on this story
You can go home again, if you can stand the noise
by Jack Neely
They lived on Woodburn Drive in a peculiar brick house with a steeply pitched slate roof. It looked like a wizard's cottage in a fairy tale. Inside, it was casually kept, more for comfort than show, like a vacation house. It had lots of cluttered nooks and corners, and some of the doors and windows were painted shut. The front yard was covered with ivy, the stone side porch was cracked and always had on it black ants much larger in size than any ants I'd seen at our house, so big you could see their faces, seeming somehow slower and friendlier for their size. They seemed like ants on vacation. At home I liked to kill ants by the hundreds, but I never bothered these.
The backyard was a small grassy plateau with a big concrete grill, weathered like a ruin. Irregular steps led down to the lower surrounding yard, an intricate landscape for such a small spot.
Westwood seemed a different world from our own neighborhood, colored a dark ivy green, slower, older, shadier, hillier, and quieter. It seemed deep in the woods, even though it was less than a mile from the Burger Chef and Wade's Bakery and the Whiteway Variety store and Henderson's drugstore, where the counterman recognized me and always started a grilled cheese.
I stayed over there a good deal; we'd sleep with the windows open, except on very hot days, when we'd sleep in the room that had an air conditioner in the window.
In the long swing that hung from high branches of a pine tree, I'd glide out high over the steep ivy-covered hill. Then I'd collect pinecones and read comic books and trespass across the neighbors' backyards, spying. It was such a quiet street that Grandmother didn't mind me playing in it. On summer days I even sat down on the warm street, examining tiny snailshells imbedded in the asphalt, convinced they were fossils, or, at least, every bit as good as fossils.
After a hard day of playing, Grandmother would fix a big bowl of popcorn and we'd sit on her high front porch and eat it and drink Coca-Colas in returnable bottles, which were satisfying in spite of, or because of, the fact that they were only six and a half ounces. Sometimes she'd set us up with a couple of blank S&H trading-stamp books and a pile of green stamps, with a wet sponge in a saucer to moisten them, the closest thing to a chore she ever levied on me. As I worked, she'd tell me stories about my mother misbehaving more outrageously than I ever did, stories I found profoundly interesting.
Often we went for a walk around the neighborhood listening to birds, taking different routes to make it interesting. I knew many of the neighbors. Most of them were adults older than my parents, ladies with cat's-eye glasses and middle-aged men with crewcuts and silver tie-clips on their ties, who'd come over for a candlelit lawn party. If they weren't smiling, I wouldn't have recognized them. They'd tell me jokes and trick me with riddles and speculate about what Snuffy and Loweezy were going to name their new baby. They'd ask me about school and what I thought about girls, and they'd laugh when I told them. I was the only boy who was ever there, and I enjoyed that status and the attention it earned. Their laughter would echo through the quiet hollow. Sometimes I'd go outside alone and listen to it.
My grandfather died in 1968. From Woodburn Drive we'd walk by way of a little path to the big cemetery where his grave was. My grandmother moved into an apartment a year or so after that. I'd hardly been into Westwood since then.
In the news lately I'd heard troubling reports from Westwood. After putting it off for several weeksI wasn't sure I wanted to knowI was driving around out in Bearden in the middle of the day last week and turned back into Westwood for the first time in many years. Most of the streets look about the same as I remember them, though some are now one-way, an understandable inconvenience to keep Northshore drivers from using Westwood as a shortcut to Kingston Pike. In some ways, the neighborhood has improved. It now has a public park equipped with a playground for little kids. If it had been there 30 or 40 years ago, I'd remember it.
I parked my car in a ditch near the cemetery path, and took a walk. I walked down Woodburn Drive and found it little changed. One or two woody lots had given way to new houses, but I recognized Mrs. Rhodes' house, the Reagins' house, the Reynolds' house. My grandmother's house seemed about the same from the street, up on its hill, its front yard still covered in ivy. But standing in the road where I used to play, there was a background sound I don't remember, like the static of an old radio in the next room.
I walked up the hill where we used to go for walks after supper, along Fairfield just a block or two north up over the ridge to Sunrise. The trees were as big and shady as they ever were, maybe even shadier, but the static noise grew in volume. As I approached Westover, it was much louder. Between the houses I could see cars and trucks on the highway. The interstate was built when I was a kid, four lanes of it at least, but even when we walked around the neighborhood, I had never noticed it was right there. They say it will get worse.
I was glad I was by myself. If my family were with me, I'd have had to shout to talk to them, and in Westwood that would have seemed a very strange thing to do.
March 30, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 13
© 2000 Metro Pulse