You have to live somewhere.
But the Woodhills Preservation Tract, a private homeowners association on the outskirt of Hopscotch Mills, N.Y., where every street ends in -wood: Beechwood, Pinewood, Ashwood, Alderwood, Oakwood, Wedgewood, Westwood, Sycamorewood, Hollywood, Gingkowood, and Cedarwood, is a far cry from where Eliza Volk used to live in Manhattan. There, with her ex, Ed, she shared a walk-up on 78th between 2nd and 3rd for eleven years. Eliza now lives on Edgewood Drive.
Today a heavy-set, middle-aged couple encroach. Despite Eliza’s yellow POSTED: NO TRESPASSING signs stapled onto the oaks along her property’s lower perimeter, stray hikers will go as if into the wild for a day, come upon her hill, and regard it another Everest they must scale. Striking airs of conquerors (or company retreat participants), this man and woman, in matching red shirts, clamber up over Eliza’s ledge, not ten yards from where she’s kneeling on a pad and digging at a particularly stubborn dandelion. They scare her.
“May I help you?” She means to sound stern.
“Oh, we’re just out walking,” says the man and flicks his hand her way.
His nonchalance is nothing compared to Ed’s indifference, but Eliza only mumbles, “This is private property.”
“We’re not bothering anybody,” the man hisses. Then they amble up Beechwood, turn left onto Westwood, and are gone.
The following morning, strolling up Oakwood Drive, Eliza finds Mark and Doris Callahan having coffee on their front porch.
“No matter what, trespassing is against the law,” says Doris, an avid speed walker, and wags her hand similar to how Eliza had illustrated the man did. “Our neighborhood isn’t Grand Central Station, you know, and those nasty nuts could’ve been lowlife criminals, rapists, all kinds of whatnots.”
“They would’ve been long gone by the time the cops got here,” Eliza says.
“Perhaps. But had those nutters tried to kill you and you’d screamed, we wouldn’t have heard,” Doris says. “When Law & Order is on, we’re lost to the world.”
Eliza calls the police. Waiting for the dispatch, she tries to appreciate that the man and woman hadn’t broken bones stumbling into a burrow or over a branch concealed in her slope’s knee-deep leaf cover. Or gotten bit by a copperhead. Or come across ticks or poison ivy. Not for nothing has Eliza nicknamed her unkept hill and backyard the Bad Lands. And she can’t afford liability insurance. Up until now, the encroachments—those she’s aware of—have caused no incident.
Knock on wood.
By statistical odds alone, something is due to go awry. A quote in the tick repellent pamphlet from Bugoff, the regional pest- and-herbicide company where Eliza is the assistant manager, springs to mind: “Do you want to be among the 30,000 who contract Lyme disease every year? Or, among those infected who do not know?”
To fight Lyme disease, Eliza uses Bugoff’s TickOff. Since it’s only 70% effective, she’s been supplementing with undiluted DEET and Permethrin. But a recent office memo listed a side effect of Permethrin that reactivated if remoistened—as in rained upon—and caused sickness, even death, in cats. After the Callahans bought a Norwegian Forest kitten two summers ago, the choice of pet became so popular that cats now roam everywhere in the Woodhills. And though no rumors of dead or dying felines had reached Eliza, she’d thrown out all empty Permethrin bottles, which she’d stored with the other used pesticide containers. Keeping the empty canisters seemed her only chance to refute people with poison ivy rashes or Lyme disease who might sue; stories circulating the office are outrageous.
Finally, the cruiser pulls up.
Finches tweet and the neighbors’ lawns sprinkler systems sputter as Eliza leads the policeman to where the couple appeared. Hand on his Taser, he walks along her ledge and scans the Bad Lands. When he reaches the farthest point from her house, he angles down, rustling through the dry foliage and producing sounds like how Ed, furious, used to crumble up the Wall Street Journal whenever his stocks underperformed.
Ed had always complained of allergies, so Eliza had never decorated their home with potted plants or fresh flowers, only silk or plastic varieties. Then, to discover his affair from the many florist charges made her feel profoundly betrayed: her life had been as fake as her imitations. She wished she hadn’t found out. Not knowing was a gray zone. Options remained. Ed could have actually been overseas, conducting hedge fund seminars, not merely saying so. He could’ve been planning their vacation, not having his new squeeze, a bully divorce attorney, enforce settlement terms that left Eliza unable to afford a place less than two hours from the City.
The ground gives to her weight. Eliza holds her breath and picks her way down the slope and around greenery with the three-leafed outline of poison ivy. If all she does is skim a plant, she’ll blister and burn as if submerged in acid, and only steroids help but make her so loopy all she can do is watch reruns of Rosanne. So, to eradicate poison ivy, Eliza has been blasting Bugoff’s blend of Poison Ivy Eliminator or PIE (it smells a bit like cinnamon) over the Bad Lands with her industrial-size spray gun. She used to douse plenty since she couldn’t gauge the distribution from where she stood out of harm’s way back by the house, but, as with TickOff, a glitch arose: large quantities of PIE may be harmful to oaks. Now Eliza can only hope her curtailed but twice-yearly applications, eventually, build up enough toxicity to kill all the ivy (and every tick). She gingerly treads downhill and glances at the nearby trees. Their foliage may droop a bit, but they’re still the late summer’s lush green.
Still gripping his Taser, the officer tramps on. She realizes his aim. Twenty yards farther down, a heap of trash rises over three feet out of the umber leaves. Eliza stops. He grabs a stick, crouches next to the pile, pokes, and catches a faded paper cup. He swings it towards her.
“Someone’s having a good time up here.” His timbre is neutral.
“I’ve never seen that before.”
He stares in her direction then nods to the dangling cup. “Some of it has been here a while.”
The local chain of convenience To Go shops, To Go’s trademark screaming orange logo is faintly evident as a pale-peach circle. Past the public woods below and across the thoroughfare are both a To Go and a liquor store.
The sergeant advises Eliza to call as soon as she notices anything out of the ordinary.
She points to the waste. “That doesn’t count?”
She’s sure he looks straight into her eyes through his dark sunglasses that reflect a plump miniature Eliza when he says, “No.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, thanks for coming on a Saturday.” She doesn’t mean to be polite, and he leaves her in a perfect mood to scale the bank and clean up.
She stumble-sprints through the crisp leaves and quickly fills a trash bag. It’s obvious someone regularly clambers up her hill. There are enough cigarette butts and packs of Newport Menthol to suggest several persons may now suffer lung cancer—she wishes them a slow death. And besides To Go coffee cups and juice cartons in all stages of faded orange, Eliza gathers a slew of empty vodka bottles. Cheap stuff. The area doesn’t stink of vomit but ought to. Near the mound, by a fallen tree with a seat worn into the bark, lies a circle design with labels going from weathered to bright. Paper cups sit at twelve, three, six, and nine. Pocket-size vodka bottles complete the edge, and juice boxes make up the center. Like an art installation. Andy Goldsworthy gone to junk. Eliza lets it be and starts a square nearby: coffee cups frame a checkered pattern of vodka and juice containers, and Newport cartons threaded onto sticks at the corners become white-and-turquoise turrets.
But who’d sit and get bombed out of their minds while chain-smoking smack dab in parched leaves? Not the couple from yesterday. They were too conspicuous. Maybe it’s Frank, her next-door neighbor. He and his wife, Marie, just had their third child, Mary-Jean. She’s colicky. Frank had recently blurted to Eliza that he’d needed an excuse to leave, so he’d started smoking again. The baby’s crying could also have driven him to drink more than usual. To that end, he’d want to sneak away at least off his property. His preference, martinis, can be vodka-based and likely low-cost. If he’s Eliza’s trespasser, he’s accomplished a fourteen-yard escape.
She fills four more bags. The job is far from done, but Eliza’s hamstrings ache from balancing on the incline, and she can no longer repress her fears of poison ivy or ticks. After a thorough shower, she brings an iced tea with rum along when she goes to deadhead hostas next to her lawn. It’s the smallest greensward in the Woodhills, but it’s still vivid green because she’s limited it to a rectangle along the road where the scarlet and pin oaks’ crowns can’t block the sun.
Besides, Eliza uses a reel push mower. Her neighbors all employ landscape services—rogue jockeys riding roaring lawn mowers big as sports cars over square plots of withered grass that look as if they were treated with the wrong fertilizer or weed killer. Except Eliza is certain the bulk of all that yellow turf merely suffers from lack of sunlight. She just can’t broach the subject with her fellow landowners seeing how each spring many of them have new sod types unfurled with anticipation and ceremony fit for Oriental rugs.
Eventually, someone walking by stops.
It’s Frank with the Golden Labrador they got when their second child, a non-screaming girl, arrived three years ago. He isn’t smoking, and his camouflage cargo shorts’ pockets reveal no bulge in the shape of a pack of cigarettes. Recounting her discovery, Eliza observes his reaction. He seems barely awake. She emphasizes the fire hazard; that gets his attention.
“Put him on notice,” he says. “And charge him rent.”
“You know who it is?”
“You must’ve heard the Oldtimer? At least he only yowls in the winter months. If he did it now too, what with Mary-Jean at it, I’d have to shoot him.”
“Why would I have heard him?” Then it comes to her how some winter nights, despite her shut windows, she’d been awoken by strange howls. She imagined they belonged to an aroused or confused animal running around in the woodlands, and she expected to get used to the cries same as how she tuned out the lawn or snow removal services. But by the end of last year’s long winter, the screams still disturbed her sleep. Sometimes she hollered along.
“Haven’t you picked up how the colder it would get, the worse he barked?” Frank says and greets Doris and Mark Callahan and Jim Hardy, who arrive simultaneously from opposite directions.
Doris has her hair teased into a bob big as a helmet that accentuates her defined jawline. Eliza’s hair is, as usual, tied into a bun. Mark and Doris consistently partake in the Woodhills Tract’s street parties, and now they glide up with martinis in steel goblets. Jim is single and lives kitty-corner from Eliza, on Beechwood. Today too, he walks Savage, his show-quality Savannah cat (Doris says it cost 10,000 dollars), on a short leash. The cat ignores Frank’s sleeping Labrador. Jim often wears rust-red, which Eliza used to think clashed with her pale complexion. His collar is wrinkled. He drives his Nissan sports car erratically and is vague about his occupation. She’s decided he’s a trust funder. Jim drinks sea breezes, martinis, or gimlets, like most Woodhills residents.
Continuing to eyeball Frank, who’s either unveiled her intruder or tried to divert blame, Eliza repeats the details of her invasion. The Callahans agree it’s the Oldtimer.
“Your classic lost Vietnam War Vet,” Doris says and rubs her jaw.
“They’re still around?” says Jim. Like Eliza, he was born near the end of that war. By the time they were five (the age children start asking what they think are serious, grown-up questions), the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam, and facts were getting smothered.
“You bet the old Vets are around.” Mark sips before continuing. “And if they can survive Nam, why can’t they get by on Happy Meals and a veterans’ pension?”
“Good for them. Getting pensions.” Jim nods.
“Doesn’t look a day over fifty, not a single gray hair in those crazy Rastafarian hanks of his, and he’s skinny as a rail,” Doris, who’s past sixty, says with disdain, then cocks her head and smiles at two women, a blonde and a brunette, arriving. “Ah, long time, no see.”
Doris’s description fits a man Eliza has encountered when walking through the woodlands. The lightest she’d noticed his tan was toffee—smooth and armorlike—and all his wooly sweaters and pants were variations on blue, dusty, and too short, but he always appeared put together. Whenever they’d needed to pass, he’d stepped off the narrow track into the weeds or, once, the snow. She always expected fetors. What she picked up was moist soil and fresh sweat, a farmer’s scent. That one time in the winter he’d mumbled what sounded garbled yet insightful, perhaps intended for a large assembly of doctors or lawyers, or a speech that detailed how he’d been wronged and displaced. Hurrying by him, her urge to speak would swell, then the relief of having passed without addressing him would suck and turn to remorse. Once, she almost said, “Why are you in Hopscotch Mills?”
He struck her so unlike the homeless in the City: shells tottering along with the endurance of the damned in layers of clothes stiff with grime and their skin, no matter their race, steak-brown year-round and a ghostly gray sheen. Their detachment floated like gasses of despair that Eliza, even if she wanted to, couldn’t dismiss. Never so the Oldtimer. Except for the nighttime screams that she now knows are his.
“Just another hippie gone to seed,” Frank says and wakes up his dog to go home.
Savage disdainfully observes the blonde dog leap up and shake.
“He’ll be the last to go to seed.” Mark snickers as Frank walks off. “Between their experiments with drugs and inhaling the shit we dropped on the gooks, he’s better preserved than any of us. Now he gets nothing but fresh air and lives for free.”
“Where? Exactly?” Eliza says.
“At the bottom of your hill,” Doris says matter-of-factly. “Been there for ages. Must’ve built a little nest.”
The brunette, whose pixie-do needs trimming, nods.
“A nest?” Eliza tunes into a couple of woodpeckers’ shrilly squawks—cawing that unfailingly intensifies in the afternoon.
“He’s the one who’s worn the trails down below wide enough to use. Heaven forbid the county should keep the public woods accessible,” Doris scoffs.
“Maybe they hired him,” the brunette titters.
“Why would he work?” Jim says. “He’s got a pension.”
“But, what happened?” Eliza says. “Why is he here?”
“Hmm,” Doris hums, finishes her drink, gazes at her husband. He laughs and takes her goblet to go home around the corner. He’ll return with replenished drinks and one of Doris’s homemade coolers containing bottles, an extra-large drink mixer, and plastic glasses.
This impromptu get-together is the first to take place at Eliza’s.
“He ought to be working if it’s who I’m thinking of,” says the blonde.
“How many Rasta dudes do you think we have in the Woodhills?” Jim chuckles.
Eliza grins in his direction. He reciprocates.
“He’s so not old,” the blonde says. “He’s our age.” She points to herself, Jim, the brunette, and, lastly, Eliza.
Frank returns without his dog but with a large martini. He’s squinting at smoke rising from a cigarette that droops from the side of his mouth. Despite her resolved suspicion, Eliza looks for a Newport logo. Frank catches her staring and winks. Jim faces Frank. Eliza sneaks glances at both men and drinks. Her ice-cube slivers clink. Two younger couples from Ashwood stop by. Their kids, two sets of twins and an older boy, bike in circles around their parents until they’re on Eliza’s lawn. Mark returns with three neighbors who carry two of Doris’ bar coolers. He shakes a mixer. The chatter rises. Eliza joins Jim and Doris as they, to the newcomers, expound their theories on her police visit and the Oldtimer.
“Okay, so not a hippie who’s gone to seed.” Jim laughs. “I bet he’s a former Lehman Brothers man.” He bends to watch as the girl from Ashwood pets Savage.
Doris shrugs. “The poor sod is just lost.”
Instead of commenting, Eliza hurries inside. Pees. Replenishes her tea with extra rum. Sips. Stares out the window to her backyard’s thicket. The Oldtimer isn’t altogether lost, not quite homeless: he has digs at the bottom of her ridge. He disregards her NO TRESPASSING signs and deems her treacherous Bad Lands worth scrambling up, risking life and limbs to unwind with a drink and a smoke not forty yards from her house. Her view is already dark as twilight. In winter, through the crowded bare trees, her vista will still appear shaded. From the Oldtimer’s seat near the pile, sunlight will filter down between the trunks; he’ll be able to look out over the woodlands, his tracks, perhaps his place. This time of year he won’t see farther than Eliza does from her window. But in-between swigs he’ll probably amuse himself by rearranging his junk assemblage. Chagrined, she recalls her square.
She returns outside. People now crowd both her lawn and the street. Some have brought folding chairs. Eliza fetches a trashcan. Everyone settles in; drinks get refilled; kids play hide-and-seek. When found, two girls shriek for so long and so loud their lungs must hurt as much as Eliza’s ears.
“So, what’s it like hosting a squatter?” one of the Ashwood fathers asks.
At these gatherings, feelings or opinions are rarely sought but rather given and with confidence. After two seconds too long, Eliza says, “The risks—”
“Phooey,” Doris cuts. “He’s harmless. Unlike the people who just trampled up her hill. We had to convince her to call the police.”
“Good thing I didn’t have to call an ambulance,” Eliza says. “And I’m amazed he hasn’t caught poison ivy or fallen and broken something.”
“Your backyard isn’t a mountain,” Mark says. “And poison ivy? Here?” (Their parcel sits opposite the ravine, is flat, and surrounded by other serviced gardens.)
“Let’s hope he’s not litigious,” says Jim. “Well, then he would’ve sued long ago.”
Mark nods and drinks. “You’ve got to be different to sleep outside all year.”
“Wait to report him till it gets too cold to stay outdoors again. They’ll give him a cot at the station,” Frank says.
“Oh, leave the wretch alone,” Jim says. “What if he’s endured the divorce from hell? And maybe he has gone bankrupt. Or if he’s had his fill of napalm and Agent Orange and shrapnel and crap from dirty bombs and missiles and drones and whatever other shit screwed him up, he’s done with our ways. Can’t be bothered.”
“Can’t be bothered?” Eliza snaps. “You got your wars’ warfare all mixed up.”
Suddenly, everyone has chickens or roasts in Crockpots that need checking.
A week goes by. Eliza hasn’t called the police. Whether as per Jim’s or Frank’s comments, she’s unsure. She wants to see, exactly, where the Oldtimer lives. But whenever she’d returned from work and tried to walk to the public woods, people—including non-Woodhills residents—had mulled around, needing to chat about the Oldtimer and his trash, and Eliza had felt caught and forced to admit she didn’t know how to tackle his presence. She wishes she’d stayed in the gray zone. There, the Oldtimer doesn’t have to live outside nor hide out up her hill to drink himself into oblivion. Neither has Eliza answered his cries (what if he knows it was she?). In the gray zone, her neighbors have no knowledge of him. Or they haven’t told her. And she’s unaware he can be, legally, removed.
Saturday morning, she’s out of milk and iced tea. It’s just after 8 a.m. and unseasonably cool. No inquisitive neighbors appear to be out. She walks to the corner of Edgewood and Wedgewood and cuts through the cleared, vacant parcel down to the woodlands. She spots him striding through a swath of meadow covered in misty lacework, and she follows an apparent trail of weeds wiped dry by his pantlegs. In the little forest, she traces his blurred footprints in the dry sand. But there’s no trace of him when she reaches the thoroughfare’s crossing.
It’s the county’s deadliest intersection for pedestrians, Eliza recalls reading on Hopscotch News’ website. The light is slow to change; she bets the Oldtimer never waits to cross. Someone who’s survived, if not the atrocities of the U.S. in Vietnam or an unpleasant divorce, then other horrors that make him howl his way through minus twenty-degree nights and live off cigarettes, coffee, vodka, and orange juice— well, someone like that may not care if an unwary driver ends it all. When she arrives at To Go, he’s there, next to the parking lot straddling the picnic table bench. He has untied his dreadlocks; they hang like a cape. With his elbow supported on the tabletop, he cradles a lidless paper cup. Within his reach is a half-pint of juice and a brown bag wrinkled around a square-shouldered bottle. His eyes are blue and glass-like. He sits there but is miles, continents away.
Eliza stops near his table. “Hi.” Her pitch is shrieky. She corrects her backpack, considers buying him bread and cheese.
He gestures what seems to be for her to take a seat.
Her foot snags on the lip of the bench; she winds up sitting on the end diagonally across from him. She folds her forearms on the table. The wood is smooth. “You’re not smoking?”
He straightens up and pulls a packet of Newport Menthols from his trouser pocket, untucks the foil, bumps the closed half against the pillow of his fist, then offers her the bounced-out smokes.
“Oh, I didn’t mean—Thank you.” She pulls out the farthest extended cigarette, squeezes it—probably too hard—between her middle and index fingers’ last joints.
He props his cig between his chapped lips, lights his Zippo with a snick, cups his palm around the flame, and reaches it gently towards her. His callous lines are deep and black.
Somehow her cigarette stays lit.
He aligns the lighter and the white-and-turquoise carton with a slit in the table boards.
Eliza doesn’t mean to inhale. The smoke’s menthol pricks in her throat. She chokes.
“You okay?” His voice rumbles.
“Yes.” She presses her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “And you?”
He hums. Coughs. Rubs his jaw.
“If I stop spraying, will you be okay?”
After a while, he says, “ ’s-alright,” picks up his cup and swings it—sort of a salute—in the direction of Eliza’s place, where he lives, seemingly impervious to poison ivy and its eradication, alone too.