- The Suburban Mystery
We found the first action figure almost as soon as we started clearing the bramble and overgrown bushes from the backyard. It was a He-Man doll, sun-bleached and buried to its waist in the damp soil, one plastic arm raised to the sky as if waving for help. I bent down and plucked it from the dirt while Cameron held back the leaves of the diseased rhododendron we’d been trimming. It felt like a team effort, this rescue. We dusted the He-Man off and set it on the fence railing, so it could watch us while we worked. We agreed it was a strange and fortuitous find. It would be our mascot. But after just ten minutes of removing brush, we came across four more toys: a Power Ranger, a pair of G.I. Joes with legs entwined, and a blue-gray robot I didn’t recognize but Cameron said was from a cartoon show. We put them on the fence with the He-Man.
When I asked Cameron what he thought about these objects’ origins, he was dismissive.
“The people who used to live here had kids,” he said. “Kids lose their toys.”
But it wasn’t just toys. As we hacked and pulled each evening after work, clearing the unruly, almost jungle-like yard foot by foot, we found other things too. Golf balls, hand tools, a roller skate, a coffee pot, keys from a keyboard, markers and crayons, a six-pack of soda still in its plastic rings, the skull of an animal—larger than a rodent’s but smaller than a cat’s.
We piled these things in the first bare patch of yard we’d cleared. A cascade of odd items filling the space where something else used to be.
Cameron and I bought the house on Fourth Street in early October. It was what Cameron’s parents referred to affectionately as “a starter home”— two bedrooms, one bath, a den, a too-small kitchen, a dining room, and almost identical in shape and size to every other house on the block. It was [End Page 70] also what my parents referred to affectionately as “a fixer.” The carpet was worn bare and pulling up at the corners. The kitchen had water damage. The furnace made strange sounds. Everything needed a fresh coat of paint. The front yard was all right, but the back was a mess. The entire yard was overrun with plant life. It was impossible to tell what had been deliberately planted (or why) and what had grown on its own, taking advantage of just the right combination of light, moisture, and inattention.
A funny thing about Fourth Street: It was the only numbered street in the neighborhood. The streets to the north were Maple, Harrison, and Sutter. The street to the south was Stoneybrook.
We decided we’d start our “fixing” with the backyard. We’d get all the old, overgrown, half-dead stuff cleared out now while the weather was still manageable. Then, come spring, we’d plant what we wanted—a garden of our own. I envisioned space for both vegetables and flowers. Cameron, who often gave lip service to sustainability efforts, was keen on the idea of us growing our own food. We researched what grows best in the Pacific Northwest climate: lettuce, zucchini, sweet peppers, a variety of herbs. We’d never had the room to do anything like this before, living as we had in a series of small city apartments, and we were, initially, excited for the project. But the work of cleaning up the yard was slow going—not only the removal of plant matter but also the seemingly endless parade of objects hiding beneath. Every few feet, a bicycle helmet, a deflated handball, a length of chain as thick as my wrist, and so on. I was fascinated by these things. To me, their randomness made them all the more curious, as if they were a puzzle demanding to be solved.
But Cameron didn’t see it that way. For him, they were simply an added burden. When we came across a truck...