“Did you see that the lot next door is for sale?” Gwen asked, passing by with a basket of laundry.
I put my cereal spoon down. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“The sign went up today,” she said.
All my righteous indignation rose up. Let’s face it, it didn’t take much to make that happen, but this was a serious cause. “I knew that realtor was lying,” I called to Gwen, who was now pouring detergent into the washing machine. “That’s exactly the standard story they tell. ‘Yes, isn’t the green space wonderful? It will stay that way, too. Owned by an old man, you know, and he refuses to sell or let anyone build on it.’ Like that lie isn’t as worn out as an old shoe.”
“It convinced you,” said Gwen, passing back through with a pile of folded towels.
She was right. That’s what made me so angry. Like most young hipsters, we had wanted to live in the city, to be a part of urban life and renewal, but I had also worried about raising our theoretical kids away from nature, surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers instead of grass and trees. This place had seemed like the answer to all of that. The townhouse was old and full of history but it had been renovated to comfortable perfection. It was in an up and coming urban center but right next door was an empty lot full of grass and ringed by beautiful old trees. Of course I wanted to believe the realtor when she said it would never get built up. That didn’t make me any less angry now.
Worse, we had now lived here long enough that the kids weren’t theoretical anymore. Gwen was expecting our first daughter in just three months. We had spent the whole winter preparing a nursery that looked out onto green branches blowing in the wind. I imagined my daughter now staring out onto an apartment complex or a blocky office building or a Baby Gap.
“I’m going to call the number and find out about it,” I said.
“You’re only going to get all worked up about nothing,” Gwen answered.
“Well, maybe I’ll write an article about it or something. Get public opinion on our side and save the green space.”
Gwen came to stand in the kitchen doorway and looked at me with one eyebrow raised. I knew that look.
“People love that kind of stuff,” I said defensively.
“I know they do,” she said. “But didn’t you leave journalism because you were tired of having to muster up new causes for people with short attention spans? ‘Pandering to the public’s fickle imagination’ I believe were your exact words.”
“But this is a real cause, a worthy cause, not something manufactured to get people worked up enough to keep reading outdated media. And I always intended to keep writing. This could be my first freelance project.”
I had intended to keep writing. There was a time when I had loved writing. But I had left my job at the local news magazine for a more lucrative and less enfuriating project manager position six months ago, and I had yet to write a single paragraph in all that time.
Gwen’s smile was a little too understanding, but she had always claimed that my idealism was one of the things she loved about me, so she didn’t argue. Plus, I figured, in some part of her heart, she knew I was right. We couldn’t just do nothing.
I called the number on the For Sale sign. A man answered the phone.
“I’m calling to inquire about the empty lot for sale on Orchard Street,” I said.
“Are you interested in buying it?” He asked.
“Well, I’m very interested in it,” I hedged, “but first I just need to know the asking price and the zoning information. That kind of thing.”
“What do you want it for?” He asked.
It suddenly occurred to me that he hadn’t mentioned the name of the realty office when he answered the phone.
“Could I speak to the listing realtor for that property?” I said.
“There’s no realtor,” he answered.
“Who am I speaking with?” I asked.
“Who am I speaking with?” He retorted.
“I’m James Harroway,” I started again. “I actually live next door to the property in question, and I’m interested in finding out more about it.”
There was a long pause. “You live next door?” He asked.
Now I was starting to feel nervous. Wasn’t your address the kind of information you weren’t supposed to give out to strangers over the phone?
“Are you the one selling the property?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “Maybe. I own it. And I also live next door.”
For a second I had that creepy the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house feeling. Then I realized he must mean next door on the other side. I realized it had been a minute since anyone spoke. “Oh, um, great! So…we’re neighbors. And, um, now you’re selling the lot?”
“Let’s meet and do this face to face,” he said. “Outside in five minutes.”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback. I hadn’t really wanted to face anyone just yet. “Well, um, the thing is…”
“Do you live next door or not?” He asked.
“Are you home right now or not?”
I considered lying, but it just wasn’t in me. “Yes, but…”
“If you want to know about the lot, meet me outside in five minutes,” he said and hung up before I could answer.
I was still feeling a little dizzy when Gwen walked in and grabbed a banana from the bowl on the table.
“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.
“I guess that number was for the owner,” I said.
“Okay. How much is he asking? I bet it’s half a million, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. He wants to meet me. He’s our neighbor.”
Gwen laughed. “Really? Are you going to do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s going to be pretty awkward when I can’t actually buy the property. One look at me an he’s going to know I don’t have half a million dollars to invest.”
Gwen laughed again. “You should go! I mean, you’ll get to meet a neighbor if nothing else.”
“Want to come?” I asked, standing up.
“Right now?” She said.
“He said in five minutes.”
Gwen laughed again. “Oh no,” she said. “This is all you. But if he turns out to be the old man that the realtor described and not some kind of axe murderer, then you can invite him over for dinner.”
With that kind of overwhelming support behind me, I went down to the front stoop. An old man with brown courderoy pants and a professor-style jacket, complete with elbow patches, was standing on the sidewalk looking up at me as I came out the door.
“So you weren’t lying,” he said.
“I try not to do that,” I answered.
He just nodded. “Good,” he said and held out his hand as if he weren’t a stranger passing judgment on my whole character.
“I’m Jeremiah Cooper. Lived here on Orchard Street for seventy-four years, which means I moved in when I was six, in case you’re wondering.”
I took his hand. “James Harroway. I’ve lived here for six months, which means I moved in when I was twenty-seven,” I answered.
Jeremiah Cooper smiled and didn’t let go of my hand. “That’s fine,” he said. “It’s good to be young while you can. Now tell me what your interest is in my property.”
It was really hard to be vague while gripping someone’s hand. I tried to pull my hand back, but he wasn’t having it. For an eighty-year old man, he had quite the grip. I gave up and told the whole truth. “The green space next door is why we bought this house. I was upset to see you were selling it. I hope it won’t get built up. I thought I’d ask the price and maybe if it wasn’t too much…”
I couldn’t quite finish the sentence. We’d used up all our savings on the down payment for the townhouse, so unless he was offering the lot for $19.99, I wasn’t a potential buyer.
“Let’s not talk money. Let’s talk dinner. Do you like pierogies?”
My face must have looked pretty comical because he burst out laughing, a long rumbling chuckle that ended in a little coughing fit.
“Never mind,” he said when he had finished. “You’ll like pierogies. Everyone likes pierogies. Come to dinner tomorrow.”
“Um, well…thank you.” I was struggling to find my bearing. “My wife actually…she said I should invite you to dinner at our house if you’d like.”
“Did she? How kind. I accept. But another time we’re doing the pierogies. You’ll love them. Should I come tomorrow?”
“Um…yeah…sure. That would be great.”
He held out his hand again, and after I’d taken it, gave me one firm hand shake and turned toward his own house. When he went up his front steps, I was still standing where he’d left me. It took another ten minutes before I realized I must look ridiculous and went back inside.
“How was it?” Gwen was waiting to pounce on me when I walked into the door. “I peeked a little. Definitely old. Not sure about the axe murderer, though. You looked a little scared.”
“You could have come outside,” I said.
“Not with the axe murderer thing still in question! Think of our child!”
“He’s not an axe murderer. He’s coming to dinner tomorrow.”
Sending his pregnant wife into a 24-hour flurry of dinner preparations can make a man feel a little guilty. It also makes a man wield a vacuum and learn about something called a Swiffer, so I wasn’t in the most positive frame of mind when Jeremiah Cooper rang our bell at 6:30 the next night.
Gwen was charmed from the first minute, though. He brought her a bonsai. Apparently there is something about an eighty-year-old man holding a tiny tree that really speaks to a pregnant woman.
Not that I found it possible to be grumpy for long. Jeremiah was a fascinating dinner guest. He had lived in the neighborhood through economic downturns and the corresponding upturns, through presidential elections and presidential assassinations, through men landing on the moon and shuttles exploding in the atmosphere, through several wars overseas and through the painful changes each had brought back home. I could have listened to his stories all night.
When he finished dinner, though, he began to question us, not about things like jobs and where we grew up but odd questions about what games we had played as children and why we liked the music we did and what our favorite fairy-tales were. After about an hour of these questions, he finally pushed back from the table and smiled.
“I have one more story for you,” he said. “I told you I was six when we moved into 4430, but what I did not say is that I was very sick. For several years I did very little and seldom got as far from bed as the window that looked down onto the empty lot next door. It was a rare condition, but that is not important to the story.” He waved away our questions. “What is important is that on the occasions that I made it to my window, I would sit and look down, and each time I saw lights flickering through the trees. It didn’t look like firelight, more like fireflies dancing, but it was during the day. I was never out of bed after dark. The first time, I dismissed the lights as nothing, but after the second and third times, I began to be obsessed with them. I would lie in bed and imagine what could be causing the light: pirates with their lanterns, traveling magicians practicing their tricks, fairies hidden away in the trees. These imaginings kept me company on many long and painful days. Finally, one day when I was eight years old, I felt a little stronger, and my mother decided it was safe to leave me for half an hour to go to the store. As soon as she was gone, I dragged my weak body down the stairs and outside. I was exhausted by the time I got to the front steps, but excitement kept me going and I limped around into the lot. I could see the lights under the trees at the back, so I slowly made my way along the edge to where they twinkled. When I arrived, I was terribly disappointed. No pirates. No magicians. No fairies. Just a girl.
“She was pretty, but I wasn’t of an age to care about that. If I hadn’t used all my energy getting to the spot, I would have turned around and gone straight home. As it was, I half-collapsed onto the grass and tried not to cry. The girl saw me and ran over, very concerned about my health. I’m afraid I was very rude when I told her I was fine and she shouldn’t bother.
“‘I’ve seen your face in the window!’ She said. ‘Have you been sick for long?’
“I hated questions about my health, so I didn’t answer.
“‘I thought maybe you were trapped in that room, just as I am,’ she said. ‘But I suppose not if you’ve come here.’
“‘You’ve come here, too,’ I said sullenly.
“‘I have’t come here. I’m always here. I can’t leave.’
“Now she had my interest, but I wasn’t ready to show it yet. ‘Of course you can leave. What’s to stop you?’ I sneered.
“‘The magician,’ she answered. ‘My father is a king in a far away land, but he wouldn’t give up his throne to the magician. He knew the magician would mistreat his people. So the magician stole me away and brought me here and trapped me in the glass castle, and now I can never leave.’
“I pretended to laugh at this invention but inside I was enchanted by her story. Trying not to sound too interested, I asked her more questions. Her name was Daisy. She had been living in the glass castle for three years, she said, and I was the first person she had talked to besides the magician who only visited once a month. The castle was magical, of course, and she knew no one could see it but her, but she had practiced some magic of her own, lighting special candles to illuminate her home. Those were the lights I had seen, and when she learned that I could see them she was delighted. The happier she got with our conversation, the more I felt the need to be distant, and finally I knew I must begin the slow walk home or my mother would discover that I had been out.
“‘I can help you, you know,’ said the girl as I stood to leave.
“‘He leaves me magic potions to make food and medicines and anything I might need while he’s gone. I could make you one. It would cure your sickness.’
“I shrugged as if I didn’t care, but really my heart was pounding. To get better. To be able to leave the house. To go to school and play baseball like the other boys.
“‘Wait here,” she said and ran out from under the trees into the bright sunlight in the middle of the grassy lot. I was still watching her when she disappeared. She had gone into her glass castle, you see, and everything about that castle was invisible. I waited so long I began to think she wasn’t going to return. I began to feel angry that she had gotten my hopes up for nothing. Then in a blink, she reappeared, running toward me with a little flask in her hands.
“‘Drink it all,’ she said, stern as a doctor. I nodded, and I’m ashamed to say that I left without saying good-bye. I was worried about my mother returning and consumed with doubt and hope about the flask in my hands.
“I did manage to make it back to the house unnoticed. I sat on my bed for a long time staring at that flask. Then I drank it all.”
“Did it work?” Gwen asked breathlessly.
“It did. I woke up the next morning in perfect health. My parents thought it was a miracle. They took me to doctors. All trace of my condition was gone. They enrolled me in school. My mother cried. I got a baseball bat for my birthday. And after that, I went to visit Daisy next door every day. I did my homework under her trees. I told her all my baseball stories. Before long she was my best friend. I went from being the loneliest boy on the street to the happiest one in the city.”
He paused for long that I thought the story was ended.
“So that’s why you’ve kept the lot all this time,” I said. “In her memory?”
Jeremiah snorted. “I’ve kept it because she still lives there!”
I traded a look with Gwen. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment that senility might already be setting in. He seemed so lucid.
“We grew up. Inevitably, I fell in love with her. She loved me, too. But she wasn’t free from the magician. We made a plot. I would hide in the trees. He didn’t know about me. When he came for his monthly visit, I would spring out and capture him. We would force him to free her. But he never came. From one month to the next, he just disappeared. And Daisy was still trapped. She couldn’t leave and I couldn’t see her home. We could only be together under the trees. She refused to marry me. She said it wasn’t fair. I refused to stop coming to visit. We were both very stubborn. I found out that the man who had owned the lot with the glass castle had died. I bought the land. I’ve owned it ever since. After a while, it became clear that there was more to the enchantment that we had understood. I got older. Daisy did not. She has stayed young all these years. She was right not to marry me, I suppose, but I was also right not to leave her.”
He paused again for a long time.
“But now I must. It’s the cancer, and she has no more healing potions left. The doctors say I have only a few months, and then she will be left all alone.”
He sat forward, all trace of emotion suddenly gone. “So now for business. I’m not interested in money. I’ve already turned down exhorbiatant offers. I’m interested in promises, and only those who are prepared to make them will get to own that land. Are you prepared to make promises and sign them into contracts?”
Gwen had tears running down her face, so I mustered a response. “What kind of promises?”
“Three promises in specific,” Jeremiah said. “1. That you will never sell the land for any amount of money or sign it over to anyone who doesn’t make the same three promises. 2. That you will never attempt to build anything on the land or change anything that might harm the princess. 3. That you will never move away and leave her alone.”
“You want us to take care of a princess living in a glass castle?” I said.
“Daisy can take care of herself,” Jeremiah snapped. “I want you to protect her.”
“Can we meet her?” Gwen asked in a soft voice.
I threw a concerned look at my emotional wife, but Jeremiah was already standing up.
“That, my dear, is exactly the right question.”
Gwen took the old man’s arm and followed him outside. I trailed behind, still feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me.
Jeremiah led us along the tree line to the back of the lot where he stopped at a ring of stones under a willow tree.
“Daisy, dear, I’ve brought the young neighbors to meet you,” he said.
Of course, there was no one there. The light flickered through the tree branches in a way that certainly did lend a magical air to the place, but my concern for the old man holding my wife’s arm was growing by the minute.
“Yes, I thought that might happen,” he said. “She says she’s sorry that you can’t see her. We had hoped… But we knew this was more likely.”
“I’m sorry,” Gwen said gently, and I knew she was sorry for the lonely state of the old man, even though he understood something different.
“Not your fault, dear. Likely you are too old to see past the enchantment. I got in very young, so it has always been different for me. Daisy thinks that music may help to break through, however. Would you like to hear her sing?”
Gwen cast me a helpless glance, and I wasn’t sure what was best to do. Humor him for now, I supposed. “We’d be happy to listen,” I said.
Jeremiah fell silent and got a faraway look in his eyes. He smiled dreamily.
Of course, I heard nothing.
I was about to suggest that we walk our neighbor home, and perhaps ask who we could call to help him, when suddenly Gwen gasped.
“I hear a song!” She said. “It’s very faint, just barely more than the breeze, but I hear it!”
I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. Was dementia catching?
Gwen grabbed my arm. “Oh James! I wish you could hear it! It’s beautiful.”
I barely remember what excuses I made or how we took leave of our neighbor or how I got my wife back home, but by the time we closed the door behind us, she was the one giving me concerned looks.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked.
Gwen smiled. “You don’t need to treat me like I’ve lost my mind. I know it sounds crazy. But I also know you, James. I know you loved that story. I know you love that green space, and I know you thought that tree was as magical as I did. I know you liked that old man, too. I’m not sure what I heard, or why I heard it and you didn’t. But I think we should sign that contract. We want to keep that space jsut as it is and we want to live right here forever and raise our kids in this house. Does it matter if this is real or all in his heard? It’s a lovely story, and our daughter will get to live with it forever. How could that be bad?”
She was right, and I knew it. I wasn’t ready to let go of my wisdom and admit it, but in my heart, I knew there was no doubt. I argued for a while that committing to live here forever was a big decision and on and on, but it was soulless debate. In less than two hours, we had agreed to tell Jeremiah that we’d do it.
So we did. We signed a contract that we would live in this house forever. Jeremiah signed the deed to the empty lot over into our name the next day and we agreed to never sell it or change it. We saw him every day for the next six weeks. We ate pierogies at his kitchen table. Gwen held his hand as the pain got worse, and we both sat by his side the night that he died. The very next day our daughter Viola was born. When we brought her home from the hospital, we pointed out the lovely trees she could see from her window.
Later that evening when Gwen was resting, I took Viola over to the green lot and held her in my arms and whispered to her the story of the princess who lived, forever young, in a glass castle she could never leave. Somehow nothing feels foolish when you are holding a sleeping baby.
As I turned to go home, I though I heard, very faintly, the sound of someone singing.