Leo ran his pawnshop out of a brick storefront he rented in a strip mall just outside of town. It had a Cut-Rate Vacuum on one side and on the other a bookstore that specialized in used romance novels. There was a big leafy tree out front, which kept the place cool and shady even on hot days. Leo thought it reduced visibility from the street and probably hurt the business. It was always something.
The electronic bell chimed a monotonous two tones with the opening of the door. Leo wasn’t sure whether he’d seen the guy before, but he looked like people he’d seen around. Maybe a little shorter. In fact, this guy was really short, no more than 5’1”, wearing a floppy brown hat, long gray matted hair, and a wiry gray beard that covered his whole face and spilled down across the three or four layers of shirts he was wearing. The layer on top was flannel with leather patches. Leo thought you could have picked him out of a lineup for Charles Manson.
His eyes were crinkled and shifted around the store, sizing it up. He was toting a big orange traffic cone. He approached the counter. “What’ll you give me for this?” he said.
“For what?” Leo said.
“This.” The guy set the cone on the countertop. It was bright orange, maybe two feet high, made of plastic, and weathered.
“You’re trying to sell that?” Leo said. “That’s a traffic cone. It’s government property. It’s worth nothing to me. I don’t even want it in here. You should put it back where you found it.”
The guy laughed, a surprisingly bitter and hollow sound. “You think I haven’t thought of that? I wish to hell now I’d never gone in there for it. It all started when I moved into this place, my new apartment, fourplex, upper left. Nice place, real nice place. Next to a patch of old growth in a gully with an abandoned ball field on the other side. Green space, the guy showing it to me called it. ‘Lovely green space for privacy.’ Those were his words exactly.”
Leo glanced up at the clock. He could see the guy was winding up to tell a story. “Whose words?”
“Sure, I liked the privacy,” the guy went on. “Who doesn’t like privacy? The space is not that big, maybe 30 yards across by 15 deep? What’s that, maybe a square acre? And who doesn’t like looking into the woods for a view? Never too hot, never too cold. I looked out my picture window and for once I could see a picture instead of some house across the street with somebody inside who might be looking back at me. But the main reason I liked it, I have to tell you, it came with a full-size washer and dryer right in the unit. There aren’t many too many apartments around here with that kind of deal.”
“Where’s this?” Leo said. He liked to keep track of things like this.
The guy jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Cedarbrook Terrace. You know. Off Big Boulevard Avenue. Anyway, I took the place, I liked it. I was off work then but had a little money saved. I moved in and right away I start to notice this eyesore of a freakin’ traffic cone sitting there next to a tree like it belongs there. It does not belong there. Some days you can even see deer back there, lots of squirrels always, and rabbits too. The bullfrogs croak at night some times of the year, birds sing every morning, and the trees and the shade are all just so nice. Except this thing is sitting there.
“I looked at it every day for the first two weeks and it kept bothering me, more and more. Then I noticed the wood plank fence is broken in a few places between my building and the old growth. It’s missing boards, rotting away, no one seems to be doing anything about it. Tells you what the management there is like. Anyway, I guess that’s what made me think of it. There is no way that traffic cone is there for any legitimate government project or purpose. Probably some kids stole it and stashed it.”
“Yeah, probably,” Leo said. “These kids in this town.”
“Yeah, right,” the guy said. “I figured I could just go in there and move it out of sight from my view. So I waited a few more weeks, thinking that those kids, or whoever stashed it there for whatever reason, might come and take it away. Problem solved. But no, that was too easy. So one morning, I’m sitting in my living room looking at the view, drinking my coffee, and enjoying the morning but wincing and cringing every time I see this circus clown orange cone in all that lovely old green and brown.
“I decide this is the day I’m going to do something about it. I’m still off work, I have all day, I have nothing else to do—good thing too! I didn’t think it would take long—just squeeze through one of those openings in the fence and pick my way through to it.
“So I put on my boots and leather gaiters and some heavy pants and a jacket that could stand up to the brush if it came to that. It looked like there was a fair amount of ferns and bushes and brambles but also those patches of natural forest floor with pine needle carpeting. I thought I would be fine. It was just the hassle of doing it. But this was the day I would, I told myself.
“I have to work in sideways through the break in the fence. As soon as I’m in there I feel the temperature cool down like 10 degrees and the light feels more like dusk, shadier. And it’s eerily quiet back there. It seemed a little weird but I didn’t think much of it. I just wanted to get my hands on that cone and be done with it. I noticed some no trespassing signs I’d never seen before from my window and wished those kids would have respected it one time with this blasted cone. If anyone bothered me, I’d tell ’em what I was there to do. That’s not trespassing, that’s helping.
“Even though it was cooler in there, it was also kind of stuffy, like being in a humidor. I could see the cone but not any good way to get to it, so I moved along down the fence keeping my back close to it. My hat or my hair kept catching on branches. The brush had not looked more than knee deep at most but now that I was in there the ground could give way, and there were always these nasty whipping branches at eye level. They got me in the face a couple times. I had to hold my hand on my hat and try to protect my face with my elbows as I went,” he said, demonstrating the posture for Leo.
“I stayed close to the fence and once I got past a certain tree I could see a direct path to the cone. It didn’t look like it would be too much trouble. Then something shot across in front of me, moving fast and disappearing off the path to my left. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first and I pulled up, stood stock still, trying to assess my risk/reward position here. Then it stuck its head out, screeched at me, and ran over to the brush on the other side of the path. I could see the huge blue-green rainbow tail dragging on the path as it crossed. It sort of had a hitch when it broke and ran. It was a peacock and it went across the path that way, back and forth, until I finally saw I was okay and started to move again.
“The footing on that path wasn’t too good so I had to step carefully. Once I sank into the path up to my thigh and had to scramble back up and out as some spiky branch flew around trying to whack my face. That peacock kept screeching and I wanted to wring its neck. Somehow I got turned around, and the cone was now behind me and to my right, where before it had been straight ahead and maybe a little to my left. Now the fence was to my left, going off at a crazy angle, which was completely in the wrong position from how I’d sized it up just a few minutes earlier.
“I worked my way back toward the fence, turning around as I went until I spotted the cone again. I was back near where I came in again somehow, but okay. I guess that peacock distracted me but now it was gone or at least seemed to be done screeching. Then down the fence a little way I saw some guy standing there. He looked like he was wearing a brown uniform with a dark green hat. ‘Hey,’ I called, picking my way and stepping over toward him, trying to think what I could tell him I was doing there if he asked. He said something but I couldn’t make it out. My mind clutched up and I was in a panic about what to say. Then I saw there wasn’t anyone there at all. It had just been some trick of light from the way the shadows fell through the opening in the broken fence.
“So that did it. I just wanted to get the durn cone now and get out of there once and for all. I thought I kept hearing something rustling behind me or over to the side in the brush. I hoped it was the peacock and that it would keep its mouth shut but it sounded bigger than a peacock and I thought I could hear heavy breathing too. I thought of a bear, but there was no way a bear could be in there, but it made me nervous. Now I was thinking of the words I thought I’d heard from the man in the brown uniform, something like ‘you can’t get there from here’ and ‘not for you.’ But I’ll tell you what. I was pretty sure that was just my nerves trying to get me to call the whole thing off. I focused on how I’d felt this morning seeing the outrageous traffic cone and I stayed on it.
“Just like that, things got weird again. The cone didn’t look any more than 20 feet away. I was getting closer to it but it must have been further than I thought, or bigger, or something. Then it was ahead of me just off to my right next to the tree, but somehow I couldn’t adjust and square up to it. It was always just off to my right with the path straight ahead, even when I twisted and faced in different directions. It was insane, like being blind in a way, like I was always looking in the same direction no matter what direction I looked in. At least the durn cone was always there, still in sight.
“I just kept walking toward it. As if something went wrong with my eyes. I was going on pure faith like a blind man. Finally I got there. I had a few words to say to the cone and the woods and the whole situation, so I sat down next to the cone and rested my back against the tree. But as soon as I felt the tree against my back and started to lean into it, it felt like the tree and the ground and everything shifted and scootched, and my back was no longer against the tree, but now I was sitting two or three feet in front of it. My pants even hitched up tight to my crotch when the ground moved. It didn’t make any sense.
“But I believe the woods, on some level, were in agreement with me that the cone did not belong there, because I took hold of it with no problems. But once I had it, the ground seemed to shift again, like one of those moving sidewalks at the airport but kind of broken down and not really working. But it was shifting me in a single direction and that’s the way I kept stepping. ‘All right all right,’ I said. ‘I get the message. I’m taking the cone and going. Let me go now.’ I didn’t know who I was talking to, of course, right? Maybe I was praying.
“The problem is still I can’t see the fence anymore and obviously I’m all turned around. So I’m stumbling along and I look up and see the guy in the brown uniform again. This time he’s laughing and moving around in this crazy way, going behind a tree and peeking out and laughing, then disappearing and reappearing from behind some other tree. I thought there might have been another guy too, shorter and heavier, and he was laughing and fooling around as well. I thought, what now, are homeless people living back here? I’d never seen any sign of it. And now whenever I fixed on one those guys, he disappeared, and it looked like another case of shadows and light shafts. I just kept walking and the ground kept lurching in these spasms.
“But finally all my timing and balance went wrong and I took a header. Then, I don’t know, I might have fallen asleep because I don’t remember noticing when the guys in the uniforms left. I got up again, finally saw the fence, and made for it. It was like one of those dreams. I started running as fast as I could but I didn’t seem to be making much progress. A sudden rain come up that drenched me, a violent shower like you’ve never seen, with lightning and thunder. It only lasted a few minutes.”
“Yeah, these squalls happen,” Leo said. “They say we’re living in a rain forest.”
“Yeah but this was like a Pink Floyd album come to life. Things kept getting weirder. The rain and the wind and the rustling sounds, remembering that peacock. This would have been a bummer even for Pink Floyd. The wind kind of seemed to be harmonizing with itself, I don’t know how to say it exactly. It’s like there was a choir going or something. Then it would shift and just be the wind again, and the rustling in the brush, and if I thought about it in a certain way, I thought they sounded like whispers, but I couldn’t make out any words. I felt like I was going crazy, man!”
“What did you do?” Leo asked. It was time to move this guy along.
“Well, I got out of there finally,” he said. “It took some running around and I almost gave in and called for help a couple times. But I never let go of this cone. Finally I got to a break in the fence—it wasn’t the one I came in from but what did I care at that point? I pitched the cone out and followed it. I was actually on the opposite side of the Cedarbrook development, somehow coming out of a different patch of old growth than the one next to my place. I couldn’t figure that out either. It felt like I was in there for hours, but when I got home again with the cone, I saw it had only been 15 minutes.
“Anyway, I don’t have any use for it. There must be people from the city who could use it to hold parking spots in the streets for themselves or their friends or something. These things can come in handy. Be really useful. Block parties, people use them all the time.”
Leo looked at him.
The guy looked back at Leo.
“Are you kidding?” Leo finally said. “I told you, it’s government property. It’s stolen. Even if I thought I could sell it, which I don’t. Who would even want to buy a traffic cone? You think a road crew is going to stop by in case they’re low on them or something? Pick up an extra just in case?”
“What?” the guy said.
“Thanks for the tall tale but I’m going to pass on buying this traffic cone. Have a good day.”
The guy seemed genuinely surprised. He gave Leo a sad look, gathered up the cone from the counter, and left. Leo never saw him again, or at least he didn’t think so—a lot of people in this town had his look. But Leo never thought any of them were short enough to be the guy. Every now and then he thought of checking out the Cedarbrook apartments, maybe he’d see the guy or at least check out the green spaces he’d been talking about. But the fact is, Leo really wasn’t that interested.
Except for the last thing that happened, which was still bothering him.
About a week after the guy had been in the store and told his story, the same traffic cone turned up in the lilac bush behind the store. The bush ran the property line on one side from the alley, in back of the five or six parking spaces for the strip mall. There was also a trash and recycling station. Leo never parked back there. He only happened to see the cone in the lilacs one day when he was doing the recycling.
Leo couldn’t tell for sure if it was the same cone—he wasn’t about to mess with the thick growth of the bush. The cone was just out of reach against a retaining wall, and what traffic cone ever has genuinely distinguishing marks anyway? It might have been the guy’s cone or it might have been the kids he was talking about, planting them all around town for whatever reason. It wasn’t his problem. He wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Then he started to notice it every time he was back there. It started to bother him more and more every time he saw it.