Before the dog bit down, I would have sworn they were something else lying there in the weeds and the scrub — some plastic refuse, maybe, some industrial material long discarded here like the rotting boards by the curb. These bits of scattered litter were too white, too chalky and brittle. Too much like stage props or the drawings from old cartoons of cemetery scenes. But then the dog stopped sniffing and bit down on one, there could be no mistake what they were. Bones.
I am out on a walk through my neighborhood in the Vanderveen subdivision on the northern rim of Columbia, Missouri, with Bizzy, my wife Neesha’s emotionally unstable, brain-damaged German shepherd on a fine March afternoon. It is the first walk around my neighborhood I have taken since September, when I was assaulted on the sidewalk nearby. Bizzy and I had been headed in that direction, essentially reversing the steps I’d taken when I fled my attackers six months ago, but we hadn’t even made it a hundred yards through the low scrub, weeds, and brambles before I tripped over something hard sticking out of the burbling, spongy ground. Bizzy started sniffing and pawing. A few minutes later, there’s this partial skeleton all around, and Bizzy’s eating it.
I can tell just by eyeballing that whatever the bones belonged to is mammalian and kind of big. I pry a nasty little vertebra out of Bizzy’s big, slobbery mouth. She takes a step sideways and clamps down on the slender arch of a rib. The whole mess has been picked clean by vultures or coyotes already. It’s been out here awhile, too. All the bones gleam pearly white except for a few light green stains from where the moist earth vomited them up. The echo of Bizzy’s chomping rebounds off the drab privacy fences and endless beige walls of all-weather siding up the ridge. An eerie feeling settles over me. I wrest the rib bone from her maw and tug at her leash.
Ordinarily, nowadays, I would not have chosen to go for a walk through this neighborhood I’ve called home for two years. However, I checked the weather this morning, and it was supposed to be sunny and warm. Moreover, I checked the Boone County Sheriff Department’s online listing for current jail inmates and discovered my primary attacker is back in the clink. Suddenly, the world seemed a happier, safer place. I grabbed my jacket out of the closet.
Turns out, my primary attacker — the guy who came down the street on foot with his sidekick, asked me for a cigarette, and proceeded to demonstrate one mean uppercut as soon as he got close — got picked up at the courthouse downtown last week for a burglary he committed sometime during the last six weeks he’s been out on bond; he gone there for a hearing on the case where he beat me up and robbed me. Of the other two defendants in that case, one is a juvenile who has already been tried and cleared in juvenile court. I told the detective who gave me this information that I hoped the experience had been a “scared straight” kind of thing for the juvenile. The detective said the kid was already back in custody for committing a string of burglaries in Vanderveen.
The third guy in my case was the getaway driver who still faces up to five years in prison for his role. He won’t get that, but I’m not so worried about him. He probably has more to worry about than messing with me, because it was his car whose tags I memorized and reported. Thus, he was the first one arrested that night, which means he was the one who snitched on his friends and got them both arrested, too. Really, if he’d just found that gas pedal faster — or, better yet, not driven up and parked right by a still-conscious victim — they all three would have gotten away as free and as clear as this beautiful, bright, cloudless day in March when my brain-damaged dog and I are taking ourselves a happy little stroll right through what turns out to be a grave.
The other big reason I set out into my neighborhood today is to gather information for a mental map. Not to be confused with a cartographic map, which shows features like roads and buildings accurately, objectively, and proportionally, a mental map illustrates structures and pathways of personal importance, giving little heed to scale or geophysical coordinates and excluding items altogether at the mental mapmaker’s discretion. Mental maps are used by ethnographers and humanistic geographers as tools for understanding how existential space is experienced by individuals and groups. They are representations of how people conceive of the space around them.
I am working on my own mental map because the way I conceive of the space around me has shifted since the assault. For six months I have been holed up in the house — Neesha’s house, where I moved two years ago, just before we got engaged. When I’m not sleeping, I am usually in the spare room in front, which we made into a sort of library, with books piled high in all directions. I sit at the old wooden desk that once belonged to my great, great grandfather the Lutheran preacher and read until my eyes go blurry. Then I fix those blurry eyes out the big double window and across the vacant lot, onto the place the attack happened, a little patch of sidewalk on a gentle hill against a low plank fence.
After that night, the night of my assault, the boundaries of my existential space contracted. I started double checking all the locks and stopped doing a lot of other things. No more running on the winding octopus arms of the subdivision’s streets. No more bicycling to the remote corners of the development on heavy, cicada droning nights, throwing the bike down in the dusty, bulldozed lots and ducking into the wood and steel skeletons of the houses being built. No more playing catch with Neesha out on the cul-de-sac and chasing missed catches under neighbors’ manicured hedges. No more walking Bizzy or the other dog, Bogey, Neesha’s old, disgruntled, American Eskimo polar squirrel-looking-thing. No more taking the trash out after dark. Nothing. It has been six months of locking myself in and staring out.
If I had drawn a mental map of Vanderveen six months ago, it might have included a symbol for a baseball by the cul-de-sac, and a symbol for a bike over on a faraway hill, and a stick figure running on a curvy road nearby. This new one, though, has only one small triangle for our house, some hash lines to represent weeds in the vacant lot in front of it, and a face with a pair of Xs for eyes on the other side labeled “beat down.” My mental map reminds me of the cartographic maps made in Europe during the Middle Ages, before Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295 after his 24-year adventure in Asia; very little was then known about the unknown vastness to the east, the Silk Road trading route having been severed for centuries, and geographic facts had faded into obscurity or become distorted by legend and paranoia. The same thing happened to me with the Vanderveen subdivision in just half a year. On my mental map, home and immediate surroundings are dead center in distorted detail with emptiness beyond that narrow scope. There, as the old maps insist, be dragons.
Ironically, the people who planned the Vanderveen subdivision had a thing for the allure of the wild unknown and set about overlaying this Imperialism-era upon the rural Midwestern landscape. Thus, all the streets in Vanderveen bear names of vaguely tropical settings or creatures: Rainforest Parkway, Amazon Drive, Cheetah Drive, Albatross Avenue, Python Court, Wallaby Way, etc., although there are a handful that do not seem to belong in the lower latitudes set. Snowy Owl Drive and Arctic Fox Drive, to give just a couple of examples. Not all the zoological or geographical street names conjure pleasant images. One time, for instance, Neesha and I made a wrong turn driving and found ourselves on Quick Sand Circle, which has to have taken on a new delicious layer of meaning after the housing crash.
Basically, the Vanderveen development project is what humanistic geographer Edward Relph refers to as a placeless environment — a sprawling new residential area consisting of virtually identical units all laid out by the same architect and built rapidly by the same construction company — in this case, Wilcoxson Custom Homes LLC — with little attention paid to the relationship between the structures being built on the land and the land’s own history, its animals, or its physical geography, and without concern for creating or preserving distinguishing landmarks. In Vanderveen, earth was piled and leveled with disregard for feeder streams, drainage areas, sinkholes, and gullies, which has created not only possible environmental hazards like pollution runoff and mass erosion, but also an unsettling sameness. One can only find a location in Vanderveen by memorization, instead of by cardinal direction or landmark recognition: left turn, down the hill, then right turn, then left again, stop at the third house. The cherry on the whole Vanderveen sundae is the naming of streets for non-indiginous species and non-local settings. Ground Zero for the postmodern subtopian Midwestern environment: the cookie-cutter residential unit at the Vanderveen intersection of Arctic Fox Drive and Rainforest Parkway.
Our house is on Piranha Court, named for the toothy freshwater South American fish that can eat a cow in seven seconds, or something like that. Incidentally, it is a safe bet my three attackers have a vague idea where I live because they cased me first, driving by slowly, parking in a neighbor’s driveway, watching me carefully as I waddled along in my dumpy sort of way talking obliviously on the cellular phone they would very shortly pry from my chubby little fingers. The three of them saw me coming, and that’s why Neesha insisted I take Bizzy along on this walk.
“She’s good theft-deterrent,” Neesha said, handing me a leash.
Neesha is not alone in this assumption. Shortly after I was attacked last September, I was told by at least two of the six or seven policemen who assembled in my front yard for no other purpose, it seems, than to freak out the entire neighborhood while providing the perpetrators with many convenient avenues of escape, that had I only had a dog with me, none of this would have happened.
“Shoulda had your dog,” the responding officer informed me as he flashed a pen light in my face to check me for either concussion or sobriety — I was never sure. “I’da had my dog, it was me.”
“I should’ve had your dog, then,” I said. Because while one might think Bizzy would be a formidable protector, it is also possible a confrontation would cause her to depart instantly, her allegiance broken by the appearance of a new, stronger alpha, her big dumb eyes meeting mine briefly, as if to say, “Your wolf pack is weak. Farewell.” Or maybe it would cause her to lapse mentally and just taken a seat, capitulating to her confusion, for sometimes she looks at me with that searching expression my old teachers from elementary school make when they see me a few tables over in a restaurant: Do I know him? Or — and this is likely — a confrontation on the street might have made Bizzy conclude that the attack was some sort of game, like, “Everybody Get Him,” in which case I would have been lying there on the pavement with two guys swatting at me and this dopey German shepherd gnawing my ankles to shreds.
“Yeah, man,” said the responding officer, “next time you take a stroll, you’re gonna wanna maybe bring a dog. But I can see why you wouldn’ta thunk to. This is a good neighborhood. You don’t see robberies over on this side of Vanderveen.” He gestured with his thumb in the general direction of Quick Sand Circle.
Neesha appeared next to us on the porch and handed me a Freez Pak from an insulated lunchbox. She began pressing the pads of her fingers into the doughiness of my face, trying to realign my nose on its axis. I was thinking about what the officer might have meant by “this side of Vanderveen,” when at that moment, a fourth police cruiser pulled up and parked so recklessly that it almost took out the mailbox. The officer behind the wheel, a big red-haired dude with a paunch and a face that would have looked tough were it not for all the freckles, left the police car sitting at a rakish angle in our driveway, nose still inches from impact and one tire up on the curb, announcing wordlessly to everyone present that Bad Cop had arrived. He walked right over and stuck a finger in my chest.
“I can tell just by looking at you,” Bad Cop said, “that you’re not telling us something. And I can guarantee this’ll be a lot quicker and easier on everybody if you start cooperating.”
I adjusted the Freez Pak to the other side of my face. Neesha took a break from her clay modeling nose repair exercise.
“What?” she said.
“Ma’am,” Bad Cop said, “not too long ago, we responded to a call from a little guy a lot like him,” he jabbed his finger at me again. “You know, non-threatening, tame little guy, simple-looking kind of face. Anyway, he told us some guys beat him up, took all his money, all random like. Well, I started poking around, and sure ‘nuff, he had a gambling addiction. Beat himself in the face and made the whole story up to cover it.” Bad Cop crossed his arms and looked at me, as if to say, Well, go ahead.
“I don’t have a gambling addiction,” I said. “We don’t even have any money.
“Could’ve been a drug deal gone bad,” Bad Cop suggested.
At that presumptuous remark, I felt tiny bubbles of moral indignation begin to simmer and rise from my gut. How dare this man assume my three attackers were mixed up in drugs just because they were mixed up in violence. For all I knew, they were Robin Hood, Little John, and Friar Tuck, and they had taken away my cell phone to give to someone in need. Plus, did he think I was buying the drugs or selling them? And just what kinds of drugs did he think I was into here? How offended, I wondered, do I have a right to be?
“My wife and I — we’re teachers,” I said. “Grad students.”
Bad Cop looked at Neesha and me, looked at our house, then back at us.
“Sure you are,” he said.
For a moment, I thought Bad Cop might be insinuating we were running something huge and nefarious out of our home. A meth lab, or a large-scale marijuana growing operation like the two discovered last year several blocks away, over on Snow Leopard Drive and Mamba Drive. Then it occurred to me that Bad Cop had just articulated an unspoken suspicion about us amongst our Piranha Court neighbors, who were all safely nestled inside the other seven houses on the street. Most of them are upper-middle class WASPs who coördinate their outdoor Christmas lights with each other in the winter and pay out the nose for weekly landscaping and lawn maintenance in the summer. Since I’d moved in two years before, I’d wondered casually whether we were “that house” on the street — the one where the tacky people live. I wondered if that’s what they thought we were, with our crabgrass-infested lawn and our crumbling red landscaping rocks. I wondered whether we were the un-power-washed masses our neighbors worried would further sink their real estate values. But I realized, standing there with the re-freezable lunchbox pack pressed to my swelling face, that Bad Cop had hit the unspoken neighborhood question on the head:
How is it you people can afford to live among us?
The answer, of course, is that we can’t. Until I moved in, I lived alone in a serviceable two-bedrooom apartment in Forest Village, where I lived beneath a wonderfully amiable Zimbabwean guy named Schwipe, and across the hall from a mysterious Korean guy who introduced himself once at the coin laundry in the hallway as Dan but whom I never actually saw again. I lived there a year and a half and not once did I have any trouble.
As for for Neesha and the Piranha Court house, that’s something else. Neesha’s father had the house built for her in the middle of the housing bubble, thinking it would be a good investment he could cash in when his daughter finished her degree. When that wave broke and rolled away, it left the wash of abandoned building materials scattered like bones in the vacant lot across the street, along with Neesha, comfortably settled but stranded here like a castaway, her desert island an unmarketable home. Her half-Indian heritage qualifies her as one of the few members of a minority “on this side of Vanderveen,” as Not-So-Bad Cop put it. The other side, the Quick Sand Circle side, we would learn, has a lot of duplexes and some government subsidized housing, and that is where our income level suggests that we should live, not over on this side of Vanderveen. This side, everyone on our street seems to agree, is for families with money, not for people in subsidized housing. And our housing is indeed subsidized, not by Uncle Sam, but by Poppa Kishore, and apparently our neighbors have some clue about this.
To be honest, though, I have some opinions about what — and how — the neighbors think. The day after I got jumped, Neesha and I went door to door on Piranha Court, spreading the word about what had happened the night before, warning our neighbors to be cautious when walking alone at night, urging them all to be on the lookout for the individuals who attacked me, and for their vehicle, although, unbeknownst to us, they all had been taken into custody already and everything was cool. We were met with shock, horror, and possibly even a little thinly veiled blame, especially from the man two houses down, who listened to my recitation of the attack with the sullen face of someone who has just been told his home is suddenly worth several thousand dollars less. One thing they all said, in various ways, was that this nonsense — this urban crime — was exactly the thing they moved out here to avoid. They were following the Wordsworthian creed, seeking simplicity and purification in the countryside: Lines composed a few streets above Wallaby Way.
“We didn’t hear anything last night,” we heard more than one neighbor say, “and one of the reasons we love it is because it’s always so quiet out here.”
The neighbors put the emphasis on that term — out here — as if the city of Columbia were a burning building and the Vanderveen subdivision were the parking lot outside where they all stand safely around watching it burn. And the used the royal we, as in all of them, the whole street—the whole subdivision, even, or at least, “this side” of it. It was as if they were saying, “Make no mistake, it’s us and them.” With that came a glimmer of recognition, on that September day in the placeless, postmodern, subtopian jungle. I thought I had identified that dangerous fear, the one that turns a corner, like that in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that starts with “The horror! The horror!” and trickles like runoff along the gutter until at last it reaches the grate in the cul-de-sac and drops: “Exterminate the brutes!”
Still, it is difficult to determine exactly to whom “them” refers. When Neesha and I heard the neighbors use this kind of rhetoric the day we went door to door proclaiming my beat down as a warning for them to raise the neighborhood alertness level, we took it that they meant “them” to be poor people. “After all,” my neighbors seemed to be saying, “they must be poor, for why else would they steal?” I wondered whether or not I should point out that it was just as likely my assailants were bored and violent since wailing on me seemed to have been their primary objective and taking my phone appeared to have been almost an afterthought, but if by “them” my neighbors meant “poor people,” then the Vanderveen development experiment follows the model of historical suburban settlement all the way back to 2000 BC, when the population of the Mesopotamian city of Ur over-spilled its walls. Until the Industrial era, though, the dynamic was reversed; it was the impoverished citizens who lived in the suburbs and the wealthy near the city center. Then it flipped during the nineteenth century, when widespread urbanization carried the poor into downtown districts, and recently developed trains and automobiles carried the wealthy into the suburbs. But it’s been the same binary opposition of “us and them” the whole time.
Also, just to clarify, it was clear after making the rounds up the street that just because I’d been assaulted by some of “them” does not mean my wife and I get to be included in “us.”
I tug Bizzy’s leash and lead her away from the bones, out of the vacant lot in the direction of the spot I labeled “beat down” on my mental map. I’m still thinking about the vacant lot bones. Later, I will draw them in on my mental map. I reassure myself that they are animal bones, that there is only a slight chance they’re human bones. I try not to panic about this. Surely, I think, someone would have noticed a human corpse rotting in that field, or noticed the circling vultures and the ravening coyotes. Someone would have seen.
Bizzy and I reach the sidewalk across the street from the “beat down” place. This is where I fled that night — up the slope, into the vacant lot, maybe over the bones, and into the house, on a raging, glorious surge of adrenaline. Often, I have wondered what would have happened had the white sedan spun around, turned onto Piranha Court, and headed me off at the pass. It is a chilling thought, to me. Instead, it zoomed down the hill, into the dense, placeless, Vanderveenian heart of darkness, into one of the areas of my mental map described only with a few sketches of trees and a lot of hash marks. Here be dragons. Had my attackers looked in the rearview mirror, they would have seen me disappear into what must have looked like an impenetrable thicket of shadows behind the outlines of privacy fences, walls of beige all-weather siding, and a ragged layer of charcoal-colored shingles hanging low above the prairie ridges like a long, dirty cloud. Had they listened hard, they might have heard me chanting the white sedan’s license plate number, a holy mantra over the drums of heart and footfalls.
Had they spun and circled around, they just might have caught me before I made it to my house. But if they had tried that and been just a tad late, they’d have had a real shell game on their hands trying to find me amidst the rows and rows of virtually identical cookie-cutter homes courtesy of Wilcoxson Construction LLC circling and weaving and sliding past each other and cul-de-sacing and twisting back and around for acre after endless sprawling acre.
Bizzy and I make our way down the street until we are looking down at a trickling stream that flows along the bases of some of the Vanderveen ridges, nibbling slowly on the bedrock of Mississippian limestone and dumping its meager spoils into Bear Creek half a mile south. Bizzy stops and sniffs the air, and I speak to her in the dialect I imagine she would have if she were human, which is much like that of the Incredible Hulk.
“Biz want go in creek?”
Bizzy licks her chops. Probably because she thinks I said “treat.”
We scramble down the embankment where heavy movers from the Missouri Department of Transportation have piled up large, unearthed boulders in order to buttress the spillway that runs under the street. We search for toeholds amidst Skyy vodka bottle sapphires and Taco Bell wrapper Tibetan prayer flags. Bizzy plops into the stream, scattering a cluster of minnows, and I take a break from thinking about the partial skeleton up the hill to wonder whether there’s a street in this subdivision named “Minnow.” I run my fingertips over the crumbling limestone until — there — I find a clutch of chopped stone stalks rising from the surface of the stone. They are crinoids, primordial sea lilies, from a time when everything west of the Appalachians was at the bottom of the sea. Three hundred and forty million years later, someone spray-painted a pro marijuana legalization slogan on the concrete railing above, invisible from the street. I’m thankful that Bad Cop isn’t here to see me near it — glad he can’t put me at this scene. Later, on my mental map, I will mark this place with symbols for fossils and pot.
On the way back up the hill, a soaked Bizzy and I stop briefly at the place where I got attacked, but a screen door screeches open nearby, and a man emerges, faces us, crosses his arms. He thinks I have stopped here to let my dog crap on his lawn. Somehow, he has heard our approach from inside his house all the way up the slope.
As I tug Bizzy’s leash and step out to cross the street once more, I have to wonder if he really failed to hear me screaming on that night six months ago, screaming “Help!” as loudly as I could, “Help! Please! Help me!” and failed to hear the thuds of fists and shoes rebounding off my body as it twitched and scuttled over the pavement, and failed to hear the shouts of my attackers, “Shut up, motherfucker! Shut up!” and failed as well to hear their tires squeal and their engine roar as they throttled down the hill toward the stream and into the night. I wonder how he heard us coming today when he failed to hear any of that.
As we climb into the vacant lot again and make our way to the bones, a chill shoots down my spine. The fear has me now. The horror! The horror! and now these are human bones, there can be no doubt. I twist the leash around my wrist and drop to my knees. I am digging on all fours with my fingers in the mud, searching, searching. And Bizzy is sitting now, watching, confused. Another vertebra, another rib, another long white splinter, another flaking chip. I do not know whether my neighbors can see me or what they would think if they could. I am digging, digging. How long did you lie here, friend? Another vertebra, a long, brittle bone about as long as my forearm. How many of them were there the night you died? How far did you have to crawl to get here, and how long did you scream when no one came to help?
And then, unmistakable in the dark, slimy mud, a tooth. Another tooth. A jawbone. A pointed, slender blade of a jawbone. I stand for a long moment. A crow’s caw echoes off the infinite rows of charcoal roofs. I tug Bizzy’s leash in the direction of the house. I get us inside and lock the door.
Later, on my mental map, I draw the bones in the vacant lot. Beside them, I include the label “deer skeleton.”