The covers were pulled over Janice’s head when her eyes popped open at the sound of the garbage truck outside her window. Inwardly she groaned. She felt as if she had just fallen asleep and now she would have to claw her way out of the covers, stumble out of bed, and get ready for work. The nights were way too short. Janice felt that she could sleep for a week and still be tired.
Throwing the covers back from her face, she blinked repeatedly to adjust her eyes to the light in the room. The aroma of coffee curled down the hallway and slipped into her bedroom, tickling her nose. Thank goodness for automatic coffee makers! Janice swung her legs over the side of the bed, slipped her feet into fuzzy, pink bedroom slippers, and stumbled down the hallway to the kitchen. She mixed a liberal amount of cream into her coffee mug and peered out the window over the sink as she enjoyed the first few sips of her morning wake-up elixir.
Outside the window, Mrs. Perelli was hanging out her laundry on the clothesline that took up one corner of the shared yard, bordered by four houses. When Janice had first moved into her home, she could not figure out how she would be able to share a yard with four families and not have arguments over its use. But the four of them – Janice, the Perellis, the Johnsons, and the Changs – had never been in conflict over the yard. Mrs. Perelli had stretched a clothesline across one corner and her husband had built a small grape arbor nearby. Near their home, the Johnson family had placed a picnic table and built an outdoor fireplace where they ate dinner often in the summer and enjoyed an outdoor fire on the cooler autumn evenings. Mr. Chang had built a koi pond in one corner and strung Chinese lanterns from the tree branches. He and his wife enjoyed sitting by the pond in the evenings and if her windows were open, Janice could hear their melodic laughter. Janice had rented a tiller from a local hardware store and had turned up the earth on one little corner of the yard in order to plant a garden. In the two years in which she had lived in this little neighborhood she had planted a small vegetable garden that had kept her busy with freezing and canning on summer evenings, a wildflower patch which had only served to aggravate her hay fever, and a cactus garden that had been easy to care for but which did little to offer a welcoming environment. She had settled on the vegetable garden and it was now a summer mainstay. The middle of the large yard remained undeveloped and boasted a large elm tree. She had been told stories about the Perelli and Johnson children who had played under and in its branches during their adolescent years and the Changs were hoping to be the first with grandchildren to do the same. Some evenings Janice would take a lawn chair and a good book and sit under its branches to read and relax.
Lately their back yard paradise had been invaded from time to time by gang members cutting between the buildings and across the yard in the middle of the night in order to avoid one another’s turf, drug dealers who were avoiding the police, and the occasional wino who was searching for a safe place to lay his weary head for the night. Occasionally the neighbors would be disturbed from their sleep in the middle of the night by youthful voices shouting obscenities, flashlight beams dancing off windows as police looked for their suspects, or a mumbled curse and the clatter of metal as an elderly drunk stumbled over a trash can. At various times they had discussed the matter with each other but none of them could come up with a reasonable solution. The Changs wanted to build a privacy fence on the street end of each of their alleyways; however, they would have to include gates for the garbage men to collect their trash and a gate would only slow down the intruders, not stop them. The Johnsons wanted to buy a couple of pit bulls to live in the yard, but the Changs and the Perellis both were quick to point out that they would raise their own ruckus when disturbed in the middle of the night and would cause fear in the hearts of both children and parents if there were ever grandchildren to play in the yard again. Mr. Perelli often mumbled about “talking to his uncle” and getting someone to “take care of” their intruders, but they all knew that his mumblings were nothing more than ego-inflated posturing. Janice, being the youngest tenant in the group, had chosen to agree with any idea presented and offer none.
As a result, they all did a lot of talking about the problem, but no one took any real action. Until one summer Saturday, just a month earlier. Janice had been up early to pick tomatoes and had spent all day in the kitchen canning. She was hot and tired, so she took a glass of lemonade and a mind-numbing romance novel out to the yard to sit under the tree. She waved toward Mr. and Mrs. Chang, who were sitting by the koi pond listening to a recording of Chinese music. Mrs. Perelli was taking her sheets off the line, folding them neatly before placing them in the wicker basket sitting on the ground. Mr. Perelli was puttering around the back of their house, replacing the washer on their outside spigot. The Johnsons had lit the outdoor fireplace in preparation for a cookout and had even called over to Janice as she settled under the elm to ask if she wanted to join them. She had declined. Everyone was minding their own business quite effectively when a police siren in the distance commanded their attention. As it grew closer, shouting could also be heard, but none of the neighbors could make out what was being said. Janice was surprised when she heard a masculine voice yell, “In here!” and two young men darted into the alley between the Perelli’s and the Johnson’s houses. One of the boys made a beeline across the yard, heading for the alley beside the Chang’s. The other was intently staring over his shoulder while running in the opposite direction. As a result, he did not see Janice’s lawn chair underneath the elm tree and found himself flying through the air as the toe of his shoe caught in its rungs. He turned a somersault when he hit the ground and shook his head to clear his addled brain. He looked around, trying to figure out what had happened and cursed angrily at Janice.
The other boy ran back to his comrade on the ground and grabbed him by the shirt collar, trying to drag him to his feet. In the meantime, Mr. Perelli moved towards the boys, angrily shaking his fist and cursing at them in Italian. By this time, both boys were on their feet and the one who had tripped over Janice’s chair whirled to face Mr. Perelli, pulling a gun from the waist of his pants. The sound of gunfire was so loud in Janice’s ears that she thought for a moment that her imagination must be working overtime; however, as she watched Mr. Perelli stumble backwards, a red flower of blood blooming across the front of his shirt, she knew that it was not her imagination. Mrs. Perelli screamed and ran to her husband. Mr. Chang jumped to his feet and Mrs. Chang huddled behind her chair. Mr. Johnson came running out his backdoor, a shotgun in hand. Janice threw herself to the ground.
The two boys stood paralyzed in the middle of the yard as if they had stumbled onto a scene that was beyond their comprehension. The boy who had fired the gun dropped to his knees. Two police officers rushed down the alleyway, their guns drawn. One demanded that Mr. Johnson drop his shot gun and lay on the ground. The other approached the two boys, demanding that they give up their weapons, which they did without pause. An ambulance was called for Mr. Perelli and it arrived within five minutes. He and his wife were loaded into the back and whisked away to St. Mary’s Regional Hospital. The boys were handcuffed and loaded into the back of the police car. The policemen told Janice and her neighbors that another officer would be by later in the evening to take their statements. They all could do no more than nod.
Quiet once again descended on their little shared yard. Mrs. Johnson wandered over to the Chang’s fishpond and asked them to come eat dinner with them. Mr. Johnson beckoned for Janice to join them. Along with the Johnson’s teenage daughter, they all gathered at the picnic table. One would have thought that the topic of conversation would have been the fear and shock of the earlier hours, but no one spoke a word of the incident. They were clearing the table when the police officer arrived to take their statements. After they took all the leftovers into the Johnson home, they each retired to their own home to await their turn to tell their version of the story. The police officer gave them some good news in the form of a report from the hospital regarding Mr. Perelli’s condition. The bullet had entered his right shoulder and traveled cleanly through. No major damage was done and he would be coming home the next morning. The hospital was only keeping him overnight in order to monitor his heart; after all, he wasn’t a young man any more.
The next morning found each of the neighbors busy in their shared yard. The Changs had purchased wooden privacy fence paneling and Mr. Chang and Mr. Johnson were busy installing this at the end of each of the alleyways leading into the yard. There was a small gate in each of the panels for the garbage men and a padlock on each gate that was to be unlocked only on garbage day. Mr. Perelli sat in the yard, supervising the fence building efforts until two men in dark suits came to visit him. Then he moved to the shade of the elm tree and they talked, heads bent together, in hushed tones, before shaking hands solemnly. In the months to follow, all the neighbors would all notice a young man who periodically patrolled their block, making his presence known to all who traveled their neighborhood. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Johnson and her daughter came home with a dog house and a beautiful blue-eyed Alaskan malamute they had picked out at the shelter. They had a yard stake with an extension leash so the dog could run around in the yard without having free reign. Janice helped Mrs. Perelli finish her laundry, folding the sheets and towels neatly and allowing Mrs. Perelli to tell her story of fear for her husband over and over again.
They had all met at the Johnson’s picnic table for dinner. Mrs. Perelli brought freshly baked bread; Janice prepared a huge salad with the vegetables from her garden; Mrs. Johnson had leftover grilled chicken and potato salad from the previous evening; the Changs brought a delicious fruit salad. They all exclaimed over Mr. Perelli’s wounds and comforted Mrs. Perelli. They all thanked the Changs for purchasing the fencing materials and Mr. Johnson for helping to build the gates and for housing their new watchdog. They voted on a name for their new pet and collectively settled on Demon, even though the beautiful dog looked nothing like a demon and behaved even more angelically.
Today, with the clanging of the garbage cans still echoing in her ears, Janice looked out over the backyard and realized how much – and how little – had changed. This evening when she got off work, the Changs would be sitting by their fishpond. The Perellis would be playfully fussing at one another as the aroma of garlic and olive oil streamed from their kitchen window. The Johnsons would gather at their picnic table for dinner. Janice would savor a salad from her garden and retire to the elm tree with a book until the sun withdrew its last glimmer of light from the day and she could no longer see the pages. Despite their experience, there was no other place where any of them would rather be at the end of the day. With their adjoining backyard, they had always managed to find a way to respect each other’s privacy. Yet in a time of trouble, they had banded together for their common well-being. It was with this comforting thought that Janice realized that she had truly found home.