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Robert Carlton

Hannigan's Backyard


         Old man Hannigan's backyard, fenced and forbidding, held within it the stuff of suburban myth: hangin' limbs jutting from trees whose whorls had seen sins too course for the eyes of modern men to gaze on, transgressions writ large in bark gnarled by the torture of those who bear witness; subterranean forces whose malevolence was surface-borne by lizards and insects, skitter and buzz always lurking in the periphery of our unease; the inevitable shed, housing shovels and rakes, hoes and hand tools, recast from iron once shaped to the purposes of medieval dungeon masters; and of course the dogs, long gone feral and never seen in full through slat-gaps and knot holes, their true dimensions a matter of conjecture, based on extrapolation from the givens of chance sightings and hysterical fear. Even in the adult world of coffee and bathrobes, the rumors of Hannigan and the dark world that lay behind the conventionally attractive exterior of his two-story brick facade tract home were spoken in low tones. Conversations with him, brightly artificial and brittle, were carried on only in the front yard, as he watered or weeded, the careful pruning, trimming, mowing, and exchanged pleasantries making the evil pulse and press of his backyard's lewd luxuriance all the more evident. Pagan rites, virgin sacrifice, or howlings at the full moon at least—clearly, something very wrong was going on here, indeed, had been going on for a long time.
    We moved away from the old neighborhood when I was ten, so I never outgrew the legend of Hannigan's backyard. There was no maturation to bevel the sharp edges of a myth masquerading as memory, no living with a mystery that faded over time into the quotidian fact. Childhood visions of Hannigan's yard never underwent the change, for example, of wonder that gripped me when I met my first long-term girlfriend, a shine that dulled then tarnished as the mundane business of attending to the world and each other eventually turned romance to resentment. With time, life de-mythologized itself through the simple, insidious accumulation of incident. 
    I was thirty-seven, married, with two girls, nine and five, when my job necessitated a trip to a city I had not seen in over a quarter century. My return here, after a complete break of so many years, left me feeling as if I were suddenly dropped by an unknown, unseen agent into a place that bore only tangential resemblance to the world I knew. Nothing was familiar at first. Street names had changed or been forgotten, when the streets themselves had not disappeared entirely or been rendered unrecognizable. Once sleepy suburban lanes had become access roads and on-ramps. I found it impossible to orient myself, my distant memory of spatial relations offering no assistance to what I found here now, which seemed to have been separated into an interlocking stack of planes that had been rotated a number of degrees around axes located randomly, without discernible pattern or purpose. 
    The neighborhood had not aged well, the street surfaces, home exteriors and ancient trees appearing to suffer from the same degenerative disease. It occurred to me that whatever malevolence had spawned in old man Hannigan's backyard all those years ago had seeped out into the world at large and was even now metastasizing to join the dance of the unbending laws governing geometric growth and exponential decay creeping out from the urban center. The relentless impulse of development fought the equally tenacious forces of recession. It seemed on every corner car washes sat next to strip malls tenanted by check cashing services and store-front churches.
    Ridgewood Lane had been broken up by all these cross-purposed forces into a half-dozen sections, some separated by as many as four city blocks along one or both axes of the compass. With my old street finally remembered and realigned, I took my best guess at where I had once lived. Some of the old houses exuded a vaguely sinister familiarity, as if I were being warned that time is not reversible, some things are best left forgotten, and as old Mrs. Corman once said of Hannigan's backyard, “Some earth needs saltin'.” 
    I drove up and down the same three block section several times until I was at last satisfied that I had my bearings and was indeed in the correct neighborhood. I pulled up and stopped in front of what should have been old man Hannigan's place. What I found was a vacant lot. Part of it, toward the rear, was fenced off. I got out and walked toward it, until I was sure of what I was looking at. There, encircled by six feet of chain link, were small plots of well-tended, richly-soiled vegetable beds. A section of what was once a wooden fence panel, painted bright green with white stenciled lettering, leaned against the fence: Westwood Heights Community Garden—Made Possible by the Generous Bequest of Nathaniel Hannigan.


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