I slip a pencil from the jar, attempting not to make any clatter, and jot down
a note saying I had insomnia and went for a ride. I lace up my sneakers and pull
a dark ski cap down to my eyebrows. I edge the door closed behind me till I hear
a click, and I’m in the chilled darkness. Lifting my bike off the porch,
holding it against my hip, I descend the stairs. At the bottom I feel around
under the first step for the paper bag stashed there, pull it out, and
shove it in the belly pocket of my hooded sweatshirt.
I mount the bike and fly down my driveway, gliding out into the road past darkened houses, tall oaks, mini-vans and SUV’s. I hammer my feet into the pedals, wind biting at my nose and cheeks, whipping into the neck of my sweatshirt. Taking only back roads, often with no streetlights, I soar through blackness.
Avoiding the condos’ front lighting, I pull up to the side and lean
my bike against the brick façade. In one swift motion I pull the spray
paint can out of my pocket and shake it, the marble clanking around inside.
I pop the plastic cap off and press the little head with my index
finger, creating a sharp hissing sound as a bright yellow flare
splashes onto the wall.
My knees are jerky, heart pounding blood into my veins—but I feel more power
than fear as I flick my wrist to create a C, and follow with several
other letters, each a quick, fluid motion of the wrist accompanied by
a single sharp hiss. The letters shine in the darkness, neon yellow,
slanting right, dripping where I get to close to the wall. Then I
make a wide circle with a line through the word I just painted:
I shove the can in the bag, toss it in the bushes and I’m on my bike, powering up the incline. Adrenaline pumping through my veins, sweating, panting, but pedaling with machine-like intensity, refusing to acknowledge the burning or fatigue.
I leap from the bike and haul it upstairs on tiptoes. Slipping the key into the bottom lock, I ease the door open and step into the house. Immediately my shoes, hat and sweatshirt are in a pile on a chair in the office. I shred the unseen note into
confetti-sized pieces and toss them in the trash.
I check on the girls and cover Lilah, my youngest, whose thrashing usually
leaves her blanket-less and shivering in a ball. I peek in at my wife
in our room—her room. She lays on her side, softly snoring, seemingly unaware of my mission. I go to my space in the basement, strip off my jeans and slip between the sheets. I lay on my back in the blackness, cotton bedding absorbing the dripping sweat, breath beginning to quiet, tension in my shoulders melting, a hint of a smile easing into my cheeks.
I tried to fight the right way, spending hours researching local traffic patterns, ecosystems and tax structures in order to form arguments against it. I spoke out at all the town board meetings, but at some point, when I saw the excitement in the mayor’s eyes when the developer presented his “tentative” blueprints, I realized it was a done deal, probably before the town meetings ever started.
Once approved, the Harmony Hill Condos began to take form. In a space that held a few tennis courts and a small playground, they began work on 50-plus unit gargantua. Starting as a cement foundation deep in the earth, it evolved to a steel-pillared tower rising to the heights of nearby century-old pines, dwarfing the modest houses in the neighborhood.
Every time I passed the evolving structure on my way to the train,
I felt a certain sadness and defeat, and underneath, a heat bubbling
from a forgotten source. How could the town board allow this to happen?
Why should greedy developers gain at our expense? At some point,
I came to see the Harmony Hill Condos as yet another personal battle lost—and the heat
became unbearable. It began to possess my thoughts and absorb my mental energy.
It became my target, a scapegoat for all that is unjust about this town, even
this country. But worse, it became a symbol for the frustration and disappointment
in my life: a marriage rotting from the core,
brown fingers reaching out from the seed to the skin; living in a suburb full
of shallow, materialistic people; a meaningless career in sales leaching my spirit away.
One day as I walked by and saw a real estate agent, clean-cut with
a corny navy blue blazer and blinding white teeth, looking to profit off
our misfortune, showing the place to potential buyers, the heat became intolerable—it was
suffocating me, boiling my insides, enflaming my mind. I could no longer stand it.
So I took action. It may not be much, but at least they, the town government
and developers, will know we’re not all lemmings playing along with the
destruction of this village.
The next morning I’m awakened by shoes clacking overhead and my wife’s ranting. I stumble up the stairs and she's standing on the landing. “Why aren’t you awake?” she demands.
I pause, confused. “It’s Saturday.”
“I have to take Haley shopping for a party dress. You have to watch Lilah. We’re running late,” she says, clacking through the living room toward the girls’ bedrooms. “Haley, doll, let’s go.”
"Doesn't she have a party dress?" I ask.
There's no response. I go to the leather sofa and sit beside Lilah who is entranced by a cartoon, an untouched bowl of
cereal in her lap. I give her head a little pat and then rub sleep from my eyes. Elaine flies by, dragging Haley by the hand. “Hi, Daddy,” calls Haley.
"Mommy's going to get me a Juicy Couture party dress."
"What? Why? Doesn't she have a party dress?"
"Oh, relax, will you? She's allowed to have more than one dress. We're not paupers," snaps Elaine.
I look at her with squinted eyes, then, shaking my head, glare off through the window. She moves from the door back toward me. “What is it with you?”
"It’s because of this damn town we live in—she's just a baby and she's already
concerned about designer clothes."
“Oh, God, not the town again.”
“But it’s true. They’re learning terrible values living here. The other day she asked me if we could get a BMW.”
"Ariel has a BMW," Haley adds, referring to her friend up the street.
“Sorry, Dale, that it's not a commune full of vegans wearing hemp clothing.”
“I’m not saying that. It’s just, I don’t like what this place is turning into, how it's affecting them,” I say, looking toward the girls.
“Well, maybe you should leave,” she says, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Everyone’s happy here except you, Dale,” she says,
clacking down the hall and out the door, Haley in tow. I think to chase after her,
but don't feel like being the crazy shirtless husband on the front
porch yelling at his wife—not in this neighborhood.
I look toward Lilah, and she is watching a commercial with the same veracity as the cartoons, her cereal still untouched.
I scoop her up and take her toward the back door. “No, Daddy, my show.”
“Oh, I got a show for you,” I say. "We have a beautiful backyard and we’re going to use it."
I plop her on the swing set in back and give her a little shove. She’s halfway
pouting for the first few pushes, but then I walk in front of the swing and
let her feet give me a little bump and I go flying across the lawn like I
just got hit by a Mack truck. She lets loose high-pitched cackles that
could damage an eardrum. I give her a mock stern look and wag my finger at her.
“Don’t you kick me.” Whack! Now she’s aiming for me.
I go flying across the grass and she laughs hysterically.
After twenty minutes I try to bring her inside to watch more TV so I can do some weeding,
but she’s not having it: “More, Daddy, more. Please. Pleeeeeease.” She’s something too, my little Lilah: mischievous grin, little pixie legs flying in the air, sun rays beaming down on her olive skin. If it wasn’t for my girls, I’d be far away from this place.
After Elaine returns, I stroll to town to see my handiwork, feeling
excitement again about last night’s deed, at my courage to strike back,
but also enjoying the beauty of the area: majestic white pines rising
toward the sky, abundant forsythia in bloom, red-breasted robins
singing. The patches of nature in the area almost make living here
bearable. It’s what attracted us to Brookville in the first place
close to a decade ago. We saw it as an escape from the city to a
sort of Eden, and just as my juvenile view of Utopia has been
slowly hacked away, so has the beauty of this village with each
passing year. I didn’t realize that I would be a bit of an
outcast here with my long hair and beard, that I would have
nothing in common with folks who wanted only to talk of their
kids’ achievements and their stuff—digital TVs, houses, cars—but
that my wife would thrive in this environment, that
my work as an artist would be replaced by the merciless
grind in a magazine sales department, that my wife and
I would grow apart, far and fast, and all the while, this
little village was becoming a grotesque suburb full
of McMansions, condos, and mini-malls, a place where I didn’t
want my children growing up.
I pass by the ever-expanding condos and notice a light spot on the brick where my statement has been eliminated. All that effort just to be so quickly erased? The excitement empties out of me like sudsy water swirling down a drain.
A few days later some signs go up saying the condos are monitored by cameras,
and that vandalism of the property will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
What if I was caught on tape? I become obsessed with the cameras. I start
researching surveillance on the Internet and decide to leave the condos alone—the
risks are too grave.
I settle into a resentful surrender over the entire condominium situation.
I don’t consider taking any more action because I’m terrified of the cameras.
Occasionally neighbors gripe to me about the condos, knowing my feelings—we kvetch,
commiserate, but then I move on. Mostly my feelings about them stay
in a small compartment in my mind, shut in tight, until the day I walk by
and notice a cluster of ancient white pines has been cut down, apparently
for a parking lot. I’d walked by those pines on my way to work for nine years.
It felt as if a piece of me had been removed.
As long as I’m on this planet, I’ll never understand death, and this is a death.
It’s too complex for me to wrap my mind around. Someone or something exists and
it’s part of you, your existence; it could be a friend, a pet, a parent,
the World Trade Center, or a cluster of century-old pines. And then it’s gone.
And it’s incomprehensible. How can something that exists cease existing?
How does God make this call? And now the developers are playing God, and who
gave them the right? I know I’m going too far, watching myself go too far,
but I start entertaining explosives. I don’t know squat about them,
but you can learn on the Internet, right? But if I was seen buying
supplies? And where would I put it together? Not at home of course—too dangerous.
And it’s just angry thoughts, nothing I’d really do.
But then my mind races to another idea: arson. But God forbid it
spread or a fireman got hurt. How do you fight? How do you fight?
I make a dozen calls to find out who authorized taking down the trees.
Finally a town clerk tells me the developers are going to plant new trees
on the property, the same number that were cut down.
“Replace with what? You can’t replace a century-old tree!”
I speak to the trustees, but no one takes responsibility.
After I hang up with the last trustee, I slump down on my bed and
let my eyes wander around the gray basement walls, wallowing in my impotence.
I have fight in me, but no way to fight.
I go to the half-bathroom in the basement, a low toilet and a yellowing enamel
sink, but something feels off. There were a few low light plants
and a little abstract painting that I set up to make the dark room a bit more cheery,
and they’re gone.
I run up the steps to the living room, big-screen TV in the center where
Elaine and the girls sit watching a TV show with half-dressed women at some sort of spa.
“Elaine, what happened to my plants?”
Not moving her eyes from the TV, “I got rid of them.”
I feel it, the heat rising from my feet. “You what? Those were my plants.
You had no right.”
Turning to look at me as if I were a mosquito. “My family’s coming to visit next week.
I’m not having the place look like a dorm room. Come on, honey, you’re close to forty.
Those little plants were dripping all over the place.”
Heat in my thighs, groin, belly, “You can’t do that!” Rising up to my chest.
“I live here too! I exist!”
“We’re trying to watch a show.”
I march to the TV and shut it off. “I don’t want them watching this garbage!
They’re too young!” I rage, turning on Elaine, who looks at me with a flat affect,
eyes droopy and mouth slack. Lilah’s eyes are wide and fearful as she cuddles
up close to her big sister. And that look freezes me. I drop my head and go
back to the basement.
“Jesus, Dale, is it your time of the month?” I hear as I'm descending the steps,
and then the TV goes back on.
That night I lay in bed, eyes tap-dancing, jaw-muscle bench-pressing, obsessing,
picturing my friends, the ancient pines, being decimated by the jagged teeth
of chain saws. One of the few things that has kept me going here is the nature
in the area, the nearby forest, but especially those white pines.
I passed them every day, living sculptures reaching toward the sky,
long wavy branches bouncing with the wind. They calmed me, comforted me.
I try to sleep, but my thoughts of the trees and the condos and the board of
trustees poke and prod me, filling me with angst and rage. And at 2 a.m., as I’m
envisioning some developer who lives in another town, getting rich off our hardship,
I jolt upright out of bed to my feet. The angst must find a physical outlet
or I’ll be strangled by it.
I slip into Elaine’s room like a ninja, pull out clothes and shoes from my drawers
and closet, and dress in the hallway. I tiptoe down to the basement and
get my ski mask out of a trunk full of winter supplies, and a fat black permanent
marker from my tool shelf. Then into the garage where I grab my bike
and lift it up the stairs, careful not to knock into the narrow stairwell.
I leave a note, gently close the door behind me, and I’m off into the night.
It feels good to let my anger explode into the pedals, thighs pulsing, feeling
Herculean in strength and justification.
Then headlights are behind me. I turn right, gliding down a driveway
and hide behind a light-colored mini-van. The vehicle cruises by slowly,
a cop car, but doesn’t stop. I think to go back home, but can’t,
can’t let go of the fight eating away at me.
I arrive at the pathetic tree stumps, enveloped in darkness,
and lay my bike on its side, out of sight. I rest a hand on one of the stumps
and feel an energy, a life in it, and the rage intensifies. Slipping the black
ski mask on, I scramble over a fence behind the condo building, where I think
I’ll be safe from cameras or late night witnesses. Pulling out the black marker,
I go into a scribbling fury. First I write in giant letters, “Where were the Trustees?”
Then, “Greed + Stupidity = Harmony Hill Condos.” Then I move to the side and write,
“Century old trees were destroyed for a parking lot!”
I’m back at my bike, but it’s not enough, the blaze still raging.
I find a few large stones, softball sized, and trot to the front of the building.
I know I’ve gone too far, but I can’t stop myself, like I’m just a witness with
no personal volition. Feeling the weight of the cold stone in my hand,
I lift it over my head and heave it into the window, smashing it to tiny shards.
I do the same to the next window, obliterating it, crying out in anguish
and exhalation as it crashes. I pull the third stone out of my sweatshirt
pocket when I see headlights bending around the corner. Releasing my
fingers, the stone clunks onto the cement and I race toward my bike by
the tree stumps. I dive behind an amputated trunk just as the cop car
pulls up onto the sidewalk, headlights flashing directly into the broken windows.
One cop leaps out of the car with a flashlight, the other talks into the radio.
My heart is pounding in my neck, my breath short and jerky, mouth dry.
I feel a surge of power race from the center of my body to all my limbs.
Both policemen are searching for me, beams of light from their flashlights
flying everywhere: inside the building, the side alley, across the street.
Another cop car screeches around the corner and one of the first cops, a tall,
athletic looking guy, takes his gun out of the holster and climbs into the broken window.
The sight of the gun stuns me. What was I thinking? I went too far.
I want to surrender, but I'm frozen. I’m curled up behind the stump, trembling,
unable to move, too scared I’ll make a noise and they’ll rush me. One of the new cops,
a big, older-looking one, ambles in my direction. I ask God, plead with God to
The older cop’s moving slowly, methodically, scrolling every inch of ground with a
big beam of light. I can just stand up and surrender, but then what?
It’s too unthinkable: handcuffs, jail, waking Elaine to bail me out,
children discovering my misdeed, name in the crime blotter of the local paper,
everyone in town finding out, my children’s peers knowing, missing work.
I might lose my job. I’m about fifty yards from the woods—I could break for it.
I could just stand up and surrender, or I could dash to the woods.
His beam passes over my bike, a bus-length away from me, and he whips the
light back onto it. “Pete, there’s a bike here,” he calls. They’re coming.
I’ll surrender now. I will myself upright, push my trembling hand in
the dirt and shove myself to my knees, straining my stiff thighs to stand,
raising my hands toward the sky. The cop freezes a moment, staring at me in disbelief.
The moment feels like an open door and I sprint straight for the woods,
feeling my hamstrings wrench my legs faster than I thought possible.
“Hey, come back here!” he yells.
I dash through the forest, stumbling over rocks and branches,
but not daring to slow down. I catch a glimpse of them behind me,
bobbing lights racing in my direction, and cut a sharp left toward a stream,
which I slog through until I get to a rocky hill that I scamper up toward
some houses on a street. I run up the block in my soggy jeans
and sneakers until I hear a car, and dive behind a thick hedge in front of a house.
I wedge my body under the bush, face pushed into the lawn,
the smell of freshly cut grass filling my nostrils.
I hear the car hum by and it’s a cop. I lay there,
scrunched in a ball, trying to blend into the bush.
When I see the first rays of sun breaking through the horizon, I move to my
knees and try to stand. My legs are stiff, heavy as cinderblocks,
and moving takes great effort. I find a street sign, get my bearings,
and make my way back home, wet sneakers slogging with every step,
once darting behind a parked truck when a car drives by,
which turns out not to be a cop.
I inch the key into the door and it flies open. Elaine is fully dressed,
and the kids are both up and teary-eyed. She flings her arms around my neck,
“Oh my God, what happened to you?”
I push the door closed, and my two girls are hanging onto my legs,
smushing their faces into me. I bend down, kissing their cheeks
and shuffling them back to their rooms. “It’s okay, girls.
Daddy had a little adventure tonight, but I’m fine.” My stomach is wavering
with guilt. I went too far and hurt my girls—they must have been terrified.
“Why are you all dirty?” asks Haley.
“Oh, I was riding my bike and I fell.”
“Did you get hurt?” asks Lilah.
“Just a little boo-boo, but I’m okay. Can’t let that stop you, right?”
I get them settled in and take Elaine into the kitchen.
Her jawbone and forehead are tense, but she is also tearing up.
“What the hell are you trying to pull running off in the middle of the night?
First I thought...but then when the police found your bike—“
“Police?” I pray I heard her wrong.
“Yes, after you were gone so long, I just knew something happened.
When I heard about the bike, I thought someone robbed you and you were lying
in the street bleeding to death.” Her forehead unfurrows and she clutches her arms
around me and sobs into my shoulder.
“You, you called the police?”
“Of course, hours ago. I told them you were on your bike like it said in the note,
and they said they had found the bike. What happened, Dale? Why did you go out so late?”
I hear a thumping on the door. “Hello, Brookville Police.”
She releases me to answer the door and I snatch her wrist, putting my finger to my lips,
a dozen hopeless ideas racing through my mind.
Completely baffled, “Dale?”
I’m sitting in the Brookville holding cell, curled up on a hard bench,
my arm a pillow, trying to sleep, but my mind too loud and busy. I took it too far,
I know. Stupid, idiotic, immoral. My wife rationally trying to explain
to the cops that I’m not this type of person, believing it, and me just trying
to get out with them so as not to wake and traumatize the girls, calling
over my shoulder to call my boss and tell him I’m sick. How could I have risked
Elaine bails me out and we drive home, four in the afternoon, bike tied in the trunk,
me trying to get her to look me in the face, but she is grinding her jaw and staring
straight ahead, hands squeezing the steering wheel.
I wonder where the kids are and what I’ll tell my boss.
I want to hide from all this and pretend it never happened and try to go back to my life.
What do I care about some damn trees? It’s progress, it happens everywhere.
I’d try to talk to Elaine and tell her I am sorry and am going to move on from this,
but she’s too hurt and enraged, and rightfully so, to listen now.
I’ll just work toward erasing it. It’s giant now, Godzilla inches from my face,
but it will start to shrink and fade like all harrowing experiences.
I’ll make it shrink. I’ll drive it away.
I don’t know if she’s just distracted—it is the easiest route home, after all— or if she’s
trying to teach me a lesson, but she drives past it, windows mended,
glass cleaned, construction workers still building onto it, tree stumps where white pines
used to be.
And I seethe.
©2010 by Dylan Gilbert