Dispatch from the Alley

I’m the self-appointed inspector of the alley behind our house. A mop rests end-up on my neighbor’s chain-link fence, its teardrop loops of purple string drying in the heat. Wisteria, I think, because it’s spring, and I have flowers on the brain. Next, a bank of widows’ tears, long-stemmed purple two-petaled flowers buoyed by the long grasses and alley-side bracken. I’m surprised to find stores of purple in the mop and the weeds: purple for the luxury we lace into the mundane, and purple for grief. I pass a wooden fence, some arched rebar, a cedar, a palm, and a hackberry. Then here comes a breeze, and someone’s wind chimes release a fragment of song that promises neither beginning nor crescendo nor resolution.

One night not long ago, the wind chimes in our Texas mountain laurel sounded the metallic cacophony of an oncoming storm. In our bedroom, my husband confessed: he’d never liked wind chimes, but he was trying to. His former love hated wind chimes, and aligning his dislike with hers felt treacherous now that he was making a home with me. The clattering outside our window went on, as if whole sets of antique silverware were dropping out of the sky. It was not pretty. I thought but didn’t say, Okay, you love me.

There are storms in the forecast all week. Today as I walk, I can imagine rain running down the gentle slope of the alley and making it mud. The alley widens, narrows, and widens again depending on the vegetation alongside it. I walk east past the spreading hedge parsley whose flowers are tiny puffs of particulate white, then past the bottle half full of red Powerade, the crushed Monster Energy can, the pink and yellow Ziplocs filled with nothing, and a mound of hacked-off green pads that once composed a prickly pear cactus. My neighbors and I give the alley so much to hold.

A squirrel runs along the top of a wooden fence. The wind chimes that I hear now aren’t mine. All of a sudden the blue jays are screaming and I see why: here comes the neighborhood brown-and-white cat, walking the razorlike top of a metal fence between two backyards. I feel a twist of fear in my center when the cat crosses one paw in front of the other, makes eye contact with me, and doesn’t stop stalking. I know this cat, who dallyingly dismantled a mourning dove in our front yard the summer my daughters asked me if I would die. Everybody dies only after they’ve lived a long and beautiful life, I lied, as feathers gamboled in the air. BEWARE THE DOG says a sign on someone’s back fence. The sign is wrong. Beware everything, I say. A silver gutter and gutter spout gleam ferociously in the sun.

The yellow flowers on tall stems are called hairy cat’s ear. They tangle in dried grasses and in vines with heart-shaped leaves. I pass a crumpled Coke can, grasses growing through a driveway’s black ornamental gravel, a purple blossom blaring out of the bindweed, and a purple ground cherry too. By the time I come to a fig tree with small green swells of figs, the alley seems extravagant, and I believe the horseherb growing up around a discarded plastic flowerpot will disappear it.

At the end of the alley, a dumpster stands flush against a house that’s next for demolition. Used to be, a pickup that advertised a karate school on its rear windshield parked there. Each Halloween, the family handed out Capri Suns and bags of candy so big you had to receive them with two hands. At Christmastime, the Santas, reindeer, penguins, and polar bears on the roof and porch emitted enough light to dazzle the street. By inspecting the alley, I want to discover how it’s a romantic passageway overarched by silky pomegranate blossoms, or how it holds up the neighborhood like a spine. I want to figure out why I watched my daughters disappear down it on the first day of school and prayed to the alley that they would come home alive. I want to tell about the house that’s going down, how it has decorative glass beads embedded in the lawn, how my daughters used to pry them out and pocket them, because they were jewels.


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