Sunday, August 28, 2016

I Can’t Miss It

Hi there—it’s time for another post; just an update, really. It hasn’t been a good month, much. Sue had a sudden, literally debilitating attack of sciatica—something she’s never had before—and she’s been gradually feeling better. But there have been doctor’s visits, tests, and a cortisone shot, and things are looking up at this point. But that shock set the unsettling tone for the month.


But there’s more. All of last week—a week that began with pleasantly cool, fall-like weather—our friendly neighborhood slumlord got busy with some of his projects. Right across the street, he had a plumbing company tear out a section of sidewalk and part of the terrace to fix a water main that had been leaking water into the street for about a year.

You’d think that was a good thing, right, people fixing stuff up? But no, I’m going to complain about it: They didn’t fill in the hole. They made a little bit of an effort, but there’s still a big gouge in the terrace (you can see severed tree roots sticking out of it), and no one’s made any moves toward filling it and seeding it with grass. (We know from experience that this slumlord never bothers with such things—the ground remains uneven, with nothing but erosion to smooth the edges, and weeds eventually fill in on the surface.

We see this every time we look out our front windows: An eye-catching, big, ugly, brown hole. I can’t miss it.


Also this week, this same slumlord had a tree cut down on one of his properties. But this wasn’t just one of the trash trees—hackberries, mimosa, white mulberry, Siberian elms, box elders that predominate on his rental holdings. It was a huge American elm (yes, the kind that you will never see large anymore because of Dutch elm disease). The slumlord never trimmed it, ever, and the limbs hung over its house. Sure enough, a long but smallish limb finally fell on the house (miraculously, it was a glancing blow and did not apparently cause any damage serious enough for the slumlord to bother with)—but this was the impetus for the slumlord to finally cut the entire tree down.

It was solid. It was a solid, huge, healthy American elm tree. Hard wood. It took the company nearly all week, with two big cherry-picker trucks, to cut it away, piece by piece. For days, I heard the growling, undulating whine of their chainsaws; the screams of the big chipper machine, instantaneously destroying all the small branches and green leaves; and then there were the huge thumps of the log sections hitting the ground.

Surely there’s a place in hell for tree cutters who agree to remove perfectly good, solid, American elm trees, when a trim job would have sufficed.

So, now, the front yard of that house, everything but the sloped terrace, is covered with firewood. It’s stacked all along the roadside. I guess the slumlord is thinking people will take it away for him. I suppose that’s cheaper than hauling it. And people in Jefferson City know what to do with things that are visible along the side of the road, that aren’t locked down. . . . So it just lays there, what’s left of that huge, rare tree.

I’d take a picture of it for you, but I don’t want to burn the sight into my memory. It makes me sick to see it, or to smell what fresh-cut American elm wood smells like. You’ll have to just imagine what a solid, 3-4 foot diameter core of a genuine American elm tree looks like. You’ll never see one again.

So every time I drive on our street, I have to pass by this obscenity. No matter how much I want to, no matter how much I try to look away, I can’t miss it.


In an attempt to handle all this grievance, Monday night I finally got around to weeding our front “flower bed.” I put that in quotes because an infestation of field bindweed has made gardening in that quadrant of our yard a depressing, Sisyphean endeavor. Whatever grows out there gets covered with it. So I’m resigned to just keeping that flower bed trimmed, disinfected, the way Nazis and other evil captors shave the heads of their prisoners to kind of reduce the depredations of lice and fleas.

So with my anger, I decided I could do some yard work, and pulling weeds with my bare hands usually helps me let go of rage and frustration. But in this case: My heart stopped. Glancing at the corner of our house, I suddenly realized that our knusperhexe—our garden gnome—great-grandpa’s knusperhexe!—wasn’t there.

I mean—it wasn’t there—it had vanished—my heart stopped again, and so did my breath. Somebody had stolen it.


I finished the weed-pulling, numbly, with sweat burning into my eyes and making my vision blur. This was definitely not helping me release frustration and anger.

The knusperhexe—grandma always pronounced it “knisperhexie”—has sat on that corner of the house as long as I can remember. So, for at least about fifty years, it’s gazed benignly out at passersby, adding a grandfatherly, elvish charm to the property. Before that, it was in other locations in the yard. I guess it’s been in the yard for about a hundred years, or at least since the thirties. For a while, in the forties, I guess, my great-grandfather had perched it on a strange piece of granite overlooking Broadway.

Look, I can’t even call it “my” gnome—like the house, like the Christmas tree—it is the family’s, and we are only the present caretakers. In a fit of naive happiness, I blogged about him in one of my earliest posts.

The front of the house looks bare without it. Characterless, incomplete, like nobody cares. In fact . . . it’s starting to look like the other houses on our street, which are all blighted rentals. Hey, we’re starting to fit in!


Naturally, the theft has influenced the way I view my neighbors, and anyone who goes by on the street or sidewalk. People who drive by on the street. Ragpickers in their pickup trucks filled with junk. Where did they get that junk?

My first action was to approach neighbors, show them a photo of the missing gnome, and ask if they knew anything or saw anything, begged them to keep an eye open, told them I’d pay to get it back.

This activity was depressing in itself. Our closest and most decent neighbors, sitting and smoking on their front porch, just stared at me blankly and blandly: “Nope. We didn’t see anything. Sorry about that. Huh. If we see anything, we’ll let you know.”

The next people were the ones who have the American elm tree now strewn all over their lawn. (I had to actually walk through the remains of that noble tree in order to knock on their door. Or what’s left of their door; they’ve been really hard on the house.) After some moderate knocks, I eventually beat quite loudly on the door. Two females eventually stood in the doorway—but blocking the door, so I couldn’t see in—and spoke with me. The second woman blurted out, “Oh did someone take your garden gnome?” before she’d really had a chance to see the picture I’d brought with me. They, too, tried to seem sympathetic but shook their heads and couldn’t offer me anything. (Uh-huh, right . . .)

I had walked around their lawn for a few moments before knocking—since we had caught their children numerous times in our backyard (which is fenced), and we’ve caught them stealing from our backyard (an old birdhouse, thank goodness, nothing we truly care about) . . . it seemed like a good idea to just look around.

But it was a bad idea—filth! Greasy old rags, all manner of garbage, wrecked furniture; their backyard is a hellhole. Stench. And I didn’t see our gnome.

I realized something: Those people didn’t deserve to live in the shade of that beautiful American elm tree. It occurred to me that maybe that American elm committed suicide—dropped a limb on the house out of sheer exhaustion and sadness, knowing that it would trigger its execution. “Time for me to go away from here.” If a tree has a spirit, who could blame it?

I won’t go too much further into my notions about our neighbors. You get the idea. If any of them took our gnome, I could never find out, since it could be indoors or in their backyards, and judging from what I’ve seen of these people, I believe I could be shot if I went snooping around.

Next, of course, were the pawnshops and antiques stores and malls. Talking to these people educated me about the tremendous value that “vintage” yard statues can carry. Like those little yard donkeys, “lawn jockeys,” and cutesy Dutch kissing boy and girl. Vintage, vintage, vintage.

We’ve been to a lot of antiques malls in the past few days, and this vintage stuff, and the market for it—the high prices, the anonymous, questionable sources—has become increasingly disgusting to me. Somewhere, there’s a good chance that our family’s heirloom knusperhexe is in just such a place, having gone from our yard to some dirty fleabag scavenger-thief, to some antiques seller in an antiques mall. “I got this at the estate sale of an old lady who kept it in her yard all her life . . .”

That’s how the descriptions read on eBay—but where do they really come from? I think about how heartbroken those old ladies would be if those yard statues had been stolen. How would you know? When you buy a treasure at an antiques mall, how do you know your purchase doesn’t represent the theft of a treasure, a broken heart?


But I am making an effort to recover our gnome—I don’t think I could stand myself if I didn’t try. In addition to talking to our neighbors, and going to pawnshops and antiques malls in Central Missouri, I have:

—Filed a police report. Ha! From too much prior experience, I know this is probably the longest shot of all, the biggest waste of my time. Police don’t do anything except take notes and nod, and give you a report number. (Shit! At least, they could give you a cookie, or a candy cane, or something, besides that damn useless number!)

—Posted notices about it on Jefferson City Facebook sites. Why not?

—Put up a sign in our front flower bed where the gnome used to be, and another on the utility pole on our street corner: “GARDEN GNOME. Reward: $250. Please help us recover our family heirloom.” . . . I’m actually kind of hopeful about this, because last night I saw a truly suspicious-looking woman walking rather slowly west along Elm Street. She was pasty white, blond, smoking, wearing sunglasses at sunset, holding a cell phone, and looking into everyone’s yard, on both sides of the street, up above the terraces near the houses—as if she was looking for something. “Good Vibes” read her black T-shirt (isn’t that an adult toys company?). Anyway, what a classy-looking lady.

It’s possible that she was looking for her dog, or looking for her own stolen yard statue—because apparently thieves go through areas stealing from lots of properties at a time . . . but maybe, if she’s the thief, she’ll come by again and see our sign, and “just happen to recover” our statue. “Hey, look here, someone left this statue in our yard and I don’t know where it come from. I think it’s yours! Can I have the reward money?” After suppressing an urge to clap her with a brick on the side of her skull, I would indeed cough up the money, because I really want our knisperhexe back, even if I have to pay a ransom.


But then . . . I know it’s an impossibly long shot. The theft, we think, for detailed reasons I won’t go into now, probably occurred at the very end of July, leaving at least three weeks before I noticed it missing (remember: the first few weeks of August were a crisis here, with Sue’s pain and disability, and weeds grew up, obscuring where Mr. Knisperhexie sat—all my fault, but still . . .).

I know I have to accept that I’ll never see our house’s guardian gnome again. I acknowledge it: He was stolen under “my watch.” I should’ve known he was “worth something.” I should’ve moved him into the backyard, or even into the house, a long time ago. But I kept a naive faith in the goodness of people, blah, blah, blah . . . And so we lost him.

But I can’t bear to miss him like this. For a week, now, I’ve been unable to sleep. I read and read, late into the night, trying to distract my mind and tire myself to sleep (I’m reading boring stuff, too—Samuel Johnson, even), until I can’t keep my eyes upon anymore, and as soon as I shut them I see the knusperhexe, sitting there, with that benign smile on his face . . . my stomach lurches, and I’m awake again, to gnaw away at Dr. Johnson, the Great Lexicographer, some more.

(Unable to sleep, that sick, lurching feeling, the downward spiral, unable to stand myself and my thoughts: it’s been a long time, but this is my major depression coming back to bite me.)

So what can I do now? How can I stop missing him? How can I glance at the corner of the house and miss the sight of his gaping absence? I can’t miss it.

I’ve decided I have to move on; I need to find a way to conceptualize this so that I’m not flat-out hating everyone I see, not wanting to drop a brick onto people passing by on the street, not wanting to blow up our ratlike neighbors and their houses. Not wishing the darkest evil on our friendly neighborhood slumlord, and not wanting to puke on the invertebrate city leaders who could never do anything that might impose on a landlord’s convenience or profitability.

It’s a good thing I’m not a magical creature, a gnome, because a lot of folks would be suffering right now, and not just me.

These thoughts led me to a new, more expansive consideration:

Maybe there is something magical, mysterious, about these elderly garden gnomes. Maybe, like I fancy with that American elm, our gnome somehow decided it was time to move on, get away from this blight. Maybe his magical work here was done. Maybe some other person or family needs his presence more than we do. Maybe someone will buy him for $200 at a flea market and treasure him like crazy. Maybe, in his second century of existence, he will be more beloved than ever before. And for us, maybe it’s time to have a new yard sprite around here—kind of a “changing of the guards.” . . . I think I’m open to that.

But if we do get another gnome, he’s going to preside over the back yard. Which we will soon be fencing in the rest of the way. No one will get to see our backyard anymore.

And that’s what’s been going on around here. I know I started this blog to get away from depressing subjects, to celebrate things that make me happy. And usually, I try to be upbeat about our Munichburg neighborhood, and its gradual progress up from slumland, but these last few weeks, we’ve been fantasizing about moving far away from here. This time, I just couldn’t miss the bad stuff.