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We are all children. We listen intently to the story of Chatterton Raccoon and how he was taken away from his home, his meeting Rayya the flying squirrel and their experiences as they thread their way through the big woods. As a children's author I enjoy answering a question they never fail to ask: Does Chatterton come back? I spoil the story every time but it doesn't matter. Yes, I say. Chattering raccoon and leaping gazelle, everybody comes back to the Close.
* * *
I came out of the clouds over the lake front in the late morning. From the right wing Lake Erie shined a dark metallic image through my window. Ore-carrying freighters lost their intimidating bulk, and their moving was not the speed a deck hand would see positioned at the bow or along the side. Big buckles of transportation slid under me, yielding to tracts of autumn green. The shocking touchdown of the wheels underscored my decision never to travel by air again.
I picked up my backpack from the dolly. It had everything I needed, a change of clothes, some trinkets from adoring children, a copy of my novel Tales from the Close for reading to them. Then I walked. There was no need to hurry. The miles drawn were broken by blocks resilient to change, as if the land had the power to dispense a natural inexhaustible wealth to those who walked. Grades and curves opposed the aggressive driver. Black marks showed where someone whose ability in speed had been put to the test and failed. Traffic also suffered from the slow-moving freight train. Piggyback cars and tankers with Florentine graffiti lumbered east and west through the city. There were no more cabooses or loose-door boxcars for the light-footed and unscheduled passenger. But I helped myself to the railroads's right-of-way until I came to a familiar junction.
Commercial billboards contested each other for higher ground. I met smiling car dealers and frowning television judges but found a way between them upland. Their stature was not as high as the sky-scrubbing trees further south. Subdivisions with names like "Heights" and "Run" were under neighborhood watch. Cable news told of the endless recession on one station while another told of Congress's approving the Gulf War. Wars were in. Colors were out. Height Run was all in vinyl, in a one-size-fits-all fashion. The recession did nothing to cut back on the number of cars and big SUV's that were overrunning the parkways. Boom boxes and clashing horns further instilled a suspicion of an imbalance. This was no Galilean Shore walk. Only the paranoid free walked slow. I turned away from the forbidding environment and onto Skyline Drive. The house I visited first was somewhat hidden from the street by a hedge and arbor. It was smaller than the complexes in Height Run. I passed through the arbor without a scratch. An old man was tending a garden. He had his back toward me. Hearing a twig crunching under my slowly advancing foot, he turned.
"Liberty Orleans. Welcome back."
He was one of the first to live on Skyline Drive when others had come and gone. Wells and chicken coops went out of fashion as well as steam heat, but on Skyline Drive Mr Eben was a foundation and a cornerstone, almost permanent. Unlike the vinyl living units across the street, his house was covered in the original yellow clapboard shingles milled from the woods not more than a stroll away. A heavy fieldstone basement with small rectangle windows was kept comfortably unclear with dust and dirt to frustrate any snoop whose appreciation of privacy might not accord with Mr Eben's. Soaring hemlocks shrouded the facade, with only a single dormer peeking through between them. His lawn was broken by beds of coneflower and black-eyed Susans. But behind the hidden house the more suspect garden lay. Besides the tomatoes, onions and potatoes, long natural swaths of belladonna and other members of the deadly nightshade family swayed before his south boundary, beyond which a greater unsettled land stretched. It was the remnant of a once huge woodland that was the subject of contention for neighboring land owners and ambitious developers. Initial forays had been made within with, say, parcels of five to as much as 20,000 square feet having been cleared, but then stopped by either legal injunction or protests and petitions. All in all, the entire setting survived the development elegantly, if not together.
He told me to drop my backpack and sit down to eat lunch. It was harvest time. To have been gone six years and come back to enjoy Mr Eben's garden harvest was a bonus I wasn't really expecting. There were recollections of three neighborhood kids helping out a younger Martin Eben with his garden. One of whom was me. Montgomery LaNodd and Sarahjane Penney were the other two. Mr Eben asked if I enjoyed myself on the road, reading chapters from Tales from the Close.
"I missed the music."
He understood. He got up and poured the coffee and told me that he had a story to relate to me. He had been saving it for the right time and it wouldn't take too long to tell. Having known him for a long time, I didn't recall him ever relating a story to any one of us. But my coming back obliged him to do so. He said that it would make me feel better.
It was early in the day, early enough to enjoy a story. I was eating his food and drinking his coffee. The least I could do was listen to what happened here the same year I left Erie. Besides, it was good to sit back and listen to a story without me in the driver's seat. It was good to sit back and listen to another voice.
* * *
Nineteen eighty-four had been a signal year. Before then Mr Eben spent his vacations in the tristate area. But upon retirement from the railroad he succumbed to the urge of Europe. Paris was the hub of this turnaround. The young mademoiselles and the hot fashions could disturb a man on his vacation. Either by casual address or tacit magnetism under the address, the mademoiselles and madames could stretch the elasticity of the older man's retirement. In the amount of time he spent there, he had a personal transcendence at Notre Dame Cathedral, and, a few blocks from there, he felt the sensual person on the Champs-Elysees and Rue Rivoli, even in the Sewers under the Place de la Concorde. But he wanted something to bring home. In the flea market, Le Marche aux Puces, an exciting gypsy woman was selling flowers and potted plants in a little cart. It melted his heart to see such a humble looking outfit and the dreamy gypsy woman that he, without any prodding at all, touched a potted rose on it. Having had experience with English-speaking tourists, she began describing the rose. It was an unusual cultivar originating in India. She said further that it was the creation of the horticulturist of the Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, Muntaz Mahal.
"Do you like it?" the gypsy asked.
Mr Eben marveled at the rose's bright yellow throat and deep violet corolla.
"It is a climber," the gypsy woman said, glowing.
"I have a nice place for it."
"Only 105 francs."
Understanding well the value of so many roses he had searched for in the more unknown specialized sources, he knew a rare specimen such as the Taj Rose the gypsy woman was offering him was worth the twenty-one dollars he freed from his wallet. He and the woman hesitated to depart. There was an unspoken willingness to maybe find some time to engage in more personal interests afterward. Sharing a table at the Tour Eiffel even with the overpriced food would not be as difficult to pay for with the gypsy woman, and the escargot would not be as disgusting with her facing him. "What are snails anyway," Mr Eben would muse with her, "but mollusks sunning themselves on the lounge of lettuce." They would laugh. Then she would ask: "Is there no one at home?" He would surrender to the moment before answering her. "Six years ago ... there was a tragedy back home on the street where I live." The gypsy woman would apologize and assume it was a wife or girlfriend and try to pick up the liveliness at the table. The liveliness would return. They would laugh and drink and see the sights and the stars. In the warm night after dinner they would then make love in the thousands of niches. A balmy Parisian rain, the Seine, the tireless night, and they would look up to see the dark blue morning and Notre Dame's spires in Ile de la Cite. In the movement of the night they would not know how they got there.
"I'll see the rose climbing my arbor and think of you," he said, breaking away from the little cart of potted plants. Neither he nor she exchanged addresses. The next day was his last in Paris. At Charles De Gaulle Airport he had no trouble getting the rose on his flight home. The attractive young ticket agent was overcome by the rose that had been carefully tucked into his handbag, in a safe position that didn't upset the soil. In fact he showed the rose to the passengers behind him and to those waiting patiently in the lines beside his. Returning it just as carefully into his handbag, he pressed the return ticket against it. Were it not for the constantly crowded condition at the airport, the nice ticket agent would have kept him chatting warmly about the rose.
"Have a nice flight, Monsieur."
Surprisingly, Mr Eben had no trouble at all coming home with it. The customs people at LaGuardia Airport asked and he showed them the strange rose. He and the rose were okayed.
The arbor, having been painted a fresh coat of white the year before, was then ready to receive it. The soil was not at all hard to dig to plant it either. It was virgin. A little hard sand and cured compost and the rose followed in like a child to its mother's arms.
The rose grew fast. It began twining its first summer. It was a good summer in Erie. Everyone from Skyline Drive came to visit Martin Eben and to see how his rose was growing. As private minded as he was, he went so far as to consider opening up a little card table stand out on his front yard to sell some of his potted geraniums and gladiolus bulbs.
Its second summer was no less remarkable. By that time the rose filled the arbor to the top and was arching over and down the other side. As with all roses, the Taj Rose had its share of thorns. But Mr Eben didn't want to trim it yet. It gave his arbor and yard a formidable appearance, with its canes falling through the lattice and hanging in the air. He saw it as a protector of sorts, just as its predecessor protected the Taj Mahal. People would be impressed walking by the palatial yard. They would say nice things and go on with their walk. Since the only way to enter his garden and house was to go through the rosy arbor, no one had come to visit. He thought maybe they were afraid of getting scratched or maybe damaging it somehow. But it was just as nice as if it had been photographed by Better Homes and Gardens. Its thorny canes dropped from various points in the arbor like a playful kitten dangling its claws from a high place. Mr Eben loved the rose.
It was the third summer that new people began moving into the developed subdivision to the north of Skyline Drive. Some had stayed in the complexes temporarily while others stayed on a longer basis. One of the temporary families was loud. The father was loud and the son was loud. Because of the father's loud calling of his 13-year-old son every day to come home, everyone knew the son's name, Joshua. Joshua was heard not only in the subdivision but across Skyline too. He had a malicious personality that informed his destructive behavior. Anyone who reproved him was met with a swift reprisal, which came in the manner of either a vocal or a practical provocation. It wasn't long before the neighborhood terror took a notion to visit the secret house across the street. Ever since the loud terror moved into the subdivision, Mr Eben had to pick up trash in the front yard, something he very infrequently had to do. Having a suspicion Joshua was on a round, Mr Eben waited for him inside the rosy arbor. When Joshua came with a pop can he was drinking from, he lobbed it, not in front as expected but over the hedge. He fetched it and threw it back at Joshua through the arbor.
"When I was your age, my father would've jumped on me if I had done that."
The stupefied Joshua picked the can up to throw again, but Mr Eben rushed him, causing the terror to draw back and rethink his reaction.
"Don't ever let me catch you throwing anything in my yard or any of the other yards here."
Exactly at that time a booming voice called, Joshua. It came from the subdivision.
"You better get going."
The boy stood a little bit to show a die-hard face before running across the street. Mr Eben finished cleaning up the front. He then went back through the arbor. He hadn't noticed it before but in all the time the Taj Rose had been planted, there were no ants climbing the arbor, nor were there any Japanese Beetles crawling on the rose leaves or petals. He thought that the rose may have been a disease-resistant cultivar. Even the ones that have been promoted to resist disease, though, had some form of mildew or canker, or had Japanese beetles crawling on them and aphids here and there. His Taj Rose had none and he was content as he retired for the night.
True to character, Joshua came back. He made a big mistake. It was late enough to be assured that Mr Eben was not in his garden. The rose was waiting. Joshua blatantly walked through the arbor to vandalize the garden in some way. A rose cane scratched the back of his right hand before he had a chance to get to the garden. Mr Eben didn't hear any cry of pain as he was preparing for bed in his house that was protected by the rose.
Finishing in the bathroom the next morning, he heard shouting coming from the front of his yard. The angry father was standing outside the arbor. Mr Eben had no idea what the man wanted. He was not much bigger then he was but he was packed to the hilt with some kind of redress. Dark hair cut and combed in the style of the imitable young manager on his way up lay sparsely and parted to the extreme right.
"Yes? What is it?"
"My son said he got scratched by your rose. His hand is swollen and red."
Mr Eben knew immediately who the man was. He was going to say: What was your son doing on my property to begin with? And How about all those times he littered? But he didn't want a confrontation. He had sat in the control of powerful engines, both steam and diesel, pulling upward of 50 to 60 tons per car and trains of up to the same in number. Over the years he estimated that he pulled roughly six million tons of coal, ore and goods. He was in control now.
The father studied the arbor and the purple and solar yellow rose it was hanging from. "What is this? What kind of a flower is that?"
"Just a rose." Mr Eben demurred telling the father any more than was really necessary.
"Are you sure?" The father looked at him hard, trying to size him up. He didn't vacillate. With all the chemical bug bombs and toxic herbicides, the father was suspicious that Joshua may have been intentionally poisoned.
"Look," Mr Eben said, taking a hold of one of the canes to demonstrate how harmless it was. He deliberately scratched himself with it, on his hand and arm. "Tending roses all the years I have I know without a doubt that they are not dangerous."
"Joshua's hand is swollen badly. He's staying home from school today. If it doesn't get any better tomorrow, we're going to take him to our doctor. He has all the tests. If it turns out there's some kind of poison in his system from this rose, you'll be hearing from my attorney the next day."
He stormed across Skyline Drive. No vehicle dared to hit him.
Mr Eben had no attorney himself. He had no need before. He was filled with dread to think that he would be involved in the law. Even having a nice pension from Norfolk and Western Railroad and friends he could count on, the idea of judges and courts was alarming.
Excerpted from ALLEGHENY AND SKYLINE by Ronald Dunham Copyright © 2007 by Ronald Dunham. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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