The white clapboard bungalow with the dark green trim had double doors at both the front and back entrance, and each door had two deadbolt locks. A six-foot-high, black, spiked iron fence separated the front yard from the sidewalk, the gate padlocked, as was the roll-away section in front of the driveway, and to get to the wooden fence that surrounded the rest of the property an intruder would have had to scale the spiked fences that protected the houses next door. If any window were broken, or any window or door opened before the security system had been disabled, the alarms would go off and the police would arrive in a matter of minutes. All the locks and bolts and alarms made him feel safer, but not safe. If he had felt safe, he would not have needed to take all those precautions. Only a fool would have felt safe in that neighborhood.
The man who lived in the house on the right, a corner lot, was seldom there. He spent his weekends somewhere else, and during the week he left for work at about five in the morning and usually didn’t get back till after midnight. No one knew what kind of job he had. The windows on both sides of the house were boarded up, but it was not a crack house. He kept the stucco clean and in repair, the security system was always armed, and there weren’t suspicious-looking people always coming and going. No one came; no one went.
No one lived in the house on the left, but it looked well cared for. Its one inhabitant was a large guard dog, the Rottweiler of the Baskervilles, who lived in the yard outside and made threatening noises oddly reminiscent of a smoker’s cough at anyone who passed by. An unneutered male, he appeared never to have learned to bark or growl properly. The owner of the house, and presumably of the dog as well, was fixing it up to rent or sell. He came by for an hour or two every afternoon to work on the place, make sure everything was secure, and feed and water the dog. When he showed up, the Rottie would not bother getting up to greet him, but just lie patiently waiting for him to fill his bowls. The man took better care of his property than of his animal.
He would have liked to have a dog for protection, for company, but he would not own a vicious dog, unpredictable and difficult to control, that might attack children if it got loose and couldn’t relax if he had visitors (not that he had any that often), but would eye them the whole time, tense and ready to sink its teeth into a hand or leg at the slightest movement it had not foreseen. He knew dogs—they’d always had one when he was growing up—and could have trained one to be both a guard dog and a friendly pet, but for that he would need to stay home with it when it was a puppy, and he had to work. Left alone all day to follow the example of the hostile neighborhood beasts and absorb the atmosphere of those mean streets, even a scion of the most reliable bloodlines might turn vicious.
He sometimes thought he was the only one in the neighborhood who didn’t live in the street in front of his house. He was sure he was the only one who didn’t listen to rap all day long. He carried a bully stick with him as a sign he was ready to defend himself when he had to walk anywhere, which meant the two blocks to catch the bus to work and the four blocks back. His coworkers could not picture the conditions under which he lived, however often he tried to describe them, and thought him eccentric and unnecessarily fearful. He needed it most coming home in winter, when it was dark out and the streets were empty; less when he set out just before dawn, the one time of day when everyone was asleep and it was unlikely he would encounter anyone; and in summer he got home in daylight and the neighbors were often outdoors.
The street outside his house was littered with trash and broken bottles. During the day, cars would drive down it at thirty or forty miles an hour in spite of the speed bumps, revving their motors and blasting their radios. The people who lived in the neighborhood talked loud enough for you to hear their conversations from two blocks away. Instead of hopscotch, the kids played dice on the sidewalk. The only sounds that reminded one of the better neighborhoods not all that far away were the ice cream trucks that came around several times a day playing their nursery rhyme jingles (“Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Camptown Races,” “Edelweiss,” “Turkey in the Straw”…). One would often see derelicts walk by, swaying on unsteady legs and talking to themselves. The drug dealers were always out, but the hookers didn’t start showing up till late afternoon. It was not uncommon to hear gunshots at night, and hardly a night went by uninterrupted by police sirens.
The house had a large front porch, which of course he never used. None of the other houses on the block had a front porch, and none of the neighbors would have been foolish enough to sit out on them if they did. After dark or when it was cold or rainy, he stayed indoors and read, listened to music, puttered around straightening up, sent out e-mails. But on sunny summer weekends and warm weekday evenings, his place was in the garden in back. With no one living on either side of him and not a single house with a second story within a six-block radius, the six-foot, solid wood fence and the fruit trees and flowering shrubs, pruned to make them grow as tall as trees, afforded him absolute privacy, an island haven surrounded by a shark-infested sea. Unless it was chilly, he went about there as he did inside the house—reading, sunning, weeding and tending his flowers, or working in the vegetable patch tucked in behind the garage—without a stitch of clothing on. To him, being naked was both more comfortable and natural and a quiet manifesto of his total isolation. He was, in short, a closet nudist. He was less closeted about his homosexuality, though he would not risk a rainbow in front of his house, an open invitation to vandalism in that neighborhood.
He’d thought often about joining a naturist club. He would have particularly enjoyed the outdoor activities—hiking, swimming, canoeing in the buff—but groups of more than five or six people made him uncomfortable, and he had no reason to believe he would feel any more at ease if they had no clothes on, so he never followed through.