The Importance of Unexpected Visitors


Harper latched the white gate and backed away from his front yard and house. True, things looked a little shabby around the edges. He hadn’t been able to paint it for a few years and the cost of labor seemed steep to him now that he didn’t work anymore. It was a large, sturdy structure, a  house that had watched the comings and goings of a family of four. Now it housed Harper and occasionally his college-aged grandson, Tom, who was lately very busy. 

 But Isabel had been on him again, full of complaints. She felt it her civic duty to let him know what she thought about the state of things. She and her teen-aged son had been toiling in their front yard the past Saturday morning. Harper sat on his porch, coffee mug with the chipped edge in one hand,  paperback book in the other.

“Are you thinking of painting this year?” she called, looking up at him through sunglasses,  her elegant fingers holding her straw hat down.

“No,” he said, turning the page, “not yet.”

“You should reconsider. The  neighborhood is starting to be concerned. To wonder.”

“That’s what neighborhoods do sometimes. Find things to worry about. ” He sipped the sweet strong coffee. “Probably miss the old days when I boozed it up some and caused a little tongue clucking.”

“Really, Harper Yobst. You can be contrary. I just worry that you’ll let it go and then what? You always loved this house.”

She left him alone a couple of days. But soon there was a deep-furrowed frown tossed at him over the fence, a lecture now and then. Last time she’d come by with a flyer about the annual May home tour of historic houses.

“Have you heard about the houses picked? About that time again.”

“I hear about it every year.” Harper had just restrung his guitar. He sat on the porch swing and it swayed gently as he tuned it up. “I see these huge, attractive houses every day, Bel. I bought one, after all, in 1982. Back when I had another life with a lovely, far less treacherous wife and two sassy kids.”

“Still.” She ignored the last tasteless, snide comment. “It raises money for good causes. And Mart and Carol’s house is on the tour this year.” She pointed down the street five houses, as if Harper didn’t recall the couple he and his Mona had played cards with every couple of months.

“Ah, yes” he said and started to play, picking out chords easily, strumming a bit louder as Isabel continued to talk.

“You could at least spruce up the flower beds–you can’t see those perky tulips for all those wild bushes!” She pushed her curly hair back under her hat for emphasis and gave him a weak smile. He knew she liked his playing.

Today he had awakened with an excellent idea or two. He was going to do a few things to cheer the old place up a bit. Not that Bel had anything to do with it. She made it her mission to annoy him, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was bringing him food despite the fact that he was a better cook. She had ramped up all this busybody work after Mona had left him for a professor in Italy. Harper was the anomaly on the block: retired, single,  gimpy due to a ski accident two years ago, and without significant purpose or cares. In fact, he had thought of selling the house for awhile but Bel’s nagging and the neighborhood council had given him motivation to stay. It gave him a goal until he could find another  one.

Today was Phase One, just in time for the tour.

Harper was gone all afternoon and it was nearly dinner time when he pulled in the driveway. He opened the garage door and spent several minutes unloading and arranging things in the garage. Then Harper knelt over a large wooden crate and smiled down at his purchases. He rolled up his blue plaid shirtsleeves and got to work.

The next couple of days Harper was nowhere to be seen. Isabel peered over her fence a few times when Dustin and her husband, Jim, had told her they had heard him outside in the early mornings, rustling around, hammering even. And there had been some sort of bird sounds, unlike the usual ones around there.  

Finally Isabel stopped by and rang his doorbell. When Harper finally answered, his mouth was half-full of onion bagel.

“I just wondered what you’re up to out in the back,”Isabel said. “I saw you bring in some bags of dirt and chicken wire, even lumber Dustin said. You must be working on the yard. Or something.”

“Mmph,” Harper managed to say and nodded his head, then swallowed. “Just in time for the tour. Maybe someone will be interested in my humble spot.”

Isabel’s eyebrows shot up and she tilted her head at him. Maybe he was going a bit soft in the head, but at least he was taking an interest in his property again. With the tour coming up, everyone was making special efforts.

Which so soon arrived, a clear and beautiful day. The sun was toasty on all the bare arms and legs, the sandaled feet just out of hiding. It was unexpected, the heat this time of year, and the flowers basked in it as well, their glorious colors and designs on the sweeping lawns inviting passersby to dawdle. The whole effect was intoxicating after so long a rainy winter.

“What’s this?” A woman with a couple of male companions pointed at a hand-made sign: THIS WAY TO MUSIC AND FOWL.  They laughed but followed the red arrow pointing down the pathway that wound around the side of the house.

“It doesn’t look like much,” she noted. “Needs painting.  Must have been pretty once.” As they rounded the corner they could hear someone playing a guitar, soothing sounds that seemed to cool the breeze and carry the fragrance of lilacs. They crept into the back yard.

Harper was sitting in a gazebo which had been painted a soft peach color.  Before him were a half dozen folding and plastic chairs. To his left was a child’s plastic pool, within which were two white Pekin ducks with deep orange bills. They paddled at their leisure and quacked congenially as the visitors sat down.

“Do they bite?” one asked.

“No, not one of us, ” he smiled. And he began to play a tune from long ago, a song that he and Mona used to share, she with her autoharp and clear, sweet voice, he with the twelve string Guild guitar. It was about good times and how they come and go, about inviting them in before the chance is gone. Taking a risk and finding something good. It played as well now as it had years ago. His baritone didn’t crack or even flag once. He’d been practicing for awhile, just in case. The ducks’ voices were back-up vocalists here and there.

Out front, more people saw the little sign and followed the path back to the man with the guitar, the ducks and the peach gazebo. They listened and petted the Pekin ducks, sipped iced tea he’d set on a small table with glasses. They settled under the shade of the blossoming cherry and oak trees. By the time Isabel got there, the yard held a small crowd, and Harper was in his glory, wailing on that guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. The ducks let themselves be admired, retreating decorously, then returning.

When Harper’s music stopped, his neighbor came up and stared hard at him.

 “Ducks? Quacking, dirty ducks?”

“They’re pretty clean as long as I help them out, and not very noisy. I’m building a proper house and runway, all fenced in–Phase Two. And they’re quite historical. They came over from China to Long Island in 1873. Attractive, aren’t they? They’ll fit right in our neighborhood. It’s like having a couple of foreign dignitaries. Look how they walk around with their heads high. Unexpected guests, Bel–we all need them.”

Isabel shook her head, took a deep breath, let it out in a slow hiss. She knew when it was time to quit. “Nice music,” she said. “You should play more often so we can all hear you.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I’m thinking of opening my yard up on Saturday nights this summer if you care to stop by. Harper and Ducks are in business.”