the roof of the house was collapsing upon them.
The husband swung his legs out of bed in panic thinking that someone had entered the house, to shoot them.
They went to the window, which was a floor-to-ceiling window with a balcony, rarely used, outside. Because of the Jesters’ unpredictable noises, the husband and the wife no longer opened this window even on cool summer nights.
The husband’s face was mottled with rage and fear. The wife thought, I will comfort him all the days of our lives.
It was the morning of July 4. The Jesters were celebrating early.