Our street ends at a guardrail, but there’s a right turn that puts you on a different street, for one block, before another right turn puts you on another street, parallel to our street.
The shape is a U, a horseshoe.
It’s not a dead end, but it looks like a dead end—with the guardrail gleaming in sunlight and reflecting headlights at night—so that’s what we call it.
And, because of the dead end (or what we call the dead end), because our block of Branch Street leads nowhere, there’s little car traffic. In fact, there’s more foot traffic because, to the right of the guardrail (which prevents cars from driving into the creek at the end of the street), a footbridge allows pedestrians across the creek into the neighborhood on the other side. And, to the left of the guardrail, a footpath parallels the creek, allowing pedestrians access to this other neighborhood on a different street. Our neighborhood is called Eastcreek. The other neighborhood is called Westcreek. And the streets on the Westcreek side lead to places a lot of us want to go—schools and parks and churches and wider roads, arteries, that grow ever-broader the closer you get to the central city.
Our side is more isolated, the kind of isolation that newer developments—with their limited ingress and egress and windy roads and ubiquitous cul-de-sacs where the houses circle up and stand sentry and watch over (spy on?) their neighbors—were consciously designed for. Our street, with its lack of car traffic and looming guardrail warning strangers and wrong-turners, “Go back! You’re not getting there from here!” seemed like the perfect place to live and raise a family. And so we did.
But a fake dead end, quiet as it is, attracts strangers sometimes. A few years ago a girl—probably sixteen—would park near the guardrail and hang out on the footbridge, a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other. We liked this footbridge. We used it when we walked our children to and from the elementary school, when we walked our dogs, when we exercised. When our kids were very small, we’d let them collect rocks and sticks from the street and drop them from the bridge into the creek below. The rocks were swallowed by the water, but the sticks floated like boats with the current, beneath the bridge and emerged on the other side. Sometimes in spring we’d bring bread and tear off pieces and throw them to the ducks who’d return, year after year, to the place downstream where the water grew calm.
Why here? we asked the girl, the smoker, and she told us that her mother didn’t like it when she smoked at home. But we didn’t like it when she smoked here, we grumbled, though not to the girl, who likely sensed our disapproval through our sour expressions, our silence. No lingering on the bridge when the girl was there, exhaling smoke through her open mouth like a chimney built too low.
But nothing lasts forever, and the girl stopped coming after a time. Maybe she quit smoking or moved or went to college or got up the gumption to challenge her mother and smoke at home. Nothing lasts forever. Our children grew older, too.
And things got worse. There was construction in the neighborhood. Always construction. Crews arrived in their trucks at seven am to replace roofs and renovate kitchens, finish basements, erect additions, bump-outs, new houses when old ones were razed, and these crews became victims when their truck windows were smashed and their wallets stolen in daylight or their construction sites were burgled and their tools taken at night. We weren’t aware of witnesses to these crimes, though there were obstacles—language, culture, class—that prohibited a proper exchange of information between us and the victims. Still, the cameras on our doorbells and front porches told us nothing, trained, as they were, on our own properties.
These cameras came in handy, though, when we were victims—when on warm nights kids would come at four in the morning to check for unlocked car doors, for loose change, for valuables left in vehicles.
The neighborhood held a meeting, invited the police/community liaison, an officer named Smith, who showed up on a warm, June evening in a patrol car. We met at the would-be dead end and he spoke to us in front of the guardrail, between the footpath and the footbridge, and he pointed out the advantages of such a location. We knew these advantages, of course. They were what had attracted us here in the first place. But Officer Smith spoke of the “criminal advantages”—the phrase he used—of an isolated spot, one largely free of car traffic but one with multiple ways in and out. Two by car, two more—he jerked a thumb behind him toward the footbridge and pointed right toward the footpath—by foot. And these pedestrian paths, he explained, represented indirect car access, as someone could, for instance, run across the footbridge to a waiting car on the other side.
In short, he said, it was a challenging area to patrol, but he promised to step it up. When the meeting was over Officer Smith switched on the lights of his patrol car and hit the siren for the benefit of the kids in attendance.
Then he was gone, and we did see more patrol cars, but only after things got worse, still. A couple who lived in Westcreek walking home one evening were accosted by a man hiding behind a construction dumpster on our street. The man took their wallets and phones. At least this was the story on the neighborhood listserv the next morning, when we woke to a dozen emails in our inboxes. Yet none said who’d been robbed. None said if a weapon had been involved. None gave a description of the perpetrator. And as personal and visceral as a robbery had first felt, in the absence of details—of names and faces and circumstances—it became equally abstract.
But the police patrols picked up, which some of us welcomed, while others felt unease. The patrols drove down Branch Street, to the guardrail, and took the right turn onto Eastcreek Drive and then another right turn to complete the U. How many times a day, a night? We saw them in Westcreek, too, an endless loop. It was too much for some. It made us feel like we lived in a bad neighborhood, one with gangs and drugs and guns. That wasn’t who we were, would never be who we were. Our kids were good kids. We locked our doors, locked our bikes and sheds and garages, set our cameras and alarms and motion-sensor lights to notify us of activity on our properties. It was prudent to do so.
Then one night: three squad cars, six officers, and two arrests on the footpath to the left of the guardrail. Drugs, we were told, when we ventured out to inquire. Possession with intent to distribute. The police lights swirled, reflecting reds and blues off the green leaves that sheltered the path in summer months. They were youths, the police told us, although we never learned who. We never learned if they were ours or not, though we assumed, through the lack of gossip, through the lack of calling out on the listserv, through the lack of finger pointing, that they came from someplace else.
And, as we talked about it over the following days, we concluded there were, perhaps, all kinds of things going on in our neighborhood we never knew about. Some were angry, others anxious. We remembered the places where we grew up, each of us with a similar story, a similar place of idyll, with footpaths and playgrounds, and we agreed we’d been drawn here—to Eastcreek and Westcreek—based on what we’d known. We’d tried to recreate here, for our families, what our parents had offered us.
The patrols continued. We watched them with concern. We ventured out, walked our dogs, and scrutinized those we didn’t know. But there were so many we didn’t know. New families in the renovated houses on streets adjoining streets. We couldn’t possibly know them all. Nearly everyone blended in, and who were we to judge those who didn’t? Those of us who’d resigned ourselves after the arrests on the footpath that crimes large and small happened in our neighborhood could find no evidence of such, even when we looked.
Our kids grew older. The patrols grew less frequent.
And now a new menace: more construction, sure. The house adjacent to the footpath is vacant, under renovation. A pile of bricks sits in the front yard, a rented dumpster in the driveway. But no activity, for a month at least. The man who owns the house only recently bought it. We don’t know him; he never moved in. He bought the house and now he’s renovating it, and, given the sequence and the lack of recent activity, we wonder whether he ever intended to live in it. We wonder if he bought the house to flip it.
And now we wonder something else—the reason for the work stoppage. Perhaps the contractor went bankrupt, or there’s a dispute with the county over permits. One of us called the county but got no information. The owner doesn’t come around, nor does the contractor, who began work months ago with a flurry that involved gutting the house. But now, in the contractor’s absence, a new presence has arrived—a white car, a newish model that comes most afternoons and parks at the curb and idles. For hours. They’re young men, at least to our eyes, though they might be still in high school. Our kids say they don’t know them. After some time the driver is gone, while his passenger remains in the idling car with the windows open, staring at his phone. We don’t know where the driver goes. No one sees him actually leave or return to the car. It’s like he disappears and then reappears, and, by the time we’re cooking dinner and our kids are back from wherever their after-school activities have taken them, the car is gone.
But today, it seems, one of us has called the police. A patrol car arrives, and the officers ask the kid in the passenger seat (we can see now, from his slight build and scruffy beard and the tentative way in which he carries himself, that he’s a kid) to step out of the white car, and the kid complies. He’s talking to one of the officers, while the officer’s partner walks around the car, peering into its windows, examining the license plate.
And then we hear a scream from up the hill in Westcreek, and another scream, then pops—one, two, three, four—in rapid succession, in rhythm, like a drummer calling out the beat with quick flicks of his wrist and the stick falling on the snare. The officers draw their weapons, step away from the kid and crane their necks toward the footbridge. Then the officer who’d been examining the car takes off in a sprint across the footbridge and into Westcreek, where heads emerge from doorways, phones pressed to ears. And the officer who’s still with the kid instructs him to stay put, to sit on the curb and stay. He talks to the kid like he’s a dog, and the kid again complies. The officer starts up his patrol car and hits the lights on the roof and heads toward the creek, but you can’t get there from here, at least in a car. We know that, but apparently the officer didn’t, as now he brakes and exits the vehicle, the lights still spinning, and follows his partner on foot across the bridge.
The kid stands and watches the officers run away. Don’t think about it, we warn, and the kid makes eye contact, perhaps notices us for the first time, then shrugs, gets in the driver’s seat, negotiates around the abandoned patrol car by the footbridge, and drives away. We don’t stop him, don’t try to stop him. What would be the point? We note the license plate, copy it to our phones, though the police surely have this information already.
It was a shooting we’d heard. Those little pops were gunshots, fired outside a house like ours, with a steel door and double-pained windows and pre-painted siding and a front porch with wide pillars and a doorbell with a camera, where the kid driving the white car—we knew now that he was a kid, they both were; they went to high school with our kids—had gone when he’d left his friend in the passenger seat. This kid, the driver, was the victim, shot multiple times. The shooter lived in the house in Westcreek. We’d pieced it together. We’d ventured across the footbridge and watched the aftermath from across the street. Later, after the ambulance had taken the boy away, the news crews descended. We watched that night, shaken, as they reported in front of the guardrail at the end of our street. They described our neighborhood as idyllic. It was a word that felt false. They said they were reporting from the dead end, where the victim had parked his car. They showed the empty house under construction, the curb where the white car had idled. They called our street a dead end. Everyone called it a dead end. We did, too. But this was also false. Then they showed footage of the house where the shooting had taken place. Police and detectives milled behind yellow police tape. They didn’t name the victim, who was now dead. But they named the shooter. We knew the boy, of course. We knew his sisters, his parents. Our kids were his friends. All of these facts made it hard.
The footage switched back to the reporter in front of the guardrail. Here at the dead end, she said, it’s quiet. And it was. Quiet. It was a cool night with a light breeze, but we’d closed our doors and windows and locked them. Each time we checked out front it was quiet. The news vans were gone. The crews had packed up their cameras and microphones and lights and tripod stands and drove away, but not the way they’d come. We didn’t live on a dead end. Our street leads to another street and another, around the horseshoe, into ever-widening streets, to main arteries and new neighborhoods, to streets we couldn’t name and couldn’t possibly know.
Dana Cann is the author of the novel Ghosts of Bergen County (Tin House). His short fiction has been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, Pithead Chapel, and HAD, among others. He’s received grants and fellowships from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, the Maryland State Arts Council, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Sewanee Writers Conference. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and The Writer’s Center.
Image By: Dana Cann