He was in the back yard again. He had seen everything that there was to see. Again. He had seen where the rectangle of lawn faded into the dirt beneath the hedges on all sides. He had sat at the picnic table that used to have a brownish-red color but now showed an unnatural gray where hands and shoes and pants and dresses had worn away the tint, once new and no longer so. He had walked back and forth between the galvanized gray uprights of the laundry line, touching one, then turning, walking, and touching the other, to and fro, here and there, over and over. He had visited the place where the cat used to scoot through the hedges to bother other cats in the neighborhood. Or perhaps just visit. But there were often yowls of menace during the disappearances and those didn’t sound friends. Maybe those were greetings in cat language. What did he know…. And anyway that cat was buried near its escape path under a little patch of grass that was a bit irregular from the uneven mat that covered the rest of the yard. A little yellower maybe. A little infested with the cat and the bugs down there munching away inside the shoebox that had served as a casket. The screen door and the wooden door beyond it was where it always was and it was no more interesting than the rest of this sameness.
So he took a walk. Well, first he crawled. Through the portal worn clear by the cat’s back and still there was a clump of hair or two clutched by some twigs like a memorial flag fluttering. He stood up and walked through that yard and out to the street, then down the street past the fire plug. The small yapping dog came to the edge of its invisible fence and bared its teeth and gums to show how fierce it was and what would happen if it could just break through the invisible manacles reminding its neck to be a good dog and go no further. He raised his hands and pawed the air just to show the dog how scared he really was. And he smiled and walked a bit further to the four-way stop that was stopping no one at that moment, including him. So he crossed the street and walked down further, going straight to the playground he was visiting, passing under big oaks, branches full of lobed leaves, a faint breeze moving them and incanting a slippery song more to themselves than to him or anyone who might listen. Passing the brick veneer homes with white porches and gables on the steeply sloped roofs. Passing another four-way stop with no one there except him and some birds chattering and singing songs that showed off how brilliantly they knew their music, sometimes interrupted by the songs that interrupted them, sometimes stopping out of annoyance and other times from pure appreciation for what the other birds had sung. And the walk went on because the playground was just ahead and he knew he could walk it if he just kept going as he was headed and it would be just on his right with its chain-link fence and sandy lot, its jungle gym and swing set and teeter-totter and monkey bars, its sandbox that everyone knew not to enter as everyone had seen the naughty dogs go in it and squat, shivering for an agonized and frozen moment, then kick the sand around as if that was a job well done. It was just going to be here ahead, with its worn green benches and metal supports, its collection of threads ripped from clothing long since gone to Goodwill or the trash man’s truck.
And while he walked the sun shone down on his little head, glimpsing him through the trees and keeping its one eye peeled in his direction, knowing where he went and reminding him that he was not alone but had a giant yellow friend who was there half of every day before his other friend appeared, although both disappeared whenever they wanted to it seemed and came back when they were good and ready and not before. And he felt a little hot and a little thirsty but it was just going to be up here where he rode his trike alongside his mom’s slow step, pedaling slower than he could walk so he could keep her company as she walked her little dog who knew not to yelp and growl and show its teeth. But his trike was gone and his feet moved faster than it ever had, so he didn’t need it and the playground was going to be up ahead where the other kids were with their moms or dads or both or with their friends or sitters or both and sometimes with their pets, which might be turtles or lizards or snakes or rabbits or mice but only when those pets had learned to behave just like their keepers wanted them to. Well, not the turtles as they always moved so slow even when they took their flying turtle leaps through the sand and tried to get away it was like a fish swimming through molasses and their keeper would scoop them up and their little turtle heads would disappear or they would stretch their necks out and paddle their paws as if that would set them free. But it didn’t and their keepers would put them back in their boxes labeled with crayon that said, “Tommy the Turtle” or “Terry the Tortoise” or some other name made up of “T” names.
But then he was at a stream, at the bank that led down to the stream and it was cool there, with a rock half-buried in the damp ground on the bank, a rock with a few patches of bright green moss and more patches of lichen in hues of green and gray and even a ghostly blue, a nice rock to sit on in the suddenly cool air out of sight of the sun and in the arms of a breeze that passed along the tunnel of trees arching over the stream, passing in the same direction as the water that ran clear atop its rocks and the darker pools, swirling where a smooth stone broke its flow, dipping where a wall of stones made a small wet dam that didn’t fool the water into stopping but gave it a nice graceful fall into its fellow waters that had just passed that way. So he watched this going on and saw some tiny fish swim up from pools, then disappear, then swim up and disappear again. He watched a snail, then two creep up one side of a wet rock green with algae, slowly making its way to who knew where but moving, sliding forward as slow as time, leaving their sticky trails behind to glisten in the gentle light that flickered through the leaves and dusted the stream and rocks and bank and he himself with shadows and light, casting beams through the mists the stream stirred into the air, showing the spheres of mist as crystalline and twirling, then vanishing them into darkness as another set of mists were chosen by the sun.
And this is how the day became night and the air became cooler and he still could see the stream and rocks and bank, but it was too cool for him and he wondered whether it was time to go and find the playground where he meant to be anyway.
But then a hand touched him on the shoulder and a voice he didn’t know said “come on, Fred. We’ve been looking for you and it’s supper time. Your family is worried and wondered where you went.”
So Freddie rose slowly, slightly damp from the stream, cool from the early night breeze, happy from watching his friends play on the rocks and the sun pass slowly from the sky and the night come before the moon showed. And the man put a blanket around his stooped, bony shoulders and mottled, flaccid arms and helped him to the van that waited just beyond his day place, guiding him, slowly, into the van, where some other people in orange vests and a clean, white bed waited for him to step up and over to them.
It had been a big day and now it was time for a nap.