Not to be Outdone by the Mystery Man

I WOULD classify our neighborhood as sedate and settled - for instance, I'm considered the newcomer on the block and I've lived here for 30 years. At least I was the newcomer until the small, white house across the way was sold. I'm told our new neighbor is a young man who works odd hours; no one saw him move in, nor has he been seen since.

You might think that such an invisible being would be of little consequence along the street, but you would be wrong - especially after the egg tree appeared.

Shortly before Easter, I opened the door one morning to pick up the paper and stood, mouth agape, looking at a small tree in the young man's yard - or a part of a tree - laden with brightly colored eggs. I drank my tea at the window as I waited for the sun to discover this splash of color.

Telephones rang, heads popped out of doors, and people drove slowly by on their way to the grocery, for it had been years since anything like this was seen on our street. We were hoping to see the young man as he dismantled the tree, but no one did. Once it had been whisked away, an electrician arrived to install a post light in that spot.

On May Day, a basket of flowers hung from the crosspiece of the post. Doris Walters walked her dog by and said she thought the flowers, maybe, were silk. Artificial or not, it was a promising sight on a cool spring morning under puffball clouds.

Before Memorial Day, the May basket had gone and an old fireplace grate, painted black, stood on his porch beneath his black mailbox. It held three pots of red geraniums, and his flag also flew. We all looked at one another, raising our eyebrows in question. Four of us then climbed to attics and rummaged about until we found our flags and readied all for the Fourth of July. But when the day arrived, his flag had beaten ours to the post.

Sometime in the fall I observed two beautifully shaped yew bushes that had been planted on each side of our young man's porch. I looked with disfavor on my own two straggly bushes that I'd been nursing through snowfalls, clipping the broken branches. I called the nursery and had the man move my spindly bushes to the backyard, planting them together where they look respectably thick. In their place I now sport nice yews, smaller than my neighbor's, but impervious to heavy snows. I can't think why I had to wait for that young man to point the way.

Since he would be working during trick-or-treat hours, we really didn't expect him to observe Halloween. We should have known better. One week before the day I looked out and saw a cornstalk embracing his light post, anchored with pumpkins and gourds. So Doris and I decided we'd try to uphold the honor of the occasion for our side of the street by making jack-o'-lanterns for our porches.

I spent the day after Halloween raking the leaves out to the curb, hoping for one more leaf pickup. And, raking, I became aware of a weird howl. Doris Walters's dog, Charley, is the only dog on our block and never barks, so I put down my rake and walked toward the noise, which turned out to be a huge dog behind our new neighbor's home.

The dog seemed to be in an odd crouch, and I saw that he was tangled on a low fence that surrounded the remains of a vegetable garden! The tag around his neck was caught on a wire of the fence. Even if I had a key to open the lock on the door of the high fence, I would be afraid to approach such a large dog. The Humane Society was in the next town. ... I finally thought I must try to get Dr. McGrane, the vet, a quarter of a mile away. He answered the phone himself and I explained. He said he'd be right there with cutters.

Once inside, he talked quietly to the dog who kept up a low growl. He let the dog smell his hand first and then took something from his pocket for the dog to sniff and lick before he cut the wire that had gotten threaded through the immunization tag. Immediately the dog stopped growling and began frisking about. Dr. McGrane checked the dog's house and his water and then wired the door and said he would send a bill.

So I placed a note in the young man's mailbox:

Dear Sir: Your dog's tag got caught on the low fence and I had to get the vet to get him untangled. He had to cut your lock and will send a bill. I hope that was all right.

Your neighbor in the house across the street - the one with the fence and post light.

About 9:30 that evening there was a knock at my door and I opened it to see a young man with half a bushel of beautiful apples.

``I want to thank you for helping my dog today. Could you use some apples?''

``I could indeed, come in.''

``I shouldn't say Josy is my dog - not yet. She really belongs to Ellen - my girl. We're going to be married this Christmas when she graduates.''

``Congratulations! And your name is...?''

``Michael - Michael Reeves.''

``Sit down, Michael, and tell me where you work.''

``I'm a chemical engineer at Morton Chemicals - next month I'll start working days.''

``You've been quite the mystery man in this neighborhood - we've all enjoyed your decorations.''

He laughed. ``I really do them for Ellen. I take pictures after I've finished and send them to her. Her folks have moved to an apartment now where dogs aren't allowed, so Josy and I are getting better acquainted.''

I brought cookies and made coffee, and by the time Michael left we were also better acquainted. I'm to put the bill in his box, and I'm thinking I'll make him a pie with these apples. He may be a decorating whiz, but I feel I likely make a better pie.

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