A fawn crossed the road as I began my descent—via bicycle—into the valley; I thought I could see little buds on its head, but I didn’t trust that it was possible for a baby deer to have horns of any kind. At the bottom of the valley, in a field, hundreds of spider webs—spread vertically between grass blades, billowing slightly in wind—glistened so mesmerizingly that it seemed as if their sole purpose was decorative: a net on which droplets of dew had been strewn like jewels, for maximum enjoyment of light refraction. Still, I couldn’t get the horns out of my head: they called to mind the tiny devil figurine that sits on the windowsill above my kitchen sink, and which once sat on the windowsill above the kitchen sink in the house where I grew up, along with a tiny scarecrow, Jack O’Lantern, and witch. I’ve always liked devils when depicted cutely as cartoonish imps, and once bought my two-year-old son a red costume that had a hood with little black horns coming off each side. I thought: my wife will be forty this year on Halloween, maybe I should do something like contact all her high school and college friends and get them to write memories about her, but then I remembered: she already turned forty—two years ago. Yesterday, at Kroger, I noticed a whole line of Halloween figures—pumpkins and ghosts—outside on the sidewalk and heard somebody else say what I was thinking, and what probably corporate execs or whoever’s idea it was to set them out so early had also thought, which was: “Halloween stuff? It’s not even August yet.” A couple days before, my six-year-old nephew held up a trick or treat bucket in the shape of Darth Vader’s head and gasped. “You guys trick-or-treat?” he said. “Sure,” I said. “And you dress up?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. His brow was furrowed, his eyes wide. “That’s the bad part,” he whispered. I told my sister this and she said, “Yeah, we don’t do trick-or-treating.” When I expressed disbelief, and reminded her that we had trick-or-treated as kids, she said that she knew that but they didn’t, she didn’t like ghosts or witches or any of that stuff. I didn’t say ghosts or witches were like the two most boring things you could be, and that today’s pop-up Halloween stores, though they had their share of gore, offered all sorts of alternatives to the occult and undead. So it was funny then, if only to me, to discover that “The Phantom” was the name of the brand of my sister’s husband’s drone, a four-bladed “quadcopter,” which, according to its website, has a magnesium skeleton. I cheered when my brother-in-law flew The Phantom over the gate at the top of the golf course hill, the one that has a sign that says, “Absolutely NO Trespassing” and guards a vista of rolling hills and blue mountains, as I’d been meaning to jump the fence for a while, just to see what, according to the sign, I absolutely shouldn’t experience. As it turns out, insuring privacy and maintaining boundaries are recurrent themes in the world where I live; all along Catawba Road, which winds through a long valley, beside a quiet stream where, last week, a particular ripple-shape made me imagine a crocodile swimming upstream, landowners have nailed signs to trees and fence posts that say “No Trespassing” or “No Hunting or Fishing or Trespassing Under any Circumstances, Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” and as far as I can tell, people tend to obey, because for as many years as I’ve passed these fields, which are home to cows and sometimes deer, I’ve almost never seen an actual human being in any of them, ever. Humans, for the most part, stick to the road, which is twisty and narrow and traveled by drivers who know it so well that they travel at unnerving speeds. I used to be afraid of riding on this road for that very reason; though I’m not anymore—not really—I often imagine, when I hear an approaching engine, that a bumper will clip my back wheel, and send me into a roadside ditch, where, nestled in long grass and among the Queen Anne’s Lace there seems every twenty five yards or so to be some kind of discarded container: beer cans, McDonald’s fry boxes, clamshell take-out boxes, and—don’t ask me to explain—a preponderance of Bojangles’ cups. The word “Bojangles’” always makes me think of Mr. Bojangles—not the song inspired by a homeless drunk in a New Orleans prison and not Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who, as an actor and dancer, became the most recognized and wealthiest African-American entertainer in the first part of the 20th century, but a fictional man that my Uncle Ricky often referred to when I was a kid, the one he was always explaining had just disappeared whenever I turned to see who it was he was waving to, and who, according to my uncle, lived under a creek bank in a place on my grandparents’ property referred to as “The Bottoms,” where he kept a gunny sack full of kids he’d stolen and planned to eat. I never really believed in Mr. Bojangles, but it was fun to pretend, especially if it involved my aunt Mary Jane, who happened to be Uncle Ricky’s wife—a pretty, blond woman with blue eyes and babydoll eyelashes who laughed at her own jokes and carried a purse full of candy and expressed a kind of self- effacing incredulity if you admitted you hadn’t watched Felicity or Girls, or if you hadn’t heard of charm bracelets. In Mary Jane’s world, it was a crime not to leave cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and dolls came to life at night when people were sleeping and roamed around their houses, and the sound of thunder signaled a retreat to a special closet in her house, where she kept games and snacks and flashlights especially for this exact occasion: a storm. When I was little, she led me through the pine forest that separated my grandparents’ house from its surrounding neighborhood; I was Hansel, she was Gretel, and instead of breadcrumbs, we dropped M&Ms on the trail, so we could find our way back. A few months ago, representatives from the Strange Bros.—South Carolina’s premiere sit development contractors—arrived, and cut down all the trees; they had been falling on the road and threatening surrounding homes. Mary Jane texted me pictures and video of the felled trees, and a week later, in the mail, I received a padded envelope; inside, there was a plastic baggy of jagged, matchstick-sized shards of wood, labeled “The Pines.” Mary Jane told me that the land would be replanted, but it would never be the same. What I wanted to tell her, but didn’t: nothing ever is.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise (Persea, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009; Salt Publishing, 2010)—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012). With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. He teaches at Virginia Tech.